The Picnic Table, November 19,
As the four lay in the lee of
the table in the false dawn,
“I haven’t heard any
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.
In no time, they were across
the stepping stones. The others watched
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
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. “
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
While they marched in a
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
“Good eyes. That’s it,” said
“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.”
Although cave air is usually
about right, cave water is very cold for swimming.
As he dressed,
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
“Looks like it’s been done
Slowly and silently the
current took them to the tunnel, where it accelerated slightly and carried them
through the winding passage. At times
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
“And everything else he
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
“What an engineering accomplishment,” said Hapgood.
“As an engineer, I wouldn’t
know how to do it myself,” said
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
“Say it,” said Hapgood.
“It’s what they, what we used
for a holy place before
“I think it’s up to you,
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?”
“Let’s find out,” said
They opened the chests. One contained a
“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
“But he was king, remember,”
He had enough clout so that if he or one of his friends wanted to borrow
a cup from the
“We ought to touch it,” said
“You have to ask the
“Yes, I know,” said
“‘Whom does the Grail
“It obviously serves
“The Grail is a secret,” said
“Then whom does the secret
“What?” asked Ivan.
“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.
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
“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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