Many have talked of the zouave: few know him.
Everybody has seen him lazily squatting at the gates of the Tuileries, like a granite sphinx on the threshold of the Assyrian palaces. He is on guard. He performs his duty with a profoundly melancholy air, smoking his pipe with feverish impatience, or, rather, watching with feverish impatience all the while he is smoking his pipe, some ray of our Parisian sunlight, which seems like moonlight when compared with that fierce African sunshine, which pours down upon the head like molten lead.
A scrap of green or white calico, twisted around a red fez; a blue jacket, trimmed with red or yellow braid, and which leaves the throat entirely bare; full scarlet trousers, cut in the Oriental fashion; white gaiters buttoning above the ankle; this is his costume.
How can one describe the man?
Short, spare, compactly built and muscular, with broad shoulders, square fists, closely shaven head, keen eyes, a mocking smile, and a bold and decided bearing—such is the zouave, the best soldier in the world for bold ventures, skirmishes with outposts, impossible ambuscades, and rapid marches.
Accustomed to the pursuit of the Arab, his constant enemy, the zouave is thoroughly conversant with all the stratagems of desert warfare. He has learned to outwit his savage foes, so he will always surprise the armies of Europe.
"The Arab is very cunning, but the zouave is more cunning still."
He knows how to conceal himself in a little clump of shrubbery, and steal imperceptibly upon the sentinel whom he wishes to capture; he can advance without a sound, remain motionless for hours together, hide behind the slightest irregularity in the ground, crawl, leap, bound, disappear in the undergrowth that surrounds him, follow a track, and shun all the traps that are set for him.
As a sharp-shooter, he has no equal.
If a position is to be taken, he dashes forward, with head down, overturning everything in his passage. It is no longer a man; it is a bullet. Once started on his course, he reaches the goal or dies.
The zouave cordially detests large cities, and regards garrisons with abhorrence.
In garrison life, the discipline becomes too irksome; he must polish his cartridge-box, whiten his shoulder-belt, wash his clothes, mount guard at regular hours, appear at parade—all wearisome enough to the average trooper, but insupportable to the zouave.
The zouave needs the freedom of camp life, the free range of an enemy's country, a ragoût improvised under a tent. It matters not if his canteen is only three-quarters full, and if the supply of coffee is running short, so he has but a morsel of no matter what to appease his hunger, he sings, he is gay, he is happy, he is himself.
It is true that when he is not happy, he is equally gay, and sings even more loudly.
The zouave owes his fondness for adventure and his almost nomadic habits to the African war. In constantly pursuing the Arabs through deserts and over mountains, he has formed habits of living very like those of these wandering tribes.
Like the philosopher Bias, the zouave carries all his possessions about with him, which proves, perhaps, that he is something of a philosopher.
But you should see a zouave's knapsack when he is starting on an expedition. It is monstrous; one wonders if he will not sink beneath his burden, and be compelled to cast it aside. He would rather die. Besides, it seems to be the universal belief that he does not feel the weight of it.
Usually, on taking the field, the infantry lighten their load as much as possible; the officers not only permit this, but require it.
It is not so with the zouave. This seems to be the very time that his burden must be heaviest He reduces his effects to the smallest possible compass, rolls them, squeezes them, and then crowds them, and crowds them, until the straps become too short and the distended knapsack threatens to burst.
There is a little of everything in the zouave's load. An enumeration of its contents would sound like the inventory of three distinct establishments;—a drug, a haberdashery, and a grocery store.
He has thread, needles, buttons, soap, wax, tallow, a thimble, a fork, one or two spoons, and several knives, to say nothing of the condiments indispensable in the concoction of a savory ragoût.
For the zouave is a gourmand. It is to satisfy his fastidious tastes in this direction that, having no servant at his command, he has made himself the best cook in Europe.
His ragoûts might not make his fortune in Paris; but in Africa, in the desert, how many generals have smacked their lips over them!
Any one can make a savory dish of stewed rabbit with a rabbit; but to make it without a rabbit, that is a difficult task, quite worthy of a zouave.
His fertile imagination never shines as brilliantly as when the larder is empty; then, he employs all his wits; he searches, he invents. On such days, he dines admirably; but how many strange animals are made to turn from their usual path to take the road to the saucepan.
"I do not ask my zouaves for strawberries," said Marshal, then Colonel Canrobert, one frightfully hot day, in the middle of the desert; "but if I really desired some, they are quite capable of discovering them in the sand."
To-day the zouave is the most popular of all our soldiers; his chachia threatens to pass down to posterity with the towering bear-skin cap worn by the grenadiers of the First Empire.
It is to the zouave that we owe the words of the celebrated march known as the "Casquette." This is the origin of it:
One night the French camp was surprised by Arabs. A murderous fire so astonished our soldiers, that they almost wavered at first; but Marshal Bugeaud rushed from his tent, and his presence inspiring our troops with their wonted enthusiasm, the enemy was repulsed.
When the conflict was ended, the marshal noticed that every one smiled on looking at him. He raised his hands to his head. In his haste, he had left his tent adorned with the anything but heroic head-gear of the King of Yvetot; in short, a night-cap.
The next day, when the trumpets gave the signal for the troops to resume their march, the zouaves, in memory of that original coifiure, sung in deafening chorus:
Du Père Bugeaud?"
Two or three days afterward, the marshal, on giving the order for departure, said to the trumpeters: "Boys, sound la casquette."
So this name still clings to the order. To how many victories it has led, and will lead the zouaves!
Father Bugeaud's casquette, by insuring the success of "Duc Job," yielded eighty thousand francs to the Théâtre Français, and sixty thousand francs to M. Léon Laya.
It is a night-cap well worth the having.