Part 2 out of 5
left the school. I've only three scholars left, and they are from
Dutch farms. I went to Majinje to find out what was up, and
an old crone told me the place was full of bad men. I tell you,
Davie, there's something brewing, and that something is not
good for us.'
There was nothing new to me in what Wardlaw had to tell,
and yet that talk late at night by a dying fire made me feel
afraid for the second time since I had come to
Blaauwildebeestefontein. I had a clue and had been on the look-out
for mysteries, but that another should feel the strangeness for
himself made it seem desperately real to me. Of course I
scoffed at Mr Wardlaw's fears. I could not have him spoiling
all my plans by crying up a native rising for which he had not
a scrap of evidence.
'Have you been writing to anybody?' I asked him.
He said that he had told no one, but he meant to, unless
things got better. 'I haven't the nerve for this job, Davie,' he
said; 'I'll have to resign. And it's a pity, for the place suits my
health fine. You see I know too much, and I haven't your
whinstone nerve and total lack of imagination.'
I told him that it was simply fancy, and came from reading
too many books and taking too little exercise. But I made him
promise to say nothing to anybody either by word of mouth or
letter, without telling me first. Then I made him a rummer
of toddy and sent him to bed a trifle comforted.
The first thing I did in my new room was to shift the bed
into the corner out of line with the window. There were no
shutters, so I put up an old table-top and jammed it between
the window frames. Also, I loaded my shot-gun and kept it by
my bedside. Had Wardlaw seen these preparations he might
have thought more of my imagination and less of my nerve. It
was a real comfort to me to put out a hand in the darkness and
feel Colin's shaggy coat.
THE DRUMS BEAT AT SUNSET
japp was drunk for the next day or two, and I had the business
of the store to myself. I was glad of this, for it gave me leisure
to reflect upon the various perplexities of my situation. As I
have said, I was really scared, more out of a sense of impotence
than from dread of actual danger. I was in a fog of uncertainty.
Things were happening around me which I could only dimly
guess at, and I had no power to take one step in defence. That
Wardlaw should have felt the same without any hint from me
was the final proof that the mystery was no figment of my
nerves. I had written to Colles and got no answer. Now the
letter with Japp's resignation in it had gone to Durban. Surely
some notice would be taken of that. If I was given the post,
Colles was bound to consider what I had said in my earlier
letter and give me some directions. Meanwhile it was my
business to stick to my job till I was relieved.
A change had come over the place during my absence. The
natives had almost disappeared from sight. Except the few
families living round Blaauwildebeestefontein one never saw a
native on the roads, and none came into the store. They were
sticking close to their locations, or else they had gone after
some distant business. Except a batch of three Shangaans
returning from the Rand, I had nobody in the store for the
whole of one day. So about four o'clock I shut it up, whistled
on Colin, and went for a walk along the Berg.
If there were no natives on the road, there were plenty in
the bush. I had the impression, of which Wardlaw had spoken,
that the native population of the countryside had suddenly
been hugely increased. The woods were simply hotching with
them. I was being spied on as before, but now there were so
many at the business that they could not all conceal their
tracks. Every now and then I had a glimpse of a black shoulder
or leg, and Colin, whom I kept on the leash, was half-mad
with excitement. I had seen all I wanted, and went home with
a preoccupied mind. I sat long on Wardlaw's garden-seat,
trying to puzzle out the truth of this spying.
What perplexed me was that I had been left unmolested
when I had gone to Umvelos'. Now, as I conjectured, the
secret of the neighbourhood, whatever it was, was probably
connected with the Rooirand. But when I had ridden in that
direction and had spent two days in exploring, no one had
troubled to watch me. I was quite certain about this, for my
eye had grown quick to note espionage, and it is harder for a
spy to hide in the spare bush of the flats than in the dense
thickets on these uplands.
The watchers, then, did not mind my fossicking round
their sacred place. Why, then, was I so closely watched in the
harmless neighbourhood of the store? I thought for a long time
before an answer occurred to me. The reason must be that
going to the plains I was going into native country and away
from civilization. But Blaauwildebeestefontein was near the
frontier. There must be some dark business brewing of which
they may have feared that I had an inkling. They wanted to
see if I proposed to go to Pietersdorp or Wesselsburg and tell
what I knew, and they clearly were resolved that I should not.
I laughed, I remember, thinking that they had forgotten the
post-bag. But then I reflected that I knew nothing of what
might be happening daily to the post-bag.
When I had reached this conclusion, my first impulse was to
test it by riding straight west on the main road. If I was right,
I should certainly be stopped. On second thoughts, however,
this seemed to me to be flinging up the game prematurely, and
I resolved to wait a day or two before acting.
Next day nothing happened, save that my sense of loneliness
increased. I felt that I was being hemmed in by barbarism,
and cut off in a ghoulish land from the succour of my own
kind. I only kept my courage up by the necessity of presenting
a brave face to Mr Wardlaw, who was by this time in a very
broken condition of nerves. I had often thought that it was my
duty to advise him to leave, and to see him safely off, but I
shrank from severing myself from my only friend. I thought,
too, of the few Dutch farmers within riding distance, and had
half a mind to visit them, but they were far off over the plateau
and could know little of my anxieties.
The third day events moved faster. Japp was sober and
wonderfully quiet. He gave me good-morning quite in a
friendly tone, and set to posting up the books as if he had
never misbehaved in his days. I was so busy with my thoughts
that I, too, must have been gentler than usual, and the morning
passed like a honeymoon, till I went across to dinner.
I was just sitting down when I remembered that I had left
my watch in my waistcoat behind the counter, and started to
go back for it. But at the door I stopped short. For two
horsemen had drawn up before the store.
One was a native with what I took to be saddle-bags; the
other was a small slim man with a sun helmet, who was slowly
dismounting. Something in the cut of his jib struck me as
familiar. I slipped into the empty schoolroom and stared hard.
Then, as he half-turned in handing his bridle to the Kaffir, I
got a sight of his face. It was my former shipmate, Henriques.
He said something to his companion, and entered the store.
You may imagine that my curiosity ran to fever-heat. My
first impulse was to march over for my waistcoat, and make a
third with Japp at the interview. Happily I reflected in time
that Henriques knew my face, for I had grown no beard,
having a great dislike to needless hair. If he was one of the
villains in the drama, he would mark me down for his
vengeance once he knew I was here, whereas at present he had
probably forgotten all about me. Besides, if I walked in boldly
I would get no news. If japp and he had a secret, they would
not blab it in my presence.
My next idea was to slip in by the back to the room I had
once lived in. But how was I to cross the road? It ran white
and dry some distance each way in full view of the Kaffir with
the horses. Further, the store stood on a bare patch, and it
would be a hard job to get in by the back, assuming, as I
believed, that the neighbourhood was thick with spies.
The upshot was that I got my glasses and turned them on
the store. The door was open, and so was the window. In the
gloom of the interior I made out Henriques' legs. He was
standing by the counter, and apparently talking to Japp. He
moved to shut the door, and came back inside my focus
opposite the window. There he stayed for maybe ten minutes,
while I hugged my impatience. I would have given a hundred
pounds to be snug in my old room with japp thinking me out
of the store.
Suddenly the legs twitched up, and his boots appeared
above the counter. Japp had invited him to his bedroom, and
the game was now to be played beyond my ken. This was more
than I could stand, so I stole out at the back door and took to
the thickest bush on the hillside. My notion was to cross the
road half a mile down, when it had dropped into the defile of
the stream, and then to come swiftly up the edge of the water
so as to effect a back entrance into the store.
As fast as I dared I tore through the bush, and in about a
quarter of an hour had reached the point I was making for.
Then I bore down to the road, and was in the scrub about ten
yards off it, when the clatter of horses pulled me up again.
Peeping out I saw that it was my friend and his Kaffir follower,
who were riding at a very good pace for the plains. Toilfully
and crossly I returned on my tracks to my long-delayed dinner.
Whatever the purport of their talk, Japp and the Portuguese
had not taken long over it.
In the store that afternoon I said casually to Japp that I had
noticed visitors at the door during my dinner hour. The old
man looked me frankly enough in the face. 'Yes, it was Mr
Hendricks,' he said, and explained that the man was a Portuguese
trader from Delagoa way, who had a lot of Kaffir stores
east of the Lebombo Hills. I asked his business, and was told
that he always gave Japp a call in when he was passing.
'Do you take every man that calls into your bedroom, and
shut the door?' I asked.
Japp lost colour and his lip trembled. 'I swear to God, Mr
Crawfurd, I've been doing nothing wrong. I've kept the
promise I gave you like an oath to my mother. I see you
suspect me, and maybe you've cause, but I'll be quite honest
with you. I have dealt in diamonds before this with Hendricks.
But to-day, when he asked me, I told him that that business
was off. I only took him to my room to give him a drink. He
likes brandy, and there's no supply in the shop.'
I distrusted Japp wholeheartedly enough, but I was convinced
that in this case he spoke the truth.
'Had the man any news?' I asked.
'He had and he hadn't,' said Japp. 'He was always a sullen
beggar, and never spoke much. But he said one queer thing.
He asked me if I was going to retire, and when I told him
"yes," he said I had put it off rather long. I told him I was as
healthy as I ever was, and he laughed in his dirty Portugoose
way. "Yes, Mr Japp," he says, "but the country is not so
healthy." I wonder what the chap meant. He'll be dead of
blackwater before many months, to judge by his eyes.'
This talk satisfied me about Japp, who was clearly in
desperate fear of offending me, and disinclined to return for
the present to his old ways. But I think the rest of the afternoon
was the most wretched time in my existence. It was as plain as
daylight that we were in for some grave trouble, trouble to
which I believed that I alone held any kind of clue. I had a
pile of evidence - the visit of Henriques was the last bit -
which pointed to some great secret approaching its disclosure.
I thought that that disclosure meant blood and ruin. But I
knew nothing definite. If the commander of a British army had
come to me then and there and offered help, I could have done
nothing, only asked him to wait like me. The peril, whatever
it was, did not threaten me only, though I and Wardlaw and
Japp might be the first to suffer; but I had a terrible feeling
that I alone could do something to ward it off, and just what
that something was I could not tell. I was horribly afraid, not
only of unknown death, but of my impotence to play any
manly part. I was alone, knowing too much and yet too little,
and there was no chance of help under the broad sky. I cursed
myself for not writing to Aitken at Lourenco Marques weeks
before. He had promised to come up, and he was the kind of
man who kept his word.
In the late afternoon I dragged Wardlaw out for a walk. In
his presence I had to keep up a forced cheerfulness, and I
believe the pretence did me good. We took a path up the Berg
among groves of stinkwood and essenwood, where a failing
stream made an easy route. It may have been fancy, but it
seemed to me that the wood was emptier and that we were
followed less closely. I remember it was a lovely evening, and
in the clear fragrant gloaming every foreland of the Berg stood
out like a great ship above the dark green sea of the bush.
When we reached the edge of the plateau we saw the sun
sinking between two far blue peaks in Makapan's country, and
away to the south the great roll of the high veld. I longed
miserably for the places where white men were thronged
together in dorps and cities.
As we gazed a curious sound struck our ears. It seemed to
begin far up in the north - a low roll like the combing of
breakers on the sand. Then it grew louder and travelled
nearer - a roll, with sudden spasms of harsher sound in it;
reminding me of the churning in one of the pot-holes of
Kirkcaple cliffs. Presently it grew softer again as the sound
passed south, but new notes were always emerging. The echo
came sometimes, as it were, from stark rock, and sometimes
from the deep gloom of the forests. I have never heard an
eerier sound. Neither natural nor human it seemed, but the
voice of that world between which is hid from man's sight
Mr Wardlaw clutched my arm, and in that moment I
guessed the explanation. The native drums were beating,
passing some message from the far north down the line of the
Berg, where the locations were thickest, to the great black
population of the south.
'But that means war,' Mr Wardlaw cried.
'It means nothing of the kind,' I said shortly. 'It's their way
of sending news. It's as likely to be some change in the weather
or an outbreak of cattle disease.'
When we got home I found Japp with a face like grey paper.
'Did you hear the drums?'he asked.
'Yes,' I said shortly. 'What about them?'
'God forgive you for an ignorant Britisher,' he almost
shouted. 'You may hear drums any night, but a drumming like
that I only once heard before. It was in '79 in the 'Zeti valley.
Do you know what happened next day? Cetewayo's impis
came over the hills, and in an hour there wasn't a living white
soul in the glen. Two men escaped, and one of them was called
'We are in God's hands then, and must wait on His will,' I
There was no more sleep for Wardlaw and myself that night.
We made the best barricade we could of the windows, loaded
all our weapons, and trusted to Colin to give us early news.
Before supper I went over to get Japp to join us, but found
that that worthy had sought help from his old protector, the
bottle, and was already sound asleep with both door and
I had made up my mind that death was certain, and yet my
heart belied my conviction, and I could not feel the appropriate
mood. If anything I was more cheerful since I had heard the
drums. It was clearly now beyond the power of me or any man
to stop the march of events. My thoughts ran on a native
rising, and I kept telling myself how little that was probable.
Where were the arms, the leader, the discipline? At any rate
such arguments put me to sleep before dawn, and I wakened
at eight to find that nothing had happened. The clear morning
sunlight, as of old, made Blaauwildebeestefontein the place of
a dream. Zeeta brought in my cup of coffee as if this day were
just like all others, my pipe tasted as sweet, the fresh air from
the Berg blew as fragrantly on my brow. I went over to the
store in reasonably good spirits, leaving Wardlaw busy on the
The post-runner had brought the mail as usual, and there
was one private letter for me. I opened it with great excitement,
for the envelope bore the stamp of the firm. At last
Colles had deigned to answer.
Inside was a sheet of the firm's notepaper, with the signature
of Colles across the top. Below some one had pencilled these
'The Blesbok* are changing ground.'
*A species of buck.
I looked to see that Japp had not suffocated himself, then
shut up the store, and went back to my room to think out this
The thing had come from Colles, for it was the private
notepaper of the Durban office, and there was Colles' signature.
But the pencilling was in a different hand. My deduction
from this was that some one wished to send me a message, and
that Colles had given that some one a sheet of signed paper to
serve as a kind of introduction. I might take it, therefore, that
the scribble was Colles' reply to my letter.
Now, my argument continued, if the unknown person saw
fit to send me a message, it could not be merely one of warning.
Colles must have told him that I was awake to some danger,
and as I was in Blaauwildebeestefontein, I must be nearer the
heart of things than any one else. The message must therefore
be in the nature of some password, which I was to remember
when I heard it again.
I reasoned the whole thing out very clearly, and I saw no
gap in my logic. I cannot describe how that scribble had
heartened me. I felt no more the crushing isolation of yesterday.
There were others beside me in the secret. Help must be
on the way, and the letter was the first tidings.
But how near? - that was the question; and it occurred to
me for the first time to look at the postmark. I went back to
the store and got the envelope out of the waste-paper basket.
The postmark was certainly not Durban. The stamp was a
Cape Colony one, and of the mark I could only read three
letters, T. R. S. This was no sort of clue, and I turned the thing
over, completely baffled. Then I noticed that there was no
mark of the post town of delivery. Our letters to
Blaauwildebeestefontein came through Pietersdorp and bore that
mark. I compared the envelope with others. They all had a circle,
and 'Pietersdorp' in broad black letters. But this envelope had
nothing except the stamp.
I was still slow at detective work, and it was some minutes
before the explanation flashed on me. The letter had never
been posted at all. The stamp was a fake, and had been
borrowed from an old envelope. There was only one way in
which it could have come. It must have been put in the letter-
bag while the postman was on his way from Pietersdorp. My
unknown friend must therefore be somewhere within eighty
miles of me. I hurried off to look for the post-runner, but he
had started back an hour before. There was nothing for it but
to wait on the coming of the unknown.
That afternoon I again took Mr Wardlaw for a walk. It is an
ingrained habit of mine that I never tell anyone more of a
business than is practically necessary. For months I had kept
all my knowledge to myself, and breathed not a word to a soul.
But I thought it my duty to tell Wardlaw about the letter, to
let him see that we were not forgotten. I am afraid it did not
encourage his mind. Occult messages seemed to him only the
last proof of a deadly danger encompassing us, and I could not
shake his opinion.
We took the same road to the crown of the Berg, and I was
confirmed in my suspicion that the woods were empty and the
watchers gone. The place was as deserted as the bush at
Umvelos'. When we reached the summit about sunset we
waited anxiously for the sound of drums. It came, as we
expected, louder and more menacing than before. Wardlaw
stood pinching my arm as the great tattoo swept down the
escarpment, and died away in the far mountains beyond the
Olifants, Yet it no longer seemed to be a wall of sound,
shutting us out from our kindred in the West. A message had
pierced the wall. If the blesbok were changing ground, I
believed that the hunters were calling out their hounds and
getting ready for the chase.
CAPTAIN ARCOLL TELLS A TALE
It froze in the night, harder than was common on the Berg
even in winter, and as I crossed the road next morning it was
covered with rime. All my fears had gone, and my mind was
strung high with expectation. Five pencilled words may seem
a small thing to build hope on, but it was enough for me, and
I went about my work in the store with a reasonably light
heart. One of the first things I did was to take stock of our
armoury. There were five sporting Mausers of a cheap make,
one Mauser pistol, a Lee-Speed carbine, and a little nickel-
plated revolver. There was also Japp's shot-gun, an old hammered
breech-loader, as well as the gun I had brought out with
me. There was a good supply of cartridges, including a stock
for a .400 express which could not be found. I pocketed the
revolver, and searched till I discovered a good sheath-knife. If
fighting was in prospect I might as well look to my arms.
All the morning I sat among flour and sugar possessing my
soul in as much patience as I could command. Nothing came
down the white road from the west. The sun melted the rime;
the flies came out and buzzed in the window; Japp got himself
out of bed, brewed strong coffee, and went back to his
slumbers. Presently it was dinner-time, and I went over to a
silent meal with Wardlaw. When I returned I must have fallen
asleep over a pipe, for the next thing I knew I was blinking
drowsily at the patch of sun in the door, and listening for
footsteps. In the dead stillness of the afternoon I thought I
could discern a shuffling in the dust. I got up and looked out,
and there, sure enough, was some one coming down the road.
But it was only a Kaffir, and a miserable-looking object at
that. I had never seen such an anatomy. It was a very old man,
bent almost double, and clad in a ragged shirt and a pair of
foul khaki trousers. He carried an iron pot, and a few belongings
were tied up in a dirty handkerchief. He must have been
a dacha* smoker, for he coughed hideously, twisting his body
with the paroxysms. I had seen the type before - the old
broken-down native who had no kin to support him, and no
tribe to shelter him. They wander about the roads, cooking
their wretched meals by their little fires, till one morning they
are found stiff under a bush.
The native gave me a good-day in Kaffir, then begged for
tobacco or a handful of mealie-meal.
I asked him where he came from.
'From the west, Inkoos,' he said, 'and before that from the
south. It is a sore road for old bones.'
I went into the store to fetch some meal, and when I came
out he had shuffled close to the door. He had kept his eyes on
the ground, but now he looked up at me, and I thought he had
very bright eyes for such an old wreck.
'The nights are cold, Inkoos,' he wailed, 'and my folk are
scattered, and I have no kraal. The aasvogels follow me, and
I can hear the blesbok.'
'What about the blesbok?' I asked with a start.
'The blesbok are changing ground,' he said, and looked me
straight in the face.
'And where are the hunters?' I asked.
'They are here and behind me,' he said in English, holding
out his pot for my meal, while he began to edge into the middle
of the road.
I followed, and, speaking English, asked him if he knew of
a man named Colles.
'I come from him, young Baas. Where is your house? Ah,
the school. There will be a way in by the back window? See
that it is open, for I'll be there shortly.' Then lifting up his
voice he called down in Sesuto all manner of blessings on me
for my kindness, and went shuffling down the sunlit road,
coughing like a volcano.
In high excitement I locked up the store and went over to
Mr Wardlaw. No children had come to school that day, and he
was sitting idle, playing patience. 'Lock the door,' I said, 'and
come into my room. We're on the brink of explanations.'
In about twenty minutes the bush below the back-window
parted and the Kaffir slipped out. He grinned at me, and after
a glance round, hopped very nimbly over the sill. Then he
examined the window and pulled the curtains.
'Is the outer door shut?' he asked in excellent English. 'Well,
get me some hot water, and any spare clothes you may possess,
Mr Crawfurd. I must get comfortable before we begin our
indaba.* We've the night before us, so there's plenty of time.
But get the house clear, and see that nobody disturbs me at
my toilet. I am a modest man, and sensitive about my looks.'
I brought him what he wanted, and looked on at an amazing
transformation. Taking a phial from his bundle, he rubbed
some liquid on his face and neck and hands, and got rid of the
black colouring. His body and legs he left untouched, save that
he covered them with shirt and trousers from my wardrobe.
Then he pulled off a scaly wig, and showed beneath it a head
of close-cropped grizzled hair. In ten minutes the old Kaffir
had been transformed into an active soldierly-looking man of
maybe fifty years. Mr Wardlaw stared as if he had seen a
'I had better introduce myself,' he said, when he had taken
the edge off his thirst and hunger. 'My name is Arcoll, Captain
James Arcoll. I am speaking to Mr Crawfurd, the storekeeper,
and Mr Wardlaw, the schoolmaster, of Blaauwildebeestefontein.
Where, by the way, is Mr Peter Japp? Drunk? Ah, yes, it
was always his failing. The quorum, however, is complete
By this time it was about sunset, and I remember I cocked
my ear to hear the drums beat. Captain Arcoll noticed the
movement as he noticed all else.
'You're listening for the drums, but you won't hear them.
That business is over here. To-night they beat in Swaziland
and down into the Tonga border. Three days more, unless you
and I, Mr Crawfurd, are extra smart, and they'll be hearing
them in Durban.'
It was not till the lamp was lit, the fire burning well, and the
house locked and shuttered, that Captain Arcoll began his tale.
'First,' he said, 'let me hear what you know. Colles told me
that you were a keen fellow, and had wind of some mystery
here. You wrote him about the way you were spied on, but I
told him to take no notice. Your affair, Mr Crawfurd, had to
wait on more urgent matters. Now, what do you think is
I spoke very shortly, weighing my words, for I felt I was on
trial before these bright eyes. 'I think that some kind of native
rising is about to commence.'
'Ay,' he said dryly, 'you would, and your evidence would be
the spying and drumming. Anything more?'
'I have come on the tracks of a lot of I.D.B. work in the
neighbourhood. The natives have some supply of diamonds,
which they sell bit by bit, and I don't doubt but they have
been getting guns with the proceeds.'
He nodded, 'Have you any notion who has been engaged in
I had it on my tongue to mention Japp, but forbore,
remembering my promise. 'I can name one,' I said, 'a little
yellow Portugoose, who calls himself Henriques or Hendricks.
He passed by here the day before yesterday.'
Captain Arcoll suddenly was consumed with quiet laughter.
'Did you notice the Kaffir who rode with him and carried his
saddlebags? Well, he's one of my men. Henriques would have
a fit if he knew what was in those saddlebags. They contain
my change of clothes, and other odds and ends. Henriques'
own stuff is in a hole in the spruit. A handy way of getting
one's luggage sent on, eh? The bags are waiting for me at a
place I appointed.' And again Captain Arcoll indulged his
sense of humour. Then he became grave, and returned to
'A rising, with diamonds as the sinews of war, and Henriques
as the chief agent. Well and good! But who is to lead,
and what are the natives going to rise about?'
'I know nothing further, but I have made some guesses.'
'Let's hear your guesses,' he said, blowing smoke rings from
'I think the main mover is a great black minister who calls
himself John Laputa.'
Captain Arcoll nearly sprang out of his chair. 'Now, how on
earth did you find that out? Quick, Mr Crawfurd, tell me all
you know, for this is desperately important.'
I began at the beginning, and told him the story of what
happened on the Kirkcaple shore. Then I spoke of my sight of
him on board ship, his talk with Henriques about
Blaauwildebeestefontein, and his hurried departure from Durban.
Captain Arcoll listened intently, and at the mention of
Durban he laughed. 'You and I seem to have been running on
lines which nearly touched. I thought I had grabbed my friend
Laputa that night in Durban, but I was too cocksure and he
slipped off. Do you know, Mr Crawfurd, you have been on
the right trail long before me? When did you say you saw him
at his devil-worship? Seven years ago? Then you were the first
man alive to know the Reverend John in his true colours. You
knew seven years ago what I only found out last year.'
'Well, that's my story,' I said. 'I don't know what the rising
is about, but there's one other thing I can tell you. There's
some kind of sacred place for the Kaffirs, and I've found out
where it is.' I gave him a short account of my adventures in
He smoked silently for a bit after I had finished. 'You've got
the skeleton of the whole thing right, and you only want the
filling up. And you found out everything for yourself? Colles
was right; you're not wanting in intelligence, Mr Crawfurd.'
It was not much of a compliment, but I have never been
more pleased in my life. This slim, grizzled man, with his
wrinkled face and bright eyes, was clearly not lavish in his
praise. I felt it was no small thing to have earned a word
'And now I will tell you my story,' said Captain Arcoll. 'It is
a long story, and I must begin far back. It has taken me years
to decipher it, and, remember, I've been all my life at this
native business. I can talk every dialect, and I have the customs
of every tribe by heart. I've travelled over every mile of South
Africa, and Central and East Africa too. I was in both the
Matabele wars, and I've seen a heap of other fighting which
never got into the papers. So what I tell you you can take as
gospel, for it is knowledge that was not learned in a day.'
He puffed away, and then asked suddenly, 'Did you ever
hear of Prester John?'
'The man that lived in Central Asia?' I asked, with a
reminiscence of a story-book I had as a boy.
'No, no,' said Mr Wardlaw, 'he means the King of Abyssinia
in the fifteenth century. I've been reading all about him. He
was a Christian, and the Portuguese sent expedition after
expedition to find him, but they never got there. Albuquerque
wanted to make an alliance with him and capture the Holy
Arcoll nodded. 'That's the one I mean. There's not very
much known about him, except Portuguese legends. He was a
sort of Christian, but I expect that his practices were as pagan
as his neighbours'. There is no doubt that he was a great
conqueror. Under him and his successors, the empire of
Ethiopia extended far south of Abyssinia away down to the
'How long did this power last?' I asked wondering to what
tale this was prologue.
'That's a mystery no scholar has ever been able to fathom.
Anyhow, the centre of authority began to shift southward, and
the warrior tribes moved in that direction. At the end of the
sixteenth century the chief native power was round about the
Zambesi. The Mazimba and the Makaranga had come down
from the Lake Nyassa quarter, and there was a strong kingdom
in Manicaland. That was the Monomotapa that the Portuguese
thought so much of.'
Wardlaw nodded eagerly. The story was getting into ground
that he knew about.
'The thing to remember is that all these little empires
thought themselves the successors of Prester John. It took me
a long time to find this out, and I have spent days in the best
libraries in Europe over it. They all looked back to a great king
in the north, whom they called by about twenty different
names. They had forgotten about his Christianity, but they
remembered that he was a conqueror.
'Well, to make a long story short, Monomotapa disappeared
in time, and fresh tribes came down from the north, and
pushed right down to Natal and the Cape. That is how the
Zulus first appeared. They brought with them the story of
Prester John, but by this time it had ceased to be a historical
memory, and had become a religious cult. They worshipped a
great Power who had been their ancestor, and the favourite
Zulu word for him was Umkulunkulu. The belief was perverted
into fifty different forms, but this was the central
creed - that Umkulunkulu had been the father of the tribe,
and was alive as a spirit to watch over them.
'They brought more than a creed with them. Somehow or
other, some fetich had descended from Prester John by way of
the Mazimba and Angoni and Makaranga. What it is I do not
know, but it was always in the hands of the tribe which for the
moment held the leadership. The great native wars of the
sixteenth century, which you can read about in the Portuguese
historians, were not for territory but for leadership, and mainly
for the possession of this fetich. Anyhow, we know that the
Zulus brought it down with them. They called it Ndhlondhlo,
which means the Great Snake, but I don't suppose that it was
any kind of snake. The snake was their totem, and they would
naturally call their most sacred possession after it.
'Now I will tell you a thing that few know. You have heard
of Tchaka. He was a sort of black Napoleon early in the last
century, and he made the Zulus the paramount power in South
Africa, slaughtering about two million souls to accomplish it.
Well, he had the fetich, whatever it was, and it was believed
that he owed his conquests to it. Mosilikatse tried to steal it,
and that was why he had to fly to Matabeleland. But with
Tchaka it disappeared. Dingaan did not have it, nor Panda,
and Cetewayo never got it, though he searched the length and
breadth of the country for it. It had gone out of existence, and
with it the chance of a Kaffir empire.'
Captain Arcoll got up to light his pipe, and I noticed that
his face was grave. He was not telling us this yarn for
'So much for Prester John and his charm,' he said. 'Now I
have to take up the history at a different point. In spite of
risings here and there, and occasional rows, the Kaffirs have
been quiet for the better part of half a century. It is no credit
to us. They have had plenty of grievances, and we are no
nearer understanding them than our fathers were. But they are
scattered and divided. We have driven great wedges of white
settlement into their territory, and we have taken away their
arms. Still, they are six times as many as we are, and they have
long memories, and a thoughtful man may wonder how long
the peace will last. I have often asked myself that question,
and till lately I used to reply, "For ever because they cannot
find a leader with the proper authority, and they have no
common cause to fight for." But a year or two ago I began to
change my mind.
'It is my business to act as chief Intelligence officer among
the natives. Well, one day, I came on the tracks of a curious
person. He was a Christian minister called Laputa, and he was
going among the tribes from Durban to the Zambesi as a
roving evangelist. I found that he made an enormous impression,
and yet the people I spoke to were chary of saying much
about him. Presently I found that he preached more than the
gospel. His word was "Africa for the Africans," and his chief
point was that the natives had had a great empire in the past,
and might have a great empire again. He used to tell the story
of Prester John, with all kinds of embroidery of his own. You
see, Prester John was a good argument for him, for he had
been a Christian as well as a great potentate.
'For years there has been plenty of this talk in South Africa,
chiefly among Christian Kaffirs. It is what they call
"Ethiopianism," and American negroes are the chief apostles. For
myself, I always thought the thing perfectly harmless. I don't
care a fig whether the native missions break away from the
parent churches in England and call themselves by fancy
names. The more freedom they have in their religious life, the
less they are likely to think about politics. But I soon found
out that Laputa was none of your flabby educated negroes
from America, and I began to watch him.
'I first came across him at a revival meeting in London,
where he was a great success. He came and spoke to me about
my soul, but he gave up when I dropped into Zulu. The next
time I met him was on the lower Limpopo, when I had the
pleasure of trying to shoot him from a boat.'
Captain Arcoll took his pipe from his mouth and laughed at
'I had got on to an I.D.B. gang, and to my amazement
found the evangelist among them. But the Reverend John was
too much for me. He went overboard in spite of the crocodiles,
and managed to swim below water to the reed bed at the side.
However, that was a valuable experience for me, for it gave me
'I next saw him at a Missionary Conference in Cape Town,
and after that at a meeting of the Geographical Society in
London, where I had a long talk with him. My reputation does
not follow me home, and he thought I was an English publisher
with an interest in missions. You see I had no evidence to
connect him with I.D.B., and besides I fancied that his real
game was something bigger than that; so I just bided my time
'I did my best to get on to his dossier, but it was no easy
job. However, I found out a few things. He had been educated
in the States, and well educated too, for the man is a good
scholar and a great reader, besides the finest natural orator I
have ever heard. There was no doubt that he was of Zulu
blood, but I could get no traces of his family. He must come
of high stock, for he is a fine figure of a man.
'Very soon I found it was no good following him in his
excursions into civilization. There he was merely the educated
Kaffir; a great pet of missionary societies, and a favourite
speaker at Church meetings. You will find evidence given by
him in Blue-Books on native affairs, and he counted many
members of Parliament at home among his correspondents. I
let that side go, and resolved to dog him when on his
evangelizing tours in the back-veld.
'For six months I stuck to him like a leech. I am pretty good
at disguises, and he never knew who was the broken-down old
Kaffir who squatted in the dirt at the edge of the crowd when
he spoke, or the half-caste who called him "Sir" and drove his
Cape-cart. I had some queer adventures, but these can wait.
The gist of the thing is, that after six months which turned my
hair grey I got a glimmering of what he was after. He talked
Christianity to the mobs in the kraals, but to the indunas* he
told a different story.'
Captain Arcoll helped himself to a drink. 'You can guess
what that story was, Mr Crawfurd. At full moon when the
black cock was blooded, the Reverend John forgot his Christianity.
He was back four centuries among the Mazimba sweeping
down on the Zambesi. He told them, and they believed
him, that he was the Umkulunkulu, the incarnated spirit of
Prester John. He told them that he was there to lead the
African race to conquest and empire. Ay, and he told them
more: for he has, or says he has, the Great Snake itself, the
necklet of Prester John.'
Neither of us spoke; we were too occupied with fitting this
news into our chain of knowledge.
Captain Arcoll went on. 'Now that I knew his purpose, I set
myself to find out his preparations. It was not long before I
found a mighty organization at work from the Zambesi to the
Cape. The great tribes were up to their necks in the conspiracy,
and all manner of little sects had been taken in. I have sat at
tribal councils and been sworn a blood brother, and I have
used the secret password to get knowledge in odd places. It
was a dangerous game, and, as I have said, I had my
adventures, but I came safe out of it - with my knowledge.
'The first thing I found out was that there was a great deal
of wealth somewhere among the tribes. Much of it was in
diamonds, which the labourers stole from the mines and the
chiefs impounded. Nearly every tribe had its secret chest, and
our friend Laputa had the use of them all. Of course the
difficulty was changing the diamonds into coin, and he had to
start I.D.B. on a big scale. Your pal, Henriques, was the chief
agent for this, but he had others at Mozambique and Johannesburg,
ay, and in London, whom I have on my list. With the
money, guns and ammunition were bought, and it seems that
a pretty flourishing trade has been going on for some time.
They came in mostly overland through Portuguese territory,
though there have been cases of consignments to Johannesburg
houses, the contents of which did not correspond with the
invoice. You ask what the Governments were doing to let this
go on. Yes, and you may well ask. They were all asleep. They
never dreamed of danger from the natives, and in any case it
was difficult to police the Portuguese side. Laputa knew our
weakness, and he staked everything on it.
'my first scheme was to lay Laputa by the heels; but no
Government would act on my information. The man was
strongly buttressed by public support at home, and South
Africa has burned her fingers before this with arbitrary arrests.
Then I tried to fasten I.D.B. on him, but I could not get my
proofs till too late. I nearly had him in Durban, but he got
away; and he never gave me a second chance. For five months
he and Henriques have been lying low, because their scheme
was getting very ripe. I have been following them through
Zululand and Gazaland, and I have discovered that the train is
ready, and only wants the match. For a month I have never
been more than five hours behind him on the trail; and if he
has laid his train, I have laid mine also.'
Arcoll's whimsical, humorous face had hardened into grimness,
and in his eyes there was the light of a fierce purpose.
The sight of him comforted me, in spite of his tale.
'But what can he hope to do?' I asked. 'Though he roused
every Kaffir in South Africa he would be beaten. You say he is
an educated man. He must know he has no chance in the long run.'
'I said he was an educated man, but he is also a Kaffir. He
can see the first stage of a thing, and maybe the second, but no
more. That is the native mind. If it was not like that our
chance would be the worse.'
'You say the scheme is ripe,' I said; 'how ripe?'
Arcoll looked at the clock. 'In half an hour's time Laputa
will be with 'Mpefu. There he will stay the night. To-morrow
morning he goes to Umvelos' to meet Henriques. To-morrow
evening the gathering begins.'
'One question,' I said. 'How big a man is Laputa?'
'The biggest thing that the Kaffirs have ever produced. I
tell you, in my opinion he is a great genius. If he had been
white he might have been a second Napoleon. He is a born
leader of men, and as brave as a lion. There is no villainy he
would not do if necessary, and yet I should hesitate to call him
a blackguard. Ay, you may look surprised at me, you two
pragmatical Scotsmen; but I have, so to speak, lived with the
man for months, and there's fineness and nobility in him. He
would be a terrible enemy, but a just one. He has the heart of
a poet and a king, and it is God's curse that he has been born
among the children of Ham. I hope to shoot him like a dog in
a day or two, but I am glad to bear testimony to his greatness.'
'If the rising starts to-morrow,' I asked, 'have you any of
He picked up a map from the table and opened it. 'The first
rendezvous is somewhere near Sikitola's. Then they move
south, picking up contingents; and the final concentration is to
be on the high veld near Amsterdam, which is convenient for
the Swazis and the Zulus. After that I know nothing, but of
course there are local concentrations along the whole line of
the Berg from Mashonaland to Basutoland. Now, look here.
To get to Amsterdam they must cross the Delagoa Bay
Railway. Well, they won't be allowed to. If they get as far,
they will be scattered there. As I told you, I too have laid my
train. We have the police ready all along the scarp of the Berg.
Every exit from native territory is watched, and the frontier
farmers are out on commando. We have regulars on the
Delagoa Bay and Natal lines, and a system of field telegraphs
laid which can summon further troops to any point. It has all
been kept secret, because we are still in the dark ourselves.
The newspaper public knows nothing about any rising, but in
two days every white household in South Africa will be in a
panic. Make no mistake, Mr Crawfurd; this is a grim business.
We shall smash Laputa and his men, but it will be a fierce
fight, and there will be much good blood shed. Besides, it will
throw the country back another half-century. Would to God I
had been man enough to put a bullet through his head in cold
blood. But I could not do it - it was too like murder; and
maybe I shall never have the chance now.'
'There's one thing puzzles me,' I said. 'What makes Laputa
come up here to start with? Why doesn't he begin with
'God knows! There's sure to be sense in it, for he does
nothing without reason. We may know to-morrow.'
But as Captain Arcoll spoke, the real reason suddenly flashed
into my mind: Laputa had to get the Great Snake, the necklet
of Prester John, to give his leadership prestige. Apparently he
had not yet got it, or Arcoll would have known. He started
from this neighbourhood because the fetich was somewhere
hereabouts. I was convinced that my guess was right, but I
kept my own counsel.
'To-morrow Laputa and Henriques meet at Umvelos', probably
at your new store, Mr Crawfurd. And so the ball commences.'
My resolution was suddenly taken.
'I think,' I said, 'I had better be present at the meeting, as
representing the firm.'
Captain Arcoll stared at me and laughed. 'I had thought of
going myself,' he said.
'Then you go to certain death, disguise yourself as you
please. You cannot meet them in the store as I can. I'm there
on my ordinary business, and they will never suspect. If you're
to get any news, I'm the man to go.'
He looked at me steadily for a minute or so. 'I'm not sure
that's such a bad idea of yours. I would be better employed
myself on the Berg, and, as you say, I would have little chance
of hearing anything. You're a plucky fellow, Mr Crawfurd. I
suppose you understand that the risk is pretty considerable.'
'I suppose I do; but since I'm in this thing, I may as well
see it out. Besides, I've an old quarrel with our friend Laputa.'
'Good and well,' said Captain Arcoll. 'Draw in your chair to
the table, then, and I'll explain to you the disposition of my
men. I should tell you that I have loyal natives in my pay in
most tribes, and can count on early intelligence. We can't
match their telepathy; but the new type of field telegraph is
not so bad, and may be a trifle more reliable.'
Till midnight we pored over maps, and certain details were
burned in on my memory. Then we went to bed and slept
soundly, even Mr Wardlaw. It was strange how fear had gone
from the establishment, now that we knew the worst and had
a fighting man by our side.
I FALL IN AGAIN WITH THE REVEREND JOHN LAPUTA
Once, as a boy, I had earnestly desired to go into the army,
and had hopes of rising to be a great general. Now that I know
myself better, I do not think I would have been much good at
a general's work. I would have shirked the loneliness of it, the
isolation of responsibility. But I think I would have done well
in a subaltern command, for I had a great notion of carrying
out orders, and a certain zest in the mere act of obedience.
Three days before I had been as nervous as a kitten because I
was alone and it was 'up to me,' as Americans say, to decide on
the next step. But now that I was only one wheel in a great
machine of defence my nervousness seemed to have fled. I was
well aware that the mission I was bound on was full of risk;
but, to my surprise, I felt no fear. Indeed, I had much the
same feeling as a boy on a Saturday's holiday who has planned
a big expedition. One thing only I regretted - that Tam Dyke
was not with me to see the fun. The thought of that faithful
soul, now beating somewhere on the seas, made me long for
his comradeship. As I shaved, I remember wondering if I
would ever shave again, and the thought gave me no tremors.
For once in my sober life I was strung up to the gambler's
pitch of adventure.
My job was to go to Umvelos' as if on my ordinary business,
and if possible find out something of the evening's plan of
march. The question was how to send back a message to
Arcoll, assuming I had any difficulty in getting away. At first
this puzzled us both, and then I thought of Colin. I had
trained the dog to go home at my bidding, for often when I
used to go hunting I would have occasion to visit a kraal where
he would have been a nuisance. Accordingly, I resolved to take
Colin with me, and, if I got into trouble, to send word by him.
I asked about Laputa's knowledge of our preparations.
Arcoll was inclined to think that he suspected little. The police
and the commandos had been kept very secret, and, besides,
they were moving on the high veld and out of the ken of the
tribes. Natives, he told me, were not good scouts so far as
white man's work was concerned, for they did not understand
the meaning of what we did. On the other hand, his own
native scouts brought him pretty accurate tidings of any Kaffir
movements. He thought that all the bush country of the plain
would be closely watched, and that no one would get through
without some kind of pass. But he thought also that the
storekeeper might be an exception, for his presence would give
rise to no suspicions. Almost his last words to me were to come
back hell-for-leather if I saw the game was hopeless, and in
any case to leave as soon as I got any news. 'If you're there
when the march begins,' he said, 'they'll cut your throat for a
certainty.' I had all the various police posts on the Berg clear
in my mind, so that I would know where to make for if the
road to Blaauwildebeestefontein should be closed.
I said good-bye to Arcoll and Wardlaw with a light heart,
though the schoolmaster broke down and implored me to think
better of it. As I turned down into the gorge I heard the sound
of horses' feet far behind, and, turning back, saw white riders
dismounting at the dorp. At any rate I was leaving the country
well guarded in my rear.
It was a fine morning in mid-winter, and I was in very good
spirits as I jogged on my pony down the steep hill-road, with
Colin running beside me. A month before I had taken the
same journey, with no suspicion in my head of what the future
was to bring. I thought about my Dutch companions, now
with their cattle far out on the plains. Did they know of the
great danger, I wondered. All the way down the glen I saw no
sign of human presence. The game-birds mocked me from the
thicket; a brace of white berghaan circled far up in the blue;
and I had for pleasant comrade the brawling river. I dismounted
once to drink, and in that green haven of flowers and ferns I was
struck sharply with a sense of folly. Here were we wretched
creatures of men making for each other's throats, and outraging
the good earth which God had made so fair a habitation.
I had resolved on a short cut to Umvelos', avoiding the
neighbourhood of Sikitola's kraal, so when the river emerged
from the glen I crossed it and struck into the bush. I had not
gone far before I realized that something strange was going on.
It was like the woods on the Berg a week before. I had the
impression of many people moving in the bush, and now and
then I caught a glimpse of them. My first thought was that I
should be stopped, but soon it appeared that these folk had
business of their own which did not concern me. I was
conscious of being watched, yet it was clear that the bush folk
were not there for the purpose of watching me.
For a little I kept my spirits, but as the hours passed with
the same uncanny hurrying to and fro all about me my nerves
began to suffer. Weeks of espionage at Blaauwildebeestefontein
had made me jumpy. These people apparently meant me no
ill, and had no time to spare on me, But the sensation of
moving through them was like walking on a black-dark night
with precipices all around. I felt odd quiverings between my
shoulder blades where a spear might be expected to lodge.
Overhead was a great blue sky and a blazing sun, and I could
see the path running clear before me between the walls of
scrub. But it was like midnight to me, a midnight of suspicion
and unknown perils. I began to wish heartily I had never come.
I stopped for my midday meal at a place called Taqui, a
grassy glade in the bush where a tiny spring of water crept out
from below a big stone, only to disappear in the sand. Here I
sat and smoked for half an hour, wondering what was going to
become of me. The air was very still, but I could hear the
rustle of movement somewhere within a hundred yards. The
hidden folk were busy about their own ends, and I regretted
that I had not taken the road by Sikitola's and seen how the
kraals looked. They must be empty now, for the young men
were already out on some mission. So nervous I got that I took
my pocket-book and wrote down certain messages to my
mother, which I implored whoever should find my body to
transmit. Then, a little ashamed of my childishness, I pulled
myself together, and remounted.
About three in the afternoon I came over a low ridge of bush
and saw the corrugated iron roof of the store and the gleam of
water from the Labongo. The sight encouraged me, for at any
rate it meant the end of this disquieting ride. Here the bush
changed to trees of some size, and after leaving the ridge the
road plunged for a little into a thick shade. I had forgotten for
a moment the folk in the bush, and when a man stepped out of
the thicket I pulled up my horse with a start.
It was a tall native, who carried himself proudly, and after a
glance at me, stalked along at my side. He wore curious
clothes, for he had a kind of linen tunic, and around his waist
hung a kilt of leopard-skin. In such a man one would have
looked for a ting-kop,* but instead he had a mass of hair, not
like a Kaffir's wool, but long and curled like some popular
musician's. I should have been prepared for the face, but the
sight of it sent a sudden chill of fright through my veins. For
there was the curved nose, the deep flashing eyes, and the
cruel lips of my enemy of the Kirkcaple shore.
*The circlet into which, with the aid of gum, Zulu warriors weave their
Colin was deeply suspicious and followed his heels growling,
but he never turned his head.
'The day is warm, father,' I said in Kaffir. 'Do you go far?'
He slackened his pace till he was at my elbow. 'But a short
way, Baas,' he replied in English; 'I go to the store yonder.'
'Well met, then,' said I, 'for I am the storekeeper. You will
find little in it, for it is newly built and not yet stocked. I have
ridden over to see to it.'
He turned his face to me. 'That is bad news. I had hoped
for food and drink yonder. I have travelled far, and in the chill
nights I desire a cover for my head. Will the Baas allow me to
sleep the night in an outhouse?'
By this time I had recovered my nerve, and was ready to
play the part I had determined on. 'Willingly,' I said. 'You
may sleep in the storeroom if you care. You will find sacks for
bedding, and the place is snug enough on a cold night.'
He thanked me with a grave dignity which I had never seen
in any Kaffir. As my eye fell on his splendid proportions I
forgot all else in my admiration of the man. In his minister's
clothes he had looked only a heavily built native, but now in
his savage dress I saw how noble a figure he made. He must
have been at least six feet and a half, but his chest was so deep
and his shoulders so massive that one did not remark his
height. He put a hand on my saddle, and I remember noting
how slim and fine it was, more like a high-bred woman's than
a man's. Curiously enough he filled me with a certain confidence.
'I do not think you will cut my throat,' I said to myself.
'Your game is too big for common murder.'
The store at Umvelos' stood as I had left it. There was the
sjambok I had forgotten still lying on the window sill. I
unlocked the door, and a stifling smell of new paint came out
to meet me. Inside there was nothing but the chairs and
benches, and in a corner the pots and pans I had left against
my next visit. I unlocked the cupboard and got out a few
stores, opened the windows of the bedroom next door, and
flung my kaross on the cartel which did duty as bed. Then I
went out to find Laputa standing patiently in the sunshine.
I showed him the outhouse where I had said he might sleep.
It was the largest room in the store, but wholly unfurnished.
A pile of barrels and packing-cases stood in the corner, and
there was enough sacking to make a sort of bed.
'I am going to make tea,' I said. 'If you have come far you
would maybe like a cup?'
He thanked me, and I made a fire in the grate and put on
the kettle to boil. Then I set on the table biscuits, and sardines,
and a pot of jam. It was my business now to play the fool, and
I believe I succeeded to admiration in the part. I blush to-day
to think of the stuff I talked. First I made him sit on a chair
opposite me, a thing no white man in the country would have
done. Then I told him affectionately that I liked natives, that
they were fine fellows and better men than the dirty whites
round about. I explained that I was fresh from England, and
believed in equal rights for all men, white or coloured. God
forgive me, but I think I said I hoped to see the day when
Africa would belong once more to its rightful masters.
He heard me with an impassive face, his grave eyes studying
every line of me. I am bound to add that he made a hearty
meal, and drank three cups of strong tea of my brewing. I gave
him a cigar, one of a lot I had got from a Dutch farmer who
was experimenting with their manufacture - and all the while
I babbled of myself and my opinions. He must have thought
me half-witted, and indeed before long I began to be of the
same opinion myself. I told him that I meant to sleep the night
here, and go back in the morning to Blaauwildebeestefontein,
and then to Pietersdorp for stores. By-and-by I could see that
he had ceased to pay any attention to what I said. I was clearly
set down in his mind as a fool. Instead he kept looking at
Colin, who was lying blinking in the doorway, one wary eye
cocked on the stranger.
'You have a fine dog,' he observed.
'Yes,' I agreed, with one final effort of mendacity, 'he's fine
to look at, but he has no grit in him. Any mongrel from a kraal
can make him turn tail. Besides, he is a born fool and can't
find his way home. I'm thinking of getting rid of him.'
Laputa rose and his eye fell on the dog's back. I could see
that he saw the lie of his coat, and that he did not agree
'The food was welcome, Baas,' he said. 'If you will listen to
me I can repay hospitality with advice. You are a stranger
here. Trouble comes, and if you are wise you will go back to
'I don't know what you mean,' I said, with an air of cheerful
idiocy. 'But back to the Berg I go the first thing in the
morning. I hate these stinking plains.'
'It were wise to go to-night,' he said, with a touch of menace
in his tone.
'I can't,' I said, and began to sing the chorus of a ridiculous
'There's no place like home - but
I'm afraid to go home in the dark.'
Laputa shrugged his shoulders, stepped over the bristling
Colin, and went out. When I looked after him two minutes
later he had disappeared.
THE STORE AT UMVELOS'
I sat down on a chair and laboured to collect my thoughts.
Laputa had gone, and would return sooner or later with
Henriques. If I was to remain alive till morning, both of them
must be convinced that I was harmless. Laputa was probably
of that opinion, but Henriques would recognize me, and I had
no wish to have that yellow miscreant investigating my character.
There was only one way out of it - I must be incapably
drunk. There was not a drop of liquor in the store, but I found
an old whisky bottle half full of methylated spirits. With this I
thought I might raise an atmosphere of bad whisky, and for
the rest I must trust to my meagre gifts as an actor.
Supposing I escaped suspicion, Laputa and Henriques
would meet in the outhouse, and I must find some means of
overhearing them. Here I was fairly baffled. There was no
window in the outhouse save in the roof, and they were sure to
shut and bolt the door. I might conceal myself among the
barrels inside; but apart from the fact that they were likely to
search them before beginning their conference, it was quite
certain that they would satisfy themselves that I was safe in
the other end of the building before going to the outhouse.
Suddenly I thought of the cellar which we had built below
the store. There was an entrance by a trap-door behind the
counter, and another in the outhouse. I had forgotten the
details, but my hope was that the second was among the
barrels. I shut the outer door, prised up the trap, and dropped
into the vault, which had been floored roughly with green
bricks. Lighting match after match, I crawled to the other end
and tried to lift the door. It would not stir, so I guessed that
the barrels were on the top of it. Back to the outhouse I went,
and found that sure enough a heavy packing-case was standing
on a corner. I fixed it slightly open, so as to let me hear, and
so arranged the odds and ends round about it that no one
looking from the floor of the outhouse would guess at its
existence. It occurred to me that the conspirators would want
seats, so I placed two cases at the edge of the heap, that they
might not be tempted to forage in the interior.
This done, I went back to the store and proceeded to rig
myself out for my part. The cellar had made me pretty dirty,
and I added some new daubs to my face. My hair had grown
longish, and I ran my hands through it till it stood up like a
cockatoo's crest. Then I cunningly disposed the methylated
spirits in the places most likely to smell. I burned a little on
the floor, I spilt some on the counter and on my hands, and I
let it dribble over my coat. In five minutes I had made the
room stink like a shebeen. I loosened the collar of my shirt,
and when I looked at myself in the cover of my watch I saw a
specimen of debauchery which would have done credit to a
Saturday night's police cell.
By this time the sun had gone down, but I thought it better
to kindle no light. It was the night of the full moon - for which
reason, I supposed, Laputa had selected it - and in an hour or
two the world would be lit with that ghostly radiance. I sat on
the counter while the minutes passed, and I confess I found
the time of waiting very trying for my courage. I had got over
my worst nervousness by having something to do, but whenever
I was idle my fears returned. Laputa had a big night's
work before him, and must begin soon. My vigil, I told myself,
could not be long.
My pony was stalled in a rough shed we had built opposite
the store. I could hear him shaking his head and stamping the
ground above the croaking of the frogs by the Labongo.
Presently it seemed to me that another sound came from
behind the store - the sound of horses' feet and the rattle of
bridles. It was hushed for a moment, and then I heard human
voices. The riders had tied up their horses to a tree and were
I sprawled gracefully on the counter, the empty bottle in my
hand, and my eyes fixed anxiously on the square of the door,
which was filled with the blue glimmer of the late twilight.
The square darkened, and two men peered in. Colin growled
from below the counter, but with one hand I held the scruff of
'Hullo,' I said, 'ish that my black friend? Awfly shorry, old
man, but I've f'nish'd th' whisky. The bo-o-ottle shempty,'
and I waved it upside down with an imbecile giggle.
Laputa said something which I did not catch. Henriques
laughed an ugly laugh.
'We had better make certain of him,' he said.
The two argued for a minute, and then Laputa seemed to
prevail. The door was shut and the key, which I had left in the
lock, turned on me.
I gave them five minutes to get to the outhouse and settle to
business. Then I opened the trap, got into the cellar, and
crawled to the other end. A ray of light was coming through
the partially raised door. By a blessed chance some old bricks
had been left behind, and of these I made a footstool, which
enabled me to get my back level with the door and look out.
My laager of barrels was intact, but through a gap I had left
I could see the two men sitting on the two cases I had provided
for them. A lantern was set between them, and Henriques was
drinking out of a metal flask.
He took something - I could not see what - out of his
pocket, and held it before his companion.
'Spoils of war,' he said. 'I let Sikitola's men draw first blood.
They needed it to screw up their courage. Now they are as
wild as Umbooni's.
Laputa asked a question.
'It was the Dutchmen, who were out on the Koodoo Flats
with their cattle. Man, it's no good being squeamish. Do you
think you can talk over these surly back-veld fools? If we had
not done it, the best of their horses would now be over the
Berg to give warning. Besides, I tell you, Sikitola's men wanted
blooding. I did for the old swine, Coetzee, with my own
hands. Once he set his dogs on me, and I don't forget an injury.'
Laputa must have disapproved, for Henriques' voice grew high.
'Run the show the way you please,' he cried; 'but don't
blame me if you make a hash of it. God, man, do you think
you are going to work a revolution on skim milk? If I had my
will, I would go in and stick a knife in the drunken hog
'He is safe enough,' Laputa replied. 'I gave him the chance
of life, and he laughed at me. He won't get far on his road home.'
This was pleasant hearing for me, but I scarcely thought of
myself. I was consumed with a passion of fury against the
murdering yellow devil. With Laputa I was not angry; he was
an open enemy, playing a fair game. But my fingers itched to
get at the Portugoose - that double-dyed traitor to his race. As
I thought of my kindly old friends, lying butchered with their
kinsfolk out in the bush, hot tears of rage came to my eyes.
Perfect love casteth out fear, the Bible says; but, to speak it
reverently, so does perfect hate. Not for safety and a king's
ransom would I have drawn back from the game. I prayed for
one thing only, that God in His mercy would give me the
chance of settling with Henriques.
I fancy I missed some of the conversation, being occupied
with my own passion. At any rate, when I next listened the
two were deep in plans. Maps were spread beside them, and
Laputa's delicate forefinger was tracing a route. I strained my
ears, but could catch only a few names. Apparently they were
to keep in the plains till they had crossed the Klein Labongo
and the Letaba. I thought I caught the name of the ford of the
latter; it sounded like Dupree's Drift. After that the talk
became plainer, for Laputa was explaining in his clear voice.
The force would leave the bush, ascend the Berg by the glen
of the Groot Letaba, and the first halt would be called at a
place called Inanda's Kraal, where a promontory of the high-
veld juts out behind the peaks called the Wolkberg or Cloud
Mountains. All this was very much to the point, and the names
sunk into my memory like a die into wax.
'Meanwhile,' said Laputa, 'there is the gathering at
Ntabakaikonjwa.* It will take us three hours' hard riding to
**Literally, 'The Hill which is not to be pointed at'.
Where on earth was Ntabakaikonjwa? It must be the native
name for the Rooirand, for after all Laputa was not likely to
use the Dutch word for his own sacred place.
'Nothing has been forgotten. The men are massed below the
cliffs, and the chiefs and the great indunas will enter the Place
of the Snake. The door will be guarded, and only the password
will get a man through. That word is "Immanuel," which
means, "God with us."'
'Well, when we get there, what happens?' Henriques asked
with a laugh. 'What kind of magic will you spring on us?'
There was a strong contrast between the flippant tone of the
Portugoose and the grave voice which answered him.
'The Keeper of the Snake will open the holy place, and
bring forth the Isetembiso sami.* As the leader of my people,
I will assume the collar of Umkulunkulu in the name of our
God and the spirits of the great dead.'
*Literally, 'Very sacred thing'.
'But you don't propose to lead the march in a necklace of
rubies,' said Henriques, with a sudden eagerness in his voice.
Again Laputa spoke gravely, and, as it were, abstractedly. I
heard the voice of one whose mind was fixed on a far horizon.
'When I am acclaimed king, I restore the Snake to its
Keeper, and swear never to clasp it on my neck till I have led
my people to victory.'
'I see,' said Henriques. 'What about the purification you
I had missed this before and listened earnestly.
'The vows we take in the holy place bind us till we are
purged of them at Inanda's Kraal. Till then no blood must be
shed and no flesh eaten. It was the fashion of our forefathers.'
'Well, I think you've taken on a pretty risky job,' Henriques
said. 'You propose to travel a hundred miles, binding yourself
not to strike a blow. It is simply putting yourself at the mercy
of any police patrol.'
'There will be no patrol,' Laputa replied. 'Our march will
be as secret and as swift as death. I have made my
'But suppose you met with opposition,' the Portugoose
persisted, 'would the rule hold?'
'If any try to stop us, we shall tie them hand and foot, and
carry them with us. Their fate will be worse than if they had
been slain in battle.'
'I see,' said Henriques, whistling through his teeth. 'Well,
before we start this vow business, I think I'll go back and settle
Laputa shook his head. 'Will you be serious and hear me?
We have no time to knife harmless fools. Before we start for
Ntabakaikonjwa I must have from you the figures of the
arming in the south. That is the one thing which remains to
I am certain these figures would have been most interesting,
but I never heard them. My feet were getting cramped with
standing on the bricks, and I inadvertently moved them. The
bricks came down with a rattle, and unfortunately in slipping
I clutched at the trap. This was too much for my frail prop,
and the door slammed down with a great noise.
Here was a nice business for the eavesdropper! I scurried
along the passage as stealthily as I could and clambered back
into the store, while I heard the sound of Laputa and Henriques
ferreting among the barrels. I managed to throttle Colin
and prevent him barking, but I could not get the confounded
trap to close behind me. Something had jammed in it, and it
remained half a foot open.
I heard the two approaching the door, and I did the best
thing that occurred to me. I pulled Colin over the trap, rolled
on the top of him, and began to snore heavily as if in a
The key was turned, and the gleam of a lantern was thrown
on the wall. It flew up and down as its bearer cast the light
into the corners.
'By God, he's gone,' I heard Henriques say. 'The swine was
listening, and he has bolted now.'
'He won't bolt far,' Laputa said. 'He is here. He is snoring
behind the counter.'
These were anxious moments for me. I had a firm grip on
Colin's throat, but now and then a growl escaped, which was
fortunately blended with my snores. I felt that a lantern was
flashed on me, and that the two men were peering down at the
heap on the half-opened trap. I think that was the worst
minute I ever spent, for, as I have said, my courage was not so
bad in action, but in a passive game it oozed out of my fingers.
'He is safe enough,' Laputa said, after what seemed to me
an eternity. 'The noise was only the rats among the barrels.'
I thanked my Maker that they had not noticed the other
'All the same I think I'll make him safer,' said Henriques.
Laputa seemed to have caught him by the arm.
'Come back and get to business,' he said. 'I've told you I'll
have no more murder. You will do as I tell you, Mr Henriques.'
I did not catch the answer, but the two went out and locked
the door. I patted the outraged Colin, and got to my feet with
an aching side where the confounded lid of the trap had been
pressing. There was no time to lose for the two in the outhouse
would soon be setting out, and I must be before them.
With no better light than a ray of the moon through the
window, I wrote a message on a leaf from my pocket-book. I
told of the plans I had overheard, and especially I mentioned
Dupree's Drift on the Letaba. I added that I was going to the
Rooirand to find the secret of the cave, and in one final
sentence implored Arcoll to do justice on the Portugoose. That
was all, for I had no time for more. I carefully tied the paper
with a string below the collar of the dog.
Then very quietly I went into the bedroom next door - the
side of the store farthest from the outhouse. The place was
flooded with moonlight, and the window stood open, as I had
left it in the afternoon. As softly as I could I swung Colin over
the sill and clambered after him. In my haste I left my coat
behind me with my pistol in the pocket.
Now came a check. My horse was stabled in the shed, and
that was close to the outhouse. The sound of leading him out
would most certainly bring Laputa and Henriques to the door.
In that moment I all but changed my plans. I thought of
slipping back to the outhouse and trying to shoot the two men
as they came forth. But I reflected that, before I could get
them both, one or other would probably shoot me. Besides, I
had a queer sort of compunction about killing Laputa. I
understood now why Arcoll had stayed his hand from murder,
and I was beginning to be of his opinion on our arch-enemy.
Then I remembered the horses tied up in the bush. One of
them I could get with perfect safety. I ran round the end of
the store and into the thicket, keeping on soft grass to dull my
tread. There, tied up to a merula tree, were two of the finest
beasts I had seen in Africa. I selected the better, an Africander
stallion of the blaauw-schimmel, or blue-roan type, which is
famous for speed and endurance. Slipping his bridle from the
branch, I led him a little way into the bush in the direction of
Then I spoke to Colin. 'Home with you,' I said. 'Home, old
man, as if you were running down a tsessebe.'*
*A species of buck, famous for its speed.
The dog seemed puzzled. 'Home,' I said again, pointing
west in the direction of the Berg. 'Home, you brute.'
And then he understood. He gave one low whine, and cast a
reproachful eye on me and the blue roan. Then he turned, and
with his head down set off with great lopes on the track of the
road I had ridden in the morning.
A second later and I was in the saddle, riding hell-for-leather
for the north.
I GO TREASURE-HUNTING
For a mile or so I kept the bush, which was open and easy to
ride through, and then turned into the path. The moon was
high, and the world was all a dim dark green, with the track a
golden ivory band before me. I had looked at my watch before
I started, and seen that it was just after eight o'clock. I had a
great horse under me, and less than thirty miles to cover.
Midnight should see me at the cave. With the password I
would gain admittance, and there would wait for Laputa and
Henriques. Then, if my luck held, I should see the inner
workings of the mystery which had puzzled me ever since the
Kirkcaple shore. No doubt I should be roughly treated, tied
up prisoner, and carried with the army when the march began.
But till Inanda's Kraal my life was safe, and before that came
the ford of the Letaba. Colin would carry my message to
Arcoll, and at the Drift the tables would be turned on
Looking back in cold blood, it seems the craziest chain of
accidents to count on for preservation. A dozen possibilities
might have shattered any link of it. The password might be
wrong, or I might never get the length of those who knew it.
The men in the cave might butcher me out of hand, or Laputa
might think my behaviour a sufficient warrant for the breach
of the solemnest vow. Colin might never get to
Blaauwildebeestefontein, Laputa might change his route of march,
or Arcoll's men might fail to hold the Drift. Indeed, the other
day at Portincross I was so overcome by the recollection of the
perils I had dared and God's goodness towards me that I built
a new hall for the parish kirk as a token of gratitude.
Fortunately for mankind the brain in a life of action turns
more to the matter in hand than to conjuring up the chances
of the future. Certainly it was in no discomfort of mind that I
swung along the moonlit path to the north. Truth to tell, I was
almost happy. The first honours in the game had fallen to me.
I knew more about Laputa than any man living save Henriques;
I had my finger on the central pulse of the rebellion.
There was hid treasure ahead of me - a great necklace of
rubies, Henriques had said. Nay, there must be more, I
argued. This cave of the Rooirand was the headquarters of the
rising, and there must be stored their funds - diamonds, and
the gold they had been bartered for. I believe that every man
has deep in his soul a passion for treasure-hunting, which will
often drive a coward into prodigies of valour. I lusted for that
treasure of jewels and gold. Once I had been high-minded,
and thought of my duty to my country, but in that night ride
I fear that what I thought of was my duty to enrich David
Crawfurd. One other purpose simmered in my head. I was
devoured with wrath against Henriques. Indeed, I think that
was the strongest motive for my escapade, for even before I
heard Laputa tell of the vows and the purification, I had it in
my mind to go at all costs to the cave. I am a peaceable man at
most times, but I think I would rather have had the Portugoose's
throat in my hands than the collar of Prester John.
But behind my thoughts was one master-feeling, that Providence
had given me my chance and I must make the most of it.
Perhaps the Calvinism of my father's preaching had unconsciously
taken grip of my soul. At any rate I was a fatalist in
creed, believing that what was willed would happen, and that
man was but a puppet in the hands of his Maker. I looked on
the last months as a clear course which had been mapped out
for me. Not for nothing had I been given a clue to the strange
events which were coming. It was foreordained that I should
go alone to Umvelos', and in the promptings of my own fallible
heart I believed I saw the workings of Omnipotence. Such is
our moral arrogance, and yet without such a belief I think that
mankind would have ever been content to bide sluggishly at home.
I passed the spot where on my former journey I had met the
horses, and knew that I had covered more than half the road.
My ear had been alert for the sound of pursuit, but the bush
was quiet as the grave. The man who rode my pony would
find him a slow traveller, and I pitied the poor beast bucketed
along by an angry rider. Gradually a hazy wall of purple began
to shimmer before me, apparently very far off. I knew the
ramparts of the Rooirand, and let my Schimmel feel my knees
in his ribs. Within an hour I should be at the cliff's foot.
I had trusted for safety to the password, but as it turned out
I owed my life mainly to my horse. For, a mile or so from the
cliffs, I came to the fringes of a great army. The bush was
teeming with men, and I saw horses picketed in bunches, and
a multitude of Cape-carts and light wagons. It was like a
colossal gathering for naachtmaal*1 at a Dutch dorp, but every
man was black. I saw through a corner of my eye that they
were armed with guns, though many carried in addition their
spears and shields. Their first impulse was to stop me. I saw
guns fly to shoulders, and a rush towards the path. The boldest
game was the safest, so I dug my heels into the schimmel and
shouted for a passage. 'Make way!' I cried in Kaffir. 'I bear a
message from the Inkulu.*2 Clear out, you dogs!'
*1 The Communion Sabbath.
*2 A title applied only to the greatest chiefs.
They recognized the horse, and fell back with a salute. Had
I but known it, the beast was famed from the Zambesi to the
Cape. It was their king's own charger I rode, and who dared
question such a warrant? I heard the word pass through the
bush, and all down the road I got the salute. In that moment I
fervently thanked my stars that I had got away first, for there
would have been no coming second for me.
At the cliff-foot I found a double line of warriors who had
the appearance of a royal guard, for all were tall men with
leopard-skin cloaks. Their rifle-barrels glinted in the moon-
light, and the sight sent a cold shiver down my back. Above
them, among the scrub and along the lower slopes of the
kranzes, I could see further lines with the same gleaming
weapons. The Place of the Snake was in strong hands that night.
I dismounted and called for a man to take my horse. Two of
the guards stepped forward in silence and took the bridle. This
left the track to the cave open, and with as stiff a back as I
could command, but a sadly fluttering heart, I marched
through the ranks.
The path was lined with guards, all silent and rigid as graven
images. As I stumbled over the stones I felt that my appearance
scarcely fitted the dignity of a royal messenger. Among those
splendid men-at-arms I shambled along in old breeches and
leggings, hatless, with a dirty face, dishevelled hair, and a torn
flannel shirt. My mind was no better than my body, for now
that I had arrived I found my courage gone. Had it been
possible I would have turned tail and fled, but the boats were
burned behind me, and I had no choice. I cursed my rash
folly, and wondered at my exhilaration of an hour ago. I was
going into the black mysterious darkness, peopled by ten
thousand cruel foes. My knees rubbed against each other, and
I thought that no man had ever been in more deadly danger.
At the entrance to the gorge the guards ceased and I went
on alone. Here there was no moonlight, and I had to feel my
way by the sides. I moved very slowly, wondering how soon I
should find the end my folly demanded. The heat of the ride
had gone, and I remember feeling my shirt hang clammily on
Suddenly a hand was laid on my breast, and a voice
demanded, 'The word?'
'Immanuel,' I said hoarsely.
Then unseen hands took both my arms, and I was led
farther into the darkness. My hopes revived for a second. The
password had proved true, and at any rate I should enter the cave.
In the darkness I could see nothing, but I judged that we
stopped before the stone slab which, as I remembered, filled
the extreme end of the gorge. My guide did something with
the right-hand wall, and I felt myself being drawn into a kind
of passage. It was so narrow that two could not go abreast, and
so low that the creepers above scraped my hair. Something
clicked behind me like the turnstile at the gate of a show.
Then we began to ascend steps, still in utter darkness, and a
great booming fell on my ear. It was the falling river which
had scared me on my former visit, and I marvelled that I had
not heard it sooner. Presently we came out into a gleam of
moonlight, and I saw that we were inside the gorge and far
above the slab. We followed a narrow shelf on its left side (or
'true right', as mountaineers would call it) until we could go
no farther. Then we did a terrible thing. Across the gorge,
which here was at its narrowest, stretched a slab of stone. Far,
far below I caught the moonlight on a mass of hurrying waters.
This was our bridge, and though I have a good head for crags,
I confess I grew dizzy as we turned to cross it. Perhaps it was
broader than it looked; at any rate my guides seemed to have
no fear, and strode across it as if it was a highway, while I
followed in a sweat of fright. Once on the other side, I was
handed over to a second pair of guides, who led me down a
high passage running into the heart of the mountain.
The boom of the river sank and rose as the passage twined.
Soon I saw a gleam of light ahead which was not the moon. It
grew larger, until suddenly the roof rose and I found myself in
a gigantic chamber. So high it was that I could not make out
anything of the roof, though the place was brightly lit with
torches stuck round the wall, and a great fire which burned at
the farther end. But the wonder was on the left side, where the
floor ceased in a chasm. The left wall was one sheet of water,
where the river fell from the heights into the infinite depth,
below. The torches and the fire made the sheer stream glow
and sparkle like the battlements of the Heavenly City. I have
never seen any sight so beautiful or so strange, and for a
second my breath stopped in admiration.
There were two hundred men or more in the chamber, but
so huge was the place that they seemed only a little company.
They sat on the ground in a circle, with their eyes fixed on the
fire and on a figure which stood before it. The glow revealed
the old man I had seen on that morning a month before moving
towards the cave. He stood as if in a trance, straight as a tree,
with his arms crossed on his breast. A robe of some shining
white stuff fell from his shoulders, and was clasped round his
middle by a broad circle of gold. His head was shaven, and on
his forehead was bound a disc of carved gold. I saw from his
gaze that his old eyes were blind.
'Who comes?'he asked as I entered.
'A messenger from the Inkulu,' I spoke up boldly. 'He
follows soon with the white man, Henriques.'
Then I sat down in the back row of the circle to await
events. I noticed that my neighbour was the fellow 'Mwanga
whom I had kicked out of the store. Happily I was so dusty
that he could scarcely recognize me, but I kept my face turned
away from him. What with the light and the warmth, the drone
of the water, the silence of the folk, and my mental and
physical stress, I grew drowsy and all but slept.
THE CAVE OF THE ROOIRAND
I was roused by a sudden movement. The whole assembly
stood up, and each man clapped his right hand to his brow and
then raised it high. A low murmur of 'Inkulu' rose above the
din of the water. Laputa strode down the hall, with Henriques
limping behind him. They certainly did not suspect my
presence in the cave, nor did Laputa show any ruffling of his
calm. Only Henriques looked weary and cross. I guessed he
had had to ride my pony.
The old man whom I took to be the priest advanced towards
Laputa with his hands raised over his head. A pace before they
met he halted, and Laputa went on his knees before him. He
placed his hands on his head, and spoke some words which I
could not understand. It reminded me, so queer are the tricks of
memory, of an old Sabbath-school book I used to have which
had a picture of Samuel ordaining Saul as king of Israel. I think
I had forgotten my own peril and was enthralled by the majesty
of the place - the wavering torches, the dropping wall of green
water, above all, the figures of Laputa and the Keeper of the
Snake, who seemed to have stepped out of an antique world.
Laputa stripped off his leopard skin till he stood stark, a
noble form of a man. Then the priest sprinkled some herbs on
the fire, and a thin smoke rose to the roof. The smell was that
I had smelled on the Kirkcaple shore, sweet, sharp, and
strange enough to chill the marrow. And round the fire went
the priest in widening and contracting circles, just as on that
Sabbath evening in spring.
Once more we were sitting on the ground, all except Laputa
and the Keeper. Henriques was squatting in the front row, a
tiny creature among so many burly savages. Laputa stood with
bent head in the centre.
Then a song began, a wild incantation in which all joined.
The old priest would speak some words, and the reply came in
barbaric music. The words meant nothing to me; they must
have been in some tongue long since dead. But the music told
its own tale. It spoke of old kings and great battles, of splendid
palaces and strong battlements, of queens white as ivory, of
death and life, love and hate, joy and sorrow. It spoke, too, of
desperate things, mysteries of horror long shut to the world.
No Kaffir ever forged that ritual. It must have come straight
from Prester John or Sheba's queen, or whoever ruled in
Africa when time was young.
I was horribly impressed. Devouring curiosity and a lurking
nameless fear filled my mind. My old dread had gone. I was
not afraid now of Kaffir guns, but of the black magic of which
Laputa had the key.
The incantation died away, but still herbs were flung on the
fire, till the smoke rose in a great cloud, through which the
priest loomed misty and huge. Out of the smoke-wreaths his
voice came high and strange. It was as if some treble stop had
been opened in a great organ, as against the bass drone of
He was asking Laputa questions, to which came answers in
that rich voice which on board the liner had preached the
gospel of Christ. The tongue I did not know, and I doubt if
my neighbours were in better case. It must have been some
old sacred language - Phoenician, Sabaean, I know not what -
which had survived in the rite of the Snake.
Then came silence while the fire died down and the smoke
eddied away in wreaths towards the river. The priest's lips
moved as if in prayer: of Laputa I saw only the back, and his
head was bowed.
Suddenly a rapt cry broke from the Keeper. 'God has
spoken,' he cried. 'The path is clear. The Snake returns to the
House of its Birth.'
An attendant led forward a black goat, which bleated feebly.
With a huge antique knife the old man slit its throat, catching
the blood in a stone ewer. Some was flung on the fire, which
had burned small and low.
'Even so,' cried the priest, 'will the king quench in blood the
hearth-fires of his foes.'
Then on Laputa's forehead and bare breast he drew a bloody cross.
'I seal thee,' said the voice, 'priest and king of God's people.'
The ewer was carried round the assembly, and each dipped
his finger in it and marked his forehead. I got a dab to add to
the other marks on my face.
'Priest and king of God's people,' said the voice again, 'I call
thee to the inheritance of John. Priest and king was he, king of
kings, lord of hosts, master of the earth. When he ascended on
high he left to his son the sacred Snake, the ark of his valour,
to be God's dower and pledge to the people whom He has chosen.'
I could not make out what followed. It seemed to be a long
roll of the kings who had borne the Snake. None of them I
knew, but at the end I thought I caught the name of Tchaka
the Terrible, and I remembered Arcoll's tale.
The Keeper held in his arms a box of curiously wrought ivory,
about two feet long and one broad. He was standing beyond
the ashes, from which, in spite of the blood, thin streams of
smoke still ascended. He opened it, and drew out something
which swung from his hand like a cascade of red fire.
'Behold the Snake,' cried the Keeper, and every man in the
assembly, excepting Laputa and including me, bowed his head
to the ground and cried 'Ow.'
'Ye who have seen the Snake,' came the voice, on you is the
vow of silence and peace. No blood shall ye shed of man or
beast, no flesh shall ye eat till the vow is taken from you. From
the hour of midnight till sunrise on the second day ye are
bound to God. Whoever shall break the vow, on him shall the
curse fall. His blood shall dry in his veins, and his flesh shrink
on his bones. He shall be an outlaw and accursed, and there
shall follow him through life and death the Avengers of the
Snake. Choose ye, my people; upon you is the vow.'
By this time we were all flat on our faces, and a great cry of
assent went up. I lifted my head as much as I dared to see
what would happen next.
The priest raised the necklace till it shone above his head
like a halo of blood. I have never seen such a jewel, and I think
there has never been another such on earth. Later I was to
have the handling of it, and could examine it closely, though
now I had only a glimpse. There were fifty-five rubies in it,
the largest as big as a pigeon's egg, and the least not smaller
than my thumbnail. In shape they were oval, cut on both sides
en cabochon, and on each certain characters were engraved.
No doubt this detracted from their value as gems, yet the
characters might have been removed and the stones cut in
facets, and these rubies would still have been the noblest in
the world. I was no jewel merchant to guess their value, but I
knew enough to see that here was wealth beyond human
computation. At each end of the string was a great pearl and a
golden clasp. The sight absorbed me to the exclusion of all
fear. I, David Crawfurd, nineteen years of age, an assistant-
storekeeper in a back-veld dorp, was privileged to see a sight
to which no Portuguese adventurer had ever attained. There,
floating on the smoke-wreaths, was the jewel which may once
have burned in Sheba's hair.
As the priest held the collar aloft, the assembly rocked with
a strange passion. Foreheads were rubbed in the dust, and
then adoring eyes would be raised, while a kind of sobbing
shook the worshippers. In that moment I learned something
of the secret of Africa, of Prester John's empire and Tchaka's
, In the name of God,' came the voice, 'I deliver to the heir
of John the Snake of John.'
Laputa took the necklet and twined it in two loops round his
neck till the clasp hung down over his breast. The position
changed. The priest knelt before him, and received his hands
on his head. Then I knew that, to the confusion of all talk
about equality, God has ordained some men to be kings and
others to serve. Laputa stood naked as when he was born, The
rubies were dulled against the background of his skin, but they
still shone with a dusky fire. Above the blood-red collar his
face had the passive pride of a Roman emperor. Only his great
eyes gloomed and burned as he looked on his followers.
'Heir of John,' he said, 'I stand before you as priest and
king. My kingship is for the morrow. Now I am the priest to
make intercession for my people.'
He prayed - prayed as I never heard man pray before -
and to the God of Israel! It was no heathen fetich he was
invoking, but the God of whom he had often preached in
Christian kirks. I recognized texts from Isaiah and the Psalms
and the Gospels, and very especially from the two last chapters
of Revelation. He pled with God to forget the sins of his people,
to recall the bondage of Zion. It was amazing to hear these
bloodthirsty savages consecrated by their leader to the meek
service of Christ. An enthusiast may deceive himself, and I did
not question his sincerity. I knew his heart, black with all the
lusts of paganism. I knew that his purpose was to deluge the
land with blood. But I knew also that in his eyes his mission
was divine, and that he felt behind him all the armies of Heaven.
__'Thou hast been a strength to the poor,' said the voice, 'a
refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast
of the Terrible Ones is as a storm against a wall.
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