Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 21.

Cigarette En Condottiera.

Cigarette always went fast. She had a bird-like way of skimming her ground that took her over it with wonderful swiftness; all the tassels, and ribbon knots, and sashes with which her uniform was rendered so gay and so distinctive fluttering behind her; and her little military boots, with the bright spurs twinkling, flying over the earth too lightly for a speck of dust — though it lay thick as August suns could parch it — to rest upon her. Thus she went now, along the lovely moonlight; singing her drinking song so fast and so loud that, had it been any other than this young fire-eater of the African squadrons, it might have been supposed she sang out of fear and bravado — two things, however, that never touched Cigarette; for she exulted in danger as friskily as a young salmon exults in the first, crisp, tumbling crest of a sea-wave, and would have backed up the most vainglorious word she could have spoken with the cost of her life, had need been. Suddenly, as she went, she heard a shout on the still night air — very still, now that the lights, and the melodies, and the laughter of Chateauroy’s villa lay far behind, and the town of Algiers was yet distant, with its lamps glittering down by the sea.

The shout was, “A moi, Roumis! Pour la France!” And Cigarette knew the voice, ringing melodiously and calm still, though it gave the sound of alarm.

“Cigarette au secour!” she cried in answer; she had cried it many a time over the heat of battlefields, and when the wounded men in the dead of the sickly night writhed under the knife of the camp-thieves. If she had gone like the wind before, she went like the lightning now.

A few yards onward she saw a confused knot of horses and of riders struggling one with another in a cloud of white dust, silvery and hazy in the radiance of the moon.

The center figure was Cecil’s; the four others were Arabs, armed to the teeth and mad with drink, who had spent the whole day in drunken debauchery; pouring in raki down their throats until they were wild with its poisonous fire, and had darted headlong, all abreast, down out of the town; overriding all that came in their way, and lashing their poor beasts with their sabers till the horses’ flanks ran blood. Just as they neared Cecil they had knocked aside and trampled over a worn out old colon, of age too feeble for him to totter in time from their path. Cecil had reined up and shouted to them to pause; they, inflamed with the perilous drink, and senseless with the fury which seems to possess every Arab once started in a race neck-to-neck, were too blind to see, and too furious to care, that they were faced by a soldier of France, but rode down on him at once, with their curled sabers flashing round their heads. His horse stood the shock gallantly, and he sought at first only to parry their thrusts and to cut through their stallions’ reins; but the latter were chain bridles, and only notched his sword as the blade struck them, and the former became too numerous and too savagely dealt to be easily played with in carte and tierce. The Arabs were dead-drunk, he saw at a glance, and had got the blood-thirst upon them; roused and burning with brandy and raki, these men were like tigers to deal with; the words he had spoken they never heard, and their horses hemmed him in powerless, while their steel flashed on every side — they were not of the tribe of Khalifa.

If he struck not, and struck not surely, he saw that a few moments more of that moonlight night were all that he would live. He wished to avoid bloodshed, both because his sympathies were always with the conquered tribes, and because he knew that every one of these quarrels and combats between the vanquisher and the vanquished served further to widen the breach, already broad enough, between them. But it was no longer a matter of choice with him, as his shoulder was grazed by a thrust which, but for a swerve of his horse, would have pierced to his lungs; and the four riders, yelling like madmen, forced the animal back on his haunches, and assaulted him with breathless violence. He swept his own arm back, and brought his saber down straight through the sword-arm of the foremost; the limb was cleft through as if the stroke of an ax had severed it, and, thrice infuriated, the Arabs closed in on him. The points of their weapons were piercing his harness when, sharp and swift, one on another, three shots hissed past him; the nearest of his assailants fell stone dead, and the others, wounded and startled, loosed their hold, shook their reins, and tore off down the lonely road, while the dead man’s horse, shaking his burden from him out of the stirrups, followed them at a headlong gallop through a cloud of dust.

“That was a pretty cut through the arm; better had it been through the throat. Never do things by halves, ami Victor,” said Cigarette carelessly, as she thrust her pistols back into her sash, and looked, with the tranquil appreciation of a connoisseur, on the brown, brawny, naked limb, where it lay severed on the sand, with the hilt of the weapon still hanging in the sinewy fingers. Cecil threw himself from his saddle and gazed at her in bewildered amazement; he had thought those sure, cool, death-dealing shots had come from some Spahi or Chasseur.

“I owe you my life!” he said rapidly. “But — good God! — you have shot the fellow dead ——”

Cigarette shrugged her shoulders with a contemptuous glance at the Bedouin’s corpse.

“To be sure — I am not a bungler.”

“Happily for me, or I had been where he lies now. But wait — let me look; there may be breath in him yet.”

Cigarette laughed, offended and scornful, as with the offense and scorn of one whose first science was impeached.

“Look and welcome; but if you find any life in that Arab, make a laugh of it before all the army tomorrow.”

She was at her fiercest. A thousand new emotions had been roused in her that night, bringing pain with them, that she bitterly resented; and, moreover, this child of the Army of Africa caught fire at the flame of battle with instant contagion, and had seen slaughter around her from her first infancy.

Cecil, disregarding her protest, stooped and raised the fallen Bedouin. He saw at a glance that she was right; the lean, dark, lustful face was set in the rigidity of death; the bullet had passed straight through the temples.

“Did you never see a dead man before?” demanded Cigarette impatiently, as he lingered — even in this moment he had more thought of this Arab than he had of her!

He laid the Arab’s body gently down, and looked at her with a glance that, rightly or wrongly, she thought had a rebuke in it.

“Very many. But — it is never a pleasant sight. And they were in drink; they did not know what they did.”

“Pardieu! What divine pity! Good powder and ball were sore wasted, it seems; you would have preferred to lie there yourself, it appears. I beg your pardon for interfering with the preference.”

Her eyes were flashing, her lips very scornful and wrathful. This was his gratitude!

“Wait, wait,” said Cecil rapidly, laying his hand on her shoulder, as she flung herself away. “My dear child, do not think me ungrateful. I know well enough I should be a dead man myself had it not been for your gallant assistance. Believe me, I thank you from my heart.”

“But you think me ‘unsexed’ all the same! I see, beau lion!”

The word had rankled in her; she could launch it now with telling reprisal.

He smiled; but he saw that this phrase, which she had overheard, had not alone incensed, but had wounded her.

“Well, a little, perhaps,” he said gently. “How should it be otherwise? And, for that matter, I have seen many a great lady look on and laugh her soft, cruel laughter, while the pheasants were falling by hundreds, or the stags being torn by the hounds. They called it ‘sport,’ but there was not much difference — in the mercy of it, at least — from your war. And they had not a tithe of your courage.”

The answer failed to conciliate her; there was an accent of compassion in it that ill-suited her pride, and a lack of admiration that was not less new and unwelcome.

“It was well for you that I was unsexed enough to be able to send an ounce of lead into a drunkard!” she pursued with immeasurable disdain. “If I had been like that dainty aristocrate down there — pardieu! It had been worse for you. I should have screamed, and fainted, and left you to be killed, while I made a tableau. Oh, ha! that is to be ‘feminine,’ is it not?”

“Where did you see that lady?” he asked in some surprise.

“Oh, I was there!” answered Cigarette, with a toss of her head southward to where the villa lay. “I went to see how you would keep your promise.”

“Well, you saw I kept it.”

She gave her little teeth a sharp click like the click of a trigger.

“Yes. And I would have forgiven you if you had broken it.”

“Would you? I should not have forgiven myself.”

“Ah! you are just like the Marquise. And you will end like him.”

“Very probably.”

She knitted her pretty brows, standing there in his path with her pistols thrust in her sash, and her hands resting lightly on her hips, as a good workman rests after a neatly finished job, and her dainty fez set half on one side of her brown, tangled curls, while upon them the intense luster of the moonlight streamed, and in the dust, well-nigh at their feet, lay the gaunt, while-robed form of the dead Arab, with the olive, saturnine face turned upward to the stars.

“Why did you give the chessmen to that silver pheasant?” she asked him abruptly.

“Silver pheasant?”

“Yes. See how she sweeps — sweeps — sweeps so languid, so brilliant, so useless — bah! Why did you give them?”

“She admired them. It was not much to give.”

“You would not have given them to a daughter of the people.”

“Why not?”

“Why not? Oh, ha! because her hands would be hard, and brown, and coarse, not fit for those ivory puppets; but hers are white like the ivory, and cannot soil it. She will handle them so gracefully, for five minutes; and then buy a new toy, and let her lapdog break yours!”

“Like enough.” He said it with his habitual gentle temper, but there was a shadow of pain in the words. The chessmen had become in some sort like living things to him, through long association; he had parted from them not without regret, though for the moment courtesy and generosity of instinct had overcome it; and he knew that it was but too true how in all likelihood these trifles of his art, that had brought him many a solace and been his companion through many a lonely hour, would be forgotten by the morrow, where he had bestowed them, and at best put aside in a cabinet to lie unnoticed among bronzes or porcelain, or be set on some boudoir table to be idled with in the mimic warfare that would serve to cover some listless flirtation.

Cigarette, quick to sting, but as quick to repent using her sting, saw the regret in him; with the rapid, uncalculating liberality of an utterly unselfish and intensely impulsive nature, she hastened to make amends by saying what was like gall on her tongue in the utterance:

“Tiens!” she said quickly. “Perhaps she will value them more than that. I know nothing of the aristocrats — not I! When you were gone, she championed you against the Black Hawk. She told him that if you had not been a gentleman before you came into the ranks, she had never seen one. She spoke well, if you had but heard her.”

“She did!”

She saw his glance brighten as it turned on her in a surprised gratification.

“Well! What is there so wonderful?”

Cigarette asked it with a certain petulance and doggedness; taking a namesake out of her breast-pocket, biting its end off, and striking a fusee. A word from this aristocrate was more welcome to him than a bullet that had saved his life!

Her generosity had gone very far, and, like most generosity, got nothing for its pains.

He was silent a few moments, tracing lines in the dust with the point of his scabbard. Cigarette, with the cigar in her mouth, stamped her foot impatiently.

“Corporal Victor! Are you going to dream there all night? What is to be done with this dog of an Arab?”

She was angered by him; she was in the mood to make herself seem all the rougher, fiercer, naughtier, and more callous. She had shot the man — pouf! What of that? She had shot men before, as all Africa knew. She would defend a half-fledged bird, a terrified sheep, a worn-out old cur; but a man! Men were the normal and natural food for pistols and rifles, she considered. A state of society in which firearms had been unknown was a thing Cigarette had never heard of, and in which she would have contumeliously disbelieved if she had been told of it.

Cecil looked up from his musing. He thought what a pity it was this pretty, graceful French kitten was such a bloodthirsty young panther at heart.

“I scarcely know what to do,” he answered her doubtfully. “Put him across my saddle, poor wretch, I suppose; the fray must be reported.”

“Leave that to me,” said Cigarette decidedly, and with a certain haughty patronage. “I shot him — I will see the thing gets told right. It might be awkward for you; they are growing so squeamish about the Roumis killing the natives. Draw him to one side there, and leave him. The crows will finish his affair.”

The coolness with which this handsome child disposed of the fate of what, a moment or two before, had been a sentient, breathing, vigorous frame, sent a chill through her hearer, though he had been seasoned by a decade of slaughter.

“No,” he said briefly. “Suspicion might fall on some innocent passer-by. Besides — he shall have a decent burial.”

“Burial for an Arab — pouf!” cried Cigarette in derision. “Parbleu, M. Bel-a-faire-peau, I have seen hundreds of our best soldiers lie rotting on the plains with the birds’ beaks at their eyes and the jackals’ fangs in their flesh. What was good enough for them is surely good enough for him. You are an eccentric fellow — you —”

He laughed a little.

“Time was when I should have begged you not to call me any such ‘bad form’! Eccentric! I have not genius enough for that.”

“Eh?” She did not understand him. “Well, you want that carrion poked into the earth, instead of lying atop of it. I don’t see much difference myself. I would like to be in the sun as long as I could, I think, dead or alive. Ah! how odd it is to think one will be dead some day — never wake for the reveille — never hear the cannon or the caissons roll by — never stir when the trumpets sound the charge, but lie there dead — dead — dead — while the squadrons thunder above one’s grave! Droll, eh?”

A momentary pathos softened her voice, where she stood in the glistening moonlight. That the time would ever come when her glad laughter would be hushed, when her young heart would beat no more, when the bright, abundant, passionate blood would bound no longer through her veins, when all the vivacious, vivid, sensuous charms of living would be ended for her forever, was a thing that she could no better bring home to her than a bird that sings in the light of the sun could be made to know that the time would come when its little, melodious throat would be frozen in death, and give song never more.

The tone touched him — made him think less and less of her as a dare-devil boy, as a reckless child-soldier, and more of her as what she was, than he had done before; he touched her almost caressingly.

“Pauvre enfant! I hope that day will be very distant from you. And yet — how bravely you risked death for me just now!”

Cigarette, though accustomed to the lawless loves of the camp, flushed ever so slightly at the mere caress of his hand.

“I risked nothing!” she said rapidly. “As for death — when it comes, it comes. Every soldier carries it in his wallet, and it may jump out on him any minute. I would rather die young than grow old. Age is nothing else but death that is conscious.”

“Where do you get your wisdom, little one?”

“Wisdom? Bah! living is learning. Some people go through life with their eyes shut, and then grumble there is nothing to see in it! Well — you want that Arab buried? What a fancy! Look you, then; stay by him, since you are so fond of him, and I will go and send some men to you with a stretcher to carry him down to the town. As for reporting, leave that to me. I shall tell them I left you on guard. That will square things if you are late at the barrack.”

“But that will give you so much trouble, Cigarette.”

“Trouble? Morbleu! Do you think I am like that silver pheasant yonder? Lend me your horse, and I shall be in the town in ten minutes!”

She vaulted, as she spoke, into the saddle; he laid his hand on the bridle and stopped her.

“Wait! I have not thanked you half enough, my brave little champion. How am I to show you my gratitude?”

For a moment the bright, brown, changeful face, that could look so fiercely scornful, so sunnily radiant, so tempestuously passionate, and so tenderly childlike, in almost the same moment, grew warm as the warm suns that had given their fire to her veins; she glanced at him almost shyly, while the moonlight slept lustrously in the dark softness of her eyes; there was an intense allurement in her in that moment — the allurement of a woman’s loveliness, bitterly as she disdained a woman’s charms. It might have told him, more plainly than words, how best he could reward her for the shot that had saved him; yet, though a man on whom such beguilement usually worked only too easily and too often, it did not now touch him. He was grateful to her, but, despite himself, he was cold to her; despite himself, the life which that little hand that he held had taken so lightly made it the hand of a comrade to be grasped in alliance, but never the hand of a mistress to steal to his lips and to lie in his breast.

Her rapid and unerring instinct made her feel that keenly and instantly; she had seen too much passion not to know when it was absent. The warmth passed off her face, her teeth clinched; she shook the bridle out of his hold.

“Take gratitude to the silver pheasant there! She will value fine words; I set no count on them. I did no more for you than I have done scores of times for my Spahis. Ask them how many I have shot with my own hand!”

In another instant she was away like a sirocco; a whirlwind of dust, that rose in the moonlight, marking her flight as she rode full gallop to Algiers.

“A kitten with the tigress in her,” thought Cecil, as he seated himself on a broken pile of stone to keep his vigil over the dead Arab. It was not that he was callous to the generous nature of the little Friend of the Flag, or that he was insensible either to the courage that beat so dauntlessly in her pulses, or to the piquant, picturesque grace that accompanied even her wildest actions; but she had nothing of her sex’s charm for him. He thought of her rather as a young soldier than as a young girl. She amused him as a wayward, bright, mischievous, audacious boy might have done; but she had no other interest for him. He had given her little attention; a waltz, a cigar, a passing jest, were all he had bestowed on the little lionne of the Spahis corps; and the deepest sentiment she had ever awakened in him was an involuntary pity — pity for this flower which blossomed on the polluted field of war, and under the poison-dropping branches of lawless crime. A flower, bright-hued and sun-fed, glancing with the dews of youth now, when it had just unclosed, in all its earliest beauty, but already soiled and tainted by the bed from which it sprang, and doomed to be swept away with time, scentless and loveless, down the rapid, noxious current of that broad, black stream of vice on which it now floated so heedlessly.

Even now his thoughts drifted from her almost before the sound of the horse’s hoofs had died where he sat on a loose pile of stones, with the lifeless limbs of the Arab at his feet.

“Who was it in my old life that she is like?” he was musing. It was the deep-blue, dreaming haughty eyes of the Princesse that he was bringing back to memory, not the brown, mignon face that had been so late close to his in the light of the moon.

Meanwhile, on his good gray, Cigarette rode like a true Chasseur herself. She was used to the saddle, and would ride a wild desert colt without stirrup or bridle; balancing her supple form now on one foot, now on the other, on the animal’s naked back, while they flew at full speed. Not so fantastically, but full as speedily, she dashed down into the city, scattering all she met with right and left, till she rode straight up to the barracks of the Chasseurs d’Afrique. At the entrance, as she reined up, she saw the very person she wanted, and signed him to her as carelessly as if he were a conscript instead of that powerful officer, Francois Vireflau, captain and adjutant.

“Hola!” she cried, as she signaled him; Cigarette was privileged all through the army. “Adjutant Vireflau, I come to tell you a good story for your folios. There is your Corporal there — le beau Victor — has been attacked by four drunken dogs of Arbicos, dead-drunk, and four against one. He fought them superbly, but he would only parry, not thrust, because he knows how strict the rules are about dealing with the scoundrels — even when they are murdering you, parbleu! He has behaved splendidly. I tell you so. And he was so patient with those dogs that he would not have killed one of them. But I did; shot one straight through the brain — a beautiful thing — and he lies on the Oran road now. Victor would not leave him, for fear some passer-by should be thought guilty of a murder. So I came on to tell you, and ask you to send some men up for the jackal’s body. Ah! he is a fine soldier, that Bel-a-faire-peur of yours. Why don’t you give him a step — two steps — three steps? Diantre! It is not like France to leave him a Corporal!”

Vireflau listened attentively — a short, lean, black-visaged campaigner, who yet relaxed into a grim half-smile as the vivandiere addressed him with that air, as of a generalissimo addressing a subordinate, which always characterized Cigarette the more strongly the higher the grade of her companion or opponent.

“Always eloquent, pretty one!” he growled. “Are you sure he did not begin the fray?”

“Don’t I tell you the four Arabs were like four devils! They knocked down an old colon, and Bel-a-faire-peur tried to prevent their doing more mischief, and they set on him like so many wild-cats. He kept his temper wonderfully; he always tries to preserve order; you can’t say so much of your riff-raff, Captain Vireflau, commonly! Here! this is his horse. Send some men to him; and mind the thing is reported fairly, and to his credit, tomorrow.”

With which command, given as with the air of a commander-inchief, in its hauteur and its nonchalance, Cigarette vaulted off the charger, flung the bridle to a soldier, and was away and out of sight before Francois Vireflau had time to consider whether he should laugh at her caprices, as all the army did, or resent her insolence to his dignity. But he was a good-natured man, and, what was better, a just one; and Cigarette had judged rightly that the tale she had told would weigh well with him to the credit side of his Corporal, and would not reach his Colonel in any warped version that could give pretext for any fresh exercise of tyranny over “Bel-a-faire-peur” under the title of “discipline.”

“Dieu de Dieu!” thought his champion as she made her way through the gas-lit streets. “I swore to have my vengeance on him. It is a droll vengeance, to save his life, and plead his cause with Vireflau! No matter! One could not look on and let a set of Arbicos kill a good lascar of France; and the thing that is just must be said, let it go as it will against one’s grain. Public Welfare before Private Pique!”

A grand and misty generality which consoled Cigarette for an abandonment of her sworn revenge which she felt was a weakness utterly unworthy of her, and too much like that inconsequent weathercock, that useless, insignificant part of creation, those objects of her supreme derision and contempt, those frivolous trifles which she wondered the good God had ever troubled himself to make — namely, “Les Femmes.”

“Hola, Cigarette!” cried the Zouave Tata, leaning out of a little casement of the As de Pique as she passed it. “A la bonne heure, ma belle! Come in; we have the devil’s own fun here —”

“No doubt!” retorted the Friend of the Flag. “It would be odd if the master-fiddler would not fiddle for his own!”

Through the window, and over the sturdy shoulders, in their canvas shirt, of the hero Tata, the room was visible — full of smoke, through which the lights glimmered like the sun in a fog; reeking with bad wines, crowded with laughing, bearded faces, and the battered beauty of women revelers, while on the table, singing with a voice Mario himself could not have rivaled for exquisite sweetness, was a slender Zouave gesticulating with the most marvelous pantomime, while his melodious tones rolled out the obscenest and wittiest ballad that ever was caroled in a guinguette.

“Come in, my pretty one!” entreated Tata, stretching out his brawn arms. “You will die of laughing if you hear Gris–Gris to-night — such a song!”

“A pretty song, yes — for a pigsty!” said Cigarette, with a glance into the chamber; and she shook his hand off her, and went on down the street. A night or two before a new song from Gris–Gris, the best tenor in the whole army, would have been paradise to her, and she would have vaulted through the window at a single bound into the pandemonium. Now, she did not know why, she found no charm in it.

And she went quietly home to her little straw-bed in her garret, and curled herself up like a kitten to sleep; but for the first time in her young life sleep did not come readily to her, and when it did come, for the first time found a restless sigh upon her laughing mouth.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:06