Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
Je ne m’en défends plus et je ne veux qu’ aller
It was this sort of a night when what I am going to tell you now happened. Toward five o'clock the sky clouded over and a sense of the coming storm trembled in the stifling air.
I shall always remember it. It was the fifth of January, 1897.
King Hiram and Galé lay heavily on the matting of my room. Leaning on my elbows beside Tanit-Zerga in the rock-hewn window, I spied the advance tremors of lightning.
One by one they rose, streaking the now total darkness with their bluish stripes. But no burst of thunder followed. The storm did not attain the peaks of Ahaggar. It passed without breaking, leaving us in our gloomy bath of sweat.
"I am going to bed," said Tanit-Zerga.
I have said that her room was above mine. Its
bay window was some thirty feet above that before which I lay.
She took Galé in her arms. But King Hiram would have none of it. Digging his four paws into the matting, he whined in anger and uneasiness.
"Leave him," I finally said to Tanit-Zerga. "For once he may sleep here."
So it was that this little beast incurred his large share of responsibility in the events which followed.
Left alone, I became lost in my reflections. The night was black. The whole mountain was shrouded in silence.
It took the louder and louder growls of the leopard to rouse me from my meditation.
King Hiram was braced against the door, digging at it with his drawn claws. He, who had refused to follow Tanit-Zerga a while ago, now wanted to go out. He was determined to go out.
"Be still," I said to him. "Enough of that. Lie down!"
I tried to pull him away from the door.
I succeeded only in getting a staggering blow from his paw.
Then I sat down on the divan.
My quiet was short. "Be honest with yourself," I said. "Since Morhange abandoned you, since the day when you saw Antinea, you have had only one idea. What good is it to beguile yourself with the stories of Tanit-Zerga, charming as they are? This
leopard is a pretext, perhaps a guide. Oh, you know that mysterious things are going to happen to-night. How have you been able to keep from doing anything as long as this?"
Immediately I made a resolve.
"If I open the door," I thought, "King Hiram will leap down the corridor and I shall have great difficulty in following him. I must find some other way."
The shade of the window was worked by means of a small cord. I pulled it down. Then I tied it into a firm leash which I fastened to the metal collar of the leopard.
I half opened the door.
"There, now you can go. But quietly, quietly."
I had all the trouble in the world to curb the ardor of King Hiram who dragged me along the shadowy labyrinth of corridors. It was shortly before nine o'clock, and the rose-colored night lights were almost burned out in the niches. Now and then, we passed one which was casting its last flickers. What a labyrinth! I realized that from here on I would not recognize the way to her room. I could only follow the leopard.
At first furious, he gradually became used to towing me. He strained ahead, belly to the ground, with snuffs of joy.
Nothing is more like one black corridor than another black corridor. Doubt seized me. Suppose
[paragraph continues] I should suddenly find myself in the baccarat room! But that was unjust to King Hiram. Barred too long from the dear presence, the good beast was taking me exactly where I wanted him to take me.
Suddenly, at a turn, the darkness ahead lifted. A rose window, faintly glimmering red and green, appeared before us.
The leopard stopped with a low growl before the door in which the rose window was cut.
I recognized it as the door through which the white Targa had led me the day after my arrival, when I had been set upon by King Hiram, when I had found myself in the presence of Antinea.
"We are much better friends to-day," I said, flattering him so that he would not give a dangerously loud growl.
I tried to open the door. The light, coming through the window, fell upon the floor, green and red.
A simple latch, which I turned. I shortened the leash to have better control of King Hiram who was getting nervous.
The great room where I had seen Antinea for the first time was completely dark. But the garden on which it gave shone under a clouded moon, in a sky weighted down with the storm which did not break. Not a breath of air. The lake gleamed like a sheet of pewter.
I seated myself on a cushion, holding the leopard
firmly between my knees. He was purring with impatience. I was thinking. Not about my goal. For a long time that had been fixed. But about the means.
Then, I seemed to hear a distant murmur, a faint sound of voices.
King Hiram growled louder, struggled. I gave him a little more leash. He began to rub along the dark walls on the sides whence the voices seemed to come. I followed him, stumbling as quietly as I could among the scattered cushions.
My eyes, become accustomed to the darkness, could see the pyramid of cushions on which Antinea had first appeared to me.
Suddenly I stumbled. The leopard had stopped. I realized that I had stepped on his tail. Brave beast, he did not make a sound.
Groping along the wall, I felt a second door. Quietly, very quietly, I opened it as I had opened the preceding one. The leopard whimpered feebly.
"King Hiram," I murmured, "be quiet."
And I put my arms about his powerful neck.
I felt his warm wet tongue on my hands. His flanks quivered. He shook with happiness.
In front of us, lighted in the center, another room opened up. In the middle six men were squatting on the matting, playing dice and drinking coffee from tiny copper coffee cups with long stems.
They were the white Tuareg.
A lamp, hung from the ceiling, threw a circle of light over them. Everything outside that circle was in deep shadow.
The black faces, the copper cups, the white robes, the moving light and shadow, made a strange etching.
They played with a reserved dignity, announcing the throws in raucous voices.
Then, slowly, very slowly, I slipped the leash from the collar of the impatient little beast.
He leapt with a sharp yelp.
And what I had foreseen happened.
The first bound of King Hiram carried him into the midst of the white Tuareg, sowing confusion in the bodyguard. Another leap carried him into the shadow again. I made out vaguely the shaded opening of another corridor on the side of the room opposite where I was standing.
"There!" I thought.
The confusion in the room was indescribable, but noiseless. One realized the restraint which nearness to a great presence imposed upon the exasperated guards. The stakes and the dice-boxes had rolled in one direction, the copper cups, in the other.
Two of the Tuareg, doubled up with pain, were rubbing their ribs with low oaths.
I need not say that I profited by this silent confusion to glide into the room. I was now flattened
against the wall of the second corridor, down which King Hiram had just disappeared.
At that moment a clear gong echoed in the silence. The trembling which seized the Tuareg assured me that I had chosen the right way.
One of the six men got up. He passed me and I fell in behind him. I was perfectly calm. My least movement was perfectly calculated.
"All that I risk here now," I said to myself, "is being led back politely to my room."
The Targa lifted a curtain. I followed on his heels into the chamber of Antinea.
The room was huge and at once well lighted and very dark. While the right half, where Antinea was, gleamed under shaded lamps, the left was dim.
Those who have penetrated into a Mussulman home know what a guignol is, a kind of square niche in the wall, four feet from the floor, its opening covered by a curtain. One mounts to it by wooden steps. I noticed such a guignol at my left. I crept into it. My pulses beat in the shadow. But I was calm, quite calm.
There I could see and hear everything.
I was in Antinea's chamber. There was nothing singular about the room, except the great luxury of the hangings. The ceiling was in shadow, but multicolored lanterns cast a vague and gentle light over gleaming stuffs and furs.
Antinea was stretched out on a lion's skin, smoking.
[paragraph continues] A little silver tray and pitcher lay beside her. King Hiram was flattened out at her feet, licking them madly.
The Targa slave stood rigid before her, one hand on his heart, the other on his forehead, saluting.
Antinea spoke in a hard voice, without looking at the man.
"Why did you let the leopard pass? I told you that I wanted to be alone."
"He knocked us over, mistress," said the Targa humbly.
"The doors were not closed, then?"
The slave did not answer.
"Shall I take him away?" he asked.
And his eyes, fastened upon King Hiram who
stared at him maliciously, expressed well enough his desire for a negative reply.
"Let him stay since he is here," said Antinea. She tapped nervously on the little silver tray.
"What is the captain doing?" she asked.
"He dined a while ago and seemed to enjoy his food," the Targa answered.
"Has he said nothing?"
"Yes, he asked to see his companion, the other officer."
Antinea tapped the little tray still more rapidly. "Did he say nothing else?"
"No, mistress," said the man.
A pallor overspread the Atlantide's little forehead.
"Go get him," she said brusquely.
Bowing, the Targa left the room.
I listened to this dialogue with great anxiety. Was this Morhange? Had he been faithful to me, after all? Had I suspected him unjustly? He had wanted to see me and been unable to!
My eyes never left Antinea's.
She was no longer the haughty, mocking princess of our first interview. She no longer wore the golden circlet on her forehead. Not a bracelet, not a ring. She was dressed only in a full flowing tunic. Her black hair, unbound, lay in masses of ebony over her slight shoulders and her bare arms.
Her beautiful eyes were deep circled. Her divine mouth drooped. I did not know whether I was glad or sorry to see this new quivering Cleopatra.
Flattened at her feet, King Hiram gazed submissively at her.
An immense orichalch mirror with golden reflections was set into the wall at the right. Suddenly she raised herself erect before it. I saw her nude.
A splendid and bitter sight!—A woman who thinks herself alone, standing before her mirror in expectation of the man she wishes to subdue!
The six incense-burners scattered about the room sent up invisible columns of perfume. The balsam spices of Arabia wore floating webs in which my
shameless senses were entangled. . . . And, back toward me, standing straight as a lily, Antinea smiled into her mirror.
Low steps sounded in the corridor. Antinea immediately fell back into the nonchalant pose in which I had first seen her. One had to see such a transformation to believe it possible.
Morhange entered the room, preceded by a white Targa.
He, too, seemed rather pale. But I was most struck by the expression of serene peace on that face which I thought I knew so well. I felt that I never had understood what manner of man Morhange was, never.
He stood erect before Antinea without seeming to notice her gesture inviting him to be seated. She smiled at him.
"You are surprised, perhaps," she said finally, "that I should send for you at so late an hour." Morhange did not move an eyelash.
"Have you considered it well?" she demanded.
Morhange smiled gravely, but did not reply.
I could read in Antinea's face the effort it cost her to continue smiling; I admired the self-control of these two beings.
"I sent for you," she continued. "You do not guess why? . . . Well, it is to tell you something that you do not expect. It will be no surprise to you if I say that I never met a man like you. During
your captivity, you have expressed only one wish. Do you recall it?"
"I asked your permission to see my friend before I died," said Morhange simply.
I do not know what stirred me more on hearing these words: delight at Morhange's formal tone in speaking to Antinea, or emotion at hearing the one wish he had expressed.
But Antinea continued calmly:
"That is why I sent for you—to tell you that you are going to see him again. And I am going to do something else. You will perhaps scorn me even more when you realize that you had only to oppose me to bend me to your will—I, who have bent all other wills to mine. But, however that may be, it is decided: I give you both your liberty. Tomorrow Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh will lead you past the fifth enclosure. Are you satisfied?"
"I am," said Morhange with a mocking smile.
"That will give me a chance," he continued, "to make better plans for the next trip I intend to make this way. For you need not doubt that I shall feel bound to return to express my gratitude. Only, next time, to render so great a queen the honors due her, I shall ask my government to furnish me with two or three hundred European soldiers and several cannon."
Antinea was standing up, very pale.
"What are you saying?"
"I am saying," said Morhange coldly, "that I foresaw this. First threats, then promises."
Antinea stepped toward him. He had folded his arms. He looked at her with a sort of grave pity.
"I will make you die in the most atrocious agonies," she said finally.
"I am your prisoner," Morhange replied.
"You shall suffer things that you cannot even imagine."
"I am your prisoner," repeated Morhange in the same sad calm.
Antinea paced the room like a beast in a cage. She advanced toward my companion and, no longer mistress of herself, struck him in the face.
He smiled and caught hold of her, drawing her little wrists together with a strange mixture of force and gentleness.
King Hiram growled. I thought he was about to leap. But the cold eyes of Morhange held him fascinated.
"I will have your comrade killed before your eyes," gasped Antinea.
It seemed to me that Morhange paled, but only for a second. I was overcome by the nobility and insight of his reply.
"My companion is brave. He does not fear death. And, in any case, he would prefer death to life purchased at the price you name."
So saying, he let go Antinea's wrists. Her pallor
was terrible. From the expression of her mouth I felt that this would be her last word to him.
"Listen," she said.
How beautiful she was, in her scorned majesty, her beauty powerless for the first time!
"Listen," she continued. "Listen. For the last time. Remember that I hold the gates of this palace, that I have supreme power over your life. Remember that you breathe only at my pleasure. Remember . . ."
"I have remembered all that," said Morhange.
"A last time," she repeated.
The serenity of Morhange's face was so powerful that I scarcely noticed his opponent. In that transfigured countenance, no trace of worldliness remained.
"A last time," came Antinea's voice, almost breaking.
Morhange was not even looking at her.
"As you will," she said.
Her gong resounded. She had struck the silver disc. The white Targa appeared.
"Leave the room!"
Morhange, his head held high, went out.
Now Antinea is in my arms. This is no haughty, voluptuous woman whom I am pressing to my heart. It is only an unhappy, scorned little girl.
So great was her trouble that she showed no surprise
when I stepped out beside her. Her head is on my shoulder. Like the crescent moon in the black clouds, I see her clear little bird-like profile amid her mass of hair. Her warm arms hold me convulsively. . . . O tremblant coeur humain. . . .
Who could resist such an embrace, amid the soft perfumes, in the langorous night? I feel myself a being without will. Is this my voice, the voice which is murmuring:
"Ask me what you will, and I will do it, I will do it."
My senses are sharpened, tenfold keen. My head rests against a soft, nervous little knee. Clouds of odors whirl about me. Suddenly it seems as if the golden lanterns are waving from the ceiling like giant censers. Is this my voice, the voice repeating in a dream:
"Ask me what you will, and I will do it. I will do it."
Antinea's face is almost touching mine. A strange light flickers in her great eyes.
Beyond, I see the gleaming eyes of King Hiram. Beside him, there is a little table of Kairouan, blue and gold. On that table I see the gong with which Antinea summons the slaves. I see the hammer with which she struck it just now, a hammer with a long ebony handle, a heavy silver head . . . the hammer with which little Lieutenant Kaine dealt death. . . .
I see nothing more. . . .