Prester John
Chapter XII: Captain Arcoll Sends a Message

Public Domain

I once read--I think in some Latin writer--the story of a man who was crushed to a jelly by the mere repeated touch of many thousand hands. His murderers were not harsh, but an infinite repetition of the gentlest handling meant death. I do not suppose that I was very brutally manhandled in the cave. I was trussed up tight and carried out to the open, and left in the care of the guards. But when my senses returned I felt as if I had been cruelly beaten in every part. The raw-hide bonds chafed my wrists and ankle and shoulders, but they were the least part of my aches. To be handled by a multitude of Kaffirs is like being shaken by some wild animal. Their skins are insensible to pain, and I have seen a Zulu stand on a piece of red-hot iron without noticing it till he was warned by the smell of burning hide. Anyhow, after I had been bound by Kaffir hands and tossed on Kaffir shoulders, I felt as if I had been in a scrimmage of mad bulls. I found myself lying looking up at the moon. It was the edge of the bush, and all around was the stir of the army getting ready for the road. You know how a native babbles and chatters over any work he has to do. It says much for Laputa’s iron hand that now everything was done in silence. I heard the nickering of horses and the jolt of carts as they turned from the bush into the path. There was the sound of hurried whispering, and now and then a sharp command. And all the while I lay, staring at the moon and wondering if I was going to keep my reason.

If he who reads this doubts the discomfort of bonds let him try them for himself. Let him be bound foot and hand and left alone, and in half an hour he will be screaming for release. The sense of impotence is stifling, and I felt as if I were buried in some landslip instead of lying under the open sky, with the night wind fanning my face. I was in the second stage of panic, which is next door to collapse. I tried to cry, but could only raise a squeak like a bat. A wheel started to run round in my head, and, when I looked at the moon, I saw that it was rotating in time. Things were very bad with me. It was ‘Mwanga who saved me from lunacy. He had been appointed my keeper, and the first I knew of it was a violent kick in the ribs. I rolled over on the grass down a short slope. The brute squatted beside me, and prodded me with his gun-barrel.

‘Ha, Baas,’ he said in his queer English. ‘Once you ordered me out of your store and treated me like a dog. It is ‘Mwanga’s turn now. You are ‘Mwanga’s dog, and he will skin you with a sjambok soon.’

My wandering wits were coming back to me. I looked into his bloodshot eyes and saw what I had to expect. The cheerful savage went on to discuss just the kind of beating I should get from him. My bones were to be uncovered till the lash curled round my heart. Then the jackals would have the rest of me.

This was ordinary Kaffir brag, and it made me angry. But I thought it best to go cannily.

‘If I am to be your slave,’ I managed to say, ‘it would be a pity to beat me so hard. You would get no more work out of me.’

‘Mwanga grinned wickedly. ‘You are my slave for a day and a night. After that we kill you--slowly. You will burn till your legs fall off and your knees are on the ground, and then you will be chopped small with knives.’

Thank God, my courage and common sense were coming back to me.

‘What happens to me to-morrow,’ I said, ‘is the Inkulu’s business, not yours. I am his prisoner. But if you lift your hand on me to-day so as to draw one drop of blood the Inkulu will make short work of you. The vow is upon you, and if you break it you know what happens.’ And I repeated, in a fair imitation of the priest’s voice, the terrible curse he had pronounced in the cave.

You should have seen the change in that cur’s face. I had guessed he was a coward, as he was most certainly a bully, and now I knew it. He shivered, and drew his hand over his eyes.

‘Nay, Baas,’ he pleaded, ‘it was but a joke. No harm shall come on you to-day. But tomorrow--’ and his ugly face grew more cheerful.

‘To-morrow we shall see what we shall see,’ I said stoically, and a loud drum-beat sounded through the camp.

It was the signal for moving, for in the east a thin pale line of gold was beginning to show over the trees. The bonds at my knees and ankles were cut, and I was bundled on to the back of a horse. Then my feet were strapped firmly below its belly. The bridle of my beast was tied to ‘Mwanga’s, so that there was little chance of escape even if I had been unshackled.

My thoughts were very gloomy. So far all had happened as I planned, but I seemed to have lost my nerve, and I could not believe in my rescue at the Letaba, while I thought of Inanda’s Kraal with sheer horror. Last night I had looked into the heart of darkness, and the sight had terrified me. What part should I play in the great purification? Most likely that of the Biblical scapegoat. But the dolour of my mind was surpassed by the discomfort of my body. I was broken with pains and weariness, and I had a desperate headache. Also, before we had gone a mile, I began to think that I should split in two. The paces of my beast were uneven, to say the best of it, and the bump-bump was like being on the rack. I remembered that the saints of the Covenant used to journey to prison this way, especially the great Mr Peden, and I wondered how they liked it. When I hear of a man doing a brave deed, I always want to discover whether at the time he was well and comfortable in body. That, I am certain, is the biggest ingredient in courage, and those who plan and execute great deeds in bodily weakness have my homage as truly heroic. For myself, I had not the spirit of a chicken as I jogged along at ‘Mwanga’s side. I wished he would begin to insult me, if only to distract my mind, but he kept obstinately silent. He was sulky, and I think rather afraid of me.

As the sun got up I could see something of the host around me. I am no hand at guessing numbers, but I should put the fighting men I saw at not less than twenty thousand. Every man of them was on this side his prime, and all were armed with good rifles and bandoliers. There were none of your old roers[1] and decrepit Enfields, which I had seen signs of in Kaffir kraals. These guns were new, serviceable Mausers, and the men who bore them looked as if they knew how to handle them. There must have been long months of training behind this show, and I marvelled at the man who had organized it. I saw no field-guns, and the little transport they had was evidently for food only. We did not travel in ranks like an orthodox column. About a third of the force was mounted, and this formed the centre. On each wing the infantry straggled far afield, but there was method in their disorder, for in the bush close ranks would have been impossible. At any rate we kept wonderfully well together, and when we mounted a knoll the whole army seemed to move in one piece. I was well in the rear of the centre column, but from the crest of a slope I sometimes got a view in front. I could see nothing of Laputa, who was probably with the van, but in the very heart of the force I saw the old priest of the Snake, with his treasure carried in the kind of litter which the Portuguese call a machila, between rows of guards. A white man rode beside him, whom I judged to be Henriques. Laputa trusted this fellow, and I wondered why. I had not forgotten the look on his face while he had stared at the rubies in the cave. I had a notion that the Portugoose might be an unsuspected ally of mine, though for blackguard reasons.

About ten o’clock, as far as I could judge by the sun, we passed Umvelos’, and took the right bank of the Labongo. There was nothing in the store to loot, but it was overrun by Kaffirs, who carried off the benches for firewood. It gave me an odd feeling to see the remains of the meal at which I had entertained Laputa in the hands of a dozen warriors. I thought of the long sunny days when I had sat by my nachtmaal while the Dutch farmers rode in to trade. Now these men were all dead, and I was on my way to the same bourne.

Soon the blue line of the Berg rose in the west, and through the corner of my eye, as I rode, I could see the gap of the Klein Labongo. I wondered if Arcoll and his men were up there watching us. About this time I began to be so wretched in body that I ceased to think of the future. I had had no food for seventeen hours, and I was dropping from lack of sleep. The ache of my bones was so great that I found myself crying like a baby. What between pain and weakness and nervous exhaustion, I was almost at the end of my tether, and should have fainted dead away if a halt had not been called. But about midday, after we had crossed the track from Blaauwildebeestefontein to the Portuguese frontier, we came to the broad, shallow drift of the Klein Labongo. It is the way of the Kaffirs to rest at noon, and on the other side of the drift we encamped. I remember the smell of hot earth and clean water as my horse scrambled up the bank. Then came the smell of wood-smoke as fires were lit. It seemed an age after we stopped before my feet were loosed and I was allowed to fall over on the ground. I lay like a log where I fell, and was asleep in ten seconds. I awoke two hours later much refreshed, and with a raging hunger. My ankles and knees had been tied again, but the sleep had taken the worst stiffness out of my joints. The natives were squatting in groups round their fires, but no one came near me. I satisfied myself by straining at my bonds that this solitude gave no chance of escape. I wanted food, and I shouted on ‘Mwanga, but he never came. Then I rolled over into the shadow of a wacht-en-beetje bush to get out of the glare.

I saw a Kaffir on the other side of the bush who seemed to be grinning at me. Slowly he moved round to my side, and stood regarding me with interest.

‘For God’s sake get me some food,’ I said.

‘Ja, Baas,’ was the answer; and he disappeared for a minute, and returned with a wooden bowl of hot mealie-meal porridge, and a calabash full of water.

I could not use my hands, so he fed me with the blade of his knife. Such porridge without salt or cream is beastly food, but my hunger was so great that I could have eaten a vat of it.

Suddenly it appeared that the Kaffir had something to say to me. As he fed me he began to speak in a low voice in English.

‘Baas,’ he said, ‘I come from Ratitswan, and I have a message for you.’

I guessed that Ratitswan was the native name for Arcoll. There was no one else likely to send a message. ‘Ratitswan says,’ he went on, “‘Look out for Dupree’s Drift.” I will be near you and cut your bonds; then you must swim across when Ratitswan begins to shoot.’

The news took all the weight of care from my mind. Colin had got home, and my friends were out for rescue. So volatile is the mood of 19 that I veered round from black despair to an unwarranted optimism. I saw myself already safe, and Laputa’s rising scattered. I saw my hands on the treasure, and Henriques’ ugly neck below my heel.

‘I don’t know your name,’ I said to the Kaffir, ‘but you are a good fellow. When I get out of this business I won’t forget you.’

‘There is another message, Baas,’ he said. ‘It is written on paper in a strange tongue. Turn your head to the bush, and see, I will hold it inside the bowl, that you may read it.’

I did as I was told, and found myself looking at a dirty half-sheet of notepaper, marked by the Kaffir’s thumbs. Some words were written on it in Wardlaw’s hand; and, characteristically, in Latin, which was not a bad cipher. I read--

Henricus de Letaba transeunda apud Duprei vada jam nos certiores fecit.‘[2]

I had guessed rightly. Henriques was a traitor to the cause he had espoused. Arcoll’s message had given me new heart, but Wardlaw’s gave me information of tremendous value. I repented that I had ever underrated the schoolmaster’s sense. He did not come out of Aberdeen for nothing.

I asked the Kaffir how far it was to Dupree’s Drift, and was told three hours’ march. We should get there after the darkening. It seemed he had permission to ride with me instead of ‘Mwanga, who had no love for the job. How he managed this I do not know; but Arcoll’s men had their own ways of doing things. He undertook to set me free when the first shot was fired at the ford. Meantime I bade him leave me, to avert suspicion.

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