I TURNED aside into an alley, and sought shelter in a small archway. In the mouth of it I stopped, and looked out at the moonlight which filled the alley. The same instant a woman came gliding in after me, turned, trembling, and looked out also. A few seconds passed; then a huge leopard, its white skin dappled with many blots, darted across the archway. The woman pressed close to me, and my heart filled with pity. I put my arm round her.
"If the brute come here, I will lay hold of it," I said, "and you must run."
"Thank you!" she murmured.
"Have you ever seen it before?" I asked.
"Several times," she answered, still trembling. "She is a pet of the princess's. You are a stranger, or you would know her!"
"I am a stranger," I answered. "But is she, then, allowed to run loose?"
"She is kept in a cage, her mouth muzzled, and her feet in gloves of crocodile leather. Chained she is too; but she gets out often, and sucks the blood of any child she can lay hold of. Happily there are not many mothers in Bulika!"
Here she burst into tears.
"I wish I were at home!" she sobbed. "The princess returned only last night, and there is the leopardess out already! How am I to get into the house? It is me she is after, I know! She will be lying at my own door, watching for me!--But I am a fool to talk to a stranger!"
"All strangers are not bad!" I said. "The beast shall not touch you till she has done with me, and by that time you will be in. You are happy to have a house to go to! What a terrible wind it is!"
"Take me home safe, and I will give you shelter from it," she rejoined. "But we must wait a little!"
I asked her many questions. She told me the people never did anything except dig for precious stones in their cellars. They were rich, and had everything made for them in other towns.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it is a disgrace to work," she answered. "Everybody in Bulika knows that!"
I asked how they were rich if none of them earned money. She replied that their ancestors had saved for them, and they never spent. When they wanted money they sold a few of their gems.
"But there must be some poor!" I said.
"I suppose there must be, but we never think of such people. When one goes poor, we forget him. That is how we keep rich. We mean to be rich always."
"But when you have dug up all your precious stones and sold them, you will have to spend your money, and one day you will have none left!"
"We have so many, and there are so many still in the ground, that that day will never come," she replied.
"Suppose a strange people were to fall upon you, and take everything you have!"
"No strange people will dare; they are all horribly afraid of our princess. She it is who keeps us safe and free and rich!"
Every now and then as she spoke, she would stop and look behind her.
I asked why her people had such a hatred of strangers. She answered that the presence of a stranger defiled the city.
"How is that?" I said.
"Because we are more ancient and noble than any other nation.--Therefore," she added, "we always turn strangers out before night."
"How, then, can you take me into your house?" I asked.
"I will make an exception of you," she replied.
"Is there no place in the city for the taking in of strangers?"
"Such a place would be pulled down, and its owner burned. How is purity to be preserved except by keeping low people at a proper distance? Dignity is such a delicate thing!"
She told me that their princess had reigned for thousands of years; that she had power over the air and the water as well as the earth--and, she believed, over the fire too; that she could do what she pleased, and was answerable to nobody.
When at length she was willing to risk the attempt, we took our way through lanes and narrow passages, and reached her door without having met a single live creature. It was in a wider street, between two tall houses, at the top of a narrow, steep stair, up which she climbed slowly, and I followed. Ere we reached the top, however, she seemed to take fright, and darted up the rest of the steps: I arrived just in time to have the door closed in my face, and stood confounded on the landing, where was about length enough, between the opposite doors of the two houses, for a man to lie down.
Weary, and not scrupling to defile Bulika with my presence, I took
advantage of the shelter, poor as it was.