Prester John, by John Buchan


My Uncle’s Gift Is Many Times Multiplied

We got at the treasure by blowing open the turnstile. It was easy enough to trace the spot in the rock where it stood, but the most patient search did not reveal its secret. Accordingly we had recourse to dynamite, and soon laid bare the stone steps, and ascended to the gallery. The chasm was bridged with planks, and Arcoll and I crossed alone. The cave was as I had left it. The bloodstains on the floor had grown dark with time, but the ashes of the sacramental fire were still there to remind me of the drama I had borne a part in. When I looked at the way I had escaped my brain grew dizzy at the thought of it. I do not think that all the gold on earth would have driven me a second time to that awful escalade. As for Arcoll, he could not see its possibility at all.

‘Only a madman could have done it,’ he said, blinking his eyes at the green linn. ‘Indeed, Davie, I think for about four days you were as mad as they make. It was a fortunate thing, for your madness saved the country.’

With some labour we got the treasure down to the path, and took it under a strong guard to Pietersdorp. The Government were busy with the settling up after the war, and it took many weeks to have our business disposed of. At first things looked badly for me. The Attorney–General set up a claim to the whole as spoils of war, since, he argued, it was the war-chest of the enemy we had conquered. I do not know how the matter would have gone on legal grounds, though I was advised by my lawyers that the claim was a bad one. But the part I had played in the whole business, more especially in the visit to Inanda’s Kraal, had made me a kind of popular hero, and the Government thought better of their first attitude. Besides, Arcoll had great influence, and the whole story of my doings, which was told privately by him to some of the members of the Government, disposed them to be generous. Accordingly they agreed to treat the contents of the cave as ordinary treasure trove, of which, by the law, one half went to the discoverer and one half to the Crown.

This was well enough so far as the gold was concerned, but another difficulty arose about the diamonds; for a large part of these had obviously been stolen by labourers from the mines, and the mining people laid claim to them as stolen goods. I was advised not to dispute this claim, and consequently we had a great sorting-out of the stones in the presence of the experts of the different mines. In the end it turned out that identification was not an easy matter, for the experts quarrelled furiously among themselves. A compromise was at last come to, and a division made; and then the diamond companies behaved very handsomely, voting me a substantial sum in recognition of my services in recovering their property. What with this and with my half share of the gold and my share of the unclaimed stones, I found that I had a very considerable fortune. The whole of my stones I sold to De Beers, for if I had placed them on the open market I should have upset the delicate equipoise of diamond values. When I came finally to cast up my accounts, I found that I had secured a fortune of a trifle over a quarter of a million pounds.

The wealth did not dazzle so much as it solemnized me. I had no impulse to spend any part of it in a riot of folly. It had come to me like fairy gold out of the void; it had been bought with men’s blood, almost with my own. I wanted to get away to a quiet place and think, for of late my life had been too crowded with drama, and there comes a satiety of action as well as of idleness. Above all things I wanted to get home. They gave me a great send-off, and sang songs, and good fellows shook my hand till it ached. The papers were full of me, and there was a banquet and speeches. But I could not relish this glory as I ought, for I was like a boy thrown violently out of his bearings. Not till I was in the train nearing Cape Town did I recover my equanimity. The burden of the past seemed to slip from me suddenly as on the morning when I had climbed the linn. I saw my life all lying before me; and already I had won success. I thought of my return to my own country, my first sight of the grey shores of Fife, my visit to Kirkcaple, my meeting with my mother. I was a rich man now who could choose his career, and my mother need never again want for comfort. My money seemed pleasant to me, for if men won theirs by brains or industry, I had won mine by sterner methods, for I had staked against it my life. I sat alone in the railway carriage and cried with pure thankfulness. These were comforting tears, for they brought me back to my old common-place self.

My last memory of Africa is my meeting with Tam Dyke. I caught sight of him in the streets of Cape Town, and running after him, clapped him on the shoulder. He stared at me as if he had seen a ghost.

‘Is it yourself, Davie?’ he cried. ‘I never looked to see you again in this world. I do nothing but read about you in the papers. What for did ye not send for me? Here have I been knocking about inside a ship and you have been getting famous. They tell me you’re a millionaire, too.’

I had Tam to dinner at my hotel, and later, sitting smoking on the terrace and watching the flying-ants among the aloes, I told him the better part of the story I have here written down.

‘Man, Davie,’ he said at the end, ‘you’ve had a tremendous time. Here are you not eighteen months away from home, and you’re going back with a fortune. What will you do with it?’ I told him that I proposed, to begin with, to finish my education at Edinburgh College. At this he roared with laughter.

‘That’s a dull ending, anyway. It’s me that should have the money, for I’m full of imagination. You were aye a prosaic body, Davie.’

‘Maybe I am,’ I said; ‘but I am very sure of one thing. If I hadn’t been a prosaic body, I wouldn’t be sitting here to-night.’

Two years later Aitken found the diamond pipe, which he had always believed lay in the mountains. Some of the stones in the cave, being unlike any ordinary African diamonds, confirmed his suspicions and set him on the track. A Kaffir tribe to the north-east of the Rooirand had known of it, but they had never worked it, but only collected the overspill. The closing down of one of the chief existing mines had created a shortage of diamonds in the world’s markets, and once again the position was the same as when Kimberley began. Accordingly he made a great fortune, and today the Aitken Proprietary Mine is one of the most famous in the country. But Aitken did more than mine diamonds, for he had not forgotten the lesson we had learned together in the work of resettlement. He laid down a big fund for the education and amelioration of the native races, and the first fruit of it was the establishment at Blaauwildebeestefontein itself of a great native training college. It was no factory for making missionaries and black teachers, but an institution for giving the Kaffirs the kind of training which fits them to be good citizens of the state. There you will find every kind of technical workshop, and the finest experimental farms, where the blacks are taught modern agriculture. They have proved themselves apt pupils, and today you will see in the glens of the Berg and in the plains Kaffir tillage which is as scientific as any in Africa. They have created a huge export trade in tobacco and fruit; the cotton promises well; and there is talk of a new fibre which will do wonders. Also along the river bottoms the india-rubber business is prospering.

There are playing-fields and baths and reading-rooms and libraries just as in a school at home. In front of the great hall of the college a statue stands, the figure of a black man shading his eyes with his hands and looking far over the plains to the Rooirand. On the pedestal it is lettered ‘Prester John,’ but the face is the face of Laputa. So the last of the kings of Africa does not lack his monument.

Of this institution Mr Wardlaw is the head. He writes to me weekly, for I am one of the governors, as well as an old friend, and from a recent letter I take this passage:—

‘I often cast my mind back to the afternoon when you and I sat on the stoep of the schoolhouse, and talked of the Kaffirs and our future. I had about a dozen pupils then, and now I have nearly three thousand; and in place of a tin-roofed shanty and a yard, I have a whole countryside. You laughed at me for my keenness, Davie, but I’ve seen it justified. I was never a man of war like you, and so I had to bide at home while you and your like were straightening out the troubles. But when it was all over my job began, for I could do what you couldn’t do — I was the physician to heal wounds. You mind how nervous I was when I heard the drums beat. I hear them every evening now, for we have made a rule that all the Kaffir farms on the Berg sound a kind of curfew. It reminds me of old times, and tells me that though it is peace nowadays we mean to keep all the manhood in them that they used to exercise in war. It would do your eyes good to see the garden we have made out of the Klein Labongo glen. The place is one big orchard with every kind of tropical fruit in it, and the irrigation dam is as full of fish as it will hold. Out at Umvelos’ there is a tobacco-factory, and all round Sikitola’s we have square miles of mealie and cotton fields. The loch on the Rooirand is stocked with Lochleven trout, and we have made a bridle-path up to it in a gully east of the one you climbed. You ask about Machudi’s. The last time I was there the place was white with sheep, for we have got the edge of the plateau grazed down, and sheep can get the short bite there. We have cleaned up all the kraals, and the chiefs are members of our county council, and are as fond of hearing their own voices as an Aberdeen bailie. It’s a queer transformation we have wrought, and when I sit and smoke my pipe in the evening, and look over the plains and then at the big black statue you and Aitken set up, I thank the Providence that has guided me so far. I hope and trust that, in the Bible words, “the wilderness and the solitary place are glad for us.” At any rate it will not be my fault if they don’t “blossom as the rose”. Come out and visit us soon, man, and see the work you had a hand in starting. . . . ’

I am thinking seriously of taking Wardlaw’s advice.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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