Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 33.

The Gift of the Cross.

One of the most brilliant of Algerian autumnal days shone over the great camp in the south. The war was almost at an end for a time; the Arabs were defeated and driven desertwards; hostilities irksome, harassing, and annoying, like all guerrilla warfare, would long continue; but peace was virtually established, and Zaraila had been the chief glory that had been added by the campaign to the flag of Imperial France. The kites and the vultures had left the bare bones by thousands to bleach upon the sands, and the hillocks of brown earth rose in crowds where those, more cared for in death, had been hastily thrust beneath the brown crust of the earth. The dead had received their portion of reward — in the jackal’s teeth, in the crow’s beak, in the worm’s caress. And the living received theirs in this glorious, rose-flecked, glittering autumn morning, when the breath of winter made the air crisp and cool, but the ardent noon still lighted with its furnace glow the hillside and the plain.

The whole of the Army of the South was drawn up on the immense level of the plateau to witness the presentation of the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

It was full noon. The sun shone without a single cloud on the deep, sparkling azure of the skies. The troops stretched east and west, north and south, formed up in three sides of one vast, massive square. The battalions of Zouaves and of Zephyrs; the brigade of Chasseurs d’Afrique; the squadrons of Spahis; the regiments of Tirailleurs and Turcos; the batteries of Flying Artillery, were all massed there, reassembled from the various camps and stations of the southern provinces to do honor to the day — to do honor in especial to one by whom the glory of the Tricolor had been saved unstained.

The red, white, and blue of the standards, the brass of the eagle guidons; the gray, tossed manes of the chargers; the fierce, swarthy faces of the soldiery; the scarlet of the Spahis’ cloaks, and the snowy folds of the Demi–Cavalry turbans; the shine of the sloped lances, and the glisten of the carbine barrels, fused together in one sea of blended color, flashed into a million prismatic hues against the somber shadow of the sunburned plains and the clear blue of the skies.

It had been a sanguinary, fruitless, cruel campaign; it had availed nothing, except to drive the Arabs away from some hundred leagues of useless and profitless soil; hundreds of French soldiers had fallen by disease, and drought, and dysentery, as well as by shot and saber, and were unrecorded save on the books of the bureaus; unlamented, save, perhaps, in some little nestling hamlet among the great, green woods of Normandy, or some wooden hut among the olives and the vines of Provence, where some woman, toiling till sunset among the fields, or praying before some wayside saint’s stone niche, would give a thought to the far-off and devouring desert that had drawn down beneath its sands the head that used to lie upon her bosom, cradled as a child’s, or caressed as a lover’s.

But the drums rolled out their long, deep thunder over the water; and the shot-torn standards fluttered gayly in the breeze blowing from the west; and the clear, full music of the French bands echoed away to the dim, distant, terrible south, where the desert-scorch and the desert-thirst had murdered their bravest and best — and the Army was en fete. En fete, for it did honor to its darling. Cigarette received the Cross.

Mounted on her own little, bright bay, Etoile–Filante, with tricolor ribbons flying from his bridle and among the glossy fringes of his mane, the Little One rode among her Spahis. A scarlet kepi was set on her thick, silken curls, a tricolor sash was knotted round her waist, her wine-barrel was slung on her left hip, her pistols thrust in her ceinturon, and a light carbine held in her hand with the butt-end resting on her foot. With the sun on her childlike brunette face, her eyes flashing like brown diamonds in the light, and her marvelous horsemanship showing its skill in a hundred daring tricks, the little Friend of the Flag had come hither among her half-savage warriors, whose red robes surrounded her like a sea of blood.

And on a sea of blood she, the Child of War, had floated; never sinking in that awful flood, but buoyant ever above its darkest waves; catching ever some ray of sunlight upon her fair young head, and being oftentimes like a star of hope to those over whom its dreaded waters closed. Therefore they loved her, these grim, slaughterous, and lustful warriors, to whom no other thing of womanhood was sacred; by whom in their wrath or their crime no friend and no brother was spared, whose law was license, and whose mercy was murder. They loved her, these brutes whose greed was like the tiger’s, whose hate was like the devouring flame; and any who should have harmed a single lock of her curling hair would have had the spears of the African Mussulmans buried by the score in his body. They loved her, with the one fond, triumphant love these vultures of the army ever knew; and today they gloried in her with fierce, passionate delight. To-day she was to her wild wolves of Africa what Jeanne of Vaucouleurs was to her brethren of France. And today was the crown of her young life.

In the fair, slight, girlish body of the child-soldier there lived a courage as daring as Danton’s, a patriotism as pure as Vergniaud’s, a soul as aspiring as Napoleon’s. Untaught, untutored, uninspired by poet’s words or patriot’s bidding, spontaneous as the rising and the blossoming of some wind-sown, sun-fed flower, there was, in this child of the battle, the spirit of genius, the desire to live and to die greatly. To be forever a beloved tradition in the army of her country, to have her name remembered in the roll-call; to be once shrined in the love and honor of France, Cigarette — full of the boundless joys of life that knew no weakness and no pain; strong as the young goat, happy as the young lamb, careless as the young flower tossing on the summer breeze — Cigarette would have died contentedly. And now, living, some measure of this desire had been fulfilled to her, some breath of this imperishable glory had passed over her. France had heard the story of Zaraila; from the Throne a message had been passed to her; what was far beyond all else to her, her own Army of Africa had crowned her, and thanked her, and adored her as with one voice, and wheresoever she passed the wild cheers rang through the roar of musketry, as through the silence of sunny air, and throughout the regiments every sword would have sprung from its scabbard in her defense if she had but lifted her hand and said one word —“Zaraila!”

The Army looked on her with delight now. In all that mute, still, immovable mass that stretched out so far, in such gorgeous array, there was not one man whose eyes did not turn on her, whose pride did not center in her — their Little One, who was so wholly theirs, and who had been under the shadow of their Flag ever since the curls, so dark now, had been yellow as wheat in her infancy. There was not one in all those hosts whose eyes did not turn on her with gratitude, and reverence, and delight in her as their own.

Not one; except where her own keen, rapid glance, far-seeing as the hawk’s, lighted on the squadrons of the Chasseurs d’Afrique, and found among their ranks one face, grave, weary, meditative, with a gaze that seemed looking far away from the glittering scene to a grave that lay unseen leagues beyond, behind the rocky ridge.

“He is thinking of the dead man, not of me,” thought Cigarette; and the first taint of bitterness entered into her cup of joy and triumph, as such bitterness enters into most cups that are drunk by human lips. A whole army was thinking of her, and of her alone; and there was a void in her heart, a thorn in her crown, because one among that mighty mass — one only — gave her presence little heed, but thought rather of a lonely tomb among the desolation of the plains.

But she had scarce time even for that flash of pain to quiver in impotent impatience through her. The trumpets sounded, the salvoes of artillery pealed out, the lances and the swords were carried up in salute; on the ground rode the Marshal of France, who represented the imperial will and presence, surrounded by his staff, by generals of division and brigade, by officers of rank, and by some few civilian riders. An aid galloped up to her where she stood with the corps of her Spahis and gave her his orders. The Little One nodded carelessly, and touched Etoile–Filante with the prick of the spur. Like lightning the animal bounded forth from the ranks, rearing and plunging, and swerving from side to side, while his rider, with exquisite grace and address, kept her seat like the little semi-Arab that she was, and with a thousand curves and bounds cantered down the line of the gathered troops, with the west wind blowing from the far-distant sea, and fanning her bright cheeks till they wore the soft, scarlet flush of the glowing japonica flower. And all down the ranks a low, hoarse, strange, longing murmur went — the buzz of the voices which, but that discipline suppressed them, would have broken out in worshiping acclamations.

As carelessly as though she reined up before the Cafe door of the As de Pique, she arrested her horse before the great Marshal who was the impersonation of authority, and put her hand up in salute, with her saucy, wayward laugh. He was the impersonation of that vast, silent, awful, irresponsible power which, under the name of the Second Empire, stretched its hand of iron across the sea, and forced the soldiers of France down into nameless graves, with the desert sand choking their mouths; but he was no more to Cigarette than any drummer-boy that might be present. She had all the contempt for the laws of rank of your thorough inborn democrat, all the gay, insouciant indifference to station of the really free and untrammeled nature; and, in her sight, a dying soldier, lying quietly in a ditch to perish of shot-wounds without a word or a moan, was greater than all the Marshals glittering in their stars and orders. As for impressing her, or hoping to impress her, with rank — pooh! You might as well have bid the sailing clouds pause in their floating passage because they came between royalty and the sun. All the sovereigns of Europe would have awed Cigarette not one whit more than a gathering of muleteers. “Allied sovereigns — bah!” she would have said, “what did that mean in ‘15? A chorus of magpies chattering over one stricken eagle!”

So she reined up before the Marshal and his staff, and the few great personages whom Algeria could bring around them, as indifferently as she had many a time reined up before a knot of grim Turcos, smoking under a barrack-gate. He was nothing to her: it was her army that crowned her.

Nevertheless, despite her gay contempt for rank, her heart beat fast under its gold-laced packet as she reined up Etoile and saluted. In that hot, clear sun all the eyes of that immense host were fastened on her, and the hour of her longing desire was come at last. France had recognized that she had done greatly. There was a group before her, large and brilliant, but at them Cigarette never looked; what she saw were the faces of her “children,” of men who, in the majority, were old enough to be her grandsires, who had been with her through so many darksome hours, and whose black and rugged features lightened and grew tender whenever they looked upon their Little One. For the moment she felt giddy with sweet, fiery joy; they were here to behold her thanked in the name of France.

The Marshal, in advance of all his staff, doffed his plumed hat and bowed to his saddle-bow as he faced her. He knew her well by sight, this pretty child of his Army of Africa, who had, before then, suppressed mutiny like a veteran, and led the charge like a Murat — this kitten with a lion’s heart, this humming-bird with an eagle’s swoop.

“Mademoiselle,” he commenced, while his voice, well skilled to such work, echoed to the farthest end of the long lines of troops, “I have the honor to discharge today the happiest duty of my life. In conveying to you the expression of the Emperor’s approval of your noble conduct in the present campaign, I express the sentiments of the whole Army. Your action on the day of Zaraila was as brilliant in conception as it was great in execution; and the courage you displayed was only equaled by your patriotism. May the soldiers of many wars remember and emulate you. In the name of France, I thank you. In the name of the Emperor, I bring to you the Cross of the Legion of Honor.”

As the brief and soldierly words rolled down the ranks of the listening regiments, he stooped forward from the saddle and fastened the red ribbon on her breast; while from the whole gathered mass, watching, hearing, waiting breathlessly to give their tribute of applause to their darling also, a great shout rose as with one voice, strong, full, echoing over and over again across the plains in thunder that joined her name with the name of France and of Napoleon, and hurled it upward in fierce, tumultuous, idolatrous love to those cruel, cloudless skies that shone above the dead. She was their child, their treasure, their idol, their young leader in war, their young angel in suffering; she was all their own, knowing with them one common mother — France. Honor to her was honor to them; they gloried with heart and soul in this bright, young fearless life that had been among them ever since her infant feet had waded through the blood of slaughter-fields, and her infant lips had laughed to see the tricolor float in the sun above the smoke of battle.

And as she heard, her face became very pale, her large eyes grew dim and very soft, her mirthful mouth trembled with the pain of a too intense joy. She lifted her head, and all the unutterable love she bore her country and her people thrilled through the music of her voice.

“Francais!”

That was all she said; in that one word of their common nationality she spoke alike to the Marshal of the Empire and to the conscript of the ranks. “Francais!” That one title made them all equal in her sight; whoever claimed it was honored in her eyes, and was precious to her heart, and when she answered them that it was nothing, this thing which they glorified in her, she answered but what seemed the simple truth in her code. She would have thought it “nothing” to have perished by shot, or steel, or flame, in day-long torture for that one fair sake of France.

Vain in all else, and to all else wayward, here she was docile and submissive as the most patient child; here she deemed the greatest and the hardest thing that she could ever do far less than all that she would willingly have done. And as she looked upon the host whose thousand and ten thousand voices rang up to the noonday sun in her homage, and in hers alone, a light like a glory beamed upon her face that for once was white and still and very grave — none who saw her face then ever forgot that look.

In that moment she touched the full sweetness of a proud and pure ambition, attained and possessed in all its intensity, in all its perfect splendor. In that moment she knew that divine hour which, born of a people’s love and of the impossible desires of genius in its youth, comes to so few human lives — knew that which was known to the young Napoleon when, in the hot hush of the nights of July, France welcomed the Conqueror of Italy. And in that moment there was an intense stillness; the Army crowned as its bravest and its best a woman-child in the springtime of her girlhood.

Then Cigarette laid her hand on the Cross that had been the dream of her years since she had first seen the brazen glisten of the eagles above her wondering eyes of infancy, and loosened it from above her heart, and stretched her hand out with it to the great Chief.

“M. le Marshal, this is not for me.”

“Not for you! The Emperor bestows it ——”

Cigarette saluted with her left hand, still stretching to him the decoration with the other.

“It is not for me — not while I wear it unjustly.”

“Unjustly! What is your meaning? My child, you talk strangely. The gifts of the Empire are not given lightly.”

“No; and they shall not be given unfairly. Listen.” The color had flushed back, bright and radiant, to her cheeks; her eyes glanced with their old daring; her contemptuous, careless eloquence returned, and her voice echoed, every note distinct as the notes of a trumpet-call, down the ranks of the listening soldiery. “Hark you! The Emperor sends me this Cross; France thanks me; the Army applauds me. Well, I thank them, one and all. Cigarette was never yet ungrateful; it is the sin of the coward. But I say I will not take what is unjustly mine, and this preference to me is unjust. I saved the day at Zaraila? Oh, ha! And how? — by scampering fast on my mare, and asking for a squadron or two of my Spahis — that was all. If I had not done so much — I, a soldier of Africa — why, I should have deserved to have been shot like a cat — bah! should I not? It was not I who saved the battle. Who was it? It was a Chasseur d’Afrique, I tell you. What did he do? Why, this. When his officers were all gone down, he rallied, and gathered his handful of men, and held the ground with them all through the day — two — four — six — eight — ten hours in the scorch of the sun. The Arbicos, even were forced to see that was grand; they offered him life if he would yield. All his answer was to form his few horsemen into line as well as he could for the slain, and charge — a last charge in which he knew not one of his troop could live through the swarms of the Arabs around them. That I saw with my own eyes. I and my Spahis just reached him in time. Then who is it that saved the day, I pray you? — I, who just ran a race for fun and came in at the fag-end of the thing, or this man who lived the whole day through in the carnage, and never let go of the guidon, but only thought how to die greatly? I tell you, the Cross is his, and not mine. Take it back, and give it where it is due.”

The Marshal listened, half amazed, half amused — half prepared to resent the insult to the Empire and to discipline, half disposed to award that submission to her caprice which all Algeria gave to Cigarette.

“Mademoiselle,” he said, with a grave smile, “the honors of the Empire are not to be treated thus. But who is this man for whom you claim so much?”

“Who is he?” echoed Cigarette, with all her fiery disdain for authority ablaze once more like brandy in a flame. “Oh, ha! Napoleon Premier would not have left his Marshals to ask that! He is the finest soldier in Africa, if it be possible for one to be finer than another where all are so great. They know that; they pick him out for all the dangerous missions. But the Black Hawk hates him, and so France never hears the truth of all that he does. I tell you, if the Emperor had seen him as I saw him on the field of Zaraila, his would have been the Cross, and not mine.”

“You are generous, my Little One.”

“No; I am just.”

Her brave eyes glowed in the sun, her voice rang as clear as a bell. She raised her head proudly and glanced down the line of her army. She was just — that was the one virtue in Cigarette’s creed without which you were poltroon, or liar, or both.

She alone knew what neglect, what indifference, what unintentional, but none the less piercing, insults she had to avenge; she alone knew of that pain with which she had heard the name of his patrician rival murmured in delirious slumber after Zaraila; she alone knew of that negligent caress of farewell with which her lips had been touched as lightly as his hand caressed a horse’s neck or a bird’s wing. But these did not weigh with her one instant to make her withhold the words that she deemed deserved; these did not balance against him one instant the pique and the pain of her own heart, in opposition to the due of his courage and his fortitude.

Cigarette was rightly proud of her immunity from the weakness of her sex; she had neither meanness nor selfishness.

The Marshal listened gravely, the groups around him smilingly. If it had been any other than the Little One, it would have been very different; as it was, all France and all Algeria knew Cigarette.

“What may be the name of this man whom you praise so greatly, my pretty one?” he asked her.

“That I cannot tell, M. le Marshal. All I know is he calls himself here Louis Victor.”

“Ah! I have heard much of him. A fine soldier, but —”

“A fine soldier without a ‘but,’” interrupted Cigarette, with rebellious indifference to the rank of the great man she corrected, “unless you add, ‘but never done justice by his Chief.’”

As she spoke, her eyes for the first time glanced over the various personages who were mingled among the staff of the Marshal, his invited guests for the review upon the plains. The color burned more duskily in her cheek, her eyes glittered with hate; she could have bitten her little, frank, witty tongue through and through for having spoken the name of that Chasseur who was yonder, out of earshot, where the lance-heads of his squadrons glistened against the blue skies. She saw a face which, though seen but once before, she knew instantly again — the face of “Milady.” And she saw it change color, and lose its beautiful hue, and grow grave and troubled as the last words passed between herself and the French Marshal.

“Ah! can she feel?” wondered Cigarette, who, with a common error of such vehement young democrats as herself, always thought that hearts never ached in the Patrician Order, and thought so still when she saw the listless, proud tranquility return, not again to be altered, over the perfect features that she watched with so much violent, instinctive hate. “Did she heed his name, or did she not? What are their faces in that Order? Only alabaster masks!” mused the child. And her heart sank, and bitterness mingled with her joy, and the soul that had a moment before been so full of all pure and noble emotion, all high and patriotic and idealic thought, was dulled and soiled and clogged with baser passions. So ever do unworthy things drag the loftier nature earthward.

She scarcely heard the Marshal’s voice as it addressed her with a kindly indulgence, as to a valued soldier and a spoiled pet in one.

“Have no fear, Little One. Victor’s claims are not forgotten, though we may await our own time to investigate and reward them. No one ever served the Empire and remained unrewarded. For yourself, wear your Cross proudly. It glitters above not only the bravest, but the most generous, heart in the service.”

None had ever won such warm words from the redoubted chief, whose speech was commonly rapid and stern as his conduct of war, and who usually recompensed his men for fine service rather with a barrel of brandy to season their rations than with speeches of military eulogium. But it failed to give delight to Cigarette. She felt resting upon her the calm gaze of those brilliant azure eyes; and she felt, as she had done once in her rhododendron shelter, as though she were some very worthless, rough, rude, untaught, and coarse little barbarian, who was, at best, but fit for a soldier’s jest and a soldier’s riot in the wild license of the barrack room or the campaigning tent. It was only the eyes of this woman, whom he loved, which ever had the power to awaken that humiliation, that impatience of herself, that consciousness of something lost and irrevocable, which moved her now.

Cigarette was proud with an intense pride of all her fiery liberty from every feminine trammel, of all her complete immunity from every scruple and every fastidiousness of her sex. But, for once, within sight of that noble and haughty beauty, a poignant, cruel, wounding sense of utter inferiority, of utter debasement, possessed and weighed down her lawless and indomitable spirit. Some vague, weary feeling that her youth was fair enough in the sight of men, but that her older years would be very dark, very terrible, came on her even in this hour of the supreme joy, the supreme triumph of her life. Even her buoyant and cloudless nature did not escape that mortal doom which pursues and poisons every ambition in the very instant of its full fruition.

The doubt, the pain, the self-mistrust were still upon her as she saluted once again and paced down the ranks of the assembled divisions; while every lance was carried, every sword lifted, every bayonet presented to the order as she went; greeted as though she were an empress, for that cross which glittered on her heart, for that courage wherewith she had saved the Tricolor.

The great shouts rent the air; the clash of the lowered arms saluted her; the drums rolled out upon the air; the bands of the regiments of Africa broke into the fiery rapture of a war-march; the folds of the battle-torn flags were flung out wider and wider on the breeze. Gray-bearded men gazed on her with tears of delight upon their grizzled lashes, and young boys looked at her as the children of France once gazed upon Jeanne d’Arc, where Cigarette, with the red ribbon on her breast, road slowly in the noonday light along the line of troops.

It was the paradise of which she had dreamed; it was the homage of the army she adored; it was one of those hours in which life is transfigured, exalted, sublimated into a divine glory by the pure love of a people; and yet in that instant, so long, so passionately desired, the doom of all genius was hers. There was the stealing pain of a weary unrest amid the sunlit and intoxicating joy of satisfied aspiration.

The eyes of Venetia Corona followed her with something of ineffable pity. “Poor little unsexed child!” she thought. “How pretty and how brave she is! and — how true to him!”

The Seraph, beside her in the group around the flagstaff, smiled and turned to her.

“I said that little Amazon was in love with this fellow Victor; how loyally she stood up for him. But I dare say she would be as quick to send a bullet through him, if he should ever displease her.”

“Why? Where there is so much courage there must be much nobility, even in the abandonment of such a life as hers.”

“Ah, you do not know what half-French, half-African natures are. She would die for him just now very likely; but if he ever forsake her, she will be quite as likely to run her dirk through him.”

“Forsake her! What is he to her?”

There was a certain impatience in the tone, and something of contemptuous disbelief, that made her brother look at her in wonder.

“What on earth can the loves of a camp concern her?” he thought, as he answered: “Nothing that I know of. But this charming little tigress is very fond of him. By the way, can you point the man out to me? I am curious to see him.”

“Impossible! There are ten thousand faces, and the cavalry squadrons are so far off.”

She spoke with indifference, but she grew a little pale as she did so, and the eyes that had always met his so frankly, so proudly, were turned from him. He saw it, and it troubled him with a trouble the more perplexed that he could assign to himself no reason for it. That it could be caused by any interest felt for a Chasseur d’Afrique by the haughtiest lady in all Europe would have been too preposterous and too insulting a supposition for it ever to occur to him. And he did not dream the truth — the truth that it was her withholding, for the first time in all her life, any secret from him which caused her pain; that it was the fear lest he should learn that his lost friend was living thus which haunted her with that unspoken anxiety.

They were traveling here with the avowed purpose of seeing the military operations of the south; she could not have prevented him from accepting the Marshal’s invitation to the review of the African Army without exciting comment and interrogation; she was forced to let events take their own course, and shape themselves as they would; yet an apprehension, a dread, that she could hardly form into distant shape, pursued her. It weighed on her with an infinite oppression — this story which she alone had had revealed to her; this life whose martyrdom she alone had seen, and whose secret even she could not divine. It affected her more powerfully, it grieved her more keenly, than she herself knew. It brought her close, for the only time in her experience, to a life absolutely without a hope, and one that accepted the despair of such a destiny with silent resignation; it moved her as nothing less, as nothing feebler or of more common type could ever have found power to do. There were a simplicity and a greatness in the mute, unpretentious, almost unconscious, heroism of this man, who, for the sheer sake of that which he deemed the need of “honor,” accepted the desolation of his entire future, which attracted her as nothing else had ever done, which made her heart ache when she looked at the glitter of the Franco–Arab squadrons, where their sloped lances glistened in the sun, with a pang that she had never felt before. Moreover, as the untutored, half-barbaric, impulsive young heart of Cigarette had felt, so felt the high-bred, cultured, world-wise mind of Venetia Corona — that this man’s exile was no shame, but some great sacrifice; a sacrifice whose bitterness smote her with its own suffering, whose mystery wearied her with its own perplexity, as she gazed down the line of the regiments to where the shot-bruised Eagle of Zaraila gleamed above the squadrons of the Chasseurs d’Afrique.

He, in his place among those squadrons, knew her, though so far distant, and endured the deadliest trial of patience which had come to him while beneath the yoke of African discipline. To leave his place was to incur the heaviest punishment; yet he could almost have risked that sentence rather than wait there. Only seven days had gone by since he had been with her under the roof of the caravanserai; but it seemed to him as if these days had aged him more than all the twelve years that he had passed upon the Algerian soil. He was thankful that the enmity of his relentless chief had placed such shadow of evil report between his name and the rewards due to his service, that even the promised recognition of his brilliant actions at Zaraila and elsewhere was postponed a while on the plea of investigation. He was thankful that the honors which the whole Army expected for him, and which the antagonism of Chateauroy would soon be powerless to avert any longer from their meet bestowal, did not force him to go up there in the scorching light of the noon, and take those honors as a soldier of France, under the eyes of the man he loved, of the woman he adored.

As it was, he sat motionless as a statue in his saddle, and never looked westward to where the tricolors of the flagstaff drooped above the head of Venetia Corona.

Thus, he never heard the gallant words spoken in his behalf by the loyal lips that he had not cared to caress. As she passed down the ranks, indeed, he saw and smiled on his little champion; but the smile had only a weary kindness of recognition in it and it wounded Cigarette more than though he had struck her through the breast with his lance.

The moment that he had dreaded came; the troops broke up and marched past the representative of their empire, the cavalry at the head of the divisions. He passed among the rest; he raised his lance so that it hid his features as much as its slender shaft could do; the fair and noble face on which his glance flashed was very pale and very grave; the one beside her was sunny and frank, and unchanged by the years that had drifted by, and its azure eyes, so like her own, sweeping over the masses with all the swift, keen appreciation of a military glance, were so eagerly noting carriage, accouterment, harness, horses, that they never once fell upon the single soldier whose heart so unutterably longed for, even while it dreaded, his recognition.

Venetia gave a low, quick breath of mingled pain and relief as the last of the Chasseurs passed by. The Seraph started, and turned his head.

“My darling! Are you not well?”

“Perfectly!”

“You do not look so; and you forgot now to point me out this special trooper. I forgot him too.”

“He goes there — the tenth from here.”

Her brother looked; it was too late.

“He is taller than the others. That is all I can see now that his back is turned. I will seek him out when —”

“Do no such thing!”

“And why? It was your own request that I inquired —”

“Think me changeable as you will. Do nothing to seek him, to inquire for him —”

“But why? A man who at Zaraila —”

“Never mind! Do not let it be said you notice a Chasseur d’Afrique at my instance.”

The color flushed her face as she spoke; it was with the scorn, the hatred, of this shadow of an untruth with which she for the sole time in life soiled her lips. He, noting it, shook himself restlessly in his saddle. If he had not known her to be the noblest and the haughtiest of all the imperial women who had crowned his house with their beauty and their honor, he could have believed that some interest, degrading as disgrace, moved her toward this foreign trooper, and caused her altered wishes and her silence. As it was, so much insult to her as would have existed in the mere thought was impossible to him; yet it left him annoyed and vaguely disquieted.

The subject did not wholly fade from his mind throughout the entertainments that succeeded to the military inspection in the great white tent glistening with gilded bees and brightened with tricolor standards which the ingenuity of the soldiers of the administration had reared as though by magic amid the barrenness of the country, and in which the skill of camp cooks served up a delicate banquet. The scene was very picturesque, and all the more so for the widespread, changing panorama without the canvas city of the camp. It was chiefly designed to pleasure the great lady who had come so far southward; all the resources which could be employed were exhausted to make the occasion memorable and worthy of the dignity of the guests whom the Viceroy of the Empire delighted to honor. Yet she, seated there on his right hand, where the rich skins and cashmeres and carpets were strewn on a dais, saw in reality little save a confused blending of hues, and metals, and orders, and weapons, and snowy beards, and olive faces, and French elegance and glitter fused with the grave majesty of Arab pomp. For her thoughts were not with the scene around her, but with the soldier who was without in that teeming crowd of tents, who lived in poverty, and danger, and the hard slavery of unquestioning obedience, and asked only to be as one dead to all who had known and loved him in his youth. It was in vain that she repelled the memory; it usurped her, and would not be displaced.

Meantime, in another part of the camp, the heroine of Zaraila was feasted, not less distinctively, if more noisily and more familiarly, by the younger officers of the various regiments. La Cigarette, many a time before the reigning spirit of suppers and carouses, was banqueted with all the eclat that befitted that cross which sparkled on her blue and scarlet vest. High throned on a pyramid of knapsacks, canteens, and rugs, toasted a thousand times in all brandies and red wines that the stores would yield, sung of in improvised odes that were chanted by voices which might have won European fame as tenor or as basso, caressed and sued with all the rapid, fiery, lightly-come and lightly-go love of the camp, with twice a hundred flashing, darkling eyes bent on her in the hot admiration that her vain, coquette spirit found delight in, ruling as she would with jest, and caprice, and command, and bravado all these men who were terrible as tigers to their foes, the Little One reigned alone; and — like many who have reigned before her — found lead in her scepter, dross in her diadem, satiety in her kingdom.

When it was over, this banquet that was all in her honor, and that three months before would have been a paradise to her, she shook herself free of the scores of arms outstretched to keep her captive, and went out into the night alone. She did not know what she ailed, but she was restless, oppressed, weighed down with a sense of dissatisfied weariness that had never before touched the joyous and elastic nature of the child of France.

And this, too, in the moment when the very sweetest and loftiest of her ambitions was attained! When her hand wandered to that decoration on her heart which had been ever in her sight what the crown of wild olive and the wreath of summer grasses were to the youths and to the victors of the old, dead classic years! As she stood in solitude under the brilliancy of the stars, tears, unfamiliar and unbidden, rose in her eyes as they gazed over the hosts around her.

“How they live only for the slaughter! How they perish like the beasts of the field!” she thought. Upon her, as on the poet or the patriot who could translate and could utter the thought as she could not, there weighed the burden of that heart-sick consciousness of the vanity of the highest hope, the futility of the noblest effort, to bring light into the darkness of the suffering, toiling, blind throngs of human life.

“There is only one thing worth doing — to die greatly!” thought the aching heart of the child-soldier, unconsciously returning to the only end that the genius and the greatness of Greece could find as issue to the terrible jest, the mysterious despair, of all existence.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/under-two-flags/chapter33.html

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