IT WAS midday at Sidi Bel-Abbès in Algeria. Two French officers were sitting in front of a café at the wide cross-roads in the centre of the town. One of them was Captain Tavernay, a man of forty-seven, tall, thin, with a brown face worn and tired by the campaigns of thirty years, the other a young lieutenant, M. Laurent, fresh and pink, who seemed to have been passed out but yesterday from the school of St. Cyr. Captain Tavernay picked up his cap from the iron table in front of him and settled it upon his grizzled head. Outside the town trees clustered thickly, farms were half-hidden amongst groves of fig-trees and hedges of aloes. Here there was no foliage. The streets were very quiet, the sunlight lay in dazzling pools of gold upon the sand of the roads, the white houses glittered under a blue, cloudless sky. In front of the two officers, some miles away, the bare cone of Jebel Tessalah sprang upwards from a range of hills dominating the town, and a speck of white upon its shoulder showed where a village perched. Captain Tavernay sat looking out towards the mountain with the lids half-closed upon his eyes. Then he rose deliberately from his chair.
“If we walk to the station,” he said, “we shall just meet the train from Oran. A batch of thirty recruits is coming in by it. Let us walk to the station, Laurent.”
Lieutenant Laurent dropped the end of his cigarette on to the ground and stood up reluctantly.
“As you will, Captain,” he answered. “But we should see the animals soon enough at the barracks.”
The words were spoken in a voice which was almost, and with a shrug of the shoulders which was quite, contemptuous. The day was hot, and Lieutenant Laurent unwilling to move from his coffee and the shade into that burning sunlight. Captain Tavernay gazed mildly at his youthful junior. Long experience had taught him to leave much to time and little to argument. For himself he loved his legionaries. He had a smile of indulgence for their faults even while he punished them; and though his face seldom showed the smile, and his punishments were not unjustly light, the culprits none the less knew it was there, hidden somewhere close to his heart. But then he had seen his men in action, and Lieutenant Laurent had not. That made all the difference. The Foreign Legion certainly did not show at its best in a cantonment. Amongst that motley assemblage—twelve thousand men, distinct in nationality as in character, flung together pell-mell, negroes and whites, criminals, adventurers, silent unknown men, haunted by memories of other days or tortured by remorse—a garrison town with its monotony and its absinthe played havoc. An Abyssinian rubbed shoulders in the ranks with a scholar who spoke nine languages; a tenor from the Théâtre de la Monnaie at Brussels with an unfrocked priest. Often enough Captain Tavernay had seen one of his legionaries sitting alone hour after hour at his little table outside a café, steadily drinking glass after glass of absinthe, rising mechanically to salute his officer, and sinking back among his impenetrable secrets. Was he dreaming of the other days, the laughter and the flowers, the white shoulders of women? Was he again placing that last stake upon the red which had sent him straight from the table to the nearest French depôt? Was he living again some tragic crisis of love in which all at once he had learned that he had been befooled and derided? Captain Tavernay never passed such a man but he longed to sit down by his side and say, “My friend, share your secret with me; so will it be easier to bear.” But the etiquette of the Foreign Legion forbade. Captain Tavernay merely returned the salute and passed on, knowing that very likely his legionary would pass the night in the guard-room and the next week in the cells. No; the town of Sidi Bel-Abbès was not the place wherein to learn the mettle of the legionary. Away to the south there, beyond the forest of trees on the horizon’s line, things were different. Let Lieutenant Laurent see the men in their bivouacs at night under the stars, and witness their prowess under arms, ces animaux would soon become mes enfants.
Therefore he answered Lieutenant Laurent in the mildest voice.
“We shall see them at the barracks, it is true. But you are wrong when you say that it will be soon enough. At the barracks they will be prepared for us, they will have their little stories ready for us, they will be armed with discretion. But let us see them descend from the train, let us watch their first look round at their new home, their new fatherland. We may learn a little, and if it is ever so little it will help us to know them the better afterwards. And at the worst it will be an amusing exercise in psychology.”
They walked away from the café, and strolled down the Rue de Mascara under the shady avenue of trees, Tavernay moving with a long, indolent stride, which covered a deal of ground with a surprising rapidity, Laurent fidgeting along discontentedly at his side. M. Laurent was beginning, in fact, to regret the hurry with which he had sought a commission in the Foreign Legion. M. Laurent had, a few months ago, in Paris, imagined himself to be irrevocably in love with the wife of one of his friends, a lady at once beautiful and mature; M. Laurent had declared his passion upon a suitable occasion; M. Laurent had been snubbed for his pains; M. Laurent in a fit of pique had sought the consolation of another climate and foreign service; and M. Laurent was now quickly realising that he was not nearly so heartbroken as he had fancied himself to be. Already while he walked to the station he was thinking that, after all, Paris was endurable, even though one particular woman could not refrain from a little smile of amusement when he crossed her path.
Captain Tavernay had timed their walk accurately. For as they reached the station the train was signalled.
“Let us stand here, behind these cases,” said Tavernay. “We shall see and not be seen.”
In a few moments the train moved slowly in and stopped. From the furthermost carriage the detachment descended, and, following a sous-officier in the uniform of the Legion, walked towards the cases behind which Tavernay and his companion were concealed. In front came two youths, fair of complexion and of hair, dressed neatly, well shod, who walked with a timidity of manner as though they expected to be questioned and sent packing.
“Who can they be?” asked Laurent. “They are boys.”
“Yet they will give their age as eighteen,” replied Tavernay, and his voice trembled ever so slightly; “and we shall ask no questions.”
“But they bear no marks of misery. They are not poor. Whence can they come?” Laurent repeated.
“I can tell you that,” said Tavernay. He was much moved. He spoke with a deep note of reverence. “They come from Alsace or Lorraine. We get many such. They will not serve Germany. At all costs they will serve France.”
Lieutenant Laurent was humbled. Here was a higher motive than pique, here was a devotion which would not so quickly tire of discipline and service. He gazed with a momentary feeling of envy at these two youths who insisted, at so high a price, on being his compatriots.
“You see,” said Tavernay, with a smile, “it was worth while to come to the station and see the recruits arrive, even on so hot a day as this.”
“Yes,” replied Laurent; and then “look!”
Following the two youths walked a man tall and powerful, with the long, loose stride of one well versed in sports. He held his head erect, and walked defiantly, daring you to question him. His hands were long and slender, well-kept, unused to labour, his face aquiline and refined. He looked about thirty-five years old. He wore a light overcoat of a fine material, which hung open, and underneath the overcoat he was attired in evening dress. It was his dress which had riveted Laurent’s attention; and certainly nothing could have seemed more bizarre, more strangely out of place. The hot African sun poured down out of a cloudless sky; and a new recruit for the Foreign Legion stepped out of a railway carriage as though he had come straight from a ball-room. What sudden disaster could have overtaken him? In what tragedy had he borne a part? Even Laurent’s imagination was stimulated into speculation. As the man passed him, Laurent saw that his tie was creased and dusty, his shirt-front rumpled and soiled. That must needs have been. At some early hour on a spring morning, some four or five days ago, this man must have rushed into the guard-room of a barrack-square in some town of France. Laurent turned to Tavernay eagerly—
“What do you make of him?”
Tavernay shrugged his shoulders.
“A man of fashion, who has made a fool of himself. They make good soldiers as a rule.”
“But he will repent!”
“He has already had the time, and he has not. There is no escort for recruits until they reach Marseilles. Suppose that he enlisted in Paris. He is given the fare. At any station between Paris and Marseilles he could have got out and returned.”
The man in evening-dress walked on. There were dark shadows under his eyes, the eyes themselves were sombre and alert.
“We shall know something of him soon,” said Tavernay. He watched his recruit with so composed an air that Laurent cried out—
“Can nothing astonish you?”
“Very little,” answered Tavernay, phlegmatically. “Listen, my friend. One day, some years ago, a captain of Hussars landed at Oran. He came to Bel-Abbès with a letter of introduction to me. He stayed with me. He expressed a wish to see my men on parade. I turned them out. He came to the parade-ground and inspected them. As he passed along the ranks he suddenly stopped in front of an old soldier with fifteen years’ service in the Legion, much of which fifteen years had been passed in the cells. The old soldier was a drunkard—oh, but a confirmed drunkard. Well, in front of this man my young Captain with the curled moustaches stopped—stopped and turned very pale. But he did not speak. My soldier looked at him respectfully, and the Captain continued his inspection. Well, they were father and son—that is all. Why should anything astonish me?” and Captain Tavernay struck a match and lighted a cigarette.
The match, however, attracted attention to the presence of the officers. Four men who marched, keeping time with their feet and holding their hands stiffly at their sides, saw the flame and remarked the uniforms. Their hands rose at once to the salute.
“Ah! German deserters,” said Tavernay. “They fight well.”
Others followed, men in rags and out of shoe-leather, outcasts and fugitives; and behind them came one who was different. He was tall and well-knit, with a frank open face, not particularly intellectual, on the other hand not irretrievably stupid. He was dressed in a double-breasted, blue-serge suit, and as he walked he now and then gave a twist to his fair moustache, as though he were uneasy and embarrassed. Captain Tavernay ran his eyes over him with the look of a connoisseur.
“Aha!” said he, with a chuckle of satisfaction. “The true legionary! Hard, finely trained, he has done work too. Yes! You see, Laurent, he is a little ashamed, a little self-conscious. He feels that he is looking a fool. I wonder what nationality he will claim.”
“He comes from the North,” said Lament. “Possibly from Normandy.”
“Oh, I know what he is,” returned Tavernay. “I am wondering only what he will claim to be. Let us go outside and see.”
Tavernay led the way to the platform. Outside, in front of the station, the sous-officier marshalled his men in a line. They looked a strange body of men as they stood there, blinking in the strong sunlight. The man in the ruffled silk hat and the dress-suit toed the line beside a bundle of rags; the German deserters rubbed elbows with the “true legionary” in the blue serge. Those thirty men represented types of almost all the social grades, and to a man they were seeking the shelter of anonymity in that monastery of action, the Foreign Legion.
“Answer to your names,” said the sous-officier, and from a paper in his hand he began to read. The answers came back, ludicrous in their untruth. A French name would be called.
And a German voice replied—
“Ohlsen,” cried the sous-officier, and no answer was given. “Ohlsen,” he repeated sharply. “Is not Ohlsen here?”
And suddenly the face of the man in the serge suit flashed, and he answered hurriedly—
Even the sous-officier burst into a laugh. The reason for the pause was too obvious; “Ohlsen” had forgotten that Ohlsen was now his name.
“My lad, you must keep your ears open,” said the sous-officier. “Now, attention. Fours right. March!”
And the detachment marched off towards the barracks.
“Ohlsen,” said Tavernay, and he shrugged his shoulders. “Well, what does it matter? Come!”
“Ohlsen” was Tony Stretton, and all the way along the Rue Daya to the barracks he was longing for the moment when he would put on the uniform and cease to figure ridiculously in this grotesque procession. None the less he had to wait with the others, drawn up in the barrack-square until Captain Tavernay returned. The Captain went to his office, and thither the recruits were marched. One by one they entered in at the door, answered his questions, and were sent off to the regimental tailor. Tony Stretton was the last.
“Name?” asked Tavernay.
“Town of enlistment?”
Tavernay compared the answers with some writing on a sheet of paper.
“Yes, Marseilles. Passed by the doctor Paul as sound of body. Yes,” and he resumed his questions.
Captain Tavernay had a smattering of most languages, and he was greatly inclined to try his new recruit with a few questions in the Swedish tongue. But the etiquette of the Legion forbade. He went on without a smile—
Captain Tavernay looked up. This time he could not help smiling.
“Well, it is as good as any other,” said he; and suddenly there was a sound of cries, and three soldiers burst out of a narrow entrance on the further side of the parade-ground and came running across the square to the Captain’s quarters. Both Tavernay and Stretton looked through the door. There was not a tree in that great square; the sunlight poured down upon the bare brown space with a blinding fierceness. All the recruits but Stretton had marched off; a second ago it had been quite empty and very silent. Now these three men were hurrying across it, shouting, gesticulating with their hands. Stretton looked at them with surprise. Then he noticed that one of them, the man running in the middle and a little ahead of the others, carried a revolver in his hand and brandished it. Moreover, from the look of his inflamed face, he was shouting threats; the others were undoubtedly shouting warnings. Scraps of their warnings came to Stretton’s ears. “Mon Capitaine!” “Il veut vous tuer!” “Rentrez!” They were straining every muscle to catch the threatening soldier up.
Stretton strode to the door, and a voice behind him cried—
It was Tavernay who was speaking.
“But he is already halfway across the square.”
And there was no disobeying the command. Captain Tavernay walked to the door.
“A Spanish corporal whom yesterday I degraded to the ranks,” said he. “Half a pint of aguardiente, and here’s the result.”
Captain Tavernay stepped out of the door and leisurely advanced towards the running men. He gave an order, he raised his hand, and the two soldiers who warned him fell back and halted. Certainly Captain Tavernay was accustomed to obedience. The Spanish ex-corporal ran on alone, straight towards Tavernay, but as he ran, as he saw the officer standing there alone, quietly waiting his onslaught, his threats weakened, his pace slackened. He came to a stop in front of Tavernay.
“I must kill yon!” he cried, waving his revolver.
“Yon shall kill me from behind, then,” said Tavernay, calmly. “Follow me!” And he turned round, and with the same leisurely deliberation walked back to his room. The ex-corporal hesitated and—obeyed. He followed Captain Tavernay into the room where Stretton stood.
“Place your revolver on the table.”
The Spaniard again obeyed. Tavernay pushed open the door of an inner room.
“You are drunk,” he said. “You must not be seen in this condition by your fellow-soldiers. Go in and lie down!”
The Spaniard stared at his officer stupidly, tottering upon his limbs. Then he staggered into the Captain’s room. Tavernay turned back to Stretton and a ghost of a smile crept into his face.
“C’est du theater,” he said, with a little shrug of the shoulders. “But what would you have, monsieur?” And he spoke to Stretton as to an equal. “You are astonished. It is very likely not your way in your-fishing-boats,” he continued, with a chuckle. Stretton knew very well that he meant “army.” “But there is no Foreign Legion amongst your—fishermen.” He laughed again; and gathering up his papers dismissed Stretton to the tailor’s. But after Stretton had taken a few steps across the parade, Tavernay called him back again. He looked at him with a very friendly smile.
“I, too, enlisted at Marseilles,” he said. “One can rise in the Foreign Legion by means of these”—and he touched lightly the medals upon his breast. This was Tony Stretton’s introduction to the Foreign Legion.