Chapter 33a


The Picnic Table, November 19, 6 AM


As the four lay in the lee of the table in the false dawn, Jon said, “Maybe I should just phone the police.  I can use the satellite downlink, and we know right where we are.  There is no way this place isn’t crawling with French gendarmes after a war was fought here.


“I haven’t heard any claxons,” said Ivan.  “Maybe nobody heard us.  It will take a little time for them to get here from Carcassonn.  Just a second.  Let me take a last look around.”


He stood in the cold air and walked over to the edge of the stream.  Then he gave a sharp hiss.  The others joined him.  Their eyes followed where he was pointing at a little plume of mist not fifty yards from the spring itself.


“What is it?” whispered Hapgood.


“Cave,” said Ivan.  The warm wet air from the cave was emerging into the cold air, condensing little droplets of water into the small cloud they could see.


In no time, they were across the stepping stones.  The others watched while Ivan dug with fast but careful hands.  He made an opening about two feet high.  They wiggled through. 


The warmth of the cave was delicious.  They could feel it caressing their deeply chilled bodies.  “Oh this is wonderful,” said Hapgood. “You young people just run along.  I’m going to lie down and go to sleep right now.”


“Nothing doing,” said Ivan.  “When you are as close to freezing to death as we are you have to warm up from the inside out, not the outside in.  If people ever used this place they had to have a way to see.”


By the faint light from the mouth of the cave he saw some long objects.  Picking one up, he found it to be a jar with a stick coming out of it.  He smashed the jar to reveal a cake of pitch on the end of the stick.  Tracy, do you still have that lighter?”


She did.  Soon the torch burned merrily.  They were in a sort of an ante chamber.  The walls were irregular, but there was a carved door opposite them.  From the roof hung stalactites altered by subterranean breath so that they looked like the tentacles of something obscene.  “All right,” said Ivan.  “We have some room.  Keep Hapgood walking.  All of you keep walking.”


While they marched in a circle, Ivan went outside and tidied up to conceal the entrance.  In a brief time, there was not a stone or turned leaf that would have betrayed them even to an informed eye.  It just looked like some brush against the cliff face again.  Within an hour, the little telltale plume of mist would be gone as the day warmed.  Ivan finished his work from the inside and then stood.  They all looked at the doorway, carved into the living rock. 


They entered a labyrinth of tunnels and passages.  There were pits to be avoided.  From time to time a tunnel would take a sharp turn and then end in nothingness, emerging from a sheer wall with a drop they could not estimate by torchlight.  There were ledges that tapered slowly to nothing.  There were places where the downward slope increased steadily.  When Ivan rolled a coin down the slope, they could hear it rolling faster and faster and then be silent for much too long before clinking on stones below.


Experienced as Ivan was with Florida caves, he realized that this one was terribly dangerous and not completely by accident.  Neither the natural passages nor the ones that had been hewn through rock proved safe.  They returned to the antechamber.  There seemed to be nothing to do but, despite the danger of being found, go out and call the police and turn the job over to professional spelunkers. 


Tracy pointed at something.  “What’s that?”  Clinging to the cave wall next a low overhang were little spikes of stone.  They pointed in the direction of the gap below the overhang.


“Good eyes.  That’s it,” said Ivan.


“What, pray tell?” asked Hapgood.  He had warmed up and was more alert now.


“Horizontal stalactites.  They’re shaped by air currents, not gravity.  So more air is moving under that ledge than all those tunnels.  This has to be the main cave.”


Ivan got down on his back and wiggled under the ledge, leading the way with his torch.  After a little while he called for the others to follow and bring torches.  At the end of the crawl they stood up in a tunnel of human design.  For a long time they walked, happy simply not to have the floor vanishing beneath their feet.  At last the tunnel took a right angle turn and ended on a jetty that extended into an underground river.  The river emerged from the rock wall to their right and flowed toward the left into another tunnel.


Ivan held his torch low so he could peer down into the water.  Then he handed the light to Tracy, stripped off his clothes and slid off into the cold current.


Although cave air is usually about right, cave water is very cold for swimming.  Ivan took a deep breath, submerged, and then came up pulling on something.  They helped him haul it out.  It was a boat, about the shape of a diminutive Viking ship with a high, proud curve at bow and stern and broad sweeping lines to the hull.  They wrestled it out of the water and let it drain for a few minutes while Ivan dived and brought up paddles.


As he dressed, Ivan said, “Peat water will eat up even good timber.  But in clear cave water good wood is forever.”


They looked it over.  It was in reasonable shape.  Some of the boards had sprung a bit, but there was a tin bailing bucket.  There were white deposits of lime on it, but after a bit of thumping and shaking they decided it was sound enough and launched.


“We’re really going through a tunnel in that thing?” asked Tracy.


“Looks like it’s been done before,” said Ivan.  “Why don’t you and Hap hold torches and Jon and I will paddle.  Jon, just keep a bright eye out.  If it looks like we’re about to hit something, use the paddle to pull away from it.  The current will carry us, and I can do the rest.  And one other thing.  Pray we don’t have to paddle our way back up this river.”


Slowly and silently the current took them to the tunnel, where it accelerated slightly and carried them through the winding passage.  At times Jon pulled away from a submerged rock.  At times Ivan did a lazy J-stroke to keep them moving and steerable.  Tracy and Hapgood held their torches aloft and peered into the darkness. 


They began to see a hint of light ahead.  Soon the river emerged into an enormous chamber, roughly a hemisphere with high domed roof.  They rested their paddles and drifted.  The light was coming from clear quartz crystals that projected two or three and sometimes eight feet down from the ceiling.  The light from the crystals had a prismatic quality, and there was a soft undulation to it.  The light reflected from below had a warm yellow glow.  There was not time to take it all in before the boat reached another jetty, which stood at the base of a high rock that dominated the center of the chamber, rising well above their heads.  This jetty had a flight of steps leading down into the river. 


They dragged the boat out of the water and looked around.  The river ended in a pool that occupied almost half of the chamber, the water going down a sink out of sight below the surface.  Besides going back onto the water, there were two ways off the jetty.  One was a broad flight of steps that wound around the central rock.  The other was the mouth of a tunnel. 


Keeping their torches lit, they entered the dark tunnel.  The sides as far as they could see were lined with chests.  They opened a few chests to see what was inside.  Coffer after coffer was filled with bars of gold, silver, copper, tin, bronze.  The quantity of gold alone was staggering.  There were bolts of cotton, wool, linen, silk and hemp.  Some of the cloth was so fine as to be transparent.  There were chests of semi-precious stones and a few of precious stones.  There were chests of ceramic containers sealed with beeswax that upon shaking still contained liquid or something soft, possibly food.  There were bronze weapons and what had been leather armor. 


There were utensils and tools, some as obvious as hammer and chisel and some the use of which they could not guess.  Along with the chests there were high piles of timber and marble.  It was the stockpile of an empire.


“It could be the gold of King Solomon’s mines,” said Jon in awe.


“And everything else he owned,” said Ivan. 


After a while the tunnel divided; both branches were filled with similar boxes and other inventory.  They went back to the jetty.  This time they climbed the steps to the elevated platform that occupied most of the space.  The steps were marble, but the floor of the platform was sheathed in thick plates of gold.  Resting in a large niche in the center of the rock were chests of gold.


“The light,” said Ivan, “How … ?”


“We must be under Lake Baal,” said Jon.  “Those crystals go up through the ceiling and floor of the lake and pick up sunlight.  That’s why the light has that shimmering effect.”


“What an engineering accomplishment,” said Hapgood.


“As an engineer, I wouldn’t know how to do it myself,” said Jon.  “This must have lasted centuries.  How in the world you get something out of limestone to last so long wet I couldn’t imagine.  But it’s terribly fragile.  Clear quartz crystals don’t occur that are much longer than what we can see coming down from the ceiling, so it’s the shape of the roof, not the thickness, which keeps the lake up there.  And who knows how much of the foundations have dissolved, or how much empty space is below us?”


Besides the gold chests guarded by the rock, there were other things around the floor and what looked like steps leading upward to a sort of gallery.  They decided to start with the rock and work clockwise from there. 


With the four of them lifting they were able to move one of the massive lids.  Inside was what looked like blankets.  The pieces of cloth were rather narrow, and the color of corrugated cardboard, but maybe a bit more golden.  The smelled of camphor. 


“Civil War blankets,” said Ivan.


“No,” said Jon in hushed tones.  “The same wool, the same size and shape.  But these were never blankets.  These were important enough to put here, not in the hallway.  It’s got to be …”


“Say it,” said Hapgood.


Jon paused.  While he did, Ivan reached down toward the fabric.


Jon said, “It’s the Tabernacle.”


Ivan’s hand froze.  Then he drew it back. He said, “We ought to check.  We ought to touch it and make sure it’s wool.  But only once.  You think it’s the Tabernacle?”


“It’s what they, what we used for a holy place before Solomon built the temple.  It may go back … it may go back to the wandering in the wilderness.”


“I think it’s up to you, Jon,” said Hapgood.  “It’s your heritage more than any of the rest of us.  Are you willing to touch it?”


Jon was not, but Jon’s hand was unwilling to be controlled.  He reached out and very gently rested his fingertips on the fabric.  He said, “I don’t know what I was doing with my life before this.  I would never have believed anyone would see it.  I know what my heritage is now.  I never took it seriously before.  But if we live to get out of here, I will be the most faithful, the most devout, the most observant Jew I can learn how to be.  I swear it.”


With a physical effort he withdrew his errant hand and reluctantly followed his friends farther.


They reached a group of three altars.  The center and highest bore only a single chalice of solid gold intricately worked and set with the clearest precious stones.  It picked up the stray beams of light from the crystals and threw them back in glorious refulgence. 


On either side were other altars, each bearing a very long gold chest of it’s own. 


“Is that what I think it is?” asked Tracy.


“Let’s find out,” said Jon. 

They opened the chests.  One contained a
Roman pilum, a thin spear with a short wood shaft and a long rod going to the spearhead.  It had been covered with gold leaf and then beeswax to preserve it from rust.  There were also three savage looking nails and a crown of thorns, all covered in gold leaf down to the last point of thorn.  The other chest contained beams of wood.  The sturdy timber had needed no protection from the moisture.  “Cross, I suppose,” said Ivan in a stunned tone.


“That’s what the sign says,” responded Hapgood.  In with the timbers was a wooden sign with an inscription in Latin.


They closed the chests and turned again to the Grail, high on its altar.


“It doesn’t look like a cup a carpenter would use,” said Ivan.


“But he was king, remember,” said Hapgood.  He had enough clout so that if he or one of his friends wanted to borrow a cup from the Temple treasury it would be permitted.”


“We ought to touch it,” said Ivan.  “But who?”


Tracy, I should say,” said Hapgood.  “The Lord always was very fond of women.  And cups are a woman’s kind of thing.  Men prefer swords.”


Tracy approached it, gazed and then reached out to rest her fingertips on the rim.  Then she stood there transfixed.


“You have to ask the question,” said Jon.


“Yes, I know,” said Tracy.


“‘Whom does the Grail serve?’” Jon prompted helpfully.


“It obviously serves everybody,” said Ivan.


“The Grail is a secret,” said Tracy.


“Then whom does the secret serve?” asked Jon.


Tracy said, “I can’t tell you right now.  Give me a moment.”  Somewhere in the chambers of her heart played the music of “Come O Come Emanuel,” and it seemed to resound in the great crystal room where they stood.  Reluctantly, she brought here hand away.  “I couldn’t tell you while I was touching it, but it’s obvious now.  It serves Hans Turelli.”


“What?” asked Ivan.


“The Hans Turelli’s of the world.  Who else would keep it a secret?  You see, it’s a matter of power, of control.  In order to have people be powerful, there have to be a lot of people working together.  People have to give their hearts to something other than family and village, they have to share on a big scale.  Then they can do big things, and make somebody really important. 


“How much luck would you have getting people to give up their loyalty to their own little villages if they knew they were castrating their own children in the end?  If they knew it was a death trap.  So it has to be kept secret so some people can have enormous status, dominance over others.


“Hans Turelli is anybody with great wealth, the railroad barons, slave traders, anybody who has people working for him he doesn’t know, any politician who wanted a war to gain land or to avoid dividing land, anyone who uses the emotional power of status to make himself look important.  Anywhere that the few have power over the many.  That is the City.  That is the Empire.  That is Hans Turelli.  It is most of our favorite names.  It’s even,” she looked around the chamber, “It’s the people who brought us here.  That’s why they couldn’t make it easy for us.  They couldn’t just bring it to us in a truck and say, ‘Here’s your secret.’  It means giving up everything they’ve lived for.  It means everybody giving up the very idea of wealth or fame or power. 


“They had to do it, because otherwise we’re all dead.  And we have to fix it now in order not to be dead in sixty years.  Start making the right choices today.  Start having fertile children next year.  But we can’t have more children, just children who are more fertile.  In thirty years they can have more children and thirty more years those children are able to do the work of the word.  Without them, we all die.  So they had to do it, the people who had this secret, but it wasn’t easy for them.”  She looked longingly back at the Grail, but would not touch it again.


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