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Alphonse Daudet (1840–1897). Five Short Stories.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

The Bad Zouave

THAT evening the big blacksmith, Lory of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, was not happy.

When the smithy fire had gone down and the sun had set, it was his custom to sit on a bench before his door, tasting that grateful weariness which is the reward of heavy labor and of a hot day’s work. Before he sent home his apprentices, he would drink several deep glasses of cool beer with them, while he watched the workers coming out of the factories.

But that evening the good blacksmith remained at his forge until it was time for his supper, and even then he went as if he regretted to leave. As his old wife looked at him, she thought.

“What can have happened to him? Can he have received bad news from the regiment and be hiding it from me? Perhaps the older of the boys is sick——”

But she dared not question him, and busied herself quieting three little tow-headed rascals, brown as ears of parched corn, who were laughing around the table as they crunched their good salad of black radishes and cream.

At last the blacksmith pushed back his plate in a rage and cried,

“Ah, what brutes, what curs!”

“Come, Lory, who are you talking about?” said his wife. He shouted,

“I am talking of five or six scamps who were seen this morning parading the town in their French uniforms, arm in arm with the Bavarians—more of those fellows who have—how do they say it?—‘chosen Prussian citizenship.’ And to think that every day we seeing such false Alsatians come back! What can they have given the scoundrels to drink anyway?”

The mother tried to defend them.

“My poor husband, what do you expect? Those boys are not entirely to blame. They are sent to Algeria, so far away in Africa! They get home-sick out there, and their temptation is very strong to come back and not be soldiers any longer.”

Lory struck the table a heavy blow with his fist.

“Be still, mother! You women-folk understand nothing at all. You live so much with children and so little for anything else that you become exactly the size of your cubs. I tell you, those fellows are ragamuffins, renegades, the worst sort of scoundrels! If bad luck ever made our own Christian capable of such infamous conduct, as surely as my name is George Lory, seven years chasseur in the army of France, I would run him through the body with my saber!”

Terrible to look upon, he half rose from his chair and pointed to his long chasseur’s saber, which hung under a picture of his son in the uniform of a zouave, taken out there in Africa.

But merely to look at that honest Alsatian face,—burned almost black by the sun, the strong light making the colours stand out vividly against the blank whiteness around—that was enough to quiet him suddenly. He began to laugh.

“I am a fine fellow to be losing my head this way! As if our Christian could dream of turning Prussian—Christian, who bowled over such a lot of them in the war!”

Brought back to good humour by this idea, the good smith managed to make a cheerful meal, and set out right after it to empty a couple of glasses at the Ville de Strasbourg.

The old woman was now left alone. She had put the small blond scamps to bed; they could be heard twittering in the next room like a nestful of birds getting ready for sleep. She picked up her work, and set to darning before the door on the garden side of the house. Once in a while she sighed, and she thought,

“Of course—there can be no doubt of it—they are scoundrels and renegades—but, what of it? Their mothers are glad to see them again.”

And she thought of the time when her own boy had not yet gone to join the army and stood there just at that hour of the day, getting ready to work in the garden. She looked at the well where he refilled his watering cans: her boy, in his blouse, with his long hair, that beautiful hair which had been cut short when he entered the Zouaves.

Suddenly she trembled. The little gate at the back—the gate which led to the fields,—had been opened. The dogs had not barked, though the man who had just entered slunk along the walk like a thief, and slipped in among the beehives.

“Good-day, mother!”

His uniform all awry, there stood before her Christian, her son, anxious, shame-faced, and thick-tongued. The wretched boy had come back with the others and for the last hour had been prowling about the house, waiting for his father to go out. She wanted to scold him, but she had not the courage. How long it was since she had seen him, had hugged him! And then he went on to give her such good reasons for his return!—how he had grown weary for his native countryside, for the smithy:—weary of living always so far away from them all, and of the discipline—much harsher of late—as well as of his comrades, who called him “Prussian” because of his Alsatian accent. She believed every word he said. She had only to look at him to believe him. Deep in their talk, they went into the lower room. The little ones woke up, and ran in their nightshirts and bare feet to embrace the big brother. He was urged to eat, but he was not hungry. He was only thirsty, always thirsty; and he gulped great draughts of water on top of all the beer and white wine for which he had paid that morning at the inn.

But some one was coming into the yard. It was the black-smith returning.

“Christian, here comes your father. Quick, hide until I have time to talk with him and explain.”

She pushed the boy behind the great porcelain stove and again set herself to sewing with trembling hands. But as ill fortune would have it, the Zouave’s cap lay upon the table, and it was the first thing Lory noticed as he entered. The mother’s pallor, and her agitation—he understood it all.

“Christian is here!” he cried, in a terrible voice. Taking down his saber with a mad gesture, he rushed towards the stove where crouched the Zouave, pale, sobered, and steadying himself against the wall to keep from falling.

The mother threw herself between them.

“Lory, Lory! Don’t kill him! He came back because I wrote that you needed him at the forge!”

She riveted her hold upon his arm, and dragged him back, sobbing. The children, in the darkness of their room, began to cry when they heard those voices full of anger and tears, and so thick that they did not know them.

The smith stood still and looked at his wife.

“Oh!” he said. “So it was you who made him come back! Very well. It is time he went to bed. I shall decide to-morrow what I must do.”

Christian woke next morning from a sleep filled with nightmares and broken by causeless terrors, to find himself in the room he had used as a child. Already warm and well up in the sky, the sun sent its rays across the blossoming hops and through the small leaded panes of the window. Hammers were ringing on the anvil below. His mother sat by his pillow: she had been so afraid of her husband’s anger that she had not stirred from there all night. Nor had the father gone to bed. Till the first dawn, he had walked through the house weeping, sighing, opening and closing closets. He now entered his son’s room. He was very grave and dressed for a journey. He wore his high gaiters and his big hat, and carried his heavy mountain stick with its iron ferule. He went straight to the bed.

“Come, get up!”

Dazed, the boy made as if to get his Zouave equipment.

“No, not that!” said the father, sternly.

The mother, all apprehension, said,

“But, my dear, he has no other things.”

“Give him mine. I shall not need them again.”

While the boy dressed, Lory carefully packed the uniform, with its little vest and its huge red trousers. As soon as he had made the package, he slung about his neck the tin box which contained the schedule of coaches.

“Now let us go down,” he said; and all three without a word descended to the smithy.

The blast roared. Everyone was at work. When Christian saw once more that great open shed of which he had so often thought off there in Algeria, he recalled his childhood and the long hours he had played out there, between the heat of the road and the sparks from the forge that glittered amid the black dust. He felt a sudden flood of tenderness, a great longing to be pardoned by his father; but whenever he raised his eyes, he met an inexorable look.

At last the blacksmith made up his mind to speak.

“Boy,” he said, “there stands the anvil with the tools. They are all yours. And so is all this.” He indicated the little garden which lay beyond, filled with sunshine and with bees, and framed by the sooty square of the door.

“The hives, the vine, the house itself,—they are all yours. You sacrificed your honour for these things. The least you can do is to take care of them. Now you are master here. As for myself, I shall go away. You owe five years to France: I am going to pay them for you.”

“Lory, Lory!’ cried the poor old wife, “where are you going?”

“Father!” begged the son.

But the blacksmith was already on his way. He walked with great strides and did not turn back.

At Sidi-bel-Abbés, the dépôt of the Third Zouaves, there enlisted some days later a volunteer who gave his age as fifty-five years.