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Benita - Chapter XII - THE BEGINNING OF THE SEARCH Post by :dbrennan Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :June 2011 Read :3004

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Benita - Chapter XII - THE BEGINNING OF THE SEARCH

CHAPTER XII - THE BEGINNING OF THE SEARCH


Accordingly, on the next day the great experiment was made. The chain
and ancient winding gear had been tested and proved to be amply
sufficient to the strain. Therefore, nothing remained save for Meyer
to place himself in the wooden seat with an oil-lamp, and in case this
should be extinguished, matches and candles, of both of which they had
a large supply.

He did so boldly enough, and swung out over the mouth of the pit,
while the three of them clutched the handles of the winch. Then they
began to lower, and slowly his white face disappeared into the black
depth. At every few turns his descent was stopped that he might
examine the walls of the well, and when he was about fifty feet down
he called to them to hold on, which they did, listening while he
struck at the rock with a hammer, for here it sounded very hollow.

At length he shouted to them to lower away again, and they obeyed,
until nearly all the chain was out, and they knew he must be near the
water. Now Benita, peeping over the edge, saw that the star of light
had vanished. His lamp was out, nor did he appear to attempt to
re-light it. They shouted down the well to him, but no answer coming,
began to wind up as fast as they were able. It was all that their
united strength could manage, and very exhausted were they when at
length Jacob reappeared at the top. At first, from the look of him
they thought that he was dead, and had he not tied himself to the
chain, dead he certainly would have been, for evidently his senses had
left him long ago. Indeed, he had fallen almost out of the seat, over
which his legs hung limply, his weight being supported by the hide
rope beneath his arms which was made fast to the chain.

They swung him in and dashed water over his face, till, to their
relief, at last he began to gasp for breath, and revived sufficiently
to enable them to half-lead and half-carry him out into the fresh air.

"What happened to you?" asked Clifford.

"Poisoned with gases, I suppose," Meyer answered with a groan, for his
head was aching sadly. "The air is often bad at the bottom of deep
wells, but I could smell or feel nothing until suddenly my senses left
me. It was a near thing--a very near thing."

Afterwards, when he had recovered a little, he told them that at one
spot deep down in the well, on the river side of it, he found a place
where it looked as though the rock had been cut away for a space of
about six feet by four, and afterwards built up again with another
sort of stone set in hard mortar or cement. Immediately beneath, too,
were socket-holes in which the ends of beams still remained,
suggesting that here had been a floor or platform. It was while he was
examining these rotted beams that insensibility overcame him. He added
that he thought that this might be the entrance to the place where the
gold was hidden.

"If so," said Mr. Clifford, "hidden it must remain, since it can have
no better guardian than bad air. Also, floors like that are common in
all wells to prevent rubbish from falling into the water, and the
stonework you saw probably was only put there by the ancients to mend
a fault in the rock and prevent the wall from caving in."

"I hope so," said Meyer, "since unless that atmosphere purifies a good
deal I don't think that even I dare go down again, and until one gets
there, of that it is difficult to be sure, though of course a lantern
on a string will tell one something."

This was the end of their first attempt. The search was not renewed
until the following afternoon, when Meyer had recovered a little from
the effects of the poisoning and the chafing of the hide ropes beneath
his arms. Indeed, from the former he never did quite recover, since
thenceforward Benita, who for her own reasons watched the man closely,
discovered a marked and progressive change in his demeanour. Hitherto
he had appeared to be a reserved man, one who kept tight hand upon
himself, and, if she knew certain things about him, it was rather
because she guessed, or deduced them, than because he allowed them to
be seen. On two occasions only had he shown his heart before her--when
they had spoken together by the shores of Lake Chrissie on the day of
the arrival of the messengers, and he declared his ardent desire for
wealth and power; and quite recently, when he killed the Matabele
envoy. Yet she felt certain that this heart of his was very passionate
and insurgent; that his calm was like the ice that hides the stream,
beneath which its currents run fiercely, none can see whither. The
fashion in which his dark eyes would flash, even when his pale
countenance remained unmoved, told her so, as did other things.

For instance, when he was recovering from his swoon, the first words
that passed his lips were in German, of which she understood a little,
and she thought that they shaped themselves to her name, coupled with
endearing epithets. From that time forward he became less guarded--or,
rather, it seemed as though he were gradually losing power to control
himself. He would grow excited without apparent cause, and begin to
declaim as to what he would do when he had found the gold; how he
would pay the world back all it had caused him to suffer--how he would
become a "king."

"I am afraid that you will find that exalted position rather lonely,"
said Benita with a careless laugh, and next minute was sorry that she
had spoken, for he answered, looking at her in a way that she did not
like:

"Oh, no! There will be a queen--a beautiful queen, whom I shall endow
with wealth, and deck with jewels, and surround with love and
worship."

"What a fortunate lady!" she said, still laughing, but taking the
opportunity to go away upon some errand.

At other times, especially after dark, he would walk up and down in
front of the cave, muttering to himself, or singing wild old German
songs in his rich voice. Also, he made a habit of ascending the
granite pillar and seating himself there, and more than once called
down to her to come up and share his "throne." Still, these outbreaks
were so occasional that her father, whose perceptions appeared to
Benita to be less keen than formerly, scarcely noticed them, and for
the rest his demeanour was what it had always been.

Further researches into the well being out of the question, their next
step was to make a thorough inspection of the chapel-cave itself. They
examined the walls inch by inch, tapping them with a hammer to hear if
they sounded hollow, but without result. They examined the altar, but
it proved to be a solid mass of rock. By the help of a little ladder
they had made, they examined the crucifix, and discovered that the
white figure on the cross had evidently been fashioned out of some
heathen statue of soft limestone, for at its back were the remains of
draperies, and long hair which the artist had not thought it necessary
to cut away. Also, they found that the arms had been added, and were
of a slightly different stone, and that the weight of the figure was
taken partly by an iron staple which supported the body, and partly by
strong copper wire twisted to resemble cord, and painted white, which
was passed round the wrists and supported the arms. This wire ran
through loops of rock cut in the traverse of the cross, that itself
was only raised in relief by chiselling away the solid stone behind.

Curiously enough, this part of the search was left to Mr. Clifford and
Benita, since it was one that Jacob Meyer seemed reluctant to
undertake. A Jew by birth, and a man who openly professed his want of
belief in that or any other religion, he yet seemed to fear this
symbol of the Christian faith, speaking of it as horrible and unlucky;
yes, he who, without qualm or remorse, had robbed and desecrated the
dead that lay about its feet. Well, the crucifix told them nothing;
but as Mr. Clifford, lantern in hand, descended the ladder, which
Benita held, Jacob Meyer, who was in front of the altar, called to
them excitedly that he had found something.

"Then it is more than we have," said Mr. Clifford, as he laid down the
ladder and hurried to him.

Meyer was sounding the floor with a staff of wood--an operation which
he had only just began after the walls proved barren.

"Listen now," he said, letting the heavy staff drop a few paces to the
right of the altar, where it produced the hard, metallic clang that
comes from solid stone when struck. Then he moved to the front of the
altar and dropped it again, but now the note was hollow and
reverberant. Again and again he repeated the experiment, till they had
exactly mapped out where the solid rock ended and that which seemed to
be hollow began--a space of about eight feet square.

"We've got it," he said triumphantly. "That's the entrance to the
place where the gold is," and the others were inclined to agree with
him.

Now it remained to put their theory to the proof--a task of no small
difficulty. Indeed, it took them three days of hard, continual work.
It will be remembered that the floor of the cave was cemented over,
and first of all this cement, which proved to be of excellent quality,
being largely composed of powdered granite, must be broken up. By the
help of a steel crowbar, which they had brought with them in the
waggon, at length that part of their task was completed, revealing the
rock beneath. By this time Benita was confident that, whatever might
lie below, it was not the treasure, since it was evident that the
poor, dying Portuguese would not have had the time or the strength to
cement it over. When she told the others so, however, Meyer, convinced
that he was on the right tack, answered that doubtless it was done by
the Makalanga after the Portuguese days, as it was well known that
they retained a knowledge of the building arts of their forefathers
until quite a recent period, when the Matabele began to kill them out.

When at length the cement was cleared away and the area swept, they
discovered--for there ran the line of it--that here a great stone was
set into the floor; it must have weighed several tons. As it was set
in cement, however, to lift it, even if they had the strength to work
the necessary levers, proved quite impossible. There remained only one
thing to be done--to cut a way through. When they had worked at this
task for several hours, and only succeeded in making a hole six inches
deep, Mr. Clifford, whose old bones ached and whose hands were very
sore, suggested that perhaps they might break it up with gunpowder.
Accordingly, a pound flask of that explosive was poured into the hole,
which they closed over with wet clay and a heavy rock, leaving a quill
through which ran an extemporized fuse of cotton wick. All being
prepared, their fuse was lit, and they left the cave and waited.

Five minutes afterwards the dull sound of an explosion reached their
ears, but more than an hour went by before the smoke and fumes would
allow them to enter the place, and then it was to find that the
results did not equal their expectations. To begin with, the slab was
only cracked--not shattered, since the strength of the powder had been
expended upwards, not downwards, as would have happened in the case of
dynamite, of which they had none. Moreover, either the heavy stone
which they had placed upon it, striking the roof of the cave, or the
concussion of the air, had brought down many tons of rock, and caused
wide and dangerous-looking cracks. Also, though she said nothing of
it, it seemed to Benita that the great white statue on the cross was
leaning a little further forward than it used to do. So the net result
of the experiment was that they were obliged to drag away great
fragments of the fallen roof that lay upon the stone, which remained
almost as solid and obdurate as before.

So there was nothing for it but to go on working with the crowbar. At
length, towards the evening of the third day of their labour, when the
two men were utterly tired out, a hole was broken through,
demonstrating the fact that beneath this cover lay a hollow of some
sort. Mr. Clifford, to say nothing of Benita, who was heartily weary
of the business, wished to postpone proceedings till the morrow, but
Jacob Meyer would not. So they toiled on until about eleven o'clock at
night, when at length the aperture was of sufficient size to admit a
man. Now, as in the case of the well, they let down a stone tied to a
string, to find that the place beneath was not more than eight feet
deep. Then, to ascertain the condition of the air, a candle was
lowered, which at first went out, but presently burnt well enough.
This point settled, they brought their ladder, whereby Jacob descended
with a lantern.

In another minute they heard the sound of guttural German oaths rising
through the hole. Mr. Clifford asked what was the matter, and received
the reply that the place was a tomb, with nothing in it but an
accursed dead monk, information at which Benita could not help
bursting into laughter.

The end of it was that both she and her father went down also, and
there, sure enough, lay the remains of the old missionary in his cowl,
with an ivory crucifix about his neck, and on his breast a scroll
stating that he, Marco, born at Lisbon in 1438, had died at Bambatse
in the year 1503, having laboured in the Empire of Monomotapa for
seventeen years, and suffered great hardships and brought many souls
to Christ. The scroll added that it was he, who before he entered into
religion was a sculptor by trade, that had fashioned the figure on the
cross in this chapel out of that of the heathen goddess which had
stood in the same place from unknown antiquity. It ended with a
request, addressed to all good Christians in Latin, that they who soon
must be as he was would pray for his soul and not disturb his bones,
which rested here in the hope of a blessed resurrection.

When this pious wish was translated to Jacob Meyer by Mr. Clifford,
who still retained some recollection of the classics which he had
painfully acquired at Eton and Oxford, the Jew could scarcely contain
his wrath. Indeed, looking at his bleeding hands, instead of praying
for the soul of that excellent missionary, to reach whose remains he
had laboured with such arduous, incessant toil, he cursed it wherever
it might be, and unceremoniously swept the bones, which the document
asked him not to disturb, into a corner of the tomb, in order to
ascertain whether there was not, perhaps, some stair beneath them.

"Really, Mr. Meyer," said Benita, who, in spite of the solemnity of
the surroundings, could not control her sense of humour, "if you are
not careful the ghosts of all these people will haunt you."

"Let them haunt me if they can," he answered furiously. "I don't
believe in ghosts, and defy them all."

At this moment, looking up, Benita saw a figure gliding out of the
darkness into the ring of light, so silently that she started, for it
might well have been one of those ghosts in whom Jacob Meyer did not
believe. In fact, however, it was the old Molimo, who had a habit of
coming upon them thus.

"What says the white man?" he asked of Benita, while his dreamy eyes
wandered over the three of them, and the hole in the violated tomb.

"He says that he does not believe in spirits, and that he defies
them," she answered.

"The white gold-seeker does not believe in spirits, and he defies
them," Mambo repeated in his sing-song voice. "He does not believe in
the spirits that I see all around me now, the angry spirits of the
dead, who speak together of where he shall lie and of what shall
happen to him when he is dead, and of how they will welcome one who
disturbs their rest and defies and curses them in his search for the
riches which he loves. There is one standing by him now, dressed in a
brown robe with a dead man cut in ivory like to that," and he pointed
to the crucifix in Jacob's hands, "and he holds the ivory man above
him and threatens him with sleepless centuries of sorrow, when he is
also one of those spirits in which he does not believe."

Then Meyer's rage blazed out. He turned upon the Molimo and reviled
him in his own tongue, saying that he knew well where the treasure was
hidden, and that if he did not point it out he would kill him and send
him to his friends, the spirits. So savage and evil did he look that
Benita retreated a little way, while Mr. Clifford strove in vain to
calm him. But although Meyer laid his hand upon the knife in his belt
and advanced upon him, the old Molimo neither budged an inch nor
showed the slightest fear.

"Let him rave on," he said, when at length Meyer paused exhausted.
"Just so in a time of storm the lightnings flash and the thunder
peals, and the water foams down the face of rock; but then comes the
sun again, and the hill is as it has ever been, only the storm is
spent and lost. I am the rock, he is but the wind, the fire, and the
rain. It is not permitted that he should hurt me, and those spirits in
whom he does not believe treasure up his curses, to let them fall
again like stones upon his head."

Then, with a contemptuous glance at Jacob, the old man turned and
glided back into the darkness out of which he had appeared.

Content of CHAPTER XII - THE BEGINNING OF THE SEARCH (H. Rider Haggard's novel: Benita)

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