French original

The Great Mystery

by J.-H. Rosny Aîné

translated by Stephen Trussel

 

It was nearly dusk when at last we reached the Blue Hills, barren and ominous, made of a granite as hard as diamond. Even lichens had foregone trying to conquer them.

"We're finally here!" cried my companion triumphantly.

I regarded him, filled with mistrust. After three days in the desert, it sounded like a bad joke.

"Life is on the other side!" he assured me.

"On the other side!" I said bitterly. "And how are we supposed to get over? These are sheer walls!"

He tilted his head with an enigmatic smile.

"Oh ye of little faith, didn't I tell you that there was a way?"

He headed off towards the right. After ten minutes he pointed out an irregular fissure, thrusting into the darkness.

"You see!"

He was already in the narrow crevice, flashing his electric lantern. The violet rays dispersed into a soundless night. The way was narrow, and we advanced with difficulty... on and on! Exhausted by the length and trials of the trip, I was nearly incredulous.

At last the fissure widened, and we found ourselves in a spacious cavern where, little by little, a faint gleam of light began to mix with the rays of our lamps. It increased, becoming sufficient to act as a guide.

"We're almost there," said Daniel almost solemnly.

Though soft, the light came alive — it was that orange glow which precedes the setting of the sun. Nonetheless, I could see absolutely nothing. I grumbled involuntarily. We rounded a jutting ledge, and a cry sprang from my lips — "The Promised Land!"

It was beautiful! The immense sun, a copper-colored brazier, reflected in the waters of a lake. Tall trees, enormous reeds swayed gently in the evening breeze. Immediately I understood that I was being initiated into a great mystery. Strange wild boars, bristles of violet, ran fantastically toward the water, while hippos showed their enormous snouts at the surface of the lake, or ascended the banks, revealing golden torsos and bulging eyes.

"Choerotheriums... Sivalensis!" said my companion.

But a clamor filled the expanse. I recognized the vague shapes of horses, stampeding along the willows, and with the other beasts, all were galloping in the same direction. I turned to see an advancing troop, immense and irresistible.

I had seen, in the African solitude, at the Niger River, or near the sacred Ganges, similar herds. There was no mistaking it. Whether it was their twin tusks, at the base nearly straight, at the ends slightly curved, or some other aspect of their being, an intuition perhaps, the circumstances, the presence of the other beasts... I knew these were the formidable mastodons. They advanced like living rocks, their legs solid columns, their heads blocks of granite... they came softly, regally, with a peaceful force.

"It's fantastic!" I cried, seized with a mystical enthusiasm.

"Yes," Daniel agreed compassionately, "we have stepped back 2,000 centuries into the depths of time."

I tasted the joy of the recommencement of the world. A great love of the past which is at the heart of man mingled here with an inconceivable resurrection...

I was suddenly startled by a new development. Two creatures had appeared, two upright creatures, bursting with youth... they were playing. Masses of dark hair tumbled to their shoulders; their limbs and bodies were covered with silky brown skin, and if their jaws were slightly weak, their great soft glowing eyes were as beautiful as those of the most beautiful woman...

I studied them with something akin to fear, and mumbled to Daniel, "Are they...?"

"They're children!" he asserted. "Human children... the very children of our Pleistocene ancestors, the contemporaries of those mastodons who drink at the lake... and look, they're charming!"

 

A kind of roar caused us to raise our heads. A wild beast had appeared, stocky, with dagger-like fangs, and orange fur with dark spots. He leaped... the "human children," paralyzed with fear, stood immobilized. A few more bounds and he would be upon them. With a single gesture Daniel and I raised our guns and a double detonation reverberated across the lake, causing the heads of the mastodons to raise. Wounded in the head and the base of the shoulder the beast turned. Fearing that in his agony he'd avenge his own death with that of the children, we fired again. Then I leaped forward, and plunged my knife into his side. With a hoarse sigh, the beast rolled to the ground.

I turned to the "human children" and spoke to them, smiling. It is the privilege of youth to pass from fear to gaiety without skipping a beat. They laughed, filled with a boundless confidence, as if they had known us for a long time. Already they were near me, looking at me curiously. I lifted the younger one into my arms, and he didn't resist, showing me his gleaming teeth in the sunset glow. The sun sank, and simultaneously an enormous moon rose in the east. The mastodons had finished drinking and started off, shaking the very earth.

Then a voice cried out, low at first, then sharp. We turned. Another upright beast, but an adult: a fawn-colored man with a mane of hair; a heavy face, but brightened, illuminated by the same eyes as the children. He held in his hand a heavy club, or rather a stout spear. A moment later, smaller, somewhat slender, a second creature, an infant held on her shoulder...

"Our ancestors!" said Daniel solemnly.

While perhaps they had at first been frightened, the sight of the security of their offspring seemed to reassure them, and they commenced a confident laugh.

How can I express the religious poetry of that scene? It evoked all the deepest dreams of my youth, all the aspirations which had ever troubled my soul. Under the branches of our primeval forest, it satisfied a fervent need I have always felt, to transcend the passing of time, to live again the primitive life of which we retain a passionate memory at the base of our instinct.

Night fell, after a rapid dusk. Cygnus gleamed in the sky at the base of the prehistoric land, a silver and pearl moon streaked softly among the stars and spread a wide gleaming causeway across the lake.

We had lit a night fire. Together we ate the dried meat we had brought with us. Our hosts were as tranquil as if we had lived together always. They were innocents, even with the strength and size of the great anthropoids. At first I had thought they had no language. I was mistaken. Already speech raised them above the other life forms. They exchanged signs and interjections which were perfectly adapted to the simplicity of their acts and feelings. In the beautiful evening, when the red gleam of the fire mixed with the silver gleam of the moon, they were intensely happy, like children, filled with that delicious trust which allows you to forget about the future. And myself as well, I was filled with a supreme beatitude. I had the feeling of having been rejuvenated in an inconceivable manner, rejuvenated for myself and all my ancestors; all the past and all the present were reunited in my breast. I recall that one of the children was sleeping in my arms. The light sound of his breathing mixed with the enchanted voice of the breeze and the faint trickling of a far-off spring. Wild animals passed in the shadows, nocturnal birds flew in the treetops, odors of vegetation came in puffs, and I held the child against my chest with an infinite tenderness...

Such was the most beautiful, most exalting adventure of my life. And my greatest regret... I had wanted to come again. I returned to the Blue Hills, and once more found the cave... but the prehistoric land was no more! It had taken but a tremor of the earth, a feeble shudder of the terrestrial surface to swallow the remains of a world 200,000 years old!