Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
We passed through an interminable series of stairs and corridors following M. Le Mesge.
"You lose all sense of direction in this labyrinth," I muttered to Morhange.
"Worse still, you will lose your head," answered my companion sotto voce. "This old fool is certainly very learned; but God knows what he is driving at. However, he has promised that we are soon to know."
M. Le Mesge had stopped before a heavy dark door, all incrusted with strange symbols. Turning the lock with difficulty, he opened it.
"Enter, gentlemen, I beg you," he said.
A gust of cold air struck us full in the face. The room we were entering was chill as a vault.
At first, the darkness allowed me to form no idea of its proportions. The lighting, purposely subdued, consisted of twelve enormous copper lamps, placed column-like upon the ground and burning with brilliant red flames. As we entered, the wind from the
corridor made the flames flicker, momentarily casting about us our own enlarged and misshapen shadows. Then the gust died down, and the flames, no longer flurried, again licked up the darkness with their motionless red tongues.
These twelve giant lamps (each one about ten feet high) were arranged in a kind of crown, the diameter of which must have been about fifty feet. In the center of this circle was a dark mass, all streaked with trembling red reflections. When I drew nearer, I saw it was a bubbling fountain. It was the freshness of this water which had maintained the temperature of which I have spoken.
Huge seats were cut in the central rock from which gushed the murmuring, shadowy fountain. They were heaped with silky cushions. Twelve incense burners, within the circle of red lamps, formed a second crown, half as large in diameter. Their smoke mounted toward the vault, invisible in the darkness, but their perfume, combined with the coolness and sound of the water, banished from the soul all other desire than to remain there forever.
M. Le Mesge made us sit down in the center of the hall, on the Cyclopean seats. He seated himself between us.
"In a few minutes," he said, "your eyes will grow accustomed to the obscurity."
I noticed that he spoke in a hushed voice, as if he were in church.
Little by little, our eyes did indeed grow used to the red light. Only the lower part of the great hall was illuminated. The whole vault was drowned in shadow and its height was impossible to estimate. Vaguely, I could perceive overhead a great smooth gold chandelier, flecked, like everything else, with sombre red reflections. But there was no means of judging the length of the chain by which it hung from the dark ceiling.
The marble of the pavement was of so high a polish, that the great torches were reflected even there.
This room, I repeat, was round a perfect circle of which the fountain at our backs was the center.
We sat facing the curving walls. Before long, we began to be able to see them. They were of peculiar construction, divided into a series of niches, broken, ahead of us, by the door which had just opened to give us passage, behind us, by a second door, a still darker hole which I divined in the darkness when I turned around. From one door to the other, I counted sixty niches, making, in all, one hundred and twenty. Each was about ten feet high. Each contained a kind of case, larger above than below, closed only at the lower end. In all these cases, except two just opposite me, I thought I could discern a brilliant shape, a human shape certainly, something like a statue of very pale bronze. In the arc
of the circle before me, I counted clearly thirty of these strange statues.
What were these statues? I wanted to see. I rose.
M. Le Mesge put his hand on my arm.
"In good time," he murmured in the same low voice, "all in good time."
The Professor was watching the door by which we had entered the hall, and from behind which we could hear the sound of footsteps becoming more and more distinct.
It opened quietly to admit three Tuareg slaves. Two of them were carrying a long package on their shoulders; the third seemed to be their chief.
At a sign from him, they placed the package on the ground and drew out from one of the niches the case which it contained.
"You may approach, gentlemen," said M. Le Mesge.
He motioned the three Tuareg to withdraw several paces.
"You asked me, not long since, for some proof of the Egyptian influence on this country," said M. Le Mesge. "What do you say to that case, to begin with?"
As he spoke, he pointed to the case that the servants had deposited upon the ground after they took it from its niche.
Morhange uttered a thick cry.
We had before us one of those cases designed for the preservation of mummies. The same shiny wood, the same bright decorations, the only difference being that here Tifinar writing replaced the hieroglyphics. The form, narrow at the base, broader above, ought to have been enough to enlighten us.
I have already said that the lower half of this large case was closed, giving the whole structure the appearance of a rectangular wooden shoe.
M. Le Mesge knelt and fastened on the lower part of the case, a square of white cardboard, a large label, that he had picked up from his desk, a few minutes before, on leaving the library.
"You may read," he said simply, but still in the same low tone.
I knelt also, for the light of the great candelabra was scarcely sufficient to read the label where, none the less, I recognized the Professor's handwriting.
It bore these few words, in a large round hand:
"Number 53. Major Sir Archibald Russell. Born at Richmond, July 5, 1860. Died at Ahaggar, December 3, 1896."
I leapt to my feet.
"Major Russell!" I exclaimed.
"Not so loud, not so loud," said M. Le Mesge. "No one speaks out loud here."
"The Major Russell," I repeated, obeying his injunction
as if in spite of myself, "who left Khartoum last year, to explore Sokoto?"
"The same," replied the Professor.
"And . . . where is Major Russell?"
"He is there," replied M. Le Mesge.
The Professor made a gesture. The Tuareg approached.
A poignant silence reigned in the mysterious hall, broken only by the fresh splashing of the fountain.
The three negroes were occupied in undoing the package that they had put down near the painted case. Weighed down with wordless horror, Morhange and I stood watching.
Soon, a rigid form, a human form, appeared. A red gleam played over it. We had before us, stretched out upon the ground, a statue of pale bronze, wrapped in a kind of white veil, a statue like those all around us, upright in their niches. It seemed to fix us with an impenetrable gaze.
"Sir Archibald Russell," murmured M. Le Mesge slowly.
Morhange approached, speechless, but strong enough to lift up the white veil. For a long, long time he gazed at the sad bronze statue.
"A mummy, a mummy?" he said finally. "You deceive yourself, sir, this is no mummy."
"Accurately speaking, no," replied M. Le Mesge. "This is not a mummy. None the less, you have before you the mortal remains of Sir Archibald Russell.
[paragraph continues] I must point out to you, here, my dear sir, that the processes of embalming used by Antinea differ from the processes employed in ancient Egypt. Here, there is no natron, nor bands, nor spices. The industry of Ahaggar, in a single effort, has achieved a result obtained by European science only after long experiments. Imagine my surprise, when I arrived here and found that they were employing a method I supposed known only to the civilized world."
M. Le Mesge struck a light tap with his finger on the forehead of Sir Archibald Russell. It rang like metal.
"It is bronze," I said. "That is not a human forehead: it is bronze."
M. Le Mesge shrugged his shoulders.
"It is a human forehead," he affirmed curtly, "and not bronze. Bronze is darker, sir. This is the great unknown metal of which Plato speaks in the Critias, and which is something between gold and silver: it is the special metal of the mountains of the Atlan-tides. It is orichalch."
Bending again, I satisfied myself that this metal was the same as that with which the walls of the library were overcast.
"It is orichalch," continued M. Le Mesge. "You look as if you had no idea how a human body can look like a statue of orichalch. Come, Captain Morhange, you whom I gave credit for a certain amount of knowledge, have you never heard of the method
of Dr. Variot, by which a human body can be preserved without embalming? Have you never read the book of that practitioner? 1 He explains a method called electro-plating. The skin is coated with a very thin layer of silver salts, to make it a conductor. The body then is placed in a solution of copper sulphate, and the polar currents do their work. The body of this estimable English major has been metalized in the same manner, except that a solution of orichalch sulphate, a very rare substance, has been substituted for that of copper sulphate. Thus, instead of the statue of a poor slave, a copper statue, you have before you a statue of metal more precious than silver or gold, in a word, a statue worthy of the granddaughter of Neptune."
M. Le Mesge waved his arm. The black slaves seized the body. In a few seconds, they slid the orichalch ghost into its painted wooden sheath. That was set on end and slid into its niche, beside the niche where an exactly similar sheath was labelled "Number 52."
Upon finishing their task, they retired without a word. A draught of cold air from the door again made the flames of the copper torches flicker and threw great shadows about us.
Morhange and I remained as motionless as the pale metal specters which surrounded us. Suddenly
[paragraph continues] I pulled myself together and staggered forward to the niche beside that in which they just had laid the remains of the English major. I looked for the label.
Supporting myself against the red marble wall, I read:
"Number 52. Captain Laurent Deligne. Born at Paris, July 22, 1861. Died at Ahaggar, October 30, 1896."
"Captain Deligne!" murmured Morhange. "He left Colomb-Béchar in 1895 for Timmimoun and no more has been heard of him since then."
"Exactly," said M. Le Mesge, with a little nod of approval.
"Number 51," read Morhange with chattering teeth. "Colonel von Wittman, born at Jena in 1855. Died at Ahaggar, May 1, 1896. . . . Colonel Wittman, the explorer of Kanem, who disappeared off Agadès."
"Exactly," said M. Le Mesge again.
"Number 50," I read in my turn, steadying myself against the wall, so as not to fall. "Marquis Alonzo d’Oliveira, born at Cadiz, February 21, 1868. Died at Ahaggar, February 1, 1896. Oliveira, who was going to Araouan."
"Exactly," said M. Le Mesge again. "That Spaniard was one of the best educated. I used to have interesting discussions with him on the exact geographical position of the kingdom of Antée."
"Number 49," said Morhange in a tone scarcely more than a whisper. "Lieutenant Woodhouse, born at Liverpool, September 16, 1870. Died at Ahaggar, October 4, 1895."
"Hardly more than a child," said M. Le Mesge. "Number 48," I said. "Lieutenant Louis de Maillefeu, born at Provins, the . . ."
I did not finish. My voice choked.
Louis de Maillefeu, my best friend, the friend of my childhood and of Saint-Cyr. . . . I looked at him and recognized him under the metallic coating. Louis de Maillefeu!
I laid my forehead against the cold wall and, with shaking shoulders, began to sob.
I heard the muffled voice of Morhange speaking to the Professor:
"Sir, this has lasted long enough. Let us make an end to it."
"He wanted to know," said M. Le Mesge. "What am I to do?"
I went up to him and seized his shoulders.
"What happened to him? What did he die of?"
"Just like the others," the Professor replied, "just like Lieutenant Woodhouse, like Captain Deligne, like Major Russell, like Colonel van Wittman, like the forty-seven of yesterday and all those of to-morrow."
"Of what did they die?" Morhange demanded imperatively in his turn.
The Professor looked at Morhange. I saw my comrade grow pale.
"Of what did they die, sir? They died of love."
And he added in a very low, very grave voice:
"Now you know."
Gently and with a tact which we should hardly have suspected in him, M. Le Mesge drew us away from the statues. A moment later, Morhange and I found ourselves again seated, or rather sunk among the cushions in the center of the room. The invisible fountain murmured its plaint at our feet.
Le Mesge sat between us.
"Now you know," he repeated. "You know, but you do not yet understand."
Then, very slowly, he said:
"You are, as they have been, the prisoners of Antinea. And vengeance is due Antinea."
"Vengeance?" said Morhange, who had regained his self-possession. "For what, I beg to ask? What have the lieutenant and I done to Atlantis? How have we incurred her hatred?"
"It is an old quarrel, a very old quarrel," the Professor replied gravely. "A quarrel which long antedates you, M. Morhange."
"Explain yourself, I beg of you, Professor."
"You are Man. She is a Woman," said the dreamy voice of M. Le Mesge. "The whole matter lies there."
"Really, sir, I do not see . . . we do not see."
"You are going to understand. Have you really forgotten to what an extent the beautiful queens of antiquity had just cause to complain of the strangers whom fortune brought to their borders? The poet, Victor Hugo, pictured their detestable acts well enough in his colonial poem called la Fille d’O-Taiti. Wherever we look, we see similar examples of fraud and ingratitude. These gentlemen made free use of the beauty and the riches of the lady. Then, one fine morning, they disappeared. She was indeed lucky if her lover, having observed the position carefully, did not return with ships and troops of occupation.
"Your learning charms me," said Morhange. "Continue."
"Do you need examples? Alas 1 they abound. Think of the cavalier fashion in which Ulysses treated Calypso, Diomedes Callirhoë. What should I say of Theseus and Ariadne? Jason treated Medea with inconceivable lightness. The Romans continued the tradition with still greater brutality. Aenaeus, who has many characteristics in common with the Reverend Spardek, treated Dido in a most undeserved fashion. Cæsar was a laurel-crowned blackguard in his relations with the divine Cleopatra. Titus, that hypocrite Titus, after having lived a whole year in Idummea at the expense of the plaintive Berenice, took her back to Rome only to make game of her. It is time that the sons of Japhet
paid this formidable reckoning of injuries to the daughters of Shem.
"A woman has taken it upon herself to re-establish the great Hegelian law of equilibrium for the benefit of her sex. Separated from the Aryan world by the formidable precautions of Neptune, she draws the youngest and bravest to her. Her body is condescending, while her spirit is inexorable. She takes what these bold young men can give her. She lends them her body, while her soul dominates them. She is the first sovereign who has never been made the slave of passion, even for a moment. She has never been obliged to regain her self-mastery, for she never has lost it. She is the only woman who has been able to disassociate those two inextricable things, love and voluptuousness."
M. Le Mesge paused a moment and then went on. "Once every day, she comes to this vault. She stops before the niches; she meditates before the rigid statues; she touches the cold bosoms, so burning when she knew them. Then, after dreaming before the empty niche where the next victim soon will sleep his eternal sleep in a cold case of orichalch, she returns nonchalantly where he is waiting for her."
The Professor stopped speaking. The fountain again made itself heard in the midst of the shadow. My pulses beat, my head seemed on fire. A fever was consuming me.
"And all of them," I cried, regardless of the place, "all of them complied! They submitted! Well, she has only to come and she will see what will happen."
Morhange was silent.
"My dear sir," said M. Le Mesge in a very gentle voice, "you are speaking like a child. You do not know. You have not seen Antinea. Let me tell you one thing: that among those"—and with a sweeping gesture he indicated the silent circle of statues—"there were men as courageous as you and perhaps less excitable. I remember one of them especially well, a phlegmatic Englishman who now is resting under Number 32. When he first appeared before Antinea, he was smoking a cigar. And, like all the rest, he bent before the gaze of his sovereign.
"Do not speak until you have seen her. A university training hardly fits one to discourse upon matters of passion, and I feel scarcely qualified, myself, to tell you what Antinea is. I only affirm this, that when you have seen her, you will remember nothing else. Family, country, honor, you will renounce everything for her."
"Everything?" asked Morhange in a calm voice.
"Everything," Le Mesge insisted emphatically. "You will forget all, you will renounce all."
From outside, a faint sound came to us.
Le Mesge consulted his watch.
"In any case, you will see."
The door opened. A tall white Targa, the tallest we had yet seen in this remarkable abode, entered and came toward us.
He bowed and touched me lightly on the shoulder. "Follow him," said M. Le Mesge.
Without a word, I obeyed.
153:1 Variot: L’anthropologie galvanique. Paris, 1890. (Note by M. Leroux.)