“Of course not,” ejaculated Leo; “I have been wondering whither thou hadst gone. Let us go and explain matters to the Queen.”
“Nay, nay, she would slay us. Thou knowest not her power—the Baboon there, he knoweth, for he saw. Nay, there is but one way: if thou wilt cleave to me, thou must flee with me across the marshes even now, and then perchance we may escape.”
“For Heaven’s sake, Leo,” I began, but she broke in—
“Nay, listen not to him. Swift—be swift—death is in the air we breathe. Even now, mayhap, She heareth us,” and without more ado she proceeded to back her arguments by throwing herself into his arms. As she did so the leopard’s head slipped from her hair, and I saw the three white finger-marks upon it, gleaming faintly in the starlight. Once more realising the desperate nature of the position, I was about to interpose, for I knew that Leo was not too strong-minded where women were concerned, when—oh! horror!—I heard a little silvery laugh behind me. I turned round, and there was She herself, and with her Billali and two male mutes. I gasped and nearly sank to the ground, for I knew that such a situation must result in some dreadful tragedy, of which it seemed exceedingly probable to me that I should be the first victim. As for Ustane, she untwined her arms and covered her eyes with her hands, while Leo, not knowing the full terror of the position, merely covered up, and looked as foolish as a man caught in such a trap would naturally do.
Then followed a moment of the most painful silence that I ever endured. It was broken by Ayesha, who addressed herself to Leo.
“Nay, now, my lord and guest,” she said in her softest tones, which yet had the ring of steel about them, “look not so bashful. Surely the sight was a pretty one—the leopard and the lion!”
“Oh, hang it all!” said Leo in English.
“And thou, Ustane,” she went on, “surely I should have passed thee by, had not the light fallen on the white across thy hair,” and she pointed to the bright edge of the rising moon which was now appearing above the horizon. “Well! well! the dance is done—see, the tapers have burnt down, and all things end in silence and in ashes. So thou thoughtest it a fit time for love, Ustane, my servant—and I, dreaming not that I could be disobeyed, thought thee already far away.”
“Play not with me,” moaned the wretched woman; “slay me, and let there be an end.”
“Nay, why? It is not well to go so swift from the hot lips of love down to the cold mouth of the grave,” and she made a motion to the mutes, who instantly stepped up and caught the girl by either arm. With an oath Leo sprang upon the nearest, and hurled him to the ground, and then stood over him with his face set, and his fist ready.
Again Ayesha laughed. “It was well thrown, my guest; thou hast a strong arm for one who so late was sick. But now out of thy courtesy I pray thee let that man live and do my bidding. He shall not harm the girl; the night air grows chill, and I would welcome her in mine own place. Surely she whom thou dost favour shall be favoured of me also.”