Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 28.

The Leathern Zackrist.

With the reveille and the break of morning Cigarette woke, herself again; she gave a little petulant shake to her fairy form when she thought of what folly she had been guilty. “Ah, bah! you deserve to be shot,” she said to herself afresh. “One would think you were a Silver Pheasant — you grow such a little fool!”

Love was all very well, so Cigarette’s philosophy had always reckoned; a chocolate bonbon, a firework, a bagatelle, a draught of champagne, to flavor an idle moment. “Vin et Venus” she had always been accustomed to see worshiped together, as became their alliterative; it was a bit of fun — that was all. A passion that had pain in it had never touched the Little One; she had disdained it with the lightest, airiest contumely. “If your sweetmeat has a bitter almond in it, eat the sugar and throw the almond away, you goose! That is simple enough, isn’t it? Bah? I don’t pity the people who eat the bitter almond; not I!” she had said once, when arguing with an officer on the absurdity of a melancholy love that possessed him, and whose sadness she rallied most unmercifully. Now, for once in her young life, the Child of France found that it was remotely possible to meet with almonds so bitter that the taste will remain and taint all things, do what philosophy may to throw its acridity aside.

With the reveille she awoke, herself again, though she had not had more than an hour’s slumber, it is true, with a dull ache at her heart that was very new and bitterly unwelcome to her, but with the buoyant vivacity and the proud carelessness of her nature in arms against it, and with that gayety of childhood inherent to her repelling, and very nearly successfully, the foreign depression that weighted on it.

Her first thought was to take care that he should never learn what she had done for him. The Princesse Corona would not have been more utterly disdained to solicit regard through making a claim upon gratitude than the fiery little warrior of France would have done. She went straight to the Tringlo who had known her at her mission of mercy.

“Georges, mon brave,” said the Little One, with that accent of authority which was as haughty as any General’s, “do you know how that Chasseur is that we brought in last night?”

“Not heard, ma belle,” said the cheery little Tringlo, who was hard pressed; for there was much to be done, and he was very busy.

“What is to be done with the wounded?”

Georges lifted his eyebrows.

“Ma belle! There are very few. There are hundreds of dead. The few there are we shall take with an escort of Spahis to headquarters.”

“Good. I will go with you. Have a heed, Georges, never to whisper that I had anything to do with saving that man I called to you about.”

“And why, my Little One?”

“Because I desire it!” said Cigarette, with her most imperious emphasis. “They say he is English, and a ruined Milord, pardieu! Now, I would not have an Englishman think I thought his six feet of carcass worth saving, for a ransom.”

The Tringlo chuckled; he was an Anglophobist. In the Chinese expedition his share of “loot” had been robbed from him by a trick of which two English soldiers had been the concocters, and a vehement animosity against the whole British race had been the fruit of it in him.

“Non, non, non!” he answered her heartily. “I understand. Thou art very bright, Cigarette. If we have ever obliged an Englishman, he thinks his obligation to us opens him a neat little door through which to cheat us. It is very dangerous to oblige the English; they always hate you for it. That is their way. They may have virtues; they may,” he added dubiously, but with an impressive air of strictest impartiality, “but among them is not written gratitude. Ask that man, Rac, how they treat their soldiers!” and M. Georges hurried away to this mules and his duties; thinking with loving regret of the delicious Chinese plunder of which the dogs of Albion had deprived him.

“He is safe!” thought Cigarette; of the patrol who had seen her, she was not afraid — he had never noticed with whom she was when he had put his head into the scullion’s tent; and she made her way toward the place where she had left him, to see how it went with this man who she as so careful should never know that which he had owed to her.

It went well with him, thanks to her; care, and strengthening nourishment, and the skill of her tendance had warded off all danger from his wound. The bruise and pressure from the weight of the horse had been more ominous, and he could not raise himself or even breathe without severe pain; but his fever had left him, and he had just been lifted into a mule-drawn ambulance-wagon as Cigarette reached the spot.

“How goes the day, M. Victor? So you got sharp scratches, I hear? Ah! that was a splendid thing we had yesterday! When did you go down? We charged together!” she cried gayly to him; then her voice dropped suddenly, with an indescribable sweetness and change of tone. “So! — you suffer still?” she asked softly.

Coming close up to where he lay on the straw, she saw the exhausted languor of his regard, the heavy darkness under his eyelids, the effort with which his lips moved as the faint words came broken through them.

“Not very much, ma belle, I thank you. I shall be fit for harness in a day or two. Do not let them send me into hospital. I shall be perfectly — well — soon.”

Cigarette swayed herself upon the wheel and leaned toward him, touching and changing his bandages with clever hands.

“They have dressed your wound ill; whose doing is that?”

“It is nothing. I have been half cut to pieces before now; this is a mere bagatelle. It is only —”

“That it hurts you to breathe? I know! Have they given you anything to eat this morning?”

“No. Everything is in confusion. We ——”

She did not stay for the conclusion of his sentence; she had darted off, quick as a swallow. She knew what she had left in her dead scullion’s tent. Everything was in confusion, as he had said. Of the few hundreds that had been left after the terrific onslaught of the past day, some were employed far out, thrusting their own dead into the soil; others were removing the tents and all the equipage of the camp; others were busied with the wounded, of whom the greatest sufferers were to be borne to the nearest hospital (that nearest many leagues away over the wild and barren country); while those who were likely to be again soon ready for service were to be escorted to the headquarters of the main army. Among the latter Cecil had passionately entreated to be numbered; his prayer was granted to the man who had kept at the head of his Chasseurs and borne aloft the Tricolor through the whole of the war-tempest on which the dawn had risen, and which had barely lulled and sunk by the setting of the sun. Chateauroy was away with the other five of his squadrons; and the Zouave chef-debataillon, the only officer of any rank who had come alive through the conflict, had himself visited Bertie, and given him warm words of eulogy, and even of gratitude, that had soldierly sincerity and cordiality in them.

“Your conduct was magnificent,” he had said, as he had turned away. “It shall be my care that it is duly reported and rewarded.”

Cigarette was but a few seconds absent; she soon bounded back like the swift little chamois she was, bringing with her a huge bowlful of red wine with bread broken in it.

“This is the best I could get,” she said; “it is better than nothing. It will strengthen you.”

“What have you had yourself, petite?”

“Ah, bah! Leave off thinking for others; I have breakfasted long ago,” she answered him. (She had only eaten a biscuit well-nigh as hard as a flint.) “Take it — here, I will hold it for you.”

She perched herself on the wheel like a bird on a twig; she had a bird’s power of alighting and sustaining herself on the most difficult and most airy elevation; but Cecil turned his eyes on the only soldier in the cart besides himself, one of the worst men in his regiment — a murderous, sullen, black-browed, evil wretch, fitter for the bench of the convict-galley than for the ranks of the cavalry.

“Give half to Zackrist,” he said. “I know no hunger; and he has more need of it.”

“Zackrist! That is the man who stole your lance and accouterments, and got you into trouble by taking them to pawn in your name, a year or more ago.”

“Well, what of that? He is not the less hungry.”

“What of that? Why, you were going to be turned into the First Battalion,5 disgraced for the affair, because you would not tell of him; if Vireflau had not found out the right of the matter in time!”

5 The Battalion of the criminal outcasts of all corps, whether horse or foot.

“What has that to do with it?”

“This, M. Victor, that you are a fool.”

“I dare say I am. But that does not make Zackrist less hungry.”

He took the bowl from her hands and, emptying a little of it into the wooden bidon that hung to her belt, kept that for himself and, stretching his arm across the straw, gave the bowl to Zackrist, who had watched it with the longing, ravenous eyes of a starving wolf, and seized it with rabid avidity.

A smile passed over Cecil’s face, amused despite the pain he suffered.

“That is one of my ‘sensational tricks,’ as M. de Chateauroy calls them. Poor Zackrist! Did you see his eyes?”

“A jackal’s eyes, yes!” said Cigarette, who, between her admiration for the action and her impatience at the waste of her good bread and wine, hardly knew whether to applaud or to deride him. “What recompense do you think you will get? He will steal your things again, first chance.”

“May be. I don’t think he will. But he is very hungry, all the same; that is about the only question just now,” he answered her as he drank and ate his portion, with a need of it that could willingly have made him take thrice as much, though for the sake of Zackrist, he had denied his want of it.

Zackrist himself, who could hear perfectly what was said, uttered no word; but when he had finished the contents of the bowl, lay looking at his corporal with an odd gleam in the dark, sullen savage depths of his hollow eyes. He was not going to say a word of thanks; no! none had ever heard a grateful or a decent word from him in his life; he was proud of that. He was the most foul-mouthed brute in the army, and, like Snake in the School for Scandal, thought a good action would have ruined his character forever. Nevertheless, there came into his cunning and ferocious eyes a glisten of the same light which had been in the little gamin’s when, first by the bivouac fire, he had murmured, “Picpon s’en souviendra.”

“When anybody stole from me,” muttered Cigarette, “I shot him.”

“You would have fed him, had he been starving. Do not belie yourself, Cigarette; you are too generous ever to be vindictive.”

“Pooh! Revenge is one’s right.”

“I doubt that. We are none of us good enough to claim it, at any rate.”

Cigarette shrugged her shoulders in silence; then, posing herself on the wheel, she sprang from thence on to the back of her little mare, which she had brought up; having the reins in one of her hands and the wine-bowl in the other, and was fresh and bright after the night’s repose.

“I will ride with you, with my Spahis,” she said, as a young queen might have promised protection for her escort. He thanked her, and sank back among the straw, exhausted and worn out with pain and with languor; the weight that seemed to oppress his chest was almost as hard to bear as when the actual pressure of his dead charger’s body had been on him.

Yet, as he had said, it was but a bagatelle, beside the all but mortal wounds, the agonizing neuralgia, the prostrating fever, the torture of bullet-torn nerves, and the scorching fire of inflamed sword-wounds that had in their turn been borne by him in his twelve years of African service — things which, to men who have never suffered them, sound like the romanced horrors of an exaggerated imagination; yet things which are daily and quietly borne, by such soldiers of the Algerian Army, as the natural accompaniments of a military life — borne, too, in brave, simple, unconscious heroism by men who know well that the only reward for it will be their own self-contentment at having been true to the traditions of their regiment.

Four other troopers were placed on the straw beside him, and the mule-carts with their mournful loads rolled slowly out of camp, eastward toward the quarters of the main army; the Spahis, glowing red against the sun, escorting them, with their darling in their midst; while from their deep chests they shouted war songs in Sabir, with all the wild and riotous delight that the triumph of victory and the glow of bloodshed roused in those who combined in them the fire of France and the fanaticism of Islamism — an irresistible union.

Though the nights were now cold, and before long even the advent of snow might be looked for, the days were hot and even scorching still. Cigarette and her Spahis took no heed of it; they were desert born and bred; and she was well-nigh invulnerable to heat as any little salamander. But, although they were screened as well as they could be under an improvised awning, the wounded men suffered terribly. Gnats and mosquitoes and all the winged things of the African air tormented them, and tossing on the dry, hot straw they grew delirious; some falling asleep and murmuring incoherently, others lying with wide-open eyes of half-senseless, straining misery. Cigarette had known well how it would be with them; she had accompanied such escorts many a time; and ever and again when they halted she dismounted and came to them, and mixed wine with some water that she had slung a barrel of to her saddle, and gave it to them, and moved their bandages, and spoke to them with a soft, caressing consolation that pacified them as if by some magic. She had led them like a young lion on to the slaughter in the past day; she soothed them now with a gentleness that the gentlest daughter of the Church could not have surpassed.

The way was long; the road ill formed, leading for the most part across a sear and desolate country, with nothing to relieve its barrenness except long stretches of the great spear-headed reeds. At noon the heat was intense; the little cavalcade halted for half an hour under the shade of some black, towering rocks which broke the monotony of the district, and commenced a more hilly and more picturesque portion of the country. Cigarette came to the side of the temporary ambulance in which Cecil was placed. He was asleep — sleeping for once peacefully, with little trace of pain upon his features, as he had slept the previous night. She saw that his face and chest had not been touched by the stinging insect-swarm; he was doubly screened by a shirt hung above him dexterously on some bent sticks.

“Who has done that?” thought Cigarette. As she glanced round she saw — without any linen to cover him, Zackrist had reared himself up and leaned slightly forward over against his comrade. The shirt that protected Cecil was his; and on his own bare shoulders and mighty chest the tiny armies of the flies and gnats were fastened, doing their will, uninterrupted.

As he caught her glance a sullen, ruddy glow of shame shown through the black, hard skin of his sun-burned visage — shame to which he had been never touched when discovered in any one of his guilty and barbarous actions.

“Dame!” he growled savagely —“he gave me his wine; one must do something in return. Not that I feel the insects — not I; my skin is leather, see you! they can’t get through it; but his is white and soft — bah! like tissue-paper!”

“I see, Zackrist; you are right. A French soldier can never take a kindness from an English fellow without outrunning him in generosity. Look — here is some drink for you.”

She knew too well the strange nature with which she had to deal to say a syllable of praise to him for his self-devotion, or to appear to see that, despite his boast of his leather skin, the stings of the cruel, winged tribes were drawing his blood and causing him alike pain and irritation which, under that sun, and added to the torment of his gunshot-wound, were a martyrdom as great as the noblest saint ever endured.

“Tiens — tiens! I did him wrong,” murmured Cigarette. “That is what they are — the children of France — even when they are at their worst, like that devil, Zackrist. Who dare say they are not the heroes of the world?”

And all through the march she gave Zackrist a double portion of her water dashed with red wine, that was so welcome and so precious to the parched and aching throats; and all through the march Cecil lay asleep, and the man who had thieved from him, the man whose soul was stained with murder, and pillage, and rapine, sat erect beside him, letting the insects suck his veins and pierce his flesh.

It was only when they drew near the camp of the main army that Zackrist beat off the swarm and drew his old shirt over his head. “You do not want to say anything to him,” he muttered to Cigarette. “I am of leather, you know; I have not felt it.”

She nodded; she understood him. Yet his shoulders and his chest were well-nigh flayed, despite the tough and horny skin of which he made his boast.

“Dieu! we are droll!” mused Cigarette. “If we do a good thing, we hide it as if it were a bit of stolen meat, we are so afraid it should be found out; but, if they do one in the world there, they bray it at the tops of their voices from the houses’ roofs, and run all down the streets screaming about it, for fear it should be lost. Dieu! we are droll!”

And she dashed the spurs into her mare and galloped off at the height of her speed into camp — a very city of canvas, buzzing with the hum of life, regulated with the marvelous skill and precision of French warfare, yet with the carelessness and the picturesqueness of the desert-life pervading it.

“C’est la Cigarette!” ran from mouth to mouth, as the bay mare with her little Amazon rider, followed by the scarlet cloud of the Spahis, all ablaze like poppies in the sun, rose in sight, thrown out against the azure of the skies.

What she had done had been told long before by an orderly, riding hard in the early night to take the news of the battle; and the whole host was on watch for its darling — the savior of the honor of France. Like wave rushing on wave of some tempestuous ocean, the men swept out to meet her in one great, surging tide of life, impetuous, passionate, idolatrous, exultant; with all the vivid ardor, all the uncontrolled emotion, of natures south-born, sun-nurtured. They broke away from their midday rest as from their military toil, moved as by one swift breath of fire, and flung themselves out to meet her, the chorus of a thousand voices ringing in deafening vivas to the skies. She was enveloped in that vast sea of eager, furious lives; in that dizzy tumult of vociferous cries and stretching hands and upturned faces. As her soldiers had done the night before, so these did now — kissing her hands, her dress, her feet; sending her name in thunder through the sunlit air; lifting her from off her horse, and bearing her, in a score of stalwart arms, triumphant in their midst.

She was theirs — their own — the Child of the Army, the Little One whose voice above their dying brethren had the sweetness of an angel’s song, and whose feet, in their hours of revelry, flew like the swift and dazzling flight of gold-winged orioles. And she had saved the honor of their Eagles; she had given to them and to France their god of Victory. They loved her — O God, how they loved her! — with that intense, breathless, intoxicating love of a multitude which, though it may stone tomorrow what it adores today, has yet for those on whom it has once been given thus a power no other love can know — a passion unutterably sad, deliriously strong.

That passion moved her strangely.

As she looked down upon them, she knew that not one man breathed among that tumultuous mass but would have died that moment at her word; not one mouth moved among that countless host but breathed her name in pride, and love, and honor.

She might be a careless young coquette, a lawless little brigand, a child of sunny caprices, an elf of dauntless mischief; but she was more than these. The divine fire of genius had touched her, and Cigarette would have perished for her country not less surely than Jeanne d’Arc. The holiness of an impersonal love, the glow of an imperishable patriotism, the melancholy of a passionate pity for the concrete and unnumbered sufferings of the people were in her, instinctive and inborn, as fragrance in the heart of flowers. And all these together moved her now, and made her young face beautiful as she looked down upon the crowding soldiery.

“It was nothing,” she answered them —“it was nothing. It was for France.”

For France! They shouted back the beloved word with tenfold joy; and the great sea of life beneath her tossed to and fro in stormy triumph, in frantic paradise of victory, ringing her name with that of France upon the air, in thunder-shouts like spears of steel smiting on shields of bronze.

But she stretched her hand out, and swept it backward to the desert-border of the south with a gesture that had awe for them.

“Hush!” she said softly, with an accent in her voice that hushed the riot of their rejoicing homage till it lulled like the lull in a storm. “Give me no honor while they sleep yonder. With the dead lies the glory!”

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