Prester John
Chapter XVI: Inanda's Kraal

Public Domain

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.

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