Prester John
Chapter XVIII: How a Man May Sometimes Put His Trust in a Horse

Public Domain

I had long passed the limit of my strength. Only constant fear and wild alternations of hope had kept me going so long, and now that I was safe I became light-headed in earnest. The wonder is that I did not fall off. Happily the horse was good and the ground easy, for I was powerless to do any guiding. I simply sat on his back in a silly glow of comfort, keeping a line for the dying sun, which I saw in a nick of the Iron Crown Mountain. A sort of childish happiness possessed me. After three days of imminent peril, to be free was to be in fairyland. To be swishing through the long bracken or plunging among the breast-high flowers of the meadowlands in a world of essential lights and fragrances, seemed scarcely part of mortal experience. Remember that I was little more than a lad, and that I had faced death so often of late that my mind was all adrift. To be able to hope once more, nay, to be allowed to cease both from hope and fear, was like a deep and happy opiate to my senses. Spent and frail as I was, my soul swam in blessed waters of ease.

The mood did not last long. I came back to earth with a shock, as the schimmel stumbled at the crossing of a stream. I saw that the darkness was fast falling, and with the sight panic returned to me. Behind me I seemed to hear the sound of pursuit. The noise was in my ears, but when I turned it ceased, and I saw only the dusky shoulders of hills.

I tried to remember what Arcoll had told me about his headquarters, but my memory was wiped clean. I thought they were on or near the highway, but I could not remember where the highway was. Besides, he was close to the enemy, and I wanted to get back into the towns, far away from the battle-line. If I rode west I must come in time to villages, where I could hide myself. These were unworthy thoughts, but my excuse must be my tattered nerves. When a man comes out of great danger, he is apt to be a little deaf to the call of duty.

Suddenly I became ashamed. God had preserved me from deadly perils, but not that I might cower in some shelter. I had a mission as clear as Laputa’s. For the first time I became conscious to what a little thing I owed my salvation. That matter of the broken halter was like the finger of Divine Providence. I had been saved for a purpose, and unless I fulfilled that purpose I should again be lost. I was always a fatalist, and in that hour of strained body and soul I became something of a mystic. My panic ceased, my lethargy departed, and a more manly resolution took their place. I gripped the schimmel by the head and turned him due left. Now I remembered where the highroad ran, and I remembered something else.

For it was borne in on me that Laputa had fallen into my hands. Without any subtle purpose I had played a master game. He was cut off from his people, without a horse, on the wrong side of the highroad which Arcoll’s men patrolled. Without him the rising would crumble. There might be war, even desperate war, but we should fight against a leaderless foe. If he could only be shepherded to the north, his game was over, and at our leisure we could mop up the scattered concentrations.

I was now as eager to get back into danger as I had been to get into safety. Arcoll must be found and warned, and that at once, or Laputa would slip over to Inanda’s Kraal under cover of dark. It was a matter of minutes, and on these minutes depended the lives of thousands. It was also a matter of ebbing strength, for with my return to common sense I saw very clearly how near my capital was spent. If I could reach the highroad, find Arcoll or Arcoll’s men, and give them my news, I would do my countrymen a service such as no man in Africa could render. But I felt my head swimming, I was swaying crazily in the saddle, and my hands had scarcely the force of a child’s. I could only lie limply on the horse’s back, clutching at his mane with trembling fingers. I remember that my head was full of a text from the Psalms about not putting one’s trust in horses. I prayed that this one horse might be an exception, for he carried more than Caesar and his fortunes.

My mind is a blank about those last minutes. In less than an hour after my escape I struck the highway, but it was an hour which in the retrospect unrolls itself into unquiet years. I was dimly conscious of scrambling through a ditch and coming to a ghostly white road. The schimmel swung to the right, and the next I knew some one had taken my bridle and was speaking to me.

At first I thought it was Laputa and screamed. Then I must have tottered in the saddle, for I felt an arm slip round my middle. The rider uncorked a bottle with his teeth and forced some brandy down my throat. I choked and coughed, and then looked up to see a white policeman staring at me. I knew the police by the green shoulder-straps.

‘Arcoll,’ I managed to croak. ‘For God’s sake take me to Arcoll.’

The man whistled shrilly on his fingers, and a second rider came cantering down the road. As he came up I recognized his face, but could not put a name to it. ‘Losh, it’s the lad Crawfurd,’ I heard a voice say. ‘Crawfurd, man, d’ye no mind me at Lourenco Marques? Aitken?’

The Scotch tongue worked a spell with me. It cleared my wits and opened the gates of my past life. At last I knew I was among my own folk.

‘I must see Arcoll. I have news for him--tremendous news. O man, take me to Arcoll and ask me no questions. Where is he? Where is he?’

‘As it happens, he’s about two hundred yards off,’ Aitken said. ‘That light ye see at the top of the brae is his camp.’

They helped me up the road, a man on each side of me, for I could never have kept in the saddle without their support. My message to Arcoll kept humming in my head as I tried to put it into words, for I had a horrid fear that my wits would fail me and I should be dumb when the time came. Also I was in a fever of haste. Every minute I wasted increased Laputa’s chance of getting back to the kraal. He had men with him every bit as skilful as Arcoll’s trackers. Unless Arcoll had a big force and the best horses there was no hope. Often in looking back at this hour I have marvelled at the strangeness of my behaviour. Here was I just set free from the certainty of a hideous death, and yet I had lost all joy in my security. I was more fevered at the thought of Laputa’s escape than I had been at the prospect of David Crawfurd’s end.

The next thing I knew I was being lifted off the schimmel by what seemed to me a thousand hands. Then came a glow of light, a great moon, in the centre of which I stood blinking. I was forced to sit down on a bed, while I was given a cup of hot tea, far more reviving than any spirits. I became conscious that some one was holding my hands, and speaking very slowly and gently.

‘Davie,’ the voice said, ‘you’re back among friends, my lad. Tell me, where have you been?’

‘I want Arcoll,’ I moaned. ‘Where is Ratitswan?’ There were tears of weakness running down my cheeks.

‘Arcoll is here,’ said the voice; ‘he is holding your hands, Davie. Quiet, lad, quiet. Your troubles are all over now.’

I made a great effort, found the eyes to which the voice belonged, and spoke to them.

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