Prester John, by John Buchan


I Go Treasure–Hunting

For a mile or so I kept the bush, which was open and easy to ride through, and then turned into the path. The moon was high, and the world was all a dim dark green, with the track a golden ivory band before me. I had looked at my watch before I started, and seen that it was just after eight o’clock. I had a great horse under me, and less than thirty miles to cover. Midnight should see me at the cave. With the password I would gain admittance, and there would wait for Laputa and Henriques. Then, if my luck held, I should see the inner workings of the mystery which had puzzled me ever since the Kirkcaple shore. No doubt I should be roughly treated, tied up prisoner, and carried with the army when the march began. But till Inanda’s Kraal my life was safe, and before that came the ford of the Letaba. Colin would carry my message to Arcoll, and at the Drift the tables would be turned on Laputa’s men.

Looking back in cold blood, it seems the craziest chain of accidents to count on for preservation. A dozen possibilities might have shattered any link of it. The password might be wrong, or I might never get the length of those who knew it. The men in the cave might butcher me out of hand, or Laputa might think my behaviour a sufficient warrant for the breach of the solemnest vow. Colin might never get to Blaauwildebeestefontein, Laputa might change his route of march, or Arcoll’s men might fail to hold the Drift. Indeed, the other day at Portincross I was so overcome by the recollection of the perils I had dared and God’s goodness towards me that I built a new hall for the parish kirk as a token of gratitude.

Fortunately for mankind the brain in a life of action turns more to the matter in hand than to conjuring up the chances of the future. Certainly it was in no discomfort of mind that I swung along the moonlit path to the north. Truth to tell, I was almost happy. The first honours in the game had fallen to me. I knew more about Laputa than any man living save Henriques; I had my finger on the central pulse of the rebellion. There was hid treasure ahead of me — a great necklace of rubies, Henriques had said. Nay, there must be more, I argued. This cave of the Rooirand was the headquarters of the rising, and there must be stored their funds — diamonds, and the gold they had been bartered for. I believe that every man has deep in his soul a passion for treasure-hunting, which will often drive a coward into prodigies of valour. I lusted for that treasure of jewels and gold. Once I had been high-minded, and thought of my duty to my country, but in that night ride I fear that what I thought of was my duty to enrich David Crawfurd. One other purpose simmered in my head. I was devoured with wrath against Henriques. Indeed, I think that was the strongest motive for my escapade, for even before I heard Laputa tell of the vows and the purification, I had it in my mind to go at all costs to the cave. I am a peaceable man at most times, but I think I would rather have had the Portugoose’s throat in my hands than the collar of Prester John.

But behind my thoughts was one master-feeling, that Providence had given me my chance and I must make the most of it. Perhaps the Calvinism of my father’s preaching had unconsciously taken grip of my soul. At any rate I was a fatalist in creed, believing that what was willed would happen, and that man was but a puppet in the hands of his Maker. I looked on the last months as a clear course which had been mapped out for me. Not for nothing had I been given a clue to the strange events which were coming. It was foreordained that I should go alone to Umvelos’, and in the promptings of my own fallible heart I believed I saw the workings of Omnipotence. Such is our moral arrogance, and yet without such a belief I think that mankind would have ever been content to bide sluggishly at home.

I passed the spot where on my former journey I had met the horses, and knew that I had covered more than half the road. My ear had been alert for the sound of pursuit, but the bush was quiet as the grave. The man who rode my pony would find him a slow traveller, and I pitied the poor beast bucketed along by an angry rider. Gradually a hazy wall of purple began to shimmer before me, apparently very far off. I knew the ramparts of the Rooirand, and let my Schimmel feel my knees in his ribs. Within an hour I should be at the cliff’s foot.

I had trusted for safety to the password, but as it turned out I owed my life mainly to my horse. For, a mile or so from the cliffs, I came to the fringes of a great army. The bush was teeming with men, and I saw horses picketed in bunches, and a multitude of Cape-carts and light wagons. It was like a colossal gathering for naachtmaal11 at a Dutch dorp, but every man was black. I saw through a corner of my eye that they were armed with guns, though many carried in addition their spears and shields. Their first impulse was to stop me. I saw guns fly to shoulders, and a rush towards the path. The boldest game was the safest, so I dug my heels into the schimmel and shouted for a passage. ‘Make way!’ I cried in Kaffir. ‘I bear a message from the Inkulu.12 Clear out, you dogs!’

11 The Communion Sabbath.

12 A title applied only to the greatest chiefs.

They recognized the horse, and fell back with a salute. Had I but known it, the beast was famed from the Zambesi to the Cape. It was their king’s own charger I rode, and who dared question such a warrant? I heard the word pass through the bush, and all down the road I got the salute. In that moment I fervently thanked my stars that I had got away first, for there would have been no coming second for me.

At the cliff-foot I found a double line of warriors who had the appearance of a royal guard, for all were tall men with leopard-skin cloaks. Their rifle-barrels glinted in the moon-light, and the sight sent a cold shiver down my back. Above them, among the scrub and along the lower slopes of the kranzes, I could see further lines with the same gleaming weapons. The Place of the Snake was in strong hands that night.

I dismounted and called for a man to take my horse. Two of the guards stepped forward in silence and took the bridle. This left the track to the cave open, and with as stiff a back as I could command, but a sadly fluttering heart, I marched through the ranks.

The path was lined with guards, all silent and rigid as graven images. As I stumbled over the stones I felt that my appearance scarcely fitted the dignity of a royal messenger. Among those splendid men-at-arms I shambled along in old breeches and leggings, hatless, with a dirty face, dishevelled hair, and a torn flannel shirt. My mind was no better than my body, for now that I had arrived I found my courage gone. Had it been possible I would have turned tail and fled, but the boats were burned behind me, and I had no choice. I cursed my rash folly, and wondered at my exhilaration of an hour ago. I was going into the black mysterious darkness, peopled by ten thousand cruel foes. My knees rubbed against each other, and I thought that no man had ever been in more deadly danger.

At the entrance to the gorge the guards ceased and I went on alone. Here there was no moonlight, and I had to feel my way by the sides. I moved very slowly, wondering how soon I should find the end my folly demanded. The heat of the ride had gone, and I remember feeling my shirt hang clammily on my shoulders.

Suddenly a hand was laid on my breast, and a voice demanded, ‘The word?’

‘Immanuel,’ I said hoarsely.

Then unseen hands took both my arms, and I was led farther into the darkness. My hopes revived for a second. The password had proved true, and at any rate I should enter the cave.

In the darkness I could see nothing, but I judged that we stopped before the stone slab which, as I remembered, filled the extreme end of the gorge. My guide did something with the right-hand wall, and I felt myself being drawn into a kind of passage. It was so narrow that two could not go abreast, and so low that the creepers above scraped my hair. Something clicked behind me like the turnstile at the gate of a show.

Then we began to ascend steps, still in utter darkness, and a great booming fell on my ear. It was the falling river which had scared me on my former visit, and I marvelled that I had not heard it sooner. Presently we came out into a gleam of moonlight, and I saw that we were inside the gorge and far above the slab. We followed a narrow shelf on its left side (or ‘true right’, as mountaineers would call it) until we could go no farther. Then we did a terrible thing. Across the gorge, which here was at its narrowest, stretched a slab of stone. Far, far below I caught the moonlight on a mass of hurrying waters. This was our bridge, and though I have a good head for crags, I confess I grew dizzy as we turned to cross it. Perhaps it was broader than it looked; at any rate my guides seemed to have no fear, and strode across it as if it was a highway, while I followed in a sweat of fright. Once on the other side, I was handed over to a second pair of guides, who led me down a high passage running into the heart of the mountain.

The boom of the river sank and rose as the passage twined. Soon I saw a gleam of light ahead which was not the moon. It grew larger, until suddenly the roof rose and I found myself in a gigantic chamber. So high it was that I could not make out anything of the roof, though the place was brightly lit with torches stuck round the wall, and a great fire which burned at the farther end. But the wonder was on the left side, where the floor ceased in a chasm. The left wall was one sheet of water, where the river fell from the heights into the infinite depth, below. The torches and the fire made the sheer stream glow and sparkle like the battlements of the Heavenly City. I have never seen any sight so beautiful or so strange, and for a second my breath stopped in admiration.

There were two hundred men or more in the chamber, but so huge was the place that they seemed only a little company. They sat on the ground in a circle, with their eyes fixed on the fire and on a figure which stood before it. The glow revealed the old man I had seen on that morning a month before moving towards the cave. He stood as if in a trance, straight as a tree, with his arms crossed on his breast. A robe of some shining white stuff fell from his shoulders, and was clasped round his middle by a broad circle of gold. His head was shaven, and on his forehead was bound a disc of carved gold. I saw from his gaze that his old eyes were blind.

‘Who comes?‘he asked as I entered.

‘A messenger from the Inkulu,’ I spoke up boldly. ‘He follows soon with the white man, Henriques.’

Then I sat down in the back row of the circle to await events. I noticed that my neighbour was the fellow ‘Mwanga whom I had kicked out of the store. Happily I was so dusty that he could scarcely recognize me, but I kept my face turned away from him. What with the light and the warmth, the drone of the water, the silence of the folk, and my mental and physical stress, I grew drowsy and all but slept.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32