"First, I must warn you, before beginning this work, not to be surprised to hear me calling barbarians by Grecian names." —PLATO Critias
Translated by Mary C. Tongue and Mary Ross
ACE BOOKS, INC. 1120 Avenue of the Americas New York, N.Y. 10036
To Andre Suares
HASSI-INIFEL, NOVEMBER 8, 1903.
If the following pages are ever to see the light of day it will be because they have been stolen from me. The delay that I exact before they shall be disclosed assures me of that.
[Footnote 1: This letter, together with the manuscript which accompanies it, the latter in a separate sealed envelope, was entrusted by Lieutenant Ferrieres, of the 3rd Spahis, the day of the departure of that officer for the Tassili of the Tuareg (Central Sahara), to Sergeant Chatelain. The sergeant was instructed to deliver it, on his next leave, to M. Leroux, Honorary Counsel at the Court of Appeals at Riom, and Lieutenant Ferrieres' nearest relative. As this magistrate died suddenly before the expiration of the term of ten years set for the publication of the manuscript here presented, difficulties arose which have delayed its publication up to the present date.]
As to this disclosure, let no one distrust my aim when I prepare for it, when I insist upon it. You may believe me when I maintain that no pride of authorship binds me to these pages. Already I am too far removed from all such things. Only it is useless that others should enter upon the path from which I shall not return.
Four o'clock in the morning. Soon the sun will kindle the hamada with its pink fire. All about me the bordj is asleep. Through the half-open door of his room I hear Andre de Saint-Avit breathing quietly, very quietly.
In two days we shall start, he and I. We shall leave the bordj. We shall penetrate far down there to the South. The official orders came this morning.
Now, even if I wished to withdraw, it is too late. Andre and I asked for this mission. The authorization that I sought, together with him, has at this moment become an order. The hierarchic channels cleared, the pressure brought to bear at the Ministry;—and then to be afraid, to recoil before this adventure!...
To be afraid, I said. I know that I am not afraid! One night in the Gurara, when I found two of my sentinels slaughtered, with the shameful cross cut of the Berbers slashed across their stomachs—then I was afraid. I know what fear is. Just so now, when I gazed into the black depths, whence suddenly all at once the great red sun will rise, I know that it is not with fear that I tremble. I feel surging within me the sacred horror of this mystery, and its irresistible attraction.
Delirious dreams, perhaps. The mad imaginings of a brain surcharged, and an eye distraught by mirages. The day will come, doubtless, when I shall reread these pages with an indulgent smile, as a man of fifty is accustomed to smile when he rereads old letters.
Delirious dreams. Mad imaginings. But these dreams, these imaginings, are dear to me. "Captain de Saint-Avit and Lieutenant Ferrieres," reads the official dispatch, "will proceed to Tassili to determine the statigraphic relation of Albien sandstone and carboniferous limestone. They will, in addition, profit by any opportunities of determining the possible change of attitude of the Axdjers towards our penetration, etc." If the journey should indeed have to do only with such poor things I think that I should never undertake it.
So I am longing for what I dread. I shall be dejected if I do not find myself in the presence of what makes me strangely fearful.
In the depths of the valley of Wadi Mia a jackal is barking. Now and again, when a beam of moonlight breaks in a silver patch through the hollows of the heat-swollen clouds, making him think he sees the young sun, a turtle dove moans among the palm trees.
I hear a step outside. I lean out of the window. A shade clad in luminous black stuff glides over the hard-packed earth of the terrace of the fortification. A light shines in the electric blackness. A man has just lighted a cigarette. He crouches, facing southwards. He is smoking.
It is Cegheir-ben-Cheikh, our Targa guide, the man who in three days is to lead us across the unknown plateaus of the mysterious Imoschaoch, across the hamadas of black stones, the great dried oases, the stretches of silver salt, the tawny hillocks, the flat gold dunes that are crested over, when the "alize" blows, with a shimmering haze of pale sand.
Cegheir-ben-Cheikh! He is the man. There recurs to my mind Duveyrier's tragic phrase, "At the very moment the Colonel was putting his foot in the stirrup he was felled by a sabre blow." Cegheir-ben-Cheikh! There he is, peacefully smoking his cigarette, a cigarette from the package that I gave him.... May the Lord forgive me for it.
[Footnote 2: H. Duveyrier, "The Disaster of the Flatters Mission." Bull. Geol. Soc., 1881.]
The lamp casts a yellow light on the paper. Strange fate, which, I never knew exactly why, decided one day when I was a lad of sixteen that I should prepare myself for Saint Cyr, and gave me there Andre de Saint-Avit as classmate. I might have studied law or medicine. Then I should be today a respectable inhabitant of a town with a church and running water, instead of this cotton-clad phantom, brooding with an unspeakable anxiety over this desert which is about to swallow me.
A great insect has flown in through the window. It buzzes, strikes against the rough cast, rebounds against the globe of the lamp, and then, helpless, its wings singed by the still burning candle, drops on the white paper.
It is an African May bug, big, black, with spots of livid gray.
I think of others, its brothers in France, the golden-brown May bugs, which I have seen on stormy summer evenings projecting themselves like little particles of the soil of my native countryside. It was there that as a child I spent my vacations, and later on, my leaves. On my last leave, through those same meadows, there wandered beside me a slight form, wearing a thin scarf, because of the evening air, so cool back there. But now this memory stirs me so slightly that I scarcely raise my eyes to that dark corner of my room where the light is dimly reflected by the glass of an indistinct portrait. I realize of how little consequence has become what had seemed at one time capable of filling all my life. This plaintive mystery is of no more interest to me. If the strolling singers of Rolla came to murmur their famous nostalgic airs under the window of this bordj I know that I should not listen to them, and if they became insistent I should send them on their way.
What has been capable of causing this metamorphosis in me? A story, a legend, perhaps, told, at any rate by one on whom rests the direst of suspicions.
Cegheir-ben-Cheikh has finished his cigarette. I hear him returning with slow steps to his mat, in barrack B, to the left of the guard post.
Our departure being scheduled for the tenth of November, the manuscript attached to this letter was begun on Sunday, the first, and finished on Thursday, the fifth of November, 1903.
OLIVIER FERRIERES, Lt. 3rd Spahis.
A SOUTHERN ASSIGNMENT
Sunday, the sixth of June, 1903, broke the monotony of the life that we were leading at the Post of Hassi-Inifel by two events of unequal importance, the arrival of a letter from Mlle. de C——, and the latest numbers of the Official Journal of the French Republic.
"I have the Lieutenant's permission?" said Sergeant Chatelain, beginning to glance through the magazines he had just removed from their wrappings.
I acquiesced with a nod, already completely absorbed in reading Mlle. de C——'s letter.
"When this reaches you," was the gist of this charming being's letter, "mama and I will doubtless have left Paris for the country. If, in your distant parts, it might be a consolation to imagine me as bored here as you possibly can be, make the most of it. The Grand Prix is over. I played the horse you pointed out to me, and naturally, I lost. Last night we dined with the Martials de la Touche. Elias Chatrian was there, always amazingly young. I am sending you his last book, which has made quite a sensation. It seems that the Martials de la Touche are depicted there without disguise. I will add to it Bourget's last, and Loti's, and France's, and two or three of the latest music hall hits. In the political word, they say the law about congregations will meet with strenuous opposition. Nothing much in the theatres. I have taken out a summer subscription for l'Illustration. Would you care for it? In the country no one knows what to do. Always the same lot of idiots ready for tennis. I shall deserve no credit for writing to you often. Spare me your reflections concerning young Combemale. I am less than nothing of a feminist, having too much faith in those who tell me that I am pretty, in yourself in particular. But indeed, I grow wild at the idea that if I permitted myself half the familiarities with one of our lads that you have surely with your Ouled-Nails.... Enough of that, it is too unpleasant an idea."
I had reached this point in the prose of this advanced young woman when a scandalized exclamation of the Sergeant made me look up.
"They are up to something at the Ministry. See for yourself."
He handed me the Official. I read:
"By a decision of the first of May, 1903, Captain de Saint-Avit (Andre), unattached, is assigned to the Third Spahis, and appointed Commandant of the Post of Hassi-Inifel."
Chatelain's displeasure became fairly exuberant.
"Captain de Saint-Avit, Commandant of the Post. A post which has never had a slur upon it. They must take us for a dumping ground."
My surprise was as great as the Sergeant's. But just then I saw the evil, weasel-like face of Gourrut, the convict we used as clerk. He had stopped his scrawling and was listening with a sly interest.
"Sergeant, Captain de Saint-Avit is my ranking classmate," I answered dryly.
Chatelain saluted, and left the room. I followed.
"There, there," I said, clapping him on the back, "no hard feelings. Remember that in an hour we are starting for the oasis. Have the cartridges ready. It is of the utmost importance to restock the larder."
I went back to the office and motioned Gourrut to go. Left alone, I finished Mlle. de C——'s letter very quickly, and then reread the decision of the Ministry giving the post a new chief.
It was now five months that I had enjoyed that distinction, and on my word, I had accepted the responsibility well enough, and been very well pleased with the independence. I can even affirm, without taking too much credit for myself, that under my command discipline had been better maintained than under Captain Dieulivol, Saint-Avit's predecessor. A brave man, this Captain Dieulivol, a non-commissioned officer under Dodds and Duchesne, but subject to a terrible propensity for strong liquors, and too much inclined, when he had drunk, to confuse his dialects, and to talk to a Houassa in Sakalave. No one was ever more sparing of the post water supply. One morning when he was preparing his absinthe in the presence of the Sergeant, Chatelain, noticing the Captain's glass, saw with amazement that the green liquor was blanched by a far stronger admixture of water than usual. He looked up, aware that something abnormal had just occurred. Rigid, the carafe inverted in his hand, Captain Dieulivol was spilling the water which was running over on the sugar. He was dead.
For six months, since the disappearance of this sympathetic old tippler, the Powers had not seemed to interest themselves in finding his successor. I had even hoped at times that a decision might be reached investing me with the rights that I was in fact exercising.... And today this surprising appointment.
Captain de Saint-Avit. He was of my class at St. Cyr. I had lost track of him. Then my attention had been attracted to him by his rapid advancement, his decoration, the well-deserved recognition of three particularly daring expeditions of exploration to Tebesti and the Air; and suddenly, the mysterious drama of his fourth expedition, that famous mission undertaken with Captain Morhange, from which only one of the explorers came back. Everything is forgotten quickly in France. That was at least six years ago. I had not heard Saint-Avit mentioned since. I had even supposed that he had left the army. And now, I was to have him as my chief.
"After all, what's the difference," I mused, "he or another! At school he was charming, and we have had only the most pleasant relationships. Besides, I haven't enough yearly income to afford the rank of Captain."
And I left the office, whistling as I went.
* * * * *
We were now, Chatelain and I, our guns resting on the already cooling earth, beside the pool that forms the center of the meager oasis, hidden behind a kind of hedge of alfa. The setting sun was reddening the stagnant ditches which irrigate the poor garden plots of the sedentary blacks.
Not a word during the approach. Not a word during the shoot. Chatelain was obviously sulking.
In silence we knocked down, one after the other, several of the miserable doves which came on dragging wings, heavy with the heat of the day, to quench their thirst at the thick green water. When a half-dozen slaughtered little bodies were lined up at our feet I put my hand on the Sergeant's shoulder.
"Chatelain, I was rude to you a little while ago. Don't be angry. It was the bad time before the siesta. The bad time of midday."
"The Lieutenant is master here," he answered in a tone that was meant to be gruff, but which was only strained.
"Chatelain, don't be angry. You have something to say to me. You know what I mean."
"I don't know really. No, I don't know."
"Chatelain, Chatelain, why not be sensible? Tell me something about Captain de Saint-Avit."
"I know nothing." He spoke sharply.
"Nothing? Then what were you saying a little while ago?"
"Captain de Saint-Avit is a brave man." He muttered the words with his head still obstinately bent. "He went alone to Bilma, to the Air, quite alone to those places where no one had ever been. He is a brave man."
"He is a brave man, undoubtedly," I answered with great restraint. "But he murdered his companion, Captain Morhange, did he not?"
The old Sergeant trembled.
"He is a brave man," he persisted.
"Chatelain, you are a child. Are you afraid that I am going to repeat what you say to your new Captain?"
I had touched him to the quick. He drew himself up.
"Sergeant Chatelain is afraid of no one, Lieutenant. He has been at Abomey, against the Amazons, in a country where a black arm started out from every bush to seize your leg, while another cut it off for you with one blow of a cutlass."
"Then what they say, what you yourself—"
"That is talk."
"Talk which is repeated in France, Chatelain, everywhere."
He bent his head still lower without replying.
"Ass," I burst out, "will you speak?"
"Lieutenant, Lieutenant," he fairly pled, "I swear that what I know, or nothing—"
"What you know you are going to tell me, and right away. If not, I give you my word of honor that, for a month, I shall not speak to you except on official business."
Hassi-Inifel: thirty native Arabs and four Europeans—myself, the Sergeant, a Corporal, and Gourrut. The threat was terrible. It had its effect.
"All right, then, Lieutenant," he said with a great sigh. "But afterwards you must not blame me for having told you things about a superior which should not be told and come only from the talk I overheard at mess."
"It was in 1899. I was then Mess Sergeant at Sfax, with the 4th Spahis. I had a good record, and besides, as I did not drink, the Adjutant had assigned me to the officers' mess. It was a soft berth. The marketing, the accounts, recording the library books which were borrowed (there weren't many), and the key of the wine cupboard,—for with that you can't trust orderlies. The Colonel was young and dined at mess. One evening he came in late, looking perturbed, and, as soon as he was seated, called for silence:
"'Gentlemen,' he said, 'I have a communication to make to you, and I shall ask for your advice. Here is the question. Tomorrow morning the City of Naples lands at Sfax. Aboard her is Captain de Saint-Avit, recently assigned to Feriana, en route to his post.'
"The Colonel paused. 'Good,' thought I, 'tomorrow's menu is about to be considered.' For you know the custom, Lieutenant, which has existed ever since there have been any officers' clubs in Africa. When an officer is passing by, his comrades go to meet him at the boat and invite him to remain with them for the length of his stay in port. He pays his score in news from home. On such occasions everything is of the best, even for a simple lieutenant. At Sfax an officer on a visit meant—one extra course, vintage wine and old liqueurs.
"But this time I imagined from the looks the officers exchanged that perhaps the old stock would stay undisturbed in its cupboard.
"'You have all, I think, heard of Captain de Saint-Avit, gentlemen, and the rumors about him. It is not for us to inquire into them, and the promotion he has had, his decoration if you will, permits us to hope that they are without foundation. But between not suspecting an officer of being a criminal, and receiving him at our table as a comrade, there is a gulf that we are not obliged to bridge. That is the matter on which I ask your advice.'
"There was silence. The officers looked at each other, all of them suddenly quite grave, even to the merriest of the second lieutenants. In the corner, where I realized that they had forgotten me, I tried not to make the least sound that might recall my presence.
"'We thank you, Colonel,' one of the majors finally replied, 'for your courtesy in consulting us. All my comrades, I imagine, know to what terrible rumors you refer. If I may venture to say so, in Paris at the Army Geographical Service, where I was before coming here, most of the officers of the highest standing had an opinion on this unfortunate matter which they avoided stating, but which cast no glory upon Captain de Saint-Avit.'
"'I was at Bammako, at the time of the Morhange-Saint-Avit mission,' said a Captain. 'The opinion of the officers there, I am sorry to say, differed very little from what the Major describes. But I must add that they all admitted that they had nothing but suspicions to go on. And suspicions are certainly not enough considering the atrocity of the affair.'
"'They are quite enough, gentlemen,' replied the Colonel, 'to account for our hesitation. It is not a question of passing judgment; but no man can sit at our table as a matter of right. It is a privilege based on fraternal esteem. The only question is whether it is your decision to accord it to Saint-Avit.'
"So saying, he looked at the officers, as if he were taking a roll call. One after another they shook their heads.
"'I see that we agree,' he said. 'But our task is unfortunately not yet over. The City of Naples will be in port tomorrow morning. The launch which meets the passengers leaves at eight o'clock. It will be necessary, gentlemen, for one of you to go aboard. Captain de Saint-Avit might be expecting to come to us. We certainly have no intention of inflicting upon him the humiliation of refusing him, if he presented himself in expectation of the customary reception. He must be prevented from coming. It will be wisest to make him understand that it is best for him to stay aboard.'
"The Colonel looked at the officers again. They could not but agree. But how uncomfortable each one looked!
"'I cannot hope to find a volunteer among you for this kind of mission, so I am compelled to appoint some one. Captain Grandjean, Captain de Saint-Avit is also a Captain. It is fitting that it be an officer of his own rank who carries him our message. Besides, you are the latest comer here. Therefore it is to you that I entrust this painful interview. I do not need to suggest that you conduct it as diplomatically as possible.'
"Captain Grandjean bowed, while a sigh of relief escaped from all the others. As long as the Colonel stayed in the room Grandjean remained apart, without speaking. It was only after the chief had departed that he let fall the words: "'There are some things that ought to count a good deal for promotion.'
"The next day at luncheon everyone was impatient for his return.
"'Well?' demanded the Colonel, briefly.
"Captain Grandjean did not reply immediately. He sat down at the table where his comrades were mixing their drinks, and he, a man notorious for sobriety, drank almost at a gulp, without waiting for the sugar to melt, a full glass of absinthe.
"'Well, Captain?' repeated the Colonel.
"'Well, Colonel, it's done. You can be at ease. He will not set foot on shore. But, ye gods, what an ordeal!'
"The officers did not dare speak. Only their looks expressed their anxious curiosity.
"Captain Grandjean poured himself a swallow of water.
"'You see, I had gotten my speech all ready, in the launch. But as I went up the ladder I knew that I had forgotten it. Saint-Avit was in the smoking-room, with the Captain of the boat. It seemed to me that I could never find the strength to tell him, when I saw him all ready to go ashore. He was in full dress uniform, his sabre lay on the bench and he was wearing spurs. No one wears spurs on shipboard. I presented myself and we exchanged several remarks, but I must have seemed somewhat strained for from the first moment I knew that he sensed something. Under some pretext he left the Captain, and led me aft near the great rudder wheel. There, I dared speak. Colonel, what did I say? How I must have stammered! He did not look at me. Leaning his elbows on the railing he let his eyes wander far off, smiling slightly. Then, of a sudden, when I was well tangled up in explanations, he looked at me coolly and said:
"'I must thank you, my dear fellow, for having given yourself so much trouble. But it is quite unnecessary. I am out of sorts and have no intention of going ashore. At least, I have the pleasure of having made your acquaintance. Since I cannot profit by your hospitality, you must do me the favor of accepting mine as long as the launch stays by the vessel.'
"Then we went back to the smoking-room. He himself mixed the cocktails. He talked to me. We discovered that we had mutual acquaintances. Never shall I forget that face, that ironic and distant look, that sad and melodious voice. Ah! Colonel, gentlemen, I don't know what they may say at the Geographic Office, or in the posts of the Soudan.... There can be nothing in it but a horrible suspicion. Such a man, capable of such a crime,—believe me, it is not possible.
"That is all, Lieutenant," finished Chatelain, after a silence. "I have never seen a sadder meal than that one. The officers hurried through lunch without a word being spoken, in an atmosphere of depression against which no one tried to struggle. And in this complete silence, you could see them always furtively watching the City of Naples, where she was dancing merrily in the breeze, a league from shore.
"She was still there in the evening when they assembled for dinner, and it was not until a blast of the whistle, followed by curls of smoke escaping from the red and black smokestack had announced the departure of the vessel for Gabes, that conversation was resumed; and even then, less gaily than usual.
"After that, Lieutenant, at the Officers' Club at Sfax, they avoided like the plague any subject which risked leading the conversation back to Captain de Saint-Avit."
Chatelain had spoken almost in a whisper, and the little people of the desert had not heard this singular history. It was an hour since we had fired our last cartridge. Around the pool the turtle doves, once more reassured, were bathing their feathers. Mysterious great birds were flying under the darkening palm trees. A less warm wind rocked the trembling black palm branches. We had laid aside our helmets so that our temples could welcome the touch of the feeble breeze.
"Chatelain," I said, "it is time to go back to the bordj."
Slowly we picked up the dead doves. I felt the Sergeant looking at me reproachfully, as if regretting that he had spoken. Yet during all the time that our return trip lasted, I could not find the strength to break our desolate silence with a single word.
The night had almost fallen when we arrived. The flag which surmounted the post was still visible, drooping on its standard, but already its colors were indistinguishable. To the west the sun had disappeared behind the dunes gashed against the black violet of the sky.
When we had crossed the gate of the fortifications, Chatelain left me.
"I am going to the stables," he said.
I returned alone to that part of the fort where the billets for the Europeans and the stores of ammunition were located. An inexpressible sadness weighed upon me.
I thought of my comrades in French garrisons. At this hour they must be returning home to find awaiting them, spread out upon the bed, their dress uniform, their braided tunic, their sparkling epaulettes.
"Tomorrow," I said to myself, "I shall request a change of station."
The stairway of hard-packed earth was already black. But a few gleams of light still seemed palely prowling in the office when I entered.
A man was sitting at my desk, bending over the files of orders. His back was toward me. He did not hear me enter.
"Really, Gourrut, my lad, I beg you not to disturb yourself. Make yourself completely at home."
The man had risen, and I saw him to be quite tall, slender and very pale.
"Lieutenant Ferrieres, is it not?"
He advanced, holding out his hand.
"Captain de Saint-Avit. Delighted, my dear fellow."
At the same time Chatelain appeared on the threshold.
"Sergeant," said the newcomer, "I cannot congratulate you on the little I have seen. There is not a camel saddle which is not in want of buckles, and they are rusty enough to suggest that it rains at Hassi-Inifel three hundred days in the year. Furthermore, where were you this afternoon? Among the four Frenchmen who compose the post, I found only on my arrival one convict, opposite a quart of eau-de-vie. We will change all that, I hope. At ease."
"Captain," I said, and my voice was colorless, while Chatelain remained frozen at attention, "I must tell you that the Sergeant was with me, that it is I who am responsible for his absence from the post, that he is an irreproachable non-commissioned officer from every point of view, and that if we had been warned of your arrival—"
"Evidently," he said, with a coldly ironical smile. "Also, Lieutenant, I have no intention of holding him responsible for the negligences which attach to your office. He is not obliged to know that the officer who abandons a post like Hassi-Inifel, if it is only for two hours, risks not finding much left on his return. The Chaamba brigands, my dear sir, love firearms, and for the sake of the sixty muskets in your racks, I am sure they would not scruple to make an officer, whose otherwise excellent record is well known to me, account for his absence to a court-martial. Come with me, if you please. We will finish the little inspection I began too rapidly a little while ago."
He was already on the stairs. I followed in his footsteps. Chatelain closed the order of march. I heard him murmuring, in a tone which you can imagine:
"Well, we are in for it now!"
CAPTAIN DE SAINT-AVIT
A few days sufficed to convince us that Chatelain's fears as to our official relations with the new chief were vain. Often I have thought that by the severity he showed at our first encounter Saint-Avit wished to create a formal barrier, to show us that he knew how to keep his head high in spite of the weight of his heavy past. Certain it is that the day after his arrival, he showed himself in a very different light, even complimenting the Sergeant on the upkeep of the post and the instruction of the men. To me he was charming.
"We are of the same class, aren't we?" he said to me. "I don't have to ask you to dispense with formalities, it is your right."
Vain marks of confidence, alas! False witnesses to a freedom of spirit, one in face of the other. What more accessible in appearance than the immense Sahara, open to all those who are willing to be engulfed by it? Yet what is more secret? After six months of companionship, of communion of life such as only a Post in the South offers, I ask myself if the most extraordinary of my adventures is not to be leaving to-morrow, toward unsounded solitudes, with a man whose real thoughts are as unknown to me as these same solitudes, for which he has succeeded in making me long.
The first surprise which was given me by this singular companion was occasioned by the baggage that followed him.
On his inopportune arrival, alone, from Wargla, he had trusted to the Mehari he rode only what can be carried without harm by such a delicate beast,—his arms, sabre and revolver, a heavy carbine, and a very reduced pack. The rest did not arrive till fifteen days later, with the convoy which supplied the post.
Three cases of respectable dimensions were carried one after another to the Captain's room, and the grimaces of the porters said enough as to their weight.
I discreetly left Saint-Avit to his unpacking and began opening the mail which the convoy had sent me.
He returned to the office a little later and glanced at the several reviews which I had just recieved.
"So," he said. "You take these."
He skimmed through, as he spoke, the last number of the Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft fur Erdkunde in Berlin.
"Yes," I answered. "These gentlemen are kind enough to interest themselves in my works on the geology of the Wadi Mia and the high Igharghar."
"That may be useful to me," he murmured, continuing to turn over the leaves.
"It's at your service."
"Thanks. I am afraid I have nothing to offer you in exchange, except Pliny, perhaps. And still—you know what he said of Igharghar, according to King Juba. However, come help me put my traps in place and you will see if anything appeals to you."
I accepted without further urging.
We commenced by unearthing various meteorological and astronomical instruments—the thermometers of Baudin, Salleron, Fastre, an aneroid, a Fortin barometer, chronometers, a sextant, an astronomical spyglass, a compass glass.... In short, what Duveyrier calls the material that is simplest and easiest to transport on a camel.
As Saint-Avit handed them to me I arranged them on the only table in the room.
"Now," he announced to me, "there is nothing more but books. I will pass them to you. Pile them up in a corner until I can have a book-shelf made."
For two hours altogether I helped him to heap up a real library. And what a library! Such as never before a post in the South had seen. All the texts consecrated, under whatever titles, by antiquity to the regions of the Sahara were reunited between the four rough-cast walls of that little room of the bordj. Herodotus and Pliny, naturally, and likewise Strabo and Ptolemy, Pomponius Mela, and Ammien Marcellin. But besides these names which reassured my ignorance a little, I perceived those of Corippus, of Paul Orose, of Eratosthenes, of Photius, of Diodorus of Sicily, of Solon, of Dion Cassius, of Isidor of Seville, of Martin de Tyre, of Ethicus, of Athenee, the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, the Itinerarium Antonini Augusti, the Geographi Latini Minores of Riese, the Geographi Graeci Minores of Karl Muller.... Since I have had the occasion to familiarize myself with Agatarchides of Cos and Artemidorus of Ephesus, but I admit that in this instance the presence of their dissertations in the saddle bags of a captain of cavalry caused me some amazement.
I mention further the Descrittione dell' Africa by Leon l'African, the Arabian Histories of Ibn-Khaldoun, of Al-Iaquob, of El-Bekri, of Ibn-Batoutah, of Mahommed El-Tounsi.... In the midst of this Babel, I remember the names of only two volumes of contemporary French scholars. There were also the laborious theses of Berlioux and of Schirmer.
[Footnote 3: Doctrina Ptolemaei ab injuria recentiorum vindicata, sive Nilus Superior et Niger verus, hodiernus Eghiren, ab anitiquis explorati. Paris, 8vo, 1874, with two maps. (Note by M. Leroux.)]
[Footnote 4: De nomine et genere popularum qui berberi vulgo dicuntur. Paris, 8vo, 1892. (Note by M. Leroux.)]
While I proceeded to make piles of as similar dimensions as possible I kept saying to myself:
"To think that I have been believing all this time that in his mission with Morhange, Saint-Avit was particularly concerned in scientific observations. Either my memory deceives me strangely or he is riding a horse of another color. What is sure is that there is nothing for me in the midst of all this chaos."
He must have read on my face the signs of too apparently expressed surprise, for he said in a tone in which I divined a tinge of defiance:
"The choice of these books surprises you a bit?"
"I can't say it surprises me," I replied, "since I don't know the nature of the work for which you have collected them. In any case I dare say, without fear of being contradicted, that never before has officer of the Arabian Office possessed a library in which the humanities were so, well represented."
He smiled evasively, and that day we pursued the subject no further.
Among Saint-Avit's books I had noticed a voluminous notebook secured by a strong lock. Several times I surprised him in the act of making notations in it. When for any reason he was called out of the room he placed his album carefully in a small cabinet of white wood, provided by the munificence of the Administration. When he was not writing and the office did not require his presence, he had the mehari which he had brought with him saddled, and a few minutes later, from the terrace of the fortifications, I could see the double silhouette disappearing with great strides behind a hummock of red earth on the horizon.
Each time these trips lasted longer. From each he returned in a kind of exaltation which made me watch him with daily increasing disquietude during meal hours, the only time we passed quite alone together.
"Well," I said to myself one day when his remarks had been more lacking in sequence than usual, "it's no fun being aboard a submarine when the captain takes opium. What drug can this fellow be taking, anyway?"
Next day I looked hurriedly through my comrade's drawers. This inspection, which I believed to be my duty, reassured me momentarily. "All very good," I thought, "provided he does not carry with him his capsules and his Pravaz syringe."
I was still in that stage where I could suppose that Andre's imagination needed artificial stimulants.
Meticulous observation undeceived me. There was nothing suspicious in this respect. Moreover, he rarely drank and almost never smoked.
And nevertheless, there was no means of denying the increase of his disquieting feverishness. He returned from his expeditions each time with his eyes more brilliant. He was paler, more animated, more irritable.
One evening he left the post about six o'clock, at the end of the greatest heat of the day. We waited for him all night. My anxiety was all the stronger because quite recently caravans had brought tidings of bands of robbers in the neighborhood of the post.
At dawn he had not returned. He did not come before midday. His camel collapsed under him, rather than knelt.
He realized that he must excuse himself, but he waited till we were alone at lunch.
"I am so sorry to have caused you any anxiety. But the dunes were so beautiful under the moon! I let myself be carried farther and farther...."
"I have no reproaches to make, dear fellow, you are free, and the chief here. Only allow me to recall to you certain warnings concerning the Chaamba brigands, and the misfortunes that might arise from a Commandant of a post absenting himself too long."
"I don't dislike such evidence of a good memory," he said simply.
He was in excellent, too excellent spirits.
"Don't blame me. I set out for a short ride as usual. Then, the moon rose. And then, I recognized the country. It is just where, twenty years ago next November, Flatters followed the way to his destiny in an exaltation which the certainty of not returning made keener and more intense."
"Strange state of mind for a chief of an expedition," I murmured.
"Say nothing against Flatters. No man ever loved the desert as he did ... even to dying of it."
"Palat and Douls, among many others, have loved it as much," I answered. "But they were alone when they exposed themselves to it. Responsible only for their own lives, they were free. Flatters, on the other hand, was responsible for sixty lives. And you cannot deny that he allowed his whole party to be massacred."
The words were hardly out of my lips before I regretted them, I thought of Chatelain's story, of the officers' club at Sfax, where they avoided like the plague any kind of conversation which might lead their thoughts toward a certain Morhange-Saint-Avit mission.
Happily I observed that my companion was not listening. His brilliant eyes were far away.
"What was your first garrison?" he asked suddenly.
He gave an unnatural laugh.
"Auxonne. Province of the Cote d'Or. District of Dijon. Six thousand inhabitants. P.L.M. Railway. Drill school and review. The Colonel's wife receives Thursdays, and the Major's on Saturdays. Leaves every Sunday,—the first of the month to Paris, the three others to Dijon. That explains your Judgment of Flatters.
"For my part, my dear fellow, my first garrison was at Boghar. I arrived there one morning in October, a second lieutenant, aged twenty, of the First African Batallion, the white chevron on my black sleeve.... Sun stripe, as the bagnards say in speaking of their grades. Boghar! Two days before, from the bridge of the steamer, I had begun to see the shores of Africa. I pity all those who, when they see those pale cliffs for the first time, do not feel a great leap at their hearts, at the thought that this land prolongs itself thousands and thousands of leagues.... I was little more than a child, I had plenty of money. I was ahead of schedule. I could have stopped three or four days at Algiers to amuse myself. Instead I took the train that same evening for Berroughia.
"There, scarcely a hundred kilometers from Algiers, the railway stopped. Going in a straight line you won't find another until you get to the Cape. The diligence travels at night on account of the heat. When we came to the hills I got out and walked beside the carriage, straining for the sensation, in this new atmosphere, of the kiss of the outlying desert.
"About midnight, at the Camp of the Zouaves, a humble post on the road embankment, overlooking a dry valley whence rose the feverish perfume of oleander, we changed horses. They had there a troop of convicts and impressed laborers, under escort of riflemen and convoys to the quarries in the South. In part, rogues in uniform, from the jails of Algiers and Douara,—without arms, of course; the others civilians—such civilians! this year's recruits, the young bullies of the Chapelle and the Goutte-d'Or.
"They left before we did. Then the diligence caught up with them. From a distance I saw in a pool of moonlight on the yellow road the black irregular mass of the convoy. Then I heard a weary dirge; the wretches were singing. One, in a sad and gutteral voice, gave the couplet, which trailed dismally through the depths of the blue ravines:
"'Maintenant qu'elle est grande, Elle fait le trottoir, Avec ceux de la bande A Richard-Lenoir.'
"And the others took up in chorus the horrible refrain:
"'A la Bastille, a la Bastille, On aime bien, on aime bien Nini Peau d'Chien; Elle est si belle et si gentille A la Bastille'
"I saw them all in contrast to myself when the diligence passed them. They were terrible. Under the hideous searchlight their eyes shone with a sombre fire in their pale and shaven faces. The burning dust strangled their raucous voices in their throats. A frightful sadness took possession of me.
"When the diligence had left this fearful nightmare behind, I regained my self-control.
"'Further, much further South,' I exclaimed to myself, 'to the places untouched by this miserable bilgewater of civilization.'
"When I am weary, when I have a moment of anguish and longing to turn back on the road that I have chosen, I think of the prisoners of Berroughia, and then I am glad to continue on my way.
"But what a reward, when I am in one of those places where the poor animals never think of fleeing because they have never seen man, where the desert stretches out around me so widely that the old world could crumble, and never a single ripple on the dune, a single cloud in the white sky come to warn me.
"'It is true,' I murmured. 'I, too, once, in the middle of the desert, at Tidi-Kelt, I felt that way.'"
Up to that time I had let him enjoy his exaltations without interruption. I understood too late the error that I had made in pronouncing that unfortunate sentence.
His mocking nervous laughter began anew.
"Ah! Indeed, at Tidi-Kelt? I beg you, old man, in your own interest, if you don't want to make an ass of yourself, avoid that species of reminiscence. Honestly, you make me think of Fromentin, or that poor Maupassant, who talked of the desert because he had been to Djelfa, two days' journey from the street of Bab-Azound and the Government buildings, four days from the Avenue de l'Opera;—and who, because he saw a poor devil of a camel dying near Bou-Saada, believed himself in the heart of the desert, on the old route of the caravans.... Tidi-Kelt, the desert!"
"It seems to me, however, that In-Salah—" I said, a little vexed.
"In-Salah? Tidi-Kelt! But, my poor friend, the last time that I passed that way there were as many old newspapers and empty sardine boxes as if it had been Sunday in the Wood of Vincennes."
Such a determined, such an evident desire to annoy me made me forget my reserve.
"Evidently," I replied resentfully, "I have never been to—"
I stopped myself, but it was already too late.
He looked at me, squarely in the face.
"To where?" he said with good humor.
I did not answer.
"To where?" he repeated.
And, as I remained strangled in my muteness:
"To Wadi Tarhit, do you mean?"
It was on the east bank of Wadi Tarhit, a hundred and twenty kilometers from Timissao, at 25.5 degrees north latitude, according to the official report, that Captain Morhange was buried.
"Andre," I cried stupidly, "I swear to you—"
"What do you swear to me?"
"That I never meant—"
"To speak of Wadi Tarhit? Why? Why should you not speak to me of Wadi Tarhit?"
In answer to my supplicating silence, he merely shrugged his shoulders.
"Idiot," was all he said.
And he left me before I could think of even one word to say.
So much humility on my part had, however, not disarmed him. I had the proof of it the next day, and the way he showed his humor was even marked by an exhibition of wretchedly poor taste.
I was just out of bed when he came into my room.
"Can you tell me what is the meaning of this?" he demanded.
He had in his hand one of the official registers. In his nervous crises he always began sorting them over, in the hope of finding some pretext for making himself militarily insupportable.
This time chance had favored him.
He opened the register. I blushed violently at seeing the poor proof of a photograph that I knew well.
"What is that?" he repeated disdainfully.
Too often I had surprised him in the act of regarding, none too kindly, the portrait of Mlle. de C. which hung in my room not to be convinced at that moment that he was trying to pick a quarrel with me.
I controlled myself, however, and placed the poor little print in the drawer.
But my calmness did not pacify him.
"Henceforth," he said, "take care, I beg you, not to mix mementoes of your gallantry with the official papers."
He added, with a smile that spoke insult:
"It isn't necessary to furnish objects of excitation to Gourrut."
"Andre," I said, and I was white, "I demand—"
He stood up to the full height of his stature.
"Well what is it? A gallantry, nothing more. I have authorized you to speak of Wadi Halfa, haven't I? Then I have the right, I should think—"
Now he was looking maliciously at the wall, at the little portrait the replica of which I had just subjected to this painful scene.
"There, there, I say, you aren't angry, are you? But between ourselves you will admit, will you not, that she is a little thin?"
And before I could find time to answer him, he had removed himself, humming the shameful refrain of the previous night:
"A la Bastille, a la Bastille, On aime bien, on aime bien, Nini, Peau de Chien."
For three days neither of us spoke to the other. My exasperation was too deep for words. Was I, then, to be held responsible for his avatars! Was it my fault if, between two phrases, one seemed always some allusion—
"The situation is intolerable," I said to myself. "It cannot last longer."
It was to cease very soon.
One week after the scene of the photograph the courier arrived. I had scarcely glanced at the index of the Zeitschrift, the German review of which I have already spoken, when I started with uncontrollable amazement. I had just read: "Reise und Entdeckungen zwei fronzosischer offiziere, Rittmeisters Morhange und Oberleutnants de Saint-Avit, in westlichen Sahara."
At the same time I heard my comrade's voice.
"Anything interesting in this number?"
"No," I answered carelessly.
I obeyed; what else was there to do?
It seemed to me that he grew paler as he ran over the index. However, his tone was altogether natural when he said:
"You will let me borrow it, of course?"
And he went out, casting me one defiant glance.
* * * * *
The day passed slowly. I did not see him again until evening. He was gay, very gay, and his gaiety hurt me.
When we had finished dinner, we went out and leaned on the balustrade of the terrace. From there out swept the desert, which the darkness was already encroaching upon from the east.
Andre broke the silence.
"By the way, I have returned your review to you. You were right, it is not interesting."
His expression was one of supreme amusement.
"What is it, what is the matter with you, anyway?"
"Nothing," I answered, my throat aching.
"Nothing? Shall I tell you what is the matter with you?"
I looked at him with an expression of supplication.
"Idiot," he found it necessary to repeat once more.
Night fell quickly. Only the southern slope of Wadi Mia was still yellow. Among the boulders a little jackal was running about, yapping sharply.
"The dib is making a fuss about nothing, bad business," said Saint-Avit.
He continued pitilessly:
"Then you aren't willing to say anything?"
I made a great effort, to produce the following pitiful phrase:
"What an exhausting day. What a night, heavy, heavy—You don't feel like yourself, you don't know any more—"
"Yes," said the voice of Saint-Avit, as from a distance, "A heavy, heavy night: as heavy, do you know, as when I killed Captain Morhange."
THE MORHANGE-SAINT-AVIT MISSION
"So I killed Captain Morhange," Andre de Saint-Avit said to me the next day, at the same time, in the same place, with a calm that took no account of the night, the frightful night I had just been through. "Why do I tell you this? I don't know in the least. Because of the desert, perhaps. Are you a man capable of enduring the weight of that confidence, and further, if necessary, of assuming the consequences it may bring? I don't know that, either. The future will decide. For the present there is only one thing certain, the fact, I tell you again, that I killed Captain Morhange.
"I killed him. And, since you want me to specify the reason, you understand that I am not going to torture my brain to turn it into a romance for you, or commence by recounting in the naturalistic manner of what stuff my first trousers were made, or, as the neo-Catholics would have it, how often I went as a child to confession, and how much I liked doing it. I have no taste for useless exhibitions. You will find that this recital begins strictly at the time when I met Morhange.
"And first of all, I tell you, however much it has cost my peace of mind and my reputation, I do not regret having known him. In a word, apart from all question of false friendship, I am convicted of a black ingratitude in having killed him. It is to him, it is to his knowledge of rock inscriptions, that I owe the only thing that has raised my life in interest above the miserable little lives dragged out by my companions at Auxonne, and elsewhere.
"This being understood, here are the facts:"
[NOTE: From this point on begins an extended narrative; indeed it may be most of the remaining book. I was changing the quoting, until I reached the end of the chapter and found that it continued on from there.]
It was in the Arabian Office at Wargla, when I was a lieutenant, that I first heard the name, Morhange. And I must add that it was for me the occasion of an attack of bad humor. We were having difficult times. The hostility of the Sultan of Morocco was latent. At Touat, where the assassination of Flatters and of Frescaly had already been concocted, connivance was being given to the plots of our enemies. Touat was the center of conspiracies, of razzias, of defections, and at the same time, the depot of supply for the insatiable nomads. The Governors of Algeria, Tirman, Cambon, Laferriere, demanded its occupation. The Ministers of War tacitly agreed.... But there was Parliament, which did nothing at all, because of England, because of Germany, and above all because of a certain Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which prescribed that insurrection is the most sacred of duties, even when the insurgents are savages who cut your head off. In short, the military authority could only, at its own discretion, increase the southern garrisons, and establish new posts; this one, Berresof, Hassi-el-Mia, Fort MacMahon, Fort Lallemand, Fort Miribel.... But as Castries puts it, you don't hold the nomads with bordjs, you hold them by the belt. The middle was the oasis of Touat. Their honors, the lawyers of Paris, had to be convinced of the necessity of taking possession of the oasis of Touat. The best way would be to present them with a faithful picture of the plots that were being woven there against us.
The principal authors were, and still are, the Senoussis, whose able chief has been forced by our arms to transfer the seat of his confederation several thousand leagues from there, to Schimmedrou, in the Tibesti. They had, I say they through modesty, the idea of ascertaining the traces left by these agitators on their favorite places of concourse; Rhat, Temassinin, the plain of Adejamor, and In-Salah. It was, you see, at least after leaving Temassinin, practically the same itinerary as that followed in 1864 by General Rohlfs.
I had already attracted some attention by two excursions, one to Agades, and the other to Bilma, and was considered by the staff officers to be one of the best informed on the Senoussis question. I was therefore selected to assume this new task.
I then suggested that it would be of interest to kill two birds with one stone, and to get, in passing, an idea of the northern Ahaggar, so as to make sure whether the Tuaregs of Ahitarhen had continued to have as cordial relations with the Senoussis as they had had when they combined to massacre the Flatters' mission. I was immediately accorded the permission. The change in my first plan was as follows: After reaching Ighelaschem, six hundred kilometers south of Temassinin, instead of taking the direct road to Touat via Rhat, I would, penetrating between the high land of Mouydir and Ahaggar, strike off to the southwest as far as Shikh-Salah. Here I would turn again northwards, towards In-Salah, by the road to the Soudan and Agades. In all hardly eight kilometers additional in a trip of about seven hundred leagues, with the certainty of making as complete an examination as possible of the roads which our enemies, the Senoussis of Tibesti and the Tuareg of the Ahaggar, must follow to arrive at Touat. On the way, for every explorer has his pet fancy, I was not at all displeased to think that I would have a chance to examine the geological formation of the plateau of Egere, about which Duveyrier and the others are so disappointingly indefinite.
Everything was ready for my departure from Wargla. Everything, which is to say, very little. Three mehara: mine, my companion Bou-Djema's (a faithful Chaamba, whom I had had with me in my wanderings through the Air, less of a guide in the country I was familiar with than a machine for saddling and unsaddling camels), then a third to carry provisions and skins of drinking water, very little, since I had taken pains to locate the stops with reference to the wells.
Some people go equipped for this kind of expedition with a hundred regulars, and even cannon. I am for the tradition of Douls and Rene Callie, I go alone.
I was at that perfect moment when only one thin thread still held me to the civilized world when an official cable arrived at Wargla.
"Lieutenant de Saint-Avit," it said briefly, "will delay his departure until the arrival of Captain Morhange, who will accompany him on his expedition of exploration."
I was more than disappointed. I alone had had the idea of this expedition. I had had all the difficulty that you can imagine to make the authorities agree to it. And now when I was rejoicing at the idea of the long hours I would spend alone with myself in the heart of the desert, they sent me a stranger, and, to make matters worse, a superior.
The condolences of my comrades aggravated my bad humor.
The Yearly Report, consulted on the spot, had given them the following information:
"Morhange (Jean-Marie-Francois), class of 1881. Breveted. Captain, unassigned. (Topographical Service of the Army.)"
"There is the explanation for you," said one. "They are sending one of their creatures to pull the chestnuts out of the fire, after you have had all the trouble of making it. Breveted! That's a great way. The theories of Ardant du Picq or else nothing about here."
"I don't altogether agree with you," said the Major. "They knew in Parliament, for some one is always indiscreet, the real aim of Saint-Avit's mission: to force their hand for the occupation of Touat. And this Morhange must be a man serving the interests of the Army Commission. All these people, secretaries, members of Parliament, governors, keep a close watch on each other. Some one will write an amusing paradoxical history some day, of the French Colonial Expansion, which is made without the knowledge of the powers in office, when it is not actually in spite of them."
"Whatever the reason, the result will be the same," I said bitterly; "we will be two Frenchmen to spy on each other night and day, along the roads to the south. An amiable prospect when one has none too much time to foil all the tricks of the natives. When does he arrive?"
"Day after tomorrow, probably. I have news of a convoy coming from Ghardaia. It is likely that he will avail himself of it. The indications are that he doesn't know very much about traveling alone."
Captain Morhange did arrive in fact two days later by means of the convoy from Ghardaia. I was the first person for whom he asked.
When he came to my room, whither I had withdrawn in dignity as soon as the convoy was sighted, I was disagreeably surprised to foresee that I would have great difficulty in preserving my prejudice against him.
He was tall, his face full and ruddy, with laughing blue eyes, a small black moustache, and hair that was already white.
"I have a thousand apologies to make to you, my dear fellow," he said immediately, with a frankness that I have never seen in any other man. "You must be furious with my importunity in upsetting your plans and delaying your departure."
"By no means, Captain," I replied coolly.
"You really have only yourself to blame. It is on account of your knowledge of the southern, routes, so highly esteemed at Paris, that I wished to have you to initiate me when the Ministries of Instruction and of Commerce, and the Geographical Society combined to charge me with the mission which brings me here. These three honorable institutions have in fact entrusted me with the attempt to re-establish the ancient track of the caravans, which, from the ninth century, trafficked between Tunis and the Soudan, by Toweur, Wargla, Es-Souk and the bend of the Bourroum; and to study the possibility of restoring this route to its ancient splendor. At the same time, at the Geographic Bureau, I heard of the journey that you are undertaking. From Wargla to Shikh-Salah our two itineraries are the same. Only I must admit to you that it is the first voyage of this kind that I have ever undertaken. I would not be afraid to hold forth for an hour on Arabian literature in the amphitheatre of the School of Oriental Languages, but I know well enough that in the desert I should have to ask for directions whether to turn right or left. This is the only chance which could give me such an opportunity, and at the same time put me under obligation for this introduction to so charming a companion. You must not blame me if I seized it, if I used all my influence to retard your departure from Wargla until the instant when I could join you. I have only one more word to add to what I have said. I am entrusted with a mission which by its origin is rendered essentially civilian. You are sent out by the Ministry of War. Up to the moment when, arrived at Shikh-Salah we turn our backs on each other to attain, you Touat, and I the Niger, all your recommendations, all your orders, will be followed by a subaltern, and, I hope, by a friend as well."
All the time he was talking so openly I felt delightedly my worst recent fears melting away. Nevertheless, I still experienced a mean desire to show him some marks of reserve, for having thus disposed of my company at a distance, without consulting me.
"I am very grateful to you, Captain, for your extremely flattering words. When do you wish to leave Wargla?"
He made a gesture of complete detachment.
"Whenever you like. Tomorrow, this evening. I have already delayed you. Your preparations must have already been made for some time."
My little maneuver had turned against myself. I had not been counting on leaving before the next week.
"Tomorrow, Captain, but your luggage?"
He smiled delightfully.
"I thought it best to bring as little as possible. A light pack, some papers. My brave camel had no difficulty in bringing it along. For the rest I depend on your advice, and the resources of Owargla."
I was well caught. I had nothing further to say. And moreover, such freedom of spirit and manner had already captivated me.
"It seems," said my comrades, when the time for aperitives had brought us all together again, "that this Captain of yours is a remarkably charming fellow."
"You surely can't have any trouble with him. It is only up to you to see that later on he doesn't get all the glory."
"We aren't working with the same end in view," I answered evasively.
I was thoughtful, only thoughtful I give you my word. From that moment I harbored no further grudge against Morhange. Yet my silence persuaded him that I was unforgiving. And everyone, do you hear me, everyone said later on, when suspicions became rife:
"He is surely guilty. We saw them go off together. We can affirm it."
I am guilty.... But for a low motive of jealousy.... How sickening....
After that, there was nothing to do but to flee, flee, as far as the places where there are no more men who think and reason.
Morhange, appeared, his arm resting on the Major's, who was beaming over this new acquaintanceship.
He presented him enthusiastically:
"Captain Morhange, gentlemen. An officer of the old school, and a man after our own hearts, I give you my word. He wants to leave tomorrow, but we must give him such a reception that he will forget that idea before two days are up. Come, Captain, you have at least eight days to give us."
"I am at the disposition of Lieutenant de Saint-Avit," replied Morhange, with a quiet smile.
The conversation became general. The sound of glasses and laughter rang out. I heard my comrades in ecstasies over the stories that the newcomer poured out with never-failing humor. And I, never, never have I felt so sad.
The time came to pass into the dining-room.
"At my right, Captain," cried the Major, more and more beaming. "And I hope you will keep on giving us these new lines on Paris. We are not up with the times here, you know."
"Yours to command, Major," said Morhange.
"Be seated, gentlemen."
The officers obeyed, with a joyous clatter of moving chairs. I had not taken my eyes off Morhange, who was still standing.
"Major, gentlemen, you will allow me," he said.
And before sitting down at that table, where every moment he was the life of the party, in a low voice, with his eyes closed, Captain Morhange recited the Benedicite.
TOWARDS LATITUDE 25
"You see," said Captain Morhange to me fifteen days later, "you are much better informed about the ancient routes through the Sahara than you have been willing to let me suppose, since you know of the existence of the two Tadekkas. But the one of which you have just spoken is the Tadekka of Ibn-Batoutah, located by this historian seventy days from Touat, and placed by Schirmer, very plausibly, in the unexplored territory of the Aouelimmiden. This is the Tadekka by which the Sonrhai caravans passed every year, travelling by Egypt.
"My Tadekka is different, the capital of the veiled people, placed by Ibn-Khaldoun twenty days south of Wargla, which he calls Tadmekka. It is towards this Tadmekka that I am headed. I must establish Tadmekka in the ruins of Es-Souk. The commercial trade route, which in the ninth century bound the Tunisian Djerid to the bend the Niger makes at Bourroum, passed by Es-Souk. It is to study the possibility of reestablishing this ancient thoroughfare that the Ministries gave me this mission, which has given me the pleasure of your companionship."
"You are probably in for a disappointment," I said. "Everything indicates that the commerce there is very slight."
"Well, I shall see," he answered composedly.
This was while we were following the unicolored banks of a salt lake. The great saline stretch shone pale-blue, under the rising sun. The legs of our five mehara cast on it their moving shadows of a darker blue. For a moment the only inhabitant of these solitudes, a bird, a kind of indeterminate heron, rose and hung in the air, as if suspended from a thread, only to sink back to rest as soon as we had passed.
I led the way, selecting the route, Morhange followed. Enveloped in a bernous, his head covered with the straight chechia of the Spahis, a great chaplet of alternate red and white beads, ending in a cross, around his neck, he realized perfectly the ideal of Father Lavigerie's White Fathers.
After a two-days' halt at Temassinin we had just left the road followed by Flatters, and taken an oblique course to the south. I have the honor of having antedated Fourcau in demonstrating the importance of Temassinin as a geometrical point for the passage of caravans, and of selecting the place where Captain Pein has just now constructed a fort. The junction for the roads that lead to Touat from Fezzan and Tibesti, Temassinin is the future seat of a marvellous Intelligence Department. What I had collected there in two days about the disposition of our Senoussis enemies was of importance. I noticed that Morhange let me proceed with my inquiries with complete indifference.
These two days he had passed in conversation with the old Negro guardian of the turbet, which preserves, under its plaster dome, the remains of the venerated Sidi-Moussa. The confidences they exchanged, I am sorry to say that I have forgotten. But from the Negro's amazed admiration, I realized the ignorance in which I stood to the mysteries of the desert, and how familiar they were to my companion.
And if you want to get any idea of the extraordinary originality which Morhange introduced into such surroundings, you who, after all, have a certain familiarity with the tropics, listen to this. It was exactly two hundred kilometers from here, in the vicinity of the Great Dune, in that horrible stretch of six days without water. We had just enough for two days before reaching the next well, and you know these wells; as Flatters wrote to his wife, "you have to work for hours before you can clean them out and succeed in watering beasts and men." By chance we met a caravan there, which was going east towards Rhadames, and had come too far north. The camels' humps, shrunken and shaking, bespoke the sufferings of the troop. Behind came a little gray ass, a pitiful burrow, interfering at every step, and lightened of its pack because the merchants knew that it was going to die. Instinctively, with its last strength, it followed, knowing that when it could stagger no longer, the end would come and the flutter of the bald vultures' wings. I love animals, which I have solid reasons for preferring to men. But never should I have thought of doing what Morhange did then. I tell you that our water skins were almost dry, and that our own camels, without which one is lost in the empty desert, had not been watered for many hours. Morhange made his kneel, uncocked a skin, and made the little ass drink. I certainly felt gratification at seeing the poor bare flanks of the miserable beast pant with satisfaction. But the responsibility was mine. Also I had seen Bou-Djema's aghast expression, and the disapproval of the thirsty members of the caravan. I remarked on it. How it was received! "What have I given," replied Morhange, "was my own. We will reach El-Biodh to-morrow evening, about six o'clock. Between here and there I know that I shall not be thirsty." And that in a tone, in which for the first time he allowed the authority of a Captain to speak. "That is easy to say," I thought, ill-humoredly. "He knows that when he wants them, my water-skin, and Bou-Djema's, are at his service." But I did not yet know Morhange very well, and it is true that until the evening of the next day when we reached El-Biodh, refusing our offers with smiling determination, he drank nothing.
Shades of St. Francis of Assisi! Umbrian hills, so pure under the rising sun! It was in the light of a like sunrise, by the border of a pale stream leaping in full cascades from a crescent-shaped niche of the gray rocks of Egere, that Morhange stopped. The unlooked for waters rolled upon the sand, and we saw, in the light which mirrored them, little black fish. Fish in the middle of the Sahara! All three of us were mute before this paradox of Nature. One of them had strayed into a little channel of sand. He had to stay there, struggling in vain, his little white belly exposed to the air.... Morhange picked him up, looked at him for a moment, and put him back into the little stream. Shades of St. Francis. Umbrian hills.... But I have sworn not to break the thread of the story by these untimely digressions.
* * * * *
"You see," Captain Morhange said to me a week later, "that I was right in advising you to go farther south before making for Shikh-Salah. Something told me that this highland of Egere was not interesting from your point of view. While here you have only to stoop to pick up pebbles which will allow you to establish the volcanic origin of this region much more certainly than Bou-Derba, des Cloizeaux, and Doctor Marres have done."
This was while we were following the western pass of the Tidifest Mountains, about the 25th degree of northern latitude.
"I should indeed be ungrateful not to thank you," I said.
I shall always remember that instant. We had left our camels and were collecting fragments of the most characteristic rocks. Morhange employed himself with a discernment which spoke worlds for his knowledge of geology, a science he had often professed complete ignorance of.
Then I asked him the following question:
"May I prove my gratitude by making you a confession?"
He raised his head and looked at me.
"Well then, I don't see the practical value of this trip you have undertaken."
"Why not? To explore the old caravan route, to demonstrate that a connection has existed from the most ancient times between the Mediterranean world, and the country of the Blacks, that seems nothing in your eyes? The hope of settling once for all the secular disputes which have divided so many keen minds; d'Anville, Heeren, Berlioux, Quatremere on the one hand,—on the other Gosselin, Walckenaer, Tissit, Vivien, de saint-Martin; you think that that is devoid of interest? A plague upon you for being hard to please."
"I spoke of practical value," I said. "You won't deny that this controversy is only the affair of cabinet geographers and office explorers."
Morhange kept on smiling.
"Dear friend, don't wither me. Deign to recall that your mission was confided to you by the Ministry of War, while I hold mine on behalf of the Ministry of Public Instruction. A different origin justifies our different aims. It certainly explains, I readily concede that to you, why what I am in search of has no practical value."
"You are also authorized by the Ministry of Commerce," I replied, playing my next card. "By this chief you are instructed to study the possibility of restoring the old trade route of the ninth century. But on this point don't attempt to mislead me; with your knowledge of the history and geography of the Sahara, your mind must have been made up before you left Paris. The road from Djerid to the Niger is dead, stone dead. You knew that no important traffic would pass by this route before you undertook to study the possibility of restoring it."
Morhange looked me full in the face.
"And if that should be so," he said with the most charming attitude, "if I had before leaving the conviction you say, what do you conclude from that?"
"I should prefer to have you tell me."
"Simply, my dear boy, that I had less skill than you in finding the pretext for my voyage, that I furnished less good reasons for the true motives that brought me here."
"A pretext? I don't see...."
"Be sincere in your turn, if you please. I am sure that you have the greatest desire to inform the Arabian Office about the practices of the Senoussis. But admit that the information that you will obtain is not the sole and innermost aim of your excursion. You are a geologist, my friend. You have found a chance to gratify your taste in this trip. No one would think of blaming you because you have known how to reconcile what is useful to your country and agreeable to yourself. But, for the love of God, don't deny it; I need no other proof than your presence here on this side of the Tidifest, a very curious place from a mineralogical point of view, but some hundred and fifty kilometers south of your official route."
It was not possible to have countered me with a better grace. I parried by attacking.
"Am I to conclude from all this that I do not know the real aims of your trip, and that they have nothing to do with the official motives?"
I had gone a bit too far. I felt it from the seriousness with which Morhange's reply was delivered.
"No, my dear friend, you must not conclude just that. I should have no taste for a lie which was based on fraud towards the estimable constitutional bodies which have judged me worthy of their confidence and their support. The ends that they have assigned to me I shall do my best to attain. But I have no reason for hiding from you that there is another, quite personal, which is far nearer to my heart. Let us say, if you will, to use a terminology that is otherwise deplorable, that this is the end while the others are the means."
"Would there be any indiscretion?...."
"None," replied my companion. "Shikh-Salah is only a few days distant. He whose first steps you have guided with such solicitude in the desert should have nothing hidden from you."
We had halted in the valley of a little dry well where a few sickly plants were growing. A spring near by was circled by a crown of gray verdure. The camels had been unsaddled for the night, and were seeking vainly, at every stride, to nibble the spiny tufts of had. The black and polished sides of the Tidifest Mountains rose, almost vertically, above our heads. Already the blue smoke of the fire on which Bou-Djema was cooking dinner rose through the motionless air.
Not a sound, not a breath. The smoke mounted straight, straight and slowly up the pale steps of the firmament.
"Have you ever heard of the Atlas of Christianity?" asked Morhange.
"I think so. Isn't it a geographical work published by the Benedictines under the direction of a certain Dom Granger?"
"Your memory is correct," said Morhange. "Even so let me explain a little more fully some of the things you have not had as much reason as I to interest yourself in. The Atlas of Christianity proposes to establish the boundaries of that great tide of Christianity through all the ages, and for all parts of the globe. An undertaking worthy of the Benedictine learning, worthy of such a prodigy of erudition as Dom Granger himself."
"And it is these boundaries that you have come to determine here, no doubt," I murmured.
"Just so," replied my companion.
He was silent, and I respected his silence, prepared by now to be astonished at nothing.
"It is not possible to give confidences by halves, without being ridiculous," he continued after several minutes of meditation, speaking gravely, in a voice which held no suggestion of that flashing humor which had a month before enchanted the young officers at Wargla. "I have begun on mine. I will tell you everything. Trust my discretion, however, and do not insist upon certain events of my private life. If, four years ago, at the close of these events, I resolve to enter a monastery, it does not concern you to know my reasons. I can marvel at it myself, that the passage in my life of a being absolutely devoid of interest should have sufficed to change the current of that life. I can marvel that a creature whose sole merit was her beauty should have been permitted by the Creator to swing my destiny to such an unforeseen direction. The monastery at whose doors I knocked had the most valid reasons for doubting the stability of my vocation. What the world loses in such fashion it often calls back as readily. In short, I cannot blame the Father Abbot for having forbidden me to apply for my army discharge. By his instructions, I asked for, and obtained, permission to be placed on the inactive list for three years. At the end of those three years of consecration it would be seen whether the world was definitely dead to your servant.
"The first day of my arrival at the cloister I was assigned to Dom Granger, and placed by him at work on the Atlas of Christianity. A brief examination decided him as to what kind of service I was best fitted to render. This is how I came to enter the studio devoted to the cartography of Northern Africa. I did not know one word of Arabic, but it happened that in garrison at Lyon I had taken at the Faculte des Lettres, a course with Berlioux,—a very erudite geographer no doubt, but obsessed by one idea, the influence the Greek and Roman civilizations had exercised on Africa. This detail of my life was enough for Dom Granger. He provided me straightway with Berber vocabularies by Venture, by Delaporte, by Brosselard; with the Grammatical Sketch of the Temahaq by Stanley Fleeman, and the Essai de Grammaire de la langue Temachek by Major Hanoteau. At the end of three months I was able to decipher any inscriptions in Tifinar. You know that Tifinar is the national writing of the Tuareg, the expression of this Temachek language which seems to us the most curious protest of the Targui race against its Mohammedan enemies.
"Dom Granger, in fact, believed that the Tuareg are Christians, dating from a period which it was necessary to ascertain, but which coincided no doubt with the splendor of the church of Hippon. Even better than I, you know that the cross is with them the symbol of fate in decoration. Duveyrier has claimed that it figures in their alphabet, on their arms, among the designs of their clothes. The only tattooing that they wear on the forehead, on the back of the hand, is a cross with four equal branches; the pummels of their saddles, the handles of their sabres, of their poignards, are cross-shaped. And is it necessary to remind you that, although Islam forbids bells as a sign of Christianity, the harness of Tuareg camels are trimmed with bells?
"Neither Dom Granger nor I attach an exaggerated importance to such proofs, which resemble too much those which make such a display in the Genius of Christianity. But it is indeed impossible to refuse all credence to certain theological arguments. Amanai, the God of the Tuareg, unquestionably the Adonai of the Bible, is unique. They have a hell, 'Timsi-tan-elekhaft,' the last fire, where reigns Iblis, our Lucifer. Their Paradise, where they are rewarded for good deeds, is inhabited by 'andjelousen,' our angels. And do not urge the resemblance of this theology to the Koran, for I will meet you with historic arguments and remind you that the Tuareg have struggled all through the ages at the cost of partial extermination, to maintain their faith against the encroachments of Mohammedan fanaticism.
"Many times I have studied with Dom Granger that formidable epoch when the aborigines opposed the conquering Arabs. With him I have seen how the army of Sidi-Okba, one of the companions of the Prophet, invaded this desert to reduce the Tuareg tribes and impose on them Mussulman rules. These tribes were then rich and prosperous. They were the Ihbggaren, the Imededren, the Ouadelen, the Kel-Gueress, the Kel-Air. But internal quarrels sapped their strength. Still, it was not until after a long and cruel war that the Arabians succeeded in getting possession of the capital of the Berbers, which had proved such a redoubtable stronghold. They destroyed it after they had massacred the inhabitants. On the ruins Okba constructed a new city. This city is Es-Souk. The one that Sidi-Okba destroyed was the Berber Tadmekka. What Dom Granger asked of me was precisely that I should try to exhume from the ruins of the Mussulman Es-Souk the ruins of Tadmekka, which was Berber, and perhaps Christian."
"I understand," I murmured.
"So far, so good," said Morhange. "But what you must grasp now is the practical sense of these religious men, my masters. You remember that, even after three years of monastic life, they preserved their doubts as to the stability of my vocation. They found at the same time means of testing it once for all, and of adapting official facilities to their particular purposes. One morning I was called before the Father Abbot, and this is what he said to me, in the presence of Dom Granger, who expressed silent approval.
"'Your term of inactive service expires in fifteen days. You will return to Paris, and apply at the Ministry to be reinstated. With what you have learned here, and the relationships we have been able to maintain at Headquarters, you will have no difficulty in being attached to the Geographical Staff of the army. When you reach the rue de Grenelle you will receive our instructions.'
"I was astonished at their confidence in my knowledge. When I was reestablished as Captain again in the Geographical Service I understood. At the monastery, the daily association with Dom Granger and his pupils had kept me constantly convinced of the inferiority of my knowledge. When I came in contact with my military brethren I realized the superiority of the instruction I had received. I did not have to concern myself with the details of my mission. The Ministries invited me to undertake it. My initiative asserted itself on only one occasion. When I learned that you were going to leave Wargla on the present expedition, having reason to distrust my practical qualifications as an explorer, I did my best to retard your departure, so that I might join you. I hope that you have forgiven me by now."
* * * * *
The light in the west was fading, where the sun had already sunk into a matchless luxury of violet draperies. We were alone in this immensity, at the feet of the rigid black rocks. Nothing but ourselves. Nothing, nothing but ourselves.
I held out my hand to Morhange, and he pressed it. Then he said:
"If they still seem infinitely long to me, the several thousand kilometers which separate me from the instant when, my task accomplished, I shall at last find oblivion in the cloister for the things for which I was not made, let me tell you this;—the several hundred kilometers which still separate us from Shikh-Salah seem to me infinitely short to traverse in your company."
On the pale water of the little pool, motionless and fixed like a silver nail, a star had just been born.
"Shikh-Salah," I murmured, my heart full of an indefinable sadness. "Patience, we are not there yet."
In truth, we never were to be there.
With a blow of the tip of his cane Morhange knocked a fragment of rock from the black flank of the mountain.
"What is it?" he asked, holding it out to me.
"A basaltic peridot," I said.
"It can't be very interesting, you barely glanced at it."
"It is very interesting, on the contrary. But, for the moment, I admit that I am otherwise preoccupied."
"Look this way a bit," I said, showing towards the west, on the horizon, a black spot across the white plain.
It was six o'clock in the morning. The sun had risen. But it could not be found in the surprisingly polished air. And not a breath of air, not a breath. Suddenly one of the camels called. An enormous antelope had just come in sight, and had stopped in its flight, terrified, racing the wall of rock. It stayed there at a little distance from us, dazed, trembling on its slender legs.
Bou-Djema had rejoined us.
"When the legs of the mohor tremble it is because the firmament is shaken," he muttered.
"Yes, a storm."
"And you find that alarming?"
I did not answer immediately. I was exchanging several brief words with Bou-Djema, who was occupied in soothing the camels which were giving signs of being restive.
Morhange repeated his question. I shrugged my shoulders.
"Alarming? I don't know. I have never seen a storm on the Hoggar. But I distrust it. And the signs are that this is going to be a big one. See there already."
A slight dust had risen before the cliff. In the still air a few grains of sand had begun to whirl round and round, with a speed which increased to dizziness, giving us in advance the spectacle in miniature of what would soon be breaking upon us.
With harsh cries a flock of wild geese appeared, flying low. They came out of the west.
"They are fleeing towards the Sebkha d'Amanghor," said Bou-Djema.
There could be no greater mistake, I thought.
Morhange looked at me curiously.
"What must we do?" he asked.
"Mount our camels immediately, before they are completely demoralized, and hurry to find shelter in some high places. Take account of our situation. It is easy to follow the bed of a stream. But within a quarter of an hour perhaps the storm will have burst. Within a half hour a perfect torrent will be rushing here. On this soil, which is almost impermeable, rain will roll like a pail of water thrown on a bituminous pavement. No depth, all height. Look at this."
And I showed him, a dozen meters high, long hollow gouges, marks of former erosions on the rocky wall.
"In an hour the waters will reach that height. Those are the marks of the last inundation. Let us get started. There is not an instant to lose."
"All right," Morhange replied tranquilly.
We had the greatest difficulty to make the camels kneel. When we had thrown ourselves into the saddle they started off at a pace which their terror rendered more and more disorderly.
Of a sudden the wind began, a formidable wind, and, almost at the same time the light was eclipsed in the ravine. Above our heads the sky had become, in the flash of an eye, darker than the walls of the canyon which we were descending at a breathless pace.
"A path, a stairway in the wall," I screamed against the wind to my companions. "If we don't find one in a minute we are lost."
They did not hear me, but, turning in my saddle, I saw that they had lost no distance, Morhange following me, and Bou-Djema in the rear driving the two baggage camels masterfully before him.
A blinding streak of lightning rent the obscurity. A peal of thunder, re-echoed to infinity by the rocky wall, rang out, and immediately great tepid drops began to fall. In an instant, our burnouses, which had been blown out behind by the speed with which we were traveling, were stuck tight to our streaming bodies.
"Saved!" I exclaimed suddenly.
Abruptly on our right a crevice opened in the midst of the wall. It was the almost perpendicular bed of a stream, an affluent of the one we had had the unfortunate idea of following that morning. Already a veritable torrent was gushing over it with a fine uproar.
I have never better appreciated the incomparable sure-footedness of camels in the most precipitate places. Bracing themselves, stretching out their great legs, balancing themselves among the rocks that were beginning to be swept loose, our camels accomplished at that moment what the mules of the Pyrannees might have failed in.
After several moments of superhuman effort we found ourselves at last out of danger, on a kind of basaltic terrace, elevated some fifty meters above the channel of the stream we had just left. Luck was with us; a little grotto opened out behind. Bou-Djema succeeded in sheltering the camels there. From its threshold we had leisure to contemplate in silence the prodigious spectacle spread out before us.
You have, I believe, been at the Camp of Chalons for artillery drills. You have seen when the shell bursts how the chalky soil of the Marne effervesces like the inkwells at school, when we used to throw a piece of calcium carbonate into them. Well, it was almost like that, but in the midst of the desert, in the midst of obscurity. The white waters rushed into the depths of the black hole, and rose and rose towards the pedestal on which we stood. And there was the uninterrupted noise of thunder, and still louder, the sound of whole walls of rock, undermined by the flood, collapsing in a heap and dissolving in a few seconds of time in the midst of the rising water.
All the time that this deluge lasted, one hour, perhaps two, Morhange and I stayed bending over this fantastic foaming vat; anxious to see, to see everything, to see in spite of everything; rejoicing with a kind of ineffable horror when we felt the shelf of basalt on which we had taken refuge swaying beneath us from the battering impact of the water. I believe that never for an instant did we think, so beautiful it was, of wishing for the end of that gigantic nightmare.
Finally a ray of the sun shone through. Only then did we look at each other.
Morhange held out his hand.
"Thank you," he said simply.
And he added with a smile:
"To be drowned in the very middle of the Sahara would have been pretentious and ridiculous. You have saved us, thanks to your power of decision, from this very paradoxical end."
Ah, that he had been thrown by a misstep of his camel and rolled to his death in the midst of the flood! Then what followed would never have happened. That is the thought that comes to me in hours of weakness. But I have told you that I pull myself out of it quickly. No, no, I do not regret it, I cannot regret it, that what happened did happen.
* * * * *
Morhange left me to go into the little grotto, where Bou-Djema's camels were now resting comfortably. I stayed alone, watching the torrent which was continuously rising with the impetuous inrush of its unbridled tributaries. It had stopped raining. The sun shone from a sky that had renewed its blueness. I could feel the clothes that had a moment before been drenching, drying upon me incredibly fast.
A hand was placed on my shoulder. Morhange was again beside me.
"Come here," he said.
Somewhat surprised, I followed him. We went into the grotto.
The opening, which was big enough to admit the camels, made it fairly light. Morhange led me up to the smooth face of rock opposite. "Look," he said, with unconcealed joy.
"What of it?"
"Don't you see?"
"I see that there are several Tuareg inscriptions," I answered, with some disappointment. "But I thought I had told you that I read Tifinar writing very badly. Are these writings more interesting than the others we have come upon before?"
"Look at this one," said Morhange. There was such an accent of triumph in his tone that this time I concentrated my attention.
I looked again.
The characters of the inscription were arranged in the form of a cross. It plays such an important part in this adventure that I cannot forego retracing it for you.
+ o o o o W + -
[Transcriber's Note: This is but a crude ASCII representation of the inscription. The center 'W' is rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise in the book.]
It was designed with great regularity, and the characters were cut deep into the rock. Although I knew so little of rock inscriptions at that time I had no difficulty in recognizing the antiquity of this one.
Morhange became more and more radiant as he regarded it.
I looked at him questioningly.
"Well, what have you to say now?" he asked.
"What do you want me to say? I tell you that I can barely read Tifinar."
"Shall I help you?" he suggested.
This course in Berber writing, after the emotions through which we had just passed, seemed to me a little inopportune. But Morhange was so visibly delighted that I could not dash his joy.
"Very well then," began my companion, as much at his, ease as if he had been before a blackboard, "what will strike you first about this inscription is its repetition in the form of a cross. That is to say that it contains the same word twice, top to bottom, and right to left. The word which it composes has seven letters so the fourth letter, W [Transcriber's Note: Rotated 90 deg. counter-clockwise], comes naturally in the middle. This arrangement which is unique in Tifinar writing, is already remarkable enough. But there is better still. Now we will read it."
Getting it wrong three times out of seven I finally succeeded, with Morhange's help, in spelling the word.
"Have you got it?" asked Morhange when I had finished my task.
"Less than ever," I answered, a little put out; "a,n,t,i,n,h,a,—Antinha, I don't know that word, or anything like it, in all the Saharan dialects I am familiar with."
Morhange rubbed his hands together. His satisfaction was without bounds.
"You have said it. That is why the discovery is unique."
"There is really nothing, either in Berber or in Arabian, analogous to this word."
"Then, my dear friend, we are in the presence of a foreign word, translated into Tifinar."
"And this word belongs, according to your theory, to what language?"
"You must realize that the letter e does not exist in the Tifinar alphabet. It has here been replaced by the phonetic sign which is nearest to it,—h. Restore e to the place which belongs to it in the word, and you have—"
"'Antinea,' precisely. We find ourselves before a Greek vocable reproduced in Tifinar. And I think that now you will agree with me that my find has a certain interest."
That day we had no more conferences upon texts. A loud cry, anguished, terrifying, rang out.
We rushed out to find a strange spectacle awaiting us.
Although the sky had cleared again, the torrent of yellow water was still foaming and no one could predict when it would fall. In mid-stream, struggling desperately in the current, was an extraordinary mass, gray and soft and swaying.
But what at the first glance overwhelmed us with astonishment was to see Bou-Djema, usually so calm, at this moment apparently beside himself with frenzy, bounding through the gullies and over the rocks of the ledge, in full pursuit of the shipwreck.
Of a sudden I seized Morhange by the arm. The grayish thing was alive. A pitiful long neck emerged from it with the heartrending cry of a beast in despair.
"The fool," I cried, "he has let one of our beasts get loose, and the stream is carrying it away!"
"You are mistaken," said Morhange. "Our camels are all in the cave. The one Bou-Djema is running after is not ours. And the cry of anguish we just heard, that was not Bou-Djema either. Bou-Djema is a brave Chaamb who has at this moment only one idea, to appropriate the intestate capital represented by this camel in the stream."
"Who gave that cry, then?"
"Let us try, if you like, to explore up this stream that our guide is descending at such a rate."
And without waiting for my answer he had already set out through the recently washed gullies of the rocky bank.
At that moment it can be truly said that Morhange went to meet his destiny.
I followed him. We had the greatest difficulty in proceeding two or three hundred meters. Finally we saw at our feet a little rushing brook where the water was falling a trifle.
"See there?" said Morhange.
A blackish bundle was balancing on the waves of the creek.
When we had come up even with it we saw that it was a man in the long dark blue robes of the Tuareg.
"Give me your hand," said Morhange, "and brace yourself against a rock, hard."
He was very, very strong. In an instant, as if it were child's play, he had brought the body ashore.
"He is still alive," he pronounced with satisfaction. "Now it is a question of getting him to the grotto. This is no place to resuscitate a drowned man."
He raised the body in his powerful arms.
"It is astonishing how little he weighs for a man of his height."
By the time we had retraced the way to the grotto the man's cotton clothes were almost dry. But the dye had run plentifully, and it was an indigo man that Morhange was trying to recall to life.
When I had made him swallow a quart of rum he opened his eyes, looked at the two of us with surprise, then, closing them again, murmured almost unintelligibly a phrase, the sense of which we did not get until some days later:
"Can it be that I have reached the end of my mission?"
"What mission is he talking about?" I said.
"Let him recover himself completely," responded Morhange. "You had better open some preserved food. With fellows of this build you don't have to observe the precautions prescribed for drowned Europeans."
It was indeed a species of giant, whose life we had just saved. His face, although very thin, was regular, almost beautiful. He had a clear skin and little beard. His hair, already white, showed him to be a man of sixty years.
When I placed a tin of corned-beef before him a light of voracious joy came into his eyes. The tin contained an allowance for four persons. It was empty in a flash.
"Behold," said Morhange, "a robust appetite. Now we can put our questions without scruple."
Already the Targa had placed over his forehead and face the blue veil prescribed by the ritual. He must have been completely famished not to have performed this indispensable formality sooner. There was nothing visible now but the eyes, watching us with a light that grew steadily more sombre.
"French officers," he murmured at last.
And he took Morhange's hand, and having placed it against his breast, carried it to his lips.
Suddenly an expression of anxiety passed over his face.
"And my mehari?" he asked.
I explained that our guide was then employed in trying to save his beast. He in turn told us how it had stumbled, and fallen into the current, and he himself, in trying to save it, had been knocked over. His forehead had struck a rock. He had cried out. After that he remembered nothing more.
"What is your name?" I asked.
"What tribe do you belong to?"
"The tribe of Kel-Tahat."
"The Kel-Tahats are the serfs of the tribe of Kel-Rhela, the great nobles of Hoggar?"
"Yes," he answered, casting a side glance in my direction. It seemed that such precise questions on the affairs of Ahygar were not to his liking.
"The Kel-Tahats, if I am not mistaken, are established on the southwest flank of Atakor. What were you doing, so far from your home territory when we saved your life?"
[Footnote 5: Another name, in the Temahaq language, for Ahaggar. (Note by M. Leroux.)]
"I was going, by way of Tit, to In-Salah," he said.
"What were you going to do at In-Salah?"
He was about to reply. But suddenly we saw him tremble. His eyes were fixed on a point of the cavern. We looked to see what it was. He had just seen the rock inscription which had so delighted Morhange an hour before.
"Do you know that?" Morhange asked him with keen curiosity.
The Targa did not speak a word but his eyes had a strange light.
"Do you know that?" insisted Morhange.
And he added:
"Antinea," repeated the man.
And he was silent.
"Why don't you answer the Captain?" I called out, with a strange feeling of rage sweeping over me.
The Targui looked at me. I thought that he was going to speak. But his eyes became suddenly hard. Under the lustrous veil I saw his features stiffening.