Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER XII

Captain Arcoll Sends a Message

I once read — I think in some Latin writer — the story of a man who was crushed to a jelly by the mere repeated touch of many thousand hands. His murderers were not harsh, but an infinite repetition of the gentlest handling meant death. I do not suppose that I was very brutally manhandled in the cave. I was trussed up tight and carried out to the open, and left in the care of the guards. But when my senses returned I felt as if I had been cruelly beaten in every part. The raw-hide bonds chafed my wrists and ankle and shoulders, but they were the least part of my aches. To be handled by a multitude of Kaffirs is like being shaken by some wild animal. Their skins are insensible to pain, and I have seen a Zulu stand on a piece of red-hot iron without noticing it till he was warned by the smell of burning hide. Anyhow, after I had been bound by Kaffir hands and tossed on Kaffir shoulders, I felt as if I had been in a scrimmage of mad bulls. I found myself lying looking up at the moon. It was the edge of the bush, and all around was the stir of the army getting ready for the road. You know how a native babbles and chatters over any work he has to do. It says much for Laputa’s iron hand that now everything was done in silence. I heard the nickering of horses and the jolt of carts as they turned from the bush into the path. There was the sound of hurried whispering, and now and then a sharp command. And all the while I lay, staring at the moon and wondering if I was going to keep my reason.

If he who reads this doubts the discomfort of bonds let him try them for himself. Let him be bound foot and hand and left alone, and in half an hour he will be screaming for release. The sense of impotence is stifling, and I felt as if I were buried in some landslip instead of lying under the open sky, with the night wind fanning my face. I was in the second stage of panic, which is next door to collapse. I tried to cry, but could only raise a squeak like a bat. A wheel started to run round in my head, and, when I looked at the moon, I saw that it was rotating in time. Things were very bad with me. It was ‘Mwanga who saved me from lunacy. He had been appointed my keeper, and the first I knew of it was a violent kick in the ribs. I rolled over on the grass down a short slope. The brute squatted beside me, and prodded me with his gun-barrel.

‘Ha, Baas,’ he said in his queer English. ‘Once you ordered me out of your store and treated me like a dog. It is ‘Mwanga’s turn now. You are ‘Mwanga’s dog, and he will skin you with a sjambok soon.’

My wandering wits were coming back to me. I looked into his bloodshot eyes and saw what I had to expect. The cheerful savage went on to discuss just the kind of beating I should get from him. My bones were to be uncovered till the lash curled round my heart. Then the jackals would have the rest of me.

This was ordinary Kaffir brag, and it made me angry. But I thought it best to go cannily.

,if I am to be your slave,’ I managed to say, ‘it would be a pity to beat me so hard. You would get no more work out of me.’

‘Mwanga grinned wickedly. ‘You are my slave for a day and a night. After that we kill you — slowly. You will burn till your legs fall off and your knees are on the ground, and then you will be chopped small with knives.’

Thank God, my courage and common sense were coming back to me.

‘What happens to me tomorrow,’ I said, ‘is the Inkulu’s business, not yours. I am his prisoner. But if you lift your hand on me today so as to draw one drop of blood the Inkulu will make short work of you. The vow is upon you, and if you break it you know what happens.’ And I repeated, in a fair imitation of the priest’s voice, the terrible curse he had pronounced in the cave.

You should have seen the change in that cur’s face. I had guessed he was a coward, as he was most certainly a bully, and now I knew it. He shivered, and drew his hand over his eyes.

‘Nay, Baas,’ he pleaded, ‘it was but a joke. No harm shall come on you today. But tomorrow —’ and his ugly face grew more cheerful.

‘To-morrow we shall see what we shall see,’ I said stoically, and a loud drum-beat sounded through the camp.

It was the signal for moving, for in the east a thin pale line of gold was beginning to show over the trees. The bonds at my knees and ankles were cut, and I was bundled on to the back of a horse. Then my feet were strapped firmly below its belly. The bridle of my beast was tied to ‘Mwanga’s, so that there was little chance of escape even if I had been unshackled.

My thoughts were very gloomy. So far all had happened as I planned, but I seemed to have lost my nerve, and I could not believe in my rescue at the Letaba, while I thought of Inanda’s Kraal with sheer horror. Last night I had looked into the heart of darkness, and the sight had terrified me. What part should I play in the great purification? Most likely that of the Biblical scapegoat. But the dolour of my mind was surpassed by the discomfort of my body. I was broken with pains and weariness, and I had a desperate headache. Also, before we had gone a mile, I began to think that I should split in two. The paces of my beast were uneven, to say the best of it, and the bump-bump was like being on the rack. I remembered that the saints of the Covenant used to journey to prison this way, especially the great Mr Peden, and I wondered how they liked it. When I hear of a man doing a brave deed, I always want to discover whether at the time he was well and comfortable in body. That, I am certain, is the biggest ingredient in courage, and those who plan and execute great deeds in bodily weakness have my homage as truly heroic. For myself, I had not the spirit of a chicken as I jogged along at ‘Mwanga’s side. I wished he would begin to insult me, if only to distract my mind, but he kept obstinately silent. He was sulky, and I think rather afraid of me.

As the sun got up I could see something of the host around me. I am no hand at guessing numbers, but I should put the fighting men I saw at not less than twenty thousand. Every man of them was on this side his prime, and all were armed with good rifles and bandoliers. There were none of your old roers13 and decrepit Enfields, which I had seen signs of in Kaffir kraals. These guns were new, serviceable Mausers, and the men who bore them looked as if they knew how to handle them. There must have been long months of training behind this show, and I marvelled at the man who had organized it. I saw no field-guns, and the little transport they had was evidently for food only. We did not travel in ranks like an orthodox column. About a third of the force was mounted, and this formed the centre. On each wing the infantry straggled far afield, but there was method in their disorder, for in the bush close ranks would have been impossible. At any rate we kept wonderfully well together, and when we mounted a knoll the whole army seemed to move in one piece. I was well in the rear of the centre column, but from the crest of a slope I sometimes got a view in front. I could see nothing of Laputa, who was probably with the van, but in the very heart of the force I saw the old priest of the Snake, with his treasure carried in the kind of litter which the Portuguese call a machila, between rows of guards. A white man rode beside him, whom I judged to be Henriques. Laputa trusted this fellow, and I wondered why. I had not forgotten the look on his face while he had stared at the rubies in the cave. I had a notion that the Portugoose might be an unsuspected ally of mine, though for blackguard reasons.

13 Boer elephant guns.

About ten o’clock, as far as I could judge by the sun, we passed Umvelos’, and took the right bank of the Labongo. There was nothing in the store to loot, but it was overrun by Kaffirs, who carried off the benches for firewood. It gave me an odd feeling to see the remains of the meal at which I had entertained Laputa in the hands of a dozen warriors. I thought of the long sunny days when I had sat by my nachtmaal while the Dutch farmers rode in to trade. Now these men were all dead, and I was on my way to the same bourne.

Soon the blue line of the Berg rose in the west, and through the corner of my eye, as I rode, I could see the gap of the Klein Labongo. I wondered if Arcoll and his men were up there watching us. About this time I began to be so wretched in body that I ceased to think of the future. I had had no food for seventeen hours, and I was dropping from lack of sleep. The ache of my bones was so great that I found myself crying like a baby. What between pain and weakness and nervous exhaustion, I was almost at the end of my tether, and should have fainted dead away if a halt had not been called. But about midday, after we had crossed the track from Blaauwildebeestefontein to the Portuguese frontier, we came to the broad, shallow drift of the Klein Labongo. It is the way of the Kaffirs to rest at noon, and on the other side of the drift we encamped. I remember the smell of hot earth and clean water as my horse scrambled up the bank. Then came the smell of wood-smoke as fires were lit. It seemed an age after we stopped before my feet were loosed and I was allowed to fall over on the ground. I lay like a log where I fell, and was asleep in ten seconds. I awoke two hours later much refreshed, and with a raging hunger. My ankles and knees had been tied again, but the sleep had taken the worst stiffness out of my joints. The natives were squatting in groups round their fires, but no one came near me. I satisfied myself by straining at my bonds that this solitude gave no chance of escape. I wanted food, and I shouted on ‘Mwanga, but he never came. Then I rolled over into the shadow of a wacht-en-beetje bush to get out of the glare.

I saw a Kaffir on the other side of the bush who seemed to be grinning at me. Slowly he moved round to my side, and stood regarding me with interest.

‘For God’s sake get me some food,’ I said.

‘ja, Baas,’ was the answer; and he disappeared for a minute, and returned with a wooden bowl of hot mealie-meal porridge, and a calabash full of water.

I could not use my hands, so he fed me with the blade of his knife. Such porridge without salt or cream is beastly food, but my hunger was so great that I could have eaten a vat of it.

Suddenly it appeared that the Kaffir had something to say to me. As he fed me he began to speak in a low voice in English.

‘Baas,’ he said, ‘I come from Ratitswan, and I have a message for you.’

I guessed that Ratitswan was the native name for Arcoll. There was no one else likely to send a message. ‘Ratitswan says,’ he went on, “‘Look out for Dupree’s Drift.” I will be near you and cut your bonds; then you must swim across when Ratitswan begins to shoot.’

The news took all the weight of care from my mind. Colin had got home, and my friends were out for rescue. So volatile is the mood of 19 that I veered round from black despair to an unwarranted optimism. I saw myself already safe, and Laputa’s rising scattered. I saw my hands on the treasure, and Henriques’ ugly neck below my heel.

‘I don’t know your name,’ I said to the Kaffir, ‘but you are a good fellow. When I get out of this business I won’t forget you.’

‘There is another message, Baas,’ he said. ‘It is written on paper in a strange tongue. Turn your head to the bush, and see, I will hold it inside the bowl, that you may read it.’

I did as I was told, and found myself looking at a dirty half-sheet of notepaper, marked by the Kaffir’s thumbs. Some words were written on it in Wardlaw’s hand; and, characteristically, in Latin, which was not a bad cipher. I read — ‘Henricus de Letaba transeunda apud Duprei vada jam nos certiores fecit.’14

14 ‘Henriques has already told us about the crossing at Dupree’s Drift.’

I had guessed rightly. Henriques was a traitor to the cause he had espoused. Arcoll’s message had given me new heart, but Wardlaw’s gave me information of tremendous value. I repented that I had ever underrated the schoolmaster’s sense. He did not come out of Aberdeen for nothing.

I asked the Kaffir how far it was to Dupree’s Drift, and was told three hours’ march. We should get there after the darkening. It seemed he had permission to ride with me instead of ‘Mwanga, who had no love for the job. How he managed this I do not know; but Arcoll’s men had their own ways of doing things. He undertook to set me free when the first shot was fired at the ford. Meantime I bade him leave me, to avert suspicion.

There is a story of one of King Arthur’s knights — Sir Percival, I think — that once, riding through a forest, he found a lion fighting with a serpent. He drew his sword and helped the lion, for he thought it was the more natural beast of the two. To me Laputa was the lion, and Henriques the serpent; and though I had no good will to either, I was determined to spoil the serpent’s game. He was after the rubies, as I had fancied; he had never been after anything else. He had found out about Arcoll’s preparations, and had sent him a warning, hoping, no doubt, that, if Laputa’s force was scattered on the Letaba, he would have a chance of getting off with the necklace in the confusion. If he succeeded, he would go over the Lebombo to Mozambique, and whatever happened afterwards in the rising would be no concern of Mr Henriques. I determined that he should fail; but how to manage it I could not see. Had I had a pistol, I think I would have shot him; but I had no weapon of any kind. I could not warn Laputa, for that would seal my own fate, even if I were believed. It was clear that Laputa must go to Dupree’s Drift, for otherwise I could not escape; and it was equally clear that I must find the means of spoiling the Portugoose’s game.

A shadow fell across the sunlight, and I looked up to see the man I was thinking of standing before me. He had a cigarette in his mouth, and his hands in the pockets of his riding-breeches. He stood eyeing me with a curious smile on his face.

‘Well, Mr Storekeeper,’ he said, ‘you and I have met before under pleasanter circumstances.’

I said nothing, my mind being busy with what to do at the drift.

‘We were shipmates, if I am not mistaken,’ he said. ‘I dare say you found it nicer work smoking on the after-deck than lying here in the sun.’

Still I said nothing. If the man had come to mock me, he would get no change out of David Crawfurd.

‘Tut, tut, don’t be sulky. You have no quarrel with me. Between ourselves,’ and he dropped his voice, ‘I tried to save you; but you had seen rather too much to be safe. What devil prompted you to steal a horse and go to the cave? I don’t blame you for overhearing us; but if you had had the sense of a louse you would have gone off to the Berg with your news. By the way, how did you manage it? A cellar, I suppose. Our friend Laputa was a fool not to take better precautions; but I must say you acted the drunkard pretty well.’

The vanity of 19 is an incalculable thing. I rose to the fly.

‘I know the kind of precaution you wanted to take,’ I muttered.

‘You heard that too? Well, I confess I am in favour of doing a job thoroughly when I take it up.’

‘In the Koodoo Flats, for example,’ I said.

He sat down beside me, and laughed softly. ‘You heard my little story? You are clever, Mr Storekeeper, but not quite clever enough. What if I can act a part as well as yourself?’ And he thrust his yellow face close to mine.

I saw his meaning, and did not for a second believe him; but I had the sense to temporize.

‘Do you mean to say that you did not kill the Dutchmen, and did not mean to knife me?’

‘I mean to say that I am not a fool,’ he said, lighting another cigarette.

‘I am a white man, Mr Storekeeper, and I play the white man’s game. Why do you think I am here? Simply because I was the only man in Africa who had the pluck to get to the heart of this business. I am here to dish Laputa, and by God I am going to do it.’

I was scarcely prepared for such incredible bluff. I knew every word was a lie, but I wanted to hear more, for the man fascinated me.

‘I suppose you know what will happen to you,’ he said, flicking the ashes from his cigarette. ‘To-morrow at Inanda’s Kraal, when the vow is over, they will give you a taste of Kaffir habits. Not death, my friend — that would be simple enough — but a slow death with every refinement of horror. You have broken into their sacred places, and you will be sacrificed to Laputa’s god. I have seen native torture before, and his own mother would run away shrieking from a man who had endured it.’

I said nothing, but the thought made my flesh creep.

‘Well,’ he went on, ‘you’re in an awkward plight, but I think I can help you. What if I can save your life, Mr Storekeeper? You are trussed up like a fowl, and can do nothing. I am the only man alive who can help you. I am willing to do it, too — on my own terms.’

I did not wait to hear those terms, for I had a shrewd guess what they would be. My hatred of Henriques rose and choked me. I saw murder and trickery in his mean eyes and cruel mouth. I could not, to be saved from the uttermost horror, have made myself his ally.

‘Now listen, Mr Portugoose,’ I cried. ‘You tell me you are a spy. What if I shout that through the camp? There will be short shrift for you if Laputa hears it.’

He laughed loudly. ‘You are a bigger fool than I took you for. Who would believe you, my friend. Not Laputa. Not any man in this army. It would only mean tighter bonds for these long legs of yours.’

By this time I had given up all thought of diplomacy. ‘Very well, you yellow-faced devil, you will hear my answer. I would not take my freedom from you, though I were to be boiled alive. I know you for a traitor to the white man’s cause, a dirty I.D.B. swindler, whose name is a byword among honest men. By your own confession you are a traitor to this idiot rising. You murdered the Dutchmen and God knows how many more, and you would fain have murdered me. I pray to Heaven that the men whose cause you have betrayed and the men whose cause you would betray may join to stamp the life out of you and send your soul to hell. I know the game you would have me join in, and I fling your offer in your face. But I tell you one thing — you are damned yourself. The white men are out, and you will never get over the Lebombo. From black or white you will get justice before many hours, and your carcass will be left to rot in the bush. Get out of my sight, you swine.’

In that moment I was so borne up in my passion that I forgot my bonds and my grave danger. I was inspired like a prophet with a sense of approaching retribution. Henriques heard me out; but his smile changed to a scowl, and a flush rose on his sallow cheek.

‘Stew in your own juice,’ he said, and spat in my face. Then he shouted in Kaffir that I had insulted him, and demanded that I should be bound tighter and gagged.

It was Arcoll’s messenger who answered his summons. That admirable fellow rushed at me with a great appearance of savagery. He made a pretence of swathing me up in fresh rawhide ropes, but his knots were loose and the thing was a farce. He gagged me with what looked like a piece of wood, but was in reality a chunk of dry banana. And all the while, till Henriques was out of hearing, he cursed me with a noble gift of tongues.

The drums beat for the advance, and once more I was hoisted on my horse, while Arcoll’s Kaffir tied my bridle to his own. A Kaffir cannot wink, but he has a way of slanting his eyes which does as well, and as we moved on he would turn his head to me with this strange grimace.

Henriques wanted me to help him to get the rubies — that I presumed was the offer he had meant to make. Well, thought I, I will perish before the jewel reaches the Portuguese’s hands. He hoped for a stampede when Arcoll opposed the crossing of the river, and in the confusion intended to steal the casket. My plan must be to get as near the old priest as possible before we reached the ford. I spoke to my warder and told him what I wanted. He nodded, and in the first mile we managed to edge a good way forward. Several things came to aid us. As I have said, we of the centre were not marching in close ranks, but in a loose column, and often it was possible by taking a short cut on rough ground to join the column some distance ahead. There was a vlei, too, which many circumvented, but we swam, and this helped our lead. In a couple of hours we were so near the priest’s litter that I could have easily tossed a cricket ball on the head of Henriques who rode beside it.

Very soon the twilight of the winter day began to fall. The far hills grew pink and mulberry in the sunset, and strange shadows stole over the bush. Still creeping forward, we found ourselves not twenty yards behind the litter, while far ahead I saw a broad, glimmering space of water with a high woody bank beyond.

‘Dupree’s Drift;’ whispered my warder. ‘Courage, Inkoos;15 in an hour’s time you will be free.’

15 Great chief.

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