Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER II

Furth! Fortune!

In this plain story of mine there will be so many wild doings ere the end is reached, that I beg my reader’s assent to a prosaic digression. I will tell briefly the things which happened between my sight of the man on the Kirkcaple sands and my voyage to Africa. I continued for three years at the burgh school, where my progress was less notable in my studies than in my sports. One by one I saw my companions pass out of idle boyhood and be set to professions. Tam Dyke on two occasions ran off to sea in the Dutch schooners which used to load with coal in our port; and finally his father gave him his will, and he was apprenticed to the merchant service. Archie Leslie, who was a year my elder, was destined for the law, so he left Kirkcaple for an Edinburgh office, where he was also to take out classes at the college. I remained on at school till I sat alone by myself in the highest class — a position of little dignity and deep loneliness. I had grown a tall, square-set lad, and my prowess at Rugby football was renowned beyond the parishes of Kirkcaple and Portincross. To my father I fear I was a disappointment. He had hoped for something in his son more bookish and sedentary, more like his gentle, studious self.

On one thing I was determined: I should follow a learned profession. The fear of being sent to an office, like so many of my schoolfellows, inspired me to the little progress I ever made in my studies. I chose the ministry, not, I fear, out of any reverence for the sacred calling, but because my father had followed it before me. Accordingly I was sent at the age of sixteen for a year’s finishing at the High School of Edinburgh, and the following winter began my Arts course at the university.

If Fate had been kinder to me, I think I might have become a scholar. At any rate I was just acquiring a taste for philosophy and the dead languages when my father died suddenly of a paralytic shock, and I had to set about earning a living.

My mother was left badly off, for my poor father had never been able to save much from his modest stipend. When all things were settled, it turned out that she might reckon on an income of about fifty pounds a year. This was not enough to live on, however modest the household, and certainly not enough to pay for the colleging of a son. At this point an uncle of hers stepped forward with a proposal. He was a well-to-do bachelor, alone in the world, and he invited my mother to live with him and take care of his house. For myself he proposed a post in some mercantile concern, for he had much influence in the circles of commerce. There was nothing for it but to accept gratefully. We sold our few household goods, and moved to his gloomy house in Dundas Street. A few days later he announced at dinner that he had found for me a chance which might lead to better things.

‘You see, Davie,’ he explained, ‘you don’t know the rudiments of business life. There’s no house in the country that would take you in except as a common clerk, and you would never earn much more than a hundred pounds a year all your days. If you want to better your future you must go abroad, where white men are at a premium. By the mercy of Providence I met yesterday an old friend, Thomas Mackenzie, who was seeing his lawyer about an estate he is bidding for. He is the head of one of the biggest trading and shipping concerns in the world — Mackenzie, Mure, and Oldmeadows — you may have heard the name. Among other things he has half the stores in South Africa, where they sell everything from Bibles to fish-hooks. Apparently they like men from home to manage the stores, and to make a long story short, when I put your case to him, he promised you a place. I had a wire from him this morning confirming the offer. You are to be assistant storekeeper at —’ (my uncle fumbled in his pocket, and then read from the yellow slip) ‘at Blaauwildebeestefontein. There’s a mouthful for you.’

In this homely way I first heard of a place which was to be the theatre of so many strange doings.

‘It’s a fine chance for you,’ my uncle continued. ‘You’ll only be assistant at first, but when you have learned your job you’ll have a store of your own. Mackenzie’s people will pay you three hundred pounds a year, and when you get a store you’ll get a percentage on sales. It lies with you to open up new trade among the natives. I hear that Blaauw — something or other, is in the far north of the Transvaal, and I see from the map that it is in a wild, hilly country. You may find gold or diamonds up there, and come back and buy Portincross House.’ My uncle rubbed his hands and smiled cheerily.

Truth to tell I was both pleased and sad. If a learned profession was denied me I vastly preferred a veld store to an Edinburgh office stool. Had I not been still under the shadow of my father’s death I might have welcomed the chance of new lands and new folk. As it was, I felt the loneliness of an exile. That afternoon I walked on the Braid Hills, and when I saw in the clear spring sunlight the coast of Fife, and remembered Kirkcaple and my boyish days, I could have found it in me to sit down and cry.

A fortnight later I sailed. My mother bade me a tearful farewell, and my uncle, besides buying me an outfit and paying my passage money, gave me a present of twenty sovereigns. ‘You’ll not be your mother’s son, Davie,’ were his last words, ‘if you don’t come home with it multiplied by a thousand.’ I thought at the time that I would give more than twenty thousand pounds to be allowed to bide on the windy shores of Forth.

I sailed from Southampton by an intermediate steamer, and went steerage to save expense. Happily my acute homesickness was soon forgotten in another kind of malady. It blew half a gale before we were out of the Channel, and by the time we had rounded Ushant it was as dirty weather as ever I hope to see. I lay mortal sick in my bunk, unable to bear the thought of food, and too feeble to lift my head. I wished I had never left home, but so acute was my sickness that if some one had there and then offered me a passage back or an immediate landing on shore I should have chosen the latter.

It was not till we got into the fair-weather seas around Madeira that I recovered enough to sit on deck and observe my fellow-passengers. There were some fifty of us in the steerage, mostly wives and children going to join relations, with a few emigrant artisans and farmers. I early found a friend in a little man with a yellow beard and spectacles, who sat down beside me and remarked on the weather in a strong Scotch accent. He turned out to be a Mr Wardlaw from Aberdeen, who was going out to be a schoolmaster. He was a man of good education, who had taken a university degree, and had taught for some years as an under-master in a school in his native town. But the east winds had damaged his lungs, and he had been glad to take the chance of a poorly paid country school in the veld. When I asked him where he was going I was amazed to be told, ‘Blaauwildebeestefontein.’

Mr Wardlaw was a pleasant little man, with a sharp tongue but a cheerful temper. He laboured all day at primers of the Dutch and Kaffir languages, but in the evening after supper he would walk with me on the after-deck and discuss the future. Like me, he knew nothing of the land he was going to, but he was insatiably curious, and he affected me with his interest. ‘This place, Blaauwildebeestefontein,’ he used to say, ‘is among the Zoutpansberg mountains, and as far as I can see, not above ninety miles from the railroad. It looks from the map a well-watered country, and the Agent–General in London told me it was healthy or I wouldn’t have taken the job. It seems we’ll be in the heart of native reserves up there, for here’s a list of chiefs — ‘Mpefu, Sikitola, Majinje, Magata; and there are no white men living to the east of us because of the fever. The name means the “spring of the blue wildebeeste,” whatever fearsome animal that may be. It sounds like a place for adventure, Mr Crawfurd. You’ll exploit the pockets of the black men and I’ll see what I can do with their minds.’ There was another steerage passenger whom I could not help observing because of my dislike of his appearance. He, too, was a little man, by name Henriques, and in looks the most atrocious villain I have ever clapped eyes on. He had a face the colour of French mustard — a sort of dirty green — and bloodshot, beady eyes with the whites all yellowed with fever. He had waxed moustaches, and a curious, furtive way of walking and looking about him. We of the steerage were careless in our dress, but he was always clad in immaculate white linen, with pointed, yellow shoes to match his complexion. He spoke to no one, but smoked long cheroots all day in the stern of the ship, and studied a greasy pocket-book. Once I tripped over him in the dark, and he turned on me with a snarl and an oath. I was short enough with him in return, and he looked as if he could knife me.

‘I’ll wager that fellow has been a slave-driver in his time,’ I told Mr Wardlaw, who said, ‘God pity his slaves, then.’

And now I come to the incident which made the rest of the voyage pass all too soon for me, and foreshadowed the strange events which were to come. It was the day after we crossed the Line, and the first-class passengers were having deck sports. A tug-of-war had been arranged between the three classes, and a half-dozen of the heaviest fellows in the steerage, myself included, were invited to join. It was a blazing hot afternoon, but on the saloon deck there were awnings and a cool wind blowing from the bows. The first-class beat the second easily, and after a tremendous struggle beat the steerage also. Then they regaled us with iced-drinks and cigars to celebrate the victory.

I was standing at the edge of the crowd of spectators, when my eye caught a figure which seemed to have little interest in our games. A large man in clerical clothes was sitting on a deck-chair reading a book. There was nothing novel about the stranger, and I cannot explain the impulse which made me wish to see his face. I moved a few steps up the deck, and then I saw that his skin was black. I went a little farther, and suddenly he raised his eyes from his book and looked round. It was the face of the man who had terrified me years ago on the Kirkcaple shore.

I spent the rest of the day in a brown study. It was clear to me that some destiny had prearranged this meeting. Here was this man travelling prosperously as a first-class passenger with all the appurtenances of respectability. I alone had seen him invoking strange gods in the moonlight, I alone knew of the devilry in his heart, and I could not but believe that some day or other there might be virtue in that knowledge.

The second engineer and I had made friends, so I got him to consult the purser’s list for the name of my acquaintance. He was down as the Rev. John Laputa, and his destination was Durban. The next day being Sunday, who should appear to address us steerage passengers but the black minister. He was introduced by the captain himself, a notably pious man, who spoke of the labours of his brother in the dark places of heathendom. Some of us were hurt in our pride in being made the target of a black man’s oratory. Especially Mr Henriques, whose skin spoke of the tar-brush, protested with oaths against the insult. Finally he sat down on a coil of rope, and spat scornfully in the vicinity of the preacher.

For myself I was intensely curious, and not a little impressed. The man’s face was as commanding as his figure, and his voice was the most wonderful thing that ever came out of human mouth. It was full and rich, and gentle, with the tones of a great organ. He had none of the squat and preposterous negro lineaments, but a hawk nose like an Arab, dark flashing eyes, and a cruel and resolute mouth. He was black as my hat, but for the rest he might have sat for a figure of a Crusader. I do not know what the sermon was about, though others told me that it was excellent. All the time I watched him, and kept saying to myself, ‘You hunted me up the Dyve Burn, but I bashed your face for you.’ Indeed, I thought I could see faint scars on his cheek.

The following night I had toothache, and could not sleep. It was too hot to breathe under cover, so I got up, lit a pipe, and walked on the after-deck to ease the pain. The air was very still, save for the whish of water from the screws and the steady beat of the engines. Above, a great yellow moon looked down on me, and a host of pale stars.

The moonlight set me remembering the old affair of the Dyve Burn, and my mind began to run on the Rev. John Laputa. It pleased me to think that I was on the track of some mystery of which I alone had the clue. I promised myself to search out the antecedents of the minister when I got to Durban, for I had a married cousin there, who might know something of his doings. Then, as I passed by the companion-way to the lower deck, I heard voices, and peeping over the rail, I saw two men sitting in the shadow just beyond the hatch of the hold.

I thought they might be two of the sailors seeking coolness on the open deck, when something in the figure of one of them made me look again. The next second I had slipped back and stolen across the after-deck to a point just above them. For the two were the black minister and that ugly yellow villain, Henriques.

I had no scruples about eavesdropping, but I could make nothing of their talk. They spoke low, and in some tongue which may have been Kaffir or Portuguese, but was in any case unknown to me. I lay, cramped and eager, for many minutes, and was just getting sick of it when a familiar name caught my ear. Henriques said something in which I caught the word ‘Blaauwildebeestefontein.’ I listened intently, and there could be no mistake. The minister repeated the name, and for the next few minutes it recurred often in their talk. I went back stealthily to bed, having something to make me forget my aching tooth. First of all, Laputa and Henriques were allies. Second, the place I was bound for had something to do with their schemes.

I said nothing to Mr Wardlaw, but spent the next week in the assiduous toil of the amateur detective. I procured some maps and books from my friend, the second engineer, and read all I could about Blaauwildebeestefontein. Not that there was much to learn; but I remember I had quite a thrill when I discovered from the chart of the ship’s run one day that we were in the same latitude as that uncouthly-named spot. I found out nothing, however, about Henriques or the Rev. John Laputa. The Portuguese still smoked in the stern, and thumbed his greasy notebook; the minister sat in his deck-chair, and read heavy volumes from the ship’s library. Though I watched every night, I never found them again together.

At Cape Town Henriques went ashore and did not return. The minister did not budge from the ship the three days we lay in port, and, indeed, it seemed to me that he kept his cabin. At any rate I did not see his great figure on deck till we were tossing in the choppy seas round Cape Agulhas. Sea-sickness again attacked me, and with short lulls during our stoppages at Port Elizabeth and East London, I lay wretchedly in my bunk till we sighted the bluffs of Durban harbour.

Here it was necessary for me to change my ship, for in the interests of economy I was going by sea to Delagoa Bay, and thence by the cheap railway journey into the Transvaal. I sought out my cousin, who lived in a fine house on the Berea, and found a comfortable lodging for the three days of my stay there. I made inquiries about Mr Laputa, but could hear nothing. There was no native minister of that name, said my cousin, who was a great authority on all native questions. I described the man, but got no further light. No one had seen or heard of such a being, ‘unless,’ said my cousin, ‘he is one of those American Ethiopian rascals.’

My second task was to see the Durban manager of the firm which I had undertaken to serve. He was a certain Mr Colles, a big fat man, who welcomed me in his shirt-sleeves, with a cigar in his mouth. He received me pleasantly, and took me home to dinner with him.

‘Mr Mackenzie has written about you,’ he said. ‘I’ll be quite frank with you, Mr Crawfurd. The firm is not exactly satisfied about the way business has been going lately at Blaauwildebeestefontein. There’s a grand country up there, and a grand opportunity for the man who can take it. Japp, who is in charge, is an old man now and past his best, but he has been long with the firm, and we don’t want to hurt his feelings. When he goes, which must be pretty soon, you’ll have a good chance of the place, if you show yourself an active young fellow.’

He told me a great deal more about Blaauwildebeestefontein, principally trading details. Incidentally he let drop that Mr Japp had had several assistants in the last few years. I asked him why they had left, and he hesitated.

‘It’s a lonely place, and they didn’t like the life. You see, there are few white men near, and young fellows want society. They complained, and were moved on. But the firm didn’t think the more of them.’

I told him I had come out with the new schoolmaster.

‘Yes,’ he said reflectively, ‘the school. That’s been vacant pretty often lately. What sort of fellow is this Wardlaw? Will he stay, I wonder?’

‘From all accounts,’ I said, ‘Blaauwildebeestefontein does not seem popular.’

‘It isn’t. That’s why we’ve got you out from home. The colonial-born doesn’t find it fit in with his idea of comfort. He wants society, and he doesn’t like too many natives. There’s nothing up there but natives and a few back-veld Dutchmen with native blood in them. You fellows from home are less set on an easy life, or you wouldn’t be here.’

There was something in Mr Colles’s tone which made me risk another question.

‘What’s the matter with the place? There must be more wrong with it than loneliness to make everybody clear out. I have taken on this job, and I mean to stick to it, so you needn’t be afraid to tell me.’

The manager looked at me sharply. ‘That’s the way to talk, my lad. You look as if you had a stiff back, so I’ll be frank with you. There is something about the place. It gives the ordinary man the jumps. What it is, I don’t know, and the men who come back don’t know themselves. I want you to find out for me. You’ll be doing the firm an enormous service if you can get on the track of it. It may be the natives, or it may be the takhaars, or it may be something else. Only old Japp can stick it out, and he’s too old and doddering to care about moving. I want you to keep your eyes skinned, and write privately to me if you want any help. You’re not out here for your health, I can see, and here’s a chance for you to get your foot on the ladder.

‘Remember, I’m your friend,’ he said to me again at the garden gate. ‘Take my advice and lie very low. Don’t talk, don’t meddle with drink, learn all you can of the native jabber, but don’t let on you understand a word. You’re sure to get on the track of something. Good-bye, my boy,’ and he waved a fat hand to me.

That night I embarked on a cargo-boat which was going round the coast to Delagoa Bay. It is a small world — at least for us far-wandering Scots. For who should I find when I got on board but my old friend Tam Dyke, who was second mate on the vessel? We wrung each other’s hands, and I answered, as best I could, his questions about Kirkcaple. I had supper with him in the cabin, and went on deck to see the moorings cast.

Suddenly there was a bustle on the quay, and a big man with a handbag forced his way up the gangway. The men who were getting ready to cast off tried to stop him, but he elbowed his way forward, declaring he must see the captain. Tam went up to him and asked civilly if he had a passage taken. He admitted he had not, but said he would make it right in two minutes with the captain himself. The Rev. John Laputa, for some reason of his own, was leaving Durban with more haste than he had entered it.

I do not know what passed with the captain, but the minister got his passage right enough, and Tam was even turned out of his cabin to make room for him. This annoyed my friend intensely.

‘That black brute must be made of money, for he paid through the nose for this, or I’m a Dutchman. My old man doesn’t take to his black brethren any more than I do. Hang it all, what are we coming to, when we’re turning into a blooming cargo boat for niggers?’

I had all too little of Tam’s good company, for on the afternoon of the second day we reached the little town of Lourenco Marques. This was my final landing in Africa, and I mind how eagerly I looked at the low, green shores and the bush-covered slopes of the mainland. We were landed from boats while the ship lay out in the bay, and Tam came ashore with me to spend the evening. By this time I had lost every remnant of homesickness. I had got a job before me which promised better things than colleging at Edinburgh, and I was as keen to get up country now as I had been loth to leave England. My mind being full of mysteries, I scanned every Portuguese loafer on the quay as if he had been a spy, and when Tam and I had had a bottle of Collates in a cafe I felt that at last I had got to foreign parts and a new world.

Tam took me to supper with a friend of his, a Scot by the name of Aitken, who was landing-agent for some big mining house on the Rand. He hailed from Fife and gave me a hearty welcome, for he had heard my father preach in his young days. Aitken was a strong, broad-shouldered fellow who had been a sergeant in the Gordons, and during the war he had done secret-service work in Delagoa. He had hunted, too, and traded up and down Mozambique, and knew every dialect of the Kaffirs. He asked me where I was bound for, and when I told him there was the same look in his eyes as I had seen with the Durban manager.

‘You’re going to a rum place, Mr Crawfurd,’ he said.

‘So I’m told. Do you know anything about it? You’re not the first who has looked queer when I’ve spoken the name.’

‘I’ve never been there,’ he said, ‘though I’ve been pretty near it from the Portuguese side. That’s the funny thing about Blaauwildebeestefontein. Everybody has heard of it, and nobody knows it.’

‘I wish you would tell me what you have heard.’

‘Well, the natives are queer up thereaways. There’s some kind of a holy place which every Kaffir from Algoa Bay to the Zambesi and away beyond knows about. When I’ve been hunting in the bush-veld I’ve often met strings of Kaffirs from hundreds of miles distant, and they’ve all been going or coming from Blaauwildebeestefontein. It’s like Mecca to the Mohammedans, a place they go to on pilgrimage. I’ve heard of an old man up there who is believed to be two hundred years old. Anyway, there’s some sort of great witch or wizard living in the mountains.’

Aitken smoked in silence for a time; then he said, ‘I’ll tell you another thing. I believe there’s a diamond mine. I’ve often meant to go up and look for it.’

Tam and I pressed him to explain, which he did slowly after his fashion.

‘Did you ever hear of I.D.B. — illicit diamond broking?’ he asked me. ‘Well, it’s notorious that the Kaffirs on the diamond fields get away with a fair number of stones, and they are bought by Jew and Portuguese traders. It’s against the law to deal in them, and when I was in the intelligence here we used to have a lot of trouble with the vermin. But I discovered that most of the stones came from natives in one part of the country — more or less round Blaauwildebeestefontein — and I see no reason to think that they had all been stolen from Kimberley or the Premier. Indeed some of the stones I got hold of were quite different from any I had seen in South Africa before. I shouldn’t wonder if the Kaffirs in the Zoutpansberg had struck some rich pipe, and had the sense to keep quiet about it. Maybe some day I’ll take a run up to see you and look into the matter.’

After this the talk turned on other topics till Tam, still nursing his grievance, asked a question on his own account. ‘Did you ever come across a great big native parson called Laputa? He came on board as we were leaving Durban, and I had to turn out of my cabin for him.’ Tam described him accurately but vindictively, and added that ‘he was sure he was up to no good.’

Aitken shook his head. ‘No, I don’t know the man. You say he landed here? Well, I’ll keep a look-out for him. Big native parsons are not so common.’

Then I asked about Henriques, of whom Tam knew nothing. I described his face, his clothes, and his habits. Aitken laughed uproariously.

‘Tut, my man, most of the subjects of his Majesty the King of Portugal would answer to that description. If he’s a rascal, as you think, you may be certain he’s in the I.D.B. business, and if I’m right about Blaauwildebeestefontein you’ll likely have news of him there some time or other. Drop me a line if he comes, and I’ll get on to his record.’

I saw Tam off in the boat with a fairly satisfied mind. I was going to a place with a secret, and I meant to find it out. The natives round Blaauwildebeestefontein were queer, and diamonds were suspected somewhere in the neighbourhood.

Henriques had something to do with the place, and so had the Rev. John Laputa, about whom I knew one strange thing. So did Tam by the way, but he had not identified his former pursuer, and I had told him nothing. I was leaving two men behind me, Colles at Durban and Aitken at Lourenco Marques, who would help me if trouble came. Things were shaping well for some kind of adventure.

The talk with Aitken had given Tam an inkling of my thoughts. His last words to me were an appeal to let him know if there was any fun going.

‘I can see you’re in for a queer job. Promise to let me hear from you if there’s going to be a row, and I’ll come up country, though I should have to desert the service. Send us a letter to the agents at Durban in case we should be in port. You haven’t forgotten the Dyve Burn, Davie?’

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