“Ventre bleu!” growled the General. “We have a right to praise the blackguards; without them our conscripts would be very poor trash. The conscript fights because he has to fight; the blackguard fights because he loves to fight. A great difference that.”
The Colonel of Tirailleurs lifted his eyes; a slight, pale effeminate, dark-eyed Parisian, who looked scarcely stronger than a hot-house flower, yet who, as many an African chronicle could tell, was swift as fire, keen as steel, unerring as a leopard’s leap, untiring as an Indian on trail, once in the field with his Indigenes.
“In proportion as one loves powder, one has been a scoundrel, mon General,” he murmured; “what the catalogue of your crimes must be!”
The tough old campaigner laughed grimly; he took it as a high compliment.
“Sapristi! The cardinal virtues don’t send anybody, I guess, into African service. And yet, pardieu, I don’t know. What fellows I have known! I have had men among my Zephyrs—and they were the wildest insubordinates too—that would have ruled the world! I have had more wit, more address, more genius, more devotion, in some headlong scamp of a loustic than all the courts and cabinets would furnish. Such lives, such lives, too, morbleu!”
And he drained his absinthe thoughtfully, musing on the marvelous vicissitudes of war, and on the patrician blood, the wasted wit, the Beaumarchais talent, the Mirabeau power, the adventures like a page of fairy tale, the brains whose strength could have guided a scepter, which he had found and known, hidden under the rough uniform of a Zephyr; buried beneath the canvas shirt of a Roumi; lost forever in the wild, lawless escapades of rebellious insubordinates, who closed their days in the stifling darkness of the dungeons of Beylick, or in some obscure skirmish, some midnight vedette, where an Arab flissa severed the cord of the warped life, and the death was unhonored by even a line in the Gazettes du Jour.
“Faith!” laughed Chanrellon, regardless of the General’s observation, “if we all published our memoirs, the world would have a droll book. Dumas and Terrail would be beat out of the field. The real recruiting sergeants that send us to the ranks would be soon found to be—”
“Women!” growled the General.
“Cards,” sighed the Colonel.
“Absinthe,” muttered another.
“A comedy that was hissed.”
“The natural desire of humanity to kill or to get killed!”
“Morbleu!” cried Chanrellon, as the voices closed, “all those mischiefs beat the drum, and send volunteers to the ranks, sure enough; but the General named the worst. Look at that little Cora; the Minister of War should give her the Cross. She sends us ten times more fire-eaters than the Conscription does. Five fine fellows—of the vieille roche too—joined to-day, because she has stripped them of everything, and they have nothing for it but the service. She is invaluable, Cora.”