Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
With a blow of the tip of his cane Morhange knocked a fragment of rock from the black flank of the mountain.
"What is it?" he asked, holding it out to me.
"A basaltic peridot," I said.
"It can't be very interesting, you barely glanced at it."
"It is very interesting, on the contrary. But, for the moment, I admit that I am otherwise preoccupied."
"Look this way a bit," I said, showing towards the west, on the horizon, a black spot across the white plain.
It was six o'clock in the morning. The sun had risen. But it could not be found in the surprisingly polished air. And not a breath of air, not a breath. Suddenly one of the camels called. An enormous antelope had just come in sight, and had stopped in its flight, terrified, facing the wall of rock. It stayed there at a little distance from us, dazed, trembling on its slender legs.
Bou-Djema had rejoined us.
"When the legs of the mohor tremble it is because the firmament is shaken," he muttered.
"Yes, a storm."
"And you find that alarming?"
I did not answer immediately. I was exchanging several brief words with Bou-Djema, who was occupied in soothing the camels which were giving signs of being restive.
Morhange repeated his question. I shrugged my shoulders.
"Alarming? I don't know. I have never seen a storm on the Hoggar. But I distrust it. And the signs are that this is going to be a big one. See there already."
A slight dust had risen before the cliff. In the still air a few grains of sand had begun to whirl round and round, with a speed which increased to dizziness, giving us in advance the spectacle in miniature of what would soon be breaking upon us.
With harsh cries a flock of wild geese appeared, flying low. They came out of the west.
"They are fleeing towards the Sebkha d’Amanghor," said Bou-Djema.
There could be no greater mistake, I thought. Morhange looked at me curiously.
"What must we do?" he asked.
"Mount our camels immediately, before they are
completely demoralized, and hurry to find shelter in some high places. Take account of our situation. It is easy to follow the bed of a stream. But within a quarter of an hour perhaps the storm will have burst. Within a half hour a perfect torrent will be rushing here. On this soil, which is almost impermeable, rain will roll like a pail of water thrown on a bituminous pavement. No depth, all height. Look at this."
And I showed him, a dozen meters high, long hollow gouges, marks of former erosions on the rocky wall.
"In an hour the waters will reach that height. Those are the marks of the last inundation. Let us get started. There is not an instant to lose."
"All right," Morhange replied tranquilly.
We had the greatest difficulty to make the camels kneel. When we had thrown ourselves into the saddle they started off at a pace which their terror rendered more and more disorderly.
Of a sudden the wind began, a formidable wind, and almost at the same time the light was eclipsed in the ravine. Above our heads the sky had become, in the flash of an eye, darker than the walls of the canyon which we were descending at a breathless pace.
"A path, a stairway in the wall," I screamed against the wind to my companions. "If we don't find one in a minute we are lost."
They did not hear me, but, turning in my saddle, I saw that they had lost no distance, Morhange following me, and Bou-Djema in the rear driving the two baggage camels masterfully before him.
A blinding streak of lightning rent the obscurity. A peal of thunder, re-echoed to infinity by the rocky wall, rang out, and immediately great tepid drops began to fall. In an instant, our burnouses, which had been blown out behind by the speed with which we were traveling, were stuck tight to our streaming bodies.
"Saved!" I exclaimed suddenly.
Abruptly on our right a crevice opened in the midst of the wall. It was the almost perpendicular bed of a stream, an affluent of the one we had had the unfortunate idea of following that morning. Already a veritable torrent was gushing over it with a fine uproar.
I have never better appreciated the incomparable surefootedness of camels in the most precipitate places. Bracing themselves, stretching out their great legs, balancing themselves among the rocks that were beginning to be swept loose, our camels accomplished at that moment what the mules of the Pyrenees might have failed in.
After several moments of superhuman effort we found ourselves at last out of danger, on a kind of basaltic terrace, elevated some fifty meters above the channel of the stream we had just left. Luck was
with us; a little grotto opened out behind. Bou-Djema succeeded in sheltering the camels there. From its threshold we had leisure to contemplate in silence the prodigious spectacle spread out before us.
You have, I believe, been at the Camp of Chalons for artillery drills. You have seen when the shell bursts how the chalky soil of the Marne effervesces like the inkwells at school, when we used to throw a piece of calcium carbonate into them. Well, it was almost like that, but in the midst of the desert, in the midst of obscurity. The white waters rushed into the depths of the black hole, and rose and rose towards the pedestal on which we stood. And there was the uninterrupted noise of thunder, and still louder, the sound of whole walls of rock, undermined by the flood, collapsing in a heap and dissolving in a few seconds of time in the midst of the rising water.
All the time that this deluge lasted, one hour, perhaps two, Morhange and I stayed bending over this fantastic foaming vat; anxious to see, to see everything, to see in spite of everything; rejoicing with a kind of ineffable horror when we felt the shelf of basalt on which we had taken refuge swaying beneath us from the battering impact of the water. I believe that never for an instant did we think, so beautiful it was, of wishing for the end of that gigantic nightmare.
Finally a ray of the sun shone through. Only then did we look at each other.
Morhange held out his hand.
"Thank you," he said simply.
And he added with a smile:
"To be drowned in the very middle of the Sahara would have been pretentious and ridiculous. You have saved us, thanks to your power of decision, from this very paradoxical end."
Ah, that he had been thrown by a misstep of his camel and rolled to his death in the midst of the flood! Then what followed would never have happened. That is the thought that comes to me in hours of weakness. But I have told you that I pull myself out of it quickly. No, no, I do not regret it, I cannot regret it, that what happened did happen.
Morhange left me to go into the little grotto, where Bou-Djema's camels were now resting comfortably. I stayed alone, watching the torrent which was continuously rising with the impetuous inrush of its unbridled tributaries. It had stopped raining. The sun shone from a sky that had renewed its blueness. I could feel the clothes that had a moment before been drenching, drying upon me incredibly fast.
A hand was placed on my shoulder. Morhange was again beside me.
"Come here," he said.
Somewhat surprised, I followed him. We went into the grotto.
The opening, which was big enough to admit the camels, made it fairly light. Morhange led me up to the smooth face of rock opposite. "Look," he said, with unconcealed joy.
"What of it?"
"Don't you see?"
"I see that there are several Tuareg inscriptions," I answered, with some disappointment. "But I thought I had told you that I read Tifinar writing very badly. Are these writings more interesting than the others we have come upon before?"
"Look at this one," said Morhange. There was such an accent of triumph in his tone that this time I concentrated my attention.
I looked again.
The characters of the inscription were arranged in the form of a cross. It plays such an important part in this adventure that I cannot forego retracing it for you.
It was designed with great regularity, and the characters were cut deep into the rock. Although I knew so little of rock inscriptions at that time I had no difficulty in recognizing the antiquity of this one.
Morhange became more and more radiant as he regarded it.
I looked at him questioningly.
"Well, what have you to say now?" he asked. "What do you want me to say? I tell you that I can barely read Tifinar."
"Shall I help you?" he suggested.
This course in Berber writing, after the emotions through which we had just passed, seemed to me a little inopportune. But Morhange was so visibly delighted that I could not dash his joy.
"Very well then," began my companion, as much at his ease as if he had been before a blackboard, "what will strike you first about this inscription is its repetition in the form of a cross. That is to say that it contains the same word twice, top to bottom, and right to left. The word which it composes has seven letters so the fourth letter , comes naturally in the middle. This arrangement which is unique in Tifinar writing, is already remarkable enough. But there is better still. Now we will read it."
Getting it wrong three times out of seven I finally succeeded, with Morhange's help, in spelling the word.
"Have you got it?" asked Morhange when I had finished my task.
"Less than ever," I answered, a little put out; "a, n, t, i, n, h, a,—Antinha, I don't know that word, or anything like it, in all the Saharan dialects I am familiar with."
Morhange rubbed his hands together. His satisfaction was without bounds.
"You have said it. That is why the discovery is unique."
"There is really nothing, either in Berber or in Arabian, analogous to this word."
"Then, my dear friend, we are in the presence of a foreign word, translated into Tifinar."
"And this word belongs, according to your theory, to what language?
"You must realize that the letter e does not exist in the Tifinar alphabet. It has here been replaced by the phonetic sign which is nearest to it,—h. Restore e to the place which belongs to it in the word, and you have—"
"'Antinea,' precisely. We find ourselves before a Greek vocable reproduced in Tifinar. And I think that now you will agree with me that my find has a certain interest."
That day we had no more conferences upon
texts. A loud cry, anguished, terrifying, rang out. We rushed out to find a strange spectacle awaiting us.
Although the sky had cleared again, the torrent of yellow water was still foaming and no one could predict when it would fall. In mid-stream, struggling desperately in the current, was an extraordinary mass, gray and soft and swaying.
But what at the first glance overwhelmed us with astonishment was to see Bou-Djema, usually so calm, at this moment apparently beside himself with frenzy, bounding through the gullies and over the rocks of the ledge, in full pursuit of the shipwreck.
Of a sudden I seized Morhange by the arm. The grayish thing was alive. A pitiful long neck emerged from it with the heartrending cry of a beast in despair.
"The fool," I cried, "he has let one of our beasts get loose, and the stream is carrying it away!"
"You are mistaken," said Morhange. "Our camels are all in the cave. The one Bou-Djema is running after is not ours. And the cry of anguish we just heard, that was not Bou-Djema either. Bou-Djema is a brave Chaamba who has at this moment only one idea, to appropriate the intestate capital represented by this camel in the stream."
"Who gave that cry, then?"
"Let us try, if you like, to explore up this stream that our guide is descending at such a rate."
And without waiting for my answer he had already set out through the recently washed gullies of the rocky bank.
At that moment it can be truly said that Morhange went to meet his destiny.
I followed him. We had the greatest difficulty in proceeding two or three hundred meters. Finally we saw at our feet a little rushing brook where the water was falling a trifle.
"See there?" said Morhange.
A blackish bundle was balancing on the waves of the creek.
When we had come up even with it we saw that it was a man in the long dark blue robes of the Tuareg.
"Give me your hand," said Morhange, "and brace yourself against a rock, hard."
He was very, very strong. In an instant, as if it were child's play, he had brought the body ashore.
"He is still alive," he pronounced with satisfaction. "Now it is a question of getting him to the grotto. This is no place to resuscitate a drowned man."
He raised the body in his powerful arms.
"It is astonishing how little he weighs for a man of his height."
By the time we had retraced the way to the grotto
the man's cotton clothes were almost dry. But the dye had run plentifully, and it was an indigo man that Morhange was trying to recall to life.
When I had made him swallow a quart of rum he opened his eyes, looked at the two of us with surprise, then, closing them again, murmured almost unintelligibly a phrase, the sense of which we did not get until some days later:
"Can it be that I have reached the end of my mission?"
"What mission is he talking about?" I said.
"Let him recover himself completely," responded Morhange. "You had better open some preserved food. With fellows of this build you don't have to observe the precautions prescribed for drowned Europeans."
It was indeed a species of giant, whose life we had just saved. His face, although very thin, was regular, almost beautiful. He had a clear skin and little beard. His hair, already white, showed him to be a man of sixty years.
When I placed a tin of corned-beef before him a light of voracious joy came into his eyes. The tin contained an allowance for four persons. It was empty in a flash.
"Behold," said Morhange, "a robust appetite. Now we can put our questions without scruple."
Already the Targa had placed over his forehead and face the blue veil prescribed by the ritual. He
must have been completely famished not to have performed this indispensable formality sooner. There was nothing visible now but the eyes, watching us with a light that grew steadily more sombre.
"French officers," he murmured at last.
And he took Morhange's hand, and having placed it against his breast, carried it to his lips.
Suddenly an expression of anxiety passed over his face.
"And my mehari?" he asked.
I explained that our guide was then employed in trying to save his beast. He in turn told us how it had stumbled, and fallen into the current, and he himself, in trying to save it, had been knocked over. His forehead had struck a rock. He had cried out. After that he remembered nothing more.
"What is your name?" I asked.
"What tribe do you belong to?"
"The tribe of Kel-Tahat."
"The Kel-Tahats are the serfs of the tribe of Kel-Rhela, the great nobles of Hoggar?"
"Yes," he answered, casting a side glance in my direction. It seemed that such precise questions on the affairs of Ahygar were not to his liking.
"The Kel-Tahats, if I am not mistaken, are established on the southwest flank of Atakor.' 1 What
were you doing, so far from your home territory when we saved your life?"
"I was going, by way of Tit, to In-Saleh," he said.
"What were you going to do at In-Saleh?"
He was about to reply. But suddenly we saw him tremble. His eyes were fixed on a point of the cavern. We looked to see what it was. He had just seen the rock inscription which had so delighted Morhange an hour before.
"Do you know that?" Morhange asked him with keen curiosity.
The Targa did not speak a word but his eyes had a strange light.
"Do you know that?" insisted Morhange. And he added:
"Antinea," repeated the man.
And he was silent.
"Why don't you answer the Captain?" I called out, with a strange feeling of rage sweeping over me.
The Targui looked at me. I thought that he was going to speak. But his eyes became suddenly hard. Under the lustrous veil I saw his features stiffening.
Morhange and I turned around.
On the threshold of the cavern, breathless, discomfited, harassed by an hour of vain pursuit, Bou-Djema had returned to us.
82:1 Another name, in the Temahaq language, for Ahaggar. (Note by M. Leroux.)