Prester John
Chapter XVII: A Deal and Its Consequences

Public Domain

My eyes were bandaged tight, and a thong was run round my right wrist and tied to Laputa’s saddle-bow. I felt the glare of the afternoon sun on my head, and my shins were continually barked by stones and trees; but these were my only tidings of the outer world. By the sound of his paces Laputa was riding the schimmel, and if any one thinks it easy to go blindfold by a horse’s side I hope he will soon have the experience. In the darkness I could not tell the speed of the beast. When I ran I overshot it and was tugged back; when I walked my wrist was dislocated with the tugs forward.

For an hour or more I suffered this breakneck treatment. We were descending. Often I could hear the noise of falling streams, and once we splashed through a mountain ford. Laputa was taking no risks, for he clearly had in mind the possibility of some accident which would set me free, and he had no desire to have me guiding Arcoll to his camp.

But as I stumbled and sprawled down these rocky tracks I was not thinking of Laputa’s plans. My whole soul was filled with regret for Colin, and rage against his murderer. After my first mad rush I had not thought about my dog. He was dead, but so would I be in an hour or two, and there was no cause to lament him. But at the first revival of hope my grief had returned. As they bandaged my eyes I was wishing that they would let me see his grave. As I followed beside Laputa I told myself that if ever I got free, when the war was over I would go to Inanda’s Kraal, find the grave, and put a tombstone over it in memory of the dog that saved my life. I would also write that the man who shot him was killed on such and such a day at such and such a place by Colin’s master. I wondered why Laputa had not the wits to see the Portugoose’s treachery and to let me fight him. I did not care what were the weapons--knives or guns, or naked fists--I would certainly kill him, and afterwards the Kaffirs could do as they pleased with me. Hot tears of rage and weakness wet the bandage on my eyes, and the sobs which came from me were not only those of weariness.

At last we halted. Laputa got down and took off the bandage, and I found myself in one of the hill-meadows which lie among the foothills of the Wolkberg. The glare blinded me, and for a little I could only see the marigolds growing at my feet. Then I had a glimpse of the deep gorge of the Great Letaba below me, and far to the east the flats running out to the hazy blue line of the Lebombo hills. Laputa let me sit on the ground for a minute or two to get my breath and rest my feet. ‘That was a rough road,’ he said. ‘You can take it easier now, for I have no wish to carry you.’ He patted the schimmel, and the beautiful creature turned his mild eyes on the pair of us. I wondered if he recognized his rider of two nights ago.

I had seen Laputa as the Christian minister, as the priest and king in the cave, as the leader of an army at Dupree’s Drift, and at the kraal we had left as the savage with all self-control flung to the winds. I was to see this amazing man in a further part. For he now became a friendly and rational companion. He kept his horse at an easy walk, and talked to me as if we were two friends out for a trip together. Perhaps he had talked thus to Arcoll, the half-caste who drove his Cape-cart.

The wooded bluff above Machudi’s glen showed far in front. He told me the story of the Machudi war, which I knew already, but he told it as a saga. There had been a stratagem by which one of the Boer leaders--a Grobelaar, I think--got some of his men into the enemy’s camp by hiding them in a captured forage wagon.

‘Like the Trojan horse,’ I said involuntarily.

‘Yes,’ said my companion, ‘the same old device,’ and to my amazement he quoted some lines of Virgil.

‘Do you understand Latin?’ he asked.

I told him that I had some slight knowledge of the tongue, acquired at the university of Edinburgh. Laputa nodded. He mentioned the name of a professor there, and commented on his scholarship.

‘O man!’ I cried, ‘what in God’s name are you doing in this business? You that are educated and have seen the world, what makes you try to put the clock back? You want to wipe out the civilization of a thousand years, and turn us all into savages. It’s the more shame to you when you know better.’

‘You misunderstand me,’ he said quietly. ‘It is because I have sucked civilization dry that I know the bitterness of the fruit. I want a simpler and better world, and I want that world for my own people. I am a Christian, and will you tell me that your civilization pays much attention to Christ? You call yourself a patriot? Will you not give me leave to be a patriot in turn?’

‘If you are a Christian, what sort of Christianity is it to deluge the land with blood?’

‘The best,’ he said. ‘The house must be swept and garnished before the man of the house can dwell in it. You have read history. Such a purging has descended on the Church at many times, and the world has awakened to a new hope. It is the same in all religions. The temples grow tawdry and foul and must be cleansed, and, let me remind you, the cleanser has always come out of the desert.’

I had no answer, being too weak and forlorn to think. But I fastened on his patriotic plea.

‘Where are the patriots in your following? They are all red Kaffirs crying for blood and plunder. Supposing you were Oliver Cromwell you could make nothing out of such a crew.’

‘They are my people,’ he said simply.

By this time we had forded the Great Letaba, and were making our way through the clumps of forest to the crown of the plateau. I noticed that Laputa kept well in cover, preferring the tangle of wooded undergrowth to the open spaces of the water-meadows. As he talked, his wary eyes were keeping a sharp look-out over the landscape. I thrilled with the thought that my own folk were near at hand.

Once Laputa checked me with his hand as I was going to speak, and in silence we crossed the kloof of a little stream. After that we struck a long strip of forest and he slackened his watch.

‘If you fight for a great cause,’ I said, ‘why do you let a miscreant like Henriques have a hand in it? You must know that the man’s only interest in you is the chance of loot. I am for you against Henriques, and I tell you plain that if you don’t break the snake’s back it will sting you.’

Laputa looked at me with an odd, meditative look.

‘You misunderstand again, Mr Storekeeper. The Portuguese is what you call a “mean white.” His only safety is among us. I am campaigner enough to know that an enemy, who has a burning grievance against my other enemies, is a good ally. You are too hard on Henriques. You and your friends have treated him as a Kaffir, and a Kaffir he is in everything but Kaffir virtues. What makes you so anxious that Henriques should not betray me?’

‘I’m not a mean white,’ I said, ‘and I will speak the truth. I hope, in God’s name, to see you smashed; but I want it done by honest men, and not by a yellow devil who has murdered my dog and my friends. Sooner or later you will find him out; and if he escapes you, and there’s any justice in heaven, he won’t escape me.’

‘Brave words,’ said Laputa, with a laugh, and then in one second he became rigid in the saddle. We had crossed a patch of meadow and entered a wood, beyond which ran the highway. I fancy he was out in his reckoning, and did not think the road so near. At any rate, after a moment he caught the sound of horses, and I caught it too. The wood was thin, and there was no room for retreat, while to recross the meadow would bring us clean into the open. He jumped from his horse, untied with amazing quickness the rope halter from its neck, and started to gag me by winding the thing round my jaw.

I had no time to protest that I would keep faith, and my right hand was tethered to his pommel. In the grip of these great arms I was helpless, and in a trice was standing dumb as a lamp-post; while Laputa, his left arm round both of mine, and his right hand over the schimmel‘s eyes, strained his ears like a sable antelope who has scented danger.

There was never a more brutal gagging. The rope crushed my nose and drove my lips down on my teeth, besides gripping my throat so that I could scarcely breathe. The pain was so great that I became sick, and would have fallen but for Laputa. Happily I managed to get my teeth apart, so that one coil slipped between, and eased the pain of the jaws. But the rest was bad enough to make me bite frantically on the tow, and I think in a little my sharp front teeth would have severed it. All this discomfort prevented me seeing what happened. The wood, as I have said, was thin, and through the screen of leaves I had a confused impression of men and horses passing interminably. There can only have been a score at the most; but the moments drag if a cord is gripping your throat. When Laputa at length untied me, I had another fit of nausea, and leaned helplessly against a tree.

Laputa listened till the sound of the horses had died away; then silently we stole to the edge of the road, across, and into the thicker evergreen bush on the far side. At a pace which forced me to run hard, we climbed a steepish slope, till ahead of us we saw the bald green crown of the meadowlands. I noticed that his face had grown dark and sullen again. He was in an enemy’s country, and had the air of the hunted instead of the hunter. When I stopped he glowered at me, and once, when I was all but overcome with fatigue, he lifted his hand in a threat. Had he carried a sjambok, it would have fallen on my back.

If he was nervous, so was I. The fact that I was out of the Kaffir country and in the land of my own folk was a kind of qualified liberty. At any moment, I felt, Providence might intervene to set me free. It was in the bond that Laputa should shoot me if we were attacked; but a pistol might miss. As far as my shaken wits would let me, I began to forecast the future. Once he got the jewels my side of the bargain was complete. He had promised me my life, but there had been nothing said about my liberty; and I felt assured that Laputa would never allow one who had seen so much to get off to Arcoll with his tidings. But back to that unhallowed kraal I was resolved I would not go. He was armed, and I was helpless; he was strong, and I was dizzy with weakness; he was mounted, and I was on foot: it seemed a poor hope that I should get away. There was little chance from a wandering patrol, for I knew if we were followed I should have a bullet in my head, while Laputa got off on the schimmel. I must wait and bide events. At the worst, a clean shot on the hillside in a race for life was better than the unknown mysteries of the kraal. I prayed earnestly to God to show me His mercy, for if ever man was sore bested by the heathen it was I.

To my surprise, Laputa chose to show himself on the green hill-shoulder. He looked towards the Wolkberg and raised his hands. It must have been some signal. I cast my eyes back on the road we had come, and I thought I saw some figures a mile back, on the edge of the Letaba gorge. He was making sure of my return.

By this time it was about four in the afternoon, and as heavenly weather as the heart of man could wish. The meadows were full of aromatic herbs, which, as we crushed them, sent up a delicate odour. The little pools and shallows of the burns were as clear as a Lothian trout-stream. We were now going at a good pace, and I found that my earlier weariness was growing less. I was being keyed up for some great crisis, for in my case the spirit acts direct on the body, and fatigue grows and ebbs with hope. I knew that my strength was not far from breaking-point; but I knew also that so long as a chance was left me I should have enough for a stroke.

Before I realized where we were we had rounded the hill, and were looking down on the green cup of the upper Machudi’s glen. Far down, I remember, where the trees began, there was a cloud of smoke. Some Kaffir--or maybe Arcoll--had fired the forest. The smoke was drifting away under a light west wind over the far plains, so that they were seen through a haze of opal.

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