Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER XIV

I Carry the Collar of Prester John

I ran till my breath grew short, for some kind of swift motion I had to have or choke. The events of the last few minutes had inflamed my brain. For the first time in my life I had seen men die by violence — nay, by brutal murder. I had put my soul into the blow which laid out Henriques, and I was still hot with the pride of it. Also I had in my pocket the fetich of the whole black world; I had taken their Ark of the Covenant, and soon Laputa would be on my trail. Fear, pride, and a blind exultation all throbbed in my veins. I must have run three miles before I came to my sober senses.

I put my ear to the ground, but heard no sound of pursuit. Laputa, I argued, would have enough to do for a little, shepherding his flock over the water. He might surround and capture the patrol, or he might evade it; the vow prevented him from fighting it. On the whole I was clear that he would ignore it and push on for the rendezvous. All this would take time, and the business of the priest would have to wait. When Henriques came to he would no doubt have a story to tell, and the scouts would be on my trail. I wished I had shot the Portugoose while I was at the business. It would have been no murder, but a righteous execution.

Meanwhile I must get off the road. The sand had been disturbed by an army, so there was little fear of my steps being traced. Still it was only wise to leave the track which I would be assumed to have taken, for Laputa would guess I had fled back the way to Blaauwildebeestefontein. I turned into the bush, which here was thin and sparse like whins on a common.

The Berg must be my goal. Once on the plateau I would be inside the white man’s lines. Down here in the plains I was in the country of my enemies. Arcoll meant to fight on the uplands when it came to fighting. The black man might rage as he pleased in his own flats, but we stood to defend the gates of the hills. Therefore over the Berg I must be before morning, or there would be a dead man with no tales to tell.

I think that even at the start of that night’s work I realized the exceeding precariousness of my chances. Some twenty miles of bush and swamp separated me from the foot of the mountains. After that there was the climbing of them, for at the point opposite where I now stood the Berg does not descend sharply on the plain, but is broken into foot-hills around the glens of the Klein Letaba and the Letsitela. From the spot where these rivers emerge on the flats to the crown of the plateau is ten miles at the shortest. I had a start of an hour or so, but before dawn I had to traverse thirty miles of unknown and difficult country. Behind me would follow the best trackers in Africa, who knew every foot of the wilderness. It was a wild hazard, but it was my only hope. At this time I was feeling pretty courageous. For one thing I had Henriques’ pistol close to my leg, and for another I still thrilled with the satisfaction of having smitten his face.

I took the rubies, and stowed them below my shirt and next my skin. I remember taking stock of my equipment and laughing at the humour of it. One of the heels was almost twisted off my boots, and my shirt and breeches were old at the best and ragged from hard usage. The whole outfit would have been dear at five shillings, or seven-and-six with the belt thrown in. Then there was the Portugoose’s pistol, costing, say, a guinea; and last, the Prester’s collar, worth several millions.

What was more important than my clothing was my bodily strength. I was still very sore from the bonds and the jog of that accursed horse, but exercise was rapidly suppling my joints. About five hours ago I had eaten a filling, though not very sustaining, meal, and I thought I could go on very well till morning. But I was still badly in arrears with my sleep, and there was no chance of my snatching a minute till I was over the Berg. It was going to be a race against time, and I swore that I would drive my body to the last ounce of strength.

Moonrise was still an hour or two away, and the sky was bright with myriad stars. I knew now what starlight meant, for there was ample light to pick my way by. I steered by the Southern Cross, for I was aware that the Berg ran north and south, and with that constellation on my left hand I was bound to reach it sooner or later. The bush closed around me with its mysterious dull green shades, and trees, which in the daytime were thin scrub, now loomed like tall timber. It was very eerie moving, a tiny fragment of mortality, in that great wide silent wilderness, with the starry vault, like an impassive celestial audience, watching with many eyes. They cheered me, those stars. In my hurry and fear and passion they spoke of the old calm dignities of man. I felt less alone when I turned my face to the lights which were slanting alike on this uncanny bush and on the homely streets of Kirkcaple.

The silence did not last long. First came the howl of a wolf, to be answered by others from every quarter of the compass. This serenade went on for a bit, till the jackals chimed in with their harsh bark. I had been caught by darkness before this when hunting on the Berg, but I was not afraid of wild beasts. That is one terror of the bush which travellers’ tales have put too high. It was true that I might meet a hungry lion, but the chance was remote, and I had my pistol. Once indeed a huge animal bounded across the road a little in front of me. For a moment I took him for a lion, but on reflection I was inclined to think him a very large bush-pig.

By this time I was out of the thickest bush and into a piece of parkland with long, waving tambuki grass, which the Kaffirs would burn later. The moon was coming up, and her faint rays silvered the flat tops of the mimosa trees. I could hear and feel around me the rustling of animals. Once or twice a big buck — an eland or a koodoo — broke cover, and at the sight of me went off snorting down the slope. Also there were droves of smaller game — rhebok and springbok and duikers — which brushed past at full gallop without even noticing me.

The sight was so novel that it set me thinking. That shy wild things should stampede like this could only mean that they had been thoroughly scared. Now obviously the thing that scared them must be on this side of the Letaba. This must mean that Laputa’s army, or a large part of it, had not crossed at Dupree’s Drift, but had gone up the stream to some higher ford. If that was so, I must alter my course; so I bore away to the right for a mile or two, making a line due north-west.

In about an hour’s time the ground descended steeply, and I saw before me the shining reaches of a river. I had the chief features of the countryside clear in my mind, both from old porings over maps, and from Arcoll’s instructions. This stream must be the Little Letaba, and I must cross it if I would get to the mountains. I remembered that Majinje’s kraal stood on its left bank, and higher up in its valley in the Berg ‘Mpefu lived. At all costs the kraals must be avoided. Once across it I must make for the Letsitela, another tributary of the Great Letaba, and by keeping the far bank of that stream I should cross the mountains to the place on the plateau of the Wood Bush which Arcoll had told me would be his headquarters.

It is easy to talk about crossing a river, and looking today at the slender streak on the map I am amazed that so small a thing should have given me such ugly tremors. Yet I have rarely faced a job I liked so little. The stream ran yellow and sluggish under the clear moon. On the near side a thick growth of bush clothed the bank, but on the far side I made out a swamp with tall bulrushes. The distance across was no more than fifty yards, but I would have swum a mile more readily in deep water. The place stank of crocodiles. There was no ripple to break the oily flow except where a derelict branch swayed with the current. Something in the stillness, the eerie light on the water, and the rotting smell of the swamp made that stream seem unhallowed and deadly.

I sat down and considered the matter. Crocodiles had always terrified me more than any created thing, and to be dragged by iron jaws to death in that hideous stream seemed to me the most awful of endings. Yet cross it I must if I were to get rid of my human enemies. I remembered a story of an escaped prisoner during the war who had only the Komati River between him and safety. But he dared not enter it, and was recaptured by a Boer commando. I was determined that such cowardice should not be laid to my charge. If I was to die, I would at least have given myself every chance of life. So I braced myself as best I could, and looked for a place to enter.

The veld-craft I had mastered had taught me a few things. One was that wild animals drink at night, and that they have regular drinking places. I thought that the likeliest place for crocodiles was at or around such spots, and, therefore, I resolved to take the water away from a drinking place. I went up the bank, noting where the narrow bush-paths emerged on the water-side. I scared away several little buck, and once the violent commotion in the bush showed that I had frightened some bigger animal, perhaps a hartebeest. Still following the bank I came to a reach where the undergrowth was unbroken and the water looked deeper.

Suddenly — I fear I must use this adverb often, for all the happenings on that night were sudden — I saw a biggish animal break through the reeds on the far side. It entered the water and, whether wading or swimming I could not see, came out a little distance. Then some sense must have told it of my presence, for it turned and with a grunt made its way back.

I saw that it was a big wart-hog, and began to think. Pig, unlike other beasts, drink not at night, but in the daytime. The hog had, therefore, not come to drink, but to swim across. Now, I argued, he would choose a safe place, for the wart-hog, hideous though he is, is a wise beast. What was safe for him would, therefore, in all likelihood be safe for me.

With this hope to comfort me I prepared to enter. My first care was the jewels, so, feeling them precarious in my shirt, I twined the collar round my neck and clasped it. The snake-clasp was no flimsy device of modern jewellery, and I had no fear but that it would hold. I held the pistol between my teeth, and with a prayer to God slipped into the muddy waters.

I swam in the wild way of a beginner who fears cramp. The current was light and the water moderately warm, but I seemed to go very slowly, and I was cold with apprehension. In the middle it suddenly shallowed, and my breast came against a mudshoal. I thought it was a crocodile, and in my confusion the pistol dropped from my mouth and disappeared.

I waded a few steps and then plunged into deep water again. Almost before I knew, I was among the bulrushes, with my feet in the slime of the bank. With feverish haste I scrambled through the reeds and up through roots and undergrowth to the hard soil. I was across, but, alas, I had lost my only weapon.

The swim and the anxiety had tired me considerably, and though it meant delay, I did not dare to continue with the weight of water-logged clothes to impede me. I found a dry sheltered place in the bush and stripped to the skin. I emptied my boots and wrung out my shirt and breeches, while the Prester’s jewels were blazing on my neck. Here was a queer counterpart to Laputa in the cave!

The change revived me, and I continued my way in better form. So far there had been no sign of pursuit. Before me the Letsitela was the only other stream, and from what I remembered of its character near the Berg I thought I should have little trouble. It was smaller than the Klein Letaba, and a rushing torrent where shallows must be common.

I kept running till I felt my shirt getting dry on my back. Then I restored the jewels to their old home, and found their cool touch on my breast very comforting. The country was getting more broken as I advanced. Little kopjes with thickets of wild bananas took the place of the dead levels. Long before I reached the Letsitela, I saw that I was right in my guess. It ran, a brawling mountain stream, in a narrow rift in the bush. I crossed it almost dry-shod on the boulders above a little fall, stopping for a moment to drink and lave my brow.

After that the country changed again. The wood was now getting like that which clothed the sides of the Berg. There were tall timber-trees — yellowwood, sneezewood, essenwood, stinkwood — and the ground was carpeted with thick grass and ferns. The sight gave me my first earnest of safety. I was approaching my own country. Behind me was heathendom and the black fever flats. In front were the cool mountains and bright streams, and the guns of my own folk.

As I struggled on — for I was getting very footsore and weary — I became aware of an odd sound in my rear. It was as if something were following me. I stopped and listened with a sudden dread. Could Laputa’s trackers have got up with me already? But the sound was not of human feet. It was as if some heavy animal were plunging through the undergrowth. At intervals came the soft pad of its feet on the grass.

It must be the hungry lion of my nightmare, and Henriques’ pistol was in the mud of the Klein Letaba! The only thing was a tree, and I had sprung for one and scrambled wearily into the first branches when a great yellow animal came into the moonlight.

Providence had done kindly in robbing me of my pistol. The next minute I was on the ground with Colin leaping on me and baying with joy. I hugged that blessed hound and buried my head in his shaggy neck, sobbing like a child. How he had traced me I can never tell. The secret belongs only to the Maker of good and faithful dogs.

With him by my side I was a new man. The awesome loneliness had gone. I felt as if he were a message from my own people to take me safely home. He clearly knew the business afoot, for he padded beside me with never a glance to right or left. Another time he would have been snowking in every thicket; but now he was on duty, a serious, conscientious dog with no eye but for business.

The moon went down, and the starry sky was our only light. The thick gloom which brooded over the landscape pointed to the night being far gone. I thought I saw a deeper blackness ahead which might be the line of the Berg. Then came that period of utter stillness when every bush sound is hushed and the world seems to swoon. I felt almost impious hurrying through that profound silence, when not even the leaves stirred or a frog croaked.

Suddenly as we came over a rise a little wind blew on the back of my head, and a bitter chill came into the air. I knew from nights spent in the open that it was the precursor of dawn. Sure enough, as I glanced back, far over the plain a pale glow was stealing upwards into the sky. In a few minutes the pall melted into an airy haze, and above me I saw the heavens shot with tremors of blue light. Then the foreground began to clear, and there before me, with their heads still muffled in vapour, were the mountains.

Xenophon’s Ten Thousand did not hail the sea more gladly than I welcomed those frowning ramparts of the Berg.

Once again my weariness was eased. I cried to Colin, and together we ran down into the wide, shallow trough which lies at the foot of the hills. As the sun rose above the horizon, the black masses changed to emerald and rich umber, and the fleecy mists of the summits opened and revealed beyond shining spaces of green. Some lines of Shakespeare ran in my head, which I have always thought the most beautiful of all poetry:

‘Night’s candles are burned out, and jocund day

Walks tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.’

Up there among the clouds was my salvation. Like the Psalmist, I lifted my eyes to the hills from whence came my aid.

Hope is a wonderful restorative. To be near the hills, to smell their odours, to see at the head of the glens the lines of the plateau where were white men and civilization — all gave me new life and courage. Colin saw my mood, and spared a moment now and then to inspect a hole or a covert. Down in the shallow trough I saw the links of a burn, the Machudi, which flowed down the glen it was my purpose to ascend. Away to the north in the direction of Majinje’s were patches of Kaffir tillage, and I thought I discerned the smoke from fires. Majinje’s womankind would be cooking their morning meal. To the south ran a thick patch of forest, but I saw beyond it the spur of the mountain over which runs the highroad to Wesselsburg. The clear air of dawn was like wine in my blood. I was not free, but I was on the threshold of freedom. If I could only reach my friends with the Prester’s collar in my shirt, I would have performed a feat which would never be forgotten. I would have made history by my glorious folly. Breakfastless and footsore, I was yet a proud man as I crossed the hollow to the mouth of Machudi’s glen.

My chickens had been counted too soon, and there was to be no hatching. Colin grew uneasy, and began to sniff up wind. I was maybe a quarter of a mile from the glen foot, plodding through the long grass of the hollow, when the behaviour of the dog made me stop and listen. In that still air sounds carry far, and I seemed to hear the noise of feet brushing through cover. The noise came both from north and south, from the forest and from the lower course of the Machudi.

I dropped into shelter, and running with bent back got to the summit of a little bush-clad knoll. It was Colin who first caught sight of my pursuers. He was staring at a rift in the trees, and suddenly gave a short bark. I looked and saw two men, running hard, cross the grass and dip into the bed of the stream. A moment later I had a glimpse of figures on the edge of the forest, moving fast to the mouth of the glen. The pursuit had not followed me; it had waited to cut me off. Fool that I was, I had forgotten the wonders of Kaffir telegraphy. It had been easy for Laputa to send word thirty miles ahead to stop any white man who tried to cross the Berg.

And then I knew that I was very weary.

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