Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 25.

“Le Bon Zig.”

Meanwhile the subject of their first discourse returned to the Chambree.

He had encouraged the men to pursue those various industries and ingenuities, which, though they are affectedly considered against “discipline,” formed, as he knew well, the best preservative from real insubordination, and the best instrument in humanizing and ameliorating the condition of his comrades. The habit of application alone was something gained; and if it kept them only for a while from the haunts of those coarsest debaucheries which are the only possible form in which the soldier can pursue the forbidden license of vice, it was better than that leisure should be spent in that joyless bestiality which made Cecil, once used to every refinement of luxury and indulgence, sicken with a pitying wonder for those who found in it the only shape they knew of “pleasure.”

He had seen from the first, capabilities that might be turned to endless uses; in the conscript drawn from the populace of the provinces there was almost always a knowledge of self-help, and often of some trade, coupled with habits of diligence; in the soldier made from the street Arab of Paris there were always inconceivable intelligence, rapidity of wit, and plastic vivacity; in the adventurers come, like himself, from higher grades of society, and burying a broken career under the shelter of the tricolor, there were continually gifts and acquirements, and even genius, that had run to seed and brought forth no fruit. Of all these France always avails herself in a great degree; but, as far as Cecil’s influence extended, they were developed much more than usual. As his own character gradually changed under the force of fate, the desire for some interest in life grew on him (every man, save one absolutely brainless and self-engrossed, feels this sooner or late); and that interest he found, or rather created, in his regiment. All that he could do to contribute to its efficiency in the field he did; all that he could do to further its internal excellence he did likewise.

Coarseness perceptibly abated, and violence became much rarer in that portion of his corps with which he had immediately to do; the men gradually acquired from him a better, a higher tone; they learned to do duties inglorious and distasteful as well as they did those which led them to the danger and the excitation that they loved; and, having their good faith and sympathy, heart and soul, with him, he met, in these lawless leopards of African France, with loyalty, courage, generosity, and self-abnegation far surpassing those which he had ever met with in the polished civilization of his early experience.

For their sakes, he spent many of his free hours in the Chambree. Many a man, seeing him there, came and worked at some ingenious design, instead of going off to burn his brains out with brandy, if he had sous enough to buy any, or to do some dexterous bit of thieving on a native, if he had not. Many a time knowing him to be there sufficed to restrain the talk around from lewdness and from ribaldry, and turn it into channels at once less loathsome and more mirthful, because they felt that obscenity and vulgarity were alike jarring on his ear, although he had never more than tacitly shown that they were so. A precisian would have been covered with their contumely and ridicule; a saint would have been driven out from their midst with every missile merciless tongues and merciless hands could pelt with; a martinet would have been cursed aloud, and cheated, flouted, rebelled against, on every possible occasion. But the man who was “one of them” entirely, while yet simply and thoroughly a gentleman, had great influence — an influence exclusively for good.

The Chambree was empty when he returned; the men were scattered over the town in one of their scant pauses of liberty; there was only the dog of the regiment, Flick–Flack, a snow-white poodle, asleep in the heat, on a sack, who, without waking, moved his tail in a sign of gratification as Cecil stroked him and sat down near; betaking himself to the work he had in hand.

It was a stone for the grave of Leon Ramon. There was no other to remember the dead Chasseur; no other beside himself, save an old woman sitting spinning at her wheel under the low-sloping, shingle roof of a cottage by the western Biscayan sea, who, as she spun, and as the thread flew, looked with anxious, aged eyes over the purple waves where she had seen his father — the son of her youth — go down beneath the waters.

But the thread of her flax would be spun out, and the thread of her waning life be broken, ere ever the soldier for whom she watched would go back to her and to Languedoc.

For life is brutal; and to none so brutal as to the aged who remember so well, and yet are forgotten as though already they were amid the dead.

Cecil’s hand pressed the graver along the letters, but his thoughts wandered far from the place where he was. Alone there, in the great sun-scorched barrack room, the news that he had read, the presence he had quitted, seemed like a dream.

He had never known fully all that he had lost until he had stood before the beauty of this woman, in whose deep imperial eyes the light of other years seemed to lie; the memories of other worlds seemed to slumber.

These blue, proud, fathomless eyes! Why had they looked on him? He had grown content with his fate; he had been satisfied to live and to fall a soldier of France; he had set a seal on that far-off life of his earlier time, and had grown to forget that it had ever been. Why had chance flung him in her way that, with one careless, haughty glance, one smile of courteous pity, she should have undone in a moment all the work of a half-score years, and shattered in a day the serenity which it had cost him such weary self-contest, such hard-fought victory, to attain?

She had come to pain, to weaken, to disturb, to influence him, to shadow his peace, to wring his pride, to unman his resolve, as women do mostly with men. Was life not hard enough here already, that she must make it more bitter yet to bear?

He had been content, with a soldier’s contentment, in danger and in duty; and she must waken the old coiled serpent of restless, stinging regret which he had thought lulled to rest forever!

“If I had my heritage!” he thought; and the chisel fell from his hands as he looked down the length of the barrack room with the blue glare of the African sky through the casement.

Then he smiled at his own folly, in dreaming idly thus of things that might have been.

“I will see her no more,” he said to himself. “If I do not take care, I shall end by thinking myself a martyr — the last refuge and consolation of emasculate vanity, of impotent egotism!”

For though his whole existence was a sacrifice, it never occurred to him that there was anything whatever great in its acceptation, or unjust in its endurance. He thought too little of his life’s value, or of its deserts, even to consider by any chance that it had been harshly dealt with, or unmeritedly visited.

At that instant Petit Picpon’s keen, pale, Parisian face peered through the door; his great, black eyes, that at times had so pathetic a melancholy, and at others such a monkeyish mirth and malice, were sparkling excitedly and gleefully.

“Mon Caporal!”

“You, Picpon! What is it?”

“Mon, Caporal, there is great news. There is fighting broken out yonder.”

“Ah! Are you sure?”

“Sure, mon Caporal. The Arbicos want a skirmish to the music of musketry. We are not to know just yet; we are to have the order de route tomorrow. I overheard our officers say so. They think we shall have brisk work. And for that they will not punish the vieille lame.”

“Punish! Is there fresh disobedience? In my squadron; in my absence?”

He rose instinctively, buckling on the sword which he had put aside.

“Not in your squadron, mon Caporal,” said Picpon quickly. “It is not much, either. Only the bon zig Rac.”

“Rake? What has he been doing?”

There was infinite anxiety and vexation in his voice. Rake had recently been changed into another squadron of the regiment, to his great loss and regret; for not only did he miss the man’s bright face and familiar voice from the Chambree, but he had much disquietude on the score of his safety, for Rake was an incorrigible pratique, had only been kept from scrapes and mischief by Cecil’s influence, and even despite that had been often in hot water, and once even had been drafted for a year or so of chastisement among the “Zephyrs,” a mode of punishment which, but for its separation of him from his idol, would have given unmitigated delight to the audacious offender.

“Very little, mon Caporal!” said Picpon eagerly. “A mere nothing — a bagatelle! Run a Spahi through the stomach, that is all. I don’t think the man is so much as dead, even!”

“I hope not, indeed. When will you cease this brawling among yourselves? A soldier’s blade should never be turned upon men of his own army. How did it happen?”

“A woman! They quarreled about a little fruit-seller. The Spahi was in fault. ‘Crache-au-nez-d’la-Mort’ was there before him; and was preferred by the girl; and women should be allowed something to do with choosing their lovers, that I think, though it is true they often take the worst man. They quarreled; the Spahi drew first; and then, pouf et passe! quick as thought, Rac lunged through him. He has always a most beautiful stroke. Le Capitaine Argentier was passing, and made a fuss; else nothing would have been done. They have put him under arrest; but I heard them say they would let him free to-night because we should march at dawn.”

“I will go and see him at once.”

“Wait, mon Caporal; I have something to tell you,” said Picpon quickly. “The zig has a motive in what he does. Rac wanted to get the prison. He has done more than one bit of mischief only for that.”

“Only for what? He cannot be in love with the prison?”

“It serves his turn,” said Picpon mysteriously. “Did you never guess why, mon Caporal? Well, I have. ‘Crache-au-nez-d’la-Mort’ is a fine fearless soldier. The officers know it; the bureaus know it. He would have mounted, mounted, mounted, and been a Captain long before now, if he had not been a pratique.”

“I know that; so would many of you.”

“Ah, mon Caporal; but that is just what Rac does not choose. In the books his page beats every man’s, except yours. They have talked of him many times for the cross and for promotion; but whenever they do he goes off to a bit of mischief, and gets himself punished. Any term of punishment, long or short, serves his purpose. They think him too wild to take out of the ranks. You remember, mon Caporal, that splendid thing that he did five years ago at Sabasasta? Well, you know they spoke of promoting him for it, and he would have run up all the grades like a squirrel, and died a Kebir, I dare say. What did he do to prevent it? Why, went that escapade into Oran disguised as a Dervish, and go the prison instead.”

“To prevent it? Not purposely?”

“Purposely, mon Caporal,” said Petit Picpon, with a sapient nod that spoke volumes. “He always does something when he thinks promotion is coming — something to get himself out of its way, do you see? And the reason is this: ’tis a good zig, and loves you, and will not be put over your head. ‘Me rise afore him?’ said the zig to me once. ‘I’ll have the As de pique on my collar fifty times over first! He’s a Prince, and I’m a mongrel got in a gutter! I owe him more than I’ll ever pay, and I’ll kill the Kebir himself afore I’ll insult him that way.’ So say little to him about the Spahi, mon Caporal. He loves you well, does your Rac.”

“Well, indeed! Good God! what nobility!”

Picpon glanced at him; then, with the tact of his nation, glided away and busied himself teaching Flick–Flack to shoulder and present arms, the weapon being a long stick.

“After all, Diderot was in the right when he told Rousseau which side of the question to take,” mused Cecil, as he crossed the barrack-yard a few minutes later to visit the incarcerated pratique. “On my life, civilization develops comfort, but I do believe it kills nobility. Individuality dies in it, and egotism grows strong and specious. Why is it that in a polished life a man, while becoming incapable of sinking to crime, almost always becomes also incapable of rising to greatness? Why is it that misery, tumult, privation, bloodshed, famine, beget, in such a life as this, such countless things of heroism, of endurance, of self-sacrifice — things worthy of demigods — in men who quarrel with the wolves for a wild-boar’s carcass, for a sheep’s offal?”

A question which perplexes, very wearily, thinkers who have more time, more subtlety, and more logic to bring to its unravelment than Bertie had either leisure or inclination to do.

“Is this true, Rake — that you intentionally commit these freaks of misconduct to escape promotion?” he asked of the man when he stood alone with him in his place of confinement.

Rake flushed a little.

“Mischief’s bred in me, sir; it must come out! It’s just bottled up in me like ale; if I didn’t take the cork out now and then, I should fly apieces!”

“But many a time when you have been close on the reward of your splendid gallantry in the field, you have frustrated your own fortunes and the wishes of your superiors by wantonly proving yourself unfit for the higher grade they were going to raise you to. Why do you do that?”

Rake fidgeted restlessly, and, to avoid the awkwardness of the question, replied, like a Parliamentary orator, by a flow of rhetoric.

“Sir, there’s a many chaps like me. They can’t help nohow busting out when the fit takes ’em. ‘Tain’t reasonable to blame ’em for it; they’re just made so, like a chestnut’s made to bust its pod, and a chicken to bust its shell. Well, you see, sir, France, she knows that, and she says to herself, ‘Here are these madcaps; if I keep ’em tight in hand I shan’t do nothing with ’em-they’ll turn obstreperous and cram my convict-cells. Now I want soldiers, I don’t want convicts. I can’t let ’em stay in the Regulars, ‘cause they’ll be for making all the army wildfire like ’em; I’ll just draft ’em by theirselves, treat ’em different, and let ’em fire away. They’ve got good stuff in ’em, though too much of the curb riles ’em.’ Well, sir, she do that; and aren’t the Zephyrs as fine a lot of fellows as any in the service? Of course they are; but if they’d been in England — God bless her, the dear old obstinate soul! — they’d have been drove crazy along o’ pipeclay and razors; she’d never have seed what was in ’em, her eyes are so bunged up with routine. If a pup riot in the pack, she’s no notion but to double-thong him, and, a-course, in double-quick time, she finds herself obliged to go further and hang him. She don’t ever remember that it may be only just along of his breeding, and that he may make a very good hound elseways let out a bit, though he’ll spoil the whole pack if she will be a fool and try to make a steady line-hunter of him, straight agin his nature.”

Rake stopped, breathless in his rhetoric, which contained more truth in it, as also more roughness, than most rhetoric does.

“You are right. But you wander from my question,” said Cecil gently. “Do you avoid promotion?”

“Yes, sir; I do,” said Rake, something sulkily; for he felt he was being driven “up a corner.” “I do. I ain’t not one bit fitter for an officer than that rioting pup I talk on is fit to lead them crack packs at home. I should be in a strait-waistcoat if I was promoted; and as for the cross — Lord, sir, that would get me into a world o’ trouble! I should pawn it for a toss of wine the first day out, or give it to the first moukiera that winked her black eye for it! The star put on my buttons suits me a deal better; if you’ll believe me, sir, it do.”4

4 The star on the metal buttons of the insubordinates, or Zephyrs.

Cecil’s eyes rested on him with a look that said far more than his answer.

“Rake, I know you better than you would let me do, if you had your way. My noble fellow! You reject advancement, and earn yourself an unjust reputation for mutinous conduct, because you are too generous to be given a step above mine in the regiment.”

“Who’s been a-telling you that trash, sir?” retorted Rake, with ferocity.

“No matter who. It is no trash. It is a splendid loyalty of which I am utterly unworthy, and it shall be my care that it is known at the Bureaus, so that henceforth your great merits may be-”

“Stop that, sir!” cried Rake vehemently. “Stow that, if you please! Promoted I won’t be-no, not if the Emperor hisself was to order it, and come across here to see it done! A pretty thing, surely! Me a officer, and you never a one — me a-commanding of you, and you a-saluting of me! By the Lord, sir! we might as well see the camp-scullions a-riding in state, and the Marshals a-scouring out the soup-pots!”

“Not at all. This Army has not a finer soldier than yourself; you have a right to the reward of your services in it. And I assure you you do me a great injustice if you think I would not as willingly go out under your orders as under those of all the Marshals of the Empire.”

The tears rushed into the hardy eyes of the redoubtable “Crache-au-nez-d’la-Mort,” though he dashed them away in a fury of eloquence.

“Sir, if you don’t understand as how you’ve given me a power more than all the crosses in the world in saying of them there words, why, you don’t know me much either, that’s all. You’re a gentleman — a right on rare thing that is — and being a gentleman, a-course you’d be too generous and too proud like not to behave well to me, whether I was a-serving you as I’ve always served you, or a-insulting of you by riding over your head in that way as we’re speaking on. But I know my place, sir, and I know yours. If it wasn’t for that ere Black Hawk — damn him! — I can’t help it, sir; I will damn him, if he shoot me for it — you’d been a Chef d’Escadron by now. There ain’t the leastest doubt of it. Ask all the zigs what they think. Well, sir, now you know I’m a man what do as I say. If you don’t let me have my own way, and if you do the littlest thing to get me a step, why, sir, I swear, as I’m a living being, that I’ll draw on Chateauroy the first time I see him afterward, and slit his throat as I’d slit a jackal’s! There — my oath’s took!”

And Cecil saw that it would also be kept. The natural lawlessness and fiery passion inborn in Rake had of course not been cooled by the teaching of African warfare; and his hate was intense against the all-potent Chief of his regiment; as intense as the love he bore to the man whom he had followed out into exile.

Cecil tried vainly to argue with him; all his reasonings fell like hailstones on a cuirass, and made no more impression; he was resolute.

“But listen to one thing,” he urged at last. “Can you not see how you pain me by this self-sacrifice? If I knew that you had attained a higher grade, and wore your epaulettes in this service, can you not fancy I should feel pleasure then (as I feel regret, even remorse, now) that I brought you to Africa through my own follies and misfortunes?”

“Do you sir? There ain’t the least cause for it, then,” returned Rake sturdily. “Lord bless you, sir; why this life’s made a-purpose for me! If ever a round peg went trim and neat into a round hole, it was when I came into this here Army. I never was so happy in all my days before. They’re right on good fellows, and will back you to the death if so be as you’ve allays been share-and-share-alike with ’em, as a zig should. As a private, sir, I’m happy and I’m safe; as a officer, I should be kicking over the traces and blundering everlastingly. However, there ain’t no need to say a word more about it. I’ve sworn, and you’ve heerd me swear, sir, and you know as how I shall keep my oath if ever I’m provoked to it by being took notice of. I stuck that Spahi just now just by way of a lark, and only ‘cause he come where he’d no business to poke his turbaned old pate; ‘taint likely as I should stop at giving the Hawk two inches of steel if he comes such a insult over us both as to offer a blackguard like me the epaulettes as you ought to be a-wearing!”

And Cecil knew that it was hopeless either to persuade him to his own advantage or to convince him of his disobedience in speaking thus of his supreme, before his concommissioned, officer. He was himself, moreover, deeply moved by the man’s fidelity.

He stretched his hand out.

“I wish there were more blackguards with hearts like yours. I cannot repay your love, Rake, but I can value it.”

Rake put his own hands behind his back.

“God bless you, sir; you’ve repaid it ten dozen times over. But you shan’t do that, sir. I told you long ago, I’m too much of a scamp! Some day, perhaps, as I said, when I’ve settled scores with myself, and wiped off all the bad ‘uns with a clear sweep, tolerably clean. Not afore, sir!”

And Rake was too sturdily obstinate not to always carry his point.

The love that he bore to Cecil was very much such a wild, chivalric, romantic fidelity as the Cavaliers or the Gentlemen of the North bore to their Stuart idols. That his benefactor had become a soldier of Africa in no way lessened the reverent love of his loyalty, any more than theirs was lessened by the adversities of their royal masters. Like theirs, also, it had beauty in its blindness — the beauty that lies in every pure unselfishness.

Meanwhile, Picpon’s news was correct.

The regiments were ordered out on the march. There was fresh war in the interior; and wherever there was the hottest slaughter, there the Black Hawk always flew down with his falcon-flock. When Cecil left his incorrigible zig, the trumpets were sounding an assembly; there were noise, tumult, eagerness, excitement, delighted zest on every side; a general order was read to the enraptured squadrons; they were to leave the town at the first streak of dawn.

There were before them death, deprivation, long days of famine, long days of drought and thirst; parching, sun-baked roads; bitter, chilly nights; fiery furnace-blasts of sirocco; killing, pitiless, northern winds; hunger, only sharpened by a snatch of raw meat or a handful of maize; and the probabilities, ten to one, of being thrust under the sand to rot, or left to have their skeletons picked clean by the vultures. But what of that! There were also the wild delight of combat, the freedom of lawless warfare, the joy of deep strokes thrust home, the chance of plunder, of wine-skins, of cattle, of women; above all, that lust for slaughter which burns so deep down in the hidden souls of men and gives them such brotherhood with wolf and vulture and tiger, when once its flame bursts forth.

That evening, at the Villa Aioussa, there gathered a courtly assembly, of much higher rank than Algiers can commonly afford, because many of station as lofty as her own had been drawn thither to follow her to what the Princesse Corona called her banishment — an endurable banishment enough under those azure skies, in that clear, elastic air, and with that charming “bonbonniere” in which to dwell, yet still a banishment to the reigning beauty of Paris, to one who had the habits and the commands of a wholly undisputed sovereignty in the royal splendor of her womanhood.

There was a variety of distractions to prevent ennui; there were half a dozen clever Paris actors playing the airiest of vaudevilles in the Bijou theater beyond the drawing-rooms; there were some celebrated Italian singers whom an Imperial Prince had brought over in his yacht; there was the best music; there was wit as well as homage whispered in her ear. Yet she was not altogether amused; she was a little touched with ennui.

“Those men are very stupid. They have not half the talent of that soldier!” she thought once, turning from a Peer of France, an Austrian Archduke, and a Russian diplomatist. And she smiled a little, furling her fan and musing on the horror that the triad of fashionable conquerors near her would feel if they knew that she thought them duller than an African lascar!

But they only told her things of which she had been long weary, specially of her own beauty; he had told her of things totally unknown to her — things real, terrible, vivid, strong, sorrowful — strong as life, sorrowful as death.

“Chateauroy and his Chasseurs have an order de route,” a voice was saying, that moment, behind her chair.

“Indeed?” said another. “The Black Hawk is never so happy as when unhooded. When do they go?”

“To-morrow. At dawn.”

“There is always fighting here, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes! The losses in men are immense; only the journals would get a communique, or worse, if they ventured to say so in France. How delicious La Doche is! She comes in again with the next scene.”

The Princesse Corona listened; and her attention wandered farther from the Archduke, the Peer, and the diplomatist, as from the Vaudeville. She did not find Mme. Doche very charming; and she was absorbed for a time looking at the miniatures on her fan.

At the same moment, through the lighted streets of Algiers, Cigarette, like a union of fairy and of fury, was flying with the news. Cigarette had seen the flame of war at its height, and had danced in the midst of its whitest heat, as young children dance to see the fires leap red in the black winter’s night. Cigarette loved the battle, the charge, the wild music of bugles, the thunder-tramp of battalions, the sirocco-sweep of light squadrons, the mad tarantala of triumph when the slaughter was done, the grand swoop of the Eagles down unto the carnage, the wild hurrah of France.

She loved them with all her heart and soul; and she flew now through the starlit, sultry night, crying, “La guerre! La guerre! La guerre!” and chanting to the enraptured soldiery a “Marseillaise” of her own improvisation, all slang, and doggerel, and barrack grammar; but fire-giving as a torch, and rousing as a bugle in the way she sang it, waving the tricolor high over her head.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/under-two-flags/chapter25.html

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