Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
I awakened in my room. The sun, already at its zenith, filled the place with unbearable light and heat.
The first thing I saw, on opening my eyes, was the shade, ripped down, lying in the middle of the floor. Then, confusedly, the night's events began to come back to me.
My head felt stupid and heavy. My mind wandered. My memory seemed blocked. "I went out with the leopard, that is certain. That red mark on my forefinger shows how he strained at the leash. My knees are still dusty. I remember creeping along the wall in the room where the white Tuareg were playing at dice. That was the minute after King Hiram had leapt past them. After that . . . oh, Morhange and Antinea. . . . And then?"
I recalled nothing more. I recalled nothing more. But something must have happened, something which I could not remember.
I was uneasy. I wanted to go back, yet it seemed
as if I were afraid to go. I have never felt anything more painful than those conflicting emotions.
"It is a long way from here to Antinea's apartments. I must have been very sound asleep not to have noticed when they brought me back—for they have brought me back."
I stopped trying to think it out. My head ached too much.
"I must have air," I murmured. "I am roasting here; it will drive me mad."
I had to see someone, no matter whom. Mechanically, I walked toward the library.
I found M. Le Mesge in a transport of delirious joy. The Professor was engaged in opening an enormous bale, carefully sewed in a brown blanket.
"You come at a good time, sir," he cried, on seeing me enter. "The magazines have just arrived."
He dashed about in feverish haste. Presently a stream of pamphlets and magazines, blue, green, yellow and salmon, was bursting from an opening in the bale.
"Splendid, splendid!" he cried, dancing with joy. "Not too late, either; here are the numbers for October fifteenth. We must give a vote of thanks to good Ameur."
His good spirits were contagious.
"There is a good Turkish merchant who subscribes to all the interesting magazines of the two continents. He sends them on by Rhadames to a
destination which he little suspects. Ah, here are the French ones."
M. Le Mesge ran feverishly over the tables of contents.
"Internal politics: articles by Francis Charmes, Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, d’Haussonville on the Czar's trip to Paris. Look, a study by Avenel of wages in the Middle Ages. And verse, verses of the young poets, Fernand Gregh, Edmond Haraucourt. Ah, the resumé of a book by Henry de Castries on Islam. That may be interesting. . . . Take what you please."
Joy makes people amiable and M. Le Mesge was really delirious with it.
A puff of breeze came from the window. I went to the balustrade and, resting my elbows on it, began to run through a number of the Revue des Deux Mondes.
I did not read, but flipped over the pages, my eyes now on the lines of swarming little black characters, now on the rocky basin which lay shivering, pale pink, under the declining sun.
Suddenly my attention became fixed. There was a strange coincidence between the text and the landscape.
"In the sky overhead were only light shreds of cloud, like bits of white ash floating up from burnt-out logs. The sun fell over a circle of rocky peaks, silhouetting their severe lines against the azure sky.
[paragraph continues] From on high, a great sadness and gentleness poured down into the lonely enclosure, like a magic drink into a deep cup. . . ." 1
I turned the pages feverishly. My mind seemed to be clearing.
Behind me, M. Le Mesge, deep in an article, voiced his opinions in indignant growls.
I continued reading:
"On all sides a magnificent view spread out before us in the raw light. The chain of rocks, clearly visible in their barren desolation which stretched to the very summit, lay stretched out like some great heap of gigantic, unformed things left by some primordial race of Titans to stupefy human beings. Overturned towers . . ."
"It is shameful, downright shameful," the Professor was repeating.
"Overturned towers, crumbling citadels, cupolas fallen in, broken pillars, mutilated colossi, prows of vessels, thighs of monsters, bones of titans,—this mass, impassable with its ridges and gullies, seemed the embodiment of everything huge and tragic. So clear were the distances . . ."
"Downright shameful," M. Le Mesge kept on saying in exasperation, thumping his fist on the table.
"So clear were the distances that I could see, as if I had it under my eyes, infinitely enlarged, every
contour of the rock which Violante had shown me through the window with the gesture of a creator.
Trembling, I closed the magazine. At my feet, now red, I saw the rock which Antinea had pointed out to me the day of our first interview, huge, steep, overhanging the reddish brown garden.
"That is my horizon," she had said.
M. Le Mesge's excitement had passed all bounds. "It is worse than shameful; it is infamous."
I almost wanted to strangle him into silence. He seized my arm.
"Read that, sir; and, although you don't know a great deal about the subject, you will see that this article on Roman Africa is a miracle of misinformation, a monument of ignorance. And it is signed . . . do you know by whom it is signed?"
"Leave me alone," I said brutally.
"Well, it is signed Gaston Boissier. Yes, sir! Gaston Boissier, grand officer of the Legion of Honor, lecturer at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, permanent secretary of the French Academy, member of the Academy of Inscriptions and Literature, one of those who once ruled out the subject of my thesis . . . one of those . . . ah, poor university, ah, poor France!"
I was no longer listening. I had begun to read again. My forehead was covered with sweat. But it seemed as if my head had been cleared like a room
when a window is opened; memories were beginning to come back like doves winging their way home to the dovecote.
"At that moment, an irrepressible tremor shook her whole body; her eyes dilated as if some terrible sight had filled them with horror.
"'Antonello,' she murmured.
"And for seconds, she was unable to say another word.
"I looked at her in mute anguish and the suffering which drew her dear lips together seemed also to clutch at my heart. The vision which was in her eyes passed into mine, and I saw again the thin white face of Antonello, and the quick quivering of his eyelids, the waves of agony which seized his long worn body and shook it like a reed."
I threw the magazine upon the table.
"That is it," I said.
To cut the pages, I had used the knife with which M. Le Mesge had cut the cords of the bale, a short ebony-handled dagger, one of those daggers that the Tuareg wear in a bracelet sheath against the upper left arm.
I slipped it into the big pocket of my flannel dolman and walked toward the door.
I was about to cross the threshold when I heard M. Le Mesge call me.
"Monsieur de Saint Avit! Monsieur de Saint Avit!"
"I want to ask you something, please."
"What is it?"
"Nothing important. You know that I have to mark the labels for the red marble hall. . . ." I walked toward the table.
"Well, I forgot to ask M. Morhange, at the beginning, the date and place of his birth. After that, I had no chance. I did not see him again. So I am forced to turn to you. Perhaps you can tell me?"
"I can," I said very calmly.
He took a large white card from a box which contained several and dipped his pen.
"Number 54 . . . Captain?"
"Captain Jean-Marie-François Morhange." While I dictated, one hand resting on the table, I noticed on my cuff a stain, a little stain, reddish brown.
"Morhange," repeated M. Le Mesge, finishing the lettering of my friend's name. "Born at . . .?" "Villefranche."
"Villefranche, Rhône. What date?"
"The fourteenth of October, 1859."
"The fourteenth of October, 1859. Good. Died at Ahaggar, the fifth of January, 1897. . . . There, that is done. A thousand thanks, sir, for your kindness."
"You are welcome."
I left M. Le Mesge.
My mind, thenceforth, was well made up; and, as I said, I was perfectly calm. Nevertheless, when I had taken leave of M. Le Mesge, I felt the need of waiting a few minutes before executing my decision.
First I wandered through the corridors; then, finding myself near my room, I went to it. It was still intolerably hot. I sat down on my divan and began to think.
The dagger in my pocket bothered me. I took it out and laid it on the floor.
It was a good dagger, with a diamond-shaped blade, and with a collar of orange leather between the blade and the handle.
The sight of it recalled the silver hammer. I remembered how easily it fitted into my hand when I struck . . .
Every detail of the scene came back to me with incomparable vividness. But I did not even shiver. It seemed as if my determination to kill the instigator of the murder permitted me peacefully to evoke its brutal details.
If I reflected over my deed, it was to be surprised at it, not to condemn myself.
"Well," I said to myself, "I have killed this Morhange, who was once a baby, who, like all the others, cost his mother so much trouble with his baby sicknesses. I have put an end to his life, I have reduced to nothingness the monument of love, of
tears, of trials overcome and pitfalls escaped, which constitutes a human existence. What an extraordinary adventure!"
That was all. No fear, no remorse, none of that Shakespearean horror after the murder, which, today, sceptic though I am and blasé and utterly, utterly disillusioned, sets me shuddering whenever I am alone in a dark room.
"Come," I thought. "It's time. Time to finish it up."
I picked up the dagger. Before putting it in my pocket, I went through the motion of striking. All was well. The dagger fitted into my hand.
I had been through Antinea's apartment only when guided, the first time by the white Targa, the second time, by the leopard. Yet I found the way again without trouble. Just before coming to the door with the rose window, I met a Targa.
"Let me pass," I ordered. "Your mistress has sent for me."
The man obeyed, stepping back.
Soon a dim melody came to my ears. I recognized the sound of a rebaza, the violin with a single string, played by the Tuareg women. It was Aguida playing, squatting as usual at the feet of her mistress. The three other women were also squatted about her. Tanit-Zerga was not there.
Oh! Since that was the last time I saw her, let,
oh, let me tell you of Antinea, how she looked in that supreme moment.
Did she feel the danger hovering over her and did she wish to brave it by her surest artifices? I had in mind the slender, unadorned body, without rings, without jewels, which I had pressed to my heart the night before. And now I started in surprise at seeing before me, adorned like an idol, not a woman, but a queen!
The heavy splendor of the Pharaohs weighted down her slender body. On her head was the great gold pschent of Egyptian gods and kings; emeralds, the national stone of the Tuareg, were set in it, tracing and retracing her name in Tifinar characters. A red satin schenti, embroidered in golden lotus, enveloped her like the casket of a jewel. At her feet, lay an ebony scepter, headed with a trident. Her bare arms were encircled by two serpents whose fangs touched her armpits as if to bury themselves there. From the ear pieces of the pschent streamed a necklace of emeralds; its first strand passed under her determined chin; the others lay in circles against her bare throat.
She smiled as I entered.
"I was expecting you," she said simply.
I advanced till I was four steps from the throne, then stopped before her.
She looked at me ironically.
"What is that?" she asked with perfect calm.
I followed her gesture. The handle of the dagger protruded from my pocket.
I drew it out and held it firmly in my hand, ready to strike.
"The first of you who moves will be sent naked six leagues into the red desert and left there to die," said Antinea coldly to her women, whom my gesture had thrown into a frightened murmuring.
She turned to me.
"That dagger is very ugly and you hold it badly. Shall I send Sydya to my room to get the silver hammer? You are more adroit with it than with the dagger."
"Antinea," I said in a low voice, "I am going to kill you."
"Do not speak so formally. You were more affectionate last night. Are you embarrassed by them?" she said, pointing to the women, whose eyes were wide with terror.
"Kill me?" she went on. "You are hardly reasonable. Kill me at the moment when you can reap the fruits of the murder of . . ."
"Did—did he suffer?" I asked suddenly, trembling.
"Very little. I told you that you used the hammer as if you had done nothing else all your life." "Like little Kaine," I murmured.
She smiled in surprise.
"Oh, you know that story. . . . Yes, like little
[paragraph continues] Kaine. But at least Kaine was sensible. You . . . I do not understand."
"I do not understand myself, very well."
She looked at me with amused curiosity.
"Antinea," I said.
"What is it?"
"I did what you told me to. May I in turn ask one favor, ask you one question?"
"What is it?"
"It was dark, was it not, in the room where he was?"
"Very dark. I had to lead you to the bed where he lay asleep."
"He was asleep, you are sure?"
"I said so."
"He—did not die instantly, did he?"
"No. I know exactly when he died; two minutes after you struck him and fled with a shriek."
"Then surely he could not have known?"
"That it was I who—who held the hammer."
"He might not have known it, indeed," said Antinea. "But he did know."
"He did know . . . because I told him," she said, staring at me with magnificent audacity.
"And," I murmured, "he—he believed it?"
"With the help of my explanation, he recognized your shriek. If he had not realized that you were
his murderer, the affair would not have interested me," she finished with a scornful little smile.
Four steps, I said, separated me from Antinea. I sprang forward. But, before I reached her, I was struck to the floor.
King Hiram had leapt at my throat.
At the same moment I heard the calm, haughty voice of Antinea:
"Call the men," she commanded.
A second later I was released from the leopard's clutch. The six white Tuareg had surrounded me and were trying to bind me.
I am fairly strong and quick. I was on my feet in a second. One of my enemies lay on the floor, ten feet away, felled by a well-placed blow on the jaw. Another was gasping under my knee. That was the last time I saw Antinea. She stood erect, both hands resting on her ebony scepter, watching the struggle with a smile of contemptuous interest.
Suddenly I gave a loud cry and loosed the hold I had on my victim. A cracking in my left arm: one of the Tuareg had seized it and twisted until my shoulder was dislocated.
When I completely lost consciousness, I was being carried down the corridor by two white phantoms, so bound that I could not move a muscle.
256:1 Gabrielle d’Annunzio: Les Vierges aux Rochers. Cf. The Revue des Deux Mondes of October 15, 1896; page 867.