Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
Sunday, the sixth of June, 1903, broke the monotony of the life that we were leading at the Post of Hassi-Inifel by two events of unequal importance, the arrival of a letter from Mlle. de C——, and the latest numbers of the Official Journal of the French Republic.
"I have the Lieutenant's permission?" said Sergeant Chatelain, beginning to glance through the magazines he had just removed from their wrappings.
I acquiesced with a nod, already completely absorbed in reading Mlle. de C——'s letter.
"When this reaches you," was the gist of this charming being's letter, "mama and I will doubtless have left Paris for the country. If, in your distant parts, it might be a consolation to imagine me as bored here as you possibly can be, make the most of it. The Grand Prix is over. I played the horse you pointed out to me, and naturally, I lost. Last night we dined with the Martials de la Touche.
[paragraph continues] Elias Chatrian was there,—always amazingly young. I am sending you his last book, which has made quite a sensation. It seems that the Martials de la Touche are depicted there without disguise. I will add to it Bourget's last, and Loti's, and France's, and two or three of the latest music hall hits. In the political word, they say the law about congregations will meet with strenuous opposition. Nothing much in the theatres. I have taken out a summer subscription for l’Illustration. Would you care for it? In the country no one knows what to do. Always the same lot of idiots ready for tennis. I shall deserve no credit for writing to you often. Spare me your reflections concerning young Combemale. I am less than nothing of a feminist, having too much faith in those who tell me that I am pretty, in yourself in particular. But indeed, I grow wild at the idea that if I permitted myself half the familiarities with one of our lads that you have surely with your Ouled-Nails . . Enough of that, it is too unpleasant an idea."
I had reached this point in the prose of this advanced young woman when a scandalized exclamation of the Sergeant made me look up.
"They are up to something at the Ministry. See for yourself."
He handed me the Official. I read:
"By a decision of the first of May, 1903, Captain de Saint-Avit (André), unattached, is assigned to the Third Spahis, and appointed Commandant of the Post of Hassi-Inifel."
Chatelain's displeasure became fairly exuberant.
"Captain de Saint-Avit, Commandant of the Post. A post which has never had a slur upon it. They must take us for a dumping ground."
My surprise was as great as the Sergeant's. But just then I saw the evil, weasel-like face of Gourrut, the convict we used as clerk. He had stopped his scrawling and was listening with a sly interest.
"Sergeant, Captain de Saint-Avit is my ranking classmate," I answered dryly.
Chatelain saluted, and left the room. I followed.
"There, there," I said, clapping him on the back, "no hard feelings. Remember that in an hour we are starting for the oasis. Have the cartridges ready. It is of the utmost importance to restock the larder."
I went back to the office and motioned Gourrut to go. Left alone, I finished Mlle. de C——'s letter very quickly, and then reread the decision of the Ministry giving the post a new chief.
It was now five months that I had enjoyed that distinction, and on my word, I had accepted the responsibility well enough, and been very well pleased with the independence. I can even affirm, without taking too much credit for myself, that under my
command discipline had been better maintained than under Captain Dieulivol, Saint-Avit's predecessor. A brave man, this Captain Dieulivol, a non-commissioned officer under Dodds and Duchesne, but subject to a terrible propensity for strong liquors, and too much inclined, when he had drunk, to confuse his dialects, and to talk to a Houassa in Sakalave. No one was ever more sparing of the post water supply. One morning when he was preparing his absinthe in the presence of the Sergeant, Chatelain, noticing the Captain's glass, saw with amazement that the green liquor was blanched by a far stronger admixture of water than usual. He looked up, aware that something abnormal had just occurred. Rigid, the carafe inverted in his hand, Captain Dieulivol was spilling the water which was running over on the sugar. He was dead.
For six months, since the disappearance of this sympathetic old tippler, the Powers had not seemed to interest themselves in finding his successor. I had even hoped at times that a decision might be reached investing me with the rights that I was in fact exercising. . . . And today this surprising appointment.
Captain de Saint-Avit. He was of my class at St. Cyr. I had lost track of him. Then my attention had been attracted to him by his rapid advancement, his decoration, the well-deserved recognition of three particularly daring expeditions of exploration
to Tebesti and the Air; and suddenly, the mysterious drama of his fourth expedition, that famous mission undertaken with Captain Morhange, from which only one of the explorers came back. Everything is forgotten quickly in France. That was at least six years ago. I had not heard Saint-Avit mentioned since. I had even supposed that he had left the army. And now, I was to have him as my chief.
"After all, what's the difference," I mused, "he or another! At school he was charming, and we have had only the most pleasant relationships. Besides, I haven't enough yearly income to afford the rank of Captain."
And I left the office, whistling as I went.
We were now, Chatelain and I, our guns resting on the already cooling earth, beside the pool that forms the center of the meager oasis, hidden behind a kind of hedge of alfa. The setting sun was reddening the stagnant ditches which irrigate the poor garden plots of the sedentary blacks.
Not a word during the approach. Not a word during the shoot. Chatelain was obviously sulking.
In silence we knocked down, one after the other, several of the miserable doves which came on dragging wings, heavy with the heat of the day, to quench their thirst at the thick green water. When
a half-dozen slaughtered little bodies were lined up at our feet I put my hand on the Sergeant's shoulder.
"Chatelain, I was rude to you a little while ago. Don't be angry. It was the bad time before the siesta. The bad time of midday."
"The Lieutenant is master here," he answered in a tone that was meant to be gruff, but which was only strained.
"Chatelain, don't be angry. You have something to say to me. You know what I mean."
"I don't know really. No, I don't know."
"Chatelain, Chatelain, why not be sensible? Tell me something about Captain de Saint-Avit."
"I know nothing." He spoke sharply.
"Nothing? Then what were you saying a little while ago?"
"Captain de Saint-Avit is a brave man." He muttered the words with his head still obstinately bent. "He went alone to Bilma, to the Air, quite alone to those places where no one had ever been. He is a brave man."
"He is a brave man, undoubtedly," I answered with great restraint. "But he murdered his companion, Captain Morhange, did he not?"
The old Sergeant trembled.
"He is a brave man," he persisted.
"Chatelain, you are a child. Are you afraid that
[paragraph continues] I am going to repeat what you say to your new Captain?"
I had touched him to the quick. He drew himself up.
"Sergeant Chatelain is afraid of no one, Lieutenant. He has been at Abomey, against the Amazons, in a country where a black arm started out from every bush to seize your leg, while another cut it off for you with one blow of a cutlass."
"Then what they say, what you yourself—"
"That is talk."
"Talk which is repeated in France, Chatelain, everywhere."
He bent his head still lower without replying.
"Ass," I burst out, "will you speak?"
"Lieutenant, Lieutenant," he fairly pled, "I swear that what I know, or nothing—"
"What you know you are going to tell me, and right away. If not, I give you my word of honor that, for a month, I shall not speak to you except on official business."
Hassi-Inifel: thirty native Arabs and four Europeans—myself, the Sergeant, a Corporal, and Gourrut. The threat was terrible. It had its effect.
"All right, then, Lieutenant," he said with a great sigh. "But afterwards you must not blame me for having told you things about a superior which should not be told and come only from the talk I overheard at mess."
"It was in 1899. I was then Mess Sergeant at Sfax, with the 4th Spahis. I had a good record, and besides, as I did not drink, the Adjutant had assigned me to the officers’ mess. It was a soft berth. The marketing, the accounts, recording the library books which were borrowed (there weren't many), and the key of the wine cupboard,—for with that you can't trust orderlies. The Colonel was young and dined at mess. One evening he came in late, looking perturbed, and, as soon as he was seated, called for silence:
"'Gentlemen,' he said, 'I have a communication to make to you, and I shall ask for your advice. Here is the question. Tomorrow morning the City of Naples lands at Sfax. Aboard her is Captain de Saint-Avit, recently assigned to Feriana, en route to his post.'
"The Colonel paused. 'Good,' thought I, 'tomorrow's menu is about to be considered.' For you know the custom, Lieutenant, which has existed ever since there have been any officers' clubs in Africa. When an officer is passing by, his comrades go to meet him at the boat and invite him to remain with them for the length of his stay in port. He pays his score in news from home. On such occasions everything is of the best, even for a simple lieutenant. At Sfax an officer on a visit meant—one extra course, vintage wine and old liqueurs.
"But this time I imagined from the looks the officers exchanged that perhaps the old stock would stay undisturbed in its cupboard.
"You have all, I think, heard of Captain de Saint-Avit, gentlemen, and the rumors about him. It is not for us to inquire into them, and the promotion he has had, his decoration if you will, permits us to hope that they are without foundation. But between not suspecting an officer of being a criminal, and receiving him at our table as a comrade, there is a gulf that we are not obliged to bridge. That is the matter on which I ask your advice.'
"There was silence. The officers looked at each other, all of them suddenly quite grave, even to the merriest of the second lieutenants. In the corner, where I realized that they had forgotten me, I tried not to make the least sound that might recall my presence.
"'We thank you, Colonel,' one of the majors finally replied, 'for your courtesy in consulting us. All my comrades, I imagine, know to what terrible rumors you refer. If I may venture to say so, in Paris at the Army Geographical Service, where I was before coming here, most of the officers of the highest standing had an opinion on this unfortunate matter which they avoided stating, but which cast no glory upon Captain de Saint-Avit.'
"'I was at Bammako, at the time of the Morhange-Saint-Avit
mission,' said a Captain. 'The opinion of the officers there, I am sorry to say, differed very little from what the Major describes. But I must add that they all admitted that they had nothing but suspicions to go on. And suspicions are certainly not enough considering the atrocity of the affair.'
"'They are quite enough, gentlemen,' replied the Colonel, 'to account for our hesitation. It is not a question of passing judgment; but no man can sit at our table as a matter of right. It is a privilege based on fraternal esteem. The only question is whether it is your decision to accord it to Saint-Avit.'
"So saying, he looked at the officers, as if he were taking a roll call. One after another they shook their heads.
"'I see that we agree,' he said. 'But our task is unfortunately not yet over. The City of Naples will be in port tomorrow morning. The launch which meets the passengers leaves at eight o'clock. It will be necessary, gentlemen, for one of you to go aboard. Captain de Saint-Avit might be expecting to come to us. We certainly have no intention of inflicting upon him the humiliation of refusing him, if he presented himself in expectation of the customary reception. He must be prevented from coming. It will be wisest to make him understand that it is best for him to stay aboard.'
"The Colonel looked at the officers again. They could not but agree. But how uncomfortable each one looked!
"'I cannot hope to find a volunteer among you for this kind of mission, so I am compelled to appoint some one. Captain Grandjean, Captain de Saint-Avit is also a Captain. It is fitting that it be an officer of his own rank who carries him our message. Besides, you are the latest corner here. Therefore it is to you that I entrust this painful interview. I do not need to suggest that you conduct it as diplomatically as possible.'
"Captain Grandjean bowed, while a sigh of relief escaped from all the others. As long as the Colonel stayed in the room Grandjean remained apart, without speaking. It was only after the chief had departed that he let fall the words:
"'There are some things that ought to count a good deal for promotion.'
"The next day at luncheon everyone was impatient for his return.
"'Well?' demanded the Colonel, briefly.
"Captain Grandjean did not reply immediately. He sat down at the table where his comrades were mixing their drinks, and he, a man notorious for his sobriety, drank almost at a gulp, without waiting for the sugar to melt, a full glass of absinthe.
"'Well, Captain?' repeated the Colonel.
"'Well, Colonel, it's done. You can be at ease. He will not set foot on shore. But, ye gods, what an ordeal!'
"The officers did not dare speak. Only their looks expressed their anxious curiosity.
"Captain Grandjean poured himself a swallow of water.
"'You see, I had gotten my speech all ready, in the launch. But as I went up the ladder I knew that I had forgotten it. Saint-Avit was in the smoking-room, with the Captain of the boat. It seemed to me that I could never find the strength to tell him, when I saw him all ready to go ashore. He was in full dress uniform, his sabre lay on the bench and he was wearing spurs. No one wears spurs on shipboard. I presented myself and we exchanged several remarks, but I must have seemed somewhat strained for from the first moment I knew that he sensed something. Under some pretext he left the Captain, and led me aft near the great rudder wheel. There, I dared speak. Colonel, what did I say? How I must have stammered! He did not look at me. Leaning his elbows on the railing he let his eyes wander far off, smiling slightly. Then, of a sudden, when I was well tangled up in explanations, he looked at me coolly and said:
"'"I must thank you, my dear fellow, for having given yourself so much trouble. But it is quite unnecessary. I am out of sorts and have no intention
of going ashore. At least, I have the pleasure of having made your acquaintance. Since I cannot profit by your hospitality, you must do me the favor of accepting mine as long as the launch stays by the vessel."
"'Then we went back to the smoking-room. He himself mixed the cocktails. He talked to me. We discovered that we had mutual acquaintances. Never shall I forget that face, that ironic and distant look, that sad and melodious voice. Ah! Colonel, gentlemen, I don't know what they may say at the Geographic Office, or in the posts of the Soudan. . . . There can be nothing in it but a horrible suspicion. Such a man, capable of such a crime,—believe me, it is not possible.'
"That is all, Lieutenant," finished Chatelain, after a silence. "I have never seen a sadder meal than that one. The officers hurried through lunch without a word being spoken, in an atmosphere of depression against which no one tried to struggle. And in this complete silence, you could see them always furtively watching the City of Naples, where she was dancing merrily in the breeze, a league from shore.
"She was still there in the evening when they assembled for dinner, and it was not until a blast of the whistle, followed by curls of smoke escaping from the red and black smokestack had announced the departure of the vessel for Gabes, that conversation
was resumed; and even then, less gaily than usual.
"After that, Lieutenant, at the Officers’ Club at Sfax, they avoided like the plague any subject which risked leading the conversation back to Captain de Saint-Avit."
Chatelain had spoken almost in a whisper, and the little people of the desert had not heard this singular history. It was an hour since we had fired our last cartridge. Around the pool the turtle doves, once more reassured, were bathing their feathers. Mysterious great birds were flying under the darkening palm trees. A less warm wind rocked the trembling black palm branches. We had laid aside our helmets so that our temples could welcome the touch of the feeble breeze.
"Chatelain," I said, "it is time to go back to the bordj."
Slowly we picked up the dead doves. I felt the Sergeant looking at me reproachfully, as if regretting that he had spoken. Yet during all the time that our return trip lasted, I could not find the strength to break our desolate silence with a single word.
The night had almost fallen when we arrived.
The flag which surmounted the post was still visible, drooping on its standard, but already its colors were indistinguishable. To the west the sun had disappeared
behind the dunes gashed against the black violet of the sky.
When we had crossed the gate of the fortifications, Chatelain left me.
"I am going to the stables," he said.
I returned alone to that part of the fort where the billets for the Europeans and the stores of ammunition were located. An inexpressible sadness weighed upon me.
I thought of my comrades in French garrisons.
At this hour they must be returning home to find awaiting them, spread out upon the bed, their dress uniform, their braided tunic, their sparkling epaulettes.
"Tomorrow," I said to myself, "I shall request a change of station."
The stairway of hard-packed earth was already black. But a few gleams of light still seemed palely prowling in the office when I entered.
A man was sitting at my desk, bending over the files of orders. His back was toward me. He did not hear me enter.
"Really, Gourrut, my lad, I beg you not to disturb yourself. Make yourself completely at home."
The man had risen, and I saw him to be quite tall, slender and very pale.
"Lieutenant Ferrières, is it not?" He advanced, holding out his hand.
"Captain de Saint-Avit. Delighted, my dear fellow."
At the same time Chatelain appeared on the threshold.
"Sergeant," said the newcomer, "I cannot congratulate you on the little I have seen. There is not a camel saddle which is not in want of buckles, and they are rusty enough to suggest that it rains at Hassi-Inifel three hundred days in the year. Furthermore, where were you this afternoon? Among the four Frenchmen who compose the post, I found only on my arrival one convict, opposite a quart of eau-de-vie. We will change all that, I hope. At ease."
"Captain," I said, and my voice was colorless, while Chatelain remained frozen at attention, "I must tell you that the Sergeant was with me, that it is I who am responsible for his absence from the post, that he is an irreproachable non-commissioned officer from every point of view, and that if we had been warned of your arrival—"
"Evidently," he said, with a coldly ironical smile. "Also, Lieutenant, I have no intention of holding him responsible for the negligences which attach to your office. He is not obliged to know that the officer who abandons a post like Hassi-Inifel, if it is only for two hours, risks not finding much left on his return. The Chaamba brigands, my dear sir, love firearms, and for the sake of the sixty muskets
in your racks, I am sure they would not scruple to make an officer, whose otherwise excellent record is well known to me, account for his absence to a court-martial. Come with me, if you please. We will finish the little inspection I began too rapidly a little while ago."
He was already on the stairs. I followed in his footsteps. Chatelain closed the order of march. I heard him murmuring, in a tone which you can imagine:
"Well, we are in for it now!"