Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 13.

In the Cafe of the Chasseurs.

The red-hot light of the after-glow still burned on the waters of the bay, and shed its Egyptian-like luster on the city that lies in the circle of the Sahel, with the Mediterranean so softly lashing with its violet waves the feet of the white, sloping town. The sun had sunk down in fire — the sun that once looked over those waters on the legions of Scipio and the iron brood of Hamilcar, and that now gave its luster on the folds of the French flags as they floated above the shipping of the harbor, and on the glitter of the French arms, as a squadron of the army of Algeria swept back over the hills to their barracks. Pell-mell in its fantastic confusion, its incongruous blending, its forced mixture of two races — that will touch, but never mingle; that will be chained together, but will never assimilate — the Gallic–Moorish life of the city poured out; all the coloring of Haroun al Raschid scattered broadcast among Parisian fashion and French routine. Away yonder, on the spurs and tops of the hills, the green sea-pines seemed to pierce the transparent air; in the Cabash old, dreamy Arabian legends, poetic as Hafiz, seem still to linger here and there under the foliage of hanging gardens or the picturesque curves of broken terraces; in the distance the brown, rugged Kabyl mountains lay like a couched camel, and far off against the golden haze a single palm rose, at a few rare intervals, with its drooped, curled leaves, as though to recall, amid the shame of foreign domination, that this was once the home of Hannibal; the Africa that had made Rome tremble.

In the straight, white boulevards, as in the winding ancient streets; under the huge barn-like walls of barracks, as beneath the marvelous mosaics of mosques; the strange bizarre conflict of European and Oriental life spread its panorama. Staff officers, all aglitter with crosses, galloped past; mules, laden with green maize and driven by lean, brown Bedouins, swept past the plate-glass windows of bonbon shops; grave, white-bearded sheiks drank petits verres in the guinguettes; sapeurs, Chasseurs, Zouaves, cantinieres — all the varieties of French military life — mingled with jet-black Soudans, desert kings wrathful and silent, Eastern women shrouded in haick and serroual, eagle-eyed Arabs flinging back snow-white burnous, and handling ominously the jeweled halts of their cangiars. Alcazar chansons rang out from the cafes, while in their midst stood the mosque, that had used to resound with the Muezzin. Bijou-blondine and Bebee La-la and all the sister-heroines of demi-monde dragged their voluminous Paris-made dresses side by side with Moorish beauties, who only dared show the gleam of their bright black eyes through the yashmak; the reverberes were lit in the Place du Gouvernement, and a group fit for the days of Solyman the Magnificent sat under the white marble beauty of the Mohammedan church. “Rein n’est sacre pour un sapeur!” was being sung to a circle of sous-officiers, close in the ear of a patriarch serenely majestic as Abraham; gaslights were flashing, cigar shops were filling, newspapers were being read, the Rigolboche was being danced, commis-voyageurs were chattering with grisettes, drums were beating, trumpets were sounding, bands were playing, and, amid it all, grave men were dropping on their square of carpet to pray, brass trays of sweetmeats were passing, ostrich eggs were dangling, henna-tipped fingers were drawing the envious veil close, and noble Oriental shadows were gliding to and fro through the open doors of the mosques, like a picture of the “Arabian Nights,” like a poem of dead Islamism — in a word, it was Algiers at evening.

In one of the cafes there, a mingling of all the nations under the sun was drinking demi-tasses, absinthe, vermouth, or old wines, in the comparative silence that had succeeded to a song, sung by a certain favorite of the Spahis, known as Loo–Loo-j’n-m’en soucie guere, from Mlle. Loo–Loo’s well-known habits of independence and bravado, which last had gone once so far as shooting a man through the chest in the Rue Bab-alOued, and setting all the gendarmes and sergents-deville at defiance afterward. Half a dozen of that famous regiment the Chasseurs d’Afrique were gathered together, some with their feet resting on the little marble-topped tables, some reading the French papers, all smoking their inseparable companions — the brules-gueles; fine, stalwart, sun-burned fellows, with faces and figures that the glowing colors of their uniform set off to the best advantage.

“Loo–Loo was in fine voice to-night,” said one.

“Yes; she took plenty of cognac before she sang; that always clears her voice,” said a second.

“And I think that did her spirits good, shooting that Kabyl,” said a third. “By the way, did he die?”

“N’sais pas, Loo–Loo’s a good aim.”

“Sac a papier, yes! Rire-pour-tout taught her.”

“Ah! There never was a shot like Rire-pour-tout. When he went out, he always asked his adversary, ‘Where will you like it? your lungs, your heart, your brain? It is quite a matter of choice;’— and whichever they chose, he shot there. Le pauvre Rire-pour-tout! He was always good-natured.”

“And did he never meet his match?” asked a sous-officier of the line.

The speaker looked down on the piou-piou with superb contempt, and twisted his mustaches. “Monsieur! how could he? He was a Chasseur.”

“But if he never met his match, how did he die?” pursued the irreverent piou-piou — a little wiry man, black as a berry, agile as a monkey, tough and short as a pipe-stopper.

The magnificent Chasseur laughed in his splendid disdain. “A piou-piou never killed him, that I promise you. He spitted half a dozen of you before breakfast, to give him a relish. How did Rire-pour-tout die? I will tell you.”

He dipped his long mustaches into a beaker of still champagne. Claude, Viscomte de Chanrellon, though in the ranks, could afford those luxuries.

“He died this way, did Rire-pour-tout! Dieu de Dieu! a very good way too. Send us all the like when our time comes! We were out yonder” (and he nodded his handsome head outward to where the brown, seared plateaux and the Kabyl mountains lay). “We were hunting Arabs, of course — pot-shooting, rather, as we never got nigh enough to their main body to have a clear charge at them. Rire-pour-tout grew sick of it. ‘This won’t do,’ he said; ‘here’s two weeks gone by, and I haven’t shot anything but kites and jackals. I shall get my hand out.’ For Rire-pour-tout, as the army knows, somehow or other, generally potted his man every day, and he missed it terribly. Well, what did he do? He rode off one morning and found out the Arab camp, and he waved a white flag for a parley. He didn’t dismount, but he just faced the Arabs and spoke to their Sheik. ‘Things are slow,’ he said to them. ‘I have come for a little amusement. Set aside six of your best warriors, and I’ll fight them one after another for the honor of France and a drink of brandy to the conqueror.’ They demurred; they thought it unfair to him to have six to one. ‘Ah!’ he laughs, ‘you have heard of Rire-pour-tout, and you are afraid!’ That put their blood up: they said they would fight him before all his Chasseurs. ‘Come, and welcome,’ said Rire-pour-tout; ‘and not a hair of your beards shall be touched except by me.’ So the bargain was made for an hour before sunset that night. Mort de Dieu! that was a grand duel!”

He dipped his long mustaches again into another beaker of still. Talking was thirsty work; the story was well known in all the African army, but the piou-piou, having served in China, was new to the soil.

“The General was ill-pleased when he heard it, and half for arresting Rire-pour-tout; but — sacre! — the thing was done; our honor was involved; he had engaged to fight these men, and engaged for us to let them go in peace afterward; there was no more to be said, unless we had looked like cowards, or traitors, or both. There was a wide, level plateau in front of our camp, and the hills were at our backs — a fine field for the duello; and, true to time, the Arabs filed on to the plain, and fronted us in a long line, with their standards, and their crescents, and their cymbals and reed-pipes, and kettle-drums, all glittering and sounding. Sac a papier! There was a show, and we could not fight one of them! We were drawn up in line — Horse, Foot, and Artillery — Rire-pour-tout all alone, some way in advance; mounted, of course. The General and the Sheik had a conference; then the play began. There were six Arabs picked out — the flower of the army — all white and scarlet, and in their handsomest bravery, as if they came to an aouda. They were fine men — diable! — they were fine men. Now the duel was to be with swords; these had been selected; and each Arab was to come against Rire-pour-tout singly, in succession. Our drums rolled the pas de charge, and their cymbals clashed; they shouted ‘Fantasia!’ and the first Arab rode at him. Rire-pour-tout sat like a rock, and lunge went his steel through the Bedouin’s lung, before you could cry hola! — a death-stroke, of course; Rire-pour-tout always killed: that was his perfect science. Another and another and another came, just as fast as the blood flowed. You know what the Arabs are — vous autres? How they wheel and swerve and fight flying, and pick up their saber from the ground, while their horse is galloping ventre a terre, and pierce you here and pierce you there, and circle round you like so many hawks? You know how they fought Rire-pour-tout then, one after another, more like devils than men. Mort de Dieu! it was a magnificent sight! He was gashed here and gashed there; but they could never unseat him, try how they would; and one after another he caught them sooner or later, and sent them reeling out of their saddles, till there was a great red lake of blood all round him, and five of them lay dead or dying down in the sand. He had mounted afresh twice, three horses had been killed underneath him, and his jacket all hung in strips where the steel had slashed it. It was grand to see, and did one’s heart good; but — ventre bleu! — how one longed to go in too.

“There was only one left now — a young Arab, the Sheik’s son, and down he came like the wind. He thought with the shock to unhorse Rire-pour-tout, and finish him then at his leisure. You could hear the crash as they met, like two huge cymbals smashing together. Their chargers hit and tore at each other’s manes; they were twined in together there as if they were but one man and one beast; they shook and they swayed and they rocked; the sabers played about their heads so quick that it was like lightning, as they flashed and twirled in the sun; the hoofs trampled up the sand till a yellow cloud hid their struggle, and out of it all you could see was the head of a horse tossing up and spouting with foam, or a sword-blade lifted to strike. Then the tawny cloud settled down a little, the sand mist cleared away, the Arab’s saddle was empty — but Rire-pour-tout sat like a rock. The old Chief bowed his head. ‘It is over! Allah is great!’ And he knew his son lay there dead. Then we broke from the ranks, and we rushed to the place where the chargers and men were piled like so many slaughtered sheep. Rire-pour-tout laughed such a gay, ringing laugh as the desert never had heard. ‘Vive la France!’ he cried. ‘And now bring me my toss of brandy.’ Then down headlong out of his stirrups he reeled and fell under his horse; and when we lifted him up there were two broken sword-blades buried in him, and the blood was pouring fast as water out of thirty wounds and more. That was how Rire-pour-tout died, piou-piou; laughing to the last. Sacre bleu! It was a splendid end; I wish I were sure of the like.”

And Claude de Chanrellon drank down his third beaker, for overmuch speech made him thirsty.

The men around him emptied their glasses in honor of the dead hero.

“Rire-pour-tout was a croc-mitaine,” they said solemnly, with almost a sigh; so tendering by their words the highest funeral oration.

“You have much of such sharp service here, I suppose?” asked a voice in very pure French. The speaker was leaning against the open door of the cafe; a tall, lightly built man, dressed in a velvet shooting tunic, much the worse for wind and weather, a loose shirt, and jack-boots splashed and worn out.

“When we are at it, monsieur,” returned the Chasseur. “I only wish we had more.”

“Of course. Are you in need of recruits?”

“They all want to come to us and to the Zouaves,” smiled Chanrellon, surveying the figure of the one who addressed him, with a keen sense of its symmetry and its sinew. “Still, a good sword brings its welcome. Do you ask seriously, monsieur?”

The bearded Arabs smoking their long pipes, the little piou-piou drowning his mortification in some curacoa, the idlers reading the “Akbah” or the “Presse,” the Chasseurs lounging over their drink, the ecarte players lost in their game, all looked up at the newcomer. They thought he looked a likely wearer of the dead honors of Rire-pour-tout.

He did not answer the question literally, but came over from the doorway and seated himself at the little marble table opposite Claude, leaning his elbows on it.

“I have a doubt,” he said. “I am more inclined to your foes.”

“Dieu de Dieu!” exclaimed Chanrellon, pulling at his tawny mustaches. “A bold thing to say before five Chasseurs.”

He smiled, a little contemptuously, a little amusedly.

“I am not a croc-mitaine, perhaps; but I say what I think, with little heed of my auditors, usually.”

Chanrellon bent his bright brown eyes curiously on him. “He is a croc-mitaine,” he thought. “He is not to be lost.”

“I prefer your foes,” went on the other, quite quietly, quite listlessly, as though the glittering, gas-lit cafe were not full of French soldiers. “In the first place, they are on the losing side; in the second, they are the lords of the soil; in the third, they live as free as air; and in the fourth, they have undoubtedly the right of the quarrel!”

“Monsieur!” cried the Chasseurs, laying their hands on their swords, fiery as lions. He looked indolently and wearily up from under the long lashes of his lids, and went on, as though they had not spoken.

“I will fight you all, if you like, as that worthy of yours, Rire-pour-tout, did, but I don’t think it’s worth while,” he said carelessly, where he leaned over the marble table. “Brawling’s bad style; we don’t do it. I was saying, I like your foes best; mere matter of taste; no need to quarrel over it — that I see. I shall go into their service or into yours, monsieur — will you play a game of dice to decide?”

“Decide? — but how?”

“Why — this way,” said the other, with the weary listlessness of one who cares not two straws how things turn. “If I win, I go to the Arabs; if you win, I come to your ranks.”

“Mort de Dieu! it is a droll gambling,” murmured Chanrellon. “But — if you win, do you think we shall let you go off to our enemies? Pas si bete, monsieur!”

“Yes, you will,” said the other quietly. “Men who knew what honor meant enough to redeem Rire-pour-tout’s pledge of safety to the Bedouins, will not take advantage of an openly confessed and unarmed adversary.”

A murmur of ratification ran through his listeners.

Chanrellon swore a mighty oath.

“Pardieu, no. You are right. If you want to go, you shall go. Hola there! bring the dice. Champagne, monsieur? Vermouth? Cognac?”

“Nothing, I thank you.”

He leaned back with an apathetic indolence and indifference oddly at contrast with the injudicious daring of his war-provoking words and the rough campaigning that he sought. The assembled Chasseurs eyed him curiously; they liked his manner and they resented his first speeches; they noted every particular about him — his delicate white hands, his weather-worn and travel-stained dress, his fair, aristocratic features, his sweeping, abundant beard, his careless, cool, tired, reckless way; and they were uncertain what to make of him.

The dice were brought.

“What stakes, monsieur?” asked Chanrellon.

“Ten napoleons a side — and — the Arabs.”

He set ten napoleons down on the table; they were the only coins he had in the world; it was very characteristic that he risked them.

They threw the main — two sixes.

“You see,” he murmured, with a half smile, “the dice know it is a drawn duel between you and the Arabs.”

“C’est un drole, c’est un brave!” muttered Chanrellon; and they threw again.

The Chasseur cast a five; his was a five again.

“The dice cannot make up their minds,” said the other listlessly, “they know you are Might and the Arabs are Right.”

The Frenchmen laughed; they could take a jest good-humoredly, and alone amid so many of them, he was made sacred at once by the very length of odds against him.

They rattled the boxes and threw again — Chanrellon’s was three; his two.

“Ah!” he murmured. “Right kicks the beam and loses; it always does, poor devil!”

The Chasseur leaned across the table, with his brown, fearless sunny eyes full of pleasure.

“Monsieur! never lament such good fortune for France. You belong to us now; let me claim you!”

He bowed more gravely than he had borne himself hitherto.

“You do me much honor; fortune has willed it so. One word only in stipulation.”

“Chanrellon assented courteously.

“As many as you choose.”

“I have a companion who must be brigaded with me, and I must go on active service at once.”

“With infinite pleasure. That doubtless can be arranged. You shall present yourself tomorrow morning; and for to-night, this is not the season here yet; and we are triste a faire fremir; still I can show you a little fun, though it is not Paris!”

But he rose and bowed again.

“I thank you, not to-night. You shall see me at your barracks with the morning.”

“Ah, ah! monsieur!” cried the Chasseur eagerly, and a little annoyed. “What warrant have we that you will not dispute the decree of the dice, and go off to your favorites, the Arabs?”

He turned back and looked full in Chanrellon’s face his own eyes a little surprised, and infinitely weary.

“What warrant? My promise.”

Then, without another syllable, he lounged slowly out through the soldiers and the idlers, and disappeared in the confused din and chiar-oscuro of the gas-lit street without, through the press of troopers, grisettes, merchants, beggars, sweetmeat-sellers, lemonade-sellers, curacoa sellers, gaunt Bedouins, negro boys, shrieking muleteers, laughing lorettes, and glittering staff officers.

“That is done!” he murmured to his own thoughts. “Now for life under another flag!”

Claude de Chanrellon sat mute and amazed a while, gazing at the open door; then he drank a fourth beaker of champagne and flung the emptied glass down with a mighty crash.

“Ventre bleu! Whoever he is, that man will eat fire, bons garcons!”

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:06