Prester John
Chapter XXII: A Great Peril and a Great Salvation

Public Domain

I must now take up some of the ragged ends which I have left behind me. It is not my task, as I have said, to write the history of the great Rising. That has been done by abler men, who were at the centre of the business, and had some knowledge of strategy and tactics; whereas I was only a raw lad who was privileged by fate to see the start. If I could, I would fain make an epic of it, and show how the Plains found at all points the Plateau guarded, how wits overcame numbers, and at every pass which the natives tried the great guns spoke and the tide rolled back. Yet I fear it would be an epic without a hero. There was no leader left when Laputa had gone. There were months of guerrilla fighting, and then months of reprisals, when chief after chief was hunted down and brought to trial. Then the amnesty came and a clean sheet, and white Africa drew breath again with certain grave reflections left in her head. On the whole I am not sorry that the history is no business of mine. Romance died with ‘the heir of John,’ and the crusade became a sorry mutiny. I can fancy how differently Laputa would have managed it all had he lived; how swift and sudden his plans would have been; how under him the fighting would not have been in the mountain glens, but far in the high-veld among the dorps and townships. With the Inkulu alive we warred against odds; with the Inkulu dead the balance sank heavily in our favour. I leave to others the marches and strategy of the thing, and hasten to clear up the obscure parts in my own fortunes.

Arcoll received my message from Umvelos’ by Colin, or rather Wardlaw received it and sent it on to the post on the Berg where the leader had gone. Close on its heels came the message from Henriques by a Shangaan in his pay. It must have been sent off before the Portugoose got to the Rooirand, from which it would appear that he had his own men in the bush near the store, and that I was lucky to get off as I did. Arcoll might have disregarded Henriques’ news as a trap if it had come alone, but my corroboration impressed and perplexed him. He began to credit the Portugoose with treachery, but he had no inclination to act on his message, since it conflicted with his plans. He knew that Laputa must come into the Berg sooner or later, and he had resolved that his strategy must be to await him there. But there was the question of my life. He had every reason to believe that I was in the greatest danger, and he felt a certain responsibility for my fate. With the few men at his disposal he could not hope to hold up the great Kaffir army, but there was a chance that he might by a bold stand effect my rescue. Henriques had told him of the vow, and had told him that Laputa would ride in the centre of the force. A body of men well posted at Dupree’s Drift might split the army at the crossing, and under cover of the fire I might swim the river and join my friends. Still relying on the vow, it might be possible for well-mounted men to evade capture. Accordingly he called for volunteers, and sent off one of his Kaffirs to warn me of his design. He led his men in person, and of his doings the reader already knows the tale. But though the crossing was flung into confusion, and the rear of the army was compelled to follow the northerly bank of the Letaba, there was no sign of me anywhere. Arcoll searched the river-banks, and crossed the drift to where the old Keeper was lying dead. He then concluded that I had been murdered early in the march, and his Kaffir, who might have given him news of me, was carried up the stream in the tide of the disorderly army. Therefore, he and his men rode back with all haste to the Berg by way of Main Drift, and reached Bruderstroom before Laputa had crossed the highway.

My information about Inanda’s Kraal decided Arcoll’s next move. Like me he remembered Beyers’s performance, and resolved to repeat it. He had no hope of catching Laputa, but he thought that he might hold up the bulk of his force if he got guns on the ridge above the kraal. A message had already been sent for guns, and the first to arrive got to Bruderstroom about the hour when I was being taken by Machudi’s men in the kloof. The ceremony of the purification prevented Laputa from keeping a good look-out, and the result was that a way was made for the guns on the north-western corner of the rampart of rock. It was the way which Beyers had taken, and indeed the enterprise was directed by one of Beyers’s old commandants. All that day the work continued, while Laputa and I were travelling to Machudi’s. Then came the evening when I staggered into camp and told my news. Arcoll, who alone knew how vital Laputa was to the success of the insurrection, immediately decided to suspend all other operations and devote himself to shepherding the leader away from his army. How the scheme succeeded and what befell Laputa the reader has already been told.

Aitken and Wardlaw, when I descended from the cliffs, took me straight to Blaauwildebeestefontein. I was like a man who is recovering from bad fever, cured, but weak and foolish, and it was a slow journey which I made to Umvelos’, riding on Aitken’s pony. At Umvelos’ we found a picket who had captured the schimmel by the roadside. That wise beast, when I turned him loose at the entrance to the cave, had trotted quietly back the way he had come. At Umvelos’ Aitken left me, and next day, with Wardlaw as companion, I rode up the glen of the Klein Labongo, and came in the afternoon to my old home. The store was empty, for Japp some days before had gone off post-haste to Pietersdorp; but there was Zeeta cleaning up the place as if war had never been heard of. I slept the night there, and in the morning found myself so much recovered that I was eager to get away. I wanted to see Arcoll about many things, but mainly about the treasure in the cave.

It was an easy journey to Bruderstroom through the meadows of the plateau. The farmers’ commandoes had been recalled, but the ashes of their camp fires were still grey among the bracken. I fell in with a police patrol and was taken by them to a spot on the Upper Letaba, some miles west of the camp, where we found Arcoll at late breakfast. I had resolved to take him into my confidence, so I told him the full tale of my night’s adventure. He was very severe with me, I remember, for my daft-like ride, but his severity relaxed before I had done with my story.

The telling brought back the scene to me, and I shivered at the picture of the cave with the morning breaking through the veil of water and Laputa in his death throes. Arcoll did not speak for some time.

‘So he is dead,’ he said at last, half-whispering to himself. ‘Well, he was a king, and died like a king. Our job now is simple, for there is none of his breed left in Africa.’

Then I told him of the treasure.

‘It belongs to you, Davie,’ he said, ‘and we must see that you get it. This is going to be a long war, but if we survive to the end you will be a rich man.’

‘But in the meantime?’ I asked. ‘Supposing other Kaffirs hear of it, and come back and make a bridge over the gorge? They may be doing it now.’

‘I’ll put a guard on it,’ he said, jumping up briskly. ‘It’s maybe not a soldier’s job, but you’ve saved this country, Davie, and I’m going to make sure that you have your reward.’

After that I went with Arcoll to Inanda’s Kraal. I am not going to tell the story of that performance, for it occupies no less than two chapters in Mr Upton’s book. He makes one or two blunders, for he spells my name with an ‘o,’ and he says we walked out of the camp on our perilous mission ‘with faces white and set as a Crusader’s.’ That is certainly not true, for in the first place nobody saw us go who could judge how we looked, and in the second place we were both smoking and feeling quite cheerful. At home they made a great fuss about it, and started a newspaper cry about the Victoria Cross, but the danger was not so terrible after all, and in any case it was nothing to what I had been through in the past week.

I take credit to myself for suggesting the idea. By this time we had the army in the kraal at our mercy. Laputa not having returned, they had no plans. It had been the original intention to start for the Olifants on the following day, so there was a scanty supply of food. Besides, there were the makings of a pretty quarrel between Umbooni and some of the north-country chiefs, and I verily believe that if we had held them tight there for a week they would have destroyed each other in faction fights. In any case, in a little they would have grown desperate and tried to rush the approaches on the north and south. Then we must either have used the guns on them, which would have meant a great slaughter, or let them go to do mischief elsewhere. Arcoll was a merciful man who had no love for butchery; besides, he was a statesman with an eye to the future of the country after the war. But it was his duty to isolate Laputa’s army, and at all costs, it must be prevented from joining any of the concentrations in the south.

Then I proposed to him to do as Rhodes did in the Matoppos, and go and talk to them. By this time, I argued, the influence of Laputa must have sunk, and the fervour of the purification be half-forgotten. The army had little food and no leader. The rank and file had never been fanatical, and the chiefs and indunas must now be inclined to sober reflections. But once blood was shed the lust of blood would possess them. Our only chance was to strike when their minds were perplexed and undecided.

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