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- BENITA - 2/42 -


"'For God's sake don't shoot, Jacob,' said the old man; 'they are English.'

"'Best dead, any way,' answered the other, in a soft voice, with a slight foreign accent, 'we don't want spies or thieves here.'

"'We are neither, but I can shoot as well as you, friend,' I remarked, for by this time my rifle was on him.

"Then he thought better of it, and dropped his gun, and we explained that we were merely on an archæological expedition. The end of it was that we became capital friends, though neither of us could cotton much to Mr. Jacob--I forget his other name. He struck me as too handy with his rifle, and was, I gathered, an individual with a mysterious and rather lurid past. To cut a long story short, when he found out that we had no intention of poaching, your father, for it was he, told us frankly that they were treasure-hunting, having got hold of some story about a vast store of gold which had been hidden away there by Portuguese two or three centuries before. Their trouble was, however, that the Makalanga, who lived in the fortress, which was called Bambatse, would not allow them to dig, because they said the place was haunted, and if they did so it would bring bad luck to their tribe."

"And did they ever get in?" asked Benita.

"I am sure I don't know, for we went next day, though before we left we called on the Makalanga, who admitted us all readily enough so long as we brought no spades with us. By the way, the gold we saw your father and his friend examining was found in some ancient graves outside the walls, but had nothing to do with the big and mythical treasure."

"What was the place like? I love old ruins," broke in Benita again.

"Oh! wonderful. A gigantic, circular wall built by heaven knows who, then half-way up the hill another wall, and near the top a third wall which, I understood, surrounded a sort of holy of holies, and above everything, on the brink of the precipice, a great cone of granite."

"Artificial or natural?"

"I don't know. They would not let us up there, but we were introduced to their chief and high priest, Church and State in one, and a wonderful old man he was, very wise and very gentle. I remember he told me he believed we should meet again, which seemed an odd thing for him to say. I asked him about the treasure and why he would not let the other white men look for it. He answered that it would never be found by any man, white or black, that only a woman would find it at the appointed time, when it pleased the Spirit of Bambatse, under whose guardianship it was."

"Who was the Spirit of Bambatse, Mr. Seymour?"

"I can't tell you, couldn't make out anything definite about her, except that she was said to be white, and to appear sometimes at sunrise, or in the moonlight, standing upon the tall point of rock of which I told you. I remember that I got up before the dawn to look for her--like an idiot, for of course I saw nothing--and that's all I know about the matter."

"Did you have any talk with my father, Mr. Seymour--alone, I mean?"

"Yes, a little. The next day he walked back to our waggon with us, being glad, I fancy, of a change from the perpetual society of his partner Jacob. That wasn't wonderful in a man who had been brought up at Eton and Oxford, as I found out he had, like myself, and whatever his failings may have been--although we saw no sign of them, for he would not touch a drop of spirits--was a gentleman, which Jacob wasn't. Still, he--Jacob--had read a lot, especially on out-of-the-way subjects, and could talk every language under the sun--a clever and agreeable scoundrel in short."

"Did my father say anything about himself?"

"Yes; he told me that he had been an unsuccessful man all his life, and had much to reproach himself with, for we got quite confidential at last. He added that he had a family in England--what family he didn't say--whom he was anxious to make wealthy by way of reparation for past misdeeds, and that was why he was treasure-hunting. However, from what you tell me, I fear he never found anything."

"No, Mr. Seymour, he never found it and never will, but all the same I am glad to hear that he was thinking of us. Also I should like to explore that place, Bambatse."

"So should I, Miss Clifford, in your company, and your father's, but not in that of Jacob. If ever you should go there with him, I say:-- 'Beware of Jacob.'"

"Oh! I am not afraid of Jacob," she answered with a laugh, "although I believe that my father still has something to do with him--at least in one of his letters he mentioned his partner, who was a German."

"A German! I think that he must have meant a German Jew."

After this there was silence between them for a time, then he said suddenly, "You have told me your story, would you like to hear mine?"

"Yes," she answered.

"Well, it won't take you long to listen to it, for, Miss Clifford, like Canning's needy knife-grinder, I have really none to tell. You see before you one of the most useless persons in the world, an undistinguished member of what is called in England the 'leisured class,' who can do absolutely nothing that is worth doing, except shoot straight."

"Indeed," said Benita.

"You do not seem impressed with that accomplishment," he went on, "yet it is an honest fact that for the last fifteen years--I was thirty-two this month--practically my whole time has been given up to it, with a little fishing thrown in in the spring. As I want to make the most of myself, I will add that I am supposed to be among the six best shots in England, and that my ambition--yes, great Heavens! my ambition--was to become better than the other five. By that sin fell the poor man who speaks to you. I was supposed to have abilities, but I neglected them all to pursue this form of idleness. I entered no profession, I did no work, with the result that at thirty-two I am ruined and almost hopeless."

"Why ruined and hopeless?" she asked anxiously, for the way in which they were spoken grieved her more than the words themselves.

"Ruined because my old uncle, the Honourable John Seymour Seymour, whose heir I was, committed the indiscretion of marrying a young lady who has presented him with thriving twins. With the appearance of those twins my prospects disappeared, as did the allowance of £1,500 a year that he was good enough to make me on which to keep up a position as his next-of-kin. I had something of my own, but also I had debts, and at the present moment a draft in my pocket for £2,163 14s. 5d., and a little loose cash, represents the total of my worldly goods, just about the sum I have been accustomed to spend per annum."

"I don't call that ruin, I call that riches," said Benita, relieved. "With £2,000 to begin on you may make a fortune in Africa. But how about the hopelessness?"

"I am hopeless because I have absolutely nothing to which to look forward. Really, when that £2,000 is gone I do not know how to earn a sixpence. In this dilemma it occurred to me that the only thing I could do was to turn my shooting to practical account, and become a hunter of big game. Therefore I propose to kill elephants until an elephant kills me. At least," he added in a changed voice, "I did so propose until half an hour ago."

II

THE END OF THE "ZANZIBAR."

"Until half an hour ago? Then why----" and Benita stopped.

"Have I changed my very modest scheme of life? Miss Clifford, as you are so good as to be sufficiently interested, I will tell you. It is because a temptation which hitherto I have been able to resist, has during the last thirty minutes become too strong for me. You know everything has its breaking strain." He puffed nervously at his cigar, threw it into the sea, paused, then went on: "Miss Clifford, I have dared to fall in love with you. No; hear me out. When I have done it will be quite time enough to give me the answer that I expect. Meanwhile, for the first time in my life, allow me the luxury of being in earnest. To me it is a new sensation, and therefore very priceless. May I go on?"

Benita made no answer. He rose with a certain deliberateness which characterized all his movements--for Robert Seymour never seemed to be in a hurry--and stood in front of her so that the moonlight shone upon her face, while his own remained in shadow.

"Beyond that £2,000 of which I have spoken, and incidentally its owner, I have nothing whatsoever to offer to you. I am an indigent and worthless person. Even in my prosperous days, when I could look forward to a large estate, although it was often suggested to me, I never considered myself justified in asking any lady to share--the prospective estate. I think now that the real reason was that I never cared sufficiently for any lady, since otherwise my selfishness would probably have overcome my scruples, as it does to-night. Benita, for I will call you so, if for the first and last time, I--I--love you.

"Listen now," he went on, dropping his measured manner, and speaking hurriedly, like a man with an earnest message and little time in which to deliver it, "it is an odd thing, an incomprehensible thing, but true, true--I fell in love with you the first time I saw your face. You remember, you stood there leaning over the bulwark when I came on board at Southampton, and as I walked up the gangway, I looked and my eyes met yours. Then I stopped, and that stout old lady who got off at Madeira bumped into me, and asked me to be good enough to make up my mind if I were going backward or forward. Do you remember?"

"Yes," she answered in a low voice.

"Which things are an allegory," he continued. "I felt it so at the time. Yes, I had half a mind to answer 'Backward' and give up my berth in this ship. Then I looked at you again, and something inside of me said 'Forward.' So I came up the rest of the gangway and took off my hat to you, a salutation I had no right to make, but which, I recall, you acknowledged."


BENITA - 2/42

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