Vanitas vanitatum! The dust of death lies over the fallen altars of Bubastis, where once all Egypt came down the flood of glowing Nile, and Herodotus mused under the shadowy foliage, looking on the lake-like rings of water. The Temple of the Sun, where the beauty of Asenath beguiled the Israelite to forget his sale into bondage and banishment, lies in shapeless hillocks, over which canter the mules of dragomen and chatter the tongues of tourists. Where the Lutetian Palace of Julian saluted their darling as Augustus, the sledge-hammer and the stucco of the Haussmann fiat bear desolation in their wake. Levantine dice are rattled where Hypatia’s voice was heard. Bills of exchange are trafficked in where Cleopatra wandered under the palm aisles of her rose gardens. Drummers roll their caserne-calls where Drusus fell and Sulla laid down dominion.
And here — in the land of Hannibal, in the conquest of Scipio, in the Phoenicia whose loveliness used to flash in the burning, sea-mirrored sun, while her fleets went eastward and westward for the honey of Athens and the gold of Spain — here Cigarette danced the cancan!
A little hostelry of the barriere swung its sign of the As de Pique where feathery palms once had waved above mosques of snowy gleam, with marble domes and jeweled arabesques, and the hush of prayer under columned aisles. “Here are sold wine, liquor and tobacco,” was written where once verses of the Koran had been blazoned by reverent hands along porphyry cornices and capitals of jasper. A Cafe Chantant reared its impudent little roof where once, far back in the dead cycles, Phoenician warriors had watched the galleys of the gold-haired favorite of the gods bear down to smite her against whom the one unpardonable sin of rivalry to Rome was quoted.
The riot of a Paris guinguette was heard where once the tent of Belisarius might have been spread above the majestic head that towered in youth above the tempestuous seas of Gothic armies, as when, silvered with age, it rose as a rock against the on-sweeping flood of Bulgarian hordes. The grisette charms of little tobacconists, milliners, flower-girls, lemonade-sellers, bonbon-sellers, and filles de joie flaunted themselves in the gaslight where the lustrous sorceress eyes of Antonina might have glanced over the Afric Sea, while her wanton’s heart, so strangely filled with leonine courage and shameless license, heroism and brutality, cruelty and self-devotion, swelled under the purples of her delicate vest, at the glory of the man she at once dishonored and adored.
Vanitas vanitatum! Under the thirsty soil, under the ill-paved streets, under the arid turf, the Legions lay dead, with the Carthaginians they had borne down under the mighty pressure of their phalanx; and the Byzantine ranks were dust, side by side with the soldiers of Gelimer. And here, above the graves of two thousand centuries, the little light feet of Cigarette danced joyously in that triumph of the Living, who never remember that they also are dancing onward to the tomb.
It was a low-roofed, white-plastered, gaudily decked, smoke-dried mimicry of the guinguettes beyond Paris. The long room, that was an imitation of the Salle de Mars on a Lilliputian scale, had some bunches of lights flaring here and there, and had its walls adorned with laurel wreaths, stripes of tri-colored paint, vividly colored medallions of the Second Empire, and a little pink gauze flourished about it, that flashed into brightness under the jets of flame — trumpery, yet trumpery which, thanks to the instinct of the French esprit, harmonized and did not vulgarize; a gift French instinct alone possesses. The floor was bare and well polished; the air full of tobacco smoke, wine fumes, brandy odors, and an overpowering scent of oil, garlic and pot au feu. Riotous music pealed through it, that even in its clamor kept a certain silvery ring, a certain rhythmical cadence. Pipes were smoked, barrack slang, camp slang, barriere slang, temple slang, were chattered volubly. Theresa’s songs were sung by bright-eyed, sallow-cheeked Parisiennes, and chorused by the lusty lungs of Zouaves and Turcos. Good humor prevailed, though of a wild sort; the mad gallop of the Rigolboche had just flown round the room, like lightning, to the crash and the tumult of the most headlong music that ever set the spurred heels stamping and grisettes’ heels flying; and now where the crowds of soldiers and women stood back to leave her a clear place, Cigarette was dancing alone.
She had danced the cancan; she had danced since sunset; she had danced till she had tired out cavalrymen, who could go days and nights in the saddle without a sense of fatigue, and made Spahis cry quarter, who never gave it by any chance in the battlefield; and she was dancing now like a little Bacchante, as fresh as if she had just sprung up from a long summer day’s rest. Dancing as she would dance only now and then, when caprice took her, and her wayward vivacity was at the height, on the green space before a tent full of general officers, on the bare floor of a barrack-room, under the canvas of a fete-day’s booth, or as here in the music-hall of a Cafe.
Marshals had more than once essayed to bribe the famous little Friend of the Flag to dance for them, and had failed; but, for a set of soldiers — war-worn, dust-covered, weary with toil and stiff with wounds — she would do it till they forgot their ills and got as intoxicated with it as with champagne. For her gros bebees, if they were really in want of it, she would do anything. She would flout a star-covered general, box the ears of a brilliant aid, send killing missiles of slang at a dandy of a regiment de famille, and refuse point-blank a Russian grand duke; but to “mes enfants,” as she was given to calling the rough tigers and grisly veterans of the Army of Africa, Cigarette was never capricious; however mischievously she would rally, or contemptuously would rate them, when they deserved it.
And she was dancing for them now.
Her soft, short curls all fluttering, her cheeks all bright with a scarlet flush, her eyes as black as night and full of fire; her gay little uniform, with its scarlet and purple, making her look like a fuchsia bell tossed by the wind to and fro, ever so lightly, on its delicate, swaying stem; Cigarette danced with the wild grace of an Almeh, of a Bayadere, of a Nautch girl — as untutored and instinctive in her as its song to a bird, as its swiftness to a chamois. To see Cigarette was like drinking light, fiery wines, whose intoxication was gay as mischief, and sparkling as themselves. All the warmth of Africa, all the wit of France, all the bohemianism of the Flag, all the caprices of her sex, were in that bewitching dancing. Flashing, fluttering, circling, whirling; glancing like a saber’s gleam, tossing like a flower’s head, bounding like an antelope, launching like an arrow, darting like a falcon, skimming like a swallow; then for an instant resting as indolently, as languidly, as voluptuously, as a water-lily rests on the water’s breast — Cigarette en Bacchante no man could resist.
When once she abandoned herself to the afflatus of the dance delirium, she did with her beholders what she would. The famous Cachucha, that made the reverend cardinals of Spain fling off their pontifical vestments and surrender themselves to the witchery of the castanets and the gleam of the white, twinkling feet, was never more irresistible, more enchanting, more full of wild, soft, bizarre, delicious grace. It was a poem of motion and color, an ode to Venus and Bacchus.
All her heart was in it — that heart of a girl and a soldier, of a hawk and a kitten, of a Bohemian and an epicurean, of a Lascar and a child, which beat so brightly and so boldly under the dainty gold aiglettes, with which she laced her dashing little uniform.
In the Chambers of Zephyrs, among the Douars of Spahis, on sandy soil under African stars, above the heaped plunder brought in from a razzia, in the yellow light of candles fastened to bayonets stuck in the earth at a bivouac, on the broad deal table of a barrack-room full of black-browed conscrits indigenes, amid the thundering echoes of the Marseillaise des Bataillons shouted from the brawny chests of Zouaves, Cigarette had danced, danced, danced; till her whole vivacious life seemed pressed into one hour, and all the mirth and mischief of her little brigand’s soul seemed to have found their utterance in those tiny, slender, spurred, and restless feet, that never looked to touch the earth which they lit on lightly as a bird alights, only to leave it afresh, with wider, swifter bound, with ceaseless, airy flight.
So she danced now, in the cabaret of the As de Pique. She had a famous group of spectators, not one of whom knew how to hold himself back from springing in to seize her in his arms, and whirl with her down the floor. But it had been often told them by experience that, unless she beckoned one out, a blow of her clinched hand and a cessation of her impromptu pas de seul would be the immediate result. Her spectators were renowned croc-mitaines; men whose names rang like trumpets in the ear of Kabyle and Marabout; men who had fought under the noble colors of the day of Mazagran, or had cherished or emulated its traditions; men who had the salient features of all the varied species that make up the soldiers of Africa.
There was Ben Arslan, with his crimson burnous wrapped round his towering stature, from whom Moor and Jew fled, as before a pestilence — the fiercest, deadliest, most voluptuous of all the Spahis; brutalized in his drink, merciless in his loves; all an Arab when once back in the desert; with a blow of a scabbard his only payment for forage, and a thrust of his saber his only apology to husbands; but to the service a slave, and in the combat a lion.
There was Beau–Bruno, a dandy of Turcos, whose snowy turban and olive beauty bewitched half the women of Algeria; who himself affected to neglect his conquests, with a supreme contempt for those indulgences, but who would have been led out and shot rather than forego the personal adornings for which his adjutant and his capitaine du bureau growled unceasing wrath at him with every day that shone.
There was Pouffer-deRire, a little Tringlo, the wittiest, gayest, happiest, sunniest-tempered droll in all the army; who would sing the camp-songs so joyously through a burning march that the whole of the battalions would break into one refrain as with one throat, and press on laughing, shouting, running, heedless of thirst, or heat, or famine, and as full of monkey-like jests as any gamins.
There was En-ta-maboull, so nicknamed from his love for that unceremonious slang phrase — a Zouave who had the history of a Gil Blas and the talent of a Crichton; the morals of an Abruzzi brigand and the wit of a Falstaff; aquiline-nosed, eagle-eyed, black-skinned as an African, with adventures enough in his life to outvie Munchausen; with a purse always penniless, as the camp sentence runs; who thrust his men through the body as coolly as others kill wasps; who roasted a shepherd over a camp-fire for contumacy in concealing Bedouin where-abouts; yet who would pawn his last shirt at the bazaar to help a comrade in debt, and had once substituted himself for, and received fifty blows on the loins in the stead of his sworn friend, whom he loved with that love of David for Jonathan which, in Caserne life, is readier found than in Club life.
There was Pattes-du-Tigre, a small, wiry, supple-limbed fire-eater, with a skin like a coal and eyes that sparkled like the live coal’s flame; a veteran of the Joyeux; who could discipline his roughs as a sheepdog his lambs, and who had one curt martial law for his detachment; brief as Draco’s, and trimmed to suit either an attack on the enemy or the chastisement of a mutineer, lying in one single word —“Fire.”
There was Barbe–Grise, a grisly veteran of Zephyrs, who held the highest repute of any in his battalion for rushing on to a foe with a foot speed that could equal the canter of an Arab’s horse; for having stood alone once the brunt of thirty Bedouins’ attack, and ended by beating them back, though a dozen spearheads were launched into his body and his pantalons garances were filled with his own blood; and for framing a matchless system of night plunder that swept the country bare as a table-rock in an hour, and made the colons surrender every hidden treasure, from a pot of gold to a hen’s eggs, from a caldron of couscoussou to a tom-cat.
There was Alcide Echauffourees, also a Zephyr, who had his nickname from the marvelous changes of costume with which he would pursue his erratic expedition, and deceive the very Arabs themselves into believing him a born Mussulman; a very handsome fellow, the Lauzun of his battalion, the Brummel of his Caserne; coquette with his kepi on one side of his graceful head, and his mustaches soft as a lady’s hair; whose paradise was a score of dangerous intrigues, and whose seventh heaven was a duel with an infuriated husband; incorrigibly lazy, but with the Italian laziness, as of the panther who sleeps in the sun, and with such episodes of romance, mischief, love, and deviltry in his twenty-five years of existence as would leave behind them all the invention of Dumas, pere ou fils.
All these and many more like them were the spectators of Cigarette’s ballet; applauding with the wild hurrah of the desert, with the clashing of spurs, with the thunder of feet, with the demoniac shrieks of irrepressible adoration and delight.
And every now and then her bright eyes would flash over the ring of familiar faces, and glance from them with an impatient disappointment as she danced; her gros bebees were not enough for her. She wanted a Chasseur with white hands and a grave smile to be among them; and she shook back her curls, and flushed angrily as she noted his absence, and went on with the pirouettes, the circling flights, the wild, resistless abandonment of her inspirations, till she was like a little desert-hawk that is intoxicated with the scent of prey borne down upon the wind, and wheeling like a mad thing in the transparent ether and the hot sun-glow.
L’As de Pique was the especial estaminet of the chasses-marais. He was in the house; she knew it; had she not seen him drinking with some others, or rather paying for all, but taking little himself, just as she entered? He was in the house, this mysterious Bel-a-faire-peur — and was not here to see her dance! Not here to see the darling of the Douars; the pride of every Chacal, Zephyr, and Chasseur in Africa; the Amie du Drapeau, who was adored by everyone, from Chefs de Bataillons to fantassins, and toasted by every drinker, from Algiers to Oran, in the Champagne of Messieurs les Generaux as in the Cric of the Loustics round a camp-fire!
He was not there; he was leaning over the little wooden ledge of a narrow window in an inner room, from which, one by one, some Spahis and some troopers of his own tribu, with whom he had just been drinking such burgundies and brandies as the place could give, had sloped away, one by one, under the irresistible attraction of the vivandiere. An attraction, however, that had not seduced them till all the bottles were emptied; bottles more in number and higher in cost than was prudent in a corporal who had but his pay, and that scant enough to keep himself, and who had known what it was to find a roll of white bread and a cup of coffee a luxury beyond all reach, and to have to sell his whole effects up to the last thing in his haversack to buy a toss of thin wine when he was dying of thirst, or a slice of melon when he was parching with African fever.
But prudence had at no time been his specialty, and the reckless life of Algeria was not one to teach it, with its frank, brotherly fellowship that bound the soldiers of each battalion, or each squadron, so closely in a fraternity of which every member took as freely as he gave; its gay, careless carpe diem camp-philosophy — the unconscious philosophy of men who enjoyed, heart and soul, if they had a chance, because they knew they might be shot dead before another day broke; and its swift and vivid changes that made tirailleurs and troopers one hour rich as a king in loot, in wine, in dark-eyed captives at the sacking of a tribe, to be the next day famished, scorched, dragging their weary limbs, or urging their sinking horses through endless sand and burning heat, glad to sell a cartouche if they dared so break regimental orders, or to rifle a hen-roost if they came near one, to get a mouthful of food; changing everything in their haversack for a sup of dirty water, and driven to pay with the thrust of a saber for a lock of wretched grass to keep their beasts alive through the sickliness of a sirocco.
All these taught no caution to any nature normally without it; and the chief thing that his regiment had loved in him whom they named Bel-a-faire-peur from the first day that he had bound his red waist-sash about his loins, and the officers of the bureau had looked over the new volunteer, murmuring admiringly in their teeth “This gallant will do great things!” had been that all he had was given, free as the winds, to any who asked or needed.
The all was slender enough. Unless he live by the ingenuity of his own manufactures, or by thieving or intimidating the people of the country, a French soldier has but barren fare and a hard struggle with hunger and poverty; and it was the one murmur against him, when he was lowest in the ranks, that he would never follow the fashion, in wringing out by force or threat the possessions of the native population. The one reproach, that made his fellow soldiers impatient and suspicious of him, was that he refused any share in those rough arguments of blows and lunges with which they were accustomed to persuade every victim they came nigh to yield them up all such treasures of food, or drink, or riches, from sheep’s liver and couscoussou, to Morocco carpets and skins of brandy and coins hid in the sand, that the Arabs might be so unhappy as to own in their reach. That the fattest pullet of the poorest Bedouin was as sacred to him as the banquet of his own Chef d’Escadron, let him be ever so famished after the longest day’s march, was an eccentricity, and an insult to the usages of the corps, for which not even his daring and his popularity could wholly procure him pardon.
But this defect in him was counterbalanced by the lavishness with which his pay was lent, given, or spent in the very moment of its receipt. If a man of his tribu wanted anything, he knew that Bel-a-faire-peur would offer his last sous to aid him, or, if money were all gone, would sell the last trifle he possessed to get enough to assist his comrade. It was a virtue which went far to vouch for all others in the view of his lawless, open-handed brethren of the barracks and the Camp, and made them forgive him many moments when the mood of silence and the habit of solitude, not uncommon with him, would otherwise have incensed a fraternity with whom to live apart is the deadliest charge, and the sentence of excommunication against any who dare to provoke it.
One of those moods was on him now.
He had had a drinking bout with the men who had left him, and had laughed as gayly and as carelessly, if not as riotously, as any of them at the wild mirth, the unbridled license, the amatory recitations, and the Bacchic odes in their lawless sapir, that had ushered the night in while his wines unlocked the tongues and flowed down the throats of the fierce Arab–Spahis and the French cavalrymen. But now he leaned out of the casement, with his arms folded on the sill and a short pipe in his teeth, thoughtful and solitary after the orgy whose heavy fumes and clouds of smoke still hung heavily on the air within.
The window looked on a little, dull, close courtyard, where the yellow leaves of a withered gourd trailed drearily over the gray, uneven stones. The clamor of the applause and the ring of the music from the dancing-hall echoed with a whirling din in his ear, and made in sharper, stranger contrast the quiet of the narrow court with its strip of starry sky above its four high walls.
He leaned there musing and grave, hearing little of the noise about him; there was always noise of some sort in the clangor and tumult of barrack or bivouac life, and he had grown to heed it no more than he heeded the roar of desert beasts about him, when he slept in the desert or the hills, but looked dreamily out at the little shadowy square, with the sear gourd leaves and the rough, misshapen stones. His present and his future were neither much brighter than the gloomy, walled-in den on which he gazed.
Twelve years before, when he had been ordered into the exercise-ground for the first time, to see of what mettle he was made, the instructor had watched him with amazed eyes, muttering to himself, “This is no raw recruit — this fellow! What a rider! Dieu de Dieu! he knows more than we can teach. He has served before now — served in some emperor’s picked guard!”
And when he had passed from the exercising-ground to the campaign, the Army had found him one of the most splendid of its many splendid soldiers; and in the daily folios there was no page of achievements, of exploits, of services, of dangers, that showed a more brilliant array of military deserts than his. Yet, for many years, he had been passed by unnoticed. He had now not even the cross on his chest, and he had only slowly and with infinite difficulty been promoted so far as he stood now — a Corporal in the Chasseurs d’Afrique — a step only just accorded him because wounds innumerable and distinctions without number in countless skirmishes had made it impossible to cast him wholly aside any longer.
The cause lay in the implacable enmity of one man — his Chief.
Far-sundered as they were by position, and rarely as they could come into actual contact, that merciless weight of animosity, from the great man to his soldier had lain on the other like iron, and clogged him from all advancement. His thoughts were of it now. Only today, at an inspection, the accidentally broken saddle-girth of a boy-conscript had furnished pretext for a furious reprimand, a volley of insolent opprobrium hurled at himself, under which he had had to sit mute in his saddle, with no other sign that he was human beneath the outrage than the blood that would, despite himself, flush the pale bronze of his forehead. His thoughts were on it now.
“There are many losses that are bitter enough,” he mused; “but there is not one so bitter as the loss of the right to resent!”
A whirlwind of laughter, so loud that it drowned the music of the shrill violins and thundering drums, echoed through the rooms and shook him from his reverie.
“They are bons enfants,” he thought, with a half smile, as he listened; “they are more honest in their mirth, as in their wrath, than we ever were in that old world of mine.”
Amid the shouts, the crash, the tumult, the gay, ringing voice of Cigarette rose distinct. She had apparently paused in her dancing to exchange one of those passes of arms which were her specialty, in the Sabir that she, a child of the regiments of Africa, had known as her mother tongue.
“You call him a misanthrope?” she cried disdainfully. “And you have been drinking at his expense, you rascal?”
The grumbled assent of the accused was inaudible.
“Ingrate!” pursued the scornful, triumphant voice of the Vivandiere; “you would pawn your mother’s grave-clothes! You would eat your children, en fricassee! You would sell your father’s bones for a draught of brandy!”
The screams of mirth redoubled; Cigarette’s style of withering eloquence was suited to all her auditors’ tastes, and under the chorus of laughs at his cost, her infuriated adversary plucked up courage and roared forth a defiance.
“White hands and a brunette’s face are fine things for a soldier. He kills women — he kills women with his lady’s grace!”
“He does not pull their ears to make them give him their money, and beat them with a stick if they don’t fry his eggs fast enough, as you do, Barbe–Grise,” retorted the contemptuous tones of the champion of the absent. “White hands, morbleu! Well, his hands are not always in other people’s pockets as yours are!”
This forcible recrimination is in high relish in the Caserne; the screams of mirth redoubled. Barbe–Grise was a redoubtable authority whom the wildest dare-devil in his brigade dared not contradict, and he was getting the worst of it under the lash of Cigarette’s tongue, to the infinite glee of the whole ballroom.
“Dame! — his hands cannot work as mine can!” growled her opponent.
“Oh, ho!” cried the little lady, with supreme disdain; “they don’t twist cocks’ throats and skin rabbits they have thieved, perhaps, like yours; but they would wring your neck before breakfast to get an appetite, if they could touch such canaille.”
“Canaille?” thundered the insulted Barbe–Grise. “If you were but a man!”
“What would you do to me, brigand?” screamed Cigarette, in fits of laughter. “Give me fifty blows of a stick, as your officers gave you last week for stealing his gun from a new soldier?”
A growl like a lion’s from the badgered Barbe–Grise shook the walls; she had cast her mischievous stroke at him on a very sore point; the unhappy young conscript’s rifle having been first dexterously thieved from him, and then as dexterously sold to an Arab.
“Sacre bleu!” he roared; “you are in love with this conqueror of women — this soldier aristocrat!”
The only answer to this unbearable insult was a louder tumult of laughter; a crash, a splash, and a volley of oaths from Barbe–Grise. Cigarette had launched a bottle of vin ordinaire at him, blinded his eyes, and drenched his beard with the red torrent and the shower of glass slivers, and was back again dancing like a little Bacchante, and singing at the top of her sweet, lark-like voice.
At the sound of the animated altercation, not knowing but what one of his own troopers might be the delinquent, he who leaned out of the little casement moved forward to the doorway of the dancing room; he did not guess that it was himself whom she had defended against the onslaught of the Zephyr, Barbe–Grise.
His height rose far above the French soldiers, and above most even of the lofty-statured Spahis, and her rapid glance flashed over him at once. “Did he hear?” she wondered; the scarlet flush of exercise and excitement deepened on her clear brown cheek, that had never blushed at the coarsest jests or the broadest love words of the barrack-life that had been about her ever since her eyes first opened in her infancy to laugh at the sun-gleam on a cuirassier’s corslet among the baggage-wagons that her mother followed. She thought he had not heard; his face was grave, a little weary, and his gaze, as it fell on her, was abstracted.
“Oh!” thought Cigarette, with a flash of hot wrath superseding her momentary and most rare embarrassment. “You are looking at me and not thinking of me! We will soon change that!”
Such an insult she had never been subjected to, from the first day when she had danced for sweetmeats on the top of a great drum when she was three years old, in the middle of a circular camp of Tirailleurs. It sent fresh nerve into her little limbs. It made her eyes flash like so much fire, it gave her a millionfold more grace, more abandon, more heedlessness. She stamped her tiny, spurred foot petulantly.
“Quicker! Quicker!” she cried; and as the musician obeyed her, she whirled, she spun, she bounded, she seemed to live in air, while her soft curls blew off her brow, and her white teeth glanced, and her cheeks glowed with a carmine glow, and the little gold aiglettes broke across her chest with the beating of her heart that throbbed like a bird’s heart when it is wild with the first breath of Spring.
She had pitted herself against him; and she won — so far.
The vivacity, the impetuosity, the antelope elegance, the voluptuous repose that now and then broke the ceaseless, sparkling movement of her dancing, caught his eyes and fixed them on her; it was bewitching, and it bewitched him for the moment; he watched her as in other days he had watched the fantastic witcheries of eastern alme, and the ballet charms of opera dancers.
This young Bohemian of the Barrack danced in the dusky glare and the tavern fumes of the As de Pique to a set of soldiers in their shirt-sleeves with their short, black pipes in their mouths, with as matchless a grace as ever the first ballerinas of Europe danced before sovereigns and dukes on the boards of Paris, Vienna, or London. It was the eastern bamboula of the Harems, to which was added all the elastic joyance, all the gay brilliancy of the blood of France.
Suddenly she lifted both her hands above her head.
It was the signal well known, the signal of permission to join in that wild vertigo for which every one of her spectators was panting; their pipes were flung away, their kepis tossed off their heads, the music clashed louder and faster and more fiery with every sound; the chorus of the Marseillaise des Bataillons thundered from a hundred voices — they danced as only men can dance who serve under the French flag, and live under the African sun. Two, only, still looked on — the Chasseur d’Afrique, and a veteran of the 10th company, lamed for life at Mazagran.
“Are you a stupid? Don’t you dance?” muttered the veteran Zephyr to his silent companion.
The Chasseur turned and smiled a little.
“I prefer a bamboula whose music is the cannon, bon pere.”
“Bravo! Yet she is pretty enough to tempt you?”
“Yes; too pretty to be unsexed by such a life.”
His thoughts went to a woman he had loved well: a young Arab, with eyes like the softness of dark waters, who had fallen to him once in a razzia as his share of spoil, and for whom he had denied himself cards, or wine, or tobacco, or an hour at the Cafe, or anything that alleviated the privation and severity of his lot as “simple soldat,” which he had been then, that she might have such few and slender comforts as he could give her from his miserable pay. She was dead. Her death had been the darkest passage in his life in Africa — but the flute-like music of her voice seemed to come on his ear now. This girl-soldier had little charm for him after the sweet, silent, tender grace of his lost Zelme.
He turned and touched on the shoulder a Chasseur who had paused a moment to get breath in the headlong whirl:
“Come, we are to be with the Djied by dawn!”
The trooper obeyed instantly; they were ordered to visit and remain with a Bedouin camp some thirty miles away on the naked plateau; a camp professedly submissive, but not so much so but that the Bureau deemed it well to profit themselves by the services of the corporal, whose knowledge of Arabic, whose friendship with the tribes, and whose superior intelligence in all such missions rendered him peculiarly fitted for errands that required diplomacy and address as well as daring and fire.
He went thoughtfully out of the noisy, reeking ballroom into the warm luster of the Algerian night; as he went, Cigarette, who had been nearer than he knew, flashed full in his eyes the fury of her own sparkling ones, while, with a contemptuous laugh, she struck him on the lips with the cigar she hurled at him.
“Unsexed? Pouf! If you have a woman’s face, may I not have a man’s soul? It is only a fair exchange. I am no kitten, bon zig; take care of my talons!”
The words were spoken with the fierceness of Africa; she had too much in her of the spirit of the Zephyrs and the Chacals, with whom her youth had been spent from her cradle up, not to be dangerous when roused; she was off at a bound, and in the midst of the mad whirl again before he could attempt to soften or efface the words she had overheard, and the last thing he saw of her was in a cloud of Zouaves and Spahis with the wild uproar of the music shaking riotous echoes from the rafters.
But when he had passed out of sight Cigarette shook herself free from the dancers with petulant impatience; she was not to be allured by flattery or drawn by entreaty back amongst them; she set her delicate pearly teeth tight, and vowed with a reckless, contemptuous, impetuous oath that she was tired; that she was sick of them; that she was no strolling player to caper for them with a tambourine; and with that declaration made her way out alone into the little open court under the stars, so cool, so still after the heat, and riot, and turbulence within.
There she dropped on a broad stone step, and leaned her head on her hand.
“Unsexed! Unsexed! What did he mean?” she thought, while for the first time, with a vague sense of his meaning, tears welled hot and bitter into her sunny eyes, while the pained color burned in her face. Those tears were the first that she had ever known, and they were cruel ones, though they lasted but a little time; there was too much fire in the young Bohemian of the Army not to scorch them as they rose. She stamped her foot on the stones passionately, and her teeth were set like a little terrier’s as she muttered:
“Unsexed! Unsexed! Bah, Monsieur Aristocrat! If you think so, you shall find your thought right; you shall find Cigarette can hate as men hate, and take her revenge as soldiers take theirs!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58