Chapter VI. The Leopard Woman
 

In the early darkness of equatorial Africa Kingozi, accompanied by Mali- ya-bwana with a lantern, crossed over to the other camp. Simba and Cazi Moto had come in almost at dusk; but they were very tired, and Kingozi considered it advisable to let them rest. They had covered probably thirty-five miles. Cazi Moto had found no water, and no traces of water. Furthermore, the game had thinned and disappeared. Only old tracks, old trails, old signs indicated that after the Big Rains the country might be habitable for the beasts. But Simba had discovered a concealed "tank" in a kopje. He had worked his way to it by "lining" the straight swift flight of green pigeons, as a bee hunter on the plains used to line the flight of bees. The tank proved to be a deep, hidden recess far back under overhanging rocks, at once concealed and protected from the sun and animals. Its water was sweet and abundant.

"No one has used that water. It is an unknown water," concluded Simba.

"How far?"

"Four hours."

"Vema." Kingozi bestowed on him the word of highest praise.

The stranger woman's camp was not far away; in fact, but just across the little dry stream-bed. Her safari was using the same pool with Kingozi's.

At the edge of the camp he paused to take in its disposition. From one detail to another his eye wandered, and in it dawned a growing approval. Your native, left to his own devices, pitches his little tents haphazard here, there, and everywhere, according as his fancy turns to this or that bush, thicket, or clump of grass. Such a camp straggles abominably. But here was no such confusion. Back from the water-hole a hundred yards, atop a slight rise, and under the thickest of the trees, stood a large green tent with a projecting fly. A huge pile of firewood had been dumped down in front of it, and at that very moment one of the askaris, kneeling, was kindling a fire. Behind the big tent, and at some remove, gleamed the circle of porters' tents each with its little blaze. Loads were piled neatly, covered with a tarpaulin, and the pile guarded by an askari.

Kingozi strode across the intervening space.

Before the big tent a table had been placed, and beside the table a reclining canvas chair of the folding variety. On a spread of figured blue cloth stood a bottle of lime juice, a sparklets, and an enamelware bowl containing flowers. The strange woman was stretched luxuriously in the chair smoking a cigarette.

She wore a short-sleeved lilac tea gown of thin silk, lilac silk stockings, and high-heeled slippers. Her hair fell in two long braids over her shoulders and between her breasts, which the thin silk defined. Her figure in the long chair fell into sinuous, graceful, relaxed lines. As he approached she looked at him over the glowing cigarette; and her eyes seemed to nicker with a strange restlessness. This contrast--of the restless eyes and the relaxed, graceful body--reminded Kingozi of something. His mind groped for a moment; then he had it.

"Bibi ya chui!" he said, half to himself, half to his companion, "The Leopard Woman!"

And, parenthetically, from that moment Bibi-ya-chui--the Leopard Woman-- was the name by which she was known among the children of the sun.

She did not greet him in any way, but turned her head to address commands.

"Bring a chair for the bwana; bring cigarettes; bring balauri-- lime juice----"

Kingozi found himself established comfortably.

She moved her whole body slightly sidewise, the better to face him. The soft silk fell in new lines about her, defining new curves. Her red lips smiled softly, and her eyes were dark and inscrutable.

"I was what you call horrid to-day," she said. "It was not me: it was the frightenedness from the rhinoceros. I was very much frightened, so I had the porters beaten. That was horrid, was it not? Do you understand it? I suppose not. Men have no nerves, like women. They are brave always. I have not said what I feel. I have heard of you--the most wonderful shot in Central Africa. I believe it--now."

Kingozi's eyes were lingering on her silk-clad form, the peep of ankles below her robe. She observed him with slanted eyes, and a little breath of satisfaction raised her bosom. Abruptly he spoke.

"Aren't you afraid of fever mosquitoes in that rig?" said he.

Her body stirred convulsively, and her finely pencilled eyebrows, with their perpetual air of surprise, moved with impatience; but her voice answered him equably:

"My friend, at the close of the hard day I must have my comfort. There can be no fever here, for there are no people here. When in the fever country I have my 'rig'"--subtly she shaded the word--"just the same. But I have a net--a big net--like a tent beneath which I sit. Does that satisfy you?"

She spoke with the obvious painstaking patience that one uses to instruct a child, but with a veiled irony meant for an older intelligence.

Kingozi laughed.

"I do appear to catechize you, don't I? But I am interested. It is difficult to realize that a woman alone can understand this kind of travel."

He had thrown off his guarded abstraction, and smiled across at her as frankly as a boy. The gravity of his face broke into wrinkles of laughter; his steady eyes twinkled; his smile showed strong white teeth. In spite of his bushy beard he looked a boy. The woman stared at him, her cigarette suspended.

"You have instructed me about my camp; you have instructed me about my men; you have instructed me about my marching; you have even instructed me about my clothes." She tallied the counts on her slender fingers. "Now I must instruct you."

"Guilty, I am afraid," he smiled; "but ready to take punishment."

"Very well." With a sinuous movement she turned on her elbow to face him. "Listen! It is this: you should not wear that beard."

She fell back, and raised the cigarette to her lips.

For a moment Kingozi stared at her speechless with surprise; but immediately recovered.

"I shall give to your advice the same respectful consideration you accord mine," he assured her gravely.

She laughed in genuine amusement.

"Only I have more excuse," continued Kingozi. "A woman--alone--so far away----"

"You said that before," she interrupted. "In other words, what in--what- you-call? Oh, yes! what in hell am I doing up here? Is that it?"

She turned on him a wide-eyed stare. Kingozi chuckled.

"That's it. What in--in hell are you doing up here?"

"Listen, my friend. In this world I do what I please--always. And when I find that which people tell me cannot be done, that I do--at once. My life is full of those things which could not be done, but which I have done."

"I believe you," said Kingozi, but he said it to himself.

"I have done them at home--where I live. I have done them in the cities and courts. Whatever the people tell me is impossible--'Oh, it cannot be done!'--with the uplifted hand and eye--you understand--that I do. Four years ago I came to Africa, and in Africa I have done what they tell me women have never done. I have travelled in the Kameroons, in Nyassaland, in Somaliland, in Abyssinia. Then they tell me--'yes, that is very well, but you follow a track. It is a dim track; but it is there. You go alone-- yes; but you have us at your back.' And I ask them: 'What then? where is this place where there is no track?' And they wave their hands, and say 'Over yonder'; so I come!"

She recited all this dramatically, using her hands much in gesticulation, her eyes flashing. In proportion as she became animated Kingozi withdrew into his customary stolid calm.

"Quite so," he commented, "spirit of adventure, and all that sort of thing. Where did you get this lot?"

"What?"

He waved his hand.

"Your men."

She considered him a barely appreciable instant.

"Why--the usual way--from the coast."

"They are strange to me--I do not recognize their tribes," Kingozi replied blandly. "So you are pushing out into the Unknown. How far do you consider going?"

"Until it pleases me to stop."

Kingozi produced his pipe.

"If you do not mind?" he requested. He deliberately filled and lighted it. After a few strong puffs he resumed:

"The country, you say, is unknown to you."

"Of course."

"I imagined you told me this afternoon that you knew of this water. I must have been mistaken."

He blew a cloud, gazing straight ahead of him in obviously assumed innocence. She examined him with a narrow, sidelong glance.

"No," she said at last, "you were not mistaken. I did tell you so."

"Well?" Kingozi turned to her.

"I was very angry, so I lied," she replied naively. "Women always lie when they get very angry."

"Or tell the truth--uncomfortably," grinned Kingozi.

"Brava!" she applauded. "He does know something about women!" With one of her sudden smooth movements she again raised herself on her elbow. "How much?" she challenged.

"Enough," he replied enigmatically.

They both laughed.

Across the accustomed night noises came a long rumbling snarl ending sharply with a snoring gasp. It was succeeded by another on a different key. The two took up a kind of antiphony, one against the other, now rising in volume, now dying down to a low grumble, again suddenly bursting like an explosion.

"The lions have found that rhino," remarked Kingozi indifferently.

For a moment or so they listened to the distant thunders.

"I have not sufficiently thanked you even yet for this afternoon," she said. "You saved my life--you know that."

"Happened to be there; and let off a rifle."

"I know shooting. It was a wonderful shot at that distance and in those circumstances."

"Chancy shot. Had good luck," replied Kingozi shortly.

Undeterred by his tone, she persisted.

"But you are said by many to be the best shot in Africa."

He glanced at her.

"Indeed! I think that a mistake. For whom do you take me?"

"You are Culbertson," she told him. She pronounced the name slowly, syllable by syllable, as though English proper names were difficult to her.

He laughed.

"Whoever he may be. I am known as Kingozi hereabouts."

"You are not Cul-bert-son?"

"I am anything it pleases you to have me. And who are you?"

She had become the spoiled darling, pouting at him in half-pretended vexation.

"You are playing with me. For that I shall not tell you who I am."

"It does not matter; I know."

"You know! But how?"

"I know many things."

"What is it then? Tell me!"

He hesitated, smiling at her inscrutably. The flames from the fire were leaping high now, throwing the lantern-light into eclipse. An askari, wearing on his head an individual fancy in marabout feathers, leaned on his musket, his strong bronze face cast into the wistful lines of the savage countenance in repose. The lions had evidently compounded their quarrel. Only an occasional rasping cough testified to their presence. But in the direction of the dead rhinoceros the air was hideous with the plaints of the waiting hyenas. Their peculiarly weird moans came in chorus; and every once in a while arose the shrill, prolonged titter that has earned them the name of "laughing hyena."

"Bibi-ya-chui," he told her at length.

She considered this, her red lower lip caught between her teeth.

"The Leopard Woman," she repeated, "and it is thus that I am known! You, Kingozi--the Bearded One; I, Bibi-ya-chui--the Leopard Woman!" She laughed. "I think I like it," she decided.

"Now we know all about each other," he mocked.

"But no: you have asked many questions, which is your habit, but I have asked few. What do you do in this strange land? Is it--what-you-call-- 'spirit of adventure' also?"

"Not I! I am an ivory hunter."

"You expect to find the elephant here?"

"Who knows--or ivory to trade."

"And then you get your ivory and make the magic pass, and presto! it is in Mombasa," she said, with a faint sarcasm.

"You mean I have not men enough to carry out ivory. Well, that is true. But you see my habit is to get my ivory first and then to get shenzis from the people roundabout to act as porters," he explained to her gravely.

Apparently she hesitated, in two minds as to what next to say. Kingozi perceived a dancing temptation sternly repressed, and smiled beneath his beard.

"I see," she said finally in a meek voice.

But Kingozi knew of what she was thinking. "She is a keen one," he reflected admiringly. "Caught the weak point in that yarn straight off!"

He arose to his feet, knocking the ashes from his pipe.

"You travel to-morrow?" he asked politely.

"That I have not decided."

"This is a dry country," Kingozi suggested blandly. "Of course you will not risk a blind push with so many men. You will probably send out scouts to find the next water."

"That is possible," she replied gravely; but Kingozi thought to catch a twinkle in her eye.

He raised his voice:

"Boy!"

Mali-ya-bwana glided from one of the small porters' tents.

"Qua heri." Kingozi abruptly wished her farewell in Swahili.

"Qua heri," she replied without moving.

He turned into the darkness. The tropical stars blazed above him like candles. Kingozi lapsed into half-forgotten slang.

"Downy bird!" he reflected, which was probably not exactly the impression the Leopard Woman either intended or thought she had made.