Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER XX

My Last Sight of the Reverend John Laputa

It was dark before I got into the gorge of the Letaba. I passed many patrols, but few spoke to me, and none tried to stop me. Some may have known me, but I think it was my face and figure which tied their tongues. I must have been pale as death, with tangled hair and fever burning in my eyes. Also on my left temple was the splash of blood.

At Main Drift I found a big body of police holding the ford. I splashed through and stumbled into one of their camp-fires. A man questioned me, and told me that Arcoll had got his quarry. ‘He’s dead, they say. They shot him out on the hills when he was making for the Limpopo.’ But I knew that this was not true. It was burned on my mind that Laputa was alive, nay, was waiting for me, and that it was God’s will that we should meet in the cave.

A little later I struck the track of the Kaffirs’ march. There was a broad, trampled way through the bush, and I followed it, for it led to Dupree’s Drift. All this time I was urging the Schimmel with all the vigour I had left in me. I had quite lost any remnant of fear. There were no terrors left for me either from Nature or man. At Dupree’s Drift I rode the ford without a thought of crocodiles. I looked placidly at the spot where Henriques had slain the Keeper and I had stolen the rubies. There was no interest or imagination lingering in my dull brain. My nerves had suddenly become things of stolid, untempered iron. Each landmark I passed was noted down as one step nearer to my object. At Umvelos’ I had not the leisure to do more than glance at the shell which I had built. I think I had forgotten all about that night when I lay in the cellar and heard Laputa’s plans. Indeed, my doings of the past days were all hazy and trivial in my mind. I only saw one sight clearly — two men, one tall and black, the other little and sallow, slowly creeping nearer to the Rooirand, and myself, a midget on a horse, spurring far behind through the bush on their trail. I saw the picture as continuously and clearly as if I had been looking at a scene on the stage. There was only one change in the setting; the three figures seemed to be gradually closing together.

I had no exhilaration in my quest. I do not think I had even much hope, for something had gone numb and cold in me and killed my youth. I told myself that treasure-hunting was an enterprise accursed of God, and that I should most likely die. That Laputa and Henriques would die I was fully certain. The three of us would leave our bones to bleach among the diamonds, and in a little the Prester’s collar would glow amid a little heap of human dust. I was quite convinced of all this, and quite apathetic. It really did not matter so long as I came up with Laputa and Henriques, and settled scores with them. That mattered everything in the world, for it was my destiny.

I had no means of knowing how long I took, but it was after midnight before I passed Umvelos’, and ere I got to the Rooirand there was a fluttering of dawn in the east. I must have passed east of Arcoll’s men, who were driving the bush towards Majinje’s. I had ridden the night down and did not feel so very tired. My horse was stumbling, but my own limbs scarcely pained me. To be sure I was stiff and nerveless as if hewn out of wood, but I had been as bad when I left Bruderstroom. I felt as if I could go on riding to the end of the world.

At the brink of the bush I dismounted and turned the Schimmel loose. I had brought no halter, and I left him to graze and roll. The light was sufficient to let me see the great rock face rising in a tower of dim purple. The sky was still picked out with stars, but the moon had long gone down, and the east was flushing. I marched up the path to the cave, very different from the timid being who had walked the same road three nights before. Then my terrors were all to come: now I had conquered terror and seen the other side of fear. I was centuries older.

But beside the path lay something which made me pause. It was a dead body, and the head was turned away from me. I did not need to see the face to know who it was. There had been only two men in my vision, and one of them was immortal.

I stopped and turned the body over. There was no joy in my heart, none of the lust of satisfied vengeance or slaked hate. I had forgotten about the killing of my dog and all the rest of Henriques’ doings. It was only with curiosity that I looked down on the dead face, swollen and livid in the first light of morning.

The man had been strangled. His neck, as we say in Scotland, was ‘thrawn’, and that was why he had lain on his back yet with his face turned away from me. He had been dead probably since before midnight. I looked closer, and saw that there was blood on his shirt and hands, but no wound. It was not his blood, but some other’s. Then a few feet off on the path I found a pistol with two chambers empty.

What had happened was very plain. Henriques had tried to shoot Laputa at the entrance of the cave for the sake of the collar and the treasure within. He had wounded him — gravely, I thought, to judge from the amount of blood — but the quickness and marksmanship of the Portuguese had not availed to save his life from those terrible hands. After two shots Laputa had got hold of him and choked his life out as easily as a man twists a partridge’s neck. Then he had gone into the cave.

I saw the marks of blood on the road, and hastened on. Laputa had been hours in the cave, enough to work havoc with the treasure. He was wounded, too, and desperate. Probably he had come to the Rooirand looking for sanctuary and rest for a day or two, but if Henriques had shot straight he might find a safer sanctuary and a longer rest. For the third time in my life I pushed up the gully between the straight high walls of rock, and heard from the heart of the hills the thunder of the imprisoned river.

There was only the faintest gleam of light in the cleft, but it sufficed to show me that the way to the cave was open. The hidden turnstile in the right wall stood ajar; I entered, and carelessly swung it behind me. The gates clashed into place with a finality which told me that they were firmly shut. I did not know the secret of them, so how should I get out again?

These things troubled me less than the fact that I had no light at all now. I had to go on my knees to ascend the stair, and I could feel that the steps were wet. It must be Laputa’s blood.

Next I was out on the gallery which skirted the chasm. The sky above me was growing pale with dawn, and far below the tossing waters were fretted with light. A light fragrant wind was blowing on the hills, and a breath of it came down the funnel. I saw that my hands were all bloody with the stains on the steps, and I rubbed them on the rock to clean them. Without a tremor I crossed the stone slab over the gorge, and plunged into the dark alley which led to the inner chamber.

As before, there was a light in front of me, but this time it was a pin-point and not the glare of many torches. I felt my way carefully by the walls of the passage, though I did not really fear anything. It was by the stopping of these lateral walls that I knew I was in the cave, for the place had only one single speck of light. The falling wall of water stood out grey green and ghostly on the left, and I noticed that higher up it was lit as if from the open air. There must be a great funnel in the hillside in that direction. I walked a few paces, and then I made out that the spark in front was a lantern.

My eyes were getting used to the half-light, and I saw what was beside the lantern. Laputa knelt on the ashes of the fire which the Keeper had kindled three days before. He knelt before, and half leaned on, a rude altar of stone. The lantern stood by him on the floor, and its faint circle lit something which I was not unprepared for. Blood was welling from his side, and spreading in a dark pool over the ashes.

I had no fear, only a great pity — pity for lost romance, for vain endeavour, for fruitless courage. ‘Greeting, Inkulu!’ I said in Kaffir, as if I had been one of his indunas.

He turned his head and slowly and painfully rose to his feet. The place, it was clear, was lit from without, and the daylight was growing. The wall of the river had become a sheet of jewels, passing from pellucid diamond above to translucent emerald below. A dusky twilight sought out the extreme corners of the cave. Laputa’s tall figure stood swaying above the white ashes, his hand pressed to his side.

‘Who is it?’ he said, looking at me with blind eyes.

‘It is the storekeeper from Umvelos’,’ I answered.

‘The storekeeper of Umvelos’,’ he repeated. ‘God has used the weak things of the world to confound the strong. A king dies because a pedlar is troublesome. What do they call you, man? You deserve to be remembered.’

I told him ‘David Crawfurd.’

‘Crawfurd,’ he repeated, ‘you have been the little reef on which a great vessel has foundered. You stole the collar and cut me off from my people, and then when I was weary the Portuguese killed me.’

‘No,’ I cried, ‘it was not me. You trusted Henriques, and you got your fingers on his neck too late. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

‘You warned me, and I will repay you. I will make you rich, Crawfurd. You are a trader, and want money. I am a king, and want a throne. But I am dying, and there will be no more kings in Africa.’

The mention of riches did not thrill me as I had expected, but the last words awakened a wild regret. I was hypnotized by the man. To see him going out was like seeing the fall of a great mountain.

He stretched himself, gasping, and in the growing light I could see how broken he was. His cheeks were falling in, and his sombre eyes had shrunk back in their sockets. He seemed an old worn man standing there among the ashes, while the blood, which he made no effort to staunch, trickled down his side till it dripped on the floor. He had ceased to be the Kaffir king, or the Christian minister, or indeed any one of his former parts. Death was stripping him to his elements, and the man Laputa stood out beyond and above the characters he had played, something strange, and great, and moving, and terrible.

‘We met for the first time three days ago,’ he said, ‘and now you will be the last to see the Inkulu.’

‘Umvelos’ was not our first meeting,’ said I. ‘Do you mind the Sabbath eight years since when you preached in the Free Kirk at Kirkcaple? I was the boy you chased from the shore, and I flung the stone that blacked your eye. Besides, I came out from England with you and Henriques, and I was in the boat which took you from Durban to Delagoa Bay. You and I have been long acquaint, Mr Laputa.’

‘It is the hand of God,’ he said solemnly. ‘Your fate has been twisted with mine, and now you will die with me.’

I did not understand this talk about dying. I was not mortally wounded like him, and I did not think Laputa had the strength to kill me even if he wished. But my mind was so impassive that I scarcely regarded his words.

‘I will make you rich,’ he cried. ‘Crawfurd, the storekeeper, will be the richest man in Africa. We are scattered, and our wealth is another’s. He shall have the gold and the diamonds — all but the Collar, which goes with me.’

He staggered into a dark recess, one of many in the cave, and I followed him. There were boxes there, tea chests, cartridge cases, and old brass-ribbed Portuguese coffers. Laputa had keys at his belt, and unlocked them, his fingers fumbling with weakness. I peered in and saw gold coin and little bags of stones.

‘Money and diamonds,’ he cried. ‘Once it was the war chest of a king, and now it will be the hoard of a trader. No, by the Lord! The trader’s place is with the Terrible Ones.’ An arm shot out, and my shoulder was fiercely gripped.

‘You stole my horse. That is why I am dying. But for you I and my army would be over the Olifants. I am going to kill you, Crawfurd,’ and his fingers closed in to my shoulder blades.

Still I was unperturbed. ‘No, you are not. You cannot. You have tried to and failed. So did Henriques, and he is lying dead outside. I am in God’s keeping, and cannot die before my time.’

I do not know if he heard me, but at any rate the murderous fit passed. His hand fell to his side and his great figure tottered out into the cave. He seemed to be making for the river, but he turned and went through the door I had entered by. I heard him slipping in the passage, and then there was a minute of silence.

Suddenly there came a grinding sound, followed by the kind of muffled splash which a stone makes when it falls into a deep well. I thought Laputa had fallen into the chasm, but when I reached the door his swaying figure was coming out of the corridor. Then I knew what he had done. He had used the remnant of his giant strength to break down the bridge of stone across the gorge, and so cut off my retreat.

I really did not care. Even if I had got over the bridge I should probably have been foiled by the shut turnstile. I had quite forgotten the meaning of fear of death.

I found myself giving my arm to the man who had tried to destroy me.

‘I have laid up for you treasure in heaven,’ he said. ‘Your earthly treasure is in the boxes, but soon you will be seeking incorruptible jewels in the deep deep water. It is cool and quiet down there, and you forget the hunger and pain.’

The man was getting very near his end. The madness of despair came back to him, and he flung himself among the ashes.

‘We are going to die together, Crawfurd,’ he said. ‘God has twined our threads, and there will be only one cutting. Tell me what has become of my army.’

‘Arcoll has guns on the Wolkberg,’ I said. ‘They must submit or perish.’

‘I have other armies . . . No, no, they are nothing. They will all wander and blunder and fight and be beaten. There is no leader anywhere . . . And I am dying.’

There was no gainsaying the signs of death. I asked him if he would like water, but he made no answer. His eyes were fixed on vacancy, and I thought I could realize something of the bitterness of that great regret. For myself I was as cold as a stone. I had no exultation of triumph, still less any fear of my own fate. I stood silent, the half-remorseful spectator of a fall like the fall of Lucifer.

‘I would have taught the world wisdom.’ Laputa was speaking English in a strange, thin, abstracted voice. ‘There would have been no king like me since Charlemagne,’ and he strayed into Latin which I have been told since was an adaptation of the Epitaph of Charles the Great. ‘Sub hoc conditorio,’ he crooned, ‘situm est corpus Joannis, magni et orthodoxi Imperatoris, qui imperium Africanum nobiliter ampliavit, et multos per annos mundum feliciter rexit.’16 He must have chosen this epitaph long ago.

16 ‘Under this stone is laid the body of John, the great and orthodox Emperor, who nobly enlarged the African realm, and for many years happily ruled the world.’

He lay for a few seconds with his head on his arms, his breast heaving with agony.

‘No one will come after me. My race is doomed, and in a little they will have forgotten my name. I alone could have saved them. Now they go the way of the rest, and the warriors of John become drudges and slaves.’

Something clicked in his throat, he gasped and fell forward, and I thought he was dead. Then he struggled as if to rise. I ran to him, and with all my strength aided him to his feet.

‘Unarm, Eros,’ he cried. ‘The long day’s task is done.’ With the strange power of a dying man he tore off his leopard-skin and belt till he stood stark as on the night when he had been crowned. From his pouch he took the Prester’s Collar. Then he staggered to the brink of the chasm where the wall of green water dropped into the dark depth below.

I watched, fascinated, as with the weak hands of a child he twined the rubies round his neck and joined the clasp. Then with a last effort he stood straight up on the brink, his eyes raised to the belt of daylight from which the water fell. The light caught the great gems and called fires from them, the flames of the funeral pyre of a king.

Once more his voice, restored for a moment to its old vigour, rang out through the cave above the din of the cascade. His words were those which the Keeper had used three nights before. With his hands held high and the Collar burning on his neck he cried, ‘The Snake returns to the House of its Birth.’

‘Come,’ he cried to me. ‘The Heir of John is going home.’ Then he leapt into the gulf. There was no sound of falling, so great was the rush of water. He must have been whirled into the open below where the bridge used to be, and then swept into the underground deeps, where the Labongo drowses for thirty miles. Far from human quest he sleeps his last sleep, and perhaps on a fragment of bone washed into a crevice of rock there may hang the jewels that once gleamed in Sheba’s hair.

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