Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Prester John (1910)

Prester John
Excerpted from Chapter VII
By John Buchan (1910)

'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 Sepulchre.'

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 Great Lakes.'

'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 our amusement.

'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 the recollection.

'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 a clue.

'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 and watched.

'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 his plans?'

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 Zululand?'

'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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Visit our parent weblog...