Prester John
Chapter VII: Captain Arcoll Tells a Tale

Public Domain

It froze in the night, harder than was common on the Berg even in winter, and as I crossed the road next morning it was covered with rime. All my fears had gone, and my mind was strung high with expectation. Five pencilled words may seem a small thing to build hope on, but it was enough for me, and I went about my work in the store with a reasonably light heart. One of the first things I did was to take stock of our armoury. There were five sporting Mausers of a cheap make, one Mauser pistol, a Lee-Speed carbine, and a little nickel-plated revolver. There was also Japp’s shot-gun, an old hammered breech-loader, as well as the gun I had brought out with me. There was a good supply of cartridges, including a stock for a .400 express which could not be found. I pocketed the revolver, and searched till I discovered a good sheath-knife. If fighting was in prospect I might as well look to my arms.

All the morning I sat among flour and sugar possessing my soul in as much patience as I could command. Nothing came down the white road from the west. The sun melted the rime; the flies came out and buzzed in the window; Japp got himself out of bed, brewed strong coffee, and went back to his slumbers. Presently it was dinner-time, and I went over to a silent meal with Wardlaw. When I returned I must have fallen asleep over a pipe, for the next thing I knew I was blinking drowsily at the patch of sun in the door, and listening for footsteps. In the dead stillness of the afternoon I thought I could discern a shuffling in the dust. I got up and looked out, and there, sure enough, was some one coming down the road.

But it was only a Kaffir, and a miserable-looking object at that. I had never seen such an anatomy. It was a very old man, bent almost double, and clad in a ragged shirt and a pair of foul khaki trousers. He carried an iron pot, and a few belongings were tied up in a dirty handkerchief. He must have been a dacha[1] smoker, for he coughed hideously, twisting his body with the paroxysms. I had seen the type before--the old broken-down native who had no kin to support him, and no tribe to shelter him. They wander about the roads, cooking their wretched meals by their little fires, till one morning they are found stiff under a bush.

The native gave me a good-day in Kaffir, then begged for tobacco or a handful of mealie-meal.

I asked him where he came from.

‘From the west, Inkoos,’ he said, ‘and before that from the south. It is a sore road for old bones.’

I went into the store to fetch some meal, and when I came out he had shuffled close to the door. He had kept his eyes on the ground, but now he looked up at me, and I thought he had very bright eyes for such an old wreck.

‘The nights are cold, Inkoos,’ he wailed, ‘and my folk are scattered, and I have no kraal. The aasvogels follow me, and I can hear the blesbok.’ ‘What about the blesbok?’ I asked with a start.

‘The blesbok are changing ground,’ he said, and looked me straight in the face.

‘And where are the hunters?’ I asked. ‘They are here and behind me,’ he said in English, holding out his pot for my meal, while he began to edge into the middle of the road.

I followed, and, speaking English, asked him if he knew of a man named Colles.

‘I come from him, young Baas. Where is your house? Ah, the school. There will be a way in by the back window? See that it is open, for I’ll be there shortly.’ Then lifting up his voice he called down in Sesuto all manner of blessings on me for my kindness, and went shuffling down the sunlit road, coughing like a volcano.

In high excitement I locked up the store and went over to Mr Wardlaw. No children had come to school that day, and he was sitting idle, playing patience. ‘Lock the door,’ I said, ‘and come into my room. We’re on the brink of explanations.’

In about twenty minutes the bush below the back-window parted and the Kaffir slipped out. He grinned at me, and after a glance round, hopped very nimbly over the sill. Then he examined the window and pulled the curtains.

‘Is the outer door shut?’ he asked in excellent English. ‘Well, get me some hot water, and any spare clothes you may possess, Mr Crawfurd. I must get comfortable before we begin our indaba.[2] We’ve the night before us, so there’s plenty of time. But get the house clear, and see that nobody disturbs me at my toilet. I am a modest man, and sensitive about my looks.’

I brought him what he wanted, and looked on at an amazing transformation. Taking a phial from his bundle, he rubbed some liquid on his face and neck and hands, and got rid of the black colouring. His body and legs he left untouched, save that he covered them with shirt and trousers from my wardrobe. Then he pulled off a scaly wig, and showed beneath it a head of close-cropped grizzled hair. In ten minutes the old Kaffir had been transformed into an active soldierly-looking man of maybe fifty years. Mr Wardlaw stared as if he had seen a resurrection.

‘I had better introduce myself,’ he said, when he had taken the edge off his thirst and hunger. ‘My name is Arcoll, Captain James Arcoll. I am speaking to Mr Crawfurd, the storekeeper, and Mr Wardlaw, the schoolmaster, of Blaauwildebeestefontein. Where, by the way, is Mr Peter Japp? Drunk? Ah, yes, it was always his failing. The quorum, however, is complete without him.’

By this time it was about sunset, and I remember I cocked my ear to hear the drums beat. Captain Arcoll noticed the movement as he noticed all else. ‘You’re listening for the drums, but you won’t hear them. That business is over here. To-night they beat in Swaziland and down into the Tonga border. Three days more, unless you and I, Mr Crawfurd, are extra smart, and they’ll be hearing them in Durban.’

It was not till the lamp was lit, the fire burning well, and the house locked and shuttered, that Captain Arcoll began his tale.

‘First,’ he said, ‘let me hear what you know. Colles told me that you were a keen fellow, and had wind of some mystery here. You wrote him about the way you were spied on, but I told him to take no notice. Your affair, Mr Crawfurd, had to wait on more urgent matters. Now, what do you think is happening?’ I spoke very shortly, weighing my words, for I felt I was on trial before these bright eyes. ‘I think that some kind of native rising is about to commence.’

‘Ay,’ he said dryly, ‘you would, and your evidence would be the spying and drumming. Anything more?’

‘I have come on the tracks of a lot of I.D.B. work in the neighbourhood. The natives have some supply of diamonds, which they sell bit by bit, and I don’t doubt but they have been getting guns with the proceeds.’

He nodded, ‘Have you any notion who has been engaged in the job?’

I had it on my tongue to mention Japp, but forbore, remembering my promise. ‘I can name one,’ I said, ‘a little yellow Portugoose, who calls himself Henriques or Hendricks. He passed by here the day before yesterday.’

Captain Arcoll suddenly was consumed with quiet laughter. ‘Did you notice the Kaffir who rode with him and carried his saddlebags? Well, he’s one of my men. Henriques would have a fit if he knew what was in those saddlebags. They contain my change of clothes, and other odds and ends. Henriques’ own stuff is in a hole in the spruit. A handy way of getting one’s luggage sent on, eh? The bags are waiting for me at a place I appointed.’ And again Captain Arcoll indulged his sense of humour. Then he became grave, and returned to his examination.

‘A rising, with diamonds as the sinews of war, and Henriques as the chief agent. Well and good! But who is to lead, and what are the natives going to rise about?’

‘I know nothing further, but I have made some guesses.’

‘Let’s hear your guesses,’ he said, blowing smoke rings from his pipe.

‘I think the main mover is a great black minister who calls himself John Laputa.’

Captain Arcoll nearly sprang out of his chair. ‘Now, how on earth did you find that out? Quick, Mr Crawfurd, tell me all you know, for this is desperately important.’

I began at the beginning, and told him the story of what happened on the Kirkcaple shore. Then I spoke of my sight of him on board ship, his talk with Henriques about Blaauwildebeestefontein, and his hurried departure from Durban.

Captain Arcoll listened intently, and at the mention of Durban he laughed. ‘You and I seem to have been running on lines which nearly touched. I thought I had grabbed my friend Laputa that night in Durban, but I was too cocksure and he slipped off. Do you know, Mr Crawfurd, you have been on the right trail long before me? When did you say you saw him at his devil-worship? Seven years ago? Then you were the first man alive to know the Reverend John in his true colours. You knew seven years ago what I only found out last year.’

‘Well, that’s my story,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what the rising is about, but there’s one other thing I can tell you. There’s some kind of sacred place for the Kaffirs, and I’ve found out where it is.’ I gave him a short account of my adventures in the Rooirand.

He smoked silently for a bit after I had finished. ‘You’ve got the skeleton of the whole thing right, and you only want the filling up. And you found out everything for yourself? Colles was right; you’re not wanting in intelligence, Mr Crawfurd.’

It was not much of a compliment, but I have never been more pleased in my life. This slim, grizzled man, with his wrinkled face and bright eyes, was clearly not lavish in his praise. I felt it was no small thing to have earned a word of commendation.

‘And now I will tell you my story,’ said Captain Arcoll. ‘It is a long story, and I must begin far back. It has taken me years to decipher it, and, remember, I’ve been all my life at this native business. I can talk every dialect, and I have the customs of every tribe by heart. I’ve travelled over every mile of South Africa, and Central and East Africa too. I was in both the Matabele wars, and I’ve seen a heap of other fighting which never got into the papers. So what I tell you you can take as gospel, for it is knowledge that was not learned in a day.’

He puffed away, and then asked suddenly, ‘Did you ever hear of Prester John?’

‘The man that lived in Central Asia?’ I asked, with a reminiscence of a story-book I had as a boy. ‘No, no,’ said Mr Wardlaw, ‘he means the King of Abyssinia in the fifteenth century. I’ve been reading all about him. He was a Christian, and the Portuguese sent expedition after expedition to find him, but they never got there. Albuquerque wanted to make an alliance with him and capture the Holy Sepulchre.’

Arcoll nodded. ‘That’s the one I mean. There’s not very much known about him, except Portuguese legends. He was a sort of Christian, but I expect that his practices were as pagan as his neighbours’. There is no doubt that he was a great conqueror. Under him and his successors, the empire of Ethiopia extended far south of Abyssinia away down to the Great Lakes.’

‘How long did this power last?’ I asked wondering to what tale this was prologue.

‘That’s a mystery no scholar has ever been able to fathom. Anyhow, the centre of authority began to shift southward, and the warrior tribes moved in that direction. At the end of the sixteenth century the chief native power was round about the Zambesi. The Mazimba and the Makaranga had come down from the Lake Nyassa quarter, and there was a strong kingdom in Manicaland. That was the Monomotapa that the Portuguese thought so much of.’

Wardlaw nodded eagerly. The story was getting into ground that he knew about.

‘The thing to remember is that all these little empires thought themselves the successors of Prester John. It took me a long time to find this out, and I have spent days in the best libraries in Europe over it. They all looked back to a great king in the north, whom they called by about twenty different names. They had forgotten about his Christianity, but they remembered that he was a conqueror.

‘Well, to make a long story short, Monomotapa disappeared in time, and fresh tribes came down from the north, and pushed right down to Natal and the Cape. That is how the Zulus first appeared. They brought with them the story of Prester John, but by this time it had ceased to be a historical memory, and had become a religious cult. They worshipped a great Power who had been their ancestor, and the favourite Zulu word for him was Umkulunkulu. The belief was perverted into fifty different forms, but this was the central creed--that Umkulunkulu had been the father of the tribe, and was alive as a spirit to watch over them.

‘They brought more than a creed with them. Somehow or other, some fetich had descended from Prester John by way of the Mazimba and Angoni and Makaranga. What it is I do not know, but it was always in the hands of the tribe which for the moment held the leadership. The great native wars of the sixteenth century, which you can read about in the Portuguese historians, were not for territory but for leadership, and mainly for the possession of this fetich. Anyhow, we know that the Zulus brought it down with them. They called it Ndhlondhlo, which means the Great Snake, but I don’t suppose that it was any kind of snake. The snake was their totem, and they would naturally call their most sacred possession after it.

‘Now I will tell you a thing that few know. You have heard of Tchaka. He was a sort of black Napoleon early in the last century, and he made the Zulus the paramount power in South Africa, slaughtering about two million souls to accomplish it. Well, he had the fetich, whatever it was, and it was believed that he owed his conquests to it. Mosilikatse tried to steal it, and that was why he had to fly to Matabeleland. But with Tchaka it disappeared. Dingaan did not have it, nor Panda, and Cetewayo never got it, though he searched the length and breadth of the country for it. It had gone out of existence, and with it the chance of a Kaffir empire.’

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