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Produced by Jo Churcher. HTML version by Al Haines.









PRESTER JOHN


by

JOHN BUCHAN




TO

LIONEL PHILLIPS

Time, they say, must the best of us capture,
And travel and battle and gems and gold
No more can kindle the ancient rapture,
For even the youngest of hearts grows old.
But in you, I think, the boy is not over;
So take this medley of ways and wars
As the gift of a friend and a fellow-lover
Of the fairest country under the stars.

J. B.




CONTENTS

I. The Man on the Kirkcaple Shore
II. Furth! Fortune!
III. Blaauwildebeestefontein
IV. My Journey to the Winter-Veld
V. Mr Wardlaw Has a Premonition
VI. The Drums Beat at Sunset
VII. Captain Arcoll Tells a Tale
VIII. I Fall in Again with the Reverend John Laputa
IX. The Store at Umvelos'
X. I Go Treasure-Hunting
XI. The Cave of the Rooirand
XII. Captain Arcoll Sends a Message
XIII. The Drift of the Letaba
XIV. I Carry the Collar of Prester John
XV. Morning in the Berg
XVI. Inanda's Kraal
XVII. A Deal and Its Consequences
XVIII. How a Man May Sometimes Put His Trust in a Horse
XIX. Arcoll's Shepherding
XX. My Last Sight of the Reverend John Laputa
XXI. I Climb the Crags a Second Time
XXII. A Great Peril and a Great Salvation
XXIII. My Uncle's Gift Is Many Times Multiplied



CHAPTER I

THE MAN ON THE KIRKCAPLE SHORE

I mind as if it were yesterday my first sight of the man. Little I
knew at the time how big the moment was with destiny, or how often that
face seen in the fitful moonlight would haunt my sleep and disturb my
waking hours. But I mind yet the cold grue of terror I got from it, a
terror which was surely more than the due of a few truant lads breaking
the Sabbath with their play.

The town of Kirkcaple, of which and its adjacent parish of Portincross
my father was the minister, lies on a hillside above the little bay of
Caple, and looks squarely out on the North Sea. Round the horns of
land which enclose the bay the coast shows on either side a battlement
of stark red cliffs through which a burn or two makes a pass to the
water's edge. The bay itself is ringed with fine clean sands, where we
lads of the burgh school loved to bathe in the warm weather. But on
long holidays the sport was to go farther afield among the cliffs; for
there there were many deep caves and pools, where podleys might be
caught with the line, and hid treasures sought for at the expense of
the skin of the knees and the buttons of the trousers. Many a long
Saturday I have passed in a crinkle of the cliffs, having lit a fire of
driftwood, and made believe that I was a smuggler or a Jacobite new
landed from France. There was a band of us in Kirkcaple, lads of my
own age, including Archie Leslie, the son of my father's session-clerk,
and Tam Dyke, the provost's nephew. We were sealed to silence by the
blood oath, and we bore each the name of some historic pirate or
sailorman. I was Paul Jones, Tam was Captain Kidd, and Archie, need I
say it, was Morgan himself. Our tryst was a cave where a little water
called the Dyve Burn had cut its way through the cliffs to the sea.
There we forgathered in the summer evenings and of a Saturday afternoon
in winter, and told mighty tales of our prowess and flattered our silly
hearts. But the sober truth is that our deeds were of the humblest,
and a dozen of fish or a handful of apples was all our booty, and our
greatest exploit a fight with the roughs at the Dyve tan-work.

My father's spring Communion fell on the last Sabbath of April, and on
the particular Sabbath of which I speak the weather was mild and bright
for the time of year. I had been surfeited with the Thursday's and
Saturday's services, and the two long diets of worship on the Sabbath
were hard for a lad of twelve to bear with the spring in his bones and
the sun slanting through the gallery window. There still remained the
service on the Sabbath evening - a doleful prospect, for the Rev. Mr
Murdoch of Kilchristie, noted for the length of his discourses, had
exchanged pulpits with my father. So my mind was ripe for the proposal
of Archie Leslie, on our way home to tea, that by a little skill we
might give the kirk the slip. At our Communion the pews were emptied
of their regular occupants and the congregation seated itself as it
pleased. The manse seat was full of the Kirkcaple relations of Mr
Murdoch, who had been invited there by my mother to hear him, and it
was not hard to obtain permission to sit with Archie and Tam Dyke in
the cock-loft in the gallery. Word was sent to Tam, and so it happened
that three abandoned lads duly passed the plate and took their seats in
the cock-loft. But when the bell had done jowing, and we heard by the
sounds of their feet that the elders had gone in to the kirk, we
slipped down the stairs and out of the side door. We were through the
churchyard in a twinkling, and hot-foot on the road to the Dyve Burn.
It was the fashion of the genteel in Kirkcaple to put their boys into
what were known as Eton suits - long trousers, cut-away jackets, and
chimney-pot hats. I had been one of the earliest victims, and well I
remember how I fled home from the Sabbath school with the snowballs of
the town roughs rattling off my chimney-pot. Archie had followed, his
family being in all things imitators of mine. We were now clothed in
this wearisome garb, so our first care was to secrete safely our hats
in a marked spot under some whin bushes on the links. Tam was free from
the bondage of fashion, and wore his ordinary best knickerbockers.
From inside his jacket he unfolded his special treasure, which was to
light us on our expedition - an evil-smelling old tin lantern with a
shutter.

Tam was of the Free Kirk persuasion, and as his Communion fell on a
different day from ours, he was spared the bondage of church attendance
from which Archie and I had revolted. But notable events had happened
that day in his church. A black man, the Rev. John
Something-or-other, had been preaching. Tam was full of the portent.
'A nagger,' he said, 'a great black chap as big as your father,
Archie.' He seemed to have banged the bookboard with some effect, and
had kept Tam, for once in his life, awake. He had preached about the
heathen in Africa, and how a black man was as good as a white man in
the sight of God, and he had forecast a day when the negroes would have
something to teach the British in the way of civilization. So at any
rate ran the account of Tam Dyke, who did not share the preacher's
views. 'It's all nonsense, Davie. The Bible says that the children of
Ham were to be our servants. If I were the minister I wouldn't let a
nigger into the pulpit. I wouldn't let him farther than the Sabbath
school.'

Night fell as we came to the broomy spaces of the links, and ere we had
breasted the slope of the neck which separates Kirkcaple Bay from the
cliffs it was as dark as an April evening with a full moon can be. Tam
would have had it darker. He got out his lantern, and after a
prodigious waste of matches kindled the candle-end inside, turned the
dark shutter, and trotted happily on. We had no need of his lighting
till the Dyve Burn was reached and the path began to descend steeply
through the rift in the crags.

It was here we found that some one had gone before us. Archie was great
in those days at tracking, his ambition running in Indian paths. He
would walk always with his head bent and his eyes on the ground,
whereby he several times found lost coins and once a trinket dropped by
the provost's wife. At the edge of the burn, where the path turns
downward, there is a patch of shingle washed up by some spate. Archie
was on his knees in a second. 'Lads,' he cried, 'there's spoor here;'
and then after some nosing, 'it's a man's track, going downward, a big
man with flat feet. It's fresh, too, for it crosses the damp bit of
gravel, and the water has scarcely filled the holes yet.'

We did not dare to question Archie's woodcraft, but it puzzled us who
the stranger could be. In summer weather you might find a party of
picnickers here, attracted by the fine hard sands at the burn mouth.
But at this time of night and season of the year there was no call for
any one to be trespassing on our preserves. No fishermen came this
way, the lobster-pots being all to the east, and the stark headland of
the Red Neb made the road to them by the water's edge difficult. The
tan-work lads used to come now and then for a swim, but you would not
find a tan-work lad bathing on a chill April night. Yet there was no
question where our precursor had gone. He was making for the shore.
Tam unshuttered his lantern, and the steps went clearly down the
corkscrew path. 'Maybe he is after our cave. We'd better go cannily.'

The glim was dowsed - the words were Archie's - and in the best
contraband manner we stole down the gully. The business had suddenly
taken an eerie turn, and I think in our hearts we were all a little
afraid. But Tam had a lantern, and it would never do to turn back from
an adventure which had all the appearance of being the true sort. Half
way down there is a scrog of wood, dwarf alders and hawthorn, which
makes an arch over the path. I, for one, was glad when we got through
this with no worse mishap than a stumble from Tam which caused the
lantern door to fly open and the candle to go out. We did not stop to
relight it, but scrambled down the screes till we came to the long
slabs of reddish rock which abutted on the beach. We could not see the
track, so we gave up the business of scouts, and dropped quietly over
the big boulder and into the crinkle of cliff which we called our cave.

There was nobody there, so we relit the lantern and examined our
properties. Two or three fishing-rods for the burn, much damaged by
weather; some sea-lines on a dry shelf of rock; a couple of wooden
boxes; a pile of driftwood for fires, and a heap of quartz in which we
thought we had found veins of gold - such was the modest furnishing of
our den. To this I must add some broken clay pipes, with which we made
believe to imitate our elders, smoking a foul mixture of coltsfoot
leaves and brown paper. The band was in session, so following our
ritual we sent out a picket. Tam was deputed to go round the edge of
the cliff from which the shore was visible, and report if the coast was
clear.

He returned in three minutes, his eyes round with amazement in the
lantern light. 'There's a fire on the sands,' he repeated, 'and a man
beside it.'

Here was news indeed. Without a word we made for the open, Archie
first, and Tam, who had seized and shuttered his lantern, coming last.
We crawled to the edge of the cliff and peered round, and there sure
enough, on the hard bit of sand which the tide had left by the burn
mouth, was a twinkle of light and a dark figure.

The moon was rising, and besides there was that curious sheen from the
sea which you will often notice in spring. The glow was maybe a
hundred yards distant, a little spark of fire I could have put in my
cap, and, from its crackling and smoke, composed of dry seaweed and
half-green branches from the burnside thickets. A man's figure stood
near it, and as we looked it moved round and round the fire in circles
which first of all widened and then contracted.

The sight was so unexpected, so beyond the beat of our experience, that
we were all a little scared. What could this strange being want with a
fire at half-past eight of an April Sabbath night on the Dyve Burn
sands? We discussed the thing in whispers behind a boulder, but none
of us had any solution. 'Belike he's come ashore in a boat,' said
Archie. 'He's maybe a foreigner.' But I pointed out that, from the
tracks which Archie himself had found, the man must have come overland
down the cliffs. Tam was clear he was a madman, and was for
withdrawing promptly from the whole business.

But some spell kept our feet tied there in that silent world of sand
and moon and sea. I remember looking back and seeing the solemn,
frowning faces of the cliffs, and feeling somehow shut in with this
unknown being in a strange union. What kind of errand had brought this
interloper into our territory? For a wonder I was less afraid than
curious. I wanted to get to the heart of the matter, and to discover
what the man was up to with his fire and his circles.

The same thought must have been in Archie's head, for he dropped on his
belly and began to crawl softly seawards. I followed, and Tam, with
sundry complaints, crept after my heels. Between the cliffs and the
fire lay some sixty yards of _débris_ and boulders above the level of all
but the high spring tides. Beyond lay a string of seaweedy pools and
then the hard sands of the burnfoot. There was excellent cover among
the big stones, and apart from the distance and the dim light, the man
by the fire was too preoccupied in his task to keep much look-out
towards the land. I remember thinking he had chosen his place well,
for save from the sea he could not be seen. The cliffs are so undercut
that unless a watcher on the coast were on their extreme edge he would
not see the burnfoot sands.

Archie, the skilled tracker, was the one who all but betrayed us. His
knee slipped on the seaweed, and he rolled off a boulder, bringing down
with him a clatter of small stones. We lay as still as mice, in terror
lest the man should have heard the noise and have come to look for the
cause. By-and-by when I ventured to raise my head above a flat-topped
stone I saw that he was undisturbed. The fire still burned, and he was
pacing round it. On the edge of the pools was an outcrop of red
sandstone much fissured by the sea. Here was an excellent
vantage-ground, and all three of us curled behind it, with our eyes
just over the edge. The man was not twenty yards off, and I could see
clearly what manner of fellow he was. For one thing he was huge of
size, or so he seemed to me in the half-light. He wore nothing but a
shirt and trousers, and I could hear by the flap of his feet on the
sand that he was barefoot.

Suddenly Tam Dyke gave a gasp of astonishment. 'Gosh, it's the black
minister!' he said.

It was indeed a black man, as we saw when the moon came out of a cloud.
His head was on his breast, and he walked round the fire with measured,
regular steps. At intervals he would stop and raise both hands to the
sky, and bend his body in the direction of the moon. But he never
uttered a word.

'It's magic,' said Archie. 'He's going to raise Satan. We must bide
here and see what happens, for he'll grip us if we try to go back. The
moon's ower high.'

The procession continued as if to some slow music. I had been in no
fear of the adventure back there by our cave; but now that I saw the
thing from close at hand, my courage began to ebb. There was something
desperately uncanny about this great negro, who had shed his clerical
garments, and was now practising some strange magic alone by the sea.
I had no doubt it was the black art, for there was that in the air and
the scene which spelled the unlawful. As we watched, the circles
stopped, and the man threw something on the fire. A thick smoke rose
of which we could feel the aromatic scent, and when it was gone the
flame burned with a silvery blueness like moonlight. Still no sound
came from the minister, but he took something from his belt, and began
to make odd markings in the sand between the inner circle and the fire.
As he turned, the moon gleamed on the implement, and we saw it was a
great knife.

We were now scared in real earnest. Here were we, three boys, at night
in a lonely place a few yards from a savage with a knife. The adventure
was far past my liking, and even the intrepid Archie was having qualms,
if I could judge from his set face. As for Tam, his teeth were
chattering like a threshing-mill.

Suddenly I felt something soft and warm on the rock at my right hand.
I felt again, and, lo! it was the man's clothes. There were his boots
and socks, his minister's coat and his minister's hat.

This made the predicament worse, for if we waited till he finished his
rites we should for certain be found by him. At the same time, to
return over the boulders in the bright moonlight seemed an equally sure
way to discovery. I whispered to Archie, who was for waiting a little
longer. 'Something may turn up,' he said. It was always his way.

I do not know what would have turned up, for we had no chance of
testing it. The situation had proved too much for the nerves of Tam
Dyke. As the man turned towards us in his bowings and bendings, Tam
suddenly sprang to his feet and shouted at him a piece of schoolboy
rudeness then fashionable in Kirkcaple.

'Wha called ye partan-face, my bonny man?' Then, clutching his
lantern, he ran for dear life, while Archie and I raced at his heels.
As I turned I had a glimpse of a huge figure, knife in hand, bounding
towards us.

Though I only saw it in the turn of a head, the face stamped itself
indelibly upon my mind. It was black, black as ebony, but it was
different from the ordinary negro. There were no thick lips and flat
nostrils; rather, if I could trust my eyes, the nose was high-bridged,
and the lines of the mouth sharp and firm. But it was distorted into
an expression of such a devilish fury and amazement that my heart
became like water.

We had a start, as I have said, of some twenty or thirty yards. Among
the boulders we were not at a great disadvantage, for a boy can flit
quickly over them, while a grown man must pick his way. Archie, as
ever, kept his wits the best of us. 'Make straight for the burn,' he
shouted in a hoarse whisper; we'll beat him on the slope.'

We passed the boulders and slithered over the outcrop of red rock and
the patches of sea-pink till we reached the channel of the Dyve water,
which flows gently among pebbles after leaving the gully. Here for the
first time I looked back and saw nothing. I stopped involuntarily, and
that halt was nearly my undoing. For our pursuer had reached the burn
before us, but lower down, and was coming up its bank to cut us off.

At most times I am a notable coward, and in these days I was still more
of one, owing to a quick and easily-heated imagination. But now I
think I did a brave thing, though more by instinct than resolution.
Archie was running first, and had already splashed through the burn;
Tam came next, just about to cross, and the black man was almost at his
elbow. Another second and Tam would have been in his clutches had I
not yelled out a warning and made straight up the bank of the burn.
Tam fell into the pool - I could hear his spluttering cry - but he got
across; for I heard Archie call to him, and the two vanished into the
thicket which clothes all the left bank of the gully. The pursuer,
seeing me on his own side of the water, followed straight on; and
before I knew it had become a race between the two of us.

I was hideously frightened, but not without hope, for the screes and
shelves of this right side of the gully were known to me from many a
day's exploring. I was light on my feet and uncommonly sound in wind,
being by far the best long-distance runner in Kirkcaple. If I could
only keep my lead till I reached a certain corner I knew of, I could
outwit my enemy; for it was possible from that place to make a detour
behind a waterfall and get into a secret path of ours among the bushes.
I flew up the steep screes, not daring to look round; but at the top,
where the rocks begin, I had a glimpse of my pursuer. The man could
run. Heavy in build though he was he was not six yards behind me, and
I could see the white of his eyes and the red of his gums. I saw
something else - a glint of white metal in his hand. He still had his
knife.

Fear sent me up the rocks like a seagull, and I scrambled and leaped,
making for the corner I knew of. Something told me that the pursuit
was slackening, and for a moment I halted to look round. A second time
a halt was nearly the end of me. A great stone flew through the air,
and took the cliff an inch from my head, half-blinding me with
splinters. And now I began to get angry. I pulled myself into cover,
skirted a rock till I came to my corner, and looked back for the enemy.
There he was scrambling by the way I had come, and making a prodigious
clatter among the stones. I picked up a loose bit of rock and hurled
it with all my force in his direction. It broke before it reached him,
but a considerable lump, to my joy, took him full in the face. Then my
terrors revived. I slipped behind the waterfall and was soon in the
thicket, and toiling towards the top.

I think this last bit was the worst in the race, for my strength was
failing, and I seemed to hear those horrid steps at my heels. My heart
was in my mouth as, careless of my best clothes, I tore through the
hawthorn bushes. Then I struck the path and, to my relief, came on
Archie and Tam, who were running slowly in desperate anxiety about my
fate. We then took hands and soon reached the top of the gully.

For a second we looked back. The pursuit had ceased, and far down the
burn we could hear the sounds as of some one going back to the sands.

'Your face is bleeding, Davie. Did he get near enough to hit you?'
Archie asked.

'He hit me with a stone. But I gave him better. He's got a bleeding
nose to remember this night by.'

We did not dare take the road by the links, but made for the nearest
human habitation. This was a farm about half a mile inland, and when
we reached it we lay down by the stack-yard gate and panted.

'I've lost my lantern,' said Tam. 'The big black brute! See if I
don't tell my father.'

'Ye'll do nothing of the kind,' said Archie fiercely. 'He knows
nothing about us and can't do us any harm. But if the story got out
and he found out who we were, he'd murder the lot of US.'

He made us swear secrecy, which we were willing enough to do, seeing
very clearly the sense in his argument. Then we struck the highroad
and trotted back at our best pace to Kirkcaple, fear of our families
gradually ousting fear of pursuit. In our excitement Archie and I
forgot about our Sabbath hats, reposing quietly below a whin bush on
the links.

We were not destined to escape without detection. As ill luck would
have it, Mr Murdoch had been taken ill with the stomach-ache after the
second psalm, and the congregation had been abruptly dispersed. My
mother had waited for me at the church door, and, seeing no signs of
her son, had searched the gallery. Then the truth came out, and, had I
been only for a mild walk on the links, retribution would have
overtaken my truantry. But to add to this I arrived home with a
scratched face, no hat, and several rents in my best trousers. I was
well cuffed and sent to bed, with the promise of full-dress
chastisement when my father should come home in the morning.

My father arrived before breakfast next day, and I was duly and soundly
whipped. I set out for school with aching bones to add to the usual
depression of Monday morning. At the corner of the Nethergate I fell
in with Archie, who was staring at a trap carrying two men which was
coming down the street. It was the Free Church minister - he had married
a rich wife and kept a horse - driving the preacher of yesterday to the
railway station. Archie and I were in behind a doorpost in a
twinkling, so that we could see in safety the last of our enemy. He was
dressed in minister's clothes, with a heavy fur-coat and a brand new
yellow-leather Gladstone bag. He was talking loudly as he passed, and
the Free Church minister seemed to be listening attentively. I heard
his deep voice saying something about the 'work of God in this place.'
But what I noticed specially - and the sight made me forget my aching
hinder parts - was that he had a swollen eye, and two strips of
sticking-plaster on his cheek.



CHAPTER II

FURTH! FORTUNE!

In this plain story of mine there will be so many wild doings ere the
end is reached, that I beg my reader's assent to a prosaic digression.
I will tell briefly the things which happened between my sight of the
man on the Kirkcaple sands and my voyage to Africa. I continued for
three years at the burgh school, where my progress was less notable in
my studies than in my sports. One by one I saw my companions pass out
of idle boyhood and be set to professions. Tam Dyke on two occasions


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