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Prester John

7. Captain Arcoll Tells A Tale
It froze in the night, harder than was common on the Berg even in winter, and as
I crossed the road next morning it was covered with rime. All my fears had gone,
and my mind was strung high with expectation. Five pencilled words may seem a
small thing to build hope on, but it was enough for me, and I went about my work
in the store with a reasonably light heart. One of the first things I did was to take
stock of our armoury. There were five sporting Mausers of a cheap make, one
Mauser pistol, a Lee-Speed carbine, and a little nickel- plated revolver. There
was also Japp's shot-gun, an old hammered breech-loader, as well as the gun I
had brought out with me. There was a good supply of cartridges, including a
stock for a .400 express which could not be found. I pocketed the revolver, and
searched till I discovered a good sheath-knife. If fighting was in prospect I might
as well look to my arms.
All the morning I sat among flour and sugar possessing my soul in as much
patience as I could command. Nothing came down the white road from the west.
The sun melted the rime; the flies came out and buzzed in the window; Japp got
himself out of bed, brewed strong coffee, and went back to his slumbers.
Presently it was dinner-time, and I went over to a silent meal with Wardlaw.
When I returned I must have fallen asleep over a pipe, for the next thing I knew I
was blinking drowsily at the patch of sun in the door, and listening for footsteps.
In the dead stillness of the afternoon I thought I could discern a shuffling in the
dust. I got up and looked out, and there, sure enough, was some one coming
down the road.
But it was only a Kaffir, and a miserable-looking object at that. I had never seen
such an anatomy. It was a very old man, bent almost double, and clad in a
ragged shirt and a pair of foul khaki trousers. He carried an iron pot, and a few
belongings were tied up in a dirty handkerchief. He must have been a dacha*
smoker, for he coughed hideously, twisting his body with the paroxysms. I had
seen the type before - the old broken-down native who had no kin to support him,
and no tribe to shelter him. They wander about the roads, cooking their wretched
meals by their little fires, till one morning they are found stiff under a bush.
*Hemp.
The native gave me a good-day in Kaffir, then begged for tobacco or a handful of
mealie-meal.
I asked him where he came from.
'From the west, Inkoos,' he said, 'and before that from the south. It is a sore road
for old bones.'
I went into the store to fetch some meal, and when I came out he had shuffled
close to the door. He had kept his eyes on the ground, but now he looked up at
me, and I thought he had very bright eyes for such an old wreck.
'The nights are cold, Inkoos,' he wailed, 'and my folk are scattered, and I have no
kraal. The aasvogels follow me, and I can hear the blesbok.' 'What about the
blesbok?' I asked with a start.
'The blesbok are changing ground,' he said, and looked me straight in the face.
 
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