Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 23.

The Little Leopard of France.

“V’la ce que c’est la gloire — au grabat!”

The contemptuous sentence was crushed through Cigarette’s tight-pressed, bright-red lips, with an irony sadder than tears. She was sitting on the edge of a grabat, hard as wood, comfortless as a truss of straw, and looking down the long hospital room, with its endless rows of beds and its hot sun shining blindingly on its glaring, whitewashed walls.

She was well known and well loved there. When her little brilliant-hued figure fluttered, like some scarlet bird of Africa, down the dreary length of those chambers of misery, bloodless lips, close-clinched in torture, would stir with a smile, would move with a word of welcome. No tender-voiced, dove-eyed Sister of Orders of Mercy, gliding gray and soft, and like a living psalm of consolation, beside those couches of misery, bore with them the infinite, inexpressible charm that the Friend of the Flag brought to the sufferers. The Sisters were good, were gentle, were valued as they merited by the greatest blackguard prostrate there; but they never smiled, they never took the dying heart of a man back with one glance to the days of his childhood, they never gave a sweet, wild snatch of song like a bird’s on a spring-blossoming bough that thrilled through half-dead senses, with a thousand voices from a thousand buried hours. “But the Little One,” as said a gaunt, gray-bearded Zephyr once, where he lay with the death-chill stealing slowly up his jagged, torn frame —“the Little One — do you see — she is youth, she is life; she is all we have lost. That is her charm! The Sisters are good women, they are very good; but they only pity us. The Little One, she loves us. That is the difference; do you see?”

It was all the difference — a wide difference; she loved them all, with the warmth and fire of her young heart, for the sake of France and of their common Flag. And though she was but a wild, wayward, mischievous gamin — a gamin all over, though in a girl’s form — men would tell in camp and hospital, with great tears coursing down their brown, scarred cheeks, how her touch would lie softly as a snowflake on their heated foreheads; how her watch would be kept by them through long nights of torment; how her gifts of golden trinkets would be sold or pawned as soon as received to buy them ice or wine; and how in their delirium the sweet, fresh voice of the child of the regiment would soothe them, singing above their wretched beds some carol or chant of their own native province, which it always seemed she must know by magic; for, were it Basque or Breton, were it a sea-lay of Vendee or a mountain-song of the Orientales, were it a mere, ringing rhyme for the mules of Alsace, or a wild, bold romanesque from the country of Berri — Cigarette knew each and all, and never erred by any chance, but ever sung to every soldier the rhythm familiar from his infancy, the melody of his mother’s cradle-song and of his first love’s lips. And there had been times when those songs, suddenly breaking through the darkness of night, suddenly lulling the fiery anguish of wounds, had made the men who one hour before had been like mad dogs, like goaded tigers — men full of the lusts of slaughter and the lust of the senses, and chained powerless and blaspheming to a bed of agony — tremble and shudder at themselves, and turn their faces to the wall and weep like children, and fall asleep, at length, with wondering dreams of God.

“V’la ce que c’est la gloire — au grabat!” said Cigarette, now grinding her pretty teeth. She was in her most revolutionary and reckless mood, drumming the rataplan with her spurred heels, and sitting smoking on the corner of old Miou–Matou’s mattress. Miou–Matou, who had acquired that title among the joyeux for his scientific powers of making a tomcat into a stew so divine that you could not tell it from rabbit, being laid up with a ball in his hip, a spear-head between his shoulders, a rib or so broken, and one or two other little trifling casualties.

Miou–Matou, who looked very like an old grizzly bear, laughed in the depths of his great, hairy chest. “Dream of glory, and end on a grabat! Just so, just so. And yet one has pleasures — to sweep off an Arbico’s neck nice and clean — swish!” and he described a circle with his lean, brawny arm with as infinite a relish as a dilettante, grown blind, would listen thirstily to the description of an exquisite bit of Faience or Della Quercia work.

“Pleasures! My God! Infinite, endless misery!” murmured a man on her right hand. He was not thirty years of age; with a delicate, dark, beautiful head that might have passed as model to a painter for a St. John. He was dying fast of the most terrible form of pulmonary maladies.

Cigarette flashed her bright, falcon glance over him.

“Well! is it not misery that is glory?”

“We think that it is when we are children. God help me!” murmured the man who lay dying of lung-disease.

“Ouf! Then we think rightly! Glory! Is it the cross, the star, the baton? No!3 He who wins those runs his horse up on a hill, out of shot range, and watches through his glass how his troops surge up, wave on wave, in the great sea of blood. It is misery that is glory — the misery that toils with bleeding feet under burning suns without complaint; that lies half-dead through the long night with but one care — to keep the torn flag free from the conqueror’s touch; that bears the rain of blows in punishment, rather than break silence and buy release by betrayal of a comrade’s trust; that is beaten like the mule, and galled like the horse, and starved like the camel, and housed like the dog, and yet does the thing which is right, and the thing which is brave, despite all; that suffers, and endures, and pours out his blood like water to the thirsty sands, whose thirst is never stilled, and goes up in the morning sun to the combat, as though death were paradise that the Arbicos dream; knowing the while, that no paradise waits save the crash of the hoof through the throbbing brain, or the roll of the gun-carriage over the writhing limb. That is glory. The misery that is heroism because France needs it, because a soldier’s honor wills it. That is glory. It is here today in the hospital as it never is in the Cour des Princes, where the glittering host of the marshals gather!”

3 Having received ardent reproaches from field officers and commanders of divisions for the injustice done their services by this sentence, I beg to assure them that the sentiment is Cigarette’s — not mine. I should be very sorry for an instant to seem to depreciate that “genius of command” without whose guidance an army is but a rabble, or to underrate that noblest courage which accepts the burden of arduous responsibilities and of duties as bitter in anxiety as they are precious in honor.

Her voice rang clear as a clarion; the warm blood burned in her bright cheeks; the swift, fiery, pathetic eloquence of her nation moved her, and moved strangely the hearts of her hearers; for though she could neither read nor write, there was in Cigarette the germ of that power which the world mistily calls genius.

There were men lying in that sick-chamber brutalized, crime-stained, ignorant as the bullocks of the plains, and, like them, reared and driven for the slaughter; yet there was not one among them to whom some ray of light failed to come from those words, through whom some thrill failed to pass as they heard them. Out yonder in the free air, in the barrack court, or on the plains, the Little One would rate them furiously, mock them mercilessly, rally them with the fist of a saber, if they were mutinous, and lash them with the most pitiless ironies if they were grumbling; but here, in the hospital, the Little One loved them, and they knew it, and that love gave a flute-like music to the passion of her voice.

Then she laughed, and drummed the rataplan again with her brass heel.

“All the same, one is not in paradise au grabat; eh, Pere Matou?” she said curtly. She was half impatient of her own momentary lapse into enthusiasm, and she knew the temper of her “children” as accurately as a bugler knows the notes of the reveille — knew that they loved to laugh even with the death-rattle in their throats, and with their hearts half breaking over a comrade’s corpse, would cry in burlesque mirth, “Ah, the good fellow! He’s swallowed his own cartouche!”

“Paradise!” growled Pere Matou. “Ouf! Who wants that? If one had a few bidons of brandy, now ——”

“Brandy? Oh, ha! you are to be much more of aristocrats now than that!” cried Cigarette, with an immeasurable satire curling on her rosy piquant lips. “The Silver Pheasants have taken to patronize you. If I were you, I would not touch a glass, nor eat a fig; you will not, if you have the spirit of a rabbit. You! Fed like dogs with the leavings of her table — pardieu! That is not for soldiers of France!”

“What dost thou say?” growled Miou–Matou, peering up under his gray, shaggy brows.

“Only that a grande dame has sent you champagne. That is all. Sapristi! How easy it is to play the saint and Samaritan with two words to one’s maitre d’hotel, and a rouleau of gold that one never misses! The rich they can buy all things, you see, even heaven, so cheap!” With which withering satire Cigarette left Pere Matou in the conviction that he must be already dead and among the angels if the people began to talk of champagne to him; and flitting down between the long rows of beds with the old disabled veterans who tended them, skimmed her way, like a bird as she was, into another great chamber, filled, like the first, with suffering in all stages and at all years, from the boy-conscript, tossing in African fever, to the white-haired campaigner of a hundred wounds.

Cigarette was as caustic as a Voltaire this morning. Coming through the entrance of the hospital, she had casually heard that Mme. la Princesse Corona d’Amague had made a gift of singular munificence and mercy to the invalid soldiers — a gift of wine, of fruit, of flowers, that would brighten their long, dreary hours for many weeks. Who Mme. la Princesse might be she knew nothing; but the title was enough; she was a silver pheasant — bah! And Cigarette hated the aristocrats — when they were of the sex feminine. “An aristocrat in adversity is an eagle,” she would say, “but an aristocrat in prosperity is a peacock.” Which was the reason why she flouted glittering young nobles with all the insolence imaginable, but took the part of “Marquise,” of “Bel-a-faire-peur,” and of such wanderers like them, who had buried their sixteen quarterings under the black shield of the Battalion of Africa. With a word here and a touch there — tender, soft, and bright — since, however ironic her mood, she never brought anything except sunshine to those who lay in such sore need of it, beholding the sun in the heavens only through the narrow chink of a hospital window; at last she reached the bed she came most specially to visit — a bed on which was stretched the emaciated form of a man once beautiful as a Greek dream of a god.

The dews of a great agony stood on his forehead; his teeth were tight clinched on lips white and parched; and his immense eyes, with the heavy circles round them, were fastened on vacancy with the yearning misery that gleams in the eyes of a Spanish bull when it is struck again and again by the matador, and yet cannot die.

She bent over him softly.

“Tiens, M. Leon! I have brought you some ice.”

His weary eyes turned on her gratefully; he sought to speak, but the effort brought the spasm on his lungs afresh; it shook him with horrible violence from head to foot, and the foam on his auburn beard was red with blood.

There was no one by to watch him; he was sure to die; a week sooner or later — what mattered it! He was useless as a soldier; good only to be thrown into a pit, with some quicklime to hasten destruction and do the work of the slower earthworms.

Cigarette said not a word, but she took out of some vine-leaves a cold, hard lump of ice, and held it to him; the delicious coolness and freshness in that parching, noontide heat stilled the convulsion; his eyes thanked her, though his lips could not; he lay panting, exhausted, but relieved; and she — thoughtfully for her — slid herself down on the floor, and began singing low and sweetly, as a fairy might sing on the raft of a water-lily leaf. She sung quadriales, to be sure, Beranger’s songs and odes of the camp; for she knew of no hymn but the “Marseillaise,” and her chants were all chants like the “Laus Veneris.” But the voice that gave them was pure as the voice of a thrush in the spring, and the cadence of its music was so silvery sweet that it soothed like a spell all the fever-racked brains, all the pain-tortured spirits.

“Ah, that is sweet,” murmured the dying man. “It is like the brooks — like the birds — like the winds in the leaves.”

He was but half conscious; but the lulling of that gliding voice brought him peace. And Cigarette sung on, only moving to reach him some fresh touch of ice, while time traveled on, and the first afternoon shadows crept across the bare floor. Every now and then, dimly through the openings of the windows, came a distant roll of drums, a burst of military music, an echo of the laughter of a crowd; and then her head went up eagerly, an impatient shade swept across her expressive face.

It was a fete-day in Algiers; there were flags and banners fluttering from the houses; there were Arab races and Arab maneuvers; there was a review of troops for some foreign general; there were all the mirth and the mischief that she loved, and that never went on without her; and she knew well enough that from mouth to mouth there was sure to be asking, “Mais ou done est Cigarette?” Cigarette, who was the Generalissima of Africa!

But still she never moved; though all her vivacious life was longing to be out and in their midst, on the back of a desert horse, on the head of a huge drum, perched on the iron support of a high-hung lantern, standing on a cannon while the Horse Artillery swept full gallop, firing down a volley of argot on the hot homage of a hundred lovers, drinking creamy liqueurs and filling her pockets with bonbons from handsome subalterns and aids-decamp, doing as she had done ever since she could remember her first rataplan. But she never moved. She knew that in the general gala these sick-beds would be left more deserted and less soothed than ever. She knew, too, that it was for the sake of this man, lying dying here from the lunge of a Bedouin lance through his lungs, that the ivory wreaths and crosses and statuettes had been sold.

And Cigarette had done more than this ere now many a time for her “children.”

The day stole on; Leon Ramon lay very quiet; the ice for his chest and the song for his ear gave him that semi-oblivion, dreamy and comparatively painless, which was the only mercy which could come to him. All the chamber was unusually still; on three of the beds the sheet had been drawn over the face of the sleepers, who had sunk to a last sleep since the morning rose. The shadows lengthened, the hours followed one another; Cigarette sang on to herself with few pauses; whenever she did so pause to lay soaked linen on the soldier’s hot forehead, or to tend him gently in those paroxysms that wrenched the clotted blood from off his lungs, there was a light on her face that did not come from the golden heat of the African sun.

Such a light those who know well the Children of France may have seen, in battle or in insurrection, grow beautiful upon the young face of a conscript or a boy-insurgent as he lifted a dying comrade, or pushed to the front to be slain in another’s stead; the face that a moment before had been keen for the slaughter as the eyes of a kite, and recklessly gay as the saucy refrain the lips caroled.

A step sounded on the bare boards; she looked up; and the wounded man raised his weary lids with a gleam of gladness under them; Cecil bent above his couch.

“Dear Leon! How is it with you?”

His voice was softened to infinite tenderness; Leon Ramon had been for many a year his comrade and his friend; an artist of Paris, a man of marvelous genius, of high idealic creeds, who, in a fatal moment of rash despair, had flung his talents, his broken fortunes, his pure and noble spirit, into the fiery furnace of the hell of military Africa; and now lay dying here, a common soldier, forgotten as though he were already in his grave.

“The review is just over. I got ten minutes to spare, and came to you the instant I could,” pursued Cecil. “See here what I bring you! You, with your artist’s soul, will feel yourself all but well when you look on these!”

He spoke with a hopefulness he could never feel, for he knew that the life of Leon Ramon was doomed; and as the other strove to gain breath enough to answer him, he gently motioned him to silence, and placed on his bed some peaches bedded deep in moss and circled round with stephanotis, with magnolia, with roses, with other rarer flowers still.

The face of the artist-soldier lightened with a longing joy; his lips quivered.

“Ah, God! they have the fragrance of my France!”

Cecil said nothing, but moved them nearer in to the clasp of hie eager hands. Cigarette he did not see.

There were some moments of silence, while the dark eyes of the dying man thirstily dwelt on the beauty of the flowers, and his dry, ashen lips seemed to drink in their perfumes as those athirst drink in water.

“They are beautiful,” he said faintly, at length. “They have our youth in them. How came you by them, dear friend?”

“They are not due to me,” answered Cecil hurriedly. “Mme. la Princess Corona sends them to you. She has sent great gifts to the hospital — wines, fruits, a profusion of flowers, such as those. Through her, these miserable chambers will bloom for a while like a garden; and the best wines of Europe will slake your thirst in lieu of that miserable tisane.”

“It is very kind,” murmured Leon Ramon languidly; life was too feeble in him to leave him vivid pleasures in aught. “But I am ungrateful. La Cigarette here — she has been so good, so tender, so pitiful. For once I have almost not missed you!”

Cigarette, thus alluded to, sprang to her feet with her head tossed back, and all her cynicism back again; a hot color was on her cheeks, the light had passed from her face, she struck her white teeth together. She had thought “Bel-a-faire-peur” chained to his regiment in the field of maneuver, or she would never have come thither to tend his friend. She had felt happy in her self-sacrifice; she had grown into a gentle, pensive, merciful mood, singing here by the side of the dying soldier, and now the first thing she heard was of the charities of Mme. la Princesse!

That was all her reward! Cigarette received the recompense that usually comes to generous natures which have strung themselves to some self-surrender that costs them dear.

Cecil looked at her surprised, and smiled.

“Ma belle, is it you? That is, indeed, good. You were the good angel of my life the other night, and today come to bring consolation to my friend —”

“Good angel! Chut, M. Victor! One does not know those mots sucres in Algiers. There is nothing of the angel about me, I hope. Your friend, too! Do you think I have never been used to taking care of my comrades in hospital before you played the sick-nurse here?”

She spoke with all her brusque petulance in arms again; she hated that he should imagine she had sacrificed her fete-day to Leon Ramon, because the artist-trooper was dear to him; she hated him to suppose that she had waited there all the hours through on the chance that he would find her at her post, and admire her for her charity. Cigarette was far too proud and disdainful a young soldier to seek either his presence or his praise.

He smiled again; he did not understand the caprices of her changeful moods, and he did not feel that interest in her which would have made him divine the threads of their vagaries.

“I did not think to offend you, my little one,” he said gently. “I meant only to thank you for your goodness to Ramon in my absence.”

Cigarette shrugged her shoulders.

“There was no goodness, and there need be no thanks. Ask Pere Matou how often I have sat with him hours through.”

“But on a fete-day! And you who love pleasure, and grace it so well —”

“Ouf! I have had so much of it,” said the little one contemptuously. “It is so tame to me. Clouds of dust, scurry of horses, fanfare of trumpets, thunder of drums, and all for nothing! Bah! I have been in a dozen battles — I— and I am not likely to care much for a sham fight.”

“Nay, she is unjust to herself,” murmured Leon Ramon. “She gave up the fete to do this mercy — it has been a great one. She is more generous than she will ever allow. Here, Cigarette, look at these scarlet rosebuds; they are like your bright cheeks. Will you have them? I have nothing else to give.”

“Rosebuds!” echoed Cigarette, with supreme scorn. “Rosebuds for me? I know no rose but the red of the tricolor; and I could not tell a weed from a flower. Besides, I told Miou–Matou just now, if my children do as I tell them, they will not take a leaf or a peach-stone from this grande dame — how does she call herself? — Mme. Corona d’Amague!”

Cecil looked up quickly: “Why not?”

Cigarette flashed on him her brilliant, brown eyes with a fire that amazed him.

“Because we are soldiers, not paupers!”

“Surely; but —”

“And it is not for the silver pheasants, who have done nothing to deserve their life but lain in nests of cotton wool, and eaten grain that others sow and shell for them, and spread their shining plumage in a sun that never clouds above their heads, to insult, with the insolence of their ‘pity’ and their ‘charity,’ the heroes of France, who perish as they have lived, for their Country and their Flag!”

It was a superb peroration! If the hapless flowers lying there had been a cartel of outrage to the concrete majesty of the French Army, the Army’s champion could not have spoken with more impassioned force and scorn.

Cecil laughed slightly; but he answered, with a certain annoyance:

“There is no ‘insolence’ here; no question of it. Mme. la Princesse desired to offer some gift to the soldiers of Algiers; I suggested to her that to increase the scant comforts of the hospital, and gladden the weary eyes of sick men with beauties that the Executive never dreams of bestowing, would be the most merciful and acceptable mode of exercising her kindness. If blame there be in the matter, it is mine.”

In defending the generosity of what he knew to be a genuine and sincere wish to gratify his comrades, he betrayed what he did not intend to have revealed, namely, the conversation that had passed between himself and the Spanish Princesse. Cigarette caught at the inference with the quickness of her lightning-like thought.

“Oh, ha! So it is she!”

There was a whole world of emphasis, scorn, meaning, wrath, comprehension, and irony in the four monosyllables; the dying man looked at her with languid wonder.

“She? Who? What story goes with these roses?”

“None,” said Cecil, with the same inflection of annoyance in his voice; to have his passing encounter with this beautiful patrician pass into a barrack canard, through the unsparing jests of the soldiery around him, was a prospect very unwelcome to him. “None whatever. A generous thoughtfulness for our common necessities as soldiers —”

“Ouf!” interrupted Cigarette, before his phrase was one-third finished. “The stalled mare will not go with the wild coursers; an aristocrat may live with us, but he will always cling to his old order. This is the story that runs with the roses. Milady was languidly insolent over some ivory chessmen, and Corporal Victor thought it divine, because languor and insolence are the twin gods of the noblesse, parbleu! Milady, knowing no gods but those two, worships them, and sends to the soldiers of France, as the sort of sacrifice her gods love, fruits, and wines that, day after day, are set on her table, to be touched, if tasted at all, with a butterfly’s sip; and Corporal Victor finds this a charity sublime — to give what costs nothing, and scatter a few crumbs out from the profusion of a life of waste and indulgence! And I say that, if my children are of my fashion of thinking, they will choke like dogs dying of thirst rather than slake their throats with alms cast to them as if they were beggars!”

With which fiery and bitter enunciation of her views on the gifts of the Princesse Corona d’Amague, Cigarette struck light to her brule-guele, and thrusting it between her lips, with her hands in the folds of her scarlet waist-sash, went off with the light, swift step natural to her, exaggerated into the carriage she had learned of the Zouaves; laughing her good-morrows noisily to this and that trooper as she passed their couches, and not dropping her voice even as she passed the place where the dead lay, but singing, as loud as she could, the most impudent drinking-song out of the taverns of the Spahis that ever celebrated wine, women, and war in the lawlessness of the lingua Sabir.

Her wrath was hot, and her heart heavy within her. She had given up her whole fete-day to wait on the anguish and to soothe the solitude of his friend lying dying there; and her reward had been to hear him speak of this aristocrat’s donations, that cost her nothing but the trouble of a few words of command to her household, as though they were the saintly charities of some angel from heaven!

“Diantre!” she muttered, as her hand wandered to the ever-beloved forms of the pistols within her sash. “Any of them would throw a draught of wine in his face, and lay him dead for me with a pass or two ten minutes after. Why don’t I bid them? I have a mind ——”

In that moment she could have shot him dead herself without a moment’s thought. Storm and sunlight swept, one after another, with electrical rapidity at all times, through her vivid, changeful temper; and here she had been wounded and been stung in the very hour in which she had subdued her national love of mirth, and her childlike passion for show, and her impatience of all confinement, and her hatred of all things mournful, in the attainment of this self-negation! Moreover, there mingled with it the fierce and intolerant heat of the passionate and scarce-conscious jealousy of an utterly untamed nature, and of Gallic blood, quick and hot as the steaming springs of the Geyser.

“You have vexed her, Victor,” said Leon Ramon, as she was lost to sight through the doors of the great, desolate chamber.

“I hope not; I do not know how,” answered Cecil. “It is impossible to follow the windings of her wayward caprices. A child — a soldier — a dancer — a brigand — a spoiled beauty — a mischievous gamin — how is one to treat such a little fagot of opposites?”

The others smiled.

“Ah! you do not know the Little One yet. She is worth a study. I painted her years ago —‘La Vivandiere a Sept Ans.’ There was not a picture in the Salon that winter that was sought like it. I had traveled in Algeria then; I had not entered the army. The first thing I saw of Cigarette was this: She was seven years old; she had been beaten black and blue; she had had two of her tiny teeth knocked out. The men were furious — she was a pet with them; and she would not say who had done it, though she knew twenty swords would have beaten him flat as a fritter if she had given his name. I got her to sit to me some days after. I pleased her with her own picture. I asked her to tell me why she would not say who had ill-treated her. She put her head on one side like a robin, and told me, in a whisper: ‘It was one of my comrades — because I would not steal for him. I would not have the army know — it would demoralize them. If a French soldier ever does a cowardly thing, another French soldier must not betray it.’ That was Cigarette — at seven years. The esprit de corps was stronger than her own wrongs. What do you say to that nature?”

“That is superb! — that it might be molded to anything. The pity is —”

“Ah,” said the artist-trooper, half wearily, half laughingly. “Spare me the old world-worn, threadbare formulas. Because the flax and the laleza blossom for use, and the garden flowers grow trained and pruned, must there be no bud that opens for mere love of the sun, and swings free in the wind in its fearless, fair fashion? Believe me, dear Victor, it is the lives which follow no previous rule that do the most good and give the most harvest.”

“Surely. Only for this child — a woman — in her future —”

“Her future! Well, she will die, I dare say, some bright day or another, at the head of a regiment; with some desperate battle turned by the valor of her charge, and the sight of the torn tricolor upheld in her little hands. That is what Cigarette hopes for — why not? There will always be a million of commonplace women ready to keep up the decorous traditions of their sex, and sit in safety over their needles by the side of their hearths. One little lioness here and there in a generation cannot do overmuch harm.”

Cecil was silent. He would not cross the words of the wounded man by saying what might bring a train of less pleasant thoughts — saying what, in truth, was in his mind, that the future which he had meant for the little Friend of the Flag was not that of any glorious death by combat, but that of a life (unless no bullet early cut its silver cord in twain) when youth should have fled, and have carried forever with it her numberless graces, and left in its stead that ribaldry-stained, drink-defiled, hardened, battered, joyless, cruel, terrible thing which is unsightly and repugnant to even the lowest among men; which is as the lees of the drunk wine, as the ashes of the burned-out fires, as the discord of the broken and earth-clogged lyre.

Cigarette was charming now — a fairy-story set into living motion — a fantastic little firework out of an extravaganza, with the impudence of a boy-harlequin and the witching kitten-hood of a girl’s beauty. But when this youth that made it all fair should have passed (and youth passes soon when thus adrift on the world), when there should be left in its stead only shamelessness, hardihood, vice, weariness — those who found the prettiest jest in her now would be the first to cast aside, with an oath, the charred, wrecked rocket-stick of a life from which no golden, careless stream of many-colored fires of coquette caprices would rise and enchant them then.

“Who is it that sent these?” asked Leon Ramon, later on, as his hands still wandered among the flowers; for the moment he was at peace; the ice and the hours of quietude had calmed him.

Cecil told him again.

“What does Cigarette know of her?” he pursued.

“Nothing, except, I believe, she knew that Mme. Corona accepted my chess-carvings.”

“Ah! I thought the Little One was jealous, Victor.”

“Jealous? Pshaw! Of whom?”

“Of anyone you admire — especially of this grande dame.”

“Absurd!” said Cecil, with a sense of annoyance. “Cigarette is far too bold a little trooper to have any thoughts of those follies; and as for this grande dame, as you call her, I shall, in every likelihood, never see her again — unless when the word is given to ‘Carry Swords’ or ‘Lances’ at the General’s Salute, where she reins her horse beside M. le Marechal’s at a review, as I have done this morning.”

The keen ear of the sick man caught the inflection of an impatience, of a mortification, in the tone that the speaker himself was unconscious of. He guessed the truth — that Cecil had never felt more restless under the shadow of the Eagles than he had done when he had carried his sword up in the salute as he passed with his regiment the flagstaff where the aristocracy of Algiers had been gathered about the Marshal and his staff, and the azure eyes of Mme. la Princesse had glanced carelessly and critically over the long line of gray horses of those Chasseurs d’Afrique among whom he rode a bas-officier.

“Cigarette is right,” said Ramon, with a slight smile. “Your heart is with your old order. You are an aristocrat.”

“Indeed I am not, mon ami; I am a mere trooper.”

“Now! Well, keep your history as you have always done, if you will. What my friend was matters nothing; I know well what he is, and how true a friend. As for Milady, she will be best out of your path, Victor. Women! God! — they are so fatal!”

“Does not our folly make their fatality?”

“Not always; not often. The madness may be ours, but they sow it. Ah! do they not know how to rouse and enrage it; how to fan, to burn, to lull, to pierce, to slake, to inflame, to entice, to sting? Heavens! so well they know — that their beauty must come, one thinks, out of hell itself!”

His great eyes gleamed like fire, his hollow chest panted for breath, the sweat stood out on his temples. Cecil sought to soothe him, but his words rushed on with the impetuous course of the passionate memories that arose in him.

“Do you know what brought me here? No! As little as I know what brought you, though we have been close comrades all these years. Well, it was she! I was an artist. I had no money, I had few friends; but I had youth, I had ambition, I had, I think, genius, till she killed it. I loved my art with a great love, and I was happy. Even in Paris one can be so happy without wealth, while one is young. The mirth of the Barriere — the grotesques of the Halles — the wooden booths on New Year’s Day — the bright midnight crowds under the gaslights — the bursts of music from the gay cafes — the gray little nuns flitting through the snow — the Mardi Gras and the Old–World fooleries — the summer Sundays under the leaves while we laughed like children — the silent dreams through the length of the Louvre — dreams that went home with us and made our garret bright with their visions — one was happy in them — happy, happy!”

His eyes were still fastened on the blank, white wall before him while he spoke, as though the things that his words sketched so faintly were painted in all their vivid colors on the dull, blank surface. And so in truth they were, as remembrance pictured all the thousand perished hours of his youth.

“Happy — until she looked at me,” he pursued, while his voice flew in feverish haste over the words. “Why would she not let me be? She had them all in her golden nets: nobles, and princes, and poets, and soldiers — she swept them in far and wide. She had her empire; why must she seek out a man who had but his art and his youth, and steal those? Women are so insatiate, look you; though they held all the world, they would not rest if one mote in the air swam in sunshine, free of them! It was the first year I touched triumph that I saw her. They began for the first time to speak of me; it was the little painting of Cigarette, as a child of the army, that did it. Ah, God! I thought myself already so famous! Well, she sent for me to take her picture, and I went. I went and I painted her as Cleopatra — by her wish. Ah! it was a face for Cleopatra — the eyes that burn your youth dead, the lips that kiss your honor blind! A face — my God! how beautiful! She had set herself to gain my soul; and as the picture grew, and grew, and grew, so my life grew into hers till I lived only by her breath. Why did she want my life? she had so many! She had rich lives, great lives, grand lives at her bidding; and yet she knew no rest till she had leaned down from her cruel height and had seized mine, that had nothing on earth but the joys of the sun and the dew, and the falling of night, and the dawning of day, that are given to the birds of the fields.”

His chest heaved with the spasms that with each throe seemed to tear his frame asunder; still he conquered them, and his words went on; his eyes fastened on the burning white glare of the wall as though all the beauty of this woman glowed afresh there to his sight.

“She was great; no matter her name — she lives still. She was vile; aye, but not in my sight till too late. Why is it that the heart which is pure never makes ours beat upon it with the rapture sin gives? Through month on month my picture grew, and my passion grew with it, fanned by her hand. She knew that never would a man paint her beauty like one who gave his soul for the price of success. I had my paradise; I was drunk; and I painted as never the colors of mortals painted a woman. I think even she was content; even she, who in her superb arrogance thought she was matchless and deathless. Then came my reward; when the picture was done, her fancy had changed! A light scorn, a careless laugh, a touch of her fan on my cheek; could I not understand? Was I still such a child? Must I be broken more harshly in to learn to give place? That was all! And at last her lackey pushed me back with his wand from her gates! What would you? I had not known what a great lady’s illicit caprices meant; I was still but a boy! She had killed me; she had struck my genius dead; she had made earth my hell — what of that? She had her beauty eternal in the picture she needed, and the whole city rang with her loveliness as they looked on my work. I have never painted again. I came here. What of that? An artist the less then, the world did not care; a life the less soon, she will not care either!”

Then, as the words ended, a great wave of blood beat back his breath and burst from the pent-up torture of his striving lungs, and stained red the dark and silken masses of his beard. His comrade had seen the hemorrhage many times; yet now he knew, as he had never known before, that that was death.

As he held him upward in his arms, and shouted loud for help, the great luminous eyes of the French soldier looked up at him through their mist with the deep, fond gratitude that beams in the eyes of a dog as it drops down to die, knowing one touch and one voice to the last.

“You do not forsake,” he murmured brokenly, while his voice ebbed faintly away as the stream of his life flowed faster and faster out. “It is over now — so best! If only I could have seen France once more. France ——”

He stretched his arms outward as he spoke, with the vain longing of a hopeless love. Then a deep sigh quivered through his lips; his hand strove to close on the hand of his comrade, and his head fell, resting on the flushed blossoms of the rose-buds of Provence.

He was dead.

An hour later Cecil left the hospital, seeing and hearing nothing of the gay riot of the town about him, though the folds of many-colored silk and bunting fluttered across the narrow Moorish streets, and the whole of the populace was swarming through them with the vivacious enjoyment of Paris mingling with the stately, picturesque life of Arab habit and custom. He was well used to pain of every sort; his bread had long been the bread of bitterness, and the waters of his draught been of gall. Yet this stroke, though looked for, fell heavily and cut far.

Yonder, in the deadroom, there lay a broken, useless mass of flesh and bone that in the sight of the Bureau Arabe was only a worn-out machine that had paid its due toll to the wars of the Second Empire, and was now valueless; only fit to be cast in to rot, unmourned, in the devouring African soil. But to him that lifeless, useless mass was dear still; was the wreck of the bravest, tenderest, and best-loved friend that he had found in his adversity.

In Leon Ramon he had found a man whom he had loved, and who had loved him. They had suffered much, and much endured together; their very dissimilarities had seemed to draw them nearer to each other. The gentle impassiveness of the Englishman had been like rest to the ardent impetuosity of the French soldier; the passionate and poetic temperament of the artist-trooper had revealed to Cecil a thousand views of thought and of feeling which had never before then dawned on him. And now that the one lay dead, a heavy, weary sense of loneliness rested on the other. They died around him every day; the fearless, fiery blood of France watered in ceaseless streams the arid, harvestless fields of northern Africa. Death was so common that the fall of a comrade was no more noted by them than the fall of a loose stone that their horse’s foot shook down a precipice. Yet this death was very bitter to him. He wondered with a dull sense of aching impatience why no Bedouin bullet, no Arab saber, had ever found his own life out, and cut his thralls asunder.

The evening had just followed on the glow of the day — evening, more lustrous even than ever, for the houses were all aglitter with endless lines of colored lamps and strings of sparkling illuminations, a very sea of bright-hued fire. The noise, the mirth, the sudden swell of music, the pleasure-seeking crowds — all that were about him — served only to make more desolate and more oppressive by their contrast his memories of that life, once gracious, and gifted, and content with the dower of its youth, ruined by a woman, and now slaughtered here, for no avail and with no honor, by a lance-thrust in a midnight skirmish, which had been unrecorded even in the few lines of the gazette that chronicled the war news of Algeria.

Passing one of the cafes, a favorite resort of the officers of his own regiment, he saw Cigarette. A sheaf of blue, and white, and scarlet lights flashed with tongues of golden flame over her head, and a great tricolor flag, with the brass eagle above it, was hanging in the still, hot air from the balcony from which she leaned. Her tunic-skirt was full of bonbons and crackers that she was flinging down among the crowd while she sang; stopping every now and then to exchange some passage of gaulois wit with them that made her hearers scream with laughter, while behind her was a throng of young officers drinking champagne, eating ices, and smoking; echoing her songs and her satires with enthusiastic voices and stamps of their spurred bootheels. As he glanced upward, she looked literally in a blaze of luminance, and the wild, mellow tones of her voice, ringing out sounded like a mockery of that dying-bed beside which they had both so late stood together.

“She has the playfulness of the young leopard, and the cruelty,” he thought, with a sense of disgust; forgetting that she did not know what he knew, and that, if Cigarette had waited to laugh until death had passed by, she would have never laughed all her life through, in the battalions of Africa.

She saw him, as he went beneath her balcony; and she sung all the louder, she flung her sweetmeat missiles with reckless force; she launched bolts of tenfold more audacious raillery at the delighted mob below. Cigarette was “bon soldat”; when she was wounded, she wound her scarf round the nerve that ached, and only laughed the gayer.

And he did her that injustice which the best among us are apt to do to those whom we do not feel interest enough in to study with that closeness which can alone give comprehension of the intricate and complex rebus, so faintly sketched, so marvelously involved, of human nature.

He thought her a little leopard, in her vivacious play and her inborn bloodthirstiness.

Well, the little leopard of France played recklessly enough that evening. Algiers was en fete, and Cigarette was sparkling over the whole of the town like a humming-bird or a firefly — here and there, and everywhere, in a thousand places at once, as it seemed; staying long with none, making music and mirth with all. Waltzing like a thing possessed, pelting her lovers with a tempest storm of dragees, standing on the head of a gigantic Spahi en tableau amid a shower of fireworks, improvising slang songs, and chorused by a hundred lusty lungs that yelled the burden in riotous glee as furiously as they were accustomed to shout “En avant!” in assault and in charge, Cigarette made amends to herself at night for her vain self-sacrifice of the fete-day.

She had her wound; yes, it throbbed still now and then, and stung like a bee in the warm core of a rose. But she was young, she was gay, she was a little philosopher; above all, she was French, and in the real French blood happiness runs so richly that it will hardly be utterly chilled until the veins freeze in the coldness of death. She enjoyed — enjoyed all the more fiercely, perhaps, because a certain desperate bitterness mingled with the abandonment of her Queen Mab-like revelries. Until now Cigarette had been as absolutely heedless and without a care as any young bird, taking its first summer circles downward through the intoxication of the sunny air. It was not without fiery resistance and scornful revolt that the madcap would be prevailed on to admit that any shadow could have power to rest on her.

She played through more than half the night, with the agile, bounding, graceful play of the young leopard to which he had likened her, and with a quick punishment from her velvet-sheathed talons if any durst offend her. Then when the dawn was nigh, leopard-like, the Little One sought her den.

She was most commonly under canvas; but when she was in town it was at one with the proud independence of her nature that she rejected all offers made her, and would have her own nook to live in, even though she were not there one hour out of the twenty-four.

“Le Chateau de Cigarette” was a standing jest of the Army; for none was ever allowed to follow her thither, or to behold the interior of her fortress; and one overventurous Spahi, scaling the ramparts, had been rewarded with so hot a deluge of lentil soup from a boiling casserole poured on his head from above, that he had beaten a hasty and ignominious retreat — which was more than a whole tribe of the most warlike of his countrymen could ever have made him do.

“Le Chateau de Cigarette” was neither more nor less than a couple of garrets, high in the air, in an old Moorish house, in an old Moorish court, decayed, silent, poverty-struck; with the wild pumpkin thrusting its leaves through the broken fretwork, and the green lizard shooting over the broad pavements, once brilliant in mosaic, that the robe of the princes of Islam had swept; now carpeted deep with the dry, white, drifted dust, and only crossed by the tottering feet of aged Jews or the laden steps of Algerine women.

Up a long, winding rickety stair Cigarette approached her castle, which was very near the sky indeed. “I like the blue,” said the chatelaine laconically, “and the pigeons fly close by my window.” And through it, too, she might have added; for, though no human thing might invade her chateau, the pigeons, circling in the sunrise light, always knew well there were rice and crumbs spread for them in that eyelet-hole of a casement.

Cigarette threaded her agile way up the dark, ladder-like shaft, and opened her door. There was a dim oil wick burning; the garret was large, and as clean as a palace could be; its occupants were various, and all sound asleep except one, who, rough, and hard, and small, and three-legged, limped up to her and rubbed a little bullet head against her lovingly.

“Bouffarick — petite Bouffarick!” returned Cigarette caressingly, in a whisper, and Bouffarick, content, limped back to a nest of hay; being a little wiry dog that had lost a leg in one of the most famous battles of Oran, and lain in its dead master’s breast through three days and nights on the field. Cigarette, shading the lamp with one hand, glanced round on her family.

They had all histories — histories in the French Army, which was the only history she considered of any import to the universe. There was a raven perched high, by name Vole-qui-Vent; he was a noted character among the Zouaves, and had made many a campaign riding on his owner’s bayonet; he loved a combat, and was specially famed for screaming “Tue! Tue! Tue!” all over a battlefield; he was very gray now, and the Zouave’s bones had long bleached on the edge of the desert.

There was a tame rat who was a vieille moustache, and who had lived many years in a Lignard’s pocket, and munched waifs and strays of the military rations, until, the enormous crime being discovered that it was taught to sit up and dress its whiskers to the heinous air of the “Marseillaise,” the Lignard got the stick, and the rat was condemned to be killed, had not Cigarette dashed in to the rescue and carried the long-tailed revolutionist off in safety.

There was a big white cat curled in a ball, who had been the darling of a Tringlo, and had traveled all over North Africa on the top of his mule’s back, seven seasons through; in the eighth the Tringlo was picked off by a flying shot, and an Indigene was about to skin the shrieking cat for the soup-pot, when a bullet broke his wrist, making him drop the cat with a yell of pain, and the Friend of the Flag, catching it up, laughed in his face: “A lead comfit instead of slaughter-soup, my friend!”

There were little Bouffarick and three other brother-dogs of equal celebrity; one, in especial, who had been brought from Chalons, in defiance of the regulations, inside the drum of his regiment, and had been wounded a dozen times; always seeking the hottest heat of the skirmish. And there was, besides these, sleeping serenely on straw, a very old man with a snowy beard. A very old man — one who had been a conscript in the bands of Young France, and marched from his Pyrenean village to the battle tramp of the Marseillaise, and charged with the Enfants de Paris across the plains; who had known the passage of the Alps, and lifted the long curls from the dead brow of Dessaix at Marengo, and seen in the sultry noonday dust of a glorious summer the Guard march into Paris, while the people laughed and wept with joy; surging like the mighty sea around one pale, frail form, so young by years, so absolute by genius.

A very old man; long broken with poverty, with pain, with bereavement, with extreme old age; and, by a long course of cruel accidents, alone, here in Africa, without one left of the friends of his youth, or of the children of his name, and deprived even of the charities due from his country to his services — alone, save for the little Friend of the Flag, who, for four years, had kept him on the proceeds of her wine trade, in this Moorish attic; tending him herself when in town, taking heed that he should want for nothing when she was campaigning.

“I will have a care of him,” she had said curtly, when she had found him in great misery and learned his history from others; and she had had the care accordingly, maintaining him at her own cost in the Moorish building, and paying a good Jewess of the quarter to tend him when she was not herself in Algiers.

The old man was almost dead, mentally, though in bodily strength still well able to know the physical comforts of food and rest, and attendance; he was in his second childhood, in his ninetieth year, and was unconscious of the debt he owed her; even, with a curious caprice of decrepitude, he disliked her, and noticed nothing, except the raven when it shrieked its “Tue! Tue! Tue!” But to Cigarette he was as sacred as a god; had he not fought beneath the glance, and gazed upon the face of the First Consul?

She bent over him now, saw that he slept, busied herself noiselessly in brewing a little tin pot full of coffee and hot milk, set it over the lamp to keep it warm, and placed it beside him ready for his morning meal, with a roll of white wheat bread; then, with a glance round to see that her other dependents wanted for nothing, went to her own garret adjoining, and with the lattice fastened back, that the first rays of sunrise and the first white flash of her friends the pigeons’ gleaming wings might awaken her, threw herself on her straw and slept with all the graceful, careless rest of the childhood which, though in once sense she had never known, yet in another had never forsaken her.

She hid as her lawless courage would not have stooped to hide a sin, had she chosen to commit one, this compassion which she, the young condottiera of Algeria, showed with so tender a charity to the soldier of Bonaparte. To him, moreover, her fiery, imperious voice was gentle as the dove; her wayward, dominant will was pliant as the reed; her contemptuous, skeptic spirit was reverent as a child’s before an altar. In her sight the survivor of the Army of Italy was sacred; sacred the eyes which, when full of light, had seen the sun glitter on the breastplates of the Hussars of Murat, the Dragoons of Kellerman, the Cuirassiers of Milhaud; sacred the hands which, when nervous with youth, had borne the standard of the Republic victorious against the gathered Teuton host in Champagne; sacred the ears which, when quick to hear, had heard the thunder of Arcola, of Lodi, of Rivoli, and, above even the tempest of war, the clear, still voice of Napoleon; sacred the lips which when their beard was dark in the fullness of manhood, had quivered, as with a woman’s weeping, at the farewell, in the spring night, in the moonlit Cour des Adieux.

Cigarette had a religion of her own; and followed it more closely than most disciples follow other creeds.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/under-two-flags/chapter23.html

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