Sands of Destiny: A Novel of the French Foreign Legion [MultiFormat]
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eBook by E. C. Tubb
eBook Category: Historical Fiction/Mainstream
eBook Description: In 1935 in French North Africa, the tribesmen of the interior have been stirred to rebellion in a mighty jihad created by a foreign power. Lieutenant Crispin de Corville, a secret agent for the French Foreign Legion, discovers the plot, and must fight his way across the desert, disguised as one of the Arabs, to save the string of forts that's the only thing keeping the hordes at bay. With him are two American women travelers who've been swept up in the action. But Corville soon finds that the sands of the desert are indeed the "Sands of Destiny"!
Grand adventure in the Beau Geste tradition, by the author of science fiction's "Dumarest" saga!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, Published: England, 1955
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2011
SIDI BEL ABBES
BENEATH the sweltering heat of an African sun the city of Sidi bel Abbes rested in uneasy peace. A strange blending of the ancient and modern with tall, glaring white concrete buildings shouldering low, dried mud and baked brick of native architecture, its winding streets filled with the sleek bodies of high-powered cars and the dull-eyed, patiently plodding camels of primitive transport. Here, in West Algeria, the East met the West and both suffered a little from the merging. Tourists, still in white from Northern suns, self-conscious in their tropical dress, cameras slung about their neck, wandered and stared at buildings that were old when their own countries were young. Around them clustered hordes of shrill-voice beggars and vendors of cheap souvenirs, thrusting at each other and filling the somnolent air with raucous sound. A Hadji, a stately Arab, cool in his loose white burnoose, his turban bearing the green thread of one who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, walked slowly towards the mosque where the Muezzin, tiny as he stood at the top of the slender tower, raised his voice as he called the faithful to prayer.
"Allah il Akbar."
A normal day in Sidi bel Abbes.
Crispin de Corville thought so and, as he stared at the well-remembered scene, he felt the tugging of a faint nostalgia. He had arrived here in 1930--five years ago. A raw recruit for the Foreign Legion and, since then, life had demanded, and given, much. They had taken him, had the Legion, and from a soft, kind-hearted son of an English nobleman, had turned him into a tough, ruthless soldier of the most famous army in the world. Promotion had been swift, his gift for languages, his knowledge of French and Arabic, his previous training in the Officer Cadet Corps of a public school had soon lifted him from the ranks into the coveted officer status. Now, as he stood tall and slim in his uniform, his shoulders bearing the insignia of a lieutenant, he smiled a little as he remembered those first days when, still a civilian, he had arrived at the headquarters of the Legion.
Automatically he stiffened and returned the salute of two legionnaires, their faces brown and hard beneath their kepis. He looked after them for a moment, proud of their military bearing, then frowned as a native, a ragged, dirty, scavenger of the streets, glared at the broad backs of the two soldiers and spat after them.
For a moment he was tempted to avenge the insult then, as he remembered who and what he was, forced himself to dismiss the incident as of being no importance. There was always trouble between the natives and the Legion. Even the city Arabs hated the trim men in their blue and scarlet. In that they were no different from the war-like tribes of the interior, the Bedouins, the Touregs, the dozen lesser-known tribes of nomads who were forever plotting to overthrow the rule of the Ferangi and to establish their own despotism. Dangerous these tribes were, a smouldering fire of incipient rebellion, all too ready to be whipped into flame by some fanatic preaching the necessity for a Jehad, a holy war which would stain the sands of the desert with innocent blood and ensure the faithful's path to Paradise over the broken bodies of the unbelievers,
Between those blood-hungry tribes and the overthrow of peaceful law and order were the iron men of the Foreign Legion.
Corville sighed as he thought of it, feeling the familiar sense of strain and anticipation which he had felt for too long now. Peace was something that had to be worked for and, the slightest relaxation would release the ever-present threat of the Jehad. Adjusting his kepi the young officer strode down the narrow streets towards the bleak, dried mud barracks of the Legion Headquarters. A group of new recruits passed him as he walked, pale-faced men, poorly dressed, with here and there someone who, once, had obviously been a gentleman. Watching them Corville thought of the hundred reasons a man might have for losing himself in the anonymity of the Legion. Heartbreak, financial failure, escape from responsibility, from crime even, for the Legion asked no questions and a man could lose even his name once in the uniform of the famous corps. He stepped aside as they swung into the barrack square, most of them carrying a small bundle over one shoulder, all of them staring interestedly at the place which was to be their new home. The sergeant in charge, a grizzled veteran of many battles, snapped his arm in salute as he passed the officer, his hoarse voice bawling sharp commands.
"Eyes right! Eyes front!"
Some of them didn't understand him. Most of them had yet to learn French but the commands were unmistakable in any language and they dutifully turned their heads in salute to the officer watching them. Corville stared after them as they passed within the barracks, there to be issued with uniform, allocated beds, instructed in the organisation of barrack-life and to be readied for the training that would start at dawn next day,
A training that they would never really finish for the full five-year term of their voluntary induction.
Next to the dried mud wall of the compound a bleak, white-walled building of concrete reared towards the cloudless sky, and to this building Corville walked. The soldier on guard snapped to attention, his Lebel almost springing to the salute. Corville returned it and, with a sigh of relief, passed into the shadowed coolness of the interior.
"Lieutenant de Corville," he said to a soldier sitting behind a desk. "I am expected."
"Yes, sir. Colonel Le Farge has given orders." The soldier pressed a button. "A moment, sir. I will have someone conduct you to the Colonel." He stared with undisguised interest at the young officer. "May one ask the officer if the news is good?"
"One may," said Corville drily, "but one should not expect an answer." He turned as a second soldier, this one in un-dress uniform, appeared from a door at the rear of the building. "Lieutenant de Corville?"
"If you will come with me, sir? The Colonel will receive you immediately."
Corville nodded and followed his guide.
Colonel Le Farge was a man who appeared to have been withered by the tropical sun. A small man, his face so lined and wizened as to give him almost the appearance of a monkey, his eyes, bright flecks of gleaming intelligence peering from beneath thick, shaggy eyebrows which, like his hair, had long ago lost their original colour and were now as white as paper. He looked up from where be sat as Corville entered the room, and dismissed the escort with characteristic abruptness.
"Yes, sir." The soldier withdrew and Le Farge glared at Corville.
"Not well." said the young man deliberately. He had long since learned that the Colonel's manner was quite innocuous and refused to let it annoy him. "I've just returned from...."
"I know that," snapped Le Farge. "I sent you. Well?"
"Rumours." Corviile shrugged. "As usual the bazaars are full of them. None of much importance and none of them new."
"Bazaar talk!" Le Farge sneered his contempt. "Is that all you have to report? The lowest of my agents could have done as much, I expected better from you than that, Corville."
"If you will let me finish?" The young man stared at the irate face of the Colonel. "As I said the bazaars are full of the usual gossip. I'd expected that but I had to make sure." He paused. "I met a camel driver, one belonging to a train that had come from the region of Onassis, and he told me something very interesting. It would appear that a new voice has been raised in the tents of our brothers. A voice which cries to the faithful to rise and throw off the yoke of the Ferangi." Corville stared at the intent face of Le Farge. "Is this news to you?"
"The camel driver mentioned a name, Hadji Hassan."
"Meaningless." Le Farge bit his lips with annoyance. "With the organised pilgrimages any Moslem worth his salt would have gone to Mecca and thus acquired the title of 'Hadji'. Hassan could be an adopted name, the name of a benefactor, or a name taken for a purpose. There is no lead there."
"Then why let it worry you, sir?" Corville dropped his bantering mood as he saw the seriousness on the face of the other. "Some local zealot trying to whip up a holy war, the desert is full of them, but they all land up in much the same place. Prison, or, mostly, an unmarked grave. The tribes are too sensible to rise at the urgings of any one man. They have been chastened too often to believe that mere words and a belief in Allah can sweep aside the forts and silence the Lebels of the Legion."
"You think that?" Le Farge shrugged. "Listen. Corville, you have been in the Legion five years. Am I correct?"
"You came here from England, never mind why, though I know your history better than you know it yourself." Le Farge smiled at the other's expression. "It is essential to employ men we can trust in the Arab Division and, naturally, I had to check on you. Your father was an Englishman, a noble, and your mother was French. They parted, again never mind why, and your mother took you to live with her in France. You were educated in England and, a few years after leaving your public school, joined the Legion." The old man leaned forward over his desk with a suddenness that surprised the young man. "Why, Corville? Why did you join the Legion?"
Corville didn't answer. Le Farge was within his rights to enquire into the history of any man, within his rights too to confront that man with his knowledge as he was doing now, but he had no right at all to ask questions of such a personal nature.
"You do not choose to answer?" Le Farge shrugged, a typically Gallic gesture. "Very well, I cannot make you answer, but equally so, you cannot prevent me from hazarding a guess. Your father, did he not vanish after your mother and he parted? Was there not some scandal? Never mind my young friend, though, if I were to be asked to give a reason for your being here, I think that 1 should be able to come very near the truth."
"Would you?" said Corville stiffly. "May I remind the Colonel that it is hardly his place to question me as to my private affairs."
"You have no private affairs," snapped the old man. "You are a soldier, a servant of France, and everything you do must be done with that in mind." He waved his hand at the young man's expression. "Oh, I know. You have served your term and are free to resign your commission at any time you choose, but somehow, my friend, I do not think that you will."
"The Colonel knows what he knows."
"The Colonel knows a good man when he sees one." Le Farge slumped in his chair and waved irritably at a droning fly. "Sacre! What are we talking about? Have some wine and wash the taste of the desert from your mouth. It is not for us to quarrel, you and I. We are comrades of the Legion and our enemies are around us, but not within." He produced a bottle and filled two glasses with the thin, acrid wine of Algiers. "A votre sante!"
"A votre sante!" Corville drained the glass and watched while the old Colonel refilled it. At times like this military protocol was relaxed though discipline was as rigid as ever.
"You know," said the old man reflectively. "Sometimes it seems strange to me to find how little people know about what we do. To the tourists the Arabs are a harmless part of the scenery. To the business people they are someone with whom to trade, bringing in their wool, skins, a little gold and dried dates to the market for sale for cloth, trinkets, and other goods. To the horse trader they are the breeders of the finest flesh on four legs, and to the Legion they are the Devil incarnate." Le Farge rose and crossing the room rested his hand on a large-scale map of the area. "Look at it. Desert, kilometre after kilometre of it, sand dotted with the scanty palms of oasis and encampment. Men live there, wild, savage, untamed men. Proud of their independence, direct descendants from the old slave traders who convoyed hundreds of groaning blacks to the slave ports on the coast. From these men sprang the corsairs and human wolves who ravaged the inland sea for hundreds of years. They are wild and untrammeled, uncivilised as we know civilisation, and like wolves they strain at the leash. One day they will break out and when they do...." He made an expressive gesture.
"They will not break out," said Corville positively. "A few small, scattered outbreaks perhaps. A fort or two attacked, some men killed, a few others tortured, but that is all. The Legion will destroy a few villages, shoot a few men, imprison others, and the whole thing will blow over as it has always done." He sipped at his wine. "My Colonel is starting at shadows," he said affectionately. "He is beginning to dream of the great Jehad which will sweep the Ferengi into the sea."
"You laugh?" Anger gleamed for a moment in the deep-set eyes of the old man. "You mock?"
"You jest then? That is good, but there is a time for jesting and a time to be serious."
"I am serious," said Corville. "I remember Hollenfort and what we found there." He shuddered. "Those women used their knives well in that place. We had to shoot twenty men and it was an act of mercy for which they begged."
"Yes," said Le Farge sombrely. "Native women have a skill with their knives. Once...." He shuddered and gulped at his wine. "Never mind now. It is over, but my brother? Shall I ever forget him?"
Corville sat while the old man stared blindly at the map before him, reliving again the memory of a sudden attack, the defeat of an isolated garrison, and the frenzied shrieking of tormented men as the native women tortured the captives with their razor-edged knives. After a while Le Farge drew a deep breath and, when he stared at the young officer, his face was bleak with a grim resolve.
"It is said, and said true, that the onlooker sees most of the game. Here in this office, like a spider in a web of intrigue, I gather the threads of a mat of knowledge which you, working as you are too close to the source, must fail to recognise." The Colonel slumped in his chair and reached for the wine. "'Rumours', you say, and dismiss them with a shrug. 'A local fanatic', and again you ignore the obvious. I cannot afford to do that. I must take every single item of information into account and from it weld a united whole. If I fail to do this, then the dam will break and a tide of blood will stain the sand to a deeper red than it has ever known."
"The Jehad," whispered Corville, and stared with new respect at the old man. Le Farge nodded.
"The Jehad. Not a Jehad, you note, but the Jehad, the great holy war to smash the rule of France and set up the rule of native tribesmen." He shrugged at Corville's expression. "Never let yourself be deluded by appearances, my young friend. What, after all, is the Legion? A relative handful of hardened troops, trained, yes, and with an iron discipline which has made them the most famous corps in the world, but," he leaned forward, "they are still a handful. Should the Arabs arise at one time, should they simultaneously ride from the desert and attack the towns, and should they isolate our forts and cut our lines of communication, then the Legion would be swept away and blood would rule instead of law and order."
"It could never happen," said Corville positively.
"It has never happened," corrected Le Farge. "And why? Because the French Secret Service of which this, the Arab Division is part, has seen to it that all previous attempts to stir up a mass uprising have been doomed to failure. As an agent of the Arab Division you should know that. As an officer of the Legion you must know it."
"I know it," said Corville quietly.
"Then you know what is my task," snapped the Colonel, He looked at the map again. "For thirty years I have served the Legion and France. For thirty years I have baked in the sun and listened to intrigue and forestalled plot after plot. I recognise the signs now. I can tell, sense if you like, when the pot is coming to the boil again." He snapped his hand hard against the top of the desk. "A new voice preaches rebellion in the tents of Onassis. Nothing, you say, and you are right--if it were that alone. But add other factors. The theft of a shipment of rifles from a warehouse. A dhow found to be carrying large quantities of ammunition. A second, outward bound, and full of pearls and hashish. Add the fact that the bazaars are full of whispers and that no tourist is safe in the town after dark. Add murder of a prominent liberal Arab who preached cooperation with the French and remember the fire at Sali Bearena, a fire in which the records of many notorious agitators were destroyed, Take the mysterious disappearance of a man from a foreign power, a man who was reputed to be able to speak Arabic like a native." Le Farge stared at the young officer. "Well?"
"Pearls and hashish to buy guns and ammunition. The records destroyed so that the agitators would not be molested by the police. Stolen rifles, an Arab tribesman would do anything for such a rifle, and the fanatics preaching in every tent and encampment." Corville nodded. "It begins to make sense."
"It makes very good sense," said Le Farge grimly. "As I said, the pot is reaching the boil again. We must take it off before someone gets burned."
"You have a plan?"
"Yes," Le Farge emptied the bottle of wine into his glass and sipped at the thin, red fluid. "Before the tribes can stage a successful revolt they need arms. Some have been smuggled through past our watch on the coast, but as the smugglers ask a high price for such weapons, and as the tribes rarely have wealth in other forms than camels, goats, horses and rugs, they will not be able to buy many of them. The Sheikhs, of course, already own modern rifles, but that cannot be helped."
"How about rifles captured during previous outbreaks?"
"Rifles need ammunition," reminded Le Farge. "The nomads are extremely wasteful in their use of cartridges, they have to be, every young man must learn to shoot and that takes ammunition. So, even though they may have rifles already, and certainly there are a great number of Lebels hidden in the tents, yet they still need ammunition for them. The obvious place to get it is...." He looked questioningly at Corville.
"A garrison," said the young man. "Or a fort, or even, though I doubt if they would attack it, the arsenal at Marojia."
"Exactly. So, in order to squash this incipient hell, we must know just where to expect the preliminary attack. If we can crush that, beat them back and punish them for breaking the peace, then we may, and I repeat, may, be able to avoid bloodshed." He stared at the young man. "That is your job."
"Yes. You have been among the Arabs before and can speak like one. You know their ways and could pass where another man would be discovered and tortured to death. You are to mingle with the camel drivers, they always seem to know what is going on, and from there ferret out the truth." Le Farge sighed. "I may be starting at shadows, I hope to God I am, but if there is anything in what I feel, then we must take every precaution."
"You wish me to stay in the city and to report to you personally?"
"No. You are attached to the garrison at Onassis and you must return there. Make your way in disguise and, when you discover anything of value, report to Colonel Marignay. He will forward the information to me in cipher." He stared at the young man. "Any questions?"
"Am I at liberty to time my own movements or must I report within a certain time?"
"Use your own discretion. I shall inform Colonel Marignay to expect you. Once you have reported to the garrison you will resume your normal command." Le Farge hesitated. "Be careful. I have reason to believe that information as to the Arab Division has been reaching ears for which it was not intended. Two agents have mysteriously vanished and one other was found yesterday, horribly mutilated and still alive." Le Farge swallowed. "He died in hospital a few hours after he was found."
"I understand, sir."
"I hope that you do." The old man dropped his hand familiarly on the other's shoulder. "Find out what you can and report it to the Colonel. Take no risks other than those you cannot avoid." His grip tightened a moment. "I am depending on you, my young friend. See to it that you do not let me down."
"You may trust me, my Colonel," said Corville quietly. For a moment the two men stared at each other, one so old, the other so young. Then Corville snapped his arm into the salute, turned, and without a backward glance marched from the office.
Behind him Le Farge sighed, stared at the map a moment, then reached for a new bottle of wine.