Prester John
Chapter XIV: I Carry the Collar of Prester John

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I ran till my breath grew short, for some kind of swift motion I had to have or choke. The events of the last few minutes had inflamed my brain. For the first time in my life I had seen men die by violence--nay, by brutal murder. I had put my soul into the blow which laid out Henriques, and I was still hot with the pride of it. Also I had in my pocket the fetich of the whole black world; I had taken their Ark of the Covenant, and soon Laputa would be on my trail. Fear, pride, and a blind exultation all throbbed in my veins. I must have run three miles before I came to my sober senses.

I put my ear to the ground, but heard no sound of pursuit. Laputa, I argued, would have enough to do for a little, shepherding his flock over the water. He might surround and capture the patrol, or he might evade it; the vow prevented him from fighting it. On the whole I was clear that he would ignore it and push on for the rendezvous. All this would take time, and the business of the priest would have to wait. When Henriques came to he would no doubt have a story to tell, and the scouts would be on my trail. I wished I had shot the Portugoose while I was at the business. It would have been no murder, but a righteous execution.

Meanwhile I must get off the road. The sand had been disturbed by an army, so there was little fear of my steps being traced. Still it was only wise to leave the track which I would be assumed to have taken, for Laputa would guess I had fled back the way to Blaauwildebeestefontein. I turned into the bush, which here was thin and sparse like whins on a common.

The Berg must be my goal. Once on the plateau I would be inside the white man’s lines. Down here in the plains I was in the country of my enemies. Arcoll meant to fight on the uplands when it came to fighting. The black man might rage as he pleased in his own flats, but we stood to defend the gates of the hills. Therefore over the Berg I must be before morning, or there would be a dead man with no tales to tell.

I think that even at the start of that night’s work I realized the exceeding precariousness of my chances. Some twenty miles of bush and swamp separated me from the foot of the mountains. After that there was the climbing of them, for at the point opposite where I now stood the Berg does not descend sharply on the plain, but is broken into foot-hills around the glens of the Klein Letaba and the Letsitela. From the spot where these rivers emerge on the flats to the crown of the plateau is ten miles at the shortest. I had a start of an hour or so, but before dawn I had to traverse thirty miles of unknown and difficult country. Behind me would follow the best trackers in Africa, who knew every foot of the wilderness. It was a wild hazard, but it was my only hope. At this time I was feeling pretty courageous. For one thing I had Henriques’ pistol close to my leg, and for another I still thrilled with the satisfaction of having smitten his face.

I took the rubies, and stowed them below my shirt and next my skin. I remember taking stock of my equipment and laughing at the humour of it. One of the heels was almost twisted off my boots, and my shirt and breeches were old at the best and ragged from hard usage. The whole outfit would have been dear at five shillings, or seven-and-six with the belt thrown in. Then there was the Portugoose’s pistol, costing, say, a guinea; and last, the Prester’s collar, worth several millions.

What was more important than my clothing was my bodily strength. I was still very sore from the bonds and the jog of that accursed horse, but exercise was rapidly suppling my joints. About five hours ago I had eaten a filling, though not very sustaining, meal, and I thought I could go on very well till morning. But I was still badly in arrears with my sleep, and there was no chance of my snatching a minute till I was over the Berg. It was going to be a race against time, and I swore that I would drive my body to the last ounce of strength.

Moonrise was still an hour or two away, and the sky was bright with myriad stars. I knew now what starlight meant, for there was ample light to pick my way by. I steered by the Southern Cross, for I was aware that the Berg ran north and south, and with that constellation on my left hand I was bound to reach it sooner or later. The bush closed around me with its mysterious dull green shades, and trees, which in the daytime were thin scrub, now loomed like tall timber. It was very eerie moving, a tiny fragment of mortality, in that great wide silent wilderness, with the starry vault, like an impassive celestial audience, watching with many eyes. They cheered me, those stars. In my hurry and fear and passion they spoke of the old calm dignities of man. I felt less alone when I turned my face to the lights which were slanting alike on this uncanny bush and on the homely streets of Kirkcaple.

The silence did not last long. First came the howl of a wolf, to be answered by others from every quarter of the compass. This serenade went on for a bit, till the jackals chimed in with their harsh bark. I had been caught by darkness before this when hunting on the Berg, but I was not afraid of wild beasts. That is one terror of the bush which travellers’ tales have put too high. It was true that I might meet a hungry lion, but the chance was remote, and I had my pistol. Once indeed a huge animal bounded across the road a little in front of me. For a moment I took him for a lion, but on reflection I was inclined to think him a very large bush-pig.

By this time I was out of the thickest bush and into a piece of parkland with long, waving tambuki grass, which the Kaffirs would burn later. The moon was coming up, and her faint rays silvered the flat tops of the mimosa trees. I could hear and feel around me the rustling of animals. Once or twice a big buck--an eland or a koodoo--broke cover, and at the sight of me went off snorting down the slope. Also there were droves of smaller game--rhebok and springbok and duikers--which brushed past at full gallop without even noticing me.

The sight was so novel that it set me thinking. That shy wild things should stampede like this could only mean that they had been thoroughly scared. Now obviously the thing that scared them must be on this side of the Letaba. This must mean that Laputa’s army, or a large part of it, had not crossed at Dupree’s Drift, but had gone up the stream to some higher ford. If that was so, I must alter my course; so I bore away to the right for a mile or two, making a line due north-west.

In about an hour’s time the ground descended steeply, and I saw before me the shining reaches of a river. I had the chief features of the countryside clear in my mind, both from old porings over maps, and from Arcoll’s instructions. This stream must be the Little Letaba, and I must cross it if I would get to the mountains. I remembered that Majinje’s kraal stood on its left bank, and higher up in its valley in the Berg ‘Mpefu lived. At all costs the kraals must be avoided. Once across it I must make for the Letsitela, another tributary of the Great Letaba, and by keeping the far bank of that stream I should cross the mountains to the place on the plateau of the Wood Bush which Arcoll had told me would be his headquarters.

It is easy to talk about crossing a river, and looking to-day at the slender streak on the map I am amazed that so small a thing should have given me such ugly tremors. Yet I have rarely faced a job I liked so little. The stream ran yellow and sluggish under the clear moon. On the near side a thick growth of bush clothed the bank, but on the far side I made out a swamp with tall bulrushes. The distance across was no more than fifty yards, but I would have swum a mile more readily in deep water. The place stank of crocodiles. There was no ripple to break the oily flow except where a derelict branch swayed with the current. Something in the stillness, the eerie light on the water, and the rotting smell of the swamp made that stream seem unhallowed and deadly.

I sat down and considered the matter. Crocodiles had always terrified me more than any created thing, and to be dragged by iron jaws to death in that hideous stream seemed to me the most awful of endings. Yet cross it I must if I were to get rid of my human enemies. I remembered a story of an escaped prisoner during the war who had only the Komati River between him and safety. But he dared not enter it, and was recaptured by a Boer commando. I was determined that such cowardice should not be laid to my charge. If I was to die, I would at least have given myself every chance of life. So I braced myself as best I could, and looked for a place to enter.

The veld-craft I had mastered had taught me a few things. One was that wild animals drink at night, and that they have regular drinking places. I thought that the likeliest place for crocodiles was at or around such spots, and, therefore, I resolved to take the water away from a drinking place. I went up the bank, noting where the narrow bush-paths emerged on the water-side. I scared away several little buck, and once the violent commotion in the bush showed that I had frightened some bigger animal, perhaps a hartebeest. Still following the bank I came to a reach where the undergrowth was unbroken and the water looked deeper.

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