A. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) Mason.

The truants; a novel online

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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


oouatry 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'a 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 dif-
ference 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 Tavemay," 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 1 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 hi3

" 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. Tavemay 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,
(lipping 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

"Touaregs," said he, gravely. "Masked Touaregs,"
and that night the sentinels were doubled ; and in the morn-
ing the bugle did not sound the reveille.

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 mfanU 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 north-
westwards, 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

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 dune3, and the sentries came running back.

" Steady," cried Captain Tavernay. " They are coming.
Fire low I "

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 morn-
ing came, a grey, clear light spread over the desert. Tavernay
himself was with one of the machine-guns. It was dragged
clear of the melee 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 ran 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 risiug 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.

" TThy ? " 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 con-
temptuous 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.

l> AVe 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 bo .Stretton.

" Seal it," he said, " now, in front of me."

Stretton obeyed.

" Keep that letter. If you gel back to Onargla 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 Onargla. 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 con-
ducted 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 govern-
ments. 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 ? "

" Yes."

" 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 Com-
mandant and told the story of their disaster. Then he
handed him the letter of Captain Tavernay. The Com-
mandant 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

Stretton obeyed, and after he had heard, the Com-
mandant 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, Lieu-
tenant who ? "

He took up his pen.

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





It was not, however, only Millie Stretton whose fortunes
were touched by Tony's absence. Wanisden, whom Stretton
had met but the once on board the Cily of Bristol, was no
less affected. On a day of that summer, during which Tony
camped far away on the edge of the Sahara, Warrisden rode
down the steep hill from the village of the three poplars on
his way to Whitewebs. Once Pamela had ridden along this
road between the white wood rails and the black bare stems
of trees on a winter's evening of mist. That was more than
fifteen months ago. The brown furrows in the fields were
now acres of waving yellow ; each black chimp was now an
ambuscade of green, noisy with birds. The branches
creaked in a light wind and rippled and shook the sunlight
from their leaves, the road glistened like chalk. It was ten
o'clock on an August morning, very clear and light. Voices
from far away amongst the corn sounded tiny and distinct,
like voices heard through a telephone. Pound this bend at
the thicket corner Pamela had disappeared on that dim, grey
evening. How far had she since travelled on the new road,
"Warrisden wondered. She was at "Whitewebs now. He
was riding thither to find out.

When he inquired for her at the door, he was at once
led through the house into the big garden at the back.
Pamela was silting in a chair at the edge of the lawn under
the shade of the great avenue of elms which ran straight
from the back of the house to the shallow stream at the


garden's boundary. She saw him at once as he came oufc
from the glass-door on to the gravel, and she rose from her
chair. She did not advance to him, but just stood where
she was, watching him approach ; and in her eyes there was
a great perplexity. Warrisden came straight to her over the
lawn. There was no hesitation in his manner, at all event?.
On the other hand, there was no air of assurance. He came
with a definite object ; so much was evident, but no more.
He stopped in front of her and raised his hat. Pamela
looked at him and said nothing. She did not even give him
her hand. She stood and waited almost submissively, with
her troubled eyes resting quietly on his.

" You expected me ? " he said.

" Yes. I received your letter this morning."

" You have guessed why I have come ? "

" Yes."

" And you are troubled," said Warrisden.

They turned and walked under the branches into the
avenue. Overhead there was a bustle of blackbirds and
thrushes ; a gardener sharpening his scythe in the rose
garden made a little rasping sound. Over all the lawn the
August sunlight lay warm and golden like a benediction.

" I have come to ask you the old question," said "Warris-
den. " "Will you marry me ? "

Pamela gazed steadily ahead as she walked, and she
walked very slowly. She was prepared for the question, yet
she took her time to answer it. And the answer when at
last she gave it was no answer at all.

" I do not know," she said, in a low clear voice.

Warrisden looked at her. The profile of her face was
towards him. He wondered for the thousandth time at its
1 >eauty and its gentleness. The broad, white forehead under
the sweep of her dark hair, the big, dark eyes shining beneath
her brows, the delicate colour upon her cheeks, the curve of
the lips. He wondered and longed. But he spoke simply and
without extravagance, knowing that he would be understood.


" I have done nothing for you of the things men often
do when a woman comes into their lives. I have tried to
make no career. I think there are enough people making
careers. They make the world very noisy, and they raise a
deal of dust. I have just gone on living quietly as I did
before, believing you would need no such proof."

" I do not," said Pamela.

"There might be much happiness for both of us," he
continued. And again she answered, without looking at
him —

" I do not know."

She was not evading him. Evasions, indeed, were never
to her liking ; and here, she was aware, were very serious

" I have been thinking about you a great deal," she said.
" I will tell you this. There is no one else. But that is not
all. I can say too, I think, quite certainly, that there will
be no one else. Only that is not enough, is it ? Not enough,
ut all events, for you and me."

Warrisden nodded his head.

" No, that is not enough," he said gravely.

They walked on side by side in silence for a little while.

" It is only fair that I should be very frank with you,"
she went on. " I have been thinking so much about you in
order that when you came again with this old question, as I
knew you would, I might be quite clear and frank. Do you
remember that you once spoke to me about the turnpike gate
— the gate which I was to open and through which I was to
go, like other men and women down the appointed road ? "

" Yes, I remember."

" You meant, as I understand it, the gate between friend-
ship and the ever so much more which lies beyond ? "

" Yes."

And Pamela repeated his word. " Yes," she said. " But
one cannot open that gate at will. It opens of itself at a

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Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 13 of 26)