Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
It was broad daylight when I opened my eyes. I thought at once of Morhange. I could not see him, but I heard him, close by, giving little grunts of surprise.
I called to him. He ran to me.
"Then they didn't tie you up?" I asked.
"I beg your pardon. They did. But they did it badly; I managed to get free."
"You might have untied me, too," I remarked crossly.
"What good would it have done? I should only have waked you up. And I thought that your first word would be to call me. There, that's done."
I reeled as I tried to stand on my feet.
"We might have spent the whole night smoking and drinking and not been in a worse state," he said. "Anyhow, that Eg-Anteouen with his hasheesh is a fine rascal."
"Cegheir-ben-Cheikh," I corrected.
I rubbed my hand over my forehead.
"Where are we?"
"My dear boy," Morhange replied, "since I awakened from the extraordinary nightmare which is mixed up with the smoky cave and the lamp-lit stairway of the Arabian Nights, I have been going from surprise to surprise, from confusion to confusion. Just look around you."
I rubbed my eyes and stared. Then I seized my friend's hand.
"Morhange," I begged, "tell me if we are still dreaming."
We were in a round room, perhaps fifty feet in diameter, and of about the same height, lighted by a great window opening on a sky of intense blue.
Swallows flew back and forth, outside, giving quick, joyous cries.
The floor, the incurving walls and the ceiling were of a kind of veined marble like porphyry, panelled with a strange metal, paler than gold, darker than silver, clouded just then by the early morning mist that came in through the window in great puffs.
I staggered toward this window, drawn by the freshness of the breeze and the sunlight which was chasing away my dreams, and I leaned my elbows on the balustrade.
I could not restrain a cry of delight.
I was standing on a kind of balcony, cut into the
flank of a mountain, overhanging an abyss. Above me, blue sky; below appeared a veritable earthly paradise hemmed in on all sides by mountains that formed a continuous and impassable wall about it. A garden lay spread out down there. The palm trees gently swayed their great fronds. At their feet was a tangle of the smaller trees which grow in an oasis under their protection: almonds, lemons, oranges, and many others which I could not distinguish from that height. A broad blue stream, fed by a waterfall, emptied into a charming lake, the waters of which had the marvellous transparency which comes in high altitudes. Great birds flew in circles over this green hollow; I could see in the lake the red flash of a flamingo.
The peaks of the mountains which towered on all sides were completely covered with snow.
The blue stream, the green palms, the golden fruit, and above it all, the miraculous snow, all this bathed in that limpid air, gave such an impression of beauty, of purity, that my poor human strength could no longer stand the sight of it. I laid my forehead on the balustrade, which, too, was covered with that heavenly snow, and began to cry like a baby.
Morhange was behaving like another child. But he had awakened before I had, and doubtless had had time to grasp, one by one, all these details whose fantastic ensemble staggered me.
He laid his hand on my shoulder and gently pulled me back into the room.
"You haven't seen anything yet," he said. "Look! Look!"
"Well, old man, what do you want me to do about it? Look!"
I had just realized that the strange room was furnished—God forgive me—in the European fashion. There were indeed, here and there, round leather Tuareg cushions, brightly colored blankets from Gafsa, rugs from Kairouan, and Caramani hangings which, at that moment, I should have dreaded to draw aside. But a half-open panel in the wall showed a bookcase crowded with books. A whole row of photographs of masterpieces of ancient art were hung on the walls. Finally there was a table almost hidden under its heap of papers, pamphlets, books. I thought I should collapse at seeing a recent number of the Archaeological Review.
I looked at Morhange. He was looking at me, and suddenly a mad laugh seized us and doubled us up for a good minute.
"I do not know," Morhange finally managed to say, "whether or not we shall regret some day our little excursion into Ahaggar. But admit, in the meantime, that it promises to be rich in unexpected adventures. That unforgettable guide who puts us to sleep just to distract us from the unpleasantness of
caravan life and who lets me experience, in the best of good faith, the far-famed delights of hasheesh: that fantastic night ride, and, to cap the climax, this cave of a Nureddin who must have received the education of the Athenian Bersot at the French Ecole Normale—all this is enough, on my word, to upset the wits of the best balanced."
"What do I think, my poor friend? Why, just what you yourself think. I don't understand it at all, not at all. What you politely call my learning is not worth a cent. And why shouldn't I be all mixed up? This living in caves amazes me. Pliny speaks of the natives living in caves, seven days’ march southwest of the country of the Amantes, and twelve days to the westward of the great Syrte. Herodotus says also that the Garamentes used to go out in their chariots to hunt the cave-dwelling Ethiopians. But here we are in Ahaggar, in the midst of the Targa country, and the best authorities tell us that the Tuareg never have been willing to live in caves. Duveyrier is precise on that point. And what is this, I ask you, but a cave turned into a workroom, with pictures of the Venus de Medici and the Apollo Sauroctone on the walls? I tell you that it is enough to drive you mad."
And Morhange threw himself on a couch and began to roar with laughter again.
"See," I said, "this is Latin."
I had picked up several scattered papers from the
work-table in the middle of the room. Morhange took them from my hands and devoured them greedily. His face expressed unbounded stupefaction.
"Stranger and stranger, my boy. Someone here is composing, with much citation of texts, a dissertation on the Gorgon Islands: de Gorgonum insulis. Medusa, according to him, was a Libyan savage who lived near Lake Triton, our present Chott Melhrir, and it is there that Perseus . . . Ah!"
Morhange's words choked in his throat. A sharp, shrill voice pierced the immense room.
"Gentlemen, I beg you, let my papers alone." I turned toward the newcomer.
One of the Caramani curtains was drawn aside, and the most unexpected of persons came in. Resigned as we were to unexpected events, the improbability of this sight exceeded anything our imaginations could have devised.
On the threshold stood a little bald-headed man with a pointed sallow face half hidden by an enormous pair of green spectacles and a pepper and salt beard. No shirt was visible, but an impressive broad red cravat. He wore white trousers. Red leather slippers furnished the only Oriental suggestion of his costume.
He wore, not without pride, the rosette of an officer of the Department of Education.
He collected the papers which Morhange had dropped in his amazement, counted them, arranged
them; then, casting a peevish glance at us, he struck a copper gong.
The portiere was raised again. A huge white Targa entered. I seemed to recognize him as one of the genii of the cave. 1
"Ferradji," angrily demanded the little officer of the Department of Education, "why were these gentlemen brought into the library?"
The Targa bowed respectfully.
"Cegheir-ben-Cheikh came back sooner than we expected," he replied, "and last night the embalmers had not yet finished. They brought them here in the meantime," and he pointed to us.
"Very well, you may go," snapped the little man. Ferradji backed toward the door. On the threshold, he stopped and spoke again:
"I was to remind you, sir, that dinner is served." "All right. Go along."
And the little man seated himself at the desk and began to finger the papers feverishly.
I do not know why, but a mad feeling of exasperation seized me. I walked toward him.
"Sir," I said, "my friend and I do not know where we are nor who you are. We can see only that you
are French, since you are wearing one of the highest honorary decorations of our country. You may have made the same observation on your part," I added, indicating the slender red ribbon which I wore on my vest.
He looked at me in contemptuous surprise. "Well, sir?"
"Well, sir, the negro who just went out pronounced the name of Cegheir-ben-Cheikh, the name of a brigand, a bandit, one of the assassins of Colonel Flatters. Are you acquainted with that detail, sir?"
The little man surveyed me coldly and shrugged his shoulders.
"Certainly. But what difference do you suppose that makes to me?"
"What!" I cried, beside myself with rage. "Who are you, anyway?"
"Sir," said the little old man with comical dignity, turning to Morhange, "I call you to witness the strange manners of your companion. I am here in my own house and I do not allow . . ."
"You must excuse my comrade, sir," said Morhange, stepping forward. "He is not a man of letters, as you are. These young lieutenants are hot-headed, you know. And besides, you can understand why both of us are not as calm as might be desired."
I was furious and on the point of disavowing these strangely humble words of Morhange. But a glance
showed me that there was as much irony as surprise in his expression.
"I know indeed that most officers are brutes," grumbled the little old man. "But that is no reason. . ."
"I am only an officer myself," Morhange went on, in an even humbler tone, "and if ever I have been sensible to the intellectual inferiority of that class, I assure you that it was just now in glancing—I beg your pardon for having taken the liberty to do so in glancing over the learned pages which you devote to the passionate story of Medusa, according to Procles of Carthage, cited by Pausanias."
A laughable surprise spread over the features of the little old man. He hastily wiped his spectacles. "What!" he finally cried.
"It is indeed unfortunate, in this matter," Morhange continued imperturbably, "that we are not in possession of the curious dissertation devoted to this burning question by Statius Sebosus, a work which we know only through Pliny and which . . ."
"You know Statius Sebosus?"
"And which my master, the geographer Berlioux . . ."
"You knew Berlioux—you were his pupil?" stammered the little man with the decoration.
"I have had that honor," replied Morhange, very coldly.
"But, but, sir, then you have heard mentioned, you
are familiar with the question, the problem of Atlantis?"
"Indeed I am not unacquainted with the works of Lagneau, Ploix, Arbois de Jubainville," said Morhange frigidly.
"My God!" The little man was going through extraordinary contortions. "Sir—Captain, how happy I am, how many excuses. . . ."
Just then, the portiére was raised. Ferradji appeared again.
"Sir, they want me to tell you that unless you come, they will begin without you."
"I am coming, I am coming. Say, Ferradji, that we will be there in a moment. Why, sir, if I had foreseen . . . It is extraordinary . . . to find an officer who knows Proclés of Carthage and Arbois de Jubainville. Again . . . But I must introduce myself. I am Etienne Le Mesge, Fellow of the University."
"Captain Morhange," said my companion. I stepped forward in my turn.
"Lieutenant de Saint-Avit. It is a fact, sir, that I am very likely to confuse Arbois of Carthage with Proclés de Jubainville. Later, I shall have to see about filling up those gaps. But just now, I should like to know where we are, if we are free, and if not, what occult power holds us. You have the appearance, sir, of being sufficiently at home in this house to be able to enlighten us upon this point,
which I must confess, I weakly consider of the first importance."
M. Le Mesge looked at me. A rather malevolent smile twitched the corners of his mouth. He opened his lips. . . .
A gong sounded impatiently.
"In good time, gentlemen, I will tell you. I will explain everything. . . . But now you see that we must hurry. It is time for lunch and our fellow diners will get tired of waiting."
"Our fellow diners?"
"There are two of them," M. Le Mesge explained. "We three constitute the European personnel of the house, that is, the fixed personnel," he seemed to feel obliged to add, with his disquieting smile. "Two strange fellows, gentlemen, with whom, doubtless, you will care to have as little to do as possible. One is a churchman, narrow-minded, though a Protestant. The other is a man of the world gone astray, an old fool."
"Pardon," I said, "but it must have been he whom I heard last night. He was gambling: with you and the minister, doubtless?"
M. Le Mesge made a gesture of offended dignity.
"The idea! With me, sir? It is with the Tuareg that he plays. He teaches them every game imaginable. There, that is he who is striking the gong to hurry us up. It is half past nine, and the Salle de Trente et Quarante opens at ten o'clock. Let us
hurry. I suppose that anyway you will not be averse to a little refreshment."
"Indeed we shall not refuse," Morhange replied.
We followed M. Le Mesge along a long winding corridor with frequent steps. The passage was dark. But at intervals rose-colored night lights and incense burners were placed in niches cut into the solid rock. The passionate Oriental scents perfumed the darkness and contrasted strangely with the cold air of the snowy peaks.
From time to time, a white Targa, mute and expressionless as a phantom, would pass us and we would hear the clatter of his slippers die away behind us.
M. Le Mesge stopped before a heavy door covered with the same pale metal which I had noticed on the walls of the library. He opened it and stood aside to let us pass.
Although the dining room which we entered had little in common with European dining rooms, I have known many which might have envied its comfort. Like the library, it was lighted by a great window. But I noticed that it had an outside exposure, while that of the library overlooked the garden in the center of the crown of mountains.
No center table and none of those barbaric pieces of furniture that we call chairs. But a great number of buffet tables of gilded wood, like those of Venice, heavy hangings of dull and subdued colors, and cushions,
[paragraph continues] Tuareg or Tunisian. In the center was a huge mat on which a feast was placed in finely woven baskets among silver pitchers and copper basins filled with perfumed water. The sight of it filled me with childish satisfaction.
M. Le Mesge stepped forward and introduced us to the two persons who already had taken their places on the mat.
"Mr. Spardek," he said; and by that simple phrase I understood how far our host placed himself above vain human titles.
The Reverend Mr. Spardek, of Manchester, bowed reservedly and asked our permission to keep on his tall, wide-brimmed hat. He was a dry, cold man, tall and thin. He ate in pious sadness, enormously.
"Monsieur Bielowsky," said M. Le Mesge, introducing us to the second guest.
"Count Casimir Bielowsky, Hetman of Jitomir," the latter corrected with perfect good humor as he stood up to shake hands.
I felt at once a certain liking for the Hetman of Jitomir who was a perfect example of an old beau. His chocolate-coloured hair was parted in the center (later I found out that the Hetman dyed it with a concoction of khol) . He had magnificent whiskers, also chocolate-coloured, in the style of the Emperor Francis Joseph. His nose was undeniably a little red, but so fine, so aristocratic. His hands were
marvelous. It took some thought to place the date of the style of the count's costume, bottle green with yellow facings, ornamented with a huge seal of silver and enamel. The recollection of a portrait of the Duke de Morny made me decide on 1860 or 1862; and the further chapters of this story will show that I was not far wrong.
The count made me sit down beside him. One of his first questions was to demand if I ever cut fives. 1
"That depends on how I feel," I replied.
"Well said. I have not done so since 1866. I swore off. A row. The devil of a party. One day at Walewski's. I cut fives. Naturally I wasn't worrying any. The other had a four. 'Idiot!' cried the little Baron de Chaux Gisseux who was laying staggering sums on my table. I hurled a bottle of champagne at his head. He ducked. It was Marshal Baillant who got the bottle. A scene! The matter was fixed up because we were both Free Masons. The Emperor made me promise not to cut fives again. I have kept my promise. But there are moments when it is hard. . . ."
He added in a voice steeped in melancholy:
"Try a little of this Ahaggar, 1880. Excellent vintage. It is I, Lieutenant, who instructed these people in the uses of the juice of the vine. The vine of the palm trees is very good when it is properly fermented, but it gets insipid in the long run."
It was powerful, that Ahaggar 1880. We sipped it from large silver goblets. It was fresh as Rhine wine, dry as the wine of the Hermitage. And then, suddenly, it brought back recollections of the burning wines of Portugal; it seemed sweet, fruity, an admirable wine, I tell you.
That wine crowned the most perfect of luncheons. There were few meats, to be sure; but those few were remarkably seasoned. Profusion of cakes, pancakes served with honey, fragrant fritters, cheese-cakes of sour milk and dates. And everywhere, in great enamel platters or wicker jars, fruit, masses of fruit, figs, dates, pistachios, jujubes, pomegranates, apricots, huge bunches of grapes, larger than those which bent the shoulders of the Hebrews in the land of Canaan, heavy watermelons cut in two, showing their moist, red pulp and their rows of black seeds.
I had scarcely finished one of these beautiful iced fruits, when M. Le Mesge rose.
"Gentlemen, if you are ready," he said to Morhange and me.
"Get away from that old dotard as soon as you can," whispered the Hetman of Jitomir to me. "The party of Trente et Quarante will begin soon. You shall see. You shall see. We go it even harder than at Cora Pearl's."
"Gentlemen," repeated M. Le Mesge in his dry tone.
We followed him. When the three of us were back again in the library, he said, addressing me:
"You, sir, asked a little while ago what occult power holds you here. Your manner was threatening, and I should have refused to comply had it not been for your friend, whose knowledge enables him to appreciate better than you the value of the revelations I am about to make to you."
He touched a spring in the side of the wall. A cupboard appeared, stuffed with books. He took one.
"You are both of you," continued M. Le Mesge, "in the power of a woman. This woman, the sultaness, the queen, the absolute sovereign of Ahaggar, is called Antinea. Don't start, M. Morhange, you will soon understand."
He opened the book and read this sentence:
"'I must warn you before I take up the subject matter: do not be surprised to hear me call the barbarians by Greek names.'
'What is that book?" stammered Morhange, whose pallor terrified me.
"This book," M. Le Mesge replied very slowly, weighing his words, with an extraordinary expression of triumph, "is the greatest, the most beautiful, the most secret, of the dialogues of Plato; it is the Critias of Atlantis."
"The Critias? But it is unfinished," murmured Morhange.
"It is unfinished in France, in Europe, everywhere else," said M. Le Mesge, "but it is finished here. Look for yourself at this copy."
"But what connection," repeated Morhange, while his eyes traveled avidly over the pages, "what connection can there be between this dialogue, complete,—yes, it seems to me complete—what connection with this woman, Antinea? Why should it be in her possession?"
"Because," replied the little man imperturbably, "this book is her patent of nobility, her Almanach de Gotha, in a sense, do you understand? Because it established her prodigious genealogy: because she is. . ."
"Because she is?" repeated Morhange.
"Because she is the grand daughter of Neptune, the last descendant of the Atlantides."
119:1 The negro serfs among the Tuareg are generally called "white Tuareg." While the nobles are clad in blue cotton robes, the serfs wear white robes, hence their name of "white Tuareg." See, in this connection, Duveyrier: les Tuareg du Nord, page 292. (Note by M. Leroux.)
126:1 Tirer à cinq, a card game played only for very high stakes.