Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER XXI

I Climb the Crags a Second Time

I remember that I looked over the brink into the yeasty abyss with a mind hovering between perplexity and tears. I wanted to sit down and cry — why, I did not know, except that some great thing had happened. My brain was quite clear as to my own position. I was shut in this place, with no chance of escape and with no food. In a little I must die of starvation, or go mad and throw myself after Laputa. And yet I did not care a rush. My nerves had been tried too greatly in the past week. Now I was comatose, and beyond hoping or fearing.

I sat for a long time watching the light play on the fretted sheet of water and wondering where Laputa’s body had gone. I shivered and wished he had not left me alone, for the darkness would come in time and I had no matches. After a little I got tired of doing nothing, and went groping among the treasure chests. One or two were full of coin — British sovereigns, Kruger sovereigns, Napoleons, Spanish and Portuguese gold pieces, and many older coins ranging back to the Middle Ages and even to the ancients. In one handful there was a splendid gold stater, and in another a piece of Antoninus Pius. The treasure had been collected for many years in many places, contributions of chiefs from ancient hoards as well as the cash received from I.D.B. I untied one or two of the little bags of stones and poured the contents into my hands. Most of the diamonds were small, such as a labourer might secrete on his person. The larger ones — and some were very large — were as a rule discoloured, looking more like big cairngorms. But one or two bags had big stones which even my inexperienced eye told me were of the purest water. There must be some new pipe, I thought, for these could not have been stolen from any known mine.

After that I sat on the floor again and looked at the water. It exercised a mesmeric influence on me, soothing all care. I was quite happy to wait for death, for death had no meaning to me. My hate and fury were both lulled into a trance, since the passive is the next stage to the overwrought.

It must have been full day outside now, for the funnel was bright with sunshine, and even the dim cave caught a reflected radiance. As I watched the river I saw a bird flash downward, skimming the water. It turned into the cave and fluttered among its dark recesses. I heard its wings beating the roof as it sought wildly for an outlet. It dashed into the spray of the cataract and escaped again into the cave. For maybe twenty minutes it fluttered, till at last it found the way it had entered by. With a dart it sped up the funnel of rock into light and freedom.

I had begun to watch the bird in idle lassitude, I ended in keen excitement. The sight of it seemed to take a film from my eyes. I realized the zest of liberty, the passion of life again. I felt that beyond this dim underworld there was the great joyous earth, and I longed for it. I wanted to live now. My memory cleared, and I remembered all that had befallen me during the last few days. I had played the chief part in the whole business, and I had won. Laputa was dead and the treasure was mine, while Arcoll was crushing the Rising at his ease. I had only to be free again to be famous and rich. My hopes had returned, but with them came my fears. What if I could not escape? I must perish miserably by degrees, shut in the heart of a hill, though my friends were out for rescue. In place of my former lethargy I was now in a fever of unrest.

My first care was to explore the way I had come. I ran down the passage to the chasm which the slab of stone had spanned. I had been right in my guess, for the thing was gone. Laputa was in truth a Titan, who in the article of death could break down a bridge which would have taken any three men an hour to shift. The gorge was about seven yards wide, too far to risk a jump, and the cliff fell sheer and smooth to the imprisoned waters two hundred feet below. There was no chance of circuiting it, for the wall was as smooth as if it had been chiselled. The hand of man had been at work to make the sanctuary inviolable.

It occurred to me that sooner or later Arcoll would track Laputa to this place. He would find the bloodstains in the gully, but the turnstile would be shut and he would never find the trick of it. Nor could he have any kaffirs with him who knew the secret of the Place of the Snake. Still if Arcoll knew I was inside he would find some way to get to me even though he had to dynamite the curtain of rock. I shouted, but my voice seemed to be drowned in the roar of the water. It made but a fresh chord in the wild orchestra, and I gave up hopes in that direction.

Very dolefully I returned to the cave. I was about to share the experience of all treasure-hunters — to be left with jewels galore and not a bite to sustain life. The thing was too commonplace to be endured. I grew angry, and declined so obvious a fate. ‘Ek sal ‘n plan maak,’ I told myself in the old Dutchman’s words. I had come through worse dangers, and a way I should find. To starve in the cave was no ending for David Crawfurd. Far better to join Laputa in the depths in a manly hazard for liberty.

My obstinacy and irritation cheered me. What had become of the lack-lustre young fool who had mooned here a few minutes back. Now I was as tense and strung for effort as the day I had ridden from Blaauwildebeestefontein to Umvelos’. I felt like a runner in the last lap of a race. For four days I had lived in the midst of terror and darkness. Daylight was only a few steps ahead, daylight and youth restored and a new world.

There were only two outlets from that cave — the way I had come, and the way the river came. The first was closed, the second a sheer staring impossibility. I had been into every niche and cranny, and there was no sign of a passage. I sat down on the floor and looked at the wall of water. It fell, as I have already explained, in a solid sheet, which made up the whole of the wall of the cave. Higher than the roof of the cave I could not see what happened, except that it must be the open air, for the sun was shining on it. The water was about three yards distant from the edge of the cave’s floor, but it seemed to me that high up, level with the roof, this distance decreased to little more than a foot.

I could not see what the walls of the cave were like, but they looked smooth and difficult. Supposing I managed to climb up to the level of the roof close to the water, how on earth was I to get outside on to the wall of the ravine? I knew from my old days of rock-climbing what a complete obstacle the overhang of a cave is.

While I looked, however, I saw a thing which I had not noticed before. On the left side of the fall the water sluiced down in a sheet to the extreme edge of the cave, almost sprinkling the floor with water. But on the right side the force of water was obviously weaker, and a little short of the level of the cave roof there was a spike of rock which slightly broke the fall. The spike was covered, but the covering was shallow, for the current flowed from it in a rose-shaped spray. If a man could get to that spike and could get a foot on it without being swept down, it might be possible — just possible — to do something with the wall of the chasm above the cave. Of course I knew nothing about the nature of that wall. It might be as smooth as a polished pillar.

The result of these cogitations was that I decided to prospect the right wall of the cave close to the waterfall. But first I went rummaging in the back part to see if I could find anything to assist me. In one corner there was a rude cupboard with some stone and metal vessels. Here, too, were the few domestic utensils of the dead Keeper. In another were several locked coffers on which I could make no impression. There were the treasure-chests too, but they held nothing save treasure, and gold and diamonds were no manner of use to me. Other odds and ends I found — spears, a few skins, and a broken and notched axe. I took the axe in case there might be cutting to do.

Then at the back of a bin my hand struck something which brought the blood to my face. It was a rope, an old one, but still in fair condition and forty or fifty feet long. I dragged it out into the light and straightened its kinks. With this something could be done, assuming I could cut my way to the level of the roof.

I began the climb in my bare feet, and at the beginning it was very bad. Except on the very edge of the abyss there was scarcely a handhold. Possibly in floods the waters may have swept the wall in a curve, smoothing down the inner part and leaving the outer to its natural roughness. There was one place where I had to hang on by a very narrow crack while I scraped with the axe a hollow for my right foot. And then about twelve feet from the ground I struck the first of the iron pegs.

To this day I cannot think what these pegs were for. They were old square-headed things which had seen the wear of centuries. They cannot have been meant to assist a climber, for the dwellers of the cave had clearly never contemplated this means of egress. Perhaps they had been used for some kind of ceremonial curtain in a dim past. They were rusty and frail, and one of them came away in my hand, but for all that they marvellously assisted my ascent.

I had been climbing slowly, doggedly and carefully, my mind wholly occupied with the task; and almost before I knew I found my head close under the roof of the cave. It was necessary now to move towards the river, and the task seemed impossible. I could see no footholds, save two frail pegs, and in the corner between the wall and the roof was a rough arch too wide for my body to jam itself in. Just below the level of the roof — say two feet — I saw the submerged spike of rock. The waters raged around it, and could not have been more than an inch deep on the top. If I could only get my foot on that I believed I could avoid being swept down, and stand up and reach for the wall above the cave.

But how to get to it? It was no good delaying, for my frail holds might give at any moment. In any case I would have the moral security of the rope, so I passed it through a fairly staunch pin close to the roof, which had an upward tilt that almost made a ring of it. One end of the rope was round my body, the other was loose in my hand, and I paid it out as I moved. Moral support is something. Very gingerly I crawled like a fly along the wall, my fingers now clutching at a tiny knob, now clawing at a crack which did little more than hold my nails. It was all hopeless insanity, and yet somehow I did it. The rope and the nearness of the roof gave me confidence and balance. Then the holds ceased altogether a couple of yards from the water. I saw my spike of rock a trifle below me. There was nothing for it but to risk all on a jump. I drew the rope out of the hitch, twined the slack round my waist, and leaped for the spike.

It was like throwing oneself on a line of spears. The solid wall of water hurled me back and down, but as I fell my arms closed on the spike. There I hung while my feet were towed outwards by the volume of the stream as if they had been dead leaves. I was half-stunned by the shock of the drip on my head, but I kept my wits, and presently got my face outside the falling sheet and breathed.

To get to my feet and stand on the spike while all the fury of water was plucking at me was the hardest physical effort I have ever made. It had to be done very circumspectly, for a slip would send me into the abyss. If I moved an arm or leg an inch too near the terrible dropping wall I knew I should be plucked from my hold. I got my knees on the outer face of the spike, so that all my body was removed as far as possible from the impact of the water. Then I began to pull myself slowly up.

I could not do it. If I got my feet on the rock the effort would bring me too far into the water, and that meant destruction. I saw this clearly in a second while my wrists were cracking with the strain. But if I had a wall behind me I could reach back with one hand and get what we call in Scotland a ‘stelf.’ I knew there was a wall, but how far I could not judge. The perpetual hammering of the stream had confused my wits.

It was a horrible moment, but I had to risk it. I knew that if the wall was too far back I should fall, for I had to let my weight go till my hand fell on it. Delay would do no good, so with a prayer I flung my right hand back, while my left hand clutched the spike.

I found the wall — it was only a foot or two beyond my reach. With a heave I had my foot on the spike, and turning, had both hands on the opposite wall. There I stood, straddling like a Colossus over a waste of white waters, with the cave floor far below me in the gloom, and my discarded axe lying close to a splash of Laputa’s blood.

The spectacle made me giddy, and I had to move on or fall. The wall was not quite perpendicular, but as far as I could see a slope of about sixty degrees. It was ribbed and terraced pretty fully, but I could see no ledge within reach which offered standing room. Once more I tried the moral support of the rope, and as well as I could dropped a noose on the spike which might hold me if I fell. Then I boldly embarked on a hand traverse, pulling myself along a little ledge till I was right in the angle of the fall. Here, happily, the water was shallower and less violent, and with my legs up to the knees in foam I managed to scramble into a kind of corner. Now at last I was on the wall of the gully, and above the cave. I had achieved by amazing luck one of the most difficult of all mountaineering operations. I had got out of a cave to the wall above.

My troubles were by no means over, for I found the cliff most difficult to climb. The great rush of the stream dizzied my brain, the spray made the rock damp, and the slope steepened as I advanced. At one overhang my shoulder was almost in the water again. All this time I was climbing doggedly, with terror somewhere in my soul, and hope lighting but a feeble lamp. I was very distrustful of my body, for I knew that at any moment my weakness might return. The fever of three days of peril and stress is not allayed by one night’s rest.

By this time I was high enough to see that the river came out of the ground about fifty feet short of the lip of the gully, and some ten feet beyond where I stood. Above the hole whence the waters issued was a loose slope of slabs and screes. It looked an ugly place, but there I must go, for the rock-wall I was on was getting unclimbable.

I turned the corner a foot or two above the water, and stood on a slope of about fifty degrees, running from the parapet of stone to a line beyond which blue sky appeared. The first step I took the place began to move. A boulder crashed into the fall, and tore down into the abyss with a shattering thunder. I lay flat and clutched desperately at every hold, but I had loosened an avalanche of earth, and not till my feet were sprayed by the water did I get a grip of firm rock and check my descent. All this frightened me horribly, with the kind of despairing angry fear which I had suffered at Bruderstroom, when I dreamed that the treasure was lost. I could not bear the notion of death when I had won so far.

After that I advanced, not by steps, but by inches. I felt more poised and pinnacled in the void than when I had stood on the spike of rock, for I had a substantial hold neither for foot nor hand. It seemed weeks before I made any progress away from the lip of the waterhole. I dared not look down, but kept my eyes on the slope before me, searching for any patch of ground which promised stability. Once I found a scrog of juniper with firm roots, and this gave me a great lift. A little further, however, I lit on a bank of screes which slipped with me to the right, and I lost most of the ground the bush had gained me. My whole being, I remember, was filled with a devouring passion to be quit of this gully and all that was in it.

Then, not suddenly as in romances, but after hard striving and hope long deferred, I found myself on a firm outcrop of weathered stone. In three strides I was on the edge of the plateau. Then I began to run, and at the same time to lose the power of running. I cast one look behind me, and saw a deep cleft of darkness out of which I had climbed. Down in the cave it had seemed light enough, but in the clear sunshine of the top the gorge looked a very pit of shade. For the first and last time in my life I had vertigo. Fear of falling back, and a mad craze to do it, made me acutely sick. I managed to stumble a few steps forward on the mountain turf, and then flung myself on my face.

When I raised my head I was amazed to find it still early morning. The dew was yet on the grass, and the sun was not far up the sky. I had thought that my entry into the cave, my time in it, and my escape had taken many hours, whereas at the most they had occupied two. It was little more than dawn, such a dawn as walks only on the hilltops. Before me was the shallow vale with its bracken and sweet grass, and farther on the shining links of the stream, and the loch still grey in the shadow of the beleaguering hills. Here was a fresh, clean land, a land for homesteads and orchards and children. All of a sudden I realized that at last I had come out of savagery. The burden of the past days slipped from my shoulders. I felt young again, and cheerful and brave. Behind me was the black night, and the horrid secrets of darkness. Before me was my own country, for that loch and that bracken might have been on a Scotch moor. The fresh scent of the air and the whole morning mystery put song into my blood. I remembered that I was not yet twenty. My first care was to kneel there among the bracken and give thanks to my Maker, who in very truth had shown me ‘His goodness in the land of the living.’

After a little I went back to the edge of the cliff. There where the road came out of the bush was the body of Henriques, lying sprawled on the sand, with two dismounted riders looking hard at it. I gave a great shout, for in the men I recognized Aitken and the schoolmaster Wardlaw.

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