Prester John, by John Buchan


The Drums Beat at Sunset

japp was drunk for the next day or two, and I had the business of the store to myself. I was glad of this, for it gave me leisure to reflect upon the various perplexities of my situation. As I have said, I was really scared, more out of a sense of impotence than from dread of actual danger. I was in a fog of uncertainty. Things were happening around me which I could only dimly guess at, and I had no power to take one step in defence. That Wardlaw should have felt the same without any hint from me was the final proof that the mystery was no figment of my nerves. I had written to Colles and got no answer. Now the letter with Japp’s resignation in it had gone to Durban. Surely some notice would be taken of that. If I was given the post, Colles was bound to consider what I had said in my earlier letter and give me some directions. Meanwhile it was my business to stick to my job till I was relieved.

A change had come over the place during my absence. The natives had almost disappeared from sight. Except the few families living round Blaauwildebeestefontein one never saw a native on the roads, and none came into the store. They were sticking close to their locations, or else they had gone after some distant business. Except a batch of three Shangaans returning from the Rand, I had nobody in the store for the whole of one day. So about four o’clock I shut it up, whistled on Colin, and went for a walk along the Berg.

If there were no natives on the road, there were plenty in the bush. I had the impression, of which Wardlaw had spoken, that the native population of the countryside had suddenly been hugely increased. The woods were simply hotching with them. I was being spied on as before, but now there were so many at the business that they could not all conceal their tracks. Every now and then I had a glimpse of a black shoulder or leg, and Colin, whom I kept on the leash, was half-mad with excitement. I had seen all I wanted, and went home with a preoccupied mind. I sat long on Wardlaw’s garden-seat, trying to puzzle out the truth of this spying.

What perplexed me was that I had been left unmolested when I had gone to Umvelos’. Now, as I conjectured, the secret of the neighbourhood, whatever it was, was probably connected with the Rooirand. But when I had ridden in that direction and had spent two days in exploring, no one had troubled to watch me. I was quite certain about this, for my eye had grown quick to note espionage, and it is harder for a spy to hide in the spare bush of the flats than in the dense thickets on these uplands.

The watchers, then, did not mind my fossicking round their sacred place. Why, then, was I so closely watched in the harmless neighbourhood of the store? I thought for a long time before an answer occurred to me. The reason must be that going to the plains I was going into native country and away from civilization. But Blaauwildebeestefontein was near the frontier. There must be some dark business brewing of which they may have feared that I had an inkling. They wanted to see if I proposed to go to Pietersdorp or Wesselsburg and tell what I knew, and they clearly were resolved that I should not. I laughed, I remember, thinking that they had forgotten the post-bag. But then I reflected that I knew nothing of what might be happening daily to the post-bag.

When I had reached this conclusion, my first impulse was to test it by riding straight west on the main road. If I was right, I should certainly be stopped. On second thoughts, however, this seemed to me to be flinging up the game prematurely, and I resolved to wait a day or two before acting.

Next day nothing happened, save that my sense of loneliness increased. I felt that I was being hemmed in by barbarism, and cut off in a ghoulish land from the succour of my own kind. I only kept my courage up by the necessity of presenting a brave face to Mr Wardlaw, who was by this time in a very broken condition of nerves. I had often thought that it was my duty to advise him to leave, and to see him safely off, but I shrank from severing myself from my only friend. I thought, too, of the few Dutch farmers within riding distance, and had half a mind to visit them, but they were far off over the plateau and could know little of my anxieties.

The third day events moved faster. Japp was sober and wonderfully quiet. He gave me good-morning quite in a friendly tone, and set to posting up the books as if he had never misbehaved in his days. I was so busy with my thoughts that I, too, must have been gentler than usual, and the morning passed like a honeymoon, till I went across to dinner.

I was just sitting down when I remembered that I had left my watch in my waistcoat behind the counter, and started to go back for it. But at the door I stopped short. For two horsemen had drawn up before the store.

One was a native with what I took to be saddle-bags; the other was a small slim man with a sun helmet, who was slowly dismounting. Something in the cut of his jib struck me as familiar. I slipped into the empty schoolroom and stared hard. Then, as he half-turned in handing his bridle to the Kaffir, I got a sight of his face. It was my former shipmate, Henriques. He said something to his companion, and entered the store.

You may imagine that my curiosity ran to fever-heat. My first impulse was to march over for my waistcoat, and make a third with Japp at the interview. Happily I reflected in time that Henriques knew my face, for I had grown no beard, having a great dislike to needless hair. If he was one of the villains in the drama, he would mark me down for his vengeance once he knew I was here, whereas at present he had probably forgotten all about me. Besides, if I walked in boldly I would get no news. If japp and he had a secret, they would not blab it in my presence.

My next idea was to slip in by the back to the room I had once lived in. But how was I to cross the road? It ran white and dry some distance each way in full view of the Kaffir with the horses. Further, the store stood on a bare patch, and it would be a hard job to get in by the back, assuming, as I believed, that the neighbourhood was thick with spies.

The upshot was that I got my glasses and turned them on the store. The door was open, and so was the window. In the gloom of the interior I made out Henriques’ legs. He was standing by the counter, and apparently talking to Japp. He moved to shut the door, and came back inside my focus opposite the window. There he stayed for maybe ten minutes, while I hugged my impatience. I would have given a hundred pounds to be snug in my old room with japp thinking me out of the store.

Suddenly the legs twitched up, and his boots appeared above the counter. Japp had invited him to his bedroom, and the game was now to be played beyond my ken. This was more than I could stand, so I stole out at the back door and took to the thickest bush on the hillside. My notion was to cross the road half a mile down, when it had dropped into the defile of the stream, and then to come swiftly up the edge of the water so as to effect a back entrance into the store.

As fast as I dared I tore through the bush, and in about a quarter of an hour had reached the point I was making for. Then I bore down to the road, and was in the scrub about ten yards off it, when the clatter of horses pulled me up again. Peeping out I saw that it was my friend and his Kaffir follower, who were riding at a very good pace for the plains. Toilfully and crossly I returned on my tracks to my long-delayed dinner. Whatever the purport of their talk, Japp and the Portuguese had not taken long over it.

In the store that afternoon I said casually to Japp that I had noticed visitors at the door during my dinner hour. The old man looked me frankly enough in the face. ‘Yes, it was Mr Hendricks,’ he said, and explained that the man was a Portuguese trader from Delagoa way, who had a lot of Kaffir stores east of the Lebombo Hills. I asked his business, and was told that he always gave Japp a call in when he was passing.

‘Do you take every man that calls into your bedroom, and shut the door?’ I asked.

Japp lost colour and his lip trembled. ‘I swear to God, Mr Crawfurd, I’ve been doing nothing wrong. I’ve kept the promise I gave you like an oath to my mother. I see you suspect me, and maybe you’ve cause, but I’ll be quite honest with you. I have dealt in diamonds before this with Hendricks. But today, when he asked me, I told him that that business

was off. I only took him to my room to give him a drink. He likes brandy, and there’s no supply in the shop.’

I distrusted Japp wholeheartedly enough, but I was convinced that in this case he spoke the truth. ‘Had the man any news?’ I asked.

‘He had and he hadn’t,’ said Japp. ‘He was always a sullen beggar, and never spoke much. But he said one queer thing. He asked me if I was going to retire, and when I told him “yes,” he said I had put it off rather long. I told him I was as healthy as I ever was, and he laughed in his dirty Portugoose way. “Yes, Mr Japp,” he says, “but the country is not so healthy.” I wonder what the chap meant. He’ll be dead of blackwater before many months, to judge by his eyes.’

This talk satisfied me about Japp, who was clearly in desperate fear of offending me, and disinclined to return for the present to his old ways. But I think the rest of the afternoon was the most wretched time in my existence. It was as plain as daylight that we were in for some grave trouble, trouble to which I believed that I alone held any kind of clue. I had a pile of evidence — the visit of Henriques was the last bit — which pointed to some great secret approaching its disclosure. I thought that that disclosure meant blood and ruin. But I knew nothing definite. If the commander of a British army had come to me then and there and offered help, I could have done nothing, only asked him to wait like me. The peril, whatever it was, did not threaten me only, though I and Wardlaw and Japp might be the first to suffer; but I had a terrible feeling that I alone could do something to ward it off, and just what that something was I could not tell. I was horribly afraid, not only of unknown death, but of my impotence to play any manly part. I was alone, knowing too much and yet too little, and there was no chance of help under the broad sky. I cursed myself for not writing to Aitken at Lourenco Marques weeks before. He had promised to come up, and he was the kind of man who kept his word.

In the late afternoon I dragged Wardlaw out for a walk. In his presence I had to keep up a forced cheerfulness, and I believe the pretence did me good. We took a path up the Berg among groves of stinkwood and essenwood, where a failing stream made an easy route. It may have been fancy, but it seemed to me that the wood was emptier and that we were followed less closely. I remember it was a lovely evening, and in the clear fragrant gloaming every foreland of the Berg stood out like a great ship above the dark green sea of the bush. When we reached the edge of the plateau we saw the sun sinking between two far blue peaks in Makapan’s country, and away to the south the great roll of the high veld. I longed miserably for the places where white men were thronged together in dorps and cities. As we gazed a curious sound struck our ears. It seemed to begin far up in the north — a low roll like the combing of breakers on the sand. Then it grew louder and travelled nearer — a roll, with sudden spasms of harsher sound in it; reminding me of the churning in one of the pot-holes of Kirkcaple cliffs. Presently it grew softer again as the sound passed south, but new notes were always emerging. The echo came sometimes, as it were, from stark rock, and sometimes from the deep gloom of the forests. I have never heard an eerier sound. Neither natural nor human it seemed, but the voice of that world between which is hid from man’s sight and hearing.

Mr Wardlaw clutched my arm, and in that moment I guessed the explanation. The native drums were beating, passing some message from the far north down the line of the Berg, where the locations were thickest, to the great black population of the south.

‘But that means war,’ Mr Wardlaw cried.

‘It means nothing of the kind,’ I said shortly. ‘It’s their way of sending news. It’s as likely to be some change in the weather or an outbreak of cattle disease.’

When we got home I found Japp with a face like grey paper. ‘Did you hear the drums?‘he asked.

‘Yes,’ I said shortly. ‘What about them?’

‘God forgive you for an ignorant Britisher,’ he almost shouted. ‘You may hear drums any night, but a drumming like that I only once heard before. It was in ‘79 in the ‘Zeti valley. Do you know what happened next day? Cetewayo’s impis came over the hills, and in an hour there wasn’t a living white soul in the glen. Two men escaped, and one of them was called Peter Japp.’

‘We are in God’s hands then, and must wait on His will,’ I said solemnly.

There was no more sleep for Wardlaw and myself that night. We made the best barricade we could of the windows, loaded all our weapons, and trusted to Colin to give us early news. Before supper I went over to get Japp to join us, but found that that worthy had sought help from his old protector, the bottle, and was already sound asleep with both door and window open.

I had made up my mind that death was certain, and yet my heart belied my conviction, and I could not feel the appropriate mood. If anything I was more cheerful since I had heard the drums. It was clearly now beyond the power of me or any man to stop the march of events. My thoughts ran on a native rising, and I kept telling myself how little that was probable. Where were the arms, the leader, the discipline? At any rate such arguments put me to sleep before dawn, and I wakened at eight to find that nothing had happened. The clear morning sunlight, as of old, made Blaauwildebeestefontein the place of a dream. Zeeta brought in my cup of coffee as if this day were just like all others, my pipe tasted as sweet, the fresh air from the Berg blew as fragrantly on my brow. I went over to the store in reasonably good spirits, leaving Wardlaw busy on the penitential Psalms.

The post-runner had brought the mail as usual, and there was one private letter for me. I opened it with great excitement, for the envelope bore the stamp of the firm. At last Colles had deigned to answer.

Inside was a sheet of the firm’s notepaper, with the signature of Colles across the top. Below some one had pencilled these five words:

‘The Blesbok3 are changing ground.’

3 A species of buck.

I looked to see that Japp had not suffocated himself, then shut up the store, and went back to my room to think out this new mystification.

The thing had come from Colles, for it was the private notepaper of the Durban office, and there was Colles’ signature. But the pencilling was in a different hand. My deduction from this was that some one wished to send me a message, and that Colles had given that some one a sheet of signed paper to serve as a kind of introduction. I might take it, therefore, that the scribble was Colles’ reply to my letter.

Now, my argument continued, if the unknown person saw fit to send me a message, it could not be merely one of warning. Colles must have told him that I was awake to some danger, and as I was in Blaauwildebeestefontein, I must be nearer the heart of things than any one else. The message must therefore be in the nature of some password, which I was to remember when I heard it again.

I reasoned the whole thing out very clearly, and I saw no gap in my logic. I cannot describe how that scribble had heartened me. I felt no more the crushing isolation of yesterday. There were others beside me in the secret. Help must be on the way, and the letter was the first tidings.

But how near? — that was the question; and it occurred to me for the first time to look at the postmark. I went back to the store and got the envelope out of the waste-paper basket. The postmark was certainly not Durban. The stamp was a Cape Colony one, and of the mark I could only read three letters, T. R. S. This was no sort of clue, and I turned the thing over, completely baffled. Then I noticed that there was no mark of the post town of delivery. Our letters to Blaauwildebeestefontein came through Pietersdorp and bore that mark. I compared the envelope with others. They all had a circle, and ‘Pietersdorp’ in broad black letters. But this envelope had nothing except the stamp.

I was still slow at detective work, and it was some minutes before the explanation flashed on me. The letter had never been posted at all. The stamp was a fake, and had been borrowed from an old envelope. There was only one way in which it could have come. It must have been put in the letter-bag while the postman was on his way from Pietersdorp. My unknown friend must therefore be somewhere within eighty miles of me. I hurried off to look for the post-runner, but he had started back an hour before. There was nothing for it but to wait on the coming of the unknown.

That afternoon I again took Mr Wardlaw for a walk. It is an ingrained habit of mine that I never tell anyone more of a business than is practically necessary. For months I had kept all my knowledge to myself, and breathed not a word to a soul. But I thought it my duty to tell Wardlaw about the letter, to let him see that we were not forgotten. I am afraid it did not encourage his mind. Occult messages seemed to him only the last proof of a deadly danger encompassing us, and I could not shake his opinion.

We took the same road to the crown of the Berg, and I was confirmed in my suspicion that the woods were empty and the watchers gone. The place was as deserted as the bush at Umvelos’. When we reached the summit about sunset we waited anxiously for the sound of drums. It came, as we expected, louder and more menacing than before. Wardlaw stood pinching my arm as the great tattoo swept down the escarpment, and died away in the far mountains beyond the Olifants, Yet it no longer seemed to be a wall of sound, shutting us out from our kindred in the West. A message had pierced the wall. If the blesbok were changing ground, I believed that the hunters were calling out their hounds and getting ready for the chase.

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