Chapter II: 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 university.
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, Thomas Mackenzie, who was seeing his lawyer about an estate he is bidding for. He is the head of one of the biggest trading and shipping concerns in the world--Mackenzie, Mure, and Oldmeadows--you may have heard the name. Among other things he has half the stores in South Africa, where they sell everything from Bibles to fish-hooks. Apparently they like men from home to manage the stores, and to make a long story short, when I put your case to him, he promised you a place. I had a wire from him this morning confirming the offer. You are to be assistant storekeeper at--’ (my uncle fumbled in his pocket, and then read from the yellow slip) ‘at Blaauwildebeestefontein. There’s a mouthful for you.’
In this homely way I first heard of a place which was to be the theatre of so many strange doings.
‘It’s a fine chance for you,’ my uncle continued. ‘You’ll only be assistant at first, but when you have learned your job you’ll have a store of your own. Mackenzie’s people will pay you three hundred pounds a year, and when you get a store you’ll get a percentage on sales. It lies with you to open up new trade among the natives. I hear that Blaauw--something or other, is in the far north of the Transvaal, and I see from the map that it is in a wild, hilly country. You may find gold or diamonds up there, and come back and buy Portincross House.’ My uncle rubbed his hands and smiled cheerily.
Truth to tell I was both pleased and sad. If a learned profession was denied me I vastly preferred a veld store to an Edinburgh office stool. Had I not been still under the shadow of my father’s death I might have welcomed the chance of new lands and new folk. As it was, I felt the loneliness of an exile. That afternoon I walked on the Braid Hills, and when I saw in the clear spring sunlight the coast of Fife, and remembered Kirkcaple and my boyish days, I could have found it in me to sit down and cry.
A fortnight later I sailed. My mother bade me a tearful farewell, and my uncle, besides buying me an outfit and paying my passage money, gave me a present of twenty sovereigns. ‘You’ll not be your mother’s son, Davie,’ were his last words, ‘if you don’t come home with it multiplied by a thousand.’ I thought at the time that I would give more than twenty thousand pounds to be allowed to bide on the windy shores of Forth.
I sailed from Southampton by an intermediate steamer, and went steerage to save expense. Happily my acute homesickness was soon forgotten in another kind of malady. It blew half a gale before we were out of the Channel, and by the time we had rounded Ushant it was as dirty weather as ever I hope to see. I lay mortal sick in my bunk, unable to bear the thought of food, and too feeble to lift my head. I wished I had never left home, but so acute was my sickness that if some one had there and then offered me a passage back or an immediate landing on shore I should have chosen the latter.
It was not till we got into the fair-weather seas around Madeira that I recovered enough to sit on deck and observe my fellow-passengers. There were some fifty of us in the steerage, mostly wives and children going to join relations, with a few emigrant artisans and farmers. I early found a friend in a little man with a yellow beard and spectacles, who sat down beside me and remarked on the weather in a strong Scotch accent. He turned out to be a Mr Wardlaw from Aberdeen, who was going out to be a schoolmaster. He was a man of good education, who had taken a university degree, and had taught for some years as an under-master in a school in his native town. But the east winds had damaged his lungs, and he had been glad to take the chance of a poorly paid country school in the veld. When I asked him where he was going I was amazed to be told, ‘Blaauwildebeestefontein.’
Mr Wardlaw was a pleasant little man, with a sharp tongue but a cheerful temper. He laboured all day at primers of the Dutch and Kaffir languages, but in the evening after supper he would walk with me on the after-deck and discuss the future. Like me, he knew nothing of the land he was going to, but he was insatiably curious, and he affected me with his interest. ‘This place, Blaauwildebeestefontein,’ he used to say, ‘is among the Zoutpansberg mountains, and as far as I can see, not above ninety miles from the railroad. It looks from the map a well-watered country, and the Agent-General in London told me it was healthy or I wouldn’t have taken the job. It seems we’ll be in the heart of native reserves up there, for here’s a list of chiefs--’Mpefu, Sikitola, Majinje, Magata; and there are no white men living to the east of us because of the fever. The name means the “spring of the blue wildebeeste,” whatever fearsome animal that may be. It sounds like a place for adventure, Mr Crawfurd. You’ll exploit the pockets of the black men and I’ll see what I can do with their minds.’ There was another steerage passenger whom I could not help observing because of my dislike of his appearance. He, too, was a little man, by name Henriques, and in looks the most atrocious villain I have ever clapped eyes on. He had a face the colour of French mustard--a sort of dirty green--and bloodshot, beady eyes with the whites all yellowed with fever. He had waxed moustaches, and a curious, furtive way of walking and looking about him. We of the steerage were careless in our dress, but he was always clad in immaculate white linen, with pointed, yellow shoes to match his complexion. He spoke to no one, but smoked long cheroots all day in the stern of the ship, and studied a greasy pocket-book. Once I tripped over him in the dark, and he turned on me with a snarl and an oath. I was short enough with him in return, and he looked as if he could knife me.
‘I’ll wager that fellow has been a slave-driver in his time,’ I told Mr Wardlaw, who said, ‘God pity his slaves, then.’
And now I come to the incident which made the rest of the voyage pass all too soon for me, and foreshadowed the strange events which were to come. It was the day after we crossed the Line, and the first-class passengers were having deck sports. A tug-of-war had been arranged between the three classes, and a half-dozen of the heaviest fellows in the steerage, myself included, were invited to join. It was a blazing hot afternoon, but on the saloon deck there were awnings and a cool wind blowing from the bows. The first-class beat the second easily, and after a tremendous struggle beat the steerage also. Then they regaled us with iced-drinks and cigars to celebrate the victory.
I was standing at the edge of the crowd of spectators, when my eye caught a figure which seemed to have little interest in our games. A large man in clerical clothes was sitting on a deck-chair reading a book. There was nothing novel about the stranger, and I cannot explain the impulse which made me wish to see his face. I moved a few steps up the deck, and then I saw that his skin was black. I went a little farther, and suddenly he raised his eyes from his book and looked round. It was the face of the man who had terrified me years ago on the Kirkcaple shore.
I spent the rest of the day in a brown study. It was clear to me that some destiny had prearranged this meeting. Here was this man travelling prosperously as a first-class passenger with all the appurtenances of respectability. I alone had seen him invoking strange gods in the moonlight, I alone knew of the devilry in his heart, and I could not but believe that some day or other there might be virtue in that knowledge.
The second engineer and I had made friends, so I got him to consult the purser’s list for the name of my acquaintance. He was down as the Rev. John Laputa, and his destination was Durban. The next day being Sunday, who should appear to address us steerage passengers but the black minister. He was introduced by the captain himself, a notably pious man, who spoke of the labours of his brother in the dark places of heathendom. Some of us were hurt in our pride in being made the target of a black man’s oratory. Especially Mr Henriques, whose skin spoke of the tar-brush, protested with oaths against the insult. Finally he sat down on a coil of rope, and spat scornfully in the vicinity of the preacher.
For myself I was intensely curious, and not a little impressed. The man’s face was as commanding as his figure, and his voice was the most wonderful thing that ever came out of human mouth. It was full and rich, and gentle, with the tones of a great organ. He had none of the squat and preposterous negro lineaments, but a hawk nose like an Arab, dark flashing eyes, and a cruel and resolute mouth. He was black as my hat, but for the rest he might have sat for a figure of a Crusader. I do not know what the sermon was about, though others told me that it was excellent. All the time I watched him, and kept saying to myself, ‘You hunted me up the Dyve Burn, but I bashed your face for you.’ Indeed, I thought I could see faint scars on his cheek.
The following night I had toothache, and could not sleep. It was too hot to breathe under cover, so I got up, lit a pipe, and walked on the after-deck to ease the pain. The air was very still, save for the whish of water from the screws and the steady beat of the engines. Above, a great yellow moon looked down on me, and a host of pale stars.
The moonlight set me remembering the old affair of the Dyve Burn, and my mind began to run on the Rev. John Laputa. It pleased me to think that I was on the track of some mystery of which I alone had the clue. I promised myself to search out the antecedents of the minister when I got to Durban, for I had a married cousin there, who might know something of his doings. Then, as I passed by the companion-way to the lower deck, I heard voices, and peeping over the rail, I saw two men sitting in the shadow just beyond the hatch of the hold.
I thought they might be two of the sailors seeking coolness on the open deck, when something in the figure of one of them made me look again. The next second I had slipped back and stolen across the after-deck to a point just above them. For the two were the black minister and that ugly yellow villain, Henriques.