“Oh! We are a queer lot; a very queer lot. Sweepings of Europe,” said Claude de Chanrellon, dashing some vermouth off his golden mustaches, where he lay full-length on three chairs outside the Cafe in the Place du Gouvernement, where the lamps were just lit, and shining through the burnished moonlight of an Algerian evening, and the many-colored, many-raced, picturesque, and polyglot population of the town were all fluttering out with the sunset, like so many gay-colored moths.
“Hein! Diamonds are found in the rag-picker’s sweepings,” growled a General of Division, who was the most terrible martinet in the whole of the French service, but who loved “my children of hell,” as he was wont to term his men, with a great love, and who would never hear another disparage them, however he might order them blows of the stick, or exile them to Beylick himself.
“You are poetic, mon General,” said Claude de Chanrellon; “but you are true. We are a furnace in which Blackguardism is burned into Dare-devilry, and turned out as Heroism. A fine manufacture that, and one at which France has no equal.”
“But our manufactures keep the original hall mark, and show that the devil made them if the drill have molded them!” urged a Colonel of Tirailleurs Indigenes.
Chanrellon laughed, knocking the ash off a huge cigar.
“Pardieu! We do our original maker credit then; nothing good in this world without a dash of diablerie. Scruples are the wet blankets, proprieties are the blank walls, principles are the quickset hedge of life, but devilry is its champagne!”
“Ventre bleu!” growled the General. “We have a right to praise the blackguards; without them our conscripts would be very poor trash. The conscript fights because he has to fight; the blackguard fights because he loves to fight. A great difference that.”
The Colonel of Tirailleurs lifted his eyes; a slight, pale effeminate, dark-eyed Parisian, who looked scarcely stronger than a hot-house flower, yet who, as many an African chronicle could tell, was swift as fire, keen as steel, unerring as a leopard’s leap, untiring as an Indian on trail, once in the field with his Indigenes.
“In proportion as one loves powder, one has been a scoundrel, mon General,” he murmured; “what the catalogue of your crimes must be!”
The tough old campaigner laughed grimly; he took it as a high compliment.
“Sapristi! The cardinal virtues don’t send anybody, I guess, into African service. And yet, pardieu, I don’t know. What fellows I have known! I have had men among my Zephyrs — and they were the wildest insubordinates too — that would have ruled the world! I have had more wit, more address, more genius, more devotion, in some headlong scamp of a loustic than all the courts and cabinets would furnish. Such lives, such lives, too, morbleu!”
And he drained his absinthe thoughtfully, musing on the marvelous vicissitudes of war, and on the patrician blood, the wasted wit, the Beaumarchais talent, the Mirabeau power, the adventures like a page of fairy tale, the brains whose strength could have guided a scepter, which he had found and known, hidden under the rough uniform of a Zephyr; buried beneath the canvas shirt of a Roumi; lost forever in the wild, lawless escapades of rebellious insubordinates, who closed their days in the stifling darkness of the dungeons of Beylick, or in some obscure skirmish, some midnight vedette, where an Arab flissa severed the cord of the warped life, and the death was unhonored by even a line in the Gazettes du Jour.
“Faith!” laughed Chanrellon, regardless of the General’s observation, “if we all published our memoirs, the world would have a droll book. Dumas and Terrail would be beat out of the field. The real recruiting sergeants that send us to the ranks would be soon found to be-”
“Women!” growled the General.
“Cards,” sighed the Colonel.
“Absinthe,” muttered another.
“A comedy that was hissed.”
“The natural desire of humanity to kill or to get killed!”
“Morbleu!” cried Chanrellon, as the voices closed, “all those mischiefs beat the drum, and send volunteers to the ranks, sure enough; but the General named the worst. Look at that little Cora; the Minister of War should give her the Cross. She sends us ten times more fire-eaters than the Conscription does. Five fine fellows — of the vieille roche too — joined today, because she has stripped them of everything, and they have nothing for it but the service. She is invaluable, Cora.”
“And there is not much to look at in her either,” objected a captain, who commanded Turcos. “I saw her when our detachment went to show in Paris. A baby face, innocent as a cherub — a soft voice — a shape that looks as slight and as breakable as the stem of my glass — there is the end!”
The Colonel of Tirailleurs laughed scornfully, but gently; he had been a great lion of the fashionable world before he came out to his Indigenes.
“The end of Cora! The end of her is — My good Alcide — that ‘baby face’ has ruined more of us than would make up a battalion. She is so quiet, so tender; smiles like an angel, glides like a fawn; is a little sad too, the innocent dove; looks at you with eyes as clear as water, and paf! before you know where you are, she has pillaged with both hands, and you wake one fine morning bankrupt!”
“Why do you let her do it?” growled the vieille moustache, who had served under Junot, when a little lad, and had scant knowledge of the ways and wiles of the sirens of the Rue Breda.
“Ah, bah!” said the Colonel, with a shrug of his shoulders; “it is the thing to be ruined by Cora.”
Claude de Chanrellon sighed, stretching his handsome limbs, with the sigh of recollection; for Paris had been a Paradise Lost to him for many seasons, and he had had of late years but one solitary glimpse of it. “It was Coeur d’Acier who was the rage in my time. She ate me up — that woman — in three months. I had not a hundred francs left: she stripped me as bare as a pigeon. Her passion was uncut emeralds just then. Well uncut emeralds made an end of me, and sent me out here. Coeur d’Acier was a wonderful woman! — and the chief wonder of her was, that she was as ugly as sin.”
“Ugly as sin! But she had the knack of making herself more charming than Venus. How she did it nobody knew; but men left the prettiest creatures for her; and she ruined us, I think, at the rate of a score a month.”
“Like Loto,” chimed in the Tirailleur. “Loto has not a shred of beauty. She is a big, angular, raw-boned Normande, with a rough voice and a villainous patois; but to be well with Loto is to have achieved distinction at once. She will have nothing under the third order of nobility; and Prince Paul shot the Duc de Var about her the other day. She is a great creature, Loto; nobody knows her secret.”
“Audacity, my friend! Always that!” said Chanrellon, with a twist of his superb mustaches. “It is the finest quality out; nothing so sure to win. Hallo! There is le beau corporal listening. Ah! Bel-a-faire-peur, you fell, too, among the Lotos and the Coeurs d’Acier once, I will warrant.”
The Chasseur, who was passing, paused and smiled a little, as he saluted.
“Coeurs d’Acier are to be found in all ranks of the sex, monsieur, I fancy!”
“Bah! you beg the question. Did not a woman send you out here?”
“No, monsieur — only chance.”
“A fig for your chance! Women are the mischief that casts us adrift to chance.”
“Monsieur, we cast ourselves sometimes.”
“Dieu de Dieu! I doubt that. We should go straight enough if it were not for them.”
The Chasseur smiled again.
“M. le Viscomte thinks we are sure to be right, then, if, for the key to every black story, we ask, ‘Who was she?’”
“Of course I do. Well! who was she? We are all quoting our tempters to-night. Give us your story, mon brave!”
“Monsieur, you have it in the folios, as well as my sword could write it.”
“Good, good!” muttered the listening General. The soldier-like answer pleased him, and he looked attentively at the giver of it.
Chanrellon’s brown eyes flashed a bright response.
“And your sword writes in a brave man’s fashion — writes what France loves to read. But before you wore your sword here? Tell us of that. It was a romance — wasn’t it?”
“If it were, I have folded down the page, monsieur.”
“Open it then! Come — what brought you out among us? Out with it!”
“Monsieur, direct obedience is a soldier’s duty; but I never heard that inquisitive annoyance was an officer’s privilege.”
These words were calm, cold, a little languid, and a little haughty. The manner of old habit, the instinct of buried pride spoke in them, and disregarded the barrier between a private of Chasseurs who was but a sous-officier, and a Colonel Commandant who was also a noble of France.
Involuntarily, all the men sitting round the little table, outside the cafe, turned and looked at him. The boldness of speech and the quietude of tone drew all their eyes in curiosity upon him.
Chanrellon flushed scarlet over his frank brow, and an instant’s passion gleamed out of his eyes; the next he threw his three chairs down with a crash, as he shook his mighty frame like an Alpine dog, and bowed with a French grace, with a campaigner’s frankness.
“A right rebuke! — fairly given, and well deserved. I thank you for the lesson.”
The Chasseur looked surprised and moved; in truth, he was more touched than he showed. Under the rule of Chateauroy, consideration and courtesy had been things long unshown to him. Involuntarily, forgetful of rank, he stretched his hand out, on the impulse of soldier to soldier, of gentleman to gentleman. Then, as the bitter remembrance of the difference in rank and station between them flashed on his memory, he was raising it proudly, deferentially, in the salute of a subordinate to his superior, when Chanrellon’s grasp closed on it readily. The victim of Coeur d’Acier was of as gallant a temper as ever blent the reckless condottiere with the thoroughbred noble.
The Chasseur colored slightly, as he remembered that he had forgotten alike his own position and their relative stations.
“I beg your pardon, M. le Viscomte,” he said simply, as he gave the salute with ceremonious grace, and passed onward rapidly, as though he wished to forget and to have forgotten the momentary self-oblivion of which he had been guilty.
“Dieu!” muttered Chanrellon, as he looked after him, and struck his hand on the marble-topped table till the glasses shook. “I would give a year’s pay to know that fine fellow’s history. He is a gentleman — every inch of him.”
“And a good soldier, which is better,” growled the General of Brigade, who had begun life in his time driving an ox-plow over the heavy tillage of Alsace.
“A private of Chateauroy’s?” asked the Tirailleur, lifting his eye-glass to watch the Chasseur as he went.
“Pardieu — yes — more’s the pity,” said Chanrellon, who spoke his thoughts as hastily as a hand-grenade scatters its powder. “The Black Hawk hates him — God knows why — and he is kept down in consequence, as if he were the idlest lout or the most incorrigible rebel in the service. Look at what he has done. All the Bureaux will tell you there is not a finer Roumi in Africa — not even among our Schaouacks! Since he joined, there has not been a hot and heavy thing with the Arabs that he has not had his share in. There has not been a campaign in Oran or Kabaila that he had not gone out with. His limbs are slashed all over with Bedouin steel. He rode once twenty leagues to deliver dispatches with a spear-head in his side, and fell, in a dead faint, out of his saddle just as he gave them up to the commandant’s own hands. He saved the day, two years ago, at Granaila. We should have been cut to pieces, as sure as destiny, if he had not collected a handful of broken Chasseurs together, and rallied them, and rated them, and lashed them with their shame, till they dashed with him to a man into the thickest of the fight, and pierced the Arabs’ center, and gave us breathing room, till we all charged together, and beat the Arbicos back like a herd of jackals. There are a hundred more like stories of him — every one of them true as my saber — and, in reward, he has just been made a galonne!”
“Superb!” said the General, with a grim significance. “Twelve years! In five under Napoleon, he would have been at the head of a brigade; but then”— and the veteran drank his absinthe with a regretful melancholy —“but then, Napoleon read his men himself and never read them wrong. It is a divine gift, that, for commanders.”
“The Black Hawk can read, too,” said Chanrellon meditatively; but it was the “petit nom,” that Chateauroy had gained long before, and by which he was best known through the army. “No eyes are keener than his to trace a lascar kebir. But, where he hates, he strikes beak and talons — pong! — till the thing drops dead — even where he strikes a bird of his own brood.”
“That is bad,” said the old General sententiously. “There are four people who should have no personal likes or dislikes; they are an innkeeper, a schoolmaster, a ship’s skipper, and a military chief.”
With which axiom he called for some more vert-vert.
Meanwhile, the Chasseur went his way through the cosmopolitan groups of the great square. A little farther onward, laughing, smoking, chatting, eating ices outside a Cafe Chantant, were a group of Englishmen — a yachting party, whose schooner lay in the harbor. He lingered a moment; and lighted a fusee, just for the sake of hearing the old familiar words. As he bent his head, no one saw the shadow of pain that passed over his face.
But one of them looked at him curiously and earnestly. “The deuce,” he murmured to the man nearest him, “who the dickens is it that French soldier’s like?”
The French soldier heard, and, with the cigar in his teeth, moved away quickly. He was uneasy in the city — uneasy lest he should be recognized by any passer-by or tourist.
“I need not fear that, though,” he thought with a smile. “Ten years! — why, in that world, we used to forget the blackest ruin in ten days, and the best life among us ten hours after its grave was closed. Besides, I am safe enough. I am dead!”
And he pursued his onward way, with the red glow of the cigar under the chestnut splendor of his beard, and the black eyes of veiled women flashed lovingly on his tall, lithe form, with the scarlet undress fez set on his forehead, fair as a woman’s still, despite the tawny glow of the African sun that had been on it for so long.
He was “dead”; therein had lain all his security; thereby had “Beauty of the Brigades” been buried beyond all discovery in “Bel-a-faire-peur” of the 2nd Chasseurs d’Afrique. When, on the Marseilles rails, the maceration and slaughter of as terrible an accident as ever befell a train rushing through the midnight darkness, at headlong speed, had left himself and the one man faithful to his fortunes unharmed by little less than a miracle; he had seen in the calamity the surest screen from discovery or pursuit.
Leaving the baggage where it was jammed among the debris, he had struck across the country with Rake for the few leagues that still lay between them and the city, and had entered Marseilles as weary foot travelers, before half the ruin on the rails had been seen by the full noon sun.
As it chanced a trading yawl was loading in the port, to run across to Algiers that very day. The skipper was short of men, and afraid of the Lascars, who were the only sailors that he seemed likely to find to fill up the vacant places in his small crew.
Cecil offered himself and his comrade for the passage. He had only a very few gold pieces on his person, and he was willing to work his way across, if he could.
“But you’re a gentleman,” said the skipper, doubtfully eyeing him, and his velvet dress, and his black sombrero with its eagle’s plume. “I want a rare, rough, able seaman, for there’ll like to be foul weather. She looks too fair to last,” he concluded, with a glance upward at the sky.
He was a Liverpool man, master and owner of his own rakish-looking little black-hulled craft, that, rumor was wont to say, was not averse to a bit of slaving, if she found herself in far seas, with a likely run before her.
“You’re a swell, that’s what you are,” emphasized the skipper. “You bean’t no sort of use to me.”
“Wait a second,” answered Cecil. “Did you ever chance to hear of a schooner called ‘Regina’?”
The skipper’s face lighted in a moment.
“Her as was in the Biscay, July come two years? Her as drove through the storm like a mad thing, and flew like a swallow, when everything was splitting and foundering, and shipping seas around her? Her as was the first to bear down to the great ‘Wrestler,’ a-lying there hull over in water, and took aboard all as ever she could hold o’ the passengers; a-pitching out her own beautiful cabin fittings to have as much room for the poor wretches as ever she could? Be you a-meaning her?”
Cecil nodded assent.
“She was my yacht, that’s all; and I was without a captain through that storm. Will you think me a good enough sailor now?”
The skipper wrung his hand till he nearly wrung it off.
“Good enough! Blast my timbers! There aren’t one will beat you in any waters. Come on, sir, if so be as you wishes it; but never a stroke of work shall you do atween my decks. I never did think as how one of your yachting-nobs could ever be fit to lay hold of a tiller; but, hang me, if the Club make such sailors as you it’s a rare ’un! Lord a mercy! Why, my wife was in the ‘Wrestler.’ I’ve heard her tell scores of times as how she was almost dead when that little yacht came through a swaling sea, that was all heaving and roaring round the wreck, and as how the swell what owned it gave his cabin up to the womenkind, and had his swivel guns and his handsome furniture pitched overboard, that he might be able to carry more passengers, and fed ’em, and gave ’em champagne all around, and treated ’em like a prince, till he ran ’em straight into Brest Harbor. But, damn me! that ever a swell like you should —”
“Let’s weigh anchor,” said Bertie quietly.
And so he crossed unnoticed to Algeria, while through Europe the tidings went that the mutilated form, crushed between iron and wood, on the Marseilles line, was his, and that he had perished in that awful, ink-black, sultry southern night, when the rushing trains had met, as meet the thunder-clouds. The world thought him dead; as such the journals recorded him, with the shameful outlines of imputed crime, to make the death the darker; as such his name was forbidden to be uttered at Royallieu; as such the Seraph mourned him with passionate, loving force, refusing to the last to accredit his guilt:— and he, leaving them in their error, was drafted into the French army under two of his Christian names, which happily had a foreign sound — Louis Victor — and laid aside forever his identity as Bertie Cecil.
He went at once on service in the interior, and had scarcely come in any of the larger towns since he had joined. His only danger of recognition, had been once when a Marshal of France, whom he had used to know well in Paris and at the court of St. James, held an inspection of the African troops.
Filing past the brilliant staff, he had ridden at only a few yards’ distance from his old acquaintance, and, as he saluted, had glanced involuntarily at the face that he had seen oftentimes in the Salles de Marechaux, and even under the roof of the regiment, ready to note a chain loose, a belt awry, a sword specked with rust, if such a sin there were against “les ordonnances” in all the glittering squadrons; and swept over him, seeing in him but one among thousands — a unit in the mighty aggregate of the “raw material” of war.
The Marshal only muttered to a General beside him, “Why don’t they all ride like that man? He has the seat of the English Guards.” But that it was in truth an officer of the English Guards, and a friend of his own, who paced past him as a private of Algerian Horse, the French leader never dreamed.
From the extremes of luxury, indolence, indulgence, pleasure, and extravagance, Cecil came to the extremes of hardship, poverty, discipline, suffering, and toil. From a life where every sense was gratified, he came to a life where every privation was endured. He had led the fashion; he came where he had to bear without a word the curses, oaths, and insults of a corporal or a sous-lieutenant. He had been used to every delicacy and delight; he came where he had to take the coarse black bread of the army as a rich repast. He had thought it too much trouble to murmur flatteries in great ladies’ ears; he came where morning, noon, and night the inexorable demands of rigid rules compelled his incessant obedience, vigilance, activity, and self-denial. He had known nothing from his childhood up except an atmosphere of amusement, refinement, brilliancy, and idleness; he came where gnawing hunger, brutalized jest, ceaseless toil, coarse obscenity, agonized pain, and pandemonaic mirth alternately filled the measure of the days.
A sharper contrast, a darker ordeal, rarely tried the steel of any man’s endurance. No Spartan could have borne the change more mutely, more staunchly than did the “dandy of the Household.”
The first years were, it is true, years of intense misery to him. Misery, when all the blood glowed in him under some petty tyrant’s jibe, and he had to stand immovable, holding his peace. Misery, when hunger and thirst of long marches tortured him, and his soul sickened at the half-raw offal, and the water thick with dust, and stained with blood, which the men round him seized so ravenously. Misery, when the dreary dawn broke, only to usher in a day of mechanical maneuvers, of petty tyrannies, of barren, burdensome hours in the exercise-ground, of convoy duty in the burning sun-glare, and under the heat of harness; and the weary night fell with the din and uproar, and the villainous blasphemy and befouled merriment of the riotous barracks, that denied even the peace and oblivion of sleep. They were years of infinite wretchedness oftentimes, only relieved by the loyalty and devotion of the man who had followed him into his exile. But, however wretched, they never wrung a single regret or lament from Cecil. He had come out to this life; he took it as it was. As, having lost the title to command, the high breeding in him made him render implicitly the mute obedience which was the first duty of his present position, so it made him accept, from first to last, without a sign of complaint or of impatience, the altered fortunes of his career. The hardest-trained, lowest-born, longest-inured soldier in the Zephyr ranks did not bear himself with more apparent content and more absolute fortitude than did the man who had used to think it a cruelty to ride with his troop from Windsor to Wormwood Scrubs, and had never taken the trouble to load his own gun any shooting season, or to draw off his own coat any evening. He suffered acutely many times; suffered till he was heart-sick of his life; but he never sought to escape the slightest penalty or hardship, and not even Rake ever heard from him a single syllable of irritation or of self-pity.
Moreover, the war-fire woke in him.
In one shape or another active service was almost always his lot, and hot, severe campaigning was his first introduction to military life in Algeria. The latent instinct in him — the instinct that had flashed out during his lazy, fashionable calm in all moments of danger, in all days of keen sport; the instinct that had made him fling himself into the duello with the French boar, and made him mutter to Forest King, “Kill me if you like, but don’t fail me!”— was the instinct of the born soldier. In peril, in battle, in reckless bravery, in the rush of the charge and the excitement of the surprise, in the near presence of death, and in the chase of a foe through a hot African night when both were armed to the teeth, and one or both must fall when the grapple came — in all these that old instinct, aroused and unloosed, made him content; made him think that the life which brought them was worth the living.
There had always been in him a reckless dare-devilry, which had slept under the serene, effeminate insouciance of his careless temper and his pampered habits. It had full rein now, and made him, as the army affirmed, one of the most intrepid, victorious, and chivalrous lascars of its fiery ranks. Fate had flung him off his couch of down into the tempest of war; into the sternness of life spent ever on the border of the grave; ruled over by an iron code, requiring at every step self-negation, fortitude, submission, courage, patience; the self-control which should take the uttermost provocation from those in command without even a look of reprisal, and the courageous recklessness which should meet death and deal death; which should be as the eagle to swoop, as the lion to rend. And he was not found wanting in it.
He was too thoroughbred to attempt to claim a superiority that fortune no longer conferred on him; to seek to obtain a deference that he had no longer the position to demand. He was too quiet, too courteous, too calmly listless; he had too easy a grace, too soft a voice, and too many gentleman habits, for them. But when they found that he could fight like a Zouave, ride like an Arab, and bear shot-wounds or desert-thirst as though he were of bronze, it grew a delight to them to see of what granite and steel this dainty patrician was made; and they loved him with a rough, ardent, dog-like love, when they found that his last crust, in a long march, would always be divided: that the most desperate service of danger was always volunteered for by him; that no severity of personal chastisement ever made him clear himself of a false charge at a comrade’s expense; and that all his pay went in giving a veteran a stoup of wine, or a sick conscript a tempting meal, or a prisoner of Beylick some food through the grating, scaled too at risk of life and limb.
He had never before been called on to exert either thought or action; the necessity for both called many latent qualities in him into play. The same nature, which had made him wish to be killed over the Grand Military course, rather than live to lose the race, made him now bear privation as calmly, and risk death as recklessly, as the heartiest and most fiery loustic of the African regiments.
On the surface it seemed as though never was there a life more utterly thrown away than the life of a Guardsman and a gentleman, a man of good blood, high rank, and talented gifts — had he ever chosen to make anything of them — buried in the ranks of the Franco–African army; risking a nameless grave in the sand with almost every hour, associated with the roughest riffraff of Europe, liable any day to be slain by the slash of an Arab flissa, and rewarded for ten years’ splendid service by the distinctive badge of a corporal.
Yet it might be doubted if any life would have done for him what this had done; it might be questioned if, judging a career not by its social position, but by its effect on character, any other would have been so well for him, or would equally have given steel and strength to the indolence and languor of his nature as this did. In his old world he would have lounged listlessly through fashionable seasons, and in an atmosphere that encouraged his profound negligence of everything; and his natural listlessness would have glided from refinement to effeminacy, and from lazy grace to blase inertia.
The severity and the dangers of the campaigns with the French army had roused the sleeping lion in him, and made him as fine a soldier as ever ranged under any flag. He had suffered, braved, resented, fought, loved, hated, endured, and even enjoyed, here in Africa, with a force and a vividness that he had never dreamed possible in his calm, passionless, insouciant world of other days. It developed him into a magnificent soldier — too true a soldier not to make thoroughly his the service he had adopted; not to, oftentimes, almost forget that he had ever lived under any other flag than that tricolor which he followed and defended now.
The quaint, heroic Norman motto of his ancestors, carved over the gates of Royallieu —“Coeur Vaillant Se Fait Royaume”— verified itself in his case. Outlawed, beggared, robbed at a stroke of every hope and prospect — he had taken his adversity boldly by the beard, and had made himself at once a country and a kingdom among the brave, fierce, reckless, loyal hearts of the men who came from north, south, east, and west — driven by every accident, and scourged by every fate — to fill up the battalions of North Africa.
As he went now, in the warmth of the after-glow, he turned up into the Rue Babazoum, and paused before the entrance of a narrow, dark, tumble-down, picturesque shop, half like a stall of a Cairo bazaar; half like a Jew’s den in a Florentine alley.
A cunning, wizen head peered out at him from the gloom.
“Ah, ha! Good-even, Corporal Victor!”
Cecil, at the words, crossed the sill and entered.
“Have you sold any?” he asked. There was a slight constraint and hesitation in the words, as of one who can never fairly bend his spirit to the yoke of barter.
The little, hideous, wrinkled, dwarf-like creature, a trader in curiosities, grinned with a certain gratification in disappointing this lithe-limbed, handsome Chasseur.
“Not one. The toys don’t take. Daggers now, or anything made out of spent balls, or flissas one can tell an Arab story about, go off like wild-fire; but your ivory bagatelles are no sort of use, M. le Caporal.”
“Very well — no matter,” said Cecil simply, as he paused a moment before some delicate little statuettes and carvings — miniature things, carved out of a piece of ivory, or a block of marble the size of a horse’s hoof, such as could be picked up in dry river channels or broken off stray boulders; slender crucifixes, wreathes of foliage, branches of wild fig, figures of Arabs and Moors, dainty heads of dancing-girls, and tiny chargers fretting like Bucephalus. They were perfectly conceived and executed. He had always had a gift that way, though, in common with all his gifts, he had utterly neglected all culture of it, until, cast adrift on the world, and forced to do something to maintain himself, he had watched the skill of the French soldiers at all such expedients to gain a few coins, and had solaced many a dreary hour in barracks and under canvas with the toy-sculpture, till he had attained a singular art at it. He had commonly given Rake the office of selling them, and as commonly spent all the proceeds on all other needs save his own.
He lingered a moment, with regret in his eyes; he had scarcely a sou in his pocket, and he had wanted some money sorely that night for a comrade dying of a lung-wound — a noble fellow, a French artist, who, in an evil hour of desperation, had joined the army, with a poet’s temper that made its hard, colorless routine unendurable, and had been shot in the chest in a night-skirmish.
“You will not buy them yourself?” he asked at length, the color flushing in his face; he would not have pressed the question to save his own life from starving, but Leon Ramon would have no chance of fruit or a lump of ice to cool his parched lips and still his agonized retching, unless he himself could get money to buy those luxuries that are too splendid and too merciful to be provided for a dying soldier, who knows so little of his duty to his country as to venture to die in his bed.
“Myself!” screeched the dealer, with a derisive laugh. “Ask me to give you my whole stock next! These trumperies will lie on hand for a year.”
Cecil went out of the place without a word; his thoughts were with Leon Ramon, and the insolence scarce touched him. “How shall I get him the ice?” he wondered. “God! if I had only one of the lumps that used to float in our claret cup!”
As he left the den, a military fairy, all gay with blue and crimson, like the fuchsia bell she most resembled, with a meerschaum in her scarlet lips and a world of wrath in her bright black eyes, dashed past him into the darkness within, and before the dealer knew or dreamed of her, tossed up the old man’s little shriveled frame like a shuttlecock, shook him till he shook like custards, flung him upward and caught him as if he were the hoop in a game of La Grace, and set him down bruised, breathless, and terrified out of his wits.
“Ah!” cried Cigarette, with a volley of slang utterly untranslatable, “that is how you treat your betters, is it? Miser, monster, crocodile, serpent! He wanted the money and you refused it? Ah! son of Satan! You live on other men’s miseries! Run after him, quick, and give him this, and this, and this, and this; and say you were only in jest, and that the things were worth a Sheik’s ransom. Stay! You must not give him too much, or he will know it is not you — viper! Run quick, and breath a word about me, if you dare; one whisper only, and my Spahis shall cut your throat from ear to ear. Off! Or you shall have a bullet to quicken your steps; misers dance well when pistols play the minuet!”
With which exordium the little Amie du Drapeau shook her culprit at every epithet, emptied out a shower of gold and silver just won at play, from the bosom of her uniform, forced it into the dealer’s hands, hurled him out of his own door, and drew her pretty weapon with a clash from her sash.
“Run for your life! — and do just what I bid you; or a shot shall crash your skull in as sure as my name is Cigarette!”
The little old Jew flew as fast as his limbs would carry him, clutching the coins in his horny hands. He was terrified to a mortal anguish, and had not a thought of resisting or disobeying her; he knew the fame of Cigarette — as who did not? Knew that she would fire at a man as carelessly as at a cat — more carelessly, in truth — for she favored cats; saving many from going to the Zouaves’ soup-caldrons, and favored civilians not at all; and knew that at her rallying cry all the sabers about the town would be drawn without a second’s deliberation, and sheathed in anything or anybody that had offended her, for Cigarette was, in her fashion, Generalissima of all the Regiments of Africa.
The dealer ran with all the speed of terror, and overtook Cecil, who was going slowly onward to the barracks.
“Are you serious?” he asked in surprise at the large amount, as the little Jew panted out apologies, entreaties, and protestations of his only having been in jest, and of his fervently desiring to buy the carvings at his own price, as he knew of a great collector in Paris to whom he needed to send them.
“Serious! Indeed am I serious, M. le Caporal,” pleaded the curiosity-trader, turning his head in agonized fear to see if the vivandiere’s pistol was behind him. “The things will be worth a great deal to me where I shall send them, and though they are but bagatelles, what is Paris itself but one bagatelle? Pouf! They are all children there — they will love the toys. Take the money, I pray you; take the money!”
Cecil looked at him a moment; he saw the man was in earnest, and thought but little of his repentance and trepidation, for the citizens were all afraid of slighting or annoying a soldier.
“So be it. Thank you,” he said, as he stretched out his hand and took the coins, not without a keen pang of the old pride that would not be wholly stilled, yet gladly for sake of the Chasseur dying yonder, growing delirious and retching the blood off his lungs in want of one touch of the ice, that was spoiled by the ton weight, to keep cool the wines and the fish of M. le Marquis de Chateauroy. And he went onward to spend the gold his sculpture had brought on some yellow figs and some cool golden grapes, and some ice-chilled wines that should soothe a little of the pangs of dissolution to his comrade.
“You did it? That is well. Now, see here — one word of me, now or ever after, and there is a little present that will come to you from Cigarette,” said the little Friend of the Flag with a sententious sternness. The unhappy Jew shuddered and shut his eyes as she held a bullet close to his sight, then dropped it with an ominous thud in her pistol barrel.
“Not a syllable, never a syllable,” he stammered; “and if I had known you were in love with him —”
A box on the ears sent him across his own counter.
“In love? Parbleu! I detest the fellow!” said Cigarette, with fiery scorn and as hot an oath.
“Truly? Then why give your Napoleons ——” began the bruised and stammering Israelite.
Cigarette tossed back her pretty head that was curly and spirited and shapely as any thoroughbred spaniel’s; a superb glance flashed from her eyes, a superb disdain sat on her lips.
“You are a Jew trader; you know nothing of our code under the tricolor. We are too proud not to aid even an enemy when he is in the right, and France always arms for justice!”
With which magnificent peroration she swept all the carvings — they were rightfully hers — off the table.
“They will light my cooking fire!” she said contemptuously, as she vaulted lightly over the counter into the street, and pirouetted along the slope of the crowded Babazoum. All made way for her, even the mighty Spahis and the trudging Bedouin mules, for all knew that if they did not she would make it for herself, over their heads or above their prostrated bodies. Finally she whirled herself into a dark, deserted Moresco archway, a little out of the town, and dropped on a stone block, as a swallow, tired of flight, drops on to a bough.
“Is that the way I revenge myself? Ah, bah! I deserve to be killed! When he called me unsexed — unsexed — unsexed!”— and with each repetition of the infamous word, so bitter because vaguely admitted to be true, with her cheeks scarlet and her eyes aflame, and her hands clinched, she flung one of the ivory wreathes on to the pavement and stamped on it with her spurred heel until the carvings were ground into powdered fragments — stamped, as though it were a living foe, and her steel-bound foot were treading out all its life with burning hate and pitiless venom.
In the act her passion exhausted itself, as the evil of such warm, impetuous, tender natures will; she was very still, and looked at the ruin she had done with regret and a touch of contrition.
“It was very pretty — and cost him weeks of labor, perhaps,” she thought.
Then she took all the rest up, one by one, and gazed at them. Things of beauty had had but little place in her lawless young life; what she thought beautiful was a regiment sweeping out in full sunlight, with its eagles, and its colors, and its kettle-drums; what she held as music was the beat of the reveille and the mighty roll of the great artillery; what made her pulse throb and her heart leap was to see two fine opposing forces draw near for the onslaught and thunder of battle. Of things of grace she had no heed, though she had so much grace herself; and her life, though full of color, pleasure, and mischief, was as rough a one in most respects as any of her comrades’. These delicate artistic carvings were a revelation to her.
She touched them reverently one by one; all the carvings had their beauty for her, but those of the flowers had far the most. She had never noted any flowers in her life before, save those she strung together for the Zephyrs. Her youth was a military ballad, rhymed vivaciously to the rhythm of the Pas de Charge; but other or softer poetry had never by any chance touched her until now — now that in her tiny, bronzed, war-hardened palms lay the while foliage, the delicate art-trifles of this Chasseur, who bartered his talent to get a touch of ice for the burning lips of his doomed comrade.
“He is an aristocrat — he has such gifts as this — and yet he must sell all this beauty to get a slice of melon for Leon Ramon!” she thought, while the silvery moon strayed in through a broken arch, and fell on an ivory coil of twisted leaves and river grasses.
And, lost in a musing pity, Cigarette forgot her vow of vengeance.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12