Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER IX

The Store at Umvelos’

I sat down on a chair and laboured to collect my thoughts. Laputa had gone, and would return sooner or later with Henriques. If I was to remain alive till morning, both of them must be convinced that I was harmless. Laputa was probably of that opinion, but Henriques would recognize me, and I had no wish to have that yellow miscreant investigating my character. There was only one way out of it — I must be incapably drunk. There was not a drop of liquor in the store, but I found an old whisky bottle half full of methylated spirits. With this I thought I might raise an atmosphere of bad whisky, and for the rest I must trust to my meagre gifts as an actor.

Supposing I escaped suspicion, Laputa and Henriques would meet in the outhouse, and I must find some means of overhearing them. Here I was fairly baffled. There was no window in the outhouse save in the roof, and they were sure to shut and bolt the door. I might conceal myself among the barrels inside; but apart from the fact that they were likely to search them before beginning their conference, it was quite certain that they would satisfy themselves that I was safe in the other end of the building before going to the outhouse.

Suddenly I thought of the cellar which we had built below the store. There was an entrance by a trap-door behind the counter, and another in the outhouse. I had forgotten the details, but my hope was that the second was among the barrels. I shut the outer door, prised up the trap, and dropped into the vault, which had been floored roughly with green bricks. Lighting match after match, I crawled to the other end and tried to lift the door. It would not stir, so I guessed that the barrels were on the top of it. Back to the outhouse I went, and found that sure enough a heavy packing-case was standing on a corner. I fixed it slightly open, so as to let me hear, and so arranged the odds and ends round about it that no one looking from the floor of the outhouse would guess at its existence. It occurred to me that the conspirators would want seats, so I placed two cases at the edge of the heap, that they might not be tempted to forage in the interior.

This done, I went back to the store and proceeded to rig myself out for my part. The cellar had made me pretty dirty, and I added some new daubs to my face. My hair had grown longish, and I ran my hands through it till it stood up like a cockatoo’s crest. Then I cunningly disposed the methylated spirits in the places most likely to smell. I burned a little on the floor, I spilt some on the counter and on my hands, and I let it dribble over my coat. In five minutes I had made the room stink like a shebeen. I loosened the collar of my shirt, and when I looked at myself in the cover of my watch I saw a specimen of debauchery which would have done credit to a Saturday night’s police cell.

By this time the sun had gone down, but I thought it better to kindle no light. It was the night of the full moon — for which reason, I supposed, Laputa had selected it — and in an hour or two the world would be lit with that ghostly radiance. I sat on the counter while the minutes passed, and I confess I found the time of waiting very trying for my courage. I had got over my worst nervousness by having something to do, but whenever I was idle my fears returned. Laputa had a big night’s work before him, and must begin soon. My vigil, I told myself, could not be long.

My pony was stalled in a rough shed we had built opposite the store. I could hear him shaking his head and stamping the ground above the croaking of the frogs by the Labongo. Presently it seemed to me that another sound came from behind the store — the sound of horses’ feet and the rattle of bridles. It was hushed for a moment, and then I heard human voices. The riders had tied up their horses to a tree and were coming nearer.

I sprawled gracefully on the counter, the empty bottle in my hand, and my eyes fixed anxiously on the square of the door, which was filled with the blue glimmer of the late twilight. The square darkened, and two men peered in. Colin growled from below the counter, but with one hand I held the scruff of his neck.

‘Hullo,’ I said, ‘ish that my black friend? Awfly shorry, old man, but I’ve f’nish’d th’ whisky. The bo-o-ottle shempty,’ and I waved it upside down with an imbecile giggle.

Laputa said something which I did not catch. Henriques laughed an ugly laugh.

‘We had better make certain of him,’ he said.

The two argued for a minute, and then Laputa seemed to prevail. The door was shut and the key, which I had left in the lock, turned on me.

I gave them five minutes to get to the outhouse and settle to business. Then I opened the trap, got into the cellar, and crawled to the other end. A ray of light was coming through the partially raised door. By a blessed chance some old bricks had been left behind, and of these I made a footstool, which enabled me to get my back level with the door and look out. My laager of barrels was intact, but through a gap I had left I could see the two men sitting on the two cases I had provided for them. A lantern was set between them, and Henriques was drinking out of a metal flask.

He took something — I could not see what — out of his pocket, and held it before his companion.

‘Spoils of war,’ he said. ‘I let Sikitola’s men draw first blood. They needed it to screw up their courage. Now they are as wild as Umbooni’s.

Laputa asked a question.

‘It was the Dutchmen, who were out on the Koodoo Flats with their cattle. Man, it’s no good being squeamish. Do you think you can talk over these surly back-veld fools? If we had not done it, the best of their horses would now be over the Berg to give warning. Besides, I tell you, Sikitola’s men wanted blooding. I did for the old swine, Coetzee, with my own hands. Once he set his dogs on me, and I don’t forget an injury.’

Laputa must have disapproved, for Henriques’ voice grew high.

‘Run the show the way you please,’ he cried; ‘but don’t blame me if you make a hash of it. God, man, do you think you are going to work a revolution on skim milk? If I had my will, I would go in and stick a knife in the drunken hog next door.’

‘He is safe enough,’ Laputa replied. ‘I gave him the chance of life, and he laughed at me. He won’t get far on his road home.’

This was pleasant hearing for me, but I scarcely thought of myself. I was consumed with a passion of fury against the murdering yellow devil. With Laputa I was not angry; he was an open enemy, playing a fair game. But my fingers itched to get at the Portugoose — that double-dyed traitor to his race. As I thought of my kindly old friends, lying butchered with their kinsfolk out in the bush, hot tears of rage came to my eyes. Perfect love casteth out fear, the Bible says; but, to speak it reverently, so does perfect hate. Not for safety and a king’s ransom would I have drawn back from the game. I prayed for one thing only, that God in His mercy would give me the chance of settling with Henriques.

I fancy I missed some of the conversation, being occupied with my own passion. At any rate, when I next listened the two were deep in plans. Maps were spread beside them, and Laputa’s delicate forefinger was tracing a route. I strained my ears, but could catch only a few names. Apparently they were to keep in the plains till they had crossed the Klein Labongo and the Letaba. I thought I caught the name of the ford of the latter; it sounded like Dupree’s Drift. After that the talk became plainer, for Laputa was explaining in his clear voice. The force would leave the bush, ascend the Berg by the glen of the Groot Letaba, and the first halt would be called at a place called Inanda’s Kraal, where a promontory of the high-veld juts out behind the peaks called the Wolkberg or Cloud Mountains. All this was very much to the point, and the names sunk into my memory like a die into wax.

‘Meanwhile,’ said Laputa, ‘there is the gathering at Ntabakaikonjwa.8 It will take us three hours’ hard riding to get there.’

8 Literally, ‘The Hill which is not to be pointed at’.

Where on earth was Ntabakaikonjwa? It must be the native name for the Rooirand, for after all Laputa was not likely to use the Dutch word for his own sacred place.

‘Nothing has been forgotten. The men are massed below the cliffs, and the chiefs and the great indunas will enter the Place of the Snake. The door will be guarded, and only the password will get a man through. That word is “Immanuel,” which means, “God with us.”’

‘Well, when we get there, what happens?’ Henriques asked with a laugh. ‘What kind of magic will you spring on us?’

There was a strong contrast between the flippant tone of the Portugoose and the grave voice which answered him.

‘The Keeper of the Snake will open the holy place, and bring forth the Isetembiso sami.9 As the leader of my people, I will assume the collar of Umkulunkulu in the name of our God and the spirits of the great dead.’

9 Literally, ‘Very sacred thing’.

‘But you don’t propose to lead the march in a necklace of rubies,’ said Henriques, with a sudden eagerness in his voice.

Again Laputa spoke gravely, and, as it were, abstractedly. I heard the voice of one whose mind was fixed on a far horizon.

‘When I am acclaimed king, I restore the Snake to its Keeper, and swear never to clasp it on my neck till I have led my people to victory.’

‘I see,’ said Henriques. ‘What about the purification you mentioned?’

I had missed this before and listened earnestly.

‘The vows we take in the holy place bind us till we are purged of them at Inanda’s Kraal. Till then no blood must be shed and no flesh eaten. It was the fashion of our forefathers.’

‘Well, I think you’ve taken on a pretty risky job,’ Henriques said. ‘You propose to travel a hundred miles, binding yourself not to strike a blow. It is simply putting yourself at the mercy of any police patrol.’

‘There will be no patrol,’ Laputa replied. ‘Our march will be as secret and as swift as death. I have made my preparations.’

‘But suppose you met with opposition,’ the Portugoose persisted, ‘would the rule hold?’

‘If any try to stop us, we shall tie them hand and foot, and carry them with us. Their fate will be worse than if they had been slain in battle.’

‘I see,’ said Henriques, whistling through his teeth. ‘Well, before we start this vow business, I think I’ll go back and settle that storekeeper.’

Laputa shook his head. ‘Will you be serious and hear me? We have no time to knife harmless fools. Before we start for Ntabakaikonjwa I must have from you the figures of the arming in the south. That is the one thing which remains to be settled.’

I am certain these figures would have been most interesting, but I never heard them. My feet were getting cramped with standing on the bricks, and I inadvertently moved them. The bricks came down with a rattle, and unfortunately in slipping I clutched at the trap. This was too much for my frail prop, and the door slammed down with a great noise.

Here was a nice business for the eavesdropper! I scurried along the passage as stealthily as I could and clambered back into the store, while I heard the sound of Laputa and Henriques ferreting among the barrels. I managed to throttle Colin and prevent him barking, but I could not get the confounded trap to close behind me. Something had jammed in it, and it remained half a foot open.

I heard the two approaching the door, and I did the best thing that occurred to me. I pulled Colin over the trap, rolled on the top of him, and began to snore heavily as if in a drunken slumber.

The key was turned, and the gleam of a lantern was thrown on the wall. It flew up and down as its bearer cast the light into the corners.

‘By God, he’s gone,’ I heard Henriques say. ‘The swine was listening, and he has bolted now.’

‘He won’t bolt far,’ Laputa said. ‘He is here. He is snoring behind the counter.’

These were anxious moments for me. I had a firm grip on Colin’s throat, but now and then a growl escaped, which was fortunately blended with my snores. I felt that a lantern was flashed on me, and that the two men were peering down at the heap on the half-opened trap. I think that was the worst minute I ever spent, for, as I have said, my courage was not so bad in action, but in a passive game it oozed out of my fingers.

‘He is safe enough,’ Laputa said, after what seemed to me an eternity. ‘The noise was only the rats among the barrels.’ I thanked my Maker that they had not noticed the other trap-door. ‘All the same I think I’ll make him safer,’ said Henriques.

Laputa seemed to have caught him by the arm.

‘Come back and get to business,’ he said. ‘I’ve told you I’ll have no more murder. You will do as I tell you, Mr Henriques.’

I did not catch the answer, but the two went out and locked the door. I patted the outraged Colin, and got to my feet with an aching side where the confounded lid of the trap had been pressing. There was no time to lose for the two in the outhouse would soon be setting out, and I must be before them.

With no better light than a ray of the moon through the window, I wrote a message on a leaf from my pocket-book. I told of the plans I had overheard, and especially I mentioned Dupree’s Drift on the Letaba. I added that I was going to the Rooirand to find the secret of the cave, and in one final sentence implored Arcoll to do justice on the Portugoose. That was all, for I had no time for more. I carefully tied the paper with a string below the collar of the dog.

Then very quietly I went into the bedroom next door — the side of the store farthest from the outhouse. The place was flooded with moonlight, and the window stood open, as I had left it in the afternoon. As softly as I could I swung Colin over the sill and clambered after him. In my haste I left my coat behind me with my pistol in the pocket.

Now came a check. My horse was stabled in the shed, and that was close to the outhouse. The sound of leading him out would most certainly bring Laputa and Henriques to the door. In that moment I all but changed my plans. I thought of slipping back to the outhouse and trying to shoot the two men as they came forth. But I reflected that, before I could get them both, one or other would probably shoot me. Besides, I had a queer sort of compunction about killing Laputa. I understood now why Arcoll had stayed his hand from murder, and I was beginning to be of his opinion on our arch-enemy.

Then I remembered the horses tied up in the bush. One of them I could get with perfect safety. I ran round the end of the store and into the thicket, keeping on soft grass to dull my tread. There, tied up to a merula tree, were two of the finest beasts I had seen in Africa. I selected the better, an Africander stallion of the blaauw-schimmel, or blue-roan type, which is famous for speed and endurance. Slipping his bridle from the branch, I led him a little way into the bush in the direction of the Rooirand.

Then I spoke to Colin. ‘Home with you,’ I said. ‘Home, old man, as if you were running down a tsessebe.’10

10 A species of buck, famous for its speed.

The dog seemed puzzled. ‘Home,’ I said again, pointing west in the direction of the Berg. ‘Home, you brute.’

And then he understood. He gave one low whine, and cast a reproachful eye on me and the blue roan. Then he turned, and with his head down set off with great lopes on the track of the road I had ridden in the morning.

A second later and I was in the saddle, riding hell-for-leather for the north.

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