Prester John
Chapter XIII: The Drift of the Letaba

Public Domain

The dusk was gathering fast as we neared the stream. From the stagnant reaches above and below a fine white mist was rising, but the long shallows of the ford were clear. My heart was beginning to flutter wildly, but I kept a tight grip on myself and prayed for patience. As I stared into the evening my hopes sank. I had expected, foolishly enough, to see on the far bank some sign of my friends, but the tall bush was dead and silent.

The drift slants across the river at an acute angle, roughly S.S.W. I did not know this at the time, and was amazed to see the van of the march turn apparently up stream. Laputa’s great voice rang out in some order which was repeated down the column, and the wide flanks of the force converged on the narrow cart-track which entered the water. We had come to a standstill while the front ranks began the passage.

I sat shaking with excitement, my eyes straining into the gloom. Water holds the evening light for long, and I could make out pretty clearly what was happening. The leading horsemen rode into the stream with Laputa in front. The ford is not the best going, so they had to pick their way, but in five or ten minutes they were over. Then came some of the infantry of the flanks, who crossed with the water to their waists, and their guns held high above their heads. They made a portentous splashing, but not a sound came from their throats. I shall never know how Laputa imposed silence on the most noisy race on earth. Several thousand footmen must have followed the riders, and disappeared into the far bush. But not a shot came from the bluffs in front.

I watched with a sinking heart. Arcoll had failed, and there was to be no check at the drift. There remained for me only the horrors at Inanda’s Kraal. I resolved to make a dash for freedom, at all costs, and was in the act of telling Arcoll’s man to cut my bonds, when a thought occurred to me.

Henriques was after the rubies, and it was his interest to get Laputa across the river before the attack began. It was Arcoll’s business to split the force, and above all to hold up the leader. Henriques would tell him, and for that matter he must have assumed himself, that Laputa would ride in the centre of the force. Therefore there would be no check till the time came for the priest’s litter to cross.

It was well that I had not had my bonds cut. Henriques came riding towards me, his face sharp and bright as a ferret’s. He pulled up and asked if I were safe. My Kaffir showed my strapped elbows and feet, and tugged at the cords to prove their tightness.

‘Keep him well,’ said Henriques, ‘or you will answer to Inkulu. Forward with him now and get him through the water.’ Then he turned and rode back.

My warder, apparently obeying orders, led me out of the column and into the bush on the right hand. Soon we were abreast of the litter and some twenty yards to the west of it. The water gleamed through the trees a few paces in front. I could see the masses of infantry converging on the drift, and the churning like a cascade which they made in the passage.

Suddenly from the far bank came an order. It was Laputa’s voice, thin and high-pitched, as the Kaffir cries when he wishes his words to carry a great distance. Henriques repeated it, and the infantry halted. The riders of the column in front of the litter began to move into the stream.

We should have gone with them, but instead we pulled our horses back into the darkness of the bush. It seemed to me that odd things were happening around the priest’s litter. Henriques had left it, and dashed past me so close that I could have touched him. From somewhere among the trees a pistol-shot cracked into the air.

As if in answer to a signal the high bluff across the stream burst into a sheet of fire. ‘A sheet of fire’ sounds odd enough for scientific warfare. I saw that my friends were using shot-guns and firing with black powder into the mob in the water. It was humane and it was good tactics, for the flame in the grey dusk had the appearance of a heavy battery of ordnance. Once again I heard Henriques’ voice. He was turning the column to the right. He shouted to them to get into cover, and take the water higher up. I thought, too, that from far away I heard Laputa.

These were maddening seconds. We had left the business of cutting my bonds almost too late. In the darkness of the bush the strips of hide could only be felt for, and my Kaffir had a woefully blunt knife. Reims are always tough to sever, and mine had to be sawn through. Soon my arms were free, and I was plucking at my other bonds. The worst were those on my ankles below the horse’s belly. The Kaffir fumbled away in the dark, and pricked my beast so that he reared and struck out. And all the while I was choking with impatience, and gabbling prayers to myself.

The men on the other side had begun to use ball-cartridge. I could see through a gap the centre of the river, and it was filled with a mass of struggling men and horses. I remember that it amazed me that no shot was fired in return. Then I remembered the vow, and was still more amazed at the power of a ritual on that savage horde.

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