English Literature

A Tatter of Scarlet by S. R. Crockett

A Tatter of Scarlet by S. R. Crockett.jpg



Deventer and I leaned on the parapet and watched the curious things which were happening in Aramon across the river. We were the biggest boys in the school and kept even the Seniors in awe, being “Les Anglais” to them—and so familiar with the “boxe”—though Deventer was an Irishman, and I, Angus Cawdor, a Scot of the Scots.

We had explained the difference to them many times by arguments which may have temporarily persuaded some, but without in the least affecting the fixed French notion that all English-speaking people are of English race.

Behind us circulated the usual menagerie-promenade of the “Grands,” gabbling and whispering tremendous secrets in files of two and three.

Hugh Deventer was a great hulk of a fellow who would take half a dozen French Seniors and rub their heads together if I told him, laughing loudly at their protestations as to loss of honour. He had been challenged several times to fight duels with small swords, but the Frenchmen had given that up now. For Deventer spat on his palms and pursued the seconds who came with the challenge round and round the playground till he caught and smacked them. Whereat he laughed again. His father was chief of the Small Arms Factory, which of late years had been added to the arsenal works of New Aramon opposite to us on the left bank of the Rhône.

My own father was a clergyman, who for the sake of his health had retired to the dry sunny Rhône valley, and had settled in a green and white villa at Aramon because of the famous lycée which was perched up on the heights of Aramon le Vieux.

There was not much to distinguish Aramon the Old from Aramon the New, that is, from a distance. Both glowed out startingly white and delicately creamy between the burnished river and the flawless sapphire of the Provençal sky. It was still winter time by the calendar, but the sun beat on our bowed shoulders as we bent over the solid masonry of the breastwork, and the stones were hotter than in English dog-days as we plucked away our hands from it.

Deventer and I looked across at the greater New Aramon where his father lived. It was the Aramon of shops and hotels and factories, while Aramon le Vieux, over which our great lycée throned it like a glorified barracks, was a place of crumbling walls, ancient arcaded streets, twelfth-century palaces let as tenements, and all the interesting débris of a historical city on the verges of Languedoc.

Our French lycéens were too used to all this beauty and antiquity to care anything about it, but we English did. We were left pretty much to ourselves on our rare days of liberty, and as the professors, and especially the proviseur, knew that we were to be trusted, we were allowed to poke about the old Languedocian outpost much as we pleased.

It was the month of January, 1871. France was invaded, beaten, but not conquered; but here in the far South, though tongues wagged fiercely, in his heart the good bourgeois was glad to be out of it all.

At any rate, the lycée was carried on just as usual. Punishments were dealt out and tasks exacted. Pions watched constantly over our unstable morals, and occasionally reported misdemeanours of a milder kind, not daring to make their position worse by revealing anything that really mattered.

But, generally speaking, Aramon le Vieux dreamed away the hours, blinking in the sunshine. The war did not touch it save in the fierce clatter of café dispute. Only in the forts that rose about the arsenal of the newer city opposite to us a feeble guard of artillery and linesmen lingered as a protection for the Small Arms Factory.

For the new Paris Government was still far from stable, and some feared a renewal of the White Terror of 1815, and others the Red of the Commune of 1848. The workmen of the arsenal, hastily gathered from all quarters, were mostly sealed to the “Internationale,” but it was supposed that the field-pieces in Fort St. André could easily account for any number of these hot-heads.

Besides Hugh Deventer and I there were several other English boys, but they were still screeching like seagulls somewhere in the Lower School and so did not count, except when an anxious mamma besought us with tears in her voice to look after her darling, abandoned all day to his fate among these horrid French.

To “look after” them Deventer and I could not do, but we gathered them into a sort of fives team, and organised a poor feckless game in the windowless angle of the refectory. We also got hockey sticks and bastinadoed their legs for their souls’ good to the great marvel of the natives. Deventer had even been responsible for a trial of lacrosse, but good missionaries though we were, we made no French converts.

The Juniors squealed like driven piglings when the ball came their way, while the Seniors preferred walking up and down their paved cattle-pen, interminably talking with linked arms and lips close to the ear of a chosen friend.

Always one or two read as they walked alone, memorising fiercely against next Saturday’s examination.

The pariah pion or outcast usher, a most unhappy out-at-elbows youth, was expected to keep us all under his eye, but we saw to it early that that eye passed leniently over Deventer and myself. Otherwise he counted for nothing.

The War—the War—nothing but talk of the War came to our ears from the murmuring throng behind us. How “France has been betrayed.” “How the new armies of the Third Republic would liberate Paris and sweep the Prussians back to Berlin. From every side brave patriots were even now closing in upon the beleaguered city. Ha, then the spiked helmets would see!”

Still, a few facts grew more clear to us. At Lyons and Grenoble, Bourbaki was organising the army of the South-East. There came a sound from nowhere in particular that this army was to be joined and led by Garibaldi himself with thirty thousand of his red jackets from Italy.

Deventer and I were immensely excited. We made plans for immediate invasion. We would fight for France and wear a red cardigan in the Foreign Legion. But the Lycée St. André was well guarded, and so far no one had succeeded in escaping. I do not know that they tried very hard. They were French lads and brave—as many of them showed afterwards—but they were of the Midi, and even then the Midi was proverbially hard to budge. Not as in the North and East had the iron of the invasion entered the soul.

The parapet upon which we leaned was of very ancient masonry, solid blocks laid clean and Cyclopean with very little visible cement. It had formed part of the defences of an ancient castle, long since overwhelmed by the college buildings, the materials of which had mostly been quarried from its imposing mass.

Beneath us ran the Rhône in a fine, broad, half-mile-wide sweep, five or six miles an hour, yet save for the heaped hillocks of water about the bridge piers, and the swirl where the far bank curved over, as smooth as a mirror.

Hugh Deventer and I had been talking of the great ’61 campaign of Garibaldi in Sicily and through Naples—a thousand red-shirts and a kingdom in the dust! Ah, the glory of that time!

But as we leaned and looked we fell silent. We saw Aramon the New opposite to us, as it were at our feet, across only that span of water. The factories were curiously silent, and from one fort after another darted the white spurt of smoke which meant artillery practice.

We listened, knowing that in a little we should hear the report.

Boom! Boom! Rattle-rattle-chirr!

Fighting—they were fighting in Aramon! Deventer’s father would be in the thick of it. We looked and longed, but the way was closed. What could it be?

Deventer knew that there were continually troubles between the operatives and the “masters,” or rather the representatives of the masters of whom his father was the chief.

The great Compagnie d’Armes de Guerre Aramoise was not distinguished for generosity. The men were well lodged but poorly paid. In these war times they had been over-driven. So many hundreds of rifles to turn out daily—field artillery, too, and a new department to be set up for the manufacture of mitrailleuses.

Outside, Dennis Deventer said little about the politics of the works, nothing at all to his son Hugh.

We of the lycée knew that France was already fairly evenly divided between true Republicans and those others who looked upon Gambetta’s republic as a step to a monarchy or even the restoration of the Napoleons. The sons of functionaries mostly held the latter opinion. The scions of the aristocratic families of the neighbourhood, the old Whites of the Midi, prayed for the Bourbon flag and the coming of Henry V to his own again.

So when we heard the ripple of musketry fire and the sullen boom of the artillery, Deventer and I supposed that a mutiny of sorts had broken out at the works, or that news had come from Paris of some sudden change of government.

We were not far from the mark. There had been news from Paris and a mutiny had broken out. At any rate, they were fighting over in Aramon, and we must find out what it was all about.

For the moment this was impossible for us. The cliff was too sheer on the side of our recreation ground. There were over many eyes upon us. We must wait for the night, and in the meantime Deventer could only sniff the battle from afar, and hold in the desire to set off and help his father.

“The Dad doesn’t want me,” he said. “Of course, I know that. He would most likely tan me well for breaking bounds, but I can’t bear being cooped up here doing silly mathematics when over yonder——But listen to them!”

A patter of what might have been heavy rain on a tin roof came faintly to our ears. A little white cloud hung over the statue in the market square, and presently flung down devilish fingers earthward. We did not then know the signs of the explosion of shrapnel.

By this time the school was crowding about us, as curious as ourselves. The bell clanged for classes to resume, but no one moved. The pion screamed impotently in the rear. None took any notice, and the windows above were black with the gowns of the professors.

Some thought that the noise was only the letting off of blasts in the Pierre de Montagne quarries, but it was pointed out that such explosions took place only at eight, one, and four, the hours when the men would be out of the quarries at their meals. Besides, the crackle of small fire was unaccounted for, and each moment it became more lively.

Practice at the Chassepot factories? Very likely—but at human targets.

Finally the college authorities caused discipline to prevail, and Deventer and I watched alone by the parapet. We had both passed our bachot, and were an honour to the college. So the strictness of rule and line was relaxed in our case.

Our hearts beat, and in the instancy of our watch we would not have turned our heads if the proviseur himself had been at our side.

Presently we could see soldiers marching, the flash of bayonets, and groups of a dozen, as if pushed beyond their patience, turning and firing with rapid irregularity. All this in flashes of vision, mostly at the bridge-end, or at the intersection of two streets. Through the northern gate a kind of uncertain retreat began to dribble—the red breeches of the linesmen, the canter of the artillery horses attacking the hill, with stragglers here and there looking about for their regiments.

Neither Deventer nor I knew enough to explain these things.

“There are no Germans nearer than Toul or Besançon,” he said, with a puzzled anxiety.

The field guns answered him smartly. From all the houses about the northern gate a storm of rifle fire broke out. The soldiers on foot hastened their retreat. The artillerymen, better led or of firmer courage, faced about, and with one volley pitted the façades of the houses from which the attack had come. They withdrew regularly, covering the retreat of the infantry, and spat out their little devils’ claws of shrapnel over every group which showed itself outside the wall. Slowly the soldiers passed out of sight. The artillery bucketed over the knolls of the Montagne of Aramon among the evergreen odoriferous plants and the faint traces of the last snow wreaths.

There was nothing left for us to see now except the town of Aramon, its green and white houses sleeping in the sun, the tall chimney of the Small Arms Factory, now smokeless—and the broad Rhône sweeping grave and placid between them and us.

Nevertheless we waited alone on the recreation ground, our heads a little dizzy. The swooning hum of the class-rooms awoke behind us, but we heeded not at all.

We saw the tricolour of the Republic come down with a run from the tall flagstaff on Fort St. André, and presently, irregularly tugged, rising a few feet at a time, a red flag fluttered out, probably an improvised table-cover or bedspread. It flapped out bravely in the brisk breeze off the water.

We had had our first glimpse of “The Tatter of Scarlet.”


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