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- BENITA - 30/42 -
continually more evident. Mr. Clifford implored the man, almost with tears, to unblock the wall and allow them to go down to the Makalanga. He even tried to bribe him with the offer of all his share of the treasure, if it were found, and when that failed, of his property in the Transvaal.
But Jacob only told him roughly not to be a fool, as they had to see the thing through together. Then he would go again and brood by himself, and Benita noticed that he always took his rifle or a pistol with him. Evidently he feared lest her father should catch him unprepared, and take the law into his own hands by means of a sudden bullet.
One comfort she had, however: although he watched her closely, the Jew never tried to molest her in any way, not even with more of his enigmatic and amorous speeches. By degrees, indeed, she came to believe that all this was gone from his mind, or that he had abandoned his advances as hopeless.
A week passed since the Matabele attack, and nothing had happened. The Makalanga took no notice of them, and so far as she was aware the old Molimo never attempted to climb the blocked wall or otherwise to communicate with them, a thing so strange that, knowing his affection for her, Benita came to the conclusion that he must be dead, killed perhaps in the attack. Even Jacob Meyer had abandoned his digging, and sat about all day doing nothing but think.
Their meal that night was a miserable affair, since in the first place provisions were running short and there was little to eat, and in the second no one spoke a word. Benita could swallow no food; she was weary of that sun-dried trek-ox, for since Meyer had blocked the wall they had little else. But by good fortune there remained plenty of coffee, and of this she drank two cups, which Jacob prepared and handed to her with much politeness. It tasted very bitter to her, but this, Benita reflected, was because they lacked milk and sugar. Supper ended, Meyer rose and bowed to her, muttering that he was going to bed, and a few minutes later Mr. Clifford followed his example. She went with her father to the hut beneath the tree, and having helped him to remove his coat, which now he seemed to find difficulty in doing for himself, bade him good-night and returned to the fire.
It was very lonely there in the silence, for no sound came from either the Matabele or the Makalanga camps, and the bright moonlight seemed to people the place with fantastic shadows that looked alive. Benita cried a little now that her father could not see her, and then also sought refuge in bed. Evidently the end, whatever it might be, was near, and of it she could not bear to think. Moreover, her eyes were strangely heavy, so much so that before she had finished saying her prayers sleep fell upon her, and she knew no more.
Had she remained as wakeful as it was often her fate to be during those fearful days, towards midnight she might have heard some light- footed creature creeping to her tent, and seen that the moon-rays which flowed through the gaping and ill-closed flap were cut off by the figure of a man with glowing eyes, whose projected arms waved over her mysteriously. But Benita neither heard nor saw. In her drugged rest she did not know that her sleep turned gradually to a magic swoon. She had no knowledge of her rising, or of how she threw her thick cloak about her, lit her lamp, and, in obedience to that beckoning finger, glided from the tent. She never heard her father stumble from his hut, disturbed by the sound of footsteps, or the words that passed between him and Jacob Meyer, while, lamp in hand, she stood near them like a strengthless ghost.
"If you dare to wake her," hissed Jacob, "I tell you that she will die, and afterwards you shall die," and he fingered the pistol at his belt. "No harm shall come to her--I swear it! Follow and see. Man, man, be silent; our fortunes hang on it."
Then, overcome also by the strange fierceness of that voice and gaze, he followed.
On they go to the winding neck of the cavern, first Jacob walking backwards like the herald of majesty; then majesty itself in the shape of this long-haired, death-like woman, cloaked and bearing in her hand the light; and last, behind, the old, white-bearded man, like Time following Beauty to the grave. Now they were in the great cavern, and now, avoiding the open tombs, the well mouth and the altar, they stood beneath the crucifix.
"Be seated," said Meyer, and the entranced Benita sat herself down upon the steps at the foot of the cross, placing the lamp on the rock pavement before her, and bowing her head till her hair fell upon her naked feet and hid them. He held his hands above her for a while, then asked:
"Do you sleep?"
"I sleep," came the strange, slow answer.
"Is your spirit awake?"
"It is awake."
"Command it to travel backwards through the ages to the beginning, and tell me what you see here."
"I see a rugged cave and wild folk dwelling in it; an old man is dying yonder," and she pointed to the right; "and a black woman with a babe at her breast tends him. A man, it is her husband, enters the cave. He holds a torch in one hand, and with the other drags a buck."
"Cease," said Meyer. "How long is this ago?"
"Thirty-three thousand two hundred and one years," came the answer, spoken without any hesitation.
"Pass on," he said, "pass on thirty thousand years, and tell me what you see."
For a long while there was silence.
"Why do you not speak?" he asked.
"Be patient; I am living through those thirty thousand years; many a life, many an age, but none may be missed."
Again there was silence for a long while, till at length she spoke:
"They are done, all of them, and now three thousand years ago I see this place changed and smoothly fashioned, peopled by a throng of worshippers clad in strange garments with clasps upon them. Behind me stands the graven statue of a goddess with a calm and cruel face, in front of the altar burns a fire, and on the altar white-robed priests are sacrificing an infant which cries aloud."
"Pass on, pass on," Meyer said hurriedly, as though the horror of that scene had leapt to his eyes. "Pass on two thousand seven hundred years and tell me what you see."
Again there was a pause, while the spirit he had evoked in the body of Benita lived through those ages. Then slowly she answered:
"Nothing, the place is black and desolate, only the dead sleep beneath its floor."
"Wait till the living come again," he commanded; "then speak."
"They are here," she replied presently. "Tonsured monks, one of whom fashions this crucifix, and their followers who bow before the Host upon the altar. They come, they go--of whom shall I tell you?"
"Tell me of the Portuguese; of those who were driven here to die."
"I see them all," she answered, after a pause. "Two hundred and three of them. They are ragged and wayworn and hungry. Among them is a beautiful woman, a girl. She draws near to me, she enters into me. You must ask her"--this was spoken in a very faint voice--"I am I no more."
Mr. Clifford attempted to interrupt, but fiercely Meyer bade him to be silent.
"Speak," he commanded, but the crouching figure shook her head.
"Speak," he said again, whereon another voice, not that of Benita, answered in another tongue:
"I hear; but I do not understand your language."
"Great Heaven!" said Meyer, "it is Portuguese," and for a while the terror of the thing struck him dumb, for he was aware that Benita knew no Portuguese. He knew it, however, who had lived at Lorenšo Marquez.
"Who are you?" he asked in that tongue.
"I am Benita da Ferreira. I am the daughter of the Captain da Ferreira and of his wife, the lady Christinha, who stand by you now. Turn, and you will see them."
Jacob started and looked about him uneasily.
"What did she say? I did not catch it all," asked Mr. Clifford.
He translated her words.
"But this is black magic," exclaimed the old man. "Benita knows no Portuguese, so how comes she to speak it?"
"Because she is no longer our Benita; she is another Benita, Benita da Ferreira. The Molimo was right when he said that the spirit of the dead woman went with her, as it seems the name has gone," he added.
"Have done," said Mr. Clifford; "the thing is unholy. Wake her up, or I will."
"And bring about her death. Touch or disturb her, and I tell you she will die," and he pointed to Benita, who crouched before them so white and motionless that indeed it seemed as though already she were dead. "Be quiet," he went on. "I swear to you that no hurt shall come to her, also that I will translate everything to you. Promise, or I will tell you nothing, and her blood be on your head."
Then Mr. Clifford groaned and said:
"Tell me your story, Benita da Ferreira. How came you and your people here?"
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