Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER III

Blaauwildebeestefontein

The Pilgrim’s Progress had been the Sabbath reading of my boyhood, and as I came in sight of Blaauwildebeestefontein a passage ran in my head. It was that which tells how Christian and Hopeful, after many perils of the way, came to the Delectable Mountains, from which they had a prospect of Canaan. After many dusty miles by rail, and a weariful journey in a Cape-cart through arid plains and dry and stony gorges, I had come suddenly into a haven of green. The Spring of the Blue Wildebeeste was a clear rushing mountain torrent, which swirled over blue rocks into deep fern-fringed pools. All around was a tableland of lush grass with marigolds and arum lilies instead of daisies and buttercups. Thickets of tall trees dotted the hill slopes and patched the meadows as if some landscape-gardener had been at work on them. Beyond, the glen fell steeply to the plains, which ran out in a faint haze to the horizon. To north and south I marked the sweep of the Berg, now rising high to a rocky peak and now stretching in a level rampart of blue. On the very edge of the plateau where the road dipped for the descent stood the shanties of Blaauwildebeestefontein. The fresh hill air had exhilarated my mind, and the aromatic scent of the evening gave the last touch of intoxication. Whatever serpent might lurk in it, it was a veritable Eden I had come to.

Blaauwildebeestefontein had no more than two buildings of civilized shape; the store, which stood on the left side of the river, and the schoolhouse opposite. For the rest, there were some twenty native huts, higher up the slope, of the type which the Dutch call rondavels. The schoolhouse had a pretty garden, but the store stood bare in a patch of dust with a few outhouses and sheds beside it. Round the door lay a few old ploughs and empty barrels, and beneath a solitary blue gum was a wooden bench with a rough table. Native children played in the dust, and an old Kaffir squatted by the wall.

My few belongings were soon lifted from the Cape-cart, and I entered the shop. It was the ordinary pattern of up-country store — a bar in one corner with an array of bottles, and all round the walls tins of canned food and the odds and ends of trade. The place was empty, and a cloud of flies buzzed over the sugar cask.

Two doors opened at the back, and I chose the one to the right. I found myself in a kind of kitchen with a bed in one corner, and a litter of dirty plates on the table. On the bed lay a man, snoring heavily. I went close to him, and found an old fellow with a bald head, clothed only in a shirt and trousers. His face was red and swollen, and his breath came in heavy grunts. A smell of bad whisky hung over everything. I had no doubt that this was Mr Peter Japp, my senior in the store. One reason for the indifferent trade at Blaauwildebeestefontein was very clear to me: the storekeeper was a sot.

I went back to the shop and tried the other door. It was a bedroom too, but clean and pleasant. A little native girl — Zeeta, I found they called her — was busy tidying it up, and when I entered she dropped me a curtsy. ‘This is your room, Baas,’ she said in very good English in reply to my question. The child had been well trained somewhere, for there was a cracked dish full of oleander blossom on the drawers’-head, and the pillow-slips on the bed were as clean as I could wish. She brought me water to wash, and a cup of strong tea, while I carried my baggage indoors and paid the driver of the cart. Then, having cleaned myself and lit a pipe, I walked across the road to see Mr Wardlaw.

I found the schoolmaster sitting under his own fig-tree reading one of his Kaffir primers. Having come direct by rail from Cape Town, he had been a week in the place, and ranked as the second oldest white resident.

‘Yon’s a bonny chief you’ve got, Davie,’ were his first words. ‘For three days he’s been as fou as the Baltic.’

I cannot pretend that the misdeeds of Mr Japp greatly annoyed me. I had the reversion of his job, and if he chose to play the fool it was all in my interest. But the schoolmaster was depressed at the prospect of such company. ‘Besides you and me, he’s the only white man in the place. It’s a poor look-out on the social side.’

The school, it appeared, was the merest farce. There were only five white children, belonging to Dutch farmers in the mountains. The native side was more flourishing, but the mission schools at the locations got most of the native children in the neighbourhood. Mr Wardlaw’s educational zeal ran high. He talked of establishing a workshop and teaching carpentry and blacksmith’s work, of which he knew nothing. He rhapsodized over the intelligence of his pupils and bemoaned his inadequate gift of tongues. ‘You and I, Davie,’ he said, ‘must sit down and grind at the business. It is to the interest of both of us. The Dutch is easy enough. It’s a sort of kitchen dialect you can learn in a fortnight. But these native languages are a stiff job. Sesuto is the chief hereabouts, and I’m told once you’ve got that it’s easy to get the Zulu. Then there’s the thing the Shangaans speak — Baronga, I think they call it. I’ve got a Christian Kaffir living up in one of the huts who comes every morning to talk to me for an hour. You’d better join me.’

I promised, and in the sweet-smelling dust crossed the road to the store. Japp was still sleeping, so I got a bowl of mealie porridge from Zeeta and went to bed.

Japp was sober next morning and made me some kind of apology. He had chronic lumbago, he said, and ‘to go on the bust’ now and then was the best cure for it. Then he proceeded to initiate me into my duties in a tone of exaggerated friendliness. ‘I took a fancy to you the first time I clapped eyes on you,’ he said. ‘You and me will be good friends, Crawfurd, I can see that. You’re a spirited young fellow, and you’ll stand no nonsense. The Dutch about here are a slim lot, and the Kaffirs are slimmer. Trust no man, that’s my motto. The firm know that, and I’ve had their confidence for forty years.’

The first day or two things went well enough. There was no doubt that, properly handled, a fine trade could be done in Blaauwildebeestefontein. The countryside was crawling with natives, and great strings used to come through from Shangaan territory on the way to the Rand mines. Besides, there was business to be done with the Dutch farmers, especially with the tobacco, which I foresaw could be worked up into a profitable export. There was no lack of money either, and we had to give very little credit, though it was often asked for. I flung myself into the work, and in a few weeks had been all round the farms and locations. At first Japp praised my energy, for it left him plenty of leisure to sit indoors and drink. But soon he grew suspicious, for he must have seen that I was in a fair way to oust him altogether. He was very anxious to know if I had seen Colles in Durban, and what the manager had said. ‘I have letters,’ he told me a hundred times, ‘from Mr Mackenzie himself praising me up to the skies. The firm couldn’t get along without old Peter Japp, I can tell you.’ I had no wish to quarrel with the old man, so I listened politely to all he said. But this did not propitiate him, and I soon found him so jealous as to be a nuisance. He was Colonial-born and was always airing the fact. He rejoiced in my rawness, and when I made a blunder would crow over it for hours. ‘It’s no good, Mr Crawfurd; you new chums from England may think yourselves mighty clever, but we men from the Old Colony can get ahead of you every time. In fifty years you’ll maybe learn a little about the country, but we know all about it before we start.’ He roared with laughter at my way of tying a voorslag, and he made merry (no doubt with reason) on my management of a horse. I kept my temper pretty well, but I own there were moments when I came near to kicking Mr Japp.

The truth is he was a disgusting old ruffian. His character was shown by his treatment of Zeeta. The poor child slaved all day and did two men’s work in keeping the household going. She was an orphan from a mission station, and in Japp’s opinion a creature without rights. Hence he never spoke to her except with a curse, and used to cuff her thin shoulders till my blood boiled. One day things became too much for my temper. Zeeta had spilled half a glass of Japp’s whisky while tidying up the room. He picked up a sjambok, and proceeded to beat her unmercifully till her cries brought me on the scene. I tore the whip from his hands, seized him by the scruff and flung him

on a heap of potato sacks, where he lay pouring out abuse and shaking with rage. Then I spoke my mind. I told him that if anything of the sort happened again I would report it at once to Mr Colles at Durban. I added that before making my report I would beat him within an inch of his degraded life. After a time he apologized, but I could see that thenceforth he regarded me with deadly hatred. There was another thing I noticed about Mr Japp. He might brag about his knowledge of how to deal with natives, but to my mind his methods were a disgrace to a white man. Zeeta came in for oaths and blows, but there were other Kaffirs whom he treated with a sort of cringing friendliness. A big black fellow would swagger into the shop, and be received by Japp as if he were his long-lost brother. The two would collogue for hours; and though at first I did not understand the tongue, I could see that it was the white man who fawned and the black man who bullied. Once when japp was away one of these fellows came into the store as if it belonged to him, but he went out quicker than he entered. Japp complained afterwards of my behaviour. ‘‘Mwanga is a good friend of mine,’ he said, ‘and brings us a lot of business. I’ll thank you to be civil to him the next time.’ I replied very shortly that ‘Mwanga or anybody else who did not mend his manners would feel the weight of my boot.

The thing went on, and I am not sure that he did not give the Kaffirs drink on the sly. At any rate, I have seen some very drunk natives on the road between the locations and Blaauwildebeestefontein, and some of them I recognized as Japp’s friends. I discussed the matter with Mr Wardlaw, who said, ‘I believe the old villain has got some sort of black secret, and the natives know it, and have got a pull on him.’ And I was inclined to think he was right.

By-and-by I began to feel the lack of company, for Wardlaw was so full of his books that he was of little use as a companion. So I resolved to acquire a dog, and bought one from a prospector, who was stony-broke and would have sold his soul for a drink. It was an enormous Boer hunting-dog, a mongrel in whose blood ran mastiff and bulldog and foxhound, and Heaven knows what beside. In colour it was a kind of brindled red, and the hair on its back grew against the lie of the rest of its coat. Some one had told me, or I may have read it, that a back like this meant that a dog would face anything mortal, even to a charging lion, and it was this feature which first caught my fancy. The price I paid was ten shillings and a pair of boots, which I got at cost price from stock, and the owner departed with injunctions to me to beware of the brute’s temper. Colin — for so I named him — began his career with me by taking the seat out of my breeches and frightening Mr Wardlaw into a tree. It took me a stubborn battle of a fortnight to break his vice, and my left arm today bears witness to the struggle. After that he became a second shadow, and woe betide the man who had dared to raise his hand to Colin’s master. Japp declared that the dog was a devil, and Colin repaid the compliment with a hearty dislike.

With Colin, I now took to spending some of my ample leisure in exploring the fastnesses of the Berg. I had brought out a shot-gun of my own, and I borrowed a cheap Mauser sporting rifle from the store. I had been born with a good eye and a steady hand, and very soon I became a fair shot with a gun and, I believe, a really fine shot with the rifle. The sides of the Berg were full of quail and partridge and bush pheasant, and on the grassy plateau there was abundance of a bird not unlike our own blackcock, which the Dutch called korhaan. But the great sport was to stalk bush-buck in the thickets, which is a game in which the hunter is at small advantage. I have been knocked down by a wounded bush-buck ram, and but for Colin might have been badly damaged. Once, in a kloof not far from the Letaba, I killed a fine leopard, bringing him down with a single shot from a rocky shelf almost on the top of Colin. His skin lies by my fireside as I write this tale. But it was during the days I could spare for an expedition into the plains that I proved the great qualities of my dog. There we had nobler game to follow — wildebeest and hartebeest, impala, and now and then a koodoo. At first I was a complete duffer, and shamed myself in Colin’s eyes. But by-and-by I learned something of veld-craft: I learned how to follow spoor, how to allow for the wind, and stalk under cover. Then, when a shot had crippled the beast, Colin was on its track like a flash to pull it down. The dog had the nose of a retriever, the speed of a greyhound, and the strength of a bull-terrier. I blessed the day when the wandering prospector had passed the store.

Colin slept at night at the foot of my bed, and it was he who led me to make an important discovery. For I now became aware that I was being subjected to constant espionage. It may have been going on from the start, but it was not till my third month at Blaauwildebeestefontein that I found it out. One night I was going to bed, when suddenly the bristles rose on the dog’s back and he barked uneasily at the window. I had been standing in the shadow, and as I stepped to the window to look out I saw a black face disappear below the palisade of the backyard. The incident was trifling, but it put me on my guard. The next night I looked, but saw nothing. The third night I looked, and caught a glimpse of a face almost pressed to the pane. Thereafter I put up the shutters after dark, and shifted my bed to a part of the room out of line with the window.

It was the same out of doors. I would suddenly be conscious, as I walked on the road, that I was being watched. If I made as if to walk into the roadside bush there would be a faint rustling, which told that the watcher had retired. The stalking was brilliantly done, for I never caught a glimpse of one of the stalkers. Wherever I went — on the road, on the meadows of the plateau, or on the rugged sides of the Berg — it was the same. I had silent followers, who betrayed themselves now and then by the crackling of a branch, and eyes were always looking at me which I could not see. Only when I went down to the plains did the espionage cease. This thing annoyed Colin desperately, and his walks abroad were one continuous growl. Once, in spite of my efforts, he dashed into the thicket, and a squeal of pain followed. He had got somebody by the leg, and there was blood on the grass.

Since I came to Blaauwildebeestefontein I had forgotten the mystery I had set out to track in the excitement of a new life and my sordid contest with Japp. But now this espionage brought back my old preoccupation. I was being watched because some person or persons thought that I was dangerous. My suspicions fastened on Japp, but I soon gave up that clue. It was my presence in the store that was a danger to him, not my wanderings about the countryside. It might be that he had engineered the espionage so as to drive me out of the place in sheer annoyance; but I flattered myself that Mr Japp knew me too well to imagine that such a game was likely to succeed.

The mischief was that I could not make out who the trackers were. I had visited all the surrounding locations, and was on good enough terms with all the chiefs. There was ‘Mpefu, a dingy old fellow who had spent a good deal of his life in a Boer gaol before the war. There was a mission station at his place, and his people seemed to me to be well behaved and prosperous. Majinje was a chieftainess, a little girl whom nobody was allowed to see. Her location was a miserable affair, and her tribe was yearly shrinking in numbers. Then there was Magata farther north among the mountains. He had no quarrel with me, for he used to give me a meal when I went out hunting in that direction; and once he turned out a hundred of his young men, and I had a great battue of wild dogs. Sikitola, the biggest of all, lived some distance out in the flats. I knew less about him; but if his men were the trackers, they must have spent most of their days a weary way from their kraal. The Kaffirs in the huts at Blaauwildebeestefontein were mostly Christians, and quiet, decent fellows, who farmed their little gardens, and certainly preferred me to Japp. I thought at one time of riding into Pietersdorp to consult the Native Commissioner. But I discovered that the old man, who knew the country, was gone, and that his successor was a young fellow from Rhodesia, who knew nothing about anything. Besides, the natives round Blaauwildebeestefontein were well conducted, and received few official visitations. Now and then a couple of Zulu policemen passed in pursuit of some minor malefactor, and the collector came for the hut-tax; but we gave the Government little work, and they did not trouble their heads about us.

As I have said, the clues I had brought out with me to Blaauwildebeestefontein began to occupy my mind again; and the more I thought of the business the keener I grew. I used to amuse myself with setting out my various bits of knowledge. There was first of all the Rev. John Laputa, his doings on the Kirkcaple shore, his talk with Henriques about Blaauwildebeestefontein, and his strange behaviour at Durban. Then there was what Colles had told me about the place being queer, how nobody would stay long either in the store or the schoolhouse. Then there was my talk with Aitken at Lourenco Marques, and his story of a great wizard in the neighbourhood to whom all Kaffirs made pilgrimages, and the suspicion of a diamond pipe. Last and most important, there was this perpetual spying on myself. It was as clear as daylight that the place held some secret, and I wondered if old Japp knew. I was fool enough one day to ask him about diamonds. He met me with contemptuous laughter. ‘There’s your ignorant Britisher,’ he cried. ‘If you had ever been to Kimberley you would know the look of a diamond country. You’re as likely to find diamonds here as ocean pearls. But go out and scrape in the spruit if you like; you’ll maybe find some garnets.’

I made cautious inquiries, too, chiefly through Mr Wardlaw, who was becoming a great expert at Kaffir, about the existence of Aitken’s wizard, but he could get no news. The most he found out was that there was a good cure for fever among Sikitola’s men, and that Majinje, if she pleased, could bring rain.

The upshot of it all was that, after much brooding, I wrote a letter to Mr Colles, and, to make sure of its going, gave it to a missionary to post in Pietersdorp. I told him frankly what Aitken had said, and I also told him about the espionage. I said nothing about old Japp, for, beast as he was, I did not want him at his age to be without a livelihood.

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