The atmosphere of the room was heavy with the acrid stench of bodies. A wave of nausea surged over the girl; she reeled slightly and placed the back of one hand across her eyes to shut out the terrifying sight.
The old woman behind her whispered angrily and shoved her forward. A moment later Imigeg, the high priest, seized her hand and drew her to the center of the smaller, higher dais beside the growling leopard. The beast snarled and sprang at her; but Imigeg had anticipated such an emergency, and the leopard was brought to a sudden stop by its chain before its raking talons touched the soft flesh of the shrinking girl.
Old Timer shuddered as the horror of her position impressed itself more deeply upon his consciousness. His rage against the men and his own futility left him weak and trembling. His utter helplessness to aid her was maddening, as the sight of her redoubled the strength of his infatuation. He recalled the harsh and bitter things he had said to her, and he flushed with shame at the recollection. Then the eyes of the girl, now taking in the details of the scene before her, met his. For a moment she regarded him blankly; then she recognized him. Surprise and incredulity were written upon her countenance. At first she did not realize that he, too, was a prisoner. His presence recalled his boorish and ungallant attitude toward her at their first meeting. She saw in him only another enemy; yet the fact that he was a white man imparted a new confidence. It did not seem possible that even he would stand idly by and permit a white woman to be imprisoned and maltreated by Negroes. Slowly, then, it dawned upon her that he was a prisoner as well as she; and though the new hope waned, there still remained a greater degree of confidence than she had felt before.
She wondered what queer trick of fate had brought them together again thus. She could not know, nor even dream, that he had been captured in an effort to succor her. Perhaps had she known and known, too, the impulse that had actuated him, even the slight confidence that his presence imparted to her would have been dissipated; but she did not know. She only realized that he was a man of her own race, and that because he was there she felt a little braver.
As Old Timer watched the slender, graceful figure and beautiful face of the new high priestess of the Leopard God, other eyes surveyed and appraised her. Among these were the eyes of Bobolo—savage, bloodshot eyes; greedy, lustful eyes. Bobolo licked his lips hungrily. The savage chief was hungry, but not for food.
The rites of installation were proceeding. Imigeg held the center of the stage. He jabbered incessantly. Sometimes he addressed an underpriest or a priestess, again the Leopard God; and when the beast answered, it never failed to elicit a subdued gasp of awe from the assembled warriors, though the white girl and Old Timer were less mystified or impressed after their first brief surprise.
There was another listener who also was mystified by the talking leopard, but who, though he had never heard of a ventriloquist, pierced the deception with his uncanny perceptive faculties as, perched upon a tie-beam of the roof that projected beyond the front wall of the building, he looked through an opening below the ridgepole at the barbaric scene being enacted beneath him.
It was Muzimo; and beside him, trembling at the sight of so many leopards, perched The Spirit of Nyamwegi. “I am afraid,” he said; “Nkima is afraid. Let us go back to the land that is Tarzan’s. Tarzan is king there; here no one knows him, and he is no better than a Gomangani.”
“Always you speak of Nkima and Tarzan,” complained Muzimo. “I have never heard of them. You are The Spirit of Nyamwegi and I am Muzimo. How many times must I tell you these things?”
“You are Tarzan, and I am Nkima,” insisted the little monkey. “You are a Tarmangani.”
“I am the spirit of Orando’s ancestor,” insisted the other. “Did not Orando say so?”
“I do not know,” sighed The Spirit of Nyamwegi wearily; “I do not understand the language of the Gomangani. All I know is that I am Nkima, and that Tarzan has changed. He is not the same since the tree fell upon him. I also know that I am afraid. I want to go away from here.”
“Presently,” promised Muzimo. He was watching the scene below him intently. He saw the white man and the white girl, and he guessed the fate that awaited them, but it did not move him to compassion, nor arouse within him any sense of blood-responsibility. He was the ancestral spirit of Orando, the son of a chief; the fate of a couple of strange Tarmangani meant nothing to him. Presently, however, his observing eyes discovered something which did arouse his keen interest. Beneath one of the hideous priest-masks he caught a glimpse of familiar features. He was not surprised, for he had been watching this particular priest intently for some time, his attention having been attracted to him by something familiar in his carriage and conformation. The shadow of a smile touched the lips of Muzimo. “Come!” he whispered to The Spirit of Nyamwegi, as he clambered to the roof of the temple.
Sure-footed as a cat he ran along the ridgepole, the little monkey at his heels. Midway of the building he sprang lightly down the sloping roof and launched himself into the foliage of a nearby tree, and as The Spirit of Nyamwegi followed him the two were engulfed in the Erebusan darkness of the forest.
Inside the temple the priestesses had lighted many fires upon the large clay dais and swung cooking pots above them on crude tripods, while from a rear room of the temple the lesser priests had brought many cuts of meat, wrapped in plantain leaves. These the priestesses placed in the cooking pots, while the priests returned for gourds and jugs of native beer, which were passed among the warriors.
As the men drank they commenced to dance. Slowly at first, their bodies bent forward from the hips, their elbows raised, they stepped gingerly, lifting their feet high. In their hands they grasped their spears and shields, holding them awkwardly because of the great, curved steel talons affixed to their fingers. Restricted by lack of space upon the crowded floor, each warrior pivoted upon the same spot, pausing only to take long drinks from the beer jugs as they were passed to him. A low, rhythmic chant accompanied the dance, rising in volume and increasing in tempo as the tempo of the dance steps increased, until the temple floor was a mass of howling, leaping savages.
Upon the upper dais the Leopard God, aroused to fury by the din and movement about him and the scent of the flesh that was cooking in the pots, strained at his chain, snarling and growling in rage. The high priest, stimulated by the contents of a beer pot, danced madly before the frenzied carnivore, leaping almost within reach of its raking talons, then springing away again as the infuriated beast struck at him. The white girl shrank to the far side of the dais, her brain reeling to the hideous pandemonium surrounding her, half numb from fear and apprehension. She had seen the meat brought to the cooking pots but had only vaguely guessed the nature of it until a human hand had fallen from its wrappings of plantain leaves. The significance of the grisly object terrified and sickened her.
The white man watching the scene about him looked most often in her direction. Once he had tried to speak to her; but one of his guards had struck him heavily across the mouth, silencing him. As the drinking and the dancing worked the savages into augmented fury, his concern for the safety of the girl increased. He saw that religious and alcoholic drunkenness were rapidly robbing them of what few brains and little self-control Nature had vouchsafed them, and he trembled to think of what excesses they might commit when they had passed beyond even the restraint of their leaders; nor did the fact that the chiefs, the priests, and the priestesses were becoming as drunk as their followers tend but to aggravate his fears.
Bobolo, too, was watching the white girl. In his drunken brain wild schemes were forming. He saw her danger, and he wished to save her for himself. Just how he was going to possess her was not entirely clear to his muddled mind, yet it clung stubbornly to the idea. Then his eyes changed to alight on Old Timer, and a scheme evolved hazily through the beer fumes.
The white man wished to save the white woman. This fact Bobolo knew and recalled. If he wished to save her he would protect her. The white man also wished to escape. He thought Bobolo was his friend. Thus the premises formed slowly in his addled brain. So far, so good! The white man would help him abduct the high priestess, but that could not be effected until practically everyone was too drunk to prevent the accomplishment of his plan or remember it afterward. He would have to wait for the proper moment to arrive, but in the meantime he must get the girl out of this chamber and hide her in one of the other rooms of the temple. Already the priestesses were mingling freely with the excited, drunken warriors; presently the orgy would be in full swing. After that it was possible that no one might save her; not even the high priest, who was now quite as drunk as any of them.
Bobolo approached Old Timer and spoke to his guards. “Go and join the others,” he told them. “I will watch the prisoner.”
The men, already half drunk, needed no second invitation. The word of a chief was enough; it released them from all responsibility. In a moment they were gone. “Quick!” urged Bobolo, grasping Old Timer by the arm. “Come with me.”
The white man drew back. “Where?” he demanded.
“I am going to help you to escape,” whispered Bobolo.
“Not without the white woman,” insisted the other.
This reply fitted so perfectly with Bobolo’s plans that he was delighted. “I will arrange that, too; but I must get you out of here into one of the back rooms of the temple. Then I shall come back for her. I could not take you both at the same time. It is very dangerous. Imigeg would have me killed if he discovered it. You must do just as I say.”
“Why do you take this sudden interest in our welfare?” demanded the white, suspiciously.
“Because you are both in danger here,” replied Bobolo. “Everyone is very drunk, even the high priest. Soon there would be no one to protect either of you, and you would be lost. I am your friend. It is well for you that Bobolo is your friend and that he is not drunk.”
“Not very!” thought Old Timer as the man staggered at his side toward a doorway in the rear partition of the chamber.
Bobolo conducted him to a room at the far end of the temple. “Wait here,” he said. “I shall go back and fetch the girl.”
“Cut these cords at my wrists,” demanded the white. “They hurt.”
Bobolo hesitated, but only for a moment. “Why not?” he asked. “You do not have to try to escape, because I am going to take you away myself; furthermore you could not escape alone. The temple stands upon an island surrounded by the river and swamp land alive with crocodiles. No trails lead from it other than the river. Ordinarily there are no canoes here, lest some of the priests or priestesses might escape. They, too, are prisoners. You will wait until I am ready to take you away from here.”
“Of course I shall. Hurry, now, and bring the white woman.”
Bobolo returned to the main chamber of the temple, but this time he approached it by way of the door that let upon the upper dais at its rear. Here he paused to reconnoiter. The meat from the cooking pots was being passed among the warriors, but the beer jugs were still circulating freely. The high priest lay in a stupor at the far side of the upper dais. The Leopard God crouched, growling, over the thigh bone of a man. The high priestess leaned against the partition close to the doorway where Bobolo stood. The chief touched her upon the arm. With startled eyes she turned toward him.
“Come,” he whispered and beckoned her to follow.
The girl understood only the gesture, but she had seen this same man lead her fellow prisoner away from the foot of the dais but a moment before; and instantly she concluded that by some queer freak of fate this man might be friendly. Certainly there had been nothing threatening or unfriendly in his facial expressions as he had talked to the white man. Reasoning thus, she followed Bobolo into the gloomy chambers in the rear of the temple. She was afraid, and how close to harm she was only Bobolo knew. Excited to desire by propinquity and impelled to rashness by drink, he suddenly thought to drag her into one of the dark chambers that lined the corridor along which he was conducting her; but as he turned to seize her a voice spoke at his elbow. “You got her more easily than I thought possible.” Bobolo wheeled. “I followed you,” continued Old Timer, “thinking you might need help.”
The chief grunted angrily, but the surprise had brought him to his senses. A scream or the noise of a scuffle might have brought a guardian of the temple to investigate, which would have meant death for Bobolo. He made no reply, but led them back to the room in which he had left Old Timer.
“Wait here for me,” he cautioned them. “If you are discovered do not say that I brought you here. If you do I shall not be able to save you. Say that you were afraid and came here to hide.” He turned to go.
“Wait,” said Old Timer. “Suppose we are unable to get this girl away from here; what will become of her?”
Bobolo shrugged. “We have never before had a white priestess. Perhaps she is for the Leopard God, perhaps for the high priest, who knows?” Then he left them.
“’Perhaps for the Leopard God, perhaps for the high priest,’” repeated Kali Bwana when the man had translated the words. “Oh, how horrible!”
The girl was standing very close to the white man. He could feel the warmth of her almost naked body. He trembled, and when he tried to speak his voice was husky with emotion. He wanted to seize her and crush her to him. He wanted to cover her soft, warm lips with kisses. What stayed him he did not know. They were alone at the far extremity of the temple, the noises of the savage orgy in the main chamber of the building would have drowned any outcry that she might make; she was absolutely at his mercy, yet he did not touch her.
“Perhaps we shall escape soon,” he said. “Bobolo has promised to take us away.”
“You know him and can trust him?” she asked.
“I have known him for a couple of years,” he replied, “but I do not trust him. I do not trust any of them. Bobolo is doing this for a price. He is an avaricious old scoundrel.”
“What is the price?”
“But I have none.”
“Neither have I,” he admitted, “but I’ll get it.”
“I will pay you for my share,” she offered. “I have money with an agent at rail-head.”
He laughed. “Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it, if we ever do.”
“That doesn’t sound very reassuring.”
“We are in a bad hole,” he explained. “We mustn’t raise our hopes too high. Right now our only hope seems to lie in Bobolo. He is a Leopard Man and a scoundrel, in addition to which he is drunk—a slender hope at best.”
Bobolo, returning slightly sobered to the orgy, found himself suddenly frightened by what he had done. To bolster his waning courage he seized upon a large jug of beer and drained it. The contents exercised a magical effect upon Bobolo, for when presently his eyes fell upon a drunken priestess reeling in a corner she was transformed into a much-to-be-desired houri. An hour later Bobolo was fast asleep in the middle of the floor.
The effects of the native beer wore off almost as rapidly as they manifested themselves in its devotees, with the result that in a few hours the warriors commenced to bestir themselves. They were sick and their heads ached. They wished more beer; but when they demanded it they learned that there was no more, nor was there any food. They had consumed all the refreshments, liquid and solid.
Gato Mgungu had never had any of the advantages of civilization (He had never been to Hollywood); but he knew what to do under the circumstances, for the psychology of celebrators is doubtless the same in Africa as elsewhere. When there is nothing more to eat or drink, it must be time to go home. Gato Mgungu gathered the other chiefs and transmitted this philosophical reflection to them. They agreed, Bobolo included. His brain was slightly befogged. He had already forgotten several events of the past evening, including the houri-like priestess. He knew that there was something important on his mind, but he could not recall just what it was; therefore he herded his men to their canoes just as the other chiefs and headmen were doing.
Presently he was headed down river, part of a long procession of war canoes filled with headaches. Back in the temple lay a few warriors who had still been too drunk to stand. For these they had left a single canoe. These men were strewn about the floor of the temple, asleep. Among them were all of the lesser priests and the priestesses. Imigeg was curled up on one corner of the dais fast asleep. The Leopard God, his belly filled, slept also.
Kali Bwana and Old Timer, waiting impatiently in the dark room at the rear of the temple for the return of Bobolo, had noted the increasing quiet in the front chamber of the building; then they had heard the preparations for departure as all but a few made ready to leave. They heard the shuffling of feet as the warriors passed out of the building; they heard the shouts and commands at the river bank that told the white man that the natives were launching their canoes. After that there had been silence.
“Bobolo ought to be coming along,” remarked the man.
“Perhaps he has gone away and left us,” suggested Kali Bwana.
They waited a little longer. Not a sound came from any part of the temple nor from the grounds outside. The silence of death reigned over the holy of holies of the Leopard God. Old Timer stirred uneasily. “I am going to have a look out there,” he said. “Perhaps Bobolo has gone, and if he has we want to know it.” He moved toward the doorway. “I shall not be gone long,” he whispered. “Do not be afraid.”
As the girl waited in the darkness her mind dwelt upon the man who had just left her. He seemed changed since the time of their first meeting. He appeared more solicitous as to her welfare and much less brusque and churlish. Yet she could not forget the harsh things he had said to her upon that other occasion. She could never forgive him, and in her heart she still half feared and mistrusted him. It galled her to reflect that in the event of their escape she would be under obligation to him, and as these thoughts occupied her mind Old Timer crept stealthily along the dark corridor toward the small doorway that opened upon the upper dais.
Only a suggestion of light came through it now to guide his footsteps, and when he reached it he looked out into an almost deserted room. The embers of the cooking fires were hidden by white ashes; only a single torch remained that had not burned out. Its smoky flame burned steadily in the quiet air, and in its feeble light he saw the sleepers sprawled upon the floor. In the dim light he could not distinguish the features of any; so he could not know if Bobolo were among them. One long searching look he gave that took in the whole interior of the chamber, a look that assured him that no single conscious person remained in the temple; then he turned and hastened back to the girl.
“Did you find him?” she asked.
“No. I doubt that he is here. Nearly all of them have left, except just a few who were too drunk to leave. I think it is our chance.”
“What do you mean?”
“There is no one to prevent our escaping. There may be no canoe. Bobolo told me that no canoe was ever left here, for fear that the priests or priestesses might escape. He may have been lying, but whether he was or not we may as well take the chance. There is no hope for either of us if we remain here. Even the crocodiles would be kinder to you than these fiends.”
“I will do whatever you say,” she replied, “but if at any time I am a burden, if my presence might hinder your escape, do not consider me. Go on without me. Remember that you are under no obligation to me, nor—” She hesitated and stopped.
“Nor what?” he asked.
“Nor do I wish to be under obligation to you. I have not forgotten the things that you said to me when you came to my camp.”
He hesitated a moment before replying; then he ignored what she had said. “Come!” he commanded brusquely. “We have no time to waste.”
He walked to a window in the rear wall of the room and looked out. It was very dark. He could see nothing. He knew that the building was raised on piles and that the drop to the ground might prove dangerous; but he also knew that a verandah stretched along one side of the structure. Whether it continued around to the rear of the building where this room was located he could not know. To go out through the main room among all those savages was too fraught with risk. An alternative was to find their way to one of the rooms overlooking the verandah that he knew was there on the river side of the building.
“I think we’ll try another room,” he whispered. “Give me your hand, so that we shall not become separated.”
She slipped her hand into his. It was tender and warm. Once again the mad urge of his infatuation rose like a great tide within him, so that it was with difficulty that he controlled himself, yet by no sign did he betray his passion to the girl. Quietly they tiptoed into the dark corridor, the man groping with his free hand until he found a doorway. Gingerly they crossed the room beyond in search of a window.
What if this were the apartment of some temple inmate who had left the orgy to come here and sleep! The thought brought cold sweat to the man’s brow, and he swore in his heart that he would slay any creature that put itself in the way of the rescue of the girl; but fortunately the apartment was uninhabited, and the two came to the window unchallenged. The man threw a leg over the sill, and a moment later stood upon the verandah beyond; then he reached in and assisted the girl to his side.
They were near the rear of the building. He dared not chance detection by going to the stairway that led to the ground from the front entrance to the temple. “We shall have to climb down one of the piles that support the building,” he explained. “It is possible that there may be a guard at the front entrance. Do you think that you can do it?”
“Certainly,” she replied.
“I’ll go first,” he said. “If you slip I’ll try to hold you.”
“I shall not slip; go ahead.”
The verandah had no railing. He lay down and felt beneath its edge until he found the top of a pile. “Here,” he whispered, and lowered himself over the edge.
The girl followed. He dropped a little lower and guided her legs until they had found a hold upon the pile, which was the bole of a young tree about eight inches in diameter. Without difficulty they reached the ground, and again he took her hand and led her to the bank of the river. As they moved down stream parallel with the temple he sought for a canoe, and when they had come opposite the front of the building he could scarce restrain an exclamation of relief and delight when they came suddenly upon one drawn up on the shore, partially out of the water.
Silently they strained to push the heavy craft into the river. At first it seemed that their efforts would prove of no avail; but at last it started to slip gently downward, and once it was loosened from the sticky mud of the bank that same medium became a slippery slide down which it coasted easily.
He helped her in, shoved the canoe out into the sluggish stream, and jumped in after her; then with a silent prayer of thanksgiving they drifted silently down toward the great river.