Prester John
Chapter XX: My Last Sight of the Reverend John Laputa

Public Domain

It was dark before I got into the gorge of the Letaba. I passed many patrols, but few spoke to me, and none tried to stop me. Some may have known me, but I think it was my face and figure which tied their tongues. I must have been pale as death, with tangled hair and fever burning in my eyes. Also on my left temple was the splash of blood.

At Main Drift I found a big body of police holding the ford. I splashed through and stumbled into one of their camp-fires. A man questioned me, and told me that Arcoll had got his quarry. ‘He’s dead, they say. They shot him out on the hills when he was making for the Limpopo.’ But I knew that this was not true. It was burned on my mind that Laputa was alive, nay, was waiting for me, and that it was God’s will that we should meet in the cave.

A little later I struck the track of the Kaffirs’ march. There was a broad, trampled way through the bush, and I followed it, for it led to Dupree’s Drift. All this time I was urging the schimmel with all the vigour I had left in me. I had quite lost any remnant of fear. There were no terrors left for me either from Nature or man. At Dupree’s Drift I rode the ford without a thought of crocodiles. I looked placidly at the spot where Henriques had slain the Keeper and I had stolen the rubies. There was no interest or imagination lingering in my dull brain. My nerves had suddenly become things of stolid, untempered iron. Each landmark I passed was noted down as one step nearer to my object. At Umvelos’ I had not the leisure to do more than glance at the shell which I had built. I think I had forgotten all about that night when I lay in the cellar and heard Laputa’s plans. Indeed, my doings of the past days were all hazy and trivial in my mind. I only saw one sight clearly--two men, one tall and black, the other little and sallow, slowly creeping nearer to the Rooirand, and myself, a midget on a horse, spurring far behind through the bush on their trail. I saw the picture as continuously and clearly as if I had been looking at a scene on the stage. There was only one change in the setting; the three figures seemed to be gradually closing together.

I had no exhilaration in my quest. I do not think I had even much hope, for something had gone numb and cold in me and killed my youth. I told myself that treasure-hunting was an enterprise accursed of God, and that I should most likely die. That Laputa and Henriques would die I was fully certain. The three of us would leave our bones to bleach among the diamonds, and in a little the Prester’s collar would glow amid a little heap of human dust. I was quite convinced of all this, and quite apathetic. It really did not matter so long as I came up with Laputa and Henriques, and settled scores with them. That mattered everything in the world, for it was my destiny.

I had no means of knowing how long I took, but it was after midnight before I passed Umvelos’, and ere I got to the Rooirand there was a fluttering of dawn in the east. I must have passed east of Arcoll’s men, who were driving the bush towards Majinje’s. I had ridden the night down and did not feel so very tired. My horse was stumbling, but my own limbs scarcely pained me. To be sure I was stiff and nerveless as if hewn out of wood, but I had been as bad when I left Bruderstroom. I felt as if I could go on riding to the end of the world.

At the brink of the bush I dismounted and turned the schimmel loose. I had brought no halter, and I left him to graze and roll. The light was sufficient to let me see the great rock face rising in a tower of dim purple. The sky was still picked out with stars, but the moon had long gone down, and the east was flushing. I marched up the path to the cave, very different from the timid being who had walked the same road three nights before. Then my terrors were all to come: now I had conquered terror and seen the other side of fear. I was centuries older.

But beside the path lay something which made me pause. It was a dead body, and the head was turned away from me. I did not need to see the face to know who it was. There had been only two men in my vision, and one of them was immortal.

I stopped and turned the body over. There was no joy in my heart, none of the lust of satisfied vengeance or slaked hate. I had forgotten about the killing of my dog and all the rest of Henriques’ doings. It was only with curiosity that I looked down on the dead face, swollen and livid in the first light of morning.

The man had been strangled. His neck, as we say in Scotland, was ‘thrawn’, and that was why he had lain on his back yet with his face turned away from me. He had been dead probably since before midnight. I looked closer, and saw that there was blood on his shirt and hands, but no wound. It was not his blood, but some other’s. Then a few feet off on the path I found a pistol with two chambers empty.

What had happened was very plain. Henriques had tried to shoot Laputa at the entrance of the cave for the sake of the collar and the treasure within. He had wounded him--gravely, I thought, to judge from the amount of blood--but the quickness and marksmanship of the Portuguese had not availed to save his life from those terrible hands. After two shots Laputa had got hold of him and choked his life out as easily as a man twists a partridge’s neck. Then he had gone into the cave.

I saw the marks of blood on the road, and hastened on. Laputa had been hours in the cave, enough to work havoc with the treasure. He was wounded, too, and desperate. Probably he had come to the Rooirand looking for sanctuary and rest for a day or two, but if Henriques had shot straight he might find a safer sanctuary and a longer rest. For the third time in my life I pushed up the gully between the straight high walls of rock, and heard from the heart of the hills the thunder of the imprisoned river.

There was only the faintest gleam of light in the cleft, but it sufficed to show me that the way to the cave was open. The hidden turnstile in the right wall stood ajar; I entered, and carelessly swung it behind me. The gates clashed into place with a finality which told me that they were firmly shut. I did not know the secret of them, so how should I get out again?

These things troubled me less than the fact that I had no light at all now. I had to go on my knees to ascend the stair, and I could feel that the steps were wet. It must be Laputa’s blood.

Next I was out on the gallery which skirted the chasm. The sky above me was growing pale with dawn, and far below the tossing waters were fretted with light. A light fragrant wind was blowing on the hills, and a breath of it came down the funnel. I saw that my hands were all bloody with the stains on the steps, and I rubbed them on the rock to clean them. Without a tremor I crossed the stone slab over the gorge, and plunged into the dark alley which led to the inner chamber.

As before, there was a light in front of me, but this time it was a pin-point and not the glare of many torches. I felt my way carefully by the walls of the passage, though I did not really fear anything. It was by the stopping of these lateral walls that I knew I was in the cave, for the place had only one single speck of light. The falling wall of water stood out grey green and ghostly on the left, and I noticed that higher up it was lit as if from the open air. There must be a great funnel in the hillside in that direction. I walked a few paces, and then I made out that the spark in front was a lantern.

My eyes were getting used to the half-light, and I saw what was beside the lantern. Laputa knelt on the ashes of the fire which the Keeper had kindled three days before. He knelt before, and half leaned on, a rude altar of stone. The lantern stood by him on the floor, and its faint circle lit something which I was not unprepared for. Blood was welling from his side, and spreading in a dark pool over the ashes.

I had no fear, only a great pity--pity for lost romance, for vain endeavour, for fruitless courage. ‘Greeting, Inkulu!’ I said in Kaffir, as if I had been one of his indunas.

He turned his head and slowly and painfully rose to his feet. The place, it was clear, was lit from without, and the daylight was growing. The wall of the river had become a sheet of jewels, passing from pellucid diamond above to translucent emerald below. A dusky twilight sought out the extreme corners of the cave. Laputa’s tall figure stood swaying above the white ashes, his hand pressed to his side.

‘Who is it?’ he said, looking at me with blind eyes.

‘It is the storekeeper from Umvelos’,’ I answered.

‘The storekeeper of Umvelos’,’ he repeated. ‘God has used the weak things of the world to confound the strong. A king dies because a pedlar is troublesome. What do they call you, man? You deserve to be remembered.’

I told him ‘David Crawfurd.’

‘Crawfurd,’ he repeated, ‘you have been the little reef on which a great vessel has foundered. You stole the collar and cut me off from my people, and then when I was weary the Portuguese killed me.’

‘No,’ I cried, ‘it was not me. You trusted Henriques, and you got your fingers on his neck too late. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

‘You warned me, and I will repay you. I will make you rich, Crawfurd. You are a trader, and want money. I am a king, and want a throne. But I am dying, and there will be no more kings in Africa.’

The mention of riches did not thrill me as I had expected, but the last words awakened a wild regret. I was hypnotized by the man. To see him going out was like seeing the fall of a great mountain.

He stretched himself, gasping, and in the growing light I could see how broken he was. His cheeks were falling in, and his sombre eyes had shrunk back in their sockets. He seemed an old worn man standing there among the ashes, while the blood, which he made no effort to staunch, trickled down his side till it dripped on the floor. He had ceased to be the Kaffir king, or the Christian minister, or indeed any one of his former parts. Death was stripping him to his elements, and the man Laputa stood out beyond and above the characters he had played, something strange, and great, and moving, and terrible.

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