Chapter IX. On the Plateau
 

Two hours into the night Kingozi, following in the rear, saw a cluster of lights, and shortly came to a compact group of those who had gone before him. They were drinking eagerly from water bottles. Simba, lantern in hand, stood nearby. A number of savages carrying crude torches hovered around the outskirts. Kingozi could not make out the details of their appearance: only their eyeballs shining. He drew Simba to one side.

"There are many shenzis?"

"Many, like the leaves of the grass, bwana."

"The huts are far?"

"One hour, bwana, in the hills."

"These shenzis are good?"--meaning friendly.

"Bwana, the sultani of these people is a great lord. He has many people, and much riches. He has told, his people to come with me. He prepares the guest house for you."

"Tired, Simba?"

"It has been a long path since sunup, bwana. But I had water, and the people gave me potio and meat. I am strong."

"Cazi Moto is back there--in the Thirst," suggested Kingozi, "and many others. And there is no water."

"I will go, bwana, and take the shenzis with me."

He set about gathering the water bottles and gourds that had not been emptied. Mali-ya-bwana and, unexpectedly, a big Kavirondo of Kingozi's safari, volunteered. The rest prepared to continue the journey.

But another delay occurred. The Leopard Woman, who had walked indomitably, now collapsed. Her eyes were sunken in her head, her lips had paled; only the long white oval of her face recalled her former splendid and exotic beauty. When the signal to proceed was given, she stepped forward as firmly as ever for perhaps a dozen paces, then her knees crumpled under her.

"I'm afraid I'm done," she muttered to Kingozi.

In the latter's eyes, for the first time, shone a real and ungrudging admiration. He knelt at her side and felt her pulse. Without hesitation, and in the most matter-of-fact way, he unbuttoned her blouse to the waist and tore apart the thin chemise beneath.

"Water," he commanded.

With the wetted end of his neck scarf he beat her vigorously below the left breast. After a little she opened her eyes.

"That's better," said Kingozi, and began clumsily to rebutton her blouse.

A slow colour rose to her face as she realized in what manner she had been exposed, and she snatched her garments together. Kingozi, watching her closely, seemed to see in this only a satisfactory symptom.

"That's right; now you're about again. Blood going once more."

They proceeded. A man on either side supported the Leopard Woman's steps.

Shortly the hills closed around them. The dark velvet masses compassed them about, and the starry sky seemed suddenly to have been thrust upward a million miles. The open plain narrowed to a track along which they groped single file. They caught the sound of running water to their left; but far below. There seemed no end to it.

But then, unexpectedly, they found themselves on a plateau, with the mass of the mountains on one side and the sea of night on the other, as though it might be the spacious deck of a ship. A multitude of people swarmed about them, shining naked people, who stared; and there seemed to be huts with conical roofs, and a number of little winking fires that shifted position. The people led the way to a circular hut of good size, with a conical thatched roof and wattle walls. Kingozi stooped his head, thrusting the lantern inside. The interior had been swept. A huge earthen tub full of water stood by the door. The place contained no other furnishings.

"Bring the memsahib here," he commanded.

She was half dragged forward. Kingozi took her in his arms to prevent her falling.

"Bring grass," he ordered.

The request was repeated outside in Swahili, and turned into a strange tongue. Kingozi heard many feet hurrying away.

He stood supporting the half-fainting form of the Leopard Woman. Her head rested against his shoulder. Her eyes were closed, her muscles had all gone slack, so that her body felt soft and warm. Kingozi, waiting, remembered her as she had looked the evening of his call--silk-clad, lithe, proud, with blood-red lips, and haughty, fathomless eyes, and the single jewel that hung in the middle of her forehead. Somehow at this moment she seemed smaller, in her safari costume, and helpless, and pathetic. He felt the curve of her breast against him, and the picture of her as he had seen her out there in the Thirst arose before his eyes. At that time it had not registered: he was too busy about serious things. But now, while he waited, the incident claimed, belated, his senses. His antagonism, or distrust, or coldness, or suspicion, or indifference, or whatever had hardened him, disappeared. He stared straight before him at the lantern, allowing these thoughts and sensations to drift through him. Subconsciously he noted that the lamp flame showed a halo, or rather two halos, one red and one green. By experience he knew that this portended one of his stabbing headaches through the eyes. But the thought did not hold him. He contemplated unwaveringly the spectacle of this soft, warm, helpless but indomitable piece of femininity fronting the African wilderness unafraid. Unconsciously his arms tightened around her, drawing her to him. She gave no sign. Her form was limp. Apparently she was either half asleep or in a stupor. But had Kingozi looked down when he tightened his arms, instead of staring at the halo-encircled lantern, he would have seen her glance sidewise upward into his face, he would have discerned a fleeting smile upon her lips.

Almost immediately the people were back with armfuls of the long grass that grows on the edge of mountainous country. Under Kingozi's directions they heaped it at one side. He assisted the Leopard Woman to this improvised couch and laid her upon it. She seemed to drop instantly asleep.

They brought more grass and piled it in another place. Mali-ya-bwana superintended these activities zealously. He had drunk his fill, had bolted a chunk of goat's flesh one of the savages had handed him, now he was ready to fulfil his bwana's commands.

"You will eat?" he asked.

But Kingozi was not hungry. His strong desire was for a tall balauri of hot tea, but this could not be. He knew it Was unsafe to drink the water unboiled--it is unsafe to drink any African water unboiled--but this time it could not be helped. He was not even very tired, though his eyes burned. There was nothing more to do. Kingozi knew that Simba and Cazi Moto would not attempt to come in.

They now had both food and water, and would camp somewhere out on the plain.

"I will sleep," he decided.

Mali-ya-bwana at once thrust the savages outside, without ceremony, peremptorily. When the bwana of an African belonging to the safari class wants anything, the latter gets it for him. The headman of the author of these lines went single handed and stopped in its very inception a royal n'goma, or dance, to which men had come a day's journey, merely because his bwana wanted to sleep! Kingozi was here alone, in a strange country, for the moment helpless; but Mali-ya-bwana hustled the tribesmen out as brusquely as though a regiment were at his back. Which undoubtedly had its effect.

Kingozi sat down on the straw and blew out his lantern. The wattle walls were not chinked; so the sweet night wind blew through freely; and elusively he saw stars against the night. The Leopard Woman breathed heavily in little sighs. He was not sleepy. Then everything went black----

When Kingozi awakened it was full daylight. A varied murmur came happily from outside, what the Africans call a kalele--a compound of chatter, the noise of occupation, of movement, the inarticulate voice of human existence. He glanced across the hut. The Leopard Woman was gone.

"Boy!" he shouted.

At the sound of his voice the kalele ceased. Almost immediately Cazi Moto stooped to enter the doorway. Cazi Moto was dressed in clean khaki, and bore in his hand a balauri of steaming tea. Kingozi seized this and drained it to the bottom.

"That is good," he commented gratefully. "I did not expect to see you, Cazi Moto. Did all the men get in?"

"Yes, bwana."

"Vema! And the men of the Leopard Woman?"

"Many died, bwana; but many are here."

Kingozi arose to his feet.

"I must have food. These shenzis eat what?"

"Food is ready, bwana."

"I will eat. Then we must make shauri with these people to get our loads. My men must rest to-day."

"Come, bwana," said Cazi Moto.

Kingozi stooped to pass through the door. When he straightened outside, he paused in amazement. Before him stood his camp, intact. The green tent with the fly faced him, the flaps thrown back to show within his cot and tin box. White porters' tents had been pitched in the usual circle, and before each squatted men cooking over little fires. The loads, covered by the tarpaulin, had been arranged in the centre of the circle. At a short distance to the rear the cook camp steamed.

Cazi Moto stood at his elbow grinning.

"Hot water ready, bwana," said he; and for the first time Kingozi noticed that he carried a towel over his arm.

"This is good, very good, Cazi Moto!" said he. "Backsheeshi m'kubwa for this; both for you and for Simba."

"Thank you, bwana," said Gaza Moto. "Simba brought the water, and it saved us; and I thought that my bwana should not sleep on grass a second time before these shenzis."

"Who carried in the loads? Not our porters?"

"No, bwana, the shenzis."

Kingozi glanced at his wrist watch. It was only ten o'clock. "When?"

"Last night."

"They went back last night?"

"Yes, bwana. Mali-ya-bwana considered that it was bad to leave the loads. There might be hyenas--or the shenzis----"

Kingozi slapped his thigh with satisfaction. This was a man after his own heart.

"Call Mali-ya-bwana," he ordered.

The tall Baganda approached.

"Mali-ya-bwana," said Kingozi. "You have done well. For this you shall have backsheeshi. But more. You need not again carry a load. You will be--" he hesitated, trying to invent an office, but reluctant to infringe upon the prerogatives of either Simba or Cazi Moto. "You will be headman of the porters; and you, Cazi Moto, will be headman of all the safari, and my own man besides."

The Baganda drew himself erect, his face shining. Placing his bare heels together, he raised his hand in a military salute. Kingozi was about to dismiss him, but this arrested his intention.

"Where did you learn to do that?" he asked sharply.

"I was once in the King's African Rifles."[7]

[Footnote 7: Only, of course, Mali-ya-bwana gave the native name for these troops.]

"You can shoot, then?"

"Yes, bwana."

"Good!" commented Kingozi thoughtfully. Then after a moment: "Bassi."

Mali-ya-bwana saluted once more and departed. Kingozi turned toward his tent.

It had been pitched under a huge tree, with low, massive limbs and a shade that covered a diameter of fully sixty yards. Before it the usual table had been made of piled-up chop boxes, and to this Cazi Moto was bearing steaming dishes. The threatened headache had not materialized, and Kingozi was feeling quite fit. He was ravenously hungry, for now his system was rested enough to assimilate food. His last meal had been breakfast before sunup of the day before. Without paying even casual attention to his surroundings he seated himself on a third chop box and began to eat.

Kingozi's methods of eating had in them little of the epicure. He simply ate all he wanted of the first things set before him. After this he drank all he wanted from the tall balauri. Second courses did not exist for Kingozi. Then with a sigh of satisfaction, he fumbled for his pipe and tobacco, and looked about him.

The guest house had been built, as was the custom, a little apart from the main village. The latter was evidently around the bend of the hill, for only three or four huts were to be seen, perched among the huge outcropping boulders that were, apparently, characteristic of these hills. The mountains rose rather abruptly, just beyond the plateau; which, in turn, fell away almost as abruptly to the sweep of the plains. The bench was of considerable width--probably a mile at this point. It was not entirely level; but on the other hand not particularly broken. A number of fine, symmetrical trees of unknown species grew at wide intervals, overtopping a tangle of hedges, rank bushes, vines, and shrubs that appeared to constitute a rough sort of boundary between irregular fields. A tiny swift stream of water hurried by between the straight banks of an obviously artificial ditch.

But though the village was hidden from view, its inhabitants were not. They had invaded the camp. Kingozi examined them keenly, with curiosity. Naked little boys and girls wandered gravely about; women clung together in groups; men squatted on their heels before anything that struck their attention, and stared.

These people, Kingozi noted, were above middle size, of a red bronze, of the Semitic rather than the Hamitic type, well developed but not obviously muscular, of a bright and lively expression. The women shaved their heads quite bare; the men left a sort of skull cap of hair atop the head. Earlobes were pierced and stretched to hold ivory ornaments running up to the size of a jampot. There were some, but not many, armlets, leglets, and necklets of iron wire polished to the appearance of silver. The women wore brief skirts of softened skins: the men carried a short shoulder cape, or simply nothing at all. Each man bore a long-bladed heavy spear. Before squatting down in front of whatever engaged his attention for the moment, the savage thrust this upright in the ground. Kingozi, behind his pipe, considered them well: and received a favourable impression. An immovable, unblinking semicircle crouched at a respectful distance taking in every detail of the white man's appearance and belongings, watching his every move. Nobody spoke; apparently nobody even winked.

Now appeared across the prospect two men walking. One was an elderly savage, with a wrinkled, shrewd countenance. He was almost completely enveloped in a robe of softened skins. Followed him a younger man, dangling at the end of a thong a small three-legged stool cut entire from a single block of wood. The old man swept forward with considerable dignity; the younger, one hand held high in the most affected fashion, teetered gracefully along as mincingly as any dandy.

The visitor came superbly up to where Kingozi sat, and uttered a greeting in Swahili. He proved to possess a grand, deep, thunderous voice.

"Jambo!" he rolled.

Kingozi stared up at him coolly for a moment; then, without removing his pipe from his teeth, he remarked:

"Jambo!"

The old man, smiling, extended his hand.[8]

[Footnote 8: Many African tribes shake hands in one way or another.]

Kingozi, nursing the bowl of his pipe, continued to stare up at him.

"Are you the sultani?" he demanded abruptly.

The old man waved his hand in courtly fashion.

"I am not the sultani," he answered in very bad Swahili; "I am the headman of the sultani."

Kingozi continued to stare at him in the most uncompromising manner. In the meantime the younger man had loosed the thong from his wrist and had placed the stool on a level spot. The prime minister to the sultani arranged his robe preparatory to sitting down.

Kingozi removed his pipe from his lips, and sat erect.

"Stand up!" he commanded sharply. "If you are not the sultani how dare you sit down before me!"

The youth whisked the stool away: the old man covered his discomfiture in a flow of talk. Kingozi listened to him in silence. The visitor concluded his remarks which--as far as they could be understood--were entirely general: and, with a final courtly wave of the hand, turned away. Then Kingozi spoke, abruptly, curtly.

"Have your people bring me eggs," he said, "milk, m'wembe."[9]

[Footnote 9: A sort of flour ground from rape seeds.]

The old man, somewhat abashed, made the most dignified retreat possible through the keenly attentive audience of his own people.

Kingozi gazed after him, his blue eyes wide with their peculiar aggressive blank stare. A low hum of conversation swept through the squatting warriors. Those who understood Swahili murmured eagerly to those who did not. These uttered politely the long drawn "A-a-a-a!" of savage interest.

"Cazi Moto, where is my chair?" Kingozi demanded, abruptly conscious that the chop box was not very comfortable.

"Bibi-ya-chui has it."

"Where is she?"

"Right behind you," came that young woman's voice in amused tones. "You have been so busy that you have not seen me."

Kingozi turned. The chair had been placed in a bare spot close to the trunk of the great tree. He grinned cheerfully.

"I was pretty hungry," he confessed, "and I don't believe I saw a single thing but that curry!"

[Footnote 9: A sort of flour ground from rape seeds.]

"Naturally. It is not to be wondered at. Are you all rested?"

"I'm quite fit, thanks. And you?"

She was still in her marching costume; but her hair had been smoothed, her face washed. The colour had come back to her lips, the light to her expression. Only a faint dark encircling of the eyes, and a certain graceful languor of attitude recalled the collapse of yesterday.

"Oh, I am all right; but perishing for a cigarette. Have you one?"

"Sorry, but I don't use them. Are not all your loads up yet?"

"None of them."

"Well, they should be in shortly. Cazi Moto has given you breakfast, of course."

"Yes. But nobody has yet gone for my loads."

"What!" exclaimed Kingozi sharply. "Why did you not start men for them when you first awakened?"

She smiled at him ruefully.

"I tried. But they said they were very tired from yesterday. They would not go."

"Simba!" called Kingozi.

"Suh!"

"Bring the headman of Bibi-ya-chui. Is he that mop-headed blighter?" he asked her.

"Who? Oh, the Nubian, Chake. No; he is just a faithful creature near myself. I have no headman."

"Who takes your orders, then?"

"The askaris."

"Which one?"

"Any of them." She made a mouth. "Don't look at me in that fashion. Is that so very dreadful?"

"It's impossible. You can never run a safari in that way. Simba, bring all the askaris."

Simba departed on his errand. Kingozi turned to her gravely.

"Dear lady," said he gravely, "I am going to offend you again. But this won't do. You are a wonderful woman; but you do not know this game well enough. I acknowledge you will handle this show ordinarily in tiptop style; but in a new country, in contact with new peoples--it's a specialist's job, that's all."

"I'm beginning to think so," she replied with unexpected humility.

"Already you've lost control of your organization: you nearly died from lack of water--By the way, why didn't you push ahead with your Nubian, and find the water?"

"I had to get my men on."

He looked on her with more approval.

"Well, you're safe out of it. And now, I beg of you, don't do it any more."

"Is my little scolding all done?" she asked after a pause.

"Forgive me. I did not mean it as a scolding."

She sat upright and rested her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. Her long sea-green eyes softened.

"Listen: I deserve that what you say. I thought I knew, because always I have travelled in a good country. But never the hell of a dry country. I want you to know that you are quite right, and I want to tell you that I know you saved me and my men: and I would not know what to do now if you were not here to help me. There!" she made a pretty outward-flinging gesture. "Is that enough?"

Kingozi, like most men whose natural efficiency has been hardened by wide experience, while impervious to either open or wily antagonism, melted at the first hint of surrender. A wave of kindly feeling overwhelmed the last suspicions--absurd suspicions--his analysis had made. He was prevented from replying by the approach of Simba at the head of eight of the askaris. They slouched along at his heels, sullen and careless, but when they felt the impact of Kingozi's cold glare, they straightened to attention. Kingozi ran his eye over them.

"Where are the other four?" he demanded.

"Three are in the shenzis' village. One says he is very tired."

"Take Mali-ya-bwana and Cazi Moto. Take the leg chains. Bring that one man before me with the chains on him. Have him bring also his gun; and his cartridges."

Ignoring the waiting eight, Kingozi resumed his conversation with the Leopard Woman.

"They are out of hand," said he. "We must impress them."

"Kiboko?" she inquired.

"Perhaps--but you have rather overdone that. We shall see."

"I heard you talk with that old man a few moments ago," she said. "And I heard also much talk of our men about it. He is a very powerful chief-- next to the sultani. Are not you afraid that your treatment of him will make trouble? You were not polite."

"What else have you heard?"

"This sultani has apparently several hundred villages. They keep goats, fat-tailed sheep, and some few cattle. They raise m'wembe, beans, peanuts, and bananas. They have a war caste of young men."

Kingozi listened to her attentively.

"Good girl!" said he. "You use your intelligence. These are all good points to know."

"But this old man----"

"No; I have not insulted him. I know the native mind. I have merely convinced him that I am every bit as important a person as his sultani."

"What do you do next? Call on the sultani."

"By no means. Wait until he comes. If he does not come by, say to-morrow, send for him."

Simba appeared leading a downcast askari in irons. Kingozi waved his hand toward those waiting in the sun; and the new captive made the ninth.

"Now, Simba, go to the village of these shenzis. Tell the other three askaris to come; and at once. Do not return without them."

Simba, whose fierce soul all this delighted beyond expression, started off joyfully, trailed by a posse of his own choosing.

"What are you going to do?" asked the Leopard Woman curiously.

"Get them in line a bit," replied Kingozi carelessly. "I feel rather lazy and done up to-day; don't you?"

"That is so natural. And I am keeping your chair----"

"I've been many trips without one. This tree is good to lean against----"

They chatted about trivial matters. A certain ease had crept into their relations: a guard had been lowered. To a small extent they ventured to question each other, to indulge in those tentative explorations of personality so fascinating in the early stages of acquaintanceship. To her inquiries Kingozi repeated that he was an ivory hunter and trader; he came into this country because new country alone offered profits in ivory these days; he had been in Africa for fifteen years. At this last she looked him over closely.

"You came out very young," she surmised.

"When my father took me out of the medical school to put me into the ministry. I had a knack for doctoring. I ran away."

"Why did you come to Africa?"

"Didn't particularly. Started for Iceland on a whaling ship. Sailed the seven seas after the brutes. Landed on the Gold Coast--and got left behind."

She looked at him hard, and he laughed.

"'Left' with my kit and about sixty pounds I had hung on to since I left home--my own money, mind you! And a harpoon gun! Lord!" he laughed again, "think of it--a harpoon gun! You loaded it with about a peck of black powder. Normally, of course, it shot a harpoon, but you could very near cram a nigger baby down it! And kick! If you were the least bit off balance it knocked you flat. It was the most extraordinary cannon ever seen in Africa, and it inspired more respect, acquired me more kudos than even my beard."

"So that's why you wear it!" she murmured.

"What?"

"Nothing; go on."

"Just the sight of that awe-inspiring piece of ordnance took me the length of the Congo without the least difficulty."

"Tell me about the Congo."

Apparently, at this direct and comprehensive question, there was nothing to tell about the Congo. But adroitly she drew him on. He told of the great river and its people, and the white men who administered it. The subject of cannibals seemed especially to fascinate her. He had seen living human beings issued as a sort of ration on the hoof to native cannibal troops.

Simba returned with the other three askaris.

Kingozi arose from the ground and stretched himself.

"I'm sorry," said he, "I'm afraid I shall have to ask you for the chair now."

She arose, wondering a little. He placed the chair before the waiting line of askaris, and planted himself squarely in it as in a judgment seat. He ran his eye over the men deliberately.

"You!" said he suddenly, pointing his forefinger at the man in irons. "You have disobeyed my orders. You are no longer an askari. You are a common porter, and from now on will carry a load. It is not my custom to use kiboko on askaris; but a common porter can eat kiboko, and Mali-ya- bwana, my headman of safari, will give you twenty-five lashes. Bassi!"

Mali-ya-bwana, well pleased thus early to exercise the authority of his new office, led the man away.

Kingozi dropped his chin in his hand, a movement that pushed out his beard in a terrifying manner. One after another of the eleven men felt the weight of his stare. At last he spoke.

"I have heard tales of you," said he, "but I who speak know nothing about you. You are askaris, soldiers with guns, and next to gun bearers are the greatest men in the safari. Some have told me that you are not askaris, that you are common porters--and not good ones--who carry guns. I do not know. That we shall see. This is what must be done now, and done quickly: the loads of your memsahib must be brought here, and camp made properly, according to the custom. Perhaps your men are no longer tired: perhaps you will get the shenzis. That is not my affair. You understand?"

The answer came in an eager chorus.

He ran his eye over them again.

"You," he indicated, "stand forward. Of what tribe are you?"

"Monumwezi, bwana."

"Your name?"

The man uttered a mouthful of gutturals.

"Again."

He repeated.

"That is not a good name for me. From now on you are--Jack."

"Yes, bwana."

"Do you know the customs of askaris?"

"Yes, bwana."

"H'm," Kingozi commented in English, "nobody would guess it. Then understand this: You are headman of askaris. You take the orders: you report to me--or the memsahib," he added, almost as an afterthought. "To-morrow morning fall in, and I will look at your guns. Bassi!"

They filed away. Kingozi arose and returned the chair.

"Is that all you will do to them?" she demanded. "I tell you they have insulted me; they have refused to move; they should be punished."

"That's all. They understand now what will happen. You will see: they will not refuse again."

She appeared to struggle against a flare of her old rebellious spirit.

"I will leave it to you," she managed at last.

The squatting savages had not moved a muscle, but their shining black eyes had not missed a single detail.