Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 37.

In the Midst of Her Army.

There was a line of light in the eastern sky. The camp was very still. It was the hour for the mounting of the guard, and, as the light spread higher and higher, whiter and whiter, as the morning came, a score of men advanced slowly and in silence to a broad strip of land screened from the great encampment by the rise and fall of the ground, and stretching far and even, with only here and there a single palm to break its surface, over which the immense arc of the sky bent, gray and serene, with only the one colorless gleam eastward that was changing imperceptibly into the warm, red flush of opening day.

Sunrise and solitude: they were alike chosen, lest the army that honored, the comrades that loved him, should rise to his rescue; casting off the yoke of discipline, and remembering only that tyranny and that wretchedness under which they had seen him patient and unmoved throughout so many years of servitude.

He stood tranquil beside the coffin within which his broken limbs and shot-pierced corpse would so soon be laid forever. There was a deep sadness on his face, but it was perfectly serene. To the words of the priest who approached him he listened with respect, though he gently declined the services of the Church. He had spoken but very little since his arrest; he was led out of the camp in silence and waited in silence now, looking across the plains to where the dawn was growing richer and brighter with every moment that the numbered seconds of his life drifted slowly and surely away.

When they came near to bind the covering over his eyes, he motioned them away, taking the bandage from their hands and casting it far from him.

“Did I ever fear to look down the depths of my enemies’ muskets?”

It was the single outbreak, the single reproach, that escaped from him — the single utterance by which he ever quoted his services to France. Not one who heard him dared again force on him that indignity which would have blinded his sight, as though he had ever dreaded to meet death.

That one protest having escaped from him, he was once more still and calm, as though the vacant grave yawning at his feet had been but a couch of down to rest his tired limbs. His eyes watched the daylight deepen, and widen, and grow into one sheet of glowing roseate warmth; but there was no regret in the gaze; there was a fixed, fathomless resignation that moved with a vague sense of awe those who had come to slay him, and who had been so used to slaughter that they fired their volley into their comrade’s breast as callously as into the ranks of their antagonists.

“It is best thus,” he thought, “if only she never knows ——”

Over the slope of brown and barren earth that screened the camp from view there came, at the very moment that the ramrods were drawn out with a shrill, sharp ring from the carbine-barrels, a single figure — tall, stalwart, lithe, with the spring of the deerstalker in its rapid step, and the sinew of the northern races in its mold.

Cecil never saw it; he was looking at the east, at the deepening of the morning flush that was the signal of his slaughter, and his head was turned away.

The newcomer went straight to the adjutant in command, and addressed him with brief preface, hurriedly and low.

“Your prisoner is Victor of the Chasseurs? — he is to be shot this morning?”

The officer assented; he suffered the interruption, recognizing the rank of the speaker.

“I heard of it yesterday; I rode all night from Oran. I feel great pity for this man, though he is unknown to me,” the stranger pursued, in rapid, whispered words. “His crime was —”

“A blow to his colonel, monsieur.”

“And there is no possibility of a reprieve?”

“None.”

“May I speak with him an instant? I have heard it said that he is of my country, and of a rank above his standing in his regiment here.”

“You may address him, M. le Duc; but be brief. Time presses.”

He thanked the officer for the unusual permission, and turned to approach the prisoner. At that moment Cecil turned also, and their eyes met. A great, shuddering cry broke from them both; his head sank as though the bullet had already pierced his breast, and the man who believed him dead stood gazing at him, paralyzed with horror.

For a moment there was an awful silence. Then the Seraph’s voice rang out with a terror in it that thrilled through the careless, callous hearts of the watching soldiery.

“Who is that man? He died — he died so long ago! And yet ——”

Cecil’s head was sunk on his chest; he never spoke, he never moved; he knew the helpless, hopeless misery that waited for the one who found him living only to find him also standing before his open grave. He saw nothing; he only felt the crushing force of his friend’s arms flung round him, as though seizing him to learn whether he were a living man or a spector dreamed of in delirium.

“Who are you? Answer me, for pity’s sake!”

As the swift, hoarse, incredulous words poured on his ear, he, not seeking to unloose the other’s hold, lifted his head and looked full in the eyes that had not met his own for twelve long years. In that one look all was uttered; the strained, eager, doubting eyes that read their answer in it needed no other.

“You live still! Oh! thank God — thank God!”

And as the thanksgiving escaped him, he forgot all save the breathless joy of this resurrection; forgot that at their feet the yawning grave was open and unfilled. Then, and only then, under that recognition of the friendship that had never failed and never doubted, the courage of the condemned gave way, and his limbs shook with a great shiver of intolerable torture; and at the look that came upon his face, the look of death, brute-like anguish, the man who loved him remembered all — remembered that he stood there in the morning light only to be shot down like a beast of prey. Holding him there still with that strong pressure of his sinewy hands, he swore a great oath that rolled like thunder down the hard, keen air.

“You! perishing here! If they send their shots through you, they shall reach me first in their passage! O Heaven! Why have you lived like this? Why have you been lost to me, if you were dead to all the world beside?”

They were the words that his sister had spoken. Cecil’s white lips quivered as he heard them; his voice was scarcely audible as it panted through them.

“I was accused —”

“Aye! But by whom? Not by me! Never by me!”

Cecil’s eyes filled with slow, blinding tears; tears sweet as a woman’s in her joy, bitter as a man’s in his agony. He knew that in this one heart at least no base suspicion ever had harbored; he knew that this love, at least, had cleaved to him through all shame and against all evil.

“God reward you!” he murmured. “You have never doubted?”

“Doubted? Was your honor not as my own?”

“I can die at peace then; you know me guiltless —”

“Great God! Death shall not touch you. As I stand here not a hair of your head shall be harmed —”

“Hush! Justice must take its course. One thing only — has she heard?”

“Nothing. She has left Africa. But you can be saved; you shall be saved! They do not know what they do!”

“Yes! They but follow the sentence of the law. Do not regret it. It is best thus.”

“Best! — that you should be slaughtered in cold blood!” His voice was hoarse with the horror which, despite his words, possessed him. He knew what the demands of discipline exacted, he knew what the inexorable tyranny of the army enforced, he knew that he had found the life lost to him for so long only to stand by and see it struck down like a shot stag’s.

Cecil’s eyes looked at him with a regard in which all the sacrifice, all the patience, all the martyrdom of his life spoke.

“Best, because a lie I could never speak to you, and the truth I can never tell to you. Do not let her know; it might give her pain. I have loved her; that is useless, like all the rest. Give me your hand once more, and then — let them do their duty. Turn your head away; it will soon be over!”

Almost ere he asked it, his friend’s hands closed upon both is own, keeping the promise made so long before in the old years gone; great, tearless sobs heaved the depths of his broad chest; those gentle, weary words had rent his very soul, and he knew that he was powerless here; he knew that he could no more stay this doom of death than he could stay the rising of the sun up over the eastern heavens. The clear voice of the officer in command rang shrilly through the stillness.

“Monsieur, make your farewell. I can wait no longer.”

The Seraph started, and flung himself round with the grand challenge of a lion, struck by a puny spear. His face flushed crimson; his words were choked in his throbbing throat.

“As I live, you shall not fire! I forbid you! I swear by my honor and the honor of England that he shall not die like a dog. He is of my country; he is of my Order. I will appeal to your Emperor; he will accord me his life the instant I ask it. Give me only an hour’s reprieve — a few moments’ space to speak to your chiefs, to seek out your general —”

“It is impossible, monsieur.”

The curt, calm answer was inflexible; against the sentence and its execution there could be no appeal.

Cecil laid his hand upon his old friend’s shoulders.

“It will be useless,” he murmured. “Let them act; the quicker the better.”

“What! you think I would look on and see you die?”

“Would to Heaven you had never known I lived ——”

The officer made a gesture to the guard to separate them.

“Monsieur, submit to the execution of the law, or I must arrest you.”

Lyonnesse flung off the detaining hand of the guard, and swung round so that his agonized eyes gazed close into the adjutant’s immovable face, which before that gaze lost its coldness and its rigor, and changed to a great pity for this stranger who had found the friend of his youth in the man who stood condemned to perish there.

“An hour’s reprieve; for mercy’s sake, grant that!”

“I have said, it is impossible.”

“But you do not dream who is —”

“It matters not.”

“He is an English noble, I tell you —”

“He is a soldier who has broken the law; that suffices.”

“O Heaven! have you no humanity?”

“We have justice.”

“Justice! If you have justice, let your chiefs hear his story; let his name be made known; give me an hour’s space to plead for him. Your Emperor would grant me his life, were he here; yield me an hour — a half hour — anything that will give me time to serve him —”

“It is out of the question; I must obey my orders. I regret you should have this pain; but if you do not cease to interfere, my soldiers must make you.”

Where the guards held him, Cecil saw and heard. His voice rose with all its old strength and sweetness.

“My friend, do not plead for me. For the sake of our common country and our old love, let us both meet this with silence and with courage.”

“You are a madman!” cried the man, whose heart felt breaking under this doom he could neither avert nor share. “You think that they shall kill you before my eyes! — you think I shall stand by to see you murdered! What crime have you done? None, I dare swear, save being moved, under insult, to act as the men of your race ever acted! Ah, God! why have lived as you have done? Why not have trusted my faith and my love? If you had believed in my faith as I believed in your innocence, this misery never had come to us!”

“Hush! hush! or you will make me die like a coward.”

He dreaded lest he should do so; this ordeal was greater than his power to bear it. With the mere sound of this man’s voice a longing, so intense in its despairing desire, came on him for this life which they were about to kill in him forever.

The words stung his hearer well-nigh to madness; he turned on the soldiers with all the fury of his race that slumbered so long, but when it awoke was like the lion’s rage. Invective, entreaty, conjuration, command, imploring prayer, and ungoverned passion poured in tumultuous words, in agonized eloquence, from his lips; all answer was a quick sign of the hand, and, ere he saw them, a dozen soldiers were round him, his arms were seized, his splendid frame was held as powerless as a lassoed bull; for a moment there was a horrible struggle, then a score of ruthless hands locked him as in iron gyves, and forced his mouth to silence and his eyes to blindness. This was all the mercy they could give — to spare him the sight of his friend’s slaughter.

Cecil’s eyes strained in him with one last, longing look; then he raised his hand and gave the signal for his own death-shot.

The leveled carbines covered him; he stood erect with his face full toward the sun. Ere they could fire, a shrill cry pierced the air.

“Wait! In the name of France.”

Dismounted, breathless, staggering, with her arms flung upward, and her face bloodless with fear, Cigarette appeared upon the ridge of rising ground.

The cry of command pealed out upon the silence in the voice that the Army of Africa loved as the voice of their Little One. And the cry came too late; the volley was fired, the crash of sound thrilled across the words that bade them pause, the heavy smoke rolled out upon the air; the death that was doomed was dealt.

But beyond the smoke-cloud he staggered slightly, and then stood erect still, almost unharmed, grazed only by some few of the balls. The flash of fire was not so fleet as the swiftness of her love; and on his breast she threw herself, and flung her arms about him, and turned her head backward with her old, dauntless, sunlit smile as the balls pierced her bosom, and broke her limbs, and were turned away by the shield of warm young life from him.

Her arms were gliding from about his neck, and her shot limbs were sinking to the earth as he caught her up where she dropped to his feet.

“O God! my child! They have killed you!”

He suffered more, as the cry broke from him, than if the bullets had brought him that death which he saw at one glance had stricken down forever all the glory of her childhood, all the gladness of her youth.

She laughed — all the clear, imperious, arch laughter of her sunniest hours unchanged.

“Chut! It is the powder and ball of France! That does not hurt. If it was an Arbico’s bullet now! But wait! Here is the Marshal’s order. He suspends your sentence; I have told him all. You are safe! — do you hear? — you are safe! How he looks! Is he grieved to live? Mes Francais! Tell him clearer than I can tell — here is the order. The General must have it. No — not out of my hand till the General sees it. Fetch him, some of you — fetch him to me.”

“Great Heavens! You have given your life for mine!”

The words broke from him in an agony as he held her upward against his heart, himself so blind, so stunned, with the sudden recall from death to life, and with the sacrifice whereby life was thus brought to him, that he could scarce see her face, scarce hear her voice, but only dimly, incredulously, terribly knew, in some vague sense, that she was dying, and dying thus for him.

She smiled up in his eyes, while even in that moment, when her life was broken down like a wounded bird’s, and the shots had pierced through from her shoulder to her bosom, a hot, scarlet flush came over her cheeks as she felt his touch, and rested on his heart.

“A life! what is it to give? We hold it in our hands every hour, we soldiers, and toss it in change for a draught of wine. Lay me down on the ground — at your feet — so! I shall live longest that way, and I have much to tell. How they crowd around me! Mes soldats, do not make that grief and that rage over me. They are sorry they fired; that is foolish. They were only doing their duty, and they could not hear me in time.”

But the brave words could not console those who had killed the Child of the Tricolor; they flung their carbines away, they beat their breasts, they cursed themselves and the mother who had borne them; the silent, rigid, motionless phalanx that had stood there in the dawn to see death dealt in the inexorable penalty of the law was broken up into a tumultuous, breathless, heart-stricken, infuriated throng, maddened with remorse, convulsed with sorrow, turning wild eyes of hate on him as on the cause through which their darling had been stricken. He, laying her down with unspeakable gentleness as she had bidden him, hung over her, leaning her head against his arm, and watching in paralyzed horror the helplessness of the quivering limbs, the slow flowing of the blood beneath the Cross that shone where that young heroic heart so soon would beat no more.

“Oh, my child, my child!” he moaned, as the full might and meaning of this devotion which had saved him at such cost rushed on him. “What am I worth that you should perish for me? Better a thousand times have left me to my fate! Such nobility, such sacrifice, such love!”

The hot color flushed her face once more; she was strong to the last to conceal that passion for which she was still content to perish in her youth.

“Chut! We are comrades, and you are a brave man. I would do the same for any of my Spahis. Look you, I never heard of your arrest till I heard, too, of your sentence ——”

She paused a moment, and her features grew white and quivered with pain and with the oppression that seemed to lie like lead upon her chest. But she forced herself to be stronger than the anguish which assailed her strength; and she motioned them all to be silent as she spoke on while her voice still should serve her.

“They will tell you how I did it — I have not time. The Marshal gave his word you shall be saved; there is no fear. That is your friend who bends over me here? — is it not? A fair face, a brave face! You will go back to your land — you will live among your own people — and she, she will love you now — now she knows you are of her Order!”

Something of the old thrill of jealous dread and hate quivered through the words, but the purer nobler nature vanquished it; she smiled up in his eyes, heedless of the tumult round them.

“You will be happy. That is well. Look you — it is nothing that I did. I would have done it for any one of my soldiers. And for this”— she touched the blood flowing from her side with the old, bright, brave smile —“it was an accident; they must not grieve for it. My men are good to me; they will feel much regret and remorse; but do not let them. I am glad to die.”

The words were unwavering and heroic; but for one moment a convulsion went over her face; the young life was so strong in her, the young spirit was so joyous in her, existence was so new, so fresh, so bright, so dauntless a thing to Cigarette. She loved life; the darkness, the loneliness, the annihilation of death were horrible to her as the blackness and the solitude of night to a young child. Death, like night, can be welcome only to the weary, and she was weary of nothing on the earth that bore her buoyant steps; the suns, the winds, the delights of the sights, the joys of the senses, the music of her own laughter, the mere pleasure of the air upon her cheeks, or of the blue sky above her head, were all so sweet to her. Her welcome of her death-shot was the only untruth that had ever soiled her fearless lips. Death was terrible; yet she was content — content to have come to it for his sake.

There was a ghastly, stricken silence round her. The order she had brought had just been glanced at, but no other thought was with the most callous there than the heroism of her act, than the martyrdom of her death.

The color was fast passing from her lips, and a mortal pallor settling there in the stead of that rich, bright hue, once warm as the scarlet heart of the pomegranate. Her head leaned back on Cecil’s breast and she felt the great burning tears fall, one by one, upon her brow as he hung speechless over her; she put her hand upward and touched his eyes softly.

“Chut! What is it to die — just to die? You have lived your martyrdom; I could not have done that. Listen, just one moment. You will be rich. Take care of the old man — he will not trouble long — and of Vole-qui-veut and Etoile, and Boule Blanche, and the rat, and all the dogs, will you? They will show you the Chateau de Cigarette in Algiers. I should not like to think that they would starve.”

She felt his lips move with the promise he could not find voice to utter; and she thanked him with that old child-like smile that had lost nothing of its light.

“That is good; they will be happy with you. And see here — that Arab must have back his white horse; he alone saved you. Have heed that they spare him. And make my grave somewhere where my army passes; where I can hear the trumpets, and the arms, and the passage of the troops — O God! I forgot! I shall not wake when the bugles sound. It will all end now; will it not? That is horrible, horrible!”

A shudder shook her as, for the moment, the full sense that all her glowing, redundant, sunlit, passionate life was crushed out forever from its place upon the earth forced itself on and overwhelmed her. But she was of too brave a mold to suffer any foe — even the foe that conquers kings — to have power to appall her. She raised herself, and looked at the soldiery around her, among them the men whose carbines had killed her, whose anguish was like the heart-rending anguish of women.

“Mes Francais! That was a foolish word of mine. How many of my bravest have fallen in death; and shall I be afraid of what they welcomed? Do not grieve like that. You could not help it; you were doing your duty. If the shots had not come to me, they would have gone to him; and he has been unhappy so long, and borne wrong so patiently, he has earned the right to live and enjoy. Now I— I have been happy all my days, like a bird, like a kitten, like a foal, just from being young and taking no thought. I should have had to suffer if I had lived. It is much best as it is ——”

Her voice failed her when she had spoken the heroic words; loss of blood was fast draining all strength from her, and she quivered in a torture she could not wholly conceal. He for whom she perished hung over her in an agony greater far than hers. It seemed a hideous dream to him that this child lay dying in his stead.

“Can nothing save her?” he cried aloud. “O God! that you had fired one moment sooner!”

She heard; and looked up at him with a look in which all the passionate, hopeless, imperishable love she had resisted and concealed so long spoke with an intensity she never dreamed.

“She is content,” she whispered softly. “You did not understand her rightly; that was all.”

“All! O God, how I have wronged you!”

The full strength, and nobility, and devotion of this passion he had disbelieved in and neglected rushed on him as he met her eyes; for the first time he saw her as she was; for the first time he saw all of which the splendid heroism of this untrained nature would have been capable under a different fate. And it struck him suddenly, heavily, as with a blow; it filled him with a passion of remorse.

“My darling! my darling! what have I done to be worthy of such love?” he murmured while the tears fell from his blinded eyes, and his head drooped until his lips met hers. At the first utterance of that word between them, at the unconscious tenderness of his kisses that had the anguish of a farewell in them, the color suddenly flushed all over her blanched face; she trembled in his arms; and a great, shivering sigh ran through her. It came too late, this warmth of love. She learned what its sweetness might have been only when her lips grew numb, and her eyes sightless, and her heart without pulse, and her senses without consciousness.

“Hush!” she answered, with a look that pierced his soul. “Keep those kisses for Milady. She will have the right to love you; she is of your ‘aristocrats,’ she is not ‘unsexed.’ As for me — I am only a little trooper who has saved my comrade! My soldiers, come round me one instant; I shall not long find words.”

Her eyes closed as she spoke; a deadly faintness and coldness passed over her; and she gasped for breath. A moment, and the resolute courage in her conquered; her eyes opened and rested on the war-worn faces of her “children”— rested in a long, last look of unspeakable wistfulness and tenderness.

“I cannot speak as I would,” she said at length, while her voice grew very faint. “But I have loved you. All is said!”

All was uttered in those four brief words. “She had loved them.” The whole story of her young life was told in the single phrase. And the gaunt, battle-scarred, murderous, ruthless veterans of Africa who heard her could have turned their weapons against their own breasts, and sheathed them there, rather than have looked on to see their darling die.

“I have been too quick in anger sometimes — forgive it,” she said gently. “And do not fight and curse among yourselves; it is bad amid brethren. Bury my Cross with me, if they will let you; and let the colors be over my grave, if you can. Think of me when you go into battle; and tell them in France ——”

For the first time her eyes filled with great tears as the name of her beloved land paused upon her lips. She stretched her arms out with a gesture of infinite longing, like a lost child that vainly seeks its mother.

“If I could only see France once more! France ——”

It was the last word upon her utterance; her eyes met Cecil’s in one fleeting, upward glance of unutterable tenderness, then, with her hands still stretched out westward to where her country was, and with the dauntless heroism of her smile upon her face like light, she gave a tired sigh as of a child that sinks to sleep, and in the midst of her Army of Africa the Little One lay dead.

In the shadow of his tent, at midnight he whom she had rescued stood looking down at a bowed, stricken form before him with an exceeding, yearning pity in his gaze.

The words had at length been spoken that had lifted from him the burden of another’s guilt; the hour at last had come in which his eyes had met the eyes of his friend, without a hidden thought between them. The sacrifice was ended, the martyrdom was over; henceforth this doom of exile and of wretchedness would be but as a hideous dream; henceforth his name would be stainless among men, and the desire of his heart would be given him. And in this hour of release the strongest feeling in him was the sadness of an infinite compassion; and where his brother was stretched prostrate in shame before him, Cecil stooped and raised him tenderly.

“Say no more,” he murmured. “It has been well for me that I have suffered these things. For yourself — if you do indeed repent, and feel that you owe me any debt, atone for it, and pay it, by letting your own life be strong in truth and fair in honor.”

And it seemed to him that he himself had done no great or righteous thing in that servitude for another’s sake, whose yoke was now lifted off him for evermore. But, looking out over the sleeping camp where one young child alone lay in a slumber that never would be broken, his heart ached with the sense of some great, priceless gift received, and undeserved, and cast aside; even while in the dreams of passion that now knew its fruition possible, and the sweetness of communion with the friend whose faith had never forsaken him, he retraced the years of his exile, and thanked God that it was thus with him at the end.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/under-two-flags/chapter37.html

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