“Did I not say he would eat fire?”
“Pardieu! C’est un brave.”
“Rides like an Arab.”
“Smokes like a Zouave.”
“Cuts off a head with that back circular sweep — ah — h —— h! magnificent!”
“And dances like an Aristocrat; not like a tipsy Spahi!”
The last crown to the chorus of applause, and insult to the circle of applauders, was launched with all the piquance of inimitable canteen-slang and camp-assurance, from a speaker who had perched astride on a broken fragment of wall, with her barrel of wine set up on end on the stones in front of her, and her six soldiers, her gros bebees, as she was given maternally to calling them, lounging at their ease on the arid, dusty turf below. She was very pretty, audaciously pretty, though her skin was burned to a bright sunny brown, and her hair was cut as short as a boy’s, and her face had not one regular feature in it. But then — regularity! who wanted it, who would have thought the most pure classic type a change for the better, with those dark, dancing, challenging eyes; with that arch, brilliant, kitten-like face, so sunny, so mignon, and those scarlet lips like a bud of camellia that were never so handsome as when a cigarette was between them, or sooth to say, not seldom a short pipe itself?
She was pretty, she was insolent, she was intolerably coquettish, she was mischievous as a marmoset; she would swear, if need be, like a Zouave; she could fire galloping, she could toss off her brandy or her vermouth like a trooper; she would on occasion clinch her little brown hand and deal a blow that the recipient would not covet twice; she was an enfant de Paris and had all its wickedness at her fingers; she would sing you guinguette songs till you were suffocated with laughter, and she would dance the cancan at the Salle de Mars, with the biggest giant of a Cuirassier there. And yet with all that, she was not wholly unsexed; with all that she had the delicious fragrance of youth, and had not left a certain feminine grace behind her, though she wore a vivandiere’s uniform, and had been born in a barrack, and meant to die in a battle; it was the blending of the two that made her piquante, made her a notoriety in her own way; known at pleasure, and equally, in the Army of Africa as “Cigarette,” and “L’Amie du Drapeau.”
“Not like a tipsy Spahi!” It was a cruel cut to her gros bebees, mostly Spahis, lying there at her feet, or rather at the foot of the wall, singing the praises — with magnanimity beyond praise — of a certain Chasseur d’Afrique.
“Ho, Cigarette!” growled a little Zouave, known as Tata Leroux. “That is the way thou forsakest thy friends for the first fresh face.”
“Well, it is not a face like a tobacco-stopper, as thine is, Tata!” responded Cigarette, with a puff of her namesake; the repartee of the camp is apt to be rough. “He is Bel-a-faire-peur, as you nickname him.”
“A woman’s face!” growled the injured Tata; whose own countenance was of the color and well-nigh of the flatness of one of the red bricks of the wall.
“Ouf!” said the Friend of the Flag, with more expression in that single exclamation than could be put in a volume. “He does woman’s deeds, does he? He has woman’s hands, but they can fight, I fancy? Six Arabs to his own sword the other day in that skirmish! Superb!”
“Sapristi! And what did he say, this droll, when he looked at them lying there? Just shrugged his shoulders and rode away. ‘I’d better have killed myself; less mischief, on the whole!’ Now who is to make anything of such a man as that?”
“Ah! he did not stop to cut their gold buttons off, and steal their cangiars, as thou wouldst have done, Tata? Well! he has not learned la guerre,” laughed Cigarette. “It was a waste; he should have brought me their sashes, at least. By the way — when did he join?”
“Ten — twelve — years ago, or thereabouts.”
“He should have learned to strip Arabs by this time, then,” said the Amie du Drapeau, turning the tap of her barrel to replenish the wine-cup; “and to steal from them too, living or dead. Thou must take him in hand, Tata!”
Tata laughed, considering that he had received a compliment.
“Diable! I did a neat thing yesterday. Out on the hills, there, was a shepherd; he’d got two live geese swinging by their feet. They were screeching — screeching — screeching! — and they looked so nice and so plump that I could smell them, as if they were stewing in a casserole, till I began to get as hungry as a gamin. A lunge would just have cut the question at once; but the orders have got so strict about petting the natives I thought I wouldn’t have any violence, if the thing would go nice and smoothly. So I just walked behind him, and tripped him up before he knew where he was — it was a picture! He was down with his face in the sand before you could sing Tra-la-la! Then I just sat upon him; but gently — very gently; and what with the sand and the heat, and the surprise, and, in truth, perhaps, a little too, my own weight, he was half suffocated. He had never seen me; he did not know what it was that was sitting on him; and I sent my voice out with a roar —‘I am a demon, and the fiend hath bidden me take him thy soul to-night!’ Ah! how he began to tremble, and to kick, and to quiver. He thought it was the devil a-top of him; and he began to moan, as well as the sand would let him, that he was a poor man, and an innocent, and the geese were the only things he ever stole in all his life. Then I went through a little pantomime with him, and I was very terrible in my threats, and he was choking and choking with the sand, though he never let go of the geese. At last I relented a little, and told him I would spare him that once, if he gave up the stolen goods, and never lifted his head for an hour. Sapristi! How glad he was of the terms! I dare say my weight was unpleasant; so the geese made us a divine stew that night, and the last thing I saw of my man was his lying flat as I left him, with his face still down in the sand-hole.”
Cigarette nodded and laughed.
“Pretty fair, Tata; but I have heard better. Bah! a grand thing certainly, to fright a peasant, and scamper off with a goose!”
“Sacre bleu!” grumbled Tata, who was himself of opinion that his exploit had been worthy of the feats of Harlequin; “thy heart is all gone to the Englishman.”
Cigarette laughed saucily and heartily, tickled at the joke. Sentiment has an exquisitely ludicrous side when one is a black-eyed wine-seller perched astride on a wall, and dispensing bandy-dashed wine to half a dozen sun-baked Spahis.
“My heart is a reveil matin, Tata; it wakes fresh every day. An Englishman! Why dost thou think him that?”
“Because he is a giant,” said Tata.
Cigarette snapped her fingers:
“I have danced with grenadiers and cuirassiers quite as tall, and twice as heavy. Apres?”
“Because he bathes — splash! Like any water-dog.”
“Because he is silent.”
“Because he rises in his stirrups.”
“Because he likes the sea.”
“Because he knows boxing.”
“Because he is so quiet, and blazes like the devil underneath.”
Under which mass of overwhelming proofs of nationality the Amie du Drapeau gave in.
“Yes, like enough. Besides, the other one is English. One of the Chasseurs d’Afrique tells me that the other one waits on him like a slave when he can — cleans his harness, litters his horse, saves him all the hard work, when he can do it without being found out. Where did they come from?”
“They will never tell.”
Cigarette tossed her nonchalant head, with a pout of her cherry lips, and a slang oath.
“Paf! — they will tell it to me!”
“Thou mayest make a lion tame, a vulture leave blood, a drum beat its own rataplan, a dead man fire a musket; but thou wilt never make an Englishman speak when he is bent to be silent.”
Cigarette launched a choice missile of barrack slang and an array of metaphors, which their propounder thought stupendous in their brilliancy.
“When you stole your geese, you did but take your brethren home! Englishmen are but men. Put the wine in their head, make them whirl in a waltz, promise them a kiss, and one turns such brains as they have inside out, as a piou-piou turns a dead soldier’s wallet. When a woman is handsome, she is never denied. He shall tell me where he comes from. I doubt that it is from England! See here — why not! first, he never says God-damn; second, he don’t eat his meat raw; third, he speaks very soft; fourth, he waltzes so light, so light! fifth, he never grumbles in his throat like an angry bear; sixth, there is no fog in him. How can he be English with all that?”
“There are English, and English,” said the philosophic Tata, who piqued himself on being serenely cosmopolitan.
Cigarette blew a contemptuous puff of smoke.
“There was never one yet that did not growl! Pauvres diables! If they don’t use their tusks, they sit and sulk! — an Englishman is always boxing or grumbling — the two make up his life.”
Which view of Anglo-rabies she had derived from a profound study of various vaudevilles, in which the traditional God-damn was preeminent in his usual hues; and having delivered it, she sprang down from her wall, strapped on her little barrel, nodded to her gros bebees, where they lounged full-length in the shadow of the stone wall, and left them to resume their game at Boc, while she started on her way, as swift and as light as a chamois, singing, with gay, ringing emphasis that echoed all down the hot and silent air.
Hers was a dashing, dauntless, vivacious life, just in its youth, loving plunder, and mischief, and mirth; caring for nothing; and always ready with a laugh, a song, a slang repartee, or a shot from the dainty pistols thrust in her sash, that a general of division had given her, whichever best suited the moment. She had never shed tears in her life.
Her mother a camp-follower, her father nobody knew who, a spoiled child of the Army from her birth, with a heart as bronzed as her cheek; yet with odd, stray, nature-sown instincts here and there, of a devil-may-care nobility, and of a wild grace that nothing could kill — Cigarette was the pet of the Army of Africa, and was as lawless as most of her patrons.
She would eat a succulent duck, thinking it all the spicier because it had been a soldier’s “loot”; she would wear the gold plunder off dead Arabs’ dress, and never have a pang of conscience with it; she would dance all night long, when she had a chance, like a little Bacchante; she would shoot a man, if need be, with all the nonchalance in the world. She had had a thousand lovers, from handsome marquises of the Guides to tawny, black-browed scoundrels in the Zouaves, and she had never loved anything, except the roll of the pas de charge, and the sight of her own arch, defiant face, with its scarlet lips and its short jetty hair, when she saw it by chance in some burnished cuirass, that served her for a mirror. She was more like a handsome, saucy boy than anything else under the sun, and yet there was that in the pretty, impudent, little Friend of the Flag that was feminine with it all — generous and graceful amid all her boldness, and her license, her revelries, and the unsettled life she led in the barracks and the camps, under the shadow of the eagles.
Away she went down the crooked windings and over the ruined gardens of the old Moorish quarter of the Cashbah; the hilts of the tiny pistols glancing in the sun, and the fierce fire of the burning sunlight pouring down unheeded on the brave, bright hawk eyes that had never, since they first opened to the world, drooped or dimmed for the rays of the sun, or the gaze of a lover; for the menace of death, or the presence of war.
Of course, she was a little Amazon; of course, she was a little Guerrilla; of course, she did not know what a blush meant; of course, her thoughts were as slang and as riotous as her mutinous mischief was in its act; but she was “bon soldat,” as she was given to say, with a toss of her curly head; and she had some of the virtues of soldiers. Soldiers had been about her ever since she first remembered having a wooden casserole for a cradle, and sucking down red wine through a pipe-stem. Soldiers had been her books, her teachers, her models, her guardians, and, later on, her lovers, all the days of her life. She had had no guiding-star, except the eagles on the standards; she had had no cradle-song, except the rataplan and the reveille; she had had no sense of duty taught her, except to face fire boldly, never to betray a comrade, and to worship but two deities, “la Gloire” and “la France.”
Yet there were tales told in the barrack-yards and under canvas of the little Amie du Drapeau that had a gentler side. Of how softly she would touch the wounded; of how deftly she would cure them. Of how carelessly she would dash through under a raking fire, to take a draught of water to a dying man. Of how she had sat by an old Grenadier’s death-couch, to sing to him, refusing to stir, though it was a fete at Chalons, and she loved fetes as only a French girl can. Of how she had ridden twenty leagues on a saddleless Arab horse, to fetch the surgeon of the Spahis to a Bedouin perishing in the desert of shot-wounds. Of how she had sent every sou of her money to her mother, so long as that mother lived — a brutal, drunk, vile-tongued old woman, who had beaten her oftentimes, as the sole maternal attention, when she was but an infant. These things were told of Cigarette, and with a perfect truth. She was a thorough scamp, but a thorough soldier, as she classified herself. Her own sex would have seen no good in her; but her comrades-at-arms could and did. Of a surety, she missed virtues that women prize; but, not less of a surety, had she caught some that they miss.
Singing her refrain, on she dashed now, swift as a greyhound, light as a hare; glancing here and glancing there as she bounded over the picturesque desolation of the Cashbah; it was just noon, and there were few could brave the noon-heat as she did; it was very still; there was only from a little distance the roll of the French kettle-drums where the drummers of the African regiments were practicing. “Hola!” cried Cigarette to herself, as her falcon-eyes darted right and left, and, like a chamois, she leaped down over the great masses of Turkish ruins, cleared the channel of a dry water-course, and alighted just in front of a Chasseur d’Afrique, who was sitting alone on a broken fragment of white marble, relic of some Moorish mosque, whose delicate columns, crowned with wind-sown grasses, rose behind him, against the deep intense blue of the cloudless sky.
He was sitting thoughtfully enough, almost wearily, tracing figures in the dry sand of the soil with the point of his scabbard; yet he had all the look about him of a brilliant French soldier, of one who, moreover, had seen hot and stern service. He was bronzed, but scarcely looked so after the red, brown, and black of the Zouaves and the Turcos, for his skin was naturally very fair, the features delicate, the eyes very soft — for which M. Tata had growled contemptuously, “a woman’s face”— a long, silken chestnut beard swept over his chest; and his figure, as he leaned there in the blue and scarlet and gold of the Chasseurs’ uniform, with his spurred heel thrust into the sand, and his arm resting on his knee, was, as Cigarette’s critical eye told her, the figure of a superb cavalry rider; light, supple, long of limb, wide of chest, with every sinew and nerve firm-knit as links of steel. She glanced at his hands, which were very white, despite the sun of Algiers and the labors that fall to a private of Chasseurs.
“Beau lion!” she thought, “and noble, whatever he is.”
But the best of blood was not new to her in the ranks of the Algerian regiments; she had known so many of them — those gilded butterflies of the Chaussee d’Antin, those lordly spendthrifts of the vieille roche, who had served in the battalions of the demi-cavalry, or the squadrons of the French Horse, to be thrust, nameless and unhonored, into a sand-hole hastily dug with bayonets in the hot hush of an African night.
She woke him unceremoniously from his reverie, with a challenge to wine.
“Ah, ha! Tata Leroux says you are English; by the faith, he must be right, or you would never sit musing there like an owl in the sunlight! Take a draught of my burgundy; bright as rubies. I never sell bad wines — not I! I know better than to drink them myself.”
He started and rose; and, before he took the little wooden drinking-cup, bowed to her, raising his cap with a grave, courteous obeisance; a bow that had used to be noted in throne-rooms for its perfection of grace.
“Ah, ma belle, is it you?” he said wearily. “You do me much honor.”
Cigarette gave a little petulant twist to the tap of her wine-barrel. She was not used to that style of salutation. She half liked it — half resented it. It made her wish, with an impatient scorn for the wish, that she knew how to read and had not her hair cut short like a boy’s — a weakness the little vivandiere had never been visited with before.
“Morbleu!” she said pettishly. “You are too fine for us mon brave. In what country, I should wonder, does one learn such dainty ceremony as that?”
“Where should one learn courtesies, if not in France?” he answered wearily. He had danced with this girl-soldier the night before at a guinguette ball, seeing her for the first time, for it was almost the first time he had been in the city since the night when he had thrown the dice, and lost ten Napoleons and the Bedouins to Claude de Chanrellon; but his thoughts were far from her in this moment.
“Ouf! You have learnt carte and tierce with your tongue!” cried Cigarette, provoked to receive no more compliment than that. From generals and staff officers, as from drummers and trumpeters, she was accustomed to flattery and wooing, luscious as sugared chocolate, and ardent as flirtation, with a barrack flavor about it, commonly is; she would, as often as not, to be sure, finish it with the butt-end of her pistol, or the butt-end of some bit of stinging sarcasm, but still, for all that, she liked it, and resented its omission. “They say you are English, but I don’t believe it; you speak too soft, and you sound the double L’s too well. A Spaniard?”
“Do you find me so devout a Catholic that you think so?”
She laughed. “A Greek, then?”
“Still worse. Have you seen me cheat at cards?”
“An Austrian? You waltz like a White Coat!”
He shook his head.
She stamped her little foot into the ground — a foot fit for a model, with its shapely military boot; spurred, too, for Cigarette rode like a circus-rider.
“Say what you are, then, at once.”
“A soldier of France. Can you wish me more?”
For the first time her eyes flashed and softened — her one love was the tricolor.
“True!” she said simply. “But you were not always a soldier of France? You joined, they say, twelve years ago. What were you before then?”
She here cast herself down in front of him, and, with her elbows on the sand, and her chin on her hands, watched him with all the frank curiosity and unmoved nonchalance imaginable, as she launched the question point-blank.
“Before!” he said slowly. “Well — a fool.”
“You belonged in the majority, then!” said Cigarette, with a piquance made a thousand times more piquant by the camp slang she spoke in. “You should not have had to come into the ranks, mon ami; majorities — specially that majority — have very smooth sailing generally!”
He looked at her more closely, though she wearied him.
“Where have you got your ironies, Cigarette? You are so young.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Bah! one is never young, and always young in camps. Young? Pardieu! When I was four I could swear like a grenadier, plunder like a prefet, lie like a priest, and drink like a bohemian.”
Yet — with all that — and it was the truth, the brow was so open under the close rings of the curls, the skin so clear under the sun-tan, the mouth so rich and so arch in its youth!
“Why did you come into the service?” she went on, before he had a chance to answer her. “You were born in the Noblesse — bah! I know an aristocrat at a glance! Now many of those aristocrats come; shoals of them; but it is always for something. They all come for something; most of them have been ruined by the lionnes, a hundred million of francs gone in a quarter! Ah, bah! what blind bats the best of you are! They have gambled, or bet, or got into hot water, or fought too many duels or caused a court scandal, or something; all the aristocrats that come to Africa are ruined. What ruined you, M. l’Aristocrat?”
“Aristocrat? I am none. I am a Corporal of the Chasseurs.”
“Diable! I have known a Duke a Corporal! What ruined you?”
“What ruins most men, I imagine — folly.”
“Folly, sure enough!” retorted Cigarette, with scornful acquiescence. She had no patience with him. He danced so deliciously, he looked so superb, and he would give her nothing but these absent answers. “Wisdom don’t bring men who look as you look into the ranks of the volunteers for Africa. Besides, you are too handsome to be a sage!”
He laughed a little.
“I never was one, that’s certain. And you are too pretty to be a cynic.”
“A what?” She did not know the word. “Is that a good cigar you have? Give me one. Do women smoke in your old country?”
“Oh, yes — many of them.”
“Where is it, then?”
“I have no country — now.”
“But the one you had?”
“I have forgotten I ever had one.”
“Did it treat you ill, then?”
“Not at all.”
“Had you anything you cared for in it?”
“Well — yes.”
“What was it? A woman?”
“No — a horse.”
He stooped his head a little as he said it, and traced more figures slowly in the sand.
She drew a short, quick breath. She understood that; she would only have laughed at him had it been a woman; Cigarette was more veracious than complimentary in her estimate of her own sex.
“There was a man in the Cuirassiers I knew,” she went on softly, “loved a horse like that; — he would have died for Cossack — but he was a terrible gambler, terrible. Not but what I like to play myself. Well, one day he played and played till he was mad, and everything was gone; and then in his rage he staked the only thing he had left. Staked and lost the horse! He never said a word; but he just slipped a pistol in his pocket, went to the stable, kissed Cossack once — twice — thrice — and shot himself through the heart.”
“Poor fellow!” murmured the Chasseur d’Afrique, in his chestnut beard.
Cigarette was watching him with all the keenness of her falcon eyes; “he had gambled away a good deal too,” she thought. “It is always the same old story with them.”
“Your cigars are good, mon lion,” she said impatiently, as she sprang up; her lithe, elastic figure in the bright vivandiere uniform standing out in full relief against the pearly gray of the ruined pillars, the vivid green of the rank vegetation, and the intense light of the noon. “Your cigars are good, but it is more than your company is! If you had been as dull as this last night, I would not have danced a single turn with you in the cancan!”
And with a bound to which indignation lent wings like a swallow’s, the Friend of the Flag, insulted and amazed at the apathy with which her advances to friendship had been received, dashed off at her topmost speed, singing all the louder out of bravado. “To have nothing more to say to me after dancing with me all night!” thought Cigarette, with fierce wrath at such contumely, the first neglect the pet of the Spahis had ever experienced.
She was incensed, too, that she had been degraded into that momentary wish that she knew how to read and looked less like a boy — just because a Chasseur with white hands and silent ways had made her a grave bow! She was more incensed still because she could not get at his history, and felt, despite herself, a reluctance to bribe him for it with those cajoleries whose potency she had boasted to Tata Leroux. “Let him take care!” muttered the soldier-coquette passionately, in her little white teeth; so small and so pearly, though they had gripped a bridle tight before then, when each hand was filled with a pistol. “Let him take care! If he offend me there are five hundred swords that will thrust civility into him, five hundred shots that will teach him the cost of daring to provoke Cigarette!”
En route through the town her wayward way took the pretty brunette Friend of the Flag as many devious meandering as a bird takes in a summer’s day flight, when it stops here for a berry, there for a grass seed, here to dip its beak into cherries, there to dart after a dragon-fly, here to shake its wings in a brook, there to poise on a lily-bell.
She loitered in a thousand places, for Cigarette knew everybody; she chatted with a group of Turcos, she emptied her barrel for some Zouaves, she ate sweetmeats with a lot of negro boys, she boxed a little drummer’s ear for slurring over the “r’lin tintin” at his practice, she drank a demi-tasse with some officers at a cafe; she had ten minutes’ pistol-shooting, where she beat hollow a young dandy of the Guides who had come to look at Algiers for a week, and made even points with one of the first shots of the “Cavalry a pied,” as the Algerian antithesis runs. Finally she paused before the open French window of a snow-white villa, half-buried in tamarisk and orange and pomegranate, with the deep-hued flowers glaring in the sun, and a hedge of wild cactus fencing it in; through the cactus she made her way as easily as a rabbit burrows; it would have been an impossibility to Cigarette to enter by any ordinary means; and balancing herself lightly on the sill for a second, stood looking in at the chamber.
“Ho, M. le Marquis! the Zouaves have drunk all my wine up; fill me my keg with yours for once — the very best burgundy, mind. I’m half afraid your cellar will hurt my reputation.”
The chamber was very handsome, hung and furnished in the very best Paris fashion, and all glittering with amber and ormolu and velvets; in it half a dozen men — officers of the cavalry — were sitting over their noon breakfast, and playing at lansquenet at the same time. The table was crowded with dishes of every sort, and wines of every vintage; and the fragrance of their bouquet, the clouds of smoke, and the heavy scent of the orange blossom without, mingled together in an intense perfume. He whom she addressed, M. le Marquis de Chateauroy, laughed, and looked up.
“Ah, is it thee, my pretty brunette? Take what thou wantest out of the ice pails.”
“The best growths?” asked Cigarette, with the dubious air and caution of a connoisseur.
“Yes!” said M. le Marquis, amused with the precautions taken with his cellar, one of the finest in Algiers. “Come in and have some breakfast, ma belle. Only pay the toll.”
Where he sat between the window and the table he caught her in his arms and drew her pretty face down; Cigarette, with the laugh of a saucy child, whisked her cigar out of her mouth and blew a great cloud of smoke in his eyes. She had no particular fancy for him, though she had for his wines; shouts of mirth from the other men completed the Marquis’ discomfiture, as she swayed away from him, and went over to the other side of the table, emptying some bottles unceremoniously into her wine-keg; iced, ruby, perfumy claret that she could not have bought anywhere for the barracks.
“Hola!” cried the Marquis, “thou art not generally so coy with thy kisses, petite.”
Cigarette tossed her head.
“I don’t like bad clarets after good! I’ve just been with your Corporal, ‘Bel-a-faire-peur’; you are no beauty after him, M. le Colonel.”
Chateauroy’s face darkened; he was a colossal-limbed man, whose bone was iron, and whose muscles were like oak-fibers; he had a dark, keen head like an eagle’s; the brow narrow, but very high, looking higher because the close-cut hair was worn off the temples; thin lips hidden by heavy curling mustaches, and a skin burned black by long African service. Still he was fairly handsome enough not to have muttered so heavy an oath as he did at the vivandiere’s jest.
“Sacre bleu! I wish my corporal were shot! One can never hear the last of him.”
Cigarette darted a quick glance at him. “Oh, ho; jealous, mon brave!” thought her quick wits. “And why, I wonder?”
“You haven’t a finer soldier in your Chasseurs, mon cher; don’t wish him shot, for the good of the service,” said the Viscount de Chanrellon, who had now a command of his own in the Light Cavalry of Algiers. “Pardieu! If I had to choose whether I’d be backed by ‘Bel-a-faire-peur,’ or by six other men in a skirmish, I’d choose him, and risk the odds.”
Chateauroy tossed off his burgundy with a contemptuous impatience.
“Diable! That is the exaggerated nonsense one always hears about this fellow — as if he were a second Roland, or a revivified Bayard! I see nothing particular in him, except that he’s too fine a gentleman for the ranks.”
“Fine? ah!” laughed Cigarette. “He made me bow this morning like a chamberlain; and his beard is like carded silk, and he has such woman’s hands, mon Dieu! But he is a croc-mitaine, too.”
“Rather!” laughed Claude de Chanrellon, as magnificent a soldier himself as ever crossed swords. “I said he would eat fire the very minute he played that queer game of dice with me years ago. I wish I had him instead of you, Chateauroy; like lightning in a charge; and yet the very man for a dangerous bit of secret service that wants the softness of a panther. We all let our tongues go too much, but he says so little — just a word here, a word there — when one’s wanted — no more; and he’s the devil’s own to fight.”
The Marquis heard the praise of his Corporal, knitting his heavy brows; it was evident the private was no favorite with him.
“The fellow rides well enough,” he said, with an affectation of carelessness; “there — for what I see — is the end of his marvels. I wish you had him, Claude, with all my soul.”
“Oh, ha!” cried Chanrellon, wiping the Rhenish off his tawny mustaches, “he should have been a captain by this if I had. Morbleu! He is a splendid sabreur — kills as many men to his own sword as I could myself, when it comes to a hand-to-hand fight; breaks horses in like magic; rides them like the wind; has a hawk’s eye over open country; obeys like clockwork; what more can you want?”
“Obeys! Yes!” said the Colonel of Chasseurs, with a snarl. “He’d obey without a word if you ordered him to walk up to a cannon’s mouth, and be blown from it; but he gives you such a d —— d languid grand seigneur glance as he listens that one would think he commanded the regiment.”
“But he’s very popular with your men, too?”
“Monsieur, the worst quality a corporal can have. His idea of maintaining discipline is to treat them to cognac and give them tobacco.”
“Pardieu! Not a bad way, either, with our French fire-eaters. He knows them that he has to deal with; that brave fellow. Your squadrons would go to the devil after him.”
The Colonel gave a grim laugh.
“I dare say nobody knows the way better.”
Cigarette, flirting with the other officers, drinking champagne by great glassfuls, eating bonbons from one, sipping another’s soup, pulling the limbs of a succulent ortolan to pieces with a relish, and devouring truffles with all the zest of a bon-vivant, did not lose a word, and catching the inflection of Chateauroy’s voice, settled with her own thoughts that “Bel-a-faire-peur” was not a fair field or a smooth course with his Colonel. The weather-cock heart of the little “Friend of the Flag” veered round, with her sex’s common custom, to the side that was the weakest.
“Dieu de Dieu, M. le Colonel!” she cried, while she ate M. le Colonel’s foie gras with as little ceremony and as much enjoyment as would be expected from a young plunderer accustomed to think a meal all the better spiced by being stolen “by the rules of war”—“whatever else your handsome Corporal is, he is an aristocrat. Ah, ha! I know the aristocrats — I do! Their touch is so gentle, and their speech is so soft, and they have no slang of the camp, and yet they are such diablotins to fight and eat steel, and die laughing, all so quiet and nonchalant. Give me the aristocrats — the real thing, you know. Not the ginger-cakes, just gilt, that are ashamed of being honest bread — but the old blood like Bel-a-faire-peur.”
The Colonel laughed, but restlessly; the little ingrate had aimed at a sore point in him. He was of the First Empire Nobility, and he was weak enough, though a fierce, dauntless iron-nerved soldier, to be discontented with the great fact that his father had been a hero of the Army of Italy, and scarce inferior in genius to Massena, because impatient of the minor one that, before strapping on a knapsack to have his first taste of war under Custine, the Marshal had been but a postilion at a posting inn in the heart of the Nivernais.
“Ah, my brunette!” he answered with a rough laugh, “have you taken my popular Corporal for your lover? You should give your old friends warning first, or he may chance to get an ugly spit on a saber.”
The Amie du Drapeau tossed off her sixth glass of champagne. She felt for the first time in her life a flush of hot blood on her brown, clear cheek, well used as she was to such jests and such lovers as these.
“Ma foi!” she said coolly. “He would be more likely to spit than be spitted if it came to a duel. I should like to see him in a duel; there is not a prettier sight in the world when both men have science. As for fighting for me! Morbleau! I will thank nobody to have the impudence to do it, unless I order them out. Coqueline got shot for me, you remember; he was a pretty fellow, Coqueline, and they killed him so clumsily, that they disfigured him terribly — it was quite a pity. I said then I would have no more handsome men fight about me. You may, if you like, M. le Black Hawk.”
Which title she gave with a saucy laugh, hitting with a chocolate bonbon the black African-burnt visage of the omnipotent chief she had the audacity to attack. High or low, they were all the same to Cigarette. She would have “slanged” the Emperor himself with the self-same coolness, and the Army had given her a passport of immunity so wide that it would have fared ill with anyone who had ever attempted to bring the vivandiere to book for her uttermost mischief.
“By the way!” she went on, quick as thought, with her reckless, devil-may-care gayety. “One thing! Your Corporal will demoralize the army of Africa, monsieur!”
“He shall have an ounce of cold lead before he does. What in?”
“He will demoralize it,” said Cigarette, with a sagacious shake of her head. “If they follow his example we shan’t have a Chasseur, or a Spahi, or a Piou-piou, or a Sapeur worth anything —”
“Sacre! What does he do?” The Colonel’s strong teeth bit savagely through his cigar; he would have given much to have been able to find a single thing of insubordination or laxity of duty in a soldier who irritated and annoyed him, but who obeyed him implicitly, and was one of the most brilliant “fire-eaters” of his regiment.
“He won’t only demoralize the army,” pursued the Cigarette, with vivacious eloquence, “but if his example is followed, he’ll ruin the Prefets, close the Bureaux, destroy the Exchequer, beggar all the officials, make African life as tame as milk and water, and rob you, M. le Colonel, of your very highest and dearest privilege!”
“Sacre bleu!” cried her hearers, as their hands instinctively sought their swords; “what does he do?”
Cigarette looked at them out of her arch black lashes.
“Why, he never thieves from the Arabs! If the fashion comes in, adieu to our occupation. Court-martial him, Colonel!”
With which sally Cigarette thrust her pretty soft curls back of her temples, and launched herself into lansquenet with all the ardor of a gambler and the vivacity of a child; her eyes flashing, her cheeks flushing, her little teeth set, her whole soul in a whirl of the game, made all the more riotous by the peals of laughter from her comrades and the wines that were washed down like water. Cigarette was a terrible little gamester, and had gaming made very easy to her, for it was the creed of the Army that her losses never counted, but her gains were paid to her often double or treble. Indeed, so well did she play, and so well did the goddess of hazard favor her, that she might have grown a millionaire on the fruits of her dice and her cards, but for this fact, that whatever the little Friend of the Flag had in her hands one hour was given away the next, to the first wounded soldier, or ailing veteran, or needy Arab woman that required the charity.
As much gold was showered on her as on Isabel of the Jockey Club; but Cigarette was never the richer for it. “Bah!” she would say, when they told her of her heedlessness, “money is like a mill, no good standing still. Let it turn, turn, turn, as fast as ever it can, and the more bread will come from it for the people to eat.”
The vivandiere was by instinct a fine political economist.
Meanwhile, where she had left him among the stones of the ruined mosque, the Chasseur, whom they nicknamed Bel-a-faire-peur, in a double sense, because of his “woman’s face,” as Tata Leroux termed it, and because of the terror his sword had become through North Africa, sat motionless with his right arm resting on his knee, and his spurred heel thrust into the sand; the sun shining down unheeded in its fierce, burning glare on the chestnut masses of his beard and the bright glitter of his uniform.
He was a dashing cavalry soldier, who had had a dozen wounds cut over his body by the Bedouin swords, in many and hot skirmishes; who had waited through sultry African nights for the lion’s tread, and had fought the desert-king and conquered; who had ridden a thousand miles over the great sand waste, and the boundless arid plains, and slept under the stars with the saddle beneath his head, and his rifle in his hand, all through the night; who had served, and served well, in fierce, arduous, unremitting work, in trying campaigns and in close discipline; who had blent the verve, the brilliance, the daring, the eat-drink-and-enjoy-for-tomorrow-we-die of the French Chasseur, with something that was very different, and much more tranquil.
Yet, though as bold a man as any enrolled in the French Service, he sat alone here in the shadow of the column, thoughtful, motionless, lost in silence.
In his left hand was a Galignani, six months old, and his eye rested on a line in the obituary:
“On the 10th ult., at Royallieu, suddenly, the Right Hon. Denzil, Viscount Royallieu; aged 90.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53