Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 34.

The Desert Hawk and the Paradise-Bird.

Some way distant, parted by a broad strip of unoccupied ground from the camp, were the grand marquees set aside for the Marshal and for his guests. They were twelve in number, gayly decorated — as far as decoration could be obtained in the southern provinces of Algeria — and had, Arab-like, in front of each the standard of the Tricolor. Before one were two other standards also: the flags of England and of Spain. Cigarette, looking on from afar, saw the alien colors wave in the torchlight flickering on them. “That is hers,” thought the Little One, with the mournful and noble emotions of the previous moments swiftly changing into the violent, reasonless, tumultuous hatred at once of a rival and of an Order.

Cigarette was a thorough democrat; when she was two years old she had sat on the topmost pile of a Parisian barricade, with the red bonnet on her curls, and had clapped her tiny hands for delight when the bullets flew, and the “Marseillaise” rose above the cannonading; and the spirit of the musketry and of the “Marseillaise” had together passed into her and made her what she was. She was a genuine democrat; and nothing short of the pure isonomy of the Greeks was tolerated in her political philosophy, though she could not have told what such a word had meant for her life. She had all the furious prejudices and all the instinctive truths in her of an uncompromising Rouge; and the sight alone of those lofty standards, signalizing the place of rest of the “aristocrats,” while her “children’s” lowly tents wore in her sight all the dignity and all the distinction of the true field, would have aroused her ire at any time. But now a hate tenfold keener moved her; she had a jealousy of the one in whose honor those two foreign ensigns floated, that was the most bitter thing which had ever entered her short and sunny life — a hate the hotter because tinged with that sickening sense of self-humiliation, because mingled with that wondering emotion at beholding something so utterly unlike to all that she had known or dreamed.

She had it in her, could she have had the power, to mercilessly and brutally destroy this woman’s beauty, which was so far above her reach, as she had once destroyed the ivory wreath; yet, as that of the snow-white carving had done, so did this fair and regal beauty touch her, even in the midst of her fury, with a certain reverent awe, with a certain dim sense of something her own life had missed. She had trodden the ivory in pieces with all the violence of childish, savage, uncalculating hate, and she had been chidden, as by a rebuking voice, by the wreck which her action had made at her feet; so could she now, had it been possible, have ruined and annihilated the loveliness that filled his heart and his soul; but so would she also, the moment her instinct to avenge herself had been sated, have felt the remorse and the shame of having struck down a delicate and gracious thing that even in its destruction had a glory that was above her.

Even her very hate attracted her to the sight, to the study, to the presence of this woman, who was as dissimilar to all of womanhood that had ever crossed her path, in camp and barrack, as the pure, white gleaming lily of the hothouse is unlike the wind-tossed, sand-stained, yellow leaf down-trodden in the mud. An irresistible fascination drew her toward the self-same pain which had so wounded her a few hours before — an impulse more intense than curiosity, and more vital than caprice, urged her to the vicinity of the only human being who had ever awakened in her the pang of humiliation, the throbs of envy.

And she went to that vicinity, now that the daylight had just changed to evening, and the ruddy torch-glare was glowing everywhere from great pine boughs thrust in the ground, with their resinous branches steeped in oil and flaring alight. There was not a man that night in camp who would have dared oppose the steps of the young heroine of the Cross wherever they might choose, in their fantastic flight, to wander. The sentinels passing up and down the great space before the marquees challenged her, indeed, but she was quick to give the answering password, and they let her go by them, their eyes turning after the little picturesque form that every soldier of the Corps of Africa loved almost like the flag beneath which he fought. Once in the magic circle, she paused a while; the desire that urged her on, and the hate that impelled her backward, keeping her rooted there in the dusky shadow which the flapping standards threw.

To creep covertly into her rival’s presence, to hide herself like a spy to see what she wished, to show fear, or hesitation, or deference, were not in the least what she contemplated. What she intended was to confront this fair, strange, cold, cruel thing, and see if she were of flesh and blood like other living beings, and do the best that could be done to outrage, to scourge, to challenge, to deride her with all the insolent artillery of camp ribaldry, and show her how a child of the people could laugh at her rank, and affront her purity, and scorn her power. Definite idea there was none to her; she had come on impulse. But a vague longing in some way to break down that proud serenity which galled her so sharply, and bring hot blood of shame into that delicate face, and cast indignity on that imperious and unassailable pride, consumed her.

She longed to do as some girl of whom she had once been told by an old Invalide had done in the ‘89 — a girl of the people, a fisher-girl of the Cannebiere, who had loved one above her rank, a noble who deserted her for a woman of his own Order, a beautiful, soft-skinned, lily-like, scornful aristocrat, with the silver ring of merciless laughter and the languid luster of sweet, contemptuous eyes. The Marseillaise bore her wrong in silence — she was a daughter of the south and of the populace, with a dark, brooding, burning beauty, strong and fierce, and braced with the salt lashing of the sea and with the keen breath of the stormy mistral. She held her peace while the great lady was wooed and won, while the marriage joys came with the purple vintage time, while the people were made drunk at the bridal of their chatelaine in those hot, ruddy, luscious autumn days.

She held her peace; and the Terror came, and the streets of the city by the sea ran blood, and the scorch of the sun blazed, every noon, on the scaffold. Then she had her vengeance. She stood and saw the ax fall down on the proud, snow-white neck that never had bent till it bent there, and she drew the severed head into her own bronzed hands and smote the lips his lips had kissed — a cruel blow that blurred their beauty out — and twined a fish-hook in the long and glistening hair, and drew it, laughing as she went, through dust, and mire, and gore, and over the rough stones of the town, and through the shouting crowds of the multitudes, and tossed it out on to the sea, laughing still as the waves flung it out from billow to billow, and the fish sucked it down to make their feast. She stood and laughed by the side of the gray, angry water, watching the tresses of the floating hair sink downward like a heap of sea-tossed weed.

That horrible story came to the memory of Cigarette now as it had been told her by the old soldier who, in his boyhood, had seen the entry of the Marseillais to Paris. She knew what the woman of the people had felt when she had bruised and mocked and thrown out to the devouring waters that fair and fallen head.

“I could do it — I could do it,” she thought, with the savage instinct of her many-sided nature dominant, leaving uppermost only its ferocity — the same ferocity as had moved the southern woman to wreak her hatred on the senseless head of her rival. The school in which the child-soldier had been reared had been one to foster all those barbaric impulses; to leave in their inborn, uncontrolled force all those native desires which the human shares with the animal nature. There had been no more to teach her that these were criminal or forbidden than there is to teach the young tigress that it is cruel to tear the antelope for food. What Cigarette was, that nature had made her; she was no more trained to self-control, or to the knowledge of good, than is the tiger’s cub as it wantons in its play under the great, broad tropic leaves.

Now, she acted on her impulse; her impulse of open scorn of rank, of reckless vindication of her right to do just whatsoever pleasured her; and she went boldly forward and dashed aside, with no gentle hand, the folds that hung before the entrance of the tent, and stood there with the gleam of the starry night and the glow of the torches behind her, so that her picturesque and brightly colored form looked painted on a dusky, lurid background of shadow and of flame.

The action startled the occupants of the tent, and made them both look up; they were Venetia Corona and a Levantine woman, who was her favorite and most devoted attendant, and had been about her from her birth. The tent was the first of three set aside for her occupancy, and had been adorned with as much luxury as was procurable, and with many of the rich and curious things of Algerian art and workmanship, so far as they could be hastily collected by the skill and quickness of the French intendance. Cigarette stood silently looking at the scene on which she had thus broken without leave or question; she saw nothing of it except one head lifted in surprise at her entrance — just such a head, just so proudly carried, just so crowned with gleaming hair as that which the Marseillaise had dragged through the dust of the streets and cast out into the lust of the sharks. Venetia hesitated a moment in astonished wonder; then, with the grace and the courtesy of her race, rose and approached the entrance of her tent, in which that fierce — half a soldier, half a child — was standing, with the fitful, reddened light behind. She recognized whose it was.

“Is it you, ma petite?” she said kindly. “Come within. Do not be afraid ——”

She spoke with the gentle consideration of a great lady to one whom she admired for her heroism, compassionated for her position, and thought naturally in need of such encouragement. She had liked the frank, fearless, ardent brunette face of the Little Friend of the Flag; she had liked her fiery and indomitable defense of the soldier of Zaraila; she felt an interest in her as deep as her pity, and she was above the scruples which many women of her rank might have had as to the fitness of entering into conversation with this child of the army. She was gentle to her as to a young bird, a young kitten, a young colt; what her brother had said of the vivandiere’s love for one whom the girl only knew as a trooper of Chasseurs filled with an indefinable compassion the woman who knew him as her own equal and of her own Order.

Cigarette, for once, answered nothing; her eyes very lowering, burning, savage.

“You wish to see me?” Venetia asked once more. “Come nearer. Have no fear —”

The one word unloosed the spell which had kept Cigarette speechless; the one word was an insult beyond endurance, that lashed all the worst spirit in her into flame.

“Fear!” she cried, with a camp oath, whose blasphemy was happily unintelligible to her listener. “Fear! You think I fear you! — the darling of the army, who saved the squadron at Zaraila, who has seen a thousand days of bloodshed, who has killed as many men with her own hand as any Lascar among them all — fear you, you hothouse flower, you paradise-bird, you silver pheasant, who never did aught but spread your dainty colors in the sun, and never earned so much as the right to eat a pierce of black bread, if you had your deserts! Fear you — I! Why! do you not know that I could kill you where you stand as easily as I could wring the neck of any one of those gold-winged orioles that flew above your head today, and who have more right to live than you, for they do at least labor in their own fashion for their food, and their drink, and their dwelling? Dieu de Dieu! Why, I have killed Arabs, I tell you — great, gaunt, grim men — and made them bite the dust under my fire. Do you think I would check for a moment at dealing you death, you beautiful, useless, honeyed, poisoned, painted exotic, that has every wind tempered to you, and thinks the world only made to bear the fall of your foot!”

The fury of words was poured out without pause, and with an intense passion vibrating through them; the wine was hot in her veins, the hate was hot in her heart; her eyes glittered with murderous meaning, and she darted with one swift bound to the side of the rival she loathed, with the pistol half out of her belt; she expected to see the one she threatened recoil, quail, hear the threat in terror; she mistook the nature with which she dealt. Venetia Corona never moved, never gave a sign of the amazement that awoke in her; but she put her hand out and clasped the barrel of the weapon, while her eyes looked down into the flashing, looming, ferocious ones that menaced her, with calm, contemptuous rebuke, in which something of infinite pity was mingled.

“Child, are you mad?” she said gravely. “Brave natures do not stoop to assassination, which you seem to deify. If you have any reason to feel evil against me, tell me what it is. I always repair a wrong, if I can. But as for those threats, they are most absurd if you do not mean them; they are most wicked if you do.”

The tranquil, unmoved, serious words stilled the vehement passion she rebuked with a strange and irresistible power; under her gaze the savage lust in Cigarette’s eyes died out, and their lids drooped over them; the dusky, scarlet color failed from her cheeks; for the first time in her life she felt humiliated, vanquished, awed. If this “aristocrat” had shown one sign of fear, one trace of apprehension, all her violent and reckless hatred would have reigned on, and, it might have been, have rushed from threat to execution; but showing the only quality, that of courage, for which she had respect, her great rival confused and disarmed her. She was only sensible, with a vivid, agonizing sense of shame, that her only cause of hatred against this woman was that he loved her. And this she would have died a thousand deaths rather than have acknowledged.

She let the pistol pass into Venetia’s grasp; and stood, irresolute and ashamed, her fluent tongue stricken dumb, her intent to wound, and sting, and outrage with every vile, coarse jest she knew, rendered impossible to execute. The purity and the dignity of her opponent’s presence had their irresistible influence, an influence too strong for even her debonair and dangerous insolence. She hated herself in that moment more than she hated her rival.

Venetia laid the loaded pistol down, away from both, and seated herself on the cushions from which she had risen. Then she looked once more, long and quietly, at her unknown antagonist.

“Well?” she said, at length. “Why do you venture to come here? And why do you feel this malignity toward a stranger who never saw you until this morning?”

Under the challenge the fiery spirit of Cigarette rallied, though a rare and galling sense of intense inferiority, of intense mortification, was upon her; though she would almost have given the Cross which was on her breast that she had never come into this woman’s sight.

“Oh, ah!” she answered recklessly, with the red blood flushing her face again at the only evasion of truth of which the little desperado, with all her sins, had ever been guilty. “I hate you, Milady, because of your Order — because of your nation — because of your fine, dainty ways — because of your aristocrat’s insolence — because you treat my soldiers like paupers — because you are one of those who do no more to have the right to live than the purple butterfly that flies in the sun, and who oust the people out of their dues as the cuckoo kicks the poor birds that have reared it, out of the nest of down, to which it never has carried a twig or a moss!”

Her listener heard with a slight smile of amusement and of surprise that bitterly discomfited the speaker. To Venetia Corona the girl-soldier seemed mad; but it was a madness that interested her, and she knew at a glance that this child of the army was of no common nature and no common mind.

“I do not wish to discuss democracy with you,” she answered, with a tone that sounded strangely tranquil to Cigarette after the scathing acrimony of her own. “I should probably convince you as little as you would convince me; and I never waste words. But I heard you today claim a certain virtue — justice. How do you reconcile with that your very hasty condemnation of a stranger of whose motives, actions, and modes of life it is impossible you can have any accurate knowledge?”

Cigarette once again was silenced; her face burned, her heart was hot with rage. She had come prepared to upbraid and to outrage this patrician with every jibe and grossness camp usage could supply her with, and — she stood dumb before her! She could only feel an all-absorbing sense of being ridiculous, and contemptible, and puerile in her sight.

“You bring two charges against me,” said Venetia, when she had vainly awaited answer. “That I treat your comrades like paupers, and that I rob the people — my own people, I imagine you to mean — of their dues. In the first, how will you prove it? — in the second, how can you know it?”

“Pardieu, Milady!” swore Cigarette recklessly, seeking only to hold her own against the new sense of inferiority and of inability that oppressed her. “I was in the hospital when your fruits and your wines came; and as for your people, I don’t speak of them — they are all slaves, they say, in Albion, and will bear to be yoked like oxen if they think they can turn any gold in the furrows — I speak of the people. Of the toiling, weary, agonized, joyless, hapless multitudes who labor on, and on, and on, ever in darkness, that such as you may bask in sunlight and take your pleasures wrung out of the death-sweat of millions of work-murdered poor! What right have you to have your path strewn with roses, and every pain spared from you; only to lift your voice and say, ‘Let that be done,’ to see it done? — to find life one long, sweet summer day of gladness and abundance, while they die out in agony by thousands, ague-stricken, famine-stricken, crime-stricken, age-stricken, for want only of one ray of the light of happiness that falls from dawn to dawn like gold upon your head?”

Vehement and exaggerated as the upbraiding was, her hearer’s face grew very grave, very thoughtful, as she spoke, those luminous, earnest eyes, whose power even the young democrat felt, gazed wearily down into hers.

“Ah, child! Do you think we never think of that? You wrong me — you wrong my Order. There are many besides myself who turn over that terrible problem as despairingly as you can ever do. As far as in us lies, we strive to remedy its evil; the uttermost effort can do but little, but that little is only lessened — fearfully lessened — whenever Class is arrayed against Class by that blind antagonism which animates yourself.”

Cigarette’s intelligence was too rapid not to grasp the truths conveyed by these words; but she was in no mood to acknowledge them.

“Nom de Dieu, Milady!” she swore in her teeth. “If you do turn over the problem — you aristocrats — it is pretty work, no doubt! Just putting the bits of a puzzle-ball together so long as the game pleases you, and leaving the puzzle in chaos when you are tired! Oh, ha! I know how fine ladies and fine gentlemen play at philanthropies! But I am a child of the People, mark you; and I only see how birth is an angel that gives such as you eternal sunlight and eternal summer, and how birth is a devil that drives down the millions into a pit of darkness, of crime, of ignorance, of misery, of suffering, where they are condemned before they have opened their eyes to existence, where they are sentenced before they have left their mothers’ bosoms in infancy. You do not know what that darkness is. It is night — it is ice — it is hell!”

Venetia Corona sighed wearily as she heard; pain had been so far from her own life, and there was an intense eloquence in the low, deep words that seemed to thrill through the stillness.

“Nor do you know how many shadows checker that light which you envy! But I have said; it is useless for me to argue these questions with you. You commence with a hatred of a class; all justice is over wherever that element enters. If I were what you think, I should bid you leave my presence which you have entered so rudely. I do not desire to do that. I am sure that the heroine of Zaraila has something nobler in her than mere malignity against a person who can never have injured her; and I would endure her insolence for the sake of awakening her justice. A virtue, that was so great in her at noon, cannot be utterly dead at nightfall.”

Cigarette’s fearless eyes drooped under the gaze of those bent so searchingly, yet so gently, upon her; but only for a moment. She raised them afresh with their old dauntless frankness.

“Dieu! you shall never say you wanted justice and truth from a French soldier, and failed to get them! I hate you, never mind why — I do, though you never harmed me. I came here for two reasons: one, because I wanted to look at you close — you are not like anything that I ever saw; the other, because I wanted to wound you, to hurt you, to outrage you, if I could find a way how. And you will not let me do it. I do not know what it is in you.”

In all her courted life, the great lady had had no truer homage than lay in that irate, reluctant wonder of this fiery foe.

She smiled slightly.

“My poor child, it is rather something in yourself — a native nobility that will not allow you to be as unjust and as insolent as your soul desires —”

Cigarette gave a movement of intolerable impatience.

“Pardieu! Do not pity me, or I shall give you a taste of my ‘insolence’ in earnest! You may be a sovereign grand dame everywhere else, but you can carry no terror with you for me, I promise you!”

“I do not seek to do so. If I did not feel interest in you, do you suppose I should suffer for a moment the ignorant rudeness of an ill-bred child? You fail in the tact, as in the courtesy, that belong to your nation.”

The rebuke was gentle, but it was all the more severe for its very serenity. It cut Cigarette to the quick; it covered her with an overwhelming sense of mortification and of failure. She was too keen and too just, despite all her vanity, not to feel that she had deserved the condemnation, and not to know that her opponent had all the advantage and all the justice on her side. She had done nothing by coming here; nothing except to appear as an insolent and wayward child before her superb rival, and to feel a very anguish of inferiority before the grace, the calm, the beauty, the nameless, potent charm of this woman, whom she had intended to humiliate and injure!

The inborn truth within her, the native generosity and candor that soon or late always overruled every other element in the Little One, conquered her now. She dashed down her Cross on the ground, and trod passionately on the decoration she adored.

“I disgrace it the first day I wear it! You are right, though I hate you, and you are as beautiful as a sorceress! There is no wonder he loves you!”

“He! Who?”

There was a colder and more utterly amazed hauteur in the interrogation than had come into her voice throughout the interview, yet on her fair face a faint warmth rose.

The words were out, and Cigarette was reckless what she said; almost unconscious, indeed, in the violence of the many emotions in her.

“The man who carves the toys you give your dog to break!” she answered bitterly. “Dieu de Dieu! he loves you. When he was down with his wounds after Zaraila, he said so; but he never knew what he said, and he never knew that I heard him. You are like the women of his old world; though through you he got treated like a dog, he loves you!”

“Of whom do you venture to speak?”

The cold, calm dignity of the question, whose very tone was a rebuke, came strangely after the violent audacity of Cigarette’s speech.

“Sacre bleu! Of him, I tell you, who was made to bring his wares to you like a hawker. And you think it insult, I will warrant! — insult for a soldier who has nothing but his courage, and his endurance, and his heroism under suffering to ennoble him, to dare to love Mme. la Princesse Corona! I think otherwise. I think that Mme. la Princesse Corona never had a love of so much honor, though she has had princes and nobles and all the men of her rank, no doubt, at her feet, through that beauty that is like a spell!”

Hurried headlong by her own vehemence, and her own hatred for her rival, which drove her to magnify the worth of the passion of which she was so jealous, that she might lessen, if she could, the pride of her on whom it was lavished, she never paused to care what she said, or heed what its consequences might become. She felt incensed, amazed, irritated, to see no trace of any emotion come on her hearer’s face; the hot, impetuous, expansive, untrained nature underrated the power for self-command of the Order she so blindly hated.

“You speak idly and at random, like the child you are,” the grande dame answered her with chill, contemptuous rebuke. “I do not imagine that the person you allude to made you his confidante in such a matter?”

“He!” retorted Cigarette. “He belongs to your class, Milady. He is as silent as the grave. You might kill him, and he would never show it hurt. I only know what he muttered in his fever.”

“When you attended him?”

“Not I!” cried Cigarette, who saw for the first time that she was betraying herself. “He lay in the scullion’s tent where I was; that was all; and he was delirious with the shot-wounds. Men often are —”

“Wait! Hear me a little while, before you rush on in this headlong and foolish speech,” interrupted her auditor, who had in a moment’s rapid thought decided on her course with this strange, wayward nature. “You err in the construction you have placed on the words, whatever they were, which you heard. The gentleman — he is a gentleman — whom you speak of bears me no love. We are almost strangers. But by a strange chain of circumstances he is connected with my family; he once had great friendship with my brother; for reasons that I do not know, but which are imperative with him, he desires to keep his identity unsuspected by everyone; an accident alone revealed it to me, and I have promised him not to divulge it. You understand?”

Cigarette gave an affirmative gesture. Her eyes were fastened suddenly, yet with a deep, bright glow in them, upon her companion; she was beginning to see her way through his secret — a secret she was too intrinsically loyal even now to dream of betraying.

“You spoke very nobly for him today. You have the fealty of one brave character to another, I am sure!” pursued Venetia Corona, purposely avoiding all hints of any warmer feeling on her listener’s part, since she saw how tenacious the girl was of any confession of it. “You would do him service if you could, I fancy. Am I right?”

“Oh, yes!” answered Cigarette, with an over-assumption of carelessness. “He is bon zig; we always help each other. Besides, he is very good to my men. What is it you want of me?”

“To preserve secrecy on what I have told you for his sake; and to give him a message from me.”

Cigarette laughed scornfully; she was furious with herself for standing obediently like a chidden child to hear this patrician’s bidding, and to do her will. And yet, try how she would, she could not shake off the spell under which those grave, sweet, lustrous eyes of command held her.

“Pardieu, Milady! Do you think I babble like any young drunk with his first measure of wine? As for your message, you had better let him come and hear what you have to say; I cannot promise to remember it!”

“Your answer is reckless; I want a serious one. You spoke like a brave and a just friend to him today; are you willing to act as such to-night? You have come here strangely, rudely, without pretext or apology; but I think better of you than you would allow me to do, if I judged only from the surface. I believe that you have loyalty, as I know that you have courage.”

Cigarette set her teeth hard.

“What of that?”

“This of it. That one who has them will never cherish malice unjustifiably, or fail to fulfill a trust.”

Cigarette’s clear, brown skin grew very red.

“That is true,” she muttered reluctantly. Her better nature was growing uppermost, though she strove hard to keep the evil one predominant.

“Then you will cease to feel hatred toward me for so senseless a reason as that I belong to an aristocracy that offends you; and you will remain silent on what I tell you concerning the one whom you know as Louis Victor?”

Cigarette nodded assent; the sullen fire-glow still burned in her eyes, but she succumbed to the resistless influence which the serenity, the patience, and the dignity of this woman had over her. She was studying Venetia Corona all this while with the keen, rapid perceptions of envy and of jealousy; studying her features, her form, her dress, her attitude, all the many various and intangible marks of birth and breeding which were so new to her, and which made her rival seem so strange, so dazzling, so marvelous a sorceress to her; and all the while the sense of her own inferiority, her own worthlessness, her own boldness, her own debasement was growing upon her, eating, sharply into the metal of her vanity and her pride, humiliating her unbearably, yet making her heart ache with a sad, pathetic pity for herself.

“He is of your Order, then?” she asked abruptly.

“He was — yes.”

“Oh, ha!” cried Cigarette, with her old irony. “Then he must be always, mustn’t he? You think too much of your blue blood, you patricians, to fancy it can lose its royalty, whether it run under a King’s purple or a Roumi’s canvas shirt. Blood tells, they say! Well, perhaps it does. Some say my father was a Prince of France — maybe! So, he is of your Order? Bah! I knew that the first day I saw his hands. Do you want me to tell you why he lives among us, buried like this?”

“Not if you violate any confidence to do so.”

“Pardieu! He makes no confidence, I promise you. Not ten words will Monsieur say, if he can help it, about anything. He is as silent as a lama. But we learn things without being told in camp; and I know well enough he is here to save someone else, in someone’s place; it is a sacrifice, look you, that nails him down to this martyrdom.”

Her auditor was silent; she thought as the vivandiere thought, but the pride in her, the natural reticence and reserve of her class, made her shrink from discussing the history of one whom she knew — shrink from having any argument on his past or future with a saucy, rough, fiery young camp-follower, who had broken thus unceremoniously on her privacy. Yet she needed greatly to be able to trust Cigarette; the child was the only means through which she could send him a warning that must be sent; and there were a bravery and a truth in her which attracted the “aristocrat,” to whom she was so singular and novel a rarity as though she were some young savage of desert western isles.

“Look you, Milady,” said Cigarette, half sullenly, half passionately, for the words were wrenched out of her generosity, and choked her in their utterance, “that man suffers; his life here is a hell upon earth — I don’t mean for the danger, he is bon soldat; but for the indignity, the subordination, the license, the brutality, the tyranny. He is as if he were chained to the galleys. He never says anything. Oh, no! he is of your kind you know! But he suffers. Mort de Dieu! he suffers. Now, if you be his friend, can you do nothing for him? Can you ransom him in no way? Can you go away out of Africa and leave him in this living death to get killed and thrust into the sand, like his comrade the other day?”

Her hearer did not answer; the words made her heart ache; they cut her to the soul. It was not for the first time that the awful desolation of his future had been present before her; but it was the first time that the fate to which she would pass away and leave him had been so directly in words before her. Cigarette, obeying the generous impulses of her better nature, and abandoning self with the same reckless impetuosity with which a moment before she would, if she could, have sacrificed her rival, saw the advantage gained, and pursued it with rapid skill. She was pleading against herself; no matter. In that instant she was capable of crucifying herself, and only remembering mercy to the absent.

“I have heard,” she went on vehemently, for the utterance to which she forced herself was very cruel to her, “that you of the Noblesse are stanch as steel to your own people. It is the best virtue that you have. Well, he is of your people. Will you go away in your negligent indifference, and leave him to eat his heart out in bitterness and misery? He was your brother’s friend; he was known to you in his early time; you said so. And are you cold enough and cruel enough, Milady, not to make one effort to redeem him out of bondage? — to go back to your palaces, and your pleasures, and your luxuries, and your flatteries, and be happy, while this man is left on bearing his yoke here? — and it is a yoke that galls, that kills! — bearing it until, in some day of desperation, a naked blade cuts its way to his heart, and makes its pulse cease forever? If you do, you patricians are worse still than I thought you!”

Venetia heard her without interruption; a great sadness came over her face as the vivid phrases followed each other. She was too absorbed in the subject of them to heed the challenge and the insolence of their manner. She knew that the Little One who spoke them loved him, though so tenacious to conceal her love; and she was touched, not less by the magnanimity which, for his sake, sought to release him from the African service, than by the hopelessness of his coming years as thus prefigured before her.

“Your reproaches are unneeded,” she replied, slowly and wearily. “I could not abandon one who was once the friend of my family to such a fate as you picture without very great pain. But I do not see how to alter this fate, as you think I could do with so much ease. I am not in its secret; I do not know the reason of its seeming suicide; I have no more connection with its intricacies than you have. This gentleman has chosen his own path; it is not for me to change his choice or spy into his motives.”

Cigarette’s flashing, searching eyes bent all their brown light on her.

“Mme. Corona, you are courageous; to those who are so, all things are possible.”

“A great fallacy! You must have seen many courageous men vanquished. But what would you imply by it?”

“That you can help this man, if you will.”

“Would that I could; but I can discern no means —”

“Make them.”

Even in that moment her listener smiled involuntarily at the curt, imperious tones, decisive as Napoleon’s “Partons!” before the Passage of the Alps.

“Be certain, if I can, I will. Meantime, there is one pressing danger of which you must be my medium to warn him. He and my brother must not meet. Tell him that the latter, knowing him only as Louis Victor, and interested in the incidents of his military career, will seek him out early tomorrow morning before we quit the camp. I must leave it to him to avoid the meeting as best he may be able.”

Cigarette smiled grimly.

“You do not know much of the camp. Victor is only a bas-officier; if his officers call him up, he must come, or be thrashed like a slave for contumacy. He has no will of his own.”

Venetia gave an irrepressible gesture of pain.

“True; I forgot. Well, go and send him to me. My brother must be taken into his confidence, whatever that confidence reveals. I will tell him so. Go and send him to me; it is the last chance.”

Cigarette gave no movement of assent; all the jealous rage in her flared up afresh to stifle the noble and unselfish instincts under which she had been led during the later moments. A coarse and impudent scoff rose to her tongue, but it remained unuttered; she could not speak it under that glance, which held the evil in her in subjection, and compelled her reluctant reverence against her will.

“Tell him to come here to me,” repeated Venetia, with the calm decision of one to whom any possibility of false interpretation of her motives never occurred, and who was habituated to the free action that accompanied an unassailable rank. “My brother must know what I know. I shall be alone, and he can make his way hither, without doubt, unobserved. Go and say this to him. You are his loyal little friend and comrade.”

“If I be, I do not see why I am to turn your lackey, Madame,” said Cigarette bitterly. “If you want him, you can send for him by other messengers!”

Venetia Corona looked at her steadfastly, with a certain contempt in the look.

“Then your pleading for him was all insincere? Let the matter drop, and be good enough to leave my presence, which, you will remember, you entered unsummoned and undesired.”

The undeviating gentleness of the tone made the rebuke cut deeper, as her first rebuke had cut, than any sterner censure or more peremptory dismissal could have done. Cigarette stood irresolute, ashamed, filled with rage, torn by contrition, impatient, wounded, swayed by jealous rage and by the purer impulses she strove to stifle.

The Cross she had tossed down caught her sight as it glittered on the carpet strewn over the hard earth; she stooped and raised it; the action sufficed to turn the tide with her impressionable, ardent, capricious nature; she would not disgrace that.

“I will go,” she muttered in her throat; “and you — you — O God! no wonder men love you when even I cannot hate you!”

Almost ere the words were uttered she had dashed aside the hangings before the tent entrance, and had darted out into the night air. Venetia Corona gazed after the swiftly flying figure as it passed over the starlit ground, lost in amazement, in pity, and in regret; wondering afresh if she had only dreamed of this strange interview in the Algerian camp, which seemed to have come and gone with the blinding rapidity of lightning.

“A little tigress!” she thought; “and yet with infinite nobility, with wonderful germs of good in her. Of such a nature what a rare life might have been made! As it is, her childhood we smile at and forgive; but, great Heaven! what will be her maturity, her old age! Yet how she loves him! And she is so brave she will not show it.”

With the recollection came the remembrance of Cigarette’s words as to his own passion for herself, and she grew paler as it did so. “God forbid he should have that pain, too!” she murmured. “What could it be save misery for us both!”

Yet she did not thrust the fancy from her with contemptuous nonchalance as she had done every other of the many passions she had excited and disdained; it had a great sadness and a greater terror for her. She dreaded it slightly for herself.

She wished now that she had not sent for him. But it was done; it was for sake of their old friendship; and she was not one to vainly regret what was unalterable, or to desert what she deemed generous and right for the considerations of prudence or of egotism.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/under-two-flags/chapter34.html

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