Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 26.

Zaraila.

The African day was at its noon.

From the first break of dawn the battle had raged; now, at midday, it was at its height. Far in the interior, almost on the edge of the great desert, in that terrible season when air that is flame by day is ice by night, and when the scorch of a blazing sun may be followed in an hour by the blinding fury of a snow-storm, the slaughter had gone on, hour through hour, under a shadowless sky, blue as steel, hard as a sheet of brass. The Arabs had surprised the French encampment, where it lay in the center of an arid plain that was called Zaraila. Hovering like a cloud of hawks on the entrance of the Sahara, massed together for one mighty, if futile, effort — with all their ancient war-lust, and with a new despair — the tribes who refused the yoke of the alien empire were once again in arms; were once again combined in defense of those limitless kingdoms of drifting sand, of that beloved belt of bare and desolate land so useless to the conqueror, so dear to the nomad. When they had been, as it had been thought, beaten back into the desert wilderness; when, without water and without cattle, it had been calculated that they would, of sheer necessity, bow themselves in submission, or perish of famine and of thirst; they had recovered their ardor, their strength, their resistance, their power to harass without ceasing, if they could never arrest, the enemy. They had cast the torch of war afresh into the land, and here, southward, the flame burned bitterly, and with a merciless tongue devoured the lives of men, licking them up as a forest fire the dry leaves and the touchwood.

Circling, sweeping, silently, swiftly, with that rapid spring, that marvelous whirlwind of force, that is of Africa, and of Africa alone, the tribes had rushed down in the darkness of night, lightly as a kite rushes through the gloom of the dawn. For once the vigilance of the invader served him naught; for once the Frankish camp was surprised off its guard. While the air was still chilly with the breath of the night, while the first gleam of morning had barely broken through the mists of the east, while the picket-fires burned through the dusky gloom, and the sentinels and vedettes paced slowly to and fro, and circled round, hearing nothing worse than the stealthy tread of the jackal, or the muffled flight of a night-bird, afar in the south a great dark cloud had risen, darker than the brooding shadows of the earth and sky.

The cloud swept onward, like a mass of cirrhi, in those shadows shrouded. Fleet as though wind-driven, dense as though thunder-charged, it moved over the plains. As it grew nearer and nearer, it grew grayer, a changing mass of white and black that fused, in the obscurity, into a shadow color; a dense array of men and horses flitting noiselessly like spirits, and as though guided alone by one rein and moved alone by one breath and one will; not a bit champed, not a linen-fold loosened, not a shiver of steel was heard; as silently as the winds of the desert sweep up northward over the plains, so they rode now, host upon host of the warriors of the soil.

The outlying vedettes, the advancing sentinels, had scrutinized so long through the night every wavering shade of cloud and moving form of buffalo in the dim distance, that their sleepless eyes, strained and aching, failed to distinguish this moving mass that was so like the brown plains and starless sky that it could scarce be told from them. The night, too, was bitter; northern cold cut hardly chillier than this that parted the blaze of one hot day from the blaze of another. The sea-winds were blowing cruelly keen, and men who at noon gladly stripped to their shirts, shivered now where they lay under canvas.

Awake while his comrades slept around him, Cecil was stretched, half unharnessed. The foraging duty of the past twenty-four hours had been work harassing and heavy, inglorious and full of fatigue. The country round was bare as a table-rock; the water-courses poor, choked with dust and stones, unfed as yet by the rains or snows of the approaching winter. The horses suffered sorely, the men scarce less. The hay for the former was scant and bad; the rations for the latter often cut off by flying skirmishers of the foe. The campaign, so far as it had gone, had been fruitless, yet had cost largely in human life. The men died rapidly of dysentery, disease, and the chills of the nights, and had severe losses in countless obscure skirmishes, that served no end except to water the African soil with blood.

True, France would fill the gaps up as fast as they occurred, and the “Monitor” would only allude to the present operations when it could give a flourishing line descriptive of the Arabs being driven back, decimated, to the borders of the Sahara. But as the flourish of the “Monitor” would never reach a thousand little way-side huts, and sea-side cabins, and vine-dressers’ sunny nests, where the memory of some lad who had gone forth never to return would leave a deadly shadow athwart the humble threshold — so the knowledge that they were only so many automata in the hands of government, whose loss would merely be noted that it might be efficiently supplied, was not that wine-draught of La Gloire which poured the strength and the daring of gods into the limbs of the men of Jena and of Austerlitz. Still, there was a war-lust in them, and there was the fire of France; they fought not less superbly here, where to be food for jackal and kite was their likeliest doom, than their sires had done under the eagles of the First Empire, when the Conscript hero of today was the glittering Marshal of tomorrow.

Cecil had awakened while the camp still slept. Do what he would, force himself into the fullness of this fierce and hard existence as he might, he could not burn out or banish a thing that had many a time haunted him, but never as it did now — the remembrance of a woman. He almost laughed as he lay there on a pile of rotting straw, and wrung the truth out of his own heart, that he — a soldier of these exiled squadrons — was mad enough to love that woman whose deep, proud eyes had dwelt with such serene pity upon him.

Yet his hand clinched on the straw as it had clinched once when the operator’s knife had cut down through the bones of his breast to reach a bullet that, left in his chest, would have been death. If in the sight of men he had only stood in the rank that was his by birthright, he could have striven for — it might be that he could have roused — some answering passion in her. But that chance was lost to him forever. Well, it was but one thing more that was added to all that he had of his own will given up. He was dead; he must be content, as the dead must be, to leave the warmth of kisses, the glow of delight, the possession of a woman’s loveliness, the homage of men’s honor, the gladness of successful desires, to those who still lived in the light he had quitted. He had never allowed himself the emasculating indulgence of regret; he flung it off him now.

Flick–Flack — coiled asleep in his bosom — thrilled, stirred, and growled. He rose, and, with the little dog under his arm, looked out from the canvas. He knew that the most vigilant sentry in the service had not the instinct for a foe afar off that Flick–Flack possessed. He gazed keenly southward, the poodle growling on; that cloud so dim, so distant, caught his sight. Was it a moving herd, a shifting mist, a shadow-play between the night and dawn?

For a moment longer he watched it; then, what it was he knew, or felt by such strong instinct as makes knowledge; and, like the blast of a clarion, his alarm rang over the unarmed and slumbering camp.

An instant, and the hive of men, so still, so motionless, broke into violent movement; and from the tents the half-clothed sleepers poured, wakened, and fresh in wakening as hounds. Perfect discipline did the rest. With marvelous, with matchless swiftness and precision they harnessed and got under arms. They were but fifteen hundred or so in all — a single squadron of Chasseurs, two battalions of Zouaves, half a corps of Tirailleurs, and some Turcos; only a branch of the main body, and without artillery. But they were some of the flower of the army of Algiers, and they roused in a second, with the vivacious ferocity of the bounding tiger, with the glad, eager impatience for the slaughter of the unloosed hawk. Yet, rapid in its wondrous celerity as their united action was, it was not so rapid as the downward sweep of the war-cloud that came so near, with the tossing of white draperies and the shine of countless sabers, now growing clearer and clearer out of the darkness, till, with a whir like the noise of an eagle’s wings, and a swoop like an eagle’s seizure, the Arabs whirled down upon them, met a few yards in advance by the answering charge of the Light Cavalry.

There was a crash as if rock were hurled upon rock, as the Chasseurs, scarce seated in saddle, rushed forward to save the pickets; to encounter the first blind force of attack, and, to give the infantry, further in, more time for harness and defense. Out of the caverns of the night an armed multitude seemed to have suddenly poured. A moment ago they had slept in security; now thousands on thousands, whom they could not number; whom they could but dimly even perceive, were thrown on them in immeasurable hosts, which the encircling cloud of dust served but to render vaster, ghastlier, and more majestic. The Arab line stretched out with wings that seemed to extend on and on without end; the line of the Chasseurs was not one-half its length; they were but a single squadron flung in their stirrups, scarcely clothed, knowing only that the foe was upon them, caring only that their sword-hands were hard on their weapons. With all the elan of France they launched themselves forward to break the rush of the desert horses; they met with a terrible sound, like falling trees, like clashing metal.

The hoofs of the rearing chargers struck each other’s breasts, and these bit and tore at each other’s manes, while their riders reeled down dead. Frank and Arab were blent in one inextricable mass as the charging squadrons encountered. The outer wings of the tribes were spared the shock, and swept on to meet the bayonets of Zouaves and Turcos as, at their swift foot-gallop, the Enfants Perdus of France threw themselves forward from the darkness. The cavalry was enveloped in the overwhelming numbers of the center, and the flanks seemed to cover the Zouaves and Tirailleurs as some great settling mist may cover the cattle who move beneath it.

It was not a battle; it was a frightful tangling of men and brutes. No contest of modern warfare, such as commences and conquers by a duel of artillery, and, sometimes, gives the victory to whosoever has the superiority of ordnance, but a conflict, hand to hand, breast to breast, life for life; a Homeric combat of spear and of sword even while the first volleys of the answering musketry pealed over the plain.

For once the Desert avenged, in like, that terrible inexhaustibility of supply wherewith the Empire so long had crushed them beneath the overwhelming difference of numbers. It was the Day of Mazagran once more, as the light of the morning broke — gray, silvered, beautiful — in the far, dim distance, beyond the tawny seas of reeds. Smoke and sand soon densely rose above the struggle, white, hot, blinding; but out from it the lean, dark Bedouin faces, the snowy haicks, the red burnous, the gleam of the Tunisian muskets, the flash of the silver-hilted yataghans, were seen fused in a mass with the brawny, naked necks of the Zouaves, with the shine of the French bayonets; with the tossing manes and glowing nostrils of the Chasseurs’ horses; with the torn, stained silk of the raised Tricolor, through which the storm of balls flew thick and fast as hail, yet whose folds were never suffered to fall, though again and again the hand that held its staff was cut away or was unloosed in death, yet ever found another to take its charge before the Flag could once have trembled in the enemy’s sight.

The Chasseurs could not charge; they were hemmed in, packed between bodies of horsemen that pressed them together as between iron plates; now and then they could cut their way through, clear enough to reach their comrades of the demi-cavalry, but as often as they did so, so often the overwhelming numbers of the Arabs urged in on them afresh like a flood, and closed upon them, and drove them back.

Every soldier in the squadron that lived kept his life by sheer, breathless, ceaseless, hand-to-hand sword-play, hewing right and left, front and rear, without pause, as, in the great tangled forests of the west, men hew aside branch and brushwood ere they can force one step forward.

The gleam of the dawn spread in one golden glow of morning, and the day rose radiant over the world; they stayed not for its beauty or its peace; the carnage went on, hour upon hour; men began to grow drunk with slaughter as with raki. It was sublimely grand; it was hideously hateful — this wild-beast struggle, this heaving tumult of striving lives, that ever and anon stirred the vast war-cloud of smoke and broke from it as the lightning from the night. The sun laughed in its warmth over a thousand hills and streams, over the blue seas lying northward, and over the yellow sands of the south; but the touch of its heat only made the flame in their blood burn fiercer; the fullness of its light only served to show them clearer where to strike and how to slay.

It was bitter, stifling, cruel work; with their mouths choked with sand, with their throats caked with thirst, with their eyes blind with smoke; cramped as in a vise, scorched with the blaze of powder, covered with blood and with dust; while the steel was thrust through nerve and sinew, or the shot plowed through bone and flesh. The answering fire of the Zouaves and Tirailleurs kept the Arabs further at bay, and mowed them faster down; but in the Chasseurs’ quarter of the field — parted from the rest of their comrades as they had been by the rush of that broken charge with which they had sought to save the camp and arrest the foe — the worst pressure of the attack was felt, and the fiercest of the slaughter fell.

The Chef d’Escadron had been shot dead as they had first swept out to encounter the advance of the desert horsemen; one by one the officers had been cut down, singled out by the keen eyes of their enemies, and throwing themselves into the deadliest of the carnage with the impetuous self-devotion characteristic of their service. At the last there remained but a mere handful out of all the brilliant squadron that had galloped down in the gray of the dawn to meet the whirlwind of Arab fury. At their head was Cecil.

Two horses had been killed under him, and he had thrown himself afresh across unwounded chargers, whose riders had fallen in the melee, and at whose bridles he had caught as he shook himself free of the dead animals’ stirrups. His head was uncovered; his uniform, hurriedly thrown on, had been torn aside, and his chest was bare to the red folds of his sash; he was drenched with blood, not his own, that had rained on him as he fought; and his face and his hands were black with smoke and with powder. He could not see a yard in front of him; he could not tell how the day went anywhere, save in that corner where his own troop was hemmed in. As fast as they beat the Arabs back, and forced themselves some clearer space, so fast the tribes closed in afresh. No orders reached him from the General of the Brigade in command; except for the well-known war-shouts of the Zouaves that ever and again rang above the din, he could not tell whether the French battalions were not cut utterly to pieces under the immense numerical superiority of their foes. All he could see was that every officer of Chasseurs was down, and that, unless he took the vacant place, and rallied them together, the few score troopers that were still left would scatter, confused and demoralized, as the best soldiers will at times when they can see no chief to follow.

He spurred the horse he had just mounted against the dense crowd opposing him, against the hard, black wall of dust, and smoke, and steel, and savage faces, and lean, swarthy arms, which were all that his eyes could see, and that seemed impenetrable as granite, moving and changing though it was. He thrust the gray against it, while he waved his sword above his head.

“En avant, mes freres! France! France! France!”

His voice — well known, well loved — thrilled the hearts of his comrades, and brought them together like a trumpet-call. They had gone with him many a time into the hell of battle, into the jaws of death. They surged about him now; striking, thrusting, forcing, with blows of their sabers or their lances and blows of their beasts’ fore-feet, a passage one to another, until they were reunited once more as one troop, while their shrill shouts, like an oath of vengeance, echoed after him in the defiance that has pealed victorious over so many fields from the soldiery of France. They loved him; he had called them his brethren. They were like lambs for him to lead, like tigers for him to incite.

They could scarcely see his face in that great red mist of combat, in that horrible, stifling pressure on every side that jammed them as if they were in a press of iron, and gave them no power to pause, though their animals’ hoofs struck the lingering life out of some half-dead comrade, or trampled over the writhing limbs of the brother-inarms they loved dearest and best. But his voice reached them, clear and ringing in its appeal for sake of the country they never once forgot or once reviled, though in her name they were starved and beaten like rebellious hounds; though in her cause they were exiled all their manhood through under the sun of this cruel, ravenous, burning Africa. They could see him lift aloft the Eagle he had caught from the last hand that had borne it, the golden gleam of the young morning flashing like flame upon the brazen wings; and they shouted, as with one throat, “Mazagran! Mazagran!” As the battalion of Mazagran had died keeping the ground through the whole of the scorching day while the fresh hordes poured down on them like ceaseless torrents, snow-fed and exhaustless — so they were ready to hold the ground here, until of all their numbers there should be left not one living man.

He glanced back on them, guarding his head the while from the lances that were rained on him; and he lifted the guidon higher and higher, till, out of the ruck and the throng, the brazen bird caught afresh the rays of the rising sun.

Then, like arrows launched at once from a hundred bows, they charged; he still slightly in advance of them, the bridle flung upon his horse’s neck, his head and breast bare, one hand striking aside with his blade the steel shafts as they poured on him, the other holding high above the press the Eagle of the Bonapartes.

The effort was superb.

Dense bodies of Arabs parted them in the front from the camp where the battle raged, harassed them in the rear with flying shots and hurled lances, and forced down on them on either side like the closing jaws of a trap. The impetuosity of their onward movement was, for the moment, irresistible; it bore headlong all before it; the desert horses recoiled, and the desert riders themselves yielded — crushed, staggered, trodden aside, struck aside, by the tremendous impetus with which the Chasseurs were thrown upon them. For the moment the Bedouins gave way, shaken and confused, as at the head of the French they saw this man, with his hair blowing in the wind, and the sun on the fairness of his face, ride down on them thus unharmed, though a dozen spears were aimed at his naked breast; dealing strokes sure as death, right and left as he went, with the light from the hot, blue skies on the ensign of France that he bore.

They knew him; they had met him in many conflicts; and wherever the “fair Frank,” as they called him, came, there they knew of old the battle was hard to win; bitter to the bitterest end, whether that end were defeat, or victory costly as defeat in its achievement.

And for the moment they recoiled under the shock of that fiery onslaught; for the moment they parted and wavered and oscillated beneath the impetus with which he hurled his hundred Chasseurs on them, with that light, swift, indescribable rapidity and resistlessness of attack characteristic of the African Cavalry.

Though a score or more, one on another, had singled him out with special and violent attack, he had gone, as yet, unwounded, save for a lance-thrust in his shoulder, of which, in the heat of the conflict, he was unconscious. The “fighting fury” was upon him; and when once this had been lit in him, the Arabs knew of old that the fiercest vulture in the Frankish ranks never struck so surely home as his hand.

As he spurred his horse down on them now, twenty blades glittered against him; the foremost would have cut straight down through the bone of his bared chest and killed him at a single lunge, but as its steel flashed in the sun, one of his troopers threw himself against it, and parried the stroke from him by sheathing it in his own breast. The blow was mortal; and the one who had saved him reeled down off his saddle under the hoofs of the trampling chargers. “Picpon s’en souvient,” he murmured with a smile; and as the charge swept onward, Cecil, with a great cry of horror, saw the feet of the maddened horses strike to pulp the writhing body, and saw the black, wistful eyes of the Enfant de Paris look upward to him once, with love, and fealty, and unspeakable sweetness gleaming through their darkened sight.

But to pause was impossible. Though the French horses were forced with marvelous dexterity through a bristling forest of steel, though the remnant of the once-glittering squadron was cast against them in as headlong a daring as if it had half the regiments of the Empire at its back, the charge availed little against the hosts of the desert that had rallied and swooped down afresh almost as soon as they had been, for the instant of the shock, panic-stricken. The hatred of the opposed races was aroused in all its blind, ravening passion; the conquered had the conquering nation for once at their mercy; for once at tremendous disadvantage; on neither side was there aught except that one instinct for slaughter, which, once awakened, kills every other in the breast in which it burns.

The Arabs had cruel years to avenge — years of a loathed tyranny, years of starvation and oppression, years of constant flight southward, with no choice but submission or death. They had deadly memories to wash out — memories of brethren who had been killed like carrion by the invaders’ shot and steel; of nomadic freedom begrudged and crushed by civilization; of young children murdered in the darkness of the caverns, with the sulphurous smoke choking the innocent throats that had only breathed the golden air of a few summers; of women, well beloved, torn from them in the hot flames of burning tents and outraged before their eyes with insult whose end was a bayonet-thrust into their breasts — breasts whose sin was fidelity to the vanquished.

They had vengeance to do that made every stroke seem righteous and holy in their sight; that nerved each of their bare and sinewy arms as with the strength of a thousand limbs. Right — so barren, so hopeless, so unavailing — had long been with them. Now to it was added at last the power of might; and they exercised the power with the savage ruthlessness of the desert. They closed in on every side; wheeling their swift coursers hither and thither; striking with lance and blade; hemming in, beyond escape, the doomed fragment of the Frankish squadron till there remained of them but one small nucleus, driven close together, rather as infantry will form than as cavalry usually does — a ring of horsemen, of which every one had his face to the foe; a solid circle curiously wedged one against the other, with the bodies of chargers and of men deep around them, and with the ground soaked with blood till the sand was one red morass.

Cecil held the Eagle still, and looked round on the few left to him.

“You are sons of the Old Guard; die like them.”

They answered with a pealing cry, terrible as the cry of the lion in the hush of night, but a shout that had in it assent, triumph, fealty, victory, even as they obeyed him and drew up to die, while in their front was the young brow of Petit Picpon turned upward to the glare of the skies.

There was nothing for them but to draw up thus, and await their butchery, defending the Eagle to the last; looking till the last toward that “woman’s face of their leader,” as they had often termed it, that was to them now as the face of Napoleon was to the soldiers who loved him.

There was a pause, brief as is the pause of the lungs to take a fuller breath. The Arabs honored these men, who alone and in the midst of the hostile force, held their ground and prepared thus to be slaughtered one by one, till of all the squadron that had ridden out in the darkness of the dawn there should be only a black, huddled, stiffened heap of dead men and of dead beasts. The chief who led them pressed them back, withholding them from the end that was so near to their hands when they should stretch that single ring of horsemen all lifeless in the dust.

“You are great warriors,” he cried, in the Sabir tongue; “surrender; we will spare!”

Cecil looked back once more on the fragment of his troop, and raised the Eagle higher aloft where the wings should glisten in the fuller day. Half naked, scorched, blinded; with an open gash in his shoulder where the lance had struck, and with his brow wet with the great dews of the noon-heat and the breathless toil; his eyes were clear as they flashed with the light of the sun in them; his mouth smiled as he answered:

“Have we shown ourselves cowards, that you think we shall yield?”

A hurrah of wild delight from the Chasseurs he led greeted and ratified the choice. “On meurt — on ne se rend pas!” they shouted in the words which, even if they be but legendary, are too true to the spirit of the soldiers of France not to be as truth in their sight. Then, with their swords above their heads, they waited for the collision of the terrible attack which would fall on them upon every side, and strike all the sentient life out of them before the sun should be one point higher in the heavens. It came; with a yell as of wild beasts in their famine, the Arabs threw themselves forward, the chief himself singling out the “fair Frank” with the violence of a lion flinging himself on a leopard. One instant longer, one flash of time, and the tribes pressing on them would have massacred them like cattle driven into the pens of slaughter. Ere it could be done, a voice like the ring of a silver trumpet echoed over the field:

“En avant! En avant! Tue, tue, tue!”

Above the din, the shouts, the tumult, the echoing of the distant musketry, that silvery cadence rung; down into the midst, with the Tricolor waving above her head, the bridle of her fiery mare between her teeth, the raven of the dead Zouave flying above her head, and her pistol leveled in deadly aim, rode Cigarette.

The lightning fire of the crossing swords played round her, the glitter of the lances dazzled her eyes, the reek of smoke and of carnage was round her; but she dashed down into the heart of the conflict as gayly as though she rode at a review — laughing, shouting, waving the torn colors that she grasped, with her curls blowing back in the breeze, and her bright young face set in the warrior’s lust. Behind her, by scarcely a length, galloped three squadrons of Chasseurs and Spahis; trampling headlong over the corpse-strewn field, and breaking through the masses of the Arabs as though they were seas of corn.

She wheeled her mare round by Cecil’s side at the moment when, with six swift passes of his blade, he had warded off the Chief’s blows and sent his own sword down through the chest-bones of the Bedouin’s mighty form.

“Well struck! The day is turned! Charge!”

She gave the order as though she were a Marshal of the Empire, the sun-blaze full on her where she sat on the rearing, fretting, half-bred gray, with the Tricolor folds above her head, and her teeth tight gripped on the chain-bridle, and her face all glowing and warm and full of the fierce fire of war — a little Amazon in scarlet and blue and gold; a young Jeanne d’Arc, with the crimson fez in lieu of the silvered casque, and the gay broideries of her fantastic dress instead of the breastplate of steel. And with the Flag of her idolatry, the Flag that was as her religion, floating back as she went, she spurred her mare straight against the Arabs, straight over the lifeless forms of the hundreds slain; and after her poured the fresh squadrons of cavalry, the ruby burnous of the Spahis streaming on the wind as their darling led them on to retrieve the day for France.

Not a bullet struck, not a saber grazed her; but there, in the heat and the press of the worst of the slaughter, Cigarette rode hither and thither, to and fro, her voice ringing like a bird’s song over the field, in command, in applause, in encouragement, in delight; bearing her standard aloft and untouched; dashing heedless through a storm of blows; cheering on her “children” to the charge again and again; and all the while with the sunlight full on her radiant, spirited head, and with the grim, gray raven flying above her, shrieking shrilly its “Tue, tue, tue!” The Army believed with superstitious faith in the potent spell of that veteran bird, and the story ran that, whenever he flew above a combat, France was victor before the sun set. The echo of the raven’s cry, and the presence of the child who, they knew, would have a thousand musket-balls fired in her fair young breast rather than live to see them defeated, made the fresh squadrons sweep in like a whirlwind, bearing down all before them.

Cigarette saved the day.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/under-two-flags/chapter26.html

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