We were both of us not a little stiff as the result of sleeping out in the open all that night, for even in Grand Canary the dew-fall and the comparative chill of darkness are not to be trifled with. For myself on these occasions I like a bit of a run as an early refresher. But here on this rough ground in the middle of the island there were not three yards of level to be found, and so as Coppinger proceeded to go through some sort of dumb-bell exercises with a couple of lumps of bristly lava, I followed his example. Coppinger has done a good deal of roughing it in his time, but being a doctor of medicine amongst other things--he takes out a new degree of some sort on an average every other year--he is great on health theories, and practises them like a religion.
There had been rain two days before, and as there was still a bit of stream trickling along at the bottom of the barranca, we went down there and had a wash, and brushed our teeth. Greatest luxury imaginable, a toothbrush, on this sort of expedition.
"Now," said Coppinger when we had emptied our pockets, "there's precious little grub left, and it's none the better for being carried in a local Spanish newspaper."
"Yours is mostly tobacco ashes."
"It'll get worse if we leave it. We've a lot more bad scrambling ahead of us."
That was obvious. So we sat down beside the stream there at the bottom of the barranca, and ate up all of what was left. It was a ten-mile tramp to the fonda at Santa Brigida, where we had set down our traps; and as Coppinger wanted to take a lot more photographs and measurements before we left this particular group of caves, it was likely we should be pretty sharp set before we got our next meal, and our next taste of the PATRON'S splendid old country wine. My faith! If only they knew down in the English hotels in Las Palmas what magnificent wines one could get--with diplomacy--up in some of the mountain villages, the old vintage would become a thing of the past in a week.
Now to tell the truth, the two mummies he had gathered already quite satisfied my small ambition. The goatskins in which they were sewn up were as brittle as paper, and the poor old things themselves gave out dust like a puffball whenever they were touched. But you know what Coppinger is. He thought he'd come upon traces of an old Guanche university, or sacred college, or something of that kind, like the one there is on the other side of the island, and he wouldn't be satisfied till he'd ransacked every cave in the whole face of the cliff. He'd plenty of stuff left for the flashlight thing, and twenty-eight more films in his kodak, and said we might as well get through with the job then as make a return journey all on purpose. So he took the crowbar, and I shouldered the rope, and away we went up to the ridge of the cliff, where we had got such a baking from the sun the day before.
Of course these caves were not easy to come at, or else they would have been raided years before. Coppinger, who on principle makes out he knows all about these things, says that in the old Guanche days they had ladders of goatskin rope which they could pull up when they were at home, and so keep out undesirable callers; and as no other plan occurs to me, perhaps he may be right. Anyway the mouths of the caves were in a more or less level row thirty feet below the ridge of the cliff, and fifty feet above the bottom; and Spanish curiosity doesn't go in much where it cannot walk.
Now laddering such caves from below would have been cumbersome, but a light knotted rope is easily carried, and though it would have been hard to climb up this, our plan was to descend on each cave mouth from above, and then slip down to the foot of the cliffs, and start again AB INITIO for the next.
Coppinger is plucky enough, and he has a good head on a height, but there is no getting over the fact that he is portly and nearer fifty than forty-five. So you can see he must have been pretty keen. Of course I went first each time, and got into the cave mouth, and did what I could to help him in; but when you have to walk down a vertical cliff face fly-fashion, with only a thin bootlace of a rope for support, it is not much real help the man below can give, except offer you his best wishes.
I wanted to save him as much as I could, and as the first three caves I climbed to were small and empty, seeming to be merely store-places, I asked him to take them for granted, and save himself the rest. But he insisted on clambering down to each one in person, and as he decided that one of my granaries was a prison, and another a pot-making factory, and another a schoolroom for young priests, he naturally said he hadn't much reliance on my judgment, and would have to go through the whole lot himself. You know what these thorough-going archaeologists are for imagination.
But as the day went on, and the sun rose higher, Coppinger began clearly to have had enough of it, though he was very game, and insisted on going on much longer than was safe. I must say I didn't like it. You see the drop was seldom less than eighty feet from the top of the cliffs. However, at last he was forced to give it up. I suggested marching off to Santa Brigida forthwith, but he wouldn't do that. There were three more cave-openings to be looked into, and if I wouldn't do them for him, he would have to make another effort to get there himself. He tried to make out he was conferring a very great favour on me by offering to take a report solely from my untrained observation, but I flatly refused to look at it in that light. I was pretty tired also; I was soaked with perspiration from the heat; my head ached from the violence of the sun; and my hands were cut raw with the rope.
Coppinger might be tired, but he was still enthusiastic. He tried to make me enthusiastic also. "Look here," he said, "there's no knowing what you may find up there, and if you do lay hands on anything, remember it's your own. I shall have no claim whatever."
"Very kind of you, but I've got no use for any more mummies done up in goatskin bags."
"Bah! That's not a burial cave up there. Don't you know the difference yet in the openings? Now, be a good fellow. It doesn't follow that because we have drawn all the rest blank, you won't stumble across a good find for yourself up there."
"Oh, very well," I said, as he seemed so set on it; and away I stumbled over the fallen rocks, and along the ledge, and then scrambled up by that fissure in the cliff which saved us the two-mile round which we had had to take at first. I wrenched out the crowbar, and jammed it down in a new place, and then away I went over the side, with hands smarting worse at every new grip of the rope. It was an awkward job swinging into the cave mouth because the rock above overhung, or else (what came to the same thing) it had broken away below; but I managed it somehow, although I landed with an awkward thump on my back, and at the same time I didn't let go the rope. It wouldn't do to have lost the rope then: Coppinger couldn't have flicked it into me from where he was below.
Now from the first glance I could see that this cave was of different structure to the others. They were for the most part mere dens, rounded out anyhow; this had been faced up with cutting tools, so that all the angles were clean, and the sides smooth and flat. The walls inclined inwards to the roof, reminding me of an architecture I had seen before but could not recollect where, and moreover there were several rooms connected up with passages. I was pleased to find that the other cave-openings which Coppinger wanted me to explore were merely the windows or the doorways of two of these other rooms.
Of inscriptions or markings on the walls there was not a trace, though I looked carefully, and except for bats the place was entirely bare. I lit a cigarette and smoked it through--Coppinger always thinks one is slurring over work if it is got through too quickly--and then I went to the entrance where the rope was, and leaned out, and shouted down my news.
He turned up a very anxious face. "Have you searched it thoroughly?" he bawled back.
"Of course I have. What do you think I've been doing all this time?"
"No, don't come down yet. Wait a minute. I say, old man, do wait a minute. I'm making fast the kodak and the flashlight apparatus on the end of the rope. Pull them up, and just make me half a dozen exposures, there's a good fellow."
"Oh, all right," I said, and hauled the things up, and got them inside. The photographs would be absolutely dull and uninteresting, but that wouldn't matter to Coppinger. He rather preferred them that way. One has to be careful about halation in photographing these dark interiors, but there was a sort of ledge like a seat by the side of each doorway, and so I lodged the camera on that to get a steady stand, and snapped off the flashlight from behind and above.
I got pictures of four of the chambers this way, and then came to one where the ledge was higher and wider. I put down the camera, wedged it level with scraps of stone, and then sat down myself to recharge the flashlight machine. But the moment my weight got on that ledge, there was a sharp crackle, and down I went half a dozen inches.
Of course I was up again pretty sharply, and snapped up the kodak just as it was going to slide off to the ground. I will confess, too, I was feeling pleased. Here at any rate was a Guanche cupboard of sorts, and as they had taken the trouble to hermetically seal it with cement, the odds were that it had something inside worth hiding. At first there was nothing to be seen but a lot of dust and rubble, so I lit a bit of candle and cleared this away. Presently, however, I began to find that I was shelling out something that was not cement. It chipped away, in regular layers, and when I took it to the daylight I found that each layer was made up of two parts. One side was shiny stuff that looked like talc, and on this was smeared a coating of dark toffee-coloured material, that might have been wax. The toffee-coloured surface was worked over with some kind of pattern.
Now I do not profess to any knowledge on these matters, and as a consequence took what Coppinger had told me about Guanche habits and acquirements as more or less true. For instance, he had repeatedly impressed upon me that this old people could not write, and having this in my memory, I did not guess that the patterns scribed through the wax were letters in some obsolete character, which, if left to myself, probably I should have done. But still at the same time I came to the conclusion that the stuff was worth looting, and so set to work quarrying it out with the heel of my boot and a pocket-knife.
The sheets were all more or less stuck together, and so I did not go in for separating them farther. They fitted exactly to the cavity in which they were stored, but by smashing down its front I was able to get at the foot of them, and then I hacked away through the bottom layers with the knife till I got the bulk out in one solid piece. It measured some twenty inches by fifteen, by fifteen, but it was not so heavy as it looked, and when I had taken the remaining photographs, I lowered it down to Coppinger on the end of the rope.
There was nothing more to do in the caves then, so I went down myself next. The lump of sheets was on the ground, and Coppinger was on all fours beside it. He was pretty nearly mad with excitement.
"What is it?" I asked him.
"I don't know yet. But it is the most valuable find ever made in the Canary Islands, and it's yours, you unappreciative beggar; at least what there is left of it. Oh, man, man, you've smashed up the beginning, and you've smashed up the end of some history that is probably priceless. It's my own fault. I ought to have known better than set an untrained man to do important exploring work."
"I should say it's your fault if anything's gone wrong. You said there was no such thing as writing known to these ancient Canarios, and I took your word for it. For anything I knew the stuff might have been something to eat."
"It isn't Guanche work at all," said he testily. "You ought to have known that from the talc. Great heavens, man, have you no eyes? Haven't you seen the general formation of the island? Don't you know there's no talc here?"
"I'm no geologist. Is this imported literature then?"
"Of course. It's Egyptian: that's obvious at a glance. Though how it's got here I can't tell yet. It isn't stuff you can read off like a newspaper. The character's a variant on any of those that have been discovered so far. And as for this waxy stuff spread over the talc, it's unique. It's some sort of a mineral, I think: perhaps asphalt. It doesn't scratch up like animal wax. I'll analyse that later. Why they once invented it, and then let such a splendid notion drop out of use, is just a marvel. I could stay gloating over this all day."
"Well," I said, "if it's all the same for you, I'd rather gloat over a meal. It's a good ten miles hard going to the fonda, and I'm as hungry as a hawk already. Look here, do you know it is four o'clock already? It takes longer than you think climbing down to each of these caves, and then getting up again for the next."