Prester John
Chapter XV: Morning in the Berg

Public Domain

I was perhaps half a mile the nearer to the glen, and was likely to get there first. And after that? I could see the track winding by the waterside and then crossing a hill-shoulder which diverted the stream. It was a road a man could scarcely ride, and a tired man would have a hard job to climb. I do not think that I had any hope. My exhilaration had died as suddenly as it had been born. I saw myself caught and carried off to Laputa, who must now be close on the rendezvous at Inanda’s Kraal. I had no weapon to make a fight for it. My foemen were many and untired. It must be only a matter of minutes till I was in their hands.

More in a dogged fury of disappointment than with any hope of escape I forced my sore legs up the glen. Ten minutes ago I had been exulting in the glories of the morning, and now the sun was not less bright or the colours less fair, but the heart had gone out of the spectator. At first I managed to get some pace out of myself, partly from fear and partly from anger. But I soon found that my body had been tried too far. I could plod along, but to save my life I could not have hurried. Any healthy savage could have caught me in a hundred yards.

The track, I remember, was overhung with creepers, and often I had to squeeze through thickets of tree-ferns. Countless little brooks ran down from the hillside, threads of silver among the green pastures. Soon I left the stream and climbed up on the shoulder, where the road was not much better than a precipice. Every step was a weariness. I could hardly drag one foot after the other, and my heart was beating like the fanners of a mill, I had spasms of acute sickness, and it took all my resolution to keep me from lying down by the roadside.

At last I was at the top of the shoulder and could look back. There was no sign of anybody on the road so far as I could see. Could I have escaped them? I had been in the shadow of the trees for the first part, and they might have lost sight of me and concluded that I had avoided the glen or tried one of the faces. Before me, I remember, there stretched the upper glen, a green cup-shaped hollow with the sides scarred by ravines. There was a high waterfall in one of them which was white as snow against the red rocks. My wits must have been shaky, for I took the fall for a snowdrift, and wondered sillily why the Berg had grown so Alpine.

A faint spasm of hope took me into that green cup. The bracken was as thick as on the Pentlands, and there was a multitude of small lovely flowers in the grass. It was like a water-meadow at home, such a place as I had often in boyhood searched for moss-cheepers’ and corncrakes’ eggs. Birds were crying round me as I broke this solitude, and one small buck--a klipspringer--rose from my feet and dashed up one of the gullies. Before me was a steep green wall with the sky blue above it. Beyond it was safety, but as my sweat-dimmed eyes looked at it I knew that I could never reach it.

Then I saw my pursuers. High up on the left side, and rounding the rim of the cup, were little black figures. They had not followed my trail, but, certain of my purpose, had gone forward to intercept me. I remember feeling a puny weakling compared with those lusty natives who could make such good going on steep mountains. They were certainly no men of the plains, but hillmen, probably some remnants of old Machudi’s tribe who still squatted in the glen. Machudi was a blackguard chief whom the Boers long ago smashed in one of their native wars. He was a fierce old warrior and had put up a good fight to the last, till a hired impi of Swazis had surrounded his hiding-place in the forest and destroyed him. A Boer farmer on the plateau had his skull, and used to drink whisky out of it when he was merry.

The sight of the pursuit was the last straw. I gave up hope, and my intentions were narrowed to one frantic desire--to hide the jewels. Patriotism, which I had almost forgotten, flickered up in that crisis. At any rate Laputa should not have the Snake. If he drove out the white man, he should not clasp the Prester’s rubies on his great neck.

There was no cover in the green cup, so I turned up the ravine on the right side. The enemy, so far as I could judge, were on the left and in front, and in the gully I might find a pot-hole to bury the necklet in. Only a desperate resolution took me through the tangle of juniper bushes into the red screes of the gully. At first I could not find what I sought. The stream in the ravine slid down a long slope like a mill-race, and the sides were bare and stony. Still I plodded on, helping myself with a hand on Colin’s back, for my legs were numb with fatigue. By-and-by the gully narrowed, and I came to a flat place with a long pool. Beyond was a little fall, and up this I climbed into a network of tiny cascades. Over one pool hung a dead tree-fern, and a bay from it ran into a hole of the rock. I slipped the jewels far into the hole, where they lay on the firm sand, showing odd lights through the dim blue water. Then I scrambled down again to the flat space and the pool, and looked round to see if any one had reached the edge of the ravine. There was no sign as yet of the pursuit, so I dropped limply on the shingle and waited. For I had suddenly conceived a plan.

As my breath came back to me my wits came back from their wandering. These men were not there to kill me, but to capture me. They could know nothing of the jewels, for Laputa would never have dared to make the loss of the sacred Snake public. Therefore they would not suspect what I had done, and would simply lead me to Laputa at Inanda’s Kraal. I began to see the glimmerings of a plan for saving my life, and by God’s grace, for saving my country from the horrors of rebellion. The more I thought the better I liked it. It demanded a bold front, and it might well miscarry, but I had taken such desperate hazards during the past days that I was less afraid of fortune. Anyhow, the choice lay between certain death and a slender chance of life, and it was easy to decide.

Playing football, I used to notice how towards the end of a game I might be sore and weary, without a kick in my body; but when I had a straight job of tackling a man my strength miraculously returned. It was even so now. I lay on my side, luxuriating in being still, and slowly a sort of vigour crept back into my limbs. Perhaps a half-hour of rest was given me before, on the lip of the gully, I saw figures appear. Looking down I saw several men who had come across from the opposite side of the valley, scrambling up the stream. I got to my feet, with Colin bristling beside me, and awaited them with the stiffest face I could muster.

As I expected, they were Machudi’s men. I recognized them by the red ochre in their hair and their copper-wire necklets. Big fellows they were, long-legged and deep in the chest, the true breed of mountaineers. I admired their light tread on the slippery rock. It was hopeless to think of evading such men in their own hills.

The men from the side joined the men in front, and they stood looking at me from about twelve yards off. They were armed only with knobkerries, and very clearly were no part of Laputa’s army. This made their errand plain to me.

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