Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
At the foot of the valley of the Mia, at the place where the jackal had cried the night Saint-Avit told me he had killed Morhange, another jackal, or perhaps the same one, howled again.
Immediately I had a feeling that this night would see the irremediable fulfilled.
We were seated that evening, as before, on the poor veranda improvised outside our dining-room. The floor was of plaster, the balustrade of twisted branches; four posts supported a thatched roof.
I have already said that from the veranda one could look far out over the desert. As he finished speaking, Saint-Avit rose and stood leaning his elbows on the railing. I followed him.
"And then . . ." I said.
He looked at me.
"And then what? Surely you know what all the newspapers told—how, in the country of the Awellimiden, I was found dying of hunger and thirst by an expedition under the command of Captain Aymard,
and taken to Timbuctoo. I was delirious for a month afterward. I have never known what I may have said during those spells of burning fever. You may be sure the officers of the Timbuctoo Club did not feel it incumbent upon them to tell me. When I told them of my adventures, as they are related in the report of the Morhange—Saint-Avit Expedition, I could see well enough from the cold politeness with which they received my explanations, that the official version which I gave them differed at certain points from the fragments which had escaped me in my delirium.
"They did not press the matter. It remains understood that Captain Morhange died from a sunstroke and that I buried him on the border of the Tarhit watercourse, three marches from Timissao. Everybody can detect that there are things missing in my story. Doubtless they guess at some mysterious drama. But proofs are another matter. Because of the impossibility of collecting them, they prefer to smother what could only become a silly scandal. But now you know all the details as well as I."
"And—she?" I asked timidly.
He smiled triumphantly. It was triumph at having led me to think no longer of Morhange, or of his crime, the triumph of feeling that he had succeeded in imbuing me with his own madness.
"Yes," he said. "She! For six years I have
learned nothing more about her. But I see her, I talk with her. I am thinking now how I shall reenter her presence. I shall throw myself at her feet and say simply, 'Forgive me. I rebelled against your law. I did not know. But now I know; and you see that, like Lieutenant Ghiberti, I have come back.'
"'Family, honor, country,' said old Le Mesge, 'you will forget all for her.' Old Le Mesge is a stupid man, but he speaks from experience. He knows, he who has seen broken before Antinea the wills of the fifty ghosts in the red marble hall.
"And now, will you, in your turn, ask me 'What is this woman?' Do I know myself? And besides, what difference does it make? What does her past and the mystery of her origin matter to me; what does it matter whether she is the true descendant of the god of the sea and the sublime Lagides or the bastard of a Polish drunkard and a harlot of the Marbeuf quarter?
"At the time when I was foolish enough to be jealous of Morhange, these questions might have made some difference to the ridiculous self-esteem that civilized people mix up with passion. But I have held Antinea's body in my arms. I no longer wish to know any other, nor if the fields are in blossom, nor what will become of the human spirit. . . .
"I do not wish to know. Or, rather, it is because I have too exact a vision of that future, that I pretend to destroy myself in the only destiny that is worth while: a nature unfathomed and virgin, a mysterious love.
"A nature unfathomed and virgin. I must explain myself. One winter day, in a large city all streaked with the soot that falls from the black chimneys of factories and of those horrible houses in the suburbs, I attended a funeral.
"We followed the hearse in the mud. The church was new, damp and poor. Aside from two or three people, relatives struck down by a dull sorrow, everyone had just one idea: to find some pretext to get away. Those who went as far as the cemetery were those who did not find an excuse. I see the gray walls and the cypresses, those trees of sun and shade, so beautiful in the country of southern France against the low, purple hills. I see the horrible undertaker's men in greasy jackets and shiny top hats. I see . . . No, I'll stop; it's too horrible.
"Near the wall, in a remote plot, a grave had been dug in frightful yellow pebbly clay. It was there that they left the dead man whose name I no longer remember.
"While they were lowering the casket, I looked at my hands, those hands which in that strangely lighted country had pressed the hands of Antinea. A great pity for my body seized me, a great fear of
what threatened it in these cities of mud. 'So,' I said to myself, 'it may be that this body, this dear body, will come to such an end! No, no, my body, precious above all other treasures, I swear to you that I will spare you that ignominy; you shall not rot under a registered number in the filth of a suburban cemetery. Your brothers in love, the fifty knights of orichalch, await you, mute and grave, in the red marble hall. I shall take you back to them.'
"A mysterious love. Shame to him who retails the secrets of his loves. The Sahara lays its impassable barrier about Antinea; that is why the most unreasonable requirements of this woman are, in reality, more modest and chaste than your marriage will be, with its vulgar public show, the bans, the invitations, the announcements telling an evil-minded and joking people that after such and such an hour, on such and such a day, you will have the right to violate your little tupenny virgin.
"I think that is all I have to tell you. No, there is still one thing more. I told you a while ago about the red marble hall. South of Cherchell, to the west of the Mazafran river, on a hill which in the early morning, emerges from the mists of the Mitidja, there is a mysterious stone pyramid. The natives call it, The Tomb of the Christian.' That is where the body of Antinea's ancestress, that Cleopatra Séléné, daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra,
was laid to rest. Though it is placed in the path of invasions, this tomb has kept its treasure. No one has ever been able to discover the painted room where the beautiful body reposes in a glass casket. All that the ancestress has been able to do, the descendant will be able to surpass in grim magnificence. In the center of the red marble hall, on the rock whence comes the plaint of the gloomy fountain, a platform is reserved. It is there, on an orichalch throne, with the Egyptian head-dress and the golden serpent on her brow and the trident of Neptune in her hand, that the marvelous woman I have told you about will be ensconced on that day when the hundred and twenty niches, hollowed out in a circle around her throne, shall each have received its willing prey.
"When I left Ahaggar, you remember that it was niche number 55 that was to be mine. Since then, I have never stopped calculating and I conclude that it is in number 80 or 85 that I shall repose. But any calculations based upon so fragile a foundation as a woman's whim may be erroneous. That is why I am getting more and more nervous. 'I must hurry,' I tell myself. 'I must hurry.'
"I must hurry," I repeated, as if I were in a dream.
He raised his head with an indefinable expression of joy. His hand trembled with happiness when he shook mine.
"You will see," he repeated excitedly, "you will see."
Ecstatically, he took me in his arms and held me there a long moment.
An extraordinary happiness swept over both of us, while, alternately laughing and crying like children, we kept repeating:
"We must hurry. We must hurry."
Suddenly there sprang up a slight breeze that made the tufts of thatch in the roof rustle. The sky, pale lilac, grew paler still, and, suddenly, a great yellow rent tore it in the east. Dawn broke over the empty desert. From within the stockade came dull noises, a bugle call, the rattle of chains. The post was waking up.
For several seconds we stood there silent, our eyes fixed on the southern route by which one reaches Temassinin, Eguéré and Ahaggar.
A rap on the dining-room door behind us made us start.
"Come in," said André de Saint-Avit in a voice which had become suddenly hard.
The Quartermaster, Châtelain, stood before us.
"What do you want of me at this hour?" Saint-Avit asked brusquely.
The non-com stood at attention.
"Excuse me, Captain. But a native was discovered near the post, last night, by the patrol. He was not trying to hide. As soon as he had been
brought here, he asked to be led before the commanding officer. It was midnight and I didn't want to disturb you."
"Who is this native?"
"A Targa, Captain."
"A Targa? Go get him."
Châtelain stepped aside. Escorted by one of our native soldiers, the man stood behind him.
They came out on the terrace.
The new arrival, six feet tall, was indeed a Targa. The light of dawn fell upon his blue-black cotton robes. One could see his great dark eyes flashing.
When he was opposite my companion, I saw a tremor, immediately suppressed, run through both men.
They looked at each other for an instant in silence.
Then, bowing, and in a very calm voice, the Targa spoke:
"Peace be with you, Lieutenant de Saint-Avit."
In the same calm voice, André answered him:
"Peace be with you, Cegheir-ben-Cheikh."