Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
"So I killed Captain Morhange," André de Saint-Avit said to me the next day, at the same time, in the same place, with a calm that took no account of the night, the frightful night I had just been through. "Why do I tell you this? I don't know in the least. Because of the desert, perhaps. Are you a man capable of enduring the weight of that confidence, and further, if necessary, of assuming the consequences it may bring? I don't know that, either. The future will decide. For the present there is only one thing certain, the fact, I tell you again, that I killed Captain Morhange.
I killed him. And, since you want me to specify the reason, you understand that I am not going to torture my brain to turn it into a romance for you, or commence by recounting in the naturalistic manner of what stuff my first trousers were made, or, as the neo-Catholics would have it, how often I went as a child to confession, and how much I liked doing it. I have no taste for useless exhibitions.
[paragraph continues] You will find that this recital begins strictly at the time when I met Morhange.
And first of all, I tell you, however much it has cost my peace of mind and my reputation, I do not regret having known him. In a word, apart from all question of false friendship, I am convicted of a black ingratitude in having killed him. It is to him, it is to his knowledge of rock inscriptions, that I owe the only thing that has raised my life in interest above the miserable little lives dragged out by my companions at Auxonne, and elsewhere.
This being understood, here are the facts:
It was in the Arabian Office at Wargla, when I was a lieutenant, that I first heard the name, Morhange. And I must add that it was for me the occasion of an attack of bad humor. We were having difficult times. The hostility of the Sultan of Morocco was latent. At Touat, where the assassination of Flatters and of Frescaly had already been concocted, connivance was being given to the plots of our enemies. Touat was the center of conspiracies, of razzias, of defections, and at the same time, the depot of supply for the insatiable nomads. The Governors of Algeria, Tirman, Cambon, Laferriere, demanded its occupation. The Ministers of War tacitly agreed. . . . But there was Parliament, which did nothing at all, because of England, because of Germany, and above all because of a certain Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the
[paragraph continues] Citizen, which prescribed that insurrection is the most sacred of duties, even when the insurgents are savages who cut your head off. In short, the military authority could only, at its own discretion, increase the southern garrisons, and establish new posts; this one, Berresof, Hassi-el-Mia, Fort MacMahon, Fort Lallemand, Fort Miribel. . . . But as Castries puts it, you don't hold the nomads with bordjs, you hold them by the belt. The middle was the oasis of Touat. Their honors, the lawyers of Paris, had to be convinced of the necessity of taking possession of the oasis of Touat. The best way would be to present them with a faithful picture of the plots that were being woven there against us.
The principal authors were, and still are, the Senoussis, whose able chief has been forced by our arms to transfer the seat of his confederation several thousand leagues from there, to Schimmedrou, in the Tibesti. They had, I say they through modesty, the idea of ascertaining the traces left by these agitators on their favorite places of concourse; Rhat, Temassinin, the plain of Adejamor, and In-Salah. It was, you see, at least after leaving Temassinin, practically the same itinerary as that followed in 1864 by General Rohlfs.
I had already attracted some attention by two excursions, one to Agades, and the other to Bilma, and was considered by the staff officers to be one of the
best informed on the Senoussis question. I was therefore selected to assume this new task.
I then suggested that it would be of interest to kill two birds with one stone, and to get, in passing, an idea of the northern Ahoggar, so as to make sure whether the Tuaregs of Ahitarhen had continued to have as cordial relations with the Senoussis as they had had when they combined to massacre the Flatters’ mission. I was immediately accorded the permission. The change in my first plan was as follows: After reaching Ighelaschem, six hundred kilometers south of Temassinin, instead of taking the direct road to Touat via Rhat, I would, penetrating between the high land of Mouydir and Ahaggar, strike off to the southwest as far as Shikh-Salah. There I would turn again northwards, towards In-Salah, by the road to the Soudan and Agades. In all hardly eight kilometers additional in a trip of about seven hundred leagues, with the certainty of making as complete an examination as possible of the roads which our enemies, the Senoussis of Tibesti and the Tuareg of the Ahoggar, must follow to arrive at Touat. On the way, for every explorer has his pet fancy, I was not at all displeased to think that I would have a chance to examine the geological formation of the plateau of Egere, about which Duveyrier and the others are so disappointingly indefinite.
Everything was ready for my departure from
[paragraph continues] Wargla. Everything, which is to say, very little. Three mehara: mine, my companion Bou-Djema's (a faithful Chaamba, whom I had had with me in my wanderings through the Air, less of a guide in the country I was familiar with than a machine for saddling and unsaddling camels), then a third to carry provisions and skins of drinking water, very little, since I had taken pains to locate the stops with reference to the wells.
Some people go equipped for this kind of expedition with a hundred regulars, and even cannon. I am for the tradition of Douls and René Callie, I go alone.
I was at that perfect moment when only one thin thread still held me to the civilized world when an official cable arrived at Wargla.
"Lieutenant de Saint-Avit," it said briefly, "will delay his departure until the arrival of Captain Morhange, who will accompany him on his expedition of exploration."
I was more than disappointed. I alone had had the idea of this expedition. I had had all the difficulty that you can imagine to make the authorities agree to it. And now when I was rejoicing at the idea of the long hours I would spend alone with myself in the heart of the desert, they sent me a stranger, and, to make matters worse, a superior.
The condolences of my comrades aggravated my bad humor.
The Yearly Report, consulted on the spot, had given them the following information:
"Morhange (Jean-Marie-François), class of 1881. Breveted. Captain, unassigned. (Topographical Service of the Army.)"
"There is the explanation for you," said one. "They are sending one of their creatures to pull the chestnuts out of the fire, after you have had all the trouble of making it. Breveted! That's a great way. The theories of Ardant du Picq or else nothing about here."
"I don't altogether agree with you," said the Major. "They knew in Parliament, for some one is always indiscreet, the real aim of Saint-Avit's mission: to force their hand for the occupation of Touat. And this Morhange must be a man serving the interests of the Army Commission. All these people, secretaries, members of Parliament, governors, keep a close watch on each other. Some one will write an amusing paradoxical history some day, of the French Colonial Expansion, which is made without the knowledge of the powers in office, when it is not actually in spite of them."
"Whatever the reason, the result will be the same," I said bitterly; "we will be two Frenchmen to spy on each other night and day, along the roads to the south. An amiable prospect when one has none too much time to foil all the tricks of the natives. When does he arrive?"
"Day after tomorrow, probably. I have news of a convoy coming from Ghardaia. It is likely that he will avail himself of it. The indications are that he doesn't know very much about traveling alone."
Captain Morhange did arrive in fact two days later by means of the convoy from Ghardaia. I was the first person for whom he asked.
When he came to my room, whither I had withdrawn in dignity as soon as the convoy was sighted, I was disagreeably surprised to foresee that I would have great difficulty in preserving my prejudice against him.
He was tall, his face full and ruddy, with laughing blue eyes, a small black moustache, and hair that was already white.
"I have a thousand apologies to make to you, my dear fellow," he said immediately, with a frankness that I have never seen in any other man. "You must be furious with my importunity in upsetting your plans and delaying your departure."
"By no means, Captain," I replied coolly.
"You really have only yourself to blame. It is on account of your knowledge of the southern routes, so highly esteemed at Paris, that I wished to have you to initiate me when the Ministries of Instruction and of Commerce, and the Geographical Society combined to charge me with the mission which brings me here. These three honorable institutions have
in fact entrusted me with the attempt to re-establish the ancient track of the caravans, which, from the ninth century, trafficked between Tunis and the Soudan, by Toweur, Wargla, Es-Souk and the bend of the Bourroum; and to study the possibility of restoring this route to its ancient splendor. At the same time, at the Geographic Bureau, I heard of the journey that you are undertaking. From Wargla to Shikh-Salah our two itineraries are the same. Only I must admit to you that it is the first voyage of this kind that I have ever undertaken. I would not be afraid to hold forth for an hour on Arabian literature in the amphitheatre of the School of Oriental Languages, but I know well enough that in the desert I should have to ask for directions whether to turn right or left. This is the only chance which could give me such an opportunity, and at the same time put me under obligation for this introduction to so charming a companion. You must not blame me if I seized it, if I used all my influence to retard your departure from Wargla until the instant when I could join you. I have only one more word to add to what I have said. I am entrusted with a mission which by its origin is rendered essentially civilian. You are sent out by the Ministry of War. Up to the moment when, arrived at Shikh-Salah we turn our backs on each other to attain, you Touat, and I the Niger, all your recommendations, all your orders, will be followed
by a subaltern, and, I hope, by a friend as well."
All the time he was talking so openly I felt delightedly my worst recent fears melting away. Nevertheless, I still experienced a mean desire to show him some marks of reserve, for having thus disposed of my company at a distance, without consulting me.
"I am very grateful to you, Captain, for your extremely flattering words. When do you wish to leave Wargla?"
He made a gesture of complete detachment.
"Whenever you like. Tomorrow, this evening. I have already delayed you. Your preparations must have already been made for some time."
My little maneuver had turned against myself. I had not been counting on leaving before the next week.
"Tomorrow, Captain, but your luggage?" He smiled delightfully.
"I thought it best to bring as little as possible. A light pack, some papers. My brave camel had no difficulty in bringing it along. For the rest I depend on your advice, and the resources of Owargla."
I was well caught. I had nothing further to say. And moreover, such freedom of spirit and manner had already captivated me.
"It seems," said my comrades, when the time for aperitives had brought us all together again, "that
this Captain of yours is a remarkably charming fellow."
"You surely can't have any trouble with him. It is only up to you to see that later on he doesn't get all the glory."
"We aren't working with the same end in view," I answered evasively.
I was thoughtful, only thoughtful I give you my word. From that moment I harbored no further grudge against Morhange. Yet my silence persuaded him that I was unforgiving. And everyone,
do you hear me, everyone said later on, when suspicions became rife:
"He is surely guilty. We saw them go off together. We can affirm it."
I am guilty. . . . But for a low motive of jealousy. . . . How sickening. . . .
After that, there was nothing to do but to flee, flee, as far as the places where there are no more men who think and reason.
Morhange appeared, his arm resting on the Major's, who was beaming over this new acquaintanceship.
He presented him enthusiastically:
"Captain Morhange, gentlemen. An officer of the old school, and a man after our own hearts, I give you my word. He wants to leave tomorrow, but we must give him such a reception that he will
forget that idea before two days are up. Come, Captain, you have at least eight days to give us."
"I am at the disposition of Lieutenant de Saint-Avit," replied Morhange, with a quiet smile.
The conversation became general. The sound of glasses and laughter rang out. I heard my comrades in ecstasies over the stories that the newcomer poured out with never-failing humor. And I, never, never have I felt so sad.
The time came to pass into the dining-room.
"At my right, Captain," cried the Major, more and more beaming. "And I hope you will keep on giving us these new lines on Paris. We are not up with the times here, you know."
"Yours to command, Major," said Morhange. "Be seated, gentlemen."
The officers obeyed, with a joyous clatter of moving chairs. I had not taken my eyes off Morhange, who was still standing.
"Major, gentlemen, you will allow me," he said.
And before sitting down at that table, where every moment he was the life of the party, in a low voice, with his eyes closed, Captain Morhange recited the Benedicite.