Prester John
Chapter X: I Go Treasure-Hunting

Public Domain

For a mile or so I kept the bush, which was open and easy to ride through, and then turned into the path. The moon was high, and the world was all a dim dark green, with the track a golden ivory band before me. I had looked at my watch before I started, and seen that it was just after eight o’clock. I had a great horse under me, and less than thirty miles to cover. Midnight should see me at the cave. With the password I would gain admittance, and there would wait for Laputa and Henriques. Then, if my luck held, I should see the inner workings of the mystery which had puzzled me ever since the Kirkcaple shore. No doubt I should be roughly treated, tied up prisoner, and carried with the army when the march began. But till Inanda’s Kraal my life was safe, and before that came the ford of the Letaba. Colin would carry my message to Arcoll, and at the Drift the tables would be turned on Laputa’s men.

Looking back in cold blood, it seems the craziest chain of accidents to count on for preservation. A dozen possibilities might have shattered any link of it. The password might be wrong, or I might never get the length of those who knew it. The men in the cave might butcher me out of hand, or Laputa might think my behaviour a sufficient warrant for the breach of the solemnest vow. Colin might never get to Blaauwildebeestefontein, Laputa might change his route of march, or Arcoll’s men might fail to hold the Drift. Indeed, the other day at Portincross I was so overcome by the recollection of the perils I had dared and God’s goodness towards me that I built a new hall for the parish kirk as a token of gratitude.

Fortunately for mankind the brain in a life of action turns more to the matter in hand than to conjuring up the chances of the future. Certainly it was in no discomfort of mind that I swung along the moonlit path to the north. Truth to tell, I was almost happy. The first honours in the game had fallen to me. I knew more about Laputa than any man living save Henriques; I had my finger on the central pulse of the rebellion. There was hid treasure ahead of me--a great necklace of rubies, Henriques had said. Nay, there must be more, I argued. This cave of the Rooirand was the headquarters of the rising, and there must be stored their funds--diamonds, and the gold they had been bartered for. I believe that every man has deep in his soul a passion for treasure-hunting, which will often drive a coward into prodigies of valour. I lusted for that treasure of jewels and gold. Once I had been high-minded, and thought of my duty to my country, but in that night ride I fear that what I thought of was my duty to enrich David Crawfurd. One other purpose simmered in my head. I was devoured with wrath against Henriques. Indeed, I think that was the strongest motive for my escapade, for even before I heard Laputa tell of the vows and the purification, I had it in my mind to go at all costs to the cave. I am a peaceable man at most times, but I think I would rather have had the Portugoose’s throat in my hands than the collar of Prester John.

But behind my thoughts was one master-feeling, that Providence had given me my chance and I must make the most of it. Perhaps the Calvinism of my father’s preaching had unconsciously taken grip of my soul. At any rate I was a fatalist in creed, believing that what was willed would happen, and that man was but a puppet in the hands of his Maker. I looked on the last months as a clear course which had been mapped out for me. Not for nothing had I been given a clue to the strange events which were coming. It was foreordained that I should go alone to Umvelos’, and in the promptings of my own fallible heart I believed I saw the workings of Omnipotence. Such is our moral arrogance, and yet without such a belief I think that mankind would have ever been content to bide sluggishly at home.

I passed the spot where on my former journey I had met the horses, and knew that I had covered more than half the road. My ear had been alert for the sound of pursuit, but the bush was quiet as the grave. The man who rode my pony would find him a slow traveller, and I pitied the poor beast bucketed along by an angry rider. Gradually a hazy wall of purple began to shimmer before me, apparently very far off. I knew the ramparts of the Rooirand, and let my schimmel feel my knees in his ribs. Within an hour I should be at the cliff’s foot.

I had trusted for safety to the password, but as it turned out I owed my life mainly to my horse. For, a mile or so from the cliffs, I came to the fringes of a great army. The bush was teeming with men, and I saw horses picketed in bunches, and a multitude of Cape-carts and light wagons. It was like a colossal gathering for naachtmaal[1] at a Dutch dorp, but every man was black. I saw through a corner of my eye that they were armed with guns, though many carried in addition their spears and shields. Their first impulse was to stop me. I saw guns fly to shoulders, and a rush towards the path. The boldest game was the safest, so I dug my heels into the schimmel and shouted for a passage. ‘Make way!’ I cried in Kaffir. ‘I bear a message from the Inkulu.[2] Clear out, you dogs!’

They recognized the horse, and fell back with a salute. Had I but known it, the beast was famed from the Zambesi to the Cape. It was their king’s own charger I rode, and who dared question such a warrant? I heard the word pass through the bush, and all down the road I got the salute. In that moment I fervently thanked my stars that I had got away first, for there would have been no coming second for me.

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