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Under Two Flags

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Under Two Flags
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Author(s): Ouida (Louise De La Ramee)
Date Published: 2010/06
Page Count: 588
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-213-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-214-7

High adventure in the sands of North Africa

It is often claimed that Under Two Flags is the first—and possibly most famous—in a series of French Foreign Legion novels. It has been filmed and the images it conjures of sweating foot slogging legionnaires are familiar and iconic. In fact, it is a novel where the principal character is introduced to us as consummate officer of the British Household Cavalry and his adventures under the Tricolour begin when he joins, perhaps understandably, another cavalry regiment of the French Army of Africa—the corps d'elite of the Chasseurs d'Afrique! While that may turn many preconceptions of some potential readers on their head it does not prevent this story from being a substantial and engaging romp in the shifting sands of French Colonial Algeria. The Hon. Bertie Cecil finds his honesty and honour falsely compromised and to spare his lady love he abandons his privileged position in the Life Guards and absconds—accompanied only by his manservant, Rake—to an uncertain future within the ranks as a trooper of French Cavalry. Thankfully, danger, intrigue and adventure are not done with our hero and he must battle through them assisted by a femme fatale--the ever memorable Cigarette—to this wonderful tale's climactic conclusion. Available in soft cover and hard cover with dust jacket.

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.<br>
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 everyone 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.<br>
Cecil held the Eagle still, and looked round on the few left to him.<br>
“You are sons of the Old Guard; die like them.”<br>
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.<br>
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 Napoléon was to the soldiers who loved him.<br>
There was a pause, brief as is the pause of the lungs to take a fuller breath. The Arabs honoured 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.<br>
“You are great warriors,” he cried, in the Sabir tongue; “surrender; we will spare!”<br>
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:<br>
“Have we shown ourselves cowards, that you think we shall yield?”<br>
A hourrah 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:<br>
“En avant! En avant! Tue, tue, tue!”<br>
Above the din, the shouts, the tumult, the echoing of the distant musketry, that silvery cadence rung; down into the midst, with the Tricolour 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 levelled in deadly aim, rode Cigarette.<br>
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 gaily as though she rode at a review—laughing, shouting, waving the torn colours 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.<br>
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.<br>
“Well struck! The day is turned! Charge!”<br>
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 Tricolour 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.