I just finished reading this fine novel by the estimable Percival Christopher Wren (author of Beau Geste). First written in 1913, Wages of Virtue was published in 1916, actually preceding Beau Geste. My copy, with no date, is probably dated after the 1924 publication of Beau Geste since the title page credits Wren as the author of “Beau Geste, etc.”. It is 285 pages long and a quick read but only if one is persistent. I say this because of Wren’s annoying Cockney accents and American Southern drawl written into some of his character’s dialog. I found it difficult to read at times and I actually put the book down for about a month before returning to finishing it up these last couple of days. Despite the clunky dialog and some antiquated terms it thankfully has an intricate plot that all comes together in the final chapters. I also really enjoyed Wren’s depiction of Legion life in the barracks at Sidi Bel Abbes and the fine characterization of the Legionnaires of the 7th Company of the 1st Regiment. There are the English speaking heroes: Sir Montague Merline (aka John Bull, 14 year legionnaire and former British Army Captain and whom the Prologue is written about), Mr. Hiram Cyrus Milton (the very large Texan known as the Bucking Bronco), and Herbert Higgens (the Cockney criminal, balladeer and comic relief). The trio is joined by Reginald Rupert (a newly enlisted English gentleman-adventurer) and two Russian bleus. Almost half of the book takes place in one day as Bull and the gang take Rupert around for the grand tour of the Legion barracks, the canteen and the Café de la Légion that is run by the fiery Carmelita. We also meet Luigi Rivoli, the classic barracks bully with an entourage of shady toadies who indulge their champion as he lords himself over everyone in the Company. Eventually the new legionnaires are trained up and assigned to the same company then they march off to man a desert outpost. During this time they fight marauding Berber tribes as well as the dreaded cafard before returning to Sidi Bel Abbes (where the drama quickly picks up from there). Of note is that some of the characters in this novel appear in other Wren stories of the Legion.
In order to set the background there is much time discussing the relationship between Carmelita and Luigi. He was a champion wrestler in Italy and Carmelita was his girl until they got in trouble with the law and fled to Algeria. While he joined the Foreign Legion she opened up the only gin joint in Sidi Bel Abbes that catered to Legionnaires only. Carmelita spends much of her time in denial about the man she wishes someday will marry her. Luigi is two-timing Carmelita, in front of the entire Regiment it seems, as he tries to hook up with the widow who runs the base canteen (Madame Cantinière) . He does this mainly because the canteen makes more money than Carmelita’s joint. Eventually something unexpected happens (I won’t tell) that finally pits the Anglo gang against Luigi and his crew. A grand fight occurs and a Legionnaire lies dead in the Café de la Légion and the four friends are compelled to desert the Legion. If you decide to read this please pay careful attention to the Prologue and the last couple of pages. I found a copy on the net but it is fairly large (38MB). This book must have been a best seller because it was made into movie in 1924 featuring Gloria Swanson as Carmelita and as you can tell below has been published multiple times.