Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER XI

The Cave of the Rooirand

I was roused by a sudden movement. The whole assembly stood up, and each man clapped his right hand to his brow and then raised it high. A low murmur of ‘Inkulu’ rose above the din of the water. Laputa strode down the hall, with Henriques limping behind him. They certainly did not suspect my presence in the cave, nor did Laputa show any ruffling of his calm. Only Henriques looked weary and cross. I guessed he had had to ride my pony.

The old man whom I took to be the priest advanced towards Laputa with his hands raised over his head. A pace before they met he halted, and Laputa went on his knees before him. He placed his hands on his head, and spoke some words which I could not understand. It reminded me, so queer are the tricks of memory, of an old Sabbath-school book I used to have which had a picture of Samuel ordaining Saul as king of Israel. I think I had forgotten my own peril and was enthralled by the majesty of the place — the wavering torches, the dropping wall of green water, above all, the figures of Laputa and the Keeper of the Snake, who seemed to have stepped out of an antique world.

Laputa stripped off his leopard skin till he stood stark, a noble form of a man. Then the priest sprinkled some herbs on the fire, and a thin smoke rose to the roof. The smell was that I had smelled on the Kirkcaple shore, sweet, sharp, and strange enough to chill the marrow. And round the fire went the priest in widening and contracting circles, just as on that Sabbath evening in spring.

Once more we were sitting on the ground, all except Laputa and the Keeper. Henriques was squatting in the front row, a tiny creature among so many burly savages. Laputa stood with bent head in the centre.

Then a song began, a wild incantation in which all joined. The old priest would speak some words, and the reply came in barbaric music. The words meant nothing to me; they must have been in some tongue long since dead. But the music told its own tale. It spoke of old kings and great battles, of splendid palaces and strong battlements, of queens white as ivory, of death and life, love and hate, joy and sorrow. It spoke, too, of desperate things, mysteries of horror long shut to the world. No Kaffir ever forged that ritual. It must have come straight from Prester John or Sheba’s queen, or whoever ruled in Africa when time was young.

I was horribly impressed. Devouring curiosity and a lurking nameless fear filled my mind. My old dread had gone. I was not afraid now of Kaffir guns, but of the black magic of which Laputa had the key.

The incantation died away, but still herbs were flung on the fire, till the smoke rose in a great cloud, through which the priest loomed misty and huge. Out of the smoke-wreaths his voice came high and strange. It was as if some treble stop had been opened in a great organ, as against the bass drone of the cataract.

He was asking Laputa questions, to which came answers in that rich voice which on board the liner had preached the gospel of Christ. The tongue I did not know, and I doubt if my neighbours were in better case. It must have been some old sacred language — Phoenician, Sabaean, I know not what — which had survived in the rite of the Snake.

Then came silence while the fire died down and the smoke eddied away in wreaths towards the river. The priest’s lips moved as if in prayer: of Laputa I saw only the back, and his head was bowed.

Suddenly a rapt cry broke from the Keeper. ‘God has spoken,’ he cried. ‘The path is clear. The Snake returns to the House of its Birth.’

An attendant led forward a black goat, which bleated feebly. With a huge antique knife the old man slit its throat, catching the blood in a stone ewer. Some was flung on the fire, which had burned small and low.

‘Even so,’ cried the priest, ‘will the king quench in blood the hearth-fires of his foes.’

Then on Laputa’s forehead and bare breast he drew a bloody cross. ‘I seal thee,’ said the voice, ‘priest and king of God’s people.’ The ewer was carried round the assembly, and each dipped his finger in it and marked his forehead. I got a dab to add to the other marks on my face.

‘Priest and king of God’s people,’ said the voice again, ‘I call thee to the inheritance of John. Priest and king was he, king of kings, lord of hosts, master of the earth. When he ascended on high he left to his son the sacred Snake, the ark of his valour, to be God’s dower and pledge to the people whom He has chosen.’

I could not make out what followed. It seemed to be a long roll of the kings who had borne the Snake. None of them I knew, but at the end I thought I caught the name of Tchaka the Terrible, and I remembered Arcoll’s tale.

The Keeper held in his arms a box of curiously wrought ivory, about two feet long and one broad. He was standing beyond the ashes, from which, in spite of the blood, thin streams of smoke still ascended. He opened it, and drew out something which swung from his hand like a cascade of red fire.

‘Behold the Snake,’ cried the Keeper, and every man in the assembly, excepting Laputa and including me, bowed his head to the ground and cried ‘Ow.’

‘Ye who have seen the Snake,’ came the voice, on you is the vow of silence and peace. No blood shall ye shed of man or beast, no flesh shall ye eat till the vow is taken from you. From the hour of midnight till sunrise on the second day ye are bound to God. Whoever shall break the vow, on him shall the curse fall. His blood shall dry in his veins, and his flesh shrink on his bones. He shall be an outlaw and accursed, and there shall follow him through life and death the Avengers of the Snake. Choose ye, my people; upon you is the vow.’

By this time we were all flat on our faces, and a great cry of assent went up. I lifted my head as much as I dared to see what would happen next.

The priest raised the necklace till it shone above his head like a halo of blood. I have never seen such a jewel, and I think there has never been another such on earth. Later I was to have the handling of it, and could examine it closely, though now I had only a glimpse. There were fifty-five rubies in it, the largest as big as a pigeon’s egg, and the least not smaller than my thumbnail. In shape they were oval, cut on both sides en cabochon, and on each certain characters were engraved. No doubt this detracted from their value as gems, yet the characters might have been removed and the stones cut in facets, and these rubies would still have been the noblest in the world. I was no jewel merchant to guess their value, but I knew enough to see that here was wealth beyond human computation. At each end of the string was a great pearl and a golden clasp. The sight absorbed me to the exclusion of all fear. I, David Crawfurd, nineteen years of age, an assistant-storekeeper in a back-veld dorp, was privileged to see a sight to which no Portuguese adventurer had ever attained. There, floating on the smoke-wreaths, was the jewel which may once have burned in Sheba’s hair. As the priest held the collar aloft, the assembly rocked with a strange passion. Foreheads were rubbed in the dust, and then adoring eyes would be raised, while a kind of sobbing shook the worshippers. In that moment I learned something of the secret of Africa, of Prester John’s empire and Tchaka’s victories.

, In the name of God,’ came the voice, ‘I deliver to the heir of John the Snake of John.’

Laputa took the necklet and twined it in two loops round his neck till the clasp hung down over his breast. The position changed. The priest knelt before him, and received his hands on his head. Then I knew that, to the confusion of all talk about equality, God has ordained some men to be kings and others to serve. Laputa stood naked as when he was born, The rubies were dulled against the background of his skin, but they still shone with a dusky fire. Above the blood-red collar his face had the passive pride of a Roman emperor. Only his great eyes gloomed and burned as he looked on his followers.

‘Heir of John,’ he said, ‘I stand before you as priest and king. My kingship is for the morrow. Now I am the priest to make intercession for my people.’

He prayed — prayed as I never heard man pray before — and to the God of Israel! It was no heathen fetich he was invoking, but the God of whom he had often preached in Christian kirks. I recognized texts from Isaiah and the Psalms and the Gospels, and very especially from the two last chapters of Revelation. He pled with God to forget the sins of his people, to recall the bondage of Zion. It was amazing to hear these bloodthirsty savages consecrated by their leader to the meek service of Christ. An enthusiast may deceive himself, and I did not question his sincerity. I knew his heart, black with all the lusts of paganism. I knew that his purpose was to deluge the land with blood. But I knew also that in his eyes his mission was divine, and that he felt behind him all the armies of Heaven.

‘Thou hast been a strength to the poor,’ said the voice, ‘a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the Terrible Ones is as a storm against a wall.

‘Thou shalt bring down the noise of strangers, as the heat in a dry place; the branch of the Terrible Ones shall be brought low.

‘And in this mountain shall the Lord of Hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow.

‘And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is brought over all nations.

‘And the rebuke of His people shall He take away from off all the earth; for the Lord hath spoken it.’

I listened spellbound as he prayed. I heard the phrases familiar to me in my schooldays at Kirkcaple. He had some of the tones of my father’s voice, and when I shut my eyes I could have believed myself a child again. So much he had got from his apprenticeship to the ministry. I wondered vaguely what the good folks who had listened to him in churches and halls at home would think of him now. But there was in the prayer more than the supplications of the quondam preacher. There was a tone of arrogant pride, the pride of the man to whom the Almighty is only another and greater Lord of Hosts. He prayed less as a suppliant than as an ally. A strange emotion tingled in my blood, half awe, half sympathy. As I have said, I understood that there are men born to kingship.

He ceased with a benediction. Then he put on his leopard-skin cloak and kilt, and received from the kneeling chief a spear and shield. Now he was more king than priest, more barbarian than Christian. It was as a king that he now spoke.

I had heard him on board the liner, and had thought his voice the most wonderful I had ever met with. But now in that great resonant hall the magic of it was doubled. He played upon the souls of his hearers as on a musical instrument. At will he struck the chords of pride, fury, hate, and mad joy. Now they would be hushed in breathless quiet, and now the place would echo with savage assent. I remember noticing that the face of my neighbour, ‘Mwanga, was running with tears.

He spoke of the great days of Prester John, and a hundred names I had never heard of. He pictured the heroic age of his nation, when every man was a warrior and hunter, and rich kraals stood in the spots now desecrated by the white man, and cattle wandered on a thousand hills. Then he told tales of white infamy, lands snatched from their rightful possessors, unjust laws which forced the Ethiopian to the bondage of a despised caste, the finger of scorn everywhere, and the mocking word. If it be the part of an orator to rouse the passion of his hearers, Laputa was the greatest on earth. ‘What have ye gained from the white man?’ he cried. ‘A bastard civilization which has sapped your manhood; a false religion which would rivet on you the chains of the slave. Ye, the old masters of the land, are now the servants of the oppressor. And yet the oppressors are few, and the fear of you is in their hearts. They feast in their great cities, but they see the writing on the wall, and their eyes are anxiously turning lest the enemy be at their gates.’ I cannot hope in my prosaic words to reproduce that amazing discourse. Phrases which the hearers had heard at mission schools now suddenly appeared, not as the white man’s learning, but as God’s message to His own. Laputa fitted the key to the cipher, and the meaning was clear. He concluded, I remember, with a picture of the overthrow of the alien, and the golden age which would dawn for the oppressed. Another Ethiopian empire would arise, so majestic that the white man everywhere would dread its name, so righteous that all men under it would live in ease and peace.

By rights, I suppose, my blood should have been boiling at this treason. I am ashamed to confess that it did nothing of the sort. My mind was mesmerized by this amazing man. I could not refrain from shouting with the rest. Indeed I was a convert, if there can be conversion when the emotions are dominant and there is no assent from the brain. I had a mad desire to be of Laputa’s party. Or rather, I longed for a leader who should master me and make my soul his own, as this man mastered his followers. I have already said that I might have made a good subaltern soldier, and the proof is that I longed for such a general.

As the voice ceased there was a deep silence. The hearers were in a sort of trance, their eyes fixed glassily on Laputa’s face. It was the quiet of tense nerves and imagination at white-heat. I had to struggle with a spell which gripped me equally with the wildest savage. I forced myself to look round at the strained faces, the wall of the cascade, the line of torches. It was the sight of Henriques that broke the charm. Here was one who had no part in the emotion. I caught his eye fixed on the rubies, and in it I read only a devouring greed. It flashed through my mind that Laputa had a foe in his own camp, and the Prester’s collar a votary whose passion was not that of worship.

The next thing I remember was a movement among the first ranks. The chiefs were swearing fealty. Laputa took off the collar and called God to witness that it should never again encircle his neck till he had led his people to victory. Then one by one the great chiefs and indunas advanced, and swore allegiance with their foreheads on the ivory box. Such a collection of races has never been seen. There were tall Zulus and Swazis with ringkops and feather head-dresses. There were men from the north with heavy brass collars and anklets; men with quills in their ears, and earrings and nose-rings; shaven heads, and heads with wonderfully twisted hair; bodies naked or all but naked, and bodies adorned with skins and necklets. Some were light in colour, and some were black as coal; some had squat negro features, and some thin, high-boned Arab faces. But in all there was the air of mad enthusiasm. For a day they were forsworn from blood, but their wild eyes and twitching hands told their future purpose.

For an hour or two I had been living in a dream-world. Suddenly my absorption was shattered, for I saw that my time to swear was coming. I sat in the extreme back row at the end nearest the entrance, and therefore I should naturally be the last to go forward. The crisis was near when I should be discovered, for there was no question of my shirking the oath.

Then for the first time since I entered the cave I realized the frightful danger in which I stood. My mind had been strung so high by the ritual that I had forgotten all else. Now came the rebound, and with shaky nerves I had to face discovery and certain punishment. In that moment I suffered the worst terror of my life. There was much to come later, but by that time my senses were dulled. Now they had been sharpened by what I had seen and heard, my nerves were already quivering and my fancy on fire. I felt every limb shaking as ‘Mwanga went forward. The cave swam before my eyes, heads were multiplied giddily, and I was only dimly conscious when he rose to return.

Nothing would have made me advance, had I not feared Laputa less than my neighbours. They might rend me to pieces, but to him the oath was inviolable. I staggered crazily to my feet, and shambled forwards. My eye was fixed on the ivory box, and it seemed to dance before me and retreat.

Suddenly I heard a voice — the voice of Henriques — cry, ‘By God, a spy!’ I felt my throat caught, but I was beyond resisting.

It was released, and I was pinned by the arms. I must have stood vacantly, with a foolish smile, while unchained fury raged round me. I seemed to hear Laputa’s voice saying, ‘It is the storekeeper.’ His face was all that I could see, and it was unperturbed. There was a mocking ghost of a smile about his lips.

Myriad hands seemed to grip me and crush my breath, but above the clamour I heard a fierce word of command. After that I fainted.

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