Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
It was at night that Saint-Avit liked to tell me a little of his enthralling history. He gave it to me in short instalments, exact and chronological, never anticipating the episodes of a drama whose tragic outcome I knew already. Not that he wished to obtain more effect that way—I felt that he was far removed from any calculation of that sort! Simply from the extraordinary nervousness into which he was thrown by recalling such memories.
One evening, the mail from France had just arrived. The letters that Chatelain had handed us lay upon the little table, not yet opened. By the light of the lamp, a pale halo in the midst of the great black desert, we were able to recognize the writing of the addresses. Oh! the victorious smile of Saint-Avit when, pushing aside all those letters, I said to him in a trembling voice:
He acquiesced without further words.
"Nothing can give you any idea of the fever I
was in from the day when the Hetman of Jitomir told me of his adventures to the day when I found myself in the presence of Antinea. The strangest part was that the thought that I was, in a way, condemned to death, did not enter into this fever. On the contrary, it was stimulated by my desire for the event which would be the signal of my downfall, the summons from Antinea. But this summons was not speedy in coming. And from this delay, arose my unhealthy exasperation.
Did I have any lucid moments in the course of these hours? I do not think so. I do not recall having even said to myself, "What, aren't you ashamed? Captive in an unheard of situation, you not only are not trying to escape, but you even bless your servitude and look forward to your ruin." I did not even color my desire to remain there, to enjoy the next step in the adventure, by the pretext I might have given—unwillingness to escape without Morhange. If I felt a vague uneasiness at not seeing him again, it was not because of a desire to know that he was well and safe.
Well and safe, I knew him to be, moreover. The Tuareg slaves of Antinea's household were certainly not very communicative. The women were hardly more loquacious. I heard, it is true, from Sydya and Aguida, that my companion liked pomegranates or that he could not endure kouskous of bananas. But if I asked for a different kind of information,
they fled, in fright, down the long corridors. With Tanit-Zerga, it was different. This child seemed to have a distaste for mentioning before me anything bearing in any way upon Antinea. Nevertheless, I knew that she was devoted to her mistress with a doglike fidelity. But she maintained an obstinate silence if I pronounced her name or, persisting, the name of Morhange.
As for the Europeans, I did not care to question these sinister puppets. Besides, all three were difficult of approach. The Hetman of Jitomir was sinking deeper and deeper into alcohol. What intelligence remained to him, he seemed to have dissolved the evening when he had invoked his youth for me. I met him from time to time in the corridors that had become all at once too narrow for him, humming in a thick voice a couplet from the music of La Reine Hortense.
As for Pastor Spardek, I would cheerfully have killed the old skinflint. And the hideous little man with the decorations, the placid printer of labels for the red marble hall,—how could I meet him without wanting to cry out in his face: "Eh! eh! Sir Professor, a very curious case of apocope: Ἀτλαντίνεα
[paragraph continues] Suppression of alpha, of tau and of lambda! I would like to direct your attention to another case as curious: κλημῆντινεα, Clémentine. Apocope of kappa, of lambda, of epsilon and of mu. If Morhange were with us, he would tell you many charming erudite things about it. But, alas! Morhange does not deign to come among us any more. We never see Morhange."
My fever for information found a little more favorable reception from Rosita, the old negress manicure. Never have I had my nails polished so often as during those days of waiting! Now—after six years—she must be dead. I shall not wrong her memory by recording that she was very partial to the bottle. The poor old soul was defenseless against those that I brought her and that I emptied with her, through politeness.
Unlike the other slaves, who are brought from the South toward Turkey by the merchants of Rhât, she was born in Constantinople and had been brought into Africa by her master when he became kaïmakam of Rhadamès. . . . But don't let me complicate this already wandering history by the incantations of this manicure.
"Antinea," she said to me, "is the daughter of El-Hadj-Ahmed-ben-Guemâma, Sultan of Ahaggar, and Sheik of the great and noble tribe of Kel-Rhela. She was born in the year twelve hundred and eighty-one of the Hegira. She has never wished to marry
any one. Her wish has been respected for the will of women is sovereign in this Ahaggar where she rules to-day. She is a cousin of Sidi-el-Senoussi, and, if she speaks the word, Christian blood will flow from Djerid to Touat, and from Tchad to Senegal. If she had wished it, she might have lived beautiful and respected in the land of the Christians. But she prefers to have them come to her."
"Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh," I said, "do you know him? He is entirely devoted to her?"
"Nobody here knows Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh very well, because he is continually traveling. It is true that he is entirely devoted to Antinea. Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh is a Senoussi, and Antinea is the cousin of the chief of the Senoussi. Besides, he owes his life to her. He is one of the men who assassinated the great Kébir Flatters. On account of that, Ikenoukhen, amenokol of the Adzjer Tuareg, fearing French reprisals, wanted to deliver Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh to them. When the whole Sahara turned against him, he found asylum with Antinea. Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh will never forget it, for he is brave and observes the law of the Prophet. To thank her, he led to Antinea, who was then twenty years old, three French officers of the first troops of occupation in Tunis. They are the ones who are numbered, in the red marble hall, 1, 2, and 3."
"And Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh has always fulfilled his duties successfully?"
"Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh is well trained, and he knows the vast Sahara as I know my little room at the top of the mountain. At first, he made mistakes. That is how, on his first trips, he brought back old Le Mesge and marabout Spardek."
"What did Antinea say when she saw them?"
"Antinea? She laughed so hard that she spared them. Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh was vexed to see her laugh so. Since then, he has never made a mistake."
"He has never made a mistake?"
"No. I have cared for the hands and feet of all that he has brought here. All were young and handsome. But I think that your comrade, whom they brought to me the other day, after you were here, is the handsomest of all."
"Why," I asked, turning the conversation, "why, since she spared them their lives, did she not free the pastor and M. Le Mesge?"
"She has found them useful, it seems," said the old woman. "And then, whoever once enters here, can never leave. Otherwise, the French would soon be here and, when they saw the hall of red marble, they would massacre everybody. Besides, of all those whom Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh has brought here, no one, save one, has wished to escape after seeing Antinea."
"She keeps them a long time?"
"That depends upon them and the pleasure that
she takes in them. Two months, three months, on the average. It depends. A big Belgian officer, formed like a colossus, didn't last a week. On the other hand, everyone here remembers little Douglas Kaine, an English officer: she kept him almost a year."
"And then, he died," said the old woman as if astonished at my question.
"Of what did he die?"
She used the same phrase as M. Le Mesge:
"Like all the others: of love.
"Of love," she continued. "They all die of love when they see that their time is ended, and that Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh has gone to find others. Several have died quietly with tears in their great eyes. They neither ate nor slept any more. A French naval officer went mad. All night, he sang a sad song of his native country, a song which echoed through the whole mountain. Another, a Spaniard, was as if maddened: he tried to bite. It was necessary to kill him. Many have died of kif, a kif that is more violent than opium. When they no longer have Antinea, they smoke, smoke. Most have died that way . . . the happiest. Little Kaine died differently."
"How did little Kaine die?"
"In a way that pained us all very much. I told you that he stayed longer among us than anyone
else. We had become used to him. In Antinea's room, on a little Kairoun table, painted in blue and gold, there is a gong with a long silver hammer with an ebony handle, very heavy. Aguida told me about it. When Antinea gave little Kaine his dismissal, smiling as she always does, he stopped in front of her, mute, very pale. She struck the gong for someone to take him away. A Targa slave came. But little Kaine had leapt for the hammer, and the Targa lay on the ground with his skull smashed. Antinea smiled all the time. They led little Kaine to his room. The same night, eluding guards, he jumped out of his window at a height of two hundred feet. The workmen in the embalming room told me that they had the greatest difficulty with his body. But they succeeded very well. You have only to go see for yourself. He occupies niche number 26 in the red marble hall."
The old woman drowned her emotion in her glass.
"Two days before," she continued, "I had done his nails, here, for this was his room. On the wall, near the window, he had written something in the stone with his knife. See, it is still here."
"Was it not Fate, that on this July midnight . . ."
At any other moment, that verse, traced in the stone of the window through which the English officer had hurled himself, would have killed me with overpowering emotion. But just then, another thought was in my heart.
"Tell me," I said, controlling my voice as well as I could, "when Antinea holds one of us in her power, she shuts him up near her, does she not? Nobody sees him any more?"
The old woman shook her head.
"She is not afraid that he will escape. The mountain is well guarded. Antinea has only to strike her silver gong; he will be brought back to her immediately."
"But my companion. I have not seen him since she sent for him. . . ."
The negress smiled comprehendingly.
"If you have not seen him, it is because he prefers to remain near her. Antinea does not force him to. Neither does she prevent him."
I struck my fist violently upon the table.
"Get along with you, old fool. And be quick about it!"
Rosita fled frightened, hardly taking time to collect her little instruments.
"Was it not Fate, that on this July midnight . . ."
I obeyed the negress's suggestion. Following the corridors, losing my way, set on the right road again by the Reverend Spardek, I pushed open the door of the red marble hall. I entered.
The freshness of the perfumed crypt did me good. No place can be so sinister that it is not, as it were, purified by the murmur of running water. The cascade, gurgling in the middle hall, comforted me.
[paragraph continues] One day before an attack I was lying with my section in deep grass, waiting for the moment, the blast of the bugle, which would demand that we leap forward into the hail of bullets. A stream was at my feet. I listened to its fresh rippling. I admired the play of light and shade in the transparent water, the little beasts, the little black fish, the green grass, the yellow wrinkled sand . . . The mystery of water always has carried me out of myself.
Here, in this magic hall, my thoughts were held by the dark cascade. It felt friendly. It kept me from faltering in the midst of these rigid evidences of so many monstrous sacrifices. . . . Number 26. It was he all right. Lieutenant Douglas Kaine, born at Edinburgh, September 21, 1862. Died at Ahaggar, July 16, 189o. Twenty-eight. He wasn't even twenty-eight! His face was thin under the coat of orichalch. His mouth sad and passionate. It was certainly he. Poor youngster.—Edinburgh,—I knew Edinburgh, without ever having been there. From the wall of the castle you can see the Pentland hills. "Look a little lower down," said Stevenson's sweet Miss Flora to Anne of Saint-Yves, "look a little lower down and you will see, in the fold of the hill, a clump of trees and a curl of smoke that rises from among them. That is Swanston Cottage, where my brother and I live with my aunt. If it really pleases you to see it, I shall be glad." When he left for Darfour, Douglas Kaine
must surely have left in Edinburgh a Miss Flora, as blonde as Saint-Yves’ Flora. But what are these slips of girls beside Antinea! Kaine, however sensible a mortal, however made for this kind of love, had loved otherwise. He was dead. And here was number 27, on account of whom Kaine dashed himself on the rocks of the Sahara, and who, in his turn, is dead also.
To die, to love. How naturally the word resounded in the red marble hall. How Antinea seemed to tower above that circle of pale statues! Does love, then, need so much death in order that it may be multiplied? Other women, in other parts of the world, are doubtless as beautiful as Antinea, more beautiful perhaps. I hold you to witness that I have not said much about her beauty. Why then, this obsession, this fever, this consumption of all my being? Why am I ready, for the sake of pressing this quivering form within my arms for one instant, to face things that I dare not think of for fear I should tremble before them?
Here is number 53, the last. Morhange will be 54. I shall be 55. In six months, eight, perhaps,—what difference anyway?—I shall be hoisted into this niche, an image without eyes, a dead soul, a finished body.
I touched the heights of bliss, of exaltation that can be felt. What a child I was, just now! I lost my temper with a negro manicure. I was
jealous of Morhange, on my word! Why not, since I was at it, be jealous of those here present; then of the others, the absent, who will come, one by one, to fill the black circle of the still empty niches. . . . Morhange, I know, is at this moment with Antinea, and it is to me a bitter and splendid joy to think of his joy. But some evening, in three months, four perhaps, the embalmers will come here. Niche 54 will receive its prey. Then a Targa slave will advance toward me. I shall shiver with superb ecstacy. He will touch my arm. And it will be my turn to penetrate into eternity by the bleeding door of love.
* * * * * *
When I emerged from my meditation, I found myself back in the library, where the falling night obscured the shadows of the people who were assembled there.
I recognized M. Le Mesge, the Pastor, the Hetman, Aguida, two Tuareg slaves, still more, all joining in the most animated conference.
I drew nearer, astonished, even alarmed to see together so many people who ordinarily felt no kind of sympathy for each other.
An unheard of occurrence had thrown all the people of the mountain into uproar.
Two Spanish explorers, come from Rio de Oro, had been seen to the West, in Adhar Ahnet.
As soon as Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh was informed,
he had prepared to go to meet them. At that instant he had received the order to do nothing.
Henceforth it was impossible to doubt.
For the first time, Antinea was in love.