Prester John HTML version

2. Furth! Fortune!
In this plain story of mine there will be so many wild doings ere the end is
reached, that I beg my reader's assent to a prosaic digression. I will tell briefly the
things which happened between my sight of the man on the Kirkcaple sands and
my voyage to Africa. I continued for three years at the burgh school, where my
progress was less notable in my studies than in my sports. One by one I saw my
companions pass out of idle boyhood and be set to professions. Tam Dyke on
two occasions ran off to sea in the Dutch schooners which used to load with coal
in our port; and finally his father gave him his will, and he was apprenticed to the
merchant service. Archie Leslie, who was a year my elder, was destined for the
law, so he left Kirkcaple for an Edinburgh office, where he was also to take out
classes at the college. I remained on at school till I sat alone by myself in the
highest class - a position of little dignity and deep loneliness. I had grown a tall,
square-set lad, and my prowess at Rugby football was renowned beyond the
parishes of Kirkcaple and Portincross. To my father I fear I was a
disappointment. He had hoped for something in his son more bookish and
sedentary, more like his gentle, studious self.
On one thing I was determined: I should follow a learned profession. The fear of
being sent to an office, like so many of my schoolfellows, inspired me to the little
progress I ever made in my studies. I chose the ministry, not, I fear, out of any
reverence for the sacred calling, but because my father had followed it before
me. Accordingly I was sent at the age of sixteen for a year's finishing at the High
School of Edinburgh, and the following winter began my Arts course at the
If Fate had been kinder to me, I think I might have become a scholar. At any rate
I was just acquiring a taste for philosophy and the dead languages when my
father died suddenly of a paralytic shock, and I had to set about earning a living.
My mother was left badly off, for my poor father had never been able to save
much from his modest stipend. When all things were settled, it turned out that
she might reckon on an income of about fifty pounds a year. This was not
enough to live on, however modest the household, and certainly not enough to
pay for the colleging of a son. At this point an uncle of hers stepped forward with
a proposal. He was a well-to-do bachelor, alone in the world, and he invited my
mother to live with him and take care of his house. For myself he proposed a
post in some mercantile concern, for he had much influence in the circles of
commerce. There was nothing for it but to accept gratefully. We sold our few
household goods, and moved to his gloomy house in Dundas Street. A few days
later he announced at dinner that he had found for me a chance which might lead
to better things.
'You see, Davie,' he explained, 'you don't know the rudiments of business life.
There's no house in the country that would take you in except as a common
clerk, and you would never earn much more than a hundred pounds a year all
your days. If you want to better your future you must go abroad, where white men
are at a premium. By the mercy of Providence I met yesterday an old friend,