Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
Count Casimir had reached that stage where drunkenness takes on a kind of gravity, of regretfulness.
He thought a little, then began his story. I regret that I cannot reproduce more perfectly its archaic flavor.
"When the grapes begin to color in Antinea's garden, I shall be sixty-eight. It is very sad, my dear boy, to have sowed all your wild oats. It isn't true that life is always beginning over again. How bitter, to have known the Tuileries in 1860, and to have reached the point where I am now!
"One evening, just before the war (I remember that Victor Black was still living), some charming women whose names I need not disclose (I read the names of their sons from time to time in the society news of the Gaulois) expressed to me their desire to rub elbows with some real demi-mondaines of the artist quarter. I took them to a ball at the Grande
[paragraph continues] Chaumière. There was a crowd of young painters, models, students. In the midst of the uproar, several couples danced the cancan till the chandeliers shook with it. We noticed especially a little, dark man, dressed in a miserable top-coat and checked trousers which assuredly knew the support of no suspenders. He was cross-eyed, with a wretched beard and hair as greasy as could be. He bounded and kicked extravagantly. The ladies called him Leon Gambetta.
"What an annoyance, when I realize that I need only have felled this wretched lawyer with one pistol shot to have guaranteed perfect happiness to myself and to my adopted country, for, my dear fellow, I am French at heart, if not by birth.
"I was born in 1829, at Warsaw, of a Polish father and a Russian mother. It is from her that I hold my title of Hetman of Jitomir. It was restored to me by Czar Alexander II on a request made to him on his visit to Paris, by my august master, the Emperor Napoleon III.
"For political reasons, which I cannot describe without retelling the history of unfortunate Poland, my father, Count Bielowsky, left Warsaw in 1830, and went to live in London. After the death of my mother, he began to squander his immense fortune—from sorrow, he said. When, in his time, he died at the period of the Prichard affair, he left me barely a thousand pounds sterling of income, plus two or
three systems of gaming, the impracticability of which I learned later.
"I will never be able to think of my nineteenth and twentieth years without emotion, for I then completely liquidated this small inheritance. London was indeed an adorable spot in those days. I had a jolly bachelor's apartment in Piccadilly.
"Fox hunting in a briska, driving a buggy in Hyde Park, the rout, not to mention the delightful little parties with the light Venuses of Drury Lane, this took all my time. All? I am unjust. There was also gaming, and a sentiment of filial piety forced me to verify the systems of the late Count, my father. It was gaming which was the cause of the event I must describe to you, by which my life was to be so strangely changed.
"My friend, Lord Malmesbury, had said to me a hundred times, 'I must take you to see an exquisite creature who lives in Oxford Street, number 277, Miss Howard.' One evening I went with him. It was the twenty-second of February, 1848. The mistress of the house was really marvelously beautiful, and the guests were charming. Besides Malmesbury, I observed several acquaintances: Lord Clebden, Lord Chesterfield, Sir Francis Mountjoye,
[paragraph continues] Major in the Second Life Guards, and Count d’Orsay. They played cards and then began to talk politics. Events in France played the main part in the conversation and they discussed endlessly the consequences of the revolt that had broken out in Paris that same morning, in consequence of the interdiction of the banquet in the 12th arrondissement, of which word had just been received by telegram. Up to that time, I had never bothered myself with public affairs. So I don't know what moved me to affirm with the impetuosity of my nineteen years that the news from France meant the Republic next day and the Empire the day after. . . .
"The company received my sally with a discreet laugh, and their looks were centered on a guest who made the fifth at a bouillotte table where they had just stopped playing.
"The guest smiled, too. He rose and came towards me. I observed that he was of middle height, perhaps even shorter, buttoned tightly into a blue frock coat, and that his eye had a far-off, dreamy look.
"All the players watched this scene with delighted amusement.
"'Whom have I the honor of addressing?' he asked in a very gentle voice.
"'Count Bielowsky,' I answered coolly to show him that the difference in our ages was not sufficient to justify the interrogation.
"'Well, my dear Count, may your prediction indeed be realized; and I hope that you will not neglect the Tuileries,' said the guest in the blue coat, with a smile.
"And he added, finally consenting to present himself:
"'Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte.'
"I played no active rôle in the coup d’état, and I do not regret it. It is a principle with me that a stranger should not meddle with the internal affairs of a country. The prince understood this discretion, and did not forget the young man who had been of such good omen to him.
"I was one of the first whom he called to the Elysée. My fortune was definitely established by a defamatory note on 'Napoleon the little.' The next year, when Mgr. Sibour was out of the way, I was made Gentleman of the Chamber, and the Emperor was even so kind as to have me marry the daughter of the Marshal Repeto, Duke of Mondovi.
"I have no scruple in announcing that this union was not what it should have been. The Countess, who was ten years older than I, was crabbed and not particularly pretty. Moreover, her family had insisted resolutely on a marriage portion. Now I had nothing at this time except the twenty-five thousand pounds for my appointment as Gentleman of the Chamber. A sad lot for anyone on intimate terms
with the Count d’Orsay and the Duke of Gramont-Caderousse! Without the kindness of the Emperor, where would I have been?
"One morning in the spring of 1852, I was in my study opening my mail. There was a letter from His Majesty, calling me to the Tuileries at four o'clock; a letter from Clémentine, informing me that she expected me at five o'clock at her house. Clémentine was the beautiful one for whom, just then, I was ready to commit any folly. I was so proud of her that, one evening at the Maison Dorée, I flaunted her before Prince Metternich, who was tremendously taken with her. All the court envied me that conquest; and I was morally obliged to continue to assume its expenses. And then Clémentine was so pretty! The Emperor himself . . . The other letters, good lord, the other letters were the bills of the dressmakers of that young person, who, in spite of my discreet remonstrances, insisted on having them sent to my conjugal dwelling.
"There were bills for something over forty thousand francs: gowns and ball dresses from Gagelin-Opigez, 23 Rue de Richelieu; hats and bonnets from Madame Alexandrine, 14 Rue d’Antin; lingerie and many petticoats from Madame Pauline, 100 Rue de Clery; dress trimmings and gloves from the Ville de Lyon, 6 Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin; foulards from the Malle des Indes; handkerchiefs from the
[paragraph continues] Compagnie Irlandaise; laces from Ferguson; cosmetics from Candès. . . . This whitening cream of Candès, in particular, overwhelmed me with stupefaction. The bill showed fifty-one flasks. Six hundred and twenty-seven francs and fifty centimes’ worth of whitening cream from Candès. . . . Enough to soften the skin of a squadron of a hundred guards!
"'This can't keep on,' I said, putting the bills in my pocket.
"At ten minutes to four, I crossed the wicket by the Carrousel.
"In the Salon of the aides de camp I happened on Bacciochi.
"'The Emperor has the grippe,' he said to me. 'He is keeping to his room. He has given orders to have you admitted as soon as you arrive. Come.'
"His Majesty, dressed in a braided vest and Cossack trousers, was meditating before a window. The pale green of the Tuileries showed luminously under a gentle warm shower.
"'Ah! Here he is,' said Napoleon. 'Here, have a cigarette. It seems that you had great doings, you and Gramont-Caderousse, last evening, at the Château des Fleurs.'
"I smiled with satisfaction.
"'So Your Majesty knows already . . .'
"'I know, I know vaguely.'
"'Do you know Gramont-Caderousse's last "mot"?'
"'No, but you are going to tell it to me.'
"'Here goes, then. We were five or six: myself, Viel-Castel, Gramont, Persigny . . .'
"'Persigny!' said the Emperor. 'He has no right to associate with Gramont, after all that Paris says about his wife.'
"'Just so, Sire. Well, Persigny was excited, no doubt about it. He began telling us how troubled he was because of the Duchess's conduct.'
"'This Fialin isn't over tactful,' murmured the Emperor.
"'Just so, Sire. Then, does Your Majesty know what Gramont hurled at him?'
"'He said to him, "Monsieur le Duc, I forbid you to speak ill of my mistress before me."
"'Gramont goes too far,' said Napoleon with a dreamy smile.
"'That is what we all thought, including Viel-Castel, who was nevertheless delighted.'
"'Apropos of this,' said Napoleon after a silence, 'I have forgotten to ask you for news of the Countess Bielowsky.'
"She is very well, Sire, I thank Your Majesty.'
"'And Clémentine? Still the same dear child?'
"'Always, Sire. But . . .'
"'It seems that M. Baroche is madly in love with her.'
"'I am very much honored, Sire. But this honor becomes too burdensome.'
"I had drawn from my pocket that morning's bills and I spread them out under the eyes of the Emperor.
"He looked at them with his distant smile.
"'Come, come. If that is all, I can fix that, since I have a favor to ask of you.'
"'I am entirely at Your Majesty's service.'
"He struck a gong.
"'Send for M. Mocquard.'
"'I have the grippe,' he said. 'Mocquard will explain the affair to you.'
"The Emperor's private secretary entered.
"'Here is Bielowsky, Mocquard,' said Napoleon.
'You know what I want him to do. Explain it to him.'
"And he began to tap on the window-panes against which the rain was beating furiously.
"'My dear Count,' said Mocquard, taking a chair, 'it is very simple. You have doubtless heard of a young explorer of promise, M. Henry Duveyrier.'
"I shook my head as a sign of negation, very much surprised at this beginning.
"'M. Duveyrier,' continued Mocquard, 'has returned to Paris after a particularly daring trip to South Africa and the Sahara. M. Vivien de Saint
[paragraph continues] Martin, whom I have seen recently has assured me that the Geographical Society intends to confer its great gold medal upon him, in recognition of these exploits. In the course of his trip, M. Duvreyrier has entered into negotiations with the chiefs of the people who always have been so rebellious to His Majesty's armies, the Tuareg.'
"I looked at the Emperor. My bewilderment was such that he began to laugh.
"'Listen,' he said.
"'M. Duveyrier,' continued Mocquard, 'was able to arrange to have a delegation of these chiefs come to Paris to present their respects to His Majesty. Very important results may arise from this visit, and His Excellency the Colonial Minister, does not despair of obtaining the signature of a treaty of commerce, reserving special advantages to our fellow countrymen. These chiefs, five of them, among them Sheik Otham, Amenokol or Sultan of the Confederation of Adzger, arrive to-morrow morning at the Gare de Lyon. M. Duveyrier will meet them. But the Emperor has thought that besides . . .'
"'I thought,' said Napoleon III, delighted by my bewilderment, 'I thought that it was correct to have some one of the Gentlemen of my Chamber wait upon the arrival of these Mussulman dignitaries. That is why you are here, my poor Bielowsky. Don't be frightened,' he added, laughing harder. 'You will have M. Duveyrier with you. You are
charged only with the special part of the reception: to accompany these princes to the lunch that I am giving them to-morrow at the Tuileries; then, in the evening, discreetly on account of their religious scruples, to succeed in giving them a very high idea of Parisian civilization, with nothing exaggerated: do not forget that in the Sahara they are very high religious dignitaries. In that respect, I have confidence in your tact and give you carte blanche. . . . Mocquard!'
"'You will apportion on the budget, half to Foreign Affairs, half to the Colonies, the funds Count Bielowsky will need for the reception of the Tuareg delegation. It seems to me that a hundred thousand francs, to begin . . . The Count has only to tell you if he is forced to exceed that figure.'
"Clémentine lived on the Rue Boccador, in a little Moorish pavillion that I had bought for her from M. de Lesseps. I found her in bed. When she saw me, she burst into tears.
"'Great fools that we are!' she murmured amidst her sobs, 'what have we done!'
"'Clémentine, tell me!'
"'What have we done, what have we done!' she repeated, and I felt against me, her floods of black hair, her warm cheek which was fragrant with eau de Nanon.
"'What is it? What can it be?'
"'It is . . .' and she murmured something in my ear.
"'No!' I said, stupefied. 'Are you quite sure?'
"'Am I quite sure!'
"I was thunderstruck.
"'You don't seem much pleased,' she said sharply.
"'I did not say that. . . . Though, really, I am very much pleased, I assure you.'
"Prove it to me: let us spend the day together to-morrow.'
"'To-morrow!' I stammered. 'Impossible!'
"'Why?' she demanded suspiciously.
"'Because to-morrow, I have to pilot the Tuareg mission about Paris. The Emperor's orders.'
"'What bluff is this?' asked Clémentine.
"'I admit that nothing so much resembles a lie as the truth.'
"I retold Mocquard's story to Clémentine, as well as I could. She listened to me with an expression that said: 'you can't fool me that way.'
"Finally, furious, I burst out:
"'You can see for yourself. I am dining with them, to-morrow; and I invite you.'
"'I shall be very pleased to come,' said Clémentine with great dignity.
"I admit that I lacked self-control at that minute. But think what a day it had been! Forty thousand francs of bills as soon as I woke up. The ordeal of
escorting the savages around Paris all the next day. And, quite unexpectedly, the announcement of an approaching irregular paternity. . . .
"'After all,' I thought, as I returned to my house, 'these are the Emperor's orders. He has commanded me to give the Tuareg an idea of Parisian civilization. Clémentine comports herself very well in society and just now it would not do to aggravate her. I will engage a room for to-morrow at the Café de Paris, and tell Gramont-Caderousse and Viel-Castel to bring their silly mistresses. It will be very French to enjoy the attitude of these children of the desert in the midst of this little party.'
"The train from Marseilles arrived at 10:20. On the platform I found M. Duveyrier, a young man of twenty-three with blue eyes and a little blond beard. The Tuareg fell into his arms as they descended from the train. He had lived with them for two years, in their tents, the devil knows where. He presented me to their chief, Sheik Otham, and to four others, splendid fellows in their blue cotton draperies and their amulets of red leather. Fortunately, they all spoke a kind of sabir 1 which helped things along.
"I only mention in passing the lunch at the Tuileries, the visits in the evening to the Museum, to the Hotel de Ville, to the Imperial Printing Press. Each
time, the Tuareg inscribed their names in the registry of the place they were visiting. It was interminable. To give you an idea, here is the complete name of Sheik Otham alone: Otham-ben-el-Hadj-el-Bekri-ben-el-Hadj-el-Faqqi-ben-Mohammad-Bouyaben-si-Ahmed-es-Souki-ben-Mahmoud. 1
"And there were five of them like that!
"I maintained my good humor, however, because on the boulevards, everywhere, our success was colossal. At the Café de Paris, at six-thirty, it amounted to frenzy. The delegation, a little drunk, embraced me: 'Bono, Napoléon; bono, Eugénie; bono, Casimir; bono, Christians.' Gramont-Caderousse and Viel Castel were already in booth number eight, with Anna Grimaldi, of the Folies Dramatiques, and Hortense Schneider, both beautiful enough to strike terror to the heart. But the palm was for my dear Clémentine, when she entered. I must tell you how she was dressed: a gown of white tulle, over China blue tarletan, with pleatings, and ruffles of tulle over the pleatings. The tulle skirt was caught up on each side by garlands of green leaves mingled with rose clusters. Thus it formed a valence which allowed the tarletan skirt to show in front and on the sides. The garlands were caught
up to the belt and, in the space between their branches, were knots of rose satin with long ends. The pointed bodice was draped with tulle, the billowy bertha of tulle was edged with lace. By way of head-dress, she had placed upon her black locks a diadem crown of the same flowers. Two long leafy tendrils were twined in her hair and fell on her neck. As cloak, she had a kind of scarf of blue cashmere embroidered in gold and lined with blue satin.
"So much beauty and splendor immediately moved the Tuareg and, especially, Clémentine's right-hand neighbor, El-Hadj-ben-Guemama, brother of Sheik Otham and Sultan of Ahaggar. By the time the soup arrived, a bouillon of wild game, seasoned with Tokay, he was already much smitten. When they served the compote of fruits Martinique à la liqueur de Mme. Amphoux, he showed every indication of illimitable passion. The Cyprian wine de la Commanderie made him quite sure of his sentiments. Hortense kicked my foot under the table. Gramont, intending to do the same to Anna, made a mistake and aroused the indignant protests of one of the Tuareg. I can safely say that when the time came to go to Mabille, we were enlightened as to the manner in which our visitors respected the prohibition decreed by the Prophet in respect to wine.
"At Mabille, while Clémentine, Hortense, Anna, Ludovic and the three Tuareg gave themselves over
to the wildest gallops, Sheik Otham took me aside and confided to me, with visible emotion, a certain commission with which he had just been charged by his brother, Sheik Ahmed.
"The next day, very early, I reached Clémentine's house.
"'My dear,' I began, after having waked her, not without difficulty, 'listen to me. I want to talk to you seriously.'
"She rubbed her eyes a bit crossly.
"'How did you like that young Arabian gentleman who was so taken with you last night?'
"'Why, well enough,' she said, blushing.
"'Do you know that in his country, he is the sovereign prince and reigns over territories five or six times greater than those of our august master, the Emperor Napoleon III?'
"'He murmured something of that kind to me,' she said, becoming interested.
"'Well, would it please you to mount on a throne, like our august sovereign, the Empress Eugénie?'
"Clémentine looked startled.
"'His own brother, Sheik Otham, has charged me in his name to make this offer.'
"Clémentine, dumb with amazement, did not reply.
"'I, Empress!' she finally stammered.
"'The decision rests with you. They must have
your answer before midday. If it is 'yes,' we lunch together at Voisin's, and the bargain is made.'
"I saw that she had already made up her mind, but she thought it well to display a little sentiment.
"'And you, you!' she groaned. "To leave you thus. . . . Never!'
"'No foolishness, dear child,' I said gently. 'You don't know perhaps that I am ruined. Yes, completely: I don't even know how I am going to pay for your complexion cream!'
"'Ah!' she sighed
"She added, however, 'And . . . the child?'
"'Our child . . . our child.'
"'Ah! That is so. Why, you will nave to put it down to profit and loss. I am even convinced that Sheik Ahmed will find that it resembles him.'
"'You can turn everything into a joke,' she said between laughing and crying.
"The next morning, at the same hour, the Marseilles express carried away the five Tuareg and Clémentine. The young woman, radiant, was leaning on the arm of Sheik Ahmed, who was beside himself with joy.
"'Have you many shops in your capital?' she asked him languidly.
"And he, smiling broadly under his veil, replied:
"'Besef, besef, bono, roumis, bono.'
"At the last moment, Clémentine had a pang of emotion.
"'Listen, Casimir, you have always been kind to me. I am going to be a queen. If you weary of it here, promise me, swear to me . . .'
"The Sheik had understood. He took a ring from his finger and slipped it onto mine.
"'Sidi Casimir, comrade,' he affirmed. 'You come—find us. Take Sidi Ahmed's ring and show it. Everybody at Ahaggar comrades. Bono Ahaggar, bono.'
"When I came out of the Gare de Lyon, I had the feeling of having perpetrated an excellent joke."
The Hetman of Jitomir was completely drunk. I had had the utmost difficulty in understanding the end of his story, because he interjected, every other moment, couplets from Jacques Offenbach's best score.
"Who was disagreeably surprised by the fall of Sedan? It was Casimir, poor old Casimir! Five thousand louis to pay by the fifth of September, and not the first sou, no, not the first sou. I take my hat
and my courage and go to the Tuileries. No more Emperor there, no! But the Empress was so kind. I found her alone—ah, people scatter quickly under such circumstances I—alone with a senator, M. Mérimée, the only literary man I have ever known who was at the same time a man of the world. 'Madame,' he was saying to her, 'you must give up all hope. M. Thiers, whom I just met on the Pont Royal, would listen to nothing.'
"'Madame,' I said in my turn, 'Your Majesty always will know where her true friends are.'
"And I kissed her hand.
"I returned to my home in the Rue de Lille. On the way I encountered the rabble going from the Corps Législatif to the Hotel de Ville. My mind was made up.
"'Madame,' I said to my wife, 'my pistols.'
"'What is the matter?' she asked, frightened.
"'All is lost. But there is still a chance to preserve my honor. I am going to be killed on the barricades.'
"'Ah! Casimir,' she sobbed, falling into my
arms. 'I have misjudged you. Will you forgive me?'
"'I forgive you, Aurelie,' I said with dignified emotion. 'I have not always been right myself.'
"I tore myself away from this mad scene. It was six o'clock. On the Rue de Bac, I hailed a cab on its mad career.
"'Twenty francs tip,' I said to the coachman, 'if you get to the Gare de Lyon in time for the Marseilles train, six thirty-seven.' "
The Hetman of Jitomir could say no more. He had rolled over on the cushions and slept with clenched fists.
I walked unsteadily to the great window.
The sun was rising, pale yellow, behind the sharp blue mountains.
204:1 Dialect spoken in Algeria and the Levant—a mixture of Arabian, French, Italian and Spanish.
205:1 I have succeeded in finding on the registry of the Imperial Printing Press the names of the Tuareg chiefs and those who accompanied them on their visit, M. Henry Duveyrier and the Count Bielowsky. (Note by M. Leroux.)