Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER VIII

I Fall in Again with the Reverend John Laputa

Once, as a boy, I had earnestly desired to go into the army, and had hopes of rising to be a great general. Now that I know myself better, I do not think I would have been much good at a general’s work. I would have shirked the loneliness of it, the isolation of responsibility. But I think I would have done well in a subaltern command, for I had a great notion of carrying out orders, and a certain zest in the mere act of obedience. Three days before I had been as nervous as a kitten because I was alone and it was ‘up to me,’ as Americans say, to decide on the next step. But now that I was only one wheel in a great machine of defence my nervousness seemed to have fled. I was well aware that the mission I was bound on was full of risk; but, to my surprise, I felt no fear. Indeed, I had much the same feeling as a boy on a Saturday’s holiday who has planned a big expedition. One thing only I regretted — that Tam Dyke was not with me to see the fun. The thought of that faithful soul, now beating somewhere on the seas, made me long for his comradeship. As I shaved, I remember wondering if I would ever shave again, and the thought gave me no tremors. For once in my sober life I was strung up to the gambler’s pitch of adventure.

My job was to go to Umvelos’ as if on my ordinary business, and if possible find out something of the evening’s plan of march. The question was how to send back a message to Arcoll, assuming I had any difficulty in getting away. At first this puzzled us both, and then I thought of Colin. I had trained the dog to go home at my bidding, for often when I used to go hunting I would have occasion to visit a kraal where he would have been a nuisance. Accordingly, I resolved to take Colin with me, and, if I got into trouble, to send word by him.

I asked about Laputa’s knowledge of our preparations. Arcoll was inclined to think that he suspected little. The police and the commandos had been kept very secret, and, besides, they were moving on the high veld and out of the ken of the tribes. Natives, he told me, were not good scouts so far as white man’s work was concerned, for they did not understand the meaning of what we did. On the other hand, his own native scouts brought him pretty accurate tidings of any Kaffir movements. He thought that all the bush country of the plain would be closely watched, and that no one would get through without some kind of pass. But he thought also that the storekeeper might be an exception, for his presence would give rise to no suspicions. Almost his last words to me were to come back hell-for-leather if I saw the game was hopeless, and in any case to leave as soon as I got any news. ‘If you’re there when the march begins,’ he said, ‘they’ll cut your throat for a certainty.’ I had all the various police posts on the Berg clear in my mind, so that I would know where to make for if the road to Blaauwildebeestefontein should be closed.

I said good-bye to Arcoll and Wardlaw with a light heart, though the schoolmaster broke down and implored me to think better of it. As I turned down into the gorge I heard the sound of horses’ feet far behind, and, turning back, saw white riders dismounting at the dorp. At any rate I was leaving the country well guarded in my rear.

It was a fine morning in mid-winter, and I was in very good spirits as I jogged on my pony down the steep hill-road, with Colin running beside me. A month before I had taken the same journey, with no suspicion in my head of what the future was to bring. I thought about my Dutch companions, now with their cattle far out on the plains. Did they know of the great danger, I wondered. All the way down the glen I saw no sign of human presence. The game-birds mocked me from the thicket; a brace of white berghaan circled far up in the blue; and I had for pleasant comrade the brawling river. I dismounted once to drink, and in that green haven of flowers and ferns I was struck sharply with a sense of folly. Here were we wretched creatures of men making for each other’s throats, and outraging the good earth which God had made so fair a habitation.

I had resolved on a short cut to Umvelos’, avoiding the neighbourhood of Sikitola’s kraal, so when the river emerged from the glen I crossed it and struck into the bush. I had not gone far before I realized that something strange was going on. It was like the woods on the Berg a week before. I had the impression of many people moving in the bush, and now and then I caught a glimpse of them. My first thought was that I should be stopped, but soon it appeared that these folk had business of their own which did not concern me. I was conscious of being watched, yet it was clear that the bush folk were not there for the purpose of watching me.

For a little I kept my spirits, but as the hours passed with the same uncanny hurrying to and fro all about me my nerves began to suffer. Weeks of espionage at Blaauwildebeestefontein had made me jumpy. These people apparently meant me no ill, and had no time to spare on me, But the sensation of moving through them was like walking on a black-dark night with precipices all around. I felt odd quiverings between my shoulder blades where a spear might be expected to lodge. Overhead was a great blue sky and a blazing sun, and I could see the path running clear before me between the walls of scrub. But it was like midnight to me, a midnight of suspicion and unknown perils. I began to wish heartily I had never come.

I stopped for my midday meal at a place called Taqui, a grassy glade in the bush where a tiny spring of water crept out from below a big stone, only to disappear in the sand. Here I sat and smoked for half an hour, wondering what was going to become of me. The air was very still, but I could hear the rustle of movement somewhere within a hundred yards. The hidden folk were busy about their own ends, and I regretted that I had not taken the road by Sikitola’s and seen how the kraals looked. They must be empty now, for the young men were already out on some mission. So nervous I got that I took my pocket-book and wrote down certain messages to my mother, which I implored whoever should find my body to transmit. Then, a little ashamed of my childishness, I pulled myself together, and remounted.

About three in the afternoon I came over a low ridge of bush and saw the corrugated iron roof of the store and the gleam of water from the Labongo. The sight encouraged me, for at any rate it meant the end of this disquieting ride. Here the bush changed to trees of some size, and after leaving the ridge the road plunged for a little into a thick shade. I had forgotten for a moment the folk in the bush, and when a man stepped out of the thicket I pulled up my horse with a start.

It was a tall native, who carried himself proudly, and after a glance at me, stalked along at my side. He wore curious clothes, for he had a kind of linen tunic, and around his waist hung a kilt of leopard-skin. In such a man one would have looked for a ting-kop,7 but instead he had a mass of hair, not like a Kaffir’s wool, but long and curled like some popular musician’s. I should have been prepared for the face, but the sight of it sent a sudden chill of fright through my veins. For there was the curved nose, the deep flashing eyes, and the cruel lips of my enemy of the Kirkcaple shore.

7 The circlet into which, with the aid of gum, Zulu warriors weave their hair.

Colin was deeply suspicious and followed his heels growling, but he never turned his head.

‘The day is warm, father,’ I said in Kaffir. ‘Do you go far?’

He slackened his pace till he was at my elbow. ‘But a short way, Baas,’ he replied in English; ‘I go to the store yonder.’

‘Well met, then,’ said I, ‘for I am the storekeeper. You will find little in it, for it is newly built and not yet stocked. I have ridden over to see to it.’

He turned his face to me. ‘That is bad news. I had hoped for food and drink yonder. I have travelled far, and in the chill nights I desire a cover for my head. Will the Baas allow me to sleep the night in an outhouse?’

By this time I had recovered my nerve, and was ready to play the part I had determined on. ‘Willingly,’ I said. ‘You may sleep in the storeroom if you care. You will find sacks for bedding, and the place is snug enough on a cold night.’

He thanked me with a grave dignity which I had never seen in any Kaffir. As my eye fell on his splendid proportions I forgot all else in my admiration of the man. In his minister’s clothes he had looked only a heavily built native, but now in his savage dress I saw how noble a figure he made. He must have been at least six feet and a half, but his chest was so deep and his shoulders so massive that one did not remark his height. He put a hand on my saddle, and I remember noting how slim and fine it was, more like a high-bred woman’s than a man’s. Curiously enough he filled me with a certain confidence. ‘I do not think you will cut my throat,’ I said to myself. ‘Your game is too big for common murder.’

The store at Umvelos’ stood as I had left it. There was the sjambok I had forgotten still lying on the window sill. I unlocked the door, and a stifling smell of new paint came out to meet me. Inside there was nothing but the chairs and benches, and in a corner the pots and pans I had left against my next visit. I unlocked the cupboard and got out a few stores, opened the windows of the bedroom next door, and flung my kaross on the cartel which did duty as bed. Then I went out to find Laputa standing patiently in the sunshine.

I showed him the outhouse where I had said he might sleep. It was the largest room in the store, but wholly unfurnished. A pile of barrels and packing-cases stood in the corner, and there was enough sacking to make a sort of bed.

‘I am going to make tea,’ I said. ‘If you have come far you would maybe like a cup?’ He thanked me, and I made a fire in the grate and put on the kettle to boil. Then I set on the table biscuits, and sardines, and a pot of jam. It was my business now to play the fool, and I believe I succeeded to admiration in the part. I blush today to think of the stuff I talked. First I made him sit on a chair opposite me, a thing no white man in the country would have done. Then I told him affectionately that I liked natives, that they were fine fellows and better men than the dirty whites round about. I explained that I was fresh from England, and believed in equal rights for all men, white or coloured. God forgive me, but I think I said I hoped to see the day when Africa would belong once more to its rightful masters.

He heard me with an impassive face, his grave eyes studying every line of me. I am bound to add that he made a hearty meal, and drank three cups of strong tea of my brewing. I gave him a cigar, one of a lot I had got from a Dutch farmer who was experimenting with their manufacture — and all the while I babbled of myself and my opinions. He must have thought me half-witted, and indeed before long I began to be of the same opinion myself. I told him that I meant to sleep the night here, and go back in the morning to Blaauwildebeestefontein, and then to Pietersdorp for stores. By-and-by I could see that he had ceased to pay any attention to what I said. I was clearly set down in his mind as a fool. Instead he kept looking at Colin, who was lying blinking in the doorway, one wary eye cocked on the stranger.

‘You have a fine dog,’ he observed.

‘Yes,’ I agreed, with one final effort of mendacity, ‘he’s fine to look at, but he has no grit in him. Any mongrel from a kraal can make him turn tail. Besides, he is a born fool and can’t find his way home. I’m thinking of getting rid of him.’

Laputa rose and his eye fell on the dog’s back. I could see that he saw the lie of his coat, and that he did not agree with me.

‘The food was welcome, Baas,’ he said. ‘If you will listen to me I can repay hospitality with advice. You are a stranger here. Trouble comes, and if you are wise you will go back to the Berg.’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said, with an air of cheerful idiocy. ‘But back to the Berg I go the first thing in the morning. I hate these stinking plains.’

‘It were wise to go to-night,’ he said, with a touch of menace in his tone.

‘I can’t,’ I said, and began to sing the chorus of a ridiculous music-hall song —

‘There’s no place like home — but

I’m afraid to go home in the dark.’

Laputa shrugged his shoulders, stepped over the bristling Colin, and went out. When I looked after him two minutes later he had disappeared.

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