Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER XVII

A Deal and Its Consequences

My eyes were bandaged tight, and a thong was run round my right wrist and tied to Laputa’s saddle-bow. I felt the glare of the afternoon sun on my head, and my shins were continually barked by stones and trees; but these were my only tidings of the outer world. By the sound of his paces Laputa was riding the Schimmel, and if any one thinks it easy to go blindfold by a horse’s side I hope he will soon have the experience. In the darkness I could not tell the speed of the beast. When I ran I overshot it and was tugged back; when I walked my wrist was dislocated with the tugs forward.

For an hour or more I suffered this breakneck treatment. We were descending. Often I could hear the noise of falling streams, and once we splashed through a mountain ford. Laputa was taking no risks, for he clearly had in mind the possibility of some accident which would set me free, and he had no desire to have me guiding Arcoll to his camp.

But as I stumbled and sprawled down these rocky tracks I was not thinking of Laputa’s plans. My whole soul was filled with regret for Colin, and rage against his murderer. After my first mad rush I had not thought about my dog. He was dead, but so would I be in an hour or two, and there was no cause to lament him. But at the first revival of hope my grief had returned. As they bandaged my eyes I was wishing that they would let me see his grave. As I followed beside Laputa I told myself that if ever I got free, when the war was over I would go to Inanda’s Kraal, find the grave, and put a tombstone over it in memory of the dog that saved my life. I would also write that the man who shot him was killed on such and such a day at such and such a place by Colin’s master. I wondered why Laputa had not the wits to see the Portugoose’s treachery and to let me fight him. I did not care what were the weapons — knives or guns, or naked fists — I would certainly kill him, and afterwards the Kaffirs could do as they pleased with me. Hot tears of rage and weakness wet the bandage on my eyes, and the sobs which came from me were not only those of weariness.

At last we halted. Laputa got down and took off the bandage, and I found myself in one of the hill-meadows which lie among the foothills of the Wolkberg. The glare blinded me, and for a little I could only see the marigolds growing at my feet. Then I had a glimpse of the deep gorge of the Great Letaba below me, and far to the east the flats running out to the hazy blue line of the Lebombo hills. Laputa let me sit on the ground for a minute or two to get my breath and rest my feet. ‘That was a rough road,’ he said. ‘You can take it easier now, for I have no wish to carry you.’ He patted the Schimmel, and the beautiful creature turned his mild eyes on the pair of us. I wondered if he recognized his rider of two nights ago.

I had seen Laputa as the Christian minister, as the priest and king in the cave, as the leader of an army at Dupree’s Drift, and at the kraal we had left as the savage with all self-control flung to the winds. I was to see this amazing man in a further part. For he now became a friendly and rational companion. He kept his horse at an easy walk, and talked to me as if we were two friends out for a trip together. Perhaps he had talked thus to Arcoll, the half-caste who drove his Cape-cart.

The wooded bluff above Machudi’s glen showed far in front. He told me the story of the Machudi war, which I knew already, but he told it as a saga. There had been a stratagem by which one of the Boer leaders — a Grobelaar, I think — got some of his men into the enemy’s camp by hiding them in a captured forage wagon.

‘Like the Trojan horse,’ I said involuntarily.

‘Yes,’ said my companion, ‘the same old device,’ and to my amazement he quoted some lines of Virgil.

‘Do you understand Latin?’ he asked.

I told him that I had some slight knowledge of the tongue, acquired at the university of Edinburgh. Laputa nodded. He mentioned the name of a professor there, and commented on his scholarship.

‘O man!’ I cried, ‘what in God’s name are you doing in this business? You that are educated and have seen the world, what makes you try to put the clock back? You want to wipe out the civilization of a thousand years, and turn us all into savages. It’s the more shame to you when you know better.’

‘You misunderstand me,’ he said quietly. ‘It is because I have sucked civilization dry that I know the bitterness of the fruit. I want a simpler and better world, and I want that world for my own people. I am a Christian, and will you tell me that your civilization pays much attention to Christ? You call yourself a patriot? Will you not give me leave to be a patriot in turn?’

‘If you are a Christian, what sort of Christianity is it to deluge the land with blood?’

‘The best,’ he said. ‘The house must be swept and garnished before the man of the house can dwell in it. You have read history, Such a purging has descended on the Church at many times, and the world has awakened to a new hope. It is the same in all religions. The temples grow tawdry and foul and must be cleansed, and, let me remind you, the cleanser has always come out of the desert.’

I had no answer, being too weak and forlorn to think. But I fastened on his patriotic plea.

‘Where are the patriots in your following? They are all red Kaffirs crying for blood and plunder. Supposing you were Oliver Cromwell you could make nothing out of such a crew.’

‘They are my people,’ he said simply.

By this time we had forded the Great Letaba, and were making our way through the clumps of forest to the crown of the plateau. I noticed that Laputa kept well in cover, preferring the tangle of wooded undergrowth to the open spaces of the water-meadows. As he talked, his wary eyes were keeping a sharp look-out over the landscape. I thrilled with the thought that my own folk were near at hand.

Once Laputa checked me with his hand as I was going to speak, and in silence we crossed the kloof of a little stream. After that we struck a long strip of forest and he slackened his watch.

‘if you fight for a great cause,’ I said, ‘why do you let a miscreant like Henriques have a hand in it? You must know that the man’s only interest in you is the chance of loot. I am for you against Henriques, and I tell you plain that if you don’t break the snake’s back it will sting you.’

Laputa looked at me with an odd, meditative look.

‘You misunderstand again, Mr Storekeeper. The Portuguese is what you call a “mean white.” His only safety is among us. I am campaigner enough to know that an enemy, who has a burning grievance against my other enemies, is a good ally. You are too hard on Henriques. You and your friends have treated him as a Kaffir, and a Kaffir he is in everything but Kaffir virtues. What makes you so anxious that Henriques should not betray me?’

‘I’m not a mean white,’ I said, ‘and I will speak the truth. I hope, in God’s name, to see you smashed; but I want it done by honest men, and not by a yellow devil who has murdered my dog and my friends. Sooner or later you will find him out; and if he escapes you, and there’s any justice in heaven, he won’t escape me.’

‘Brave words,’ said Laputa, with a laugh, and then in one second he became rigid in the saddle. We had crossed a patch of meadow and entered a wood, beyond which ran the highway. I fancy he was out in his reckoning, and did not think the road so near. At any rate, after a moment he caught the sound of horses, and I caught it too. The wood was thin, and there was no room for retreat, while to recross the meadow would bring us clean into the open. He jumped from his horse, untied with amazing quickness the rope halter from its neck, and started to gag me by winding the thing round my jaw.

I had no time to protest that I would keep faith, and my right hand was tethered to his pommel. In the grip of these great arms I was helpless, and in a trice was standing dumb as a lamp-post; while Laputa, his left arm round both of mine, and his right hand over the schimmel’s eyes, strained his ears like a sable antelope who has scented danger.

There was never a more brutal gagging. The rope crushed my nose and drove my lips down on my teeth, besides gripping my throat so that I could scarcely breathe. The pain was so great that I became sick, and would have fallen but for Laputa. Happily I managed to get my teeth apart, so that one coil slipped between, and eased the pain of the jaws. But the rest was bad enough to make me bite frantically on the tow, and I think in a little my sharp front teeth would have severed it. All this discomfort prevented me seeing what happened. The wood, as I have said, was thin, and through the screen of leaves I had a confused impression of men and horses passing interminably. There can only have been a score at the most; but the moments drag if a cord is gripping your throat. When Laputa at length untied me, I had another fit of nausea, and leaned helplessly against a tree.

Laputa listened till the sound of the horses had died away; then silently we stole to the edge of the road, across, and into the thicker evergreen bush on the far side. At a pace which forced me to run hard, we climbed a steepish slope, till ahead of us we saw the bald green crown of the meadowlands. I noticed that his face had grown dark and sullen again. He was in an enemy’s country, and had the air of the hunted instead of the hunter. When I stopped he glowered at me, and once, when I was all but overcome with fatigue, he lifted his hand in a threat. Had he carried a sjambok, it would have fallen on my back.

If he was nervous, so was I. The fact that I was out of the Kaffir country and in the land of my own folk was a kind of qualified liberty. At any moment, I felt, Providence might intervene to set me free. It was in the bond that Laputa should shoot me if we were attacked; but a pistol might miss. As far as my shaken wits would let me, I began to forecast the future. Once he got the jewels my side of the bargain was complete. He had promised me my life, but there had been nothing said about my liberty; and I felt assured that Laputa would never allow one who had seen so much to get off to Arcoll with his tidings. But back to that unhallowed kraal I was resolved I would not go. He was armed, and I was helpless; he was strong, and I was dizzy with weakness; he was mounted, and I was on foot: it seemed a poor hope that I should get away. There was little chance from a wandering patrol, for I knew if we were followed I should have a bullet in my head, while Laputa got off on the Schimmel. I must wait and bide events. At the worst, a clean shot on the hillside in a race for life was better than the unknown mysteries of the kraal. I prayed earnestly to God to show me His mercy, for if ever man was sore bested by the heathen it was I.

To my surprise, Laputa chose to show himself on the green hill-shoulder. He looked towards the Wolkberg and raised his hands. It must have been some signal. I cast my eyes back on the road we had come, and I thought I saw some figures a mile back, on the edge of the Letaba gorge. He was making sure of my return.

By this time it was about four in the afternoon, and as heavenly weather as the heart of man could wish. The meadows were full of aromatic herbs, which, as we crushed them, sent up a delicate odour. The little pools and shallows of the burns were as clear as a Lothian trout-stream. We were now going at a good pace, and I found that my earlier weariness was growing less. I was being keyed up for some great crisis, for in my case the spirit acts direct on the body, and fatigue grows and ebbs with hope. I knew that my strength was not far from breaking-point; but I knew also that so long as a chance was left me I should have enough for a stroke.

Before I realized where we were we had rounded the hill, and were looking down on the green cup of the upper Machudi’s glen. Far down, I remember, where the trees began, there was a cloud of smoke. Some Kaffir — or maybe Arcoll — had fired the forest. The smoke was drifting away under a light west wind over the far plains, so that they were seen through a haze of opal.

Laputa bade me take the lead. I saw quite clear the red kloof on the far side, where the collar was hid. To get there we might have ridden straight into the cup, but a providential instinct made me circle round the top till we were on the lip of the ravine. This was the road some of Machudi’s men had taken, and unthinkingly I followed them. Twenty minutes’ riding brought us to the place, and all the while I had no kind of plan of escape. I was in the hands of my Maker, watching, like the Jews of old, for a sign.

Laputa dismounted and looked down into the gorge.

‘There is no road there,’ I said. ‘We must go down to the foot and come up the stream-side. It would be better to leave your horse here.’ He started down the cliff, which from above looks a sheer precipice. Then he seemed to agree with me, took the rope from the schimmel’s neck, and knee-haltered his beast. And at that moment I had an inspiration.

With my wrist-rope in his hand, he preceded me down the hill till we got to the red screes at the foot of the kloof. Then, under my guidance, we turned up into the darkness of the gorge. As we entered I looked back, and saw figures coming over the edge of the green cup — Laputa’s men, I guessed. What I had to do must be done quickly.

We climbed up the burn, over the succession of little cataracts, till we came to the flat space of shingle and the long pool where I had been taken that morning. The ashes of the fire which Machudi’s men had made were plain on the rock. After that I had to climb a waterfall to get to the rocky pool where I had bestowed the rubies.

‘You must take off this thong,’ I said. ‘I must climb to get the collar. Cover me with a pistol if you like. I won’t be out of sight.’

Laputa undid the thong and set me free. From his belt he took a pistol, cocked it, and held it over his left hand. I had seen this way of shooting adopted by indifferent shots, and it gave me a wild hope that he might not be much of a marksman.

It did not take me long to find the pool, close against the blackened stump of a tree-fern. I thrust in my hand and gathered up the jewels from the cool sand. They came out glowing like living fires, and for a moment I thrilled with a sense of reverence. Surely these were no common stones which held in them the very heart of hell. Clutching them tightly, I climbed down to Laputa.

At the sight of the great Snake he gave a cry of rapture. Tearing it from me, he held it at arm’s length, his face lit with a passionate joy. He kissed it, he raised it to the sky; nay, he was on his knees before it. Once more he was the savage transported in the presence of his fetich. He turned to me with burning eyes.

‘Down on your knees,’ he cried, ‘and reverence the Ndhlondhlo. Down, you impious dog, and seek pardon for your sacrilege.’

‘I won’t,’ I said. ‘I won’t bow to any heathen idol.’

He pointed his pistol at me.

‘In a second I shoot where your head is now. Down, you fool, or perish.’

‘You promised me my life,’ I said stubbornly, though Heaven knows why I chose to act thus.

He dropped the pistol and flung himself on me. I was helpless as a baby in his hands. He forced me to the ground and rolled my face in the sand; then he pulled me to my feet and tossed me backward, till I almost staggered into the pool. I saved myself, and staggered instead into the shallow at the foot of it, close under the ledge of the precipice.

That morning, when Machudi’s men were cooking breakfast, I had figured out a route up the cliff. This route was now my hope of escape. Laputa had dropped his pistol, and the collar had plunged him in an ecstasy of worship. Now, if ever, was my time. I must get on the shelf which ran sideways up the cliff, and then scramble for dear life.

I pretended to be dazed and terrified.

‘You promised me my life,’ I whimpered.

‘Your life,’ he cried. ‘Yes, you shall have your life; and before long you will pray for death.’

‘But I saved the Collar,’ I pleaded. ‘Henriques would have stolen it. I brought it safe here, and now you have got it.’

Meantime I was pulling myself up on the shelf, and loosening with one hand a boulder which overhung the pool.

‘You have been repaid,’ he said savagely. ‘You will not die.’

‘But my life is no use without liberty,’ I said, working at the boulder till it lay loose in its niche.

He did not answer, being intent on examining the Collar to see if it had suffered any harm.

‘I hope it isn’t scratched,’ I said. ‘Henriques trod on it when I hit him.’

Laputa peered at the gems like a mother at a child who has had a fall. I saw my chance and took it. With a great heave I pulled the boulder down into the pool. It made a prodigious splash, sending a shower of spray over Laputa and the Collar. In cover of it I raced up the shelf, straining for the shelter of the juniper tree.

A shot rang out and struck the rock above me. A second later I had reached the tree and was scrambling up the crack beyond it.

Laputa did not fire again. He may have distrusted his shooting, or seen a better way of it. He dashed through the stream and ran up the shelf like a klipspringer after me. I felt rather than saw what was happening, and with my heart in my mouth I gathered my dregs of energy for the last struggle.

You know the nightmare when you are pursued by some awful terror, and, though sick with fear, your legs have a strange numbness, and you cannot drag them in obedience to the will. Such was my feeling in the crack above the juniper tree. In truth, I had passed the bounds of my endurance. Last night I had walked fifty miles, and all day I had borne the torments of a dreadful suspense. I had been bound and gagged and beaten till the force was out of my limbs. Also, and above all, I had had little food, and I was dizzy with want of sleep. My feet seemed leaden, my hands had no more grip than putty. I do not know how I escaped falling into the pool, for my head was singing and my heart thumping in my throat. I seemed to feel Laputa’s great hand every second clawing at my heels.

I had reason for my fears. He had entered the crack long before I had reached the top, and his progress was twice as fast as mine. When I emerged on the topmost shelf he was scarcely a yard behind me. But an overhang checked his bulky figure and gave me a few seconds’ grace. I needed it all, for these last steps on the shelf were the totterings of an old man. Only a desperate resolution and an extreme terror made me drag one foot after the other. Blindly I staggered on to the top of the ravine, and saw before me the Schimmel grazing in the light of the westering sun.

I forced myself into a sort of drunken run, and crawled into the saddle. Behind me, as I turned, I could see Laputa’s shoulders rising over the edge. I had no knife to cut the knee-halter, and the horse could not stir.

Then the miracle happened. When the rope had gagged me, my teeth must have nearly severed it at one place, and this Laputa had not noticed when he used it as a knee-halter. The shock of my entering the saddle made the Schimmel fling up his head violently, and the rope snapped. I could not find the stirrups, but I dug my heels into his sides, and he leaped forward.

At the same moment Laputa began to shoot. It was a foolish move, for he might have caught me by running, since I had neither spurs nor whip, and the horse was hampered by the loose end of rope at his knee. In any case, being an indifferent shot, he should have aimed at the Schimmel, not at me; but I suppose he wished to save his charger. One bullet sang past my head; a second did my business for me. It passed over my shoulder, as I lay low in the saddle, and grazed the beast’s right ear. The pain maddened him, and, rope-end and all, he plunged into a wild gallop. Other shots came, but they fell far short. I saw dimly a native or two — the men who had followed us — rush to intercept me, and I think a spear was flung. But in a flash we were past them, and their cries faded behind me. I found the bridle, reached for the stirrups, and galloped straight for the sunset and for freedom.

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