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spend an evening in a tavern of the town. They affected to whistle to him, that he might come to heel, declaring roundly that dogs had more liberty from their masters than a private is allowed by his officers. Ordinarily Gunner Stevenson would have contented himself with trying to break their bones, but in his then state of mind the taunts rang true, and the bitterness of things ate into his spirit. He fell to reciting the "Devil's Catechism," cursing the British Army from the Commander-in-Chief to the last and least of the drummer-boys, and wound up by vaingloriously announcing his utter willingness to fly in the face of Providence and the King's Regulations.
The slow Scotsmen laughed
in their grimy beards, and dared him to prove that he was really "game," whereupon Gunner Stevenson, after "spoiling the faces" of two of them, and borrowing a soiled suit of clothes from the third, tramped down to the docks and stowed himself away on board a ship bound for the French Colonies.
He awoke next morning with a sore head, a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, and an unshakable conviction that he was a fool such as is seldom seen. Also he counted ruefully the few dollars that he possessed, and thereafter gave himself up to despair and the agonies of sea-sickness.
The ship reached Saigon, and Stevenson, gaunt and miserable, with a rudimentary beard sprouting on his chin, sneaked ashore unobserved. In twentyfour hours from the time of his landing necessity combined with a lack of imagination had driven him to the nearest French recruiting office, where he was promptly enrolled in the corps which he ever afterwards spoke of as "The Legion of Strangers." He had quitted the British Army, leaving behind him a spotless defaulter-sheet and prospects of early promotion to non
commissioned rank, because the life of a soldier had proved too irksome in its grinding monotony, and because for a moment or two Discipline had appeared to him as a Spectre of Tyranny; yet, in less than a week, he had of his own motion entered himself as a recruit to a regiment which offered scant promise of a career, and is ruled by its officers with an iron hand.
La Légion Etrangère, as everybody knows, is composed of men of all races of white folk, and of every degree of ruffianism and villany. Speaking generally, the soldiers in its ranks are the sweepings of the Continental races, the "casters" and loafers whom Fate has left stranded in the inhospitable ports of Eastern Asia or of Western Africa. The Legion serves only abroad; it acts as the police, judge, jury, and executioner in the lawless Hinterlands of the French Colonies; its members never earn or obtain leave of absence, or are transferred to other corps; nominally discharge can be won at the end of ten years' continuous duty, but few live to enjoy their freedom; vile climates and the native folk, whom the French designate collectively as "pirates," using up the legion aries with a startling rapidity. Cosmopolitan in character, composed of desperate and "broken" men, engaged constantly in unrecorded struggles with the enemies of France which her colonial administration has such an unhappy knack of creating, La Légion Etrangère bears a sinister reputation, but this is altogether eclipsed by that boasted by the officers who lead it. They are popularly supposed to be a pack of unlicked devils, the outcasts of society, erstwhile gentlemen who "have gone under," men whom ill-fortune has embittered, whom vice has ruined and made savage-Frenchmen who desire no longer to see France or to tread the boulevards of Paris.
Yet Gunner Stevenson, who is a
broad-minded person, had a good word to say for his comrades of the Legion. His charity was not large enough to include the Italians or the Levantines, but he pronounced the Swedes, Danes, Germans, Belgians and Frenchmen to be good fellows, who left a man in peace when once he had given proof of his ability to stand up for himself. The officers, though they came down upon defaulters "like a cartload of bricks," struck him as fine soldiers, dashing leaders, and very just in their dealings with the men. The promptness of their drum-head courts-martial, and with which they ordered captured "pirates" out for instant execution in big batches, appealed forcibly to his sense of the eternal fitness of things, and in other matters, of which he was perhaps a sounder judge, his criticisms reflected badly on the British Army. For instance, he was much struck by the marching powers of the corps, which he attributed in a great measure to the superior method of packing and disposing of the soldier's kit, for he told me that the boots served out were very poor things compared with the regulation "ammunition-boot" used in our Service. He had much more to say that was worth noting, but this is not the place in which to enlarge upon his opinion concerning things technical. Instead I must pass on to the description of the one big sensation experienced by him during the space that he served with "The Legion of Strangers."
This did not arise from the battles in which he took his share, for the "pirates" of the Tongking Hinterland, he said, used their rifles with little skill. These rifles, it should be mentioned, were mostly of Birmingham manufacture, being supplied by that trade which manages to sneak into every corner where the Flag is not. Most fights resolved themselves into a scattering squabble of musketry
spluttering over ten square miles of boulder-strewn hills, and it was only when a small detachment of the Legionaries lost their way and fell into the hands of the enemy that much harm came to them. On such occasions unspeakable things were done to the prisoners, but Gunner Stevenson, fortunately for himself, never met with such a disaster as this. Therefore the affair which chiefly impressed itself upon his memory was a private quarrel, which took a course altogether unlike anything to which his previous experience as a British soldier had accustomed him.
He had joined the Legion a few weeks prior to the outbreak of the war in South Africa, and some months elapsed before news of that event trickled through from the coast to the wilderness in which he was serving. It came accompanied by the rumor of appalling British disasters, jubilantly magnified and distorted by the press of Indo-China, which does not love the English, and it created a tremendous excitement among Stevenson's comrades.
From the first the new recruit had found that he was doomed to a life of great loneliness. He was the only Englishman in the ranks; he knew no French, though he contrived to pick up enough to carry him along; and the men were divided into a number of cliques. The Italians and the Levantine "scum," I quote Gunner Stevenson once more, herded together, and were despised by their fellows because they were believed to be folk of little courage. The Swedes and Danes associated almost exclusively with the Germans; the Frenchmen, who counted themselves as the élite of the nondescript mob, messed together, and gave most foreigners the cold shoulder. Stevenson, who, true to his birth, had been brought up to believe himself worth a dozen foreigners, naturally
claimed a place among the crack section of the corps, and attached himself to the Frenchmen, by whom, he said, he was treated with much kindness. When the word telling of war with the Boers reached the camp, however, his position became very difficult. All his comrades, he discovered, were fierce partisans of the Dutchmen, and cherished an instinctive hatred of England.
At that time, all the world over, men thought and talked of little save the war, wherefore Gunner Stevenson found his hand against all men and all men's hands against him, and was forced to listen to a great deal that was calculated to make an Englishman wince. He could not fight the whole regiment; the foreign tongue fettered him, and rendered him wholly inarticulate in argument; he could only curse and blaspheme in a language whose oaths brought no real consolation to his conservative British soul, and heartily wish himself back again in the great hot barrack-room whose monotony had driven him to madness.
His own mess-mates, the Frenchmen, seem to have shown something like courtesy to the stranger, and though they could not entirely repress their triumph in British mishaps, they did their best to refrain from being brutally offensive to the individual Britisher. We islanders are prone to believe that love of fair play is a virtue peculiarly our own, but the innate courtesy of the French-a quality in which many of us are woefully lacking-may often perhaps bring about the same results as the Englishman's cult of abstract justice. Anyhow, Gunner Stevenson, after living cheek by jowl during a particularly trying time with some of the worst blackguards of France, was reduced to a condition of gasping wonder at the forbearance which they showed him, and the tact displayed by the roughest
of them even when men's passions were stirred to an unusual degree.
That trouble must come sooner or later, since the war had given so adverse a turn to his circumstances, Stevenson saw clearly, and the fact oppressed him, for he recognized his utter ignorance of foreign manners and customs, and knew not at all what form the trouble might assume.
One day, however, the long-expected storm burst. A huge, hulking German, the recognized bully and cock of his mess, sauntered into the hut occupied by Stevenson and the Frenchmen. He put out a vast red hand and knocked the dominoes which the Englishman had standing before him on to the ground, accompanying the action by some luridly unprintable remarks concerning the origin, morals and appearance of the British nation as a whole, and of Stevenson, its solitary representative in "The Legion of Strangers."
The assault was so unprovoked and so direct that the Englishman lost his temper in a moment, and before he had time to think or calculate the consequences, had flown at the German, yelling to him "to put his hands up," and was knocking him endways with a pair of honest English fists striking out straight from his shoulders.
The German was fleshy, and the blows raised gratifying bruises and lumps all over his face, and Stevenson, the joy of battle dancing within him, found to his delight that he could pummel the giant where and how he chose, since the fellow had not a notion of the use to which fists can be put. His enjoyment was complete, but it was of short duration. A great hubbub arose, and half the occupants of the hut threw themselves on the combatants, and yelled shrill reproof at Stevenson for his murderous conduct. His best friends among the Frenchmen were seemingly the most shocked. They loudly deplored the savage bru
tality of his conduct, while the German, looking dazed and surprised as though he had knocked up against a hidden volcano, was led off to his own mess by a band of protesting sympathizers.
The attitude manifested by public opinion was a sore puzzle to Stevenson. The man had offended him of set purpose, and had been badly thrashed for his pains. Surely that was logical cause and effect. Then wherefore was all this pother raised even by the most friendly of the Frenchmen? The thing was inexplicable. He had not originated the quarrel, but when it had been thrust upon him he had stood up for himself, and had speedily settled it once for all by licking the offensive German. The incident was closed, satisfactorily, creditably to himself, and as he believed finally.
This, however, was not the view taken by his comrades. Stevenson's British code of honor was completely satisfied, but not so that cherished by the Légion Etrangère. According to the legionaries the German had been within his rights in wantonly inflicting an insult upon the Englishman, and the latter had been justified in answering it with a blow. His misdemeanor lay in the fact that he had not contented himself with the singular number. To beat a man heartily and repeatedly with the naked fists was the act of a savage, a piece of barbarism which was utterly inexcusable. Such things were not permitted to happen among gentlemen. This and more also was explained to Stevenson, who scratched his head and strained his understanding, trying vainly to catch a single ray of intelligence through an the murky
"Mais j'ai écrasé le coquin," he said again and again in his bewilderment. "Alors c'est fini, n'est ce pas ?" But the suggestion was received with horrified denials. The incident was very far
indeed from being finished, it was barely begun. It had obviously been the desire of the German to provoke a challenge. The preliminaries, albeit Stevenson had sadly overplayed his part in them, were now complete, and it only remained to arrange a duel decently and in order.
But this view of the situation did not at all commend itself to Gunner Stevenson. He was ready enough to stand up to an enemy with the weapons God had given him, to administer or take a thrashing, and to shake hands heartily when all was over, but to fight a duel to the death was quite another business, and one moreover for which he was not in the least prepared. Having vanquished the flabby German with quite ridiculous ease, Stevenson felt that he now bore him no malice, and could afford to regard him with a friendly and half-contemptuous disdain. He had not the slightest desire to kill him: he was even less anxious to be killed by him. The whole affair was being lifted on to a plane of tragedy that was appalling. Also the moral aspect of the matter troubled him. If he were killed in the very act of trying to murder a man against whom he had now no spite, what would be his ultimate destination? The name of hell had often been on the lips of himself and his fellows in the British barrack-room, but the thing itself had never before appealed to him as a place into which he might unexpectedly step in the course of a few hours' time.
He seized his helmet, and hurriedly left the tent. He must think the difficult problem out, before he gave a final answer to his comrades, wherefore he took his way alone to a neighboring hillock, and sat himself down to smoke and ponder. He was very far from happy. All manner of things which had not recurred to his memory for years came crowding now into his
mind. He thought of the sheltered village far away in the trim West Country, that peaceful place of grassy hills, wooded combes, and deep, red lanes full of a fragrant coolness, where he had lived as a child; of the little church standing in the infinitely quiet God's acre; of the mother at whose knee he had learned the religion that had been so long neglected and forgotten, but was now obtruding itself upon him so unexpectedly. He was more than half ashamed of himself for dwelling on these things, was inclined to blush for them as weaknesses, but they rose up, one by one, to haunt him, and to influence his decision.
He must fight: that was certain, for if he refused his life would not be worth living. He would fight, but he would not kill. If he were to go before the Judgment Seat it should be with hands clean of blood. This resolution shaped itself unbidden, and smote him with surprise as being altogether out of keeping with his preconceived notion of himself. He had fancied that he was hardened, reckless, that his nerve was equal to most things, and that he was eminently capable of taking care of himself, and that he was not one likely to endanger his safety for the sake of a mere scruple. Yet now that he was brought face to face with something wholly unfamiliar and repellent to his instincts he found himself calmly accepting what he believed to be a deathsentence rather than take the life of a man who was in no way bound to him. He longed to sneak out of the duel, but pride of race made this impossible: he would very willingly have stifled the voice of his so suddenly awakened conscience, but to do this he was powerless: therefore, sorely against the grain, and feeling particularly sorry for himself, Gunner Stevenson knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and walked back to the camp.
A duel between men of the Légion Etrangère is a solemn rite the due performance of which is hedged about by great state and ancientry. There is no need for concealment, for it has the full approval of the authorities, and is said to have the effect of making fighting among the legionaries very unusual. The non-commissioned officer responsible for the section of the challenger goes to his Company's officer and makes elaborate report. He next begs for an order to draw two rounds of ball cartridge out of store, and asks leave for his men to be excused parade on the following morning, together with their seconds and a few others. officially connected with the business in hand. All this was done on behalf of the burly German, for a Court of Honor (an anomalous thing, by the way, to find itself established in "The Legion of Strangers") had decided that the mauling to which that worthy had been subjected at the hands of the Englishman gave him the rights of the aggrieved party in the dispute.
In the chill of the early morning,. therefore, Gunner Stevenson found himself standing, rifle in hand, thirty paces distant from his adversary, with half a dozen men of the Legion looking on from a little distance well out of the line of fire. There was a dank white mist swirling in slow eddies out of the hollows, but the light was fairly good, and Stevenson could plainly see every feature of the big German's face. It was horribly swollen and discolored, and one eye, which was wellnigh obliterated, glinted wickedly behind folds of purple flesh. Stevenson, who had spent a miserable night in anticipation of the coming ordeal, was quite horribly afraid, but the dankness of the morning falling on his already oppressed spirit froze him into a kind of cold despair. The matter, now that it had come to the point, seemed curiously prosaic and trivial; he had great