Across the Cameroons: A Story of War and Adventure
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They had no means of assisting him. They could do nothing but look on in helplessness, praying for the return of the younger brother. On the second night the rain came-in torrents, as it can only rain in the tropics-and Fernando was able to moisten his parched lips by sucking his drenched clothes.
Wishing to get nearer to the poor fellow, in the hope that they might be able to comfort him, at least with words, Harry and Jim Braid climbed the spur and moved along the ledge at the top of the precipice until they were immediately above the withered tree. There, lying down upon their faces, they cried out to him to be of good courage, reminding him that the dawn approached, that his brother would soon return.
Daybreak is the hour when Life is nearest Death. It was shortly before sunrise that Fernando himself gave up all hope, and called upon God to take charge of his departing soul. He said that he was quite ready to welcome Death; he desired nothing more than to have an end to his misery and suspense. And, even as the words left his lips, the figure of his brother was seen approaching along the ledge.
At the feet of Harry Urquhart, Cortes sank, exhausted. The object of his mission fulfilled, he lost consciousness and drifted into a faint.
With all dispatch they uncoiled the long, snake-like creeper. Passing one end over a jutting pinnacle of rock, they lowered the other towards Fernando. It was more than long enough to reach the place where he lay.
With great difficulty the poor fellow managed to untie his belt and make fast the end of the creeper around his waist. And then they had to wait a long time, until Cortes, who had recovered consciousness, was able to assist the two boys in hauling up the rope.
This was no easy matter, since they had neither a good foothold nor much space upon the terrace. But in the end they succeeded, and the rescued man lay panting on the ledge. He was immediately given water to drink; and when he had drunk, a smile slowly overspread his face, and he looked at the brother who had saved his life. But no word of gratitude ever passed his lips; his thanks-far more eloquent than words-were in his eyes. And the dark eyes of a half-caste are the most expressive and the most beautiful in the world.
CHAPTER XXXVI-The Twelfth Hour
Owing to the exhausted state of the two guides, the party could not set forth upon their return journey to the Caves of Zoroaster until the afternoon of the following day.
The powers of endurance of both men had been taxed to the utmost-the elder, by the terrible ordeal through which he had passed; the younger, by his almost superhuman efforts.
In spite of that, Harry Urquhart was all anxiety to be off. He had often pictured to himself the agony of suspense that all this time von Hardenberg was being called upon to bear. The boy wondered if the lamp which the Prussian had taken with him into the vault still burned. If so, it would shed its light upon the glittering treasure.If it had gone out, the Prussian was buried in unutterable and eternal darkness-eternal, since escape was beyond the bounds of possibility. That, combined with the fearful silence that reigned in the place, with hope dying in the prisoner's heart as the days rolled slowly by, was enough-as it seemed to Harry-to drive any man to madness. The boy found it impossible to forgive his cousin, who had acted so basely from the first; for all that, he was by no means heartless, and, in any case, it was his duty to save a human life from so terrible an end.
As soon as the guides professed themselves able to undertake the journey, they set off towards the caves. It took them more than two days to accomplish what the younger guide had done in under twelve hours, and thence, striking due south-west, they approached the caves from the opposite direction to that in which they had first entered Maziriland.
On this occasion they saw-though they did not come into actual contact with-several of the Maziri peasants who were working in the cultivated tracts of country that lay between the mountains and the bush. Maziriland was very sparsely populated-the race verging on extinction-and at least two-thirds of the inhabitants were congregated in the chief town, where they carried on certain industries, their skill in which they had inherited from the ancients.
It approached the hour of daybreak when Harry Urquhart and his party reached the foot of the great flight of steps that led to the entrance to the caves, where stood the two carved giants. Harry had hurried forward, closely followed by Braid. The two guides brought up the rear.
In feverish excitement, three steps at a time, the boy dashed up the steps between the weird, fantastic statues, and was about to enter the cave when he remembered that he had no light, and that, since it was night, the place would be unutterably dark. He had retraced his steps some distance, with the object of getting some kind of torch, when he was met by Fernando at the head of the long flight of steps.
"A light!" he cried. "It is quite dark within."
Fernando had foreseen this, and in mid-valley had broken a branch from a cork-tree, which he had damped with rifle oil. This he now lighted and gave to Harry, who was the first to enter the cave.
Inside, everything was exactly as they had left it. It was manifest no one had visited the place since the tragedy of some days before. The body of the old man lay still at the foot of the altar. At the farthermost end of the cave the granite wall remained as ever, immobile and formidable. Harry Urquhart, taking the Sunstone from his pocket, asked Jim to hold the torch, and himself went to the wheels and turned them until the characters that showed above the golden bar corresponded with those upon the Sunstone.
When he came to the ninth wheel he was so excited that his hand was shaking. And presently there came the sharp "clicking" sound that they had heard before, and then the granite rock began slowly to revolve.
The rock evidently turned upon a pivot. Its motion was like that of an enormous water-wheel, except that, instead of revolving vertically, it turned horizontally, the way of the sun. When the centre of the opening was immediately opposite the altar there came a second "click", and the rock remained quite still.
Harry Urquhart, in breathless haste, snatched the torch from the hands of his friend, and dashed like a madman to the entrance.
He pulled up in the nick of time, noticing that he stood at the top of an exceedingly steep and narrow flight of stairs. Had he gone on as impetuously as he had started, he would have pitched head foremost down the steps.
He began to descend more cautiously. The steps were slippery from the moisture that invaded the rock in which they had been cut.
He had not descended more than three steps before he was brought to an abrupt standstill. It was as if his heart ceased to beat. From far below-so far away as to be quite faint, though unmistakable-there came to his ears the report of a single shot.
CHAPTER XXXVII-Too Late!
The boy hastened down the narrow steps with all the speed he could, Jim Braid following close upon his heels. The two guides had remained above. Even yet, both regarded the place with superstitious awe.
The steps led downward-as it seemed an interminable distance. At first they were straight; then they were spiral; then they were straight again and broader. At the bottom was the vault where, as rumour had it, the great sage himself lay buried, where was gathered together the treasure that had been given in offerings during his lifetime, thousands of years before.
At the foot of the steps, the two boys, side by side, stood spellbound. The sight that they beheld was at once tragic and marvellous.
The vault was a rectangular room about thirty feet long and twenty feet wide. Against the wall facing the steps was a huge stone that resembled a coffin, supported upon a pedestal, cylindrical in shape, and about six feet in height. The coffin and the pedestal on which it stood resembled in shape the letter T. At the foot of the pedestal was a large marble basin, in the centre of which a small jet of water played like a miniature fountain, uttering a never-ceasing bubbling noise that sounded strange in the silence of the vault.
The walls were of bare rock. On the ceiling was carved a number of fantastic figures, similar to those that stood on either side of the great stairway that led to the entrance of the caves. But the wonder of the vault was on the floor, the whole of which was covered inches deep in glittering, sparkling gems. There were sapphires, rubies, diamonds, opals, and pearls. The former worshippers of Zoroaster had called upon the treasure-houses of the ancient world to pay their tribute to the genius of the teacher. They had visited the pearl-fisheries of the East and the ruby-mines of Burma; they had brought gold from Ophir and emeralds from the land of Punt.
And in the midst of this dazzling treasure, half-buried in the gems he had ventured so much to gain, lay Captain von Hardenberg, who, dying by his own hand, had delivered up the life he had so abused.
Full length upon his face, upon this brilliant, jewel-bespangled carpet, was the man who had stolen the Sunstone, who had betrayed his country, and who, in his own turn, had been betrayed by the very ruffian he employed. A revolver, still smoking, was in his hand. Carl von Hardenberg had placed himself at last beyond the reach of human law.
It is easy to imagine the torment the man had suffered during the last days of his ill-spent life. The lamp which he had carried with him from the altar in the cave had long since burned out, and now stood upon the coffin of Zoroaster. The mental agony he endured must have driven him near to madness. The darkness, the utter hopelessness of his terrible situation, the fearful stillness-accentuated rather than broken by the never-ending bubbling of the fountain-had no doubt driven him to take his own life in savage desperation.
He had eaten all his food. He had had water in plenty to drink; but he had no doubt given up all hope of ever being rescued.
Both Harry and Jim uncovered their heads. They stood face to face with the still form of one who had always been their enemy, who had been the enemy of their country. Von Hardenberg stood now in the presence of his Maker.
They buried him at the foot of the great steps that led to the Caves of Zoroaster; and there Harry Urquhart-who had a little thumb-nail Prayer Book in his pocket-read the funeral service over the grave, whilst Jim Braid and the two guides, who had served them so faithfully throughout these long adventurous weeks, stood by in silent reverence.
There was now nothing they could do but retrace their steps to the Cameroons. They could not hope to take all the treasure with them, since they had no means of carrying it over the mountains and through the density of the bush. They had travelled thus far to see justice done, to prevent infinite wealth from falling into the hands of the enemies of England; and in this enterprise they had been successful-that much in itself was a reward. None the less, there was no reason why they should not take with them as many jewels as they could carry, and accordingly, selecting many of the largest and most valuable gems, they filled their haversacks and pockets.
And then, ascending the stairs and using the Sunstone as a key, Harry closed the vault so that no one-not even the Maziris themselves-could open it. And there was something almost sacred-or at least awe-inspiring-in the deed. For centuries the Shrine of Zoroaster had remained unmolested. Except the successive guardians of the cave, no human being had ever entered the vault and beheld the glittering treasure. In bygone times these priceless jewels had been delivered up in tribute to one of the world's greatest teachers; and now, in one sense, they were like flowers upon a grave. It was well that the greater part of the treasure should remain where it had lain throughout the ages; there was wealth enough for them in what they were able to carry with them.
With the return journey to the coast we are not concerned. The party accomplished the march in fairly easy stages; and travelling southward, for two excellent reasons, was a far more simple affair than advancing towards the north: for, firstly, they were able to utilize the rivers that flowed down from the mountains; and, secondly, the whole country was now in possession of the British troops. The German Cameroons was no more.
Exactly two months after the arrival of our adventurers at Dualla, Jim Braid, cap in hand, approached his father's cottage.
It was about eight o'clock at night, and quite dark. He had come from London that afternoon, and had walked from the station. Harry, who had travelled with him, had been met by Mr. Langton's dog-cart. But Jim preferred to walk; he desired time to brace himself for the interview which was to take place between himself and the father who had treated him with such blind and harsh injustice.
The cottage windows were illumined. Softly he opened the door and looked in. His mother was seated by the fire.
A moment later her arms were around his neck. With tears in her voice she recalled the day when Jim had come to wish her good-bye. He was then an outcast, one who was wrongly and falsely accused, who had been turned loose in the world to roam the highways like a common tramp; and since that day his mother had never doubted his innocence for a moment.
The head-gamekeeper was one of the old school of parents. In his eyes, no less than in the eyes of Mr. Langton, the evidence against his son had been crushing.
As young Braid held his mother in his arms, the door was opened, and John Braid, the gamekeeper, dressed in corduroys, entered. When he saw his son he lowered his head, after the manner of one ashamed.
"My boy," said he, "I did you a great wrong. I ask your forgiveness, as indeed I ask God's."
Jim found it difficult to speak.
"The evidence was all against me," he stammered.
"I know it was," said the gamekeeper; "but I might have known that my son would never have done such a thing. How was I to guess?" he added, throwing out his hands. "I knew nothing of this Sunstone, nor of German knavery. I knew nothing of that. All I was told was that twenty pounds had been stolen, and-as I have said-the evidence was against you, my lad, and I believed you guilty. I repeat, I should have known better."
"Father," said Jim, holding out his hand, "don't let's talk of it any more. On my part it's all forgotten, and there's nothing to forgive."
"God bless you, boy!" said John, lifting a hand to his black beard to hide the emotion he was unable to control.
"There's something else," said he, after a pause; "I'm getting old."
"You're not sixty yet!" cried his wife.
"That's too old for a head-gamekeeper," answered Braid, thrusting his thumbs into the armholes of his moleskin waistcoat. "A keeper should be a young man and an active one. Lately I've had rheumatism, and I'm not up to the night work. I told Mr. Langton this morning that I didn't think I was fit to carry on the work, and he's given me a pension, though I never asked for it nor thought of it."
"You've given up your work!" exclaimed his wife. "You're no longer head-keeper at Friar's Court!"
"No," said the man. "I'm not."
"Who's got the place?" she asked.
Braid made a motion of his hand towards his son.
"Jim," said he-and smiled.
There followed a silence, during which there came a sharp knock upon the door, John Braid went to the door and opened it, and there entered Mr. Langton, followed by Harry.
The Judge held out his hand to Jim.
"I've come to ask your pardon," said he. "We did you a great injury. Harry has told me the whole story. He has told me of how he found you in London, and of the terrible act you were about to commit when he saved you at the eleventh hour."
Jim had forgotten that fearful moment on the Hungerford Bridge. He now lowered his face to conceal his shame.
"I had forgotten that," he murmured in an undertone, as if to himself.
"Do not think I blame you, my poor boy," said Mr. Langton. "I blame only myself for having driven you to such a pass. You have not yet told me that you forgive me, and I have come here chiefly for that."
Jim stammered out a few half-coherent words, implying more by the tones of his voice than by anything else that everything was forgotten.
"And you have heard," Mr. Langton added, "that you are to be head-keeper here?"
"If you please, sir," said Jim, "I think my father can carry on till after the war. I was thinking I should enlist."
Mr. Langton again held out his hand, which young Braid took.
"I was expecting that," said he. "I promise to keep the place open for you, and to do all I can to help."
A few moments afterwards, Mr. Langton and his nephew went out. Before a roaring fire in the Judge's study they seated themselves in comfortable arm-chairs, and the Judge drew the Sunstone from his pocket.
"I shall give it to the British Museum," said he. "I have no wish to keep it any longer. I cannot look at it without realizing the terrible tragedies that this small piece of jade has brought about."
He was silent a while, playing with the Sunstone in his hand.
"Your Arab," said he very quietly, "the Sheikh Bayram, done to death; wretched, misguided Hardenberg buried alive in that dark and lonely vault; and all the miles you traversed, all the adventures you passed through, and the hardships you endured! It's not worth it!" said he, with a sigh. "Let the treasure lie where it is."
For all his words, the subject seemed to fascinate him; for, after a pause, he went back to it again.
"By my calculations," said he, "this stone is from six to eight thousand years old. I have known it for not quite ten years, and during that time it has brought about the death of, at least, five men. If it could only speak," said he, "of what tragedies could it tell-tragedies of the ancient world, of the long-forgotten past?"
With another sigh he got to his feet and stirred the fire into a blaze.
"And now," said he, "though you have already served your country better than anyone else will ever know, we can see what can be done in the way of getting you a commission. In regard to a regiment, have you any particular choice?"
"Yes," said Harry at once, for he had already arranged the matter to his satisfaction; "the Wessex Fusiliers."
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