Prester John
Chapter VIII: I Fall in Again With the Reverend John Laputa

Public Domain

Once, as a boy, I had earnestly desired to go into the army, and had hopes of rising to be a great general. Now that I know myself better, I do not think I would have been much good at a general’s work. I would have shirked the loneliness of it, the isolation of responsibility. But I think I would have done well in a subaltern command, for I had a great notion of carrying out orders, and a certain zest in the mere act of obedience. Three days before I had been as nervous as a kitten because I was alone and it was ‘up to me,’ as Americans say, to decide on the next step. But now that I was only one wheel in a great machine of defence my nervousness seemed to have fled. I was well aware that the mission I was bound on was full of risk; but, to my surprise, I felt no fear. Indeed, I had much the same feeling as a boy on a Saturday’s holiday who has planned a big expedition. One thing only I regretted--that Tam Dyke was not with me to see the fun. The thought of that faithful soul, now beating somewhere on the seas, made me long for his comradeship. As I shaved, I remember wondering if I would ever shave again, and the thought gave me no tremors. For once in my sober life I was strung up to the gambler’s pitch of adventure.

My job was to go to Umvelos’ as if on my ordinary business, and if possible find out something of the evening’s plan of march. The question was how to send back a message to Arcoll, assuming I had any difficulty in getting away. At first this puzzled us both, and then I thought of Colin. I had trained the dog to go home at my bidding, for often when I used to go hunting I would have occasion to visit a kraal where he would have been a nuisance. Accordingly, I resolved to take Colin with me, and, if I got into trouble, to send word by him.

I asked about Laputa’s knowledge of our preparations. Arcoll was inclined to think that he suspected little. The police and the commandos had been kept very secret, and, besides, they were moving on the high veld and out of the ken of the tribes. Natives, he told me, were not good scouts so far as white man’s work was concerned, for they did not understand the meaning of what we did. On the other hand, his own native scouts brought him pretty accurate tidings of any Kaffir movements. He thought that all the bush country of the plain would be closely watched, and that no one would get through without some kind of pass. But he thought also that the storekeeper might be an exception, for his presence would give rise to no suspicions. Almost his last words to me were to come back hell-for-leather if I saw the game was hopeless, and in any case to leave as soon as I got any news. ‘If you’re there when the march begins,’ he said, ‘they’ll cut your throat for a certainty.’ I had all the various police posts on the Berg clear in my mind, so that I would know where to make for if the road to Blaauwildebeestefontein should be closed.

I said good-bye to Arcoll and Wardlaw with a light heart, though the schoolmaster broke down and implored me to think better of it. As I turned down into the gorge I heard the sound of horses’ feet far behind, and, turning back, saw white riders dismounting at the dorp. At any rate I was leaving the country well guarded in my rear.

It was a fine morning in mid-winter, and I was in very good spirits as I jogged on my pony down the steep hill-road, with Colin running beside me. A month before I had taken the same journey, with no suspicion in my head of what the future was to bring. I thought about my Dutch companions, now with their cattle far out on the plains. Did they know of the great danger, I wondered. All the way down the glen I saw no sign of human presence. The game-birds mocked me from the thicket; a brace of white berghaan circled far up in the blue; and I had for pleasant comrade the brawling river. I dismounted once to drink, and in that green haven of flowers and ferns I was struck sharply with a sense of folly. Here were we wretched creatures of men making for each other’s throats, and outraging the good earth which God had made so fair a habitation.

I had resolved on a short cut to Umvelos’, avoiding the neighbourhood of Sikitola’s kraal, so when the river emerged from the glen I crossed it and struck into the bush. I had not gone far before I realized that something strange was going on. It was like the woods on the Berg a week before. I had the impression of many people moving in the bush, and now and then I caught a glimpse of them. My first thought was that I should be stopped, but soon it appeared that these folk had business of their own which did not concern me. I was conscious of being watched, yet it was clear that the bush folk were not there for the purpose of watching me.

For a little I kept my spirits, but as the hours passed with the same uncanny hurrying to and fro all about me my nerves began to suffer. Weeks of espionage at Blaauwildebeestefontein had made me jumpy. These people apparently meant me no ill, and had no time to spare on me, But the sensation of moving through them was like walking on a black-dark night with precipices all around. I felt odd quiverings between my shoulder blades where a spear might be expected to lodge. Overhead was a great blue sky and a blazing sun, and I could see the path running clear before me between the walls of scrub. But it was like midnight to me, a midnight of suspicion and unknown perils. I began to wish heartily I had never come.

I stopped for my midday meal at a place called Taqui, a grassy glade in the bush where a tiny spring of water crept out from below a big stone, only to disappear in the sand. Here I sat and smoked for half an hour, wondering what was going to become of me. The air was very still, but I could hear the rustle of movement somewhere within a hundred yards. The hidden folk were busy about their own ends, and I regretted that I had not taken the road by Sikitola’s and seen how the kraals looked. They must be empty now, for the young men were already out on some mission. So nervous I got that I took my pocket-book and wrote down certain messages to my mother, which I implored whoever should find my body to transmit. Then, a little ashamed of my childishness, I pulled myself together, and remounted.

About three in the afternoon I came over a low ridge of bush and saw the corrugated iron roof of the store and the gleam of water from the Labongo. The sight encouraged me, for at any rate it meant the end of this disquieting ride. Here the bush changed to trees of some size, and after leaving the ridge the road plunged for a little into a thick shade. I had forgotten for a moment the folk in the bush, and when a man stepped out of the thicket I pulled up my horse with a start.

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