Prester John/Chapter 22

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


Chapter XXII: A Great Peril and a Great Salvation

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.

Arcoll did all the arranging. He had a message sent to the chiefs inviting them to an indaba, and presently word was brought back that an indaba was called for the next day at noon. That same night we heard that Umbooni and about twenty of his men had managed to evade our ring of scouts and got clear away to the south. This was all to our advantage, as it removed from the coming indaba the most irreconcilable of the chiefs.

That indaba was a queer business. Arcoll and I left our escort at the foot of a ravine, and entered the kraal by the same road as I had left it. It was a very bright, hot winter's day, and try as I might, I could not bring myself to think of any danger. I believed that in this way most temerarious deeds are done; the doer has become insensible to danger, and his imagination is clouded with some engrossing purpose. The first sentries received us gloomily enough, and closed behind us as they had done when Machudi's men haled me thither. Then the job became eerie, for we had to walk across a green flat with thousands of eyes watching us. By-and-by we came to the merula tree opposite the kyas, and there we found a ring of chiefs, sitting with cocked rifles on their knees.

We were armed with pistols, and the first thing Arcoll did was to hand them to one of the chiefs. 'We come in peace,' he said. 'We give you our lives.'


Then the indaba began, Arcoll leading off. It was a fine speech he made, one of the finest I have ever listened to. He asked them what their grievances were; he told them how mighty was the power of the white man; he promised that what was unjust should be remedied, if only they would speak honestly and peacefully; he harped on their old legends and songs, claiming for the king of England the right of their old monarchs. It was a fine speech, and yet I saw that it did not convince them. They listened moodily, if attentively, and at the end there was a blank silence.

Arcoll turned to me. 'For God's sake, Davie,' he said, 'talk to them about Laputa. It's our only chance.'

I had never tried speaking before, and though I talked their tongue I had not Arcoll's gift of it. But I felt that a great cause was at stake, and I spoke up as best I could.

I began by saying that Inkulu had been my friend, and that at Umvelos' before the rising he had tried to save my life. At the mention of the name I saw eyes brighten. At last the audience was hanging on my words. I told them of Henriques and his treachery. I told them frankly and fairly of the doings at Dupree's Drift. I made no secret of the part I played. 'I was fighting for my life,' I said. 'Any man of you who is a man would have done the like.'

Then I told them of my last ride, and the sight I saw at the foot of the Rooirand. I drew a picture of Henriques lying dead with a broken neck, and the Inkulu, wounded to death, creeping into the cave.

In moments of extremity I suppose every man becomes an orator. In that hour and place I discovered gifts I had never dreamed of. Arcoll told me afterwards that I had spoken like a man inspired, and by a fortunate chance had hit upon the only way to move my hearers. I told of that last scene in the cave, when Laputa had broken down the bridge, and had spoken his dying words - that he was the last king in Africa, and that without him the rising was at an end. Then I told of his leap into the river, and a great sigh went up from the ranks about Me.

'You see me here,' I said, 'by the grace of God. I found a way up the fall and the cliffs which no man has ever travelled before or will travel again. Your king is dead. He was a great king, as I who stand here bear witness, and you will never more see his like. His last words were that the Rising was over. Respect that word, my brothers. We come to you not in war but in peace, to offer a free pardon, and the redress of your wrongs. If you fight you fight with the certainty of failure, and against the wish of the heir of John. I have come here at the risk of my life to tell you his commands. His spirit approves my mission. Think well before you defy the mandate of the Snake, and risk the vengeance of the Terrible Ones.'

After that I knew that we had won. The chiefs talked among themselves in low whispers, casting strange looks at me. Then the greatest of them advanced and laid his rifle at my feet.

'We believe the word of a brave man,' he said. 'We accept the mandate of the Snake.'

Arcoll now took command. He arranged for the disarmament bit by bit, companies of men being marched off from Inanda's Kraal to stations on the plateau where their arms were collected by our troops, and food provided for them. For the full history I refer the reader to Mr Upton's work. It took many days, and taxed all our resources, but by the end of a week we had the whole of Laputa's army in separate stations, under guard, disarmed, and awaiting repatriation.

Then Arcoll went south to the war which was to rage around the Swaziland and Zululand borders for many months, while to Aitken and myself was entrusted the work of settlement. We had inadequate troops at our command, and but for our prestige and the weight of Laputa's dead hand there might any moment have been a tragedy. The task took months, for many of the levies came from the far north, and the job of feeding troops on a long journey was difficult enough in the winter season when the energies of the country were occupied with the fighting in the south. Yet it was an experience for which I shall ever be grateful, for it turned me from a rash boy into a serious man. I knew then the meaning of the white man's duty. He has to take all risks, recking nothing of his life or his fortunes, and well content to find his reward in the fulfilment of his task. That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility, the power of being in a little way a king; and so long as we know this and practise it, we will rule not in Africa alone but wherever there are dark men who live only for the day and their own bellies. Moreover, the work made me pitiful and kindly. I learned much of the untold grievances of the natives, and saw something of their strange, twisted reasoning. Before we had got Laputa's army back to their kraals, with food enough to tide them over the spring sowing, Aitken and I had got sounder policy in our heads than you will find in the towns, where men sit in offices and see the world through a mist of papers.

By this time peace was at hand, and I went back to Inanda's Kraal to look for Colin's grave. It was not a difficult quest, for on the sward in front of the merula tree they had buried him. I found a mason in the Iron Kranz village, and from the excellent red stone of the neighbourhood was hewn a square slab with an inscription. It ran thus: 'Here lies buried the dog Colin, who was killed in defending D. Crawfurd, his master. To him it was mainly due that the Kaffir Rising failed.' I leave those who have read my tale to see the justice of the words.