When the war party had departed, attention was again focused upon the girl. Lulimi waxed important. He ordered people about right and left. Twenty men armed with spears and shields and carrying paddles formed about her as an escort. Led by Lulimi, they marched through the gateway of the village down to the river. Here they placed her in a large canoe which they launched in silence, knowing that enemies were not far distant. There was no singing or shouting as there would have been upon a similar occasion under ordinary circumstances. In silence they dipped their paddles into the swift stream; silently they sped with the current down the broad river, keeping close to the river bank upon the same side as that upon which they bad launched the craft by the village of Gato Mgungu.
Poor little Kati Bwana! They had taken the rope from about her neck; they treated her now with a certain respect, tinged with awe, for was she not to be the high priestess of the Leopard God? But of that she knew nothing. She could only wonder, as numb with hopelessness she watched the green verdure of the river bank move swiftly past. Where were they taking her? To what horrid fate? She noted the silence and the haste of her escort; she recalled the excitement following the coming of the messenger to the village and the hasty exodus of the war party.
All these facts combined to suggest that her captors were hurrying her away from a rescuing party. But who could have organized such an expedition? Who knew of her plight? Only the bitter man of rags and patches. But what could he do to effect her rescue, even if he cared to do so? It had been evident to her that he was a poor and worthless vagabond. His force consisted now of but two natives. His camp, he had told her, was several marches from where he had found her. He could not possibly have obtained reinforcements from that source in the time that had elapsed since her capture, even if they existed, which she doubted. She could not imagine that such a sorry specimen of poverty commanded any resources whatever. Thus she was compelled to abandon hope of succor from this source; yet hope did not die. In the last extremity one may always expect a miracle.
For a mile or two the canoe sped down the river, the paddles rising and falling with clock-like regularity and almost in silence; then suddenly the speed of the craft was checked, and its nose turned toward the bank. Ahead of them the girl saw the mouth of a small affluent of the main river, and presently the canoe slid into its sluggish waters.
Great trees arched above the narrow, winding stream; dense underbrush choked the ground between their boles; matted vines and creepers clung to their mossy branches, or hung motionless in the breathless air, trailing almost to the surface of the water; gorgeous blooms shot the green with vivid color. It was a scene of beauty, yet there hung about it an air of mystery and death like a noxious miasma. It reminded the girl of the face of a lovely woman behind whose mask of beauty hid a vicious soul. The silence, the scent of rotting things in the heavy air oppressed her.
Just ahead a great, slimy body slid from a rotting log into the slow moving waters. It was a crocodile. As the canoe glided silently through the semi-darkness the girl saw that the river was fairly alive with these hideous reptiles whose presence served but to add to the depression that already weighed so heavily upon her.
She sought to arouse her drooping spirits by recalling the faint hope of rescue that she had entertained and clung to ever since she had been so hurriedly removed from the village. Fortunately for her peace of mind she did not know her destination, nor that the only avenue to it lay along this crocodile-infested stream. No other path led through the matted jungle to the cleverly hidden temple of the Leopard God. No other avenue than this fetid river gave ingress to it, and this was known to no human being who was not a Leopard Man.
The canoe had proceeded up the stream for a couple of miles when the girl saw upon the right bank just ahead of them a large, grass-thatched building. Unaccustomed as she had been during the past few months to seeing any structure larger than the ordinary native huts, the size of this building filled her with astonishment. It was quite two hundred long and fifty wide, nor less than fifty feet in height. It lay parallel to the river, its main entrance being in the end they were approaching. A wide verandah extended across the front of the building and along the side facing the river. The entire structure was elevated on piles to a height of about ten feet above the ground. She did not know it, but this was the temple of the Leopard God, whose high priestess she was destined to be.
As the canoe drew closer to the building a number of men emerged from its interior. Lulimi rose from the bottom of the craft where he had been squatting and shouted a few words to the men on the temple porch. They were the secret passwords of the order, to which one of the guardians of the temple replied, whereupon the canoe drew in to the shore.
A few curious priests surrounded Lulimi and the girl as the old man escorted her up the temple steps to the great entrance flanked by grotesquely carved images and into the half-light of the interior. Here she found herself in an enormous room open to the rafters far above her head. Hideous masks hung upon the supporting columns with shields, and spears, and knives, and human skulls. Idols, crudely carved, stood about the floor. Many of these represented a human body with the head of an animal, though so rude was the craftsmanship that the girl could not be certain what animal they were intended to represent. It might be a leopard, she thought.
At the far end of the room, which they were approaching, she discerned a raised dais. It was, in reality, a large platform paved with clay. Upon it, elevated a couple of feet, was a smaller dais about five feet wide and twice as long, which was covered with the skins of animals. A heavy post supporting a human skull was set in the center of the long dimension of the smaller dais close to its rear edge. These details she noted only casually at the time. She was to have reason to remember them vividly later.
As Lulimi led her toward the dais a very old man emerged from an opening in the wall at its back and came toward them. He had a particularly repellant visage, the ugliness of which was accentuated by the glowering scowl with which he regarded her.
As his old eyes fell upon Lulimi they were lighted dimly by a feeble ray of recognition. “It is you?” he mumbled.
“But why do you bring this white woman? Who is she? A sacrifice?”
“Listen, Imigeg,” whispered Lulimi, “and think well. Remember your prophecy.”
“What prophecy?” demanded the high priest querulously. He was very old; and his memory sometimes played him tricks, though he did not like to admit it.
“Long ago you said that some day a white priestess would sit with you and the Leopard God, here on the great throne of the temple. Now your prophecy shall be fulfilled. Here is the white priestess, brought by Lulimi, just as you prophesied.”
Now Imigeg did not recall having made any such prophecy, for the very excellent reason that he never had done so; but Lulimi was a wily old person who knew Imigeg better than Imigeg knew himself. He knew that the old high priest was rapidly losing his memory; and he knew, too, that he was very sensitive on the subject, so sensitive that he would not dare deny having made such a prophecy as Lulimi imputed to him.
For reasons of his own Lulimi desired a white priestess. Just how it might redound to his benefit is not entirely clear, but the mental processes of priests are often beyond the ken of lay minds. Perhaps his reasons might have been obvious to a Hollywood publicity agent; but however that may be, the method he had adopted to insure the acceptance of his priestess was entirely successful.
Imigeg swallowed the bait, hook, line, and sinker. He swelled with importance. “Imigeg talks with the demons and the spirits,” he said; “they tell him everything. When we have human flesh for the Leopard God and his priests, the white woman shall be made high priestess of the order.”
“That should be soon then,” announced Lulimi.
“How do you know that?” demanded Imigeg.
“My muzimo came to me and told me that the warriors now in the village of Gato Mgungu would march forth today, returning with food enough for all.”
“Good,” exclaimed Imigeg quickly; “it is just as I prophesied yesterday to the lesser priests.”
“Tonight then,” said Lulimi. “Now you will want to have the white woman prepared.”
At the suggestion Imigeg clapped his hands, whereupon several of the lesser priests advanced. “Take the woman,” he instructed one of them “to the quarters of the priestesses. She is to be high priestess of the order. Tell them this and that they shall prepare her. Tell them, also, that Imigeg holds them responsible for her safety.”
The lesser priest led the girl through the opening at the rear of the dais, where she discovered herself in a corridor flanked on either side by rooms. To the door of one of these the man conducted her and, pushing her ahead, entered. It was a large room in which were a dozen women, naked but for tiny G strings. Nearly all of them were young; but there was one toothless old hag, and it was she whom the man addressed.
The angry and resentful movement of the women toward the white girl at the instant that she entered the room was halted at the first words of her escort. “This is the new high priestess of the Leopard God,” he announced. “Imigeg sends orders that you are to prepare her for the rites to be held tonight. If any harm befalls her you will be held accountable, and you all know the anger of Imigeg.”
“Leave her with me,” mumbled the old woman. “I have served in the temple through many rains, but I have not filled the belly of the Leopard God yet.”
“You are too old and tough,” snarled one of the younger women.
“You are not,” snapped the old hag. “All the more reason that you should be careful not to make Imigeg angry, or Mumga, either. Go,” she directed the priest. “The white woman will be safe with old Mumga.”
As the man left the room the women gathered about the girl. Hatred distorted their features. The younger women tore at her clothing. They pushed and pulled her about, all the while jabbering excitedly; but they did not injure her aside from a few scratches from claw-like nails.
The reason for bringing her here at all was unknown to Kali Bwana; the intentions of the women were, similarly, a mystery. Their demeanor boded her no good, and she believed that eventually they would kill her. Their degraded faces, their sharp-filed, yellow fangs, their angry voices and glances left no doubt in her mind as to the seriousness of her situation or the desires of the harpies. That a power which they feared restrained them she did not know. She saw only the menace of their attitude toward her and their rough and brutal handling of her.
One by one they stripped her garments from her until she stood even more naked than they, and then she was accorded a respite as they fell to fighting among themselves for her clothing. For the first time she had an opportunity to note her surroundings. She saw that the room was the common sleeping and eating apartment of the women. Straw mats were stretched across one of its sides. There was a clay hearth at one end directly below a hole in the roof, through which some of the smoke from a still smoldering fire was finding its way into the open air, though most of it hung among the rafters of the high ceiling, from whence it settled down to fill the apartment with acrid fumes. A few cooking pots stood on or beside the hearth. There were earthen jars and wooden boxes, fiber baskets and pouches of skin strewn upon the floor along the walls, many near the sleeping mats. From pegs stuck in the walls depended an array of ornaments and finery: strings of beads, necklaces of human teeth and of the teeth of leopards, bracelets of copper and iron and anklets of the same metals, feather head-dresses and breastplates of metal and of hide, and innumerable garments fashioned from the black-spotted, yellow skins of leopards. Everything in the apartment bespoke primitive savagery in keeping with its wild and savage inmates.
When the final battle for the last vestige of her apparel had terminated, the women again turned their attention to the girl. Old Mumga addressed her at considerable length, but Kali Bwana only shook her head to indicate that she could understand nothing that was said to her. Then at a word from the old woman they laid hold of her again, none too gently. She was thrown upon one of the filthy sleeping mats, an earthen jar was dragged to the side of the mat, and two young women proceeded to anoint her with a vile smelling oil, the base of which might have been rancid butter. This was rubbed in by rough hands until her flesh was almost raw; then a greenish liquid, which smelled of bay leaves and stung like fire, was poured over her; and again she was rubbed until the liquid had evaporated.
When this ordeal had been concluded, leaving her weak and sick from its effects, she was clothed. Much discussion accompanied this ceremony, and several times women were sent to consult Imigeg and to fetch apparel from other parts of the temple. Finally they seemed satisfied with their handiwork, and Kali Bwana, who had worn some of the most ridiculous creations of the most famous couturiers of Paris, stood clothed as she had never been clothed before.
First they had adjusted about her slim, fair waist a loin cloth made from the skins of unborn leopard cubs; and then, over one shoulder, had been draped a gorgeous hide of vivid yellow, spotted with glossy black. This garment hung in graceful folds almost to her knee on one side, being shorter on the other. A rope of leopard tails gathered it loosely about her hips. About her throat was a necklace of human teeth; upon her wrists and arms were heavy bracelets, at least two of which she recognized as a gold. In similar fashion were her ankles adorned, and then more necklaces were hung about her neck. Her head-dress consisted of a diadem of leopard skin supporting a variety of plumes and feathers which entirely encircled her head. But the finishing touch brought a chill of horror to her; long, curved talons of gold were affixed to her fingers and thumbs, recalling the cruel death of the native who had striven so bravely and so futilely to protect her.
Thus was Kali Bwana prepared for the hideous rites of the Leopard Men that would make her high priestess of their savage god.