Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
I roused myself vaguely from the half sleep to which I had finally succumbed. I half opened my eyes. Immediately I flattened back.
Two feet from my face was the muzzle of King Hiram, yellow with a tracery of black. The leopard was helping me to wake up; otherwise he took little interest, for he yawned; his dark red jaws, beautiful gleaming white fangs, opened and closed lazily.
At the same moment I heard a burst of laughter. It was little Tanit-Zerga. She was crouching on a cushion near the divan where I was stretched out, curiously watching my close interview with the leopard.
"King Hiram was bored," she felt obliged to explain to me. "I brought him."
"How nice," I growled. "Only tell me, could he not have gone somewhere else to be amused?"
"He is all alone now," said the girl. "They have
sent him away. He made too much noise when he played."
These words recalled me to the events of the previous evening.
"If you like, I will make him go away," said Tanit-Zerga.
"No, let him alone."
I looked at the leopard with sympathy. Our common misfortune brought us together.
I even caressed his rounded forehead. King Hiram showed his contentment by stretching out at full length and uncurling his great amber claws. The mat on the floor had much to suffer.
"Galé is here, too," said the little girl.
"Galé! Who may he be?"
At the same time, I saw on Tanit-Zerga's knees a strange animal, about the size of a big cat, with flat ears, and a long muzzle. Its pale gray fur was rough.
It was watching me with queer little pink eyes.
"It is my mongoose," explained Tanit-Zerga.
"Come now," I said sharply, "is that all?"
I must have looked so crabbed and ridiculous that Tanit-Zerga began to laugh. I laughed, too.
"Galé is my friend," she said when she was serious again. "I saved her life. It was when she was quite little. I will tell you about it some day. See how good-natured she is."
So saying, she dropped the mongoose on my knees.
"It is very nice of you, Tanit-Zerga," I said, "to come and pay me a visit." I passed my hand slowly over the animal's back.
"What time is it now?"
"A little after nine. See, the sun is already high. Let me draw the shade."
The room was in darkness. Galé's eyes grew redder. King Hiram's became green.
"It is very nice of you," I repeated, pursuing my idea. "I see that you are free to-day. You never came so early before."
A shade passed over the girl's forehead.
"Yes, I am free," she said, almost bitterly.
I looked at Tanit-Zerga more closely. For the first time I realized that she was beautiful. Her hair, which she wore falling over her shoulders, was not so much curly as it was gently waving. Her features were of remarkable fineness: the nose very straight, a small mouth with delicate lips, a strong chin. She was not black, but copper colored. Her slender graceful body had nothing in common with the disgusting thick sausages which the carefully cared for bodies of the blacks become.
A large circle of copper made a heavy decoration around her forehead and hair. She had four bracelets, still heavier, on her wrists and anklets, and, for clothing, a green silk tunic, slashed in points, braided with gold. Green, bronze, gold.
"You are a Sonrhaï, Tanit-Zerga?" I asked gently.
She replied with almost ferocious pride:
"I am a Sonrhaï."
"Strange little thing," I thought.
Evidently this was a subject on which Tanit-Zerga did not intend the conversation to turn. I recalled how, almost painfully, she had pronounced that "they," when she had told me how they had driven away King Hiram.
"I am a Sonrhaï," she repeated. "I was born at Gâo, on the Niger, the ancient Sonrhaï capital. My fathers reigned over the great Mandigue Empire. You need not scorn me because I am here as a slave."
In a ray of sunlight, Gale, seated on his little haunches, washed his shining mustaches with his forepaws; and King Hiram, stretched out on the mat, groaned plaintively in his sleep.
"He is dreaming," said Tanit-Zerga, a finger on her lips.
There was a moment of silence. Then she said: "You must be hungry. And I do not think that you will want to eat with the others."
I did not answer.
"You must eat," she continued. "If you like, I will go get something to eat for you and me. I will bring King Hiram's and Galé's dinner here, too. When you are sad, you should not stay alone."
And the little green and gold fairy vanished, without waiting for my answer.
That was how my friendship with Tanit-Zerga began. Each morning she came to my room with the two beasts. She rarely spoke to me of Antinea, and when she did, it was always indirectly. The question that she saw ceaselessly hovering on my lips seemed to be unbearable to her, and I felt her avoiding all the subjects towards which I, myself, dared not direct the conversation.
To make sure of avoiding them, she prattled, prattled, prattled, like a nervous little parokeet.
I was sick and this Sister of Charity in green and bronze silk tended me with such care as never was before. The two wild beasts, the big and the little, were there, each side of my couch, and, during my delirium, I saw their mysterious, sad eyes fixed on me.
In her melodious voice, Tanit-Zerga told me wonderful stories, and among them, the one she thought most wonderful, the story of her life.
It was not till much later, very suddenly, that I realized how far this little barbarian had penetrated into my own life. Wherever thou art at this hour, dear little girl, from whatever peaceful shores thou watchest my tragedy, cast a look at thy friend, pardon him for not having accorded thee, from the very first, the gratitude that thou deservedest so richly.
"I remember from my childhood," she said, "the
vision of a yellow and rose-colored sun rising through the morning mists over the smooth waves of a great river, 'the river where there is water,' the Niger, it was. . . But you are not listening to me."
"I am listening to you, I swear it, little Tanit-Zerga."
"You are sure I am not wearying you? You want me to go on?"
"Go on, little Tanit-Zerga, go on."
"Well, with my little companions, of whom I was very fond, I played at the edge of the river where there is water, under the jujube trees, brothers of the zeg-zeg, the spines of which pierced the head of your prophet and which we call 'the tree of Paradise' because our prophet told us that under it would live those chosen of Paradise; 1 and which is sometimes so big, so big, that a horseman cannot traverse its shade in a century.
"There we wove beautiful garlands with mimosa, the pink flowers of the caper bush and white cockles. Then we threw them in the green water to ward off evil spirits; and we laughed like mad things when a great snorting hippopotamus raised his swollen head and we bombarded him in glee until he had to plunge back again with a tremendous splash.
"That was in the mornings. Then there fell on Gâo the deathlike lull of the red siesta. When that
was finished, we came back to the edge of the river to see the enormous crocodiles with bronze goggle-eyes creep along little by little, among the clouds of mosquitoes and day-flies on the banks, and work their way traitorously into the yellow ooze of the mud flats.
"Then we bombarded them, as we had done the hippopotamus in the morning; and to fête the sun setting behind the black branches of the douldouls, we made a circle, stamping our feet, then clapping our hands, as we sang the Sonrhaï hymn.
"Such were the ordinary occupations of free little girls. But you must not think that we were only frivolous; and I will tell you, if you like, how I, who am talking to you, I saved a French chieftain who must be vastly greater than yourself, to judge by the number of gold ribbons he had on his white sleeves.
"Tell me, little Tanit-Zerga," I said, my eyes elsewhere.
"You have no right to smile," she said a little aggrieved, "and to pay no attention to me. But never mind! It is for myself that I tell these things, for the sake of recollection. Above Gâo, the Niger makes a bend. There is a little promontory in the river, thickly covered with large gum trees. It was an evening in August and the sun was sinking. Not a bird in the forest but had gone to rest, motionless until the morning. Suddenly we heard an unfamiliar
noise in the west, boum-boum, boum-boum, boum-baraboum, boum-boum, growing louder—boum-boum, boum-baraboum—and, suddenly, there was a great flight of water birds, aigrettes, pelicans, wild ducks and teal, which scattered over the gum trees, followed by a column of black smoke, which was scarcely flurried by the breeze that was springing up.
"It was a gunboat, turning the point, sending out a wake that shook the overhanging bushes on each side of the river. One could see that the red, white and blue flag on the stern had drooped till it was dragging in the water, so heavy was the evening.
"She stopped at the little point of land. A small boat was let down, manned by two native soldiers who rowed, and three chiefs who soon leapt ashore.
"The oldest, a French marabout, with a great white burnous, who knew our language marvelously, asked to speak to Sheik Sonni-Azkia. When my father advanced and told him that it was he, the marabout told him that the commandant of the Club at Timbuctoo was very angry, that a mile from there the gunboat had run on an invisible pile of logs, that she had sprung a leak and that she could not so continue her voyage towards Ansango.
"My father replied that the French who protected the poor natives against the Tuareg were welcome: that it was not from evil design, but for fish that they had built the barrage, and that he put all
the resources of Gâo, including the forge, at the disposition of the French chief, for repairing the gunboat.
"While they were talking, the French chief looked at me and I looked at him. He was already middle-aged, tall, with shoulders a little bent, and blue eyes as clear as the stream whose name I bear.
"'Come here, little one,' he said in his gentle voice.
"'I am the daughter of Sheik Sonni-Azkia, and I do only what I wish,' I replied, vexed at his informality.
"'You are right,' he answered smiling, 'for you are pretty. Will you give me the flowers that you have around your neck?'
"It was a great necklace of purple hibiscus. I held it out to him. He kissed me. The peace was made.
"Meantime, under the direction of my father, the native soldiers and strong men of the tribe had hauled the gunboat into a pocket of the river.
"'There is work there for all day to-morrow, Colonel,' said the chief mechanic, after inspecting the leaks. 'We won't be able to get away before the day after to-morrow. And, if we're to do that, these lazy soldiers mustn't loaf on the job.'
"'What an awful bore,' groaned my new friend.
"But his ill-humor did not last long, so ardently did my little companions and I seek to distract him.
[paragraph continues] He listened to our most beautiful songs; and, to thank us, made us taste the good things that had been brought from the boat for his dinner. He slept in our great cabin, which my father gave up to him; and for a long time, before I went to sleep, I looked through the cracks of the cabin where I lay with my mother, at the lights of the gunboat trembling in red ripples on the surface of the dark waves.
"That night, I had a frightful dream. I saw my friend, the French officer, sleeping in peace, while a great crow hung croaking above his head: 'Caw—caw—the shade of the gum trees of Gâo—caw, caw—will avail nothing to-morrow night—caw, caw—to the white chief nor to his escort.'
"Dawn had scarcely begun, when I went to find the native soldiers. They were stretched out on the bridge of the gunboat, taking advantage of the fact that the whites were still sleeping, to do nothing.
"I approached the oldest one and spoke to him with authority:
"'Listen, I saw the black crow in a dream last night. He told me that the shade of the gum trees of Gâo would be fatal to your chief in the coming night! . . .'
"'And, as they all remained motionless, stretched out, gazing at the sky, without even seeming to have heard, I added:
"'And to his escort!'
It was the hour when the sun was highest, and the Colonel was eating in the cabin with the other Frenchmen, when the chief mechanic entered.
"'I don't know what has come over the natives. They are working like angels. If they keep on this way, Colonel, we shall be able to leave this evening.'
"'Very good,' said the Colonel, 'but don't let them spoil the job by too much haste. We don't have to be at Ansango before the end of the week. It will be better to start in the morning.'
"I trembled. Suppliantly I approached and told him the story of my dream. He listened with a smile of astonishment; then, at the last, he said gravely:
"'It is agreed, little Tanit-Zerga. We will leave this evening if you wish it.'
"And he kissed me.
"The darkness had already fallen when the gunboat, now repaired, left the harbor. My friend stood in the midst of the group of Frenchmen who waved their caps as long as we could see them. Standing alone on the rickety jetty, I waited, watching the water flow by, until the last sound of the steam-driven vessel, boum-baraboum, had died away into the night 1.
"That was the last night of Gâo. While I was sleeping and the moon was still high above the forest, a dog yelped, but only for an instant. Then came the cry of men, then of women, the kind of cry that you can never forget if you have once heard it. When the sun rose, it found me, quite naked, running and stumbling towards the north with my little companions, beside the swiftly moving camels of the Tuareg who escorted us. Behind, followed the women of the tribe, my mother among them, two by two, the yoke upon their necks. There were not many men. Almost all lay with their throats cut under the ruins of the thatch of Gâo beside my father, brave Sonni-Azkia. Once again Gâo had been razed by a band of Awellimiden, who had come to massacre the French on their gunboat.
"The Tuareg hurried us, hurried us, for they were afraid of being pursued. We traveled thus for ten days; and, as the millet and hemp disappeared, the march became more frightful. Finally, near Isakeryen, in the country of Kidal, the Tuareg sold us to a caravan of Trarzan Moors who were going from Bamrouk to Rhât. At first, because they went more slowly, it seemed good fortune. But, before long, the desert was an expanse of rough pebbles, and the women began to fall. As for the men, the last of them had died far back under the blows of the stick for having refused to go farther.
"I still had the strength to keep going, and even as far in the lead as possible, so as not to hear the cries of my little playmates. Each time one of them fell by the way, unable to rise again, they saw one of the drivers descend from his camel and drag her into the bushes a little way to cut her throat. But one day, I heard a cry that made me turn around. It was my mother. She was kneeling, holding out her poor arms to me. In an instant I was beside her. But a great Moor, dressed in white, separated us. A red moroccan case hung around his neck from a black chaplet. He drew a cutlass from it. I can still see the blue steel on the brown skin. Another horrible cry. An instant later, driven by a club, I was trotting ahead, swallowing my little tears, trying to regain my place in the caravan.
"Near the wells of Asiou, the Moors were attacked by a party of Tuareg of Kel-Tazeholet, serfs of the great tribe of Kel-Rhelâ, which rules over Ahaggar. They, in their turn, were massacred to the last man. That is how. I was brought here, and offered as homage to Antinea, who was pleased with me and ever since has been kind to me. That is why it is no slave who soothes your fever to-day with stories that you do not even listen to, but the last descendant of the great Sonrhaï Emperors, of Sonni-Ali, the destroyer of men and of countries, of Mohammed Azkia, who made the pilgrimage to Mecca, taking with him fifteen hundred cavaliers and three
hundred thousand mithkal of gold in the days when our power stretched without rival from Chad to Touat and to the western sea, and when Gâo raised her cupola, sister of the sky, above the other cities, higher above her rival cupolas than is the tamarisk above the humble plants of sorghum."
230:1 The Koran, Chapter 66, verse 17. (Note by M. Leroux.)
235:1 Cf. the records and the Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de Paris (1897) for the cruises on the Niger, made by the Commandant of the Timbuctoo region, Colonel Joffre, Lieutenants Baudry and Bluset, and by Father Hacquart of the White Fathers. (Note by M. Leroux.)