Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER V

Mr Wardlaw Has a Premonition

A week later the building job was finished, I locked the door of the new store, pocketed the key, and we set out for home. Sikitola was entrusted with the general care of it, and I knew him well enough to be sure that he would keep his people from doing mischief. I left my empty wagons to follow at their leisure and rode on, with the result that I arrived at Blaauwildebeestefontein two days before I was looked for.

I stabled my horse, and went round to the back to see Colin. (I had left him at home in case of fights with native dogs, for he was an ill beast in a crowd.) I found him well and hearty, for Zeeta had been looking after him. Then some whim seized me to enter the store through my bedroom window. It was open, and I crawled softly in to find the room fresh and clean from Zeeta’s care. The door was ajar, and, hearing voices, I peeped into the shop.

Japp was sitting on the counter talking in a low voice to a big native — the same ‘Mwanga whom I had bundled out unceremoniously. I noticed that the outer door giving on the road was shut, a most unusual thing in the afternoon. Japp had some small objects in his hand, and the two were evidently arguing about a price. I had no intention at first of eavesdropping, and was just about to push the door open, when something in Japp’s face arrested me. He was up to no good, and I thought it my business to wait.

The low tones went on for a little, both men talking in Kaffir, and then Japp lifted up one of the little objects between finger and thumb. It was a small roundish stone about the size of a bean, but even in that half light there was a dull lustre in it.

At that I shoved the door open and went in. Both men started as if they had been shot. Japp went as white as his mottled face permitted. ‘What the —’ he gasped, and he dropped the thing he was holding.

I picked it up, and laid it on the counter. ‘So,’ I said, ‘diamonds, Mr Japp. You have found the pipe I was looking for. I congratulate you.’

My words gave the old ruffian his cue. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said, ‘I have, or rather my friend ‘Mwanga has. He has just been telling me about it.’

The Kaffir looked miserably uncomfortable. He shifted from one leg to the other, casting longing glances at the closed door.

‘I tink I go,’ he said. ‘Afterwards we will speak more.’

I told him I thought he had better go, and opened the door for him. Then I bolted it again, and turned to Mr Japp.

‘So that’s your game,’ I said. ‘I thought there was something funny about you, but I didn’t know it was I.D.B. you were up to.’

He looked as if he could kill me. For five minutes he cursed me with a perfection of phrase which I had thought beyond him. It was no I.D.B., he declared, but a pipe which ‘Mwanga had discovered. ‘In this kind of country?’ I said, quoting his own words. ‘Why, you might as well expect to find ocean pearls as diamonds. But scrape in the spruit if you like; you’ll maybe find some garnets.’

He choked down his wrath, and tried a new tack. ‘What will you take to hold your tongue? I’ll make you a rich man if you’ll come in with me.’ And then he started with offers which showed that he had been making a good thing out of the traffic.

I stalked over to him, and took him by the shoulder. ‘You old reprobate,’ I roared, ‘if you breathe such a proposal to me again, I’ll tie you up like a sack and carry you to Pietersdorp.’

At this he broke down and wept maudlin tears, disgusting to witness. He said he was an old man who had always lived honestly, and it would break his heart if his grey hairs were to be disgraced. As he sat rocking himself with his hands over his face, I saw his wicked little eyes peering through the slits of his fingers to see what my next move would be.

‘See here, Mr Japp,’ I said, ‘I’m not a police spy, and it’s no business of mine to inform against you. I’m willing to keep you out of gaol, but it must be on my own conditions. The first is that you resign this job and clear out. You will write to Mr Colles a letter at my dictation, saying that you find the work too much for you. The second is that for the time you remain here the diamond business must utterly cease. If ‘Mwanga or anybody like him comes inside the store, and if I get the slightest hint that you’re back at the trade, in you go to Pietersdorp. I’m not going to have my name disgraced by being associated with you. The third condition is that when you leave this place you go clear away. If you come within twenty miles of Blaauwildebeestefontein and I find you, I will give you up.’

He groaned and writhed at my terms, but in the end accepted them. He wrote the letter, and I posted it. I had no pity for the old scamp, who had feathered his nest well. Small wonder that the firm’s business was not as good as it might be, when Japp was giving most of his time to buying diamonds from native thieves. The secret put him in the power of any Kaffir who traded him a stone. No wonder he cringed to ruffians like ‘Mwanga.

The second thing I did was to shift my quarters. Mr Wardlaw had a spare room which he had offered me before, and now I accepted it. I wanted to be no more mixed up with Japp than I could help, for I did not know what villainy he might let me in for. Moreover, I carried Zeeta with me, being ashamed to leave her at the mercy of the old bully. Japp went up to the huts and hired a slattern to mind his house, and then drank heavily for three days to console himself.

That night I sat smoking with Mr Wardlaw in his sitting-room, where a welcome fire burned, for the nights on the Berg were chilly. I remember the occasion well for the queer turn the conversation took. Wardlaw, as I have said, had been working like a slave at the Kaffir tongues. I talked a kind of Zulu well enough to make myself understood, and I could follow it when spoken; but he had real scholarship in the thing, and knew all about the grammar and the different dialects. Further, he had read a lot about native history, and was full of the doings of Tchaka and Mosilikatse and Moshesh, and the kings of old. Having little to do in the way of teaching, he had made up for it by reading omnivorously. He used to borrow books from the missionaries, and he must have spent half his salary in buying new ones.

To-night as he sat and puffed in his armchair, he was full of stories about a fellow called Monomotapa. It seems he was a great black emperor whom the Portuguese discovered about the sixteenth century. He lived to the north in Mashonaland, and had a mountain full of gold. The Portuguese did not make much of him, but they got his son and turned him into a priest.

I told Wardlaw that he was most likely only a petty chief, whose exploits were magnified by distance, the same as the caciques in Mexico. But the schoolmaster would not accept this.

‘He must have been a big man, Davie. You know that the old ruins in Rhodesia, called Zimbabwe, were long believed to be Phoenician in origin. I have a book here which tells all about them. But now it is believed that they were built by natives. I maintain that the men who could erect piles like that’ — and he showed me a picture — ‘were something more than petty chiefs.’

Presently the object of this conversation appeared. Mr Wardlaw thought that we were underrating the capacity of the native. This opinion was natural enough in a schoolmaster, but not in the precise form Wardlaw put it. It was not his intelligence which he thought we underrated, but his dangerousness. His reasons, shortly, were these: There were five or six of them to every white man; they were all, roughly speaking, of the same stock, with the same tribal beliefs; they had only just ceased being a warrior race, with a powerful military discipline; and, most important, they lived round the rim of the high-veld plateau, and if they combined could cut off the white man from the sea. I pointed out to him that it would only be a matter of time before we opened the road again. ‘Ay,’ he said, ‘but think of what would happen before then. Think of the lonely farms and the little dorps wiped out of the map. It would be a second and bloodier Indian mutiny. ‘I’m not saying it’s likely,’ he went on, ‘but I maintain it’s possible. Supposing a second Tchaka turned up, who could get the different tribes to work together. It wouldn’t be so very hard to smuggle in arms. Think of the long, unwatched coast in Gazaland and Tongaland. If they got a leader with prestige enough to organize a crusade against the white man, I don’t see what could prevent a rising.’

‘We should get wind of it in time to crush it at the start,’ I said.

‘I’m not so sure. They are cunning fellows, and have arts that we know nothing about. You have heard of native telepathy. They can send news over a thousand miles as quick as the telegraph, and we have no means of tapping the wires. If they ever combined they could keep it as secret as the grave. My houseboy might be in the rising, and I would never suspect it till one fine morning he cut my throat.’

‘But they would never find a leader. If there was some exiled prince of Tchaka’s blood, who came back like Prince Charlie to free his people, there might be danger; but their royalties are fat men with top hats and old frock-coats, who live in dirty locations.’

Wardlaw admitted this, but said that there might be other kinds of leaders. He had been reading a lot about Ethiopianism, which educated American negroes had been trying to preach in South Africa. He did not see why a kind of bastard Christianity should not be the motive of a rising. ‘The Kaffir finds it an easy job to mix up Christian emotion and pagan practice. Look at Hayti and some of the performances in the Southern States.’

Then he shook the ashes out of his pipe and leaned forward with a solemn face. ‘I’ll admit the truth to you, Davie. I’m black afraid.’

He looked so earnest and serious sitting there with his short-sighted eyes peering at me that I could not help being impressed.

‘Whatever is the matter?’ I asked. ‘Has anything happened?’

He shook his head. ‘Nothing I can put a name to. But I have a presentiment that some mischief is afoot in these hills. I feel it in my bones.’

I confess I was startled by these words. You must remember that I had never given a hint of my suspicions to Mr Wardlaw beyond asking him if a wizard lived in the neighbourhood — a question anybody might have put. But here was the schoolmaster discovering for himself some mystery in Blaauwildebeestefontein.

I tried to get at his evidence, but it was very little. He thought there were an awful lot of blacks about. ‘The woods are full of them,’ he said. I gathered he did not imagine he was being spied on, but merely felt that there were more natives about than could be explained. ‘There’s another thing,’ he said. ‘The native bairns have all left the school. I’ve only three scholars left, and they are from Dutch farms. I went to Majinje to find out what was up, and an old crone told me the place was full of bad men. I tell you, Davie, there’s something brewing, and that something is not good for us.’

There was nothing new to me in what Wardlaw had to tell, and yet that talk late at night by a dying fire made me feel afraid for the second time since I had come to Blaauwildebeestefontein. I had a clue and had been on the look-out for mysteries, but that another should feel the strangeness for himself made it seem desperately real to me. Of course I scoffed at Mr Wardlaw’s fears. I could not have him spoiling all my plans by crying up a native rising for which he had not a scrap of evidence.

‘Have you been writing to anybody?’ I asked him.

He said that he had told no one, but he meant to, unless things got better. ‘I haven’t the nerve for this job, Davie,’ he said; ‘I’ll have to resign. And it’s a pity, for the place suits my health fine. You see I know too much, and I haven’t your whinstone nerve and total lack of imagination.’

I told him that it was simply fancy, and came from reading too many books and taking too little exercise. But I made him promise to say nothing to anybody either by word of mouth or letter, without telling me first. Then I made him a rummer of toddy and sent him to bed a trifle comforted.

The first thing I did in my new room was to shift the bed into the corner out of line with the window. There were no shutters, so I put up an old table-top and jammed it between the window frames. Also, I loaded my shot-gun and kept it by my bedside. Had Wardlaw seen these preparations he might have thought more of my imagination and less of my nerve. It was a real comfort to me to put out a hand in the darkness and feel Colin’s shaggy coat.

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