Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER XV

Morning in the Berg

I was perhaps half a mile the nearer to the glen, and was likely to get there first. And after that? I could see the track winding by the waterside and then crossing a hill-shoulder which diverted the stream. It was a road a man could scarcely ride, and a tired man would have a hard job to climb. I do not think that I had any hope. My exhilaration had died as suddenly as it had been born. I saw myself caught and carried off to Laputa, who must now be close on the rendezvous at Inanda’s Kraal. I had no weapon to make a fight for it. My foemen were many and untired. It must be only a matter of minutes till I was in their hands.

More in a dogged fury of disappointment than with any hope of escape I forced my sore legs up the glen. Ten minutes ago I had been exulting in the glories of the morning, and now the sun was not less bright or the colours less fair, but the heart had gone out of the spectator. At first I managed to get some pace out of myself, partly from fear and partly from anger. But I soon found that my body had been tried too far. I could plod along, but to save my life I could not have hurried. Any healthy savage could have caught me in a hundred yards.

The track, I remember, was overhung with creepers, and often I had to squeeze through thickets of tree-ferns. Countless little brooks ran down from the hillside, threads of silver among the green pastures. Soon I left the stream and climbed up on the shoulder, where the road was not much better than a precipice. Every step was a weariness. I could hardly drag one foot after the other, and my heart was beating like the fanners of a mill, I had spasms of acute sickness, and it took all my resolution to keep me from lying down by the roadside.

At last I was at the top of the shoulder and could look back. There was no sign of anybody on the road so far as I could see. Could I have escaped them? I had been in the shadow of the trees for the first part, and they might have lost sight of me and concluded that I had avoided the glen or tried one of the faces. Before me, I remember, there stretched the upper glen, a green cup-shaped hollow with the sides scarred by ravines. There was a high waterfall in one of them which was white as snow against the red rocks. My wits must have been shaky, for I took the fall for a snowdrift, and wondered sillily why the Berg had grown so Alpine.

A faint spasm of hope took me into that green cup. The bracken was as thick as on the Pentlands, and there was a multitude of small lovely flowers in the grass. It was like a water-meadow at home, such a place as I had often in boyhood searched for moss-cheepers’ and corncrakes’ eggs. Birds were crying round me as I broke this solitude, and one small buck — a klipspringer — rose from my feet and dashed up one of the gullies. Before me was a steep green wall with the sky blue above it. Beyond it was safety, but as my sweat-dimmed eyes looked at it I knew that I could never reach it.

Then I saw my pursuers. High up on the left side, and rounding the rim of the cup, were little black figures. They had not followed my trail, but, certain of my purpose, had gone forward to intercept me. I remember feeling a puny weakling compared with those lusty natives who could make such good going on steep mountains. They were certainly no men of the plains, but hillmen, probably some remnants of old Machudi’s tribe who still squatted in the glen. Machudi was a blackguard chief whom the Boers long ago smashed in one of their native wars. He was a fierce old warrior and had put up a good fight to the last, till a hired impi of Swazis had surrounded his hiding-place in the forest and destroyed him. A Boer farmer on the plateau had his skull, and used to drink whisky out of it when he was merry.

The sight of the pursuit was the last straw. I gave up hope, and my intentions were narrowed to one frantic desire — to hide the jewels. Patriotism, which I had almost forgotten, flickered up in that crisis. At any rate Laputa should not have the Snake. If he drove out the white man, he should not clasp the Prester’s rubies on his great neck.

There was no cover in the green cup, so I turned up the ravine on the right side. The enemy, so far as I could judge, were on the left and in front, and in the gully I might find a pot-hole to bury the necklet in. Only a desperate resolution took me through the tangle of juniper bushes into the red screes of the gully. At first I could not find what I sought. The stream in the ravine slid down a long slope like a mill-race, and the sides were bare and stony. Still I plodded on, helping myself with a hand on Colin’s back, for my legs were numb with fatigue. By-and-by the gully narrowed, and I came to a flat place with a long pool. Beyond was a little fall, and up this I climbed into a network of tiny cascades. Over one pool hung a dead tree-fern, and a bay from it ran into a hole of the rock. I slipped the jewels far into the hole, where they lay on the firm sand, showing odd lights through the dim blue water. Then I scrambled down again to the flat space and the pool, and looked round to see if any one had reached the edge of the ravine. There was no sign as yet of the pursuit, so I dropped limply on the shingle and waited. For I had suddenly conceived a plan.

As my breath came back to me my wits came back from their wandering. These men were not there to kill me, but to capture me. They could know nothing of the jewels, for Laputa would never have dared to make the loss of the sacred Snake public. Therefore they would not suspect what I had done, and would simply lead me to Laputa at Inanda’s Kraal. I began to see the glimmerings of a plan for saving my life, and by God’s grace, for saving my country from the horrors of rebellion. The more I thought the better I liked it. It demanded a bold front, and it might well miscarry, but I had taken such desperate hazards during the past days that I was less afraid of fortune. Anyhow, the choice lay between certain death and a slender chance of life, and it was easy to decide.

Playing football, I used to notice how towards the end of a game I might be sore and weary, without a kick in my body; but when I had a straight job of tackling a man my strength miraculously returned. It was even so now. I lay on my side, luxuriating in being still, and slowly a sort of vigour crept back into my limbs. Perhaps a half-hour of rest was given me before, on the lip of the gully, I saw figures appear. Looking down I saw several men who had come across from the opposite side of the valley, scrambling up the stream. I got to my feet, with Colin bristling beside me, and awaited them with the stiffest face I could muster.

As I expected, they were Machudi’s men. I recognized them by the red ochre in their hair and their copper-wire necklets. Big fellows they were, long-legged and deep in the chest, the true breed of mountaineers. I admired their light tread on the slippery rock. It was hopeless to think of evading such men in their own hills.

The men from the side joined the men in front, and they stood looking at me from about twelve yards off. They were armed only with knobkerries, and very clearly were no part of Laputa’s army. This made their errand plain to me.

‘Halt!’ I said in Kaffir, as one of them made a hesitating step to advance. ‘Who are you and what do you seek?’

There was no answer, but they looked at me curiously. Then one made a motion with his stick. Colin gave a growl, and would have been on him if I had not kept a hand on his collar. The rash man drew back, and all stood stiff and perplexed.

‘Keep your hands by your side,’ I said, ‘or the dog, who has a devil, will devour you. One of you speak for the rest and tell me your purpose.’

For a moment I had a wild notion that they might be friends, some of Arcoll’s scouts, and out to help me. But the first words shattered the fancy.

‘We are sent by Inkulu,’ the biggest of them said. ‘He bade us bring you to him.’

‘And what if I refuse to go?’

‘Then, Baas, we must take you to him. We are under the vow of the Snake.’

‘Vow of fiddlestick!’ I cried. ‘Who do you think is the bigger chief, the Inkulu or Ratitswan? I tell you Ratitswan is now driving Inkulu before him as a wind drives rotten leaves. It will be well for you, men of Machudi, to make peace with Ratitswan and take me to him on the Berg. If you bring me to him, I and he will reward you; but if you do Inkulu’s bidding you will soon be hunted like buck out of your hills.’

They grinned at one another, but I could see that my words had no effect. Laputa had done his business too well.

The spokesman shrugged his shoulders in the way the Kaffirs have. ‘We wish you no ill, Baas, but we have been bidden to take you to Inkulu. We cannot disobey the command of the Snake.’

My weakness was coming on me again, and I could talk no more. I sat down plump on the ground, almost falling into the pool. ‘Take me to Inkulu,’ I stammered with a dry throat, ‘I do not fear him;’ and I rolled half-fainting on my back.

These clansmen of Machudi were decent fellows. One of them had some Kaffir beer in a calabash, which he gave me to drink. The stuff was thin and sickly, but the fermentation in it did me good. I had the sense to remember my need of sleep. ‘The day is young,’ I said, ‘and I have come far. I ask to be allowed to sleep for an hour.’

The men made no difficulty, and with my head between Colin’s paws I slipped into dreamless slumber.

When they wakened me the sun was beginning to climb the sky, I judged it to be about eight o’clock. They had made a little fire and roasted mealies. Some of the food they gave me, and I ate it thankfully. I was feeling better, and I think a pipe would have almost completed my cure.

But when I stood up I found that I was worse than I had thought. The truth is, I was leg-weary, which you often see in horses, but rarely in men. What the proper explanation is I do not know, but the muscles simply refuse to answer the direction of the will. I found my legs sprawling like a child’s who is learning to walk.

‘If you want me to go to the Inkulu, you must carry me,’ I said, as I dropped once more on the ground.

The men nodded, and set to work to make a kind of litter out of their knobkerries and some old ropes they carried. As they worked and chattered I looked idly at the left bank of the ravine — that is, the left as you ascend it. Some of Machudi’s men had come down there, and, though the place looked sheer and perilous, I saw how they had managed it. I followed out bit by bit the track upwards, not with any thought of escape, but merely to keep my mind under control. The right road was from the foot of the pool up a long shelf to a clump of juniper. Then there was an easy chimney; then a piece of good hand-and-foot climbing; and last, another ledge which led by an easy gradient to the top. I figured all this out as I have heard a condemned man will count the windows of the houses on his way to the scaffold.

Presently the litter was ready, and the men made signs to me to get into it. They carried me down the ravine and up the Machudi burn to the green walls at its head. I admired their bodily fitness, for they bore me up those steep slopes with never a halt, zigzagging in the proper style of mountain transport. In less than an hour we had topped the ridge, and the plateau was before me.

It looked very homelike and gracious, rolling in gentle undulations to the western horizon, with clumps of wood in its hollows. Far away I saw smoke rising from what should be the village of the Iron Kranz. It was the country of my own people, and my captors behoved to go cautiously. They were old hands at veld-craft, and it was wonderful the way in which they kept out of sight even on the bare ridges. Arcoll could have taught them nothing in the art of scouting. At an incredible pace they hurried me along, now in a meadow by a stream side, now through a patch of forest, and now skirting a green shoulder of hill.

Once they clapped down suddenly, and crawled into the lee of some thick bracken. Then very quietly they tied my hands and feet, and, not urgently, wound a dirty length of cotton over my mouth. Colin was meantime held tight and muzzled with a kind of bag strapped over his head. To get this over his snapping jaws took the whole strength of the party. I guessed that we were nearing the highroad which runs from the plateau down the Great Letaba valley to the mining township of Wesselsburg, away out on the plain. The police patrols must be on this road, and there was risk in crossing. Sure enough I seemed to catch a jingle of bridles as if from some company of men riding in haste.

We lay still for a little till the scouts came back and reported the coast clear. Then we made a dart for the road, crossed it, and got into cover on the other side, where the ground sloped down to the Letaba glen. I noticed in crossing that the dust of the highway was thick with the marks of shod horses. I was very near and yet very far from my own people.

Once in the rocky gorge of the Letaba we advanced with less care. We scrambled up a steep side gorge and came on to the small plateau from which the Cloud Mountains rise. After that I was so tired that I drowsed away, heedless of the bumping of the litter. We went up and up, and when I next opened my eyes we had gone through a pass into a hollow of the hills. There was a flat space a mile or two square, and all round it stern black ramparts of rock. This must be Inanda’s Kraal, a strong place if ever one existed, for a few men could defend all the approaches. Considering that I had warned Arcoll of this rendezvous, I marvelled that no attempt had been made to hold the entrance. The place was impregnable unless guns were brought up to the heights. I remember thinking of a story I had heard — how in the war Beyers took his guns into the Wolkberg, and thereby saved them from our troops. Could Arcoll be meditating the same exploit?

Suddenly I heard the sound of loud voices, and my litter was dropped roughly on the ground. I woke to clear consciousness in the midst of pandemonium.

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