Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 17.

Under the Houses of Hair.

It was just sunset.

The far-off summits of the Djurjura were tinted with the intense glare of the distant pines and cypresses cut sharply against the rose-warmed radiance of the sky. On the slopes of the hills white cupolas and terraced gardens, where the Algerine haouach still showed the taste and luxury of Algerine corsairs, rose up among their wild olive shadows on the groves of the lentiscus. In the deep gorges that were channeled between the riven rocks the luxuriance of African vegetation ran riot; the feathery crests of tossing reeds, the long, floating leaves of plants, filling the dry water-courses of vanished streams; the broad foliage of the wild fig, and the glowing, dainty blossoms of the oleander, wherever a trace of brook, or pool, or rivulet let it put forth its beautiful coronal, growing one in another in the narrow valleys, and the curving passes, wherever broken earth or rock gave shelter from the blaze and heat of the North African day.

Farther inland the bare, sear stretches of brown plain were studded with dwarf palm, the vast shadowless plateaux were desolate as the great desert itself far beyond; and the sun, as it burned on them a moment in the glory of its last glow, found them naked and grand by the sheer force of immensity and desolation, but dreary and endless, and broken into refts and chasms, as though to make fairer by their own barren solitude the laughing luxuriance of the sea-face of the Sahel.

A moment, and the luster of the light flung its own magic brilliancy over the Algerine water-line, and then shone full on the heights of El Biar and Bouzariah, and on the lofty, delicate form of the Italian pines that here and there, Sicilian-like, threw out their graceful heads against the amber sun-glow and the deep azure of the heavens. Then swiftly, suddenly, the sun sank; twilight passed like a gray, gliding shade, an instant, over earth and sea; and night — the balmy, sultry, star-studded night of Africa — fell over the thirsty leafage longing for its dews, the closed flowers that slumbered at its touch, the seared and blackened plains to which its coolness could bring no herbage, the massive hills that seemed to lie so calmly in its rest.

Camped on one of the bare stretches above the Mustapha Road was a circle of Arab tents; the circle was irregularly kept, and the Krumas were scattered at will; here a low one of canvas, there one of goatskin; here a white towering canopy of teleze, there a low striped little nest of shelter, and loftier than all, the stately beit el shar of the Sheik, with his standard stuck into the earth in front of it, with its heavy folds hanging listlessly in the sultry, breathless air.

The encampment stretched far over the level, arid earth, and there was more than one tent where the shadowing folds of the banner marked the abode of some noble Djied. Disorder reigned supreme, in all the desert freedom; horses and mules, goats and camels, tethered, strayed among the conical houses of hair, browsing off the littered straw or the tossed-down hay; and caldrons seethed and hissed over wood fires, whose lurid light was flung on the eagle features and the white haiks of the wanderers who watched the boiling of their mess, or fed the embers with dry sticks. Round other fires, having finished the eating of their couscousson, the Bedouins lay full-length; enjoying the solemn silence which they love so little to break, and smoking their long pipes; while through the shadows about them glided the lofty figures of their brethren, with the folds of their sweeping burnous floating in the gloom. It was a picture, Rembrandt in color, Oriental in composition; with the darkness surrounding it stretching out into endless distance that led to the mystic silence of the great desert; and above the intense blue of the gorgeous night, with the stars burning through white, transparent mists of slowly drifting clouds.

In the central tent, tall and crimson-striped, with its mighty standard reared in front, and its opening free to the night, sat the Khalifa, the head of the tribe, with a circle of Arabs about him. He was thrown on his cushions, rich enough for a seraglio, while the rest squatted on the morocco carpet that covered the bare ground, and that was strewn with round brass Moorish trays and little cups emptied of their coffee. The sides of the tent were hung with guns and swords, lavishly adorned; and in the middle stood a tall Turkish candle-branch in fretted work, whose light struggled with the white flood of the moon, and the ruddy, fitful glare from a wood fire without.

Beneath its light, which fell full on him, flung down upon another pile of cushions facing the open front of the tent, was a guest whom the Khalifa delighted to honor. Only a Corporal of Chasseurs, and once a foe, yet one with whom the Arab found the brotherhood of brave men, and on whom he lavished, in all he could, the hospitalities and honors of the desert.

The story of their friendship ran thus:

The tribe was now allied with France, or, at least, had accepted French sovereignty, and pledged itself to neutrality in the hostilities still rife; but a few years before, far in the interior and leagued with the Kabailes, it had been one of the fiercest and most dangerous among the enemies of France. At that time the Khalifa and the Chasseur met in many a skirmish; hot, desperate struggles, where men fought horse to horse, hand to hand; midnight frays, when, in the heart of lonely ravines, Arab ambuscades fell on squadrons of French cavalry; terrible chases through the heat of torrid suns, when the glittering ranks of the charging troops swept down after the Bedouins’ flight; fiery combats, when the desert sand and the smoke of musketry circled in clouds above the close-locked struggle, and the Leopard of France and the Lion of Sahara wrestled in a death-grip.

In these, through four or five seasons of warfare, the Sheik and the Chasseur had encountered each other, till each had grown to look for the other’s face as soon as the standards of the Bedouins flashed in the sunshine opposite the guidons of the Imperial forces; till each had watched and noted the other’s unmatched prowess, and borne away the wounds of the other’s home-strokes, with the admiration of a bold soldier for a bold rival’s dauntlessness and skill; till each had learned to long for an hour, hitherto always prevented by waves of battle that had swept them too soon asunder, when they should meet in a duello once for all, and try their strength together till one bore off victory and one succumbed to death.

At last it came to pass that, after a lengthened term of this chivalrous antagonism, the tribe were sorely pressed by the French troops, and could no longer mass its fearless front to face them, but had to flee southward to the desert, and encumbered by its flocks and its women, was hardly driven and greatly decimated. Now among those women was one whom the Sheik held above all earthly things except his honor in war; a beautiful antelope-eyed creature, lithe and graceful as a palm, and the daughter of a pure Arab race, on whom he could not endure for any other sight than his to look, and whom he guarded in his tent as the chief pearl of all his treasures; herds, flocks, arms, even his horses, all save the honor of his tribe, he would have surrendered rather than surrender Djelma. It was a passion with him; a passion that not even the iron of his temper and the dignity of his austere calm could abate or conceal; and the rumor of it and of the beauty of its object reached the French camp, till an impatient curiosity was roused about her, and a raid that should bear her off became the favorite speculation round the picket fires at night, and in the scorching noons, when the men lay stripped to their waist — panting like tired dogs under the hot withering breath that stole to them, sweeping over the yellow seas of sands.

Their heated fancies had pictured this treasure of the great Djied as something beyond all that her sex had ever given them, and to snare her in some unwary moment was the chief thought of Zephyr and Spahi when they went out on a scouting or foraging party. But it was easier said than done; the eyes of no Frank ever fell on her, and when he was most closely driven the Khalifa Ilderim abandoned his cattle and sheep, but, with the females of the tribe still safely guarded, fell more and more backward and southward; drawing the French on and on, farther and farther across the plains, in the sickliest times of hottest drought.

Re-enforcements could swell the Imperial ranks as swiftly as they were thinned, but with the Arabs a man once fallen was a man the less to their numbers forever, and the lightning-like pursuit began to tell terribly on them; their herds had fallen into their pursuers’ hands, and famine menaced them. Nevertheless, they were fierce in attack as tigers, rapid in swoop as vultures, and fought flying in such fashion that the cavalry lost more in this fruitless, worthless work than they would have done in a second Hohenlinden or Austerlitz.

Moreover, the heat was intense, water was bad and very rare, dysentery came with the scorch and the toil of this endless charge; the chief in command, M. le Marquis de Chateauroy, swore heavily as he saw many of his best men dropping off like sheep in a murrain, and he offered two hundred napoleons to whosoever should bring either the dead Sheik’s head or the living beauty of Djelma.

One day the Chasseurs had pitched their camp where a few barren, withered trees gave a semblance of shelter, and a little thread of brackish water oozed through the yellow earth.

It was high noon; the African sun was at its fiercest; far as the eye could reach there was only one boundless, burning, unendurable glitter of parching sand and cloudless sky — brazen beneath, brazen above — till the desert and the heavens touched, and blent in one tawny, fiery glow in the measureless distance. The men lay under canvas, dead-beat, half-naked, without the power to do anything except to fight like thirst-maddened dogs for a draught at the shallow stream that they and their breathless horses soon drained dry.

Even Raoul de Chateauroy, though his frame was like an Arab’s, and knit into Arab endurance, was stretched like a great bloodhound, chained by the sultry oppression. He was ruthless, inflexible, a tyrant to the core, and sharp and swift as steel in his rigor, but he was a fine soldier, and never spared himself any of the hardships that his regiment had to endure under him.

Suddenly the noon lethargy of the camp was broken; a trumpet-call rang through the stillness; against the amber transparency of the horizon line the outlines of half a dozen horsemen were seen looming nearer and nearer with every moment; they were some Spahis who had been out sweeping the country for food. The mighty frame of Chateauroy, almost as unclothed as an athlete’s, started from its slumberous, panting rest; his eyes lightened hungrily; he muttered a fiery oath; “Mort de Dieu! — they have the woman!”

They had the woman. She had been netted near a water-spring, to which she had wandered too loosely guarded, and too far from the Bedouin encampment. The delight of the haughty Sidi’s eyes was borne off to the tents of his foe, and the Colonel’s face flushed darkly with an eager, lustful warmth, as he looked upon his captive. Rumor had not outboasted the Arab girl’s beauty; it was lustrous as ever was that when, far yonder to the eastward, under the curled palms of Nile, the sorceress of the Caesars swept through her rose-strewn palace chambers. Only Djelma was as innocent as the gazelle, whose grace she resembled, and loved her lord with a great love.

Of her suffering her captor took no more heed than if she were a young bird dying of shot-wounds; but, with one triumphant, admiring glance at her, he wrote a message in Arabic, to send to the Khalifa, ere her loss was discovered — a message more cruel than iron. He hesitated a second, where he lay at the opening of his tent, whom he should send with it. His men were almost all half-dead with the sun-blaze. His glance chanced to light in the distance on a soldier to whom he bore no love — causelessly, but bitterly all the same. He had him summoned, and eyed him with a curious amusement — Chateauroy treated his squadrons with much the same sans-facon familiarity and brutality that a chief of filibusters uses in his.

“So! you heed the heat so little, you give up your turn of water to a drummer, they say?”

The Chasseur gave the salute with a calm deference. A faint flush passed over the sun-bronze of his forehead. He had thought the Sidney-like sacrifice had been unobserved.

“The drummer was but a child, mon Commandant.”

“Be so good as to give us no more of those melodramatic acts!” said M. le Marquis contemptuously. “You are too fond of trafficking in those showy fooleries. You bribe your comrades for their favoritism too openly. Ventre bleu! I forbid it — do you hear?”

“I hear, mon Colonel.”

The assent was perfectly tranquil and respectful. He was too good a soldier not to render perfect obedience, and keep perfect silence, under any goad of provocation to break both.

“Obey then!” said Chateauroy savagely. “Well, since you love heat so well, you shall take a flag of truce and my scroll to the Sidi Ilderim. But tell me, first, what do you think of this capture?”

“It is not my place to give opinions, M. le Colonel.”

“Pardieu! It is your place when I bid you. Speak, or I will have the stick cut the words out of you!”

“I may speak frankly?”

“Ten thousand curses — yes!”

“Then, I think that those who make war on women are no longer fit to fight with men.”

For a moment the long, sinewy, massive form of Chateauroy started from the skins on which he lay at full length, like a lion started from its lair. His veins swelled like black cords; under the mighty muscle of his bare chest his heart beat visibly in the fury of his wrath.

“By God! I have a mind to have you shot like a dog!”

The Chasseur looked at him carelessly, composedly, but with a serene deference still, as due from a soldier to his chief.

“You have threatened it before, M. le Colonel. It may be as well to do it, or the army may think you capricious.”

Raoul de Chateauroy crushed a blasphemous oath through his clinched teeth, and laughed a certain short, stern, sardonic laugh, which his men dreaded more than his wrath.

“No; I will send you instead to the Khalifa. He often saves me the trouble of killing my own curs. Take a flag of truce and this paper, and never draw rein till you reach him, if your beast drop dead at the end.”

The Chasseur saluted, took the paper, bowed with a certain languid, easy grace that camp life never cured him of, and went. He knew that the man who should take the news of his treasure’s loss to the Emir Ilderim would, a thousand to one, perish by every torture desert cruelty could frame, despite the cover of the white banner.

Chateauroy looked after him, as he and his horse passed from the French camp in the full burning tide of noon.

“If the Arabs kill him,” he thought, “I will forgive Ilderim five seasons of rebellion.”

The Chasseur, as he had been bidden, never drew rein across the scorching plateau. He rode to what he knew was like enough to be death, and death by many a torment, as though he rode to a midnight love-tryst. His horse was of Arab breed — young, fleet, and able to endure extraordinary pressure, both of spur and of heat. He swept on, far and fast, through the sickly, lurid glitter of the day, over the loose sand, that flew in puffs around him as the hoofs struck it flying right and left. At last, ere he reached the Bedouin tents, that were still but slender black points against the horizon, he saw the Sheik and a party of horsemen returning from a foraging quest, and in ignorance as yet of the abduction of Djelma. He galloped straight to them, and halted across their line of march, with the folds of the little white flag fluttering in the sun. The Bedouins drew bridle, and Ilderim advanced alone. He was a magnificent man, of middle age, with the noblest type of the eagle-eyed, aquiline desert beauty. He was a superb specimen of his race, without the lean, withered, rapacious, vulture look which often mars it. His white haik floated round limbs fit for a Colossus: and under the snowy folds of his turban the olive-bronze of his bold forehead, the sweep of his jet-black beard, and the piercing luminance of his eyes had a grand and kingly majesty.

A glance of recognition from him on the lascar, who had so often crossed swords with him; and he waved back the scroll with dignified courtesy.

“Read it me.”

It was read. Bitterly, blackly shameful, the few brutal words were. They netted him as an eagle is netted in a shepherd’s trap.

The moment that he gave a sign of advancing against his ravishers, the captive’s life would pay the penalty; if he merely remained in arms, without direct attack, she would be made the Marquis’ mistress, and abandoned later to the army. The only terms on which he could have her restored were instant submission to the Imperial rule, and personal homage of himself and all his Djouad to the Marquis as the representatives of France — homage in which they should confess themselves dogs and the sons of dogs.

So ran the message of peace.

The Chasseur read on to the end calmly. Then he lifted his gaze, and looked at the Emir — he expected fifty swords to be buried in his heart.

As he gazed, he thought no more of his own doom; he thought only of the revelation before him, of what passion and what agony could be-things unknown in the world where the chief portion of his life had passed. He was a war-hardened campaigner, trained in the ruthless school of African hostilities; who had seen every shape of mental and physical suffering, when men were left to perish of gun-wounds, as the rush of the charge swept on; when writhing horses died by the score of famine and of thirst; when the firebrand was hurled among sleeping encampments, and defenseless women were torn from their rest by the unsparing hands of pitiless soldiers. But the torture which shook for a second the steel-knit frame of this Arab passed all that he had dreamed as possible; it was mute, and held in bonds of iron, for the sake of the desert pride of a great ruler’s majesty; but it spoke more than any eloquence ever spoke yet on earth.

With a wild, shrill yell, the Bedouins whirled their naked sabers above their heads, and rushed down on the bearer of this shame to their chief and their tribe. The Chasseur did not seek to defend himself. He sat motionless. He thought the vengeance just.

The Sheik raised his sword, and signed them back, as he pointed to the white folds of the flag. Then his voice rolled out like thunder over the stillness of the plains:

“But that you trust yourself to my honor I would rend you limb from limb. Go back to the tiger who rules you, and tell him that — as Allah liveth — I will fall on him, and smite him as he hath never been smitten. Dead or living, I will have back my own. If he take her life, I will have ten thousand lives to answer it; if he deal her dishonor, I will light such a holy war through the length and breadth of the land that his nation shall be driven backward like choked dogs into the sea, and perish from the face of the earth for evermore. And this I swear by the Law and the Prophet!”

The menace rolled out, imperious as a monarch’s, thrilling through the desert hush. The Chasseur bent his head, as the words closed. His own teeth were tightly clinched, and his face was dark.

“Emir, listen to one word,” he said briefly. “Shame has been done to me as to you. Had I been told what words I bore, they had never been brought by my hand. You know me. You have had the marks of my steel, as I have had the marks of yours. Trust me in this, Sidi. I pledge you my honor that, before the sun sets, she shall be given back to you unharmed, or I will return here myself, and your tribe shall slay me in what fashion they will. So alone can she be saved uninjured. Answer, will you have faith in me?”

The desert chief looked at him long; sitting motionless as a statue on his stallion, with the fierce gleam of his eyes fixed on the eyes of the man who so long had been his foe in contests whose chivalry equaled their daring. The Chasseur never wavered once under the set, piercing, ruthless gaze.

Then the Emir pointed to the sun, that was not at its zenith:

“You are a great warrior: such men do not lie. Go, and if she be borne to me before the sun is half-way sunk toward the west, all the branches of the tribes of Ilderim shall be as your brethren, and bend as steel to your bidding. If not — as God is mighty — not one man in all your host shall live to tell the tale!”

The Chasseur bowed his head to his horse’s mane; then, without a word, wheeled round, and sped back across the plain.

When he reached his own cavalry camp, he went straightway to his chief. What passed between them none ever knew. The interview was brief; it was possibly as stormy. Pregnant and decisive it assuredly was; and the squadrons of Africa marveled that the man who dared beard Raoul de Chateauroy in his lair came forth with his life. Whatever the spell he used, the result was a marvel.

At the very moment that the sun touched the lower half of the western heavens, the Sheik Ilderim, where he sat in his saddle, with all his tribe stretching behind him, full-armed, to sweep down like falcons on the spoilers, if the hour passed with the pledge unredeemed, saw the form of the Chasseur reappear between his sight and the glare of the skies; nor did he ride alone. That night the Pearl of the Desert lay once more in the mighty, sinuous arms of the great Emir.

But, with the dawn, his vengeance fell in terrible fashion, on the sleeping camp of the Franks; and from that hour dated the passionate, savage, unconcealed hate of Raoul de Chateauroy for the most daring soldier of all his fiery Horse, known in his troop as “Bel-a-faire-peur.”

It was in the tent of Ilderim now that he reclined, looking outward at the night where flames were leaping ruddily under a large caldron, and far beyond was the dark immensity of the star-studded sky; the light of the moon strayed in and fell on the chestnut waves of his beard, out of which the long amber stem of an Arab pipe glittered like a golden line, and on the skin — fair, despite a warm hue of bronze — and the long, slumberous softness of the hazel eyes, were in so marked a contrast of race with the eagle outlines of the Bedouins around.

From the hour of the restoration of his treasure the Sheik had been true to his oath; his tribe in all its branches had held the French lascar in closest brotherhood; wherever they were he was honored and welcomed; was he in war, their swords were drawn for him; was he in need, their houses of hair were spread for him; had he want of flight, the swiftest and most precious of their horses was at his service; had he thirst, they would have died themselves, wringing out the last drop from the water-skin for him. Through him their alliance, or more justly to speak, their neutrality, was secured to France, and the Bedouin Chief loved him with a great, silent, noble love that was fast rooted in the granite of his nature. Between them there was a brotherhood that beat down the antagonism of race, and was stronger than the instinctive hate of the oppressed for all who came under the abhorred standard of the usurpers. He liked the Arabs, and they liked him; a grave courtesy, a preference for the fewest words and least demonstration possible, a marked opinion that silence was golden, and that speech was at best only silver-washed metal, an instinctive dread of all discovery of emotion, and a limitless power of resisting and suppressing suffering, were qualities the nomads of the desert and the lion of the Chasseurs d’Afrique had in common; as they had in unison a wild passion for war, a dauntless zest in danger, and a love for the hottest heat of fiercest battle.

Silence reigned in the tent, beyond whose first division, screened by a heavy curtain of goat’s hair, the beautiful young Djelma played with her only son, a child of three or four summers; the Sheik lay mute, the Djouad and Marabouts around never spoke in his presence unless their lord bade them, and the Chasseur was stretched motionless, his elbow resting on a cushion of Morocco fabric, and his eyes looking outward at the restless, changing movement of the firelit, starlit camp.

After the noise, the mirth, the riotous songs, and the gay, elastic good humor of his French comrades, the silence and the calm of the Emir’s “house of hair” were welcome to him. He never spoke much himself; of a truth, his gentle, immutable laconism was the only charge that his comrades ever brought against him. That a man could be so brief in words, while yet so soft in manner, seemed a thing out of all nature to the vivacious Frenchmen; that unchanging stillness and serenity in one who was such a reckless, resistless croc-mitaine, swift as fire in the field, was an enigma that the Cavalry and the Demi-cavalry of Algeria never solved. His corps would have gone after him to the devil, as Claude de Chanrellon had averred; but they would sometimes wax a little impatient that he would never grow communicative or thread many phrases together, even over the best wine which ever warmed the hearts of its drinkers or loosened all rein from their lips.

“I wish I had come straight to you, Sidi, when I first set foot in Africa,” he said at last, while the fragrant smoke uncurled from under the droop of his long, pendent mustaches.

“Truly it had been well,” answered the Khalifa, who would have given the best stallions in his stud to have had this Frank with him in warfare, and in peace. “There is no life like our life.”

“Faith! I think not!” murmured the Chasseur, rather to himself than the Bedouin. “The desert keeps you and your horse, and you can let all the rest of the world ‘slide.’”

“But we are murderers and pillagers, say your nations,” resumed the Emir, with the shadow of a sardonic smile flickering an instant over the sternness and composure of his features. “To rifle a caravan is a crime, though to steal a continent is glory.”

Bel-a-faire-peur laughed slightly.

“Do not tempt me to rebel against my adopted flag.”

The Sheik looked at him in silence; the French soldiers had spent twelve years in the ceaseless exertions of an amused inquisitiveness to discover the antecedents of their volunteer; the Arabs, with their loftier instincts of courtesy, had never hinted to him a question of whence or why he had come upon African soil.

“I never thought at all in those days; else, had I thought twice, I should not have gone to your enemies,” he answered, as he lazily watched the Bedouins without squat on their heels round the huge brass bowls of couscoussou, which they kneaded into round lumps and pitched between their open, bearded lips in their customary form of supper. “Not but what our Roumis are brave fellows enough; better comrades no man could want.”

The Khalifa took the long pipe from his mouth and spoke; his slow, sonorous accents falling melodiously on the silence in the lingua sapir of the Franco–Arab tongue.

“Your comrades are gallant men; they are great warriors, and fearless foes; against such my voice is never lifted, however my sword may cross with them. But the locust-swarms that devour the land are the money-eaters, the petty despots, the bribe-takers, the men who wring gold out of infamy, who traffic in tyrannies, who plunder under official seals, who curse Algiers with avarice, with fraud, with routine, with the hell-spawn of civilization. It is the ‘Bureaucracy,’ as your tongue phrases it, that is the spoiler and the oppressor of the soil. But — we endure only for a while. A little, and the shame of the invader’s tread will be washed out in blood. Allah is great; we can wait.”

And with Moslem patience that the fiery gloom of his burning eyes belied, the Djied stretched himself once more into immovable and silent rest.

The Chasseur answered nothing; his sympathies were heartfelt with the Arabs, his allegiance and his esprit de corps were with the service in which he was enrolled. He could not defend French usurpation; but neither could he condemn the Flag that had now become his Flag, and in which he had grown to feel much of national honor, to take much of national pride.

“They will never really win again, I am afraid,” he thought, as his eyes followed the wraith-like flash of the white burnous, as the Bedouins glided to and fro in the chiar-oscuro of the encampment; now in the flicker of the flames, now in the silvered luster of the moon. “It is the conflict of the races, as the cant runs, and their day is done. It is a bolder, freer, simpler type than anything we get in the world yonder. Shall we ever drift back to it in the future, I wonder?”

The speculation did not stay with him long; Semitic, Latin, or Teuton race was very much the same to him, and intellectual subtleties had not much attraction at any time for the most brilliant soldier in the French cavalry; he preferred the ring of the trumpets, the glitter of the sun’s play along the line of steel as his regiment formed in line on the eve of a life-and-death struggle, the wild, breathless sweep of a midnight gallop over the brown, swelling plateau under the light of the stars, or — in some brief interval of indolence and razzia-won wealth — the gleam of fair eyes and the flush of sparkling sherbet when some passionate, darkling glance beamed on him from some Arab mistress whose scarlet lips murmured to him through the drowsy hush of an Algerine night the sense, if not the song of Pelagia,

“Life is so short at best!

Take while thou canst thy rest,

Sleeping by me!”

His thoughts drifted back over many varied scenes and changing memories of his service in Algiers, as he lay there at the entrance of the Sheik’s tent, with the night of looming shadow and reddened firelight and picturesque movement before him. Hours of reckless, headlong delight, when men grew drunk with bloodshed as with wine; hours of horrible, unsuccored suffering, when the desert thirst had burned in his throat and the jagged lances been broken off at the hilt in his flesh, while above-head the carrion birds wheeled, waiting their meal; hours of unceasing, unsparing slaughter, when the word was given to slay and yield no mercy, where in the great, vaulted, cavernous gloom of rent rocks, the doomed were hemmed as close as sheep in shambles. Hours, in the warm flush of an African dawn, when the arbiter of the duel was the sole judge allowed or comprehended by the tigers of the tricolor, and to aim a dead shot or to receive one was the only alternative left, as the challenging eyes of “Zephir” or “Chasse–Marais” flashed death across the barriere, in a combat where only one might live, though the root of the quarrel had been nothing more than a toss too much of brandy, a puff of tobacco smoke construed into insult, or a fille de joie’s maliciously cast fire-brand of taunt or laugh. Hours of severe discipline, of relentless routine, of bitter deprivation, of campaigns hard as steel in the endurance they needed, in the miseries they entailed; of military subjection, stern and unbending, a yoke of iron that a personal and pitiless tyranny weighted with persecution that was scarce else than hatred; of an implicit obedience that required every instinct of liberty, every habit of early life, every impulse of pride and manhood and freedom to be choked down like crimes, and buried as though they had never been. Hours again that repaid these in full, when the long line of Horse swept out to the attack, with the sun on the points of their weapons; when the wheeling clouds of Arab riders poured like the clouds of the simoon on a thinned, devoted troop that rallied and fought as hawks fight herons, and saved the day as the sky was flushed with that day’s decline; when some soft-eyed captive, with limbs of free mountain grace, and the warm veins flushing under the clear olive of her cheeks, was first wild as a young fettered falcon, and then, like the falcon, quickly learned to tremble at a touch, and grow tame under a caress, and love nothing so well as the hand that had captured her. Hours of all the chanceful fortunes of a soldier’s life, in hill-wars and desert raids, passed in memory through his thoughts now where he was stretched; looking dreamily through the film of his smoke at the city of tents, and the reclining forms of camels, and the tall, white slowly moving shapes of the lawless marauders of the sand plains.

“Is my life worth much more under the French Flag than it was under the English?” thought the Chasseur, with a certain, careless, indifferent irony on himself, natural to him. “There I killed time — here I kill men. Which is the better pursuit, I wonder. The world would rather economize the first commodity than the last, I believe. Perhaps it don’t make an overgood use of either.”

The night was someway spent when the talk of wild-pigeon-blue mares and sorrel stallions closed between the Djied and his guest; and the French soldier, who had been sent hither from the Bureau with another of his comrades, took his way through the now still camp where the cattle were sleeping, and the fires were burning out, and the banner-folds hung motionless in the luster of the stars, to the black-and-white tent prepared for him. A spacious one, close to the chief’s, and given such luxury in the shape of ornamented weapons, thick carpets, and soft cushions, as the tribe’s resources could bring together.

As he opened the folds and entered, his fellow-soldier, who was lying on his back, with his heels much higher than his head, and a short pipe in his teeth, tumbled himself up; with a rapid somersault, and stood bolt upright, giving the salute; a short, sturdy little man, with a skin burnt like a coffee-berry, that was in odd contrast with his light, dancing blue eyes, and his close, matted curls of yellow hair.

“Beg pardon, sir! I was half asleep!”

The Chasseur laughed a little.

“Don’t talk English; somebody will hear you one day.”

“What’s the odds if they do, sir?” responded the other. “It relieves one’s feelings a little. All of ’em know I’m English, but never a one of ’em know what you are. The name you was enrolled by won’t really tell ’em nothing. They guess it ain’t yours. That cute little chap, Tata, he says to me yesterday, ‘you’re always a-treating of your galonne like as if he was a prince.’ ‘Damme!’ says I, ‘I’d like to see the prince as would hold a candle to him.’ ‘You’re right there,’ says the little ’un. ‘There ain’t his equal for taking off a beggar’s head with a back sweep.’”

The Corporal laughed a little again, as he tossed himself down on the carpet.

“Well, it’s something to have one virtue! But have a care what those chatter-boxes get out of you.”

“Lord, sir! Ain’t I been a-taking care these ten years? It comes quite natural now. I couldn’t keep my tongue still; that wouldn’t be in anyways possible. So I’ve let it run on oiled wheels on a thousand rum tracks and doublings. I’ve told ’em such a lot of amazing stories about where we come from, that they’ve got half a million different styles to choose out of. Some thinks as how you’re a Polish nob, what got into hot water with the Russians; some as how you’re a Italian prince, what was cleaned out like Parma and them was; some as how you’re a Austrian Archduke that have cut your country because you was in love with the Empress, and had a duel about her that scandalized the whole empire; some as how you’re a exiled Spanish grandee a-come to learn tactics and that like, that you may go back, and pitch O’Donnell into the middle of next week, whenever you see a chance to cut in and try conclusions with him. Bless you, sir! you may let me alone for bamboozling of anybody.”

The Corporal laughed again, as he began to unharness himself. There was in him a certain mingling of insouciance and melancholy, each of which alternately predominated; the former his by nature, the latter born of circumstances.

“If you can outwit our friends the Zephyrs you have reached a height of diplomacy indeed! I would not engage to do it myself. Take my word for it, ingenuity is always dangerous — silence is always safe.”

“That may be, sir,” responded the Chasseur, in the sturdy English with which his bright blue eyes danced a fitting nationality. “No doubt it’s uncommon good for them as can bring their minds to it — just like water instead o’ wine — but it’s very trying, like the teetotalism. You might as well tell a Newfoundland not to love a splash as me not to love a chatter. I’d cut my tongue out sooner than say never a word that you don’t wish — but say something I must, or die for it.”

With which the speaker, known to Algerian fame by the sobriquet of “Crache-au-nez-d’la-Mort,” from the hair-breadth escapes and reckless razzias from which he had come out without a scratch, dropped on his knees and began to take off the trappings of his fellow-soldier, with as reverential a service as though he were a lord of the bedchamber serving a Louis Quatorze. The other motioned him gently away.

“No, no! I have told you a thousand times we are comrades and equals now.”

“And I’ve told you a thousand times, sir, that we aren’t, and never will be, and don’t oughtn’t to be,” replied the soldier doggedly, drawing off the spurred and dust-covered boots. “A gentleman’s a gentleman, let alone what straits he fall into.”

“But ceases to be one as soon as he takes a service he cannot requite, or claims a superiority he does not possess. We have been fellow-soldiers for twelve years —”

“So we have, sir; but we are what we always was, and always will be-one a gentleman, the other a scamp. If you think so be as I’ve done a good thing, side by side with you, now and then in the fighting, give me my own way and let me wait on you when I can. I can’t do much on it when those other fellow’s eyes is on us; but here I can and I will — begging your pardon — so there’s an end of it. One may speak plain in this place with nothing but them Arabs about; and all the army know well enough, sir, that if it weren’t for that black devil, Chateauroy, you’d have had your officer’s commission, and your troop too, long before now —”

“Oh, no! There are scores of men in the ranks merit promotion better far than I do. And — leave the Colonel’s name alone. He is our chief, whatever else he be.”

The words were calm and careless, but they carried a weight with them that was not to be disputed. “Crache-au-nez-d’la-Mort” hung his head a little and went on unharnessing his Corporal in silence, contenting himself with muttering in his throat that it was true for all that, and the whole regiment knew it.

“You are happy enough in Algeria?” asked the one he served, as he stretched himself on the skins and carpets, and drank down a sherbet that his self-attached attendant had made with a skill learned from a pretty cantiniere, who had given him the lesson in return for a slashing blow with which he had struck down two “Riz-pain-sels,” who, as the best paid men in the army, had tried to cheat her in the price of her Cognac.

“I, sir? Never was so happy in my life, sir. I’d be discontented indeed if I wasn’t. Always some spicy bit of fighting. If there aren’t a fantasia, as they call it, in the field, there’s always somebody to pot in a small way; and, if you’re lying by in barracks, there’s always a scrimmage hot as pepper to be got up with fellows that love the row just as well as you do. It’s life, that’s where it is; it ain’t rusting.”

“Then you prefer the French service?”

“Right and away, sir. You see this is how it is,” and the redoubtable, yellow-haired “Crache-au-nez-d’la-Mort” paused in the vigorous cleansing and brushing he was bestowing on his Corporal’s uniform and stood at ease in his shirt and trousers; with his eloquence no way impeded by the brule-gueule that was always between his teeth. “Over there in England, you know, sir, pipe-clay is the deuce-and-all; you’re always got to have the stock on, and look as stiff as a stake, or it’s all up with you; you’re that tormented about little things that you get riled and kick the traces before the great ‘uns come to try you. There’s a lot of lads would be game as game could be in battle — aye, and good lads to boot, doing their duty right as a trivet when it came to anything like war — that are clean drove out of the service in time o’ peace, along with all them petty persecutions that worry a man’s skin like mosquito-bites. Now here they know that, and Lord! what soldiers they do make through knowing of it! It’s tight enough and stern enough in big things; martial law sharp enough, and obedience to the letter all through the campaigning; but that don’t grate on a fellow; if he’s worth his salt he’s sure to understand that he must move like clockwork in a fight, and that he’s to go to hell at double-quick-march, and mute as a mouse, if his officers see fit to send him. There ain’t better stuff to make soldiers out of nowhere than Englishmen, God bless ’em! But they’re badgered, they’re horribly badgered; and that’s why the service don’t take over there, let alone the way the country grudge ’em every bit of pay. In England you go in the ranks — well, they all just tell you you’re a blackguard, and there’s the lash, and you’d better behave yourself or you’ll get it hot and hot; they take for granted you’re a bad lot or you wouldn’t be there, and in course you’re riled and go to the bad according, seeing that it’s what’s expected of you. Here, contrariwise, you come in the ranks and get a welcome, and feel that it just rests with yourself whether you won’t be a fine fellow or not; and just along of feeling that you’re pricked to show the best metal you’re made on, and not to let nobody else beat you out of the race, like. Ah! it makes a wonderful difference to a fellow — a wonderful difference — whether the service he’s come into look at him as a scamp that never will be nothing but a scamp, or as a rascal that’s maybe got in him, all rascal though he is, the pluck to turn into a hero. And that’s just the difference, sir, that France has found out, and England hasn’t — God bless her, all the same!”

With which the soldier whom England had turned adrift, and France had won in her stead, concluded his long oration by dropping on his knees to refill his Corporal’s pipe.

“An army’s just a machine, sir, in course,” he concluded, as he rammed in the Turkish tobacco. “But then it’s a live machine, for all that; and each little bit of it feels for itself, like the joints in an eel’s body. Now, if only one of them little bits smarts, the whole creature goes wrong — there’s the mischief.”

Bel-a-faire-peur listened thoughtfully to his comrade where he lay flung full-length on the skins.

“I dare say you are right enough. I knew nothing of my men when — when I was in England; we none of us did; but I can very well believe what you say. Yet — fine fellows though they are here, they are terrible blackguards!”

“In course they are, sir; they wouldn’t be such larky company unless they was. But what I say is that they’re scamps who’re told they may be great men, if they like; not scamps who’re told that, because they’ve once gone to the devil, they must always keep there. It makes all the difference in life.”

“Yes — it makes all the difference in life, whether hope is left, or — left out!”

The words were murmured with a half smile that had a dash of infinite sadness in it; the other looked at him quickly with a shadow of keen pain passing over the bright, frank, laughing features of his sunburned face; he knew that the brief words held the whole history of a life.

“Won’t there never be no hope, sir?” he whispered, while his voice trembled a little under the long, fierce sweep of his yellow mustaches.

The Chasseur rallied himself with a slight, careless laugh; the laugh with which he had met before now the onslaught of charges ferocious as those of the magnificent day of Mazagran.

“Whom for? Both of us? Oh, yes; very likely we shall achieve fame and die! A splendid destiny.”

“No, sir,” said the other, with the hesitation still in the quiver of his voice. “You know I meant, no hope of your ever being again ——”

He stopped, he scarcely knew how to phrase the thoughts he was thinking.

The other moved with a certain impatience.

“How often must I tell you to forget that I was ever anything except a soldier of France? — forget as I have forgotten it!”

The audacious, irrepressible “Crache-au-nez-d’la-Mort,” whom nothing could daunt and nothing could awe, looked penitent and ashamed as a chidden spaniel.

“I know, sir. I have tried, many a year; but I thought, perhaps, as how his lordship’s death —”

“No life and no death can make any difference to me, except the death that some day an Arbico’s lunge will give me; and that is a long time coming.”

“Ah, for God’s sake, Mr. Cecil, don’t talk like this!”

The Chasseur gave a short, sharp shiver, and started at this name, as if a bullet had struck him.

“Never say that again!”

Rake, Algerian-christened “Crache-au-nez-d’la-Mort,” stammered a contrite apology.

“I never have done, sir — not for never a year; but it wrung it out of me like — you talking of wanting death in that way ——”

“Oh, I don’t want death!” laughed the other, with a low, indifferent laughter, that had in it a singular tone of sadness all the while. “I am of our friends the Spahis’ opinion — that life is very pleasant with a handsome, well-chosen harem, and a good horse to one’s saddle. Unhappily harems are too expensive for Roumis! Yet I am not sure that I am not better amused in the Chasseurs than I was in the Household — specially when we are at war. I suppose we must be wild animals at the core, or we should never find such an infinite zest in the death grapple. Good-night!”

He stretched his long, slender, symmetrical limbs out on the skins that made his bed, and closed his eyes, with the pipe still in his mouth, and its amber bowl resting on the carpet which the friendship and honor of Sidi–Ilderim had strewn over the bare turf on which the house of hair was raised. He was accustomed to sleep as soldiers sleep, in all the din of a camp, or with the roar of savage brutes echoing from the hills around, with his saddle beneath his head, under a slab of rock, or with the knowledge that at every instant the alarm might be given, the drums roll out over the night, and the enemy be down like lightning on the bivouac. But now a name — long unspoken to him — had recalled years he had buried far and forever from the first day that he had worn the kepi d’ordonnance of the Army of Algeria, and been enrolled among its wild and brilliant soldiers.

Now, long after his comrade had slept soundly, and the light in the single bronze Turkish candle-branch had flickered and died away, the Chasseur d’Afrique lay wakeful; looking outward through the folds of the tent at the dark and silent camp of the Arabs, and letting his memory drift backward to a time that had grown to be to him as a dream — a time when another world than the world of Africa had known him as Bertie Cecil.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/under-two-flags/chapter17.html

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