Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
"You see," said Captain Morhange to me fifteen days later, "you are much better informed about the ancient routes through the Sahara than you have been willing to let me suppose, since you know of the existence of the two Tadekkas. But the one of which you have just spoken is the Tadekka of Ibn-Batoutah, located by this historian seventy days from Touat, and placed by Schirmer, very plausibly, in the unexplored territory of the Aouelimmiden. This is the Tadekka by which the Sonrahi caravans passed every year, travelling by Egypt.
"My Tadekka is different, the capital of the veiled people, placed by Ibn-Khaldoun twenty days south of Wargla, which he calls Tadmekka. It is towards this Tadmekka that I am headed. I must establish Tadmekka in the ruins of Es-Souk. The commercial trade route, which in the ninth century bound the Tunisian Djerid to the bend the Niger makes at Bourroum, passed by Es-Souk. It is to study the possibility of reestablishing this ancient
thoroughfare that the Ministries gave me this mission, which has given me the pleasure of your companionship."
"You are probably in for a disappointment," I said. "Everything indicates that the commerce there is very slight."
"Well, I shall see," he answered composedly. This was while we were following the unicolored banks of a salt lake. The great saline stretch shone pale-blue, under the rising sun. The legs of our five mehara cast on it their moving shadows of a darker blue. For a moment the only inhabitant of these solitudes, a bird, a kind of indeterminate heron, rose and hung in the air, as if suspended from a thread, only to sink back to rest as soon as we had passed.
I led the way, selecting the route, Morhange followed. Enveloped in a bernous, his head covered with the straight chechia of the Spahis, a great chaplet of alternate red and white beads, ending in a cross, around his neck, he realized perfectly the ideal of Father Lavigerie's White Fathers.
After a two-days’ halt at Temassinin we had just left the road followed by Flatters, and taken an oblique course to the south. I have the honor of having antedated Fourcau in demonstrating the importance of Temassinin as a geometrical point for the passage of caravans, and of selecting the place where Captain Pein has just now constructed a fort.
[paragraph continues] The junction for the roads that lead to Touat from Fezzan and Tibesti, Temassinin is the future seat of a marvellous Intelligence Department. What I had collected there in two days about the disposition of our Senoussis enemies was of importance. I noticed that Morhange let me proceed with my inquiries with complete indifference.
These two days he had passed in conversation with the old negro guardian of the turbet, which preserves, under its plaster dome, the remains of the venerated Sidi-Moussa. The confidences they exchanged, I am sorry to say that I have forgotten. But from the negro's amazed admiration, I realized the ignorance in which I stood to the mysteries of the desert, and how familiar they were to my companion.
And if you want to get any idea of the extraordinary originality which Morhange introduced into such surroundings, you who, after all, have a certain familiarity with the tropics, listen to this. It was exactly two hundred kilometers from here, in the vicinity of the Great Dune, in that horrible stretch of six days without water. We had just enough for two days before reaching the next well, and you know these wells; as Flatters wrote to his wife, "you have to work for hours before you can clean them out and succeed in watering beasts and men." By chance we met a caravan there, which was going east towards Rhadames, and had come too far north.
[paragraph continues] The camels’ humps, shrunken and shaking, bespoke the sufferings of the troop. Behind came a little gray ass, a pitiful burrow, interferring at every step, and lightened of its pack because the merchants knew that it was going to die. Instinctively, with its last strength, it followed, knowing that when it could stagger no longer, the end would come and the flutter of the bald vultures’ wings. I love animals, which I have solid reasons for preferring to men. But never should I have thought of doing what Morhange did then. I tell you that our water skins were almost dry, and that our own camels, without which one is lost in the empty desert, had not been watered for many hours. Morhange made his kneel, uncocked a skin, and made the little ass drink. I certainly felt gratification at seeing the poor bare flanks of the miserable beast pant with satisfaction. But the responsibility was mine. Also I had seen Bou-Djema's aghast expression, and the disapproval of the thirsty members of the caravan. I remarked on it. How it was received! "What have I given," replied Morhange, "was my own. We will reach El-Biodh to-morrow evening, about six o'clock. Between here and there I know that I shall not be thirsty." And that in a tone, in which for the first time he allowed the authority of a Captain to speak. "That is easy to say," I thought, ill-humoredly. "He knows that when he wants them, my water-skin, and Bou-Djema's, are at his service." But I did not yet know
[paragraph continues] Morhange very well, and it is true that until the evening of the next day when we reached El-Biodh, refusing our offers with smiling determination, he drank nothing.
Shades of St. Francis of Assisi! Umbrian hills, so pure under the rising sun! It was in the light of a like sunrise, by the border of a pale stream leaping in full cascades from a crescent-shaped niche of the gray rocks of Egere, that Morhange stopped. The unlooked for waters rolled upon the sand, and we saw, in the light which mirrored them, little black fish. Fish in the middle of the Sahara! All three of us were mute before this paradox of Nature. One of them had strayed into a little channel of sand. He had to stay there, struggling in vain, his little white belly exposed to the air. . . . Morhange picked him up, looked at him for a moment, and put him back into the little stream. Shades of St. Francis. Umbrian hills.. . . But I have sworn not to break the thread of the story by these untimely digressions.
"You see," Captain Morhange said to me a week later, "that I was right in advising you to go farther south before making for Shikh-Salah. Something told me that this highland of Egere was not interesting from your point of view. While here you have only to stoop to pick up pebbles which will allow you to establish the volcanic origin of this region
much more certainly than Bou-Derba, des Cloizeaux, and Doctor Marrés have done."
This was while we were following the western pass of the Tidifest Mountains, about the 25th degree of northern latitude.
"I should indeed be ungrateful not to thank you," I said.
I shall always remember that instant. We had left our camels and were collecting fragments of the most characteristic rocks. Morhange employed himself with a discernment which spoke worlds for his knowledge of geology, a science he had often professed complete ignorance of.
Then I asked him the following question:
"May I prove my gratitude by making you a confession?"
He raised his head and looked at me.
"Well then, I don't see the practical value of this trip you have undertaken."
"Why not? To explore the old caravan route, to demonstrate that a connection has existed from the most ancient times between the Mediterranean world, and the country of the Blacks, that seems nothing in your eyes? The hope of settling once for all the secular disputes which have divided so many keen minds; d’Anville, Heeren, Berlioux, Quatremere on the one hand,—on the other Gosselin, Walckenaer, Tissit, Vivien, de saint-Martin; you
think that that is devoid of interest? A plague upon you for being hard to please."
"I spoke of practical value," I said. "You won't deny that this controversy is only the affair of cabinet geographers and office explorers."
Morhange kept on smiling.
"Dear friend, don't wither me. Deign to recall that your mission was confided to you by the Ministry of War, while I hold mine on behalf of the Ministry of Public Instruction. A different origin justifies our different aims. It certainly explains, I readily concede that to you, why what I am in search of has no practical value."
"You are also authorized by the Ministry of Commerce," I replied, playing my next card. "By this chief you are instructed to study the possibility of restoring the old trade route of the ninth century. But on this point don't attempt to mislead me; with your knowledge of the history and geography of the Sahara, your mind must have been made up before you left Paris. The road from Djerid to the Niger is dead, stone dead. You knew that no important traffic would pass by this route before you undertook to study the possibility of restoring it."
Morhange looked me full in the face.
"And if that should be so," he said with the most charming attitude, "if I had before leaving the conviction you say, what do you conclude from that?"
"I should prefer to have you tell me."
"Simply, my dear boy, that I had less skill than you in finding the pretext for my voyage, that I furnished less good reasons for the true motives that brought me here."
"A pretext? I don't see . . ."
"Be sincere in your turn, if you please. I am sure that you have the greatest desire to inform the Arabian Office about the practices of the Senouissis. But admit that the information that you will obtain is not the sole and innermost aim of your excursion. You are a geologist, my friend. You have found a chance to gratify your taste in this trip. No one would think of blaming you because you have known how to reconcile what is useful to your country and agreeable to yourself. But, for the love of God, don't deny it; I need no other proof than your presence here on this side of the Tidifest, a very curious place from a mineralogical point of view, but some hundred and fifty kilometers south of your official route."
It was not possible to have countered me with a better grace. I parried by attacking.
"Am I to conclude from all this that I do not know the real aims of your trip, and that they have nothing to do with the official motives?"
I had gone a bit too far. I felt it from the seriousness with which Morhange's reply was delivered.
"No, my dear friend, you must not conclude just that. I should have no taste for a lie which was
based on fraud towards the estimable constitutional bodies which have judged me worthy of their confidence and their support. The ends that they have assigned to me I shall do my best to attain. But I have no reason for hiding from you that there is another, quite personal, which is far nearer to my heart. Let us say, if you will, to use a terminology that is otherwise deplorable, that this is the end while the others are the means."
"Would there be any indiscretion? . . ."
"None," replied my companion. "Shikh-Salah is only a few days distant. He whose first steps you have guided with such solicitude in the desert should have nothing hidden from you."
We had halted in the valley of a little dry well where a few sickly plants were growing. A spring near by was circled by a crown of gray verdure. The camels had been unsaddled for the night, and were seeking vainly, at every stride, to nibble the spiny tufts of had. The black and polished sides of the Tidifest Mountains rose, almost vertically, above our heads. Already the blue smoke of the fire on which Bou-Djema was cooking dinner rose through the motionless air.
Not a sound, not a breath. The smoke mounted straight, straight and slowly up the pale steps of the firmament.
"Have you ever heard of the Atlas of Christianity?" asked Morhange.
"I think so. Isn't it a geographical work published by the Benedictines under the direction of a certain Dom Granger?"
"Your memory is correct," said Morhange. "Even so let me explain a little more fully some of the things you have not had as much reason as I to interest yourself in. The Atlas of Christianity proposes to establish the boundaries of that great tide of Christianity through all the ages, and for all parts of the globe. An undertaking worthy of the Benedictine learning, worthy of such a prodigy of erudition as Dom Granger himself."
"And it is these boundaries that you have come to determine here, no doubt," I murmured.
"Just so," replied my companion.
He was silent, and I respected his silence, prepared by now to be astonished at nothing.
"It is not possible to give confidences by halves, without being ridiculous," he continued after several minutes of meditation, speaking gravely, in a voice which held no suggestion of that flashing humor which had a month before enchanted the young officers at Wargla. "I have begun on mine. I will tell you everything. Trust my discretion, however, and do not insist upon certain events of my private life. If, four years ago, at the close of these events, I resolved to enter a monastery, it does not concern you to know my reasons. I can marvel at it myself, that the passage in my life of a being absolutely devoid
of interest should have sufficed to change the current of that life. I can marvel that a creature whose sole merit was her beauty should have been permitted by the Creator to swing my destiny to such an unforeseen direction. The monastery at whose doors I knocked had the most valid reasons for doubting the stability of my vocation. What the world loses in such fashion it often calls back as readily. In short, I cannot blame the Father Abbot for having forbidden me to apply for my army discharge. By his instructions, I asked for, and obtained, permission to be placed on the inactive list for three years. At the end of those three years of consecration it would be seen whether the world was definitely dead to your servant.
"The first day of my arrival at the cloister I was assigned to Dom Granger, and placed by him at work on the Atlas of Christianity. A brief examination decided him as to what kind of service I was best fitted to render. This is how I came to enter the studio devoted to the cartography of Northern Africa. I did not know one word of Arabic, but it happened that in garrison at Lyon I had taken at the Faculté des Lettres, a course with Berlioux,—a very erudite geographer no doubt, but obsessed by one idea, the influence the Greek and Roman civilizations had exercised on Africa. This detail of my life was enough for Dom Granger. He provided me straightway with Berber vocabularies by Venture,
by Delaporte, by Brosselard; with the Grammatical Sketch of the Temahaq by Stanley Fleeman, and the Essai de Grammaire de la langue Temachek by Major Hanoteau. At the end of three months I was able to decipher any inscriptions in Tifinar. You know that Tifinar is the national writing of the Tuareg, the expression of this Terachek language which seems to us the most curious protest of the Targui race against its Mohammedan enemies.
"Dom Granger, in fact, believed that the Tuareg are Christians, dating from a period which it was necessary to ascertain, but which coincided no doubt with the splendor of the church of Hippon. Even better than I, you know that the cross is with them the symbol of fate in decoration. Duveyrier has claimed that it figures in their alphabet, on their arms, among the designs of their clothes. The only tattooing that they wear on the forehead, on the back of the hand, is a cross with four equal branches; the pummels of their saddles, the handles of their sabres, of their poignards, are cross-shaped. And is it necessary to remind you that, although Islam forbids bells as a sign of Christianity, the harness of Tuareg camels are trimmed with bells?
"Neither Dom Granger nor I attach an exaggerated importance to such proofs, which resemble too much those which make such a display in the Genius of Christianity. But it is indeed impossible to refuse
all credence to certain theological arguments. Amanai, the God of the Tuareg, unquestionably the Adonai of the Bible, is unique. They have a hell, 'Timsi-tan-elekhaft,' the last fire, where reigns Iblis, our Lucifer. Their Paradise, where they are rewarded for good deeds, is inhabited by 'andjelousen,' our angels. And do not urge the resemblance of this theology to the Koran, for I will meet you with historic arguments and remind you that the Tuareg have struggled all through the ages at the cost of partial extermination, to maintain their faith against the encroachments of Mohammedan fanaticism.
"Many times I have studied with Dom Granger that formidable epoch when the aborigines opposed the conquering Arabs. With him I have seen how the army of Sidi-Okba, one of the companions of the Prophet, invaded this desert to reduce the Tuareg tribes and impose on them Musselman rules. These tribes were then rich and prosperous. They were the Ihbggaren, the Imededren, the Ouadelen, the Kel-Gueress, the Kel-Air. But internal quarrels sapped their strength. Still, it was not until after a long and cruel war that the Arabians succeeded in getting possession of the capital of the Berbers, which had proved such a redoubtable stronghold. They destroyed it after they had massacred the inhabitants. On the ruins Okba constructed a new city. This city is Es-Souk. The one that Sidi-Okba
destroyed was the Berber Tadmekka. What Dom Granger asked of me was precisely that I should try to exhume from the ruins of the Musselman Es-Souk the ruins of Tadmekka, which was Berber, and perhaps Christian.
"I understand," I murmured.
"So far, so good," said Morhange. "But what you must grasp now is the practical sense of these religious men, my masters. You remember that, even after three years of monastic life, they preserved their doubts as to the stability of my vocation. They found at the same time means of testing it once for all, and of adapting official facilities to their particular purposes. One morning I was called before the Father Abbot, and this is what he said to me, in the presence of Dom Granger, who expressed silent approval.
"'Your term of inactive service expires in fifteen days. You will return to Paris, and apply at the Ministry to be reinstated. With what you have learned here, and the relationships we have been able to maintain at Headquarters, you will have no difficulty in being attached to the Geographical Staff of the army. When you reach the rue de Grenelle you will receive our instructions.'
"I was astonished at their confidence in my knowledge. When I was reestablished as Captain again in the Geographical Service I understood. At the monastery, the daily association with Dom Granger
and his pupils had kept me constantly convinced of the inferiority of my knowledge. When I came in contact with my military brethren I realized the superiority of the instruction I had received. I did not have to concern myself with the details of my mission. The Ministries invited me to undertake it. My initiative asserted itself on only one occasion. When I learned that you were going to leave Wargla on the present expedition, having reason to distrust my practical qualifications as an explorer, I did my best to retard your departure, so that I might join you. I hope that you have forgiven me by now."
The light in the west was fading, where the sun had already sunk into a matchless luxury of violet draperies. We were alone in this immensity, at the feet of the rigid black rocks. Nothing but ourselves. Nothing, nothing but ourselves.
I held out my hand to Morhange, and he pressed it. Then he said:
"If they still seem infinitely long to me, the several thousand kilometers which separate me from the instant when, my task accomplished, I shall at last find oblivion in the cloister for the things for which I was not made, let me tell you this;—the several hundred kilometers which still separate us from Shikh-Salah seem to me infinitely short to traverse in your company."
On the pale water of the little pool, motionless and fixed like a silver nail, a star had just been born.
"Shikh-Salah," I murmured, my heart full of an indefinable sadness. "Patience, we are not there yet."
In truth, we never were to be there.