Prester John by John Buchan - HTML preview
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The vow was at an end. In place of the silent army of yesterday a mob of maddened savages surged around me. They were chanting a wild song, and brandishing spears and rifles to its accompaniment. From their bloodshot eyes stared the lust of blood, the fury of conquest, and all the aboriginal passions on which Laputa had laid his spell. In my mind ran a fragment from Laputa's prayer in the cave about the 'Terrible Ones.' Machudi's men - stout fellows, they held their ground as long as they could - were swept out of the way, and the wave of black savagery seemed to close over my head.
I thought my last moment had come. Certainly it had but for Colin. The bag had been taken from his head, and the fellow of Machudi's had dropped the rope round his collar. In a red fury of wrath the dog leaped at my enemies. Though every man of them was fully armed, they fell back, for I have noticed always that Kaffirs are mortally afraid of a white man's dog. Colin had the sense to keep beside me. Growling like a thunderstorm he held the ring around my litter. The breathing space would not have lasted long, but it gave me time to get to my feet. My wrists and feet had been unbound long before, and the rest had cured my leg-weariness. I stood up in that fierce circle with the clear knowledge that my life hung by a hair.
'Take me to Inkulu,' I cried. 'Dogs and fools, would you despise his orders? If one hair of my head is hurt, he will flay you alive. Show me the way to him, and clear out of it.'
I dare say there was a break in my voice, for I was dismally frightened, but there must have been sufficient authority to get me a hearing. Machudi's men closed up behind me, and repeated my words with flourishes and gestures. But still the circle held. No man came nearer me, but none moved so as to give me passage. Then I screwed up my courage, and did the only thing possible. I walked straight into the circle, knowing well that I was running no light risk. My courage, as I have already explained, is of little use unless I am doing something. I could not endure another minute of sitting still with those fierce eyes on me. The circle gave way. Sullenly they made a road for me, closing up behind on my guards, so that Machudi's men were swallowed in the mob, Alone I stalked forward with all that huge yelling crowd behind me.
I had not far to go. Inanda's Kraal was a cluster of kyas and rondavels, shaped in a half-moon, with a flat space between the houses, where grew a big merula tree. All around was a medley of little fires, with men squatted beside them. Here and there a party had finished their meal, and were swaggering about with a great shouting. The mob into which I had fallen was of this sort, and I saw others within the confines of the camp. But around the merula tree there was a gathering of chiefs, if I could judge by the comparative quiet and dignity of the men, who sat in rows on the ground. A few were standing, and among them I caught sight of Laputa's tall figure. I strode towards it, wondering if the chiefs would let me pass.
The hubbub of my volunteer attendants brought the eyes of the company round to me. In a second it seemed every man was on his feet. I could only pray that Laputa would get to me before his friends had time to spear me. I remember I fixed my eyes on a spur of hill beyond the kraal, and walked on with the best resolution I could find. Already I felt in my breast some of the long thin assegais of Umbooni's men.
But Laputa did not intend that I should be butchered. A word from him brought his company into order, and the next thing I knew I was facing him, where he stood in front of the biggest kya, with Henriques beside him, and some of the northern indunas. Henriques looked ghastly in the clear morning light, and he had a linen rag bound round his head and jaw, as if he suffered from toothache. His face was more livid, his eyes more bloodshot, and at the sight of me his hand went to his belt, and his teeth snapped. But he held his peace, and it was Laputa who spoke. He looked straight through me, and addressed Machudi's men. 'You have brought back the prisoner. That is well, and your service will be remembered. Go to 'Mpefu's camp on the hill there, and you will be given food.' The men departed, and with them fell away the crowd which had followed me. I was left, very giddy and dazed, to confront Laputa and his chiefs. The whole scene was swimming before my eyes. I remember there was a clucking of hens from somewhere behind the kraal, which called up ridiculous memories. I was trying to remember the plan I had made in Machudi's glen. I kept saying to myself like a parrot: 'The army cannot know about the jewels. Laputa must keep his loss secret. I can get my life from him if I offer to give them back.' It had sounded a good scheme three hours before, but with the man's hard face before me, it seemed a frail peg to hang my fate on.
Laputa's eye fell on me, a clear searching eye with a question in it. There was something he was trying to say to me which he dared not put into words. I guessed what the something was, for I saw his glance run over my shirt and my empty pockets.
'You have made little of your treachery,' he said. 'Fool, did you think to escape me? I could bring you back from the ends of the earth.'
'There was no treachery,' I replied. 'Do you blame a prisoner for trying to escape? When shooting began I found myself free, and I took the road for home. Ask Machudi's men and they will tell you that I came quietly with them, when I saw that the game was up.'
He shrugged his shoulders. 'It matters very little what you did. You are here now. - Tie him up and put him in my kya,' he said to the bodyguard. 'I have something to say to him before he dies.'
As the men laid hands on me, I saw the exultant grin on Henriques' face. It was more than I could endure.
'Stop,' I said. 'You talk of traitors, Mr Laputa. There is the biggest and blackest at your elbow. That man sent word to Arcoll about your crossing at Dupree's Drift. At our outspan at noon yesterday he came to me and offered me my liberty if I would help him. He told me he was a spy, and I flung his offer in his face. It was he who shot the Keeper by the river side, and would have stolen the Snake if I had not broken his head. You call me a traitor, and you let that thing live, though he has killed your priest and betrayed your plans. Kill me if you like, but by God let him die first.'
I do not know how the others took the revelation, for my eyes were only for the Portugoose. He made a step towards me, his hands twitching by his sides. 'You lie,' he screamed in that queer broken voice which much fever gives. 'It was this English hound that killed the Keeper, and felled me when I tried to save him. The man who insults my honour is dead.' And he plucked from his belt a pistol. A good shot does not miss at two yards. I was never nearer my end than in that fraction of time while the weapon came up to the aim. It was scarcely a second, but it was enough for Colin. The dog had kept my side, and had stood docilely by me while Laputa spoke. The truth is, he must have been as tired as I was. As the Kaffirs approached to lay hands on me he had growled menacingly, but when I spoke again he had stopped. Henriques' voice had convinced him of a more urgent danger, and so soon as the trigger hand of the Portugoose rose, the dog sprang. The bullet went wide, and the next moment dog and man were struggling on the ground.
A dozen hands held me from going to Colin's aid, but oddly enough no one stepped forward to help Henriques. The ruffian kept his head, and though the dog's teeth were in his shoulder, he managed to get his right hand free. I saw what would happen, and yelled madly in my apprehension. The yellow wrist curved, and the pistol barrel was pressed below the dog's shoulder. Thrice he fired, the grip relaxed, and Colin rolled over limply, fragments of shirt still hanging from his jaw. The Portugoose rose slowly with his hand to his head, and a thin stream of blood dripping from his shoulder. As I saw the faithful eyes glazing in death, and knew that I had lost the best of all comrades, I went clean berserk mad. The cluster of men round me, who had been staring open-eyed at the fight, were swept aside like reeds. I went straight for the Portugoose, determined that, pistol or no pistol, I would serve him as he had served my dog.
For my years I was a well-set-up lad, long in the arms and deep in the chest. But I had not yet come to my full strength, and in any case I could not hope to fight the whole of Laputa's army. I was flung back and forwards like a shuttlecock. They played some kind of game with me, and I could hear the idiotic Kaffir laughter. It was blind man's buff, so far as I was concerned, for I was blind with fury. I struck out wildly left and right, beating the air often, but sometimes getting in a solid blow on hard black flesh. I was soundly beaten myself, pricked with spears, and made to caper for savage sport. Suddenly I saw Laputa before me, and hurled myself madly at his chest. Some one gave me a clout on the head, and my senses fled.
When I came to myself, I was lying on a heap of mealie-stalks in a dark room. I had a desperate headache, and a horrid nausea, which made me fall back as soon as I tried to raise myself. A voice came out of the darkness as I stirred - a voice speaking English.
'Are you awake, Mr Storekeeper?'
The voice was Laputa's, but I could not see him. The room was pitch dark, except for a long ray of sunlight on the floor.
'I'm awake,' I said. 'What do you want with me?'
Some one stepped out of the gloom and sat down near me. A naked black foot broke the belt of light on the floor.
'For God's sake get me a drink,' I murmured. The figure rose and fetched a pannikin of water from a pail. I could hear the cool trickle of the drops on the metal. A hand put the dish to my mouth, and I drank water with a strong dash of spirits. This brought back my nausea, and I collapsed on the mealie-stalks till the fit passed. Again the voice spoke, this time from close at hand.
'You are paying the penalty of being a fool, Mr Storekeeper. You are young to die, but folly is common in youth. In an hour you will regret that you did not listen to my advice at Umvelos'.'
I clawed at my wits and strove to realize what he was saying. He spoke of death within an hour. If it only came sharp and sudden, I did not mind greatly. The plan I had made had slipped utterly out of my mind. My body was so wretched, that I asked only for rest. I was very lighthearted and foolish at that moment. 'Kill me if you like,' I whispered. 'Some day you will pay dearly for it all. But for God's sake go away and leave me alone.'
Laputa laughed. It was a horrid sound in the darkness.
'You are brave, Mr Storekeeper, but I have seen a brave man's courage ebb very fast when he saw the death which I have arranged for you. Would you like to hear something of it by way of preparation?'
In a low gentle voice he began to tell me mysteries of awful cruelty. At first I scarcely heard him, but as he went on my brain seemed to wake from its lethargy. I listened with freezing blood. Not in my wildest nightmares had I imagined such a fate. Then in despite of myself a cry broke from me. 'It interests you?' Laputa asked. 'I could tell you more, but something must be left to the fancy. Yours should be an active one,' and his hand gripped my shaking wrist and felt my pulse.
'Henriques will see that the truth does not fall short of my forecast,' he went on. 'For I have appointed Henriques your executioner.'
The name brought my senses back to me.
'Kill me,' I said, 'but for God's sake kill Henriques too. If you did justice you would let me go and roast the Portugoose alive. But for me the Snake would be over the Lebombo by this time in Henriques' pocket.'
'But it is not, my friend. It was stolen by a storekeeper, who will shortly be wishing he had died in his mother's womb.'
My plan was slowly coming back to me.
'If you value Prester John's collar, you will save my life. What will your rising be without the Snake? Would they follow you a yard if they suspected you had lost it?'
'So you would threaten me,' Laputa said very gently. Then in a burst of wrath he shouted, 'They will follow me to hell for my own sake. Imbecile, do you think my power is built on a trinket? When you are in your grave, I will be ruling a hundred millions from the proudest throne on earth.'
He sprang to his feet, and pulled back a shutter of the window, letting a flood of light into the hut. In that light I saw that he had in his hands the ivory box which had contained the collar.
'I will carry the casket through the wars,' he cried, 'and if I choose never to open it, who will gainsay me? You besotted fool, to think that any theft of yours could hinder my destiny!' He was the blustering savage again, and I preferred him in the part. All that he said might be true, but I thought I could detect in his voice a keen regret, and in his air a touch of disquiet. The man was a fanatic, and like all fanatics had his superstitions.
'Yes,' I said, 'but when you mount the throne you speak of, it would be a pity not to have the rubies on your neck after all your talk in the cave.'
I thought he would have throttled me. He glowered down at me with murder in his eyes. Then he dashed the casket on the floor with such violence that it broke into fragments.
'Give me back the Ndhlondhlo,' he cried, like a petted child. 'Give me back the collar of John.'
This was the moment I had been waiting for.
'Now see here, Mr Laputa,' I said. 'I am going to talk business. Before you started this rising, you were a civilized man with a good education. Well, just remember that education for a minute, and look at the matter in a sensible light. I'm not like the Portugoose. I don't want to steal your rubies. I swear to God that what I have told you is true. Henriques killed the priest, and would have bagged the jewels if I had not laid him out. I ran away because I was going to be killed to-day, and I took the collar to keep it out of Henriques' hands. I tell you I would never have shot the old man myself. Very well, what happened? Your men overtook me, and I had no choice but to surrender. Before they reached me, I hid the collar in a place I know of. Now, I am going to make you a fair and square business proposition. You may be able to get on without the Snake, but I can see you want it back. I am in a tight place and want nothing so much as my life. I offer to trade with you. Give me my life, and I will take you to the place and put the jewels in your hand. Otherwise you may kill me, but you will never see the collar of John again.'
I still think that was a pretty bold speech for a man to make in a predicament like mine. But it had its effect. Laputa ceased to be the barbarian king, and talked like a civilized man.
'That is, as you call it, a business proposition. But supposing I refuse it? Supposing I take measures here - in this kraal - to make you speak, and then send for the jewels.'
'There are several objections,' I said, quite cheerfully, for I felt that I was gaining ground. 'One is that I could not explain to any mortal soul how to find the collar. I know where it is, but I could not impart the knowledge. Another is that the country between here and Machudi's is not very healthy for your people. Arcoll's men are all over it, and you cannot have a collection of search parties rummaging about in the glen for long. Last and most important, if you send any one for the jewels, you confess their loss. No, Mr Laputa, if you want them back, you must go yourself and take me with you.'
He stood silent for a little, with his brows knit in thought. Then he opened the door and went out. I guessed that he had gone to discover from his scouts the state of the country between Inanda's Kraal and Machudi's glen. Hope had come back to me, and I sat among the mealie-stalks trying to plan the future. If he made a bargain I believed he would keep it. Once set free at the head of Machudi's, I should be within an hour or two of Arcoll's posts. So far, I had done nothing for the cause. My message had been made useless by Henriques' treachery, and I had stolen the Snake only to restore it. But if I got off with my life, there would be work for me to do in the Armageddon which I saw approaching. Should I escape, I wondered. What would hinder Laputa from setting his men to follow me, and seize me before I could get into safety? My only chance was that Arcoll might have been busy this day, and the countryside too full of his men to let Laputa's Kaffirs through. But if this was so, Laputa and I should be stopped, and then Laputa would certainly kill me. I wished - and yet I did not wish - that Arcoll should hold all approaches. As I reflected, my first exhilaration died away. The scales were still heavily weighted against me.
Laputa returned, closing the door behind him.
'I will bargain with you on my own terms. You shall have your life, and in return you will take me to the place where you hid the collar, and put it into my hands. I will ride there, and you will run beside me, tied to my saddle. If we are in danger from the white men, I will shoot you dead. Do you accept?'
'Yes,' I said, scrambling to my feet, and ruefully testing my shaky legs. 'But if you want me to get to Machudi's you must go slowly, for I am nearly foundered.' Then he brought out a Bible, and made me swear on it that I would do as I promised.
'Swear to me in turn,' I said, 'that you will give me my life if I restore the jewels.' He swore, kissing the book like a witness in a police-court. I had forgotten that the man called himself a Christian.
'One thing more I ask,' I said. 'I want my dog decently buried.' 'That has been already done,' was the reply. 'He was a brave animal, and my people honour bravery.'