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Pages (PDF): 213
Publication Date: This translation by Mary C. Tongue and Mary Ross, 1920
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It is 1896 in the French Algerian Sahara. Two officers, André de Saint-Avit and Jean Morhange investigate the disappearance of their fellow officers. While doing so, they are drugged and kidnapped by a Tarqui warrior, the procurer for the monstrous Queen Antinea. Antinea, descendant of the rulers of Atlantis, has a cave wall with 120 niches carved into it, one for each of her lovers. Only 53 have been filled; when all 120 have been filled, Antinea will sit atop a throne in the center of the cave and rest forever.
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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 (André), 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.
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