Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
During the first hour of our flight, the great mehari of Cegheir-ben-Cheikh carried us at a mad pace. We covered at least five leagues. With fixed eyes, I guided the beast toward the gour which the Targa had pointed out, its ridge becoming higher and higher against the paling sky.
The speed caused a little breeze to whistle in our ears. Great tufts of retem, like fleshless skeletons, were tossed to right and left.
I heard the voice of Tanit-Zerga whispering:
"Stop the camel."
At first I did not understand.
"Stop him," she repeated.
Her hand pulled sharply at my right arm.
I obeyed. The camel slackened his pace with very bad grace.
"Listen," she said.
At first I heard nothing. Then a very slight noise, a dry rustling behind us.
"Stop the camel," Tanit-Zerga commanded. "It is not worth while to make him kneel."
A little gray creature bounded on the camel. The mehari set out again at his best speed.
"Let him go," said Tanit-Zerga. "Galé has jumped on."
I felt a tuft of bristly hair under my arm. The mongoose had followed our footsteps and rejoined us. I heard the quick panting of the brave little creature becoming gradually slower and slower.
"I am happy," murmured Tanit-Zerga.
Cegheir-ben-Cheikh had not been mistaken. We reached the gour as the sun rose. I looked back. The Atakor was nothing more than a monstrous chaos amid the night mists which trailed the dawn. It was no longer possible to pick out from among the nameless peaks, the one on which Antinea was still weaving her passionate plots.
You know what the Tanezruft is, the "plain of plains," abandoned, uninhabitable, the country of hunger and thirst. We were then starting on the part of the desert which Duveyrier calls the Tasili of the south, and which figures on the maps of the Minister of Public Works under this attractive title: "Rocky plateau, without water, without vegetation, inhospitable for man and beast."
Nothing, unless parts of the Kalahari, is more frightful than this rocky desert. Oh, Cegheir-ben-Cheikh
did not exaggerate in saying that no one would dream of following us into that country.
Great patches of oblivion still refused to clear away. Memories chased each other incoherently about my head. A sentence came back to me textually: "It seemed to Dick that he had never, since the beginning of original darkness, done anything at all save jolt through the air." I gave a little laugh. "In the last few hours," I thought, "I have been heaping up literary situations. A while ago, a hundred feet above the ground, I was Fabrice of La Chartreuse de Parme beside his Italian dungeon. Now, here on my camel, I am Dick of The Light That Failed, crossing the desert to meet his companions in arms." I chuckled again; then shuddered. I thought of the preceding night, of the Orestes of Andromaque who agreed to sacrifice Pyrrhus. A literary situation indeed. . . .
Cegheir-ben-Cheikh had reckoned eight days to get to the wooded country of the Awellimiden, forerunners of the grassy steppes of the Soudan. He knew well the worth of his beast. Tanit-Zerga had suddenly given him a name, El Mellen, the white one, for the magnificent mehari had an almost spotless coat. Once he went two days without eating, merely picking up here and there a branch of an acacia tree whose hideous white spines, four inches long, filled me with fear for our friend's oesophagus. The wells marked out by Cegheir-ben-Cheikh were
indeed at the indicated spots, but we found nothing in them but a burning yellow mud. It was enough for the camel, enough so that at the end of the fifth day, thanks to prodigious self-control, we had used up only one of our two water skins. Then we believed ourselves safe.
Near one of these muddy puddles, I succeeded that day in shooting down a little straight-horned desert gazelle. Tanit-Zerga skinned the beast and we regaled ourselves with a delicious haunch. Meantime, little Galé, who never ceased prying about the cracks in the rocks during our mid-day halts in the heat, discovered an ourane, a sand crocodile, five feet long, and made short work of breaking his neck. She ate so much she could not budge. It cost us a pint of water to help her digestion. We gave it with good grace, for we were happy. Tanit-Zerga did not say so, but her joy at knowing that I was thinking no more of the woman in the gold diadem and the emeralds was apparent. And really, during those days, I hardly thought of her. I thought only of the torrid heat to be avoided, of the water skins which, if you wished to drink fresh water, had to be left for an hour in a cleft in the rocks; of the intense joy which seized you when you raised to your lips a leather goblet brimming with that life-saving water. . . . I can say this with authority, with good authority, indeed; passion, spiritual or physical, is a thing for those who have eaten and drunk and rested.
It was five o'clock in the afternoon. The frightful heat was slackening. We had left a kind of rocky crevice where we had had a little nap. Seated on a huge rock, we were watching the reddening west.
I spread out the roll of paper on which Cegheir-ben-Cheikh had marked the stages of our journey as far as the road from the Soudan. I realized again with joy that his itinerary was exact and that I had followed it scrupulously.
"The evening of the day after to-morrow," I said, "we shall be setting out on the stage which will take us, by the next dawn, to the waters at Telemsi. Once there, we shall not have to worry any more about water."
Tanit-Zerga's eyes danced in her thin face.
"And Gâo?" she asked.
"We will be only a week from the Niger. And Cegheir-ben-Cheikh said that at Telemsi, one reached a road overhung with mimosa."
"I know the mimosa," she said. "They are the little yellow balls that melt in your hand. But I like the caper flowers better. You will come with me to Gâo. My father, Sonni-Askia, was killed, as I told you, by the Awellimiden. But my people must have rebuilt the villages. They are used to that. You will see how you will be received."
"I will go, Tanit-Zerga, I promise you. But you also, you must promise me . . ."
"What? Oh, I guess. You must take me for a little fool if you believe me capable of speaking of things which might make trouble for my friend."
She looked at me as she spoke. Privation and great fatigue had chiselled the brown face where her great eyes shone. . . . Since then, I have had time to assemble the maps and compasses, and to fix forever the spot where, for the first time, I understood the beauty of Tanit-Zerga's eyes.
There was a deep silence between us. It was she who broke it.
"Night is coming. We must eat so as to leave as soon as possible."
She stood up and went toward the rocks.
Almost immediately, I heard her calling in an anguished voice that sent a chill through me.
"Come! Oh, come see!"
With a bound, I was at her side.
"The camel," she murmured. "The camel!"
I looked, and a deadly shudder seized me.
Stretched out at full length, on the other side of the rocks, his pale flanks knotted up by convulsive spasms, El Mellen lay in anguish.
I need not say that we rushed to him in feverish haste. Of what El Mellen was dying, I did not know, I never have known. All the mehara are that way. They are at once the most enduring and the most delicate of beasts. They will travel for six months across the most frightful deserts, with
little food, without water, and seem only the better for it. Then, one day when nothing is the matter, they stretch out and give you the slip with disconcerting ease.
When Tanit-Zerga and I saw that there was nothing more to do, we stood there without a word, watching his slackening spasms. When he breathed his last, we felt that our life, as well as his, had gone.
It was Tanit-Zerga who spoke first.
"How far are we from the Soudan road?" she asked.
"We are a hundred and twenty miles from the springs of Telemsi," I replied. "We could make thirty miles by going toward Ifrouane, but the wells are not marked on that route."
"Then we must walk toward the springs of Telemsi," she said. "A hundred and twenty miles, that makes seven days?"
"Seven days at the least, Tanit-Zerga."
"How far is it to the first well?"
The little girl's face contracted somewhat. But she braced up quickly.
"We must set out at once."
"Set out on foot, Tanit-Zerga!"
She stamped her foot. I marveled to see her so strong.
"We must go," she repeated. "We are going to
eat and drink and make Galé eat and drink, for we cannot carry all the tins, and the water skin is so heavy that we should not get three miles if we tried to carry it. We will put a little water in one of the tins after emptying it through a little hole. That will be enough for to-night's stage, which will be eighteen miles without water. To-morrow we will set out for another eighteen miles and we will reach the wells marked on the paper by Cegheir-ben-Cheikh."
"Oh," I murmured sadly, "if my shoulder were only not this way, I could carry the water skin." "It is as it is," said Tanit-Zerga.
"You will take your carbine and two tins of meat. I shall take two more and the one filled with water. Come. We must leave in an hour if we wish to cover the eighteen miles. You know that when the sun is up, the rocks are so hot we cannot walk."
I leave you to imagine in what sad silence we passed that hour which we had begun so happily and confidently. Without the little girl, I believe I should have seated myself upon a rock and waited. Galé only was happy.
"We must not let her eat too much," said Tanit-Zerga. "She would not be able to follow us. And to-morrow she must work. If she catches another ourane, it will be for us."
You have walked in the desert. You know how
terrible the first hours of the night are. When the moon comes up, huge and yellow, a sharp dust seems to rise in suffocating clouds. You move your jaws mechanically as if to crush the dust that finds its way into your throat like fire. Then usually a kind of lassitude, of drowsiness, follows. You walk without thinking. You forget where you are walking. You remember only when you stumble. Of course you stumble often. But anyway it is bearable. "The night is ending," you say, "and with it the march. All in all, I am less tired than at the beginning." The night ends, but then comes the most terrible hour of all. You are perishing of thirst and shaking with cold. All the fatigue comes back at once. The horrible breeze which precedes the dawn is no comfort. Quite the contrary. Every time you stumble, you say, "The next misstep will be the last."
That is what people feel and say even when they know that in a few hours they will have a good rest with food and water.
I was suffering terribly. Every step jolted my poor shoulder. At one time, I wanted to stop, to sit down. Then I looked at Tanit-Zerga. She was walking ahead with her eyes almost closed. Her expression was an indefinable one of mingled suffering and determination. I closed my own eyes and went on.
Such was the first stage. At dawn we stopped in
a hollow in the rocks. Soon the heat forced us to rise to seek a deeper one. Tanit-Zerga did not eat. Instead, she swallowed a little of her half can of water. She lay drowsy all day. Galé ran about our rock giving plaintive little cries.
I am not going to tell you about the second march. It was more horrible than anything you can imagine. I suffered all that it is humanly possible to suffer in the desert. But already I began to observe with infinite pity that my man's strength was outlasting the nervous force of my little companion. The poor child walked on without saying a word, chewing feebly one corner of her haik which she had drawn over her face. Galé followed.
The well toward which we were dragging ourselves was indicated on Cegheir-ben-Cheikh's paper by the one word Tissaririn. Tissaririn is the plural of Tissarirt and means "two isolated trees."
Day was dawning when finally I saw the two trees, two gum trees. Hardly a league separated us from them. I gave a cry of joy.
"Courage, Tanit-Zerga, there is the well."
She drew her veil aside and I saw the poor anguished little face.
"So much the better," she murmured, "because otherwise . . ."
She could not even finish the sentence.
We finished the last half mile almost at a run.
We already saw the hole, the opening of the well.
Finally we reached it.
It was empty.
It is a strange sensation to be dying of thirst. At first the suffering is terrible. Then, gradually, it becomes less. You become partly unconscious. Ridiculous little things about your life occur to you, fly about you like mosquitoes. I began to remember my history composition for the entrance examination of Saint-Cyr, "The Campaign of Marengo." Obstinately I repeated to myself, "I have already said that the battery unmasked by Marmont at the moment of Kellerman's charge included eighteen pieces. . . . No, I remember now, it was only twelve pieces. I am sure it was twelve pieces."
I kept on repeating:
Then I fell into a sort of coma.
I was recalled from it by feeling a red-hot iron on my forehead. I opened my eyes. Tanit-Zerga was bending over me. It was her hand which burnt so.
"Get up," she said. "We must go on."
"Go on, Tanit-Zerga i The desert is on fire. The sun is at the zenith. It is noon."
"We must go on," she repeated.
Then I saw that she was delirious.
She was standing erect. Her haik had fallen to
the ground and little Galé, rolled up in a ball, was asleep on it.
Bareheaded, indifferent to the frightful sunlight, she kept repeating:
"We must go on."
A little sense came back to me.
"Cover your head, Tanit-Zerga, cover your head."
"Come," she repeated. "Let's go. Gâo is over there, not far away. I can feel it. I want to see Gâo again."
I made her sit down beside me in the shadow of a rock. I realized that all strength had left her. The wave of pity that swept over me, brought back my senses.
"Gâo is just over there, isn't it?" she asked. Her gleaming eyes became imploring.
"Yes, dear little girl. Gâo is there. But for God's sake lie down. The sun is fearful."
"Oh, Gâo, Gâo!" she repeated. "I know very well that I shall see Gâo again."
She sat up. Her fiery little hands gripped mine. "Listen. I must tell you so you can understand how I know I shall see Gâo again."
"Tanit-Zerga, be quiet, my little girl, be quiet."
"No, I must tell you. A long time ago, on the bank of the river where there is water, at Gâo, where my father was a prince, there was . . . Well, one day, one feast day, there came from the interior
of the country an old magician, dressed in skins and feathers, with a mask and a pointed head-dress, with castanets, and two serpents in a bag. On the village square, where all our people formed in a circle, he danced the boussadilla. I was in the first row, and because I had a necklace of pink tourmaline, he quickly saw that I was the daughter of a chief. So he spoke to me of the past, of the great Mandingue Empire over which my grandfathers had ruled, of our enemies, the fierce Kountas, of everything, and finally he said:
"'Have no fear, little girl.'
"Then he said again, 'Do not be afraid. Evil days may be in store for you, but what does that matter? For one day you will see Gâo gleaming on the horizon, no longer a servile Gâo reduced to the rank of a little negro town, but the splendid Gâo of other days, the great capital of the country of the blacks, Gâo reborn, with its mosque of seven towers and fourteen cupolas of turquoise, with its houses with cool courts, its fountains, its watered gardens, all blooming with great red and white flowers. . . . That will be for you the hour of deliverance and of royalty.'"
Tanit-Zerga was standing up. All about us, on our heads, the sun blazed on the hamada, burning it white.
Suddenly the child stretched out her arms. She gave a terrible cry.
"Gâo! There is Gâo!"
I looked at her.
"Gâo," she repeated.. "Oh, I know it well! There are the trees and the fountains, the cupolas and the towers, the palm trees, the great red and white flowers. Gâo . . ."
Indeed, along the shimmering horizon rose a fantastic city with mighty buildings that towered, tier on tier, until they formed a rainbow. Wide-eyed, we stood and watched the terrible mirage quiver feverishly before us.
"Gâo!" I cried. "Gâo!"
And almost immediately I uttered another cry, of sorrow and of horror. Tanit-Zerga's little hand relaxed in mine. I had just time to catch the child in my arms and hear her murmur as in a whisper:
"And then that will be the day of deliverance. The day of deliverance and of royalty."
Several hours later I took the knife with which we had skinned the desert gazelle and, in the sand at the foot of the rock where Tanit-Zerga had given up her spirit, I made a little hollow where she was to rest.
When everything was ready, I wanted to look once more at that dear little face. Courage failed me for a moment. . . . Then I quickly drew the haik over the brown face and laid the body of the child in the hollow.
I had reckoned without Galé.
The eyes of the mongoose had not left me during the whole time that I was about my sad duty. When she heard the first handfuls of sand fall on the haik, she gave a sharp cry. I looked at her and saw her ready to spring, her eyes darting fire.
"Galé!" I implored; and I tried to stroke her.
She bit my hand and then leapt into the grave and began to dig, throwing the sand furiously aside.
I tried three times to chase her away. I felt that I should never finish my task and that, even if I did, Galé would stay there and disinter the body.
My carbine lay at my feet. A shot drew echoes from the immense empty desert. A moment later, Galé also slept her last sleep, curled up, as I so often had seen her, against the neck of her mistress.
When the surface showed nothing more than a little mound of trampled sand, I rose staggering and started off aimlessly into the desert, toward the south.