Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Into the Niger Bend: Barsac Mission, Part 1

Jules Verne

  Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

  Verne, Jules, 1828-1905. The Barsac mission.

  Translation of L'etonnante aventure de la mission Barsac.

  Reprint of the 1960 ed. published by Ace Books, New York.

  CONTENTS: book 1. Into the Niger bend, book 2. The city in the Sahara. I. Title.

  [PZ3.V594Bar7] [PQ2469] 843'.8 76-48161 ISBN 0-88411-911-4 (v. 1)

  ISBN 0-88411-912-2 (v. 2)


  Though Jules Verne is perhaps best known as a founder and master of science fiction, this artform did not by any means exhaust his literary genius. The wide scope of his interests, and the variety of his style, are well shown in his posthumous work, L'Etonnante Aventure de la Mission Barsac.

  Its opening sentence recalls Conan Doyle: as Kenneth Allott points out in his biography of Verne, "It is the very accent of Watson about to relate another of the cases of Sherlock Holmes." The rest of the chapter almost outdoes Edgar Wallace. Chapter III might have been written by one of the romantic novelists of the nineteenth century. The rest of Book I, with its adventures in the African bush and the forebodings of its witchdoctor, is reminiscent of Rider Haggard. Only in Book II does Jules Verne, master of science fiction, come into his own.

  The whole narrative presents another remarkable contrast and raises an interesting question. There is a light-heartedness about much of Book I and some of the early chapters of Book II which recalls not the aged valetudinarian of Amiens, crippled, bereaved and seriously ill, but the brilliant young author and keen amateur yachtsman whose work had taken Paris by storm and who saw endless literary vistas opening before him. Yet there is the clearest internal evidence that most of Book II and some sections of Book I were written very late in their author's life-and, indeed, that publication may have been deliberately withheld until after his death.

  The explanation may be that this was a project which Veme long had in mind. He may have begun work on this narrative and written much of it fairly early in his career, and then revised and re-revised it time and again as his mood and outlook altered, and finally have decided to make it his swan-song, the very last of his works, to appear posthumously as his epitaph. One strange result of this decision was that in Britain, where he has so very many admirers, the book has (so far as I can ascertain) never yet been publishedl

  It may, indeed, seem strange that so extraordinary a work should have gone so long untranslated. Here, however, the explanation may be simple: in commercial terms, the market had been glutted. Verne's writings varied greatly in quality, especially in his later years when he systematically "over wrote" himself. At last, I imagine, his work had lost much of its appeal; moreover, it was rivalled by a new generation of science fiction writers, foremost of whom was H. G. Wells. This may explain why not only The Barsac Mission but a number of Verne's later works, remarkable though they are, have not so far found publication in Britain.

  Even in the early part of Book I, the hands of the ageing Verne can be traced. The sardonic account of French politics in Chapter II may be based on his experience of the municipal government of Amiens. The absurd M. Poncin may be derived from the dislike which both the literary artist and the scientific worker feel for the mere juggler with meaningless figures. On the other hand, Verne's ideal of the French officer, austerely devoted to duty and yet cultured and humane, is enshrined in the character of Captain Marcenay.

  What the Central Bank Affair described in Chapter I has to do with the rest of the narrative; what the mysterious power is that hovers so menacingly over the activities of the Barsac Mission, will appear later. For an answer to such questions, as well as for an explanation of the strange phenomena which the mission encounters, the inexplicable roaring in the air and the inexplicable grooves in the soil, the reader must consult Book II of Verne's masterpiece, separately published in this series under the title The City in the Sahara.

  A few alterations may have been made to adapt this work for an English speaking public; for example, measures have been shown in British, instead of Metric, units. The names of a few of the characters have had to be altered, as they might have given rise to misunderstanding or annoyance by clashing with those of actual people. I have also taken the liberty, found necessary by most of Verne's other translators, of abbreviating or omitting a few passages of minor interest.



  Certainly the audacious robbery which the press featured as "The Central Bank Business," and which was front-page news for a whole fortnight, has not yet been forgotten. Few crimes aroused so much attention, for few combined so much mystery with so much audacity, gained so much booty, or were performed with so ferocious an energy. Though it occurred at the beginning of the century, a description of the episode can still be read with interest.

  The robbery took place at the DK Branch of the Central Bank, situated near the Stock Exchange, at the corner of Threadneedle Street; its Manager was Lewis Robert Blazon, son of Lord Blazon.

  The Branch occupies a large room divided by a long oak counter. It is entered at the street corner by a glass panelled door, reached from a vestibule at pavement level. Inside, on the left, behind a strong iron grille, is a strongroom from which a door, also furnished with a grille, leads into the main office, where the clerks work. On the right, the oak counter is broken by the usual flap, affording access between the part open to the public and that reserved for the clerks. At the back of this opens the Manager's office with an inner room having no other entrance; then a corridor flanks the wall along Threadneedle Street, giving access to a hall used by all the building's occupants.

  On the one side this hall leads out past the messengers' box to Threadneedle Street. On the other, beyond the foot of the main stair, it is entered by a double glass-panelled door which conceals the entrance to the cellars and the service stair facing it.

  At the moment when the incident began, at twenty to five exactly, the five employees of the Branch were occupied with their work. Two were busy writing. The three others were attending to clients leaning on the counter. The cashier was counting up the receipts, which, this being settlement day, amounted to the impressive total of £72,079 2s. 4d.

  In twenty minutes the bank would be closed and the steel shutters pulled down; then, a little later, the staff would disperse for the day. The heavy rumbling of the traffic and the noise of the crowd could be faintly heard through the door, whose glass was obscured by the gathering dusk of this November evening.

  It was at that moment that the door opened and a man entered. After a rapid glance he turned and made a gesture with his right hand, holding up the thumb and two fingers to indicate the number three. Even had their attention been aroused, the clerks would not have been able to see this gesture, hidden as it was behind the half-opened door; and even if they had seen it they would never have dreamed of associating it with the number of clients at the counter.

  This signal, if it was one, having been given, the man reopened the door, let it swing to behind him, and took his place behind one of the clients, waiting to be attended to in his turn.

  A clerk got up, came towards him and asked:

  "Can I help you, sir?"

  "Thanks, I'll wait," answered the newcomer, indicating by a movement of his hand that he wanted to deal with the clerk nearest to him.

  Having satisfied his conscience, the other clerk went back to his work, and the man went on waiting, nobody paying any more attention to him.

  His strange appearance would however have justified careful study. He was a tall determined looking man, his build suggesting unusual strength. A splendid light co
loured beard fringed his sunburnt face. It would be impossible to judge his social status from his clothing, for a long silk dustcoat covered him down to the feet.

  The client having finished his business, the man in the dustcoat took his place and explained his wishes to the clerk.

  Hardly had the client gone out when the door opened to admit a second personage as strange as the first, of whom indeed he seemed to be a sort of replica. Similar in height and in build, and with a similar beard fringing his bronzed face, he also wore a dustcoat long enough to hide his clothing.

  This newcomer behaved like his counterpart. He waited patiently behind one of the two clients leaning on the counter; then, when his turn came, he engaged the clerk in conversation while the client went out.

  As before, the door opened at once. A third individual entered and took his place behind the last of the three clients. Of medium height, short and square built, his swarthy face partly obscured by a black beard and his clothing concealed by a long grey overcoat, he offered both differences from and resemblances to his predecessors.

  Finally, when the last of the three clients had finished his business and given up his place, it was two men whom the door admitted. These men, one of whom seemed gifted with herculean strength, were dressed in the long overcoats commonly known as ulsters, which the rigour of the season did not yet justify; and their bronzed faces, like those of the three others, were abundantly garnished with beards.

  Their method of entering was strange; the taller came in first; then, when hardly inside, he stopped so as to hide his companion who, pretending to have got caught in the doorhandle, was subjecting this to some mysterious operation. The pause lasted only an instant, and the door swung shut. But by that time, though it still had its inside handle, so that it could let people out, its outside handle had vanished, so that none could enter from the street. As for knocking to get admittance, nobody would have thought of this, for a notice, placed surreptitiously on the door, announced to the public that the Branch had shut down for the day.

  The clerks never suspected that they were now cut off from the outer world, and if they had known it this would only have made them smile. Why should they be uneasy, right in the heart of the City, at the busiest moment of the day, when they could hear the din of the activity in the street, from which only a thin sheet of glass separated them?

  The other two clerks politely came to meet these entrants, for they knew that the clocks were on the verge of striking five: it would be in order to get rid of these tiresome intruders in a few minutes. One of these latecomers accepted their attention; while the other, the bigger of the two, refused them and asked for a word with the Manager.

  "I'll see if he's there," he was told.

  The clerk went through the inner door and returned at once.

  "If you would be good enough to step this way?" he suggested, opening the counter flap.

  The man in the ulster entered the inner office while the clerk, having closed the door behind him, went back to his work.

  What took place between the Branch Manager and his visitor? The staff afterwards stated that they knew nothing. The enquiry which ensued could only surmise, and even today nobody knows what happened behind that door.

  One thing at least is certain, that hardly two minutes had elaspsed since the door closed when it opened again and the man in the ulster reappeared on the threshold.

  In an impersonal tone, and without addressing himself to anyone in particular: "Please," he said calmly, "the Manager would like a word with the cashier."

  "Very well, Sir," answered the clerk. Turning round, he exclaimed: "Store!"

  "Yes, Mr. Barclay?"

  "The chief's asking for you."

  "I'll be there," replied the cashier.

  With the punctiliousness inherent in men of his profession, he threw into the gaping strong room a brief-case and three packages duly labelled and containing the day's takings. The heavy door swung-to with a dull thud; then, having closed his window, he came out of his barred room, which he carefully shut behind him, and went towards the Manager's office. The stranger, who was waiting in front of it, stepped aside and then followed him in.

  When he entered the office, Store was surprised to realize that the man who was supposed to have called him was not there, and that the room was empty. But time was not allowed him to investigate the mystery. Attacked from behind, his throat seized in an iron grip, it was in vain that he tried to struggle, to call for help . . . . The murderous hands increased their grasp until, his breath failing, he dropped unconscious to the floor.

  This ferocious attack took place silently. In the outer office the clerks were quietly working, four of them facing the clients across the counter, the fifth absorbed in his calculations.

  The man in the ulster paused to wipe a drop of sweat from his forehead, then stooped over his victim. In a trice the cashier was gagged and bound.

  This task completed he pulled the door ajar and glanced into the main office. Satisfied, he coughed quietly, as though to attract the attention of the four clients; then, his end attained, he flung open the door which concealed him.

  This was the signal, no doubt pre-arranged for a fantastic scene. While the man in the ulster crossed the room in a single bound, fell like a thunderbolt on the lonely arithmetician and throttled him pitilessly, the victim's four colleagues underwent a similar fate.

  The client at the far end of the counter thrust up the flap and leapt through the opening; taking from behind the clerk who had been facing him, he threw him to the ground. Of the three others, two reached over, looped their hands around the necks of the clerks in front of them, and banged their heads on the oak counter-top. The fourth, the smallest of stature, not being able to grasp his adversary from across the distance between them, leaped right over the counter, and seized him by the neck, the violence of his attack increased tenfold by its speed.

  Not a single cry was uttered, and the drama had lasted only thirty seconds.

  When their victims lost consciousness, the garrotters finished putting them out of action. The scheme had been studied in detail and nothing had gone amiss. They did not hesitate. Together taking the risk of asphyxiating their victims, they stuffed their mouths full of cottonwool and gagged them. Then they pulled their hands behind their backs and pinioned them, tied their feet firmly together, and trussed up their bodies in a skein of fine steel wire.

  The work was completed at once; then the assailants stood up simultaneously.

  "The shutter!" The order came from the man who had asked to see the Manager, and who seemed to command the others.

  Three of the bandits hastened to turn the cranks of the metal shutter. The iron sheets began to descend over the entrance, gradually muffling the noise from outside.

  This operation was half completed when suddenly the telephone bell rang.

  "Stop!" exclaimed the chief of the robbers.

  The shutter have been halted in its downward movement, he went across to the apparatus and picked up the receiver. The following conversation began, the four garrotters, now standing motionless, hearing only the half of it.


  "I'm listening."

  "That you, Blazon?"


  "That's queer. I don't recognize your voice."

  "It's a faulty line."

  "Not at our end."

  "Well, it is here. I don't recognize your voice either." "I'm Mr. Leonard."

  "Oh, yes!... yes! I can recognize you now. "Can you tell me, Blazon, whether the van has arrived yet?"

  "Not yet," the bandit replied, after hesitating slightly.

  "When it comes, send it back to S Branch. They've just telephoned to say that an important deposit came in after they'd closed down and sent off the cash."

  "A large sum?"

  "Fairly. About twenty thousand pounds." The robber gave an exclamation of surprise. "You'll give the message? I can rely on you?"

  "You can rely on me."
br />   "Good night, Blazon."

  "Good night."

  The stranger replaced the receiver; for a moment he remained motionless, thinking.

  He suddenly made up his mind. Calling his accomplices round him, "We'll have to hurry, boys," he told them in a low voice, beginning to undress hastily. "Hurry up! Somebody give me that fellow's hide."

  He pointed to Store, still completely unconscious.

  In a twinkling of the eye the man was stripped of his clothing, and his aggressor donned them, although the garments were a little on the small side. Having found the keys of the counting house in one of the pockets, he opened first the cashier's office and then the strongroom, from which he took the numbered packages, the briefcase, and the bundles of securities.

  Hardly had he finished when a vehicle could be heard stopping at the edge of the pavement. Almost at once a knock was heard on the glass-panelled door half covered by the metallic curtain.

  "Look outl" the chief of the garrotters said quickly, eking out his words with gestures. "Off with your coats, let them see your clothing, get into your places and be ready! Take care you don't miss whoever comes in! . . . And no noise, mind! . . . Then shut the door and don't open it except to me!"

  While speaking, and taking with him the briefcase and several bundles of the securities, he went over to the door. He signed to three of his accomplices to take the places of the clerks, whom they thrust beneath the counter, while the fourth waited beside the door. He opened this sharply and at once the noise from the street seemed to get louder.

  A delivery van had indeed pulled up before the entrance; its lights could be seen gleaming in the darkness. The driver, perched on his seat, was chatting with a man who was standing on the edge of the pavement. It was that man, a cashier at the Central Bank, who had knocked at the door a few minutes earlier.

  Without hurrying, and dodging the passersby who flowed on like a torrent, the audacious bandit crossed the pavement and went up to the vehicle.