Sunbird/Wild Justice

Wilbur Smith

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

The Sunbird/Wild Justice
It cut across the darkened projection room and exploded silently against the screen - and I did not recognize it. I had waited fifteen years for it, and when it came I did not recognize it. The image was swirled and vague, and it made no sense to me for I had expected a photograph of some small object; a skull perhaps, or pottery, or an artefact, a piece of gold work, beads - certainly not this surrealistic pattern of grey and white and black.
Louren's voice, tight with excitement, gave me the clue I needed. 'Taken at thirty-six thou. at six forty-seven on the fourth of Sept,' that was eight days ago, 'exposed in a 35 mm. Leica.'
An aerial photograph then. My eyes and brain adjusted, and almost instantly I felt the first tickle of my own excitement begin as Louren went on in the same crisp tone.
'I've got a charter company running an aerial survey over all my concession areas. The idea is to pick the strike and run of geographical formations. This photograph is only one of a couple of hundred thousand of the area - the navigator did not even know what he was photographing. However, the people in analysis spotted it, and passed it on to me.'
His face turned towards me, pale and solemn in the glare of the projector.
'You can see it, can't you, Ben? Just off centre. Top right quarter.'
I opened my mouth to reply, but my voice caught in my throat and I had to turn the sound I made into a cough. With surprise I found I was trembling, and my guts seethed with an amalgam of hope and dread.
'It's classic! Acropolis, double enclosure and the "phallic towers".' He was exaggerating, they were faint outlines, indistinct and in places disappearing, but the general shape and configuration were right.
'North,' I blurted. 'Where is north?'
'Top of picture - he's right, Ben. Facing north. Could the towers be sun-orientated?'
I did not speak again. The reaction was coming swiftly now. Nothing in my life had been this easy, therefore this was suspect and I searched for the flaws.
'Stratification,' I said. 'Probably limestone in contact with the country granite. Throwing surface patterns.'
'Oh bull!' Louren cut in, the excitement still bubbling in his voice. He jumped up and strode to the screen, picked up an ebony pointer from the lectern and used it to spot the cell-like stippling around the outline of what he was pleased to presume was the main enclosure. 'You tell me where you've ever seen geographical patterns like that.'
I didn't want to accept it. I didn't want to make myself vulnerable again with hope.
'Perhaps,' I said.
'Damn you.' He laughed now, and the sound was good for he did not often laugh these days. 'I should have known you'd fight it. You are without doubt the most miserable bloody pessimist in Africa.'
'It could be anything, Lo,' I protested. 'A trick of light, of shape and shade. Even conceding that it is man-made - it could be recent gardens or agriculture--'
'A hundred miles from the nearest surface water? Forget it, Ben! You know as well as I do that this is the--'
'Don't say it,' I almost shouted, and was out of the padded leather chair, across the projection room and had hold of his arm before I realized I had moved.
'Don't say it,' I repeated. 'It's - it's bad luck.' I always stutter when I am excited, but it is the least of my physical disabilities and I have long ago ceased worrying about it.
Louren laughed again, but with the trace of uneasiness he shows whenever I move quickly or unleash the strength of my arms. He stooped over me now, and eased my fingers that were sunk into the flesh of his forearm.
'Sorry - did I hurt you?' I released the grip.
'No.' But he massaged his arm as he moved to the control panel and doused the projector, then turned the wall switch and we stood blinking at each other in the light.
'My little Yiddish leprechaun,' he smiled. 'You cannot fool me. You are wetting yourself.'
I looked up at him, ashamed of my outburst now, but still excited.
'Where is it, Lo? Where did you find it?'
'I want you to admit it first. I want you to go out on a limb for once in your life. I want you to say it - before I'll tell you another thing,' he teased.
'All right.' I looked away and picked my words. 'It looks, at first glance, quite interesting.'
And he threw back that great golden head and bellowed with bull laughter.
'You're going to have to do a lot better than that. Let's try again.'
His laughter I cannot resist, and my own followed immediately. I was aware of its birdlike quality against his.
'It looks to me,' I wheezed, 'as though you may have found - it.'
'You beauty!' he shouted. 'You little beauty.'
It was years since I had seen him like this. The solemn banker's mask stripped away, the cares of the Sturvesant financial empire forgotten in this moment of promise and achievement.
'Now tell me,' I pleaded. 'Where did you find it?'
'Come,' he said, serious again, and we went to the long table against the wall. There was a chart spread and pinned on the green baize. It was a high table, and I scrambledquickly onto a chair and leaned across it. Now I was almost on equal terms with Louren who stood beside me. We pored over the chart.
'Aeronautical Series A. Southern Africa. Chart 5. Botswana and Western Rhodesia.'
I searched it quickly, looking for some indication - a cross, or pencil mark perhaps.
'Where?' I said. 'Where?'
'You know that I've got twenty-five thousand square miles of mineral concession down here south of Maun--'
'Come on, Lo. Don't try and sell me shares in Sturvesant Minerals. Where the hell is it?'
'We've put a landing-strip in here that will take the Lear jet. Just finished it.'
'It can't be that far south of the gold series.'
'It isn't,' Louren reassured me. 'Throttle back, you'll rupture something.' He was enjoying himself tormenting me.
His finger moved across the chart, and stopped suddenly - my heart seemed to stop with it. It was looking better and better. The latitude was perfect, all the clues I had so painstakingly gathered over the years pointed to this general area.
'Here,' he said. 'Two hundred and twelve miles southeast of Maun, fifty-six miles from the south-western beacon of the Wankie game reserve, tucked below a curve of low hills, lost in a wilderness of rock and dry land scrub.'
'When can we leave?' I asked.
'Wow!' Louren shook his head. 'You do believe it. You really do!'
'Someone else could stumble on it.'
'It's been lying there for a thousand years - another week won't--'
'Another week!' I cried in anguish.
'Ben, I can't get away before then. I've got the AnnualGeneral Meeting of Anglo-Sturvesant on Friday, and on Saturday I have business in Zürich - but I'll cut it short, especially for you.'
'Cut it altogether,' I begged. 'Send one of your bright young men.'
'When somebody lends you twenty-five million, it's only polite to go fetch the cheque yourself, not send the office boy.'
'Christ, Lo. It's only money - this is really important.'
For a moment Louren stared at me, the pale blue eyes bemused and reflective.
'Twenty-five million is only money?' He shook his head slowly and then wonderingly as though he had heard a new truth spoken. 'I suppose you are right.' He smiled, gently now, the smile of affection for a well-loved friend. 'Sorry, Ben. Tuesday. We'll fly at dawn, I promise you. We'll recce from the air. Then land at Maun. Peter Larkin - you know him?'
'Yes, very well.' Peter ran a big safari business out of Maun. Twice I'd used him on my Kalahari expeditions.
'Good. I've been on to him already. He will service the expedition. We will go in light and fast - one Land-Rover and a pair of three-ton Unimogs. 1 can only spare five days - and that's a squeeze - but I'll get a charter helicopter to fetch me out, and I'll leave you to scratch around--' As he talked Louren led me out of the projection room into the long gallery.
Sunlight spilled in through the high windows, giving good light to the paintings and sculptures that decorated the gallery. Here works of the leading South African artists mingled easily with those of the great internationals living and dead. Louren Sturvesant, and his ancestors before him, had spent money wisely. Even now in the urgency of the moment, my eyes were tugged aside by the soft fleshy glow of a Renoir nude.
Louren paced easily over the sound-deadening pile of Oriental carpets, and I matched stride for stride. My legs are as long as his and as powerful.
'If you turn up what we are both hoping for, then you can go in full-scale. A permanent camp, airstrip, assistants of your choice, a full crew, and any equipment you call for.'
'Please God, let it happen,' I said softly and at the head of the staircase we paused. Louren and I grinned at each other like conspirators.
'You know what it could cost?' I asked. 'We might be digging for five or six years.'
'I hope so,' he agreed.
'It could run into - a couple of hundred thousand.'
'It's only money, like the man said.' And again that great bull laugh started me off. We went down the staircase roaring and tittering, each in his own way. Elated and hyper-tense, we faced each other in the hall.
'I'll be back at seven-thirty Monday evening. Can you meet me at the airport, Alitalia flight 310 from Zurich? In the meantime you get your end arranged.'
'I'll need a copy of that photograph.'
'I've already had an enlargement delivered by hand to the Institute. You have got a week to gloat over it.' He glanced at the gold Piaget on his wrist. 'Damn. I'm late.'
He turned to the doorway at the moment that Hilary Sturvesant came through it from the patio. She wore a short white tennis dress, and her legs were long and achingly beautiful. A tall girl with gold-brown hair hanging shiny and soft to her shoulders.
'Darling, you aren't going?'
'I'm sorry, Hil. I meant to tell you I wouldn't be staying for lunch, but Ben will need somebody to hold him down.'
'You've shown him?' She turned and came to me, stooped to kiss me on the lips easily and naturally, with not the least sign of revulsion, and then she stepped backand smiled full into my eyes. Every time she does that she makes me her slave for another hundred years.
'What do you think of it, Ben? Is it possible?' But before I could answer Louren had slipped his arm about her waist and they both smiled down at me.
'He's doing his nut. He's frothing at the mouth and doing back flips. He wants to rush into the desert now, this minute.' Then he pulled Hilary to him and kissed her. For a long minute they were oblivious of my presence as they embraced. They are, for me, the epitome of beautiful woman and manhood, both of them tall and strong and well-favoured. Hilary is younger than he is by twelve years, his fourth wife and the mother of only the youngest of his seven children. In her middle twenties she has the maturity and poise of a much older woman.
'Give Ben some lunch, my darling. I'll be home late.' Louren pulled away from the embrace.
'I'll miss you,' Hilary said.
'And I you. I'll see you Monday, Ben. Cable Larkin if you think of anything special we will need. So long, partner.' And he was gone.
Hilary took my hand and led me out on to the wide flagged patio. Five acres of lawn and dazzling flowerbeds sloped gently down to the stream and artificial lake. Both tennis courts were occupied and a shrieking mob of small near-naked bodies thrashed the water of the swimming-pool to a sun-sparkled white. Two uniformed servants were laying out a cold buffet on the long patio trestle-table, and with a small squirming twinge of dread I saw a half-dozen young matrons in tennis dress sprawled in the lounging chairs beside the outside bar. They were flushed with exertion, perspiration dampened the crisp white dresses and they sipped at long dewy, fruit-laden glasses of Pimms No. 1.
'Come,' said Hilary, and led me towards them. I steeledmyself, trying to draw myself up to an extra inch of height as we moved towards the group.
'Girls - we've got a man to keep us company. I want you to meet Dr Benjamin Kazin, Dr Kazin is the Director of the Institute of African Anthropology and Prehistory. Ben; this is Marjory Phelps.'
I turned to each of them as she spoke their names, and I acknowledged the slightly over-effusive greetings, giving each my eyes and voice, they are my good things. It was as difficult for them as it was for me. You do not expect your hostess to spring a hunchback on you with the pre-lunch drinks.
The children rescued me. Bobby spotted me and came at a run, shrieking, 'Uncle Ben! Uncle Ben!' She flung her cold wet arms around my neck and pressed her sopping bathing-costume to my new suit, before dragging me away to become overwhelmed by the rest of the Sturvesant brood and their hordes of young friends. I find it easier with children; they either do not seem to notice or they come straight out with it. 'Why do you walk all bent over like that?'
For once I was not very good value, I was too preoccupied to give them my full attention - and soon they drifted away, all but Bobby - for she is ever loyal. Then Hilary took over from her stepdaughter and I was returned to the league of young mothers where I made a better impression. I cannot resist pretty women, once the first awkwardness wears off. It was three o'clock before I left for the Institute.
Bobby Sturvesant pours Glen Grant malt whisky with the same heavy thirteen-year-old hand she uses to pour Coca-Cola. Consequently I floated into the Institute feeling very good indeed.
The envelope was on my desk marked 'Private and Confidential' with a note pinned to one corner, 'This came for you at lunch-time. Looks exciting! Sal.'
With a quick stab of jealousy I inspected the seal of theenvelope. It was unbroken. Sally hadn't been into it - but I knew it must have taken all her self-control for she has an almost neurotic curiosity. She calls it a fine inquiring scientific mind.
I guessed she would arrive within the next five minutes so I found the packet of Three X peppermints in my top drawer and slipped one into my mouth to smother the whisky fumes before I opened the envelope and drew out the glossy twelve-by-twelve enlargement, switched on the desk light and adjusted it and the magnifying table lens over the print. Then I looked around at the hosts of the past that crowd my office. All four walls are lined with shelves, and from floor to shoulder height - my shoulder height - these are filled with books: the tools of my trade, all bound in brown and green calf-skin, and titled in gold leaf. It is a big room, and there are many thousands of volumes. The shelves above the books carry the plaster busts of all the creatures that preceded man. Head and shoulders only. Australopithecus, Proconsul, Robusta, Rhodesian Man, Peking - all of them up to Neanderthal and finally Cro-Magnon himself - Homo sapiens sapiens in all his glory and infamy. The shelves to the right of my desk are laden with busts of all the typical ethnic types found in Africa, Hamites, Arabs, pygmies, the negroids, Boskops, bushmen, Griqua, Hottentot and all the others. They watched me attentively with their bulging glass eyes as I addressed them.
'Gentlemen,' I said, 'I think we are on to something good.' I only speak aloud to them when I am excited or drunk, and now I was more than a little of each.
'Who are you talking to?' asked Sally from the doorway, making me leap in my seat. It was a rhetorical question, she knew damn well who I was talking to. She lounged against the jamb, her hands thrust deeply into the pockets of her grubby white dust-coat. Dark hair drawn back with a ribbon from the deep bulging forehead, largegreen eyes well spaced beside the pert nose. High cheekbones, wide sensual smiling mouth. A big girl with long well-muscled legs in the tight-fitting blue jeans. Why do I always like them big?
'Good lunch?' she asked, starting the slow sliding approach across the carpet towards my desk that would put her in position to check what was going on. She can read documents upside-down, as I have proved to my cost.
'Great,' I answered, deliberately covering the photograph with the envelope. 'Cold turkey, lobster salad, smoked trout, and a very good duck and truffles in aspic.'
'You bastard,' she whispered softly. She loves good food, and she had noticed my play with the envelope. I don't allow her to talk to me like that, but then I can't stop her either.
Five feet from me she sniffed, 'And peppermint-flavoured malt whisky! Yummy!'
I blushed, I can't help it. It's like my stutter - and she burst out laughing and came to perch on the edge of my desk.
'Come on, Ben.' She eyed the envelope frankly. 'I've been bursting since it arrived. I would have steamed it open - but the electric kettle is broken.'
Dr Sally Benator has been my assistant for two years, which is coincidentally the exact period of time that I have been in love with her.
I moved aside, making room for her behind the desk and uncovered the photograph. 'All right,' I agreed, 'let's see what you make of it.'
She squeezed in beside me, her upper arm touching my shoulder - a contact that shivered electrically through my whole body. In two years she had become like the children, she didn't seem to notice the hump. She was easy and natural, and I had a time-table worked out - in another two years our relationship would have ripened. I had to go slowly, very slowly, so as not to alarm her, but in that timeI would have accustomed her to the thought of me as a lover and husband. If the last two years had been long--I hated to think about the next two.
She leaned over the desk peering into the magnifying lens, and she was still and silent for a long time. Reflected light was thrown up into her face, and when she at last looked up her expression was rapt, the green eyes sparkled.
'Ben,' she said. 'Oh Ben - I'm so glad for you!' Somehow her easy acceptance and presumption annoyed me.
'You are jumping the gun,' I snapped. 'There could be a dozen natural explanations.'
'No.' She shook her head, smiling still. 'Don't try and knock it. It's true, Ben, at last. You've worked so long and believed so long, don't be afraid now. Accept it.'
She slipped out from behind the desk and crossed quickly to the shelf of books under the label 'K'. There are twelve volumes there that bear the author's name 'Benjamin Kazin'. She selected one, and opened it at the fly-leaf.
'Ophir,' she read, 'by Dr Benjamin Kazin. A personal investigation of the prehistoric gold-working civilization of Central Africa, with special reference to the city of Zimbabwe and to the legend of the ancients and the lost city of the Kalahari.'
She came to me smiling. 'Have you read it?' she asked. 'It's quite entertaining.'
'There's a chance, Sal. I agree. Just a chance, but--'
'Where does it lie?' she cut in. 'In the mineralized series, as you predicted?'
I nodded. 'Yes, it's in the gold belt. But it could, it just could, produce so much more than Langebeli and Ruwane.'
She grinned triumphantly, and bent over the lens again. With her finger she touched the indian ink arrow in the corner of the photo that gave the northerly bearing.
'The whole city--'
'If it is a city,' I cut in.
'The whole city,' she repeated with emphasis, 'faces north. Into the sun. With the acropolis behind it - sun andmoon, the two gods. The phallic towers--there are four, five - six. Perhaps seven of them.'
'Sal, those aren't towers, they are just dark patches on a photograph taken from 36,000 feet.'
'Thirty-six thousand!' Sal's head jerked up. 'Then it's huge! You could fit Zimbabwe into the main enclosure half a dozen times.'
'Easy, girl. For God's sake.'
'And the lower city outside the walls. It stretches for miles. It's enormous, Ben - but I wonder why it's crescent-shaped like that?' She straightened up, and for the first time - the very first wonderful time - she spontaneously threw her arms around my neck and hugged me. 'Oh, I'm so excited, I could die. When do we leave?'
I didn't answer, I hardly heard the question, I just stood there and revelled in the feel of her big warm breasts pressing against me.
'When?' she asked again, pulling back to look into my face.
'What?' I asked. 'What did you say?' I was both blushing and stuttering - and she laughed.
'When do we leave, Ben? When are we going to find your lost city?'
'Well,' I considered how to phrase it delicately, 'Louren Sturvesant and I will go in first. We leave on Tuesday. Louren didn't mention an assistant - so I don't think you will be coming along on the recce.'
Sally stepped back and placing her clenched fists on her hips, she looked at me unkindly and asked with deceptive gentleness: 'Do you want to bet on that?'
I like reasonable odds when I do bet, so I told Sally to pack. A week was too long for the job, for she is a professional and travels light. Her personal effects filled a single small valise and a shoulder-strapped carry-all. Her sketch-books, and paints, were more bulky, but we pooled our books to avoid duplication. My photographic equipmentwas another big item, and then the sample bags and boxes together with my one canvas case made a formidable pile in the corner of my office. We were ready in twenty-four hours, and for the next six days we killed time by arguing, agonizing, squabbling and poring over the photograph which was starting to lose a little of its gloss. When our tensions built up to explosion point, then Sally would lock herself in her own office and try to work on the translation of the rock-engraving from Drie Koppen or the painted symbols from the Witte Berg. Rock-paintings, engravings and the translation of the ancient writings are her speciality.
I would wander fretfully around the public rooms, trying to find dust on the exhibits, dreaming up some novel way of displaying the treasures that filled our warehouse and upstairs store-rooms, counting the names in the visitors' book, playing guide to parties of schoolchildren - doing anything but work. Finally I would go upstairs to tap on Sally's door. Sometimes it was, 'Come in, Ben.' And then again it might be, 'I'm busy. What do you want?' Then I would drift through to spend an hour in the African languages section with my dour giant, Timothy Mageba.
Timothy started at the Institute as a sweeper and cleaner; that was twelve years ago. It took me six months to discover that apart from his own southern Sotho he spoke sixteen other dialects. I taught him to speak English fluently in eighteen months, to write it in two years. He matriculated two years later, graduated Bachelor of Arts in another three, Master's degree in the required further two years - and he is working on his doctorate in African languages.
He now speaks nineteen languages including English, which is one more than I do, and he is the only man I know, apart from myself - spent nine months in the desert, living with the little yellow men - who speaks the dialects of both the northern and Kalahari bushmen.
For a linguist, he is a peculiarly silent man. When he does speak it is in basso profundo which matches well his enormous frame. He stands six foot five inches tall and he is muscled like a professional wrestler and yet he moves with the grace of a dancer.
He fascinates me, and frightens me a little. His head is completely hairless, the rounded pate shaven and oiled to gleam like a midnight-black cannon ball. The nose broad and flat with flaring nostrils, the lips a thick purple black and behind them gleam big strong white teeth. From behind this impassive mask a chained animal ferocity glowers through the eye slits, and once in a while flashes like distant summer lightning. There is a satanical presence about him, despite the white shirt and dark business suit he wears, and though for twelve years I have spent much of my time in his presence I have never fathomed the dark depths beneath those dark eyes and darker skin.
Under my loose surveillance he runs the African languages department of the Institute. Five younger Africans, four men and a girl, work under him and, so far, they have published authoritative dictionaries of the seven main African languages spoken in southern Africa. They have also accumulated written and taped material to keep them busy for the next seven years.
On his own initiative, with just a little of my help and encouragement, he has published two volumes of African history which have raised a storm of hysterical abuse from white historians, archaeologists and reviewers. As a child Timothy was apprenticed to his grandfather, the witchdoctor and historical custodian of the tribe. As part of his initiation into the mysteries his grandfather placed Timothy under hypnosis and taped the entire tribal history on his brain. Even now, thirty years later, Timothy is able to throw himself into a trance and establish total recall of this mass of legend, folklore, unwritten history and magical doctrine. Timothy's grandfather was tried by an unsympatheticwhite judge and hanged for his part in a series of ritual murders the year before Timothy had completed his training and been entered into the priesthood. However, his legacy to Timothy is a formidable mountain of material - much of it palpably spurious, a great deal of it unpublishable as being either too obscene or too explosive, and the remainder fascinating, puzzling or downright scary.
I have drawn on much of Timothy's unpublished material for my own book Ophir - particularly those unscientific and 'popular' sections which deal with the legend of the ancients, a race of fair-skinned golden-haired warriors from across the sea, who mined the gold, enslaved the indigenous tribes, built walled cities and flourished for hundreds of years before vanishing almost without trace.
I am aware that Timothy edits the information he passes on to me - some of it is too secret, the taboos which surround it too powerful to disclose to other than an initiate of the mysteries. I am sure that much of this withheld information relates to the legend of the ancients. I, however, never abandon my attempts to milk him.
On the Monday morning of Louren's return from Switzerland, Sally was so overwrought by the possibility that Louren would veto her inclusion in the preliminary expedition that her company was unbearable. To escape her and to kill the last long waiting hours, I went down to Timothy.
He works in a tiny room - we are a little pressed for space at the Institute, which is congested with neatly stacked pamphlets, books, folders, and piles of loose paper that reach almost to the ceiling - and yet there is room for my chair. This is a long-legged affair like a bar-room stool. For although my legs and arms are regulation size, or better, my trunk is squashed and humped so that from the seat of an ordinary chair I have trouble seeing over the top of a desk.
'Machane! Blessed one!' Timothy rose with his usualgreeting as I entered. According to Bantu lore those of us with club feet, albino pigmentation, squint eyes, and humped backs are blessed by the spirits and endowed with psychic powers. I derive a sneaky sort of pleasure from this belief, and Timothy's greeting always gives me a lift.
I hopped up on my chair, and began a desultory conversation which flicked from subject to subject and changed from language to language. Timothy and I are proud of our talents - and I suppose we do show off a little. There is no other man living, of this I am convinced, who could follow one of our conversations from beginning to end.
'It will be strange,' I said at last in I forget what language, 'not to have you along on a journey. It will be the first time in ten years, Timothy.'
He was immediately silent and wary. He knew I was going to start again on the lost city. I had shown him the photograph five days before, and had been pumping him steadily ever since for some significant comment. I changed into English.
'Anyway, you are probably not missing anything. Another groping for shadows. God knows there have been many of those. If only I knew what to look for.'
I broke off and froze with expectancy. Timothy's eyes had glazed. It is a physical thing, an opaque blueish film seems to cover the eyeballs. His head sinks down on the thick corded column of the neck, his lips twitch - and the goose flesh runs up my arms and the hair on the back of my neck fans erect.
I waited. As often as I had seen it I could never shake off the supernatural thrill of watching Timothy going into trance. Sometimes it is involuntary - a word, a thought will trigger it, and the reflex is almost instantaneous. Then again it can be a deliberate act of auto-hypnosis, but this involves preparation and ritual.
This time it was spontaneous, and I waited eagerlyknowing that if the material was taboo it would be but a few seconds only before Timothy broke the spell with a deliberate effort of will.
'Evil - ' he spoke in the quavering, high-pitched voice of an old man. The voice of his grandfather. A little spittle wet the thick purple lips, '- an evil to be cleaned from the earth and from the minds of men, for ever.'
His head jerked, the conscious mind intervening, his lips worked loosely. The brief internal struggle - and suddenly his eyes cleared. He looked at me and saw me.
'I'm sorry,' he murmured in English, turning his eyes away now. Embarrassed by the involuntary display, and the need to exclude me. 'Would you like some coffee, Doctor? They have repaired the kettle at last.'
I sighed. Timothy had switched off, there would be no more communication that day. He was closed up and defensive. To use his own expression, he had 'turned nigger' on me.
'No thanks, Timothy.' I looked at my watch and slipped off the stool. 'Still some last-minute things to do.'
'Go in peace, Machane, and the spirits guide your feet.' We shook hands.
'Stay in peace, Timothy, and if the spirits are kind I will send for you.'
Standing on the rail of the coffee bar in the main hall of Jan Smuts Airport I had a good view of the entrance to the international terminal.
'Damn it,' I swore.
'What is it?' Sal asked anxiously.
'B. Y. M. - a whole platoon of them.'
'What are B. Y. M.?'
'Bright young men. Sturvesant executives. There, you see the four of them beside the bank counter.'
'How do you know they are Sturvesant men?' she asked.
'Haircuts, short back and sides. Uniforms, dark cashmere suits and plain ties. Expressions, tense and ulcer-ridden but poised to blossom as the big man appears.' And then I added in an unaccustomed fit of honesty, 'Besides, I recognize two of them. Accountants. Friends of mine - have to prise money out of them every time I want a roll of toilet paper for the Institute.'
'Is that him?' asked Sally, and pointed.
'Yes,' I said, 'that's him.'
Louren Sturvesant came out of the doors of the international terminal, the first of the Zürich flight through customs and immigration, the airport public relations officer trotting to keep pace with him. Two other B. Y. M. a pace behind him on either side. Probably a third taking care of his luggage. The four waiting men broke into smiles that seemed to light the hall and hurried forward in order of seniority for a brief handclasp and then fell into formation around Louren. Two of them running interference ahead of him, the others closing in at either hand. The public relations officer fell back bewildered to the tail of the field, and Anglo-Sturvesant drove across the crowded floor like an advancing Panzer division.
In their midst Louren stood out by a golden curly head, his sun-bronzed features grim in contrast to the artificial smiles around him.
'Come on!' I caught Sally's hand and dove into the crowd. I am good at this. I go in at the level of their legs - and the pressure from this unexpected level cleaves them open like the waters of the Red Sea. Sally ran through behind me like the Israelites.
We intercepted Anglo-Sturvesant at the glass exit doors, and I dropped Sally's hand to crack the inner circle. I broke through at the first attempt and Louren nearly tripped over me.
'Ben.' I saw immediately how tired he was. Pale beneaththe gold skin, purply smudges under the eyes--but a warm smile cleared the fatigue for a moment. 'I'm sorry. I should have warned you not to come. Something has come up. I am on my way to a meeting now.'
He saw the expression on my face, and clasped my shoulder quickly.
'No. Don't jump to conclusions. It's still on. Be at the airfield at five o'clock tomorrow morning. I'll meet you there. I must go now. I'm sorry.'
We shook hands quickly.
'All the way, partner?' he asked.
'All the way,' I agreed, grinning at the schoolboy inanity, and then they swept on by and disappeared through the glass doors.
We were half-way back to Johannesburg before Sally spoke.
'Did you ask him about me? Is it fixed?'
'There wasn't time, Sal. You saw that. He was so rushed.'
Neither of us spoke again until I turned into the grounds of the Institute and parked the Mercedes beside her little red Alfa in the empty car park.
'Would you like a cup of coffee?' I asked.
'It's late.'
'It isn't. You won't sleep anyway - not tonight. We could have a game of chess.'
'All right.'
I let us in at the front door and we went through the public rooms, crowded with glass cases and wax figures, to the private staircase that led to my office and flat.
Sal lit the fire and set out the chessmen while I made coffee. When I came back from the kitchen she was sitting cross-legged on a tooled leather pouffe, brooding over the ivory and ebony chessboard. I caught my breath at the fresh dimension of her loveliness that the light and setting presented to me. She wore a patchwork poncho, as brilliantly coloured as the Oriental carpets strewn on the floorabout her - and the gentle sidelighting glowed on the soft sun-touched olive of her skin. Watching her, I thought my heart might burst.
She looked up with those big soft eyes. 'Come,' she said, 'let's play.'
If I can weather the storm of her first lightning, volatile attacks then I can smother and wear her down with pawn play and superior development. She calls it the creeping death.
At last she toppled her king with a little groan of exasperation and stood up to pace restlessly about the room, hugging her own shoulders under the vivid poncho. I sipped coffee and watched her with covert pleasure until suddenly she swirled and faced me with long legs astride and clenched fists on her hips, her elbows tenting the poncho around her.
'I hate the bastard,' she said in a tight, strangled voice. 'A big arrogant god-man. I knew the type as soon as I saw him. Why, in the name of all that's holy, does he have to come with us? If we make any significant discovery, you can guess who will hog all the glory.'
I knew immediately she was talking of Louren - and I was startled by the acid and gall in her tone. Later I would remember it, and know the reason. But now I was stunned and then angry.
'What on earth are you talking about?' I demanded.
'The face, the walk, the flock of idolaters, the condescending air with which he dispenses favours, the immense overpowering conceit of the man--'
'The casual, unthinking cruelty of his presumption--'
'Stop it, Sally.' I was on my feet now.
'Did you see those poor little men of his - shaking with fright?'
'Sally, you'll not talk of him like that - not in front of me.'
'Did you see yourself? One of the gentlest, kindest, most decent men I have ever known. One of the finest brains I have ever been privileged to work with. Did you see yourself, scampering and tail-wagging - God, you were rolling on your back at his feet - offering your belly to be tickled--' She was almost hysterical now, crying, tears of anger running down her face, shaking, white-faced. 'I hated you - and him! I hated you both. He was demeaning you, making you cheap and, and--'
I could not answer her. I stood stricken and numb - and her temper changed. She lifted her hand and pressed it to her mouth. We stared at each other.
'I must be mad,' she whispered. 'Why did I say those things? Ben, oh Ben. I'm sorry. So very sorry.'
And she came and knelt before me, her arms went around my body and she hugged me to her. I stood like a statue. I was cold with fear, dread of what was to come. For although this was what I had long prayed for, yet it had come so suddenly, without a moment's warning, and now I had been thrust far beyond the point of no return, into unknown territory. Sally lifted her head, still clinging to me, and looked up into my face.
'Forgive me, please.'
I kissed her, and her mouth was warm and salty with tears. Her lips opened under mine, and my fear was gone.
'Make love to me, Ben - please.' She knew instinctively that I must be led. She took me to the couch.
'The lights,' I whispered harshly, 'please switch off the lights.'
'If that's what you want.'
'Please, Sally.'
'I will,' she said. 'I know, my darling.' And she switched off the lights.
Twice in the darkness she cried out: 'Oh, please Ben - you're so strong. You are killing me. Your arms are - your arms.'
Then not long after, she screamed, an incoherent cry without form or meaning, and my own hoarse cry blended with it. Then there was only the ragged sound of our breathing in the darkness.
I felt as though my mind had broken free from my body and floated in warmth and darkness. For the first time in my life I was completely at rest, contented and secure. There seemed to be so many first times with this woman. When at last Sally spoke, her voice came as a small shock.
'Will you sing for me, Ben?' And she switched on the lights on the table beside the couch. We blinked at each other, owl-eyed in the muted glow. Her face was flushed rosily, and her hair a dark unruly tumble.
'Yes,' I said, 'I want to sing.' I went through into my dressing-room and took the guitar from the cupboard, and as I closed the door there was my reflection in the full-length mirror.
I looked with full attention, for a stranger stood before me. The coarse black hair framed a square face, with dark eyes and girlishly long lashes, a heavy simian jaw and a long pale forehead. The stranger was smiling at me, half shy - half proud.
I glanced down the strange, telescoped body over which I had agonized since childhood. The legs and arms were over-developed, thick and knotted with slabs of muscle, the limbs of a giant. Instinctively I glanced at the bodybuilder's weights in the corner of the room - and then back to the mirror. I was perfect around the edges - but in the centre was this squat, humped, toad-like torso, covered in a shaggy pelt of curly black hair. I looked at that remarkable body, and for the first time in my life, I did not hate it.
I went back to where Sally still lay on the soft monkey-skin kaross that covered the couch. I hopped up, and squatted cross-legged beside her with the guitar in my lap.
'Sing sad - please, Ben,' she whispered.
'But I'm happy, Sal.'
'Sing a sad song - one of your own sad ones,' she insisted, and as I picked out the first notes she closed her eyes. I was grateful, for I had never had a woman's body to gloat over. I leaned forward and as I touched the singing strings, I caressed the long smooth length of her with my eyes, the pale planes and rounds and secret shadows. Flesh that had cradled mine - how I loved it! I sang:
'In the lonely desert of my soul, The nights are long, And no other traveller journeys there. O'er the lonely oceans of my mind The winds blow strong--'
And in a short while a tear squeezed out behind her closed lids for there is a magic in my voice which can call up tears or laughter. I sang until my throat was rough and my picking finger tender. Then I laid the guitar aside and went on looking at her. Without opening her eyes she turned her head slightly towards me.
'Tell me about you and Louren Sturvesant,' she said. 'I would like to understand about that.'
The question took me by surprise, and I was silent for a moment. She opened her eyes.
'I'm sorry, Ben. You don't have to--'
'No,' I answered quickly. 'I'd like to talk about it. You see, I think you were wrong about him. I don't think you can apply ordinary standards to them - the Sturvesants. Louren and his father, when he was alive, that is. My own father worked for them. He died of a broken heart a year after my mother. Mr Sturvesant had heard of my academic record, and of course my father had been a loyal employee. There are a few of us, the Sturvesant orphans. We have nothing but the best. I went to Michaelhouse, the same school as Louren. A Jew at a church school, and a crippleat that - you can imagine how it was. Small boys are such utterly merciless little monsters. Louren dragged me out of the urinal where four of them were trying to drown me. He beat the daylights out of them, and after that I was his charge. I have been ever since. He finances this Institute, every penny of it. At first it was something just for me, but little by little he has become more and more involved. It's his hobby and my life - you will be surprised how knowledgeable he is. He loves this land, just as you and I do. He is caught up in its history and future more than you or I will ever be--' I broke off, for she was staring at me in a way that seemed to pierce my soul.
'You love him, Ben, don't you?'
I blushed then, and dropped my eyes. 'How do you mean that--'
'Oh, for God's sake, Ben,' she interrupted impatiently. 'I don't mean queer. You just proved the opposite. But I mean love, in the biblical sense.'
'He has been father, protector, benefactor and friend to me. The only friend I've ever had. Yes, you could say I love him.'
She reached up and touched my cheek.
'I'll try to like him. For your sake.'
It was still dark when we drove in through the gates of Grand Central Airport. Sal was huddled into her coat, silent and withdrawn. I was light-headed and brittle-feeling from a night of love and talk without sleep. There were floodlights picking out the private Sturvesant hangar at the east end of the runway, and as we approached I saw Louren's Ferrari parked in his reserved bay, and beside it another half-dozen late model saloons gleaming in the floods.
'Oh God,' I groaned. 'He's got the whole team with him.'
I parked beside the Ferrari, and Sal and I began unloading our equipment from the boot. She picked up her easel and slung it over her shoulder, then with a huge folder of parchment in one hand and a box of paints in the other she ducked through the wicket gate into the hangar. I should have gone with her, of course, but I was so absorbed in checking my luggage that it was three or four minutes before I followed her. By then it was too late.
As I stepped through the low aperture into the brightly lit hangar, my stomach churned with alarm. The gleaming sharklike silhouette of the Lear jet formed a backdrop for a tension-charged tableau. Seven of Louren's bright young men clad in the regulation casual garb - smartly cut safari suits and fleece-lined car coats - stood in a discreet circle about the two protagonists.
Louren Sturvesant very rarely loses his temper, and when he does it is only after severe and prolonged provocation. However, in less than two minutes Sally Benator had managed to achieve what many experts before her had never accomplished. Louren was in a towering, shaking, tight-lipped rage, which had his seven B.Y.M. awed and slack-mouthed.
Sally had dropped her load of equipment on the concrete floor and was standing with clenched fists on her hips and bright explosions of colour burning in her cheeks, trading Louren glare for glare.
'Dr Kazin told me I could come.'
'I don't care if the goddam King of bloody England told you that you could come. I'm telling you that the plane is full - and that I have no intention of dragging a female with me on the first break I've had in six months.'
'I didn't realize it was a pleasure jaunt--'
'Will somebody throw this bitch out of here?' shoutedLouren, and the B.Y.M. roused themselves and made a tentative advance. Sally picked up the heavy wooden easel, and held it in both hands. The advance petered out. I scuttled into the void and grabbed Louren's arm.
'Please, Lo. Can we talk?' I almost dragged him into the flight office - although I thought I detected a twinge of relief from Louren as I rescued him.
'Look I'm terribly sorry about this, Lo. I didn't have a chance to explain--'
Five minutes later Louren strode out of the office, and without a glance at either Sal or the frozen group of B.Y.M., climbed into the jet and a moment later his head appeared beside that of the pilot in the window of the cockpit as he adjusted his earphones.
I went to the junior B.Y.M. and gave him the word of the law.
'Mr Sturvesant asked me to tell you to arrange a charter to Gaberones for yourself.' Then 1 turned to the others. 'I wonder if you could give us a hand with the luggage.'
While a gang of the most highly paid stevedores in Africa carried Sally's luggage, she preened with shameless triumph. I managed to whisper a harsh warning.
'Back seat,' I snapped. 'And try and make yourself invisible. You will never know how close that was. Not only did you nearly miss the trip, but you almost talked yourself out of a job.'
We had been airborne for ten minutes before the pilot came back along the aisle. He stopped beside us and looked at Sal with open admiration.
'Jesus, lady.' He shook his head. 'I would have given a month's salary not to miss that! You were great.'
Sally, who had been suitably subdued since my warning, immediately perked up.
'With boys that size I don't even spit out the bones,' she declared, and a couple of B.Y.M. who heard it swivelled in their seats with startled expressions.
The pilot laughed delightedly and turned to me. 'The man wants to speak to you, Doctor. I'll change places with you.'
Louren was chit-chatting with flight control over the radio, but he waved me into the co-pilot's seat and I squeezed behind the wheel and waited. Louren ended his transmission and turned to me.
'I've eaten.'
He ignored it and passed me a leg of cold turkey, and a huge slice of chicken and egg pie from the hamper beside him.
'Coffee in the Thermos. Help yourself.'
'Did you get your £25 million loan?' I asked with a full mouth.
'Yes - despite a last-minute panic.'
'I didn't think you needed to borrow, Lo. Have you fallen on hard times?'
'Oil prospecting.' He laughed at my suggestion. 'Risk money. I prefer to gamble with other people's money, and play the certainties with my own.' He changed the subject smoothly. 'Sorry about the detour. I am dropping the boys off at Gaberones. They've got a series of meetings with the Botswana government. Routine stuff, just settling the details of the concession. Anyway, it's not too far off our course. Then we can press on alone.' He filled his mouth with turkey and spoke around it. 'Met. report is lousy, Ben. Thick cloud down on the deck over the whole northern area. Happens about once in three years that you get low overcast in the desert - but today's the day. Anyway we'll have a stab at picking up the hills and the ruins, no harm done if we can't though. We'll not learn anything more from the air.' He was relaxed and easy, not a trace of his early rage, he could switch it on or off as he wished, and we talked and laughed together. I knew his mood, it was holiday and release. He was truly looking forward to it.Lost city or no lost city, it was an excuse to get out into the wild country that he loved.
'This is like the old days God. Ben, how long is it since we got away together? Must be all of ten years. Remember the canoe trip down the Orange River - when was that? 1956 or '7? And the expedition to find the wild bushmen.'
'We must do it more often, Lo.'
'Yes,' he said, really meaning it: as though he had a choice. 'We must, but there is so little time. It's running out so quickly - I'll be forty years old next year.' And his voice was wistful. 'God. If only we could buy time with money!'
'We've got five days,' I said, heading the conversation away from the quicksands, and he picked it up eagerly. It was another half an hour before he mentioned Sally.
'That assistant of yours, the prize fighter. What's her name?' And I told him.
'Are you having it away with her?' he asked. It was said so naturally, so casually, that for an instant I did not realize what had been said. Then I felt my vision blur with red rage, felt the blood pound in my temples and heat my throat and face. I think I could have killed him then, but instead I lied in a thick, shaken voice.
'No,' I said.
'Just as well,' he grunted. 'She's a wild one. Well, as long as she doesn't mess up the trip.' If only I had told him then, but it was too private a thing - too precious and fragile to despoil with words, especially the words he had chosen. Then the moment was passed, and I was sitting trembling and shaky as he talked on lightly about the five days ahead.
As we flew the cloud solidified beneath us, congealing into a dirty greyish blanket that stretched away in all directions to the horizon. We crossed the border between South Africa and the independent African state of Botswana. At Gaberones the ceiling was down to a thousandfeet when we landed. Despite Louren's assurance that we would be speedily airborne once more, there was a deputation of senior government officials, and an invitation to drinks and food in a private dining-room of the airport. Hot, sticky weather with intent white faces talking softly and greedily to shiny intent black faces - all of them sweating in the heat and whisky fumes, and the thick swirls of cigar and cigarette smoke.
Three hours more before the Lear jet with just four of us aboard slashed up into the cloud cover, then burst through into the high bright sunshine.
'Wow!' said Louren. 'An expensive little party. That black bastard Ngelane has just raised the price of his honour by another 20,000. I'll have to square him, of course. He could squash the whole deal. It has to go through his ministry.'
Louren flew northwards with the map on his lap and a stopwatch in his hand. His eyes darted from compass to airspeed indicator and back to the watch.
'Okay, Ben. You'd better let Roger take over the controls. We'll go down into the porridge and take a look-see.'
With Louren and the pilot, Roger van Deventer, at the controls and Sal and I braced in the doorway of the cockpit behind them, the jet slanted down towards the floor of dirty cloud. A few wisps of the stuff flickered past and then suddenly the sun was gone and we were enfolded in the dark grey mist.
Roger was flying, his attention completely on the instrument panel, and as the needle of the altimeter slowly unwound I saw his hands tightening on the wheel. We dropped steadily lower through the grey filth. Now Roger pulled on the flaps and airbrakes and throttled back. The three of us staring forward and down for the first glimpse of the earth. Down we sank, and still down. The pilot's tension turned to active fear. I could smell it, the rankgreasy tang of it. It was infectious. If he, the hardened fly-bird, was afraid, then I was prepared to be terrified. I knew suddenly that rather than risk Louren's wrath he would fly us straight into the ground. I decided to intervene, and opened my mouth. It was unnecessary.
'Overflown,' grunted Louren, checking the stopwatch. 'Ease up, Rog.'
'Sorry, Mr Sturvesant, there is no bottom to this stuff.' Roger said it like a sigh, and lifted the Lear's nose. He opened the throttle and let off the airbrakes.
'No go!' I murmured with relief. 'Forget it, Lo. Let's go on to Maun.'
Louren turned to look back at me, and instead looked into Sally's face. She stood behind his shoulder. I could not see her expression, but I could guess what it was by the tone in which she asked softly, 'Chicken?'
Louren stared at her a moment longer, then he grinned. I could have turned Sally over my knee and beaten that luscious backside to a pulp. The warm active fear I had felt the minute before, turned now to cold numbing terror for I had seen Louren grin like that before.
'Okay, Roger,' he said, slipping the map and stopwatch into the pocket beside his seat. 'I've got her.' And the Lear stood on one wing as he pulled her around in a maximum-rate turn. It was so finely executed that Sally and I merely sagged a little at the knees as gravity caught us.
He levelled out and flew for three minutes on even keel, retracing our course. I stole a glance at Sally's face. It was bright-eyed, and flushed with excitement - she was staring ahead into the impenetrable murk.
Again Louren banked the aircraft steeply and came out of the turn flying the reciprocal of our previous course and eased the nose downwards. This was no cautious groping with flaps and half throttle. Louren flew us in boldly and fast. Sally's hand groped for mine and squeezed. I was afraid and angry with both of them, I was too old for thesechildren's games, but I returned her grip. As much for my own comfort as hers.
'Christ, Lo,' I blurted. 'Take it easy, will you!' And no one took the least notice of me. Roger was frozen in his seat, hands gripping the armrests, staring ahead. Louren was deceptively relaxed behind the controls, as he hurtled us into mortal danger - and Sally, damn her, was grinning all over her face and hanging on to my icy hand like a child on a roller coaster.
Suddenly we were into rain, pearly strings and snakes of it writhing back over the rounded Perspex windscreen. I tried to protest again, but my voice stuck somewhere in my parched throat. There was wind outside now. It buffeted the sleek gleaming body of the Lear, and the wings rocked. I felt like crying. I didn't want to die now. Yesterday would have been fine, but not after last night.
Before my own reflexes had even registered, Louren had seen the ground and caught the headlong plunge of the jet. With a soft shudder that threw Sally and me gently together he pulled us up level with the earth.
This was even more terrifying than the blind fall through space. The dark hazy outlines of the low scrubby tree-tops flicked by our wingtips close enough to touch, while ahead of us through the rain-mist an occasional big baobab tree loomed and Louren eased the jet over its greedily clutching branches. Seconds that seemed like a lifetime passed, then abruptly the filthy curtains of rain and cloud were stripped aside and we burst into a freak hole in the weather.
There before us, full in our path and washed by watery sunlight, stood a rampart of red stone cliffs. It was only the merest fleeting glimpse of red rock rushing down on us, then Louren had dragged the jet up on its tail and the rock seemed almost to scrape our belly as we slid over the crest and arrowed upwards into the clouds with the force of gravity squashing me down on buckling knees.
No one spoke until we had plunged out into the sunlight high above. Sally softly disengaged her hand from mine as Louren turned in his seat to look at us. I noticed with grim satisfaction that both he and Sally were looking slightly greenish with reaction. They stared at each other for a moment. Then Louren snorted with laughter.
'Look at Ben's face!' he roared and Sally thought that was very funny. When they finished laughing, Sally asked eagerly:
'Did anyone see the ruins? I just got a glimpse of the hills, but did anyone see the ruins?'
'The only thing I saw,' muttered Roger, 'was my own hairy little ring.' And I knew how he felt.
The cloud was breaking up by the time we reached Maun. Roger took us in through a gap and put us down sedately, and Peter Larkin was waiting for us.
Peter is one of the very few left. An anachronism, complete with fat cartridges looped to the breast of his bush jacket and his trousers tucked into the tops of mosquito boots. He has a big red beefy face and huge hands, the right index finger scarred by the recoil of heavy rifles. His single level of communication is a gravelly, whisky-raddled shout. He has no feelings and very little intelligence, so consequently never experiences fear. He has lived in Africa all his life and never bothered to learn a native language. He uses the lingua franca of South Africa, the bastard Fanagalo, and emphasizes his points with boots or fist. His knowledge of the animals on which he preys is limited to how to find them and where to aim to bring them down. Yet there is something appealing about him in an elephantine oafish way.
While his gang of hunting boys loaded our gear into the trucks he shouted amiable inanities at Louren and me.
'Wish I was coming with you. Got this bunch of Yanks arriving tomorrow - with a big sack of green dollars. Short notice, you gave me, Mr Sturvesant. But I'm giving you my best boys. Good rains in the south, be plenty of game in the area. Should run into gemsbok this time of year. And jumbo, of course, shouldn't be surprised if you get a simba or two--'
The coy use of pet names for game animals sickens me, especially when the intention is to blast them with a high-velocity rifle. I went to where Sally was supervising the packing of our gear.
'It's after one o'clock already,' she protested. 'When do we get cracking?'
'We'll probably push through to the top end of the Makarikari Pan tonight. It's about 200 miles on a fair road. Tomorrow we'll bash off into the deep bush.'
'Is Ernest Hemingway coming with us?' she asked, eyeing Peter Larkin with distaste.
'No such luck,' I assured her. I was trying to form some idea of those who were accompanying us. Two drivers, their superior status evident in the white shirts, long grey slacks and shod feet, with paisley-patterned scarves knotted at the throat. One for each of the three-ton trucks. Then there was the cook, carrying a lot of weight from his sampling, skin glossy from good food. Two gnarled and grey-headed gunboys who had jealously taken out Louren's sporting rifles from the other luggage, had unpacked them from their travelling cases, and were now fondling and caressing them lovingly. These were the elite and took no part in the frenzied scurryings of the camp boys as they packed away our gear. Bamangwatos most of them, I listened briefly to their chattering. The gunboys were Matabele, as was to be expected, and the drivers wereShangaans. Good, I would understand every word spoken on this expedition.
'By the way, Sal,' I told her quietly, 'don't let on that I speak the language.'
'Why?' She looked startled.
'I like to monitor the goings-on and if they know I understand they'll freeze.'
'Svengali!' She pulled a face at me. I don't think I'd have laughed if anyone else had called me that. It was a bit too close to the bone. We went to shake hands and say goodbye to Roger, the pilot.
'Don't frighten the lions,' Roger told Sally. Clearly she had made another conquest. He climbed into the jet and we stood in a group and watched him taxi out to the end of the runway and then take off and wing away southwards.
'What are we waiting for?' asked Louren.
'What indeed,' I agreed.
Louren took the wheel of the Land-Rover and I climbed in beside him. Sally was in the back seat with the gunbearers on the bench seats.
'With you two - I feel a damned sight safer on the ground,' I said.
The road ran through open scrubland and baobab country. Dry and sun-scorched. The Land-Rover lifted a pale bank of drifting dust, and the two trucks followed us at a distance to let it settle.
There were occasional steep, rock-strewn dry river-beds to cross, and at intervals we passed villages of mud and thatched huts where the naked pot-bellied piccaninnies lined the side of the road to wave and sing, as though we were royalty. Sally soon ran out of pennies, throwing them to watch the resulting scramble, and clapping her hands with delight. When she started tossing our lunch outof the window I pulled my guitar from its case to distract her.
'Sing happy, Ben,' Sally instructed.
'And bawdy,' added Louren, I think it was to needle her, or perhaps test her.
'Yes,' agreed Sally readily. 'Make it meaty and happy.'
And I started with the saga of the Wild, Wild Duck, with Sal and Louren shouting the chorus at the end of each verse.
We were children going on a picnic that first day out, and we made a good run of it to the pan. The sun was a big fat ball of fire amongst the tattered streamers of cloud on the horizon when we came out on the edge of the pan. Louren parked the Land-Rover and we climbed out to wait for the trucks and stared out with silent awe across that sombre, glistening salt plain that stretched away to the range of the eye.
When the trucks arrived they spilled their load of black servants before they had properly stopped, and I timed it at seventeen and a half minutes to when the tents were pitched, the camp-beds made up and the three of us sitting around the fire, drinking Glen Grant malt on the rocks of glistening ice that dewed the glasses. From the cooking fire drifted the tantalizing smell of the hunter's pot as our cook reheated it and tossed in a dash more garlic and origanum. They were a good, cheerful gang that Larkin had given us and after we had eaten they gathered around their own fire fifty yards away and sweetened the night with old hunting songs.
I sat and listened half to them, and half to the involved and heated argument between Sal and Louren. I could have warned her that he was playing the devil's advocate, needling her again, but I enjoyed the interplay of two good minds. Whenever the discussion threatened to degenerate into personal abuse and actual physical violence, I intervened reluctantly and herded them back to safety.
Sally was staunchly defending the premise of my book Ophir that postulated an invasion of southern central Africa by Phoenician or Carthaginian colonizers in about 200 B.C. and which flourished until about A.D. 450, before disappearing abruptly.
'They were not equipped for a major voyage of discovery as early as that,' Louren challenged. 'Let alone a colonizing . . '
'You will find, Mr Sturvesant, that Herodotus records a circumnavigation of Africa in the reign of King Necho. It was led by six Phoenician navigators as early as 600 B.C. or thereabouts. They started at the apex of the Red Sea and in three years returned through the Pillars of Hercules.'
'A single voyage,' Louren pointed out.
'Not a single voyage, Mr Sturvesant. Hanno sailed from Gibraltar to a point south in the west coast of Africa in about 460 B.C. a voyage from which he returned with bartered ivory and gold sufficient to whet the appetites of all the merchant adventurers.'
Still Louren attacked her dates. 'How do you get a date of 200 B.C., when the very earliest carbon-datings from the foundations of Zimbabwe are mid-fifth century A.D. and most of them are later?'
'We aren't concerned with Zimbabwe, but with the culture that preceded it,' Sally came back at him. 'Zimbabwe could have been built towards the end of the ancients' reign, probably only occupied for a short time before they disappeared; that would fit neatly with your carbon-dating of around A.D. 450. Besides the carbon-dating from the ancient mines at Shala and Inswezwe show results at 250 and 300 B.C.' Then she ended it with fine feminine logic. 'Anyway, carbon-dating isn't that accurate. It could be out by hundreds of years.'
'The mines were worked by the Bantu,' declared Louren. 'And Caton-Thompson - and of course, more recently, Summers - said--'
Fiercely she attacked Louren. 'Did the Bantu, who only probably arrived in the area about A.D. 300, suddenly conceive of a brilliant prospecting talent which enabled them to locate the metal lodes where not a scrap of it showed in the ore as visible gold or copper? Did they at the same time develop engineering know-how that enabled them to remove 250,000,000 tons of ore from rock at depth - remember they had never demonstrated these talents before - and did they abruptly forget or cease to use them for another thousand years?'
'Well, the Arab traders - they may have--' Louren began but Sally rode over him without a check.
'Why did they mine it at such risk and expenditure of energy? Gold has no value to the Bantu - cattle are their standard of wealth. Where did they learn how to dress and use rock for building? The Bantu had never done it before. Suddenly the art was fully fledged and highly skilled, and then instead of becoming more refined, the art deteriorated rapidly and then died out.'
With assumed reluctance Louren retreated steadily before her onslaughts, but he made his final stand when my own theory of incursion from the west instead of the east came under discussion. Louren had read the views and arguments of all my many detractors and critics and he repeated them now.
The accepted theory was that the point of entry was from the Sofala coast, or the mouth of the Zambezi. I had put forward the theory, based on the evidence of early texts and extensive excavations of my own, that a Mediterranean people left that sea through the Pillars of Hercules, and voyaged steadily down the western coast of Africa, probably establishing trading stations on the Gold, Ivory and Nigerian coasts, until their southward explorations led them into an unpeopled vacuum. I guessed at a river mouth long since dried and silted or altered in its course and depth in the present day. A river that drained what then wouldhave been the huge lakes of Makarikari, Ngami, and others long since disappeared, shrivelled by the progressive desiccation of southern Africa. They entered the river, possibly the Cunene or the Orange, journeyed up it to the source, and from there sent their metallurgists overland to discover the ancient mines of Manica - and who knows but they discovered the diamonds in the gravel of the lakes and rivers, and certainly they would have hunted the vast herds of elephant that roamed the land. Sufficient wealth to justify the establishment of a city, a great walled fortress and trading station. Where would they site this city? Clearly at the limit of water-borne travel. On the shores of the furthest lake. Makarikari, perhaps? Or the lake that overflowed the present boundaries of the great salt pan.
Sally and Louren argued with increasing acrimony and bitterness. Sally called him 'an impossible man', and he countered with 'madam know-it-all'. Then suddenly Louren capitulated and the next minute all three of us were joyously anticipating the discovery of the lost city of Makarikari.
'The lake would have spread at least fifty miles beyond the boundaries of the present pan,' Louren pointed out. 'Only a hundred years ago Burchell describes Lake Ngami as an inland sea, and nowadays it's a puddle you can jump across without straining yourself. It's altogether probable that the ancient lake extended to the foot of the hills on which our ruins are placed. We have plenty of evidence of the gradual desiccation and drying up of southern Africa, read Cornwallis Harris' description of the forests and rivers which no longer exist.'
'Ben.' Sally grabbed my arm with excitement. 'The crescent-shape of the city, do you remember me puzzling on it? It could be the shape of the ancient harbour with the town following the shoreline!'
'God,' Louren whispered. 'I can hardly wait for tomorrow.'
It was after midnight, and the whisky bottles had taken a terrible beating before Louren and Sally went off to their tents. I knew I could not sleep so I left the camp, passing the fire around which lay the blanket-cocooned bodies of our servants, and I walked out onto the surface of the pan. The stars lit the salt a ghastly grey, and it crunched crisply with each pace I took. I walked for a long time, stopping once to listen to the distant roaring of a lion, from the edge of the bush. When I returned to the camp a lantern still burned in Sally's tent, and her silhouette was magnified against the pale canvas, a huge, dark portrait of my love. She was reading, sitting cross-legged upon her camp-bed, but as I watched she reached across and extinguished the lantern.
I waited a while, gathering my courage, then I went to her tent, and my heart threatened to hammer its way out of its malformed rib-cage.
'Ben?' she answered my whisper softly.
'May I come in?' She hesitated before she replied.
'All right - just for a minute.'
I went into the tent, and in the gloom her nightdress was a pale blur. I groped for her face, and touched her cheek.
'I came to tell you that I love you,' I said softly, and I heard her little catch of breath in the dark. When she answered her voice was gentle.
'Ben,' she whispered. 'Dear, sweet Ben.'
'I would like to be with you tonight.'
And it seemed to me there was regret in her voice as she replied, 'No, Ben. Everyone would know about it. I don't want that.'
The morning started off as the previous day had ended. Everybody was in high spirits, laughing at the breakfast table. The servants sky-larked as they broke camp and repacked the trucks - and by seven o'clock we had left the road and were following the edge of the pan. The Land-Rover leading and the trucks following our tracks through scrub and rank grass, and across the dry ravines which meandered down to the pan.
We had been going for an hour when I saw a flash of pale movement among the trees ahead of us, and three stately gemsbok broke out onto the open pan and trotted in single file away from us. They moved heavily, like fat ponies, the pale mulberry of their coats and the elaborate black and white face masks standing out clearly against the grey of the pan surface.
Louren slammed the brakes on the Land-Rover, and with the smoothly executed timing of the professional the old Matabele gunbearer put the big .375 Magnum Holland Holland into Louren's hand and he was gone, running doubled-up behind the fringe of grass that lined the edge of the pan.
'Is he going to kill them?' asked Sally in her little girl voice. I nodded and she went on, 'Why - but why?'
'It's one of the things he likes doing.'
'But they are so beautiful,' she protested.
'Yes,' I agreed. Out on the pan, about six hundred yards from the Land-Rover, the gemsbok had stopped. They were standing broadside to us. Staring at us intently with heads held high, and long slender horns erect.
'What's he doing?' Sal pointed at Louren who was still running along the edge of the pan.
'He's playing by the rules,' I explained. 'It's an offence to fire within 500 yards of a vehicle.'
'Jolly sporting,' she muttered, biting her lip and glancing from Louren to the distant gemsbok. Then suddenly she had jumped from the Land-Rover and clambered up ontothe engine bonnet. She cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled.
'Run you fools. Run, damn you!'
She snatched her hat and waved it over her head, jumping up and down on the bonnet and howling like a banshee. Out on the pan the gemsbok erupted into startled flight, galloping diagonally away from us in a bunch. I glanced at Louren's small figure, and saw him drop into a sitting position with elbows braced on his knees, head cocked over the telescopic sight. The rifle jerked, and smoke spurted from the muzzle - but it was a second or two before the flat report of the shot reached us. Out on the pan the leading gemsbok slid over his nose and rolled in a drift of white dust. Louren fired again, and the second animal tumbled with legs kicking to the sky. The last gemsbok ran on alone.
Behind me the old gunbearer spoke to the other in Sindebele. 'Hou! This is much man.'
Sally climbed down off the bonnet, and sat silently while I drove to where Louren waited. He handed the rifle to the gunbearer, and as I relinquished the wheel to him the bitter tang of burnt cordite filled the cab of the Land-Rover. He glanced at Sally. 'Thanks,' he said, 'I prefer a running shot.'
'Why didn't you kill all three of them?' Her tone was neutral, without rancour.
'You are only allowed two on a licence.'
'Christ,' said Sally in a voice that now reeked of anger and outrage, 'how bloody touching. It's not often you meet a true gentleman.'
And Louren drove us out to where the dead animals lay. While the servants skinned and butchered the carcasses, Sally remained in the back seat with her face averted, her hat pulled down low over her forehead, and her eyes glued to a book.
I stood beside Louren in the bright sunlight that wasintensified by the glare of the white salt surface, and watched the gunboys cut the incisions in the skin and flay the gemsbok with the skill of a pair of Harley Street surgeons.
'You might have warned me we had one of them on this trip,' Louren told me bitterly. 'Am I ever regretting having given in to you and letting her come along!'
I didn't reply and he went on, 'I've a bloody good mind to send her back to Maun on one of the trucks.' The suggestion was so unworkable that it didn't give me even a twinge, and Louren went on immediately, 'She's your assistant - try and keep her under control, will you!'
I moved away, giving him time to recover his temper, and took the map-case from the seat beside Sally. She didn't look up from her book. I walked around the vehicle and spread the aeronautical large-scale map on the bonnet of the Land-Rover, and within two minutes Louren was with me. Navigation is one of his big things, and he fancies himself no end.
'We'll leave the pan here,' he pointed to where a dry river-bed joined the eastern extremity of the pan, 'and strike in on a compass-bearing.'
'What kind of going will we meet, I wonder.'
'Sand veld, like as not. I've never been in there before.'
'Let's ask the drivers,' I suggested.
'Good idea.' Louren called the two of them across and the gunboys, who had by now finished the skilled work and were leaving the rest to the camp boys, joined us as was their right.
'This is where we want to go to.' Louren pointed it out on the map. 'These hills here. They haven't got a name marked, but they run in line with the edge of the pan, like this.'
It took a moment or two for the drivers to figure out their bearings on the chart, and then a remarkable changecame over both of them. Their features dissolved into blank masks of incomprehension.
'What kind of country is it between the pan and the hills?' Louren asked. He had not sensed the change in them. The drivers exchanged furtive glances.
'Well?' asked Louren.
'I do not know that country. I have never heard of these hills,' Joseph, the elder driver, muttered, and then went on to give himself the lie. 'Besides there is much sand, and there are river-beds which one cannot cross.'
'There is no water,' agreed David, the second driver. 'I have never been there. I have never heard of these hills either.'
'What do the white men seek?' asked the old gunboy in Sindebele. It was obvious that maps meant nothing to him.
'They want to go to Katuba Ngazi,' the driver explained quickly. They were all convinced by now that neither Louren nor I had mastery of the language, and that they could speak freely in front of us. This then was the first time I heard the name spoken. Katuba Ngazi - the Hills of Blood.
'What have you told them?' demanded the gunbearer.
'That we do not know the place.'
'Good,' the gunbearer agreed. 'Tell them that there are no elephant there, that the wild animals are south of the pan.' The driver dutifully relayed this intelligence, and was disappointed in our obvious lack of dismay.
'Well,' Louren told them pleasantly, 'you will learn something today. For the first time you will see these hills.' He rolled up the map. 'Now get the meat loaded and let us go on.'
In five minutes the whole tone of the expedition had changed. Sally and the entire staff were all in the deepest depression. The smiles and horse-play were gone, therewere sulky faces and meetings in muttering groups. The tempo of work dropped to almost zero, and it took almost half an hour to load the butchered gemsbok. While this was happening I led Louren away from the cluster of vehicles out of earshot and quickly told him of the exchange between the African servants.
'Hills of Blood! Wonderful!' Louren enthused. 'It means that almost certainly they know about the ruins - there is probably a taboo on them.'
'Yes,' I agreed. 'But now we are going to have to watch for attempts to sabotage the trip. Look at them.' We turned to watch the slow-motion, almost somnambulistic movements of our staff. 'My guess is that it's going to take longer to reach the Hills of Blood than we allowed for.'
We got off the pan once more, for the going is suspect with soft places beneath the crust that will bog a vehicle, and we followed the firm but sandy ground along the edge. We crossed another of the steep ravines, after having scouted for a place where the banks were flattened, and drove on for twenty minutes before we realized that neither of the trucks was following us. After waiting ten minutes, with both Louren and I fuming impatiently, we turned back and retraced our course to the dry river-bed.
One truck was hanging half over the edge of the ravine, one front wheel and one rear wheel not touching earth, but its belly heavily grounded. The other truck was parked nearby, and fourteen grown men were sitting or standing around in various attitudes of relaxation without making the least attempt to free the stranded truck.
'Joseph,' Louren called the driver. 'How did this happen?'
Joseph shrugged his shoulders disinterestedly, but he was having difficulty hiding his satisfaction.
'All right, gentlemen, let's get it out,' Louren suggested with heavy irony. Half an hour later, despite the ladylike efforts of all fourteen of them, and despite Joseph's heartyclashing of gears and desperate engine racing and stalling, the truck still hung over the edge of the ravine. Finally they all climbed out of the ravine and looked at Louren and me with interest.
'Okay, Ben?' Louren turned to me as he began to strip his bush jacket.
'All right, Lo,' I agreed. I was delighted to see how well Louren had taken care of himself. His body looked rock-hard, and denuded of fatty tissue. At six foot two, he carried a mass of muscle whose outlines beneath the skin were unblurred.
I kept my shirt on. My body, although it has the same utility as Louren's, is not so good to look at.
'Front end first,' Louren suggested.
The truck had been unloaded, petrol tank about half filled, I estimated the front end weight at a little over two thousand pounds. I windmilled my arms as I looked at the problem, loosening up cold muscles. The servants looked puzzled, and one of them giggled. Even Sally put aside her book and climbed out of the Land-Rover to watch.
Louren and I went to the front of the truck and stooped to it, placing our hands carefully, bending at the knee, spreading our legs a little.
'All the way, partner?'
'All the way, Lo.' I grinned back at him, and we began the lift. I started slow, just taking up the slack in my muscles, bringing on the strain evenly and letting it build up in shoulders, thighs and belly. It was a dead unmoving mass and I started to burn the reserves, feeling the tension turn to pain and my breathing start to scald my throat.
'Now,' grunted Louren beside me, and I let it all come, rearing back against it with my vision starting to star and pinwheel. It came away smoothly in our hands, and I heard the gasps and startled explanations from the watchers.
We lifted the front of the truck clear of the ravine, went around to the back and did the same there. Then westarted to laugh, a little shakily at first, but building up to a full gale. Louren put his arm around my shoulder and led me back to face our retinue of retainers who were looking discomfited and uneasy.
'You are - ' Louren told them, still laughing, '- a bunch of frail old women and giggling virgins. Translate that for them, Joseph.'
I noticed that Joseph gave them a correct rendition of this pleasantry.
'And as for you, Joseph, you are a fool.' Louren stepped away from me towards Joseph, one quick dancing step, and hit him with an open hand across the side of the head. The sound of it was shockingly loud, and the force of it spun Joseph fully around in a tight circle before throwing him to the ground. He sat up groggily, with a thin trickle of blood running out of the corner of his mouth where teeth had cut into the thick under lip.
'You see that I am still laughing,' Louren pointed out to his startled audience. 'I am not even angry yet. Think a while on what may happen to anyone who makes me really angry.'
The truck was reloaded with alacrity and we went on.
'Well,' said Sally, 'we can be sure of full co-operation for the rest of this trip. Why didn't the big white bwana use a sjambok, rather than soiling his hands?'
'Tell her, Ben.' Louren did not look around at either of us, while I told Sally quickly about the campaign of deliberate obstruction that we had run into.
'I'm sure Louren didn't enjoy hitting the man, Sal. But he ditched the truck deliberately. We've got three and a half days left to get to these Hills of Blood, and we can't afford any more tricks.'
Sally immediately forgot her concern for Joseph. 'Hills of Blood,' she gloated. 'My God, it conjures up visions of human sacrifice and--'
'More likely it's merely the red colour of the cliffs,' I suggested.
'And this taboo thing.' She ignored me. 'It must be because of the ruins! Oh God, I can feel it in my blood - temples stuffed with treasures, relics and written records of a whole civilization, tombs, weapons--'
'You will notice my assistant's unbiased, unromantic and thoroughly scientific approach,' I pointed out to Louren, and he grinned.
'It irks me like hell, but for once I feel the way she does,' Louren admitted.
'For once that makes you smart, dearie,' Sally told him tartly.
It was two in the afternoon before we reached the point on the eastern extremity of the pan where we were to cut off on compass for the hills, and almost immediately it became apparent that we would not reach them that day. The going was heavy, sand-veld clutched at the wheels of the vehicles and reduced our rate of progress to a low-gear slog. Half a dozen times the trucks bogged in the thick sand, and had to be dragged out by the four-wheel transmission of the Land-Rover. Each time this happened there was a profuse offering of apologies from the driver and crew concerned.
The sand had absorbed all traces of the recent rains, but they showed in the new growth of green that decked the thorn and acacia trees - and more dramatically in the display of wild flowers that were spread everywhere in carpets and thick banks.
Their seeds and bulbs had lain dormant for three long years of drought, waiting for this time of plenty - and now the bright crimson of King Chaka's fire burned brilliantlyamong the fields of Namaqua daisies. Star lilies, Ericas, golden Gazanias and twenty other varieties made a royal show, and helped to lessen the frustrations of our snail's progress.
At every enforced halt, I left the cursing and hustling to Louren, and wandered away from the vehicles with my camera.
Sunset found us still fifteen miles from the hills, and when I climbed into the top branches of the flat-topped acacia under which we camped, I could see their low outlines on the eastern horizon. The cliffs caught the last slanted rays of the sun, and glowed orange-red. I sat in the fork of the main trunk and watched them until the sun was gone and the hills melted into the dark sky.
A strange mood gripped me as I watched the far hills. A mystic sense of pre-destiny filled me with a languid melancholy - a sense of unease and disquiet.
When I climbed down into the camp, Louren sat alone by the fire, staring into the flames and drinking whisky.
'Where's Sally?' I asked.
'Gone to bed. In a sulk. We got into a discussion about blood sports and beating up blacks.' Louren glanced at her tent which glowed with internal lantern light. There was no singing from the servants' fire as Louren and I ate grilled gemsbok liver and bacon, washed down with warm red Cape wine. We sat in silence for a while after we had eaten, and finished the wine.
'I'm bushed,' Louren said at last, and stood up. 'I'll just call Larkin. I promised to check in every second night. See you in the morning, Ben.'
I watched him cross to the Land-Rover and switch on the two-way radio set. I heard Larkin's boozy voice through the buzz and crackle of static. I listened for a few minutes, while Louren made his report. Then I stood up also and moved away from the campfire.
Restless, and still under the spell of my mood of disquiet,I wandered into the dark again. The gemsbok carcasses had attracted a pack of hyena to the camp, and they giggled and screeched out among the thorn trees. So I kept close to camp, passing Sally's tent and pausing for a while to draw comfort from her nearness, then walked on towards the servants' fire. My feet made no sound in the soft sand, and one of the old gunbearers was speaking as I approached. He had the attention of all the others who squatted in a circle about the low fire. His words came to me clearly, and stirred my memory. I felt the tingle of them run along my spine, and the ghost fingers stroked my arms and neck bringing the hair erect.
'This evil to be cleaned from the earth and from the minds of men, for ever.'
The words were exactly those that Timothy Mageba had spoken - the same words, but in a different language. I stared fascinated at the lined and time-quarried features of the old Matabele. It was as though he sensed my scrutiny for he looked up and saw me standing in the shadows.
He spoke again, warning them. 'Be careful, the spider is here,' he said. They had named me for my small body and long limbs. His words released them from the spell that held them, they shuffled their feet and coughed, glancing at me. I turned and moved away, but the old Matabele's words stayed with me. They troubled me, increasing my restless mood.
Sally's tent was dark now, and Louren's also. I went to my own bed and lay awake far into the night, listening to the hyenas and pondering what tomorrow would bring. One thing was certain, by noon we would know if the patterns on the photograph were natural or man-made, and with that thought I at last fell asleep.
We could see the hills from the front seat of the Land-Rover by ten the following morning. They showed orange-red beyond the tops of the taller acacias, stretching across our front, higher at the centre of our horizon then dwindling in size as they strung out on either hand.
I took over the driving from Louren while he pored over map and photograph, directing me in towards the highest point of the cliffs. There was a distinctive clump of giant candelabra euphorbia trees on the skyline of the cliff - and these showed up clearly in the photograph. Louren was using them to orientate our approach.
The cliffs were between two and three hundred feet high, their exposed fronts furrowed and weather-worn, rising almost sheer to the crests. Later I was to find that they were a form of hardened sandstone heavily pigmented with mineral oxides. Below the cliffs grew a small grove of big trees, and it was clear that there was underground water trapped there to nourish these giants. Their exposed roots twisted and writhed up the face of the cliff like frenzied pythons, and their dense, dark green foliage was a welcome relief from the drab greenish grey of the thorn and acacia. In a strip about half a mile wide, the ground before the cliffs was open and sparsely covered with a low growth of scrub and pale grass.
I threaded the Land-Rover through the scrub towards the cliffs in a silence which momentarily grew more strained. Closer we crawled towards the towering red cliffs, until we had to crane our necks to look up at them.
Sally broke the silence at last, voicing our disappointment and chagrin. 'Well, we should be within the great walls of the main enclosure now - if there was one.'
We parked at the foot of the cliff and climbed out stiffly to look around us, subdued and reluctant to meet each other's eyes. There was no trace of a city, not a single dressed block of stone, not a raised mound of earth nor thefaintest outline of wall or keep. This was virgin African bush and kopje, untouched and unmarked by man.
'You're sure this is the right place?' Sally asked miserably, and we did not answer her. The trucks came up and parked. The servants climbed down in small groups, peering up at the cliffs and talking in hushed tones.
'All right,' said Louren. 'While they set up the camp we will scout the area. I will go along the cliff that way. You two go the other way - and, Ben, take my shotgun with you.'
We picked our way along the base of the cliff, through the grove of silent trees. Once we startled a small troop of vervet monkeys in the high branches and they fled through the tree-tops in shrieking consternation. Their antics couldn't raise a smile from either Sally or me. We paused to examine the cliff at intervals, but there was little enthusiasm or hope in our efforts. Three or four miles from camp we stopped to rest, sitting on a block of sandstone that had fallen out from the cliff face.
'I could cry,' said Sal. 'I really could.'
'I know. I feel the same way.'
'But the photograph. Damn it, there was definitely something showing. You don't think it's his idea of a joke, do you?'
'No.' I shook my head. 'Lo wouldn't do that. He was just as keen as we were.'
'Then what about the photograph?'
'I don't know. It was clearly some sort of optical illusion. The shadow from the cliff, and cloud perhaps.'
'But those patterns!' she protested. 'They are geometrical and symmetrical.'
'Light can play funny tricks, Sal,' I said. 'Remember that photograph was taken at six o'clock in the evening - almost sunset. Low sun throwing shadows, you could get almost any effect.'
'I think this is the most disappointing thing that hasever happened to me.' She really did look as though she might burst into tears, and I went to her shyly and put one long arm around her.
'I'm sorry,' I said, and she pulled a face and offered her lips to be kissed.
'Wow!' she said at last. 'Dr Kazin, you do carry on!'
'You ain't seen nothing yet.'
'I've seen too much.' She broke away gently. 'Come on, Ben. Let's circle back to camp, away from the cliff. There may be something out there.'
We tramped slowly through the heat. The flowers were out here also, and I noticed the bees crawling busily into the blossoms, their back legs thick with yellow pollen. We found where the recent rains had scoured a shallow ravine, although there was no remaining trace of moisture. I climbed down into the ravine and examined the exposed layers of stone and earth. Three feet from the surface the pebbles were rounded and water-worn.
'Good guess, Sal,' I told her as I picked out a few pebbles and found the shell of a bivalve encrusted in the half-formed sandstone. 'That proves at least a little of our theory. At one time this was the bed of a lake - look.'
Eagerly Sal clambered down beside me. 'What is it?'
'A type of unionidae, fresh-water African mussel.'
'I wish,' said Sally, 'that it were something a little more exciting.' She dropped the ancient shell in the sand.
'Yes,' I agreed, and climbed out of the ravine.
My only excuse is that my reasoning was clouded by intense disappointment and my recent physical excitement with Sally. I do not usually behave in such a cavalier fashion with scientific clues. Nor do I usually miss as many as four hints in the space of an hour. We walked away without a backward glance.
The camp was fully set up and functioning smoothly when Sal and I trailed in, sweaty and dusty, and sat down to lunch of tinned ham and Windhoek beer.
'Anything?' asked Louren, and we shook our heads in unison and lifted our beer glasses.
'Warm!' Sally spoke with disgust at her first taste of the beer.
'Cook has got the refrigerator going. It'll be cold by tonight.'
We ate in silence until Louren spoke. 'I raised Larkin on the radio while you were away. He will send in a helicopter tomorrow. We'll have a last search from the air. That will settle it once and for all. If there's nothing doing, I will fly out. Some things are brewing back in Johannesburg, and there is only one passenger seat, I'm afraid. You two will have to bus out the hard way.'
It was at that moment that a deputation arrived, headed by Joseph, to tell us that some unknown and foolish person had left the taps open on four of the water tanks. We had thirty-five gallons of water between seventeen people to last the rest of the trip.
'Therefore,' added Joseph, with evident relish, 'we will have to leave this place tomorrow, and return to the nearest water on the Maun road.'
There were a few expressions of disgust at this latest, clearly deliberate setback, but none of us could work up any real anger.
'All right, Joseph,' Louren agreed with resignation. 'Break camp tomorrow morning. We will leave before lunch.' There was an immediate improvement in employer-employee relations. I even noticed a few smiles, and heard a little laughter from the cooking fire.
'I don't know what you two intend doing this afternoon,' Louren lit a cigar as he spoke, 'but I noticed elephant spoor when I did my little recce this morning. I'm taking the Land-Rover and the gunbearers. Don't worry if I don't arrive back tonight, we may get hung up on the spoor.'
Sally looked up quickly; for a moment I thought she was going to start her anti-blood sport campaign again, butinstead she merely frowned and went back to her ham. I watched the Land-Rover drive off along the base of the cliff before I suggested to Sally:
'I'm going to try and find a path up to the top - do you want to come along?'
'Deal me out, Ben,' she answered. 'I think I'll do some sketching this afternoon.'
Hiding my disappointment as best I could, I set off along the base of the cliff, and within half a mile I had found a game trail leading into one of the bush-choked gullies that furrowed the face of red rock.
It was a steep climb and I toiled up with the sun burning onto my back and bouncing off the rock into my face. From cracks and crannies in the cliff-face an army of furry little rock rabbits watched my endeavours with avid interest. It was forty minutes before I came out on the top, my arms scratched by the thorny undergrowth of the gully and sweat soaking my shirt.
I found a good vantage point on the front edge of the cliff under the spreading shade of a giant euphorbia, and my first concern was to sweep with the binoculars for any trace of ruins. The thorn bush at the base of the cliff below me was fairly open and scantily grassed, and immediately it was obvious that there was no trace of any human habitation or cultivation. I shouldn't really have hoped for more, but disappointment gave a sickening little lurch in my guts. Then I dismissed it, and turned the glasses towards the camp far below. A Bantu was cutting firewood, and for a while I amused myself by watching the axe-stroke, then listening for the sound of the blow seconds later. I searched further from the camp and picked up Sally's rose-coloured blouse at the edge of the grove. She had obviously given up all hope of a major discovery and, sensible girl, was deriving what other enjoyment she could from the expedition. I watched her for a long time, trying to decidehow exactly to proceed with my campaign to make her my own. I had spent one night with her, but I was not so naïve as to believe that this proved a breathless and undying passion on behalf of a sophisticated highly intelligent and extravagantly educated modern Miss. Angel that she was, yet I was pretty damned certain that my Sally had played the game with other men before Dr Ben stumbled starry-eyed into her bed. The odds were extremely high she had been motivated by respect for my mind rather than my body, pity, and possibly a little perverse curiosity. However, I was almost certain she had not found the experience too repulsive, and I had only to keep working on her to change respect and pity into something a little deeper and more permanent.
A good quiet sense of peace came over me as I sat there in the high kranz; slowly I realized that this whole journey had been worthwhile and I found myself wishing that I could stay longer at these haunting Hills of Blood, with their mystery and silent beauty. Sally and I together here in the wilderness where I could teach her to love me.
A flicker of movement in the corner of my eye made me turn my head slowly, and within six feet of where I sat a marico sunbird was sucking the nectar from the blossoms of a wild aloe, its metallic green head shimmering as it dipped the long curved bill into the fiery red blossoms. I watched it with an intense pleasure, and when it was gone on quick darting wings I felt as though I had missed something. The feeling became stronger, making me restless; there was a message somewhere that was trying to come through to me but it was being blocked. I let my brain relax, and had the feeling that it was just there at the very fringe of my conscious mind. Another second and I would have it.
Dull on the hot breathless hush of afternoon the double boom-boom of distant heavy gunfire jerked my attentionaway. I sat up and listened for another thirty seconds - then it came again, boom, and again. Louren had found his elephant.
I picked Sally up in the field of the binoculars. She had heard it also, and was standing away from her easel staring out into the bush. I stood up also, my sudden restlessness still persisting, and started down the cliff path again. I could not shake off the mood, and it grew stronger. There is something here, I thought, something strange and inexplicable.
'You and I are lucky, my friend,' Timothy Mageba had told me once. 'We are marked by the spirits and we have the eye within that can see beyond, and the ear that can catch the sounds of silence.'
It was cool now in the heavily shaded gully and my shirt was still damp with sweat. I felt the goose pimples rising on my skin but not entirely from the chill. I began to hurry, I wanted to get back to the camp and Sally.
For dinner that night we ate grilled elephant heart sliced thin and covered with a biting pepper sauce, served with potatoes roasted in their jackets. The beer was icycold as Louren had promised, and he was in an expansive mood. It had been a good day's hunt, fully compensating him for the other disappointments. Lying in the lantern light beyond the fire were four long, curved yellow tusks of ivory.
When Louren sets out to be charming, he is irresistible. Although Sally tried to maintain a disapproving attitude at first, she soon succumbed to his charisma and she laughed with us when Louren gave us the toast, 'To the city that never was, and the treasure we didn't find.'
I went to bed a little drunk, and I dreamed strange dreams - but I woke in the morning clear-headed and with an unformed sense of excitement buoying me, as though today something good was going to happen.
The helicopter came out of the south an hour before noon, drawn to us by the smudge fires of oil-soaked rag; it sank noisily down towards the camp on its glistening silver rotor, and raised a whirlwind of dust and debris.
There was a brief conference with the dark-haired young pilot, then Louren climbed into the seat beside him and the ungainly craft lifted into the air once more and began a series of sweeps along the cliffs, rising higher with each pass until it was a dark insect speck in the aching blue of that hot high sky. Its manoeuvres were so clearly indicative of failure that Sally and I soon lost interest and went to sit in the shade of the dining tent.
'Well,' she said, 'that is that, I guess.'
I didn't answer her, but went to the refrigerator and brought us each a can of Windhoek. For the first time in days the fabled Kazin brain began running on all cylinders. Thirty gallons of water shared between two persons meant a gallon a day for two weeks. Water? There was something else about water in the back of my mind. Sally and water.
The helicopter landed once more on the outskirts of the camp, and Louren and the pilot came to the tent. Louren shook his head.
'No go. Nothing. We'll have a bite of lunch and be on our way. Leave you to make the best of it home.'
I nodded agreement, not telling him my plans to forestall any argument.
'Well, Ben, I'm sorry about this. I just can't understand it.' Louren began building himself a sandwich of bread and cold slices of roast gemsbok fillet, smearing it with mustard. 'Anyway, it won't be the last disappointment we will ever have in our lives.'
Twenty minutes later Louren's essential luggage was packed in the helicopter and while the pilot started the motor we said our farewells.
'See you back in jolly Jo'burg. Look after those tusks for me.'
'Good trip. Lo.
'All the way, partner?'
'All the way. Lo.'
Then he was ducking under the spinning rotor and climbing into the passenger's seat of the helicopter. It rose in the air like a fat bumble-bee and clattered away over the tree-tops. Bumblebee? Bee! Bee! My God, that was what had been niggling me.
Bees, birds and monkeys!
I grabbed Sally's arm, my excitement startling her.
'Sally, we're staying.'
'What?' She gaped at me.
'There are things here we've overlooked.'
'Like what?'
'The birds and the bees,' I told her.
'Why, you randy old thing,' she said.
We split the water fifteen to twenty gallons. That would give the servants a little over half a gallon a day each for two days, sufficient to get them out safely. Sally and I would have a full gallon a day for ten days. I kept the Land-Rover, making sure the petrol tanks were full, and there were twenty-five gallons in the emergency cans. I kept also the radio, one tent, bedding; a selection of tools including spade, axe and pick, rope, gas lanterns and spare cylinders, torches and spare batteries, tinned food, Louren's shotgun and half a dozen packets of shells, together with all of Sally's and my personal gear. All the rest of the equipment was loaded onto the two trucks and when the servants were all on board I took the old Matabele gunbearer aside.
'My old and respected father,' I spoke in Sindebele, 'Ihave heard you speak of a great mystery that lives in this place. I ask you now as a son, and a friend, to speak to me of these things.'
It took him a few seconds to get over his astonishment. Then I went on to speak a sentence that Timothy Mageba had given me. It is a secret code, a recognition signal used at a high level among the initiates to the mysteries. The old man gasped. He could not question me now, nor ignore my appeal.
'My son,' he spoke softly. 'If you know those words then you should know of the legend. At a time when the rocks were soft and the air was misty,' an expression of the uttermost antiquity, 'there was an abomination and an evil in this place which was put down by our ancestors. They placed a death curse upon these hills and commanded that this evil be cleaned from the earth and from the minds of men, for ever.'
Again those fateful words, repeated exactly.
'That is the whole legend?' I asked. 'There is nothing else?'
'There is nothing else,' the old man told me, and I knew it was the truth. We went back to the waiting lorries and I spoke to Joseph first in Shangaan.
'Go in peace, my friend. Drive carefully and care well for those who ride with you - for they are precious to me.' Joseph gaped at me, his wits scattered. I turned to the camp boys and changed to Sechuana.
'The Spider gives you greetings and wishes you peace.' There was consternation amongst them as I used my nickname, but when they drove away they had recovered from the shock and were laughing delightedly at the joke. The trucks disappeared amongst the thorn trees, and the sound of their motors dwindled into the eternal silence of the deep bush.
'You know,' Sally murmured reflectively, 'I think I've been took! Here I am stranded 200 miles from anywherewith a man whose morals are definitely suspect.' Then she giggled. 'And isn't it lovely?' she asked.
I had found the spot on the top of the cliff where I could lean out over the drop, supported by a hefty young baboon apple tree, and obtain a good view of the rock screen on either side, as well as over the open plain below. Sally was down beyond the silent grove, and I could see her clearly.
The sun seemed at the right angle for her, although it was shining directly into my eyes. It was only ten or fifteen degrees above the horizon now and the golden rays brought out new soft colours from rock and foliage.
'Yoo hoo!' Sally's shout carried faintly up to me, and she held both hands straight up towards the sky. It was the signal we had evolved to mean, 'Come back towards me.'
'Good,' I grunted. She must have picked them up. I had explained to her carefully how to shade her eyes against the slant of the sun's rays and to watch for the arrow-straight flight of the tiny golden motes of light. It was an old trick used by bee hunters to find the hive, a bushman had taught it to me.
I pulled back from the cliff, and began working my way through the thorns and thick bush that clogged the crest. I had guessed where to begin the search, for the chances were enormously in favour of the hive being located in this tall wall of red rock with its many gullies and crevices, and now with Sally calling the range for me from below, it was only a matter of fifteen minutes before she windmilled her arms and I heard her call.
'That's it! Right under you.' Again I leaned out over the edge, and now I picked up the swift sunlit flight of the returning bees as they homed in on the cliff below me.
Leaning far out I could make out the entrance to thehive; a long diagonal crack the edges of which were discoloured by old wax. It must have been an enormous hive, judging by the number of workers coming in, and by the extent of the waxing around the entrance. In such an inaccessible position it had probably remained undisturbed by man or beast for hundreds of years. A rarity in this land where honey is so highly prized.
I tied my white handkerchief to an overhanging branch to mark the spot and in the swiftly falling dark I went down to Sally on the plain. She was very excited by our small success, and we discussed the implications of it over our dinner.
'You are really quite clever, Doc Ben.'
'On the contrary, I was as slow as doomsday. I had to beat my head against all the signs for two whole days before I tumbled to it,' I told her smugly. 'The place is thick with birds, animals and bees, all of which must have a good permanent supply of surface water. There is supposed to be no permanent water for two hundred miles - well, that's wrong for sure.'
'Where will we find it, I wonder?' She was all big-eyed and enthusiastic again.
'I can't even guess, but when we do I promise you something interesting.'
That night when I came into the tent in my pyjamas, having modestly changed outside, she was already in her bed with the sheets up under her chin. I hesitated in the space between the two camp-beds, until with a mischievous grin she took pity on me and lifted the blankets beside her in invitation.
'Come to Mama,' she said.
In the chilly darkness before dawn I huddled in my leather jacket on the cliff above the hive, and waited for the sun. I was a very happy man again, some of my doubt dispelled during the night.
Down on the dark plain there was a flash of light. Sallyat her place beyond the grove again, probably lonely and a little scared in the African darkness with its night rustlings and animal cries. I flashed my torch down at her to reassure her, and the dawn started coming on quickly.
Dawn was a thing of soft pinks and roses, misty mauves and mulberry - then the sun burst up above the horizon and the bees began to fly. For twenty minutes I watched them to decide the pattern and purpose of their flight. There was a fan of workers winging wide out over the plain. These were the pollen-gatherers. I established this by leaning out and watching their return, through the binoculars, checking the bunches of yellow pollen on their hind legs as they alighted on the protruding bulge of the crack.
In so doing I discovered another pattern of flight that I might have missed. A steady stream of workers was dropping almost vertically down towards the dark foliage of the silent grove below me - and on their return there was no pollen on their legs. Water-carriers then! I signalled Sally in towards the base of the cliff; this morning our roles were reversed by the slant and angle of the sun's rays. After a while she waved to let me know she had spotted them, and I began the laborious climb down to the plain.
She had to point out to me the indistinct flight of bees down the cliff towards the grove, but even then the shadow cast by the cliff caused them to vanish before we could establish their exact destination within the grove. We watched them for thirty minutes, then gave it up and went into the trees to search at random.
By noon I could swear that there was no sign of surface water within the environs of the grove. Sally and I flopped down side by side with our backs to the sturdy trunk of one of the mhoba-hoba trees, the wild loquat tree that legend states the ancients brought with them from their homeland, and we looked at each other in despair.
'Another blank!' She was perspiring in a light dew across her forehead and temples and a dark curl was plastered to the skin. With one finger I pushed it gently back and tucked it behind her ear.
'It's here, somewhere. We'll find it,' I told her with the confidence I did not feel. 'It's got to be here. It just has to be.'
She was about to answer me, when I pressed my fingers to her lips to silence her. I had seen movement beyond the last trees of the grove. We watched the troop of vervet monkeys crossing the open plain at a gallop with their tails in the air. As they reached the grove they shot up the trunk of the nearest tree with comical relief. Their little black faces peered down anxiously from the massed green foliage, but they did not notice us sitting quietly at the base of the mhoba-hoba.
Confidently now they moved across the tree-tops towards the cliff, the big males leading with the mothers, with infants slung beneath their bodies, and the rabble of half-grown youngsters followed them.
They reached the top branches of a gargantuan wild fig tree, one of those whose roots and trunk were embedded in the vertical cliff wall of red rock, and whose branches spread wide and green fifty feet above the earth - and they began to disappear.
It was an astonishing phenomenon, sixty monkeys went into the tree and dwindled swiftly until the branches were deserted. Not a single monkey was left.
'What happened to them?' whispered Sally. 'Did they go up the cliff?'
'No, I don't think so.' I turned to her grinning happily. 'I think we've found it, Sal. I think this is it, but let's just wait for the monkeys to come back.'
Twenty minutes later the monkeys suddenly began reappearing in the branches of the wild fig again. The troopmoved off in a leisurely fashion along the cliff, and we waited until they were all out of sight before we went forward.
The convoluted and massed roots of the wild fig formed a flight of irregular steps up towards the point where the trunk emerged from the cliff. We climbed up and began examining the trunk, working our way around it, peering up into the branches high overhead. The trunk was gigantic, fully thirty feet around, deformed and flattened by its contact with the uneven wall of red rock. Even then we might have missed it, had there not been a smoothly polished footpath leading into the living rock - a path worn by the passage of feet and paws and hooves over the course of thousands of years. The path squeezed between the gross yellow trunk of the wild fig, and the wall of rock. In the same manner as there is often a cave behind a waterfall hidden by the falling water so our wild fig screened the entrance.
Sally and I peered into the darkened recess behind the trunk, and then we looked at each other. Her eyes were sparkling bright and her cheeks flushed a dull rose.
'Yes!' she whispered, and I nodded, unable to speak.
'Come on!' She took my hand and we went in.
The opening was a long vertical crack in the cliff and good light came in from high above. Looking up I saw how the rock was polished by the paws of the monkeys who came in that way.
We moved on down the passage, the wall rising twenty feet on each side of us to a narrow vee of a roof. Immediately it was clear that we were not the first human beings that had entered here. The smooth red walls were covered with a profusion of magnificent bushman rock paintings. The most beautiful and well preserved that I had ever seen.
'Ben! Oh Ben! Just look at them!' One of Sally's specialities is bushman art. 'It's a treasure house. Oh, youwonderful clever man!' Her eyes shone in the gloom like lamps.
'Come on!' I tugged at her hand. 'There will be plenty of time for that later.'
We moved slowly along the narrow passage as it slanted steadily downwards for another hundred feet. The roof above us climbed progressively higher, until it was lost in the gloom above. We heard the squeak of bats from the dark recesses of the passage.
'There is light ahead,' I said, and we went on into an open chamber, rounded, perhaps 300 feet across with sheer walls which rose 200 feet upwards. Like the interior walls of a cone, they narrowed into a small aperture high above which gave a view of cloudless blue sky beyond.
I saw immediately that this was an intrusion of limestone into the red sandstone, and that it was a typical sink-hole formation, very similar to the Sleeping Pool at Sinoia in Rhodesia.
Here also the floor of the cavern was a basin which led down to a pool of water. The water was crystal clear, obviously very deep as the pale greenish colour showed, perhaps 150 feet across, the surface mirror-smooth and still.
Sally and I stood and stared at it. The beauty of this great cavern had paralysed us. Through the tiny aperture 200 feet above us the sun's rays poured in like the beam of a searchlight, striking the walls of shimmering limestone and lighting the entire cavern with an eerie reflected glow. From the arched roof and walls hung great butterfly wings and stalactites of sparkling white.
The walls of the main chamber were also decorated to a height of fifteen feet or more with the lovely bushman art. In places water seeping from the rock had destroyed the graceful figures and designs, but mostly it was well preserved. I guessed there was two years' work for Sally and me in this wondrous place.
Slowly she disengaged her hand from mine and walkeddown to the edge of the emerald pool. I stayed where I was in the mouth of the tunnel, watching her with rapt attention as she stood at the edge of the pool and leaned forward to peer down into the still water.
Then she straightened and slowly, with deliberate movements, began to strip off her clothing. She stood naked at the edge of the pool and her skin was as pale and translucent as the limestone cliffs. Her body, for all its size and strength, had a delicacy of line and texture to it that reminded me of the Chinese carvings in old ivory.
Like a priestess of some old pagan religion, she stood beside the pool and lifted her arms. With a strange atavistic thrill this gesture brought to my mind an ancient forgotten ritual. There was something deep in me that I wanted to cry out, a blessing perhaps, or an invocation.
Then she dived, a long graceful curve of white body and flowing dark hair. She struck the water and went on down, deep. The sweet clean shape of her showed clearly through the crystal water, then she came up slowly from the depths and broke the surface. Her long dark hair was slicked down over her neck and shoulders, she lifted one slender arm and waved at me.
I felt like crying out aloud with relief. I realized then that I had not expected her to come up again from those mysterious green depths. I went down to the edge of the pool to help her out of the water.
Presently we moved slowly around the walls of the cavern and passage, awed by the profusion of paintings and engravings, Sally with her damp hair hanging to her shoulders and her face shining with wonder.
'There is work here spread over 2,000 years, Ben. This must have been a very holy place to the little yellow men.' The light failed before we had completed half the tour of the cavern, and it was chilly and scary in the passage as we groped our way out. It was only then that I realized we had not eaten that day.
While Sally warmed up a hash of bully beef and onions, I raised Peter Larkin on the radio and was relieved to hear that the two trucks had returned safely to Maun. I ended the transmission by asking Larkin to get a message through to Louren. 'Tell him we have found some very interesting rock paintings and will be staying on here indefinitely.'
'How are you for water?' bellowed Larkin, his voice distorted by static and Scotch whisky.
'Fine. We managed to find an adequate supply here.'
'You found water?' roared Larkin. 'There isn't any water there!'
'A small catchment in a rock basin from the last rain.'
'Oh, I see. Okay then. Keep in touch. Over and out.'
'Thanks, Peter. Over and out.'
'You are a fibber.' Sally grinned at me as I switched off the set.
'All in a good cause,' I agreed, and we began to prepare lanterns, and cameras, and sketching equipment for the following day.
The old bull elephant was mortally wounded. Blood, slick and shiny, poured from the wounds in throat and shoulder and the shafts of fifty arrows pin-cushioned his massive frame. He stood at bay, with his back humped in agony, while around him swarmed the brave little yellow hunters with drawn bows, and pelting arrows. A dozen of their number were strewn back along the path of the hunt, their frail bodies crushed and broken beneath the great round pads and cruel ivory shafts - but the others were closing in for the kill.
The ancient artist had filled his canvas of red rock with such movement and drama that I felt myself a witness to the actual hunt. However, the light was tricky and the best reading I could get was F.11. at 1/10th of a second.
Reluctantly I decided to use flash. I try to avoid it where possible for it tends to distort colour and throw in false highlights. I began setting up tripod and camera when Sally called.
'Ben! Come here, please!'
The echo effect and distortion caused by the lofty cavern could not disguise the urgency and excitement in her voice, and I went quickly.
She was in the main cavern beyond the emerald pool, where the rear wall cut back steeply to form a low recess. It was gloomy in there and Sally's torch beam jumped quickly over the smooth rock surface.
'What is it, Sal?' I asked as I came up beside her.
'Look.' She moved the torch beam down and I stared at the representation of a massive human figure before me.
'Good God!' I gasped. 'The White Lady of the Brandberg! 1 It's the same!'
Sally played the beam of the torch down across the figure until it spotlighted the vaunting erection that thrust from its thighs.
'That lady is beautifully hung,' she murmured, 'if you get the point.'
The figure was six feet tall, dressed in yellow breastplate and ornate helmet with a high arched crest. On his left shoulder he carried a rounded shield on which yellow ornamental rosettes were set in a circle about the centralboss. In his other hand he carried a bow and sheaf of arrows, and from his waist hung sword and battle-axe. His shins were protected by greaves of the same yellow metal and on his feet were light open sandals.
The figure's skin was depicted as deathly white, but a fiery bush of red hair hung onto his chest. The display of his sexual parts was clearly a stylized indication of his dominant and lofty status. The effect was in no way obscene but gave to the figure a masculine pride and arrogance.
'A white man,' I whispered. 'Armour and rounded shield, bow and battle-axe. Could it be--'
'A Phoenician king,' Sally finished for me.
'But the Phoenician type is more likely to have been dark-haired, hook-nosed. This man would have been an unusual figure among the ancients, to say the least. A throw-back, perhaps, to some north Mediterranean ancestor. How old is it, Sal?'
'I can't be sure yet, but I'd say 2,000 years. This wall of paintings is the most ancient in the whole cavern.'
'Look, Sal.' I pointed eagerly.
Beyond the central figure was an army of stick figures that followed the king. They were not executed in such detail, but the swords and helmets were unmistakable.
'And look there.' Sally directed the beam of the torch onto a row of white-robed figures that stood at the king's feet. Tiny figures, perhaps nine inches tall.
'Priests, perhaps - and, oh Ben! Look! Look!'
She played the beam across the stone canvas, and for a moment I did not recognize it - then my heart jumped. Like a huge frieze, that was obliterated in places by moisture, moss and lichens, or that was obscured by the myriad figures of men and animals drawn over it, and that yet managed to maintain its imposing majesty and power, swept the drawing of a stone fortress wall. It was built in blocks with the joints clearly shown, and along its summitwas the decorative pattern of chevrons, identical to the one that graces the main temple wall at the ruins of Zimbabwe. Beyond the wall rose outlines of the phallic towers we had expected to find.
'It's our city, Ben. Our lost city.'
'And our lost king, Sally, and his priests, and warriors and - oh, my God! Sally, look at that!'
'Elephants!' she squealed. 'War elephants with archers on their backs, just like Hannibal used against the Romans. Carthaginian - Phoenician!'
There was so much of it, a curved wall 100 feet long and ten to fifteen feet high and every square inch of it thick with bushman paintings. The figures and forms were interwoven, some of the earlier pictures overlaid and smothered; others, like our white king, standing proudly untouched and unspoiled. It would be a major undertaking to unravel those portraits which related to our lost civilization, from the great mass of traditional cave art. This was Sally's special skill, my camera could only capture the whole confused scene, while she would patiently and painstakingly pick out a figure or group of particular interest that was almost entirely obliterated and recreate and restore it on her rolls of wax paper.
However, there was no suggestion of such work beginning now. Sally and I spent what was left of the day climbing and crawling along the back wall, peering and probing and exclaiming with wonder and delight.
When we got into camp that night we were physically and emotionally exhausted. Peter Larkin had a message for us from Louren:
'He says to wish you good luck, and that one of the oil helicopters will be in your area within the next few days. Is there anything you need, and if so give me a list. They will drop it to you.'
The next ten days were the happiest of my entire life. The helicopter came as Louren had promised with thename 'Sturvesant Oil' blazoned across its fuselage. It carried a full load of necessities and luxuries for us, another tent, folding chairs, a surveyor's theodolite, gas for the lamps, food, extra clothing for both of us, more paper and paints for Sally, film for me, and even a few bottles of Glen Grant malt whisky, that sovereign specific for all the ills of man. A note from Louren enjoined me to carry on with what I was doing as long as it looked promising. He would give me his full support, but I was not to keep him in the dark too long as he was 'dying of curiosity'.
I sent him my thanks, a roll of film showing the paintings which had no ancients in them, and a batch of polythene bags containing samples of pigments from the cavern for carbon-14 dating. Then the helicopter flew away and left us to our idyll.
We worked from early each morning until dark each evening, mapping the cavern in plan and elevation, and photographing an overlapping run of the walls and relating this to our map. Sally alternated between assisting me and continuing with her own task of isolating our ancient figures. We worked in complete harmony and understanding, breaking off now and then to eat our lunch beside the emerald pool, or to swim naked together in its cool limpid water, or at times just to lie idly on the rocks and talk.
At first our occupation of the cavern seriously affected the ecology of the local fauna, but as we hoped would happen, they soon adapted. Within days the birds were dropping down through the hole in the cavern roof to drink and bathe at the edge of the pool. Soon they ignored us as they went about their noisy and vigorous ablutions, shrieking and chattering and spraying water, while we paused in our labours to watch them.
Even the monkeys, driven by thirst, at last crept in through the rock passage to snatch a mouthful of water before darting away again. Rapidly these timid forays became bolder, until at last they were a positive nuisance,stealing our lunch, or any loose equipment that was left unguarded. We forgave them, for their antics were always appealing and entertaining.
They were wonderful days of satisfying work, good loving companionship, and the deep peace of that beautiful place. There was only one day on which anything happened to ruffle the surface of my happiness. As Sally and I were sitting below the portrait of our wonderful white king, I said: 'They won't be able to deny this, Sal. The bastards are going to have to change their narrow little minds now!'
She knew I was talking about the debunkers, the special pleaders, the politico-archaeologists, who could twist any evidence to fill the needs of their own beliefs, the ones who had castigated me and my books.
'Don't be so certain of that, Ben,' Sally warned. 'They will not accept this. I can hear their carping little voices now. It's second-hand observation by bushmen, open to different interpretations - don't you remember, Ben, how they accused the Abbé Breuil of retouching the paintings in the Brandberg?'
'Yes. That's the great pity of it - it is second-hand. When we show them the paintings of the fortified walls, they will say, "Yes, but where are the walls themselves?"'
'And our king, our beautiful virile warrior king,' she looked up at him, 'they'll emasculate him. He will become another "White Lady". His war shield will become a bouquet of flowers, his milky white skin will change to ceremonial clay, his fiery red beard will suddenly turn into a scarf or a necklace, and when they reproduce his portrait it will be subtly altered in all those ways. The Encyclopaedia Britannica will still read,' she changed her voice, mimicking a pedantic and pompous lecturer, "'modern scientific opinion is that the ruins are the work of some Bantu group, possibly the Shona or Makalang."'
'I wish - oh, how I wish we had found some definite proof,' I said miserably. I was facing for the first time theprospect of delivering our discovery to my learned brothers in science, and the idea was as appealing as climbing into a pit full of black mambas. I stood up. 'Let's have a swim, Sal.'
We swam side by side, an easy breaststroke, back and forth across the pool. When we climbed out to sit in the spot of bright sunlight that fell from the roof above, I tried to alleviate my unhappiness by changing the subject. I touched Sally's arm and with all the finesse of a wounded rhinoceros, I blurted out, 'Will you marry me, Sally?'
She turned a startled face to me, her cheeks and eyelashes still bejewelled with water droplets, and she stared at me for fully ten seconds before she began to laugh.
'Oh, Ben, you funny old-fashioned thing! This is the twentieth century. Just because you done me wrong - doesn' t mean you have to marry me!' And before I could protest or explain she had stood up and dived once again into the emerald pool.
For the rest of that day she was completely occupied with her paints and brushes, and she had no time to even look in my direction, let alone talk to me. The message was received my end loud and clear - there were some areas of discussion that Sally had put the death curse on. Matrimony was one of them.
It was a very bad day, but I learned the lesson well, and decided to clutch at what happiness I now had without pressing for more.
That evening Larkin had another message from Louren:
'Your samples 1-16 give C.14 average result of 1620 years ± 100. Congratulations. Looks good. When do I get in on the secret? Louren.'
I perked up at this news. Assuming our old bushman artist had been an eye-witness of the subjects he had drawn, then somewhere between A.D. 200 and A.D. 400 an armed Phoenician warrior had led his armies and war-elephants across this beloved land of mine. I felt guilty aboutexcluding Louren from the secrets of our cavern, but it was still too soon. I wanted to have it to myself a little longer - to gloat upon it, to have its peace and beauty to myself, unsullied by other eyes. More than that, it had become the temple of my love for Sally. Like the old bushmen, it had become a very holy place to me.
On the following day, it was as though Sally was determined to make up for the unhappiness she had caused me. She was teasing, and loving, and mischievous all at once. At noon with the beam of sunlight burning down on us, we made love on the rocks beside the pool, Sally skilfully and gently taking the initiative once again. It was a shattering and mystic experience that scoured the sadness from the cup of my soul and filled it to the brim with happiness and peace.
We lay together softly entwined, murmuring sleepily, when suddenly I was aware of another presence in the cavern. Alarm flared through me, and I struggled up on one elbow and looked to the entrance tunnel.
A golden-brown human figure stood in the gloomy mouth of the tunnel. He was dressed in a short leather loin-cloth, a quiver and short bow stood up behind his shoulder, and around his neck hung a necklace of ostrich egg-shell beads and black monkey beans. The figure was tiny, the size of a ten-year-old child, but the face was that of a mature man. Slanted eyes, and high flat cheekbones gave it an Asiatic appearance, but the nose was flattened and the lips were full and voluptuously chiselled. The small domed skull was covered by a pelt of tight black curls.
For an instant we looked into each other's eyes and then, like the flash of a bird's wmg, the little manikin was gone, vanished into the dark passage in the rock.
'What is it?' Sally stirred against me.
'Bushman,' I said. 'Here in the cavern. Watching us.'
She sat up quickly, and peered fearfully about her.
'He's gone now. Get dressed - quickly!'
'Is he dangerous, Ben?' Her voice was husky.
'Yes. Very!' I was pulling on my clothes quickly, trying to decide on our best course of action, running over in my mind the words I would speak. Although it was a little rusty I found the language was still on my tongue, thanks to sessions of practice with Timothy Mageba. They would be northern bushmen here, not Kalahari; the languages were similar but distinctly different.
'They wouldn't attack us, would they, Ben?' Sally was dressed.
'If we do the wrong thing now, they will. We don't know how holy this place is to them. We mustn't frighten them, they have been persecuted and hunted for 2,000 years.
'Oh, Ben.' She moved closer to me, and even in my own alarm I enjoyed her reliance upon me.
'They wouldn't - kill us, would they?'
'They are wild bushmen, Sally. If you threaten or molest a wild thing it will attack you. I've got to get an opportunity to talk to them.' I looked around for something to use as a shield, something strong enough to turn a reed arrow with a poisoned tip. Poison that would inflict a lingering but certain death of the most unspeakable agony.
I selected the leather theodolite case, and tore it open along the seams with my hands, flattening it out to give it maximum area.
'Follow me down the passage, Sal. Keep close.'
Her hand was on my shoulder as I led her slowly along the rock passage, using the four-cell torch to search every dark corner and recess before moving on. The light alarmed the bats and they fluttered and squeaked about our heads. The grip of Sally's hand on my shoulder became painfully tight, but we reached the tree-trunk that guarded the entrance to the cavern.
We crouched by the narrow slit between rock and tree-trunk,and the bright sunlight beyond was painful to my eyes. Minutely I examined each tree-trunk in the grove, each tuft of grass, each hollow or irregularity of earth - and there was nothing. But they were there, I knew, hidden waiting with the patience and concentration of the earth's most skilful hunters.
We were prey, there was no escaping this fact. The accepted laws of behaviour did not apply out here on the fringe of the Kalahari. I remembered the fate of the crew of a South African Air Force Dakota that force-landed in the desert ten years before. They hunted down the family of bushmen that did it, and I flew to Gaberones to interpret at the trial. In the dock they wore the parachute silk as clothing, and their faces were childlike, trusting, without guilt or guile as they answered my question.
'Yes. We killed them,' they said. Locked in a modern goal, like caged wild birds, they were dead within twelve months - all of them. The memory was chilling now and I thrust it aside.
'Now listen to me carefully, Sally. You must stay here. No matter what happens. I will go out to them. Talk to them. If,' I choked on the words, and cleared my throat, 'if they hit me with an arrow I'll have half an hour or so before - ' I rephrased the sentence, '- I'll have plenty of time to get the Land-Rover and come back for you. You can drive. You'll have no trouble following the tracks we made back to the Makarikari Pan.'
'Ben - don't go. Oh God, Ben - please.'
'They'll wait, Sal - until dark. I have to go now, in the daylight.'
'Wait here. Whatever happens, wait here.' I shrugged off her hands and stepped to the opening.
'Peace,' I called to them in their own tongue. 'There is no fight between us.'
I took a step out into the sunlight.
'I am a friend.'
Another slow step, down over the twisted roots of the wild fig, holding the flattened leather case low against my hip.
'Friend!' I called again. 'I am of your people. I am of your clan.'
I went slowly down into the silent hostile grove. There was no response to my words, no sound or movement. Ahead of me lay a fallen tree. I began sidling towards it, my guts a hard tight ball of tension and fear.
'I carry no weapon,' I called, and the grove was quiet and sinister in the hush of afternoon.
I had almost reached the fallen tree, when I heard the twang of the bow string and I dived for the shelter of the dead trunk. Close beside my head the arrow fluted, humming in the silence, and I went down. My face was pressed into the dry earth, my heart frozen with fear at the close passage of such hideous death.
I heard footsteps, running from behind me and I rolled over on my side ready to defend myself.
Sally was running down the wild fig roots towards me, ignoring my instructions, her face a pale mask of deathly terror, her mouth open in a silent scream. She had seen me fall and lie still, and the thought of me dead had triggered her panic. Now as I moved she realized her mistake and she faltered in her run, suddenly aware of her own vulnerability.
'Get back, Sal,' I yelled. 'Get back!' Her uncertainty turned to dismay and she stopped, stranded half-way between the cavern entrance and my dead tree-trunk, undecided on which way to move.
In the edge of my vision I saw the little yellow bushman rise from a patch of pale grass. There was an arrow notched to his bow and the feathered flights were drawn back to his cheek as he aimed. He was fifty paces from where Sally hovered, and he held his aim for a second.
I dived forward across the space that separated Sally from me at the instant the bushman released the arrow. The arrow and I flew on an interception course, two sides of a triangle with Sally at the apex.
I saw the humming blur of the arrow flash in belly-high at Sally and I knew I could not reach her before it struck. I threw the flattened leather case with a despairing underhand flick of my wrist as I dived towards her. It cartwheeled lazily, spinning in the air - and the arrow slapped into it. The deadly iron tip, with the poison-smeared barbs, bit into the tough leather of the case. Arrow and case fell harmlessly at Sally's feet, and I picked her up in my arms and spinning on my heels, doubled up under her weight, I raced back towards the cover of the dead tree-trunk.
The bushman was still on his knees in the grass ahead of me. He reached over his shoulder and pulled another arrow from his quiver; in one smoothly practised movement he had notched and drawn.
This time there was no hope of dodging, and I ran on grimly. The bow-string sang, the arrow flew, and instantly I felt a violent jerk at my neck. I knew I was hit, and with Sally still in my arms we fell behind the dead tree-trunk.
'I think I'm hit, Sal.' I could feel the arrow dangling against my chest as I rolled away from her. 'Break off the shaft - don't try and pull it out against the barbs.'
We lay facing each other, our eyes only a few inches apart. Strangely, now that I was a dead man I felt no fear. The thing was done, even if I was hit a dozen more times, my fate would be unaltered. It remained only to get Sally safely away before the poison did its work.
She reached out with shaking hands and took the frail reed arrow, lifting it gingerly - and then her face cleared.
'Your collar, Ben, it's lodged in the collar of your jacket. It hasn't touched you.'
Relief washed through me as I ran my hands up the shaft of the arrow, and found that I was not dead. Carefullylying on my side while Sally held the tip of the arrow from my flesh, I shrugged off my light khaki jacket. For a moment I stared in revulsion at the hand-forged iron arrow-head with the sticky toffee-coloured material clogging the wicked barbs, then I threw jacket and arrow aside.
'God, that was close,' I whispered. 'Listen, Sal, I think there is only one of them here. He's a young man, panicky, probably as afraid as we are. I will try to talk to him again.'
I wriggled forward against the reassuring solidity of the dead tree, and raised my voice in the most persuasive tones that would pass my parched throat.
'I am your friend. Though you fly your arrows at me, I will not war with you. I have lived with your people, I am one with you. How else do I speak your language?'
A deathly, impenetrable silence.
'How else do I speak the tongue of the people?' I asked again, and strained my ears for a sound.
Then the bushman spoke, his voice a high-pitched fluting, broken up with soft clucking and clicking sounds.
'The devils of the forest speak in many tongues. I close my ears to your deceits.'
'I am no devil. I have lived as one of yours. Did you never hear of the one named the Sunbird,' I used my bushman name, 'who stayed with the people of Xhai and became their brother?'
Another long silence followed, but now I sensed that the little bushman was undecided, puzzled, no longer afraid and deadly.
'Do you know of the old man named Xhai?'
'I know of him,' admitted the bushman, and I breathed a little easier.
'Did you hear of the one they called the Sunbird?'
Another long pause, then reluctantly, 'I have heard men speak of it.'
'I am that one.'
Now the silence went on for ten minutes or more. Iknew the bushman was considering my claim from every possible angle. At last he spoke again.
'Xhai and I hunt together this season. Even now he comes, before darkness he will be here. We will wait for him.'
'We will wait for him,' I agreed.
'But if you move I will kill you,' warned the bushman, and I took him at his word.
Xhai the old bushman came to my shoulder, and heaven knows I am no giant. He had the characteristically flattened features, with high cheekbones and oriental eyes, but his skin was dry and wrinkled, like an old yellow raisin. The wrinkling extended over his entire body as though he were covered with brittle parchment. The little peppercorns of hair on his scalp were smoky-grey with age, but his teeth were startling white and perfect, and his eyes were black and sparkling. I had often thought that they were pixie eyes, alive with mischief and intelligent curiosity.
When I told him how his friend had tried to kill us, he thought it an excellent joke and went off into little grunting explosions of laughter, at the same time shyly covering his mouth with one hand. The younger bushman's name was Ghal, and he was married to one of Xhai's daughters, so Xhai felt free to josh him mercilessly.
'Sunbird is a white ghost!' he wheezed. 'Shoot him, Ghal, quickly! Before he flies away.' Overwhelmed by his own humour, Xhai staggered in mirth-racked circles, giving an imitation of how he thought a ghost would look as it flew away. Ghal was very embarrassed and looked down at his feet as he shuffled them in the dust. I chuckled weakly, the sound of flighted arrows very fresh in my memory.
Xhai stopped laughing abruptly, and demanded anxiously, 'Sunbird, have you got tobacco?'
'Oh, my God!' I said in English.
'What is it?' Sally was alarmed by my tone, expecting that something else horrifying had happened.
'Tobacco,' I said. 'We haven't any.' Neither Sally nor I used the stuff, but it is very precious to a bushman.
'Louren left a box of cigars in the Land-Rover,' Sally reminded me. 'Is that any use?'
Both Ghal and Xhai were intrigued with the aluminium cylinders in which the Romeo and Julieta cigars were packed. After I showed them how to open them and remove the tobacco, they cooed and chattered with delight. Then Xhai sniffed the cigar like the true connoisseur he was, nodded approvingly and took a big bite. He chewed a while and then tucked the wad of sodden cigar up under his top lip. He passed the stub to Ghal who bit into it and followed Xhai's example. The two of them squatted on their haunches, positively glowing with contentment, and my heart went out to them. It took so little to make them happy.
They stayed with us that night, cooking on our fire a meal of bush-rats threaded on a stick like kebabs, and grilled over the open coals without gutting or removal of the skin. The hair frizzled off in the fire and stank like burning rags.
'I think I'm going to throw up,' murmured Sally palely as she watched the relish with which our two friends ate, but she didn't.
'Why do they call you Sunbird?' she asked later, and I repeated her question to Xhai.
He jumped up and did his celebrated imitation of a sunbird, darting his head and fluttering his hands. It was convincingly done, for bushmen are wonderful observers of nature.
'They say that's how I act when I get excited,' I explained.
'Yes!' Sally exclaimed, clapping her hands with delight as she recognized me, and then they were all laughing.
In the morning we went to the cave together, all four of us, and in that setting the little men were completely at home. I photographed them, and Sally sketched them as they sat on the rocks by the pool. She was fascinated by their delicate little hands and feet, and their enlarged buttocks, a recognized anatomical peculiarity named stea-topygia, which enabled them to store food, like a camel stores water, against the contingencies of the wilderness. Ghal remarked to Xhai on the activity in which Sally and I had been engaged beside the pool when he discovered us the previous day, and this led to much earthy comment and laughter. Sally wanted to know the source of it, and when I told her she blushed like a sunset, which was a pleasant change, for I am usually the blusher.
The bushmen were enthusiastic over Sally's sketches, and this enabled me to lead them naturally to the rock paintings.
'They are the paintings of our people,' Xhai boasted. 'This has been our place from the beginning.'
I pointed out the portrait of the white king and Xhai explained frankly, without any of the reserve or secrecy I had expected.
'He is the king of the white ghosts.'
'Where did he live?'
'He lives with his army of ghosts on the moon,' Xhai explained - and my critics accuse me of being a romantic!
We discussed this at some length, and I learned how the ghosts fly between moon and earth, how they are well disposed towards the bushmen, but care should be taken as the common forest devils will sometimes masquerade as white ghosts. Ghal had mistaken me for one of these.
'Have the white ghosts ever been men?' I asked.
'No, certainly not.' Xhai was a little put out by the question. 'They were always ghosts, and they have always lived on the moon and these hills.'
'Have you ever seen them, Xhai?'
'My grandfather saw the ghost king.' Xhai avoided the question with dignity.
'And this, Xhai,' I pointed out the drawing of the stone wall with its chevrons and towers, 'what is this?'
'That is the Moon City,' Xhai answered readily.
'Where is it - on the moon?'
'No. It is here.'
'Here?' I demanded, my blood starting to race. 'You mean on these hills?'
'Yes.' Xhai nodded, and took another bite of his five-dollar cigar.
'Where, Xhai? Where? Can you show it to me?'
'No.' Xhai shook his head regretfully.
'Why not, Xhai? I am your brother. I am of your clan,' I pleaded. 'Your secrets are my secrets.'
'You are my brother,' Xhai agreed, 'but I cannot show you the City of the Moon. It is a ghost city. Only when the moon is full and the white ghosts come down, then the city stands upon the plain below the hills - but in the morning it is gone.'
My blood no longer raced, and my excitement cooled.
'Have you seen the Moon City, Xhai?'
'My grandfather saw it, once long ago.'
'Grandpa was a big mover,' I remarked bitterly in English.
'What is it?' Sally wanted to know.
'I'll explain later, Sal,' I said, and turned back to the old bushman. 'Xhai, in all your life have you ever seen such a city as this? A place of tall stone walls, of round stone towers? I don't mean here at these hills, but anywhere. In the north, by the great river, in the desert of the west - anywhere?'
'No,' said Xhai, 'I have never seen such a place.' And I knew that there was no lost city north of the great Pan or south of the Zambezi, for if there were, Xhai would have come across it in seventy years of ceaseless wandering.
'It was probably some old bushman who wandered 270 miles east of here and saw the temple at Zimbabwe,' I suggested to Sally that night as we sat around the fire and discussed the old bushman's story. 'He was so impressed that on his return he painted it.'
'Then how do you explain your white king?'
'I don't know, Sal,' I told her honestly. 'Perhaps it is a white lady with a bouquet of flowers.'
It seems that whenever I receive a serious disappointment - Sally's rejection of my proposal, and the story of the Moon City were both serious - my brain ceases to function for a period. I missed the clue completely, and the link-up was so obvious. I mean, for God's sake, I have a tested I.Q. of 156 - I'm a god-damned genius!
In the morning the two bushmen went, back to the families they had left by the Pan. They took with them the treasures we lavished upon them. A hatchet, Sally's makeup mirror, two knives and half a box of Romeo and Julieta cigars. They trotted away into the vastness of the Kalahari, without a backward glance, and left us poorer for their going.
The helicopter came the following week, bringing in a full load of supplies and the special equipment I had asked Louren to send us.
Sally and I carried the rubber dinghy up to the cavern and inflated it beside the pool, taking it in turns to blow until we felt dizzy.
Sally launched it and paddled happily around the pool while I assembled the rest of the equipment. There was ashort glass-fibre fishing-rod, a heavy one, twenty-five ounces, and in the case which held a 12/0 Penn Senator fishing-reel was a note from Louren: 'What are you after, for crying out aloud? Sand fish, or desert trout? "L"'
I fitted the reel to rod, threaded the line through the runners, and attached the five-pound lead weight to the end of it. Sally paddled us out into the centre of the pool. I dropped the lead weight over the side, disengaged the clutch on the reel, and let the line start running out.
As I had requested, the plaited Dacron line was marked at intervals of fifty feet, and as each marker of coloured cotton disappeared into the luminous green water, we counted aloud.
'Five, six, seven - my God, Ben. It's bottomless.'
'These limestone sink-holes can go down to tremendous depths.'
'Eleven, twelve, thirteen.'
'I hope we've got enough line.' Sally eyed what remained on the spool dubiously.
'We have got 800 yards here,' I told her. 'It will be more than enough.'
'Sixteen, seventeen.' Even I was impressed, I had guessed at a depth of around 400 feet, the same as the Sleeping Pool at Sinoia, but still the line unwound steadily from the big-game fishing-reel.
At last I felt the weight bump on the bottom, and the line went slack. We looked at each other with awe.
'A little over 850 feet,' I said.
'It makes me feel scary, hanging over a hole in the earth that deep.'
'Well,' I said with finality, 'I had plans to explore the bottom with a Scuba, but that's out now. Whatever is down there will stay there for ever. Nobody can dive that deep.'
Sally looked down into the green depths, and the dappled, moving, reflected light illuminated her faceweirdly. There were shadows in her eyes, and her expression was dazed. Suddenly she shook herself violently, a shudder that went through her whole body, and she tore her eyes away from the green surface.
'Oh! I felt funny then. A really creepy sensation, as though something walked over my grave.'
I began to wind in the fishing-line, and Sally lay back flat on the floor of the dinghy staring up at the rock roof high above. It was a laborious task to recover all that line, but I worked away steadily.
'Ben.' Sally spoke suddenly. 'Look up there.' I stopped winding and looked up. We had never looked up at the opening in the roof from this angle. The shape of the opening was different.
'There, Ben. On the side,' Sally pointed. 'That piece of rock sticking out. It's square, too regular to be natural, surely?'
I studied it for a while.
'Perhaps.' I was dubious.
'You know we have never tried to find where the cavern opens out onto the top of the hills, Ben.' Sally sat up excitedly. 'Can't we do that? Let's go up and look at that piece of square stone. Can we, Ben?'
'Of course,' I agreed readily.
'Today. Now! Can we go now?'
'Hell, Sal. It's after two o'clock already. We will be out after dark.'
'Oh, come on! We can take torches with us.'
The growth of vegetation at the crest of the hills was dense and spiny. I was glad of the machete I had with me, and I hacked a path for us through it. We had marked the approximate position of the hole from the plain below, but even then we blundered about in the undergrowth for two hours before I nearly walked into it.
Suddenly the earth opened at my feet in that frightening black shaft, and I threw myself backwards, nearly knocking Sally down.
'That was a near one.' I was shaken, and I kept a respectful distance from the edge as we worked our way around to where a slab of stone jutted squarely out into the void.
I knelt on the lip to examine the stone. Far below, the surface of the emerald pool glowed in the gloomy depths. I do not like exposed heights, and I felt distinctly queasy as I leaned out to touch the flat surface of the stone.
'It is certainly regular, Sal.' I ran my hands over it. 'But I can't feel any chisel marks. It's been badly weathered though, perhaps--'
I looked up and froze with horror. Sally had walked out onto the stone platform as though it were a diving-board. She stood now with her toes over the edge, and as I watched in horror she lifted her hands above her head. She pointed them straight at the sky with all her fingers and both thumbs extended stiffly in that same gesture she had used when first she saw the emerald pool.
'Sally!' I screamed, and her head jerked. She swayed slightly. I scrambled to my knees.
'Don't, Sally, don't!' I screamed again, for I knew she was about to plunge into the hungry stone mouth. Slowly she leaned out over the gap. I ran out onto the stone platform and as she went forward beyond the point of balance my hand closed on her upper arm. For brief unholy seconds we teetered and struggled together on thelip of stone, then I dragged her back, and pulled her to safety.
Suddenly she was shaking and weeping hysterically, and I clung to her, for I also was badly scared. Something had happened that was beyond my understanding, something mystical and deeply disturbing.
When Sally's sobs had abated, I asked her gently, 'What happened, Sal? Why did you do it?'
'I don't know. I just felt dizzy, and there was a black roaring in my head, and - oh, I don't know, Ben. I just don't know.'
It was another twenty minutes before Sally seemed sufficiently recovered to begin the journey back to camp, and by then the sun was setting. Before we reached the path down the cliff face it was completely dark.
'The moon will be up in a few minutes, Sal. I don't fancy going down the cliff in the dark. Let's wait for it.'
We sat on the edge of the cliff huddled together, not for warmth, for the air was still hot and the rocks were sunbaked, but because both of us were still a little shaken from the experience we had just come through. The moon was a big silver glow beneath the horizon, then it pushed up fat and yellow and round above the trees, and washed the land with a soft pale light.
I looked at Sally. Her face was silver-grey in the moonlight with dark bruised eyes, and her expression was remote and infinitely sad.
'Shall we go, Sal?' I hugged her lightly.
'In a minute. It's so beautiful.' I turned to stare out over the moon-silver plain. Africa has many moods, many faces, and I love them all. Here, before us, she put on one of her more enchanting displays. We were silent and engrossed for a long time.
Suddenly I felt Sally stir against me, half rising.
'Ready?' I asked her, rising with her.
'Ben!' Her hand closed on my wrist with surprising strength, she was shaking my arm.
'Ben! Ben!'
'What is it, Sal?' I was seized with dread that her earlier mood had returned.
'Look, Ben. Look!' Her voice was choked with emotion.
'What is it, Sal? Are you all right?'
With one hand she was shaking my arm, with the other she was pointing down at the plain below us.
'Look, Ben, there it is!'
'Sally!' I put both arms around her to restrain her. 'Easy, my dear. Just sit down quietly.'
'Don't be a fool, Ben. I'm perfectly all right. Just look down there.'
Still holding her securely, I did as she asked. I stared and saw nothing.
'Do you see it, Ben?'
'No.' And then, like the face in the picture-puzzle, it was there. It was there, as it should have been from the beginning.
'Can you see it?' Sally was trembling. 'Tell me you can see it too, Ben. Tell me I'm not imagining it.'
'Yes,' I mumbled, still not certain, 'yes, I think--'
'It's the City of the Moon, Ben. The ghost city of the bushmen - it's our lost city, Ben. It is - it must be!'
It was vague, hazy. I shut my eyes tightly and opened them again. It was still there.
The double enclosure around the silent grove, vast symmetrical tracings on the silver plain, dark shadowy lines. There were the dark circles that marked the spots on which the phallic towers had stood, some of them obscured by the trees of the grove. Beyond the walls were the honeycomb cells of the lower city, crescent-shaped and spread around the shores of the ancient, vanished lake.
'The moon,' I whispered. 'Low angle. Picking up theoutline of the foundations. They must be so flattened that we have walked over them, lived on top of them for a month! The light of the full moon is just the right strength to cast shadows where the remains stand slightly proud.'
'The photograph!'
'Yes. From 36,000 feet, the light low enough and soft enough to give the same effect,' I agreed.
'We probably wouldn't have seen it from such a low altitude, the helicopter didn't go high enough,' Sally suggested.
'And it was noon,' I agreed. 'High-angle sun, no shadows. That is why Louren didn't see it from the helicopter.' It was so simple, and I had missed it. Some bloody genius - they must have botched the tests.
'But there are no walls, Ben, no towers, nothing. Only the foundations. What happened to it? What happened to our city?'
'We will find it, Sal,' I promised. 'But now let's mark it, before it disappears again.'
I handed her the one torch from the knapsack, 'One flash means "come towards me"; two flashes, "move away from me"; three, "move left"; four, "move right"; and a windmill means "you're on it".' Quickly we agreed a simple code. 'I'll go down onto the plain and you signal me. Put me on top of the large tower first, then guide me around the perimeter of the outer walls. We had better work fast - we don't know how long the effect will last. Give me a flat cut-out sign when it goes.'
It lasted a little over an hour with me scampering about on the plain in obedience to Sally's signals, and then the city faded, and slowly vanished as the moon rose towards its zenith. I went up to fetch Sally down from the cliff. I was bare to the waist, having ripped my shirt to shreds and tied strips of it onto clumps of grass and shrubs as markers.
Back in camp we built a huge fire and I got out the Glen Grant to celebrate. We were so elated, and there was somuch to discuss and marvel over, that sleep was long delayed.
We went over the lighting phenomenon again in greater detail, agreeing how it worked and ruefully remembering how close we had come to the truth when we discussed the low sun effect on our very first day, the day we discovered the fresh-water mussel shells. We discussed the shells and their new significance.
'I swear here and now, with all the gods as my witness, that I will never again toss a piece of vital scientific evidence over my shoulder.' I made oath and testament.
'Let's drink to that,' suggested Sal.
'What a wonderful idea,' I agreed, and refilled the glasses.
Then we went on to the old bushman's story.
'It just goes to show you that every piece of legend, every piece of folklore is based on some fact, however garbled.' Sally becomes all philosophical after one shot of Glen Grant.
'And let's face facts, my blood brother Xhai is a champion garbler of facts from way back - the City of the Moon, forsooth.'
'It's a lovely name. Let's keep it,' Sally suggested. 'And what do you think about Xhai's grandfather actually meeting one of the white ghosts?'
'He probably saw one of the old hunters or prospectors, remember, we nearly had ghost status awarded us.'
'Literally and figuratively,' Sally reminded me.
The talk went on and on while the moon made its splendid transit of the sky above us. Every now and then serious discussion degenerated into effusive outbursts of, 'Oh, Ben. Isn't it wonderful. We've got a whole Phoenician city to excavate. All to ourselves.' Or, 'My God, Sal. All my life I've dreamed of something like this happening to me.'
It was long past midnight before we got our feet back onthe earth, and Sally brought up the subject of practical procedure.
'What do we do, Ben? Do we tell Louren Sturvesant now?'
I poured another drink slowly, while I considered this.
'Don't you think, Sal, we should sink a pothole, a small one, of course, on the foundations. Just to be certain we're not making fools of ourselves?'
'Ben, you know that's the first rule. Don't go scratching around haphazardly. You might destroy something valuable. We should wait until we go in on an orderly, organized basis.'
'I know, Sal. But I just can't help myself. Just one tiny little hole?'
'Okay,' she grinned. 'Just one tiny little hole.'
'I suppose we'd better try and get some sleep now, it's past two o'clock.'
Just before we finally drifted off, Sally murmured against my chest, 'I still wonder what happened to our city. If the bushman picture was correct then huge walls and towers of masonry have vanished into thin air.'
'Yes. It's going to be exciting to find out.'
With that strength of character which I am able occasionally to conjure up, I firmly thrust aside the temptation to open a trench within the temple enclosure, and instead I chose a spot upon the foundations of the outer wall where I hoped I would do minimum damage.
With Sally watching avidly, and volunteering more than her share of advice, I marked out with tapes tom from my sheets the outline of the intended excavation. A narrow trench three foot wide and twenty foot long, set at a right-angleto the run of the foundations so as to open a cross-section of the horizon.
We numbered the tapes at intervals of one foot, and Sally cross-referenced her notebook to the markings on the tapes. I fetched the cameras, tools and tarpaulin from the Land-Rover. Our trench was only thirty yards from the tents. We had camped almost on top of the ancient wall.
I spread the tarpaulin ready to receive the earth removed from the trench, and then I pulled off my shirt and threw it aside. I was no longer ashamed to expose my body in front of Sally. I spat on the palms of my hands, straddled the tapes, hefted the pick, and glanced at Sally, sitting attentively on the tarpaulin with a big floppy-brimmed hat on her head.
'Okay?' I grinned at her.
'All the way, partner!' she said, and I was startled. The words jarred, they were Louren's and mine. We didn't say them to other people. Then suddenly I thought, what the hell! I love her also.
'All the way, girl!' I agreed and swung the pick. It was good to feel the pick feather-light in my hands, and the head clunking deep into the sandy earth. I worked steadily, swinging pick and shovel easily, but soon the sweat was running in rivulets down my body and soaking my breeches. As I shovelled the earth from the trench and piled it on the tarpaulin, Sally began sifting it carefully. She chattered away happily as she worked, but my only reply was the grunt at each swing of pick.
By noon I had opened the trench along its full length to a depth of three feet. The sandy soil gave way at a depth of eighteen inches to a dark reddish loam which still held the damp of the recent rains. We rested and I ate a mess of canned food and drank a bottle of Windhoek to replace some of my lost moisture.
'You know,' Sally looked me over thoughtfully, 'onceyou get used to it, your body has a strange sort of beauty,' she said, and I blushed until my eyes watered.
I worked for another hour, and then suddenly the bite of the pick turned up black. I swung again - still black. I dropped the pick, and knelt in the trench.
'What is it?' Sally was there immediately.
'Ash!' I said. 'Charcoal!'
'An ancient hearth,' she guessed.
'Perhaps.' I didn't commit myself, luckily, so that later I could chide her for her presumption. 'Let's take some samples for dating.'
I worked more carefully now, trying to expose the layer of ash without disturbing it. We sampled it and found that it varied between a quarter of an inch and two inches deep across the full horizon of the trench. Sally noted the depth from the surface, and the position of each of the carbon samples we took, while I photographed the trench and tapes.
Then we straightened up and looked at each other.
'Too big for a hearth,' she said, and I nodded. 'We shouldn't go deeper, Ben. Not like this, crashing in with pick and shovel.'
'I know,' I said. 'We will stop on half the trench, leave the layer of ash undisturbed - I'll make that concession to the rules - but I am sure as hell going down on the rest of it, to bedrock, if I can!'
'I'm glad you said that,' Sally applauded my decision. 'It's exactly what I feel as well.'
'You begin at the far end, I'll start here and we will work towards each other,' I instructed, and we began lifting the layer of ash from half the trench. I found that immediately below it was a floor of hard clay and, though I didn't say so, I guessed it was a building filler. A transported layer, not occurring naturally.
'Go carefully,' I cautioned Sally.
'Quoth the pick-and-shovel man,' she muttered sarcasticallywithout looking up, and almost immediately she made the first discovery from the ruins of the City of the Moon.
As I write I have her notebook in front of me, with her grubby, earthy fingerprints upon the pages and her big school-girlish handwriting filling it.
This laconic notation can give no idea of our jubilation, the way we hugged each other and laughed in the sun. It was a typical blue Phoenician trade bead, and I cupped the tiny pellet of glass in my one hand.
'I'm going to take it and stick it up their backsides,' I threatened, referring of course to my critics.
'If that end is as narrow as their minds, Ben dear, then it will be a pretty tight fit.'
I started using a small pick and fifteen minutes later I made the next discovery. A charred fragment of bone.
'Human?' Sally asked.
'Possibly,' I said. 'Head of a human femur - the shaft has been burned away.'
'Cannibalism? Cremation?' Sally hazarded.
'You do run on,' I said.
'What do you think then?' she challenged. I was silent for a long time, then I made up my mind, and came out with it.
'I think at this level the City of the Moon was sacked and burned, its inhabitants were slaughtered, the walls thrown down and its buildings obliterated.'
Sally whistled softly, staring at me in mock amazement.'On the evidence of one bead, and a piece of bone - that has to be the greatest flyer of all time!'
That evening, in reply to Larkin's bellowed queries, I replied, 'Thanks, Peter. We are fine. No, we don't need anything. Yes. Good. Please tell Mr Sturvesant there is no change here, nothing to report.'
I switched off the set, and avoided Sally's eyes.
'Yes,' she told me sternly. 'After a stinking one like that, you should look guilty!'
'Well, you said yourself it's only one bead and a piece of bone.'
But by the evening two days later, I had no such excuse, for I had sunk my trench seven feet five inches and there I uncovered the first of four courses of dry packed masonry. The stones were skilfully dressed, and squared. The joints between each block were so tight that a knife-blade would not go between them. The stones were bigger than those of Zimbabwe, clearly intended to support the weight of a substantial edifice; the average size was approximately four feet, by two, by two. They were cut from red sandstone similar to that of the cliffs and as I examined the workmanship I knew beyond any doubt that they were the work of artisans from a powerful and wealthy civilization.
That night I spoke to Larkin again.
'How soon can you get a message through to Mr Sturvesant, Peter?'
'He should have got back from New York today. I can put a phone call through this evening.'
'Please ask him to come right away.'
'You mean you want him to drop everything and come running - that's a laugh.'
'Just do it, please.'
The helicopter arrived at three o'clock the following afternoon, and I ran to meet it, pulling on my shirt.
'What have you got for me, Ben?' Louren demanded as he climbed, big and blond, out of the cabin.
'I think you are going to like it,' I told him, as we shook hands.
Five hours later we sat around the fire and Louren smiled over the rim of his glass at me.
'You were right, lad. I do like it!' This was the first opinion he had expressed since his arrival. He had followed Sal and me from excavation to cavern to cliff-top, listening attentively to our explanations, shaking his head with a rueful grin when I explained our theory of low-angle light on the ruins, firing a question occasionally in the same tone I had heard him use in a directors' meeting. Each time the question was relevant, incisive and searching, as though he were evaluating a business deal.
When Sally spoke he stood close to her, looking frankly into her face, those marvellous classical features of his rapt and still. Once she touched his arm to enforce a point and they smiled at each other. I was happy to see them so friendly at last, for they were the two people in the world I loved.
He knelt with me in the bottom of the trench and caressed the worked stone with his hands, he held the charred bone and melted glass bead in his palm and frowned at them as though trying to draw their secrets from them by sheer force of concentration.
Just before sunset, at Louren's insistence, we returned to the cavern and went to the rear wall. I lit one of the glass lanterns and placed it so that its light fell full on the painting of the white king. Then the three of us sat around it in a semi-circle and studied it in every detail. The king's head was in profile and Sally pointed out the features, the long straight nose and high forehead.
'A face like that never came out of Africa,' she said, and as a contrast she picked out the painting of another figure further down the wall. 'Look at that. It's a Bantu and no mistaking it. The artist was skilled enough to differentiate between the features of each type.'
However, Louren's attention never wavered from his scrutiny of the king. Again he seemed to be trying to wrest its secrets from it, but the king was regally aloof and at last Louren sighed and stood up. He was about to turn away when his glance dropped to the white-robed priest figures below the king.
'What are those?' he asked.
'We have named them the priests,' I told him, 'but Sally feels they could be Arab traders or--'
'The figure in the centre--' he pointed out the central priest figure, and his voice was sharp, almost alarmed, 'what is he doing?'
'Bowing to the king,' Sally suggested.
'Even though he is bowing, he stands taller than the others?' Louren protested.
'Size was the bushman artist's way of showing importance. See the relative size of the king - although they are pygmies they always show themselves as giants - the size of the central priest would signify that he was the High Priest, or the leader of the Arabs, if Sally is right.'
'If he is bowing, it's with the top third of his body only and he is the only one doing it. The others are erect.' Louren was still not convinced. 'It's almost as though--' his voice trailed away, and he shook his head. Then suddenly he shivered briefly, and I saw the goose-flesh appear on the smooth tanned skin of his upper arms.
'It's become cold in here,' he said, folding his arms across his chest. I had not noticed any drop in temperature, but I stood up also.
'Let's get back to camp,' Louren said, and it was onlyafter I had built up the fire to a cheerfully crackling, spark-flying blaze that he spoke again.
'You are right, lad. I do like it!' And he took a swallow of the malt whisky. 'Now let's start talking prices,' he suggested.
'Set it out for us, Lo,' I agreed.
'I will negotiate with the Botswana Government. I can put a little leverage on them. We'll have to have a formal agreement drawn up, probably split any finds fifty-fifty, they'll have to guarantee us access and exclusive rights. That sort of thing.'
'Good. That's certainly your bag of tricks, Lo.'
'Knowing you, Benjamin, you have a list of your requirements, the men you want, equipment - am I right?'
I laughed and unbuttoned my top pocket. 'As a matter of fact--' I admitted as I handed him three foolscap sheets. He glanced over them quickly.
'Very Spartan, Ben,' he congratulated me. 'But I think we can go in a bit bigger than this. I'll want at least a rough landing-strip here to start with, something to handle a Dakota. The hot weather is coming. You'll die living out under canvas. We'll need solid accommodation, also office and storage space with air-conditioning. That means a generator for lighting and to pump water down from the pool.'
'No one can ever accuse you of being half-arsed, Lo,' I told him, and we all laughed. Sally refilled my glass. I was jubilant and mightily pleased with myself that evening. I had much to be proud of, ferreting out a secret so well hidden for millennia, and Louren was going to back me all the way, partner. The whisky went down my throat like water.
I used to drink a lot of whisky. It was a way of forgetting certain things and making others easier to accept. Then about six years ago I found I hadn't worked on a book for ayear, that my memory and intellect were blurry and unreliable, and my hands shook in the morning. I still drink a tot or two of an evening, and occasionally I take on a full blast of the stuff. But now I drink because I am happy not because I am sad.
'Come on, Ben. Tonight we've got something to celebrate.' Sally laughed and poured me another heavy portion.
'Wow! Gently, Doctor,' I protested weakly, but that night I got drunk, pleasantly, contentedly, floating drunk. With dignity I refused Louren's offer of assistance and made my own way to the tent wherein Sally had discreetly segregated me since Louren's arrival. I fell on top of my bed fully clothed and went to sleep. I half awoke when Louren came in and climbed into his bed across the tent: I remember opening one eye and seeing the glow of the waning moon through the fly of the tent - or was it the first glow of dawn? It didn't seem important then.
The personnel for the project was the most important consideration, and here It was lucky. Peter Willcox was due for his sabbatical leave from Cape Town University. I flew down to see him, and in six hours convinced him that he wouldn't enjoy the fleshpots of Europe at all. Heather, his wife, was a little harder to sway, until I showed her the photographs of the white king. Like Sally, rock art is one of her big things.
They were good people to have on a dig. We had been together on the excavation of the Slangkop caves. They were both in their thirties; he a little paunchy and balding with steel-rimmed spectacles and trousers always on the point of falling down. He had to keep tugging at the waistband. She was thin and angular, with a wide laughing mouth and a snub, heavily freckled nose. They were childless, cheerful, knowledgeable and hard-working. Peterplays a very jazzy accordion and Heather has a voice that harmonizes well with mine.
Peter introduced me to two of his post-graduate students whom he recommended without reservation. I was startled at my first meeting with them. Ral Davidson was a young man of twenty-one - although the fact that he was a man was not immediately obvious. However, Peter assured me that beneath all the untidy hair lurked a promising young archaeologist. His fiancée was an intense bespectacled young woman, who had graduated at the head of her year. Although she was depressingly plain and I prefer my women beautiful, Leslie Johns endeared herself to me immediately by whispering breathlessly, 'Dr Kazin, I think your book, Ancient Africa, is the most exciting thing I've ever read.'
This display of good taste secured the job for them.
Peter Larkin found me forty-six African labourers from the southern territories of Botswana, who had never heard of the Hills of Blood nor of any curse upon them.
My only disappointment was with Timothy Mageba. 1 spent five days at the Institute in Johannesburg on my way back from Cape Town, mostly trying to convince Timothy that I needed him at the Hills of Blood.
'Machane,' he said, 'there is work here that no one else can do.' I was to remember those words later. 'Where you are going there is work that many men are capable of. You have these men and women already, specialists all of them. You do not need me.'
'Please, Timothy. It would be for six months or so. Your work here can wait.'
He shook his head vehemently, but I hurried on.
'I really want you, and need you. There are things that you alone can explain. Timothy, there are over fifteen thousand square feet of paintings on the rocks. Much of it is symbol, stylized emblems which only you--'
'Dr Kazin, you could send me copies of them. I can still give you my interpretation.' Timothy switched to English,which with him was always a discouraging sign. 'I hope you don't insist that I leave the Institute now. My assistants cannot work without my direction.'
We stared at each other for a few seconds. It was a deadlock. I could order him to come, but an unwilling helper is worse than none at all. There was a rebellious, independent spirit smouldering in Timothy's dark eyes and I knew that there was some deeper reason why he refused to accompany me.
'Is it--'! I hesitated. I was about to ask him if the ancient curse was the reason for his refusal. It was always disquieting to find superstition influencing an intelligent and well-educated man. I was reluctant to come straight out with it, for even with an African like Timothy the direct question is considered gauche and discourteous.
'There are always reasons within reasons, Doctor. Please believe me when I tell you it would be better if I did not accompany you this time.'
'All right, Timothy,' I agreed with resignation, and stood up. Again we locked glances, and it seemed to me that he was different. The flickering fires burned brighter, and again I felt the stirring of unease, of fear even, deep within me.
'I promise you, Doctor, that my work here is at a critical stage.'
'I will be very interested to see it when you are ready, Timothy.'
My four new assistants arrived on the commercial flight from Cape Town the following morning and we drove directly to the Sturvesant hangar where the Dakota transport was waiting for us.
The flight in was noisy and gay. Peter had his accordion along, and I never travel without my old guitar. We hit a couple of easy ones like 'Abdul Abulbul Emir', and 'Green grow the rushes, oh!', and I discovered with delight thatRal Davidson whistled with a clarity. and purity that was truly beautiful, and that Leslie had a sweet little soprano.
'When we've finished this dig, I'm going to take you lot on tour,' I told them, and began teaching them some of my own compositions.
It was three weeks since I had left the Hills of Blood, and as we circled it I could see that changes had taken place in my absence. The landing-strip, complete with wind-sock, had been gouged out of the dusty plain. Near it stood a cluster of prefabricated buildings. One long central bungalow with the residential quarters grouped around it. A skeletal metal tower supported a 2,000-gallon galvanized iron water-tank, and beyond that was the encampment which housed the African labour force.
Sally was waiting for us at the landing-strip, and we piled our luggage into the Land-Rover and went to look at our new home. I expected Louren to be there but Sally told me he had gone the previous day after a stay of a few days.
Proudly Sally showed us over the camp. The central air-conditioned bungalow was divided into a small common room and lounge at the one end, in the centre was a large office and beyond that a storage warehouse. There were four residential huts, air-conditioned, but sparsely furnished. Sally had allotted one to the Willcoxes, one for Leslie and herself, one for Ral and me, and the fourth for Louren or other visitors, pilots, and overnight guests.
'I could think of a few improvements in the sleeping arrangements,' I muttered bitterly.
'Poor Ben.' Sally smiled cruelly. 'Civilization has caught up with you. By the way, I hope you remembered to bring your bathing costume, no skinny dips in the pool any more.'
And perversely I regretted all that Louren had done for me. The Hills of Blood were no longer a lonely, mysterious place in the wilderness, but a bustling little community,with aircraft landing regularly, Land-Rovers kicking up the dust and even the clatter of an electric water-pump shattering the dreaming silence of the cavern and disturbing the still green waters of the emerald pool.
Quickly my group settled into their allotted tasks. Sally worked on at the cavern, with a single young African assistant. Each of the other four was placed in charge of a team of ten labourers and assigned an area in which to work.
Peter and Heather shrewdly elected to work outside the main walls, in the ruins of the lower city. It was here that the ancients would have disposed of their rubbish, broken pottery, old weapons, discarded beads and the fascinating debris of a vanished civilization.
Ral and Leslie with dreams of gold and treasure jumped at the chance of excavating within the enclosure, an area which the ancients would have kept swept and scrupulously clean, and therefore much less likely to yield finds of interest. That is the difference between experience and inexperience, between the impetuosity of youth and the cool calculations of an older head.
I kept myself free, in a supervisory and advisory capacity. Spending my time at those places where it could do the most good. Anxiously I watched Ral and Leslie to assure myself that their approach and technique were satisfactory, then I relaxed as Peter Willcox's recommendation proved correct. They were clever, enthusiastic youngsters and, more important, they knew their way around an archaeological dig.
The four teams shook themselves out as the dullards amongst the African labourers were sorted from the bright ones. In a shorter time than I had hoped for, the firm of Kazin and Company was breaking ground and doing good business.
It was slow, painstaking and thoroughly satisfying work. Each evening, before the nightly singsong in the commonroom, the day's work was discussed and any discoveries evaluated and related to their place in the general picture of the site.
The first conclusive discovery we made was that the ash layer at Level I persisted throughout the site, even in the lower city. It was by no means evenly distributed, but showed up in patches of varying thickness. Carbon-dating, however, gave a fairly constant result, and we settled at a date of A.D.450. This date seemed to be concurrent or to slightly pre-date the oldest bushman paintings in the cavern.
We were agreed that bushman occupation of the cavern would have followed immediately after the departure or disappearance of the ancients from the city. Scrupulously we referred to the first occupations as 'ancients', considering the term 'Phoenician' as yet unproven. A condition which it was my most dearly-held hope would soon be altered.
Associated with the ash layer were haunting scraps of human remains. Ral uncovered an incisor in the ash against the base of the main tower, Peter a complete humerus together with many other unidentifiable bone fragments. These unburied human remains went a long way to ensuring a general acceptance of my theory of a violent end to the City of the Moon.
This was reinforced by the baffling disappearance of walls and towers, which we could reasonably accept once stood on these bases of clay, with their vestigial stone foundations which occurred spasmodically along the outline of the temple enclosure.
Ral hesitantly suggested an enemy so crazed with hatred, that he had set out to obliterate all trace of the ancients from the earth. We could all accept this.
'Fair enough. But what happened to thousands of tons of massive masonry?' Sally spoke for all of us.
'They scattered it out across the plain,' Ral hazarded.
'A Herculean task, besides the plain was a lake in those days. To get rid of it they would have scattered it along the area between cliff and lake. There is no sign of it.'
Apologetically Peter Willcox reminded us of the account in Credo Mutwa's book Indaba My Children of how an ancient city was carried by its people, block by block, out of the west, and how the city was rebuilt at Zimbabwe.
'This is red sandstone,' Sally cut in brusquely. 'Zimbabwe is granite, quarried from the rock on which it stands. Zimbabwe is 275 miles east of here. The labour involved is unthinkable. I will accept that the building skills and techniques were transported, but not the material itself.'
There were no more ideas forthcoming and we could turn from theories to facts. At the end of six weeks Louren Sturvesant visited us for the first time. All digging and other work was suspended as for two days we held a seminar, with myself as Chairman, in which we presented Louren with all our accomplishments and conclusions to date.
These were very impressive. To begin with, the list of artefacts, pottery sherds, and other relics filled 127 typewritten foolscap pages. Peter and Heather were responsible for most of these and they opened the seminar.
'So far all excavation without the enclosure has been confined to the area north of it, and lying within 1,000 feet of the outer perimeter. In the main it seems to have been a complex of small rooms and buildings built from adobe clay and roofed with poles and thatch--'
Peter described the area in detail, giving the average size of the rooms and the exact position of each object discovered. Louren started thrashing around in his chair, and fiddling with his cigar. Peter is meticulous, almost old-maidish, in his approach to his work. Finally he reached his conclusions. 'It seems, therefore, that this area was an extensive bazaar and market.' And he led us through intothe warehouse to examine the finds from this area. There were fragments of badly rusted iron, a bronze comb, the handle of a knife fashioned in the shape of a woman's body, fourteen rosettes of bronze that we guessed had embossed a leather shield, twenty-five pounds' weight of bronze discs, and stars and sun objects which were clearly ornaments, sixteen shaped and beaten bronze plates that we hoped might comprise part of a suit of body armour, a magnificent bronze dish twenty-four inches in diameter chased with a sun image and set around with an intricate border pattern, and another forty pounds' weight of bronze scraps and fragments so badly battered and damaged as to be unidentifiable.
'These are all the bronze objects so far discovered,' Peter told Louren. 'The workmanship is crude, but not recognizably Bantu in conception and execution. It would relate more closely to what we know of Phoenician craftsmanship. Unlike the Romans and Greeks, they placed little value on the arts. Their artefacts, like their buildings, were massive and roughly executed. One other fact that emerges is the veneration of the sun. It was clearly a generally polytheistic community but one in which sun-worship predominated. In this settlement, it appears that Baal, the Phoenician male deity, was personified by the sun.'
I thought Peter was verging on the mistake of special pleading but I let him continue without interruption. After discussing each item separately, Peter led us to the next row of tables that carried all the glass and pottery.
'One hundred and twenty-five pounds' weight of glass beads - the colours are predominantly blue and red. Phoenician colours, with greens and whites and yellows recovered only in Levels I and II. In other words, later than A.D. 50 which coincides approximately with the final phase of absorption of Phoenician civilization by the Romans in the Mediterranean area, and its gradual disappearance.'
I interrupted. 'The Romans were so thorough in their absorption of Phoenicia and all her works, that we know very little of them ... .'
My attention wandered to Sally. She was in a sparkling mood, a complete change from the previous six weeks when she had been moody and withdrawn. She had washed her hair and it was shiny and springing with soft lights. Her skin also shone with golden hues where the sun had touched it, and she had coloured her lips and dramatized her eyes. Her beauty squeezed my heart. I forced my mind back to the row of tables.
' ... A case in point is this recovery of pottery,' Peter was saying. He indicated the huge display of fragments, portions, and a very few complete pieces. 'On all of this, with one exception, there is not a single inscription. This is the exception.' He picked up a sherd which was set out in a place of honour, and passed it to Louren. Although we had all gloated over it before, we crowded atound Louren as he examined it. There was a symbol cut into the baked clay.
'A chip from the lip of a cup, or vase. The symbol could conceivably be a Punic T.'
Louren burst in impulsively, turning to me and laying a hand on my shoulder, 'Conclusive, Ben. They must accept that, surely?'
'By no means, Lo.' I shook my head regretfully. 'They will cry, "Imported." The old trick of discrediting anything you can't explain, or which doesn't support your theories, by saying that it was brought in during the course of trade.'
'Looks as though you can't win, Ben,' Louren sympathized, and I grinned.
'At least we haven't uncovered any fourteenth-century Nanking pottery - or a chamber pot with Queen Victoria's portrait on it!'
Laughing we moved on to the next display of copperand copperware. There were bangles and brooches, green-encrusted and eaten away. Bales of copper wire and, significantly, ingots cast into the shape of a St Andrew's Cross each weighing twelve pounds.
'Those aren't something new,' Louren remarked.
'No,' I agreed. 'They turn up all over central and southern Africa. And yet the shape is exactly that of the ingots taken from the tin mines of Cornwall by the Phoenicians - or the copper ingots from the ancient mines on Cyprus.'
'Still not conclusive?' Louren looked at me and I shook my head, leading him on to see the iron work we had recovered. All of it was so badly rusted and damaged that the original shape was a matter of conjecture and guesswork. There were hundreds of arrow-heads, mostly associated with Levels I and II, spear-heads and sword-blades, axe-heads and knives.
'Judging by the quantities of weapons, or what we take to be weapons, the ancients were a warlike people. Alternatively they were a people fearful of attack and well armed against it,' I suggested, and there was a general murmur of agreement. From the iron section we went on to a display of my photographs, showing each stage of the excavations, views of the lower city, the temple, the acropolis and the cavern.
'Pretty good, Ben,' Louren admitted. 'Is that all you have for me?'
'The best comes last.' I couldn't help a little showmanship in my presentation, and I had screened off the end of the warehouse. I led him beyond the first screen with all my team hovering anxiously to judge his reaction. It was gratifying.
'Good God!' Louren stopped short and stared at the phallic columns with their ornamental tops. 'Zimbabwe birds!'
There were three of them. Although incomplete, theystood about five foot high, and were thirty inches in circumference. Only one of them was relatively undamaged, the other two had been mutilated so as to be hardly recognizable. The carving on top of each pillar had obviously originally depicted a vulturine bird shape with heavy beak, hunched shoulders, and predatory claws. They were similar in design and execution to those recovered from Zimbabwe by Hall, MacIver, and others.
'Not Zimbabwe birds,' I corrected Louren.
'No,' Sally affirmed. 'These are the ones from which the Zimbabwe birds were copied.'
'Where did you find them?' Louren asked as he moved in for a closer scrutiny of the green soapstone figures.
'In the temple,' I smiled at Ral and Leslie, who looked suitably modest, 'within the inner enclosure. They are probably religious objects - you see the sun symbols around the collar of the column - clearly they are associated with the worship of Baal as the sun god.'
'We have named them the sunbirds,' Sally explained, 'as Ben felt a name like the birds of Ophir was a bit too pretentious.'
'Why have they been damaged like this?' Louren indicated where deliberate blows had shattered the brittle green stone.
'That's anybody's guess.' I shrugged away the question. 'But we know that they had been toppled and were lying without design or direction in the layer of ash at Level I.'
'That's very interesting, Ben.' Louren's eyes were drawn to the final screen at the end of the warehouse. 'Now come on, you secretive old bastard, what have you got behind there?'
'What the whole city and colonization was based on - ' I opened the screen, '- gold!'
There is something about that beautiful buttery metal that holds the imagination captive. A hush came over the party as we stared at it. The objects had been carefullycleaned, and the surfaces shone with the special soft radiance which is unmistakably gold.
To coldly itemize the collection detracts in some way from its excitement and mystery. The gross weight of the pieces was 683 fine ounces. There were fifteen rods of native gold as thick and as long as a man's finger. There were forty-eight pieces of crudely wrought jewellery, pins, brooches and combs. There was a statuette of a female figure four and a half inches tall -
'Astarte - Tanith,' Sally whispered as she stroked it, 'Goddess of the moon and the earth.'
In addition there were a handful of gold beads with the string long ago disintegrated, dozens of sun discs and many chips, tacks and flakes and buttons of no definite shape or discernible purpose.
'And then,' I said, 'there is this,' picking up the heavy chalice of solid gold. It had been crushed and flattened, but the base was undamaged. 'Look,' I said, pointing to the design worked into it with uncommon delicacy of line.
'Ankh? The Egyptian sign of eternal life?' Louren looked to me for confirmation, and I nodded.
'For the Christians and heathens amongst you. We know that the Pharaohs on occasions used the Phoenicians to supply treasure for their empire. Was this,' and I turned the chalice in my hands, 'a gift from a Pharaoh to the King of Ophir?'
'And do you remember the cup in the right hand of the White Lady of the Brandberg?' Sally asked.
It was enough to keep us arguing and locked in discussion into the early hours, and the next day Sally, helped by Heather Willcox, presented her drawings and paintings from the cavern. When she showed the tracing of the white king, that frown of concentration again creased Louren's brow, and he stood up and went to examine it more closely. We waited for a long time in silence, before he looked up at Sally.
'I would like you to make a copy of this, for my own personal collection. Would you mind?'
'With the greatest of pleasure.' Sally smiled happily at him. The mood of sparkle and smile was still strong upon her and she was enjoying the sensation that the display of her work was causing. Sally, like most beautiful women, is not completely averse to standing in the limelight. She knew her work was damned good, and she liked the plaudits.
'Now I haven't been able to decide what these are.' Sally smiled as she hung a new sheet on the common-room board. 'There are seventeen symbols similar to this which I have so far isolated. Heather calls them the walking cucumbers, or the double walking cucumbers. Have you any ideas?'
'Tadpoles?' Ral tried.
'Centipedes?' Leslie was a bit more feasible.
That was the end of our imagination, and we were silent.
'No more offers?' Sally asked. 'I thought that with the formidable collection of academic qualification and worldly wisdom we have assembled here we could do better--'
'A bireme!' Louren said softly. 'And a trireme.'
'By Jove.' I saw it immediately. 'You're right!'
'"Quinquereme of Nineveh, from distant Ophir," ' Peter quoted joyously.
'The shape of a ship's hull, and the banks of oars,' I enlarged upon it. 'Of course - if we are right then vessels like that must have plied regularly across the lakes.'
We could accept it, but others certainly would not.
After lunch we went for a tour of the excavations, and Louren again distinguished himself with an inspired guess. A series of large regular cell-like rooms had been uncovered. by Peter's team in the angle formed by the cliff and the enclosure wall. They were joined by a long corridor, and there was evidence of paved floors and a system of drainage.Each room was approximately twenty-five feet square, and it seemed that these were the only buildings outside the enclosure which had been made of stone blocks and not adobe clay.
The closest we could come to a purpose for these cells was to call them 'the prison'.
'Do I have to do all the work around here?' Louren sighed. 'When you've just shown me pictures of the war elephants?'
'Elephant stables?' I asked.
'Very quick, lad!' Louren clapped me on the shoulder and I blushed. 'But I believe they are called elephant lines in India.'
After dinner I worked for an hour in mv dark room, developing three rolls of film, and when I was finished I went to look for Louren. He was leaving again early the following morning and there was much for us to discuss.
He wasn't in the guest room, nor in the lounge, and when I asked for him, Ral told me, 'I think he has gone up to the cavern, Doctor. He borrowed a torch from me.'
Leslie looked at him in a way which was clearly meant to be highly significant, a frown and a quick little shake of the head, but it meant as much to him as it did to me. I went to fetch my own torch, and set off through the silent grove, picking my way carefully around the open excavations. No light showed from the entrance of the tunnel beyond the great wild fig tree.
'Louren!' I called. 'Are you there?' And my voice bounced hollowly from cliff and rock. There was silence once the echoes died, and I went forward into the tunnel. Flashing my torch into the darkness ahead, ducking my head under the zooming flight of the bats, and hearing my own footsteps magnified in the silence.
I could see no light, and I stopped and called again.
'Louren!' My voice boomed around the cavern. There was no reply, and I went on down the passage.
As I stepped out from the mouth of the tunnel, suddenly the beam of a powerful torch flashed from across the cavern shining full in my eyes.
'Louren?' I asked. 'Is that you?'
'What do you want, Ben?' he demanded from the darkness behind the torch. He sounded irritable, angry even.
'I want to talk to you about the plans for the next step.' I shielded my eyes from the beam.
'It can wait until tomorrow.'
'You are leaving early - let's talk now.'
I started to cross the cavern towards him, averting my eyes from the dazzling beam.
'Point that light somewhere else, won't you,' I protested mildly.
'Are you deaf!' Louren's voice rasped, the voice of a man used to being obeyed. 'I said tomorrow, damn you.'
I stopped dead, stunned, confused. He had never spoken to me like that in my life before.
'Lo, are you all right?' I asked anxiously. There was something wrong here in the cavern. I could sense it.
'Ben,' his voice crackled, 'just turn around and walk out of here, will you. I'll see you tomorrow morning.'
I hesitated a moment longer. Then I turned and walked back down the passage. I hadn't even had a glimpse of Louren in the darkness beyond the torch.
In the morning Louren was as charming as only he can be. He apologized handsomely for the previous evening. 'I just wanted to be alone, Ben. I'm sorry. I get like that sometimes.'
'I know, Lo. I am the same.'
In ten minutes we had agreed that although the circumstantial evidence of a Phoenician occupation of the city was most encouraging, it was not conclusive. We would not make any public announcement yet, but in the meantimeLouren gave me complete carte blanche to proceed with a full-scale excavation and investigation.
He flew out with the dawn, and I knew he would be in London for breakfast the following morning.
The weeks that followed Louren's departure were dissatisfying for me. Although the work on the ruins went forward steadily, and my assistants never faltered in their enthusiasm and industry - yet the results were uniformly disappointing.
There were other finds, many of them, but they were repetitive. Pottery, beads, even the occasional gold fragment or ornament no longer thrilled me as it had before. There was nothing that added a scrap of knowledge to the store we had accumulated already. I roved the site restlessly, anxiously hovering over a new trench or exposed level, praying that the next spadeful of earth turned would expose an inscribed pallet or the headstone to a burial vault. Somewhere here was the key to the ancient mystery but it was well hidden.
Apart from the lack of progress on the excavation, my relationship with Sally had deteriorated in some subtle fashion which I was at a loss to explain. Naturally there had been no opportunity for any physical intimacy since the arrival of the others at the City of the Moon. Sally was adamant in her determination not to allow our affair to become common knowledge. My amateurish manoeuvrings to get her alone were deftly countered. The nearest I came to success was when I visited her at the cavern during the day. Even here she had her assistant with her, and often Heather Willcox as well.
She seemed withdrawn, taciturn, even surly. She worked over her easel with a fierce concentration during the day,and she usually slipped away to her hut immediately after dinner. Once I followed her, knocking softly on the door of her hut, then hesitantly pushing the door open when there was no reply. She was not there. I waited in the shadows, feeling like a peeping Tom, and it was after midnight before she returned, slipping out of the silent grove like a ghost and going directly to her room where Leslie had long ago switched out the light.
It was distressing for me to see my laughing Sally so withdrawn, and finally I visited her at the cavern.
'I want to talk to you, Sal.'
'What about?' She looked at me with mild surprise, as though it were the first time in days that she had noticed me. I sent the young African assistant away and prevailed on Sally to join me on the rocks beside the emerald pool, hoping that its beauty and associations would soften her mood.
'Is something wrong, Sal?'
'Good Lord, should there be?' It was an awkward unsatisfying conversation. Sally seemed to feel I was prying into affairs that did not concern me. I felt my anger rising, and I wanted to shout at her:
'I am your lover, damn you, and everything you do concerns me!'
But good sense prevailed, for 1 am sure presumption of that magnitude from me would have severed the last tenuous threads of our relationship. Instead I took her hand and, hating myself for the blush that burned my cheeks, I told her softly, 'I love you, Sally. Just remember that - if there is ever anything I can do--'
I think it was probably the best thing I could have said, for immediately her hand tightened on mine and her face softened, her eyes went slightly misty.
'Ben, you are a sweet dear person. Don't take any notice of me for a while. I've just got the blues, there is nothinganybody can do about it. They will go on their own, if you don't fuss.'
For a moment she was my old girl again, a smile quivering precariously on the corners of her mouth, and in those great green eyes.
'Let me know when it's over, won't you?' I stood up.
'That I will, Doctor. You'll be the first to know.'
The following week I flew back to Johannesburg. There was the Annual General Meeting of the trustees of the Institute which I could not avoid, and I was committed to a series of lectures for the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Witwatersrand.
I was scheduled to be away from the site for eleven days. I left it all in Peter Willcox's safe hands, after extracting from him a promise that he would cable me immediately if any new development broke.
The three girls fussed around me, packing my case, making a picnic lunch for me to eat on the plane, and lining up to kiss me goodbye at the airstrip. I must admit that I rather enjoyed all the attention.
I have often found that living too close to any problem narrows one's view of the whole. Three hours after leaving the City of the Moon, I made a minor breakthrough. If there had been walls and towers standing on the ruined foundations, then the rock must have been brought from nearby. The obvious place was from the cliffs themselves. Somewhere in those cliffs, close to the city, there was a quarry.
I would find it, and from its extent I would calculate the actual size of the city.
For the first time in weeks I felt good, and the days that followed were gratifying and solidly enjoyable. The meetingof the trustees was the type of festive affair which can be expected when funds are unlimited and prospects are favourable. From the Chair Louren was most complimentary when he renewed my contract as Director of the Institute for a further twelve months. To celebrate the thirty per cent rise in my remuneration, he invited me to a dinner at his home where forty people sat down at the yellow wood table in the huge dining-room, and I was the guest of honour.
Hilary Sturvesant, in a gown of yellow brocade silk and wearing the fabled Sturvesant diamonds, gave me her almost undivided attention during the meal. I have a weakness for beautiful things, particularly if they are women. There were twenty of them there that night, and in the drawing-room afterwards I held court like royalty. The wine had loosened my tongue, and washed away my confounded shyness. No matter that Hilary and Louren had probably primed the other guests to make a fuss of me, for when at two o'clock in the morning I went down to the Mercedes with Hilary and Louren escorting me I swaggered along seven feet tall.
This new-found confidence carried me through the series of four lectures at the University of the Witwatersrand. The first of which was attended by twenty-five students and faculty members, the latter outnumbering the former two to one. The word got out, however, and my final venue was changed to one of the main lecture theatres to handle the audience of 600 that turned up. I was an unqualified success. I was prevailed upon to return at an early date - and there was an unsubtle hint from the Vice-Chancellor of the University that the Archaeology Chair would be vacant the following year.
For the last three days of my visit I spent every minute at the Institute. With relief I found that not much had suffered in my absence, and my multitudinous staff had kept things running smoothly.
The bushman exhibition in the Kalahari Room was completed, and open to the public. It was magnificently executed, and the central figure of the main group reminded me sharply of my little friend Xhai. The model was depicted in the act of painting on the stone wall of a cave abode. With his stoppered buck-hom paint pots, and reed pipes and brushes, I imagined that this was how the artist who had painted my white king had worked. It gave me an odd sensation, as though two millennia had rolled away, as though I could send my mind back along the years. I spoke of it to Timothy Mageba.
'Yes, Machane. I have told you before that you and I are marked. We have the sign of the spirits on us, and we have the sight.'
I smiled and shook my head. 'I don't know about you, Timothy, but I've never been able to pick a winner--'
'I am serious, Doctor,' Timothy rebuked me. 'You have the gift. It is merely that you have not been taught to develop it.'
I will accept hypnotism, but talk of clairvoyance, necromancy, mantology and the like leaves me feeling embarrassed. To divert the conversation from me and my gifts, I asked, 'You have told me before that you are also marked by the spirits ...'
Timothy looked at me steadily from out of those disturbing black eyes. At first I thought I had insulted him by my thinly disguised question, but suddenly he nodded that cannon-ball head. He stood up, closed and locked the door of his office before returning to his seat. Quickly he stripped shoe and sock from his right foot, and showed it to me.
The deformity was shocking, although I had seen photographs of it before. It was of fairly common occurrence among the Batonga tribe of the Zambezi Valley. There had been a paper on it published in the British Medical Journal during 1969. The condition was known as 'ostrich-footed',and consisted of a massive division between the metatarsus of the big toe and the second toe. The effect was to make the foot resemble the claw of an ostrich or predatory bird. Timothy was obviously very sensitive about this deformity, and almost immediately replaced his sock and shoe. I realized later that he had shown it to me in a deliberate attempt to enlist my sympathy, to create a bond between us.
'Both feet?' I asked, and he nodded. 'There are many people in the Zambezi Valley with feet like that,' I told him.
'My mother was a Batonga woman,' he answered. 'It was this mark that qualified me for training in the mysteries.'
'Does it hinder you at all?' I asked.
'No,' he answered brusquely, and then went on almost defiantly in Batonga. 'We men of the cloven feet outrun the fleetest antelope.'
It was a beneficial mutation then, and I would have enjoyed discussing it further but I was warned by Timothy's expression. I realized the effort it had taken him to show me.
'Will you have some tea, Doctor?' He reverted to English, closing the subject. When one of his young African assistants had poured cups of strong black tea for us, Timothy asked, 'Please tell me how the work at the City of the Moon is progressing, Doctor.'
We chatted for another half hour, then I left him.
'You must excuse me now, Timothy. I am flying back tomorrow morning early and there is still much to do.'
I was awakened by a soft but insistent knocking on the door of my suite in the Institute. I switched on the bedside light and saw that the time was three o'clock in the morning.
'Who is there?' I called and the knocking stopped. I slipped out of bed, shrugged into a dressing-gown and slippers, and started for the front door, when I realized the risk I was taking. I went back to my bedroom and took the big ugly automatic .45 from the drawer. Feeling a little melodramatic, I pumped a round into the chamber and went back to the front door.
'Who is it?' I repeated.
'It's me, Doctor, Timothy!'
I hesitated a moment longer - anybody could call themselves Timothy.
'Are you alone?' I asked in Kalahari bushman.
'I am alone, Sunbird,' he answered in the same language, and I slipped the pistol into my pocket and opened the door.
Timothy was dressed in dark blue slacks and a white shirt with a windcheater thrown over his shoulders and I noticed immediately that there were spots of fresh blood on the shirt and that there was a rather grubby cloth wrapped around his left forearm. He was clearly much agitated, his eyes wide and staring in the light, and his movements jerky and nervous.
'Good God, Timothy, are you all right?'
'I've had a terrible night, Doctor. I had to see you right away.'
'What have you done to your arm?'
'I cut it on the window pane of my front door, I fell in the dark,' he explained.
'You'd better let me have a look at it.' I went towards him.
'No, Doctor. It's only a scratch. What I have come to tell you is more important.'
'Sit down at least,' I told him. 'Can I get you a drink?'
'A drink, thank you, Machane, as you can see I am upset and nervous. That is how I came to injure my arm.'
I poured both of us whisky, and he took his glass in his right hand and continued moving nervously around my sitting-room while I sat in one of the big leather armchairs.
'What is it, Timothy?' I prompted him.
'It is difficult to begin, Machane, for you are not a believer. But I must convince you.'
He broke off and drank whisky, before turning to face me.
'Yesterday evening we spoke at length about the City of the Moon, Doctor, you told me how there are mysteries there that still baffle you.'
'Yes.' I nodded encouragement.
'The burial grounds of the ancients,' Timothy went on. 'You cannot find them.'
'That is true, Timothy.'
'Since then I have thought heavily on this matter.' He changed into Venda, a language better suited for the discussion of the occult. 'I went back in my memory over all the legends of our people.' I imagined vividly how he must have thrown himself into hypnotic trance to search. 'And there was something there, like a shadow beyond the firelight, a dark memory that eluded me.' He shook his head and turned away, pacing restlessly, sipping at his drink, muttering softly to himself as though he still searched in the dark archives of his mind.
'It was no use, Doctor. I knew it was there, but I could not grasp it. I despaired of it, and at last I slept. But it was a sleep greatly troubled by the dream demons - until at last ...' he hesitated, ' ... my grandfather came to me.'
I stirred uneasily in my chair. Timothy's grandfather had lain twenty-five years in a murderer's grave.
'All right, Doctor.' Timothy saw my small movement of disbelief, and changed smoothly to English. 'I know you donot believe such things can happen. Let me explain it in terms you can accept. My imagination, heated by my search for a long-forgotten fragment of knowledge, threw up a dream image of my grandfather. The one from whom the knowledge was learned in the first place.'
I smiled to cover my spooky feelings; at this time of night with this half-demented black man talking of dark things, I felt myself falling under his spell.
'Go on, Timothy.' I tried to say it lightly, but my voice croaked a little.
'My grandfather came to me, and he touched my shoulder and he said, "Go with the blessed one, to the Hills of Blood and there I will make the mysteries known to you and open up the secret places." '
I felt my skin prickle. Timothy had said 'The Hills of Blood', and nobody had told him that name.
'The Hills of Blood,' I repeated.
'That is the name he used,' Timothy agreed. 'I can only believe he meant your City of the Moon.'
I was silent; reasonable man at war with primitive superstitious man within me.
'You want to come with me tomorrow, Timothy?' I asked.
'I will go with you,' Timothy agreed. 'And perhaps I will be able to show you something for which you search - then again I may not be able to.'
There was certainly nothing to lose. Timothy was obviously sincere, he was still tense and nervously aware.
'I have already invited you to join me, Timothy, and I was very disappointed when you refused. Of course you may come with me - we can certainly see if the sight of the ruins stirs something in your memory.'
'Thank you, Doctor. What time will you leave?'
I glanced at my watch.
'Good Lord, it's four o'clock already. We will leave at six.'
'Then I must hurry home and pack.' Timothy replaced his glass on my cabinet, then he turned to me. 'There is a small snag, Doctor. My travel papers have expired and we will have to cross an international border into Botswana.'
'Oh, damn it,' I muttered, deeply disappointed. 'You will have to get them renewed and come up with me on the next trip.'
'As you wish, Doctor,' he agreed readily. 'Of course, it will take two or three weeks - and by then the whole thing might have faded from my memory.'
'Yes.' I nodded, but I felt a prick of temptation. I am usually a law-abiditig person, but now as I thought about it I saw that no harm could come from what I intended. The chance that Timothy might lead me to the burial grounds of the ancients was worth any risk.
'Would you like to take a chance, Timothy?' I asked. Formalities concerned with the coming and going of Sturvesant aircraft had been reduced to a minimum. There were daily arrivals and departures, and a phone call to the airport authorities was all that was necessary before departure. The Sturvesant name carried such weight that there was never a head count on arrival or departure. At the City of the Moon Louren had arranged special status with the Botswana Government, and we were virtually free from bothersome red tape.
I could have Timothy in and out within three days with nobody the wiser and no damage done. Roger van Deventer would accept my word that Louren had sanctioned the flight. I could see no problems.
'Very well, Doctor, if you think it's safe.' Timothy agreed to my proposal.
'Be at the Sturvesant hangar before six.' I sat down to scribble a note. 'If you are questioned at the airport gate, which I doubt, show them this. It's a note authorizing. you to deliver goods to the Sturvesant hangar. Park your car behind the flight office, and wait for me in the office.'
Quickly we made our arrangements, and when I stood at the window of my bedroom and watched Timothy's old blue Chevy pull out of the Institute car park I felt a mixture of elation and apprehension. Idly I wondered what the penalty was for aiding illegal exit and entry, then dismissed the thought and went to make myself some coffee.
Timothy's Chevy was in one of the parking bays when Roger van Deventer and I drove up in the Mercedes. We went through into the hangar. The big sliding doors were open and the ground crew was readying the Dakota for the flight, and through the glass doors of the flight office I saw Timothy sitting hunched at the desk. He looked up and smiled at me.
'I'll get the clearance, Roger,' I suggested smoothly. 'You go and start the engines.'
'Okay, Doctor.' He handed me the flight dossier. We had done this before, and I had banked on the same procedure. Roger climbed up through the door of the fuselage, while I went quickly into the office.
'Hello, Timothy.' I looked at him and felt a twinge of concern. He was huddled into his blue windcheater, and there were lines of pain cut into his forehead and the corners of his nostrils. His skin was grey and his lips pale purplish blue. 'Are you all right?'
'My arm is a little painful, Doctor.' He opened the front of his jacket. The arm was in a sling, freshly bandaged. 'But it will be all right. I've had it attended to.'
'Do you feel up to this trip?'
'I'll be all right, Doctor.'
'Are you sure?'
'Yes, I'm sure.'
'All right, then.' I sat down at the desk and picked up the phone. It was answered at the first ring.
'Airport police!'
'This is Dr Kazin - from Sturvesant, Africa.'
'Oh, good morning, Doctor. How are you this morning?'
'Fine, thank you. I want to clear a flight to Botswana on ZA-CEE.'
'Hold on, Doctor. Let me get the particulars. Who are the passengers?'
'One passenger, myself - and the pilot is Roger van Deventer as usual.'
I dictated while the constable on the other end took it down in laborious shorthand. Until finally he said: 'That's okay, Doctor. Have a good flight. I'll give your clearance to control.'
I hung up and smiled at Timothy.
'All clear.' I stood up. 'Let's go.' And I led the way out of the office. The engines of the Dakota were ticking over. The three black ground crew inexplicably left their positions beside the landing gear and began walking rapidly towards me.
'Doctor!' Timothy's voice behind me, and I turned back towards him. It took me four or five seconds to realize that he had a short-barrelled Chinese model machine-pistol in his uninjured hand and the muzzle was pointing into my belly. I gaped at him.
'I am sorry, Doctor,' he said softly, 'but it is necessary.'
The ground crew closed in on each side of me, they gripped my arms.
'Please believe me, Doctor, when I tell you that I will not hesitate to kill you if you do not co-operate.' He raised his voice without taking his eyes off me. 'Come,' he called in Venda.
Five others came through the outer door of the hangar. I immediately recognized two of the young Bantu assistants from the Institute, and one of the girls. All of them carried those stubby, lethal-looking machine-pistols and between them they supported a badly wounded stranger. His feetdangled loosely, and blood-soaked bandages covered his chest and neck.
'Get him into the plane,' Timothy ordered crisply.
All this time I had-stood dumbly, paralysed with shock, but now the party carrying the wounded man squeezed past between my captors and the side wall. They were blanketing each others' line of fire, the whole group was off balance and at that moment I regained my wits. I braced my legs, leaned forward slightly and heaved. The men on my arms shot forward like thrown darts, crashing headlong into Timothy and knocking him down in a floundering heap.
'Roger!' I shouted. 'Radio! Get help!' Hoping my voice would carry over the sound of the aircraft engines. The third ground crew leaped on my back, one arm locking around my throat. I reached up, took him at wrist and elbow and wrenched against the joint. His elbow went with a rubbery popping sound and he screamed like a girl, his arm loose and flabby in my grip.
'Don't shoot,' shouted Timothy. 'No noise.'
'Help!' I screamed, the engines drowning my cry. They dropped the wounded man and came at me. I ducked and went in low. I kicked for the groin of the leader, and felt my boot sock into him, fleshy and soft. He doubled over and I swung my other knee up into his face. It crunched as the gristle of his nose collapsed.
Timothy and the ground crew were scrambling to their feet.
'No shooting.' Timothy's voice was desperate. 'No noise.' I went for him. Leopard-mad with rage, hating him for this betrayal with the full strength of my being, wanting to see his blood splash and feel his bones break in my hands.
One of the girls hit me with the steel butt of the machine-pistol, as I brushed past her. I felt the sharp edge of it cut into the flesh of my scalp, it threw me off balance. One of the ground crew grappled with me, and I took himto my chest and hugged him. He screamed, and I felt his ribs buckling in my grip.
They hit me again, steel biting into the bone of my skull. Blood poured warmly down my face, blinding me. My arms went soft, I dropped the man I was crushing and turned to charge into the others. Blinded with my own blood, my maniacal roars deafening me, they hit me again, crowding around me as I flailed and groped for them. The blows rained on my head and my shoulders. My knees collapsed, and I went down. I was still conscious, hot waves of anger buoying me. The boots started then, crashing into my chest and belly. I doubled up, blind, rolled into a ball on the cold oily concrete, trying to ride that storm of booted feet.
'Enough, leave him.' Timothy's voice. 'Get him to the aircraft.'
'My arm. I'll kill him.' The voice pig-squealing with agony.
'Stop that.' Timothy again, and the sound of a palm slapping against a face. 'We need hostages. Get him into the plane.'
They dragged me across the floor, many hands. I was lifted and thrown heavily onto the metal floor of the fuselage. The door slammed closed, muting the engine noise.
'Tell the pilot to take off,' Timothy ordered. 'Get the Doctor into the radio compartment.'
I was hustled down the length of the aisle. Blinking the blood out of my eyes, I saw the white ground engineer and his black ground crew lying bound and gagged against the wall of the fuselage. They were stripped of their overalls, which the gang had used to impersonate them.
Rough hands forced me into the steel chair in the radio compartment, and they tied me so tightly that the ropes bit painfully into my flesh. My face felt swollen and numb,and the taste of my own blood was thick and metallic in my mouth.
I turned my head, looking into the cockpit. Roger van Deventer was at the controls. There was a livid red swelling under his eye, and his grey hair was rumpled, his face pale and terrified. One of them stood over him with the muzzle of a machine-pistol pressed firmly against the back of his head.
'Take off,' instructed Timothy. 'Observe all routine procedures. Do you understand?'
Roger nodded jerkily. I felt sorry for him, I had guessed he was not cast in the heroic mould.
'Sorry, Doctor,' he tried to explain. 'They jumped me the moment I stepped aboard.' His full attention was on the job of taxiing the big aircraft out onto the still dark airfield. He did not look at me. 'I didn't have a chance.'
'That's all right, Roger. I didn't do so good either,' I replied thickly. 'I only got in two good licks.'
'That is enough talking for now, please, Doctor. Mr van Deventer must attend to the business of take-off,' Timothy admonished me, and I turned to give him the most expressive glare of hatred that I could force from my numbed features.
Roger asked for and received control clearance, and the take-off was routine and uneventful. The tense, anxious black faces relaxed and there were a few nervous laughs.
'You will fly on course for Botswana,' Timothy instructed Roger. 'Once you are over the border I will give you a new course.'
Roger nodded stiffly, the machine-pistol still held at his head. I was assessing the strength of the gang, I had already formed a working idea of their motives. Apart from Timothy and the eight who had overwhelmed me, there were five others. These were the ones who had captured and guarded Roger and the ground crew. The wounded manand the two I had damaged were laid out on the floor of the cargo hold. The two girls were working over them, both girls from the Institute, they were fitting a splint and changing bloody bandages.
As I watched, the gang members began changing from civilian clothing into camouflage paratrooper battle-dress. I saw the red star shoulder flashes, and my last doubts were dispelled. I turned my head and found Timothy was watching me.
'Yes, Doctor.' He nodded. 'Soldiers of freedom.'
'Or the bringers of darkness, depending how you look at it.'
Timothy frowned at my retort. 'I had always believed you to be a man of humanity, Doctor. You, I would have expected, could understand and sympathize with our aspirations.'
'I find it hard to sympathize with gangsters carrying guns in their hands.'
We stared at each other for a few moments. Then abruptly he stood up and came to the radio equipment beside my chair. He switched on the set, glanced at his watch, and began sweeping the bands. The station came on loudly, and immediately all movement in the aircraft arrested, all attention fixed on the announcer's voice:
'This is the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The time is seven o'clock and here is the news. A spokesman for the South African Police states that at 2.15 a.m. this morning a detachment of the Security Police, acting on information received, raided a farm house on the outskirts of Randburg, a suburb of Johannesburg. A pitched battle between police and a large gang of unidentified persons armed with automatic weapons ensued. Elements of the gang escaped in four motor-cars, and after a chase by the police, two vehicles managed to evade pursuit. Initial reports are that eight of the gang were shot dead, and four were captured wounded or unhurt. It is anticipated thatmany of those escaping were also wounded. A full-scale police hunt is now in progress, and all roads out of the Witwatersrand area are under surveillance, together with all airports. It is with deep regret that we announce the death of three members of the South African Police Force, and the critical wounding of two--'
A ragged cheer rang out through the aircraft, and one or two of the gang clenched their fists over their heads in the Communist salute.
'Congratulations,' I murmured sarcastically to Timothy and he looked down at me.
'Death is ugly, slavery is worse,' he said evenly. 'Doctor, there is a bond between us.'
'My head is sore, my face is too painful to listen to your Communistic cant,' I told him, 'don't give me fancy words, you bastard. You want to burn my land and soak it in blood. You want to tear down everything I hold dear and sacred. It is my country and with all its faults I love it. You are my enemy. There is no bond between us - except that of the knife.'
Again we held each other's eyes for a long moment, then he nodded. 'To the knife then,' he agreed and turned away. The Dakota bore on steadily into the north, and my injuries began to ache. I closed my eyes, and rode the long dizzy swells of pain that rose up out of my guts and exploded in my head.
The Mirage jet came up out of the east and flashed silvery sleek across our nose, and as it passed with incredible speed I saw the Air Force roundels and the goggled face of the pilot staring at us. Then it was gone, but immediately the Tannoy crackled into life.
'ZA-CEE. This is Air Force Red Striker Two. Do you read me?' I stared out of the window beside my head, andsaw the Mirage turn sparkling in the sunlight high above us. Timothy came running forward to the set beside me and stared at it for a moment. The atmosphere was hushed and tense. Timothy could not reply, his Bantu accent was too thick for deception.
Again the jet howled across our front. The gunman crouched low behind Roger's seat hidden from view.
'ZA-CEE.' Again the call was repeated. Timothy was sweating lightly, his face blue-grey with strain and the pain of the arm-wound. He turned from the set and motioned to two of his men.
'Bring him,' he pointed to the white ground engineer. They dragged him into the radio compartment and held him in front of me. His face was pale and shiny with sweat, his terrified eyes held mine in pitiful appeal, the gag cut into his mouth. One of them stood behind him and pulled his head back, exposing his throat and stretching the pale skin so that the arteries showed blue and pulsing. He reached around in front of the man, and laid the glistening blade of a trench knife against his throat.
'I am serious, Doctor,' Timothy assured me as he freed the rope from my arms and put the microphone of the radio transmitter into my hand. 'Reassure them. Tell them there are only two aboard, and that you are bound for the City of the Moon on a routine flight.' He placed his finger on the transmit switch of the set ready to cut if off.
The terrified engineer moaned into his gag, the knife pressed to the softly throbbing skin of his throat. They pushed him towards me, closer so that I could see his face clearly.
'Air Force Striker Two this is ZA-CEE standing by.' I croaked into the mike, staring fascinated into the engineer's terrified face.
'Report your complement and destination.'
'This is Dr Kazin of Sturvesant, Africa on a routine flight from--' As I spoke I saw them relax, the tensioneased and Timothy's hand moved from the transmit switch of the set. The engineer's eyes held mine and I wanted to tell him that I was sorry, that I wished I could save him. I wanted to explain that I was trading his life for those of fourteen of my country's most dangerous enemies, that the sacrifice was worthwhile, and that I would willingly add my own life to the price. Instead I shouted into the handset:
'Hi-jacked by terrorists! Fire into us! Disregard our safety.' Timothy's hand darted to the transmit switch, and at the same moment he turned towards the hostage. I think he was going to intervene, to try and stop it. He was too late.
The knife slashed across the tensed throat, slitting it deeply beneath the line of the jaw. The blood burst forth like a ruptured garden hose, it sprayed out in a red fountain that drenched both Timothy and me. It pumped in great liquid jets that splashed against the roof of the cabin, then dribbled in thick cords and strings to the floor. The engineer was keening a high wailing sound like steam from a kettle, and the air from his lungs burst from the severed windpipe in a pink froth that spattered the radio set.
The Tannoy was squawking, 'Reverse your course! Conform to me! Conform to me immediately, or I will fire into you.'
Timothy was cursing as he wrestled the microphone out of my hand: I was screaming and fighting against the ropes.
'You animals! You filthy murdering bloody animals.'
One of the gang lifted his machine-pistol to hit me in the face, but Timothy knocked his arm away.
'Get him out of here!' He jerked his head towards the still twitching, kicking corpse of the engineer - and they dragged him out into the cargo hold.
'Mirage is attacking!' shouted Roger, from the cockpit, and we saw it coming from ahead of us, a silvery flash as it bore in on a head-on interception course.
Timothy snatched the microphone to his mouth. I sawthat his face was speckled with the engineer's blood. 'Hold your fire!' he shouted. 'We have hostages aboard.'
'Attack!' I screamed, tearing and jerking at my bonds. 'They'll murder us anyway! Open fire!'
The Mirage jet pulled up steeply ahead of us, without opening fire, and howled a few feet over our heads. The Dakota rocked violently in the slipstream. I was still screaming and struggling to tear myself loose. I wanted to get at them. The steel chair was rocking from side to side. I got to my feet against the side of the fuselage and heaved with all my strength. The seat buckled a little, and again the guard lifted his machine-pistol.
'No,' shouted Timothy. 'We need him alive. Tell Mary to bring the morphine.'
The Mirage sheered off, then circled in to take up station a hundred feet off our starboard wingtip, I could see the pilot staring helplessly across the gap at us.
'You have spoken to Dr Kazin,' Timothy warned the pilot of the jet. 'And we have four other hostages. We have already executed one white hostage and we will not hesitate to execute another if you take any further hostile action.'
'They're going to kill us anyway,' I shouted, but Timothy broke the contact.
It took five of them to hold me still for the hypodermic, but at last they got it into my arm, and though I tried to resist the drug, I felt myself going muzzy and misty. I tried to maintain my struggles, but my movements became lethargic and uncoordinated and slowly I drifted off into unconsciousness. My last waking memory was hearing Timothy giving Roger a new course to fly.
Pain and thirst woke me. My mouth was thick and scummy and my head was a mass of solid blinding agony. I tried to sit up and cried out aloud.
'Are you all right, Doctor? Take it easy.' Roger van Deventer's voice, and I focused my eyes on him.
'Water?' I asked.
'Sorry, Doc.' He shook his head, and I looked around the bare white-washed room. Four wooden bunks and a lavatory bucket were all the furnishings, and the door was barred and grilled. The three Bantu ground crew sat on one of the bunks across the room, looking lost and unhappy.
'Where are we?' I whispered.
'Zambia. Some sort of military camp. We landed an hour ago.'
'What happened to the Air Force jet?'
'It turned back when we crossed the Zambezi. Nothing they could do.'
And there was nothing we could do, either. For five days we sat in the airless, oven-like room with its stinking bucket, until on the fifth day our guards came to fetch me. With much shouting and many unnecessary shoves and blows I was marched down a corridor and into a sparsely furnished office whose main furnishing was a portrait of Chairman Mao. Timothy Mageba rose from behind the desk and motioned my guards to leave.
'Sit down, Doctor, please.' He wore paratrooper camouflage, and the bars and stars of a Colonel in the Chinese People's Army.
I sat on the wooden bench, and my eyes fastened on the half-dozen bottles of Tusker beer that stood on a tray. The bottles were bedewed with cold, and I felt my throat contracting.
'I know how fond you are of a bottle of cold beer, Doctor.' Timothy opened one of the bottles, and offered it to me. I shook my head.
'No, thank you. I don't drink with murderers.'
'I see.' He nodded, and I saw the little shadows of regret in those dark brooding eyes. He lifted the bottle to his own lips and drank a mouthful. I watched him thirstily.
'The engineer,' he said, 'the execution, it was not intended. I did not mean it to happen. Please understand that, Doctor.'
'Yes. I understand. And when the smoke of our burning land blackens the skies, and the stink of our dead sickens even your dark spirits, will you cry out, I did not mean it to happen?'
Timothy turned away and went to stand at the window, looking out over a parade ground where squads of uniformed Bantu drilled under a dazzling sun.
'I have been able to arrange for your release, Doctor. You will be allowed to return in the Dakota.' He came back to stand before me, and then he changed from English into Venda. 'My heart cries out to see you go, Machane, for you are a man of gentleness, and strength, and great courage. Once I hoped that you might join us.'
In Venda I answered, 'My heart weeps also, for a man who was a friend, one I trusted, one who I believed was a man of goodwill, but he is gone now into the half-world of the criminals and the destroyers. He is dead to me, and my heart weeps.'
It was true, I realized. It was not just an attempt to shame him. Beneath my hatred and anger, there was a sense of sorrow, of loss. I had believed in him. I had seen in a man such as he was, a hope for the future of this poor tormented continent of ours. We looked at each other wistfully, regretfully across a space of four feet that was as wide as the span of the heavens and as deep as the chasms of Hell.
'Goodbye, Doctor,' he said softly. 'Go in peace, Machane.'
They took us in the covered back of a three-ton truck to the airstrip, bare-footed and stripped to our underclothes.
They formed a double line from the truck to the Dakota. There were perhaps 200 of them in paratrooper uniform, and we were forced to walk down the narrow aisle with jeering black faces on each side of us. There were Chinese instructors with them, their lank black hair flopping out from under the cloth uniform caps, grinning hugely as we passed. I was bitterly aware of the mocking eyes and jibes aimed at my crooked exposed back, and I hurried towards the refuge of the Dakota. Suddenly one of them stepped out of the ranks in front of me. Deliberately he spat at me, and a storm of laughter went up from them. With a thick gob of yellow phlegm plastered in my hair, I scrambled up into the cabin of the aircraft.
The Air Force Mirages picked us up an hour after we crossed the Zambezi river and they escorted us to the military airfield at Voortrekker Hoogte. However, my almost hysterical relief at our safe home-coming was shortlived. Once a doctor had cleaned and dressed the clotted and suppurating gashes in my head, I was hustled away in a closed car to a meeting with four unsmiling, grimly polite, officers of the police and military intelligence.
'Dr Kazin, is this your signature?'
It was my recommendation for the issue of Timothy Mageba's passport.
'Dr Kazin, do you remember this man?'
A Chinaman I had met when I visited Timothy at London University.
'Are you aware that he is an agent of the Communist Chinese government, Doctor?'
There was a photograph of the three of us drinking beer on the tow-path beside the Thames.
'Can you tell us what you spoke about, please, Doctor?'
Timothy had told me that the Chinaman was an anthropology major, and we had discussed Leakey's discoveries at Olduvai Gorge.
'Did you recommend Mageba for the Sturvesant travel scholarship, Doctor?'
'Did you know that he went to China and received training as a guerrilla leader?'
'Did you sign these order forms for twenty-seven drums of fuller's earth from Hong Kong, Doctor - and these customs declarations?'
They were standard Institute forms, I could recognize my signature on the customs form across the desk. I did not remember the shipment.
'Were you aware that this shipment contained 150 lb. of plastique explosives, Doctor?'
'Do you recognize these, Doctor?'
Pamphlets in a dozen African languages. I read the first line of one of them. Terrorist propaganda. Exhortations to kill, burn and destroy.
'Were you aware that these were printed on your press at the Institute, Doctor?'
The questions went on endlessly, I was tired, confused, and began contradicting myself. I pointed out the wounds on my head, the rope bums at my wrists and ankles, and the questions went on. My head throbbed, my brain felt like a battered jelly.
'Do you recognize these, Doctor?'
Machine-pistols, ammunition.
'Yes!' I shouted at them. 'I had pistols like that against my head, in my belly!'
'Did you know that these were imported in cases of books addressed to your Institute?'
'When you obtained police clearance for the Dakota flight, Doctor, you stated--'
'They jumped me after the phone call. I've explained that a dozen times, damn you!'
'You've known Mageba for twelve years. He was a protégé of yours, Doctor.'
'Do you mean to tell us that you were never approached by Mageba? Never discussed politics with him?'
'I'm not one of them! I swear it--' I remembered the blood spraying against the cabin roof, the crunch of steel biting into the bone of my skull, the spittle clinging in my hair. 'You've got to believe me, please! Oh God, please!' And I think I must have fainted, it went all dark and warm in my head and I slumped sideways off the chair onto the floor.
I woke in a hospital room, between clean crisp sheets - and Louren Sturvesant sat beside the bed.
'Lo, oh thank God.' I felt all choked up with relief. Louren was here, and it would be all right now.
He leaned forward, unsmiling, that marvellous face cold and hard as though it had been cast in bronze. 'They think you were one of the gang. That you set it up, that you were using the Institute as the headquarters for a terrorist organization.'
I stared at him, and he went on remorselessly, 'If you have betrayed me and your country, if you have gone over to our enemies, then you can expect no mercy from me.'
'Not you also, Lo. I don't think I can stand that.'
'Is it true?' he demanded.
'No!' I shook my head. 'No! No!' And suddenly there were tears streaming down my face and I was shaking and blubbering like a baby. Louren leaned forward and gripped my shoulder hard.
'Okay, Ben.' He spoke with infinite gentleness and pity. 'It's okay, partner. I'll fix it. It's all over now, Ben.'
Louren would not let me go back to my bachelor quarters at the Institute, and I was installed in a guest suite at Kleine Schuur, the Sturvesant residence.
The first night Louren woke me from a screaming nightmare of blood and mocking black faces. He was in a dressing-gown, with his golden curls disordered from sleep. He sat on the side of my bed, and we talked of the good, sane things we had done together and the things we would do together in the future, until at last I slipped off into untroubled sleep.
For ten lazy, idyllic days I stayed at Kleine Schuur, spoiled by Hilary and fussed by the children, protected from the news-hungry Press, and sheltered from the realities and alarums of the outside world. The bruises faded, the scabs dried and fell away, and I found it more and more difficult to respond to the children's cry of 'Story' with something new. They shouted the punch-lines in chorus, and corrected me on the details. It was time to go back into the stream.
In one unpleasant day-long session I told the story of the hi-jacking at the public inquiry, and afterwards faced the Press of the world. Then Louren flew me north in the Lear jet, back to the City of the Moon.
On the way I told him how I intended to find the stone quarries - and then the tombs of the ancients.
When he grinned and told me, 'That's the tiger - get in there, boy, and tear the bottom out of it!' I realized that I had been enthusing and emoting a little. I remembered Old Xhai's imitation of the Sunbird, and put my fluttering hand firmly back in my lap.
A hero's welcome was waiting for me at the City of the Moon, they had followed my adventures on the radio. But now they opened a case of Windhoek beer and sat round me in a circle while I told the whole story again.
'That Timothy, he always gave me a funny feeling.'Solemnly Sally demonstrated her amazing gift of hindsight. 'I could have told you there was something fishy about him.' Then she stood up and came to kiss me on the forehead in front of them all, while I blushed crimson. 'Anyway, we are glad you're safe, Ben. We were so worried about you.'
The next morning, after I had driven Louren to the airstrip and watched him take off, I went looking for Ral Davidson. I found him in the bottom of a trench measuring a slab of sandstone. He was covered by a skimpy pair of shorts and a mass of hair that almost completely obscured his features, but he was burned a deep mahogany brown by the sun and was lean and fit. I had become very fond of him. We sat on the edge of the trench dangling our feet over the side, and I explained to him about the quarry.
'Gee, Doc! Why didn't we think of that before?' he enthused. That evening we drew up an elaborate search pattern, with a schedule to enlarge the area of search in expanding spirals each day. Ral's gang was temporarily withdrawn from the excavations within the temple, and armed with machetes for the assault on the thick, spiny vegetation on top of the cliffs.
The whole search was planned like a military operation. I had been dying to find an opportunity to use the walkie-talkie radio sets with which Louren had, unbidden, supplied us. This was it. Ral and I checked the radios, shouting things like, 'Over to you' and 'Roger!' and 'Read you five five!' at each other.
Peter Willcox muttered something about 'boy scouts', but I think he was a little jealous that he hadn't been invited to join the search. Leslie and Sally, however, were infected by our enthusiasm and they victualled the expedition with sufficient food and drink to keep an army bloated and drunk for a week. They turned out in a pink dawn, still in their pyjamas and dressing-gowns, Leslie with her hair in curlers, to wave us off and wish us luck. At thehead of my gang of stalwarts, laden with food and equipment, feeling a little like Scott or bold Cortez, 1 led them towards the gap in the cliffs which had become our regular route to the top - and ten hours later, sweaty, bedraggled, scratched by thorns, stung by hippo fly and other insects, broiled by the sun and in a filthy temper, I led them down again.
We repeated this routine daily for the next ten days, and on the tenth evening when we paused half-way down the gap in the cliff to rest, Ral suddenly looked at the steep sides of the gap and said in a voice of wonder:
'Gee, Doc! This is it!'
For ten days we had been using the steps cut by the ancients into their quarry. Thick growth had covered the neat terraces from which they had sawn the red stone. We found some of the half-formed blocks of masonry still in situ, only a little undercut and almost unweathered in this protected gully. The marks of the saws were fresh upon them as though the workmen had laid down their tools the day before, instead of 2,000 years ago. Then there were blocks, cut in the rough, and abandoned half-way through the process of dressing. Others were completed, ready for transporting - yet others were in transit, discarded haphazard along the floor of the gully.
We cleared the undergrowth from around them and were then able to follow each fascinating step of the process of manufacture. The whole team came up to assist. They were jubilant with this new success, for we had all been a little put down with the recent total lack of progress. We sketched and mapped, measured and photographed, argued and theorized, and there was an evident renaissance of enthusiasm in all of us. The feeling that we had reached a dead end in the investigations was dispelled. I have a photograph, taken by one of the Bantu foremen who thought us all mad. We are clowning it up, posing on one of the bigger blocks of masonry. Peter strikes a Napoleonicattitude, hand in the breast of his jacket. Ral's hairy visage is adorned with a ferocious squint, and he poises a pick-axe murderously above Peter's head. Leslie is coyly showing a little cheesecake, and that is almost as bad as Ral's squint, with those legs she could kick elephants to death. I am sitting on Heather's lap, sucking my thumb. Sally has Peter's glasses on her nose and my hat pulled down over her ears; she is trying to look hideous, but failing resoundingly. This photograph illustrates the mood of those days.
After their assistance was no longer needed, the others went back to their separate tasks with renewed energy. Ral and I stayed on in the quarry. I brought up my theodolite and we set about calculating its extent and the amount of masonry removed from it. It was impossible to measure accurately the irregular excavation, but we decided that approximately a million and a half cubic yards of rock had been removed.
Then by a study of the method of quarrying and using the volume of abandoned blocks as a very rough guide, we guessed that the ratio of dressed finished blocks to waste material would be about 40:60. Finally we arrived at a figure of 600,000 cubic yards.
Up to this point we had been working with fairly factual figures, but now we pushed off into an ocean of conjecture.
'At least it's not as bad as drawing a dinosaur from its footprints,' Ral defended us, as we used the map of the foundations of the temple together with our calculation of rock volumes to reconstruct a complete elevation of the vanished City of the Moon.
'Here, let me do that!' Irritably Sally took the paintbrush out of my hand on the first evening, after she had watched my efforts for ten minutes.
'I think the batter of the main walls is a little excessive,' Peter murmured critically, watching her, 'if you compare the walls of the elliptical building at Zimbabwe--'
'Yes, but take the temple of Tarxien at Malta,' Heatherinterceded. 'Or the main walls of Knossos.' And before Ral and I could do a thing to prevent it, the project had become a group effort that replaced the nightly song-fest in the common room.
With everybody contributing from their own particular area of the dig, and from their own specialized talents and interests, we built up a series of pictures of our city.
Massive red walls, ornamented with the chevron patterns of the waves that made Phoenicia great. Red walls that caught the rays of the setting sun, the evening blessing of the great sun god Baal. The tall towers, symbols of fertility and prosperity, rising from the dark green foliage of the silent grove. Beyond it, the vertical gash in the cliffs that led through a secret passage into the mysterious cavern. Again a symbol of the organs of reproduction. Surely this must have been sacred to Astarte - more commonly worshipped by the Carthaginians as Tanith - goddess of earth and moon, and so ranks of white-clad priests wound in procession through the grove, past the towers and into the secret cavern.
We knew that the Phoenicians made human sacrifice to their gods and goddesses. The Old Testament described the infants delivered to the flaming belly of Baal, and we wondered what dreadful ritual our peaceful emerald pool had seen, depicting the victim dressed in gold and finery and poised on the edge of the pool with the high priest lifting the sacrificial knife.
'If only it weren't so deep!' Sally exclaimed. 'Ben wanted to get divers to go down, but he says they couldn't work so deep.'
In the area between the inner and outer walls of the temple, where the layer of ash lay thick and where the majority of golden beads and richer ornaments had been discovered, we drew in the quarters of the priests and priestesses. This would be a maze of mud walls withthatched roofs. We reconstructed the streets and courts of the priests and nobles.
'What about the king and his court?' Peter demanded. 'Wouldn't they live within the main walls also?'
So we divided the area between the quarters of the priests and the court of the king, drawing on what little we knew of Knossos, Carthage and Tyre and Sidon to give our paintings life. Ral had found the gate through the outer wall, it was the only opening and it looked towards the west.
'From it a road would have led directly down to the harbour.' Sally drew it in.
'Yes, but there would have been a market, a place of trade beside the harbour,' Ral suggested, and pointed to the map. 'This would be it. The area Peter has been puzzling over.'
'Can you imagine the piles of ivory and copper and gold,' Leslie sighed.
'And slaves standing on the blocks to be sold,' Heather agreed.
'Hold it! Hold it! This is supposed to be a scientific investigation.' I tried to restrain them.
'And the ships lying on the beach.' Sally started to paint them in. 'Huge biremes with their prows shaped like rams' heads, covered with gilt and enamel.'
The walls and towers rose again, the lake refilled with bright waters, and the harbours and taverns were peopled with hosts dead for two thousand years. Warriors strutted, and slaves whined, noble ladies rode in their litters, caravans poured in from the land to the east laden with gold and treasure, and a white king strode out through the great stone gates with a rosetted shield on his shoulder and his armour asparkle in the sun.
The project was fun, and it served also to prod our imagination. By the time Sally had put the last touches toour painting, four weeks had passed, and as a direct result of it Peter had discovered the shipyards suggested by Sally's biremes beached below the city.
There was the keel of a ship laid on the slip, with the main frames in place. The unfinished vessel had been burned, and its charred parts scattered. Only imagination and faith could recognize it as a ship. I knew my scientific opponents would challenge it, but carbon-14 on the charred wood gave us an approximate date of A.D. 300, the date which we had defined as that of the 'great fire'.
The project gave me an excuse to spend more of my time with Sally. I began taking my lunch and bathing costume up to the cavern. At first there was an awkwardness between us, but I worked hard at setting Sally at ease and soon we were back in that friendly bantering relationship that made us such a good working team. Only once I referred back to our more intimate association.
'Have you still got the blues, Sal?' I asked, and she gave me a long frank gaze before replying.
'Please give me time, Ben. There is something I have to work out with myself.'
'Okay.' I smiled as cheerfully as I could, and resigned myself to a long, long wait.
Sometimes the others joined our lunch-time sessions at the pool, for even when the heat was a hissing 115° outside, it was cool in the cavern. We splashed and shouted, and the echoes boomed back at us. One of my indelible memories is that of Leslie clad in a frilly little pink bikini romping skittishly around the pool like a lady hippopotamus in the mating season, pursued by the indefatigable Ral.
Five weeks after my return I went up to the cavern with good news.
'I just received a radio message from Larkin, Sal. Louren is arriving tomorrow.'
I was disappointed in her negative reaction, because Iwas sure she had overcome her initial dislike of Louren for my sake - and that she had begun to like him.
I went to meet Louren at the airstrip, and I was shocked. He had lost 201b in weight, and his skin which usually glowed with golden health was now chalky grey. Beneath his eyes were smears of dark plum that looked like bruises.
'Ben!' He put an affectionate arm around my shoulder and squeezed. 'It's good to see you, you old bastard.' But his voice was weary and I noticed the threads of silver at his temples which were newly acquired.
'My God, Lo, you look terrible.'
'Thanks.' He grinned wryly, and slung his bags into the back of the Land-Rover.
'Seriously, Lo. Are you sick or something?' I was distressed to see him looking so ill and haggard.
'I've been on a rough one, Ben,' he confided as he climbed into the Land-Rover beside me. 'Four weeks at the bargaining table, I had to do it all myself - could not trust anyone else to handle it. The other side sent in teams, changing them when they were worn out.'
'You're going to kill yourself,' I scolded him, sounding a little like a nagging wife. And he leaned across, punched my arm lightly, and laughed.
'You're a shot in the arm, partner.'
'Was it worth it? What was it about?'
'It's big, Ben! E - bloody - normous! Copper and iron, South West Africa, near the Cunene River, massive ore bodies lying in association, low-grade copper and high-grade iron - together they are a treasure chest.' The weary tone was gone from his voice. 'I put those little Jap bastards over the table and I roasted their arses. They will put in the finance for a deep-water harbour and a railway line to get the stuff out. That will cost them 150 million.' He was exultant, colour coming back into the pale cheeks. 'One of my companies will do the construction work, of course.'He touched a finger to his lips in a conspiratory gesture and I giggled delightedly. I enjoyed him in this mood. 'I'll put up for the pelletization plant and ...' He went on to outline the scheme, laughing and punching my arm when he recounted each bargaining point on which he had scored.
'What will it make for you?' I asked at last, and he looked at me, slightly put down.
'You mean in terms of money?' he asked.
'Sure! What else?'
'Hell, Ben. I've explained it before. That's not the important thing. It's not the money, it's exports and employment, and opening up new resources, and building for the future, realizing the potential of our country and - and--'
'And getting one hell of a kick out of it,' I suggested.
He laughed again. 'You are too shrewd, Ben. I suppose that's a lot of it. The game not the score.'
'Have you seen last week's Time magazine?' I asked. I knew it would needle him.
'Oh, for God's sake, Ben,' he protested.
'Your name is on the list of the world's thirty richest men.'
'Those bastards,' he muttered darkly. 'Now everybody doubles their prices. Why don't they mind their own business and let me get on with mine.'
'And in the process you are killing yourself.'
'You're right, Ben. I do feel a little spent, so I'm taking a week. A whole week's holiday.'
'Big deal,' I sneered, 'a holiday with your B.Y.M. arriving every half-hour for conferences, and the rest of the time with you hanging over the radio set.'
'Forget it,' he smiled. 'I'm getting away, and you're coming with me.'
'What do you mean, Lo?' I asked.
'Tell you later.' He avoided the question for we wereapproaching the branch in the dirt track, and I automatically slowed to turn down to the huts.
'Straight on, Ben,' Louren instructed. 'I want to go up to the cavern. I've been thinking of that place for weeks.' His voice went soft and reflective. 'When things got really tough there at the table, I'd think about the peace and tranquillity of that place. It seemed to ...' He stopped, and coughed with embarrassment. Louren doesn't often talk that way.
Sally was working at the rear wall of the cavern. She wore a green silk blouse and tailored khaki slacks, with her hair loose and shiny. As she looked up to greet Louren, I saw with mild surprise that she wore lipstick for the first time in weeks.
She noticed his haggard features immediately, and I saw the concern in her eyes although she said nothing about it. Her greeting was subdued, almost offhand, and she turned back to her easel. Louren went immediately to the portrait of the white king. I drifted across to join him and we sat in a friendly relaxed silence examining the strange figure. Louren spoke first.
'Do you get the feeling he's trying to tell you something, Ben?'
It was a fanciful question for Louren, but I treated it with respect for he was clearly in deadly earnest.
'No, Lo, I can't say that I do.'
'There is something here, Ben,' he said with certainty. 'Something you - we have overlooked. The key to this place, the whole secret of it is in this cavern.'
'Well, Lo, we could ...' I began but he wasn't listening. Sally left her easel and came to join us, she sat beside Louren and watched his face with complete attention.
'This feeling has never let me down, Ben. Do you remember the Desolation Valley mine? My geologist gave it a thumbs down, but I had this feeling. Do you remember?'
I nodded. Desolation Valley was now yielding twenty thousand carats of gem diamonds a month.
'There is something here. I am sure of it, but where?' He turned to stare at me, as though I had hidden whatever he was searching for. 'Where is it, Ben? The floor, the walls, the roof?'
'And the pool,' I said.
'All right, let's start with the pool,' he agreed.
'It's too deep, Lo. No diver--'
'What do you know about diving?' he demanded.
'Well, I've dived a couple of times.'
'Oh, for God's sake, Ben!' he interrupted brusquely. 'When I need a heart operation I go to Chris Barnard, not the local vet. Who is the best diver in the world?'
'Cousteau, I suppose.'
'Fine. I'll get my people onto him. That takes care of the pool. Now the floor.'
Dealing with Louren is like being caught in a hurricane. At the end of an hour, he had outlined a scheme for a thorough investigation of the cavern, and at last he suggested casually, 'Okay, Ben. Why don't you go on back to camp? I'd like an hour or so alone here.' I was reluctant to miss a minute of his company but I stood up immediately.
'Are you coming, Sal?' I asked. Louren wanted to be alone.
'Oh, Ben. I'm in the middle of--'
'That's okay, Ben,' Louren told me, 'she won't disturb me.' And I left the cavern.
The guest hut was long ago prepared, but I went with one of the servants to supervise the unpacking of Louren's bags. I noticed that someone had cut a spray of wild cave-lilies that grew under the cliffs, and placed them in a beer tankard beside the bed. I meant to compliment the Matabele who acted as our cook, butler and house-keeper forthis thoughtful little touch. It relieved the bleakness of the hut.
After checking Louren's accommodation I went down to the big bungalow and made sure there was ice in the refrigerator and plenty of cold water. Then I cracked the seal on a fresh bottle of Glen Grant - Louren and I have a common fondness for this nectar. While I was busy with the whisky bottle, Ral and Leslie came in off the dig and I heard them clump into the office next door. I did not intend eavesdropping, but the partition walls were paper-thin.
Ral growled like an enraged beast, and Leslie squealed.
'Oh, you are naughty!' she cried breathlessly, and it was clear that she had been physically molested. 'Someone will catch you doing that.'
'As long as they don't catch me doing what I'm going to do tonight,' Ral declared.
'Shh!' Leslie enjoined silence, but to no avail.
'Five weeks. I thought he'd never come. I was going mad.'
'Oh, Rally Dally darling,' wheezed Leslie in high passion.
'Toodles, my little Toodles,' Ral replied, and I blushed for them. Silently I set down the bottle and stole from the room. I was slightly puzzled as to how Louren's arrival, for that was obviously what Ral was referring to, could make such a dramatic improvement in their physical relationship, and I envied them for I had no such expectation.
We were all of us sick to the stomach with a diet of canned and preserved food. Louren had brought with him a full load of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. That night we had a sucking pig, golden brown in its suit of crackling, with roast potatoes, green peas and a gigantic bowl of fresh salad. There was very little conversation at the dinner-table.
Once the dishes were cleared, Louren lit a cigar. Irefilled the glasses and we all settled down in a circle about Louren. First I reported to Louren the discovery of the quarry, and the deductions we had made from it. This led on to an exhibition of Sally's reconstruction of the city.
I had not expected Louren to react the way he did. I had thought he might be mildly amused, as we were, not that he would accept our fantasy as proven fact. He worked himself into a fever of excitement, jumping up from his chair to examine each illustration, firing his abrupt searching questions at us, or simply sitting hunched forward in his seat staring at the painting with glitter-eyed concentration. His face was still pale and ravaged, which gave an almost demented intensity to his expression.
Sally, with a touch of canny showmanship, had kept the painting of the white king for the last. As she lifted it onto the board I saw Louren stiffen in his seat. The white king was in full battle armour, helmet and breastplate in glistening bronze, shield slung, and a short sword girt around his waist. His red-gold beard was curled and clubbed, and his bearing regal. His attendants followed him through the gates of the high outer wall, one carried his battle-axe, another his bow and a quiver of arrows, a third bore the golden chalice of eternal life.
Sally had lavished patient skill upon this particular illustration, and it was the most impressive of the whole series. We all stared at it in silence until suddenly I uncrossed my legs and leaned forward quickly, spilling a little of my whisky in surprise. I had not noticed it before, the gold beard had masked it, but now I realized suddenly whom Sally had used as her model for the white king. I turned to stare at Louren, and there was the same deep forehead, the noble brow above wide-set piercing pale blue eyes, the same straight nose with delicately chiselled nostrils, and the proud curve of mouth with the slightly sensual pout of the lower lip.
'Ben!' His voice was husky, he did not take his eyes offthe portrait. 'This is remarkable - I hadn't realized until this evening what this meant. Up to now it was just intriguing blocks of stone, and a few beads and scraps of gold. I never really thought about the people. That's the important thing, Ben! These men that voyaged to the ends of the world; that built something magnificent in the wilderness--' He broke off, and shook his head slowly, considering the magnitude, the grandeur of it. Then he turned to me.
'Ben. We have got to find out what happened to them, and their city. I don't care how long it takes, how much it costs. I have got to know.'
Now he stubbed out his cigar and jumped up from his chair, began pacing with a barely controlled violence.
'It's about time we announced this, Ben. I will set up a press conference. I'll want you all there to explain it. The world must know about these men.'
My stomach dropped steeply with alarm, and I stuttered a protest.
'But, Lo, we can't do that. Not now, not yet - please!'
'Why not?' He wheeled on me belligerently.
'We haven't got enough proof yet.' I went chill with horror, as I thought how my critics would hang, draw and quarter me if I went out on stage with such a sorry script. 'They'll scalp us, Lo. They'll tear us to pieces.'
'We'll show them these.' He pointed at the paintings.
'God!' I shuddered at the thought. 'Those are just conjecture, fantasy, in that picture the only single detail we could substantiate would be the chalice.'
Louren stared at me, but I saw the madness fading in his eyes. Suddenly he laughed guiltily, and struck his forehead with the heel of his hand.
'Wow!' he laughed. 'I must be tired! For a moment there those paintings were real, from life!' He went to stand before the painting again and examined it wistfully. 'I've got to know, Ben,' he said again, 'I've just got to know.'
The following day, while we ate lunch beside the emerald pool, Louren told me how he and I were to get away together. He used Sally's charcoal stick to draw on the flat surface of a rock.
'Here we are, and here sixty-five miles to the north-east are the ruins at Domboshaba. If your theories are correct then there was an ancient caravan route between the two cities. You and I are going to take the Land-Rover, and go cross-country, trying to pick up the old trail.'
'It's pretty rough country,' I pointed out, without enthusiasm. 'Completely unexplored, no roads, no water.'
'And no B.Y.M.,' Louren smiled.
'That makes it irresistible.' I returned his smile, remembering that this was therapeutic not scientific. 'When do we leave?'
'Tomorrow morning at first light.'
It was still dark when I awoke, and my bedside clock showed four-thirty. It was too late to go back to sleep and too early to get up. I was pondering the problem when the door of the hut opened stealthily and, as I prepared to repel burglars, Rat's hairy head silhouetted by the moonlight appeared around the jamb.
He had given me a fright so I shouted at him, 'What are you doing?'
If 1 had been frightened, it was nothing to Ral's reaction to my question. Letting out a howl of terror he leapt about three feet in the air with his arms flapping, rather like a crested crane doing its mating dance. It took him a minute or two to recover himself sufficiently to shamble across to his bed and reply in a shaky voice, 'I've been to the toilet.' Which was just as well, I thought, otherwise my challenge could have had disastrous consequences. I got up, dressed and went out to check the Land-Rover. I suppose I guessed that Ral had been with Leslie, but I did not realize the implications of this.
It took Louren and me most of the first day to find a wayover the Hills of Blood that the Land-Rover could negotiate. We followed the line of cliffs northward until they dwindled away and broke up into low kopjes and we could climb one of the gullies between them. It was a rugged ascent that taxed even that sturdy vehicle, but once on top the going was through open savannah and scattered acacia forest and we made good progress, swinging away southward again to pick up the caravan route that Louren had hopefully drawn in on his large-scale map.
That night we camped astride it, or at least where we hoped it might have been. With the amount of gasoline and water aboard, there was scant room for the luxuries of camp life. Besides it was meant to be a rough trip to dispel the smogs and grimes of civilization, a nostalgic return to the expeditions we had made together in our youth.
We grilled a brace of sand-grouse over the coals, and drank Glen Grant and sun-warmed water from enamel mugs. Then with hollows scraped from the hard earth for hip and shoulder we rolled into our sleeping bags beside the Land-Rover and chatted drowsily and contentedly for an hour before falling asleep.
In the dawn Louren massaged his back and gingerly worked the stiffness out of his muscles.
'I've just remembered I'm not twenty any longer,' he groaned, but by the third day he was looking it. The sun coloured him again, the bruises under his eyes were gone and he laughed freely.
Our progress was slow. Often it was necessary to retrace our spoor out of broken ground whose kopjes and ridges denied us passage. Then we would leave the Land-Rover and go in on foot to try and pioneer a way through. There was no hurry, however, so we could fully enjoy each mile as we groped our way north and east through country that changed its character and mood with the bewitching rapidity that is Africa's alone.
Each hour of eastward travel rewarded us with moreevidence of bird and animal life. The dry-land birds gave way for guinea fowl, francolin, and the gigantic korrie bustard. While amongst the mopani and masasa trees there was the occasional silver-grey flash of a running kudu, with his long corkscrew horns laid flat along his back.
'Water not far away,' Louren commented as we stopped the Land-Rover at the edge of one of those open glades of yellow grass and watched a herd ot sable antelope move away into the trees on the far side. The most stately antelope in Africa, proud heads holding the curved scimitar horns high and the dazzling contrast of snowy breast against the black body.
'Another endangered species,' I remarked sadly. 'Making way for the greed and excesses of man.'
'Yes,' Louren agreed. 'And you know something, there's not one single specimen of homo sapiens that's half as beautiful, and that,' he said, 'includes Raquel Welch.'
That night we camped in a grove of masasa trees, clad in their outlandish spring foliage which has the colours of no other tree on earth - pinks, soft shiny beige, and flaming reds. Louren had shot a young impala ram during the day and he wrapped the fillets in bacon and roasted them in a heavy iron pot while I made a sauce of onions and tomato and plenty of garlic. We ate it with thick slices of brown bread and yellow tinned butter and it tasted like no other food I had ever known.
'If you ever need a job, Lo, you can come cook for me,' I told him around a mouthful. He grinned and went to the Land-Rover to switch on the radio.
'What was the deal?' I asked.
'Just the news.' He had the grace to look guilty. 'Can't lose touch entirely.'
We listened to the strivings and strugglings of a world gone mad. Somehow, in this remote and tranquil place the affairs of man seemed unimportant, petty and transient.
'Switch it off, Lo,' I said. 'Who needs it?'
He reached for the control knob of the set, but checked his hand as the voice of the announcer spoke a familiar name.
'Lusaka Radio reports that the leader of the terrorist gang which yesterday ambushed a detachment of police in the Wankie district of Rhodesia, killing four and wounding two others, is the self-styled "Colonel" Timothy Mageba who two months ago made world headlines in his dramatic hi-jacking bid. A spokesman for the Rhodesian police said that Mageba is probably one of the most dangerous terrorists in Africa. A reward of 10,000 Rhodesian dollars has been offered for information leading to his death or capture.'
With a savage gesture Louren switched off the set and came back to the fire. He sipped his whisky before speaking.
'He's operating only a hundred miles or so north of here. I'd give anything to get a chance at that one.'
News of Timothy disturbed me deeply, and that night I lay long awake with my hands behind my head staring up at the starry splendour of the night sky. Venus had dropped below the horizon before I fell into a sleep troubled with ugly dreams.
The morning sun lit the crests of the kopjes a fresh gold and inflamed the sky with virulent reds and purples, driving away dark thoughts, and we talked and laughed together as we picked our way slowly towards the east.
In the middle of the morning we saw the vultures circling off towards the north, a vast wheel of specks turning slowly beneath the hard blue sky. Following the flight of these grotesque scavengers is one of the most intriguing invitations that Africa has to offer. For every time they will lead you to the scene of some desperate incident in the never-ending drama of the wilderness.
'A couple of miles off,' Louren commented, peering eagerly ahead through the windscreen. I shared his curiosity. The hell with ruined cities and lost civilizations, thiswas the stark, raw rule of tooth and claw we were going to witness.
A quarter of a mile ahead of us we saw the hunchbacked bird shapes squatting obscenely in the tree-tops, thick as some devil's fruit in the orchards of hell.
'They are off the kill.' Louren was jubilant. 'Something's keeping them up in the trees and sky.'
He stopped the Land-Rover, and switched off the ignition. We climbed out, and Louren checked the load of his big .375 magnum, changing the solid bullets for soft-nosed ones that would deliver a heavier knock-down blow.
'We'll walk up,' he said. 'I'd love a chance at a big black-maned lion.' He snapped the bolt of the rifle closed. 'Take the shotgun, Ben, load with buckshot.'
This is my sort of thinking. If a lion is far enough away to warrant the use of a rifle then he and I have no quarrel; closer than that I like a weapon that I can't miss with.
Louren set off through the waist-high grass, I followed him, keeping out on his flank to open my line of fire, the shotgun loaded for lion and my pockets bulging with spare shells. We moved in slowly, trying to find the focal point of this gathering of vultures for they were scattered in the trees over an area of half a square mile.
Every step heightened our tension with the expectation of walking on top of a pride of lions lying in the grass. Louren signalled each change of direction to me, as we quartered carefully back and forth over the ground. From the trees around us the birds launched into flight, changing miraculously from ungainly repose into something graceful and beautiful as they entered their true element.
My throat was dry with excitement, and a pleasurable fear. I could see Louren was sweating through the back of his shirt, not entirely from the heat. His every movement was charged with restrained energy, ready to explode at the first sign of the quarry. I loved this part of the hunt, forthere is the atavistic urge of hunter still hidden in most of us, it was only the killing that repulsed me.
Louren froze, rifle at high port. He was staring ahead, and I braced myself for the heavy detonation of the shot that I knew must follow; but the seconds passed slowly as dripping oil and still Louren stood with only the slightest movements of his head as he searched.
Quietly I moved up beside him. Ahead of us was an area of flattened and trampled grass. In the centre of it lay the body of a dead buffalo, his belly bloated with gas, and big shiny green flies swarming over his dead eyes and into his open mouth. I could see no marks of claws in the thick hide, with its coarse black hair blotched with patches of shiny baldness and rough scab.
I looked down at the ground, not wishing to tread on a twig as I moved again, and I saw the small childlike human footprint in a patch of ant-turned earth.
I felt the hair at the back of my neck prickle, we had walked into something a damned sight-more dangerous than a pride of lions. Quickly I looked back to the dead buffalo, and for the first time noticed two inches of a frail reed stalk protruding from the folded skin of the neck. The flesh around it was swollen tight and hard.
'Lo!' I croaked huskily. 'Let's get the hell out of here - this is a bushman kill.'
Louren's head jerked around and he stared at me. I saw the rim of his nostrils fade to china white.
'How do you know?' he demanded hoarsely.
'Footprints at your feet.' He glanced down. 'Arrow in the buffalo's neck.'
He was convinced. 'This is your shauri, Ben. What do we do?' Now he was sweating as heavily as I was.
I said, 'Slowly, slowly! Don't turn your back and don't move suddenly. They are watching us, Lo. Probably right here.'
We began backing off, clutching our weapons with sweat-greasy hands, eyes darting restlessly from side to side.
'Talk to them, for God's sake, Ben!' Louren whispered. I found time to examine the discovery that the threat of poison could turn even a man like Louren into a coward.
'Can't take the chance. Anything could trigger them.'
'They may be behind us.' His voice shook, and I felt my skin between the shoulder-blades cringe as I listened for the flute of the arrow. With each pace backwards I felt my fear shrinking, and fifty yards from the kill I risked hailing them.
'Peace,' I called. 'We mean you no harm.'
The reply came immediately, birdlike and disembodied, seeming to emanate from the heated air itself.
'Tell the big white-head to lay down his weapon, for we do not know him.'
'Xhai,' I cried out my relief and delight. 'My brother!'
'His eye was bright as the yellow moon, His hoof struck fire from the iron hills.'
We sang the buffalo song together, the men squatting around the leaping fire, clapping out the complicated rhythm with our hands. The women danced in an outer circle around us, swaying and shuffling, miming the buffalo and his gallant hunter. The firelight shone on their golden-yellow skins, their tiny childlike bodies with the startling bulge of buttocks and the fat little yellow breasts joggling to the dance rhythm.
'The arrow-bird flew from my hand Swift as a bee, or a stooping hawk.'
The branches of the trees around us were heavy with festoons of raw meat, hung out to dry, and beyond the firelight the jackal and hyena howled their frustrations tothe star-bright heavens, as they snuffed the tantalizing odours.
'The blood when it flowed was bright as a flower And sweet as wild honey was the flesh of his body.'
The dance ended at last, and the women giggled and trilled as they flocked to the fire to cram more meat into their little round bellies. Bushmen and women are awed by physical size, and to them Louren was a huge golden giant. They discussed him in a frank and intimate manner, starting at his golden head and working downwards until I laughed out aloud:
'What's so funny?' Louren demanded, and I told him.
'My God, they didn't say that!' Louren was shocked, staring at the women in horror, and they covered their mouths with their hands as they giggled.
I sat between Xhai and Louren, one of them smoking and the other eating a Romeo and Julieta cigar, and I translated for them. They spoke of the animals and the birds for they had a common love of the chase.
'My grandfather told me that when he was a young man the buffalo in this land below the great river were as locusts, black upon the earth - but then the red sickness came.'
'Rinderpest,' I explained to Louren.
'And they died so that they fell one upon the other, so thick that the vultures could not fly with the load of their bellies, and their bones lay in the sun like the fields of white Namaqua daisies in the spring time.'
They talked on after the women and children had curled up and fallen asleep like little yellow puppies in the dust. They spoke of noble animals and great hunts, and they became friends beside the fire so that at last Xhai told me shyly, 'I should like to share the hunt with such a one. I could show him an elephant, like those that my grandfatherknew, with teeth as thick as my waist and as long as the shaft of a throwing spear.'
And there goes any further pretence of looking for ruins and caravan routes, I thought, as I watched Louren's face light up at the suggestion.
'But,' I added, 'he says you must leave the Land-Rover here. They heard us coming for half an hour before we arrived today and he says this elephant is old and cunning. Which means we will have to get some sleep now. We've got a hell of a day ahead of us tomorrow.'
By the time the sun came up we had been on the march for three hours, dew had soaked our trousers to the knees but we had walked the night's chill out of our joints and were extending ourselves, stepping out with full stride to keep the two tiny brown figures in view. Xhai and Ghal were into that loose-limbed trot that would eat away the miles all day without flagging, their little brown forms danced ahead of us through the thickening thorns and jessie bush.
'How you doing, Ben?'
I grunted and changed the shotgun to my other shoulder.
'The little bastards can certainly foot it.'
'Brother, you have only just started,' I warned him. They led us into bad, broken country where harsh black ridges of ironstone thrust from the earth and the thorn was grey and spiny and matted, where deep ravines rent the walls of steep tableland outcrops and the heat was a fierce dazzling thing that sucked the moisture from our bodies and dried it in rings of white salt on our shirts. It was the type of country that a canny old elephant bull, pursued by men all his life, might choose as a retreat.
We rested for half an hour at noon, seeking shade in the lee of a boulder whose black surface was scalding to the touch and drinking a few mouthfuls of lukewarm water, then we went on and almost immediately cut the spoor.
'There and there.' With the point of a poison arrow, Xhai traced the outline of a padmark on the iron-hard earth. 'Do you not see it?' he asked with exasperation, and though we circled the area, tilting our heads learnedly, neither of us could make it out.
'If that's an elephant spoor,' muttered Louren, 'I'm a Chinese tinker.' But Xhai set off confidently on a new bearing through the thorns, and we climbed one of the rocky tablelands, following a trail that Louren and I could not even see. Near the crest of the hill lay a pile of elephant dung, still moist despite the furnace-dry heat, and a cloud of yellow and orange butterflies hovered over it attracted by the wetness. The dung looked like the contents of a coir mattress.
'Velly solly,' I whispered to Louren, 'pleese fixee pottee - chop chop.'
'The man's a bloody magician.' Louren shook his head in amazement, as he unslung the heavy rifle from his shoulder and tucked it under his arm.
We went on again, but slowly now, pausing frequently while Xhai and Ghal searched the impenetrable thickets of thorn ahead of us. It was a gut-aching business in this close bush, each step planned and made only at a signal from Xhai's dainty pink-palmed hand, moving forward when the hand beckoned and freezing when it froze.
'Come,' said the hand and we went on again, then abruptly -
'Stop!' A quick cut-out sign, with the hand like a blade, then balling into a fist and pointing ahead, bad luck to point with a finger at the quarry.
We stood still as death, sweat-shiny faces staring ahead into the wall of thorn - and then suddenly the elephant loomed ghostly grey amongst the grey thorn, moving from us in a leisurely sway-backed shamble, grey skin wrinkled and old, hanging in bags and pouches at the belly and in the crotch of his back legs, the tail bare of tuft hair, theknuckles of the spine showing clearly through the ridged skin on his back. Old elephant. Big elephant.
'Stay here!' Xhai's hand pointed at Ghal and me, and I nodded in acknowledgement.
'Come with me!' Xhai's forefinger crooked at Louren, and they went on together, circling out on the elephant's flank through the thorn. The bushman doll-like beside Louren's bulk, leading him around for a clean shot at the head or shoulder.
The elephant paused, and began feeding from one of the thickets, delicately plucking the pale green shoots with the tip of his trunk, stuffing them into his mouth, completely unaware of danger - while out on his flank Louren reached a firing stance and braced himself, legs spread, leaning forward to meet the recoil of the heavy rifle.
The shot was stunningly loud, shocking in the heat-drugged silence. I heard the bullet slap into flesh, and the elephant spun away from the impact, turning to face Louren, with its long yellow ivories lifted high, the huge grey ears cocked back, and it squealed as it saw the man. It squealed in anger, and a long smouldering hatred now burst into flame.
It crabbed sideways as it began the charge, blanketing Louren's line of fire with a thicket of thorns. I saw Louren turn and run out to the side, trying to open his front for a clear shot. His foot hit an ant-bear hole and he fell in full run, going down heavily, the rifle flying from his hand, lying stunned full in the path of the charge.
'Louren!' I screamed, and then I was running also, armed with only a shotgun, racing to head off the charge of a wounded bull elephant.
'Here!' I screamed at it as I ran. 'Here!' Trying to lead it off him, in the corner of my vision I saw Louren on hands and knees crawling painfully towards his rifle.
'Yah! Yay!' I screamed with all the strength of my lungs, and the bull checked his charge, his head swingingtowards me, piggy eyes seeking me, trunk questing for my scent.
I threw up the shotgun, and at thirty yards' range I aimed for his little eyes, hoping to blind him.
Blam! Blam! I fired left and right into his face, and he came at me. I felt a vast sense of relief as his charge exploded towards me, I had taken him off Louren - that was all that counted. With clumsy fingers I groped for fresh cartridges, knowing that before I could reload he would be upon me.
'Run, Ben, run!' Louren's voice, high above the ground-thudding charge of the bull. But I found my legs would not function, and I stood in the path of the charge, groping stupidly for cartridges which were useless as thrown peppercorns against this grey mountain of flesh.
The blast of Louren's rifle beat against my numbed brain, once - twice, it crashed out and like an avalanche the grey mountain fell towards me, dead already, the brain shattered like an overripe fruit at the passage of the heavy bullet.
My feet were rooted to the earth, I could not move, could not dodge, and the outflung trunk hit me with savage force. I felt myself thrown through the air, and then the cruel impact of earth and my brain burst into bright colours and stabbing lights as I went out.
'You silly bastard! Oh, you silly brave little bastard.' I heard Louren's voice speaking to me down a long dark tunnel, and the sound of it echoed strangely in my head. Cool wetness splashed over my face, blessed wetness on my lips and I opened my eyes. Louren was sitting on the ground, my head cradled in his lap and he was splashing water from the bottle into my face.
'Who are you calling a bastard?' I croaked up at him, and the expression of relief that flooded over his worried features was one of the most satisfying things I have ever seen.
I was stiff and sore, bruised of shoulder and across the small of my back, and there was a lump above my temple that was too painful to touch.
'Can you walk?' Louren fussed over me.
'I can try.' It wasn't too painful, and I even found the inclination to photograph the huge dead beast as it knelt in a prayerful attitude with the head supported on the curved yellow tusks. Louren and the bushman sat on its head.
'We will camp tonight at the Water-In-The-Rocks,' Xhai told me, 'and tomorrow we will return and take the teeth.'
'How far is it?' I asked dubiously.
'Close!' Xhai assured me. 'Very close.' And I scowled at him uncertainly. I had heard him use the same words to describe a march of fifty miles.
'It had bloody well better be,' I said in English, and to my surprise it was much closer than I had expected - and a lot of other things I had not expected either.
We crossed one ridge with me hobbling along on Louren's arm and then came out on a wide granite sheet, a great curved dome of rock almost four acres in extent. I took one look at it, at the lines of shallow rounded holes that dimpled the entire surface, and I let out a whoop of joy. Suddenly I no longer needed Louren's support, and both of us ran down onto the stone floor, chortling with glee, as we examined the regular lines of worn depressions.
'It must have been a big one, Ben,' Louren exulted, he made a guess at the number of holes. 'A thousand?'
'More!' I said. 'More like two thousand.'
I paused then, imagining the long regular lines of naked slaves kneeling on the rock floor, each beside one of the smooth depressions, each of them linked to his neighbours by the iron slave chains, each of them with a heavy iron pestle in his hands, pounding away at the gold-bearing ore in the stone mortar between his knees.
I saw in my imagination the slave masters walking along the lines, the leather whips in their hands as they checked that the rock was crushed to a fine powder. I saw the endless columns of slaves with ore baskets balanced on their heads coming up from the workings. All this had happened here nearly 2,000 years before.
'I wonder where the mine is.' Louren was paralleling my thoughts.
'And the water?' I added. 'They'd need water to wash the gold out.'
'The hell with water,' Louren shouted. 'It's the mine I want, those old boys only worked values of three ounces and over and they stopped at water level - there's a bloody treasure house around here somewhere.'
This was how all the ancient mines had been destroyed. It was a credit to the skill of the ancient metallurgists that the site of nearly every modern mine in central Africa had been discovered by them 2,000 years before. The modern miners ripped out all trace of the ancient workings in their haste to expose the abandoned reef. I made a vow that at the least I would be first into this one, before the vandals with their drills and dynamite.
The water was at the bottom of a fifty-foot well, cut cleanly through the living rock, its walls lined with masonry. It was the finest example of an ancient well I had ever seen; clearly it had been kept in good repair by the bushmen, and I gloated over it while Xhai fetched a raw-hide rope and leather bucket from a hiding place among the rocks. He brought the bucket up brimming with clear water in which floated a few dead frogs and a drowned bush rat. I made a resolution to boil every drop before it passed my lips.
Louren spent a full thirty seconds in admiring the well, before he set off into the narrow valley between the two ridges of granite. I watched him disappear amongst the trees searching diligently, and twenty minutes later his faint shouts drifted up to me.
'Ben! Come here! Quickly!' I dragged myself off the coping of the well and limped down into the valley.
'Here it is, Ben.' Louren was wild with excitement and I was struck again by the power that gold has to quicken the most sluggish pulse, and to put the glitter of avarice in even the most world-weary eyes. I am not a materialistic person, but the lure and magic of it quickened my own breathing as I stood beside Louren and we looked upon the mine of the ancients.
It was not an impressive sight in itself, a shallow depression, a trench sunk about three feet below the level of the surrounding earth, its banks gently rounded, it meandered away amongst the trees like a footpath that had been worn into the earth.
'Open stope,' Louren told me. 'They followed the strike of the reef.'
'And back-filled.' I commented on the peculiar habit that the ancients had of filling in all their workings before abandoning them. This shallow trench was caused by the subsidence of the loose soil with which they had filled it.
'Come on,' said Louren. 'Let's follow it.'
For a mile and a half we followed the old stope through the forest before it petered out.
'If only we could find one of their dumps,' Louren muttered as we searched the rank vegetation for a pile of loose rock. 'Or at least a piece of the ore that they overlooked.'
My back was hurting so I sat on a fallen log to rest, and left Louren to continue the search. He moved away through the trees leaving me alone, and I could enjoy the sense of history which enveloped me when I was alone in a place such as this.
The water level in the well was fifty feet, so I guessed that this was the depth to which the ancients had worked their stope. They did not have the pumps or equipment toevacuate the workings, and as soon as water started pouring in they refilled it and left to find another reef.
This mine had been an open trench, one and a half miles long and fifty feet deep by six feet wide, hacked from the earth with adzes of iron and iron wedges pounded into the grain of the rock with stone hammers. When the rock was hard enough to resist this method, then they built fires upon it and poured water mixed with sour wine on the heated surface to shatter it. This was the same method that Hannibal used to break up the boulders that blocked the passage of his elephants across the Alps - a Carthaginian trick, you might call it. From the sheet of reef they prised lumps of gold quartz and packed it into baskets to be haulted to the surface on raw-hide ropes.
Using these methods they removed an estimated 700 tons of fine gold from workings spread over 300,000 square miles of central and southern Africa, together with vast quantities of iron and copper and tin.
'That's 22 million ounces of gold at $40 an ounce, 880 million dollars.' I worked it out aloud, then added, 'And that's a big loaf of bread.'
'Ben, where are you?' Louren was coming back through the trees. 'I found a piece of the reef.' He had a lump of rock in his hand and he handed it to me.
'What do you make of that?'
'Blue sugar quartz,' I said. And I licked at it to wet the surface, then held it to catch the sunlight. 'Wow!' I exclaimed as the native gold sparkled wetly back at me, filling the cracks and tiny fissures in the quartz like butter in a sandwich.
'Wow, indeed!' Louren agreed. 'This is good stuff. I'll send a couple of my boys in to peg the whole area.'
'Lo, don't forget about me,' I said, and he frowned quickly.
'You'll be cut in on it, Ben. Have I ever tried--'
'Don't be a clot, Lo. I didn't mean that. I just don't want your rock hounds tearing up the countryside before I've had a chance to go over it.'
'Okay, Ben. I promise,' he laughed. 'You can be here when we reopen the workings.' He juggled the lump of quartz in his hand. 'Let's get back, I want to pan this and get some idea of its value.'
Using one of the stone mortars in the granite cap and a lump of ironstone as a pestle, Louren pounded a piece of the quartz to a fine white powder. This he collected in our cooking pot, and with well-water washed off the powdered stone. Swirling the contents of the pot with an easy circular motion, letting a little spill over the rim of the pot with each turn. It took him fifteen minutes to separate the 'tail' of gold. It lay curled around the bottom of the pot, greasy shiny yellow.
'Pretty,' I said.
'They don't come prettier!' Louren grinned. 'This stuff will go five ounces to the ton.'
'You are an avaricious bastard, aren't you,' I teased him.
'Put it this way, Ben,' he was still grinning, 'the profits from this will probably keep your Institute running for another twenty years. Don't kick it, partner, money isn't the root of all evil if you use it right.'
'I won't kick it,' I promised him.
We camped that night beside the well, feasting on boiled elephant tongue and potatoes and keeping a bonfire going to compensate for our lack of blankets. We spent the following morning cutting out the tusks. These we buried beneath a huge pile of rocks to keep off the hyenas, and it was after noon before we started back for the Land-Rover.
Night caught us out again, but we reached the Land-Rover in the middle of the following morning. I had blisters on my heels the size of grapes and my lumps and bruises ached abominably. I collapsed thankfully into the passenger seat of the Land-Rover.
'Up to this moment I have never truly appreciated the invention of the internal combustion engine,' I announced gravely. 'You can take me home now, James.'
We left Xhai and his small tribe to their eternal wanderings in the wilderness and we arrived back at the City of the Moon eight days after we left it. We were blackened by the sun and an accumulation of dirt, we had sprouted beards, and our hair was stiff with dust and grime. Louren's beard came out a burnished red-gold that glistened in the sunlight.
He had been AWOL for three days, and the pack was clamorous. A tall pile of messages waited for him in the radio shack, and before he could shave or bath he had to spend an hour on the radio taking care of the most urgent matters that had arisen in his absence.
'I should get on back to the salt mines right away,' he told me as he came out of the shack. 'It's four-thirty. I could make it.' He hesitated a moment, then his resolve hardened. 'No, damn it! I'm going to steal one more night. Get out the Glen Grant while I take a bath.'
'Now you're talking sense.' I laughed.
'All the way, partner.' He punched my shoulder.
'All the way, Lo,' I assured him.
We talked a lot, and sang a little, and drank whisky until after midnight.
'Bed!' said Louren then, and rose to go, but suddenly he paused. 'Ben, you promised to let me have some photographs of the "white king" painting to take back with me.'
'Sure, Lo.' I stood up a little unsteadily and went through into the office. I took a sheaf of nine-by-six-inch glossy prints from my files and went back with them to Louren. Standing under the light he shuffled through them.
'What's wrong with this one, Ben?' he asked suddenly, and handed it to me.
'What? I can't see anything.'
'The face, Ben. There is a mark.'
I saw it then; a faint shadowy cross which marred the death-white face of the king. I studied it a moment. It puzzled me. I hadn't noticed it before - like a dark grey hot cross bun.
'It's probably a flaw in the printing, Lo,' I guessed. 'Is it on the others?' He glanced through the other prints quickly.
'No. Just that one.'
I handed it back to him. 'Just a faulty print,' I said.
'Okay.' Louren accepted my explanation. 'Good night.'
I poured myself a nightcap while Sally and the others trooped off after Louren, and I drank it slowly, sitting alone, running over in my mind the plans that Louren and I had formulated for the thorough investigation of the cavern.
I will admit that I never gave the mark on the white king's face another thought. My excuse is that I was more than a little drunk.
The next two months passed swiftly. Ral and I devoted ourselves to a thorough excavation of the floor of the cavern.
The results were surprising only in their paucity. The cavern had never been used for human habitation, there was no midden or hearth level. We found an accumulation of animal detritus that extended down to bed-rock. On the bed-rock itself we found a single square block of dressed stone, and that was the total bag.
Our excavations had given the cavern a forlorn and gutted appearance, and the bed-rock was uneven limestone, so I had the dig refilled and neatly levelled. Then we used the ancient blocks to lay a pavement around the emerald pool. I saw this as a concession to the convenience of the thousands of future visitors who would come to view thiswonderful gallery of bushman art once its existence was known to the world.
As he had promised, Louren radioed me when his company was ready to begin re-opening the ancient mine we had discovered on the hunt for the elephant. A helicopter fetched me and I spent three weeks with the engineers who were doing the work.
The reef was there below the water-table as we had hoped, and although its values varied widely from place to place along its length, yet the average was exceptionally high. Secretly I was glad of my ten per cent interest in the mine, despite my non-materialist values. We recovered many hundreds of artefacts, mostly mining tools. There were badly rusted adzes and wedges, stone hammers, scraps of chain, a few well-preserved fibre baskets and the usual beads and pottery.
Of these I was most pleased with the fibre baskets which enabled us to obtain a carbon-14 date from the laboratories. This was slightly prior to, if not concurrent with, the date of the great fire, and served to link the elephant mine with the City of the Moon.
However, the most interesting find at the elephant mine was that of fifteen human skeletons lying like a string of beads along the stope at its deepest point. The arrangement of the bodies was so regular as to preclude the idea that they might have been killed in a rockfall. Although the skeletons had been flattened by the weight of earth from above, I was able to determine that five of them were female and ten were males. All of them were elderly, and one of them showed traces of arthritis, another had lost an arm between elbow and wrist but the bone had encysted, proving that it had not been a recent injury. Most of them had lost teeth. On all of them I found traces of iron chains, and the picture I had was that of fifteen elderly and infirm slaves laid deliberately along the bottom of the stope before it was filled.
After supervising the cataloguing, packing and despatch to the Institute of all these finds, I returned to the City of the Moon, and I went immediately to the cavern. As I hoped, Sally was hard at work there. I do not think her pleasure was affected as she came to meet me and kissed me.
'Oh, Ben. I've missed you.' Then she launched immediately into a technical discussion, and while I made the right answers my thoughts were far from bushman paintings.
I watched the way she crinkled her nose as she spoke, and the way she kept pushing her hair back from her cheek with the back of her hand, and my whole being throbbed with love of her. Down in my stomach I felt a squirming dread. Our work at the City of the Moon was almost finished, soon we would be returning to Johannesburg and the hushed halls of the Institute. I wondered how this would affect Sally and me.
'We'll be leaving soon, Sal.' I gave expression to my thoughts.
'Yes,' she agreed, immediately sobered. 'The thought saddens me. I've been so happy here, I'm going to miss it.'
We sat in silence for a while, then Sally stood up and went to stand before the portrait of the white king. She stared at it moodily, her arms folded tightly across her breast.
'We've learned so much here,' she paused for a moment, and then went on, 'and yet there was so much that was denied us. It was like chasing clouds, often I felt we were so close to having it in our hands.' She shook her head, angrily. 'There are so many secrets still locked away from us, Ben. Things we will never know.'
She turned and came back to where I sat; she knelt in front of me with her hands on her knees, staring into my face.
'Do you know that we haven't got proof, Ben! Do yourealize there is nothing we have found here that can't be discredited by the old arguments.' She leaned closer towards me. 'We have a symbol on a scrap of pottery. Imported in the course of trade, they will say. We have the golden chalice, the work of native goldsmiths using the Ankh motif by chance, they will say. We have the paintings - hearsay is not evidence, they will say.'
She sat back on her haunches and stared at me.
'Do you know what we've got, Ben, after it's all been sifted and sorted? We've got a big fat nothing.'
'I know,' I said miserably.
'We haven't even a single fact to knock them off their smug little perch. Our City of the Moon - our beautiful city - will be simply another culture of obscure Bantu origin, and there isn't a damn thing we can do about it. We will never know what happened to the great walls and towers, and we will never know where our white king lies buried.'
I planned to shut down the dig on the 1st of August, and we spent the last weeks of July tidying it all, leaving the foundations exposed for others who might follow us, packing our treasures with loving care, making the last entries in the piles of notebooks, typing the long lists of catalogues and attending to the hundreds of other finicky details.
The field investigation was over, but ahead of me lay months of work, filing and correlating everything we had discovered, fitting each fact into its niche and comparing it with evidence gathered by others at other sites, and finally there would be the summation and the book. Months before, I had hoped I might be able to entitle my book The Phoenicians in Southern Africa. Now I would have to find another title.
The Dakota arrived to take away the first load of crates, and with it went Peter and Heather Willcox. They would still have two or three months of their European holiday, but we were sorry to see them go, for we had been a happy group.
That evening Louren spoke to me over the radio.
'We have got hold of Cousteau at last, Ben. He's been cruising in the Pacific but my office in San Francisco spoke with him. He thinks he may be able to help, but there is no chance that he will be able to come before next year. He has a full schedule for the next eight months.'
That was my last excuse for staying on at the City of the Moon, and I began packing my own private papers. Sally offered to help me. We worked late, sorting through the thousands of photographs. Now and then we would pause to examine a print of particular interest, or laugh over one that had been taken in fun, remembering the good times we had spent together over the months.
Finally we came to the file of prints of the white king.
'My beautiful mysterious king,' Sally sighed. 'Isn't there anything more you can tell us? Where did you come from? Who did you love? Into what battles did you carry your war shield, and who wept over your wounds when they carried you home from the field?'
We went slowly through the thick pile of prints. They were taken from every angle, with every type of variation in lighting, exposure and printing technique.
A detail of one of the prints caught my eye. I suppose that subconsciously I was alerted to pick it up. I stared at it, with eyes that began to see for the first time. I felt something fluttering inside of me like a trapped bird, felt the electric tickle run up my arms.
'Sal,' I said and then stopped.
'What is it, Ben?' She picked up the quaver of suppressed excitement in my voice.
'The light!' I said. 'Do you remember how we found the city in the moonlight? The angle and intensity of the light?'
'Yes,' she nodded eagerly.
'Do you see it, Sal?' I touched the white king's face. 'Do you remember the print I gave to Lo? Do you remember the mark on it?'
She stared at the photograph. It was fainter than on Louren's print, but it was there, the same shadowy cross shape superimposed upon the death-white face.
'What is it?' Sally puzzled, turning the photograph in her hands to catch the light.
'I don't know,' I said as I hurried across the room to the equipment cupboard, and began scratching around in it, 'but I'm damned well going to find out.'
I came out of the cupboard and handed her one of the four-cell torches. 'Take this and follow me, Watson.'
'We always seem to do our best work at night,' Sally began, and then realized what she had said. 'I didn't mean it that way!' She forestalled any ribald comment.
The cavern was as still as an ancient tomb, and our footsteps echoed loudly off the paving as we skirted the pool and went to the portrait of the white king. The beams of our torches danced upon him and he stared down at us, regal and aloof.
'There's no mark on his face,' Sally said, and I could hear the disappointment in her voice.
'Wait.' I took my handkerchief from my pocket. Folding it in half, and in half again, I masked the glass of my torch. The bright beam was reduced to a steady glow through the cloth. I climbed up on to the timber framework that had been left in position.
'Switch yours off,' I ordered Sally, and in the semidarkness I stepped up to the portrait and began examining the face with the dimmer light.
The cheek was white, flawless. Slowly I moved the light, lifting higher, lowering it, moving it in a wide circle around the king's head.
'There!' we cried together, as suddenly the hazy mark of the cross appeared over the pale features. I steadied the light in its correct position and examined the mark.
'It's a shadow, Sal,' I said. 'I think there must be an irregularity beneath the paint. A sort of groove, or rather two grooves intersecting each other at right angles to form a cross.'
'Cracks in the rock?' Sally asked.
'Perhaps,' I said. 'But they seem to be too straight, the angles too precise to be natural.'
I unmasked my torch, and turned to her.
'Sal, have you an article of silk with you?'
'Silk?' She looked stunned, but recovered quickly. 'My scarf.' Her fingers went to her throat.
'Lend it to me, please.'
'What are you going to do with it?' she demanded, holding her hand protectively over the scrap of pretty cloth that showed in the neck of her blouse. 'It's genuine Cardin. Cost me a ruddy king's ransom.'
'I won't spoil it,' I promised.
'You'll buy me a new one if you do,' she warned me, as she unknotted the scarf and passed it up to me.
'Give a light,' I requested and she directed her torch onto the king. I spread the scarf over the king's head, holding it in position with the fingers of my left hand.
'What on earth are you doing?' she demanded.
'If you are ever buying a second-hand car, and you want to be sure it has never been in a smash, then this is the way you feel for blemishes that the eye can't see.'
With the finger-tips of my right hand I began feeling the surface of the painting through the silk. The cloth allowed my finger-tips to slip easily over the rock, and seemed to magnify the feel of the texture. I found a faintgroove, followed it to a crossroads, moved down the south axis to another cross-roads, moved east, north, and back to my starting point. My finger-tips had traced a regular oblong shape, measuring about nine by six inches.
'Do you feel anything?' Sally could not contain her impatience. I did not answer her for my heart was in my mouth, and my fingers were busy, running all over the rock beneath the silk, moving well away from the portrait, down almost to floor level, and up as high as I could reach.
'Oh, Ben. Do tell me! What is it?'
'Wait!' My heart was drumming like the flight of a startled pheasant, and the track of my finger-tips trembled with excitement.
'I will not wait, damn you,' she shouted. 'Tell me!'
I jumped down off the framework and grabbed her hand. 'Come on.'
'Where are we going?' she demanded as I dragged her across the cavern.
'To get the camera.'
'What on earth for?'
'We are going to take some photographs.'
I had two rolls of Kodak Ektachrome Aero-film type 8443 in the small refrigerated cabinet which housed my stock of films. I had ordered this infra-red film to experiment with photographing the unexcavated foundations of the city from the top of the cliffs, but the results had not been encouraging. There were too many rock strata and too much vegetation confusing the prints.
I filled my Rolleiflex with a roll of the infra-red film, and I fitted a Kodak No. 12 Wratten filter over the lens. Sally pestered me while I worked, but I replied to all her queries with, 'Wait and see!'
I took up two arc-lights, and we arrived back at the cavern a little after midnight.
I used a direct frontal lighting, plugging the arc-lights into the switch-board of the electric water-pump beside thepool. I set the Rolleiflex on a tripod and made twenty exposures at varying speeds and aperture-settings. By this time Sally was on the point of expiring with curiosity, and I took mercy on her.
'This is the technique they use for photographing canvases and picking out the signatures and details overlaid by layers of other paints, for aerial photography through cloud, for photographing the currents of the sea, things which are invisible to the human eye.'
'It sounds like magic.'
'It is,' I said, clicking away busily. 'The filter takes out everything but the infra-red rays, and the film is sensitive to it. It will reflect any temperature or texture differences in the subject and show them in differing colours.'
There was an hour's work in the dark room before I could project the images onto our viewing screen. All colours were altered, becoming weird and hellish. The king's face was a virulent green and his beard purple. There were strange dapplings, speckles, and spots which we had never noticed before. There were irregularities in the surface, extraneous materials in the paint pigments, colonies of lichens and other imperfections. They glowed like outlandish jewels.
I hardly noticed these. What held all my attention, and set my pulses pounding, was the grid of regular oblong shapes that underlaid the entire image. An irregular chequer-board effect; they showed in lines of pale blue.
'We've got to get Louren here immediately,' I blurted.
'What is it? I still don't understand. What does it mean?' Sally pleaded, and I turned to her with surprise. It was so clear to me that I had expected her to understand readily.
'It means, Sal, that beyond our white king is an opening in the rock wall which has been closed off by a master mason with perfectly laid blocks of sandstone. The white king has been painted over it.'
Louren Sturvesant stood before the rock wall in the cavern and stared angrily at the white king. His hands were clasped behind his back. He was balanced on the balls of his feet, with his jaw thrust out aggressively. We stood around him in a semi-circle, Ral, Sally, Leslie and I, and we watched his face anxiously.
Suddenly Louren tore the cigar out of his own mouth and hurled it onto the paved floor. Savagely he ground the stub to powder, then he swung away and went to the edge of the emerald pool and stared down into its shadowy depths. We waited in silence.
He came back, drawn to the painting like a moth to the candle.
'That thing,' he said, 'is one of the world's great works of art. It's two thousand years old. It's irreplaceable. Invaluable.'
'Yes,' I said.
'It doesn't belong to us. It's part of our heritage. It belongs to our children, to generations not yet born.'
'I know,' I said, but I knew more than that. I had watched Louren over the months as his feelings towards the portrait grew. It had developed some deep significance for him, which I could only guess at.
'Now you want me to destroy it,' he said.
We were all silent. Louren swung away and began pacing, back and forth, in front of the portrait. All our heads swung to watch him, like spectators at a tennis match. He stopped abruptly, in front of me.
'You and your fancy bloody photographs,' he said, and began pacing again.
'Couldn't we--' Leslie began timidly, but her voice faded out as Louren spun around and glared at her.
'Yes?' he demanded.
'Well, could you sort of go round behind it, I mean, well--' Her voice faded and then grew stronger again. 'Drill a passage in the wall off to one side, and then turn back behind the king?'
For the first time in my life I felt like throwing my arms around her neck and kissing her.
Louren flew up one of his mine captains with a crack team of five Mashona rock-breakers from the Little Sister gold mine near Welcome. They brought with them an air-compressor, pneumatic drills, jumper bars, and all the other paraphernalia of their trade. The mine captain was a big, ginger-haired man, with cheerful cornflower-blue eyes, and a freckled baby face. His name was Tinus van Vuuren, and he threw himself wholeheartedly into the project.
'Reckon we will be able to cut her fairly easy, Doctor. This sandstone is like cheese, after the serpentine and quartz that I am used to.'
'I want the smallest opening you can work in,' Sally told him sternly. 'I want as little damage as possible done to the paintings.'
'Man,' Tinus turned to her earnestly, 'I'll cut you one no bigger than a mouse's--' he cut the word off, and substituted another, 'ear-hole.'
Sally and I taped the outline of the mouth of the shaft on the wall of the cavern. We positioned it carefully to avoid the most beautiful and significant paintings. Though we took Tinus at his word and made the opening a mere two feet wide by four high - yet we would destroy part of a lovely group of giraffe, and a dainty little gazelle with big listening ears.
We kept thirty feet away from the white king, to avoid undue vibrations from the drills which might have loosened flakes of stone or paint pigments. Tinus would go in for thirty feet, then turn his shaft at right angles to the face and cut in behind the king. Tinus was set to begin first thing the following morning, but that night we entertained him in the common room. The atmosphere was similar to that of a fighter squadron mess on the eve of a dangerous sortie. We were all voluble and tense, and all of us were drinking a little too much.
To begin with, Tinus was very reserved, clearly overawed by the company of the legendary Louren Sturvesant, but the brandy loosened him up and he joined in the conversation.
'What do you want the respirators for, Doc?' he asked. 'You expecting gas or a fire?'
'Respirators?' Louren broke off a private conversation with Sally. 'Who ordered respirators?'
'They specially told me six respirators.' Tinus looked dismayed at Louren's direct questioning. 'They told me that, sir.'
'That's right, Lo.' I rescued the poor man. 'I asked for them.'
'Well, Lo. What we are all hoping to find is a passage, a - ' I was about to say tomb, but I did not want to tempt the gods, '- cave of some sort.'
He nodded. They were all watching me - and with a receptive audience I can seldom resist a touch of the theatrical.
'That cave will have been sealed, airtight, for two thousand years or so, which means there could be a danger of--'
'The Curse of the Pharaohs!' Sally interjected. 'Of course, do you remember what happened to the men who first entered Tutankhamen's tomb?' She drew a finger across her own throat and rolled her eyes horribly. She was onto her second Glen Grant.
'Sally, you ought to know better,' I cut in severely. 'The Curse of the Pharaohs is of course a myth. But there is a danger of a peculiarly unpleasant lung disease.'
'Well, I must say, I don't believe in curses and all that sort of bulldust,' Tinus laughed, a little too loudly. His inhibitions were way down around his ankles.
'That makes two of us,' agreed Ral Davidson.
'It's not a supernatural thing,' Leslie told them primly. 'It's a fungus disease.'
I seemed to have lost control of the situation completely, so I raised my voice.
'If you are all finished, I'll go on,' which got their attention back to me. 'The conditions would have been ideal for the development of cryptococcus neuromyces, a fungoid saphrophitic growth whose air-borne spores are the cause of a fatal disease.'
'What does it do?' Tinus asked.
'The spores are breathed into the lungs, and in the warm moist conditions they germinate almost immediately and develop into dense granulitic colonies.'
'Sies!' said Tinus, which is an expression of the deepest disgust. 'You mean it starts growing on your lungs like that green stuff on mouldy bread?'
'What are the consequences?' Louren asked.
I had it word-perfect. 'Primarily they are extensive lesions of the lung tissue, with haemorrhage, high temperature and rapidly painful breathing, but then the fungoid colonies begin generating wastes which are readily absorbed into the blood and carried to the brain and central nervous system.'
'My God!' Tinus was blanched and horrified, his blue eyes stared out of the white freckled face. 'Then what happens?'
'Well, the wastes act as a virulent neurotoxin and induce hallucination. There is inflammation of the meninges, and severe brain malfunction, similar to the effects of lysergic acid or mescalin.'
'Groovy!' said Ral, and Leslie kicked his shin.
'You mean it drives you crazy?' Tinus demanded.
'Clean out of your little skull,' Sally assured him.
'Fatal?' asked Louren.
'Seventy-five per cent, depending on individual immunity and the rate of antibody formation.'
'In the event of survival, is there permanent damage?'
'Scarring of the lungs similar to healed tuberculosis.'
'Brain damage?'
'No.' I shook my head.
'Hell, man,' said Tinus carefully, setting his glass down. 'I don't know that I am so keen on this deal. Rock falls, methane gas, pressure bursts - those don't worry me. But this fungus thing,' he shuddered, 'it is creepy, man. Just plain bloody creepy.'
'What precautions are you going to take, Ben?' Louren asked.
'The first party in will be protected by respirators,' I explained. 'I will take air and dust samples for microscopic examination.'
Louren nodded, and smiled at Tinus.
'What will you do if you don't find it - but it's sort of lurking there? Like, ready to pounce, you know. Like in those science fiction books,' Tinus hedged.
'If it's there, it will be thick. Every dust sample will be full of it. You can't miss it under the microscope. A black, three-ball structure like a pawnbroker's sign.'
'Are you sure, Doc?'
'I'm sure, Tinus.'
He took a deep breath, hesitated a moment longer, then nodded. 'Okay, Doc. I'll trust you,' he said.
The buffeting, fluttering roar of the rock drills chased my agonized brain into a corner of my skull and started kicking it to a jelly. The party had ended in the early hours.
'How are you feeling, Doc?' Tinus van Vuuren came across to where I stood watching the work and shouted above the din. My nerves vibrated like guitar strings. Tinuslooked as fresh and baby-faced as though his nightcap had been hot milk and honey and he had slept twelve hours. I knew the type - Louren was one of them.
'I feel bloody awful, thanks,' I shouted back.
'There won't be anything to see here for a couple of days,' Tinus told me. 'Why don't you go lie down for a bit, Doc?'
'I'll stick around,' I said, which seemed to be the general sentiment. Louren piloted the course of the Sturvesant empire from the radio shack, unable to tear himself away from the City of the Moon. Sally made a few desultory attempts at cataloguing and filing, but these never lasted more than an hour or two and then she was back at the cavern. Ral and Leslie made no pretence, and spent all day in the cavern, except for brief simultaneous absences which Louren and I guessed were exercise periods.
Tinus was a top man in his trade, and his team cut the tunnel swiftly and skilfully. The walls were shaped smoothly and precisely. They were shored with heavy timber baulks, and electric lights were strung along the roof. Thirty feet in, Tinus constructed a large chamber from which a new drive was made, aimed at the area behind the painting of the white king.
Tinus and I had made careful measurements and calculations, and we had decided exactly where we could expect to strike whatever the wall of masonry concealed.
The Bantu drill-men were warned of the need for respirators, and Tinus and I crouched behind them in the cramped rock tunnel as they began the assault on the last few feet of rock. Their backs were naked glistening bunches of black muscles as they worked the heavy drills. The noise in the confined space was thunderous, and despite the ventilation fans circulating air, the heat was appalling. The sweat poured down inside the face-mask of my respirator, and the eye goggles were fogged and blurry.
The tension was becoming almost painful as the long steel bit of the drill hammered itself into the rock, sinking in inch by inch, the muddy lubricating water running back from the drill hole. I glanced sideways at Tinus. He appeared monstrous in the black rubber mask, but the blue eyes twinkled out of the eye glasses and he winked and held up a thumb in a gesture of assurance.
Suddenly the drill-man was thrown off balance, as the drill ran away with him. It slid, unresisted, into its hole, and he staggered wildly as he tried to control the enormous weight of steel. Tinus slapped his shoulder, and he slammed the valve of the drill closed. The silence was almost painful, and our laboured breathing was the only sound.
Through, I thought, we've holed through into God knows what.
I saw my own excitement reflected in Tinus's blue eyes. I nodded at him, and he turned and tapped the drill-men's shoulders and jerked his thumb in a gesture of dismissal. They shuffled back, bowed in the low tunnel, and disappeared around the bend.
The two of us went forward and crouched at the face. Gingerly we withdrew the drill steel from its hole, and a wisp of fine dust followed it out, smoking in the harsh glare of the electric lights. Tinus and I exchanged glances. Then I jerked my head at Tinus. He nodded, and followed his gang back along the tunnel. I worked on alone at the face.
I used the long plastic rod, with a piece of sterile white cloth attached to the end of it, to probe the drill hole to its limit. It ran fourteen feet into the rock before meeting resistance, and when I withdrew it the cloth was thick with grey floury dust. I dropped it into the sample bottle, and attached another cloth to the rod. In all I collected six separate samples, before I followed Tinus back along the passage. There was a bench and an angle-poise lamp set up ready for me in the rock chamber. The microscope wasunder the light, with its mirror adjusted and it was the work of only a few minutes to smear my dust samples onto the slides and spread the red dye over them.
It was difficult to get a view into the eyepiece of the microscope through my befogged goggles. One quick scrutiny was sufficient, but I doggedly inspected all six samples before I ripped off my respirator and sucked big relieved breaths. Then I scampered down the passage and out into the cavern.
They were all waiting for me, crowding around me eagerly.
'We've drilled into a cavity,' I shouted, 'and it's clean!'
Then they were on me, pounding my back and shaking my hand, laughing and chattering excitedly.
Louren would let no one else work with me at the face, though Ral and Sally were clearly breaking their hearts to do so.
The two of us worked carefully, slowly chipping away at the drill hole with chisel and four-pound hammer, enlarging it gradually until we had exposed a slab of dressed masonry. It was a massive slab of red sandstone which blocked off the end of our tunnel from floor to roof, and from wall to wall. It was obviously the lining of the cavity into which the drill had bored.
The drill hole cut through the centre of it like a single black eye-socket. All our efforts to peer through it were rewarded with a vista of impenetrable blackness and we had to content ourselves with the slower painstaking approach.
For three days we worked shoulder to shoulder, stripped to the waist, chipping steadily at the living rock until, despite our gloves, our hands were mushy with blisters and smeared skin. Slowly we exposed the massive slab over itsfull width and height to find that it butted on either side against identical slabs and that it appeared to carry across its summit the cross-pieces of an equally massive stone lintel.
We used two fifty-ton hydraulic jacks to take the strain of the lintel off the slab. Then we drilled and attached ring bolts to the slab itself and hooked steel chains to them. We jammed a brace of steel H-sections across the tunnel to anchor the chains and with two heavy ratchet winches we began to haul the slab bodily out of its seating.
We knelt side by side, each of us straining against one of the winches, taking up the pull one pawl at a time. With each click of the ratchet the strain on the chains increased until they were as rigid as solid steel bars. Now the handles of the winches were almost immovable.
'Okay, Ben. Let's both get onto one of them,' Louren panted. His golden curls were dark and heavy with sweat and dirt, plastered against his skull, and the sweat highlighted his great shoulder muscles and the straining, swollen biceps as we heaved together at the winch.
'Clank!' went the ratchet and the chain moved a sixteenth of an inch.
'Clank!' Again she moved. Our breathing hissed and whistled in the silence.
'All the way, partner,' Louren gasped beside me.
'All the way, Lo.' And my body arched like a drawn bow, I felt the muscles in my back begin to tear, my eyes strained from their sockets.
Then with a soft grating sound the great slab of sandstone swung slowly out of the face, and then fell with a heavy thump to the floor of the tunnel, and beyond it we saw the square black opening.
We lay together side by side, fighting for breath, sweat trickling down our faces and bodies, our muscles still quivering and twitching from our exertions, and we stared into that sinister hole.
There was a smell; a stale, long-dead, dry smell as the air that had been trapped in there for 2,000 years gushed out.
'Come!' Louren was the first to move, he scrambled to his feet and snatched up one of the electric bulbs in its little wire cage, the extension cable slithered after him like a snake as he went forward. I followed him quickly, and we crawled through the opening.
It was a jump of four feet down to the floor of the chamber beyond. We stood side by side, Louren holding the light above his head, and we peered around us into the moving mysterious shadows.
We were in a long commodious passage that ran straight and undeviatingly 155 feet from the cavern end to terminate against a blank wall of stone. The passage was eight foot six inches high, and ten foot wide.
The roof was lined with lintels of sandstone laid horizontally from wall to wall, and the walls themselves were tiled with blocks similar to the one we had removed from its seating. The floor was paved with square flags of sandstone.
Let into the walls on each side of the passage were stone-lined cupboards. These were seven feet wide and five feet deep and reached from floor to roof height. Each of these recesses was fitted with shelves of stone slab, rank upon rank of them, three feet apart, and upon the shelves stood hundreds upon hundreds of pottery jars.
'It's some sort of store room,' Louren said, holding the light high and moving slowly down the passage.
'Yes, probably wine or corn in the jars.' I have never learned not to guess aloud. My heart was hammering with excitement and my head swivelled from side to side, as I tried to take in every detail.
There were twenty of these recesses, ten on each side of the passage, and I guessed again.
'Must be two or three thousand pots,' I said.
'Let's open one.' Louren was consumed by a layman's impatience.
'No, Lo, we can't do that until we are ready to work properly.'
There was a thick soft shroud of pale dust over everything, it softened the outlines and edges of all shapes. It rose lazily around our legs like a sea mist as our movements stirred it.
'We will have to clean up before we can do anything else,' I said, and sneezed as the dust found its way into my nostrils.
'Move slowly,' Louren told me. 'Don't stir it up.' He took a further pace and then stopped.
'What's this?' Scattered along the passage floor were dozens of large shapeless objects, their identity concealed by the blanketing dust. They were lying singly, or in heaps, strange fluid shapes that teased my memory. Compared with the orderly ranks of jars on their shelves, the objects were strewn with a careless abandon.
'Hold the lamp,' I told Louren, and crouched over one of them. I touched it gently, running my fingers through the velvety dust, brushing it softly aside until I recognized what it was and I drew back with an involuntary exclamation of surprise.
Through the soft mist of dust and ages a face stared up at me. A long-dead, mummified face over which was stretched dry tobacco-brown skin. The eyes were empty dark holes, and the lips had dried and shrunken to expose the grinning yellow teeth.
'Dead men,' Louren said. 'Dozens of them.'
'Sacrifices?' I pondered. 'No, this is something else.'
'It looks like a battle. As though they have been killed in a fight.'
Now that we knew what they were, it was possible to make out the way the bodies were piled upon each otherlike the debris of a hurricane, or were thrown loosely about the stone floor. A corpse in a mantle of grey dust sat with his back to the wall, his head sagged forward on his chest, and one outflung arm had knocked four of the jars from their shelf - they lay on the floor beside him like fat rolls of French bread.
'It must have been a hell of a fight,' I said with awe.
'It was,' said Louren softly, and I turned to him with surprise. His eyes glowed with some intense inner excitement, and his lips were parted, a reckless half-smile on his lips.
'What do you mean?' I demanded. 'How do you know that?'
Louren looked at me. For a second or two he did not see me, then his eyes focused.
'Hey?' he said, puzzled.
'Why did you say that, as though you knew?'
'Did I?' he asked. 'I don't know. I meant - it must have been.'
He moved on slowly down the passage, stepping over the wind-rows of dead men, peering in each recess as he passed, and I followed him slowly. My mind was thrashing around like a corralled bull, charging madly at each fleeting idea that crossed its path, spinning back on its track and charging again. I knew there was no chance of it being capable of calm, logical thought until this first surging excitement waned.
Of one thing, and one thing only, I was certain. This was big. This was something to rank with Leakey's discoveries at Olduvai Gorge, something to startle and dazzle the world of archaeology. Something that I had prayed for and dreamed about for twenty years.
We had reached the end of the passage. The end wall was another panel of sandstone, but this was decorated. A swirling, stylized engraving of the sun image. Three feet indiameter, it looked like a Catherine wheel with the rays radiating from its circumference. The image evoked in me a strange sense of reverential awe, a hushed feeling of the spirit such as I experience sometimes in a synagogue or the cloisters of a Christian cathedral. Louren and I stood and stared at the image for a long time, then suddenly he turned and looked back to the bricked-in wall 155 feet away.
'Is that all?' he asked, and there was an irritable tone to his voice. 'Just this passage and pots and old bones? There must be something more!'
It came as a shock to me to realize that he was actually disappointed. For me the universe could hold no richer prize, this was the culminating moment of my life - and Louren was disappointed. I felt anger start to hiss and bubble within me.
'What the hell do you want?' I demanded. 'Gold and diamonds and ivory sarcophagi and--'
'Something like that.'
'You don't even know what we've got here yet, and already it's not enough.'
'Ben, I didn't say that.'
'You know what's wrong with you, Louren Sturvesant? You're bloody well spoiled. You've got everything, so nothing is good enough for you.'
'Now, listen here!' I saw my own anger reflected in his eyes, but I rushed on regardlessly.
'I've planned and saved and worked for this all my life. And now I achieve it, and what do you do?'
'Hey, Ben!' I saw comprehension in his eyes suddenly. 'I didn't mean it that way. I'm not knocking your achievement. I really think it's the most incredible discovery ever made in Africa, I was just--'
It took him a few minutes of hard talking to mollify me, but at last I grinned reluctantly.
'Okay,' I relented, 'just don't go saying things like that, Lo. All my life the bastards have been putting down my discoveries and theories, so don't you start!'
'One thing they'll never be able to say about you is that you're frightened to speak your mind!' He punched my shoulder lightly. 'Come on, Ben, let's see what we've got in these pots.'
'We shouldn't disturb them, Lo.' I was ashamed of my outburst now, and eager to make it up to him. 'Not until we have mapped and charted--'
'A couple of them are lying on the floor, knocked off the shelves,' Louren pointed. 'There are thousands of the bloody things. We will just snaffle one of them. Hell, Ben, it won't do that much harm!'
He was not asking permission, not Louren Sturvesant, he was merely giving an order in the pleasantest possible fashion. Already he was making his way back to where the jars were lying beside the dusty bowed corpse, and I hurried after him.
'Okay,' I agreed unnecessarily, in an attempt to keep nominal control of my find. 'We will remove one of them only.' I felt a sneaking sense of relief that the wrong decision had been made for me. I was also in a fever of impatience to find out what was in the jars.
The jar stood in the centre of the work-shop bench in our prefabricated warehouse. Night had fallen outside, but the overhead lights were all on. We stood around the bench, Sally, Ral, Leslie and I. Tinus van Vuuren was still up at the cavern, his status having changed from mine captain to night watchman. Louren had decided to place a twenty-four-hour armed guard over the entrance to the tunnel, and Tinus was it - until we could get others.
Through the thin partition walls of the hut I could hearLouren's voice as he shouted into the microphone of the radio.
'A vacuum cleaner. Vacuum cleaner. VACUUM CLEANER! V for Venereal, A for Alcoholic - that's right. Vacuum cleaner. You know the heavy-duty model for cleaning factories. Two of them. Have you got that? Good! Now I want you to get on to Robeson, Head of Security at Sturvesant Diamond Mines. He is to send me his two best men, with half a dozen Bantu guards. Yes, that's right. Yes, I want them armed.'
None of us paid attention to Louren's voice, we were all staring in mesmerized fascination at the earthenware jar.
'Well, it's not filled with gold.' Ral was certain. 'Not heavy enough.'
'Nor is it liquid - not wine or oil,' Leslie agreed. And we relapsed into silence. The pot was about eighteen inches high, and thick around as a pickle jar. It was of unglazed red pottery, without inscription or ornamentation, and the lid was like that of a teapot with a small knob for a handle. It was sealed with a layer of black substance, probably gum or wax.
'Get that lot on the Dakota first thing tomorrow morning, do you hear?' Louren was still busy next door.
'I wish he'd hurry up!' Sally stirred impatiently. 'I'm dying to find out what it is.'
Suddenly I was afraid. I didn't want to know - I didn't want to find the jar filled with African millet or some other indigenous grain. I could hear my critics howling like wolves out there in the wilderness. Suddenly I was doubting my own premonition of some momentous discovery and I sat on the edge of my stool, miserably rubbing my grimy hands together and staring at the jar. Perhaps Louren was right, perhaps we would echo his cry, 'Is that all?'
From the radio shack we heard Louren's voice end the transmission, and he came through into the warehouse. He was still filthy from the work in the tunnel, and his goldenhair was stiff with dust and dried sweat. Yet the grime and unruly curls gave him an air of romance, the jaunty look of an old-time pirate. He stood in the doorway with his thumbs hooked into his belt, and all our attention was on him. He grinned at me.
'Okay, Ben. What have you got for us?' he asked and sauntered across the room to stand behind my shoulder. Instinctively the others drew closer, crowding into a circle around me and I picked up the surgical scalpel and touched the point of it to the joint of the lid.
The first touch told me that my guess had been correct. 'Beeswax, I think.'
Carefully I scraped it away, then laid the scalpel aside and gently tried the lid. It came away with surprising ease.
All heads craned forward, but the first view of the contents was disappointing. An amorphous mass of substance that was stained dirty yellow-brown by time.
'What is it?' Louren demanded of his experts, but none of us could answer him. I was not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved. It certainly wasn't corn.
'It smells,' said Sally. There was a faintly unpleasant, but familiar odour.
'I know that smell,' I said.
'Yes,' agreed Leslie.
We stared at the pot trying to place it. Then suddenly I remembered.
'It smells like a tannery works.'
'That's it!' agreed Sally.
'Leather?' asked Louren.
'Let's see,' I said, and carefully tipped the jar onto its side with the mouth facing me. Gently I began easing the contents out of the jar. It became immediately clear that it held something cylindrical in shape and of a hard, brittle texture.
It seemed to have stuck to the inside of the jar, but I twisted carefully and with a faint rending sound it wasloose. I inched it out of the jar, and as it emerged, there was a running commentary from the watchers.
'It's a long round thing.'
'Looks like a polony sausage.'
'It's wrapped in cloth.'
'Linen, I hope!'
'It's woven anyway. That will take some explaining away as Bantu culture!'
'The cloth is rotten, it's falling away in patches.'
I laid it on the table, and as I stared at it I knew all my dreams had become reality. I knew what it was. A treasure beyond all the gold and diamonds Louren had hoped for. I looked up quickly at Sally to see if she had guessed, her expression was eager but puzzled. Then her eyes met mine and my jubilation must have been obvious.
'Ben!' She guessed then. 'It isn't? Oh, Ben, it couldn't be! Open it, man! For God's sake, open it!'
I took up a pair of tweezers, but my hands were too unsteady to work. I clenched my fists, and drew a couple of deep breaths to try and calm the racing of my blood and the pounding of it in my ears.
'Here, let me do it,' said Ral, and reached to take the tweezers from my grip.
'No!' I snatched my hand away. I think I would have struck him if he had persisted. I saw the shock on Ral's face, he had never before seen the violence that lurks in my depths.
They all waited until I had got control of my hands again. Then carefully I began to peel the wrappings of brittle yellow cloth from the cylinder. I saw it appear from under the wrappings, and there were no more doubts. I heard Sally's little gasp from across the bench, but I did not look up until it was done.
'Ben!' she whispered. 'I'm so happy for you.' And I saw that she was crying, big fat tears sliding slowly down her cheeks. This was what triggered me, I am certain that ifshe hadn't started it I would have been all right, but suddenly my own eyes were burning and my vision blurred with moisture.
'Thanks, Sal,' I said, and my voice was soggy and nasal. When I felt the droplets start to spill onto my cheeks I struck them away with an angry hand, and groped for my handkerchief. I blew my nose like a bugler sounding the charge, and my heart sang as loudly.
It was a tightly rolled cylindrical scroll of leather. The outer edges of the scroll were tattered and eaten by decom-posure. The rest of it, however, was miraculously preserved. There were lines of writing running like columns of little black insects along the length of the scroll. I recognized the symbols immediately, identifying the individual letters of the Punic alphabet. It was written in a flowing Punic script, of which the first thirty lines were exposed on the roll of ancient leather. The language was not one I understood, but I looked up at Sally again. This was her speciality, she had worked with Hamilton at Oxford.
'Sal, can you read it? What is it?'
'It's Carthaginian,' she spoke with complete certainty. 'Punic!'
'Are you sure?' I demanded.
In reply she read aloud in a voice that was still choked up and muffled with tears, 'Into Opet this day a caravan from the ...' she hesitated, 'that piece is obscure but it goes on, In fingers of fine gold one hundred and twenty-seven pieces, of which a tenth part unto--'
'What the hell is going on?' Louren demanded. 'What does all this mean?'
I turned to him. 'It means we have found the archives of our city - completely intact and decipherable. We have the whole written history of our city, of our dead civilization, written by the people themselves in their own language. Their own words.'
Louren was staring at me. It was clear that the significance of our discovery had not yet occurred to him.
'This, Lo, is what every archaeologist prays for. This is proof in its most absolute form, in its most detailed and elaborate form.'
He still didn't seem to understand.
'In one line of writing we have proved conclusively the existence of a people who spoke and wrote the ancient Punic of Carthage, who traded gold, who called their city Opet, who--'
'And that's only in one line of writing,' Sally interrupted. 'There are thousands of jars, each with its scroll of writings. We will know the names and deeds of their kings, their religion, their ceremonial--'
'Their battles and strivings, where they came from and when.' I took the verbal ball from Sally, but just as adroitly she snatched it back.
'And where they went to and why!'
'My God!' Louren understood at last. 'This is everything we've been looking for, Ben. It's the whole bloody shebang and shooting-match rolled into one!'
'The works!' I agreed. 'The whole ruddy lot!'
Within an hour of my triumph, right at the zenith of my career when nothing but the prospect of fame and brilliant success lay ahead of me, Dr Sally Benator managed to bring it all crashing down around me.
We were sitting in the same tight circle around the scroll, still talking eagerly, one of those talk sessions which could only end in the early morning, for already the Glen Grant bottle was out and all our throats were oiled, the words pouring out smoothly.
Sally had translated all the writing visible on the scroll. It was an accounting of trade into the city, a cataloguing of goods and values that in itself held intriguing references to places and peoples.
'Twenty large amphora of the red wines of Zeng, taken by Habbakuk Lal of which a tenth part to the Gry-Lion.'
'What's a gry-lion?' Louren's hunter's instincts were roused.
'Gry is a superlative,' Sally explained. 'So a gry-lion is a great lion. Probably a title of the king or governor of the city.'
'From the grass seas of the south one hundred and ninety-two large tusks of ivory in all two-hundred and twenty-one talents in weight of which a tenth part to the Gry-Lion and the balance outwards on the bireme of Al-Muab Adbm.'
'How much is a talent?' Louren asked.
'About 56 pounds avoirdupois.'
'My God, that's over 10,000 lb. of ivory, in one load,' Louren whistled. 'They must have been great little hunters.'
We had discussed in detail every line of exposed writing, and again Louren's impatience came to the surface.
'Let's unroll a little more,' he suggested.
'That's a job for an expert, Lo.' I shook my head regretfully. 'That leather has been rolled up for nearly 2,000 years. It's so dry and brittle it will fall to pieces if it isn't done correctly.'
'Yes,' Sally agreed with me. 'It will take me weeks to do each one.'
Her presumption left me flabbergasted. Her practical knowledge of palaeography and ancient writings was limited to three years as a third assistant to Hamilton, I doubted if she had actually done much work on preservation and preparation of leather or papyrus scrolls. She could read Punic with about the same aplomb as the average ten-year-old can read Shakespeare, and she was taking it for granted that she would be placed in sole control of one of the greatest hoards of ancient writings ever discovered.
She must have read my expression, for her own alarm showed clearly.
'I am to do the work, aren't I, Ben?'
I tried to make it easier for her, I do not like hurting anyone, let alone the girl I love.
'It's an enormous and difficult job, Sal. I really think we should try and get someone like Hamilton himself, or Levy from Tel Aviv, even Rogers from Chicago.' I saw her face starting to fall to pieces, the lips drooping and trembling, the eyes clouding, and I went on hurriedly. 'But I'm sure we can arrange for you to become first assistant to whoever does the work.'
There was a deadly silence for five seconds, and during that time Sally's despair changed swiftly to a blind all-consuming rage. I saw it coming like a build-up of storm clouds but I was powerless to divert it.
'Benjamin Kazin,' she began with deceptive softness of voice, 'I think you are the most unmitigated bastard it has ever been my misfortune to meet. For three long difficult years I have given you my complete and unswerving loyalty--'
Then she lost control and it was a splendid spectacle. Even while her words lashed my soul raw and bleeding I could still admire the flashing eyes, the flushing cheeks and the masterly choice of invective.
'You are a little man, in mind as well as body.' She used the adjective deliberately, and I gasped. No one should ever call me that, it is a word that eats away the fabric of my soul and she knew it. 'I hate you. I hate you, you little man.'
I felt the blood rush to my face, and I stuttered, trying to find the words to defend myself, but before I could do so Sally had turned on Louren. Her rage still blazed, her tone was not moderated in the least as she shouted at him.
'Make him give it to me. Tell him to do it!'
Even in my own distress I felt alarm for poor Sally. This wasn't a crippled, soft-hearted little doctor of archaeology she was talking to now. This was like prodding a blackmamba with a short stick, or throwing stones at a man-eating lion. I could not believe that Sally would be so stupid, would presume so upon the mildly friendly attitude which Louren had shown to her. I could not believe that she would dare that tone with Louren, as though she had some special right to his consideration, as though there was some involvement of emotions or of loyalties which she could call upon in such imperious terms. Even I who had such rights would never misuse them in such a fashion. I knew no one else who would.
Louren's eyes flashed cold blue light, like the glinting of spearheads. His lips drew into grim lines, and the rims of his nostrils flared and turned pale as bone china.
'Woman!' His voice crackled like breaking ice. 'Hold your tongue.'
If it were possible then my despair plunged even deeper as Louren responded precisely as I had expected. Now the two persons I loved were on collision course, and I knew each of them so well, knew their pride and pig-headedness, that neither would deviate. Disaster was certain, inevitable.
I wanted to cry out to Sally, 'Don't, please don't. I'll do what you ask. Anything to prevent this happening.'
And Sally's bravado collapsed. All the fight and anger went out of her. She seemed to cringe beneath the lash of Louren's voice.
'Go to your room and stay there until you learn how to behave.' Louren gave the order in the same coldly furious tone.
Sally stood up and with eyes downcast she left the room.
I could not believe it had happened. I gaped at the door through which she had gone - my saucy, rebellious Sally - as meekly as a chastened child. Ral and Leslie were writhing in a sea of agonized embarrassment.
'Bedtime, I think,' Ral muttered. 'Please excuse us. Come, Les. Good night, all.' And they were gone, leaving Louren and me alone.
Louren broke the long silence. He stood up as he spoke in an easy natural voice. His hand dropped on my shoulder in a casually affectionate gesture.
'Sorry about that, Ben. Don't let it worry you. See you in the morning.' And he strolled out into the night.
I sat alone with my suddenly worthless roll of old leather, and my breaking heart.
'I hate you, you little man!' Her voice echoed through the lonely wastes of my soul, and I reached for the Glen Grant bottle.
It took me a long time to get completely drunk, to the stage where the words had lost some of their sting, and when I staggered down the steps into the bright silver moonlight, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to apologize to Sally, and let her do the work. Nothing was important enough to warrant her displeasure.
I went to the hut where Sally now slept alone. Leslie had moved into Peter and Heather's old room. I scratched softly on the door, and there was no reply from within. I knocked louder, and called her name.
'Sally! Please, I must talk to you.'
At last I tried the door, and it opened into the darkened room. I almost went on in, but then my courage deserted me. I closed the door softly, and staggered to my own hut. I fell face down across the bed, and still dirty and fully dressed I found oblivion.
'Ben! Ben! Wake up.' Sally's voice and her hand shaking me gently but insistently. I turned my head and opened my burning eyes. It was bright morning. Sally sat on the edge of my bed, leaning over me. She was fully dressed, although her skin glowed from the bath and her hair was freshly brushed and gay with a scarlet ribbon, yet her eyes were puffy and swollen as though she had slept badly, or had been crying.
'I've come to apologize for last night, Ben. For the stupid, hateful things I said, and my disgusting behaviour--'As she talked the shattered pieces of my life fell back into place, and the pain in my head and heart abated.
'Even though you've probably changed your mind, and I don't deserve it anyway, I'd be honoured to act as first assistant to Hamilton or whoever does the work.'
'You've got the job.' I grinned at her. 'That's a promise.'
Our first task at the archives was to clean away the thick accumulation of grey dust that blanketed everything. I was puzzled as to the source of this dust in a sealed and airless space like the passage, but I soon found that the joints of the roof lintels were not as tight as those of the walls, and during the centuries a fine sprinkling of dust had filtered down through these cracks.
When the equipment which Louren had ordered arrived on the Dakota, along with a detachment of Louren's security police, we could begin the work.
the security police set up a hut at the entrance to the tunnel, where there was a permanent guard posted. Only the five of us were allowed to enter.
The vacuum equipment simplified the removal of dust from the archives. Ral and I worked from the outer end of the passage like a pair of busy housewives, and the suffocating clouds of grey dust made it necessary to wear respirators until the job was finished.
We were then able to assess our discovery more accurately. There were 1,142 sealed jars of pottery in the stone recesses. Of these 148 had been knocked from their niches and 127 were broken or cracked, with their scrolls exposed to the air and obviously much the worse for it. These we sprayed with paraffin wax to prevent them crumbling, before lifting, labelling and packing them.
We then turned our full attention to the evidence ofthe deadly battle that had raged through the archives, and wrought the damage to the shelves of jars.
There were thirty-eight corpses strewn down the passage between the shelves in all the abandoned attitudes of sudden and violent death, and their state of preservation was quite remarkable. A few of them had crawled away into the recesses to die, groaning out their last breaths, and clutching the terrible wounds that still gaped in their mummified bodies. Their dying agonies were clearly stamped into their contorted features. Others had died swiftly, and most of these had received hideous wounds that had severed limbs, or split their skulls down to the shoulders, or, in a few cases, had struck the head clean from the trunk and sent it rolling yards away.
There was evidence here of a diabolical fury, the unleashing of an almost superhuman destructive strength.
All the victims were clearly negroid in type, and wore loin-cloths or aprons of tanned leather, with beadwork or bone decorations. On their feet were light leather sandals, and on their heads caps or head-dresses of leather, feathers or plaited fibre also decorated with beads, shells or bones.
Around them were strewn their weapons; crudely forged iron spearheads bound on shafts of polished hardwood. Many of these shafts were broken, or severed by the blows of some razor-sharp weapon. With them lay hundreds of reed arrows, fledged with the feathers of wild duck and tipped with wickedly barbed heads of hand-forged iron. The arrows had nicked and chipped the soft sandstone walls, and it was easy to determine that they had been fired from outside the mouth of the passage before it had been sealed off. Not one of them had found a mark in a human body, and so we reasoned that a barrage of arrows had preceded the attack by these men who lay scattered in death down the length of the passage.
Fifteen feet from the sealed mouth of the passage therewas evidence of a large bonfire which had blackened the walls, roof and floor around it. A pile of charred logs still lay where the lack of air had stifled the fire when the mouth of the tunnel was sealed. This fire puzzled us until Louren reconstructed the battle for us. He paced restlessly back and forth along the passage, his footsteps ringing on the stone slabs, his shadow falling grotesque and monstrous on the stone walls.
'They drove them into this place, the last of our men of Opet, a small party of the strongest and the bravest.' His voice rang with the truth of it, like a troubadour singing the legends of the old heroes. 'They sent in their champions to finish the slaughter but the men of Opet cut them down and the others fled. Then they drew up their archers at the mouth of the passage, and fired volleys of arrows into it. Again they went in, but the men of Opet were there waiting for them and again they died in their dozens.'
He turned and came down the passage to stand beside me under the swaying electric bulb, and we were silent for a moment imagining it.
'My God, Ben. Think of it. What a fight to end with. What glory these men won on that last day.'
Even I, a man of peace, was stirred by it. I felt my heartbeat quicken and I turned to him like a child at story-time. 'What happened then?' I asked.
'They were dying already, weak with a dozen wounds each. There was no strength left in them to continue and they stood shoulder to shoulder, companions in life, and now in death also, leaning wearily on their weapons, but the enemy would not come again. Instead, they built a fire in the mouth of the passage to smoke them out, and when that did not do it, they abandoned the attack and bricked up the entrance, turning it into a tomb for the dead and the living alike.'
We were all silent then, thinking about Louren's story. It made sense, it fitted the evidence in all but one respect.I did not want to say it, did not want to spoil such a stirring tale, but Sally had no such compunction.
'If that's true, then what happened to your band of heroes - did they change into moonbeams and flit away?' Her tone was slightly derisive, but of course she was right. I wished she was not.
Louren laughed, a little embarrassed chuckle. 'So you think of something better,' he challenged her.
Of the heroes of this ancient drama there was no trace, except that which lay at the foot of the passage below the graven sun image of Baal. It was blanketed by the thick grey dust and it was the final discovery on the archives floor. It was a battle-axe. A weapon of striking beauty and utility. When first I took it up from the paving where it had lain for almost 2,000 years, my hand closed snugly around the haft, the grooves in the handle fitted my fingers as though they had been moulded from them. A broken wrist-strap of leather dangled from the end of the handle.
The haft was forty-seven inches long, and fashioned from lengths of rhinoceros horn that had been laminated into a solid rod of steely resilience and strength. The handle was of ivory and the whole had been bound with electrum wire to reinforce its already surpassing strength and to protect the shaft from the cuts of enemy blades. The blade was shaped like a double crescent moon, each side exposing seven and a half inches of razor edge. From its extreme end protruded an unbarbed spike twelve inches long, thus the weapon could be used on the cut as well as the thrust.
The head was exquisitely worked and engraved, with the shapes of four vultures with wings spread, one on each side of the double blade. The birds were rendered in such detail that every feather was shown, and beyond the figures a sun rose in a burst of rays like a flower. The engravings were inlaid with electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, andfrom the silvery sheen of the blades it was clear that they had been tempered. The weapon was caked and dulled with what must have been dried blood, it was obviously the author of those horrible wounds that bloomed upon so many of the corpses scattered along the passage.
Holding that beautiful weapon in my hand I was infected by a sudden madness. I was not truly aware of my own intention until the axe was flying in a wide glittering circle around my head. The balance and weight of the great axe was so pure and sweet that no effort was involved as I swung it high, and then into a long overhand killing stroke. The blade whickered eagerly at the kiss of moving air across its bright edge. The flexing of the handle seemed to bring it alive in my hand, alive again after nearly 2,000 long years of sleep.
From some deep atavistic depths of my soul I felt a cry rising, an exultant yell which seemed the natural accompaniment to the deadly song of the axe. With an effort I checked the flight of the axe and the cry before it reached my lips, and looked around at the faces of the others.
They were staring at me as though I had begun raving and frothing at the mouth. Quickly I lowered the axe. I stood there feeling utterly foolish, appalled at my treatment of such a rare treasure. The horn handle could easily have become brittle, and snapped at such harsh usage.
'I was just testing it,' I said lamely. 'I'm sorry.'
That night we pondered and puzzled the riddle of the archives until well after midnight. We found no answer and afterwards Louren walked with me to my hut.
'The Lear is coming to pick me up tomorrow morning, Ben. I've been here two weeks already, and I just cannotstay another day. God, when I think of how I've neglected my responsibilities since we started on this dig!'
We stopped at the door of my hut and Louren lit a cigar.
'What is it about this place that makes us all act so strangely, Ben? Do you feel it also? This strange sense of,' he hesitated, 'of destiny.'
I nodded, and Louren was encouraged.
'That axe. It did something to you, Ben. You weren't yourself for a few minutes there today.'
'I know.'
'I am desperate to discover the contents of the scrolls, Ben. We must start on that as soon as possible.'
'There is ten years' work there, Lo. You will have to be patient.'
'Patience is not one of my virtues, Ben. I was reading of the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb last night. Lord Carnarvon made the discovery possible, and yet he died before he could look on the sarcophagus of the dead Pharaoh.'
'Don't be morbid, Lo.'
'All right,' Louren agreed. 'But don't waste time, Ben.'
'You get Hamilton for me,' I said. 'We can't do a thing without him.'
'I'll be in London on Friday,' Louren told me. 'I'll see him myself.'
'He is a difficult old codger,' I warned him.
Louren grinned. 'Leave him to me. Now, listen to me, Benjamin my boy, if you find anything else here, you let me know immediately, you understand? I want to be here when it happens.'
'When what happens?'
'I don't know - something. There is something else here, Ben. I know it.'
'I hope you are right, Lo.' And he clapped my shoulder and walked away into the night towards his own hut.
While we worked on in the archives, lifting the human remains and the piles of weapons, a construction crew arrived on the site by Dakota to erect a repository for the scrolls. This was another large prefabricated warehouse, fitted with airtight doors and a powerful air-conditioning unit to maintain the scrolls in an atmosphere of optimum temperature and humidity. A high barbed-wire fence was erected around the building for security reasons, and every precaution for the safety of the scrolls was taken.
At the same time the construction crew erected another half-dozen living quarters for the expanded team, and the first inhabitants of these were four high officials of the Botswana Government. It was the Government who had forbidden the removal of the scrolls from the territory and made the erection of the new buildings necessary. The Government deputation stayed for two days, and left satisfied that their interests in the discovery would be adequately protected, but not before I had exacted a solemn promise of secrecy. The announcement of the site would be at my signal only.
We began labelling and removing the pottery jars from their shelves. Taking the greatest pains to record, both photographically and by written notes, the exact position of each. It seemed likely that they had been stacked in chronological order, and this would assist the work of interpretation.
On the Monday I received a crippling blow to my plans in the form of a laconic message from Louren.
'Hamilton unavailable. Please suggest alternative.'
I was disappointed, hurt and angry. Disappointed because Hamilton was the best in the world, and his presence would have immediately given weight and authenticity to my site. I was hurt because Hamilton obviously believed my claims were spurious, my reputation had been damaged by the vicious attacks of my critics and scientific opponents, Hamilton had clearly been influenced by this.He did not want to be party to some mistaken or blatantly fraudulent discovery of mine. Finally, I was angry because Hamilton's refusal to undertake the work was a direct insult. He had put the mark of the pariah on me and it would discourage others from giving the assistance I desperately needed. I might find myself discredited before I had even started.
'He didn't even give me a chance,' I protested to Sally. 'He didn't even want to listen to me. Christ, I didn't realize I was such a professional leper. Even talking to me can ruin a reputation!'
'He's a skinny, bald-headed old goat!' Sally agreed. 'He's a lecherous old feeler of bottoms, and--'
'And the greatest living authority on ancient writings in the world,' I told her bitterly. There was no reply to that, and we sat in forlorn silence for a while.
Then Sally perked up. 'Let's go and fetch him!' she suggested.
'He might refuse to see us,' I gloomed.
'He won't refuse to see me,' Sally assured me, and behind the words was an untold story that set my jealousy coursing corrosively through my veins. Sally had worked for him three years, and I could only console myself that her standards were high enough to exclude Eldridge Hamilton.
Seventy-two hours later I sat in the front lounge of the Bell at Hurley with a pint of good English bitter in front of me, and watched the car park anxiously. It was only a fifteen-minute drive from Oxford and Sally should have been here long ago.
I felt tired, irritable and depressed from that soul-destroying overnight flight from Johannesburg to Heathrow. Sally had phoned Hamilton from the airport.
'Professor Hamilton, I do hope you don't mind me phoning you,' she had cooed. 'Sally Benator, do you remember I worked under you in 1966. That's right, Sally Green-Eyes.' And she giggled coyly.
'Well, I am on my way through England. Just here for a day or two. I felt so lonely and nostalgic - those were wonderful times.' Her tones had a hundred intimate shades of invitation and promise.
'Lunch? That's wonderful, Professor. Why don't I pick you up. I have a hire car.' She gave me a triumphant thumbs-up sign.
'The Bell at Hurley? Yes, of course, I remember. How could I forget.' She made a sick face at me. 'I so look forward to it.'
The silver Jaguar slid into the car park, and I saw Sally at the wheel. With a scarf in her hair and laughter on her lips, she didn't look like a girl who had sat fourteen hours in the cramped seat of an intercontinental jet.
She slid out of the car, giving me a flash of those wonderful sun-browned thighs, and then she was coming towards me. Hanging on the arm of Eldridge Hamilton, and laughing gaily.
Hamilton was a tall stoop-shouldered man in his fifties, a baggy Harris tweed suit with leather patches on the elbows hung like a sack on his gaunt frame. His nose was beaky, and his bald pate shone in the pale sunlight as though it had been buffed up with a good wax polish. All in all he was not formidable competition, but his little eyes sparkled behind the heavy hom-rimmed glasses and his lips were slack with desire, exposing a mouthful of bad teeth, as he looked at Sally. I found it a hard price to pay for his services.
Sally led him to my table, and he was six feet from me before he recognized me. He stopped dead, and I saw him blink once. He knew instantly that he had been taken, and for a moment the whole project hung in thebalance. He could so easily have turned on his heel and walked out.
'Eldridge!' I leapt to my feet, crooning seductively. 'How wonderful to see you.' And while he still hesitated, I had him by the elbow in a grip like a velvet-lined vice. 'I've ordered you a large Gilbey's gin and tonic - that's your poison, isn't it?'
It was five years since last we had met, and my memory of his personal tastes mollified him slightly. He allowed Sally and I to ease him into a seat and place the gin convenient to his right hand. While Sally and I bombarded him with all our considerable combined charm he maintained a suspicious silence, until the first gin had gone down. I ordered another and he began to thaw; half-way through the third he became skittish and voluble.
'Did you read Wilfred Snell's reply to your book Ophir in the Journal?' he asked. Wilfred Snell was the most vociferous and merciless of all my scientific adversaries. 'Jolly amusing, what?' And Eldridge neighed like a randy stallion, and clutched at one of Sally's beautiful thighs.
I am a man of peace, but at that moment I was having difficulty remembering it. My expression must have been a sickly grin, my fingernails were driven like claws into the flesh of my palms as I fought down the temptation to drag Eldridge around the room by his heels.
Sally wriggled out from his exploring hand, and I suggested in a strangled voice, 'Let's go through to lunch, shall we?'
There was a quick game of musical chairs at the dining-room table, as Eldridge tried to get a seat within clutching distance of Sally and I tried to prevent it.
We out-foxed him on a cunning double play, allowing him to settle down triumphantly beaming over the top of his menu at Sally who was backed into a corner beside him, before I cried, 'Sally, you are in a draught there.' And smoothly as a pair of ballet dancers we changed seats.
Then I could relax and give the pheasant the attention it deserved, although the burgundy that Eldridge suggested was nothing if not gauche.
With characteristic tact Eldridge brought up the subject we had all been flirting with.
'Met a friend of yours the other day, big flashy chap like a cross between a male model and a professional wrestler. Accent like an Australian with the 'flu. Had some cock-and-bull story about scrolls you'd found in a cave outside Cape Town.' And Eldridge neighed again at a volume that momentarily stopped all other conversation in the room. 'Damned man had the cheek to offer me money. I know the type, not a bean to bless himself with, and talks like he's made of the stuff. He had "shyster" written all over him in letters two feet high.'
Sally and I gaped at him, struck dumb by his astute grasp of the facts and his masterly summation of Louren Sturvesant's character.
'Sent him packing of course,' said Eldridge with relish, and stuffed his mouth with breast of pheasant.
'You probably did the right thing,' I murmured. 'Incidentally the site is in northern Botswana - 1,500 miles from Cape Town.'
'Oh, yes?' Eldridge asked, expressing disinterest as politely as one can with a mouthful of pheasant and rotten teeth.
'And Louren Sturvesant was on Time Magazine's list of the thirty richest men in the world,' murmured Sally. Eldridge stopped chewing with his mouth ajar, and afforded us a fine view of a semi-masticated pheasant-breast.
'Yes,' I affirmed. 'He is bank-rolling my dig. He has put in 200,000 dollars already, and he has set no limit.'
Eldridge turned a stricken face towards me. That sort of patron of scientific research was almost as rare as the unicorn, and Eldridge realized suddenly that he had beenwithin range of one and let him escape. All the bumptiousness was gone out of Professor Hamilton.
I signalled the waitress to clear my plate, and I swear that I felt true compassion in my heart for Eldridge as I unlocked my briefcase and took from it a cylindrical bundle wrapped in its protective canvas jacket.
'I have an appointment with Ruben Levy in Tel Aviv tomorrow, Eldridge.' I opened the canvas wrapping.
'We have 1,142 of these leather scrolls. So Ruby will be pretty busy for the next few years. Of course, Louren Sturvesant will make a donation of 100,000 dollars to the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Archaeology for their co-operation, and I shouldn't be surprised if the faculty doesn't have some of the scrolls given to them as well.'
Eldridge swallowed his mouthful of pheasant as though it were broken glass. He wiped his fingers and mouth with his napkin, before leaning forward to examine the scroll.
'From out of the southern plains of grass,' he whispered as he read, and I noticed the difference from Sally's translation, 'received 192 large ivory tusks, weighing 221 talents--' His voice died but his lips moved as he read on. Then he began speaking again, and his voice quavered with excitement.
'Punic in the style of the second century B.C., do you see the use of ligatures to join the median "m", still using the hang of the characters from the line, that's definitely pre-first century B.C. Here, Sally, do you see the archaic crossing of the "A"?'
'We have over a thousand of these scrolls, preserved in chronological order - Levy is very excited,' I interrupted this flow of technicalities with a gentle untruth. Levy didn't know they existed.
'Levy,' Eldridge snorted, and his spectacles flashed with outrage. 'Levy! Take him outside Hebrew and Egyptian and he's a babe in the bloody woods!' He had hold of my wrist now.
'Ben. I insist, I absolutely insist on doing this work!'
'What about Wilfred Snell's criticism of my theories? You seemed to find it amusing.' I had him by the ackers now, and I could afford to be a little cocky. 'How do you feel about working with somebody whose views are so suspect?'
'Wilfred Snell,' said Eldridge earnestly, 'is a monumental jackass. Where did he ever find a thousand Punic scrolls?'
'Waiter,' I called, 'please bring us two large Cordon Argent brandies.'
'Make that three,' said Sally.
As the brandy diffused a gentle warmth through my body, I listened to Eldridge Hamilton effusing about the scrolls and demanding of Sally information as to exactly where, when and how we had discovered them. I found myself beginning to like the man. It was true that he had teeth like the stumps of a pine forest devastated by fire, but then I am not a perfect physical specimen myself. It was also true that he had a weakness for Gilbey's gin and pretty girls - but then he differed from me only in his choice of liquor, and who am I to hold that Glen Grant is in any way superior?
No, I decided, despite my prejudices, I would be able to work with him, just as long as he kept his bony little claws off Sally.
Eldridge followed us out a week after our return to the City of the Moon, and we met him at the airstrip. I was concerned that he might find that the transition from a northern winter to our 110°F summer impaired his abilities. I need not have worried. He was one of those Englishmen who, solar topee cocked, go out in the midday sun without raising a sweat. His luggage consisted of a single small valise which contained his personal effects and a dozen large packing-cases filled with chemicals and equipment.
I gave him the Grade 'A' tour of the site, trying withoutsuccess to fan his interest in the city and the cavern. Eldridge was a single-minded specialist.
'Yes,' he said. 'Jolly interesting - now where are the scrolls?' I think even then he had doubts, but I took him into the archives and he purred like an angular old tom cat as he moved down the burdened stone shelves.
'Ben,' he said, 'there's just one thing still to settle. I write the paper on the actual scrolls, agreed?' We are a strange breed, we work not for the gold but for the glory. Eldridge was making certain of his share.
'Agreed.' We shook hands.
'Well then, there is nothing to stop me beginning right away,' he said.
'No,' I said, 'there isn't, is there.'
The treatment of the scrolls was an art form more than an exact science. For each of them the treatment varied, depending on their state of preservation, the quality of the leather, the composition of the ink and other interrelated factors. Sally admitted to me in a weak moment that she would not have been able to handle the task, it required a fund of acquired experience which she did not have at her command.
Eldridge worked like a medieval alchemist, steaming and soaking and spraying and painting. His domain stank of chemicals and other weird smells, and his and Sally's fingers were stained. Sally reported that his absorption with the task had reduced his animal instincts to the level where he made only spasmodic and half-hearted clutches at the protruding parts of her anatomy.
As each scroll was unrolled, its contents were evaluated and the detailed translation begun. One after the other they proved to be either books of account on the city'strade, or proclamations made by the Gry-Lion and the council of the nine families. The authors were nameless clerks, and their style was brisk and economical with little time for poetic flights or unnecessary descriptive passages. This starkly utilitarian outlook echoed the lifestyle which we had so far reconstructed from our finds on the site. We discussed it at the nightly talk sessions.
'It's typically Punic,' Eldridge agreed. 'They had little taste in the visual arts, their pottery was coarse and mass-produced. In my opinion their sculpture, what little there was, was downright hideous.'
'It requires wealth and leisure and security to produce art,' I suggested.
'That's true - Rome and Greece are examples of that. Carthage and, earlier, Phoenicia were often threatened, on occasion struggling for survival - they were the bustlers and hustlers. Traders and warriors, more concerned with wealth and the acquisition of power than the niceties of living.'
'You don't have to go back that far, modern art comes from the great wealthy and secure nations.'
'And we white Africans are like the old Carthaginians,' Sally said, 'when there's gold in them thar hills who gives a hoot about painting pictures.'
The scrolls reinforced the theory. Gold from Zimbao and Punt, ivory from the southern plains of grass or from the forests along the great river, hides and dried meat, salted fish from the lakes, wine and oil from the terraced gardens of Zeng, copper from the hills of Tuya, and salt from pans along the west shores of the lakes, tin from the juncture of the two rivers, corn from the middle kingdom in baskets of woven cane, sun stones from the southern river of the crocodile, iron bars from the mines of Sala - and slaves, thousands upon thousands of human beings treated as domestic animals.
The chronicle was dated from some undisclosed pointin time, we suspected this as the date of the founding of the city, and each entry was prefaced by such dating as, 'In year 169 the month of the elephant.' From these we deduced a ten-month year based on a calendar of 365 days.
Once the nature of the scrolls had been established, I suggested to Eldridge that rather than work systematically through the collection from beginning to end, we sample them and try to establish the overall history of our city.
He fell in with my wishes, and there evolved a picture of a widespread colonization of central and southern Africa by a warlike and energetic people, based on the city of Opet, and ruled by a hereditary king, the 'Gry-Lion', and an oligarchy of nine noble families. The decrees of this Council covered a range as wide as the measures adopted for dredging the channels of the lake and preventing the encroachment of water weed, to the choice of messengers to be sent to the gods Baal and Astarte. Here Astarte seemed to have taken precedence over the more usual Carthaginian form, Tanith. 'Messengers', we suspected, were human sacrifices.
We discovered carefully recorded family trees, based like the Jewish system on a matrilinear system. Each noble man or woman could trace his or her line back to the founding of the city. It was also clear from the chronicle that their religion was part of their scheme of living, and we could reasonably guess that it was a conventional form of polytheism, with leading male and female godheads, Baal and Astarte.
As we moved forward in time so we found new factors intruding, new contingencies occupying the attention of the ruling king. The rapid shrinking of the waters of the lake of Opet began to threaten the city's life line, and in the year 296 the Gry-Lion sent 7,000 slaves to assist with the work of keeping the channels open to the sea. He also despatched a column of 1,000 of his own guards under the war-captain Ramose with orders to 'venture eastwardstowards the rising sun stopping not, nor failing in determination' until he had reached the eastern sea and had discovered the route to the lands of the north whose existence was postulated by the sea captain and navigator, Habbakuk Lal.
A year later Ramose returns, with only seventy men, the others having perished in a land of pestilential swamps and putrid fevers. He had, however, reached the eastern sea and there found a city of traders and seafarers 'dark men, and bearded, dressed in fine linens, and binding their brows with the same material'. They come from a land beyond the eastern sea, and Ramose is rewarded with twenty fingers of gold and twenty slaves. Our men of Opet have made their first contact with the Arabs, known to them as 'the Dravs', who are colonizing the Sofala coast.
We learned how the Gry-Lion's search for a new source of slave-labour becomes desperate. Orders are despatched to the mine overseers to take all measures to prolong the working lives of their slaves. Rations of meat and corn are increased, inflating the cost of production but increasing the life expectancy of the slaves. Owners are enjoined to breed all female slaves regularly, and the practice of infibulation is discontinued. The slaving expeditions are sent further and further afield, as the Yuye are hunted down. From the description of these yellow-skinned Yuye we guessed they were the ancestors of Hottentot people.
Then suddenly the Gry-Lion is delighted by the return of a northerly expedition with 500 'savage Nubians, both tall and strong' and the leader of the expedition is rewarded with ten fingers of gold. This delight fades slowly over the following hundred years as a solid mass of black humanity builds up north of the great river. The vast Bantu migrations have begun and now the concern of the Gry-Lion is to dam the flood southwards and his legions march constant patrol upon the northern border.
Our samplings gave us these fleeting glimpses into thepast, but they were recorded as bland impersonal statements of fact. How we longed to find the writings of a Pliny or Livy to give flesh and breath to these meticulous records of acquired wealth.
Each fact seemed to present us with a hundred unanswered questions. Of these the most pressing was: where did they come from these men of Opet, and when? Where did they go to and why? We hoped the answers to the major questions were here somewhere in this maze of writings, and in the meantime we occupied ourselves with finding the lesser answers.
It was easy enough to locate the places mentioned in the chronicles, Zimbao and Punt were the southern and northern territories of modern Rhodesia, the great river was the Zambezi, the lakes had disappeared, the gardens of Zeng were clearly the hundreds of thousands of acres of terraced hillsides in the Inyanga area of eastern Rhodesia, the hills of Tuya must be the copper-rich country above Sinoia; step by step we established the presence of our men of Opet at nearly all of the ancient sites, and at the same time we had a picture of the building-up of an immense treasure. For although the bulk of this wealth was sent 'outwards' yet there re-occurred the words 'a tenth part to the Gry-Lion'.
Where had this treasure been stored, and what had become of it? Had it perished with the city, or was it still here in some secret storehouse carved from the red rock cliffs of the Hills of Blood?
As a mental exercise I made an estimate of the extent of this treasure. Assuming that a 'finger' of gold was one of the finger-like rods of the precious metal we had discovered among the foundations of the city, I listed the total inflow of gold recorded in twenty-odd sample years beginning in the year 345 and ending in the year 501. I found that previous estimates had been hopelessly inadequate. Instead of 750 tons of gold, I found that the total recovery fromthe ancient mines could not have been less than 4,000 tons - of which a tenth part to the Gry-Lion.
Assuming half of this 400 tons had been spent on the maintenance of his army, the building of the temple and other public works, this still left the staggering figure of 200 tons of gold that might be hidden in or near the city - 200 tons represents a fortune of almost £80,000,000.
When I showed my calculations to Louren on his next visit to the site, I saw the gold-greed glitter in the pale blue eyes. He took away the sheet of paper with my workings on it, and the following morning as he was about to board the Lear for Johannesburg, he remarked casually, 'You know, Ben, I really think that you and Ral should spend more time exploring the area along the cliffs, rather than living in those archives.'
'What should we look for, Lo?' As if I didn't know.
'Well, those old boys were dab hands at hiding things away. They must have been the most secretive people in history, and we still haven't found their burial grounds.'
'So you want me to go grave-hunting.' I grinned at him, and he laughed.
'Of course, Ben, if you happened to stumble on their treasury I wouldn't hate you for it. After all eighty Big M's are a nice piece of petty cash.'
We had transferred 261 jars from the archives to the repository and Eldridge and Sally had sufficient material to keep them busy for the next two or three months, so I decided to follow Louren's suggestion and suspend work in the archives and undertake another detailed search of the area. My timing was impeccable, Ral was within five feet of where the small jars with the sunbird seals on their lids were standing in the darkest corner of the last recess. They were tucked away behind the front rank of jars twice their size and so effectively hidden by them that we had not included them in our original count. Ral was working hisway steadily towards them, another three days would have been enough, but I took him away to search the cliffs.
This was November which we call the 'suicide month' in Africa. The sun was a hammer, and the earth an anvil but we worked the cliffs despite it. We rested only for two hours in the middle of the day, when the heat was murderous and the cool green waters of the emerald pool were irresistible.
We were alert now to the tricks and subterfuges of the ancient men of Opet. Having learned from bitter experience how skilfully they could cover their tracks and how cunningly their masons could conceal the joints in their masonry, I went back over ground I had already covered. I used my own tricks to try and out-think them. Ral and I re-photographed every inch of the cavern walls, but this time with infra-red film. We found no more concealed passages.
From there we worked outwards. Each day I marked off a 300-foot section and we combed this minutely. Not content merely to eyeball the rocks, we searched by sense of touch also. Groping our way over them like blind men.
Each day brought its small adventures. I was chased by a black mamba, eight feet of irritability and sudden death, with eyes like glass beads and a flicking black tongue, that resented my prodding around in the crack which was its home and castle. Ral was very impressed with my turn of speed over broken ground, and suggested I took it up professionally.
A week later I could return his sallies in kind by remarking on the improvement that twenty wild bee stings made to his appearance. His face looked like a hairy pumpkin, and his eyes were slits in the swollen flesh. For five days poor Ral was of no use to me at all.
November passed and in mid-December we had a quarter of an inch of rain, which is about par for the coursein this part of Africa. It laid the dust for an hour or so, and that was the end of the rainy season. I guessed that the ancient lake of Opet would have ensured a higher and more regular rainfall for the area. Open water encourages rain, both by its evaporation and by cooling the air to aid precipitation.
Ral and I worked on without results, but also without any diminution of our determination or enthusiasm. Despite our days of wearing labour under the killer sun, we spent most of our evenings poring over the map of the foundations of the city. By a process of guess, deduction and elimination, we tried to work out where the ancients would have sited their tombs. I had by now become extremely fond of Ral Davidson, and I saw in this big gangling indefatigable youth the makings of one of the giants of our profession. There would be a permanent post for him at the Institute once this dig was finished, I would see to that.
In contrast to our results, Eldridge Hamilton, assisted by Sally, and Leslie, continued to reap the rich and enchanting harvest of the scrolls. Each evening I would spend an hour in the air-conditioned repository with them, reviewing the day's work. Steadily the sheets of typed translation piled up, the margins thick with notes and references in Eldridge's spidery and untidy hand.
Christmas came and we sat out under a moon as big as a silver gong, exchanging gifts and companionship. I gave them 'White Christmas' in the style of Bing Crosby, even though the night temperature was in the high eighties. Then Eldridge and I did 'Jingle Bells' as a duet. Eldridge had forgotten the words, all except the jingling part. He was a great little jingler was our Eldridge, especially after ten large gins. He was still jingling away merrily when Ral and I carried him off to bed.
Early in the new year we had what amounted to a royalvisit. Hilary Sturvesant had at last prevailed on Louren to bring her to see the site. We had a week to prepare for the family. Hilary was bringing the elder children with her and I was beside myself with excitement at the prospect of having all my favourite women at the City of the Moon. I left the search of the cliffs to Ral, while I rushed about rearranging the accommodation and checking our stores for such essentials as Coca-Cola and chocolates. Commodities which make life bearable for Bobby Sturvesant.
They arrived in time for the lunch of cold meats and salads which I had personally prepared, and immediately the visit began souring. Sally Benator was not at the meal, she sent a message that she had a headache and was going to lie down. However, I saw her sneaking off with towel and bathing costume towards the emerald pool.
Eldridge Hamilton and Louren Sturvesant took one look at each other, and remembered their last meeting. They were as hostile as a pair of rutting stags. I recalled Eldridge's boast that he had sent Louren packing. They began making elaborately offensive remarks at each other, and I was fully extended in trying to prevent active physical violence breaking out, and when Eldridge spoke about people with 'more money than either breeding or sense', I thought I had lost my expert on ancient writings.
As if this was not sufficient, it was also obvious that Hilary and Louren were engaged in a domestic dispute which made it impossible for them to address each other directly. All communication was conducted through the agency of Bobby Sturvesant and was preceded by remarks of the order, 'Please ask your step-mother if ...' or 'If your father wants ...'
Hilary wore dark glasses at the lunch-table, and I could guess her eyes bore the traces of recent weeping. She was silent and reserved, as were both Ral and Leslie. The two youngsters were overcome with shyness in the presence ofthe Sturvesants, and when Louren and Eldridge also subsided into a smouldering truce, there were only two of us left articulate, Bobby Sturvesant and me.
Bobby took full advantage of the temporary breakdown in parental control to become an utterly impossible little bitch. She spent the entire meal either showing off shamelessly or being insolent to her step-mother. I would dearly have loved to turn her over my knee and paddle her stern.
Immediately after the meal dragged to its tortured conclusion, Eldridge retreated to his repository, Ral and Leslie muttered excuses and fled. Louren asked me for the keys of the Land-Rover and I saw him take his shotgun and drive away towards the north, leaving Hilary and the children to me. I took Hilary through the site museum and she soon forgot her unhappiness in the fascination of our exhibits.
I had carefully cleaned and polished the great battle-axe. It glittered silver, gold and ivory, and we examined the craftsmanship of its manufacture together before going across to the repository of the scrolls. Sally was too busy to talk to us. She hardly lifted her head when we entered, but Hilary turned her gentle charisma on to Eldridge Hamilton and he was not proof against it. When we left an hour later Hilary had another devoted admirer.
We went up to the cavern, and sat together above the emerald pool while the children splashed and shrieked in the cool green water. We talked together like the old and dear friends we were, but even then it was some time before Hilary could bring herself to mention that which was troubling her.
'Ben, have you noticed anything different about him?' The old question of an unhappy woman, and I made the old excuse for him.
'He works so hard, Hil.' And she snatched at it.
'Yes, he's been tied up in this hotel business for months. He's building a chain of luxury vacation hotels across theislands of the Indian Ocean. Comores, Seychelles, Madagascar, ten of them. He is exhausting himself.'
Then as we walked down towards the huts in the dusk, she said suddenly, 'Do you think he has found another woman, Ben?'
I was startled. 'Good Lord, Hil. What on earth makes you think that?'
'I don't know. Nothing I suppose. It's just that--' She stopped and sighed.
'Where would he find more than he has now?' I asked softly, and she took my hand and squeezed it.
'My dear Ben. What would we do without you?'
When I went to tuck Bobby up and kiss her good night, I told her what I thought of her behaviour at lunch and she snuffled a bit and said she was sorry. Then we kissed and hugged and agreed that we still loved each other. She was asleep before I had switched out the light, and with dread in my heart I went across to the common room for a repeat of the midday performance.
At the threshold I blinked with surprise. Louren, Eldridge and Sally were in a friendly and animated huddle over the typed pile of translation sheets, while Ral and Leslie were eagerly discussing their marriage plans with Hilary. The transformation was miraculous. I made my way with relief towards the Glen Grant bottle, and poured a medium-sized one.
'One for me also.' Sally came across to me. I could see no evidence of headache. Her mouth was a hectic slash of bright lipstick, and the silk dress she wore was draped to expose her strong brown back and shoulders. She had piled her hair up on her head, and I thought I had seldom seen her look so lovely.
I poured her a drink, and we went to join the discussion of the scrolls. In contrast to his earlier mood, Louren was at his most charming, and even Eldridge could not resist him.
'Professor Hamilton has done a most remarkable job here, Ben,' he greeted me. 'I can only congratulate you on your choice of a colleague.' Eldridge preened modestly.
'There is something we cannot put off much longer, Ben,' Louren went on. 'We are going to have to make an announcement soon. We can't keep this a secret much longer.'
'I know,' I agreed.
'Have you had any thoughts on it, yet?'
'Well, as a matter of fact--' I hesitated. I hate having to ask Louren to spend money. 'I was thinking of something on a rather grand scale.'
'Yes?' Louren encouraged me.
'Well, I thought if we could have the Royal Geographical Society convene a special symposium on African prehistory. Eldridge is a member of the Council, I'm sure he could arrange it.'
We looked at him, and he nodded.
'Then perhaps Sturvesant International could play host to the delegates, fly them to London and pay their expenses to make sure they all attend, or at least some of them.'
Louren threw his head back and laughed delightedly. 'You are a scheming son-of-a-gun, Ben. I see your plan exactly. You are going to get all your critics and enemies together in one bunch within the hallowed precincts of the R.G.S., and you are going to play the Al Capone of archaeology in a scientific St Valentine's day massacre. In the jargon, you are going to murder da bums. That's right, isn't it?'
I blushed at having my plans so readily exposed.
'Well,' and then I grinned sheepishly and nodded, 'I guess that's about it, Lo.'
'I love it.' Sally clapped her hands with delight. 'We will draw up a guest list.'
'We will do this in style,' Louren promised. 'We'll flythem in first class and we'll put them up at the Dorchester. We'll give a champagne lunch to lull them and then we'll turn Ben and Eldridge loose amongst them like a pack of ravening wolves.' He had entered fully into the spirit of the thing and he turned to Eldridge.
'How long would it take to arrange?'
'Well, it would have to go before the Council for approval. We would have to give them some idea of the agenda, but of course your offer to pay the expenses would make it a lot easier. I will lobby a couple of the other Council members.' Eldridge was enjoying it also. There is a rather perverse thrill to be had out of planning and executing the professional assassination of one's enemies. 'I think we could arrange it for April.'
'April the first,' I suggested.
'Lovely,' laughed Louren.
'We must have Wilfred Snell,' Sally pleaded.
'He's top of the list,' I assured her.
'And that slimy little Rogers.'
'And De Vallos.'
We were still gloating and scheming when we sat down to eat the fiery curry of wild pheasant that I hoped would make the sultry night air seem cool by comparison. There were pitchers of cold draught beer to go with it, and the meal developed into a festive occasion. We were still gloating on the discomfort of our scientific enemies and planning the confrontation in detail, when Sally turned suddenly to Hilary who had been sitting quietly beside me.
'You must forgive us, Mrs Sturvesant. This must be terribly boring for you. I don't suppose a word of it makes sense to you.' Sally's tone was honeyed and solicitous. I was as surprised as Hilary, for I understand enough of the secret language of women to recognize this as an open declaration of war. I hoped that I was mistaken, but five minutes later Sally attacked again.
'You must find the heat and primitive conditions here most trying, Mrs Sturvesant. Not the sort of weather for your tennis parties, is it?'
The way she said it made tennis seem the pastime of a spoiled and ineffectual social butterfly. But this time Hilary was ready for her, and with a face like an angel and tones every bit as sugary as Sally's, she ripped back in a devastating counter-attack.
'I'm sure it can be most unhealthy, especially after any length of time, Dr Benator. The sun can play havoc with one's skin, can it not? And you are still looking peaky from your headache. We were very worried about you. I do hope you are feeling better now.'
Sally found that despite her gentle nunlike air, Hilary was an opponent worthy of her steel. She changed her attack. She turned all her attention onto Louren, laughing gaily at his every word and not taking her eyes from his face. Hilary was helpless in the face of these tactics. I seemed to be the only one in the party aware of this duel in progress, and I sat silently trying to puzzle out the meaning of it all - until Hilary played her trump.
'Louren, darling, it has been such a busy, exciting day. Won't you take me to bed now, please.'
She swept off the field on Louren's arm, and reluctantly I had to admit that my Sally had received the treatment she deserved.
I woke to the awareness of somebody else in my bedroom with me, and I tensed myself for sudden violent action as I rolled my head stealthily and looked towards the door. It was open. The moonlight outside was bright and clear. Sally stood in the opening.
She wore a flimsy nightdress, which did not conceal the lovely outline of her nude body against the silver moonlight.The long legs, the swelling womanly hips, the nip-in of waist and flare of breast, the long gazelle neck with tilt of dainty head.
'Ben?' she asked softly.
'Yes.' I sat up, and she came quickly to me. 'What is it, Sal?'
In reply she kissed me with open mouth and probing tongue. I was taken completely by surprise, frozen in her arms and she laid her cheek against mine. In a small gusty voice she whispered, 'Make love to me, Ben.'
There was something wrong here, desperately wrong. I felt no awakening of desire, only a warm rise of compassion for her.
'Why, Sal?' I asked. 'Why now?'
'Because I need it, Ben.'
'No, Sally. I don't think you do. I think that is the very last thing in the world you need now.'
And suddenly she was crying, big broken silent sobs. She cried for a long time, and I held her. When she was quiet I laid her on the pillow and covered her with the blankets.
'I am a bitch, aren't I, Ben?' she whispered, and went to sleep. I stayed awake all that night, watching over her. I think I knew then what was happening, but I did not want to admit it to myself.
At breakfast Louren abruptly announced that the family would return immediately to Johannesburg, rather than stay the extra day as had been originally planned. I found it hard to hide my disappointment, and when I asked Louren for a reason as soon as we were alone, he merely looked towards the heavens and shrugged with exasperation.
'You are plain lucky you never married, Ben. My God - women!'
Life at the City of the Moon returned to its normal satisfying routine for a week, during which Ral and Ipursued our search for the tombs and the others worked steadily at the scrolls. Then while Ral and I sat in a sizzling midday sun under the meagre shade of a camel thorn, a little puckish figure rose from the grass seemingly at my feet.
'Sunbird,' said Xhai softly, 'I have travelled many days to seek the sunshine of your presence.' He turns the prettiest compliment, and my heart went out to him.
'Ral,' I said, 'let me have your tobacco pouch, please.'
We sat together all that afternoon under the camel thorn and we talked. The conversations of primitive Africa are an art form, with elaborate rituals of question and answer, and it was late before Xhai reached the subject which he had come to discuss.
'Does Sunbird remember the water-in-the-rock at the place where we slew the elephant?'
Sunbird remembered it well.
'Does Sunbird remember the little holes that the white ghosts made in the rock?'
Sunbird would never forget them.
'These holes gave Sunbird and the big golden one much pleasure, did they not?'
They did indeed.
'Since that day I have looked with fresh eyes upon the rocks as I hunted. Would Sunbird wish to visit another place where there are many such holes?'
Would I!
'I will lead you there,' Xhai promised.
'And I will give you as much tobacco as you can carry away,' I promised him in return, and we beamed at each other.
'How far is this place?' I asked, and he began to explain. It was beyond the 'big wire' he told me. This was the 300-mile-long game fence along the Rhodesia border which was erected to control movements of the wild animals as a precaution against foot and mouth disease. We would needclearance from the Rhodesians, and when Xhai went on to describe an area which seemed fairly close to the Zambezi river border with Zambia, I knew I would have to ask Louren to arrange an expedition. It was obviously squarely within the zone of terrorist activity.
Xhai refused to accompany me back to a camp which was filled with his traditional enemies, the Bantu. Instead we arranged to meet under the camel thorn three days later, once Xhai had completed the rounds of his trap line.
I was fortunate enough that evening to find Louren had returned an hour before from Madagascar.
'What's the trouble, Ben?' His voice boomed above the radio static.
'No trouble, Lo. Your little bushman friend has found another ancient gold working site. He's happy to take me to it.'
'That's great, Ben. The elephant mine is in production already, and looking very good indeed.'
'There is only one problem, Lo. It's in Rhodesia, in the closed area.'
'No problem, Ben. I'll fix it.' And the following evening we spoke again.
'It's set up for Monday week. There will be a Rhodesian police escort to meet us at the Panda Matenga border gate.'
'Us?' I asked.
'I'm stealing a couple of days off, Ben. Just couldn't resist it. You take the bushman with you, go by Land-Rover through to Panda Matenga. I will come in from Bulawayo by helicopter. See you there. Monday week, morning, okay?'
The commander of the police escort was one of those beefy, boyish young Rhodesians with impeccable manners, and an air of quiet competence which I found most reassuring. He was an assistant inspector with an askari sergeant and five constables under him. His rank and the composition of the escort gave me some indication of the level to which Louren had applied for co-operation.
We had two Land-Rovers, both with mounted medium machine-guns on the bonnet, and the armament of the rest of the party was impressive, as was to be expected on the borders of a country subjected to unceasing harassment by terrorist infiltrators from the north.
'Dr Kazin.' The inspector saluted and we shook hands. 'My name's MacDonald. Alaistair MacDonald. May I introduce my men?'
They were Matabeles, all of them. The big moon-faced descendants of Chaka's fighting impis, led here 150 years ago by the renegade general, Mzilikazi. They were dressed in camouflage fatigues with soft jungle hats, and they stood to rigid attention as MacDonald led me down the single rank.
'This is Sergeant Ndabuka.' And when I acknowledged the introduction in fluent Sindebele, the stern military expressions dissolved into huge flashing smiles.
Xhai was obviously very ill at ease in this company. He followed on my heels like a puppy.
'Did you know, Doctor, that there is still a field order issued to the British South Africa Police that hasn't been rescinded,' MacDonald told me, as he looked Xhai over with interest. 'It is an instruction to shoot all bushmen on sight. This is the first one I've ever seen. Poor little blighters.'
'Yes.' I had heard of that order which was maintained as a curiosity, but too faithfully reflected the attitude of thelast century. The time of the great bushmen hunts, when a hundred mounted men would band together into a commando to hunt and kill these little yellow pixies as though they were dangerous animals.
White and black had hunted them mercilessly. The atrocities committed against them were legion. Shot and speared - and worse. In 1869 King Khama had enticed a whole tribe of them to a feast of reconciliation, and while they sat at his board, with their weapons laid aside, his warriors seized them. The king had supervised the subsequent torture personally. The last bushman died on the fourth day. With this history to remember it was no wonder that Xhai stayed within arm's length of me, and watched these colossal strangers with frightened Chinese eyes.
I explained to MacDonald our approximate destination, pointing out the general area on his map as accurately as I could reckon it from Xhai's description, and the inspector looked grave. He picked a shred of sun-burned skin from the tip of his nose before replying.
'That's not a very good area, Doctor.' And he went off to talk to his men.
It was midday before the helicopter came clattering over the tree-tops from the south-east. Louren jumped from the cabin lugging his own bag.
'Sorry I'm late, Ben. I had to wait for a phone call from New York.'
MacDonald came forward and touched his cap-brim.
'Afternoon, sir.' His attitude was deferential. 'The prime minister asked me to give you his respects, Mr Sturvesant, and I am to place myself at your disposal.'
We left the track before we reached the ranching country near Tete, and we swung away northwards towards the Zambezi. MacDonald was in the leading Land-Rover with a driver and a trooper on the machine-gun. We followed in the central spot, Louren driving and anothertrooper riding shotgun in the passenger seat, Xhai and I together in the back. The second police Land-Rover took the rearguard with Sergeant Ndabuka in command.
The slow miles ground past, as the column wound through forests of mopane, and climbed the low ranges of granite. At any hesitation in our advance, Xhai's arm would signal the direction and we would move forward, jolting and pitching over the rough places or humming swiftly through open glades of brown grass. I realized that Xhai was guiding us along the elephant trail, the migratory road that the huge beasts had beaten out from the river to the sanctuary of the Wankie game reserve in the south. Skilled trail blazers, they had picked a route that required the minimum effort to negotiate. Always it was the easy gradient, the low pass through the hills, and the river drifts with gentle sloping banks that they chose.
We camped beside one of these drifts. The river-bed was dry, choked with polished black boulders that glittered like reptiles in the sunset. There were banks of sugar-white sand, patches of tall reeds and a pool of slimy green water overhung with the branches of fever trees.
Beyond the river the ground rose steeply in another of those rocky ridges dotted with marula trees and patches of scrub. However, on this side the bush was open, offering a clear field of fire around our camp. MacDonald drew the three vehicles into a defensive triangle, and while he placed his sentries, Louren and I, followed by Xhai, went down the bank to the pool.
We sat on the rocks and watched a colony of yellow weaver birds chattering and fluttering around their nests of woven grass that hung from the fever trees over the green water.
Louren gave Xhai a cigar, and while we talked the little bushman's eyes never left our faces, like those of a faithful dog. The talk was fitful, changing from one subject toanother without design. Louren told me about the hotel project on the islands. He was very certain of its success.
'It's one of my really good ones, Ben.' And when I thought about his other good ones - the cattle ranches, the diamond mines, gold, chrome and copper - I knew how big it must be.
I touched lightly on his difficulties with Hilary.
'My God, Ben. If only they understood that they don't buy you with the marriage certificate!' There were three others who had found that out the hard way, I hoped that Hilary would not be the fourth.
It was almost dark when MacDonald came down the bank.
'Excuse me, Mr Sturvesant. Could I ask you to come into the perimeter now. I don't like taking unnecessary chances.' And with good grace Louren flicked the stub of his cigar into the pool, and stood up.
'This used to be a country where a man could range to the full extent of his fancy. Times are changing, Ben.'
When we entered the camp there was coffee brewing on a low screened fire, and while we sipped from the steaming mugs I saw the precautions MacDonald had taken for our safety and I realized that his competent looks were not deceiving. He finished his sentry rounds and came to sit with us.
'I should have asked you sooner, but do you gentlemen know how to use the FN rifle and the 60-calibre machine-gun?' Louren and I both told him we did.
'Good.' MacDonald looked out towards the north. 'The closer we get to the border the more chance there is of a clash. There has been a big step-up in the terrorist activity recently. Something brewing up there.'
He poured a mug of coffee and sipped before he asked:
'Well, gentlemen, what are your plans for tomorrow? How far are we from our destination?'
I looked at Xhai. 'How far is it to the holes in the rock, my brother?'
'We will be there before the sun stands so,' indicating noon with one delicate little hand, 'my people are camped at the waterhole near the holes in the rock. We will go there to find them first, for they have long awaited my coming.'
I stared at him, realizing for the first time the extent of Xhai's friendship. Then I turned to Louren. 'Do you realize, Lo, that this little devil had made a trek of 150 miles on foot merely to tell us something that might give us pleasure.'
'What do you mean?'
'As soon as he discovered the old workings he left his tribe and set off to find me.'
That night Xhai slept between Louren and me. He still didn't trust the big Matabele troopers one little bit.
It was eleven o'clock the following morning when we saw the vultures in the northern sky. MacDonald halted the column, and came back to our vehicle.
'Something up ahead. Probably only a lion kill, but we had better not take any chances.'
Xhai slipped off the seat and clambered up onto the roof of the Land-Rover. For a minute he watched the distant birds, then he came down to me.
'My people have killed a large animal. Perhaps even a buffalo, for the birds are above my camp. There is nothing to fear. Let us go forward.'
I translated for MacDonald, and he nodded.
'Okay, Doctor. But we'll keep our eyes peeled all the same.'
The bushmen had erected five rude shelters beside a hole of mud and filthy water. They had merely bent a number of saplings inwards to form the framework, and then thatched it roughly with leaves and grass. There was no smoke and no sign of the little yellow people as wedrove towards the encampment. Xhai was looking puzzled, darting little birdlike glances into the thick bush, and whistling softly through his teeth. The vultures sat in the tree-tops all around the camp, and as we approached there was a sudden commotion from amongst the huts and twenty or thirty of the big ugly birds flapped into the air.
Xhai let out a soft wailing cry. I did not understand what had happened, it merely seemed odd that the vultures were on the ground amongst the huts, but Xhai had guessed it. He began rocking slowly on the seat, hugging his chest and emitting that low-pitched wail.
MacDonald stopped his Land-Rover and climbed out. He stooped over something on the ground, then he straightened up and shouted an order. His troopers jumped from the vehicle and spread out with their weapons held ready. Louren parked our Land-Rover and we went to where MacDonald was standing amongst the huts. Xhai remained in the back seat, still rocking and wailing.
For the Bantu the bushman girls are an object of peculiar lust. I do not know why this should be so, perhaps it is their golden yellow colour, or it may be their tiny doll-like bodies. They had raped Xhai's women, all of them, even the little immature girls. Then they had bayoneted them and left them lying in that pathetically vulnerable attitude of love. Ghal and the other two males they had shot. Bursts of automatic fire had smashed their bodies so that slivers and chips of bone protruded from the mangled flesh. The blood had dried in black splashes and puddles. There were flies everywhere, big green metallic flies that buzzed like hiving bees and came to settle on my lips and eyes. I struck them away angrily. The birds had been at the bodies; that was the truly horrible part of it, the birds.
'God,' said Louren. 'Oh God. Why? Why did they do it?'
'It's their style,' MacDonald answered. 'Frelimo, Mau Mau, all of them hit their own people hardest.'
'But why? repeated Louren.
'They've got guns. They want to use them. This is easier than going for white ranchers or police posts.' Two of the police troopers carried a tarpaulin from one of the Land-Rovers. They began wrapping the bodies. I walked back to our vehicle and leaned against the door. Suddenly I was sick, an acid bitter flood gushing up my throat, and I retched painfully.
When I was finished I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and looked up to find Xhai watching me. He was a man deprived of everything except the breath of life. There was such agony in those dark eyes, such sorrow twisted that mouth that I felt my own heart breaking for him.
'Let us find who has done this thing, Sunbird,' he whispered, and he led me into the short grass around the camp. He worked quickly, like a gundog.
There were spills of the bright brass cartridge cases scattered on the sandy earth. Shoddily manufactured, and stamped with Chinese characters, hundreds of them. The gunners had fired with childish gusto, pouring a torrent of bullets into the camp. Their boots had left the characteristic chevron-patterned imprints. There seemed to be hundreds of them, for the earth was churned and the grass flattened.
'They came in the night,' Xhai explained softly. 'See! Here is where they waited.' He pointed to the scuffed places amongst the bushes. 'There were many of them.' And he showed both his hands with fingers spread, three times. Thirty of them. A big party. 'They struck in the dawn. Yesterday at dawn.' Thirty-two hours ago. They would be miles away now, I realized. When we returned to the encampment the nine bodies were wrapped in canvas and laid out in a neat line, like parcels ready for posting. Four of the troopers were digging a shallow communal grave.
Xhai went to squat beside the line of dead. He was silentnow, and the silence was more distressing than his despairing wail. Once he leaned forward and timidly touched one of the green canvas-wrapped bundles. How many of these little men had squatted like this in the sun to mourn the massacre of their tribe, I wondered. It is at times such as this that I hate the savage ferocity of this land of ours. I could not watch Xhai's grief and I turned away and went to where Louren and MacDonald stood together talking quietly.
'It's a big party, Ben,' Louren greeted me as I came up.
'Xhai says there are thirty of them,' I told him, and he nodded.
'Very likely. The inspector feels we should turn back, and I reckon I agree with him.'
MacDonald explained, 'Should we run into them, they outnumber us heavily, Doctor. These swine are well trained and armed with the most modern weapons. It's not like a few years ago when they sent in a half-baked rabble. They are really dangerous now, and we aren't an offensive patrol. I think we must get out as quickly as possible, and call in the helicopters. Once they locate them the Hunter jets will give them a whiff of napalm.'
'Yes,' I agreed. The ancient workings were no longer important in the face of this horror. I looked across to where the troopers were lifting the bundles down into the grave. Xhai stood watching them. When the grave was filled with loose earth I went across to Xhai and placed an arm around his shoulder.
'Come, little brother,' I said and led him to the Land-Rover. The column turned and in the same order made its way back into the south.
The journey slowly developed into a nightmare of tension and straining nerves. The revving and gear-changing that was necessary to negotiate the rough and broken ground broadcast our progress far ahead of us. Every mile there was a location ideal for an ambush, with thick coverpressing in closely on either hand. Our trail was laid clearly, and we must follow it on our return. They would know this and wait for us there. It was possible they carried landmines and we watched anxiously for disturbed earth in the trail ahead. The strain was on all of us. Louren drove in grim silence, with an unlit stub of cigar rolling restlessly in the corner of his mouth.
The trooper behind him rode with the butt of the machine-gun pulled into his shoulder, and occasionally he traversed the heavy weapon experimentally. All our heads moved constantly, swinging slowly from side to side, searching, searching.
'Have you noticed there is no sign of game, Ben?' Louren asked suddenly. He was correct. Since leaving the bushman encampment we had seen none of the wildlife which had enlivened our outward journey, not even a herd of the dainty brown impala.
'I don't like it, Lo.'
'Join the club,' Louren grunted.
'In thirty-two hours the bastards could have moved miles. They could be anywhere.' I fiddled restlessly with the rate of fire selector on the rifle in my lap. MacDonald had insisted on us taking the spare weapons from two of the troopers on the heavy machine-guns. I was glad of it now. There was much comfort to be drawn from that hunk of wood and steel.
Suddenly the Land-Rover ahead of us skidded to a halt, and Louren slammed on his own brakes and snatched the automatic rifle from the bracket behind him. We sat with our weapons poised, peering into the wilderness of rock and scrub around us. Waiting for the sudden shuddering roar of machine-guns. The slow seconds passed and my own pulse drummed in my ears deafening me.
'Sorry,' MacDonald called from up front. 'False alarm!'
The engines revved, hideously loud in the vast silence of Africa, and we went on.
'For Christ's sake stop fiddling with that bloody thing!' Louren snapped at me with unnecessary violence. I had not realized that I had been clicking the selector of the rifle.
'Sorry,' I muttered guiltily. The tension was infectious. Louren's outburst was a symptom of it, but almost immediately he glanced over his shoulder and grinned apologetically.
'This is bloody murder.'
It seemed hours later that we crossed a ridge and went twisting down amongst the trees to the pool in the dry water-course where we had camped the previous night. MacDonald signalled the column to a halt on the far bank, and he came back to us.
'We will top up the fuel tanks here, Mr Sturvesant. I'll see to that. Will you take a party down to the pool and refill the water containers.'
Louren went down the bank with two of the troopers lugging the five-gallon jerry cans while I watched MacDonald begin refuelling. The gasoline fumes swirled like a mirage in the heat, and the smell was biting in my throat. One of the troopers splashed the liquid in a spurt down the side of the lead vehicle and MacDonald reprimanded him sharply.
'Stay here,' I told Xhai. 'Do not move.' And he nodded at me from the back seat of the Land-Rover.
I left him and followed Louren down to the edge of the pool. It was a tranquil scene, so typical in Africa. Tall reeds languidly drooping their fluffy heads, black mud, pocked with the hooves of a thousand beasts, water green and thick with slime bubbling sulkily with marsh gas, the weaver birds hanging upside down below their swinging basket nests. The two troopers were talking quietly as they filled the jerry cans, Louren standing over them with the automatic rifle.
'Another hour's travel will see us in the clear,' heremarked as I joined him. He took a cigar from his top pocket and began unwrapping it without interrupting his search of the surrounding trees and brush.
There was a fleck of white on the rocks at the water's edge. It caught my eye and I glanced at it, and was about to dismiss it as a splash of bird droppings. Then I noticed something else, and I felt the first cool draught of apprehension blow down my spine. Casually I strolled along the edge of the pool averting my eyes from the white object until it was at my feet. Then I glanced down, and my breath jammed in my throat. My first impulse was to scream a warning to Louren and run for the Land-Rover, but I controlled the urge and forced myself to look away casually. Despite the racing of my heart and the difficulty I had in breathing I managed to stoop and pick up a pebble from the water's edge and toss it out into the pool where it fell with a plop in a widening ring of ripples. Quickly I glanced down again.
The white fleck was a piece of domestic soap, with a wet lacework of bubbles still frothing around it. There were damp marks on the rocks, that the sizzling sun had not yet dried, and in the mud at the water's edge, amongst all the thousands of hoof marks was a print. A strange half-human print, like that of a giant bird. The big toes deeply divided from the rest of the foot, split half-way back to the heel, and I knew that Timothy Mageba was watching me over the sights of an automatic weapon.
My skin prickled as from the stings of the myriad insects of fear. They crawled over my body and along the strings of my nerves. Slowly I walked back to Louren. The cigar was in his mouth and he struck a match as I approached. It flared in a puff of blue nitrous smoke in his cupped hands, and he bowed over it.
'Lo,' I said softly. 'Don't do anything suddenly. Behave as naturally as you can. They are here. Right here, watching us.'
He puffed four times then waved the match to extinguish it, and he looked around naturally.
'Where?' he asked.
'I don't know, but they are very close. We must show ourselves here until Mac is ready.'
'Tell the troopers,' Lo said.
The troopers were recapping the jerry cans, and as they moved back past us I stopped them.
'Go very gently. Do not run. Do not look behind you. The evil ones are here. Go to the inspector. Tell him to start the engines, when we hear them we will come running.'
They nodded, expressionlessly, understanding immediately, and I knew then why these were famed as the finest native troops in Africa. They went calmly up the bank, leaning away from the weight of the jerry cans.
'I feel like one of those little mechanical ducks in a shooting gallery,' I said, and tried to smile. It hung all crookedly on my face. 'What are they waiting for?' I asked.
'They probably didn't have time to set it up properly.' Louren laughed, a very good effort. It rang convincingly. 'They'll be moving into position now. Then they wait until we are all together in a bunch, not spread out like this.'
'God, I wish I knew where they are, where to expect it to come from.'
'What tipped you?' Louren asked, anything to keep this conversation flowing naturally.
'Piece of soap, and wet footprints on the rocks. They were bathing when they heard us coming.'
Louren tapped ash from his cigar, and glanced at the rocks, seeing the soap. Then his eyes flicked back to me. Above the bank we heard the starters whirring loudly in the silence, and then the engines running steadily. One, two, and the third one.
Louren ground the fresh cigar into the mud at the edgeof the pool, then turned to me. He let his hand fall onto my shoulder.
'All the way, partner?' he asked.
'All the way, Lo.' And we whirled together and went for the path up the bank, unslinging the rifles as we ran. I felt a lift of relief, the waiting was over. It had begun.
I had the strange sensation of not moving, of marking time, rather than running. The climb up the bank seemed endless, my feet dragged leadenly and a hot hushed silence persisted in which the engines of the Land-Rovers seemed muted, but our footsteps pounded like stampeding hooves.
We came out on top of the bank.
Sergeant Ndabuka was at the wheel of our vehicle swinging in towards us, slowing for the pick up.
The other two Land-Rovers were backing up, ready to cover us, turning for the path with the gunners traversing the heavy machine-guns.
'Jump!' shouted MacDonald. 'Let's hit out!'
I leapt for the side of the Land-Rover and Louren piled in beside me.
'Go!' he snapped urgently at the sergeant. The engine roared and we surged forward. From the moment when we started to run to the moment we boarded the speeding vehicle perhaps six seconds had elapsed. It had all gone very quickly, and I scrambled onto my knees, pushing the automatic rifle forward to cover one flank. In that instant they opened on us. The air around me was torn by the sound of a thousand bull whips, while the gunfire sounded like a stick dragged swiftly across a corrugated-iron fence.
MacDonald's vehicle was leading us out, back along our tracks. It was drawing fire also. I saw the gunner hit. His head snapping backwards as though from a heavy punch and his hat flying from his head. He collapsed over the seat, his untended weapon spiralling idly on its mounting.
They were below the river bank, lining it, hidden in thereeds and scrub there. I saw the muzzle flashes, glinting like swords. I let off a burst, swinging on them, but with the Land-Rover bucking I was low. Dust flew in a line below the bank as though churned up by a whiplash. I corrected my aim and fired, the weapon shuddering in my hands. Seeing the reeds shake and tremble as my bullets raked them. Someone screamed, a thin passionless sound, and my weapon clicked empty.
I snatched for a fresh magazine, looking ahead, to estimate how much longer we must receive fire. MacDonald was just entering the forest, there were big trees on either side of the path indicating the passage. I saw the loose earth in the path ahead of MacDonald swept neatly, and I knew then why they had held their fire until it served to drive us into the trap.
I opened my mouth to scream a warning, but it was lost in the continuous clamour of gunfire and engine roar.
MacDonald hit the landmines they had laid for us across our old tracks and the detonation was a burst of bright white light that seared the retina of the eye. The concussion slammed painfully into my eardrums, and MacDonald's Land-Rover reared like a wounded lion. Its front end was smashed in, one of the wheels spinning lazily through the air. It toppled backwards, crushing the occupants beneath it. The second Land-Rover drove into it at thirty miles an hour. There was a rending screeching sound of metal as the two came together.
'Look out!' shouted Louren and the sergeant swung the wheel violently to avoid colliding with the mass of wrecked vehicles. Our Land-Rover hung over on two wheels, then flopped over on its side. We were thrown out on to the rocky earth.
There was a silence that lasted for three or four seconds. A stunned silence, even the enemy frozen by the suddenness of the havoc they had created. We were perhaps fiftyyards from the river-bed where Timothy's men lay. The intervening ground was sparsely studded with fever trees. These and the bodies of the vehicles gave us a little cover.
I had lost my rifle and as I groped for it I found Xhai huddled next to me. I had one glimpse at his terrified face, as I crawled towards Louren.
'Are you all right?'
For answer he pointed. 'Look!' Twenty feet away Alaistair MacDonald lay on his back with the full weight of the Land-Rover lying across his pelvis. He was pushing the mass of metal with weak fluttering hands. He moaned then softly.
I stood up to go to him, and at that moment the guns opened again. Flailing us, rattling and clanging against the Land-Rovers, lashing billows of dust and storms of stone fragments, ricocheting with the sound of tearing silk - and Louren dragged me down.
I was aware of movement beside me and as I turned towards it little Xhai wailed softly like a restless baby. I put out my hand to calm him, but my touch galvanized him. He jumped to his feet, his dark amber eyes ablaze with terror, and he ran.
'Wait, little brother,' I shouted, and I scrambled up to follow him. Louren grabbed and held me and I watched as Xhai ran out into that hell storm.
He drew all their fire immediately. They hunted him, hosing bullets at him. He ran like a rabbit caught in a car's headlights, making no attempt to hide. I struggled in Louren's grip.
'No!' I shouted. 'Leave him! No! No!' And they hit him, knocking him down so he rolled across the stony earth like a small brown ball. He came up on his feet again, still running but his left arm was shot away above the elbow, holding only by a tatter of wet flesh, and it bounced loosely against his flank. They hit him again, squarely this time, between the shoulder-blades and he went down hardand skidded on his face. He lay very still and small in the harsh white sunlight. I was quiet in Louren's grip, while around me the surviving troopers crawled into position to return the enemy fire. Louren rolled away from me, lying prone and fired a burst around the tailboard of the overturned Land-Rover.
The storm of bullets returned to sweep over us, and MacDonald was still moaning. Nobody could reach him across that bullet-swept space. I knelt on the hard earth staring at Xhai's frail little body, and I felt the hot winds of my rage blow through my soul. They came from deep and far, crescendoed and overwhelmed my reason.
I jumped up and ran to the mined Land-Rover, I tore the pin from the mounting and hefted the heavy machine-gun out of its seating. Then I threw four loops of the cartridge-belt over my shoulders, draping myself with death as though it were an Hawaiian lei. Then, with my gun on my hip, I went after them, running towards the river-bed, straight at the centre of their line.
I heard myself screaming, and the violent disruption of the air around me as shot passed close, buffeted my ears and fanned my face with a hot dry wind. I ran screaming and the gun shook my body as though it were a giant fist. The spent cartridge cases spewed from the breech in a glittering stream, ringing like silver bells as they bounced off the stony earth. I saw the lip of the bank dissolve in spurting, swirling clouds of dust as I traversed it, saw one of them hit and flung backwards.
Their fire was shrivelling, I saw movement in the reeds as they ran. One of them leapt to his feet and fired a burst. Beside me slabs of white bark exploded from the trunk of a fever tree, and I swivelled the gun onto him. He was in camouflage battledress, a pudding-basin helmet of steel on his head, and he crouched over his weapon, the muzzle winked its hot red eye at me and I wondered that it could miss me at such close range.
One of my bullets caught him in the mouth, spinning his helmet away and the contents of his skull blew out of the back of his head in a pink cloud. He dropped below the bank.
'Follow him! Cover him!' I heard Louren yelling somewhere behind me, but I did not care. I reached the bank of the river and looked down into the dry bed. They were running, panicky, for the far bank and I turned the gun on them. Watching as they fell, with the white sand dancing in sudden soft fountains amongst them. I was still screaming.
The last loop of cartridges flipped off my shoulder and fed into the hungry breech of my weapon. The gun went dead and useless in my hands, and I hurled it after them. Rage and sorrow had driven me far beyond the boundaries of reason and fear. I stood unarmed and unafraid and from the far bank Timothy Mageba turned back towards me. He had a pistol in his right fist, and he aimed at me. I felt the passage of the bullet close beside my head.
'Murderer!' I screamed, and he fired again, twice. It was as though the angels of death had draped their wings around me, shielding me, for I did not even hear the bullets. I saw him glaring at me, those terrible smoky eyes, the great cannon-ball head like that of some wounded beast at bay.
Then suddenly Louren was beside me, he threw up his rifle and snapped a shot at Timothy. I think Louren may have nicked him, for I saw him wince and stagger slightly, but then he was gone into the thick scrub that covered the high ground on the far bank. The police troopers went past us, moving forward in line of skirmishers down the bank and across the river-bed where the dead men lay. They fired a few rounds into the bush, then Louren called them back.
Louren turned to stare at me with a look of disbelief. 'They didn't touch you,' he said with wonder. 'Not a singlebullet - my God, Ben, my God!' He shook his head. 'You frightened me, you crazy bastard. You frightened the hell out of me.' He put his arm around my shoulder and led me back to the vehicles.
MacDonald was still moaning softly. We lifted the side of the Land-Rover, Louren and I between us. MacDonald screamed as the troopers drew him out from under the vehicle. His legs were twisted at an odd angle and his face was very pale, his tan a dirty brown over it and little beads of sweat dewed his upper lip.
I left Louren to administer morphine and try to splint the badly shattered bone, and I went across to where Xhai still lay.
The entry hole was a blue-black pucker in the centre of his back, there was no bleeding from it. Yet he lay in a puddle of thick gelatinous blood, and I knew what hideous damage the exit of the bullet from his chest must have caused. I did not turn him over. I could not bring myself to do it, but his head was twisted sideways and I squatted beside him. With my finger-tips I closed the lids over those staring Chinese eyes.
'Go in peace, little brother,' I whispered.
'Come on, Ben. They'll be back. We must hurry,' Louren called.
Two of our troopers were dead, and the sergeant rolled them in their blankets.
'The bushman also,' I told him. He hesitated, but then he saw my expression and went quickly.
We rolled the third vehicle back onto its wheels and while the troopers lifted our dead and wounded aboard, Louren and I checked it out. Two of the tyres were shot through, the petrol tank was riddled, the steering box was severed by a bullet and another had shattered the engine sump cover. Oil poured from it, stinking in the heat.
Quickly Louren placed the sergeant and the three remaining troopers in a defensive perimeter amongst thefever trees and we pushed the crippled Land-Rover into the lee of the wrecked vehicles, giving ourselves some cover to work behind.
There was a tool box in MacDonald's Land-Rover. We changed the wheels as quickly as a pair of Grand Prix mechanics, cannibalizing from the wrecks. As we tightened the last wheel bolts the sniping began. It was long range, from the far ridge a quarter of a mile away. They had learned their lesson well, and kept a respectful distance now. Our troopers answered, blazing away with the two heavy machine-guns to discourage them further.
In the middle of a fire fight Louren and I worked, greasy to the elbows. Smearing skin from knuckles on sharp steel in our haste, burning blisters into our skin on the red-hot manifold and exhaust system.
We pulled the sump cover off the capsized Land-Rover, and lay on our backs with hot oil dripping into our faces as we bolted it back onto our vehicle. The gasket was worn, it would leak, but it would hold oil long enough to get us clear.
Louren changed the steering-box, while I found a cake of soap in my pack and plugged the bullet holes in the fuel tank. As we worked, I blessed the Chinese artisans who had manufactured those shoddy weapons on the far ridge, with their limited range and accuracy.
We refuelled and replaced the engine oil, standing by necessity fully exposed to the marksmen on the hill, forcing ourselves to work methodically and trying to shut from our ears the terrifying sound of passing shot.
Louren jumped into the driver's seat, and pressed the starter; it whirled dismally, on and on, and I closed my eyes tight and prayed. Louren released the starter button and in the silence I heard him swearing with bitter vehemence. He tried again, the battery was weakening now, the whirring of the engine slowed and faltered.
A stray bullet smashed the windscreen, spraying us withglittering glass fragments. Louren was still swearing. In despair I glanced at the setting sun, only half an hour or so of daylight left. In the darkness the hyenas would come down from the ridge. As though they had read my thoughts the fire from up there intensified. I heard a bullet whine away off the metal of the Land-Rover. Louren jumped out of the driver's seat and opened the bonnet again. As he worked I shouted across to Ndabuka.
'Why aren't you firing, Sergeant? You are letting them have target practice. Keep their heads down, dammit!'
'The ammunition is almost finished, sir,' he called back, and a coldness closed about my guts. No ammunition, and darkness coming on fast.
Louren slammed the bonnet closed, and ducked back into the driver's seat. He looked at me through the shattered windscreen.
'Say another prayer, Ben. The last one was no damned good.' And he pressed the starter. It wheezed wearily but the engine would not turn.
'We've had it, Ben,' Louren told me. 'Both the other batteries are kaput.'
'Sergeant--all of you. Shove,' I shouted. 'Come on, help me.'
They ran to me at the rear of the Land-Rover.
'Try her in second,' I shouted at Louren, and a burst of bullets kicked around my legs, stinging them with fragments of stone.
We threw our combined weight on the Land-Rover and it bumped over rough ground, back towards the river.
'Now,' I shouted at Louren. The Land-Rover juddered and slowed and we hurled ourselves against it, keeping it moving against compression.
It fired once. 'Keep going!' I gasped. And abruptly the engine roared into life and we howled with triumph.
'Climb on,' Louren yelled and swung the Land-Rover back towards the trail, but I ran beside him.
'Matches!' I panted.
'Give me your matches, damn you.' I snatched them from his hand and ran to the tangled wreckage. Gasoline was dribbling from one of the ruptured tanks and I flicked a match at it. The sucking, roaring torrent of flame licked across my face, singeing my eyelashes away, and I turned and ran after the Land-Rover, scrambling in over the tailboard, falling face forward onto the pile of dead and wounded men in the back.
Louren smashed a new route through a belt of scrub thorn, avoiding the mined trail, and then angled back to pick it up further out.
The firing from the ridge died away as the forest blanketed us. I watched the column of black sooty smoke climbing up into the flushed evening sky, pleased that I had denied them the spoils of victory, and suddenly I found myself shaking like a man in high fever. Icy waves of shock and reaction engulfed me.
'Are you all right, Ben?' Louren called to me.
'Yes, I'm fine,' I answered and looked down at the pathetic blanket-wrapped bundles at my feet.
All that night we crawled southwards, jolting and bumping over the rough ground, often losing the track and having to search for it, shivering in the cold of an African night when the wind blew through the shattered windscreen.
In a dawn that was grape-purple and smoky blue I asked Louren to stop the Land-Rover. The troopers helped me to dig a shallow grave in the sandy bottom land between two kopjes. I lifted Xhai out of the Land-Rover still wrapped in the dark grey police blanket and he was as light as asleeping child in my arms. I laid him in the earth and we stood around in a circle and looked down at him. Blood had soaked through the blanket and dried in a black stain.
I nodded to the troopers. 'All right. Cover him.' They did it quickly and went back to the Land-Rover. It was still cold, and I shivered in my thin cotton shirt. Up on the kopjes an old bull baboon barked, his cry boomed across the valley.
I followed the troopers back to the Land-Rover and climbed up beside them. As we drove on I looked back, and saw a herd of buffalo moving down out of the bush. They were grazing, heads down and tails swinging towards Xhai's grave. This was where my brother belonged, with the animals in the wilderness he loved.
'I'm very much afraid that they have slipped back across the river,' the assistant commissioner of police told me. 'There is nothing we would have liked more than to get our hands on this fellow Mageba.'
We had flown out with MacDonald in the police helicopter to Bulawayo two days before. Louren had left me to help the Rhodesian police as best I could while he sent for the Lear and went on direct to Johannesburg. Now I was having a final debriefing at police headquarters, while a charter flight stood by to take me back to the City of the Moon.
The assistant commissioner was a tall man with a military set to his shoulders, and a brush of closely cropped grey hair. His face was seamed and furrowed and burned darkly by a thousand suns. There were ribbons on his chest that I recognized, the emblems of courage and honour.
'He is top of our list of the chaps we'd like to meet, actually. A nasty piece of work, but then you'd know thatas well as anybody.' And he turned those steely grey eyes onto me, giving me the feeling that I was being interrogated.
'I know him,' I agreed. My part in the hi-jacking incident was common knowledge.
'What do you make of the man?'
'He is an intelligent man, and he has a presence. There is something about him.' I tried to find the words to describe him. 'He's the type of man who sets out to get what he wants, and the type that other men will follow.'
'Yes,' the assistant commissioner nodded. 'That's a fair summation of our own intelligence. Since he joined them there has been an escalation of hostile activity from our friends across the river.' He sighed, and massaged his iron-grey temples. 'I thought we might have got him this time. They left their dead unburied, and made a run for the river. We could only have missed them by minutes.'
He walked down with me to where a police car waited under the jacaranda trees with their clouds of purple blossoms.
'What news have you of MacDonald?' I asked as we stood beside the police car.
'He will be all right. They saved both legs.'
'I am glad.'
'Yes,' agreed the assistant commissioner. 'He is a good type. Wish we had more of them. By the way, Doctor, we would rather you kept mum about this business. We don't like to make too much fuss about these incidents. Rather playing into their hands, you know. Gives them the publicity they want.'
We shook hands and he turned and strode back into the building. As we drove through the busy streets and I saw the smiles on the faces around me I wondered why anybody should want to destroy this society - and if they succeeded, with what would they replace it?
It seemed natural to think then of the City of the Moon.A great civilization, a nation which held dominion over an area the size of Europe, a people who built great cities of stone and sent their ships in trade to the limits of the known world. All that remained of them were the few poor relics which we had so laboriously gleaned. No other continent was so fickle in the succour it gave to men, to raise them up so swiftly and then to pluck them down and devour them so that they were denied even a place in her memory. A cruel land, a savage and merciless land. It was a wonder that so many of us loved her so deeply.
My return to the City of the Moon was disappointing. After the events of the last few days it was an anticlimax. It seemed that the others had hardly noticed my absence.
'Did you enjoy yourself?' Sally asked over the typewriter and a pile of translation sheets.
'Well, it was interesting.'
'That's good. What happened to your eyelashes?' she asked and without waiting for an answer began pounding the keyboard with two fingers, biting her tongue with concentration, pausing only to push her hair off her cheek with the back of one hand.
'Glad you are back, Ben,' said Eldridge Hamilton. 'I've been wanting to talk to you about this.' And he led me to a table on which a portion of one of the scrolls was spread. I didn't seem to be able to concentrate. Suddenly, for the first time in my life I felt that it was ancient and unimportant compared with the blood that I so recently had seen spurt fresh and red.
Ral and Leslie had obviously used my absence to scheme out an approach. Ral spoke for both of them, with Leslie prompting him when he faltered. 'So you see, Doctor, we don't feel it's right to marry until at least one of us has asteady job. So, well, we thought we'd sort of ask your advice. I mean we love it here, both of us. We'd like to stay on, but we'd also like to get married. It's just that, well, we've got such a high opinion of you, Doctor. We wouldn't like to miss the rest of the investigation, but--'
I spoke to Louren that evening and then called them from the supper table.
'The job is worth three and a half thousand, and Leslie will get two. Of course, there is a free flat at the Institute and I'll help you with the furnishing, as a wedding present.'
Leslie kissed Ral, and then me. A novel way in which to accept the offer of employment, I felt.
Ral threw himself into the search of the cliffs with renewed energy, but I spent little time with him. Instead, I began to prepare my address to the Royal Geographical Society. This should have been a labour of love and excitement, but I found myself floundering. There was so much detail in the scrolls, but all of it seemed irrelevant to those unanswerable questions: where did they come from and when, where did they go to, and why?
Each time, my efforts became so long-winded and convoluted that they bored even me. Then I would rip the sheets from my typewriter, ball them and hurl them at the wall. There is no more lonely place in the world than a blank sheet of paper, and it frightened me that my unruly emotions should intrude and prevent me marshalling my thoughts and facts in orderly ranks. I told myself that it was reaction from the horrors of our journey to the north, that Sally's enigmatic behaviour was worrying me deeply, that it was merely the fear of the imminent confrontation with my enemies.
I tried all the tricks, forcing myself to sit at the typewriter until I had completed 10,000 words or rising at midnight to try and shake loose a flow of words from my stalled brain.
The address remained unwritten, and I found myself mooning about my office polishing the great battle-axe until it gleamed and glittered, painful to the eye, or strumming fitfully on my guitar and composing new songs which all seemed sad and mournful. At other times I would sit for hours before the painting of the white king, dreaming and withdrawn, or I would wander all day along the cliffs, oblivious of the sun and the heat, and it seemed that often a little birdlike presence was near me, moving like a mischievous brown sprite just beyond the fringe of my vision. Or again, I would sit alone in the dim depths of the archives, deep in a trance of despair as I remembered the hatred in Timothy's smoky eyes as he glared at me across the water-course where the dead men lay. Neither Timothy nor I were all of what we seemed to be, there were dark and ugly depths in both of us. I remembered the savagely mauled bodies of the tiny bushmen left lying for the birds, and my own screaming madness as I cut down the running men on the white sand of the river-bed. I do not know how long my despondency might have lasted except for the discovery which uncovered the answer to so many of the mysteries that still shrouded our city.
Eldridge's team had been countering my apathy by an accelerated advance through the scrolls. Practice had sharpened Sally's grasp of the language, until she was as quick and as fluent as Eldridge himself. Even Leslie was now able to make an appreciable contribution to the work, while Eldridge had arrived by a process of trial and error at the most suitable method of unrolling and preserving our scrolls and he was now saving a great deal of time in this procedure.
At breakfast, which seemed to be the only time we spent together these days, Eldridge asked me to resume the work of removing the pottery jars from the archives. To be truthful I welcomed the excuse not to have to face theblank accusing stare of the sheet of paper in my typewriter, and Ral seemed as pleased to have a change from his fruitless search of the cliffs.
In the cool, peaceful gloom of the archives we worked in our established routine, photographing and marking the position of each jar after we had labelled it and entered it in the master notebook. The work was unexacting, and Ral did most of the talking for my mood of lethargy still persisted. Ral lifted down another of the jars from its slab, and then he peered curiously into the space beyond where the wall opened into a squared stone cupboard.
'Hello,' Ral exclaimed. 'What's this?' And I felt my lethargy fall away like a discarded article of clothing. I hurried across to him and I had a feeling of pre-knowledge as I stared at the row of smaller, squatter jars of the same pottery which had been hidden away in this carefully prepared recess. I knew that we had made another major advance, a significant step forward in our search for the ancient secrets. This idea came into my mind fully formed, it was as though I had simply mislaid these small jars and now I had rediscovered them.
Ral moved the arc-light to obtain a better lighting of the recess, and immediately we noticed another unusual feature. Each of the jars that we could see were sealed - a loop of plaited gold wire linked lid and body of the jar, and a clay seal bore the imprinted figure of a bird. I leaned forward and gently blew away the dust that obscured the impression on the seal. It was of the crouching vulture, the classical soapstone bird of Zimbabwe culture with its base of sun discs and rays. It came as a distinct shock to find this emblem of modern Rhodesia upon a seal of indisputably Punic origin 2,000 years old, as it would be to find the lion and unicorn of the British coat of arms in an Egyptian tomb of the twentieth dynasty.
We worked as quickly as was reconcilable with accuracy;labelling and photographing the large jars which obscured the recess, and when we lifted them down we discovered that there were five of the smaller jars concealed behind them. All this time my excitement had been increasing, my hope of a major discovery becoming more certain. The concealment of the jars, and the seals indicated their importance. It was as though I had been marking time, waiting for these jars, and my spirits surged. When finally we were ready to remove them from the recess, I reserved this honour for myself despite Ral's protests of, 'But I found them!'
Balancing on the top rungs of the step-ladder, I reached in and attempted to lift the first of them.
'It's stuck,' I said, as the jar sat immovably on its slab of stone. 'They must have bolted it down.' And I leaned further into the recess and carefully groped behind the jar for the fixings which held it in place. I was surprised to find that there were none.
'Try one of the others,' Ral suggested, breathing heavily on the back of my neck from his lofty perch atop those lanky legs. 'Can I give you a hand?'
'Look, Ral, if you don't give me a bit of room you're going to suffocate me.'
'Sorry, Doc,' he muttered, moving back a full quarter of an inch.
I tried the next jar and found that it was also solidly anchored to the shelf, as were the next three.
'That's very odd,' Ral understated the position, and I returned to the first jar, and bracing my elbows on the edge of the shelf I began to twist it in an anti-clockwise direction. It required my full strength, and the muscles bulged and knotted in my forearms before the jar moved. It slid towards me an inch, and immediately I realized that the jar was held down on the slab not by bolts but by its own immense weight. It was fifty times heavier than the jars twice its size.
'Ral,' I said. 'You are going to have to give me a hand, after all.'
Between us we moved the jar to the front edge of the shelf, and then I cradled it in my arms like a new-bom infant and lifted it down. Later we found that it weighed 122 pounds avoirdupois, and was not much bigger than a magnum of champagne.
Gently Ral helped me to settle it into the fibre-glass cradle we had designed for transporting the jars. We each took a handle and carried it down the archives, out through the access tunnel and past the guard post at the entrance. I was surprised to find it was already dark, and the stars were pricks of light in the high opening above the emerald pool.
Our disparity of heights made it awkward carrying the cradle, but we hurried down the rock passage and down towards the camp. I was relieved to see that lights still burned in the respository. When Ral and I carried in our precious burden the others hardly glanced up from their work.
I winked at Ral, and we carried the jar to the main workbench. Concealing it with our bodies, we lifted it out of the cradle and stood it in the centre of the bench. Then I turned back to the three bent heads across the room.
'Eldridge, would you mind having a look at this one.'
'One moment.' Eldridge went on poring over an unrolled scroll with his magnifying glass, and Ral and I waited patiently until at last he laid the glass aside and looked up. Like I had, he reacted immediately. I saw the glitter of his spectacles, the rosy glow suffuse his bald pate like sunset on the dome of the Taj Mahal. He came quickly to the bench.
'Where did you find it? How many are there? It's sealed!' His hand was actually trembling as he touched the clay tablet. His tone alerted the girls and they almost ran to join us. We stood about the jar in a reverent circle.
'Open it.' Sally broke the short silence.
'It's almost dinner-time.' I glanced at my watch. 'We had better leave it until tomorrow,' I suggested mildly, and both girls turned on me furiously.
'We can't,' Sally began, then she saw my expression, and relief flooded her face. 'You shouldn't joke about things like that,' she told me sternly.
'Well, Professor Hamilton, what are we waiting for?' I asked.
'What indeed?' he demanded, and the two of us went to work on the seal. We used a pair of side-cutters to nip the gold wire, and then carefully worked the seal loose. The lid lifted easily, and there was the usual linen-wrapped cylinder. However, there was not a suggestion of the unpleasant leathery odour. Eldridge, whose arms are like a pair of thin white candles, was unable to lift the jar. I tilted it carefully onto its side, and while he steadied it I withdrew the weighty roll. The wrapping was well preserved and folded off in one piece.
Nobody spoke as we stared at the exposed cylinder. I had guessed what it would contain. There is only one material which is that heavy, but it was still a delicious thrill to have my expectations realized.
It was another writing scroll, but it was not of leather. This scroll was a continuous rolled sheet of pure gold. It was one-sixteenth of an inch thick, eighteen inches wide and a fraction over twenty-eight feet long. It weighed 1,954 fine ounces with an intrinsic value of over $85,000. There were five of them - $425,000, but this was a fraction of the value of the contents.
The beautifully mellow metal unrolled readily as though eager to impart its ancient secrets to us. The characters had been cut with a craftsman's skill into the metal with a sharp engraver's tool, but the reflected light from its surface dazzled the reader.
We all watched with complete fascination as Eldridge spread lamp-black across the blinding surface and thencarefully wiped off the excess. Each character stood out now, etched in black against the golden background. He adjusted his spectacles, and pored deliberately over the cramped lines of Punic. He started making non-committal grunts and murmurs, while we crowded closer, like children at story-time.
I think I spoke for all of us when at last I blurted out, 'For God's sake, read the bloody thing!'
Eldridge looked up, and grinned wickedly at me. 'This is very interesting.' He kept us all in aching suspense for a few seconds longer while he lit a cigarette. Then he began to read. It was immediately clear that we had chosen the first scroll in a series, and that Eldridge was reading the author's note.
'Go thou unto my store and take from thence five hundred fingers of the finest gold of Opet. Fashion therefrom a scroll that will not corrupt, that these songs may live for ever. That the glory of our nation may live for ever in the words of our beloved Huy, son of Amon, High Priest of Baal and favourite of Astarte, bearer of the cup of life and Axeman of all the Gods. Let men read his words and rejoice as I have rejoiced, let men hear his songs and weep as I have wept, let his laughter echo down all the years and his wisdom live for ever.
'Thus spoke Lannon Hycanus, forty-seventh Gry-Lion of Opet, King of Punt and the four kingdoms, ruler of the southern seas and keeper of the waterways, lord of the plains of grass and the mountains beyond.'
Eldridge stopped reading, and looked about the circle of our intent faces. We were all silent. This was something far removed from the dry accounts, the list of trade and the Council orders. This scroll was imbued with the very breath, the essence of a people and a land.
'Wow!' Ral whispered. 'They had a pretty good press agent.' And I felt irritation scratch across my nerves at this irreverence.
'Go on,' I said, and Eldridge nodded. He crushed out the stub of his cigarette in the ashtray at his elbow and began to read again. Pausing only to unroll and lamp-black each new turn of the scroll, he read on steadily while we listened, completely entranced. The hours fled on nimble feet, as we heard the poems of Huy Ben-Amon sung again after 2,000 years.
Opet had produced her first philosopher and historian. As I listened to the words of this long-dead poet, I felt a curious kinship of the spirit with him. I understood his pride and petty conceits, I admired his bold vision, forgave his wilder flights of fancy and his more obvious exaggerations, and was held captive by the story-web he wove about me.
His story began with Carthage surrounded by the wolves of Rome, besieged and bleeding, as the legions of Scipio Aemilianus pressed forward on her walls to the chant of 'Carthage must die'.
He told us how Hasdrubal sent a swift ship flying along the shore of the Mediterranean to where Hamilcar, the last scion of the Barcas, a family long since fallen from power and politics, lay with a war fleet of fifty-seven great ships off Hippo on the north African coast.
How the besieged leader called for succour and of the storm and adverse winds that denied it to him. Scipio broke through into the city, and Hasdrubal died with a reeking sword in his hand hacked into pieces by the Roman legionaries below the great altar in the temple of Ashmun upon the hill.
As Eldridge paused, I spoke for the first time in half an hour.
'That gives us our first date. The third Punic war and the final destruction of Carthage, 146 B.C.'
'I think you'll find that is also about the date point of the Opet calendar,' Eldridge agreed.
'Go on,' said Sally. 'Please go on.'
Two biremes escaped the carnage, the sack and rape of Carthage. They fled with the great winds to where Hamilcar lay fretting and storm-bound at Hippo and they told him how Hasdrubal had died and how Scipio had dedicated the city to the infernal gods, had burned it and thrown down the walls, how he had sold the 50,000 survivors into slavery and had sowed the fields with salt and forbidden under pain of death any man to live amongst the ruins.
'So great a hatred, so cruel a deed, could only spring from the heart of a Roman,' cried the poet, and Barca Hamilcar mourned Carthage for twenty days and twenty nights before he sent for his sea captains.
They came to him all nine of them, and Huy the poet named them, Zadal, Hanis, Philo, Habbakuk Lal and the others. Some would fight but most would fly, for how could this pitiful remnant of Carthaginian power stand against the legions of Rome and her terrible fleet of galleys?
There seemed to be no sanctuary for a Carthaginian, Rome ground all the world beneath her armoured heels. Then Habbakuk Lal, the old sea lion and master navigator, reminded them of the voyage that Hanno had made 300 years before beyond the gates of Hercules to a land where the seasons were inverted, gold grew like flowers upon the rocks, and elephants lived in great herds upon the plains. They had all of them read the account that Hanno had written of his voyage inscribed on tablets in the great temple of Baal Hammon at Carthage, now destroyed by Rome. They recalled how he spoke of a river and a mighty lake, where a gentle yellow people had welcomed him and traded gold and ivory for beads and cloth, and how he had lingered there to repair his ships and plant a harvest of corn.
'It is a good land,' he had written. 'And rich.'
Thus in the first year of the exodus Barca Hamilcar had led a fleet of fifty-nine great ships, each with 150 oarsmenand officers aboard, westward beneath the towering gates of Hercules and then southward into an unknown sea. With him went 9,000 men, women and children. The voyage lasted two years, as they made slow progress down the western coast of Africa. There were a thousand hardships and dangers to meet and overcome. Savage tribes of black men, animals and disease when they landed, and shoals and currents, winds and calms upon the sea.
Two years after setting out they sailed into the mouth of a wide, placid river and journeyed up it for sixteen days, dragging their ships bodily through the shallows, until finally they reached the mighty lake of which Hanno had written. They landed upon the furthest shore under a tall red cliff of stone, and Barca Hamilcar died of the shaking fever which he had carried with him from the pestilential lands of the north. His infant son Lannon Hamilcar was chosen as the new king and the nine admirals were his counsellors. They named their new land Opet, after the legendary land of gold, and they began to build their first city at a place where a deep pool of water sprang from the cliffs. The pool and the city were dedicated to the goddess Astarte.
'My God, it's four o'clock.' Ral Davidson broke the spell which had held us all for most of the night, and I realized how tired I was, emotionally and physically exhausted, but well content. I had found my Pliny, now I could go to London in triumph. I had it all.
How swiftly the days passed now. I was at work each morning before sunrise. My typewriter clattered steadily and the filled sheets piled up beside it. I worked until noon each day, and spent the afternoons and evenings in the repository. Listening to the songs from the golden books of the poet Huy. There was no question that the translation could be completed before April the first. Indeed we would be lucky to have the two first scrolls out of the five completed by then. There was equally no possibility thatwe could postpone the symposium that had been approved by the Council of the Royal Geographical Society for that date. The public relations office of the London branch of Anglo-Sturvesant had completed the arrangements, invitations had been issued and accepted, accommodation, transport and a hundred other details had been arranged and confirmed.
It was a race to marshal and present as much of this incredible plethora of facts and legend as I could in the time left to me. Always I must guard against the temptation to romanticize my subject. The words of Huy were inflammatory to my emotions, I wanted to copy his ebullient style, to laud his heroes and castigate the villains as he did. All of us at the City of the Moon were becoming deeply involved in the story, even Eldridge Hamilton, who was the only one of us not of Africa, was caught up in the grandeur of it. While to the rest of us for whom Africa was, academically and emotionally, the well of our existence, these songs were a compulsive living cavalcade.
How often 1 found our recent history but an echo of the endeavours and adventures of these men of Opet. How closely they seemed linked to us despite the passage of nearly 2,000 years.
For the first five years the settlement on the shores of the lake prospered. The buildings were of log and mud, the men of Opet came to terms with their new land. They fell into a trading relationship with the Yuye. These were the yellow people that Hanno had described 300 years before, tall graceful men with slanted eyes and delicate features. Clearly they were the ancestors of the Hottentots. They were a pastoral people, with herds of goats and small scrub cattle. They were also hunters and trappers, and gatherers of the flakes of alluvial gold from the gravel beds of the rivers. In the name of the infant king, Habbakuk Lal concluded a treaty with Yuye, King of the Yuye. A treaty that granted all the land between the great river and thehills of Tuya to the men of Opet in return for five bolts of linen and twenty swords of iron.
Well satisfied, Habbakuk Lal, to whom the set and scent of the sea were as the coursing of blood through his own veins, returned with five of his swiftest ships laden with the gold and ivory of Opet to the middle sea. He completed the return journey in nine months, setting up staging posts along the western shores of Africa, and returned with a cargo of beads and linen and the luxuries of civilization. He had pioneered the trade route along which the treasures of southern Africa would pour to the known world, but ever wary of Rome's vengeful eye he covered his tracks like the crafty old sea-fox he was.
He brought with him also new recruits for the colony at Opet. Metallurgists, masons, shipbuilders and gentlemen adventurers. However, the trickle of Yuye gold and ivory shrivelled as the accumulated stores of ages were exhausted. Habbakuk Lal led a company of 100 men to the city of Yuye. He sought the right to prospect and hunt throughout the kingdom of the Yuye, and the king agreed readily, placing his mark at the foot of a leather scroll covered with characters he did not understand. Then he called a feast to entertain his honoured guests. The beer was brought in great gourds, the oxen roasted whole over the pits of glowing coals, and the lithe Yuye maids danced naked, their yellow bodies glistening with oil in the sunlight.
At the height of the revelry Yuye, the king, stood, and pointed his fist at the men whose demands became ever more excessive.
'Kill the white devils,' he cried, and his warriors who had lain in readiness without the mud walls of the city fell upon them.
Habbakuk Lal cut himself a road to safety, his battle-axe swinging in a furious arc about him. Three of his men followed him out, but the rest of them were dragged down and their skulls crushed beneath the war clubs of the Yuye.
Habbakuk Lal and his gallant three outran the warriors that pursued them, and reached the bank of the great river where their ship was moored. Flying on white sails they carried the warning to Opet. When the Yuye regiments, 40,000 strong, swarmed down through the pass of the red cliffs, they found 5,000 men of Opet standing to meet them.
All that day the yellow horde broke like the waves of the sea on the ranks of the Opet archers, and all that day the arrows flew like clouds of locusts. Then at the moment when the Yuye drew back exhausted, their resolve broken, Habbakuk Lal opened his ranks and let his axemen run. Greyhounds on the rabbit, wolves on the sheep herds, they pursued until darkness halted the slaughter. Yuye died in the flames of his burning city, and his people were taken into slavery. This is the law of Africa, a land that favours the strong, where the lion alone walks proud.
Now suddenly the colony which had been quietly establishing itself, putting down its roots and making sure of its base, exploded into growth and bloom.
Her metallurgists sought out the mother lodes of metal, her hunters ranged widely, her ranchers bred the scrub cattle of the Yuye to the blood bulls that Habbakuk Lal's ships brought from the north. Her farmers sowed the corn, and watered it from the lake. To protect her citizens and her gods a start was made on the walls of Opet. The land and its treasures were divided amongst the nine noble families, the sea captains of the exodus, who were now the members of the king's council.
Habbakuk Lal, with his huge frame twisted and tortured by arthritis, and with the flaming red beacon of his hair and beard long ago changed to grey ash, died at last. But his eldest son, already admiral of the fleet of Opet, took his father's name. Another Habbakuk Lal directed the growing fleet of Opet in trade and exploration. His ships still beat the well-worn sea-lanes to the north, but also they voyagedsouthwards to where the land turned back upon itself and a great flat-topped mountain guarded the southern Cape. Here a sudden gale out of the north-west smashed half the Opet fleet upon the rocks below the mountain. The priests read this as an omen from the gods, and never again would a ship of Opet venture this far southwards.
The centuries pass. Kings take the throne and then pass from it. New customs arise, the ways of the gods and their worship are altered to suit this land, a new breed of man arises from the mixed blood of Opet and Yuye. He is a citizen, but only the noble families may govern. He may enjoy all the privileges and carry all the responsibilities of citizenship, except that of directing the affairs of state. This is reserved for those of the old blood, pure and untainted. As an offshoot of this nobility a clan of warrior priests arises. These are the sons of Amon, and it amused me to learn that the clan has its origin in a man from the old kingdom, that is, the kingdom of Tyre and Sidon, on the borders of Canaan. These priests probably spring from Jewish stock. You cannot keep us out of a good proposition, can you?
New heroes spring up and fight along the borders, or crush a rising of slaves, or slay the wild beasts. The old art of elephant-training is revived, and the king's elephants spearhead his army and lighten the heavy labours of building and mining.
From the golden books we had an occasional exciting flash of physical contact with the past. Huy describes the lay-out of the walls, and the towers of Baal. They tally exactly with the foundations we had exposed. Huy gives the dimensions of walls thirty-five feet high and fifteen thick, and again we wonder how they had disappeared.
At another place he describes a gift of treasure from the Egyptian agents at Cadiz to the Gry-Lion, as the king is now called; amongst the items is a gold cup marvellously worked with the signs of eternal life. It is our chalice foundamong the ruins of the temple, and that night I went to examine it again. Seeing its battered beauty with new eyes.
Always running through the songs of Huy was the puzzle game of guessing the modern names of the animals and places he mentions. Towns and garrisons had long since gone, or had been reduced to those mysterious piles of old stone which dot the landscape of central Africa. However, we were enthralled to hear how the men of Opet began a search for land where the vine and olive will grow. The oils and wines from the north were more precious than their weight in gold by the time they had completed the journey in the ships of the fifth Habbakuk Lal.
The Gry-Lion's horticulturists and viticulturists discover a range of high mountains far to the east. Mountains of mist and cool pure air. The terracing and developing of the benign slopes begins, with tens of thousands of slaves employed in the project. Living plants in pottery jars are sped southwards in the swiftest ships, then carried on the backs of elephants to the mountains of Zeng, and from them come the sweet red wines of Zeng which the poet Huy so loudly and lovingly extols. Here then is a description of the building of those terraced gardens which cover the Inyanga mountains to this day.
From the descriptions of the animals and wild birds of Punt and the four kingdoms we could recognize most of them. The sacred sunbird, who carried offerings of meat to Baal, flying upwards into a cloudless sky until it disappeared beyond the range of the human eye was obviously the vulture. Then we realized the significance of the carved vulture birds and the seal on the golden scrolls. The vulture had been taken as the emblem of the warrior priests, the sons of Amon, Ben-Amon. Huy had placed his personal seal on the jars which contained the scrolls.
There were other animals described by the poet which could only be extinct species, types which had vanished in the intervening 2,000 years. Chief of these was the Gry-Lion.For we learned that the king took his title from a real beast. This was a large predatory cat which lived along the southern shores of the lake amongst the reed beds that grew there. As early as the year of Opet 216, laws were passed to protect this animal, already threatened by extinction. This protection was afforded it because of the role it played in the ritual of coronation of a new king; a ceremony which Huy referred to as 'taking the Gry-Lion'. He described it as reddish roan-brown in colour with a face masked in lines of black and white, and standing five feet high at the shoulder. Its eye-teeth protruded from its jaw in a set of great curved fangs ten inches long. Despite the doubts of the others as to Huy's veracity, I thought I recognized a description of the giant sabre-toothed lynx. A skeleton of this animal had been discovered amongst the upper level of bones at Sterkfontein caves.
Huy describes how the trade in live animals begins. Their ancient enemy, Rome, is denuding north Africa of lion and rhinoceros and elephant, for use in her circuses. Hanis, the hunter of the southern plains of grass, develops a method of capturing these animals alive and drugging them with a distillation of the seeds of the wild hemp. In a comatose state they are placed aboard the ships of Habbakuk Lal, and sped swiftly northwards from staging-post to post along the coast. Huy reports an unexpectedly high survival rate of fifty per cent, and these fetch astronomical prices for the entertainment of the sensation-hungry populace of Rome.
In the Opet year of 450, the nation is at the zenith of her wealth and power, but she has outgrown herself. Her boundaries are extended, her slave population hardly sufficient to support her multifarious enterprises. In desperation the Gry-Lion sends a slaving expedition for ten days' march to the north of the great river. Hasmon Ben-Amon returns with 500 superb black Nubian captives, and claims his reward from the Gry-Lion.
We had reached the end of Huy Ben-Amon's second golden book, and the Lear was waiting for us. Reluctantly we had to interrupt our readings and go.
Leaving Ral and Leslie to supervise the site, Eldridge, Sally and I flew out to meet the international flight from Luanda. We had to pay the excess on 200 lb. of overweight luggage, and the fare of the Botswana Police Inspector sent by his Government to guard their interests in the ancient relics we carried with us.
In London we had one free day, one precious day to ourselves and as usual I tried to do it all. The crocuses were out on the lawns of Lincoln's Inn Fields, the bitter at the Barley Mow in Duke Street tasted better than I remembered, and the new crop of girls in the King's Road were prettier than the last. When the National Gallery closed at six o'clock Sally and I took a cab directly to San Lorenzo in Beauchamp Place and ate Lorenzo's wonderful ossobucco washed down with red Chianti. We were only just in time for the curtain at the Queen's Theatre. It was all so different from our life at the City of the Moon.
By the time we returned to the Dorchester it was after midnight, but Sally was still wrought-up with the first impact of that fabulous city.
'I'm too excited to sleep yet, Ben. What shall we do?'
'Well, I've got a bottle of champagne in my suite,' I hinted, and she looked at me with an amused twinkle in her eyes.
'Ben Kazin, my favourite boy scout. Always prepared. Okay, let's go drink it.'
It was Krug, very pale and dry. When the bottle was half finished we made love for the first time in six months. If it were possible this was for me a more cataclysmicexperience than our first time. Afterwards I lay exhausted physically and spiritually, and it was Sally who took the empty glasses and carried them through into the lounge. She came back with the brimming pale wine and stood over me naked, and lovely.
'I don't know why I did that,' she said, and gave me a tulip-shaped glass.
'Are you sorry?' I asked.
'No, Ben. I have never regretted anything between us. I only wish - ' But she stopped and instead she sipped at her glass and sat down beside me on the bed.
'You know that I love you,' I said.
'Yes.' She looked at me with an expression I could not fathom.
'I will always love you,' I said.
'No matter what?' she asked.
'No matter what,' I told her.
'I believe you, Ben,' she nodded, her eyes dark brooding green. 'Thank you.'
'Sally--' I began again, but she placed one long tapered finger on my lips, and shook her head so the soft dark wings of her hair swung against her cheeks.
'Be patient, Ben. Please be patient.' But I lifted her finger from my mouth.
'Sally--' She leaned forward and silenced my lips with hers. Still holding the kiss she placed her glass on the floor beside my bed, she took mine from my unresisting fingers and placed it beside hers. Then she made love to me with such devastating skill and subtlety that there were no questions nor protest left in me. At nine o'clock the next morning I got Sally into a taxi headed for Elizabeth Arden in Bond Street, a little apprehensive as to what would happen to that dark silky head of hers. What some of those faggots do to a pretty girl they should be hanged for. Then I climbed into another taxi and headed for the M4 andHeathrow to become snarled in one of those traffic jams which make British motoring such a leisurely and soothing experience.
Louren's flight had landed by the time I paid off my taxi and ran through into the International Terminal, that seething cauldron of humanity.
I heard someone in the crowd exclaim, 'It must be Dicky and Liz!' and I was immediately alerted to the whereabouts of the Sturvesant party. With the limited horizon that I have from my altitude above ground, I am forced to rely on these gratuitous sighting reports.
I fought my way through to the entourage which had been mistaken for that of the Burtons, and realized that the error was excusable. This was Louren Sturvesant travelling heavy, in the grand manner, with his foreriders running interference and clearing a path for the doors. There was a light screen of the gentlemen of the Press skirmishing along the flanks of the advance, but unable to break through the ranks of B.Y.M. Their methods were too conventional. I got into a head-on position and went in low and dirty, and there were a few yelps and cries of, 'Watch that one,' and, 'Get him,' which changed quickly to, 'Sorry, Doctor.'
And I was through into the soft centre. Bobby Sturvesant let out a shriek and landed around my neck, and the entire advance broke down for the minute it took for us to accomplish the greeting ceremony. Hilary was in a soft wrap of honey mink which was made to look shabby by the lustre of her hair, and over her towered Louren, his mane of hair sun-bleached to white gold and his face burned dark nut-brown.
'Ben, you old bastard.' He grabbed me around the shoulder. 'Thank God you made it. Will you look after Hil and the kids for me. I've got a few things to clear up, then I'll see you back at the Dorchester.'
There were two long shiny black limousines waitingunder the portico and the party split neatly, but not before Louren had doubled back to tell me proudly, 'I got a black marlin in the Seychelles - 900 pounder, Ben. A real beauty.'
'That's the tiger,' I congratulated him.
'Get out the Glen Grant, sport. I won't be long.'
I sat in the jump seat opposite Hilary, having beaten one of the B.Y.M. to it, and I was delighted to see how radiant she looked. It was that bright shiny look of happiness which you cannot fake with cosmetics and eyeliner.
'We had ten days on the islands, Ben. It was wonderful.' She went all misty and soft at the memory. 'Our anniversary. Look!' And she held up her left hand which was overburdened with a ring of red gold and a solitaire diamond. I was accustomed to Louren's style of living, but even I blinked. The diamond was bluey-white in colour and looked good, it was certainly not a shade less than twenty-five carats.
'It's beautiful, Hilary.' And for no good reason I thought, 'The deeper the guilt, the bigger the gift.'
When we reached the Dorchester Hilary gasped and covered her mouth with surprise at the baroque superabundance of the Oliver Messel suite.
'It's not true, Ben,' she laughed. 'It just can't be!'
'Don't laugh,' I warned her. 'We must be costing Louren over £100 per day.'
'Wow!' She flopped into one of the enormous armchairs. 'You can get a drink, Ben, my love. I need it.'
While I poured I asked unnecessarily, 'Your problems were of a temporary nature then, Hil?'
'I have forgotten I ever had any, Ben. He's better than he ever was.'
When Louren arrived I saw what she meant. He was in high humour, laughing and restless with energy, sleek and hard and tanned. He disposed of the last two B.Y.M. whileI poured him a Glen Grant, then he threw his coat and tie over a chair, rolled his sleeves up over brown bulging muscle and settled with the drink.
'Okay, Ben. Show it to me.' And we plunged into an examination and discussion of the scrolls and their translation.
Louren picked on the first line of the first page.
'Go thou unto my store and take from thence five hundred fingers of the finest gold--' He repeated the line, then looked up at me. 'That's right from the old boy's mouth, Ben. My store! That's his treasury. That clot Hamilton mistranslated it. It should read "treasury".'
'Suddenly your Punic is pretty hot,' I commended him.
'Well, for cat's sake, Ben, when did you ever send down to a store for your gold?' He tasted the Glen Grant. 'If your theories are correct--'
'Don't give me that if bit, Lo. Your name is not Wilfred Snell.'
'All right, let's accept that there was a violent and sudden death to our city. Fire and dead men, the archives which they obviously held so dear are untouched, then there is a better than ever chance the treasury was untouched also. We've just got to find it.'
'Great!' I nodded, and grinned sarcastically. 'This is a major breakthrough. I've been breaking my heart searching for it these last six months.'
'It's there, Ben.' He did not answer my grin.
'Where, Lo? Where?'
'Close. Somewhere within the main walls, probably within the cavern area.'
'Hell, Lo. I've been over every inch of it fifty times.' I spoke with mild but rising irritation.
'And when you've been over it for the hundredth time, you'll realize how blind you've been.'
'Damn it, Lo!' I started. 'I don't think--'
'Get yourself a drink, partner, before you blow up.'
I did as he advised, and Louren went on. 'I'm not knocking what you've done, Ben. But let me just remind you that in 1909 Theodore Davis ended his book by saying, "I fear that the valley of the kings is now exhausted."'
'Yes, I know, Lo, but--'
Ignoring me Louren went on, 'And it was thirteen years later that Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, the greatest treasure that the valley had ever yielded.'
'Nobody is talking about giving up the search, Lo. I'll go on just as long as you keep paying.'
'And I'll bet that my cheque book is more tenacious than your resolve.'
'That's a bad bet,' I warned him, and we were laughing again.
We parted in the middle of the afternoon, Louren being borne away in a flood of B.Y.M., across the lobby to where a black Rolls waited in front of the hotel, and I slipping out of the side entrance to hail my own taxi in Park Lane.
Eldridge Hamilton was waiting for me on the pavement outside the Royal Geographical Society, having motored up from Oxford in his bright red mini. He was dressed as always in his tweed with the elbow patches, but was feverish with anticipation of the morrow.
'I can hardly wait for it, Ben,' he chortled with malicious glee. 'Have they arrived at the hotel yet?'
'No, but Snell is due in this evening.'
Eldridge did a little hop and skip of excitement and said. 'Like a hippopotamus lumbering into the dead fall.' Cruel but apt, I thought, and we went up through the double oaken doors into the panelled hall which is a high temple of our profession. There is a hushed dignity about the building which I find reassuring and permanent in this insane and transitory modern world.
Side by side we climbed the sweeping staircase, past the portraits of great men and the lists of former medallists honoured by the Society.
'You'll have to give some thought as to who should paint you, Ben.' Eldridge indicated the portraits. 'They do say this foreign Johnny - what's his name, Annigoni? - is not too bad.'
'Don't talk tripe,' I snapped, and he let out one of those startling neighs of laughter that rang like a bugle call through the hallowed precincts. I was irritated by Eldridge's assault on one of my most private and treasured fantasies. I am a modest and almost painfully retiring person, but the very first time I had entered here, and looked up at the portraits, I had imagined my own dark visage peering down from the wall of honour. I had even selected the pose - seated to avoid undue emphasis on my body, with my head turned half away. I have a good right-hand profile. There would be a flecking of dignified grey at the temples, a gay little ribbon of some foreign decoration in my lapel, Legion of Honour, perhaps. The expression pensive, the brow furrowed ...
'Come on,' said Eldridge, and we went to where the President and a handful of Council Members waited for us with sherry and biscuits, and not a decent whisky in sight. Nevertheless, I was aware that these gentlemen had it in their power to make into reality my imaginings of a few minutes previously. I set out to be as affable and charming as is possible, and it seemed to have the desired effect.
We discussed the opening of the symposium, which was set for two-thirty the following afternoon.
'His Grace will make the opening address,' one of them explained. 'We've asked him to keep it down to forty-five minutes, and if possible to avoid reference to orchid-growing or steeple-chasing.'
I would then read my paper. It would rank as a follow-onto the one I had read six years earlier. 'The Mediterranean Influence on Central and Southern Africa of the Pre-Christian Era', the paper which had afforded Wilfred Snell and his pack so much sport. They had set aside four hours for me.
Eldridge would read his paper the following morning, 'Certain ancient writings and symbols of south-western African origin.' The title Eldridge had chosen was purposely vague, so as not to telegraph my punch.
Eldridge and I reassured ourselves that the exhibits we had brought with us from Africa were safe in the strongroom of the Society, then Eldridge gave me a bad attack of the shakes by driving me back to the Dorchester through London's rush-hour traffic in his satanical red mini. We were carried around Hyde Park Corner four times, with Eldridge cursing fluently and his bald head shining like a warning beacon while I hung terrified to the door handle ready to bale out, before Eldridge managed to break out of the traffic stream into Park Lane.
I led him, both of us still palpitating, into the cocktail bar and shot a pair of double Gilbeys into him, and then left him. I had plans for the evening and it was already past six.
Sally came out of the lifts as I approached them. I mentally apologized to her hairdresser. He had let it lie, still loose and cloudy. They had wrought some sort of magic with her face also. It was all eyes and soft pink mouth. She had on a full-length dress of a floating green material that picked up the green of those eyes.
'Ben,' she came to me quickly. 'I'm so glad I found you. I left a note for you under your door. About this evening, I'm terribly afraid that I won't be able to make it, Ben. I'm sorry.'
'That's all right, Sal. It wasn't definite anyway,' I told her, hiding my disappointment behind a grin as my plans collapsed like soggy pastry.
'I have to see them. They are old friends, Ben. They've come all the way from Brighton.'
I went up to Louren's suite, and hung around waiting for him to return, chatting to Hilary and the children. At seven-thirty he phoned, and Hilary put me on after she had spoken to him.
'I was hoping we could have had dinner, Ben, but I'm screwed up here for heaven knows how long. They have made a complete hash of the tax clause in the contract. We are trying to redraft it. Why don't you take Hilary for dinner, instead?'
But she pleaded exhaustion, and announced her intentions of making it an early night. I ate alone at Isow's, a real kosher meal begun with chopped liver and onions. Afterwards I crossed the alley to Raymond's, and for five pounds watched the loveliest girls in London taking off their clothes. It was a distressing experience. It made me feel even more lonely and despondent, and afterwards, though I am not a lecher, I teetered on the edge of temptation when the girls beckoned from the dark doorways in Wardour Street.
I rang Sally's room when I got in a few minutes before midnight, and again an hour later when I had given up my efforts at sleep. Neither call was answered, and the telephone buzzed dismally like an insect sending out an unanswered mating call. It was almost morning before I found sleep.
Louren woke me, boorishly healthy and hearty at eight, bellowing into the phone, 'It's the big day, Ben. Come and have breakfast up here. I'll order it now, what do you want?'
'Coffee,' I mumbled, and when I arrived in his suite he had a huge platter of steak and bacon, kidneys and eggs, with smoked kippers and porridge to start and toast, marmalade and coffee to end it. An average sort of breakfast for Louren.
'You are going to need your strength, partner. Get in there and eat, boy.'
With my spirits bolstered by this solid bulwark, I was carried through the morning on a cresting wave of expectation and I felt like a lion when we went down to meet our guests at noon. When I say lion, I mean a man-eating lion. I had anointed my smoothly shaven cheeks with a double handful of Dior aftershave, I wore my dark cashmere suit with a white shirt and maroon tie, and Hilary had found a carnation for my button-hole. I smelt like a rose garden, and there was an eager snap to my step and the hunter's warm thrill in my belly.
Louren and I entered the private lounge together, and the buzz of conversation dwindled. I don't pretend that my entrance to a room can command silence, but Louren's certainly can. Only one voice continued raised; in a convincing imitation of the British upper class, it brayed across the lounge. Wilfred Snell stood in a circle of his sycophants, towering above them much bigger than life size, almost like a badly executed monument to himself. His legs were set apart and his body braced in the stance of a heavily pregnant woman to counter-balance his monstrous gut. It was as though he carried a half-filled winesack under his vest. The expanse of pearl-grey suiting material necessary to cover this bulge was as vast as a theatre curtain. His face hung down on his chest in a series of chins like the ripples on a pond. It was white and soft-looking as though a plastic skin had been filled with dirty milk. His mouth was a deep purple gash in the whiteness, loose, perpetually open, even when he was not talking, which was seldom. His hair was a wild curling bush from which a gentle white rain of dandruff sifted down onto his shoulders and lapels, and he was hung with things - a pair of reading glasses around his neck like a tank commander's binoculars, a golden cigar-cutter from his money pocket, from his lapel a monocle on a black ribbon, a watch chain and key ring.
I approached him obliquely, stopping to greet friends, to chat with colleagues, but moving in on him steadily. Someone put a glass in my hand and I looked around.
'Scotch courage,' Sally smiled at me.
'I don't need it, luv.'
'Let's go talk to him,' she suggested.
'I was sort of making the pleasure last.'
We looked at him openly, this self-appointed drummer of archaeology, whose half-dozen books had sold 500,000 copies, books that aimed at and struck squarely in the centre of popular tastes. Books in which he flirted dangerously with the laws of plagiarism and criminal libel; books in which cant masqueraded as erudition, and facts were squeezed, ignored or subtly altered to suit the argument.
I am not a bitter man, not one who bears grudges, but when I looked at this great bloated executioner, this torturer, this - well, when I looked at him I felt the blood bubble and fizz behind my eyes. I started towards him directly.
He saw me coming, but ignored it. The entire room was aware of what was happening, had probably been anticipating this confrontation since the day they received their invitations. The circle about the master opened, giving me space to approach the presence.
'There is no doubt--' Wilfred brayed, his gaze passing several feet over my head. He usually precedes each of his statements with an advertising plug.
'As I have always said--' his voice carried to the furthest corners, and I waited patiently. I have a carefully rehearsed smile which I use at times like this. It is shy, self-effacing.
'It is generally agreed--' Such a recommendation from Wilfred usually means that the theory in question is the subject of a raging controversy.
'To tell the truth--' And he went on to tell a blatant lie.
At last he glanced down, stopped in mid-sentence,screwed his monocle into his eye, and to his delight and surprise, discovered his old friend and colleague Dr Benjamin Kazin.
'Benjamin, my dear little fellow,' he cried, and the diminutive stung like a dart in the hump of the bull. 'How very good to see you!'
Then Wilfred Snell did a very rash thing. He dangled his great soft white hairy paw languidly in my direction. For an instant I could not believe my good fortune; at the same instant Wilfred remembered the last time we had shaken hands six years before and tried to snatch it back. His reactions are no match for mine, and I had him.
'Wilfred,' I cooed, 'my dear, dear chap.' His hand felt like a glove full of warm jelly, it was only when my fingers had cut in for an inch or two that you could actually feel the bones.
'We were absolutely delighted that you could come,' I told him, and he made a little mooing sound. A few loose drops of spittle spattered from the slack purple lips.
'Did you have a good trip?' I asked, still smiling shyly. Wilfred had begun to do a little jig, skipping from foot to foot. My fingers had almost disappeared in the soft white flesh, I could now feel every knuckle very clearly. It was rather like playing a jelly fish on a trout rod.
'We must make time for a little private chat before the end of the symposium,' I said, and the air started to leak out of Wilfred. He was making a soft hissing sound, and he seemed to shrink like a punctured balloon. Suddenly I was disgusted with my brutality, my weakness in giving in to it. I let him go, and the return of blood to the abused hand must have been more painful. than my treatment of it. He held it tenderly to his chest, his big pansy eyes were filled with tears and his lips trembled like those of a petulant child.
'Come,' I told him gently. 'Let me get you another drink.' And I led him away unprotesting like an elephantand its mahout. However, Wilfred Snell is nothing if not resilient, and he came back strongly. Throughout the luncheon snatches of his monologue carried across to our table. He was 'making no bones about it' and 'letting them in on a little secret' in his best form. From what I could hear he was repeating his conviction as to the medieval age and Bantu origin of the central African ruin system, and was lightly and amusingly debunking my own writings. At one stage I glanced across to see that he had Ophir open beside his plate and was reading from it to the general merriment of his table companions.
However, I had another crisis threatening which took all my skill to avert. Sally was my lunch partner and we sat opposite the Sturvesants. Within five seconds of seating ourselves, Sally noticed Hilary's new diamond. She could hardly overlook it, it was throwing slivers of light about the room, bright as arrows. Sally was silent for half the meal, but her eyes were drawn to that flaming jewel every few seconds. The rest of us were vying for an opportunity to speak, and there was much laughter and excited banter. Louren seemed to be especially attentive to Hilary, but suddenly there was a momentary silence.
Sally leaned forward, and in her sweetest voice, told Hilary, 'What a pretty ring. You are so lucky to be able to wear costume jewellery, my dear. My bones are too small. It doesn't suit me, I'm afraid.' And she turned back to me and started chattering brightly. She had ruined the mood with one expert thrust. I saw Louren frown, and flush angrily. Hilary pursed her lips, and I saw a hundred retorts pass in review behind her eyes but she withheld them. I plunged gamely into the void, but even my charm and social grace could not restore the mood. I was relieved when at last Louren glanced at his watch, then looked across at the B. Y. M. who was in charge of the arrangements and nodded. Immediately this gentleman was on his feet, shepherding the unwieldy party out to where thecavalcade of cars waited. As we passed through the lobby, Wilfred Snell cleaved a path to my side with a swarm of his admirers following him in grinning anticipation.
'I was glancing through your book again during lunch. I had forgotten how amusing it was, my dear chap.'
'Thank you, Wilfred,' I replied gratefully. 'That's jolly decent of you to say so.'
'You must sign it for me.'
'I will. I will.'
'Looking forward to your paper this afternoon, my dear little chap.' And again I shuddered with the effort of suppressing my feelings and keeping my voice mild.
'I hope you'll find it as amusing.'
'I am sure I will, Benjamin.' He let go a fruity chuckle and moved off like a crowd. I heard him saying to De Vallos as they climbed into their limousine, 'Mediterranean influence! My God, why not Eskimo while he is about it.'
We went through the park like the mourners at a state funeral, a convoy of black limousines, and turned out of the second gate into Kensington Gore.
We were set down at the door of the Society, and moved into the lecture hall. The speakers and Council Members were on the platform, and the body of the hall filled solidly. Wilfred was in his place, front centre, where I could watch every expression on his face. He was surrounded by his hatchet men.
They led in His Grace, smelling of cigars and good port. They pointed him at the audience like a howitzer, and let him go. In forty-five minutes he had covered orchids, and the steeple-chase season. The President began tugging discreetly at his coat-tails, but it was another twenty minutes before I had my chance.
'Six years ago I had the honour of addressing this Society. My subject was "The Mediterranean Influence on Central and Southern Africa of the Pre-Christian Era". I come before you now with the identical subject, but armedwith further evidence that has come to light in the intervening period.'
Every few minutes Wilfred would heave himself around in his seat to address a remark to either Rogers or De Vallos in the row behind him. He used a stage whisper, covering his mouth with his programme. I ignored the distraction and ploughed through my introduction. It was a resumé of all the previously known evidence, and the various theories that had been applied to them. I made it purposely dull, pedestrian, letting Wilfred and his party believe that I had nothing further to support my views.
'Then in March of last year a photograph was shown to me by Mr Louren Sturvesant.' Now I changed my delivery, let a little electricity come into my tone. I saw a flare of interest in faces which had taken on glazed expressions. I fanned it steadily. Suddenly, I was telling them a detective story. There were longer intervals between Wilfred's pompous asides. The snickers from his admirers died away. I had the audience by the throat now, they were there with Sally and me in the moonlight looking down on the ghostly outlines of a long-dead city. They shared our thrill as we exposed the first blocks of dressed stone.
At the moment when I needed it, the lights were turned down into darkness and the first image was flashed upon the screen behind me.
It was the white king, proud and aloof, regal in his rampant maleness and golden armour. Out of the darkness the images flashed upon the screen. The audience sat in rapt silence, their fascinated faces lit by the reflected glow of the screen, the only movement was the frantic scribbling of the Pressmen in the front row as my voice went on weaving spells about them.
I carried the story to the point where we had investigated the plain and cavern, but had not yet discovered the walled-up tunnel beyond the portrait of the white king.
At my signal the lights went up, and the audiencestirred back to the present, all except His Grace who had succumbed to the port and was sleeping like a dead man. He was the only one of two hundred who I had not captivated by my tale. Even Wilfred looked groggy and shaken, like a badly beaten prize fighter trying to rouse himself to meet the gong. I had to accord him a grudging admiration, the man was game to the core. He heaved himself around towards De Vallos and in a penetrating whisper told him:
'Typical Bantu stonework of the thirteenth century A.D., of course. But very interesting. Reinforces my theories about the dating of the immigrations.'
I waited silently, clenched fists on the lectern, my head bowed over it. Sometimes I believe I could have been a truly great motion picture actor. I lifted my head slowly and stared at Wilfred, my expression was desolate. He took heart from it.
'The painting means nothing, of course. To tell you the truth it's probably a Bantu initiation candidate, similar to the White Lady of the Brandberg.'
I maintained my silence, letting him take out line as though he were a marlin. I wanted him to swallow it down deep, before I set the hook.
'There is no new evidence here, I'm afraid.'
He looked around him with a satisfied smirk, and his followers' heads started nodding and grinning like puppets.
I addressed him directly then.
'As Professor Wilfred Snell has just remarked, fascinating as all of this was, it presented no new evidence.' They all nodded more vigorously. 'And so, I determined to look deeper.'
And I was away again into a description of the discovery of the blocked tunnel, the decision to preserve the white king and cut through living rock, the hole through into the tunnel, and again I paused, and looked at Wilfred Snell. Suddenly I felt sorry for him; where before he had been myimplacable enemy, an open running canker in my professional life, now he was just a fat and rather ridiculous figure.
Like the poet Huy, Axeman of all the Gods, I hacked into him then. Cutting him to pieces with my account of the scrolls, the vulture axe, and the five golden books.
As I spoke, one of the attendants wheeled in a barrow covered with a green velvet cloth. It pulled all their eyes, and at my signal he drew aside the cloth and there lay the great gleaming battle-axe and one of the scrolls.
Wilfred Snell slumped in his seat with his gut in his lap and his purple mouth hanging open slackly while I read the opening words of the first golden book of Huy.
"'Let men read his words and rejoice as I have rejoiced, let men hear his songs and weep as I have wept."'
I ended and looked around at them. They were gripped by the heart strings, every one of them. Even Louren, Hilary and Sally who knew it all were leaning forward in their seats, shiny-eyed and intent.
It was after seven-thirty, I noticed with surprise. I had overrun my time by an hour and there had been no rebuke from the President beside me.
'Our time is finished, but not the story. Tomorrow morning Professor Eldridge Hamilton will read his paper on the scrolls and their contents. I hope you will be able to attend. Your Grace, President, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.'
The silence was complete, nobody moved nor spoke for a full ten seconds, then suddenly they were on their feet applauding wildly. It was the first time since the formation of the Society in 1830 that a paper had been applauded as though it were a stage performance. They came out of their seats, crowding around me to shake my hand and ask their questions which I could not hope to answer. From my vantage-point on the dais I saw Wilfred Snell rise from hisseat and lumber ponderously towards the door. He walked alone, his band of followers had left him to join the crowd around me. I wanted to call out to him, to tell him that I felt sorry for him, that I wished I could have spared him, but there was nothing to say. He had said it all a hundred times before.
Every single national paper had it the following morning, and even The Times had allowed itself a touch of the dramatic. 'Discovery of Carthaginian Treasure,' it stated, 'one of archaeology's most significant finds since the tomb of Tutankhamen.'
Louren had sent out for them all, and we sat in a sea of newsprint as we ate another of those gargantuan breakfasts. I was touched by Louren's pride in my achievements. He read each article aloud, interspersing his own comments:
'You rocked them, partner.'
'Ben, you murdered the bums.'
'The way you told it, you even had me wetting my pants, and, hell! I was there!'
He picked one of the left-wing tabloids from the pile and opened it. His expression changed immediately. Suddenly he was scowling furiously, a look of such concentrated venom that I asked quickly, 'What is it, Lo?'
'Here.' He almost flung the sheet at me. 'Read it yourself, while I finish changing.' He went through into the bedroom and slammed the door.
I found it almost immediately. A full page of photographs under a big banner 'The forces of freedom'. Black men with guns, with tanks. Black men marching, rank upon endless rank. Eggshell helmets like evil toadstools of hatred, modern automatic weapons slung on camouflaged shoulders, booted feet swinging. It was not these that held me. In the centre of the page was a picture of a tall man with shoulders wide as the crosstree of a gallows, and a bald cannon-ball head that shone in the bright Africansunshine. He walked unsmiling between two grinning Chinamen in those shabby rumpled uniforms that look like pyjamas.
The caption was in bold lettering: 'The Black Crusader. Major-General Timothy Mageba, the newly appointed commander of the People's Liberation Army with two of his military advisors.'
I felt a sinking sensation of dread as I looked at the brooding hatred in that face, the power and terrible purpose in those set shoulders and thrusting gait.
In some inexplicable fashion it seemed to detract from my own personal triumph. What had happened 2,000 years ago seemed of lessened importance when I looked at the picture of this man, and I thought of the dark forces in movement through the length of my land.
Yet it came to me then that this man was not unique, Africa had bred many like him. The dark destroyers who had strewn her plains with the white bones of men, Chaka, Mzilikazi, Mamatee, Mutesa, and hundreds of others that history had forgotten. Timothy Mageba was only the latest in a long line of warriors which stretched back beyond the shadowy, impenetrable veils of time.
Louren came out of the bedroom, and with him was Hilary. She came to kiss me and congratulate me again, and I dropped the sheet of newspaper from my hand, but not my mind.
'I'm sorry I can't be with you to hear your friend Eldridge this morning, Ben. I can't get out of this meeting. Please look after Hil for me. Give her a good lunch, will you?' Louren told me as the three of us went down in the lift.
Eldridge, in his tweeds and elbow patches, massacred his subject. For three and a half hours he mumbled about 'hangs' and 'abridgements', occasionally letting fly with that laugh of his, a sound which woke the sleepers. I was grateful to him as I looked around the slowly emptyinghall, and the doodling yawning members of the Press. He certainly wasn't stealing my glory from me.
An hour before lunch Sally slipped me a note from her seat behind me. 'I can't take any more. Going out to do some shopping. See you. S.'
And I smiled as I watched her slide gracefully out of the side exit. Hilary turned and winked at me, and we both smiled.
Eldridge ground to a slow, inconclusive halt and beamed around at his depleted audience.
'Well,' he said. 'I think that covers just about everything.' And there followed a relieved scramble for the doors.
In the lobby of the Society I was once more surrounded by an enthusiastic mob, and we made slow progress towards the door and our lunch.
When at last we reached the taxi, with Eldridge and myself flanking Hilary on the seat, I was just about to give the driver the address of the Trattoria Terrazza when Hilary looked down at her hands in her lap and gave a little stricken cry.
'My ring!' And for the first time we noticed that the great jewel was no longer flamed upon her hand. I stared aghast at the naked finger, a fortune beyond my dreams was missing. That diamond must certainly be worth £30,000.
'When did you last have it?' I demanded of her, and after a second's thought a look of relief replaced her worried frown.
'Oh, I remember now. At the hotel, I was painting my nails. I put it in the alabaster cigarette box beside my chair.'
'Which room? Which chair?'
'The lounge, the tapestry chair beside the television set.'
'Eldridge, will you take Mrs Sturvesant on to therestaurant, please. I'd better take another cab and dash back to the hotel before one of the cleaning staff discovers it. Have you your key with you, Hil?'
She dug into her handbag and came out with the key.
'Ben, you are an old sweetheart. I'm so sorry about this.' And she handed it to me.
'Damsels in distress are my speciality.' I stepped out onto the pavement. They pulled away and for five minutes I behaved like a berserk semaphorist towards the passing stream of taxis. I can never tell if those little yellow lights on top are burning or not, so I flag them all.
I let myself into the Oliver Messel suite with Hilary's key and hurried down that long passage past the bedrooms. With a little grunt of relief I found the ring amongst the cigarettes in the alabaster box. With it in my hand I moved across the light from the window to admire it for a moment. It was a thing of such brilliant beauty that my stomach turned within me. I felt a fleeting envy, a twinge of unhappiness that I should never own an object of such pure enchantment. Then I pushed the feeling aside and quickly tied the ring into the corner of my handkerchief, and I started back down the passage.
As I came level with the bedroom door I noticed that it was slightly ajar, and I paused with my hand going out towards the handle to draw it closed.
From the room beyond came a woman's voice, a voice husky with emotion, a voice broken by the panting of breath aroused and tremulous.
'Yes, oh God, yes. Do it! Do it!' And a man's voice blended with it, a voice rising in a hoarse cry like a wounded animal.
'Darling! My darling!' The voices washed, and swirled and broke together, the high surf of passion driven by the storm winds of love. With it was another sound, rhythmic, urgent, pounding out the pulse of creation, a sound as old as man, as unchanging as the courses of the stars. As Istood frozen, my hand still out-stretched towards the door handle, the thudding heartbeat of love was arrested and then there was only the sound of ragged breathing and the small sighs and moans of emotions spent and exhausted.
I turned away like a sleep walker. Silently I went to the front door and silently I closed it behind me.
I sat quietly through a lunch I do not remember eating, through conversations I do not remember hearing, for the voices I had heard beyond that door were those of Sally Benator and Louren Sturvesant.
I do not remember the return to the Royal Society, and only vague snatches of the concluding papers and ceremonial remain with me.
I sat in my seat in the front row, hunched down in my chair and stared at a crack in the polished wooden floor. My mind cast back, working over the past like a gun-dog hunting a hidden bird.
I remembered a night at the City of the Moon when I had gone drunk to bed, drunk on whisky poured for me by Sally's own hand. I remembered waking when Louren came into the tent, and seeing the pale flush of dawn in the sky beyond the tent-flap.
I remembered my visit to the cavern in the night, when Louren had dazzled me with the torch beam and sent me away.
I remembered that conversation overheard between Ral and Leslie. I remembered Sally's friends from Brighton, her violent unreasonable attacks on Hilary, her moods and silences, her sudden gaiety and even more sudden depressions, the half-statements, the hovering upon the verge of revelation, the midnight visit to my bedside, and a hundred other clues and hints - and I marvelled at my own blindness. How could I not have seen it, nor sensed it?
My name had been spoken, and I struggled to rouse myself, to try and listen to what was said. It was Graham Hobson, the President of the Society, speaking and looking down at me, smiling. Around me heads were craning, smiling also, friendly kind faces.
'Awarded the Society's Patron's and Founder's Medal,' said Hobson. 'In addition, my Council has instructed me to announce that a sum has been set aside from the fund provided, and that a commission will be awarded to a leading artist to paint a portrait of Dr Kazin. At an appropriate ceremony the portrait will be hung--'
I shook my head to clear it. I felt fuzzy and stupid. Hobson's voice kept fading and I tried to concentrate. Then gentle but insistent hands were pulling me to my feet, pushing me towards the stage.
'Speech!' they called, laughing, applauding.
I stood before them. I felt dizzy, the room turned and steadied again, blurred and refocused.
'Your Grace,' I began and choked, my throat felt flannelly, the words came out thickly. 'I am honoured.' I stopped and groped for words, they were silent, expectant. I looked desperately about the hall, seeking deliverance or inspiration.
Sally Benator was standing beside the side entrance. I did not know how long she had been there. She was smiling, white teeth in her sun-brown and lovely face, dark hair hanging in shining wings to her shoulders, her cheeks aflame and eyes sparkling, a girl freshly arisen from the bed of her lover.
I stared at her. 'I am thankful,' I mumbled, and she nodded and smiled encouragement at met - and my heart broke; it was a physical thing, a sharp pain, tissue tearing in my chest, so intense that I caught my breath. I had lost her, my love, my only love, and all these honours, all this acclaim was meaningless.
I stared across at her, desolate and bereft of purpose. Ifelt the tears flood and burn my eyes. I did not want them all to see it, and I stumbled from the stage towards the door. The applause swelled again, and I heard voices in the tumult.
'Poor fellow, he's completely overcome.'
'How touching.'
'He's overwhelmed.'
And I ran out into the street. It was raining a soft drizzle and I ran wildly. Like a wounded animal I wanted to be alone to recover from this hurt. The cold rain soothed my burning eyes.
I craved solitude and surcease from pain, and both I found at the City of the Moon. Eldridge had a month's lecturing commitments to meet in England, and Sally had disappeared. I had not spoken to her since that night, but Louren told me casually that she had taken two weeks of her accumulated vacation time and had joined a tour to Italy and the Greek Islands. At the City of the Moon an airmail letter from Sally reached me, postmarked Padua, confirming this and regretting that her efforts to see me before I left London had failed. This was not surprising, for I had not returned to the Dorchester, but had my luggage sent to Blue Bird House and flown out on the early morning flight for Africa. Sally sent her congratulations, and ended by saying she would return to Johannesburg at the end of the month and take advantage of the first flight to the City of the Moon.
Reading her letter gave me a feeling of unreality, like receiving a message from beyond the grave. For she was dead to me, gone beyond my reach for ever. I burned the letter.
Louren visited the site for one day. I found that I had nothing to say to him. It was as though we were strangers;his features, once so well remembered and beloved, were unfamiliar to me now.
He sensed the gap that separated us, and tried to reach across it. I could not respond, and he cut short his visit and left. I knew his puzzlement, and vaguely I regretted it. I could not find it in myself to blame or hate him.
Ral and Leslie were shadowy figures on the borders of my solitude. They did not intrude in the private world in which I now lived.
This was the world of Huy Ben-Amon, a place beyond pain and sorrow. During the time that Eldridge worked upon the scrolls, I had followed daily each detail of his translation. Language is my greatest talent, it comes to me without effort. Lawrence of Arabia learned to speak Arabic in four days - in ten I had taught myself Punic, and in so doing had gained the key to the fairyland of the golden books of Huy.
The third book was a continuation of the history of Opet up to the lifetime of the poet. This was as fascinating a document as the two that preceded it, but the true magic for me was in the remaining two golden books.
These were the poems and songs of Huy, poems and songs in the modern sense of the words. This was Huy the warrior, the Axeman of all the Gods, writing an ode to the shiny wing of the bird of the sun, his battle-axe.
He described the ore brought from the mines of the south, and its smelting in the womb-shaped furnace, the smell of the glowing charcoal and the trickle of the molten metal.
How it was purged, and alloyed, forged and shaped, its edging and engraving, and when he described the figures of the four vultures and the four suns I looked up at the great axe that hung above my working desk with wonder.
With Huy I heard the gleaming blade moan in flight, heard the snick of the edge into bone, the sucking withdrawalfrom living flesh. I read with awe the list of the enemies who had died beneath it, and wondered at their crimes and transgressions.
Then Huy's mood changed and he was a roistering fellow, tipping back the jug of red Zeng wine, roaring with laughter in the firelight with his companions in arms.
Now he was the dandy dressed in white linen, perfumed with sweet oils, his beard twisted and plaited into ropes.
Now the priest, walking with his gods. Sure of them, tending to their mysteries, and rendering unto them their portion of the sacrifice. Huy kneeling alone in silent prayer, Huy in the dawn lifting his arms in greeting to Baal, the sun-god. Huy in a frenzy of religious revelation.
Then again Huy is the friend, the true companion, describing his joy in the company of another man. The interlock of personalities, the spice of shared pleasures, dangers faced together and overcome. There is a strong hint in this poem that Huy is a hero-worshipper, blind to the faults of his friend, describing his physical beauty with an almost womanly insight. He details the breadth of shoulder, the regal curve of flaming red beard down onto a chest where the muscle bulges smooth and hard as the boulders upon the hills of Zimbao, the legs like strong saplings, the smile like the warm blessing of the sun-god Baal, and he ends with the line, 'Lannon Hycanus you are more than King of Opet, you are my friend.' Reading it, I felt that to have the friendship of Huy was to have something of value.
The mood of the poet changes again and he is the observer of nature, the hunter, describing his quarry with loving care, missing no detail, from the curve in the ivory tusk to the creamy softness of a lioness's underbelly.
Then he is a lover, bemused by the beauty of his sweetheart.
Tanith whose wide brow is shining white and full as themoon, whose hair blows soft and light as the smoke from the great papyrus fires in the swamps, whose eyes shine green as the deep pool in the temple of the goddess Astarte.
Then suddenly Tanith is dead, and the poet cries his grief, seeing her death as the flight of a bird, her ivory arms gleaming like spread wings, her last cry echoing across the vault of heaven to touch the hearts of the gods themselves. Huy's lament was mine, his voice was mine, his terrors and triumphs became my own, and it seemed that Huy was me, and I was Huy.
I rose early and retired late, I ate little and my face grew gaunt and pale, a haunted face that stared back at me from my mirror with wild eyes.
Then suddenly reality caught up with me, shattering the fragile crystal walls of my fairyland. On the same aircraft Louren and Sally arrived together at the City of the Moon. The torment which I had for so long avoided had now begun again.
Again I tried to hide. I chose the archives as my sanctuary, and spent each day there trying to avoid all contact with either Sally or Louren. Still there was that dreaded hour of the evening meal, trying to smile my way through it and join in the banter and discussion, trying not to notice the private intimate exchange of glances and smiles between Louren and Sally until I could reasonably leave.
Twice Louren came to me.
'There is something wrong, Ben.'
'No, Louren. No. I swear to you. You are mistaken.' And I escaped to the stillness of the archives.
There was Ral's quiet company and the physical labour of cataloguing, photographing and packing the jars, and besides these I found another distraction. This cavern sealed for almost 2,000 years had been sterile, devoid of any life form when first we opened it. Now it was establishing its own ecology, first the tiny midge flies, then sandfleas, ants, spiders, moths, and finally the little brown gecko lizards. I had started making a film record of this colonization of the archives.
I spent many hours a day sitting quietly with my camera poised, waiting to obtain some difficult close-up shot of fly or insect and it was thus that I made the last major discovery at the City of the Moon.
I was working alone at the furthest end of the archives, close by the wall on which was graven the image of the sun. One of the gecko lizards ran down the wall, and across the stone floor. At the spot where the great battle-axe had lain when we discovered it, the lizard stopped. It stood poised, the soft skin of its throat pulsing and its little black beady eyes shiny with expectation. I noticed then the insect it was stalking. A white moth that sat quietly with spread wings on the sun image.
Quickly I reached for my camera, and set the flash bulb and exposure. I was anxious to record one of the lizards in the moment of its kill. Slowly I moved into a position from which I could focus on the moth, and I waited while the lizard approached in a series of swift dashes. Twelve inches from the moth it stopped again, and seemed to gather itself for the final assault. I waited breathlessly, my finger on the trigger button. The lizard shot forward and I exploded the bulb.
The lizard froze with the body of the moth crammed in its mouth. Then it turned and darted head-down towards the floor; when it reached the corner formed by wall and floor it disappeared and I laughed at its ludicrous fright.
I wound the film, replaced the flash bulb, returned the camera to its case, and was about to resume my work when a thought occurred to me. I went back to the end wall of the cavern, to the point where the lizard had disappeared and stooped to examine the juncture of floor and wall. It seemed solid, and I could see no hole or crack for the lizard to use as a refuge. Intrigued now by the lizard'sdisappearance, I went to fetch one of the electric arc-lights on its cable and I set it so that the beam fully illuminated the wall.
Then on hands and knees I crawled along the wall. I felt my heart start to pound like a war drum, and the hum of blood in my ears, the warmth of it in my cheeks. My hand as I reached for my pen-knife was unsteady, and I nearly broke my thumbnail as I tried to open the blade.
Then I was probing the faint crack line, plugged with dust, that separated wall and floor. The blade of my knife slipped into the crack to its full length.
I rocked back on my heels and stared at the wall, seeing the image of the sun throwing weird shadows in the arc-light.
'Perhaps,' I whispered aloud, 'it's just possible ...' And then I was grovelling again beneath the image of Baal, almost as though I were one of his worshippers. Frantically I probed the crack, following it along the floor, until abruptly it turned ninety degrees, and climbed the wall. Here the crack was secret-jointed, riveted and turned back onto itself, making it all but invisible. The cunning skill with which this joint had been concealed convinced me that it hid something vital. The workmanship of this piece of the wall was a far cry from the rough joints on the roof slabs through which the dust had filtered down.
Now I jumped up and paced restlessly back and forth before the blank wall. I was alive again for the first time since my return to the City of the Moon. My skin tingled, my step was full of spring, my fists clenched and unclenched and my brain was racing with excitement.
'Louren,' I thought suddenly. 'He should be here.' I almost ran back down the archives, and out through the tunnel. In the wooden guard hut which enclosed the entrance to the tunnel one of the security guards was sprawled in a chair with his boots on the desk. The collar of his blue uniform was unbuttoned, his cap pushed backon his head. On the wall behind him his gunbelt hung from a hook, with the black butt of the revolver sticking out of the holster. He looked up from his paperback Western, a thick beaky-nosed face with cold eagle eyes.
'Hi, Doc. You in a hurry?'
'Bols, can you get hold of Mr Sturvesant for me? Ask him to come up here right away.'
I was on my knees below the sun image when Louren arrived.
'Lo, come over here. I want to show you something.'
'Hey, Ben!' Louren laughed, and it seemed to me that his expression was one of relieved pleasure. 'That's the first time I've seen you really smile in two weeks. God, I was worried about you.' He slapped my shoulder, still laughing. 'This is more like the old Ben again.'
'Lo, look at this.' And he knelt beside me.
Ten minutes later he was no longer smiling, his face was cold and intent. He was staring at the wall with those pale blue eyes as though he were seeing through the solid rock.
'Lo,' I began, but he waved me to silence with a peremptory gesture. He never took his eyes from the wall and now it seemed to me that he was listening to a voice I could not hear. I watched that cold god-like face with a sudden feeling of almost superstitious awe. I had a premonition of something unnatural about to happen.
Slowly, step by step, Louren approached the sun image. His hand went out and lay against the centre of the great disc. His fingers were spread, seeming to echo the shape of the image. He began to press against the wall, I saw the tips of his fingers flatten against the rock, changing shape beneath the pressure of his hand.
For a few long seconds nothing happened, then suddenly the wall began to move. There was no sound, no grating orsqueal of protesting hinge, but the whole wall began to revolve upon a concealed axis. A ponderous, deliberate movement that revealed the square dark opening to a further passageway concealed beyond the image of Baal.
Staring into that dark prehistoric opening I whispered without glancing at Louren, 'How did you do that, Lo? How did you guess?'
His tone as he replied was puzzled. 'I knew - I just knew, that's all.' We were both silent again, staring into the opening. I was seized by a sudden unaccountable dread of what we would find in there.
'Get the light, Ben,' Louren ordered without taking his eyes from the doorway. I fetched the portable arc-light, and Louren took it from my hand. I followed him as he walked through the doorway.
Before us a passageway slanted down into the earth at an angle of forty-five degrees. The passage was seven foot six inches high, and nine feet wide. There was a flight of stone steps cut into the floor. Each step was worn, with edges smoothed and rounded. The walls and roof of the tunnel were of unadorned stone, and the depths of the tunnel were hidden from us by shadow and darkness.
'What's this?' Louren pointed at two large circular objects which lay at the head of the staircase. I saw the gleam of bronze rosettes upon them.
'Shields,' I told him. 'War shields.'
'Someone dropped them in a hurry.'
We stepped over them carefully and started down the staircase. There were 106 steps, each six inches high.
'No dust in here,' Louren remarked.
'No,' I agreed. 'The seal of the door was tight.'
His words should have acted as a warning, but I was lost in the wonder and excitement of this new discovery. The surface of the stairs was as clean as though freshly swept.
At the bottom of the staircase we reached a T-junction. On our right the passage led to a gate of barred ironworkwhich was closed and bolted. On the left it descended another twisting staircase that disappeared into the living rock.
'Which way?' Louren asked.
'Let's see what's behind the gate,' I suggested in a voice choking with excitement, and we went to it.
The heavy bolts were not locked but a thread of gold wire was twisted around the jamb of the gate, and a heavy clay seal closed the entrance.
The figure on the seal was of a crudely wrought animal, and the words, 'Lannon Hycanus, Gry-Lion of Opet, King of Punt and the four kingdoms.'
'Give me your knife,' Louren said.
'Lo, we can't,' I began.
'Give it to me, damn you.' His voice was shaking, thick with a peculiar lust and passion. 'You know what this is? It's the treasury, the gold vaults of Opet!'
'Wait, let's do it properly, Lo,' I pleaded, but he took the seal in his bare hands and ripped it from the gate.
'Don't do it, Lo,' I protested, but he pulled the bolts open, and flung his weight against the gate. It was rusted closed, but he attacked it with all his weight. It gave, swinging back far enough for Louren to squeeze through. He ran forward, and I ran after him. The tunnel turned again at right angles and led directly into a large chamber.
'God!' shouted Louren. 'Oh God! Look at it, Ben. Just look at it.'
The treasury of Opet lay before us with all its fabulous wealth untouched. Later we could count and weigh and measure it, but now we stood and stared.
The chamber was 186 feet long and 21 wide. The ivory was stacked along most of one wall. There were 1,016 large elephant tusks. The ivory was rotten and crumbly as chalk, but in itself must have been a vast treasure 2,000 years ago.
There were over 900 large amphorae, sealed with wax.The contents of precious oils had long since evaporated into a congealed black mass. There were bolts of imported linen and silk, rotted now so that they crumbled to dust at the touch.
The metals were stacked along the opposite wall of the vault - 190 tons of native copper cast into ingots shaped like the cross of St Andrew; 3 tons of tin, cast into the same shape; 16 tons of silver; 96 of lead; 2 of antimony.
We walked down the aisle along the centre of the vault, staring about us at this incredible display of wealth.
'The gold,' Louren muttered. 'Where is the gold?'
There was a stack of wooden chests, carved from ebony, the lids decorated with ivory and mother-of-pearl inlay. These were the only objects of an artistic nature in the vault, and even they were crudely executed battle scenes or hunting scenes.
'No, don't do it, Lo,' I cried another protest as Louren began ripping open the lids.
They were filled with semi-precious stones, amethyst, beryl, tigers' eyes, jade and malachite. Some of these were crudely cut and incorporated in gold jewellery, thick clumsy pieces, collars, brooches, necklaces and rings.
Louren hurried on down the aisle, and then stopped abruptly. In another recess that led off the main chamber, behind another iron gate, the gold was stacked in neat piles. Cast in the usual 'finger' moulds. The piles of previous metal were insignificant in bulk, but when, months later, it was all weighed the total was over sixty tons.
Its value was in excess of £60,000,000 sterling. In the same recess as the gold were two small wooden chests. These yielded 26,000 carats of uncut and rough-cut diamonds of every conceivable colour and shape. Not one of these was smaller than one and a half carats, and the largest was a big sulky yellow monster of thirty-eight carats, and this added a further £2,000,000 to the intrinsic value of the treasure.
Here was the wealth of forty-seven kings of Opet, accumulated painstakingly over the course of 400 years. No other treasure of antiquity could compare with this profusion.
'We'll have to be bloody careful, Ben. No word of this must leak out. You understand what might happen if it did?' He stood with a finger of solid gold in each hand, looking down on the piles of treasure. 'This is enough to kill for, to start a war!'
'What do you want me to do, Lo? I must have help in here. Ral or Sally even.'
'No!' He turned on me ferociously. 'No one else will be allowed in here. I will leave orders with the guards, no one but you and I.'
'I need help, Lo. I can't do it myself, there is too much here.'
'I'll help you,' Louren said.
'It will take weeks.'
'I'll help you,' he repeated. 'No one else. Not a word to anyone else.'
Until six o'clock that evening Louren and I explored the treasure vault.
'Let's find out where the other branch of the tunnel leads to,' I suggested.
'No,' Louren stopped me. 'I want to keep normal hours here. I don't want the others to guess that we are up to something. We will go down to the camp now. Tomorrow we will have a look at the other fork of the tunnel. It can't be anything like this anyway.'
We closed the stone door behind us, sealing off the secret passage, and at the guard post Louren made his orders clear, repeating them and writing them on the guard's instruction sheet. Ral's and Sally's names were removed from the list of those allowed into the tunnel. And later he mentioned it to them at dinner. He explained it away as an experiment that he and I were attempting. Itwas a difficult evening for me. I was over-wrought by the day's excitement, and now that I had shaken off my mood of apathy I was over-reacting to the normal stimuli of living. I found myself laughing too loudly, drinking too much, and the agony of my jealousy returned more intensely than ever.
When Louren and Sally looked at each other like that, I wanted to shout at them, 'I know. I know about it, and damn you, I hate you for it.'
But then I knew it was not true. I did not hate them. I loved them both and this made it all the harder to bear.
There was no chance of sleep for me, that night. When I get myself into a certain state of nervous tension, then I can go for two or three nights without being able to still the racing of my overheated brain. I did not mean to spy on her. It was a mere coincidence that I was standing at the window of my hut staring out from my darkened room at the moonlit night when Sally left her own hut.
She wore a long pale-coloured dressing-gown and her hair was let down in a dark cloud around her shoulders. She paused in the doorway of her own hut and looked around carefully, making sure that the camp was asleep. Then guiltily, quickly, she hurried across the open moonlit yard to the hut in which Louren was living. She opened the door and went in without hesitating and for me a long harrowing vigil had begun.
I stood by my window for two hours, watching the moon shadows change shape, watching the patterns of the stars swing and turn across the heavens, stars as fat and bright as they are only in the sweet clean air of the wilderness. The beauty of it was wasted on me this night. I was watching Louren's hut, imagining each whispered word, each touch, each movement, and hating myself and them. I thought of Hilary and the children, wondering what madness it is that makes a man gamble his all on a few hours of transient pleasure. In that darkened hut how manyconfidences were those two betraying, how many people's happiness were they risking.
Then suddenly I realized that I was assuming that this affair was merely play on Louren's part, and I faced the possibility that he was serious. That he would desert Hilary and go to Sally. I found this thought intolerable. I could no longer watch and wait, I must have some distraction and I dressed quickly and hurried across to the repository.
The night-watchman greeted me sleepily, and I unlocked the door and went to the vault in which the golden books were kept. I took out the fourth book of Huy. I carried it across to my own office, and before I settled down to read I went to fetch a bottle of Glen Grant. My two opiates, words and whisky.
I opened the scroll at random and re-read Huy's ode to his battle-axe, the gleaming wing of the bird of the sun. When I had finished I was taken by an impulse and I lifted the great axe down from its place of honour. I caressed the shimmering length of it, studying it with new attention. I was convinced that this was the weapon of the poem. Could there be another answering the description so accurately? I held it in my lap, wishing that I could draw from it the story of the last days of Opet. I was sure it was involved intimately in the final tragedy. Why had it been left abandoned, a thing so well beloved and yet thrown carelessly aside to lie uncared for and discarded for nearly 2,000 years? What had happened to the Axeman Huy, and his king and his city?
I read and dreamed, disturbed less frequently by thoughts of Sally and Louren. However, at every pause in my readings they came to me with a sick little slide of jealousy and despair in my guts. I was torn between the present and the distant past.
I read on, sampling those portions of the scroll which were still unknown territory while the level in the whisky bottle sank slowly and the long night passed.
Then when midnight had flown and the new day was being born, I came upon a small piece of writing which touched a new depth of response in me. Huy makes a sudden heart-felt cry from the depths of his being. It is as though some long-suppressed emotion will no longer be contained and must come out in this appeal to have his physical form discounted when his value is assessed. From base earth flowers the purest gold, Huy cries, in his own poor distorted clay there were treasures concealed.
I re-read the passage half a dozen times, making sure of my translation before I could accept that Huy Ben-Amon was like me. A cripple.
Dawn's first promise was tracing the silhouette of the cliff tops with a pale rose colour when I laid the golden book away in its vault and walked slowly back towards my hut.
Sally stepped out of Louren's doorway and came towards me in the darkness. Her gown was ghostly pale and she seemed to float above the ground. I stood still, hoping she would not see me. There was a chance for I stood in the deeper shadow of her hut and I turned my face away, standing quietly.
I heard the rustle of her skirts, the whisper of her feet in the dust very close in the dark, then her startled gasp as she saw me. I looked at her then. She had seen but not recognized me. Her face was a pale moon of fear and her hands were at her mouth.
'All right, Sally,' I said. 'It's only me.'
I could smell her now. On the clean night air of the desert it was a perfumed smell like crushed rose petals, and mingled with it the warm smell of perspiration and love. My heart slid in my chest.
'Ben?' she said, and we were both silent staring at each other.
'How long have you been here?'
'Long enough,' I answered, and again the silence.
'You know, then?' It was said in a small voice, shy and sad.
'I didn't mean to spy,' I said, and another silence.
'I believe you.' She began to move away. Then she turned back. 'Ben, I want to explain.'
'You don't have to do that,' I said.
'Yes, I do. I want to.'
'It doesn't matter, Sal.'
'It does matter.' And we faced each other. 'It does matter,' she repeated. 'I don't want you to think that I, well, that I am so terrible.'
'Forget it, Sally,' I said.
'I tried not to, Ben. I swear to you.'
'It's all right, Sally.'
'I couldn't help it, truly. I tried so hard to fight it. I didn't want it to happen.' She was crying now, silently, her shoulders shaking as she sobbed.
'It doesn't matter,' I said, and went to her. I took her gently to her room and put her on the bed. In the light I saw how her lips were swollen and kiss-inflamed.
'Oh, Ben, I would have given anything for it to be different.'
'I know, Sally.'
'I tried so hard, but it was too much for me. He had me in some kind of spell, from the very first moment I saw him.'
'That evening at the airport?' I could not help but ask the question, remembering how she had watched Louren that first time she met him and how later she had ranted against him.
'That's why - later, with me - that's why we--' I didnot want to hear her answer, and yet I must know if she had first come to me inflamed with thoughts of another man.
'No, Ben.' She tried to deny it, but she saw my eyes, and turned her face away. 'Oh, Ben, I'm sorry. I didn't want to hurt you.'
'Yes,' I nodded.
'I truly didn't want to hurt you. You are so good, so gentle, so different from him.' There were dark shadows of sleeplessness beneath her eyes, and the peach-coloured velvet of her cheek was rubbed pink by Louren's unshaven skin.
'Yes,' I said with my heart breaking.
'Oh, Ben, what shall I do?' she cried in distress. 'I am caught in this thing. I cannot escape.'
'Does Lo - has he said what he is going to do? Has he told you he, well, that he will leave Hilary, and marry you?'
'No.' She shook her head.
'Has he given you reason--'
'No! No!' She caught my hand. 'Oh, Ben. It's just fun for him. It's just a little adventure.'
I said nothing, watching her lovely tortured face, glad at least that she knew about Louren. Realized that he was a hunter and she the quarry. There had been many Sallys in Louren's life, and there would be many more. The lion must kill regularly.
'Is there anything I can do, Sally?' I asked at last.
'No, Ben. I don't think so.'
'If there is, tell me,' I said and moved towards the door.
'Ben,' she stopped me, and sat up. 'Ben, do you still love me?'
I nodded without hesitation. 'Yes, I still love you.'
'Thank you, Ben,' she sighed softly. 'I don't think I could have taken it if you had turned away from me.'
'I'll never do that, Sally,' I said, and walked out into the lemon and rose glow of dawn.
Louren and I descended the staircase beyond the sun image. We went first to the treasure vault. While Louren gloated over the stacks of golden fingers, I watched his face. I was light-headed from lack of sleep, and I could taste the spirits I had drunk in the back of my throat. Watching Louren, I tried to find hatred for him in my heart, I searched diligently without success. When he looked up and smiled at me, I could not but answer him with a smile.
'This will keep, Ben,' he said. 'Let's go and have a look at the rest of it.'
I had guessed what we would find beyond the junction of the tunnels, and once we had descended the last spiralling stairs and come into another short level passage I had my last doubts dispelled.
The passage ended against another solid stone wall. Here, however, there was no attempt at concealment, for carved into the stone was an inscription. We stood before it, and Louren held the arc-lamp full upon it.
'What does it say?' he asked.
I read it through slowly. Even with all my practice I read slowly, for in Punic there are no symbols for the vowels and each must be guessed from the context of the word.
'Come on,' Louren muttered impatiently.
'"You who come here to interrupt the sleep of the kings of Opet, and to despoil their tomb, do so at your peril, and may the curse of Astarte and great Baal hound you to your own graves."'
'Read it again,' Louren commanded, and I did. He nodded.
'Yes,' he said, and stepped to the stone door. He began to seek the pivot point which we knew would trigger the mechanism. Here we were not so fortunate as we had been at the threshold of the sun door. After two hours, our way was still barred by that solid slab of uncompromising stone.
'I'm going to blow the bloody thing open,' Louren warned, but I knew he would not commit such an atrocity in this sacred place. We rested and discussed the problem, before returning to the door. It had to be another simple leverage system, but the trick was to find the pressure point and the angle of movement.
When we found it at last, I cursed my own stupidity. It should have been my first attempt. The symbol for the name of the sun-god Baal was once more the pressure point.
The door swung open, ponderous and slow, and we went through into the tomb of the kings of Opet.
There is only one other place I have known with the same atmosphere. That is Westminster Abbey which contains the tombs of so many of the kings of England. There was the same hushed cathedral sense of time past and history reborn.
Neither of us spoke as we went to the centre of the long narrow vaulted tomb. The silence was an oppressive weight upon my eardrums. Utter silence, so complete as to be sinister and threatening. Here again the air was long disused, but with an even heavier musty quality to it. I thought I detected the faint, stale smell of dust and mushrooms.
Along each wall, parallel to it, stood the sarcophagi of the kings of Opet. They were carved of massive granite. Solid, squat and grey. The lids were held in place by their own immense weight, and the upper surface had been polished and engraved with the name and style of the body that lay within. The mighty names that had echoed through the golden books of Huy. I recognized them, Hamilcar, Hannibal, Hycanus. Forty-seven great coffins, but the last was empty, its lid propped against the wall beside it. Its interior cut out into a man's shape, ready to swallow the last king of Opet.
At the foot of the great stone coffin a man lay stretchedupon his back on the floor of the tomb. His helmet was missing and his red-gold hair and beard formed a soft frame for the wizened, mummified features. His breast-plate had been removed exposing the dried parchment skin stretched over the gaunt skeletal rib-cage. The broken shaft of an arrow protruded from a long-dead chest. He wore a kilt of leather, studded with bronze rosettes and on his shins were greaves of bronze, on his feet light sandals.
His arms lay at his sides, his heels were together. The dead body had been laid out with care and obvious love.
Over him stooped another figure, kneeling like a man in prayer. A figure in full armour, with only the war helmet and breast-plate discarded on the floor beneath the empty sarcophagus. Long black hair hung forward to conceal his bowed face. Both hands clutched at his chest at the level of the diaphragm. From his chest a blade of steel protruded, a reversed sword, with its hilt securely anchored against the stone slabs of the floor, the point driven up under the ribs and lodged in his vitals.
Here was a man in the attitude of final escape from the shame of defeat, a man who in despair had fallen upon his own sword. The weapon had supported his weight these many centuries, propping him up in that kneeling position.
Neither Louren nor I could speak, as we drew closer to this tableau of ancient tragedy. For me there was no doubt as to the identity of these dried-out human husks.
Lannon Hycanus, the last King of Opet, lay stretched on the cold stone floor. Above him knelt his friend and high priest Huy Ben-Amon.
I felt choked with a sense of destiny, with a cold aching dread - for Huy Ben-Amon, the Axeman of the Gods, was a hunchback.
I had to see his face. I had to see it! I ran forward, and knelt beside him.
I touched his gaunt bony shoulder, covered by a tunic of brittle yellow linen. It was the lightest touch, a breathalmost, but it was enough to shatter that delicately poised mummy.
The corpse of Huy Ben-Amon slid forward and crashed down on the body of the king. Steel and bronze rang on the stone floor, and echoed about the vaulted tomb of Opet.
The two figures burst into dust at the impact, a soft yellow explosion of mustard-yellow dust, swirling like smoke in the arc-light. There was nothing left of them but the metal of armour and sword, and two hanks of gold and sable hair in the puddle of talcum-soft dust.
I stood up, choking with the yellow dust. My eyes were swimming with tears of wonder and burning with the dust. The dust smelled of mushrooms.
Louren Sturvesant and I stared at each other without speaking. We had witnessed a miracle.
I awoke from a screaming nightmare of blood and flame and smoke, a horror of shining black faces and flame and smoke, a horror of shining black faces and sweat-polished bodies lit by crackling roaring flames and the scream of the dying and the animal roar of blood-crazed voices. I woke panting and choking from the memory, and the terror and horror of it stayed with me long after I had found myself alone in my quiet hut in the silent night.
I switched on the bedside light and looked at my watch. It was still early, a little before eleven. I threw back my sheets and stood up, surprised to find my legs shaky and my breathing ragged. There was a twinge of pain at each breath I drew, and a dull tight sensation behind my eyes. My body felt hot, fever hot. I went to the wash-stand across the hut, and shook three aspirin from the bottle. I swallowed them with a mouthful of water, and then the tickling sensation in my lungs grew stronger. I coughed as though I was onsixty cigarettes a day, and the effort left me sweaty and trembling. My skin seemed to be aflame.
Without really knowing why, I took my dressing-gown off the hook behind the door, pulled it on and went out into the yard. There was half a moon in the sky, homed and yellow. The shadows under the trees and around the buildings were very dark and ugly. I felt the lingering dread and horror of my nightmare still upon me as I hurried across towards my office, and I glanced about me nervously. I could smell the tinge of smoke on the night air, and it troubled me also. I sniffed at it, feeling the faint sting deep in my lungs.
I reached the door of my office, and there was something waiting for me in the deep shadow beside the building. I saw it rush at me from the corner of my vision, a big dark thing, rounded and shapeless and deadly silent. I spun to face it, falling against the wall of the hut, weak with terror. A scream bubbled and died in my throat for there was nothing there. It was gone, I had imagined it, but now the pain in my head beat like hammer blows on the anvil.
I pulled the door open, and fell into my office, slammed the door behind me, locked it, gasping with unnamed and baseless fear. Something scratched against the door from the outside, a terrifying clawing animal sound that ripped my quivering nerves.
I backed away from the door towards my desk, crouching there, trembling, shaking and weak.
The sound came again, but from the wall beside me, I spun to face it, and I heard myself whimper.
I needed a weapon, I looked around desperately and the great battle-axe of Huy hung on the wall above my desk. I snatched it down and backed into a corner, holding it ready, at the present position across my chest. I coughed.
There was a thick sheaf of white paper on my desk. It moved and I felt the gooseflesh crawl all over my hot body.The white square of paper quivered and wavered, it changed shape, crawled across my desk, and spread white bats' wings. Then suddenly it launched into flight, wings whispering, and it flew at my face. I saw the wide open mouth ringed with needle vampire teeth, heard the shrill squeaks as it attacked. I shouted with horror, and struck with the axe. The white thing fluttered and squeaked against my throat and face, and I fought and shouted, striking it down onto the floor where it crawled and slithered loathsomely. I struck with the edge of the axe, and inky black blood spurted from the thing and puddled the wooden floor of the hut.
I backed away from the thing, and lay back against the wall. I felt weak, and terribly afraid. I began to cough. The cough took hold of my whole body and shook it, rocking me, doubling me against the wall. I coughed until my vision burst into bright lights, and there was a salty sweet taste in my mouth.
I sank to my knees against the wall, my mouth was filled with warm wetness and I spat a thick gob of bright blood onto the floor. I stared at it, not understanding what was happening to me. I lifted my hand to my mouth and wiped my lips. My hand came away smeared with blood.
I knew then what it was. Louren and I had passed beyond two sealed doorways into the depths of a tomb closed for 2,000 years - and we had breathed air loaded with the spores of cryptococcus neuromyces, the curse of the Pharaohs.
It was too late now for me to berate myself for overlooking the precautions. I had believed that because the archives were safe, the rest of it was also. In my eagerness and excitement I had not given another thought to the fungus danger, even when Louren and I had discussed the door seals and even when I had smelled the mushroom odour in the tomb of the kings.
Now my lungs were clogged with the horrible coloniesof living fungus, a growing living thing within me, feeding on the soft tissues of my body, and pouring out its poisons into my blood to be carried to my brain.
'Treatment,' I gasped, 'got to find the treatment.' And I staggered across to my bookshelves. I tried to read the letters on the spines of the books, but they changed to little black insects and crawled away. Suddenly a thick mottled snake uncoiled from the top shelf, and dangled down towards my face, a thick bloated puff-adder with a flicking black tongue. I backed away, then turned and fled out into the night.
The smoke was thick, swirling around me, choking me so that I coughed wildly. The flames around me lit all with a lurid satanic glow, a flickering glow. There were dark shapes and strange sounds. I saw Louren's hut, and ran towards it.
'Louren,' I screamed, bursting in through the door. 'Louren!' panting, coughing.
The light went on. Sally was alone in Louren's bed, she sat up, sleepy, soft-eyed, naked, and looked at me with unfocused vision.
'Where is he?' I shouted at her. She looked confused, not understanding.
'Ben, what is it? You're bleeding!'
'Where is Lo?' It was desperately urgent. I had to find him. He had been exposed to the fungus also. I had to find him.
Sally looked down at the bed beside her. There was the indentation on the pillow where Louren's head had lain.
'I don't know,' she said, big-eyed, puzzled. 'He was here. He must have gone out.'
I coughed, great choking sobs, and felt fresh blood in my mouth. Sally was fully awake now. She stared at me.
'Ben, what is it?'
'Neuromyces,' I told her, and she gasped seeing the blood streaming down my chin.
'Louren and I have opened a secret passage beyond the sun image in the archives. It's infected with the spores. We took no precautions. It has got us. I'm sure he's there now. I'm going to him.' I stopped to breathe. Sally was out of bed slipping into her gown, coming to me.
'Get Ral Davidson. Respirators. Take all precautions. Follow us. I will prop the doors open. Down steps. Turn left at bottom. Follow us. Louren will have it also, drives you mad. Crazy. Terrible things. Come quickly - do you understand?'
'Yes, Ben.'
'Get Ral,' I said and turned. I ran out into the smoke and flames and darkness, running for the cliffs and the cavern. The great walls of the temple towered above me, walls long gone. The great phallic towers of Baal pointed to the moon, lit by the flames of a burning city. Towers that stood again after so long. They were screaming, the women, burning alive with their children. Dead men lay strewn in my path, cut down like the harvest of the devil, their dead faces terrible in the moonlight.
'Louren,' I shouted and ran on through the temple. They were in my path, dark and savage, crowding forward to oppose me. Dark, shapeless, terrifying, and I flew at them with a strange battle cry yelled from a blood-glutted throat. The mighty axe spun its silver circles in the firelight, and I was through them, running.
I reached the cavern, saw it lit by the guttering torches, saw the pavement of stone bordering the circular green beauty of the emerald pool. The rows of stone benches, rising in tiers around it as they had 2,000 years before. With a last enormous effort of will, I forced my brain to discount this fantasy and to recognize reality.
The wooden guard hut stood across the cavern from me. I staggered towards it. The guard sat at his desk reading. He looked up, his expression changing to surprise and incredulity.
'Good God, are you all right, Doctor?'
'Mr Sturvesant, is he in the tunnel?'
'When did he go in?'
'An hour ago.' The guard came towards me. 'Is something wrong? You are bleeding, Doctor!'
'Wait here,' I told him. 'The others are coming. They know what to do.'
I hurried on into the archives, smelling the smoke still and hearing the clamour of a dying city ring in my ears.
Before the image of the sun-god I let the great battle-axe slip from my hand and left it lying on the stone floor. I pushed the stone door open, and propped it with one of the war shields to prevent it swinging closed behind me.
I ran down the staircase. Half-way down I saw the glow of light from the tomb below.
The inscribed doorway with its graven curse of the gods stood open, jammed in the hinge by the cable of the arc-light. The light lay on its side in the centre of the tomb where Louren had dropped it. The bulb still burned, lighting the tomb vividly.
Louren lay on his back at the foot of the huge granite sarcophagus of Lannon Hycanus, the last king of Opet.
He was naked to the waist. His face was deathly pale, his eyes closed, and bright blood stained the corners of his mouth and ran back down his cheeks into his ears and hair.
With the last of my strength I staggered to where he lay and dropped onto my knees beside him. I stooped over him and tried to lift him, my arms around his shoulders.
His skin was moist and burning hot, and his head flopped helplessly backwards. A new bright gush of blood ran out of his mouth, wetting my hands.
'Louren,' I cried, holding him to my chest. 'Oh please, God, help me! Help me!'
There was still life in him, just the last flicker of it. Heopened his eyes, those pale blue eyes with the first shadows of death darkening them.
'Ben,' he whispered, choking with his own blood. He coughed, spattering droplets of the bright lung blood.
'Ben,' he whispered so softly I could scarcely hear it. 'All the way?'
'All the way, Lo,' I whispered, holding him like a sleepy child. His head of golden curls cradled against my shoulder. He was quiet for a little while, then suddenly he stirred again, and when he spoke it was in a clear strong voice.
'Fly!' he said. 'Fly for me, Bird of the Sun.' And the life went out of him, he turned to nothing in my arms, the great wild spirit flown - gone.
I knelt over him, feeling my own senses reel. The world turned and swung beneath me. I slipped over the edge of it, down into the swirling darkness of time. Down into a kind of death, a kind of life, for in my dying I dreamed a dream. In my poisoned sleep of death which lasted a moment and a million years I dreamed of long-dead men in a time long passed ...
THE SUNBIRD copyright © 1972 by Wilbur Smith and WILD JUSTICE copyright © 1979 by Wilbur Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.