Monday, January 14, 2019

'A touch of sun -- it does queer things.'

Blue Book was the main market for H. Bedford-Jones' serial anthologies of thematically-related stories. The gimmick gave him an excuse to surround each actual story with some framing device when they could well have stood well on their own, but his approach certainly paid more. HBJ had two separate series going on in the July 1937 issue: "Ships and Men," written in collaboration with Captain L. B. Williams -- that is, in collaboration with himself -- and "Warriors in Exile," represented in this issue by "A Touch of Sun." The framing narrative includes an apparent nod to Theodore Roscoe's Thibaut Corday, as it introduces an impossibly old Foreign Legion veteran to narrate a tale from the early days of the Legion, in the 1830s, that he claims to have witnessed. The tale itself concerns Pan Andrei, a Polish nobleman who was exiled from his homeland by its Russian overlords and ended up with the Legion in Algeria, only to desert to the natives two years later. He takes up the Touareg cause under the name El Mohdi, alongside a Turkish veteran and his daughter Khattifa, with whom Andrei falls in love. The old narrator attributes the Pole's desertion and his transformation into a renegade "Arab" to too much sun, but apart from that insinuation that he had to be mad to do it all, the story treats his new Muslim friends in relatively respectful fashion. Khattifa, who dons a youth's uniform to remain at her beloved's side, is particularly contrasted with Andrei's Polish wife, who appears in Algeria bearing tidings of his pardon and his reinstatement to nobility. He hears of this indirectly, having infiltrated the French base in native guise in order to learn the Legion's plans. The prospect tempts him briefly, but once he leaps to the conclusion that his wife is more interested in her own reinstatement to high society, he remembers all of Khattifa's virtues.

Allah! What a contrast between that woman, a princess, and this Turkish girl who loved him, rode with him, was going to bear him a child within a few more months! Here was life -- warfare, hard living, privation, and love that sweetened it all. Here was the proper destiny for a man; not back there on the estates of a prince.

Alas, in the next engagement El Mohdi is knocked unconscious and separated from his army, waking up alone in the sun. He had set the Legion up to be ambushed, but now, hearing the songs of the Polish battalion and feeling the sun again, his alignment is scrambled once more. Now he rushes to warn the Poles of the attack but they, seeing him approach in Touareg garb, shoot him dead. This last detail confuses one of the audience in the framing story, because it's all supposed to be based on Pan Andrei's diary, and how could he have written up his own demise? The old narrator suggests that he might have thrown that last part in himself, but that disclaimer reads more like an authorial shrug of the shoulders.

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