Prester John HTML version

The Drift Of The Letaba
The dusk was gathering fast as we neared the stream. From the stagnant
reaches above and below a fine white mist was rising, but the long shallows of
the ford were clear. My heart was beginning to flutter wildly, but I kept a tight grip
on myself and prayed for patience. As I stared into the evening my hopes sank. I
had expected, foolishly enough, to see on the far bank some sign of my friends,
but the tall bush was dead and silent.
The drift slants across the river at an acute angle, roughly S.S.W. I did not know
this at the time, and was amazed to see the van of the march turn apparently up
stream. Laputa's great voice rang out in some order which was repeated down
the column, and the wide flanks of the force converged on the narrow cart-track
which entered the water. We had come to a standstill while the front ranks began
the passage.
I sat shaking with excitement, my eyes straining into the gloom. Water holds the
evening light for long, and I could make out pretty clearly what was happening.
The leading horsemen rode into the stream with Laputa in front. The ford is not
the best going, so they had to pick their way, but in five or ten minutes they were
over. Then came some of the infantry of the flanks, who crossed with the water to
their waists, and their guns held high above their heads. They made a portentous
splashing, but not a sound came from their throats. I shall never know how
Laputa imposed silence on the most noisy race on earth. Several thousand
footmen must have followed the riders, and disappeared into the far bush. But
not a shot came from the bluffs in front.
I watched with a sinking heart. Arcoll had failed, and there was to be no check at
the drift. There remained for me only the horrors at Inanda's Kraal. I resolved to
make a dash for freedom, at all costs, and was in the act of telling Arcoll's man to
cut my bonds, when a thought occurred to me.
Henriques was after the rubies, and it was his interest to get Laputa across the
river before the attack began. It was Arcoll's business to split the force, and
above all to hold up the leader. Henriques would tell him, and for that matter he
must have assumed himself, that Laputa would ride in the centre of the force.
Therefore there would be no check till the time came for the priest's litter to cross.
It was well that I had not had my bonds cut. Henriques came riding towards me,
his face sharp and bright as a ferret's. He pulled up and asked if I were safe. My
Kaffir showed my strapped elbows and feet, and tugged at the cords to prove
their tightness.
'Keep him well,' said Henriques, 'or you will answer to Inkulu. Forward with him
now and get him through the water.' Then he turned and rode back.
My warder, apparently obeying orders, led me out of the column and into the
bush on the right hand. Soon we were abreast of the litter and some twenty yards
to the west of it. The water gleamed through the trees a few paces in front. I
could see the masses of infantry converging on the drift, and the churning like a
cascade which they made in the passage.