As I hastened along, a cloud came over the moon, and from the gray dark suddenly emerged a white figure, clasping a child to her bosom, and stooping as she ran. She was on a line parallel with my own, but did not perceive me as she hurried along, terror and anxiety in every movement of her driven speed.
"She is chased!" I said to myself. "Some prowler of this terrible night is after her!"
To follow would have added to her fright: I stepped into her track to stop her pursuer.
As I stood for a moment looking after her through the dusk, behind me came a swift, soft-footed rush, and ere I could turn, something sprang over my head, struck me sharply on the forehead, and knocked me down. I was up in an instant, but all I saw of my assailant was a vanishing whiteness. I ran after the beast, with the blood trickling from my forehead; but had run only a few steps, when a shriek of despair tore the quivering night. I ran the faster, though I could not but fear it must already be too late.
In a minute or two I spied a low white shape approaching me through the vapour-dusted moonlight. It must be another beast, I thought at first, for it came slowly, almost crawling, with strange, floundering leaps, as of a creature in agony! I drew aside from its path, and waited. As it neared me, I saw it was going on three legs, carrying its left fore-paw high from the ground. It had many dark, oval spots on a shining white skin, and was attended by a low rushing sound, as of water falling upon grass. As it went by me, I saw something streaming from the lifted paw.
"It is blood!" I said to myself, "some readier champion than I has wounded the beast!" But, strange to tell, such a pity seized me at sight of the suffering creature, that, though an axe had been in my hand I could not have struck at it. In a broken succession of hobbling leaps it went out of sight, its blood, as it seemed, still issuing in a small torrent, which kept flowing back softly through the grass beside me. "If it go on bleeding like that," I thought, "it will soon be hurtless!"
I went on, for I might yet be useful to the woman, and hoped also to see her deliverer.
I descried her a little way off, seated on the grass, with her child in her lap.
"Can I do anything for you?" I asked.
At the sound of my voice she started violently, and would have risen. I threw myself on the ground.
"You need not be frightened," I said. "I was following the beast when happily you found a nearer protector! It passed me now with its foot bleeding so much that by this time it must be all but dead!"
"There is little hope of that!" she answered, trembling. "Do you not know whose beast she is?"
Now I had certain strange suspicions, but I answered that I knew nothing of the brute, and asked what had become of her champion.
"What champion?" she rejoined. "I have seen no one."
"Then how came the monster to grief?"
"I pounded her foot with a stone--as hard as I could strike. Did you not hear her cry?"
"Well, you are a brave woman!" I answered. "I thought it was you gave the cry!"
"It was the leopardess."
"I never heard such a sound from the throat of an animal! it was like the scream of a woman in torture!"
"My voice was gone; I could not have shrieked to save my baby! When I saw the horrid mouth at my darling's little white neck, I caught up a stone and mashed her lame foot."
"Tell me about the creature," I said; "I am a stranger in these parts."
"You will soon know about her if you are going to Bulika!" she answered. "Now, I must never go back there!"
"Yes, I am going to Bulika," I said, "--to see the princess."
"Have a care; you had better not go!--But perhaps you are--! The princess is a very good, kind woman!"
I heard a little movement. Clouds had by this time gathered so thick over the moon that I could scarcely see my companion: I feared she was rising to run from me.
"You are in no danger of any sort from me," I said. "What oath would you like me to take?"
"I know by your speech that you are not of the people of Bulika," she replied; "I will trust you!--I am not of them, either, else I should not be able: they never trust any one--If only I could see you! But I like your voice!--There, my darling is asleep! The foul beast has not hurt her!--Yes: it was my baby she was after!" she went on, caressing the child. "And then she would have torn her mother to pieces for carrying her off!--Some say the princess has two white leopardesses," she continued: "I know only one--with spots. Everybody knows HER! If the princess hear of a baby, she sends her immediately to suck its blood, and then it either dies or grows up an idiot. I would have gone away with my baby, but the princess was from home, and I thought I might wait until I was a little stronger. But she must have taken the beast with her, and been on her way home when I left, and come across my track. I heard the SNIFF-SNUFF of the leopardess behind me, and ran;--oh, how I ran!--But my darling will not die! There is no mark on her!"
"Where are you taking her?"
"Where no one ever tells!"
"Why is the princess so cruel?"
"There is an old prophecy that a child will be the death of her. That is why she will listen to no offer of marriage, they say."
"But what will become of her country if she kill all the babies?"
"She does not care about her country. She sends witches around to teach the women spells that keep babies away, and give them horrible things to eat. Some say she is in league with the Shadows to put an end to the race. At night we hear the questing beast, and lie awake and shiver. She can tell at once the house where a baby is coming, and lies down at the door, watching to get in. There are words that have power to shoo her away, only they do not always work--But here I sit talking, and the beast may by this time have got home, and her mistress be sending the other after us!"
As thus she ended, she rose in haste.
"I do not think she will ever get home.--Let me carry the baby for you!" I said, as I rose also.
She returned me no answer, and when I would have taken it, only clasped it the closer.
"I cannot think," I said, walking by her side, "how the brute could be bleeding so much!"
"Take my advice, and don't go near the palace," she answered. "There are sounds in it at night as if the dead were trying to shriek, but could not open their mouths!"
She bade me an abrupt farewell. Plainly she did not want more of my company; so I stood still, and heard her footsteps die away on the grass.