The Truants

Chapter XVIII

South of Ouargla

A.E.W. Mason

“HALT!” cried Captain Tavernay.

The bugler at his side raised his bugle to his lips and blew. The dozen chasseurs d’Afrique and the ten native scouts who formed the advance guard stopped upon the signal. A couple of hundred yards behind them the two companies of the Foreign Legion came to a standstill. The convoy of baggage mules upon the right flank, the hospital equipment, the artillery section, the herd of oxen which was driven along in the rear, in a word, the whole expedition, halted in a wood of dwarf-oaks and junipers at three o’clock in the afternoon.

The order was given to gather wood for the night’s camp fires, and the companies were dismissed. Each soldier made his little bundle and fixed it upon his shoulders. Again the bugle rang out, sounding the “Fall in.” And the tiny force marched out from the trees of the high plateaux into the open desert. It was extraordinary with what abruptness that transition was made. One minute the companies were treading upon turf under rustling leaves, the next they were descending a slope carpeted with halfa-grass, which stretched away to the horizon’s rim, with hardly a bush to break its bare monotony. At the limit of vision, a great arc like a mirror of silver glittered out of the plain.

“Water,” said a tall, bearded soldier, who marched in the front rank of the first company. It was he who had stepped from the train at Bel-Abbès with a light dust-coat over his evening dress suit. He passed now as Fusilier Barbier, an ex-engineer of Lyons.

“No,” replied Sergeant Ohlsen, who marched at his side: “the crystals of a dry salt lake.”

In the autumn of last year Ohlsen—or, rather, to give him his right name, Tony Stretton—had marched upon an expedition from Mesheria to the Chott Tigri, and knew, therefore, the look of those tantalising salt lakes. That expedition, which had conducted a survey for a road to the Figuig oasis, had brought him his promotion.

“But we camp by the lake to-night,” he added. “The wells of El-Guethifa are close.”

The companies went forward, and above that salt lake they saw the mirages begin to shimmer, citadels and hanging gardens, tall towers and waving woods and majestic galleons, topsail over topsail, floating upon summer seas. At the wells the sheikh of the district was waiting upon a mule.

“I want fifty camels with their saddles and their drivers at five o’clock to-morrow morning,” said Tavernay; and although as far as the eye could reach there was no moving thing upon that vast plain except the small group of Arabs and soldiers about the well, by five o’clock the camels were squatting upon the sand with their drivers beside them. The mules were sent back from El-Guethifa that morning, the baggage was packed upon the camels, and the little force, insufficient in numbers and supplies, went forward on its long and untoward march.

It passed through the oases of El-Maia and Methlili to Ouargla, at that time the last outpost of French authority. At Ouargla it rested for a week; and there, renewing its supplies, penetrated southwards to survey the desert country of the Touaregs for the construction of the oft-mooted trans-Saharan railway. South of Ouargla all the difficulties of the advance were doubled. The companies went down through the archipelago of oases in the dangerous Touat country amongst a sullen people, who had little food to supply, and would hardly supply it. Tavernay led his men with care, neither practising a discipline needlessly strict, nor relaxing into carelessness. But he was under-officered, and his officers even so were inexperienced. Lieutenant Laurent, a man irritable and unjust, was his second in command, and there were but two sous-lieutenants besides. In spite of all Tavernay’s care the convoy diminished. One day a camel would stumble on the slippery bottom of a salt marsh, fall, and break its limbs; the next another would fail, and die through a long-untended wound, caused by the rough saddle upon its back. In the ranks of the soldiers, too, there was trouble, and Laurent was not the man to deal with it. There was hardly a company of the Legion, recruited, as it so largely was, from the outcasts and the men of sorrows, in which there were not some of disordered minds, some whom absinthe had brought to the edge of insanity. Upon these the severity of the expedition bore heavily. Tents had been perforce discarded. The men slept under the stars. They woke from freezing nights to the bitter winds of dawn, and two hours after dawn they were parched by a burning sun, and all the day they suffered under its pitiless and blinding glare. Storms whelmed them in lofty spirals of whirling, choking sand. For a week they would toil over high red mountainous ground of loose stones; then would follow the monotony of bare round plains, piled here and there with black rocks, quivering and glittering in the heat; the sun rose day after day upon their left hand in scarlet, and set in scarlet upon their right, and they themselves were still the tiny centre of the same empty inhospitable space; so that only the difference of the ground they trod, the feel of soft sand beneath their feet, where a minute before they had marched on gravel, told them that they progressed at all. The worst of the men became prone to disobedience, eager for change; and every now and then a soldier would rise upon his elbow in the night time, gaze furtively about over his sleeping comrades, watch the sentries until their backs were turned, and then crawl past them into the darkness. Of these men none ever returned. Or some mania would seize upon them and fix a strange idea in their brains, such as that which besieged Barbier, the fusilier, who had once stepped out of the railway carriage in his evening dress. He leaned over towards Stretton one evening, and said in a hoarse, trembling voice—

“I can stand it no longer.”

Both men were sitting by a tiny fire, which Barbier was feeding with handfuls of halfa-grass and sticks. He was kneeling up in front of it, and by the red waving light Stretton saw that his face was quivering with excitement.

“What can’t you stand?” he asked.

“It is Captain Tavernay,” replied Barbier. He suddenly laughed in a pitiful fashion, and cast a glance over his shoulder. “There is a man put on to watch me. Night and day I am watched by Captain Tavernay’s orders. He wants to fix a crime on me! I know. He wants to trap me. But let him take care!”

Stretton fetched the doctor, who listened for a while to Barbier’s rambling, minatory talk, and then shrugged his shoulders.

“Hallucinations,” said he. “Ideas of persecution. The commonest form,” and having fixed Barbier into his proper category, he walked away. There was nothing to be done for Barbier upon this expedition. He had to be watched; that was all. Thus for seven hundred miles the force pushed southwards from Ouargla, and thus from within it disintegrated as it went. Tavernay could not but notice the change, but he said nothing to any subordinate. The men would fight well if fighting happened. That he knew, and meanwhile he marched on.

It was just when the seven hundred miles had been completed that Tavernay realised fighting was likely to happen. He went the round of the camp as the sun was setting, when the rifles were piled and the fires crackling. Stretton was at his side, and saw his commander stop and shade his eyes. Tavernay was looking westwards. Far away against the glowing ball of the sun, which was just dipping down behind the plain, the figure of an Arab mounted upon a camel stood motionless and black. Tavernay swung round and looked behind him. On the crest of a sandhill to the north a second rider stood distinct against the sky.

Tavernay watched the men for a long time through his glasses.

“Touaregs,” said he, gravely. “Masked Touaregs,” and that night the sentinels were doubled; and in the morning the bugle did not sound the réveillé.

Moreover, when the force advanced, it advanced in the formation of a square, with the baggage camels in the centre, one gun in the front line, and the other in the rear. They had marched into the country where the Senoussa sect prevailed. The monasteries of that body sent out their missionaries eastward to Khordofan, westwards to Tafilet, preaching the purification of the Mohammedan religion and the enlargement of Mohammedan countries now subject to the infidels. But nowhere had the missionaries raised their standard with more success than in this Touat country of the Sahara. The companies marched that day alert and cheerful. They were consolidated by the knowledge of danger. Captain Tavernay led them with pride.

“An insufficient force, ill-found, inadequately officered,” he thought. “But the men are of the Legion.” They were mes enfants to him all that day.

But the attack was not yet to be delivered. During the night the two scouts had ridden on their swift Meharis northwestwards, to the town of Insalah. They knocked upon the gates of the great mud fortress of Abd-el-Kader, the sheikh, and were instantly admitted to the dark room where he sat upon a pile of rugs. When the eyes of the scouts became accustomed to the gloom, they saw there was yet another in the room, a tall man robed in black, with a black mask of cotton wound about his face so that only his eyes were visible. This was the chieftain of the Hoggar Touaregs.

“Well?” said Abd-el-Kader. And the scouts told him roughly the number of the force and the direction of the journey.

Then Abd-el-Kader turned to the Touareg chieftain.

“We will let them go further south, since southwards they are marching,” he said, in his suave gentle voice. “A hundred miles more, and they will be amongst the sand dunes. Since they have cannon, the attack must be sudden. Let it be at the wells of Bir-el-Gharamo.”

The Touareg chieftain rode out that day towards his hills; and, unmolested, Captain Tavernay’s expedition went down to the dunes. Great waves of yellow sand, sometimes three hundred feet from crest to base, intersected the face of the desert; the winds had given to their summits the overhang of a breaking sea; they ran this way and that, as though the currents of an ocean had directed their course; they had the very look of motion; so that Stretton could not but remember the roaring combers of the cold North Sea as he gazed upon these silent and arrested copies. They made of that country a maze of intricate valleys. Led by a local guide commandeered from the last oasis, the companies of the Legion marched into the maze, and on the second day saw, as they came over a hill, just below them in a narrow hollow, a mud parapet built about the mouth of a well. This was Bir-el-Gharamo, and here they camped. Sentries were posted on the neighbouring crests; suddenly the darkness came, and overhead the stars rushed down towards the earth. There was no moon that night, nor was there any sound of danger heard. Three times Tavernay went the round of the sentries, at eight and at ten and at twelve. But at three o’clock, just as the dawn was breaking, a shot was heard. Tavernay sprang up from the ground, the alarm rang out clear from the bugle over the infinite waste, the companies of the Legion seized their piled rifles and fell into battle order with an incredible neatness and expedition. There was no confusion, no noise. The square was formed about the well—the camels were knee-haltered in the middle, the guns placed at the corners. But it was still dark. A few shots were fired on the dunes, and the sentries came running back.

“Steady,” cried Captain Tavernay. “They are coming. Fire low!”

The first volley rang out, and immediately afterwards on every side of that doomed square the impact of the Touaregs’ charge fell like the blow of some monstrous hammer. All night they had been gathering noiselessly in the surrounding valleys. Now they had charged with lance and sword from the surrounding crests. Three sides of the square held their ground. The fourth wavered, crumpled in like a piece of broken cardboard, and the Arabs were within the square, stabbing at the backs of the soldiers, loosing and stampeding the camels. And at once, where deep silence had reigned a minute ago, the air was torn with shrill cries and oaths and the clamour of weapons. The square was broken; but here a group of men stood back to back, and with cartridge and bayonet held its ground; there another formed; and about each gun the men fought desperately. Meanwhile the morning came, a grey, clear light spread over the desert. Tavernay himself was with one of the machine-guns. It was dragged clear of the mêlée and up a slope of sand. The soldiers parted in front of it, and its charge began to sweep the Touaregs down like swathes, and to pit the sand hills like a fall of rain. About the other gun the fight still raged.

“Come, my children,” said Tavernay, “fight well; the Touaregs give no quarter.”

Followed by Stretton, he led the charge. The Touaregs gave way before their furious onslaught. The soldiers reached the gun, faced about, and firing steadily kept off the enemy while the gun was run back. As soon as that was saved the battle was over. All over the hollow, wherever the Touaregs were massed, the two guns rattled out their canister. No Arab could approach them. The sun rose over the earth, and while it was rising the Touaregs broke and fled. When it shone out in its full round, there was no one left of them in that hollow except the wounded and the dead. But the victory had been dearly bought. All about the well, lying pell-mell among the Arabs and the dead camels, were the French Legionaries, some quite still, and others writhing in pain and crying for water. Stretton drew his hand across his forehead. He was stunned and dazed. It seemed to him that years had passed, that he had grown very old. Yet there was the sun new-risen. There was a dull pain in his head. He raised his hand and drew it away wet with blood. How or when he had received the blow he was quite unaware. He stood staring stupidly about him. So very little while ago men were lying here sleeping in their cloaks, quite strong, living people; now they were lying dead or in pain; it was all incomprehensible.

“Why?” he asked aloud of no one. “Now, why?”

Gradually, however, custom resumed its power. There was a man hanging limp over the parapet of the well. He looked as though he had knelt down and stooped over to drink, and in that attitude had fallen asleep. But he might so easily be pushed into the well, and custom had made the preservation of wells from impurity an instinct. He removed the body and went in search of Tavernay. Tavernay was sitting propped up against a camel’s saddle; the doctor was by his side, a blood-stained bandage was about his thigh. He spoke in a weak voice.

“Lieutenant Laurent?”

Stretton went in search. He came across an old grey-headed soldier rolling methodically a cigarette.

“He is dead—over there,” said the soldier. “Have you a light?”

Laurent had died game. He was lying clasped in the arms of a gigantic Touareg, and while thus held he had been stabbed by another through the back. To that end the contemptuous smile of a lady far away in Paris had brought him. He lay with his face to the sky, his wounded vanity now quite healed. He had earned Tavernay’s praise, at all events, that day. For he had fought well. Of the sous-lieutenants one was killed, the other dangerously wounded. A sergeant-major lay with a broken shoulder beside one of the guns. Stretton went back to Tavernay.

“You must take command, then,” said Tavernay. “I think you have learnt something about it on your fishing-boats.” And in spite of his pain he smiled.

Stretton mustered the men and called over the names. Almost the first name which he called was the name of “Barbier,” and Barbier, with a blood-stained rag about his head, answered. Of the two hundred and thirty men who had made up the two companies of the Legion, only forty-seven could stand in the ranks and answer to their names. For those forty-seven there was herculean work to do. Officers were appointed, the dead bodies were roughly buried, the camels collected, litters improvised for the wounded, the goat-skins filled with water. Late in the afternoon Stretton came again to Tavernay.

“We are ready, sir.” Tavernay nodded and asked for a sheet of paper, an envelope, and ink. They were fetched from his portfolio and very slowly and laboriously he wrote a letter and handed it to Stretton.

“Seal it,” he said, “now, in front of me.”

Stretton obeyed.

“Keep that letter. If you get back to Ouargla without me, give it to the Commandant there.”

Tavernay was lifted in a litter on to the back of a camel, and the remnant of the geographical expedition began its terrible homeward march. Eight hundred miles lay between Bir-el-Ghiramo and the safety of Ouargla. The Touaregs hung upon the rear of the force, but they did not attack again. They preferred another way. One evening a solitary Arab drove a laden camel into the bivouac. He was conducted to Stretton, and said, “The Touaregs ask pardon and pray for peace. They will molest you no more. Indeed, they will help you, and as an earnest of their true desire for your welfare they send you a camel-load of dates.”

Stretton accepted the present, and carried the message to Tavernay, who cried at once, “Let no one eat those dates.” But two soldiers had already eaten of them, and died of poison before the morning. Short of food, short of sentinels, the broken force crept back across the stretches of soft sand, the greyish-green plains of halfa-grass, the ridges of red hill. One by one the injured succumbed; their wounds gangrened, they were tortured by the burning sun and the motion of the camels. A halt would be made, a camel made to kneel, and a rough grave dug.

“Pelissier,” cried Stretton, and a soldier stepped out from the ranks who had once conducted mass in the church of the Madeleine in Paris. Pelissier would recite such prayers as he remembered, and the force would move on again, leaving one more soldier’s grave behind it in the desert to protest unnoticed against the economy of governments. Then came a morning when Stretton was summoned to Captain Tavernay’s side.

For two days Tavernay had tossed in a delirium. He now lay beneath a rough shelter of cloaks, in his right senses, but so weak that he could not lift a hand, and with a face so pinched and drawn that his years seemed to have been doubled. His eyes shone out from big black circles. Stretton knelt down beside him.

“You have the letter?”


“Do not forget.”

He lay for a while in a sort of contentment, then he said—“Do not think this expedition has been waste. A small force first and disaster . . . the big force afterwards to retrieve the disaster, and with it victory, and government and peace, and a new country won for France. That is the law of the Legion. . . . My Legion.” He smiled, and Stretton muttered a few insincere words.

“You will recover, my captain. You will lead your companies again.”

“No,” said Tavernay, in a whisper. “I do not want to. I am very happy. Yes, I say that, who joined the Legion twenty years ago. And the Legion, my friend, is the nation of the unhappy. For twenty years I have been a citizen of that nation. . . . I pity women who have no such nation to welcome them and find them work. . . . For us there is no need of pity.”

And in a few moments he fell asleep, and, two hours later, sleeping, died. A pile of stones was built above his grave, and the force marched on. Gaunt, starved, and ragged, the men marched northwards, leaving the Touat country upon their left hand. It struck the caravan route from Tidikelt to Ouargla; it stumbled at last through the gates of the town. Silently it marched through the streets to the French fortress. On no survivor’s face was there any sign of joy that at last their hardships were over, their safety assured. All were too tired, too dispirited. The very people who crowded to see them pass seemed part of an uninteresting show. Stretton went at once to the Commandant and told the story of their disaster. Then he handed him the letter of Captain Tavernay. The Commandant broke the seal and read it through. He looked up at Stretton, a thin spent figure of a man overwrought with sleeplessness and anxiety.

“Tell me how and when this was written,” said the Commandant.

Stretton obeyed, and after he had heard, the Commandant sat with his hand shading his eyes. When he spoke, his voice showed that he was deeply moved.

“You know what the letter contains, Sergeant Ohlsen?”

“No, my Commandant.”

“Read, then, for yourself;” and he passed the letter across his office table. Stretton took it and read. There were a few lines written—only a few; but those few lines recommended Sergeant Ohlsen for promotion to the rank of officer. The Commandant held out his hand.

“That is like our Tavernay,” he said. “He thought always of his soldiers. He wrote it at once, you see, after the battle was over, lest he should die and justice not be done. Have no fear, my friend. It is you who have brought back to Ouargla the survivors of the Legion. But you must give your real name. There is a scrutiny before a soldier is promoted to the rank of office. Sergeant Ohlsen. That is all very well. But Lieutenant——. Come, Lieutenant who?”

He took up his pen.

“Lieutenant Sir Anthony Stretton,” replied Tony; and the Commandant wrote down the name.

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