Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
"It is curious," said Morhange, "to see how our expedition, uneventful since we left Ouargla, is now becoming exciting."
He said this after kneeling for a moment in prayer before the painfully dug grave in which we had lain the guide.
I do not believe in God. But if anything can influence whatever powers there may be, whether of good or of evil, of light or of darkness, it is the prayer of such a man.
For two days we picked our way through a gigantic chaos of black rock in what might have been the country of the moon, so barren was it. No sound but that of stones rolling under the feet of the camels and striking like gunshots at the foot of the precipices.
A strange march indeed. For the first few hours, I tried to pick out, by compass, the route we were following. But my calculations were soon upset; doubtless a mistake due to the swaying motion of
the camel. I put the compass back in one of my addle-bags. From that time on, Eg-Anteouen was our master. We could only trust ourselves to him.
He went first; Morhange followed him, and I brought up the rear. We passed at every step most curious specimens of volcanic rock. But I did not examine them. I was no longer interested in such things. Another kind of curiosity had taken possession of me. I had come to share Morhange's madness. If my companion had said to me: "We are doing a very rash thing. Let us go back to the known trails," I should have replied, "You are free to do as you please. But I am going on."
Toward evening of the second day, we found ourselves at the foot of a black mountain whose jagged ramparts towered in profile seven thousand feet above our heads. It was an enormous shadowy fortress, like the outline of a feudal stronghold silhouetted with incredible sharpness against the orange sky.
There was a well, with several trees, the first we had seen since cutting into Ahaggar.
A group of men were standing about it. Their camels, tethered close by, were cropping a mouthful here and there.
At seeing us, the men drew together, alert, on the defensive.
Eg-Anteouen turned to us and said:
We went toward them.
They were handsome men, those Eggali, the largest Tuareg whom I ever have seen. With unexpected swiftness they drew aside from the well, leaving it to us. Eg-Anteouen spoke a few words to them. They looked at Morhange and me with a curiosity bordering on fear, but at any rate, with respect.
I drew several little presents from my saddlebags and was astonished at the reserve of the chief, who refused them. He seemed afraid even of my glance.
When they had gone, I expressed my astonishment at this shyness for which my previous experiences with the tribes of the Sahara had not prepared me.
"They spoke with respect, even with fear," I said to Eg-Anteouen. "And yet the tribe of the Eggali is noble. And that of the Kel-Tahats, to which you tell me you belong, is a slave tribe."
A smile lighted the dark eyes of Eg-Anteouen. "It is true," he said.
"I told them that we three, the Captain, you and I, were bound for the Mountain of the Evil Spirits."
With a gesture, he indicated the black mountain.
"They are afraid. All the Tuareg of Ahaggar are afraid of the Mountain of the Evil Spirits. You
saw how they were up and off at the very mention of its name."
"It is to the Mountain of the Evil Spirits that you are taking us?" queried Morhange.
"Yes," replied the Targa, "that is where the inscriptions are that I told you about."
"You did not mention that detail to us."
"Why should I? The Tuareg are afraid of the ilhinen, spirits with horns and tails, covered with hair, who make the cattle sicken and die and cast spells over men. But I know well that the Christians are not afraid and even laugh at the fears of the Tuareg."
"And you?" I asked. "You are a Targa and you are not afraid of the ilhinen?"
Eg-Anteouen showed a little red leather bag hung about his neck on a chain of white seeds.
"I have my amulet," he replied gravely, "blessed by the venerable Sidi-Moussa himself. And then I am with you. You saved my life. You have desired to see the inscriptions. The will of Allah be done!"
As he finished speaking, he squatted on his heels, drew out his long reed pipe and began to smoke gravely.
"All this is beginning to seem very strange," said Morhange, coming over to me.
"You can say that without exaggeration," I replied. "You remember as well as I the passage in
which Barth tells of his expedition to the Idinen, the Mountain of the Evil Spirits of the Azdjer Tuareg. The region had so evil a reputation that no Targa would go with him. But he got back."
"Yes, he got back," replied my comrade, "but only after he had been lost. Without water or food, he came so near dying of hunger and thirst that he had to open a vein and drink his own blood. The prospect is not particularly attractive."
I shrugged my shoulders. After all, it was not my fault that we were there.
Morhange understood my gesture and thought it necessary to make excuses.
"I should be curious," he went on with rather forced gaiety, "to meet these spirits and substantiate the facts of Pomponius Mela who knew them and locates them, in fact, in the mountain of the Tuareg. He calls them Egipans, Blemyens, Gamphasantes, Satyrs. . . . 'The Gamphasantes,' he says, 'are naked. The Blemyens have no head: their faces are placed on their chests; the Satyrs have nothing like men except faces. The Egipans are made as is commonly described.' . . . Satyrs, Egipans . . . isn't it very strange to find Greek names given to the barbarian spirits of this region? Believe me, we are on a curious trail; I am sure that Antinea will be our key to remarkable discoveries."
"Listen," I said, laying a finger on my lips. Strange sounds rose from about us as the evening
advanced with great strides. A kind of crackling, followed by long rending shrieks, echoed and reechoed to infinity in the neighboring ravines. It seemed to me that the whole black mountain suddenly had begun to moan.
We looked at Eg-Anteouen. He was smoking on, without twitching a muscle.
"The ilhinen are waking up," he said simply.
Morhange listened without saying a word. Doubtless he understood as I did: the overheated rocks, the crackling of the stone, a whole series of physical phenomena, the example of the singing statue of Memnon. . . . But, for all that, this unexpected concert reacted no less painfully on our overstrained nerves.
The last words of poor Bou-Djema came to my mind.
"The country of fear," I murmured in a low voice.
And Morhange repeated:
"The country of fear."
The strange concert ceased as the first stars appeared in the sky. With deep emotion we watched the tiny bluish flames appear, one after another. At that portentous moment they seemed to span the distance between us, isolated, condemned, lost, and our brothers of higher latitudes, who at that hour were rushing about their poor pleasures with delirious
frenzy in cities where the whiteness of electric lamps came on in a burst.
Eg-Anteouen's voice raised itself in slow guttural tones. It resounded with sad, grave majesty in the silence now complete.
I touched the Targa's arm. With a movement of his head, he pointed to a constellation glittering in the firmament.
"The Pleiades," I murmured to Morhange, showing him the seven pale stars, while Eg-Anteouen took up his mournful song in the same monotone:
A sudden sickness came over me. I seized the Targa's arm as he was starting to intone his refrain for the third time.
"When will we reach this cave with the inscriptions?" I asked brusquely.
He looked at me and replied with his usual calm: "We are there."
"We are there? Then why don't you show it to us?"
"You did not ask me," he replied, not without a touch of insolence.
Morhange had jumped to his feet.
"The cave is here?"
"It is here," Eg-Anteouen replied slowly, rising to his feet.
"Take us to it."
"Morhange," I said, suddenly anxious, "night is falling. We will see nothing. And perhaps it is still some way off."
"It is hardly five hundred paces," Eg-Anteouen replied. "The cave is full of dead underbrush. We will set it on fire and the Captain will see as in full daylight."
"Come," my comrade repeated.
"And the camels?" I hazarded.
"They are tethered," said Eg-Anteouen, "and we shall not be gone long."
He had started toward the black mountain. Morhange, trembling with excitement, followed. I followed, too, the victim of profound uneasiness. My pulses throbbed. "I am not afraid," I kept repeating to myself. "I swear that this is not fear."
And really it was not fear. Yet, what a strange dizziness! There was a mist over my eyes. My ears buzzed. Again I heard Eg-Anteouen's voice, but multiplied, immense, and at the same time, very low.
It seemed to me that the voice of the mountain, re-echoing, repeated that sinister last line to infinity:
"Here it is," said the Targa.
A black hole in the wall opened up. Bending over, Eg-Anteouen entered. We followed him. The darkness closed around us.
A yellow flame. Eg-Anteouen had struck his flint. He set fire to a pile of brush near the surface. At first we could see nothing. The smoke blinded us.
Eg-Anteouen stayed at one side of the opening of the cave. He was seated and, more inscrutable than ever, had begun again to blow great puffs of gray smoke from his pipe.
The burning brush cast a flickering light. I caught a glimpse of Morhange. He seemed very pale. With both hands braced against the wall, he was working to decipher a mass of signs which I could scarcely distinguish.
Nevertheless, I thought I could see his hands trembling.
"The devil," I thought, finding it more and more difficult to co-ordinate my thoughts, "he seems to be as unstrung as I."
I heard him call out to Eg-Anteouen in what seemed to me a loud voice:
"Stand to one side. Let the air in. What a smoke!"
He kept on working at the signs.
Suddenly I heard him again, but with difficulty. It seemed as if even sounds were confused in the smoke.
"Antinea. . . . At last. . . . Antinea. But not cut in the rock . . . the marks traced in ochre . . . not ten years old, perhaps not five. . . . Oh! . . ."
He pressed his hands to his head. Again he cried out:
"It is a mystery. A tragic mystery."
I laughed teasingly.
"Come on, come on. Don't get excited over it." He took me by the arm and shook me. I saw his eyes big with terror and astonishment.
"Are you mad?" he yelled in my face.
"Not so loud," I replied with the same little laugh.
He looked at me again, and sank down, overcome, on a rock opposite me. Eg-Anteouen was still smoking placidly at the mouth of the cave. We
could see the red circle of his pipe glowing in the darkness.
"Madman! Madman!" repeated Morhange. His voice seemed to stick in his throat.
Suddenly he bent over the brush which was giving its last darts of flame, high and clear. He picked out a branch which had not yet caught. I saw him examine it carefully, then throw it hack in the fire with a loud laugh.
"Ha! Ha! That's good, all right!"
He staggered toward Eg-Anteouen, pointing to the fire.
"It's hemp. Hasheesh, hasheesh. Oh, that's a good one, all right."
"Yes, it's a good one," I repeated, bursting into laughter.
Eg-Anteouen quietly smiled approval. The dying fire lit his inscrutable face and flickered in his terrible dark eyes.
A moment passed. Suddenly Morhange seized the Targa's arm.
"I want to smoke, too," he said. "Give me a pipe." The specter gave him one.
"What! A European pipe?"
"A European pipe," I repeated, feeling gayer and gayer.
"With an initial, 'M.' As if made on purpose. M. . . . Captain Morhange."
"Masson," corrected Eg-Anteouen quietly.
"Captain Masson," I repeated in concert with Morhange.
We laughed again.
"Ha! Ha! Ha! Captain Masson. . . . Colonel Flatters. . . . The well of Garama. They killed him to take his pipe . . . that pipe. It was Cegheir-ben-Cheikh who killed Captain Masson."
"It was Cegheir-ben-Cheikh," repeated the Targa with imperturbable calm.
"Captain Masson and Colonel Flatters had left the convoy to look for the well," said Morhange, laughing.
"It was then that the Tuareg attacked them," I finished, laughing as hard as I could.
"A Targa of Ahaggar seized the bridle of Captain Masson's horse," said Morhange.
"Cegheir-ben-Cheikh had hold of Colonel Flatters’ bridle," put in Eg-Anteouen.
"The Colonel puts his foot in the stirrup and receives a cut from Cegheir-ben-Cheikh's saber," I said.
"Captain Masson draws his revolver and fires on Cegheir-ben-Cheikh, shooting off three fingers of his left hand," said Morhange.
"But," finished Eg-Anteouen imperturbably, "but Cegheir-ben-Cheikh, with one blow of his saber, splits Captain Masson's skull."
He gave a silent, satisfied laugh as he spoke. The dying flame lit up his face. We saw the gleaming
black stem of his pipe. He held it in his left hand. One finger, no, two fingers only on that hand. Hello! I had not noticed that before.
Morhange also noticed it, for he finished with a loud laugh.
"Then, after splitting his skull, you robbed him. You took his pipe from him. Bravo, Cegheir-ben-Cheikh!"
Cegheir-ben-Cheikh does not reply, but I can see how satisfied with himself he is. He keeps on smoking. I can hardly see his features now. The firelight pales, dies. I have never laughed so much as this evening. I am sure Morhange never has, either. Perhaps he will forget the cloister. And all because Cegheir-ben-Cheikh stole Captain Masson's pipe.. . .
Again that accursed song. "The seventh is a boy, one of whose eyes has flown away." One cannot imagine more senseless words. It is very strange, really: there seem to be four of us in this cave now. Four, I say, five, six, seven, eight. . . . Make yourselves at home, my friends. What! there are no more of you? . . . I am going to find out at last how the spirits of this region are made, the Gamphasantes, the Blemyens. . . . Morhange says that the Blemyens have their faces on the middle of their chests. Surely this one who is seizing me in his arms is not a Blemyen! Now he is carrying me outside. And Morhange . . . I do not want them to forget Morhange. . . .
They did not forget him; I see him perched on a camel in front of that one to which I am fastened. They did well to fasten me, for otherwise I surely would tumble off. These spirits certainly are not bad fellows. But what a long way it is! I want to stretch out. To sleep. A while ago we surely were following a long passage, then we were in the open air. Now we are again in an endless stifling corridor. Here are the stars again. . . . Is this ridiculous course going to keep on? . . .
Hello, lights! Stars, perhaps. No, lights, I say. A stairway, on my word; of rocks, to be sure, but still, a stairway. How can the camels . . .? But it is no longer a camel; this is a man carrying me. A man dressed in white, not a Gamphasante nor a Blemyen. Morhange must be giving himself airs with his historical reasoning, all false, I repeat, all false. Good Morhange. Provided that his Gamphasante does not let him fall on this unending stairway. Something glitters on the ceiling. Yes, it is a lamp, a copper lamp, as at Tunis, at Barbouchy's. Good, here again you cannot see anything. But I am making a fool of myself; I am lying down; now I can go to sleep. What a silly day! . . . Gentlemen, I assure you that it is unnecessary to bind me: I do not want to go down on the boulevards.
Darkness again. Steps of someone going away. Silence.
But only for a moment. Someone is talking beside
me. What are they saying? . . . No, it is impossible. That metallic ring, that voice. Do you know what it is calling, that voice, do you know what it is calling in the tones of someone used to the phrase? Well, it is calling:
"Play your cards, gentlemen, play your cards. There are ten thousand louis in the bank. Play your cards, gentlemen."
In the name of God, am I or am I not at Ahaggar?