Prester John
Chapter VI: The Drums Beat at Sunset

Public Domain

Japp was drunk for the next day or two, and I had the business of the store to myself. I was glad of this, for it gave me leisure to reflect upon the various perplexities of my situation. As I have said, I was really scared, more out of a sense of impotence than from dread of actual danger. I was in a fog of uncertainty. Things were happening around me which I could only dimly guess at, and I had no power to take one step in defence. That Wardlaw should have felt the same without any hint from me was the final proof that the mystery was no figment of my nerves. I had written to Colles and got no answer. Now the letter with Japp’s resignation in it had gone to Durban. Surely some notice would be taken of that. If I was given the post, Colles was bound to consider what I had said in my earlier letter and give me some directions. Meanwhile it was my business to stick to my job till I was relieved.

A change had come over the place during my absence. The natives had almost disappeared from sight. Except the few families living round Blaauwildebeestefontein one never saw a native on the roads, and none came into the store. They were sticking close to their locations, or else they had gone after some distant business. Except a batch of three Shangaans returning from the Rand, I had nobody in the store for the whole of one day. So about four o’clock I shut it up, whistled on Colin, and went for a walk along the Berg.

If there were no natives on the road, there were plenty in the bush. I had the impression, of which Wardlaw had spoken, that the native population of the countryside had suddenly been hugely increased. The woods were simply hotching with them. I was being spied on as before, but now there were so many at the business that they could not all conceal their tracks. Every now and then I had a glimpse of a black shoulder or leg, and Colin, whom I kept on the leash, was half-mad with excitement. I had seen all I wanted, and went home with a preoccupied mind. I sat long on Wardlaw’s garden-seat, trying to puzzle out the truth of this spying.

What perplexed me was that I had been left unmolested when I had gone to Umvelos’. Now, as I conjectured, the secret of the neighbourhood, whatever it was, was probably connected with the Rooirand. But when I had ridden in that direction and had spent two days in exploring, no one had troubled to watch me. I was quite certain about this, for my eye had grown quick to note espionage, and it is harder for a spy to hide in the spare bush of the flats than in the dense thickets on these uplands.

The watchers, then, did not mind my fossicking round their sacred place. Why, then, was I so closely watched in the harmless neighbourhood of the store? I thought for a long time before an answer occurred to me. The reason must be that going to the plains I was going into native country and away from civilization. But Blaauwildebeestefontein was near the frontier. There must be some dark business brewing of which they may have feared that I had an inkling. They wanted to see if I proposed to go to Pietersdorp or Wesselsburg and tell what I knew, and they clearly were resolved that I should not. I laughed, I remember, thinking that they had forgotten the post-bag. But then I reflected that I knew nothing of what might be happening daily to the post-bag.

When I had reached this conclusion, my first impulse was to test it by riding straight west on the main road. If I was right, I should certainly be stopped. On second thoughts, however, this seemed to me to be flinging up the game prematurely, and I resolved to wait a day or two before acting.

Next day nothing happened, save that my sense of loneliness increased. I felt that I was being hemmed in by barbarism, and cut off in a ghoulish land from the succour of my own kind. I only kept my courage up by the necessity of presenting a brave face to Mr Wardlaw, who was by this time in a very broken condition of nerves. I had often thought that it was my duty to advise him to leave, and to see him safely off, but I shrank from severing myself from my only friend. I thought, too, of the few Dutch farmers within riding distance, and had half a mind to visit them, but they were far off over the plateau and could know little of my anxieties.

The third day events moved faster. Japp was sober and wonderfully quiet. He gave me good-morning quite in a friendly tone, and set to posting up the books as if he had never misbehaved in his days. I was so busy with my thoughts that I, too, must have been gentler than usual, and the morning passed like a honeymoon, till I went across to dinner.

I was just sitting down when I remembered that I had left my watch in my waistcoat behind the counter, and started to go back for it. But at the door I stopped short. For two horsemen had drawn up before the store.

One was a native with what I took to be saddle-bags; the other was a small slim man with a sun helmet, who was slowly dismounting. Something in the cut of his jib struck me as familiar. I slipped into the empty schoolroom and stared hard. Then, as he half-turned in handing his bridle to the Kaffir, I got a sight of his face. It was my former shipmate, Henriques. He said something to his companion, and entered the store.

You may imagine that my curiosity ran to fever-heat. My first impulse was to march over for my waistcoat, and make a third with Japp at the interview. Happily I reflected in time that Henriques knew my face, for I had grown no beard, having a great dislike to needless hair. If he was one of the villains in the drama, he would mark me down for his vengeance once he knew I was here, whereas at present he had probably forgotten all about me. Besides, if I walked in boldly I would get no news. If Japp and he had a secret, they would not blab it in my presence.

My next idea was to slip in by the back to the room I had once lived in. But how was I to cross the road? It ran white and dry some distance each way in full view of the Kaffir with the horses. Further, the store stood on a bare patch, and it would be a hard job to get in by the back, assuming, as I believed, that the neighbourhood was thick with spies.

The upshot was that I got my glasses and turned them on the store. The door was open, and so was the window. In the gloom of the interior I made out Henriques’ legs. He was standing by the counter, and apparently talking to Japp. He moved to shut the door, and came back inside my focus opposite the window. There he stayed for maybe ten minutes, while I hugged my impatience. I would have given a hundred pounds to be snug in my old room with Japp thinking me out of the store.

Suddenly the legs twitched up, and his boots appeared above the counter. Japp had invited him to his bedroom, and the game was now to be played beyond my ken. This was more than I could stand, so I stole out at the back door and took to the thickest bush on the hillside. My notion was to cross the road half a mile down, when it had dropped into the defile of the stream, and then to come swiftly up the edge of the water so as to effect a back entrance into the store.

As fast as I dared I tore through the bush, and in about a quarter of an hour had reached the point I was making for. Then I bore down to the road, and was in the scrub about ten yards off it, when the clatter of horses pulled me up again. Peeping out I saw that it was my friend and his Kaffir follower, who were riding at a very good pace for the plains. Toilfully and crossly I returned on my tracks to my long-delayed dinner. Whatever the purport of their talk, Japp and the Portuguese had not taken long over it.

In the store that afternoon I said casually to Japp that I had noticed visitors at the door during my dinner hour. The old man looked me frankly enough in the face. ‘Yes, it was Mr Hendricks,’ he said, and explained that the man was a Portuguese trader from Delagoa way, who had a lot of Kaffir stores east of the Lebombo Hills. I asked his business, and was told that he always gave Japp a call in when he was passing.

‘Do you take every man that calls into your bedroom, and shut the door?’ I asked.

Japp lost colour and his lip trembled. ‘I swear to God, Mr Crawfurd, I’ve been doing nothing wrong. I’ve kept the promise I gave you like an oath to my mother. I see you suspect me, and maybe you’ve cause, but I’ll be quite honest with you. I have dealt in diamonds before this with Hendricks. But to-day, when he asked me, I told him that that business was off. I only took him to my room to give him a drink. He likes brandy, and there’s no supply in the shop.’

I distrusted Japp wholeheartedly enough, but I was convinced that in this case he spoke the truth. ‘Had the man any news?’ I asked.

‘He had and he hadn’t,’ said Japp. ‘He was always a sullen beggar, and never spoke much. But he said one queer thing. He asked me if I was going to retire, and when I told him “yes,” he said I had put it off rather long. I told him I was as healthy as I ever was, and he laughed in his dirty Portugoose way. “Yes, Mr Japp,” he says, “but the country is not so healthy.” I wonder what the chap meant. He’ll be dead of blackwater before many months, to judge by his eyes.’

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