Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
As Eg-Anteouen and Bou-Djema came face to face, I fancied that both the Targa and the Chaamba gave a sudden start which each immediately repressed. It was nothing more than a fleeting impression. Nevertheless, it was enough to make me resolve that as soon as I was alone with our guide,
I would question him closely concerning our new companion.
The beginning of the day had been wearisome enough. 'We decided, therefore, to spend the rest of it there, and even to pass the night in the cave, waiting till the flood had completely subsided.
In the morning, when I was marking our day's march upon the map, Morhange came toward me. I noticed that his manner was somewhat restrained.
"In three days, we shall be at Shikh-Salah," I said to him. "Perhaps by the evening of the second day, badly as the camels go."
"Perhaps we shall separate before then," he muttered.
"You see, I have changed my itinerary a little. I have given up the idea of going straight to Timissao. First I should like to make a little excursion into the interior of the Ahaggar range."
"What is this new idea?"
As I spoke I looked about for Eg-Anteouen, whom I had seen in conversation with Morhange the previous evening and several minutes before. He was quietly mending one of his sandals with a waxed thread supplied by Bou-Djema. He did not raise his head.
"It is simply," explained Morhange, less and less at his ease, "that this man tells me there are similar inscriptions in several caverns in western Ahaggar. These caves are near the road that he has to take returning home. He must pass by Tit. Now, from Tit, by way of Silet, is hardly two hundred kilometers. It is a quasi-classic route 1 as short again as the one that I shall have to take alone, after I leave you, from Shikh-Salah to Timissao. That is in part, you see, the reason which has made me decide to . . ."
"In part? In very small part," I replied. "But is your mind absolutely made up?"
"It is," he answered me.
"When do you expect to leave me?"
"To-day. The road which Eg-Anteouen proposes to take into Ahaggar crosses this one about four leagues from here. I have a favor to ask of you in this connection."
"Please tell me."
"It is to let me take one of the two baggage camels, since my Targa has lost his."
"The camel which carries your baggage belongs to you as much as does your own mehari," I answered coldly.
We stood there several minutes without speaking. Morhange maintained an uneasy silence; I was examining my map. All over it in greater or less degree, but particularly towards the south, the unexplored portions of Ahaggar stood out as far too numerous white patches in the tan area of supposed mountains.
I finally said:
"You give me your word that when you have seen these famous grottos, you will make straight for Timissao by Tit and Silet?"
He looked at me uncomprehendingly.
"Why do you ask that?"
"Because, if you promise me that,—provided, of course, that my company is not unwelcome to you—I will go with you. Either way, I shall have two hundred kilometers to go. I shall strike for Shikh-Salah
from the south, instead of from the west—that is the only difference."
Morhange looked at me with emotion.
"Why do you do this?" he murmured.
"My dear fellow," I said (it was the first time that I had addressed Morhange in this familiar way), "my dear fellow, I have a sense which becomes marvellously acute in the desert, the sense of danger. I gave you a slight proof of it yesterday morning, at the coming of the storm. With all your knowledge of rock inscriptions, you seem to me to have no very exact idea of what kind of place Ahaggar is, nor what may be in store for you there. On that account, I should be just as well pleased not to let you run sure risks alone."
"I have a guide," he said with his adorable naiveté.
Eg-Anteouen, in the same squatting position, kept on patching his old slipper.
I took a step toward him.
"You heard what I said to the Captain?"
"Yes," the Targa answered calmly.
"I am going with him. We leave you at Tit, to which place you must bring us. Where is the place you proposed to show the Captain?"
"I did not propose to show it to him; it was his own idea," said the Targa coldly. "The grottos with the inscriptions are three-days’ march southward in the mountains. At first, the road is rather rough.
[paragraph continues] But farther on, it turns, and you gain Timissao very easily. There are good wells where the Tuareg Taitoqs, who are friendly to the French, come to water their camels."
"And you know the road well?"
He shrugged his shoulders. His eyes had a scornful smile.
"I have taken it twenty times," he said.
"In that case, let's get started."
We rode for two hours. I did not exchange a word with Morhange. I had a clear intuition of the folly we were committing in risking ourselves so unconcernedly in that least known and most dangerous part of the Sahara. Every blow which had been struck in the last twenty years to undermine the French advance had come from this redoubtable Ahaggar. But what of it? It was of my own will that I had joined in this mad scheme. No need of going over it again. What was the use of spoiling my action by a continual exhibition of disapproval? And, furthermore, I may as well admit that I rather liked the turn that our trip was beginning to take. I had, at that instant, the sensation of journeying toward something incredible, toward some tremendous adventure. You do not live with impunity for months and years as the guest of the desert. Sooner or later, it has its way with you, annihilates the good officer, the timid executive, overthrows his solicitude for his responsibilities. What is there behind those
mysterious rocks, those dim solitudes, which have held at bay the most illustrious pursuers of mystery? You follow, I tell you, you follow.
"Are you sure at least that this inscription is interesting enough to justify us in our undertaking?" I asked Morhange.
My companion started with pleasure. Ever since we began our journey I had realized his fear that I was coming along half-heartedly. As soon as I offered him a chance to convince me, his scruples vanished, and his triumph seemed assured to him.
"Never," he answered, in a voice that he tried to control, but through which the enthusiasm rang out, "never has a Greek inscription been found so far south. The farthest points where they have been reported are in the south of Algeria and Cyrene. But in Ahaggar! Think of it! It is true that this one is translated into Tifinar. But this peculiarity does not diminish the interest of the coincidence: it increases it."
"What do you take to be the meaning of this word?"
"Antinea can only be a proper name," said Morhange. "To whom does it refer? I admit I don't know, and if at this very moment I am marching toward the south, dragging you along with me, it is because I count on learning more about it. Its etymology? It hasn't one definitely, but there are thirty
possibilities. Bear in mind that the Tifinar alphabet is far from tallying with the Greek alphabet, which increases the number of hypotheses. Shall I suggest several?"
"I was just about to ask you to."
"To begin with, there is ἀντι and ναῦς the woman who is placed opposite a vessel, an explanation which would have been pleasing to Gaffarel and to my venerated master Berlioux. That would apply well enough to the figure-heads of ships. There is a technical term that I cannot recall at this moment, not if you beat me a hundred times over. 1
"Then there is ἀντινηα, that you must relate to ἀντι and ναός, she who holds herself before the ναός, the ναός of the temple, she who is opposite the sanctuary, therefore priestess. An interpretation which would enchant Girard and Renan.
"Next we have ἀντινέ from ἀντι and νέος, new, which can mean two things: either she who is the contrary of young, which is to say old; or she who is the enemy of novelty or the enemy of youth.
There is still another sense of ᾽νατί, in exchange for, which is capable of complicating all the others I have mentioned; likewise there are four meanings for the verb νἐω, which means in turn
to go, to flow, to thread or weave, to heap. There is more still. . . . And notice, please, that I have not at my disposition on the otherwise commodious hump of this mehari, either the great dictionary of Estienne or the lexicons of Passow, of Pape, or of Liddel-Scott. This is only to show you, my dear friend, that epigraphy is but a relative science, always dependent on the discovery of a new text which contradicts the previous findings, when it is not merely at the mercy of the humors of the epigraphists and their pet conceptions of the universe. 1
"That was rather my view of it," I said. "But I must admit my astonishment to find that, with such a sceptical opinion of the goal, you still do not hesitate to take risks which may be quite considerable."
Morhange smiled wanly.
"I do not interpret, my friend; I collect. From what I will take back to him, Dom Granger has the ability to draw conclusions which are beyond my slight knowledge. I was amusing myself a little. Pardon me."
Just then the girth of one of the baggage camels, evidently not well fastened, came loose. Part of the load slipped and fell to the ground.
Eg-Anteouen descended instantly from his beast and helped Bou-Djema repair the damage.
When they had finished, I made my mehari walk beside Bou-Djema's.
"It will be better to resaddle the camels at the next stop. They will have to climb the mountain."
The guide looked at me with amazement. Up to that time I had thought it unnecessary to acquaint him with our new projects. But I supposed Eg-Anteouen would have told him.
"Lieutenant, the road across the white plain to Shikh-Salah is not mountainous," said the Chaamba.
"We are not keeping to the road across the white plain. We are going south, by Ahaggar."
"By Ahaggar," he murmured. "But . . ."
"I do not know the road."
"Eg-Anteouen is going to guide us."
I watched Bou-Djema as he made this suppressed ejaculation. His eyes were fixed on the Targa with a mixture of stupor and fright.
Eg-Anteouen's camel was a dozen yards ahead of us, side by side with Morhange's. The two men were talking. I realized that Morhange must be conversing with Eg-Anteouen about the famous inscriptions. But we were not so far behind that they could not have overheard our words.
Again I looked at my guide. I saw that he was pale.
"What is it, Bou-Djema?" I asked in a low voice.
"Not here, Lieutenant, not here," he muttered.
His teeth chattered. He added in a whisper:
"Not here. This evening, when we stop, when he turns to the East to pray, when the sun goes down. Then, call me to you. I will tell you. . . . But not here. He is talking, but he is listening. Go ahead. Join the Captain."
"What next?" I murmured, pressing my camel's neck with my foot so as to make him overtake Morhange.
It was about five o'clock when Eg-Anteouen who was leading the way, came to a stop.
"Here it is," he said, getting down from his camel.
It was a beautiful and sinister place. To our left a fantastic wall of granite outlined its gray ribs against the sky. This wall was pierced, from top to bottom, by a winding corridor about a thousand feet high and scarcely wide enough in places to allow three camels to walk abreast.
"Here it is," repeated the Targa.
To the west, straight behind us, the track that we were leaving unrolled like a pale ribbon. The white plain, the road to Shikh-Salah, the established halts, the well-known wells. . . . And, on the other side,
this black wall against the mauve sky, this dark passage.
I looked at Morhange.
"We had better stop here," he said simply. "Eg-Anteouen advises us to take as much water here as we can carry."
With one accord we decided to spend the night there, before undertaking the mountain.
There was a spring, in a dark basin, from which fell a little cascade; there were a few shrubs, a few plants.
Already the camels were browsing at the length of their tethers.
Bou-Djema arranged our camp dinner service of tin cups and plates on a great flat stone. An opened tin of meat lay beside a plate of lettuce which he had just gathered from the moist earth around the spring. I could tell from the distracted manner in which he placed these objects upon the rock how deep was his anxiety.
As he was bending toward me to hand me a plate, he pointed to the gloomy black corridor which we were about to enter.
"Blad-el-Khouf!" he murmured.
"What did he say?" asked Morhange, who had seen the gesture.
"Blad-el-Khouf. This is the country of fear. That is what the Arabs call Ahaggar."
Bou-Djema went a little distance off and sat down,
leaving us to our dinner. Squatting on his heels, he began to eat a few lettuce leaves that he had kept for his own meal.
Eg-Anteouen was still motionless.
Suddenly the Targa rose. The sun in the west was no larger than a red brand. We saw Eg-Anteouen approach the fountain, spread his blue burnous on the ground and kneel upon it.
"I did not suppose that the Tuareg were so observant of Mussulman tradition," said Morhange. "Nor I," I replied thoughtfully.
But I had something to do at that moment besides making such speculations.
"Bou-Djema," I called.
At the same time, I looked at Eg-Anteouen. Absorbed in his prayer, bowed toward the west, apparently he was paying no attention to me. As he prostrated himself, I called again.
"Bou-Djema, come with me to my mehari; I want to get something out of the saddle bags."
Still kneeling, Eg-Anteouen was mumbling his prayer slowly, composedly.
But Bou-Djema had not budged.
His only response was a deep moan.
Morhange and I leaped to our feet and ran to the guide. Eg-Anteouen reached him as soon as we did.
With his eyes closed and his limbs already cold, the Chaamba breathed a death rattle in Morhange's arms. I had seized one of his hands. Eg-Anteouen
took the other. Each, in his own way, was trying to divine, to understand. . . .
Suddenly Eg-Anteouen leapt to his feet. He had just seen the poor embossed bowl which the Arab had held an instant before between his knees, and which now lay overturned upon the ground.
He picked it up, looked quickly at one after another of the leaves of lettuce remaining in it, and then gave a hoarse exclamation.
"So," said Morhange, "it's his turn now; he is going to go mad."
Watching Eg-Anteouen closely, I saw him hasten without a word to the rock where our dinner was set, a second later, he was again beside us, holding out the bowl of lettuce which he had not yet touched.
Then he took a thick, long, pale green leaf from Bou-Djema's bowl and held it beside another leaf he had just taken from our bowl.
"Afahlehle," was all he said.
I shuddered, and so did Morhange. It was the afahlehla, the falestez, of the Arabs of the Sahara, the terrible plant which had killed a part of the Flatters mission more quickly and surely than Tuareg arms.
Eg-Anteouen stood up. His tall silhouette was outlined blackly against the sky which suddenly had turned pale lilac. He was watching us.
We bent again over the unfortunate guide.
"Afahlehle," the Targa repeated, and shook his head.
Bou-Djema died in the middle of the night without having regained consciousness.
85:1 The route and the stages from Tit to Timissao were actually plotted out, as early as 1888, by Captain Bissuel. Les Tuareg de l’Ouest, itineraries 1 and 10. (Note by M. Leroux.)
90:1 It is perhaps worth noting here that Figures de Proues is the exact title of a very remarkable collection of poems by Mme. Delarus-Mardrus. (Note by M. Leroux.)
91:1 Captain Morhange seems to have forgotten in this enumeration, in places fanciful, the etymology of ἀνθίνεα, a Doric dialect form of ἀνθινὴ, from ἄνθος, a flower, and which would mean which is in flower. (Note by M. Leroux.)