Atlantida (L'Atlantide), by Pierre Benoit, , at sacred-texts.com
Through the great open window, waves of pale moonlight surged into my room.
A slender white figure was standing beside the bed where I lay.
"You, Tanit-Zerga!" I murmured. She laid a finger on her lips.
"Sh! Yes, it is I."
I tried to raise myself up on the bed. A terrible pain seized my shoulder. The events of the afternoon came back to my poor harassed mind.
"Oh, little one, if you knew!"
"I know," she said.
I was weaker than a baby. After the overstrain of the day had come a fit of utter nervous depression. A lump rose in my throat, choking me.
"If you knew, if you only knew! . . . Take me away, little one. Get me away from here."
"Not so loud," she whispered. "There is a white Targa on guard at the door."
"Take me away; save me," I repeated.
"That is what I came for," she said simply.
I looked at her. She no longer was wearing her beautiful red silk tunic. A plain white haik was wrapped about her; and she had drawn one corner of it over her head.
"I want to go away, too," she said in a smothered voice. "For a long time, I have wanted to go away. I want to see Gâo, the village on the bank of the river, and the blue gum trees, and the green water.
"Ever since I came here, I have wanted to get away," she repeated, "but I am too little to go alone into the great Sahara. I never dared speak to the others who came here before you. They all thought only of her. . . . But you, you wanted to kill her."
I gave a low moan.
"You are suffering," she said. "They broke your arm."
"Dislocated it anyhow."
"Let me see."
With infinite gentleness, she passed her smooth little hands over my shoulder.
"You tell me that there is a white Targa on guard before my door, Tanit-Zerga," I said. "Then how did you get in?"
"That way," she said, pointing to the window. A dark perpendicular line halved its blue opening.
Tanit-Zerga went to the window. I saw her standing erect on the sill. A knife shone in her
hands. She cut the rope at the top of the opening. It slipped down to the stone with a dry sound. She came back to me.
"How can we escape?" I asked.
"That way," she repeated, and she pointed again at the window.
I leaned out. My feverish gaze fell upon the shadowy depths, searching for those invisible rocks, the rocks upon which little Kaine had dashed himself.
"That way!" I exclaimed, shuddering. "Why, it is two hundred feet from here to the ground."
"The rope is two hundred and fifty," she replied. "It is a good strong rope which I stole in the oasis; they used it in felling trees. It is quite new."
"Climb down that way, Tanit-Zerga! With my shoulder!"
"I will let you down," she said firmly. "Feel how strong my arms are. Not that I shall rest your weight on them. But see, on each side of the window is a marble column. By twisting the rope around one of them, I can let you slip down and scarcely feel your weight.
"And look," she continued, "I have made a big knot every ten feet. I can stop the rope with them, every now and then, if I want to rest."
"And you?" I asked.
"When you are down, I shall tie the rope to one of the columns and follow. There are the knots on
which to rest if the rope cuts my hands too much. But don't be afraid: I am very agile. At Gâo, when I was just a child, I used to climb almost as high as this in the gum trees to take the little toucans out of their nests. It is even easier to climb down."
"And when we are down, how will we get out? Do you know the way through the barriers?"
"No one knows the way through the barriers," she said, "except Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh, and perhaps Antinea."
"There are the camels of Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh, those which he uses on his forays. I untethered the strongest one and led him out, just below us, and gave him lots of hay so that he will not make a sound and will be well fed when we start."
"But . . ." I still protested.
She stamped her foot.
"But what? Stay if you wish, if you are afraid. I am going. I want to see Gâo once again, Gâo with its blue gum-trees and its green water."
I felt myself blushing.
"I will go, Tanit-Zerga. I would rather die of thirst in the midst of the desert than stay here. Let us start."
"Tut!" she said. "Not yet."
She showed me that the dizzy descent was in brilliant moonlight.
"Not yet. We must wait. They would see us.
[paragraph continues] In an hour, the moon will have circled behind the mountain. That will be the time."
She sat silent, her haik wrapped completely about her dark little figure. Was she praying? Perhaps.
Suddenly I no longer saw her. Darkness had crept in the window. The moon had turned.
Tanit-Zerga's hand was on my arm. She drew me toward the abyss. I tried not to tremble.
Everything below us was in shadow. In a low, firm voice, Tanit-Zerga began to speak:
"Everything is ready. I have twisted the rope about the pillar. Here is the slip-knot. Put it under your arms. Take this cushion. Keep it pressed against your hurt shoulder. . . . A leather cushion. . . . It is tightly stuffed. Keep face to the wall. It will protect you against the bumping and scraping."
I was now master of myself, very calm. I sat down on the sill of the window, my feet in the void. A breath of cool air from the peaks refreshed me.
I felt little Tanit-Zerga's hand in my vest pocket.
"Here is a box. I must know when you are down, so I can follow. You will open the box. There are fire-flies in it; I shall see them and follow you."
She held my hand a moment.
"Now go," she murmured.
I remember only one thing about that descent: I
was overcome with vexation when the rope stopped and I found myself, feet dangling, against the perfectly smooth wall.
"What is the little fool waiting for?" I said to myself. "I have been hung here for a quarter of an hour. Ah . . . at last! Oh, here I am stopped again." Once or twice I thought I was reaching the ground, but it was only a projection from the rock. I had to give a quick shove with my foot. . . . Then, suddenly, I found myself seated on the ground. I stretched out my hands. Bushes. . . . A thorn pricked my finger. I was down.
Immediately I began to get nervous again.
I pulled out the cushion and slipped off the noose. With my good hand, I pulled the rope, holding it out five or six feet from the face of the mountain, and put my foot on it.
Then I took the little cardboard box from my pocket and opened it.
One after the other, three little luminous circles rose in the inky night. I saw them rise higher and higher against the rocky wall. Their pale rose aureols gleamed faintly. Then, one by one, they turned, disappeared.
"You are tired, Sidi Lieutenant. Let me hold the rope."
Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh rose up at my side.
I looked at his tall black silhouette. I shuddered,
but I did not let go of the rope on which I began to feel distant jerks.
"Give it to me," he repeated with authority. And he took it from my hands.
I don't know what possessed me then. I was standing beside that great dark phantom. And I ask you, what could I, with a dislocated shoulder, do against that man whose agile strength I already knew? What was there to do? I saw him buttressed against the wall, holding the rope with both hands, with both feet, with all his body, much better than I had been able to do.
A rustling above our heads. A little shadowy form.
"There," said Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh, seizing the little shadow in his powerful arms and placing her on the ground, while the rope, let slack, slapped back against the rock.
Tanit-Zerga recognized the Targa and groaned.
He put his hand roughly over her mouth.
"Shut up, camel thief, wretched little fly."
He seized her arm. Then he turned to me.
"Come," he said in an imperious tone.
I obeyed. During our short walk, I heard Tanit-Zerga's teeth chattering with terror.
We reached a little cave.
"Go in," said the Targa.
He lighted a torch. The red light showed a superb mehari peacefully chewing his cud.
"The little one is not stupid," said Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh, pointing to the animal. "She knows enough to pick out the best and the strongest. But she is rattle-brained."
He held the torch nearer the camel.
"She is rattle-brained," he continued. "She only saddled him. No water, no food. At this hour, three days from now, all three of you would have been dead on the road, and on what a road!"
Tanit-Zerga's teeth no longer chattered. She was looking at the Targa with a mixture of terror and hope.
"Come here, Sidi Lieutenant," said Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh, "so that I can explain to you."
When I was beside him, he said:
"On each side there is a skin of water. Make that water last as long as possible, for you are going to cross a terrible country. It may be that you will not find a well for three hundred miles.
"There," he went on, "in the saddle bags, are cans of preserved meat. Not many, for water is much more precious. Here also is a carbine, your carbine, sidi. Try not to use it except to shoot antelopes. And there is this."
He spread out a roll of paper. I saw his inscrutible face bent over it; his eyes were smiling; he looked at me.
"Once out of the enclosures, what way did you plan to go?" he asked.
"Toward Idelès, to retake the route where you met the Captain and me," I said.
Ceghéir-ben-Cheikh shook his head.
"I thought as much," he murmured.
Then he added coldly:
"Before sunset to-morrow, you and the little one would have been caught and massacred."
"Toward the north is Ahaggar," he continued, "and all Ahaggar is under the control of Antinea. You must go south."
"Then we shall go south."
"By what route?"
"Why, by Silet and Timassao."
The Targa again shook his head.
"They will look for you on that road also," he said. "It is a good road, the road with the wells. They know that you are familiar with it. The Tuareg would not fail to wait at the wells."
"Well," said Cegheir-ben-Cheikh, "you must not rejoin the road from Timassao to Timbuctoo until you are four hundred miles from here toward Iferouane, or better still, at the spring of Telemsi. That is the boundary between the Tuareg of Ahaggar and the Awellimiden Tuareg."
The little voice of Tanit-Zerga broke in:
"It was the Awellimiden Tuareg who massacred my people and carried me into slavery. I do not
want to pass through the country of the Awellimiden."
"Be still, miserable little fly," said Cegheir-ben-Cheikh.
Then, addressing me, he continued:
"I have said what I have said. The little one is not wrong. The Awellimiden are a savage people. But they are afraid of the French. Many of them trade with the stations north of the Niger. On the other hand, they are at war with the people of Ahaggar, who will not follow you into their country. What I have said, is said. You must rejoin the Timbuctoo road near where it enters the borders of the Awellimiden. Their country is wooded and rich in springs. If you reach the springs at Telemsi, you will finish your journey beneath a canopy of blossoming mimosa. On the other hand, the road from here to Telemsi is shorter than by way of Timissao. It is quite straight."
"Yes, it is direct," I said, "but, in following it, you have to cross the Tanezruft."
Cegheir-ben-Cheikh waved his hand impatiently.
"Cegheir-ben-Cheikh knows that," he said. "He knows what the Tanezruft is. He who has traveled over all the Sahara knows that he would shudder at crossing the Tanezruft and the Tasili from the south. He knows that the camels that wander into that country either die or become wild, for no one will risk his life to go look for them. It is the terror
that hangs over that region that may save you. For you have to choose: you must run the risk of dying of thirst on the tracks of the Tanezruft or have your throat cut along some other route."
"You can stay here," he added.
"My choice is made, Cegheir-ben-Cheikh," I announced.
"Good!" he replied, again opening out the roll of paper. "This trail begins at the second barrier of earth, to which I will lead you. It ends at Iferouane. I have marked the wells, but do not trust to them too much, for many of them are dry. Be careful not to stray from the route. If you lose it, it is death. . . . Now mount the camel with the little one. Two make less noise than four."
We went a long way in silence. Cegheir-ben-Cheikh walked ahead and his camel followed meekly. We crossed, first, a dark passage, then, a deep gorge, then another passage. . . . The entrance to each was hidden by a thick tangle of rocks and briars.
Suddenly a burning breath touched our faces. A dull reddish light filtered in through the end of the passage. The desert lay before us.
Cegheir-ben-Cheikh had stopped.
"Get down," he said.
A spring gurgled out of the rock. The Targa went to it and filled a copper cup with the water.
"Drink," he said, holding it out to each of us in turn.
"Drink again," he ordered. "You will save just so much of the contents of your water skins. Now try not to be thirsty before sunset."
He looked over the saddle girths.
"That's all right," he murmured. "Now go. In two hours the dawn will be here. You must be out of sight."
I was filled with emotion at this last moment; I went to the Targa and took his hand.
"Cegheir-ben-Cheikh," I asked in a low voice, "why are you doing this?"
He stepped back and I saw his dark eyes gleam.
"Why?" he said.
He replied with dignity:
"The Prophet permits every just man, once in his lifetime, to let pity take the place of duty. Cegheir-ben-Cheikh is turning this permission to the advantage of one who saved his life."
"And you are not afraid," I asked, "that I will disclose the secret of Antinea if I return among Frenchmen?"
He shook his head.
"I am not afraid of that," he said, and his voice was full of irony. "It is not to your interest that Frenchmen should know how the Captain met his death."
I was horrified at this logical reply.
"Perhaps I am doing wrong," the Targa went on, "in not killing the little one. . . . But she loves you. She will not talk. Now go. Day is coming."
I tried to press the hand of this strange rescuer, but he again drew back.
"Do not thank me. What I am doing, I do to acquire merit in the eyes of God. You may be sure that I shall never do it again neither for you nor for anyone else."
And, as I made a gesture to reassure him on that point, "Do not protest," he said in a tone the mockery of which still sounds in my ears. "Do not protest. What I am doing is of value to me, but not to you."
I looked at him uncomprehendingly.
"Not to you, Sidi Lieutenant, not to you," his grave voice continued. "For you will come back; and when that day comes, do not count on the help of Cegheir-ben-Cheikh."
"I will come back?" I asked, shuddering. "You will come back," the Targa replied.
He was standing erect, a black statue against the wall of gray rock.
"You will come back," he repeated with emphasis. "You are fleeing now, but you are mistaken if you think that you will look at the world with the same eyes as before. Henceforth, one idea will follow you everywhere you go; and in one year, five, perhaps
ten years, you will pass again through the corridor through which you have just come."
"Be still, Cegheir-ben-Cheikh," said the trembling voice of Tanit-Zerga.
"Be still yourself, miserable little fly," said Cegheir-ben-Cheikh.
"The little one is afraid because she knows that I tell the truth. She knows the story of Lieutenant Ghiberti."
"Lieutenant Ghiberti?" I said, the sweat standing out on my forehead.
"He was an Italian officer whom I met between Rhât and Rhadames eight years ago. He did not believe that love of Antinea could make him forget all else that life contained. He tried to escape, and he succeeded. I do not know how, for I did not help him. He went back to his country. But hear what happened: two years later, to the very day, when I was leaving the look-out, I discovered a miserable tattered creature, half dead from hunger and fatigue, searching in vain for the entrance to the northern barrier. It was Lieutenant Ghiberti, come back. He fills niche Number 39 in the red marble hall."
The Targa smiled slightly.
"That is the story of Lieutenant Ghiberti which you wished to hear. But enough of this. Mount your camel."
I obeyed without saying a word. Tanit-Zerga, seated behind me, put her little arms around me. Cegheir-ben-Cheikh was still holding the bridle.
"One word more," he said, pointing to a black spot against the violet sky of the southern horizon. "You see the gour there; that is your way. It is eighteen miles from here. You should reach it by sunrise. Then consult your map. The next point is marked. If you do not stray from the line, you should be at the springs of Telemsi in eight days."
The camel's neck was stretched toward the dark wind coming from the south.
The Targa released the bridle with a sweep of his hand.
"Thank you," I called to him, turning back in the saddle. "Thank you, Cegheir-ben-Cheikh, and farewell."
I heard his voice replying in the distance:
"Au revoir, Lieutenant de Saint Avit."