Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
Hassi-Inifel, November 8, 1903.
If the following pages are ever to see the light of day it will be because they have been stolen from me. The delay that I exact before they shall be disclosed assures me of that. 1
As to this disclosure, let no one distrust my aim when I prepare for it, when I insist upon it. You may believe me when I maintain that no pride of authorship binds me to these pages. Already I am too far removed from all such things. Only it is useless that others should enter upon the path from which I shall not return.
Four o'clock in the morning. Soon the sun will kindle the hamada with its pink fire. All about me the bordj is asleep. Through the half-open door of
his room I hear André de Saint-Avit breathing quietly, very quietly.
In two days we shall start, he and I. We shall leave the bordj. We shall penetrate far down there to the South. The official orders came this morning.
Now, even if I wished to withdraw, it is too late. André and I asked for this mission. The authorization that I sought, together with him, has at this moment become an order. The hierarchic channels cleared, the pressure brought to bear at the Ministry;—and then to be afraid, to recoil before this adventure! . . .
To be afraid, I said. I know that I am not afraid! One night in the Gurara, when I found two of my sentinels slaughtered, with the shameful cross cut of the Berbers slashed across their stomachs,—then I was afraid. I know what fear is. Just so now, when I gazed into the black depths, whence suddenly all at once the great red sun will rise, I know that it is not with fear that I tremble. I feel surging within me the sacred horror of this mystery, and its irresistible attraction.
Delirious dreams, perhaps. The mad imaginings of a brain surcharged, and an eye distraught by mirages. The day will come, doubtless, when I shall reread these pages with an indulgent smile, as a man of fifty is accustomed to smile when he rereads old letters.
Delirious dreams. Mad imaginings. But these
dreams, these imaginings, are dear to me. "Captain de Saint-Avit and Lieutenant Ferrières," reads the official dispatch, "will proceed to Tassili to determine the stratigraphic relation of Albien sandstone and carboniferous limestone. They will, in addition, profit by any opportunities of determining the possible change of attitude of the Axdjers towards our penetration, etc." If the journey should indeed have to do only with such poor things I think that I should never undertake it.
So I am longing for what I dread. I shall be dejected if I do not find myself in the presence of what makes me strangely fearful.
In the depths of the valley of Wadi Mia a jackal is barking. Now and again, when a beam of moonlight breaks in a silver patch through the hollows of the heat-swollen clouds, making him think he sees the young sun, a turtle dove moans among the palm trees.
I hear a step outside. I lean out of the window. A shade clad in luminous black stuff glides over the hard-packed earth of the terrace of the fortification. A light shines in the electric blackness. A man has just lighted a cigarette. He crouches, facing southwards. He is smoking.
It is Cegheir-ben-Cheikh, our Targa guide, the man who in three days is to lead us across the unknown plateaus of the mysterious Imoschaoch, across the hamadas of black stones, the great dried oases,
the stretches of silver salt, the tawny hillocks, the flat gold dunes that are crested over, when the "alizé" blows, with a shimmering haze of pale sand.
Cegheir-ben-Cheikh! He is the man. There recurs to my mind Duveyrier's tragic phrase, "At the very moment the Colonel was putting his foot in the stirrup he was felled by a sabre blow." 1 Cegheir-ben-Cheikh! There he is, peacefully smoking his cigarette, a cigarette from the package that I gave him. . . . May the Lord forgive me for it.
The lamp casts a yellow light on the paper. Strange fate, which, I never knew exactly why, decided one day when I was a lad of sixteen that I should prepare myself for Saint Cyr, and gave me there André de Saint-Avit as classmate. I might have studied law or medicine. Then I should be today a respectable inhabitant of a town with a church and running water, instead of this cotton-clad phantom, brooding with an unspeakable anxiety over this desert which is about to swallow me.
A great insect has flown in through the window. It buzzes, strikes against the rough cast, rebounds against the globe of the lamp, and then, helpless, its wings singed by the still burning candle, drops on the white paper.
It is an African May bug, big, black, with spots of livid gray.
I think of the others, its brothers in France, the golden-brown May bugs, which I have seen on stormy summer evenings projecting themselves like little particles of the soil of my native countryside. It was there that as a child I spent my vacations, and later on, my leaves. On my last leave, through those same meadows, there wandered beside me a slight form, wearing a thin scarf, because of the evening air, so cool back there. But now this memory stirs me so slightly that I scarcely raise my eyes to that dark corner of my room where the light is dimly reflected by the glass of an indistinct portrait. I realize of how little consequence has become what had seemed at one time capable of filling all my life. This plaintive mystery is of no more interest to me. If the strolling singers of Rolla came to murmur their famous nostalgic airs under the window of this bordj I know that I should not listen to them, and if they became insistent I should send them on their way.
What has been capable of causing this metamorphosis in me? A story, a legend, perhaps, told, at any rate by one on whom rests the direst of suspicions.
Cegheir-ben-Cheikh has finished his cigarette. I hear him returning with slow steps to his mat, in barrack B, to the left of the guard post
Our departure being scheduled for the tenth of November, the manuscript attached to this letter was begun on Sunday, the first, and finished on Thursday, the fifth of November, 1903.
Lt. 3rd Spahis.
3:1 This letter, together with the manuscript which accompanies it, the latter in a separate sealed envelope, was entrusted by Lieutenant Ferrières, of the 3rd Spahis, the day of the departure of that officer for the Tassili of the Tuareg (Central Sahara), to Sergeant Chatelain. The sergeant was instructed to deliver it, on his next leave, to M. Leroux, Honorary Counsel at the Court of. Appeals at Riom, and Lieutenant Ferrières' nearest relative. As this magistrate died suddenly before the expiration of the term of ten years set for the publication of the manuscript here presented, difficulties arose which have delayed its publication up to the present date.
6:1 H. Duveyrier, "The Disaster of the Flatters Mission." Bull. Geol. Soc., 1881.