Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 31.

“Je Vous Achete Votre Vie.”

Thus burdened, he made his way for over two leagues. The hurricane never abated, and the blinding dust rose around him in great waves. The horse fell lame; he had to dismount, and move slowly and painfully over the loose, heavy soil on foot, raising the drooping head of the lifeless rider. It was bitter, weary, cruel travail, of an intolerable labor, of an intolerable pain.

Once or twice he grew sick and giddy, and lost for a moment all consciousness; but he pressed onward, resolute not to yield and leave the vultures, hovering aloft, their prey. He was still somewhat weakened by the wounds of Zaraila; he had been bruised and exhausted by the skirmish of the past night; he was weary and heart-broken; but he did not yield to his longing to sink down on the sands, and let his life ebb out; he held patiently onward through the infinite misery of the passage. At last he drew near the caravanserai where he had been directed to obtain a change of horses. It stood midway in the distance that he had to traverse, and almost alone when the face of the country changed, and was more full of color, and more broken into rocky and irregular surfaces.

As a man walks in a dream, he led the sinking beast toward its shelter, as its irregular corner towers became dimly perceptible to him through the dizzy mists that had obscured his sight. By sheer instinct he found his route straight toward the open arch of its entrance-way, and into the square courtyard thronged with mules and camels and horses; for the caravanserai stood on the only road that led through that district to the south, and was the only house of call for drovers, or shelter for travelers and artists of Europe who might pass that way. The groups in the court paused in their converse and in their occupations, and looked in awe at the gray charger with its strange burden, and the French Chasseur who came so blindly forward like a man feeling his passage through the dark. There was something in the sight that had a vague terror for them before they clearly saw what this thing was which was thus brought into their presence. Cecil moved slowly on into their midst, his hand on the horse’s rein; then a great darkness covered his sight; he swayed to and fro, and fell senseless on the gray stone of the paved court, while the muleteer and the camel-drivers, the Kabyls and the French, who were mingled there, crowded around him in fear and in wonder. When consciousness returned to him he was lying on a stone bench in the shadow of the wall, and a throng of lean, bronzed, eager faces about him in the midday sunlight which had broken through the windstorm.

Instantly he remembered all.

“Where is he?” he asked.

They knew he meant the dead man, and answered him in a hushed murmur of many voices. They had placed the body gently down within, in a darkened chamber.

A shiver passed over him; he stretched his hand out for water that they held to him.

“Saddle me a fresh horse; I have my work to do.”

He knew that for no friendship, or grief, or suffering, or self-pity might a soldier pause by the wayside while his errand was still undone, his duty unfulfilled.

He drank the water thirstily; then, reeling slightly still, from the weakness that was still upon him, he rose, rejecting their offers of aid. “Take me to him,” he said simply. They understood him; there were French soldiers among them, and they took him, without question or comment, across the court to the little square stone cell within one of the towers, where they had laid the corpse, with nothing to break the quiet and the solitude except the low, soft cooing of some doves that had their homes in its dark corners, and flew in and out at pleasure through the oval aperture that served as window.

He motioned them all back with his hand, and went into the gloom of the chamber alone. Not one among them followed.

When he came forth again the reckless and riotous soldiers of France turned silently and reverentially away, so that they should not look upon his face. For it was well known throughout the army that no common tie had bound together the exiles of England, and the fealty of comrade to comrade was sacred in their sight.

The fresh animal, saddled, was held ready outside the gates. He crossed the court, moving still like a man without sense of what he did; he had the instinct to carry out the mission trusted to him, instantly and accurately, but he had no distinct perception or memory of aught else, save of those long-familiar features of which, ere he could return, the cruel sun of Africa would not have spared one trace.

He passed under the shadow of the gateway arch — a shadow black and intense against the golden light which, with the ceasing of the storm, flooded the land in the full morning. There were movement, noise, changes, haste in the entrance. Besides the arrival of the detachment of the line and a string of northward-bound camels, the retinue of some travelers of rank was preparing for departure, and the resources of the humble caravanserai were taxed beyond their powers. The name that some of the hurrying grooms shouted loudly in their impatience broke through his stupor and reached him. It was that of the woman whom, however madly, he loved with all the strength of a passion born out of utter hopelessness. He turned to the outrider nearest him:

“You are of the Princesse Corona’s suite? What does she do here?”

“Madame travels to see the country and the war.”

“The war? This is no place for her. The land is alive with danger — rife with death.”

“Milady travels with M. le Duc, her brother. Milady does not know what fear is.”

“But ——”

The remonstrance died on his lips; he stood gazing out from the gloom of the arch at a face close to him, on which the sun shone full, a face unseen for twelve long years, and which, a moment before laughing and careless in the light, changed and grew set, and rigid, and pale with the pallor of an unutterable horror. His own flushed, and moved, and altered with a wholly different emotion — emotion that was, above all, of an intense and yearning tenderness. For a moment both stood motionless and speechless; then, with a marvelous self-command and self-restraint, Cecil brought his hand to his brow in military salute, passed with the impassiveness of a soldier who passed a gentleman, reached his charger, and rode away upon his errand over the brown and level ground.

He had known his brother in that fleeting glance, but he hoped that his brother would see no more in him than a French trooper who bore resemblance by a strange hazard to one long believed to be dead and gone. The instinct of generosity, the instinct of self-sacrifice, moved him now as, long ago one fatal night, they had moved him to bear the sin of his mother’s darling as his own.

Full remembrance, full consideration of what he had done, never came to him as he dashed on across the many leagues that still lay between him and his goal. His one impulse had been to spare the other from the knowledge that he lived; his one longing was to have the hardness and the bitterness of his own life buried in the oblivion of a soldier’s grave.

Within six-and-thirty hours the instructions he bore were in the tent of the Chef du Bataillon whom they were to direct, and he himself returned to the caravanserai to fulfill with his own hand to the dead those last offices which he would delegate to none. It was night when he arrived; all was still and deserted. He inquired if the party of tourists was gone; they answered him in the affirmative; there only remained the detachment of the French infantry, which were billeted there for a while.

It was in the coolness and the hush of the night, with the great stars shining clearly over the darkness of the plains, that they made the single grave, under a leaning shelf of rock, with the somber fans of a pine spread above it, and nothing near but the sleeping herds of goats. The sullen echo of the soldiers’ muskets gave its only funeral requiem; and the young lambs and kids in many a future spring-time would come and play, and browse, and stretch their little, tired limbs upon its sod, its sole watchers in the desolation of the plains.

When all was over, and the startled flocks had settled once again to rest and slumber, Cecil still remained there alone. Thrown down upon the grave, he never moved as hour after hour went by. To others that lonely and unnoticed tomb would be as nothing; only one among the thousand marks left on the bosom of the violated earth by the ravenous and savage lusts of war. But to him it held all that had bound him to his lost youth, his lost country, his lost peace; all that had remained of the years that were gone, and were now as a dream of the night. This man had followed him, cleaved to him, endured misery and rejected honor for his sake; and all the recompense such a life received was to be stilled forever by a spear-thrust of an unknown foe, unthanked, undistinguished, unavenged! It seemed to him like murder — murder with which his own hand was stained.

The slow night hours passed; in the stillness that had succeeded to the storm of the past day there was not a sound except the bleating of the young goats straying from the herd. He lay prostrate under the black lengths of the pine; the exhaustion of great fatigue was on him; a grief, acute as remorse, consumed him for the man who, following his fate, had only found at the end a nameless and lonely grave in the land of his exile.

He started with a thrill of almost superstitious fear as through the silence he heard a name whispered — the name of his childhood, of his past.

He sprang to this feet, and as he turned in the moonlight he saw once more his brother’s face, pale as the face of the dead, and strained with an agonizing dread. Concealment was no longer possible. The younger man knew that the elder lived; knew it by a strange and irresistible certainty that needed no proof, that left no place for hope or fear in its chill, leaden, merciless conviction.

For some moments neither spoke. A flood of innumerable memories choked thought or word in both. They knew each other — all was said in that.

Cecil was the first to break the silence. He moved nearer with a rapid movement, and his hand fell heavily on the other’s shoulder.

“Have you lived stainlessly since?”

The question was stern as the demand of a judge. His brother shuddered beneath this touch, and covered his face with his hands.

“God is my witness, yes! But you — you — they said that you were dead!”

Cecil’s hand fell from his shoulder. There was that in the words which smote him more cruelly than any Arab steel could have done; there was the accent of regret.

“I am dead,” he said simply; “dead to the world and you.”

He who bore the title of Royallieu covered his face.

“How have you lived?” he whispered hoarsely.

“Honorably. Let that suffice. And you?”

The other looked up at him with a piteous appeal — the old, timorous, terrified appeal that had been so often seen on the boy’s face, strangely returning on the gracious and mature beauty of the man.

“In honor too, I swear! That was my first disgrace, and my last. You bore the weight of my shame? Good God, what can I say? Such nobility, such sacrifice ——”

He would have said enough, more than enough, to satisfy the one who had lost all for his sake, had there but been once in his voice no fear, but only love. As it was, that which he still thought of was himself alone. While crushed with the weight of his brother’s surpassing generosity, he still was filled with only one thought that burned through the darkness of his bewildered horror, and that thought was his own jeopardy. Even in the very first hours of his knowledge that the man whom he had believed dead was living — living and bearing the burden of the guilt he should have borne — what he was filled with was the imminence of his own peril.

Cecil stood in silence, looking at him. He saw the boyish loveliness he remembered so well altered into the stronger and fuller beauty of the man. He saw that life had gone softly, smoothly, joyously, with this weak and feminine nature; and that, in the absence of temptation to evil, its career had been fair and straight in the sight of the world. He saw that his brother had been, in one word, happy. He saw that happiness had done for this character what adversity had done for his own. He saw that by it had been saved a temperament that calamity would have wrecked. He stood and looked at him, but he spoke not one word; whatever he felt, he restrained from all expression.

The younger man still hid his face upon his hands, as if, even in those pale, gray moonbeams, he shunned the light that was about him.

“We believed you were dead,” he murmured wildly. “They said so; there seemed every proof. But when I saw you yesterday, I knew you — I knew you, though you passed me as a stranger. I stayed on here; they told me you would return. God! what agony this day and night have been!”

Cecil was silent still; he knew that this agony had been the dread lest he should be living.

There were many emotions at war in him — scorn, and pity, and wounded love, and pride too proud to sue for a gratitude denied, or quote a sacrifice that was almost without parallel in generosity, all held him speechless. To overwhelm the sinner before him with reproaches, to count and claim the immeasurable debts due to him, to upbraid and to revile the wretched weakness that had left the soil of a guilt not his own to rest upon him — to do aught of this was not in him. Long ago he had accepted the weight of an alien crime, and borne it as his own; to undo now all that he had done in the past, to fling out to ruin now the one whom he had saved at such a cost; to turn, after twelve years, and forsake the man, all coward though he was, whom he had shielded for so long — this was not possible to him. Though it would be but his own birthright that he would demand, his own justification that he would establish, it would have seemed to him like a treacherous and craven thing. No matter that the one for whom the sacrifice had been made was unworthy of it, he held that every law of honor and justice forbade him now to abandon his brother and yield him up to the retribution of his early fault. It might have been a folly in the first instance; it might even have been a madness, that choice of standing in his brother’s place to receive the shame of his brother’s action; but it had been done so long before — done on the spur of generous affection, and actuated by the strange hazard that made the keeping of a woman’s secret demand the same reticence which also saved the young lad’s name; to draw back from it now would have been a cowardice impossible to his nature.

All seemed uttered, without words, by their gaze at one another. He could not speak with tenderness to this craven who had been false to the fair repute of their name — and he would not speak with harshness. He felt too sick at heart, too weary, too filled with pain, to ask aught of his brother’s life. It had been saved from temptation, and therefore saved from evil; that knowledge sufficed to him.

The younger man stood half stupefied, half maddened. In the many years that had passed by, although his character had not changed, his position had altered greatly; and in the last few months he had enjoyed all the power that wealth and independence and the accession to his title could bestow. He felt some dull, hot, angered sense of wrong done to him by the fact that the rightful heir of them still lived; some chafing, ingrate, and unreasoning impatience with the savior of his whole existence; some bitter pangs of conscience that he would be baser yet, base beyond all baseness, to remain in his elder’s place, and accept this sacrifice still, while knowing now the truth.

“Bertie — Bertie!” he stammered, in hurried appeal — and the name of his youth touched the hearer of it strangely, making him for the moment forget all save that he looked once more upon one of his own race —“on my soul, I never doubted that the story of your death was true. No one did. All the world believed it. If I had known you lived, I would have said that you were innocent; I would — I would have told them how I forged your friend’s name and your own when I was so desperate that I scarce knew what I did. But they said that you were killed, and I thought then — then — it was not worth while; it would have broken my father’s heart. God help me! I was a coward!”

He spoke the truth; he was a coward; he had ever been one. Herein lay the whole story of his fall, his weakness, his sin, and his ingratitude. Cecil knew that never will gratitude exist where craven selfishness holds reign; yet there was an infinite pity mingled with the scorn that moved him. After the years of bitter endurance he had passed, the heroic endurance he had witnessed, the hard and unending miseries that he had learned to take as his daily portion, this feebleness and fear roused his wondering compassion almost as a woman’s weakness would have done. Still he never answered. The hatred of the stain that had been brought upon their name by his brother’s deed (stain none the less dark, in his sight, because hidden from the world), his revulsion from this man, who was the only creature of their race who ever had turned poltroon, the thousand remembrances of childhood that uprose before him, the irresistible yearning for some word from the other’s lips that should tell of some lingering trace in him of the old love strong enough to kill, for the moment at least, the selfish horror of personal peril — all these kept him silent.

His brother misinterpreted that silence.

“I am in your power — utterly in your power,” he moaned in his fear. “I stand in your place; I bear your title; you know that our father and our brother are dead? All I have inherited is yours. Do you know that, since you have never claimed it?”

“I know it.”

“And you have never come forward to take your rights?”

“What I did not do to clear my own honor, I was not likely to do merely to hold a title.”

The meaning of his answer drifted beyond the ear on which his words fell; it was too high to be comprehended by the lower nature. The man who lived in prosperity and peace, and in the smile of the world, and the purple of power, looked bewildered at the man who led the simple, necessitous, perilous, semi-barbaric existence of an Arab–Franco soldier.

“But — great Heaven! — this life of yours? It must be wretchedness?”

“Perhaps. It has at least no disgrace in it.”

The reply had the only sternness of contempt that he had suffered himself to show. It stung down to his listener’s soul.

“No — no!” he murmured. “You are happier than I. You have no remorse to bear! And yet — to tell the world that I am guilty ——”

“You need never tell it; I shall not.”

He spoke quite quietly, quite patiently. Yet he well knew, and had well weighed, all he surrendered in that promise — the promise to condemn himself to a barren and hopeless fate forever.

“You will not?”

The question died almost inaudible on his dry, parched tongue. The one passion of fear upon him was for himself; even in that moment of supplication his disordered thoughts hovered wildly over the chances of whether, if his elder brother even now asserted his innocence and claimed his birthright, the world and its judges would ever believe him.

Cecil for a while again was silent, standing there by the newly made grave of the soldier who had been faithful as those of his own race and of his own Order never had been. His heart was full. The ingratitude and the self-absorption of this life for which his own had been destroyed smote him with a fearful suffering. And only a few hours before he had looked once more on the face of the beloved friend of his youth; a deadlier sacrifice than to lay down wealth, and name, and heritage, and the world’s love, was to live on, leaving that one comrade of his early days to believe him dead after a deed of shame.

His brother sank down on the mound of freshly flung earth, sinking his head upon his arms with a low moan. Time had not changed him greatly; it had merely made him more intensely desirous of the pleasures and the powers of life, more intensely abhorrent of pain, of censure, of the contempt of the world. As, to escape these in his boyhood, he had stooped to any degradation, so, to escape them in his manhood, he was capable of descending to any falsehood or any weakness. His was one of those natures which, having no love of evil for evil’s sake, still embrace any form of evil which may save them from the penalty of their own weakness. Now, thus meeting one who for twelve years he had believed must rise from the tomb itself to reproach or to accuse him, unstrung his every nerve, and left him with only one consciousness — the desire, at all costs, to be saved.

Cecil’s eyes rested on him with a strange, melancholy pity. He had loved his brother as a youth — loved him well enough to take and bear a heavy burden of disgrace in his stead. The old love was not dead; but stronger than itself was his hatred of the shame that had touched their race by the wretched crime that had driven him into exile, and his wondering scorn for the feeble and self-engrossed character that had lived contentedly under false colors, and with a hidden blot screened by a fictitious semblance of honor. He could not linger with him; he did not know how to support the intolerable pain that oppressed him in the presence of the only living creature of his race; he could not answer for himself what passionate and withering words might not escape him; every instant of their interview was a horrible temptation to him — the temptation to demand from this coward his own justification before the world — the temptation to seize out of those unworthy hands his birthright and his due.

But the temptation — sweet, insidious, intense, strengthened by the strength of right, and well-nigh overwhelming with all its fair, delicious promise for the future — did not conquer him. What resisted it was his own simple instinct of justice; an instinct too straight and true either to yield to self-pity or to passionate desire — justice which made him feel that, since he had chosen to save this weakling once for their lost mother’s sake, he was bound forever not to repent nor to retract. He gazed a while longer, silently, at the younger man, who sat, still rocking himself wearily to and fro on the loose earth of the freshly filled grave. Then he went and laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder. The other started and trembled; he remembered that touch in days of old.

“Do not fear me,” he said, gently and very gravely. “I have kept your secret twelve years; I will keep it still. Be happy — be as happy as you can. All I bid of you in return is so to live that in your future your past shall be redeemed.”

The words of the saint to the thief were not more merciful, not more noble, than the words with which he purchased, at the sacrifice of his own life, the redemption of his brother’s. The other looked at him with a look that was half of terror — terror at the magnitude of this ransom that was given to save him from the bondage of evil.

“My God! You cannot mean it! And you ——”

“I shall lead the life fittest for me. I am content in it. It is enough.”

The answer was very calm, but it choked him in its utterance. Before his memory rose one fair, proud face. “Content!” Ah, Heaven! It was the only lie that had ever passed his lips.

His hand lay still upon his brother’s shoulder, leaning more heavily there, in the silence that brooded over the hushed plains.

“Let us part now, and forever. Leave Algeria at once. That is all I ask.”

Then, without another word that could add reproach or seek for gratitude, he turned and went away over the great, dim level of the African waste, while the man whom he had saved sat as in stupor; gazing at the brown shadows, and the sleeping herds, and the falling stars that ran across the sky, and doubting whether the voice he had head and the face upon which he had looked were not the visions of a waking dream.

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