Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER XVIII

How a Man May Sometimes Put His Trust in a Horse

I had long passed the limit of my strength. Only constant fear and wild alternations of hope had kept me going so long, and now that I was safe I became light-headed in earnest. The wonder is that I did not fall off. Happily the horse was good and the ground easy, for I was powerless to do any guiding. I simply sat on his back in a silly glow of comfort, keeping a line for the dying sun, which I saw in a nick of the Iron Crown Mountain. A sort of childish happiness possessed me. After three days of imminent peril, to be free was to be in fairyland. To be swishing through the long bracken or plunging among the breast-high flowers of the meadowlands in a world of essential lights and fragrances, seemed scarcely part of mortal experience. Remember that I was little more than a lad, and that I had faced death so often of late that my mind was all adrift. To be able to hope once more, nay, to be allowed to cease both from hope and fear, was like a deep and happy opiate to my senses. Spent and frail as I was, my soul swam in blessed waters of ease.

The mood did not last long. I came back to earth with a shock, as the schimmel stumbled at the crossing of a stream. I saw that the darkness was fast falling, and with the sight panic returned to me. Behind me I seemed to hear the sound of pursuit. The noise was in my ears, but when I turned it ceased, and I saw only the dusky shoulders of hills.

I tried to remember what Arcoll had told me about his headquarters, but my memory was wiped clean. I thought they were on or near the highway, but I could not remember where the highway was. Besides, he was close to the enemy, and I wanted to get back into the towns, far away from the battle-line. If I rode west I must come in time to villages, where I could hide myself. These were unworthy thoughts, but my excuse must be my tattered nerves. When a man comes out of great danger, he is apt to be a little deaf to the call of duty.

Suddenly I became ashamed. God had preserved me from deadly perils, but not that I might cower in some shelter. I had a mission as clear as Laputa’s. For the first time I became conscious to what a little thing I owed my salvation. That matter of the broken halter was like the finger of Divine Providence. I had been saved for a purpose, and unless I fulfilled that purpose I should again be lost. I was always a fatalist, and in that hour of strained body and soul I became something of a mystic. My panic ceased, my lethargy departed, and a more manly resolution took their place. I gripped the Schimmel by the head and turned him due left. Now I remembered where the highroad ran, and I remembered something else.

For it was borne in on me that Laputa had fallen into my hands. Without any subtle purpose I had played a master game. He was cut off from his people, without a horse, on the wrong side of the highroad which Arcoll’s men patrolled. Without him the rising would crumble. There might be war, even desperate war, but we should fight against a leaderless foe. If he could only be shepherded to the north, his game was over, and at our leisure we could mop up the scattered concentrations.

I was now as eager to get back into danger as I had been to get into safety. Arcoll must be found and warned, and that at once, or Laputa would slip over to Inanda’s Kraal under cover of dark. It was a matter of minutes, and on these minutes depended the lives of thousands. It was also a matter of ebbing strength, for with my return to common sense I saw very clearly how near my capital was spent. If I could reach the highroad, find Arcoll or Arcoll’s men, and give them my news, I would do my countrymen a service such as no man in Africa could render. But I felt my head swimming, I was swaying crazily in the saddle, and my hands had scarcely the force of a child’s. I could only lie limply on the horse’s back, clutching at his mane with trembling fingers. I remember that my head was full of a text from the Psalms about not putting one’s trust in horses. I prayed that this one horse might be an exception, for he carried more than Caesar and his fortunes.

My mind is a blank about those last minutes. In less than an hour after my escape I struck the highway, but it was an hour which in the retrospect unrolls itself into unquiet years. I was dimly conscious of scrambling through a ditch and coming to a ghostly white road. The schimmel swung to the right, and the next I knew some one had taken my bridle and was speaking to me.

At first I thought it was Laputa and screamed. Then I must have tottered in the saddle, for I felt an arm slip round my middle. The rider uncorked a bottle with his teeth and forced some brandy down my throat. I choked and coughed, and then looked up to see a white policeman staring at me. I knew the police by the green shoulder-straps.

‘Arcoll,’ I managed to croak. ‘For God’s sake take me to Arcoll.’

The man whistled shrilly on his fingers, and a second rider came cantering down the road. As he came up I recognized his face, but could not put a name to it. ‘Losh, it’s the lad Crawfurd,’ I heard a voice say. ‘Crawfurd, man, d’ye no mind me at Lourenco Marques? Aitken?’

The Scotch tongue worked a spell with me. It cleared my wits and opened the gates of my past life. At last I knew I was among my own folk.

‘I must see Arcoll. I have news for him — tremendous news. O man, take me to Arcoll and ask me no questions. Where is he? Where is he?’

‘As it happens, he’s about two hundred yards off,’ Aitken said. ‘That light ye see at the top of the brae is his camp.’

They helped me up the road, a man on each side of me, for I could never have kept in the saddle without their support. My message to Arcoll kept humming in my head as I tried to put it into words, for I had a horrid fear that my wits would fail me and I should be dumb when the time came. Also I was in a fever of haste. Every minute I wasted increased Laputa’s chance of getting back to the kraal. He had men with him every bit as skilful as Arcoll’s trackers. Unless Arcoll had a big force and the best horses there was no hope. Often in looking back at this hour I have marvelled at the strangeness of my behaviour. Here was I just set free from the certainty of a hideous death, and yet I had lost all joy in my security. I was more fevered at the thought of Laputa’s escape than I had been at the prospect of David Crawfurd’s end.

The next thing I knew I was being lifted off the Schimmel by what seemed to me a thousand hands. Then came a glow of light, a great moon, in the centre of which I stood blinking. I was forced to sit down on a bed, while I was given a cup of hot tea, far more reviving than any spirits. I became conscious that some one was holding my hands, and speaking very slowly and gently.

‘Davie,’ the voice said, ‘you’re back among friends, my lad. Tell me, where have you been?’

‘I want Arcoll,’ I moaned. ‘Where is Ratitswan?’ There were tears of weakness running down my cheeks.

‘Arcoll is here,’ said the voice; ‘he is holding your hands, Davie. Quiet, lad, quiet. Your troubles are all over now.’

I made a great effort, found the eyes to which the voice belonged, and spoke to them.

‘Listen. I stole the collar of Prester John at Dupree’s Drift. I was caught in the Berg and taken to the kraal — I forget its name — but I had hid the rubies.’

‘Yes,’ the voice said, ‘you hid the rubies, — and then?’

‘Inkulu wanted them back, so I made a deal with him. I took him to Machudi’s and gave him the collar, and then he fired at me and I climbed and climbed . . . I climbed on a horse,’ I concluded childishly.

I heard the voice say ‘Yes?’ again inquiringly, but my mind ran off at a tangent.

‘Beyers took guns up into the Wolkberg,’ I cried shrilly. ‘Why the devil don’t you do the same? You have the whole Kaffir army in a trap.’

I saw a smiling face before me.

‘Good lad. Colles told me you weren’t wanting in intelligence. What if we have done that very thing, Davie?’

But I was not listening. I was trying to remember the thing I most wanted to say, and that was not about Beyers and his guns. Those were nightmare minutes. A speaker who has lost the thread of his discourse, a soldier who with a bayonet at his throat has forgotten the password — I felt like them, and worse. And to crown all I felt my faintness coming back, and my head dropping with heaviness. I was in a torment of impotence.

Arcoll, still holding my hands, brought his face close to mine, so that his clear eyes mastered and constrained me.

‘Look at me, Davie,’ I heard him say. ‘You have something to tell me, and it is very important. It is about Laputa, isn’t it? Think, man. You took him to Machudi’s and gave him the collar. He has gone back with it to Inanda’s Kraal. Very well, my guns will hold him there.’

I shook my head. ‘You can’t. You may split the army, but you can’t hold Laputa. He will be over the Olifants before you fire a shot.’ ‘We will hunt him down before he crosses. And if not, we will catch him at the railway.’

‘For God’s sake, hurry then,’ I cried. ‘In an hour he will be over it and back in the kraal.’

‘But the river is a long way.’

‘River?’ I repeated hazily. ‘What river? The Letaba is not the place. It is the road I mean.’

Arcoll’s hands closed firmly on my wrists.

‘You left Laputa at Machudi’s and rode here without stopping. That would take you an hour. Had Laputa a horse?’

‘Yes; but I took it,’ I stammered. ‘You can see it behind me.’ Arcoll dropped my hands and stood up straight.

‘By God, we’ve got him!’ he said, and he spoke to his companions. A man turned and ran out of the tent.

Then I remembered what I wanted to say. I struggled from the bed and put my hands on his shoulders.

‘Laputa is our side of the highroad. Cut him off from his men, and drive him north — north — away up to the Rooirand. Never mind the Wolkberg and the guns, for they can wait. I tell you Laputa is the Rising, and he has the collar. Without him you can mop up the Kaffirs at your leisure. Line the high-road with every man you have, for he must cross it or perish. Oh, hurry, man, hurry; never mind me. We’re saved if we can chivy Laputa till morning. Quick, or I’ll have to go myself.’

The tent emptied, and I lay back on the bed with a dim feeling that my duty was done and I could rest. Henceforth the affair was in stronger hands than mine. I was so weak that I could not lift my legs up to the bed, but sprawled half on and half off.

Utter exhaustion defeats sleep. I was in a fever, and my eyes would not close. I lay and drowsed while it seemed to me that the outside world was full of men and horses. I heard voices and the sound of hoofs and the jingle of bridles, but above all I heard the solid tramp of an army. The whole earth seemed to be full of war. Before my mind was spread the ribbon of the great highway. I saw it run white through the meadows of the plateau, then in a dark corkscrew down the glen of the Letaba, then white again through the vast moonlit bush of the plains, till the shanties of Wesselsburg rose at the end of it. It seemed to me to be less a road than a rampart, built of shining marble, the Great Wall of Africa. I saw Laputa come out of the shadows and try to climb it, and always there was the sound of a rifle-breech clicking, a summons, and a flight. I began to take a keen interest in the game. Down in the bush were the dark figures of the hunted, and on the white wall were my own people — horse, foot, and artillery, the squadrons of our defence. What a general Arcoll was, and how great a matter had David Crawfurd kindled!

A man came in — I suppose a doctor. He took off my leggings and boots, cutting them from my bleeding feet, but I knew no pain. He felt my pulse and listened to my heart. Then he washed my face and gave me a bowl of hot milk. There must have been a drug in the milk, for I had scarcely drunk it before a tide of sleep seemed to flow over my brain. The white rampart faded from my eyes and I slept.

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