Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
My fatigue was so great that I lay as if unconscious until the next day. I awoke about three o'clock in the afternoon.
I thought at once of the events of the previous day; they seemed amazing.
"Let me see," I said to myself. "Let us work this out. I must begin by consulting Morhange."
I was ravenously hungry.
The gong which Tanit-Zerga had pointed out lay within arm's reach. I struck it. A white Targa appeared.
"Show me the way to the library," I ordered.
He obeyed. As we wound our way through the labyrinth of stairs and corridors I realized that I could never have found my way without his help.
Morhange was in the library, intently reading a manuscript.
"A lost treatise of Saint Optat," he said. "Oh, if only Dom Granger were here. See, it is written in semi-uncial characters."
I did not reply. My eyes were fixed on an object which lay on the table beside the manuscript. It was an orichalch ring, exactly like that which Antinea had given me the previous day and the one which she herself wore.
"Well?" I said.
"You have seen her?"
"I have indeed," Morhange replied.
"She is beautiful, is she not?"
"It would be difficult to dispute that," my comrade answered. "I even believe that I can say that she is as intelligent as she is beautiful."
There was a pause. Morhange was calmly fingering the orichalch ring.
"You know what our fate is to be?"
"I know. Le Mesge explained it to us yesterday in polite mythological terms. This evidently is an extraordinary adventure."
He was silent, then said, looking at me:
"I am very sorry to have dragged you here. The only mitigating feature is that since last evening you seem to have been bearing your lot very easily."
Where had Morhange learned this insight into the human heart? I did not reply, thus giving him the best of proofs that he had judged correctly.
"What do you think of doing?" I finally murmured.
He rolled up the manuscript, leaned back comfortably in his armchair and lit a cigar.
"I have thought it over carefully. With the aid of my conscience I have marked out a line of conduct. The matter is clear and admits no discussion.
"The question is not quite the same for me as for you, because of my semi-religious character, which, I admit, has set out on a rather doubtful adventure. To be sure, I have not taken holy orders, but, even aside from the fact that the ninth commandment itself forbids my having relations with a woman not my wife, I admit that I have no taste for the kind of forced servitude for which the excellent Cegheir-ben-Cheikh has so kindly recruited us.
"That granted, the fact remains that my life is not my own with the right to dispose of it as might a private explorer travelling at his own expenses and for his own ends. I have a mission to accomplish, results to obtain. If I could regain my liberty by paying the singular ransom which this country exacts, I should consent to give satisfaction to Antinea according to my ability. I know the tolerance of the Church, and especially that of the order to which I aspire: such a procedure would be ratified immediately and, who knows, perhaps even approved? Saint Mary the Egyptian, gave her body to boatmen under similar circumstances. She received only glorification for it. In so doing she had the certainty
of attaining her goal, which was holy. The end justified the means.
"But my case is quite different. If I give in to the absurd caprices of this woman, that will not keep me from being catalogued down in the red marble hall, as Number 54, or as Number 55, if she prefers to take you first. Under those conditions . . ."
"Under those conditions?"
"Under those conditions, it would be unpardonable for me to acquiesce."
"Then what do you intend to do?"
"What do I intend to do?" Morhange leaned back in the armchair and smilingly launched a puff of smoke toward the ceiling.
"Nothing," he said. "And that is all that is necessary. Man has this superiority over woman. He is so constructed that he can refuse advances."
Then he added with an ironical smile:
"A man cannot be forced to accept unless he wishes to."
"I tried the most subtle reasoning on Antinea," he continued. "It was breath- wasted. 'But,' I said at the end of my arguments, 'why not Le Mesge?' She began to laugh. 'Why not the Reverend Spardek?' she replied. 'Le Mesge and Spardek are savants whom I respect. But
Qui voulut, le premier, dans sa stupidité,
S’éprenant d’un problème insoluble et stérile,
Aux choses de l’amour mêler l’honnêteté.
"'Besides,' she added with that really very charming smile of hers, 'probably you have not looked carefully at either of them.' There followed several compliments on my figure, to which I found nothing to reply, so completely had she disarmed me by those four lines from Baudelaire.
"She condescended to explain further: 'Le Mesge is a learned gentleman whom I find useful. He knows Spanish and Italian, keeps my papers in order, and is busy working out my genealogy.. The Reverend Spardek knows English and German. Count Bielowsky is thoroughly conversant with the Slavic languages. Besides, I love him like a father. He knew me as a child when I had not dreamed such stupid things as you know of me. They are indispensable to me in my relations with visitors of different races, although I am beginning to get along well enough in the languages which I need. . .. But I am talking a great deal, and this is the first time that I have ever explained my conduct. Your friend is not so curious.' With that, she dismissed me. A strange woman indeed. I think there is a bit of Renan in her, but she is cleverer than that master of sensualism."
"Gentlemen," said Le Mesge, suddenly entering the room, "why are you so late? They are waiting dinner for you."
The little Professor was in a particularly good humor that evening. He wore a new violet rosette.
"Well?" he said, in a mocking tone, "you have seen her?"
Neither Morhange nor I replied.
The Reverend Spardek and the Hetman of Jitomir already had begun eating when we arrived. The setting sun threw raspberry lights on the cream-colored mat.
"Be seated, gentlemen," said Le Mesge noisily.
"Lieutenant de Saint-Avit, you were not with us last evening. You are about to taste the cooking of Koukou, our Bambara chef, for the first time. You must give me your opinion of it."
A negro waiter set before me a superb fish covered with a pimento sauce as red as tomatoes.
I have explained that I was ravenously hungry. The dish was exquisite. The sauce immediately made me thirsty.
"White Ahaggar, 1879," the Hetman of Jitomir breathed in my ear as he filled my goblet with a clear topaz liquid. "I developed it myself: rien pour la tête, tout pour les jambes."
I emptied the goblet at a gulp. The company began to seem charming.
"Well, Captain Morhange," Le Mesge called out
to my comrade who had taken a mouthful of fish, "what do you say to this acanthopterygian? It was caught to-day in the lake in the oasis. Do you begin to admit the hypothesis of the Saharan sea?"
"The fish is an argument," my companion replied.
Suddenly he became silent. The door had opened.
A white Targa entered. The diners stopped talking.
The veiled man walked slowly toward Morhange and touched his right arm.
"Very well," said Morhange.
He got up and followed the messenger.
The pitcher of Ahaggar, 1879, stood between me and Count Bielowsky. I filled my goblet—a goblet which held a pint, and gulped it down.
The Hetman looked at me sympathetically.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Le Mesge, nudging me with his elbow. "Antinea has respect for the hierarchic order."
The Reverend Spardek smiled modestly.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Le Mesge again.
My glass was empty. For a moment I was tempted to hurl it at the head of the Fellow in History. But what of it? I filled it and emptied it again.
"Morhange will miss this delicious roast of mutton," said the Professor, more and more hilarious, as he awarded himself a thick slice of meat.
"He won't regret it," said the Hetman crossly.
[paragraph continues] "This is not roast; it is ram's horn. Really Koukou is beginning to make fun of us."
"Blame it on the Reverend," the shrill voice of Le Mesge cut in. "I have told him often enough to hunt other proselytes and leave our cook alone."
"Professor," Spardek began with dignity.
"I maintain my contention," cried Le Mesge, who seemed to me to be getting a bit overloaded. "I call the gentleman to witness," he went on, turning to me. "He has just come. He is unbiased. Therefore I ask him: has one the right to spoil a Bambara cook by addling his head with theological discussions for which he has no predisposition?"
"Alas!" the pastor replied sadly. "You are mistaken. He has only too strong a propensity to controversy."
"Koukou is a good-for-nothing who uses Colas’ cow as an excuse for doing nothing and letting our scallops burn," declared the Hetman. "Long live the Pope!" he cried, filling the glasses all around.
"I assure you that this Bambara worries me," Spardek went on with great dignity. "Do you know what he has come to? He denies transubstantiation. He is within an inch of the heresy of Zwingli and Oecolampades. Koukou denies transubstantiation."
"Sir," said Le Mesge, very much excited, "cooks should be left in peace. Jesus, whom I consider as
good a theologian as you, understood that, and it never occurred to him to call Martha away from her oven to talk nonsense to her."
"Exactly so," said the Hetman approvingly.
He was holding a jar between his knees and trying to draw its cork.
"Oh, Côtes Rôties, wine from the Côte-Rôtie!" he murmured to me as he finally succeeded. "Touch glasses."
"Koukou denies transubstantiation," the pastor continued, sadly emptying his glass.
"Eh!" said the Hetman of Jitomir in my ear, "let them talk on. Don't you see that they are quite drunk?"
His own voice was thick. He had the greatest difficulty in the world in filling my goblet to the brim.
I wanted to push the pitcher away. Then an idea came to me:
"At this very moment, Morhange . . . Whatever he may say . . . She is so beautiful."
I reached out for the glass and emptied it once more.
Le Mesge and the pastor were now engaged in the most extraordinary religious controversy, throwing at each other's heads the Book of Common Prayer, The Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Unigenitus. Little by little, the Hetman began to show that ascendancy over them, which is the characteristic
of a man of the world even when he is thoroughly drunk; the superiority of education over instruction.
Count Bielowsky had drunk five times as much as the Professor or the pastor. But he carried his wine ten times better.
"Let us leave these drunken fellows," he said with disgust. "Come on, old man. Our partners are waiting in the gaming room."
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the Hetman as we entered. "Permit me to present a new player to you, my friend, Lieutenant de Saint-Avit."
"Let it go at that," he murmured in my ear. "They are the servants. But I like to fool myself, you see."
I saw that he was very drunk indeed.
The gaming room was very long and narrow. A huge table, almost level with the floor and surrounded with cushions on which a dozen natives were lying, was the chief article of furniture. Two engravings on the wall gave evidence of the happiest broadmindedness in taste; one of da Vinci's St. John the Baptist, and the Maison des Dernières Cartouches of Alphonse de Neuville.
On the table were earthenware goblets. A heavy jar held palm liqueur.
I recognized acquaintances among those present; my masseur, the manicure, the barber, and two or
three Tuareg who had lowered their veils and were gravely smoking long pipes. While waiting for
something better, all were plunged in the delights of a card game that looked like "rams." Two of Antinea's beautiful ladies in waiting, Aguida and Sydia, were among the number. Their smooth bistre skins gleamed beneath veils shot with silver. I was sorry not to see the red silk tunic of Tanit-Zerga. Again, I thought of Morhange, but only for an instant.
"The chips, Koukou," demanded the Hetman. "We are not here to amuse ourselves."
The Zwinglian cook placed a box of many-colored chips in front of him. Count Bielowsky set about counting them and arranging them in little piles with infinite care.
"The white are worth a louis," he explained to me. "The red, a hundred francs. The yellow, five hundred. The green, a thousand. Oh, it's the devil of a game that we play here. You will see."
"I open with ten thousand," said the Zwinglian cook.
"Twelve thousand," said the Hetman. "Thirteen," said Sydya with a slow smile, as she seated herself on the count's knee and began to arrange her chips lovingly in little piles.
"Fourteen," I said.
"Fifteen," said the sharp voice of Rosita, the old manicure.
"Seventeen," proclaimed the Hetman.
"Twenty thousand," the cook broke in.
He hammered on the table and, casting a defiant
look at us, repeated:
"I take it at twenty thousand."
The Hetman made an impatient gesture.
"That devil, Koukou! You can't do anything against the beast. You will have to play carefully, Lieutenant."
Koukou had taken his place at the end of the table.
He threw down the cards with an air which abashed me.
"I told you so; the way it was at Anna Deslions’," the Hetman murmured proudly.
"Make your bets, gentlemen," yelped the negro. "Make your bets."
"Wait, you beast," called Bielowsky. "Don't you see that the glasses are empty? Here, Cacambo."
The goblets were filled immediately by the jolly masseur.
"Cut," said Koukou, addressing Sydya, the beautiful Targa who sat at his right.
The girl cut, like one who knows superstitions, with her left hand. But it must be said that her right was busy lifting a cup to her lips. I watched the curve of her beautiful throat.
"My deal," said Koukou.
We were thus arranged: at the left, the Hetman,
Aguida, whose waist he had encircled with the most aristocratic freedom, Cacambo, a Tuareg woman,
then two veiled negroes who were watching the game intently. At the right, Sydya, myself, the old manicure, Rosita, Barouf, the barber, another woman and two white Tuareg, grave and attentive, exactly opposite those on the left.
"Give me one," said the Hetman.
Sydya made a negative gesture.
Koukou drew, passed a four-spot to the Hetman, gave himself a five.
"Eight," announced Bielowsky.
"Six," said pretty Sydya.
"Seven," broke in Koukou. "One card makes up for another," he added coldly.
"I double," said the Hetman.
Cacambo and Aguida followed his example. On our side, we were more careful. The manicure especially would not risk more than twenty francs at a time.
"I demand that the cards be evened up," said Koukou imperturbably.
"This fellow is unbearable," grumbled the count. "There, are you satisfied?"
Koukou dealt and laid down a nine.
"My country and my honor!" raged Bielowsky. "I had an eight."
I had two kings, and so showed no ill temper. Rosita took the cards out of my hands.
I watched Sydya at my right. Her heavy black hair covered her shoulders. She was really very
beautiful, though a bit tipsy, as were all that fantastic company. She looked at me, too, but with lowered eyelids, like a timid little wild animal.
"Oh," I thought. "She may well be afraid. I am labelled 'No trespassing.' "
I touched her foot. She drew it back in fright.
"Who wants cards?" Koukou demanded.
"Not I," said the Hetman.
"Served," said Sydya.
The cook drew a four.
"Nine," he said.
"That card was meant for me," cursed the count.
"And five, I had a five. If only I had never promised his Majesty the Emperor Napoleon III never to cut fives! There are times when it is hard, very hard. And look at that beast of a negro who plays Charlemagne."
It was true. Koukou swept in three-quarters of the chips, rose with dignity, and bowed to the company.
"Till to-morrow, gentlemen."
"Get along, the whole pack of you," howled the Hetman of Jitomir. "Stay with me, Lieutenant de Saint-Avit."
When we were alone, he poured out another huge cupfull of liqueur. The ceiling of the room was lost in the gray smoke.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"After midnight. But you are not going to leave me like this, my dear boy? I am heavy-hearted."
He wept bitterly. The tail of his coat spread out on the divan behind him like the apple-green wings of a beetle.
"Isn't Aguida a beauty?" he went on, still weeping. "She makes me think of the Countess de Teruel, though she is a little darker. You know the Countess de Teruel, Mercedes, who went in bathing nude at Biarritz, in front of the rock of the Virgin, one day when Prince Bismarck was standing on the foot-bridge. You do not remember her? Mercedes de Teruel."
I shrugged my shoulders.
"I forget; you must have been too young. Two, perhaps three years old. A child. Yes, a child. Oh, my child, to have been of that generation and to be reduced to playing cards with savages. . . . I must tell you . . ."
I stood up and pushed him off.
"Stay, stay," he implored. "I will tell you everything you want to know, how I came here, things I have never told anyone. Stay, I must unbosom myself to a true friend. I will tell you everything, I repeat. I trust you. You are a Frenchman, a gentleman. I know that you will repeat nothing to her."
"That I will repeat nothing to her? . . . To whom?"
His voice stuck in his throat. I thought I saw a shudder of fear pass over him.
"To her . . . to Antinea," he murmured.
I sat down again.