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Prester John

11.
The Cave Of The Rooirand
I was roused by a sudden movement. The whole assembly stood up, and each
man clapped his right hand to his brow and then raised it high. A low murmur of
'Inkulu' rose above the din of the water. Laputa strode down the hall, with
Henriques limping behind him. They certainly did not suspect my presence in the
cave, nor did Laputa show any ruffling of his calm. Only Henriques looked weary
and cross. I guessed he had had to ride my pony.
The old man whom I took to be the priest advanced towards Laputa with his
hands raised over his head. A pace before they met he halted, and Laputa went
on his knees before him. He placed his hands on his head, and spoke some
words which I could not understand. It reminded me, so queer are the tricks of
memory, of an old Sabbath-school book I used to have which had a picture of
Samuel ordaining Saul as king of Israel. I think I had forgotten my own peril and
was enthralled by the majesty of the place - the wavering torches, the dropping
wall of green water, above all, the figures of Laputa and the Keeper of the Snake,
who seemed to have stepped out of an antique world.
Laputa stripped off his leopard skin till he stood stark, a noble form of a man.
Then the priest sprinkled some herbs on the fire, and a thin smoke rose to the
roof. The smell was that I had smelled on the Kirkcaple shore, sweet, sharp, and
strange enough to chill the marrow. And round the fire went the priest in widening
and contracting circles, just as on that Sabbath evening in spring.
Once more we were sitting on the ground, all except Laputa and the Keeper.
Henriques was squatting in the front row, a tiny creature among so many burly
savages. Laputa stood with bent head in the centre.
Then a song began, a wild incantation in which all joined. The old priest would
speak some words, and the reply came in barbaric music. The words meant
nothing to me; they must have been in some tongue long since dead. But the
music told its own tale. It spoke of old kings and great battles, of splendid
palaces and strong battlements, of queens white as ivory, of death and life, love
and hate, joy and sorrow. It spoke, too, of desperate things, mysteries of horror
long shut to the world. No Kaffir ever forged that ritual. It must have come straight
from Prester John or Sheba's queen, or whoever ruled in Africa when time was
young.
I was horribly impressed. Devouring curiosity and a lurking nameless fear filled
my mind. My old dread had gone. I was not afraid now of Kaffir guns, but of the
black magic of which Laputa had the key.
The incantation died away, but still herbs were flung on the fire, till the smoke
rose in a great cloud, through which the priest loomed misty and huge. Out of the
smoke-wreaths his voice came high and strange. It was as if some treble stop
had been opened in a great organ, as against the bass drone of the cataract.
He was asking Laputa questions, to which came answers in that rich voice which
on board the liner had preached the gospel of Christ. The tongue I did not know,
and I doubt if my neighbours were in better case. It must have been some old
 
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