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City in the Sahara - Barsac Mission 02, Page 2

Jules Verne

  Around the city, founded ten years before in sheer desert, the marvels were greater still. Though the sea of sand still surrounded it, this did not now begin for several miles from its wall. In the immediate vicinity of the city, on a tract so great that its limits were hidden beyond the horizon, the desert had given place to fields cultivated by the most efficient methods; here were grown, with ever-increasing success, all the vegetables of Africa and Europe.

  Such was the work of Harry Killer, a work which would have been admirable if its basis and purpose had not been crime. But how had he performed it? How had he fertilized these arid and desiccated plains? Water is the one element indispensable to all plant and animal life, for man to live, for the earth to bring forth. How had Harry Killer contrived to bestow it upon this region where whole years had elapsed without a single drop of rain? Was he endowed with a magical power by which he alone could achieve such miracles?

  No, Harry Killer possessed no supernatural power; left to his own devices he could never have accomplished such marvels. But Harry Killer was not alone. The Palace, where he lived with those whom he had the effrontery to call his Counsellors, the barracks of the Black Guard, and the heliplane sheds, together occupied only a small part of the last section of Blackland. In the midst of the great open space there were other erections, or rather there was another town contained within the first; its different buildings, with their yards and inner gardens, themselves covered nearly twenty acres. Before the Palace rose the Factory.

  The Factory was an independent and autonomous city on which the Chief had lavished wealth, which he respected, which, without admitting it to himself, he even feared a little. If he had devised the town, it was the Factory which had created it, which had equipped it not only with all modern amenities but with astonishing inventions which Europe was not to know until years later.

  The Factory had a soul and a body. The soul was its Director. The body comprised about a hundred or so workmen belonging to different nationalities but mostly to France and England, chosen from among the foremost in their respective professions, and transported over a bridge of gold. Each of them received a ministerial salary, and in return he had to submit to the inflexible rule of Blackland.

  Almost the whole of this technical body consisted of workmen, of whom skilled mechanics formed the majority. Several were married, so that the Factory contained twenty-seven women, with a few children.

  This population of honest workers, who contrasted so strangely with the town's other inhabitants, all lived in the Factory, and from this they were strictly forbidden ever to emerge. Even if they had wanted to, they could not have done so, a careful watch being kept up day and night by the Black Guard and the Merry Fellows. But they had been warned of this when they were engaged, and not one of them felt any temptation to break this rule. In return for the high salary offered them, they had to consider themselves as withdrawn from the world throughout the time they would spend at Black-land. Not only might they never leave the Factory, they could neither write to anyone nor receive any letter from outside.

  Though many had recoiled at the stringency of such conditions, several had let themselves be tempted by increases in the promised salary. What had they to lose, after all, when they were poor and had to struggle to earn their daily bread? The chance, of wealth was well worth the disadvantage of facing the unknown; and after all, they reassured themselves, they risked nothing except a little adventure.

  The contract signed, it was at once carried out. The new employee embarked on an assigned vessel and this took him to one of the Bissago Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Portuguese Guinea, where he was landed. There he had to agree to be blindfolded, and one of the heliplanes, for which a shelter had been made at a deserted spot on the shore, took him in less than six hours to Blackland, about fourteen hundred miles away as the crow flies. The heliplane landed in the Esplanade between the Palace and the Factory, and the workman, freed from his bandage, entered the latter never to emerge until the time came to terminate his contract and to return to Ins native land.

  On this point, indeed, the contract arranged for the employee to be repatriated. If he were a prisoner so long as he remained in Blackland, he had the option at any time of leaving the town for ever. Then another heliplane would take him from the Esplanade and fly him to the Bissago Islands, where he would find a steamer to take him to Europe.

  Such, at any rate, was the assurance given to the workmen who wished to leave. What their comrades in the Factory did not know, however, was that those who left in this way never arrived at their destination, that their bones were bleaching somewhere in the desert, that their salaries were invariably reclaimed by those who paid them. Thus the city's cash box never became empty, thus was kept secret the existence of Blackland, and thus the empire of Harry Killer remained unknown.

  None the less departures were rare. Utterly unable to know, or even to suspect, the life lived by the town's inhabitants, on which they had not a vestige of information, it was only exceptionally that the workmen asked to leave their city. Among them lived nine black slaves of both sexes, prisoners like themselves, who helped the women with their domestic work. The workpeople were, in short, happier than they had been in their native land, engaged in work so congenial that sometimes they would spontaneously continue it far into the night.

  The workmen had only one chief, their Director, a Frenchman called Marcel Camaret, whom they looked upon almost as a god.

  Alone among the Factory's inhabitants, Marcel Camaret was free to come and go at will, both about the streets and about the country round Blackland. Although he was not slow to use his freedom and to walk about wrapped in thought, it should not be inferred that he was better informed than the personnel under him regarding the peculiar habits of the town, of which he did not so much as know the name.

  One day a workman asked him what it was. Camaret reflected deeply for a moment; then, to the great astonishment of his employee, he replied: "Well, really, I don't know either."

  Never until then had he thought of wondering about such a detail. What's more, after the question had been put to him he never thought of it again.

  He was a strange person, this Marcel Camaret.

  He seemed about forty years old. Medium in height, with straight shoulders and flat chested, his scanty dull blond hair gave him an aspect of frail delicacy. His gestures were slight, his calm imperturbable, and he spoke, with a childlike timidity, in a weak gentle voice which, whatever the circumstances, never rose to tones of anger, or even of impatience. He always kept his head bent towards his left shoulder as though he felt it too heavy, and his face, which was pale and insipid, with a delicate sickly look, possessed only one beauty: attractive blue eyes which suggested lofty thoughts.

  A careful observer would have noticed something else in those splendid eyes. At certain moments a vague troubled gleam passed over them, and for an instant they took on a lost look. Anyone who had surprised that look would not have failed to suspect that Marcel Camaret was insane, and perhaps after all he would not have been far wrong. Is it not a very small distance, indeed, between super-intelligence and insanity? Does not genius border on madness?

  In spite of his timidity, his bodily weakness and his gentleness, Marcel Camaret was endowed with boundless energy. The greater misfortunes, the most imminent dangers, the most cruel privations, left him unmoved. This was because he did not know about them. His clear blue eyes were always turned inwards and saw nothing of what happened around him. He lived beyond time, in a fantastic world peopled with wild imaginations. He thought. He thought deeply, he thought exclusively and always. Marcel Camaret was nothing but a thinking machine, a machine mighty, inoffensive and terrible.

  So absentminded that he could have given points to St. Berain; he was so "foreign" to all that constitutes material life he had more than once tumbled into the Red River, thinking he was crossing a bridge. His servant, whose monkey-like appearance had earned him the name of Jacko,
could not make him take his meals at regular hours. Marcel Camaret ate when he felt hungry, and slept when he felt sleepy, which was as likely to be noon as at midnight.

  Ten years earlier, circumstances had brought him into the path of Harry Killer. A remarkable device able to produce rain was then among his imaginings. He did not hesitate to describe his dreams to anyone who would listen to them, and Harry Killer, with some others, had heard of this invention while it was still a mere theory. But, while the others only laughed at such madness, Harry Killer had taken it seriously, so much so that he had made it the basis of his schemes.

  If Harry Killer was a bandit, he was at least a bandit with a wide outlook, and at least he had the merit of understanding how he might make use of an unrecognized genius. Chance having placed Camaret in his power, he had dazzled the scientists eyes with the realization of his dreams. Taking him to the desert spot where Blackland was to rise, he had said: "Make the promised rain fall here!" And the rain had obediently begun to fall.

  Since then Camaret had lived in a perpetual fever. All his visions had materialized one by one. After the rain machine, his brain had produced a hundred other inventions from which Harry Killer had profited, without their inventor's ever troubling about how they were used.

  Though no inventor can be held responsible for the evil of which he was the indirect cause, whoever invented the revolver must have realized that such a weapon could and must slay, and it was clearly with that end in mind that he had thought of it.

  Such was not true of Marcel Camaret. If it had ever occurred to him to design a cannon whose range would be greater and whose projectile heavier than ever before, he would gladly have calculated the proportions of the weapon, the weight and design of the shell and the quantity of the explosive, without having seen in this anything more than a curiosity of ballistics. He would have been greatly surprised to learn that the child of his brain could be used for destruction.

  Harry Killer had asked for rain, and Camaret had caused it; Harry Killer had asked for agricultural instruments, and Camaret had produced ploughs, sowing machines, weeding machines, reapers, threshers, which ploughed, sowed, weeded, reaped, threshed, without needing a separate motor; Harry Killer had asked for flying machines, and Camaret had given him the heliplanes, able to travel three thousand miles with meteoric speed.

  As for the use which his companion made of these inventions, Marcel Camaret had never even thought of asking. A creature of abstract thought, he had seen them only as pure problems without worrying either about their practical application or about the origin of the materials he was given. Though he had been present without realizing it at the birth of Blackland and at the progressive substitution of fertile land for the desert, he had never had the remotest wish to know the methods by which Harry Killer had equipped him with the first instruments and machines which enabled the Factory to make the others.

  Marcel Camaret had first asked, as though it were the simplest tiling in the world, for a factory to be built, and at once hundreds of Negroes had built it. He had then asked for such-and-such a machine-tool, for dynamos and a steamengine, and, sometimes almost at once, sometimes months later, the machine-tools, the dynamos, and the engine had arrived as though by miracle in the desert.

  He had asked for workmen, and, one after another, the workmen had come in the numbers he desired. How had such marvels been accomplished? Marcel Camaret did not worry about that. He had asked for them, he had got them. To him, nothing seemed simpler.

  Nor had he ever dreamed of working out the amount of capital absorbed in realizing his dreams, and never had he asked the very natural question: "Where's the money coming from?"

  At the moment when this narrative began, all was as usual in Blackland. The Factory personnel were busy at work; some of the Merry Fellows were supervising the Negroes at the agricultural toil necessitated by the approach of the rainy season, the others as usual giving themselves up to the grossest pleasures; and the Civil Body was occupied a little vaguely in its highly restricted and irregular trade.

  About eleven in the morning, Harry Killer was alone in his private room. He was thinking deeply, and to judge by his expression his thoughts cannot have been pleasant.

  The telephone bell rang.

  "Listening!" he said, as he grasped the receiver.

  "West, seventeen degrees south, ten heliplanes in sight," the telephone announced.

  "Coming up!" said Harry Killer, replacing the apparatus.

  In a few seconds he had reached the Palace roof, above which rose a tower about thirty feet high; on to this he climbed. On the platform was the Merry Fellow who had warned him.

  "There," he said, indicating a direction.

  Harry Killer turned his telescope that way.

  "That's them," he said, after a short examination.

  "Call the Counsellors," he added. "I'm going down."

  While the Merry Fellow was telephoning the various members of the Council, Harry Killer quickly descended to the Esplanade between the Factory and the Palace. There the nine Counsellors came one by one to join him. Their eyes lifted skywards, they waited.

  The delay was short. The heliplanes seemed to get larger as they approached. A few minutes later they landed gently on the Esplanade.

  The eyes of Harry Killer gleamed with delight. If four of the heliplanes contained only their respective pilots, the other six each carried two passengers: a man of the Black Guard and a prisoner firmly bound and with the head muffled in a hood.

  The six prisoners were released from their bonds. When their dazzled eyes had grown used to the daylight they looked round them in surprise. They found themselves in a wide open space surrounded on all sides by unscaleable walls. A few paces away were the strange contrivances which had carried them through the air. Before them the vast bulk of the Palace was surmounted by its tower, and thirty Negroes of the Black Guard formed a compact group.

  Behind them, more than a hundred yards away, was a wall two hundred and fifty yards long with neither door nor window, above which appeared a tall factory chimney and a frail-looking metallic pylon which rose higher still, but whose purpose they did not know. Where were they? What was this fortress not shown on any of the maps of Africa which they had studied so carefully and so long?

  While they were asking themselves these questions, Harry Killer made a sign, and a brutal hand fell on the shoulder of each of the prisoners. Willy-nilly they entered the Palace, whose door swung open before them and closed itself after them.

  Jane Blazon, St. Berain, Barsac, Am6d6e Florence, Dr. Chatonnay and M. Poncin were in the power of Harry Killer, the dictator of Blackland, the unknown capital of an unknown empire.



  (From the note-book of Amedee Florence)

  25th March. It is now nearly twenty four hours since we have been at . . . But where in fact are we? If someone told me I was in the Moon, it wouldn't surprise me much, given the mode of travel whose charms we've just tasted. The truth is that I haven't the slightest idea.

  Whatever the facts, I can quite accurately express myself as follows: It isn't twenty four hours since we were made prisoner, and it was only this morning, after a night otherwise peaceful, that I felt strong enough to add these notes to my record, which I daresay was beginning to get a little sparse.

  In spite of the lesson in aerial equestrianism which we've been forced to take, our general health is excellent, and we are all in good shape except that St. Berain is more firmly nailed to his bed by a fierce lumbago than by a steel chain. The poor man, as stiff as a post, cannot make the slightest movement, and we have to feed riim like a child. There's nothing surprising in that. What is surprising is that any of us can move, after yesterday's little outing. All that day I was in no condition to put two ideas together. Today things are a little better but not too good. Still let's try to collect our ideas and to sum things up.

  Well, the day before yesterday we had turned in. We wer
e tired out and we were sleeping the sleep of the just, when just before dawn we were awakened by an infernal din. It was the same roaring that had intrigued me three times before, but this time it was ever so much more intense. We opened our eyes but had to close them at once, for we were dazzled by blazing lights seemingly thrown from some distance above us.

  We had not recovered from the din and the no less inexplicable brilliance when without warning some men threw themselves on us. We were hustled, thrown down, bound, gagged, and blinded by some sort of bag into which our heads and shoulders were crammed. All this in less time than it takes to write. There's nothing more to be said: it was a masterpiece.

  In an instant I was trussed up like a sausage. On my ankles, on my knees, on my wrists which someone had carefully crossed behind my back, were bonds cutting into my flesh. It was lovely!

  When I was beginning to realize this pleasant sensation, I heard a voice, in which I recognized the enchanting tones of Lieutenant Lacour saying harshly:

  "Are you there, boys?"

  Then almost at once, without giving the boys (charming boys, no doubt) time to reply, the same voice added even more roughly:

  "The first to move will get a bullet in his head. Come on, you there, let's get going!"

  No need to be a doctor of literature to realize that the second speech was meant for us. He's a good one, the excommandant of our escort! Move? It's easy to talk. No, I shall not move, and for a very good reason. But I listen.

  At once someone answers the energetic lieutenant: "Heruntersteigen konnen wir hier nicht. Es gibt zu viele Baiime"

  Although I can scarcely understand the jargon, I bet this is German. M. Barsac, adept in that craggy language, has since told me that I'd won, and that it means: "We can't come down here, there's too many trees." That's quite likely.

  Anyhow, I didn't understand it at the time. But what did strike me was that this Teutonic sentence had been shouted from a distance, I might even say from above.