“Fighting in the Kabaila, life was well enough; but here!” thought Cecil as, earlier awake than those of his Chambree, he stood looking down the lengthy, narrow room where the men lay asleep along the bare floor.
Tired as overworked cattle, and crouched or stretched like worn-out, homeless dogs, they had never wakened as he had noiselessly harnessed himself, and he looked at them with that interest in other lives that had come to him through adversity; for if misfortune had given him strength it had also given him sympathy.
They were of marvelously various types — these sleepers brought under one roof by fates the most diverse. Close beside a huge and sinewy brute of an Auvergnat, whose coarse, bestial features and massive bull’s head were fitter for a galley-slave than a soldier, were the lithe, exquisite limbs and the oval, delicate face of a man from the Valley of the Rhone. Beneath a canopy of flapping, tawny wild-beast skins, the spoils of his own hands, was flung the torso of one of the splendid peasants of the Sables d’Olonne; one steeped so long in blood and wine and alcohol that he had forgotten the blue, bright waves that broke on the western shores of his boyhood’s home, save when he muttered thirstily in his dreams of the cool sea, as he was muttering now. Next him, curled, dog-like, with its round, black head meeting its feet, was a wiry frame on which every muscle was traced like network, and the skin burned black as jet under twenty years of African sun. The midnight streets of Paris had seen its birth, the thieves’ quarter had been its nest; it had no history, it had almost no humanity; it was a perfect machine for slaughter, no more — who had ever tried to make it more?
Further on lay, sleeping fitfully, a boy of scarcely more than seventeen, with rounded cheeks and fair, white brow like a child’s, whose uncovered chest was delicate as a girl’s, and through whose long, brown lashes tears in his slumber were stealing as his rosy mouth murmured, “Mere! Mere! Pauvre mere!” He was a young conscript taken from the glad vine-country of the Loire, and from the little dwelling up in the rock beside the sunny, brimming river, and half-buried under its grape leaves and coils, that was dearer to him than is the palace to its heir. There were many others beside these; and Cecil looked at them with those weary, speculative, meditative fancies which, very alien to his temperament, stole on him occasionally in the privations and loneliness of his existence here — loneliness in the midst of numbers, the most painful of all solitude.
Life was bearable enough to him in the activity of campaigning, in the excitement of warfare; there were times even when it yielded him absolute enjoyment, and brought him interests more genuine and vivid than any he had known in his former world. But, in the monotony and the confinement of the barrack routine, his days were often intolerable to him. Morning after morning he rose to the same weary round of duty, the same series of petty irritations, of physical privations, of irksome repetitions, to take a toss of black, rough coffee, and begin the day knowing it would bring with it endless annoyances without one gleam of hope. Rose to spend hours on the exercise-ground in the glare of a burning sun, railed at if a trooper’s accouterments were awry, or an insubordinate scoundrel had pawned his regulation shirt; to be incessantly witness of tyrannies and cruelties he was powerless to prevent, and which he continually saw undo all he had done, and render men desperate whom he had spent months in endeavoring to make contented; to have as the only diversions for his few instants of leisure loathsome pleasures that disgusted the senses they were meant to indulge, and that brought him to scenes of low debauchery from which all the old, fastidious instincts of his delicate, luxurious taste recoiled. With such a life as this, he often wondered regretfully why, out of the many Arab swords that had crossed his own, none had gone straight to his heart; why, out of the many wounds that had kept him hovering on the confines of the grave, none had ever brought him the end and the oblivion of death.
Had he been subject to all the miseries and personal hardships of his present career, but had only owned the power to command, to pardon, to lead, and to direct, as Alan Bertie before him had done with his Irregular Cavalry in the Indian plains — such a thought would never have crossed him; he was far too thorough a soldier not then to have been not only satisfied, but happy. What made his life in the barracks of Algiers so bitter were the impotency, the subjection, the compelled obedience to a bidding that he knew often capricious and unjust as it was cruel; which were so unendurable to his natural pride, yet to which he had hitherto rendered undeviating adhesion and submission, less for his own sake than for that of the men around him, who, he knew, would back him in revolt to the death, and be dealt with, for such loyalty to him, in the fashion that the vivandiere’s words had pictured with such terrible force and truth.
“Is it worth while to go on with it? Would it not be the wiser way to draw my own saber across my throat?” he thought, as the brutalized companionship in which his life was spent struck on him all the more darkly because, the night before, a woman’s voice and a woman’s face had recalled memories buried for twelve long years.
But, after so long a stand-up fight with fate, so long a victory over the temptation to let himself drift out in an opium-sleep from the world that had grown so dark to him, it was not in him to give under now. In his own way he had found a duty to do here, though he would have laughed at anyone who should have used the word “duty” in connection with him. In his own way, amid these wild spirits, who would have been blown from the guns’ mouths to serve him, he had made good the “Coeur vaillant se fait Royaume” of his House. And he was, moreover, by this time, a French soldier at heart and in habit, in almost all things — though the English gentleman was not dead in him under the harness of a Chasseur d’Afrique.
This morning he roused the men of his Chambree with that kindly gentleness which had gone so far in its novelty to attach their liking; went through the customary routine of his past with that exactitude and punctuality of which he was always careful to set the example; made his breakfast off some wretched onion-soup and a roll of black bread; rode fifty miles in the blazing heat of the African day at the head of a score of his chasses-marais on convoy duty, bringing in escort a long string of maize-wagons from the region of the Kabaila, which, without such guard, might have been swooped down on and borne off by some predatory tribe; and returned, jaded, weary, parched with thirst, scorched through with heat, and covered with white dust, to be kept waiting in his saddle, by his Colonel’s orders, outside the barrack for three-quarters of an hour, whether to receive a command or a censure he was left in ignorance.
When the three-quarters had passed, he was told M. le Commandant had gone long ago, and did not require him!
Cecil said nothing.
Yet he reeled slightly as he threw himself out of saddle; a nausea and a giddiness had come on him. To have passed nigh an hour motionless in his stirrups, with the skies like brass above him, while he was already worn with riding from sunrise well-nigh to sunset, with little to appease hunger and less to slake thirst, made him, despite himself, stagger dizzily under a certain sense of blindness and exhaustion as he dismounted.
The Chasseur who had brought him the message caught his arm eagerly.
“Are you hurt, mon Caporal?”
Cecil shook his head. The speaker was one known in the regiment as Petit Picpon, who had begun life as a gamin of Paris, and now bade fair to make one of the most brilliant of the soldiers of Africa. Petit Picpon had but one drawback to this military career — he was always in insubordination; the old gamin dare-devilry was not dead in him, and never would die; and Petit Picpon accordingly was perpetually a hero in the field and a ragamuffin in the times of peace. Of course he was always arrayed against authority, and now — being fond of his galonne with that curious doglike, deathless attachment that these natures, all reckless, wanton, destructive, and mischievous though they may be, so commonly bestow — he muttered a terrible curse under his fiercely curled mustaches.
“If the Black Hawk were nailed up in the sun like a kite on a barn-door, I would drive twenty nails through his throat!”
Cecil turned rapidly on him.
“Silence, sir! or I must report you. Another speech like that, and you shall have a turn at Beylick.”
It went to his heart to rebuke the poor fellow for an outburst of indignation which had its root in regard for himself, but he knew that to encourage it by so much even as by an expression of gratitude for the affection borne him, would be to sow further and deeper the poison-seeds of that inclination to mutiny and that rebellious hatred against their chief already only planted too strongly in the squadrons under Chateauroy’s command.
Petit Picpon looked as crestfallen as one of his fraternity could; he knew well enough that what he had said could get him twenty blows of the stick, if his corporal chose to give him up to judgment; but he had too much of the Parisian in him still not to have his say, though he should be shot for it.
“Send me to Beylick, if you like, Corporal,” he said sturdily; “I was in wrath for you — not for myself.”
Cecil was infinitely more touched than he dared, for the sake of discipline, for sake of the speaker himself, to show; but his glance dwelt on Petit Picpon with a look that the quick, black, monkey-like eyes of the rebel were swift to read.
“I know,” he said gravely. “I do not misjudge you, but at the same time, my name must never serve as a pretext for insubordination. Such men as care to pleasure me will best do so in making my duty light by their own self-control and obedience to the rules of their service.”
He led his horse away, and Petit Picpon went on an errand he had been sent to do in the streets for one of the officers. Picpon was unusually thoughtful and sober in deportment for him, since he was usually given to making his progress along a road, taken unobserved by those in command over him, with hands and heels in the dexterous somersaults of his early days.
Now he went along without any unprofessional antics, biting the tip of a smoked-out cigar, which he had picked up off the pavement in sheer instinct, retained from the old times when he had used to rush in, the foremost of la queue, into the forsaken theaters of Bouffes or of Varietes in search for those odds and ends which the departed audience might have left behind them — one of the favorite modes of seeking a livelihood with the Parisian night-birds.
“Dame! I will give it up then,” resolved Picpon, half aloud, valorously.
Now Picpon had come forth on evil thoughts intent.
His officer — a careless and extravagant man, the richest man in the regiment — had given him a rather small velvet bag, sealed, with directions to take it to a certain notorious beauty of Algiers, whose handsome Moresco eyes smiled — or, at least, he believed so — exclusively for the time on the sender. Picpon was very quick, intelligent, and much liked by his superiors, so that he was often employed on errands; and the tricks he played in the execution thereof were so adroitly done that they were never detected. Picpon had chuckled to himself over this mission. It was but the work of an instant for the lithe, nimble fingers of the exgamin to undo the bag without touching the seal; to see that it contained a hundred Napoleons with a note; to slip the gold into the folds of his ceinturon; to fill up the sack with date-stones; to make it assume its original form so that none could have imagined it had been touched, and to proceed with it thus to the Moorish lionne’s dwelling. The negro who always opened her door would take it in; Picpon would hint to him to be careful, as it contained some rare and rich sweetmeats, negro nature, he well knew, would impel him to search for the bonbons; and the bag, under his clumsy treatment, would bear plain marks of having been tampered with, and, as the African had a most thievish reputation, he would never be believed if he swore himself guiltless. Voila! Here was a neat trick! If it had a drawback, it was that it was too simple, too little risque. A child might do it.
Still — a hundred Naps! What fat geese, what flagons of brandy, what dozens of wine, what rich soups, what tavern banquets they would bring! Picpon had chuckled again as he arranged the little bag so carefully, with its date-stones, and pictured the rage of the beautiful Moor when she should discover the contents and order the stick to her negro. Ah! that was what Picpon called fun!
To appreciate the full force of such fun, it is necessary to have also appreciated the gamin. To understand the legitimate aspect such a theft bore, it is necessary to have also understood the unrecordable codes that govern the genus pratique, into which the genus gamin, when at maturity, develops.
Picpon was quite in love with his joke; it was only a good joke in his sight; and, indeed, men need to live as hardly as an African soldier lives, to estimate the full temptation that gold can have when you have come to look on a cat as very good eating, and to have nothing to gnaw but a bit of old shoe-leather through the whole of the long hours of a burning day of fatigue-duty; and to estimate, as well, the full width and depth of the renunciation that made him mutter now so valorously, “Dame! I will give it up, then!”
Picpon did not know himself as he said it. Yet he turned down into a lonely, narrow lane, under marble walls, overtopped with fig and palm from some fine gardens; undid the bag for the second time; whisked out the date-stones and threw them over the wall, so that they should be out of his reach if he repented; put back the Napoleons, closed the little sack, ran as hard as he could scamper to his destination, delivered his charge into the fair lady’s own hands, and relieved his feelings by a score of somersaults along the pavement as fast as ever he could go.
“Ma cantche!” he thought, as he stood on his head, with his legs at an acute angle in the air, in position very favored by him for moments of reflection — he said his brain worked better upside down. “Ma cantche! What a weakness, what a weakness! What remorse to have yielded to it! Beneath you, Picpon — utterly beneath you. Just because that ci-devant says such follies please him in us!”
Picpon (then in his gamin stage) had been enrolled in the Chasseurs at the same time with the “ci-devant,” as they called Bertie, and, following his gamin nature, had exhausted all his resources of impudence, maliciousness, and power of tormenting, on the “aristocrat”— somewhat disappointed, however, that the utmost ingenuities of his insolence and even his malignity never succeeded in breaking the “aristocrat’s” silence and contemptuous forbearance from all reprisal. For the first two years the hell-on-earth — which life with a Franco–Arab regiment seemed to Cecil — was a hundredfold embittered by the brutalized jests and mosquito-like torments of this little odious chimpanzee of Paris.
One day, however, it chanced that a detachment of Chasseurs, of which Cecil was one, was cut to pieces by such an overwhelming mass of Arabs that scarce a dozen of them could force their way through the Bedouins with life; he was among those few, and a flight at full speed was the sole chance of regaining their encampment. Just as he had shaken his bridle free of the Arab’s clutch, and had mowed himself a clear path through their ranks, he caught sight of his young enemy, Picpon, on the ground, with a lance broken off in his ribs; guarding his head, with bleeding hands, as the horses trampled over him. To make a dash at the boy, though to linger a moment was to risk certain death; to send his steel through an Arab who came in his way; to lean down and catch hold of the lad’s sash; to swing him up into his saddle and throw him across it in front of him, and to charge afresh through the storm of musket-balls, and ride on thus burdened, was the work of ten seconds with “Bel-a-faire-peur.” And he brought the boy safe over a stretch of six leagues in a flight for life, though the imp no more deserved the compassion than a scorpion that has spent all its noxious day stinging at every point of uncovered flesh would merit tenderness from the hand it had poisoned.
When he was swung down from the saddle and laid in front of a fire, sheltered from the bitter north wind that was then blowing cruelly, the bright, black, ape-like eyes of the Parisian diablotin opened with a strange gleam in them.
“Picpon s’en souviendra,” he murmured.
And Picpon had kept his word; he had remembered often, he remembered now; standing on his head and thinking of his hundred Napoleons surrendered because thieving and lying in the regiment gave pain to that oddly prejudiced “ci-devant.” This was the sort of loyalty that the Franco–Arabs rendered; this was the sort of influence that the English Guardsman exercised among his Roumis.
Meantime, while Picpon made a human cone of himself, to the admiration of the polyglot crowd of the Algerine street, Cecil himself, having watered, fed, and littered down his tired horse, made his way to a little cafe he commonly frequented, and spent the few sous he could afford on an iced draught of lemon-flavored drink. Eat he could not; overfatigue had given him a nausea for food, and the last hour, motionless in the intense glow of the afternoon sun, had brought that racking pain through his temples which assailed him rarely now, but which in his first years in Africa had given him many hours of agony. He could not stay in the cafe; it was the hour of dinner for many, and the odors, joined with the noise, were insupportable to him.
A few doors farther in the street, which was chiefly of Jewish and Moslem shops, there was a quaint place kept by an old Moor, who had some of the rarest and most beautiful treasures of Algerian workmanship in his long, dark, silent chambers. With this old man Cecil had something of a friendship; he had protected him one day from the mockery and outrage of some drunken Indigenes, and the Moor, warmly grateful, was ever ready to give him a cup of coffee in the stillness of his dwelling. Its resort was sometimes welcome to him as the one spot, quiet and noiseless, to which he could escape out of the continuous turmoil of street and of barrack, and he went thither now. He found the old man sitting cross-legged behind the counter; a noble-looking, aged Mussulman, with a long beard like white silk, with cashmeres and broidered stuffs of peerless texture hanging above his head, and all around him things of silver, of gold, of ivory, of amber, of feathers, of bronze, of emeralds, of ruby, of beryl, whose rich colors glowed through the darkness.
“No coffee, no sherbet; thanks, good father,” said Cecil, in answer to the Moor’s hospitable entreaties. “Give me only license to sit in the quiet here. I am very tired.”
“Sit and be welcome, my son,” said Ben Arsli. “Whom should this roof shelter in honor, if not thee? Musjid shall bring thee the supreme solace.”
The supreme solace was a nargile, and its great bowl of rose-water was soon set down by the little Moorish lad at Cecil’s side. Whether fatigue really weighted his eyes with slumber, or whether the soothing sedative of the pipe had its influence, he had not sat long in the perfect stillness of the Moor’s shop before the narrow view of the street under the awning without was lost to him, the luster and confusion of shadowy hues swam a while before his eyes, the throbbing pain in his temples grew duller, and he slept — the heavy, dreamless sleep of intense exhaustion.
Ben Arsli glanced at him, and bade Musjid be very quiet. Half an hour or more passed; none had entered the place. The grave old Moslem was half slumbering himself, when there came a delicate odor of perfumed laces, a delicate rustle of silk swept the floor; a lady’s voice asked the price of an ostrich-egg, superbly mounted in gold. Ben Arsli opened his eyes — the Chasseur slept on; the newcomer was one of those great ladies who now and then winter in Algeria.
Her carriage waited without; she was alone, making purchase of those innumerable splendid trifles with which Algiers is rife, while she drove through the town in the cooler hour before the sun sank into the western sea.
The Moor rose instantly, with profound salaams, before her, and began to spread before her the richest treasures of his stock. Under plea of the light, he remained near the entrance with her; money was dear to him, and must not be lost, but he would make it, if he could, without awakening the tired soldier. Marvelous caskets of mother-of-pearl; carpets soft as down with every brilliant hue melting one within another; coffee equipages, of inimitable metal work; silver statuettes, exquisitely chased and wrought; feather-fans, and screens of every beauty of device, were spread before her, and many of them were bought by her with that unerring grace of taste and lavishness of expenditure which were her characteristics, but which are far from always found in unison; and throughout her survey Ben Arsli kept her near the entrance, and Cecil had slept on, unaroused by the low tones of their voices.
A roll of notes had passed from her hand to the Moslem’s and she was about to glide out to her carriage, when a lamp which hung at the farther end caught her fancy. It was very singular; a mingling of colored glass, silver, gold, and ivory being wrought in much beauty in its formation.
“Is that for sale?” she inquired.
As he answered in the affirmative, she moved up the shop, and, her eyes being lifted to the lamp, had drawn close to Cecil before she saw him. When she did so, she paused near in astonishment.
“Is that soldier asleep?”
“He is, madame,” softly answered the old man, in his slow, studied French. “He comes here to rest sometimes out of the noise; he was very tired today, and I think ill, would he have confessed it.”
“Indeed!” Her eyes fell on him with compassion; he had fallen into an attitude of much grace and of utter exhaustion; his head was uncovered and rested on one arm, so that the face was turned upward. With a woman’s rapid, comprehensive glance, she saw that dark shadow, like a bruise, under his closed, aching eyes; she saw the weary pain upon his forehead; she saw the whiteness of his hands, the slenderness of his wrists, the softness of his hair; she saw, as she had seen before, that whatever he might be now, in some past time he had been a man of gentle blood, of courtly bearing.
“He is a Chasseur d’Afrique?” she asked the Moslem.
“Yes, madame. I think — he must have been something very different some day.”
She did not answer; she stood with her thoughtful eyes gazing on the worn-out soldier.
“He saved me once, madame, at much risk to himself, from the savagery of some Turcos,” the old man went on. “Of course, he is always welcome under my roof. The companionship he has must be bitter to him, I fancy; they do say he would have had his officer’s grade, and the cross, too, long before now, if it were not for his Colonel’s hatred.”
“Ah! I have seen him before now; he carves in ivory. I suppose he has a good side for those things with you?”
The Moor looked up in amazement.
“In ivory, madame? — he? Allah — il-Allah! I never heard of it. It is strange ———”
“Very strange. Doubtless you would have given him a good price for them?”
“Surely I would; any price he should have wished. Do I not owe him my life?”
At that moment little Musjid let fall a valuable coffee-tray, inlaid with amber; his master, with muttered apology, hastened to the scene of the accident; the noise startled Cecil, and his eyes unclosed to all the dreamy, fantastic colors of the place, and met those bent on him in musing pity — saw that lustrous, haughty, delicate head bending slightly down through the many-colored shadows.
He thought he was dreaming, yet on instinct he rose, staggering slightly, for sharp pain was still darting through his head and temples.
“Madame! Pardon me! Was I sleeping?”
“You were, and rest again. You look ill,” she said gently, and there was, for a moment, less of that accent in her voice, which the night before had marked so distinctly, so pointedly, the line of demarcation between a Princess of Spain and a soldier of Africa.
“I thank you; I ail nothing.”
He had no sense that he did, in the presence of that face which had the beauty of his old life; under the charm of that voice which had the music of his buried years.
“I fear that is scarcely true!” she answered him. “You look in pain; though as a soldier, perhaps, you will not own it?”
“A headache from the sun — no more, madame.”
He was careful not again to forget the social gulf which yawned between them.
“That is quite bad enough! Your service must be severe?”
“In Africa, Milady, one cannot expect indulgence.”
“I suppose not. You have served long?”
“Twelve years, madame.”
“And your name?”
“Louis Victor.” She fancied there was a slight abruptness in the reply, as though he were about to add some other name, and checked himself.
She entered it in the little book from which she had taken her banknotes.
“I may be able to serve you,” she said, as she wrote. “I will speak of you to the Marshal; and when I return to Paris, I may have an opportunity to bring your name before the Emperor. He is as rapid as his uncle to reward military merit; but he has not his uncle’s opportunities for personal observation of his soldiers.”
The color flushed his forehead.
“You do me much honor,” he said rapidly, “but if you would gratify me, madame, do not seek to do anything of the kind.”
“And why? Do you not even desire the cross?”
“I desire nothing, except to be forgotten.”
“You seek what others dread then?”
“It may be so. At any rate, if you would serve me, madame, never say what can bring me into notice.”
She regarded him with much surprise, with some slight sense of annoyance; she had bent far in tendering her influence at the French court to a private soldier, and his rejection of it seemed as ungracious as it was inexplicable.
At that moment the Moor joined them.
“Milady has told me, M. Victor, that you are a first-rate carver of ivories. How is it that you have never let me benefit by your art?”
“My things are not worth a sou,” muttered Cecil hurriedly.
“You do them great injustice, and yourself also,” said the grande dame, more coldly than she had before spoken. “Your carvings are singularly perfect, and should bring you considerable returns.”
“Why have you never shown them to me at least?” pursued Ben Arsli —“why not have given me my option?”
The blood flushed Cecil’s face again; he turned to the Princess.
“I withheld them, madame, not because he would have underpriced, but overpriced them. He rates a trifling act of mine, of long ago, so unduly.”
She bent her head in silence; yet a more graceful comprehension of his motive she could not have given than her glance alone gave.
Ben Arsli stroked his great beard; more moved than his Moslem dignity would show.
“Always so!” he muttered, “always so! My son, in some life before this, was not generosity your ruin?”
“Milady was about to purchase the lamp?” asked Cecil, avoiding the question. “Her Highness will not find anything like it in all Algiers.”
The lamp was taken down, and the conversation turned from himself.
“May I bear it to your carriage, madame?” he asked, as she moved to leave, having made it her own, while her footman carried out the smaller articles she had bought to the equipage. She bowed in silence; she was very exclusive, she was not wholly satisfied with herself for having conversed thus with a Chasseur d’Afrique in a Moor’s bazaar. Still, she vaguely felt pity for this man; she equally vaguely desired to serve him.
“Wait, M. Victor!” she said, as he closed the door of her carriage. “I accepted your chessmen last night, but you are very certain that it is impossible I can retain them on such terms.”
A shadow darkened his face.
“Let your dogs break them then, madame. They shall not come back to me.”
“You mistake — I did not mean that I would send them back. I simply desire to offer you some equivalent for them. There must be something that you wish for? — something which would be acceptable to you in the life you lead?”
“I have already named the only thing I desire.”
He had been solicitous to remember and sustain the enormous difference in their social degrees; but at the offer of her gifts, of her patronage, of her recompense, the pride of his old life rose up to meet her own.
“To be forgotten? A sad wish! Nay, surely life in a regiment of Africa cannot be so cloudless that it can create in you no other?”
“It is not. I have another.”
“Then tell it to me; it shall be gratified.”
“It is to enjoy a luxury long ago lost forever. It is — to be allowed to give the slight courtesy of a gentleman without being tendered the wage of a servant.”
She understood him; she was moved, too, by the inflexion of his voice. She was not so cold, not so negligent, as the world called her.
“I had passed my word to grant it; I cannot retract,” she answered him, after a pause. “I will press nothing more on you. But — as an obligation to me — can you find no way in which a rouleau of gold would benefit your men?”
“No way that I can take it for them. But, if you care indeed to do them a charity, a little wine, a little fruit, a few flowers (for there are those among them who love flowers), sent to the hospital, will bring many benedictions on your name, madame. They lie in infinite misery there!”
“I will remember,” she said simply, while a thoughtful sadness passed over her brilliant face. “Adieu, M. le Caporal; and if you should think better of your choice, and will allow your name to be mentioned by me to his Majesty, send me word through my people. There is my card.”
The carriage whirled away down the crooked street. He stood under the tawny awning of the Moorish house, with the thin, glazed card in his hand. On it was printed:
“Mme. la Princesse Corona d’Amague,
“Hotel Corona, Paris.”
In the corner was written, “Villa Aiaussa, Algiers.” He thrust it in the folds of his sash, and turned within.
“Do you know her?” he asked Ben Arsli.
The old man shook his head.
“She is the most beautiful of thy many fair Frankish women. I never saw her till today. But listen here. Touching these ivory toys — if thou does not bring henceforth to me all the work in them that thou doest, thou shalt never come here more to meet the light of her eyes.”
Cecil smiled and pressed the Moslem’s hand.
“I kept them away because you would have given me a hundred piasters for what had not been worth one. As for her eyes, they are stars that shine on another world than an African trooper’s. So best!”
Yet they were stars of which he thought more, as he wended his way back to the barracks, than of the splendid constellations of the Algerian evening that shone with all the luster of the day, but with the soft, enchanted light which transfigured sea, and earth, and sky as never did the day’s full glow, as he returned to the mechanical duties, to the thankless services, to the distasteful meal, to the riotous mirth, to the coarse comradeship, which seemed to him to-night more bitter than they had ever done since his very identity, his very existence, had been killed and buried past recall, past resurrection, under the kepi d’ordonnance of a Chasseur d’Afrique.
Meanwhile the Princess Corona drove homeward — homeward to where a temporary home had been made by her in the most elegant of the many snow-white villas that stud the sides of the Sahel and face the bright bow of the sunlit bay; a villa with balconies, and awnings, and cool, silent chambers, and rich, glowing gardens, and a broad, low roof, half hidden in bay and orange and myrtle and basilica, and the liquid sound of waters bubbling beneath a riotous luxuriance of blossom.
Mme. la Princesse passed from her carriage to her own morning room and sank down on a couch, a little listless and weary with her search among the treasures of the Algerine bazaars. It was purposeless work, after all. Had she not bronzes, and porcelains, and bric-a-brac, and objets d’art in profusion in her Roman villa, her Parisian hotel, her great, grim palace in Estremadura.
“Not one of those things do I want — not one shall I look at twice. The money would have been better at the soldiers’ hospital,” she thought, while her eyes dwelt on a chess-table near her — a table on which the mimic hosts of Chasseurs and Arabs were ranged in opposite squadrons.
She took the White King in her hand and gazed at it with a certain interest.
“That man has been noble once,” she thought. “What a fate — what a cruel fate!”
It touched her to great pity; although proud with too intense a pride, her nature was exceedingly generous, and, when once moved, deeply compassionate. The unerring glance of a woman habituated to the first society of Europe had told her that the accent, the bearing, the tone, the features of this soldier, who only asked of life “oblivion,” were those of one originally of gentle blood; and the dignity and patience of his acceptance of the indignities which his present rank entailed on him had not escaped her any more than the delicate beauty of his face as she had seen it, weary, pale, and shadowed with pain, in the unconscious revelation of sleep.
“How bitter his life must be!” she mused. “When Philip comes, perhaps he will show some way to aid him. And yet — who can serve a man who only desires to be forgotten?”
Then, with a certain impatient sense of some absurd discrepancy, of some unseemly occupation, in her thus dwelling on the wishes and the burdens of a sous-officier of Light Cavalry, she laughed a little, and put the White Chief back once more in his place. Yet even as she set the king among his mimic forces, the very carvings themselves served to retain their artist in her memory.
There was about them an indescribable elegance, an exceeding grace and beauty, which spoke of a knowledge of art and of refinement of taste far beyond those of a mere military amateur in the one who had produced them.
“What could bring a man of that talent, with that address, into the ranks?” she mused. “Persons of good family, of once fine position, come here, they say, and live and die unrecognized under the Imperial flag. It is usually some dishonor that drives them out of their own worlds; it may be so with him. Yet he does not look like one whom shame has touched; he is proud still — prouder than he knows. More likely it is the old, old story — a high name and a narrow fortune — the ruin of thousands! He is French, I suppose; a French aristocrat who has played au roi depouille, most probably, and buried himself and his history forever beneath those two names that tell one nothing — Louis Victor. Well, it is no matter of mine. Very possibly he is a mere adventurer with a good manner. This army here is a pot-pourri, they say, of all the varied scoundrelisms of Europe!”
She left the chess-table and went onward to the dressing and bath and bed chambers, which opened in one suite from her boudoir, and resigned herself to the hands of her attendants for her dinner toilet.
The Moslem had said aright of her beauty; and now, as her splendid hair was unloosened and gathered up afresh with a crescent-shaped comb of gold that was not brighter than the tresses themselves, the brilliant, haughty, thoughtful face was of a truth, as he had said, the fairest that had ever come from the Frankish shores to the hot African sea-board. Many beside the old Moslem had thought it “the fairest that e’er the sun shone on,” and held one grave, lustrous glance of the blue imperial eyes above aught else on earth. Many had loved her — all without return. Yet, although only twenty years had passed over her proud head, the Princesse Corona d’Amague had been wedded and been widowed.
Wedded, with no other sentiment than that of a certain pity and a certain honor for the man whose noble Spanish name she took. Widowed, by a death that was the seal of her marriage sacrament, and left her his wife only in name and law.
The marriage had left no chain upon her; it had only made her mistress of wide wealth, of that villa on the Sicilian Sea, of that light, spacious palace-dwelling in Paris that bore her name, of that vast majestic old castle throned on brown Estremaduran crags, and looking down on mighty woods of cork and chestnut, and flashing streams of falling water hurling through the gorges. The death had left no regret upon her; it only gave her for a while a graver shadow over the brilliancy of her youth and of her beauty, and gave her for always — or for so long, at least, as she chose to use it — a plea for that indifference to men’s worship of her which their sex called heartlessness; which her own sex thought an ultra-refined coquetry; and which was, in real truth, neither the one nor the other, but simply the negligence of a woman very difficult to touch, and, as it had seemed, impossible to charm.
None knew quite aright the history of that marriage. Some were wont to whisper “ambition”; and, when that whisper came round to her, her splendid lips would curl with as splendid a scorn.
“Do they not know that scarce any marriage can mate us equally?” she would ask; for she came of a great Line that thought few royal branches on equality with it; and she cherished as things of strictest creed the legends that gave her race, with its amber hair and its eyes of sapphire blue, the blood of Arthur in their veins.
Of a surety it was not ambition that had allied her, on his death-bed, with Beltran Corona d’Amague; but what it was the world could never tell precisely. The world would not have believed it if it had heard the truth — the truth that it had been, in a different fashion, a gleam of something of the same compassion that now made her merciful to a common trooper of Africa which had wedded her to the dead Spanish Prince — compassion which, with many another rich and generous thing, lay beneath her coldness and her pride as the golden stamen lies folded within the white, virginal, chill cup of the lily.
She had never felt a touch of even passing preference to any one out of the many who had sought her high-born beauty; she was too proud to be easily moved to such selection, and she was far too habituated to homage to be wrought upon by it, ever so slightly. She was of a noble, sun-lit, gracious nature, she had been always happy, always obeyed, always caressed, always adored; it had rendered her immeasurably contemptuous of flattery; it had rendered her a little contemptuous of pain. She had never had aught to regret; it was not possible that she could realize what regret was.
Hence men called and found her very cold; yet those of her own kin whom she loved knew that the heart of a summer rose was not warmer, nor sweeter, nor richer than hers. And first among these was her brother — at once her guardian and her slave — who thought her perfect, and would no more have crossed her will than he would have set his foot on her beautiful, imperial head. Corona d’Amague had been his friend; the only one for whom he had ever sought to break her unvarying indifference to her lovers, but for whom even he had pleaded vainly until one autumn season, when they had stayed together at a great archducal castle in South Austria. In one of the forest-glades, awaiting the fanfare of the hunt, she rejected, for the third time, the passionate supplication of the superb noble who ranked with the D’Ossuna and the Medina–Sidonia. He rode from her in great bitterness, in grief that no way moved her — she was importuned with these entreaties to weariness. An hour after he was brought past her, wounded and senseless; he had saved her brother from imminent death at his own cost, and the tusks of the mighty Styrian boar had plunged through and through his frame, as they had met in the narrow woodland glade.
“He will be a cripple — a paralyzed cripple — for life!” said the one whose life had been saved by his devotion to her that night; and his lips shook a little under his golden beard as he spoke.
She looked at him; she loved him well, and no homage to herself could have moved her as this sacrifice for him had done.
“You think he will live?” she asked.
“They say it is sure. He may live on to old age. But how? My God! what a death in life! And all for my sake, in my stead!”
She was silent several moments; then she raised her face, a little paler than it had been, but with a passionless resolve set on it.
“Philip, we do not leave our debts unpaid. Go; tell him I will be his wife.”
“His wife — now! Venetia ——”
“Go!” she said briefly. “Tell him what I say.”
“But what a sacrifice! In your beauty, your youth —”
“He did not count cost. Are we less generous? Go — tell him.”
He was told; and was repaid. Such a light of unutterable joy burned through the misty agony of his eyes as never, it seemed to those who saw, had beamed before in mortal eyes. He did not once hesitate at the acceptance of her self-surrender; he only pleaded that the marriage ceremony should pass between them that night.
There were notaries and many priests in the great ducal household; all was done as he desired. She consented without wavering; she had passed her word, she would not have withdrawn it if it had been a thousand times more bitter in its fulfillment. The honor of her house was dearer to her than any individual happiness. This man for them had lost peace, health, joy, strength, every hope of life; to dedicate her own life to him, as he had vainly prayed her when in the full glow and vigor of his manhood, was the only means by which their vast debt to him could be paid. To so pay it was the instant choice of her high code of honor, and of her generosity that would not be outrun. Moreover, she pitied him unspeakably, though her heart had no tenderness for him; she had dismissed him with cold disdain, and he had gone from her to save the only life she loved, and was stretched a stricken, broken, helpless wreck, with endless years of pain and weariness before him!
At midnight, in the great, dim magnificence of the state chamber where he lay, and with the low, soft chanting of the chapel choir from afar echoing through the incensed air, she bent her haughty head down over his couch, and the marriage benediction was spoken over them.
His voice was faint and broken, but it had the thrill of a passionate triumph in it. When the last words were uttered, he lay a while, exhausted, silent; only looking ever upward at her with his dark, dreamy eyes, in which the old love glanced so strangely through the blindness of pain. Then he smiled as the last echo of the choral melodies died softly on the silence.
“That is joy enough! Ah! have no fear. With the dawn you will be free once more. Did you think that I could have taken your sacrifice? I knew well, let them say as they would, that I should not live the night through. But, lest existence should linger to curse me, to chain you, I rent the linen bands off my wounds an hour ago. All their science will not put back the life now! My limbs are dead, and the cold steals up! Ah, love! Ah, love! You never thought how men can suffer! But have no grief for me. I am happy. Bend your head down, and lay your lips on mine once. You are my own! — death is sweeter than life!”
And before sunrise he died.
Some shadow from that fatal and tragic midnight marriage rested on her still. Though she was blameless, some vague remorse ever haunted her; though she had been so wholly guiltless of it, this death for her sake ever seemed in some sort of her bringing. Men thought her only colder, only prouder; but they erred. She was one of those women who, beneath the courtly negligence of a chill manner, are capable of infinite tenderness, infinite nobility, and infinite self-reproach.
A great French painter once, in Rome, looking on her from a distance, shaded his eyes with his hand, as if her beauty, like the sun dazzled him. “Exquisite — superb!” he muttered; and he was a man whose own ideals were so matchless that living women rarely could wring out his praise. “She is nearly perfect, your Princesse Corona!”
“Nearly!” cried a Roman sculptor. “What, in Heaven’s name, can she want?”
“Only one thing!”
“And that is ——”
“To have loved.”
Wherewith he turned into the Greco.
He had found the one flaw — and it was still there. What he missed in her was still wanting.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12