Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 19.

The Ivory Squadrons.

The barracks of the Chasseurs was bright and clean in the morning light; in common with all Algerian barrack rooms as unlike the barrack rooms of the ordinary army as Cigarette, with her debonair devilry, smoking on a gun-wagon, was unlike a trim Normandy soubrette, sewing on a bench in the Tuileries gardens.

Disorder reigned supreme; but Disorder, although a disheveled goddess, is very often a picturesque one, and more of an artist than her better-trained sisters; and the disorder was brightened with a thousand vivid colors and careless touches that blent in confusion to enchant a painter’s eyes. The room was crammed with every sort of spoil that the adventurous pillaging temper of the troopers could forage from Arab tents, or mountain caves, or river depths, or desert beasts and birds. All things, from tiger skins to birds’ nests, from Bedouin weapons to ostrich eggs, from a lion’s mighty coat to a tobacco-stopper chipped out of a morsel of deal, were piled together, pell-mell, or hung against the whitewashed walls, or suspended by cords from bed to bed. Everything that ingenuity and hardihood, prompted by the sharp spur of hunger, could wrest from the foe, from the country, from earth or water, from wild beasts or rock, were here in the midst of the soldiers’ regimental pallets and regimental arms, making the barracks at once atelier, storehouse, workshop, and bazaar; while the men, cross-legged on their little hard couches, worked away with the zest of those who work for the few coins that alone will get them the food, the draught of wine, the hour’s mirth and indulgence at the estaminet, to which they look across the long, stern probation of discipline and maneuver.

Skill, grace, talent, invention whose mother was necessity, and invention that was the unforced offshoot of natural genius, were all at work; and the hands that could send the naked steel down at a blow through turban and through brain could shape, with a woman’s ingenuity, with a craftsman’s skill, every quaint device and dainty bijou from stone and wood, and many-colored feathers, and mountain berries, and all odds and ends that chance might bring to hand, and that the women of Bedouin tribes or the tourists of North Africa might hereafter buy with a wondrous tale appended to them — racy and marvelous as the Sapir slang and the military imagination could weave — to enhance the toys’ value, and get a few coins more on them for their manufacture.

Ignorance jostled art, and bizarre ran hand in hand with talent, in all the products of the Chasseurs’ extemporized studio; but nowhere was there ever clumsiness, and everywhere was there an industry, gay, untiring, accustomed to make the best of the worst; the workers laughing, chattering, singing, in all good-fellowship, while the fingers that gave the dead thrust held the carver’s chisel, and the eyes that glared blood-red in the heat of battle twinkled mischievously over the meerschaum bowl, in whose grinning form some great chief of the Bureau had just been sculptured in audacious parody.

In the midst sat Rake, tattooing with an eastern skill the skin of a great lion, that a year before he had killed in single combat in the heart of Oran, having watched for the beast twelve nights in vain, high perched on a leafy crest of rock, above a water-course. While he worked his tongue flew far and fast over the camp slang — the slangs of all nations came easy to him — in voluble conversation with the Chasseur next, who was making a fan out of feathers that any Peeress might have signaled with at the Opera. “Crache-au-nez-d’la-Mort” was in high popularity with his comrades; and had said but the truth when he averred that he had never been so happy as under the tricolor. The officers pronounced him an incurably audacious “pratique”; he was always in mischief, and the regimental rules he broke through like a terrier through a gauze net; but they knew that when once the trumpets sounded Boot and Saddle, this yellow-haired dare-devil of an English fellow would be worth a score of more orderly soldiers, and that, wherever his adopted flag was carried, there would he be, first and foremost, in everything save retreat. The English service had failed to turn Rake to account; the French service made no such mistake, but knew that though this British bulldog might set his teeth at the leash and the lash, he would hold on like grim death in a fight, and live game to the last, if well handled.

Apart, at the head of the barracks, sat Cecil. The banter, the songs, the laughter, the chorus of tongues, went on unslackened by his presence. He had cordial sympathies with the soldiers — with those men who had been his followers in adversity and danger; and in whom he had found, despite all their occasional ferocity and habitual recklessness, traits and touches of the noblest instincts of humanity. His heart was with them always, as his purse, and his wine, and his bread were alike shared ever among them. He had learned to love them well — these wild wolf-dogs, whose fangs were so terrible to their foes, but whose eyes would still glisten at a kind word, and who would give a staunch fidelity unknown to tamer animals.

Living with them, one of them in all their vicissitudes; knowing all their vices, but knowing also all their virtues; owing to them many an action of generous nobility and watching them in many an hour when their gallant self-devotion and their loyal friendships went far to redeem their lawless robberies and their ruthless crimes, he understood them thoroughly, and he could rule them more surely in their tempestuous evil, because he comprehended them so well in their mirth and in their better moods. When the grade of sous-officier gave him authority over them, they obeyed him implicitly because they knew that his sympathies were with them at all times, and that he would be the last to check their gayety, or to punish their harmless indiscretions.

The warlike Roumis had always had a proud tenderness for their “Bel-a-faire-peur,” and a certain wondering respect for him; but they would not have adored him to a man, as they did, unless they had known that they might laugh without restraint before him, and confide any dilemma to him — sure of aid, if aid were in his power.

The laughter, the work, and the clatter of conflicting tongues were at their height; Cecil sat, now listening, now losing himself in thought, while he gave the last touch to the carvings before him. They were a set of chessmen which it had taken him years to find materials for and to perfect; the white men were in ivory, the black in walnut, and were two opposing squadrons of French troops and of mounted Arabs. Beautifully carved, with every detail of costume rigid to truth, they were his masterpiece, though they had only been taken up at any odd ten minutes that had happened to be unoccupied during the last three or four years. The chessmen had been about with him in so many places and under canvas so long, from the time that he chipped out their first Zouave pawn, as he lay in the broiling heat of Oran prostrate by a dry brook’s stony channel, that he scarcely cared to part with them, and had refused to let Rake offer them for sale, with all the rest of the carvings. Stooping over them, he did not notice the doors open at the end of the barracks until a sudden silence that fell on the babble and uproar round him made him look up; then he rose and gave the salute with the rest of his discomfited and awestricken troopers. Chateauroy with a brilliant party had entered.

The Colonel flashed an eagle glance round.

“Fine discipline! You shall go and do this pretty work at Beylick!”

The soldiers stood like hounds that see the lash; they knew that he was like enough to carry out his threat; though they were doing no more than they had always tacit, if not open, permission to do. Cecil advanced, and fronted him.

“Mine is the blame, mon Commandant!”

He spoke simply, gently, boldly; standing with the ceremony that he never forgot to show to their chief, where the glow of African sunlight through the casement of the barracks fell full across his face, and his eyes met the dark glance of the “Black Hawk” unflinchingly. He never heeded that there was a gay, varied, numerous group behind Chateauroy; visitors who were looking over the barrack; he only heeded that his soldiers were unjustly attacked and menaced.

The Marquis gave a grim, significant smile, that cut like so much cord of the scourge.

“Wherever there is insubordination in the regiment, the blame is very certain to be yours! Corporal Victor, if you allow your Chambre to be turned into the riot of a public fair, you will soon find yourself degraded from the rank you so signally contrive to disgrace.”

The words were far less than the tone they were spoken in, that gave them all the insolence of so many blows, as he swung on his heel and bent to the ladies of the party he escorted. Cecil stood mute; bearing the rebuke as it became a Corporal to bear his Commander’s anger; a very keen observer might have seen that a faint flush rose over the sun tan of his face, and that his teeth clinched under his beard; but he let no other sign escape him.

The very self-restraint irritated Chateauroy, who would have been the first to chastise the presumption of a reply, had any been attempted.

“Back to your place, sir!” he said, with a wave of his hand, as he might have waved back a cur. “Teach your men the first formula of obedience, at any rate!”

Cecil fell back in silence. With a swift, warning glance at Rake — whose mouth was working, and whose forehead was hot as fire, where he clinched his lion-skin, and longed to be once free, to pull his chief down as lions pull in the death spring — he went to his place at the farther end of the chamber and stood, keeping his eyes on the chess carvings, lest the control which was so bitter to retain should be broken if he looked on at the man who had been the curse and the antagonist of his whole life in Algeria.

He saw nothing and heard almost as little of all that went on around him; there had been a flutter of cloud-like color in his sight, a faint, dreamy fragrance on the air, a sound of murmuring voices and of low laughter; he had known that some guests or friends of the Marquis’ had come to view the barracks, but he never even glanced to see who or what they were. The passionate bitterness of just hatred, that he had to choke down as though it were the infamous instinct of some nameless crime, was on him.

The moments passed, the hum of the voices floated to his ear; the ladies of the party lingered by this soldier and by that, buying half the things in the chamber, filling their hands with all the quaint trifles, ordering the daggers and the flissas and the ornamented saddles and the desert skins to adorn their chateaux at home; and raining down on the troopers a shower of uncounted Napoleons until the Chasseurs, who had begun to think their trades would take them to Beylick, thought instead that they had drifted into dreams of El Dorado. He never looked up; he heard nothing, heeded nothing; he was dreamily wondering whether he should always be able so to hold his peace, and to withhold his arm, that he should never strike his tyrant down with one blow, in which all the opprobrium of years should be stamped out. A voice woke him from his reverie.

“Are those beautiful carvings yours?”

He looked up, and in the gloom of the alcove where he stood, where the sun did not stray, and two great rugs of various skins, with some conquered banners of Bedouins, hung like a black pall, he saw a woman’s eyes resting on him; proud, lustrous eyes, a little haughty, very thoughtful, yet soft withal, as the deepest hue of deep waters. He bowed to her with the old grace of manner that had so amused and amazed the little vivandiere.

“Yes, madame, they are mine.”

“Ah! — what wonderful skill!”

She took the White King, an Arab Sheik on his charger, in her hand, and turned to those about her, speaking of its beauties and its workmanship in a voice low, very melodious, ever so slightly languid, that fell on Cecil’s ear like a chime of long-forgotten music. Twelve years had drifted by since he had been in the presence of a high-bred woman, and those lingering, delicate tones had the note of his dead past.

He looked at her; at the gleam of the brilliant hair, at the arch of the proud brows, at the dreaming, imperial eyes; it was a face singularly dazzling, impressive, and beautiful at all times; most so of all in the dusky shadows of the waving desert banners, and the rough, rude, barbaric life of the Caserne, where a fille de joie or a cantiniere were all of her sex that was ever seen, and those — poor wretches! — were hardened, and bronzed, and beaten, and brandy-steeped out of all likeness to the fairness of women.

“You have an exquisite art. They are for sale?” she asked him. She spoke with the careless, gracious courtesy of a grande dame to a Corporal of Chasseurs; looking little at him, much at the Kings and their mimic hosts of Zouaves and Bedouins.

“They are at your service, madame.”

“And their price?” She had been purchasing largely of the men on all sides as she swept down the length of the Chambre and she drew out some French banknotes as she spoke. Never had the bitterness of poverty smitten him as it smote him now when this young patrician offered him her gold! Old habits vanquished; he forgot who and where he now was; he bowed as in other days he had used to bow in the circle of St. James’.

“Is — the honor of your acceptance, if you will deign to give that.”

He forgot that he was not as he once had been. He forgot that he stood but as a private of the French army before an aristocrat whose name he had never heard.

She turned and looked at him, which she had never done before, so absorbed had she been in the chessmen, and so little did a Chasseur of the ranks pass into her thoughts. There was an extreme of surprise, there was something of offense, and there was still more of coldness in her glance; a proud languid, astonished coldness of regard, though it softened slightly as she saw that he had spoken in all courtesy of intent.

She bent her graceful, regal head.

“I thank you. Your very clever work can, of course, only be mine by purchase.”

And with that she laid aside the White King among his little troop of ivory Arabs and floated onward with her friends. Cecil’s face paled slightly under the mellow tint left there by the desert sun and the desert wind; he swept the chessmen into their walnut case and thrust them out of sight under his knapsack. Then he stood motionless as a sentinel, with the great leopard skins and Bedouin banners behind him, casting a gloom that the gold points on his harness could scarcely break in its heavy shadow, and never moved till the echo of the voices, and the cloud of draperies, and the fragrance of perfumed laces, and the brilliancy of the staff officers’ uniforms had passed away, and left the soldiers alone in their Chambre. Those careless cold words from a woman’s lips had cut him deeper than the stick could have cut him, though it had bruised his loins and lashed his breast; they showed all he had lost.

“What a fool I am still!” he thought, as he made his way out of the barrack room. “I might have fairly forgotten by this time that I ever had the rights of a gentleman.”

So the carvings had won him one warm heart and one keen pang that day; the vivandiere forgave, the aristocrat stung him, by means of those snowy, fragile, artistic toys that he had shaped in lonely nights under canvas by ruddy picket-fires, beneath the shade of wild fig trees, and in the stir and color of Bedouin encampments.

“I must ask to be ordered out of the city,” he thought, as he pushed his way through the crowds of soldiers and civilians. “Here I get bitter, restless, impatient; here the past is always touching me on the shoulder; here I shall soon grow to regret, and to chafe, and to look back like any pining woman. Out yonder there, with no cares to think of but my horse and my troop, I am a soldier — and nothing else; so best. I shall be nothing else as long as I live. Pardieu, though! I don’t know what one wants better; it is a good life, as life goes. One must not turn compliments to great ladies, that is all — not much of a deprivation there. The chessmen are the better for that; her Maltese dog would have broken them all the first time it upset their table!”

He laughed a little as he went on smoking; the old carelessness, mutability, and indolent philosophies were with him still, and were still inclined to thrust away and glide from all pain, as it arose. Though much of gravity and of thoughtfulness had stolen on him, much of insouciance remained; and there were times when there was not a more reckless or a more nonchalant lion in all the battalions than “Bel-a-faire-peur.” Under his gentleness there was “wild blood” in him still, and the wildness was not tamed by the fiery champagne-draught of the perilous, adventurous years he spent.

“I wonder if I shall never teach the Black Hawk that he may strike his beak in once too far?” he pondered, with a sudden darker, graver touch of musing; and involuntarily he stretched his arm out, and looked at the wrist, supple as Damascus steel, and at the muscles that were traced beneath the skin, as he thrust the sleeve up, clear, firm, and sinewy as any athlete’s. He doubted his countenance then, fast rein as he held all rebellion in, close shield as he bound to him against his own passions in the breastplate of a soldier’s first duty — obedience.

He shook the thought off him as he would have shaken a snake. It had a terrible temptation — a temptation which he knew might any day overmaster him; and Cecil, who all through his life had certain inborn instincts of honor, which served him better than most codes or creeds served their professors, was resolute to follow the military religion of obedience enjoined in the Service that had received him at his needs, and to give no precedent in his own person that could be fraught with dangerous, rebellious allurement for the untamed, chafing, red-hot spirits of his comrades, for whom he knew insubordination would be ruin and death — whose one chance of reward, of success, and of a higher ambition lay in their implicit subordination to their chiefs, and their continuous resistance of every rebellious impulse.

Cecil had always thought very little of himself.

In his most brilliant and pampered days he had always considered in his own heart that he was a graceless fellow, not worth his salt, and had occasionally wondered, in a listless sort of way, why so useless a bagatelle a la mode as his own life was had ever been created. He thought much the same now; but following his natural instincts, which were always the instincts of a gentleman, and of a generous temper, he did, unconsciously, make his life of much value among its present comrades.

His influence had done more to humanize the men he was associated with than any preachers or teachers could have done. The most savage and obscene brute in the ranks with him caught something gentler and better from the “aristocrat.” His refined habits, his serene temper, his kindly forbearance, his high instinctive honor, made themselves felt imperceptibly, but surely; they knew that he was as fearless in war, as eager for danger as themselves; they knew that he was no saint, but loved the smile of women’s eyes, the flush of wines, and the excitation of gaming hazards as well as they did; and hence his influence had a weight that probably a more strictly virtuous man’s would have strained for and missed forever. The coarsest ruffian felt ashamed to make an utter beast of himself before the calm eyes of the patrician. The most lawless pratique felt a lie halt on his lips when the contemptuous glance of his gentleman-comrade taught him that falsehood was poltroonery. Blasphemous tongues learned to rein in their filthiness when this “beau lion” sauntered away from the picket-fire, on an icy night, to be out of hearing of their witless obscenities. More than once the weight of his arm and the slash of his saber had called them to account in fiery fashion for their brutality to women or their thefts from the country people, till they grew aware that “Bel-a-faire-peur” would risk having all their swords buried in him rather than stand by to see injustice done.

And throughout his corps men became unconsciously gentler, juster; with a finer sense of right and wrong, and less bestial modes of pleasure, of speech, and of habit, because he was among them. Moreover, the keen-eyed desperadoes who made up the chief sum of his comrades saw that he gave unquestioning respect to a chief who made his life a hell; and rendered unquestioning submission under affronts, tyrannies, and insults which, as they also saw, stung him to the quick, and tortured him as no physical torture would have done — and the sight was not without a strong effect for good on them. They could tell that he suffered under these as they never suffered themselves, yet he bore them and did his duty with a self-control and patience they had never attained.

Almost insensibly they grew ashamed to be beaten by him, and strove to grow like him as far as they could. They never knew him drunk, they never heard him swear; they never found him unjust — even to a poverty-stricken indigene; or brutal — even to a fille de joie. Insensibly his presence humanized them. Of a surety, the last part Bertie dreamed of playing was that of a teacher to any mortal thing; yet, here in Africa, it might reasonably be questioned if a second Augustine or Francis Xavier would ever have done half the good among the devil-may-care Roumis that was wrought by the dauntless, listless, reckless soldier who followed instinctively the one religion which has no cant in its brave, simple creed, and binds man to man in links that are true as steel — the religion of a gallant gentleman’s loyalty and honor.

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