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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBenita - Chapter XIII - BENITA PLANS ESCAPE
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Benita - Chapter XIII - BENITA PLANS ESCAPE Post by :surfnet Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :June 2011 Read :932

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Benita - Chapter XIII - BENITA PLANS ESCAPE

CHAPTER XIII - BENITA PLANS ESCAPE


The next morning, while she was cooking breakfast, Benita saw Jacob
Meyer seated upon a rock at a little distance, sullen and
disconsolate. His chin was resting on his hand, and he watched her
intently, never taking his eyes from her face. She felt that he was
concentrating his will upon her; that some new idea concerning her had
come into his mind; for it was one of her miseries that she possessed
the power of interpreting the drift of this man's thoughts. Much as
she detested him, there existed that curious link between them.

It may be remembered that, on the night when they first met at the
crest of Leopard's Kloof, Jacob had called her a "thought-sender," and
some knowledge of their mental intimacy had come home to Benita. From
that day forward her chief desire had been to shut a door between
their natures, to isolate herself from him and him from her. Yet the
attempt was never entirely successful.

Fear and disgust took hold of her, bending there above the fire, all
the while aware of the Jew's dark eyes that searched her through and
through. Benita formed a sudden determination. She would implore her
father to come away with her.

Of course, such an attempt would be terribly dangerous. Of the
Matabele nothing had been seen; but they might be about, and even if
enough cattle could be collected to draw the waggon, it belonged to
Meyer as much as to her father, and must therefore be left for him.
Still, there remained the two horses, which the Molimo had told her
were well and getting fat.

At this moment Meyer rose and began to speak to her.

"What are you thinking of, Miss Clifford?" he asked in his soft
foreign voice.

She started, but answered readily enough:

"Of the wood which is green, and the kid cutlets which are getting
smoked. Are you not tired of kid, Mr. Meyer?" she went on.

He waved the question aside. "You are so good--oh! I mean it--so
really good that you should not tell stories even about small things.
The wood is not green; I cut it myself from a dead tree; and the meat
is not smoked; nor were you thinking of either. You were thinking of
me, as I was thinking of you; but what exactly was in your mind, this
time I do not know, and that is why I ask you to tell me."

"Really, Mr. Meyer," she answered flushing; "my mind is my own
property."

"Ah! do you say so? Now I hold otherwise--that it is my property, as
mine is yours, a gift that Nature has given to each of us."

"I seek no such gift," she answered; but even then, much as she would
have wished to do so, she could not utter a falsehood, and deny this
horrible and secret intimacy.

"I am sorry for that, as I think it very precious; more precious even
than the gold which we cannot find; for Miss Clifford, it brings me
nearer you."

She turned upon him, but he held up his hand, and went on:

"Oh! do not be angry with me, and do not fear that I am going to
trouble you with soft speeches, for I shall not, unless a time should
come, as I think that perhaps it will, when you may wish to listen to
them. But I want to point out something to you, Miss Clifford. Is it
not a wonderful thing that our minds should be so in tune, and is
there not an object in all this? Did I believe as you do, I should say
that it was Heaven working in us--no: do not answer that the working
comes from lower down. I take no credit for reading that upon your
lips; the retort is too easy and obvious. I am content to say,
however, that the work is that of instinct and nature, or, if you
will, of fate, pointing out a road by which together we might travel
to great ends."

"I travel my road alone, Mr. Meyer."

"I know, I know, and that is the pity of it. The trouble between man
and woman is that not in one case out of a million, even if they be
lovers, do they understand each other. Their eyes may seek one
another, their hands and lips may meet, and yet they remain distinct,
apart, and often antagonistic. There is no communication of the soul.
But when it chances to be hewn from the same rock as it were--oh! then
what happiness may be theirs, and what opportunities!"

"Possibly, Mr. Meyer; but, to be frank, the question does not interest
me."

"Not yet; but I am sure that one day it will. Meanwhile, I owe you an
apology. I lost my temper before you last night. Well, do not judge me
hardly, for I was utterly worn out, and that old idiot vexed me with
his talk about ghosts, in which I do not believe."

"Then why did it make you so angry? Surely you could have afforded to
treat it with contempt, instead of doing--as you did."

"Upon my word! I don't know, but I suppose most of us are afraid lest
we should be forced to accept that which we refuse. This ancient place
gets upon the nerves, Miss Clifford; yours as well as mine. I can
afford to be open about it, because I know that you know. Think of its
associations: all the crime that has been committed here for ages and
ages, all the suffering that has been endured here. Doubtless human
sacrifices were offered in this cave or outside of it; that great
burnt ring in the rock there may have been where they built the fires.
And then those Portuguese starving to death, slowly starving to death
while thousands of savages watched them die. Have you ever thought
what it means? But of course you have, for like myself you are cursed
with imagination. God in heaven! is it wonderful that it gets upon the
nerves? especially when one cannot find what one is looking for, that
vast treasure"--and his face became ecstatic--"that shall yet be yours
and mine, and make us great and happy."

"But which at present only makes me a scullery-maid and most unhappy,"
replied Benita cheerfully, for she heard her father's footstep. "Don't
talk any more of the treasure, Mr. Meyer, or we shall quarrel. We have
enough of that during business hours, when we are hunting for it, you
know. Give me the dish, will you? This meat is cooked at last."

Still Benita could not be rid of that treasure, since after breakfast
the endless, unprofitable search began again. Once more the cave was
sounded, and other hollow places were discovered upon which the two
men got to work. With infinite labour three of them were broken into
in as many days, and like the first, found to be graves, only this
time of ancients who, perhaps, had died before Christ was born. There
they lay upon their sides, their bones burnt by the hot cement that
had been poured over them, their gold-headed and gold-ferruled rods of
office in their hands, their gold-covered pillows of wood, such as the
Egyptians used, beneath their skulls, gold bracelets upon their arms
and ankles, cakes of gold beneath them which had fallen from the
rotted pouches that once hung about their waists, vases of fine glazed
pottery that had been filled with offerings, or in some cases with
gold dust to pay the expenses of their journey in the other world,
standing round them, and so forth.

In their way these discoveries were rich enough--from one tomb alone
they took over a hundred and thirty ounces of gold--to say nothing of
their surpassing archæological interest. Still they were not what they
sought: all that gathered wealth of Monomotapa which the fleeing
Portuguese had brought with them and buried in this, their last
stronghold.

Benita ceased to take the slightest interest in the matter; she would
not even be at the pains to go to look at the third skeleton, although
it was that of a man who had been almost a giant, and, to judge from
the amount of bullion which he took to the tomb with him, a person of
great importance in his day. She felt as though she wished never to
see another human bone or ancient bead or bangle; the sight of a
street in Bayswater in a London fog--yes, or a toy-shop window in
Westbourne Grove--would have pleased her a hundred times better than
these unique remains that, had they known of them in those days, would
have sent half the learned societies of Europe crazy with delight. She
wished to escape from Bambatse, its wondrous fortifications, its
mysterious cone, its cave, its dead, and--from Jacob Meyer.

Benita stood upon the top of her prison wall and looked with longing
at the wide, open lands below. She even dared to climb the stairs
which ran up the mighty cone of granite, and seated herself in the
cup-like depression on its crest, whence Jacob Meyer had called to her
to come and share his throne. It was a dizzy place, for the pillar
leaning outwards, its point stood almost clear of the water-scarped
rock, so that beneath her was a sheer drop of about four hundred feet
to the Zambesi bed. At first the great height made her feel faint. Her
eyes swam, and unpleasant tremors crept along her spine, so that she
was glad to sink to the floor, whence she knew she could not fall. By
degrees, however, she recovered her nerve, and was able to study the
glorious view of stream and marshes and hills beyond.

For she had come here with a purpose, to see whether it would not be
possible to escape down the river in a canoe, or in native boats such
as the Makalanga owned and used for fishing, or to cross from bank to
bank. Apparently it was impossible, for although the river beneath and
above them was still enough, about a mile below began a cataract that
stretched as far as she could see, and was bordered on either side by
rocky hills covered with forest, over which, even if they could obtain
porters, a canoe could not be carried. This, indeed, she had already
heard from the Molimo, but knowing his timid nature, she wished to
judge of the matter for herself. It came to this then: if they were to
go, it must be on the horses.

Descending the cone Benita went to find her father, to whom as yet she
had said nothing of her plans. The opportunity was good, for she knew
that he would be alone. As it chanced, on that afternoon Meyer had
gone down the hill in order to try to persuade the Makalanga to give
them ten or twenty men to help them in their excavations. In this, it
will be remembered, he had already failed so far as the Molimo was
concerned, but he was not a man easily turned from his purpose, and he
thought that if he could see Tamas and some of the other captains he
might be able by bribery, threats, or otherwise, to induce them to
forget their superstitious fears, and help in the search. As a matter
of fact, he was utterly unsuccessful, since one and all they declared
that for them to enter that sacred place would mean their deaths, and
that the vengeance of Heaven would fall upon their tribe and destroy
it root and branch.

Mr. Clifford, on whom all this heavy labour had begun to tell, was
taking advantage of the absence of his taskmaster, Jacob, to sleep
awhile in the hut which they had now built for themselves beneath the
shadow of the baobab-tree. As she reached it he came out yawning, and
asked her where she had been. Benita told him.

"A giddy place," he said. "I have never ventured to try it myself.
What did you go up there for, dear?"

"To look at the river while Mr. Meyer was away, father; for if he had
seen me do so he would have guessed my reason; indeed, I dare say that
he will guess it now."

"What reason, Benita?"

"To see whether it would not be possible to escape down it in a boat.
But there is no chance. It is all rapids below, with hills and rocks
and trees on either bank."

"What need have you to escape at present?" he asked eyeing her
curiously.

"Every need," she answered with passion. "I hate this place; it is a
prison, and I loathe the very name of treasure. Also," and she paused.

"Also what, dear?"

"Also," and her voice sank to a whisper, as though she feared that he
should overhear her even at the bottom of the hill; "also, I am afraid
of Mr. Meyer."

This confession did not seem to surprise her father, who merely nodded
his head and said:

"Go on."

"Father, I think that he is going mad, and it is not pleasant for us
to be cooped up here alone with a madman, especially when he has begun
to speak to me as he does now."

"You don't mean that he has been impertinent to you," said the old
man, flushing up, "for if so----"

"No, not impertinent--as yet," and she told him what had passed
between Meyer and herself, adding, "You see, father, I detest this
man; indeed, I want to have nothing to do with any man; for me all
that is over and done with," and she gave a dry little sob which
appeared to come from her very heart. "And yet, he seems to be getting
some kind of power over me. He follows me about with his eyes, prying
into my mind, and I feel that he is beginning to be able to read it. I
can bear no more. Father, father, for God's sake, take me away from
this hateful hill and its gold and its dead, and let us get out into
the veld again together."

"I should be glad enough, dearest," he answered. "I have had plenty of
this wildgoose chase, which I was so mad as to be led into by the love
of wealth. Indeed, I am beginning to believe that if it goes on much
longer I shall leave my bones here."

"And if such a dreadful thing as that were to happen, what would
become of me, alone with Jacob Meyer?" she asked quietly. "I might
even be driven to the same fate as that poor girl two hundred years
ago," and she pointed to the cone of rock behind her.

"For Heaven's sake, don't talk like that!" he broke in.

"Why not? One must face things, and it would be better than Jacob
Meyer; for who would protect me here?"

Mr. Clifford walked up and down for a few minutes, while his daughter
watched him anxiously.

"I can see no plan," he said, stopping opposite her. "We cannot take
the waggon even if there are enough oxen left to draw it, for it is
his as much as mine, and I am sure that he will never leave this
treasure unless he is driven away."

"And I am sure I hope that he will not. But, father, the horses are
our own; it was his that died, you remember. We can ride away on
them."

He stared at her and answered:

"Yes, we could ride away to our deaths. Suppose they got sick or lame;
suppose we meet the Matabele, or could find no game to shoot; suppose
one of us fell ill--oh! and a hundred things. What then?"

"Why, then it is just as well to perish in the wilderness as here,
where our risks are almost as great. We must take our chance, and
trust to God. Perhaps He will be merciful and help us. Listen now,
father. To-morrow is Sunday, when you and I do no work that we can
help. Mr. Meyer is a Jew, and he won't waste Sunday. Well now, I will
say that I want to go down to the outer wall to fetch some clothes
which I left in the waggon, and to take others for the native women to
wash, and of course you will come with me. Perhaps he will be
deceived, and stay behind, especially as he has been there to-day.
Then we can get the horses and guns and ammunition, and anything else
that we can carry in the way of food, and persuade the old Molimo to
open the gate for us. You know, the little side gate that cannot be
seen from up here, and before Mr. Meyer misses us and comes to look,
we shall be twenty miles away, and--horses can't be overtaken by a man
on foot."

"He will say that we have deserted him, and that will be true."

"You can leave a letter with the Molimo explaining that it was my
fault, that I was getting ill and thought that I should die, and that
you knew it would not be fair to ask him to come, and so to lose the
treasure, to every halfpenny of which he is welcome when it is found.
Oh! father, don't hesitate any longer; say that you will take me away
from Mr. Meyer."

"So be it then," answered Mr. Clifford, and as he spoke, hearing a
sound, they looked up and saw Jacob approaching them.

Luckily he was so occupied with his own thoughts that he never noted
the guilty air upon their faces, and they had time to compose
themselves a little. But even thus his suspicions were aroused.

"What are you talking of so earnestly?" he asked.

"We were wondering how you were getting on with the Makalanga,"
answered Benita, fibbing boldly, "and whether you would persuade them
to face the ghosts. Did you?"

"Not I," he answered with a scowl. "Those ghosts are our worst enemies
in this place; the cowards swore that they would rather die. I should
have liked to take some of them at their word and make ghosts of them;
but I remembered the situation and didn't. Don't be afraid, Miss
Clifford, I never even lost my temper, outwardly at any rate. Well,
there it is; if they won't help us, we must work the harder. I've got
a new plan, and we'll begin on it to-morrow."

"Not to-morrow, Mr. Meyer," replied Benita with a smile. "It is
Sunday, and we rest on Sunday, you know."

"Oh! I forgot. The Makalanga with their ghosts and you with your
Sunday--really I do not know which is the worse. Well, then, I must do
my own share and yours too, I suppose," and he turned with a shrug of
his shoulders.

Content of CHAPTER XIII - BENITA PLANS ESCAPE (H. Rider Haggard's novel: Benita)

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CHAPTER XII - THE BEGINNING OF THE SEARCHAccordingly, on the next day the great experiment was made. The chainand ancient winding gear had been tested and proved to be amplysufficient to the strain. Therefore, nothing remained save for Meyerto place himself in the wooden seat with an oil-lamp, and in case thisshould be extinguished, matches and candles, of both of which they hada 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 theybegan to lower, and slowly his white face disappeared into the blackdepth.
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