“Corporal Victor, M. le Commandant desires you to present yourself at his campagne to-night, at ten precisely, with all your carvings; above all, with your chessmen.”
The swift, sharp voice of a young officer of his regiment wakened Cecil from his musing, as he went on his way down the crowded, tortuous, stifling street. He had scarcely time to catch the sense of the words, and to halt, giving the salute, before the Chasseur’s skittish little Barbary mare had galloped past him; scattering the people right and left, knocking over a sweetmeat seller, upsetting a string of maize-laden mules, jostling a venerable marabout on to an impudent little grisette, and laming an old Moor as he tottered to his mosque, without any apology for any of the mischief, in the customary insolence which makes “Roumis” and “Bureaucratic” alike execrated by the indigenous populace with a detestation that the questionable benefits of civilized importations can do very little to counter-balance in the fiery breasts of the sons of the soil.
Cecil involuntarily stood still. His face darkened. All orders that touched on the service, even where harshest and most unwelcome, he had taught himself to take without any hesitation, till he now scarcely felt the check of the steel curb; but to be ordered thus like a lackey — to take his wares thus like a hawker!
“We are soldiers, not traders — aren’t we? You don’t like that, M. Victor? You are no peddler. And you think you would rather risk being court-martialed and shot than take your ivory toys for the Black Hawk’s talons?”
Cecil looked up in astonishment at the divination and translation of his thoughts, to encounter the bright, falcon eyes of Cigarette looking down on him from a little oval casement above, dark as pitch within, and whose embrasure, with its rim of gray stone coping, set off like a picture-frame, with a heavy background of unglazed Rembrandt shadow, the piquant head of the Friend of the Flag, with her pouting, scarlet, mocking lips, and her mischievous, challenging smile, and her dainty little gold-banded foraging-cap set on curls as silken and jetty as any black Irish setter’s.
“Bon jour, ma belle!” he answered, with a little weariness; lifting his fez to her with a certain sense of annoyance that this young bohemian of the barracks, this child with her slang and her satire, should always be in his way like a shadow.
“Bon jour, mon brave!” returned Cigarette contemptuously. “We are not so ceremonious as all that in Algiers! Good fellow, you should be a chamberlain, not a corporal. What fine manners, mon Dieu!”
She was incensed, piqued, and provoked. She had been ready to forgive him because he carved so wonderfully, and sold the carvings for his comrade at the hospital; she was holding out the olive-branch after her own petulant fashion; and she thought, if he had had any grace in him, he would have responded with some such florid compliment as those for which she was accustomed to box the ears of her admirers, and would have swung himself up to the coping, to touch, or at least try to touch, those sweet, fresh, crimson lips of hers, that were like a half-opened damask rose. Modesty is apt to go to the wall in camps, and poor little Cigarette’s notions of the great passion were very simple, rudimentary, and in no way coy. How should they be? She had tossed about with the army, like one of the tassels to their standards; blowing whichever way the breath of war floated her; and had experienced, or thought she had experienced, as many affairs as the veriest Don Juan among them, though her heart had never been much concerned in them, but had beaten scarce a shade quicker, if a lunge in a duel, or a shot from an Indigene, had pounced off with her hero of the hour to Hades.
“Fine manners!” echoed Cecil, with a smile. “My poor child, have you been so buffeted about that you have never been treated with commonest courtesy?”
“Whew!” cried the little lady, blowing a puff of smoke down on him. “None of your pity for me! Buffeted about? Do you suppose anybody ever did anything with me that I didn’t choose? If you had as much power as I have in the army, Chateauroy would not send for you to sell your toys like a peddler. You are a slave! I am a sovereign!”
With which she tossed back her graceful, spirited head, as though the gold band of her cap were the gold band of a diadem. She was very proud of her station in the Army of Africa, and glorified her privileges with all a child’s vanity.
He listened, amused with her boastful supremacy; but the last words touched him with a certain pang just in that moment. He felt like a slave — a slave who must obey his tyrant, or go out and die like a dog.
“Well, yes,” he said slowly; “I am a slave, I fear. I wish a Bedouin flissa would cut my thralls in two.”
He spoke jestingly, but there was a tinge of sadness in the words that touched Cigarette’s changeful temper to contrition, and filled her with the same compassion and wonder at him that she had felt when the ivory wreaths and crucifixes had lain in her hands. She knew she had been ungenerous — a crime dark as night in the sight of the little chivalrous soldier.
“Ah,” she said softly and waywardly, winding her way aright with that penetration and tact which, however unsexed in other things, Cigarette had kept thoroughly feminine. “That was but an idle word of mine; forgive it, and forget it. You are not a slave when you fight in the fantasias. Morbleu! They say to see you kill a man is beautiful — so workmanlike! And you would go out and be shot tomorrow, rather than sell your honor, or stain it. Bah! while you know they should cut your heart out rather than make you tell a lie, or betray a comrade, you are no slave; you have the best freedom of all. Take a glass of champagne? How you look! Oh, the demoiselles, with the silver necks, are not barrack drink, of course; but I drink champagne always myself. This is M. le Prince’s. He knows I only take the best brands.”
With which Cigarette, leaning down from her casement, whose sill was about a foot above his head, tendered her peace-offering in a bottle; three of which, packed in her knapsack, she had carried off from the luncheon-table of a Russian Prince who was touring through Algiers, and who had half lost his Grand Ducal head after the bewitching, dauntless, capricious, unattachable, unpurchasable, and coquettish little fire-eater of the Spahis, who treated him with infinitely more insolence and indifference than she would show to some battered old veteran, or some worn-out old dog, who had passed through the great Kabaila raids and battles.
“You will go to your Colonel’s to-night?” she said questioningly, as he drank the champagne, and thanked her — for he saw the spirit in which the gift was tendered — as he leaned against the half-ruined Moorish wall, with its blue-and-white striped awning spread over both their heads in the little street whose crowds, chatter, thousand eyes, and incessant traffic no way troubled Cigarette; who had talked argot to monarchs undaunted, and who had been one of the chief sights in a hundred grand reviews ever since she had been perched on a gun-carriage at five years old, and paraded with a troop of horse artillery in the Champ de Mars, as having gone through the whole of Bugeaud’s campaign, at which parade, by the way, being tendered sweetmeats by a famous General’s wife, Cigarette had made the immortal reply: “Madame, my sweetmeats are bullets!”
She repeated her question imperiously, as Cecil kept silent. “You will go to-night?”
He shrugged his shoulders. He did not care to discuss his Colonel’s orders with this pretty little Bacchante.
“Oh, a chief’s command, you know —”
“Ah, a fig for a chief!” retorted Cigarette impatiently. “Why don’t you say the truth? You are thinking you will disobey, and risk the rest!”
“Well, why not? I grant his right in barrack and field, but ——”
He spoke rather to himself than her, and his thoughts, as he spoke, went back to the scene of the morning. He felt, with a romantic impulse that he smiled at, even as it passed over him, that he would rather have half a dozen muskets fired at him in the death-sentence of a mutineer than meet again the glance of those proud, azure eyes, sweeping over him in their calm indifference to a private of Chasseurs, their calm ignorance that he could be wounded or be stung.
“But?” echoed Cigarette, leaning out of her oval hole, perched in the quaint, gray Moresco wall, parti-colored with broken encaustics of varied hues. “Chut, bon comrade! That little word has been the undoing of the world ever since the world began. ‘But’ is a blank cartridge, and never did anything but miss fire yet. Shoot dead, or don’t aim at all, whichever you like; but never make a false stroke with ‘but’! So you won’t obey Chateauroy in this?”
He was silent again. He would not answer falsely, and he did not care to say his thoughts to her.
“‘No,’” pursued Cigarette, translating his silence at her fancy, “you say to yourself, ‘I am an aristocrat — I will not be ordered in this thing’— you say, ‘I am a good soldier; I will not be sent for like a hawker’— you say, ‘I was noble once: I will show my blood at last, if I die!’ Ah! — you say that!”
He laughed a little as he looked up at her.
“Not exactly that, but something as foolish, perhaps. Are you a witch, my pretty one?”
“Whoever doubted it, except you?”
She looked one, in truth, whom few men could resist, bending to him out of her owls’ nest, with the flash of the sun under the blue awning brightly catching the sunny brown of her soft cheek and the cherry bloom of her lips, arched, pouting, and coquette. She set her teeth sharply, and muttered a hot, heavy sacre, or even something worse, as she saw that his eyes had not even remained on her, but were thoughtfully looking down the checkered light and color of the street. She was passionate, she was vain, she was wayward, she was fierce as a little velvet leopard, as a handsome, brilliant plumaged hawk; she had all the faults, as she had all the virtues, of the thorough Celtic race; and, for the moment, she had in instinct — fiery, ruthless, and full of hate — to draw the pistol out of her belt, and teach him with a shot, crash through heart or brain, that girls who were “unsexed” could keep enough of the woman in them not to be neglected with impunity, and could lose enough of it to be able to avenge the negligence by a summary vendetta. But she was a haughty little condottiere, in her fashion. She would not ask for what was not offered her, nor give a rebuke that might be traced to mortification. She only set her two rosebud-lips in as firm a line of wrath and scorn as ever Caesar’s or Napoleon’s molded themselves into, and spoke in the curt, imperious, generalissimo fashion with which Cigarette before now had rallied a demoralized troop, reeling drunk and mad away from a razzia.
“I am a witch! That is, I can put two and two together, and read men, though I don’t read the alphabet. Well, one reading is a good deal rarer than the other. So you mean to disobey the Hawk to-night? I like you for that. But listen here — did you ever hear them talk of Marquise?”
“Parbleu!” swore the vivandiere in her wrath, “you look on at a bamboula as if it were only a bear-cub dancing, and can only give one ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ as if one were a drummer-boy. Bah! are those your Paris courtesies?”
“Forgive me, ma belle! I thought you called yourself our comrade, and would have no ‘fine manners.’ There is no knowing how to please you.”
He might have pleased her simply and easily enough, if he had only looked up with a shade of interest to that most picturesque picture, bright as a pastel portrait, that was hung above him in the old tumble-down Moorish stonework. But his thoughts were with other things; and a love scene with this fantastic little Amazon did not attract him. The warm, ripe, mellow little wayside cherry hung directly in his path, with the sun on its bloom, and the free wind tossing it merrily; but it had no charm for him. He was musing rather on that costly, delicate, brilliant-hued, hothouse blossom that could only be reached down by some rich man’s hand, and grew afar on heights where never winter chills, nor summer tan, could come too rudely on it.
“Come, tell me what is Marquise? — a kitten?” he went on, leaning his arm still on the sill of her embrasure, and willing to coax her out of her anger.
“A kitten!” echoed Cigarette contemptuously. “You think me a child, I suppose?”
“Surely you are not far off it?”
“Mon Dieu! why, I was never a child in my life,” retorted Cigarette, waxing sunny-tempered and confidential again, while she perched herself, like some gay-feathered mockingbird on a branch, on the window-sill itself. “When I was two, I used to be beaten; when I was three, I used to scrape up the cigar ends the officers dropped about, to sell them again for a bit of black bread; when I was four, I knew all about Philippe Durron’s escape from Beylick, and bit my tongue through, to say nothing, when my mother flogged me with a mule-whip, because I would not tell, that she might tell again at the Bureau and get the reward. A child! Before I was two feet high I had winged my first Arab. He stole a rabbit I was roasting. Presto! how quick he dropped it when my ball broke his wrist like a twig!”
And the Friend of the Flag laughed gayly at the recollection, as at the best piece of mirth with which memory could furnish her.
“But you asked about Marquise? Well, he was what you are — a hawk among carrion crows, a gentleman in the ranks. Dieu! how handsome he was! Nobody ever knew his real name, but they thought he was of Austrian breed, and we called him Marquise because he was so womanish white in his skin and dainty in all his ways. Just like you! Marquise could fight, fight like a hundred devils; and — pouf! — how proud he was — very much like you altogether! Now, one day something went wrong in the exercise ground. Marquise was not to blame, but they thought he was; and an adjutant struck him — flick, flack, like that — across the face with a riding switch. Marquise had his bayonet fixed and before we knew what was up, crash the blade went through — through the breast-bone, and out at the spine — and the adjutant fell as dead as a cat, with the blood spouting out like a fountain. ‘I come of a great race, that never took insult without giving back death,’ was all that Marquise said when they seized him and brought him to judgment; and he would never say of what race that was. They shot him — ah, bah! discipline must be kept — and I saw him with five great wounds in his chest, and his beautiful golden hair all soiled with the sand and the powder, lying there by the open grave, that they threw him into as if he were offal; and we never knew more of him than that.”
Cigarette’s radiant laugh had died, and her careless voice had sunk, over the latter words. As the little vivacious brunette told the tale of a nameless life, it took its eloquence from her, simple and brief as her speech was; and it owned a deeper pathos because the reckless young Bacchante of the As de Pique grew grave one moment while she told it. Then, grave still, she leaned her brown, bright face nearer down from her oval hole in the wall.
“Now,” she whispered very low, “if you mutiny once, they will shoot you just like Marquise, and you will die just as silent, like him.”
“Well,” he answered her slowly, “why not? Death is no great terror; I risk it every day for the sake of a common soldier’s rations; why should I not chance it for the sake and in the defense of my honor?”
“Bah! men sell their honor for their daily bread all the world over!” said Cigarette, with the satire that had treble raciness from the slang in which she clothed it. “But it is not you alone. See here — one example set on your part, and half your regiment will mutiny too. It is bitter work to obey the Black Hawk, and if you give the signal of revolt, three parts of your comrades will join you. Now what will that end in, beau lion?”
“Tell me — you are a soldier yourself, you say.”
“Yes, I am a soldier!” said Cigarette between her tight-set teeth, while her eyes brightened, and her voice sank down into a whisper that had a certain terrible meaning in it, like the first dropping of the scattered, opening shots in the distance before a great battle commences; “and I have seen war, not holiday war, but war in earnest — war when men fall like hailstones, and tear like tigers, and choke like mad dogs with their throats full of blood and sand; when the gun-carriage wheels go crash over the writhing limbs, and the horses charge full gallop over the living faces, and the hoofs beat out the brains before death has stunned them senseless. Oh, yes! I am a soldier, and I will tell you one thing I have seen. I have seen soldiers mutiny, a squadron of them, because they hated their chief and loved two of their sous-officers; and I have seen the end of it all — a few hundred men, blind and drunk with despair, at bay against as many thousands, and walled in with four lines of steel and artillery, and fired on from a score of cannon-mouths — volley on volley, like the thunder — till not one living man was left, and there was only a shapeless, heaving, moaning mass, with the black smoke over all. That is what I have seen; you will not make me see it again?”
Her face was very earnest, very eloquent, very dark, and tender with thought; there was a vein of grave, even of intense feeling, that ran through the significant words to which tone and accent lent far more meaning than lay in their mere phrases; the little bohemian lost her insolence when she pleaded for her “children,” her comrades; and the mischievous pet of the camp never treated lightly what touched the France that she loved — the France that, alone of all things in her careless life, she held in honor and reverence.
“You will not make me see it again?” she said, once more leaning out, with her eyes, that were like a brown brook sparkling deep, yet bright in the sun, fixed on him. “They would rise at your bidding, and they would be mowed down like corn. You will not?”
“Never! I give you my word.”
The promise was from his heart. He would have endured any indignity, any outrage, rather than have drawn into ruin, through him, the fiery, fearless, untutored lives of the men who marched, and slept, and rode, and fought, and lay in the light of the picket-fires, and swept down through the hot sandstorms on to the desert foe by his side. Cigarette stretched out her hand to him — that tiny brown hand, which, small though it was, had looked so burned and so hard beside the delicate fairy ivory carvings of his workmanship — stretched it out with a frank, winning, childlike, soldierlike grace.
“That’s right, you are a true soldier!”
He bent over the hand she held to his in the courtesy natural with him to all her sex, and touched it lightly with his lips.
“Thank you, my little comrade,” he said simply, with the graver thought still on him that her relation and her entreaty had evoked; “you have given me a lesson that I shall not be quick to forget.”
Cigarette was the wildest little baccanal that ever pirouetted for the delight of half a score of soldiers in their shirt-sleeves and half-drunk; she was the most reckless coquette that ever made the roll-call of her lovers range from prince-marshals to plowboy conscripts; she had flirted as far and wide as the butterfly flirts with the blossoms it flutters on to through the range of a summer day; she took kisses, if the giver of them were handsome, as readily as a child takes sweetmeats at Mardi Gras; and of feminine honor, feminine scruples, feminine delicacy, knew nothing save by such very dim, fragmentary instincts as nature still planted in scant growth amid the rank soil and the pestilent atmosphere of camp-life. Her eyes had never sunk, her face had never flushed, her heart had never panted for the boldest or the wildest wooer of them all, from M. de Duc’s Lauzunesque blandishments to Pouffer-deRire’s or Miou–Miou’s rough overtures; she had the coquetry of her nation with the audacity of a boy. Now only, for the first time, Cigarette colored hotly at the grave, graceful, distant salute, so cold and so courteous, which was offered her in lieu of the rude and boisterous familiarities to which she was accustomed; and drew her hand away with what was, to the shame of her soldierly hardihood and her barrack tutelage, very nearly akin to an impulse of shyness.
“Dame! Don’t humbug me! I am not a court lady!” she cried hastily, almost petulantly, to cover the unwonted and unwelcome weakness; while, to make good the declaration and revindicate her military renown, she balanced herself lightly on the stone ledge of her oval hole, and sprang, with a young wildcat’s easy, vaulting leap, over his head, and over the heads of the people beneath, on to the ledge of the house opposite, a low-built wine-shop, whose upper story nearly touched the leaning walls of the old Moorish buildings in which she had been perched. The crowd in the street below looked up, amazed and aghast, at that bound from casement to casement as she flew over their heads like a blue-and-scarlet winged bird of Oran; but they laughed as they saw who it was.
“It is Cigarette! Ah, ha! the devil, for a certainty, must have been her father!”
“To be sure!” cried the Friend of the Flag, looking from her elevation; “he is a very good father, too, and I don’t tease him like his sons the priests! But I have told him to take you the next time you are stripping a dead body; so look on it — he won’t have to wait long.”
The discomfited Indigene hustled his way, with many an oath, through the laughing crowd as best he might; and Cigarette, with an airy pirouette on the wine-shop’s roof that would have done honor to any opera boards, and was executed as carelessly, twenty feet above earth, as if she had been a pantomime-dancer all her days, let herself down by the awning, hand over hand, like a little mouse from the harbor, jumped on to a forage wagon that was just passing full trot down the street, and disappeared; standing on the piles of hay, and singing.
Cecil looked after her, with a certain touch of pity for her in him.
“What a gallant boy is spoiled in that little Amazon!” he thought; the quick flush of her face, the quick withdrawal of her hand, he had not noticed; she had not much interest for him — scarcely any indeed — save that he saw she was pretty, with a mignonne, mischievous face, that all the sun-tan of Africa and all the wild life of the Caserne would not harden or debase. But he was sorry a child so bright and so brave should be turned into three parts a trooper as she was, should have been tossed up on the scum and filth of the lowest barrack life, and should be doomed in a few years’ time to become the yellow, battered, foul-mouthed, vulture-eyed camp-follower that premature old age would surely render the darling of the tricolor, the pythoness of the As de Pique.
Cigarette was making scorn of her doom of Sex, dancing it down, drinking it down, laughing it down, burning it out in tobacco fumes, drowning it in trembling cascades of wine, trampling it to dust under the cancan by her little brass-bound boots, mocking it away with her slang jests, and her Theresa songs, and her devil-may-care audacities, till there was scarce a trace of it left in this prettiest and wildest little scamp of all the Army in Africa. But strive to kill it how she would, her sex would have its revenge one day and play Nemesis to her.
She was bewitching now — bewitching, though she had no witchery for him — in her youth. But when the bloom should leave her brown cheeks, and the laughter die out of her lightning glance, the womanhood she had denied would assert itself, and avenge itself, and be hideous in the sight of the men who now loved the tinkling of those little spurred feet, and shouted with applause to hear the reckless barrack blasphemies ring their mirth from the fresh mouth which was now like a bud from a damask rose branch, though even now it steeped itself in wine, and sullied itself with oaths and seared itself with smoke, and had never been touched from its infancy with any kiss that was innocent — not even with its mother’s.
And there was a deep tinge of pity for her in Cecil’s thoughts as he watched her out of sight, and then strolled across to the cafe opposite to finish his cigar beneath its orange-striped awning. The child had been flung upward, a little straw floating in the gutter of Paris iniquities. It was little marvel that the bright, bold, insolent little Friend of the Flag had nothing of her sex left save a kitten’s mischief and a coquette’s archness. It said much rather for the straight, fair, sunlit instincts of the untaught nature that Cigarette had gleaned, even out of such a life, two virtues that she would have held by to the death, if tried: a truthfulness that would have scorned a lie as only fit for cowards, and a loyalty that cleaved to France as a religion.
Cecil thought that a gallant boy was spoiled in this eighteen-year-old brunette of a campaigner; he might have gone further, and said that a hero was lost.
“Voila!” said Cigarette between her little teeth.
She stood in the glittering Algerine night, brilliant with a million stars, and balmy with a million flowers, before the bronze trellised gate of the villa on the Sahel, where Chateauroy, when he was not on active service — which chanced rarely, for he was one of the finest soldiers and most daring chiefs in Africa — indemnified himself, with the magnificence that his private fortune enabled him to enjoy, for the unsparing exertions and the rugged privations that he always shared willingly with the lowest of his soldiers. It was the grandest trait in the man’s character that he utterly scorned the effeminacy with which many commanders provided for their table, their comfort, and their gratification while campaigning, and would commonly neither take himself nor allow to his officers any more indulgence on the march than his troopers themselves enjoyed. But his villa on the Sahel was a miniature palace; it had formerly been the harem of a great Rais, and the gardens were as enchanting as the interior was — if something florid, still as elegant as Paris art and Paris luxury could make it; for ferocious as the Black Hawk was in war, and well as he loved the chase and the slaughter, he did not disdain, when he had whetted beak and talons to satiety, to smooth his ruffled plumage in downy nests and under caressing hands.
To-night the windows of the pretty, low, snow-white, far-stretching building were lighted and open, and through the wilderness of cactus, myrtle, orange, citron, fuchsia, and a thousand flowers that almost buried it under their weight of leaf and blossom, a myriad of lamps were gleaming like so many glowworms beneath the foliage, while from a cedar grove, some slight way farther out, the melodies and overtures of the best military bands in Algiers came mellowed, though not broken, by the distance and the fall of the bubbling fountains. Cigarette looked and listened, and her gay, brown face grew duskily warm with wrath.
“Ah, bah!” she muttered as she pressed her pretty lips to the lattice-work. “The men die like sheep in the hospital, and get sour bread tossed to them as if they were pigs, and are thrashed if they pawn their muskets for a stoup of drink when their throats are as dry as the desert — and you live in clover. Marbleu!”
Cigarette was a resolute little democrat; she had loaded the carbines behind the barricade in Paris before she was ten years old, and was not seldom in the perplexity of conflicting creeds when her loyalty to the tricolor smote with a violent clash on her love for the populace and their liberty.
She looked a moment longer through the gilded scroll-work; then, as she had done once before, thrust her pistols well within her sash that they should not catch upon the boughs, and pushing herself through the prickly cactus hedge, impervious to anything save herself or a Barbary marmoset, twisted with marvelous ingenuity through the sharp-pointed leaves, and the close barriers of spines and launched herself with inimitable dexterity on to the other side of the cacti. Cigarette had too often played a game at spying and reconnoitering for her regiments, and played it with a cleverness that distanced even the most ruse of the Zephyrs, not to be able to do just whatever she chose, in taking the way she liked, and lurking unseen at discretion.
She crossed the breadth of the grounds under the heavy shade of arbutus trees with a hare’s fleetness, and stood a second looking at the open windows and the terraces that lay before them, brightly lighted by the summer moon and by the lamps that sparkled among the shrubs. Then down she dropped, as quickly, as lightly, as a young setter, down among the ferns, into a shower of rhododendrons, whose rose and lilac blossoms shut her wholly within them, like a fairy inclosed in bloom. The good fairy of one life there she was assuredly, though she might be but a devil-may-care, audacious, careless little feminine Belphegor and military Asmodeus.
“Ah!” she said quickly and sharply, with a deep-drawn breath. The single exclamation was at once a menace, a tenderness, a whirlwind of rage, a volume of disdain, a world of pity. It was intensely French, and the whole nature of Cigarette was in it.
Yet all she saw was a small and brilliant group sauntering to and fro before the open windows, after dinner, listening to the bands, which, through dinner, had played to them, and laughing low and softly; and, at some distance from them, beneath the shade of a cedar, the figure of a Corporal of Chasseurs — calm, erect, motionless — as though he were the figure of a soldier cast in bronze. The scene was simple enough, though very picturesque; but it told, by its vivid force of contrast, a whole history to Cigarette.
“A true soldier!” she muttered, where she lay among the rhododendrons, while her eyes grew very soft, as she gave the highest word of praise that her whole range of language held. “A true soldier! How he keeps his promise! But it must be bitter!”
She looked a while, very wistfully, at the Chasseur, where he stood under the Lebanon boughs; then her glance swept bright as a hawk’s over the terrace, and lighted with a prescient hatred on the central form of all — a woman’s. There were two other great ladies there; but she passed them, and darted with unerring instinct on that proud, fair, patrician head, with its haughty, stag-like carriage and the crown of its golden hair.
Cigarette had seen grand dames by the thousand, though never very close; seen them in Paris when they came to look on at a grand review; seen them in their court attire, when the Guides had filled the Carrousel on some palace ball-night, and lined the Court des Princes, and she had bewitched the officers of the guard into letting her pass in to see the pageantry. But she had never felt for those grandes dames anything save a considerably contemptuous indifference. She had looked on them pretty much as a war-worn, powder-tried veteran looks on the curled dandy of some fashionable, home-staying corps. She had never realized the difference betwixt them and herself, save in so far as she thought them useless butterflies, worth nothing at all, and laughed as she triumphantly remembered how she could shoot a man and break in a colt.
Now, for the first time, the sight of one of those aristocrats smote her with a keen, hot sting of heart-burning jealousy. Now, for the fist time, the little Friend of the Flag looked at all the nameless graces of rank with an envy that her sunny, gladsome, generous nature had never before been touched with — with a sudden perception, quick as thought, bitter as gall, wounding, and swift, and poignant, of what this womanhood, that he had said she herself had lost, might be in its highest and purest shape.
“If those are the women that he knew before he came here, I do not wonder that he never cared to watch even my bamboula,” was the latent, unacknowledged thought that was so cruel to her: the consciousness — which forced itself in on her, while her eyes jealously followed the perfect grace of the one in whom instinct had found her rival — that, while she had been so proud of her recklessness, and her devilry, and her trooper’s slang, and her deadly skill as a shot, she had only been something very worthless, something very lightly held by those who liked her for a ribald jest, and a dance, and a Spahis’ supper of headlong riot and drunken mirth.
The mood did not last. She was too brave, too fiery, too dauntless, too untamed. The dusky, angry flush upon her face grew deeper, and the passion gathered more stormily in her eyes, while she felt the pistol butts in her sash, and laughed low to herself, where she lay stretched under her flowery nest.
“Bah! she would faint, I dare say, at the mere sight of these,” she thought, with her old disdain, “and would stand fire no more than a gazelle! They are only made for summer-day weather, those dainty, gorgeous, silver pheasants. A breath of war, a touch of tempest, would soon beat them down — crash! — with all their proud crests drooping!”
Like many another Cigarette underrated what she had no knowledge of, and depreciated an antagonist the measure of whose fence she had no power to gauge.
Crouched there among the rhododendrons, she lay as still as a mouse, moving nearer and nearer, though none would have told that so much as a lizard even stirred under the blossoms, until her ear, quick and unerring as an Indian’s, could detect the sense of the words spoken by that group, which so aroused all the hot ire of her warrior’s soul and her democrat’s impatience. Chateauroy himself was bending his fine, dark head toward the patrician on whom her instinct had fastened her hatred.
“You expressed your wish to see my Corporal’s little sculptures again, madame,” he was murmuring now, as Cigarette got close enough under her flower shadows to catch the sense of the words. “To hear was to obey with me. He waits your commands yonder.”
Cecil obeyed the lackey who crossed the lawn, passed up the stairs, and stood before his Colonel, giving the salute; the shade of some acacias still fell across him, while the party he fronted were in all the glow of a full Algerian moon and of the thousand lamps among the belt of flowers and trees. Cigarette gave a sharp, deep-drawn breath, and lay as mute and motionless as she had done before then, among the rushes of some dried brook’s bed, scanning a hostile camp, when the fate of a handful of French troops had rested on her surety and her caution.
Chateauroy spoke with a carelessness as of a man to a dog, turning to his Corporal.
“Victor, Mme. la Princesse honors you with the desire to see your toys again. Spread them out.”
The savage authority of his general speech was softened for sake of his guest’s presence, but there was a covert tone in the words that made Cigarette murmur to herself:
“If he forget his promise, I will forgive him!”
Cecil had not forgotten it; neither had he forgotten the lesson that this fair aristocrate had read him in the morning. He saluted his chief again, set the chessbox down upon the ledge of the marble balustrade, and stood silent, without once glancing at the fair and haughty face that was more brilliant still in the African starlight than it had been in the noon sun of the Chasseurs’ Chambree. Courtesy was forbidden him as insult from a corporal to a nobly born beauty; he no more quarreled with the decree than with other inevitable consequences, inevitable degradations, that followed on his entrance as a private under the French flag. He had been used to the impassable demarcations of Caste; he did not dispute them more now that he was without, than he had done when within, their magic pale.
The carvings were passed from hand to hand as the Marquis’ six or eight guests, listless willing to be amused in the warmth of the evening after their dinner, occupied themselves with the ivory chess armies, cut with a skill and a finish worthy a Roman studio. Praise enough was awarded to the art, but none of them remembered the artist, who stood apart, grave, calm, with a certain serene dignity that could not be degraded because others chose to treat him as the station he filled gave them fit right to do.
Only one glanced at him with a touch of wondering pity, softening her pride; she who had rejected the gift of those mimic squadrons.
“You were surely a sculptor once?” she asked him with that graceful, distant kindness which she might have shown some Arab outcast.
“Indeed! Then who taught you such exquisite art?”
“It cannot claim to be called art, madame.”
She looked at him with an increased interest: the accent of his voice told her that this man, whatever he might be now, had once been a gentleman.
“Oh, yes; it is perfect of its kind. Who was your master in it?”
“A common teacher, madame — Necessity.”
There was a very sweet gleam of compassion in the luster of her dark, dreaming eyes.
“Does necessity often teach so well?”
“In the ranks of our army, madame, I think it does — often, indeed, much better.”
Chateauroy had stood by and heard, with as much impatience as he cared to show before guests whose rank was precious to the man who had still weakness enough to be ashamed that his father’s brave and famous life had first been cradled under the thatch roof of a little posting-house.
“Victor knows that neither he nor his men have any right to waste their time on such trash,” he said carelessly; “but the truth is they love the canteen so well that they will do anything to add enough to their pay to buy brandy.”
She whom he had called Mme. la Princesse looked with a doubting surprise at the sculptor of the white Arab King she held.
“That man does not carve for brandy,” she thought.
“It must be a solace to many a weary hour in the barracks to be able to produce such beautiful trifles as these?” she said aloud. “Surely you encourage such pursuits, monsieur?”
“Not I,” said Chateauroy, with a dash of his camp tone that he could not withhold. “There are but two arts or virtues for a trooper to my taste — fighting and obedience.”
“You should be in the Russian service, M. de Chateauroy,” said the lady with a smile, that, slight as it was, made the Marquis’ eyes flash fire.
“Almost I wish I had been,” he answered her; “men are made to keep their grades there, and privates who think themselves fine gentlemen receive the lash they merit.”
“How he hates his Corporal!” she thought while she laid aside the White King once more.
“Nay,” interposed Chateauroy, recovering his momentary self-abandonment, “since you like the bagatelles, do me honor enough to keep them.”
“Oh, no! I offered your soldier his own price for them this morning, and he refused any.”
Chateauroy swung round.
“Ah, you dared refuse your bits of ivory when you were honored by an offer for them?”
Cecil stood silent; his eyes met his chief’s steadily; Chateauroy had seen that look when his Chasseur had bearded him in the solitude of his tent, and demanded back the Pearl of the Desert.
The Princesse glanced at both; then she stooped her elegant head slightly to the Marquis.
“Do not blame your Corporal unjustly through me, I pray you. He refused any price, but he offered them to me very gracefully as a gift, though of course it was not possible that I should accept them so.”
“The man is the most insolent in the service,” muttered her host, as he motioned Cecil back off the terrace. “Get you gone, sir, and leave your toys here, or I will have them broken up by a hammer.”
The words were low, that they should not offend the ears of the great ladies who were his listeners; but they were coarsely savage in their whispered command, and the Princesse heard them.
“He has brought his Chasseur here only to humiliate him,” she thought, with the same thought that flashed through the mind of the Little Friend of the Flag where she hid among her rhododendrons. Now the dainty aristocrate was very proud, but she was not so proud but that justice was stronger in her than pride; and a noble, generous temper mellowed the somewhat too cold and languid negligence of one of the fairest and haughtiest women that ever adorned a court. She was too generous not to rescue anyone who suffered through her the slightest injustice, not to interfere when through her any misconception lighted on another; she saw, with her rapid perception and sympathy, that the man whom Chateauroy addressed with the brutal insolence of a bully to his disobedient dog, had once been a gentlemen, though he now held but the rank of a sous-officier in the Algerian Cavalry, and she saw that he suffered all the more keenly under an outrage he had no power to resist because of that enforced serenity, that dignity of silence and of patience, with which he stood before his tyrant.
“Wait,” she said, moving a little toward them, while she let her eyes rest on the carver of the sculptures with a grave compassion, though she addressed his chief. “You wholly mistake me. I laid no blame whatever on your Corporal. Let him take the chessmen back with him; I would on no account rob him of them. I can well understand that he does not care to part with such masterpieces of his art; and that he would not appraise them by their worth in gold only shows that he is a true artist, as doubtless also he is a true soldier.”
The words were spoken with a gracious courtesy; the clear, cold tone of her habitual manner just marking in them still the difference of caste between her and the man for whom she interceded, as she would equally have interceded for a dog who should have been threatened with the lash because he had displeased her. That very tone struck a sharper blow to Cecil than the insolence of his commander had power to deal him. His face flushed a little; he lifted his cap to her with a grave reverence, and moved away.
“I thank you, madame. Keep them, if you will so far honor me.”
The words reached only her ear. In another instant he had passed away down the terrace steps, obedient to his chief’s dismissal.
“Ah! have no kind scruples in keeping them, madame,” Chateauroy laughed to her, as she still held in her hand, doubtfully, the White Sheik of the chess Arabs; “I will see that Bel-a-faire-peur, as they call him, does not suffer by losing these trumperies, which, I believe, old Zist-et-Zest, a veteran of ours and a wonderful carver, had really far more to do with producing than he. You must not let your gracious pity be moved by such fellows as these troopers of mine; they are the most ingenious rascals in the world, and know as well how to produce a dramatic effect in your presence as they do how to drink and to swear when they are out of it.”
“Very possibly,” she said, with an indolent indifference; “but that man was no actor, and I never saw a gentleman if he have not been one.”
“Like enough,” answered the Marquis. “I believe many ‘gentlemen’ come into our ranks who have fled their native countries and broken all laws from the Decalogue to the Code Napoleon. So long as they fight well, we don’t ask their past criminalities. We cannot afford to throw away a good soldier because he has made his own land too hot to hold him.”
“Of what country is your Corporal, then?”
“I have not an idea. I imagine his past must have been something very black, indeed, for the slightest trace of it has never, that I know of, been allowed to let slip from him. He encourages the men in every insubordination, buys their favor with every sort of stage trick, thinks himself the finest gentleman in the whole brigades of Africa, and ought to have been shot long ago, if he had had his real deserts.”
She let her glance dwell on him with a contemplation that was half contemptuous amusement, half unexpressed dissent.
“I wonder he has not been, since you have the ruling of his fate,” she said, with a slight smile lingering about the proud, rich softness of her lips.
“So do I.”
There was a gaunt, grim, stern significance in the three monosyllables that escaped him unconsciously; it made her turn and look at him more closely.
“How has he offended you?” she asked.
Chateauroy laughed off her question.
“In a thousand ways, madame. Chiefly because I received my regimental training under one who followed the traditions of the Armies of Egypt and the Rhine, and have, I confess little tolerance, in consequence, of a rebel who plays the martyr, and a soldier who is too effeminate an idler to do anything except attitudinize in interesting situations to awaken sympathy.”
She listened with something of distaste upon her face where she still leaned against the marble balustrade, toying with the ivory Bedouins.
“I am not much interested in military discussion,” she said coldly, “but I imagine — if you will pardon me for saying so — that you do your Corporal some little injustice here. I should not fancy he ‘affects’ anything, to judge from the very good tone of his manners. For the rest, I shall not keep the chessmen without making him fitting payment for them; since he declines money, you will tell me what form that had better take to be of real and welcome service to a Chasseur d’Afrique.”
Chateauroy, more incensed than he chose or dared to show, bowed courteously, but with a grim, ironic smile.
“If you really insist, give him a Napoleon or two whenever you see him; he will be very happy to take it and spend it au cabaret, though he played the aristocrat today. But you are too good to him, he is one of the very worst of my pratiques; and you are as cruel to me in refusing to deign to accept my trooper’s worthless bagatelles at my hands.”
She bent her superb head silently, whether in acquiescence or rejection he could not well resolve with himself, and turned to the staff officers, among them the heir of a princely semi-royal French House, who surrounded her, and sorely begrudged the moments she had given to those miniature carvings and the private soldier who had wrought them. She was no coquette; she was of too imperial a nature, had too lofty a pride, and was too difficult to charm or to enchain; but those meditative, brilliant, serene eyes had a terrible gift of awakening without ever seeking love, and of drawing without ever recompensing homage.
Crouched down among her rose-hued covert, Cigarette had watched and heard; her teeth set tightly, her breath coming and going swiftly, her hand clinched close on the butts of her pistols; fiery curses, with all the infinite variety in cursing of a barrack repertoire, chasing one another in hot, fast mutterings of those bright lips, that should have known nothing except a child’s careless and innocent song.
She had never looked at a beautiful, high-born woman before, holding them in gay, satirical disdain as mere butterflies who could not prime a revolver and fire it off to save their own lives, if ever such need arose. But now she studied one through all the fine, quickened, unerring instincts of jealousy; and there is no instinct in the world that gives such thorough appreciation of the very rival it reviles. She saw the courtly negligence, the regal grace, the fair, brilliant loveliness, the delicious, serene languor, of a pure aristocrate for the very first time to note them, and they made her heart sick with a new and deadly sense; they moved her much as the white, delicate carvings of the lotus-lilies had done; they, like the carvings, showed her all she had missed. She dropped her head suddenly like a wounded bird, and the racy, vindictive camp oaths died off her lips. She thought of herself as she had danced that mad bacchic bamboula amid the crowd of shouting, stamping, drunken, half-infuriated soldiery; and for the moment she hated herself more even than she hated that patrician yonder.
“I know what he meant now!” she pondered, and her spirited, sparkling, brunette face was dark and weary, like a brown, sun-lightened brook over whose radiance the heavy shadow of some broad-spread eagle’s wings hovers, hiding the sun.
She looked once, twice, thrice, more inquiringly, envyingly, thirstily; then, as the band under the cedars rolled out their music afresh, and light laughter echoed to her from the terrace, she turned and wound herself back under the cover of the shrubs; not joyously and mischievously as she had come, but almost as slowly, almost as sadly, as a hare that the greyhounds have coursed drags itself through the grasses and ferns.
Once through the cactus hedge her old spirit returned; she shook herself angrily with petulant self-scorn; she swore a little, and felt that the fierce, familiar words did her good like brandy poured down her throat; she tossed her head like a colt that rebels against the gall of the curb; then, fleet as a fawn, she dashed down the moonlit road at topmost speed. “She can’t do what I do!” she thought.
And she ran the faster, and sang a drinking-song of the Spahis all the louder, because still at her heart a dull pain was aching.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58