Early that morning, when the snowy cloud of pigeons were circling down to take their daily alms from Cigarette, where her bright brown face looked out from the lattice-hole, Cecil, with some of the roughriders of his regiment, was sent far into the interior to bring in a string of colts, bought of a friendly desert tribe, and destined to be shipped to France for the Imperial Haras. The mission took two days; early on the third day they returned with the string of wild young horses, whom it had taken not a little exertion and address to conduct successfully through the country into Algiers.
He was usually kept in incessant activity, because those in command over him had quickly discovered the immeasurable value of a bas-officier who was certain to enforce and obtain implicit obedience, and certain to execute any command given him with perfect address and surety, yet, who, at the same time, was adored by his men, and had acquired a most singularly advantageous influence over them. But of this he was always glad; throughout his twelve years’ service under the Emperor’s flag, he had only found those moments in which he was unemployed intolerable; he would willingly have been in the saddle from dawn till midnight.
Chateauroy was himself present when the colts were taken into the stable-yard; and himself inquired, without the medium of any third person, the whole details of the sale and of the transit. It was impossible, with all his inclination, to find any fault either with the execution of the errand or with the brief, respectful answers by which his corporal replied to his rapid and imperious cross-questionings. There were a great number of men within hearing, many of them the most daring and rebellious pratiques of the regiment; and Cecil would have let the coarsest upbraidings scourge him rather than put the temptation to mutiny in their way which one insubordinate or even not strictly deferential word from him would have given. Hence the inspection passed off peaceably; as the Marquis turned on his heel, however, he paused a moment.
“I have not forgotten your insolence with those ivory toys. But Mme. la Princesse herself has deigned to solicit that it shall be passed over unpunished. She cannot, of course, yield to your impertinent request to remain also unpaid for them. I charged myself with the fulfillment of her wishes. You deserve the stick, but since Milady herself is lenient enough to pardon you, you are to take this instead. Hold your hand, sir!”
Cecil put out his hand; he expected to receive a heavy blow from his commander’s saber, that possibly might break the wrist. These little trifles were common in Africa.
Instead a rouleau of Napoleons was laid on his open palm. Chateauroy knew the gold would sting more than the blow.
For the moment Cecil had but one impulse — to dash the pieces in the giver’s face. In time to restrain the impulse, he caught sight of the wild, eager hatred gleaming in the eyes of Rake, of Petit Picpon, of a score of others, who loved him and cursed their Colonel, and would at one signal from him have sheathed their swords in the mighty frame of the Marquis, though they should have been fired down the next moment themselves for the murder. The warning of Cigarette came to his memory; his hand clasped on the gold; he gave the salute calmly as Chateauroy swung himself away.
The troops looked at him with longing, questioning eyes; they knew enough of him by now to know the bitterness such gold, so given, had for him. Any other, even a corporal, would have been challenged with a storm of raillery, a volley of congratulation, and would have had shouted or hissed after him opprobrious accusations of “faisant suisse” if he had not forthwith treated his comrades royally from such largesse. With Bel-a-faire-peur they held their peace; they kept the silence which they saw that he wished to keep, as, his hour of liberty being come, he went slowly out of the great court with the handful of Napoleons thrust in the folds of his sash.
Rather unconsciously than by premeditation his steps turned through the streets that led to his old familiar haunt, the As de Pique; and dropping down on a bench under the awning, he asked for a draught of water. It was brought him at once; the hostess, a quick, brown little woman from Paris, whom the lovers of Eugene Sue called Rogolette, adding of her own accord a lump of ice and a slice or two of lemon, for which she vivaciously refused payment, though generosity was by no means her cardinal virtue.
“Bel-a-faire-peur” awakened general interest through Algiers; he brought so fiery and so daring a reputation with him from the wars and raids of the interior, yet he was so calm, so grave, so gentle, so listless. It was known that he had made himself the terror of Kabyle and Bedouin, yet here in the city he thanked the negro boy who took him a glass of lemonade at an estaminet, and sharply rebuked one of his men for knocking down an old colon with a burden of gourds and of melons; such a Roumi as this the good people of the Franco–African capital held as a perfect gift of the gods, and not understanding one whit, nevertheless fully appreciated.
He did not look at the newspapers she offered him; but sat gazing out from the tawny awning, like the sail of a Neapolitan felucca, down the checkered shadows and the many-colored masses of the little, crooked, rambling, semi-barbaric alley. He was thinking of the Napoleons in his sash and of the promise he had pledged to Cigarette. That he would keep it he was resolved. The few impressive, vivid words of the young vivandiere had painted before him like a picture the horrors of mutiny and its hopelessness; rather than that, through him, these should befall the men who had become his brethren-inarms, he felt ready to let the Black Hawk do his worst on his own life. Yet a weariness, a bitterness, he had never known in the excitement of active service came on him, brought by this sting of insult brought from the fair hand of an aristocrate.
There was absolutely no hope possible in his future. The uttermost that could ever come to him would be a grade something higher in the army that now enrolled him; the gift of the cross, or a post in the bureau. Algerine warfare was not like the campaigns of the armies of Italy or the Rhine, and there was no Napoleon here to discern with unerring omniscience a leader’s genius under the kepi of a common trooper. Though he should show the qualities of a Massena or a Kleber, the chances were a million to one that he would never get even as much as a lieutenancy; and the raids on the decimated tribes, the obscure skirmishes of the interior, though terrible in slaughter and venturesome enough, were not the fields on which great military successes were won and great military honors acquired. The French fought for a barren strip of brown plateau that, gained, would be of little use or profit to them; he thought that he did much the same, that his future was much like those arid sand-plains, these thirsty, verdureless stretches of burned earth — very little worth the reaching.
The heavy folds of a Bedouin’s haick, brushing the papers off the bench, broke the thread of his musings. As he stooped for them, he saw that one was an English journal some weeks old. His own name caught his eye — the name buried so utterly, whose utterance in the Sheik’s tent had struck him like a dagger’s thrust. The flickering light and darkness, as the awning waved to and fro, made the lines move dizzily upward and downward as he read — read the short paragraph touching the fortunes of the race that had disowned him:
“The Royallieu Succession. — We regret to learn that the Rt. Hon. Viscount Royallieu, who so lately succeeded to the family title on his father’s death, has expired at Mentone, whither his health had induced him to go some months previous. The late Lord was unmarried. His next brother was, it will be remembered, many years ago, killed on a southern railway. The title, therefore, now falls to the third and only remaining son, the Hon. Berkeley Cecil, who, having lately inherited considerable properties from a distant relative, will, we believe, revive all the old glories of this Peerage, which have, from a variety of causes, lost somewhat of their ancient brilliancy.”
Cecil sat quite still, as he had sat looking down on the record of his father’s death, when Cigarette had rallied him with her gay challenge among the Moresco ruins. His face flushed hotly under the warm, golden hue of the desert bronze, then lost all its color as suddenly, till it was as pale as any of the ivory he carved. The letters of the paper reeled and wavered, and grew misty before his eyes; he lost all sense of the noisy, changing, polyglot crowd thronging past him; he, a common soldier in the Algerian Cavalry, knew that, by every law of birthright, he was now a Peer of England.
His first thought was for the dead man. True, there had been little amity, little intimacy, between them; a negligent friendliness, whenever they had met, had been all that they had ever reached. But in their childhood they had been carelessly kind to one another, and the memory of the boy who had once played beside him down the old galleries and under the old forests, of the man who had now died yonder where the southern sea-board lay across the warm, blue Mediterranean, was alone on him for the moment. His thoughts had gone back, with a pang, almost ere he had read the opening lines, to autumn mornings in his youngest years when the leaves had been flushed with their earliest red, and the brown, still pools had been alive with water-birds, and the dogs had dropped down charging among the flags and rushes, and his brother’s boyish face had laughed on him from the wilderness of willows, and his brother’s boyish hands had taught him to handle his first cartridge and to fire his first shot. The many years of indifference and estrangement were forgotten, the few years of childhood’s confidence and comradeship alone remembered, as he saw the words that brought him in his exile the story of his brethren’s fate and of his race’s fortunes. His head sank, his face was still colorless, he sat motionless with the printed sheet in his hand. Once his eyes flashed, his breath came fast and uneven; he rose with a sudden impulse, with a proud, bold instinct of birth and freedom. Let him stand here in what grade he would, with the badge of a Corporal of the Army of Africa on his arm, this inheritance that had come to him was his; he bore the name and the title of his house as surely as any had ever borne it since the first of the Norman owners of Royallieu had followed the Bastard’s banner.
The vagabond throngs — Moorish, Frank, Negro, Colon — paused as they pushed their way over the uneven road, and stared at him vacantly where he stood. There was something in his attitude, in his look, which swept over them, seeing none of them, in the eager lifting of his head, in the excited fire in his eyes, that arrested all — from the dullest muleteer, plodding on with his string of patient beasts, to the most volatile French girl laughing on her way with a group of fantassins. He did not note them, hear them, think of them; the whole of the Algerine scene had faded out as if it had no place before him; he had forgot that he was a cavalry soldier of the Empire; he saw nothing but the green wealth of the old home woods far away in England; he remembered nothing save that he, and he alone, was the rightful Lord of Royallieu.
The hand of a broad-chested, black-visaged veteran of Chasseurs fell on his shoulder, and the wooden rim of a little wine-cup was thrust toward him with the proffered drink. It startled him and recalled him to the consciousness of where he was. He stared one moment absently in the trooper’s amazed face, and then shook him off with a suddenness that tossed back the cup to the ground; and, holding the journal clinched close in his hand, went swiftly through the masses of the people — out and away, he little noted where — till he had forced his road beyond the gates, beyond the town, beyond all reach of its dust and its babble and its discord, and was alone in the farther outskirts, where to the north the calm, sunlit bay slept peacefully with a few scattered ships riding at anchor, and southward the luxuriance of the Sahel stretched to meet the wide and cheerless plateaus, dotted with the conical houses of hair, and desolate as though the locust-swarm had just alighted there to lay them waste.
Reaching the heights he stood still involuntarily, and looked down once more on the words that told him of his birthright; in the blinding, intense light of the African day they seemed to stand out as though carved in stone; and as he read them once more a great darkness passed over his face — this heritage was his, and he could never take it up; this thing had come to him, and he must never claim it. He was Viscount Royallieu as surely as any of his fathers had been so before him, and he was dead forever in the world’s belief; he must live, and grow old, and perish by shot or steel, by sickness or by age, with his name and his rights buried, and his years passed as a private soldier of France.
The momentary glow which had come to him, with the sudden resurrection of hope and of pride, faded utterly as he slowly read and reread the lines of the journal on the broken terraces of the hill-side, where the great fig trees spread their fantastic shadows, and through a rocky channel a russet stream of shallow waters threaded its downward path under the reeds, and no living thing was near him save some quiet browsing herds far off, and their Arab shepherd-lad that an artist might have sketched as Ishmael. What his future might have been rose before his thoughts; what it must be rose also, bitterly, blackly, drearily in contrast. A noble without even a name; a chief of his race without even the power to claim kinship with that race; owner by law of three thousand broad English acres, yet an exile without freedom to set foot on his native land; by heritage one among the aristocracy of England, by circumstances, now and forever, till an Arab bullet should cut in twain his thread of life, a soldier of the African legions, bound to obey the commonest and coarsest boor that had risen to a rank above him: this was what he knew himself to be, and knew that he must continue to be without one appeal against it, without once stretching out his hand toward his right of birth and station.
There was a passionate revolt, a bitter heart-sickness on him; all the old freedom and peace and luxury and pleasure of the life he had left so long allured him with a terrible temptation; the honors of the rank that he should now have filled were not what he remembered. What he longed for with an agonized desire was to stand once more stainless among his equals; to reach once more the liberty of unchallenged, unfettered life; to return once more to those who held him but as a dishonored memory, as one whom violent death had well snatched from the shame of a criminal career.
“But who would believe me now?” he thought. “Besides, this makes no difference. If three words spoken would reinstate me, I could not speak them at that cost. The beginning perhaps was folly, but for sheer justice sake there is no drawing back now. Let him enjoy it; God knows I do not grudge him it.”
Yet, though it was true to the very core that no envy and no evil lay in his heart against the younger brother to whose lot had fallen all good gifts of men and fate, there was almost unbearable anguish on him in this hour in which he learned the inheritance that had come to him, and remembered that he could never take again even so much of it as lay in the name of his fathers. When he had given his memory up to slander and oblivion, and the shadow of a great shame; when he had let his life die out from the world that had known him, and buried it beneath the rough, weather-stained, blood-soaked cloth of a private soldier’s uniform, he had not counted the cost then, nor foreseen the cost hereafter. It had fallen on him very heavily now.
Where he stood under some sheltered columns of a long-ruined mosque whose shafts were bound together by a thousand withes and wreaths of the rich, fantastic Sahel foliage, an exceeding weariness of longing was upon him — longing for all that he had forfeited, for all that was his own, yet never could be claimed as his.
The day was intensely still; there was not a sound except when, here and there, the movement of a lizard under the dry grasses gave a low, crackling rustle. He wondered almost which was the dream and which the truth: that old life that he had once led, and that looked now so far away and so unreal; or this which had been about him for so many years in the camps and the bivouacs, the barracks and the battlefields. He wondered almost which he himself was — an English Peer on whom the title of his line had fallen, or a Corporal of Chasseurs who must take his chief’s insults as patiently as a cur takes the blows of its master; that he was both seemed to him, as he stood there with the glisten of the sea before and the swelling slopes of the hillside above, a vague, distorted nightmare.
Hours might have passed, or only moments — he could not have told; his eyes looked blankly out at the sun-glow, his hand instinctively clinched on the journal whose stray lines had told him in an Algerine trattoria that he had inherited what he never could enjoy.
“Are they content, I wonder?” he thought, gazing down that fiery blaze of shadowless light. “Do they ever remember?”
He thought of those for whose sakes he had become what he was.
The distant, mellow, ringing notes of a trumpet-call floated to his ear from the town at his feet; it was sounding the rentree en caserne. Old instinct, long habit, made him start and shake his harness together and listen. The trumpet-blast, winding cheerily from afar off, recalled him to the truth; summoned him sharply back from vain regrets to the facts of daily life. It waked him as it wakes a sleeping charger; it roused him as it rouses a wounded trooper.
He stood hearkening to the familiar music till it had died away — spirited, yet still lingering; full of fire, yet fading softly down the wind. He listened till the last echo ceased; then he tore the paper that he held in strips, and let it float away, drifting down the yellow current of the reedy river channel; and he half drew from its scabbard the saber whose blade had been notched and dented and stained in many midnight skirmishes and many headlong charges under the desert suns, and looked at it as though a friend’s eye gazed at him in the gleam of the trusty steel. And his soldier-like philosophy, his campaigner’s carelessness, his habitual, easy negligence that had sometimes been weak as water and sometimes heroic as martyrdom, came back to him with a deeper shadow on it, that was grave with a calm, resolute, silent courage.
“So best after all, perhaps,” he said half aloud, in the solitude of the ruined and abandoned mosque. “He cannot well come to shipwreck with such a fair wind and such a smooth sea. And I— I am just as well here. To ride with the Chasseurs is more exciting than to ride with the Pytchley; and the rules of the Chambree are scarce more tedious than the rules of a Court. Nature turned me out for a soldier, though Fashion spoiled me for one. I can make a good campaigner — I should never make anything else.”
And he let his sword drop back again into the scabbard, and quarreled no more with fate.
His hand touched the thirty gold pieces in his sash.
He started, as the recollection of the forgotten insult came back on him. He stood a while in thought; then he took his resolve.
A half hour of quick movement, for he had become used to the heat as an Arab and heeded it as little, brought him before the entrance-gates of the Villa Aioussa. A native of Soudan, in a rich dress, who had the office of porter, asked him politely his errand. Every indigene learns by hard experience to be courteous to a French soldier. Cecil simply asked, in answer, if Mme. La Princesse were visible. The negro returned cautiously that she was at home, but doubted her being accessible. “You come from M. le Marquis?” he inquired.
“No; on my own errand.”
“You!” Not all the native African awe of a Roumi could restrain the contemptuous amaze in the word.
“I. Ask if Corporal Victor, of the Chasseurs, can be permitted a moment’s interview with your mistress. I come by permission,” he added, as the native hesitated between his fear of a Roumi and his sense of the appalling unfittingness of a private soldier seeking audience of a Spanish princesse. The message was passed about between several of the household; at last a servant of higher authority appeared:
“Madame permitted Corporal Victor to be taken to her presence. Would he follow?”
He uncovered his head and entered, passing through several passages and chambers, richly hung and furnished; for the villa had been the “campagne” of an illustrious French personage, who had offered it to the Princesse Corona when, for some slight delicacy of health, the air of Algeria was advocated. A singular sensation came on him, half of familiarity, half of strangeness, as he advanced along them; for twelve years he had seen nothing but the bare walls of barrack rooms, the goat-skin of douars, and the canvas of his own camp-tent. To come once more, after so long an interval, amid the old things of luxury and grace that had been so long unseen wrought curiously on him. He could not fairly disentangle past and present. For the moment, as his feet fell once more on soft carpets, and his eyes glanced over gold and silver, malachite and bronze, white silk and violet damasks, he almost thought the Algerian years were a disordered dream of the night.
His spur caught in the yielding carpet, and his saber clashed slightly against it; as the rentree au caserne had done an hour before, the sound recalled the actual present to him. He was but a French soldier, who went on sufferance into the presence of a great lady. All the rest was dead and buried.
Some half dozen apartments, large and small, were crossed; then into that presence he was ushered. The room was deeply shaded, and fragrant with the odors of the innumerable flowers of the Sahel soil; there was that about it which struck on him as some air — long unheard, but once intimately familiar — on the ear will revive innumerable memories. She was at some distance from him, with the trailing draperies of eastern fabrics falling about her in a rich, unbroken, shadowy cloud of melting color, through which, here and there, broke threads of gold; involuntarily he paused on the threshold, looking at her. Some faint, far-off remembrance stirred in him, but deep down in the closed grave of his past; some vague, intangible association of forgotten days, forgotten thoughts, drifted before him as it had drifted before him when first in the Chambree of his barracks he had beheld Venetia Corona.
She moved forward as her servant announced him; she saw him pause there like one spell-bound, and thought it the hesitation of one who felt sensitively his own low grade in life. She came toward him with the silent, sweeping grace that gave her the carriage of an empress; her voice fell on his ear with the accent of a woman immeasurably proud, but too proud not to bend softly and graciously to those who were so far beneath her that, without such aid from her, they could never have addressed or have approached her.
“You have come, I trust, to withdraw your prohibition? Nothing will give me greater pleasure than to bring his Majesty’s notice to one of the best soldiers his Army holds.”
There was that in the words, gently as they were spoken, that recalled him suddenly to himself; they had that negligent, courteous pity she would have shown to some colon begging at her gates! He forgot — forgot utterly — that he was only an African trooper. He only remembered that he had once been a gentleman, that — if a life of honor and of self-negation can make any so — he was one still. He advanced and bowed with the old serene elegance that his bow had once been famed for; and she, well used to be even overcritical in such trifles, thought, “That man has once lived in courts!”
“Pardon me, madame, I do not come to trespass so far upon your benignity,” he answered, as he bent before her. “I come to express, rather, my regret that you should have made one single error.”
“Error!”— a haughty surprise glanced from her eyes as they swept over him. Such a word had never been used to her in the whole course of her brilliant and pampered life of sovereignty and indulgence.
“One common enough, madame, in your Order. The error to suppose that under the rough cloth of a private trooper’s uniform there cannot possibly be such aristocratic monopolies as nerves to wound.”
“I do not comprehend you.” She spoke very coldly; she repented her profoundly of her concession in admitting a Chasseur d’Afrique to her presence.
“Possibly not. Mine was the folly to dream that you would ever do so. I should not have intruded on you now, but for this reason: the humiliation you were pleased to pass on me I could neither refuse nor resent to the dealer of it. Had I done so, men who are only too loyal to me would have resented with me, and been thrashed or been shot, as payment. I was compelled to accept it, and to wait until I could return your gift to you. I have no right to complain that you pained me with it, since one who occupies my position ought, I presume, to consider remembrance, even by an outrage, an honor done to him by the Princesse Corona.”
As he said the last words he laid on the table that stood near him the gold of Chateauroy’s insult. She had listened with a bewildering wonder, held in check by the haughtier impulse of offense, that a man in this grade could venture thus to address, thus to arraign her. His words were totally incomprehensible to her, though, by the grave rebuke of his manner, she saw that they were fully meant, and, as he considered, fully authorized by some wrong done to him. As he laid the gold pieces down upon her table, an idea of the truth came to her.
“I know nothing of what you complain of; I sent you no money. What is it you would imply?” she asked him, looking up from where she leaned back in the low couch into whose depth she had sunk as he had spoken.
“You did not send me these? Not as payment for the chess service?”
“Absolutely not. After what you said the other day, I should have scarcely been so ill-bred and so heedless of inflicting pain. Who used my name thus?”
His face lightened with a pleasure and a relief that changed it wonderfully; that brighter look of gladness had been a stranger to it for so many years.
“You give me infinite happiness, madame. You little dream how bitter such slights are where one has lost the power to resent them! It was M. de Chateauroy, who this morning —”
“Dared to tell you I sent you those coins?”
The serenity of a courtly woman of the world was unbroken, but her blue and brilliant eyes darkened and gleamed beneath the sweep of their lashes.
“Perhaps I can scarcely say so much. He gave them, and he implied that he gave them from you. The words he spoke were these.”
He told her them as they had been uttered, adding no more; she saw the construction they had been intended to bear, and that which they had borne naturally to his ear; she listened earnestly to the end. Then she turned to him with the exquisite softness of grace which, when she was moved to it, contrasted so vividly with the haughty and almost chill languor of her habitual manner.
“Believe me, I regret deeply that you should have been wounded by this most coarse indignity; I grieve sincerely that through myself in any way it should have been brought upon you. As for the perpetrator of it, M. de Chateauroy will be received here no more; and it shall be my care that he learns not only how I resent his unpardonable use of my name, but how I esteem his cruel outrage to a defender of his own Flag. You did exceedingly well and wisely to acquaint me; in your treatment of it as an affront that I was without warrant to offer you, you showed the just indignation of a soldier, and — of what I am very sure that you are — a gentleman.”
He bowed low before her.
“Madame, you have made me the debtor of my enemy’s outrage. Those words from you are more than sufficient compensation for it.”
“A poor one, I fear! Your Colonel is your enemy, then? And wherefore?”
He paused a moment.
“Why, at first, I scarcely know. We are antagonistic, I suppose.”
“But is it usual for officers of his high grade to show such malice to their soldiers?”
“Most unusual. In this service especially so; although officers rising from the ranks themselves are more apt to contract prejudices and ill feeling against, as they are to feel favoritism to, their men, than where they enter the regiment in a superior grade at once. At least, that is the opinion I myself have formed; studying the working of the different systems.”
“You know the English service, then?”
“I know something of it.”
“And still, though thinking this, you prefer the French?”
“I distinctly prefer it, as one that knows how to make fine soldiers and how to reward them; as one in which a brave man will be valued, and a worn-out veteran will not be left to die like a horse at a knacker’s.”
“A brave man valued, and yet you are a corporal!” thought Milady, as he pursued:
“Since I am here, madame, let me thank you, in the Army’s name, for your infinite goodness in acting so munificently on my slight hint. Your generosity has made many happy hearts in the hospital.”
“Generosity! Oh, do not call it by any such name! What did it cost me? We are terribly selfish here. I am indebted to you that for once you made me remember those who suffered.”
She spoke with a certain impulse of candor and of self-accusation that broke with great sweetness the somewhat coldness of her general manner; it was like a gleam of light that showed all the depth and the warmth that in truth lay beneath that imperious languor of habit. It broke further the ice of distance that severed the grande dame from the cavalry soldier.
Insensibly to himself, the knowledge that he had, in fact, the right to stand before her as an equal gave him the bearing of one who exercised that right, and her rapid perception had felt before now that this Roumi of Africa was as true a gentleman as any that had ever thronged about her in palaces. Her own life had been an uninterrupted course of luxury, prosperity, serenity, and power; the adversity which she could not but perceive had weighed on his had a strange interest to her. She had heard of many calamities, and aided many; but they had always been far sundered from her, they had never touched her; in this man’s presence they seemed to grow very close, terribly real. She led him on to speak of his comrades, of his daily life, of his harassing routine of duties in peace, and of his various experiences in war. He told her, too, of Leon Ramon’s history; and as she listened, he saw a mist arise and dim the brilliancy of those eyes that men complained would never soften. The very fidelity with which he sketched to her the bitter sufferings and the rough nobility that were momentarily borne and seen in that great military family of which he had become a son by adoption, interested her by its very unlikeness to anything in her own world.
His voice had still the old sweetness, his manner still its old grace; and added to these were a grave earnestness and a natural eloquence that the darkness of his own fortunes, and the sympathies with others that pain had awakened, had brought to him. He wholly forgot their respective stations; he only remembered that for the first time for so many years he had the charm of converse with a woman of high breeding, of inexpressible beauty, and of keen and delicate intuition. He wholly forgot how time passed, and she did not seek to remind him; indeed, she but little noted it herself.
At last the conversation turned back to his Chief.
“You seem to be aware of some motive for your commandant’s dislike?” she asked him. “Tell me to what you attribute it?”
“It is a long tale, madame.”
“No matter; I would hear it.”
“I fear it would only weary you.”
“Do not fear that. Tell it me.”
He obeyed, and told to her the story of the Emir and of the Pearl of the Desert; and Venetia Corona listened, as she had listened to him throughout, with an interest that she rarely vouchsafed to the recitals and the witticisms of her own circle. He gave to the narrative a soldierly simplicity and a picturesque coloring that lent a new interest to her; and she was of that nature which, however, it may be led to conceal feeling from pride and from hatred, never fails to awaken to indignant sympathy at wrong.
“This barbarian is your chief!” she said, as the tale closed. “His enmity is your honor! I can well credit that he will never pardon your having stood between him and his crime.”
“He has never pardoned it yet, of a surety.”
“I will not tell you it was a noble action,” she said, with a smile sweet as the morning — a smile that few saw light on them. “It came too naturally to a man of honor for you to care for the epithet. Yet it was a great one, a most generous one. But I have not heard one thing: what argument did you use to obtain her release?”
“No one has ever heard it,” he answered her, while his voice sank low. “I will trust you with it; it will not pass elsewhere. I told him enough of — of my own past life to show him that I knew what his had been, and that I knew, moreover, though they were dead to me now, men in that greater world of Europe who would believe my statement if I wrote them this outrage on the Emir, and would avenge it for the reputation of the Empire. And unless he released the Emir’s wife, I swore to him that I would so write, though he had me shot on the morrow; and he knew I should keep my word.”
She was silent some moments, looking on him with a musing gaze, in which some pity and more honor for him were blended.
“You told him your past. Will you confess it to me?”
“I cannot, madame.”
“Because I am dead! Because, in your presence, it becomes more bitter to me to remember that I ever lived.”
“You speak strangely. Cannot your life have a resurrection?”
“Never, madame. For a brief hour you have given it one — in dreams. It will have no other.”
“But surely there may be ways — such a story as you have told me brought to the Emperor’s knowledge, you would see your enemy disgraced, yourself honored?”
“Possibly, madame. But it is out of the question that it should ever be so brought. As I am now, so I desire to live and die.”
“You voluntarily condemn yourself to this?”
“I have voluntarily chosen it. I am well sure that the silence I entreat will be kept by you?”
“Assuredly; unless by your wish it be broken. Yet — I await my brother’s arrival here; he is a soldier himself; I shall hope that he will persuade you to think differently of your future. At any rate, both his and my own influence will always be exerted for you, if you will avail yourself of it.”
“You do me much honor, madame. All I will ever ask of you is to return those coins to my Colonel, and to forget that your gentleness has made me forget, for one merciful half hour, the sufferance on which alone a trooper can present himself here.”
He swept the ground with his kepi as though it were the plumed hat of a Marshal, and backed slowly from her presence, as he had many a time long before backed out of a throne-room.
As he went, his eyes caught the armies of the ivory chessmen; they stood under glass, and had not been broken by her lapdog.
Milady, left alone there in her luxurious morning room, sat a while lost in thought. He attracted her; he interested her; he aroused her sympathy and her wonder as the men of her own world failed to do — aroused them despite the pride which made her impatient of lending so much attention to a mere Chasseur d’Afrique. His knowledge of the fact that he was in reality the representative of his race, although the power to declare himself so had been forever abandoned and lost, had given him in her presence that day a certain melancholy, and a certain grave dignity that would have shown a far more superficial observer than she was that he had come of a great race, and had memories that were of a very different hue to the coarse and hard life which he led now. She had seen much of the world, and was naturally far more penetrative and more correct in judgment than are most women. She discovered the ring of true gold in his words, and the carriage of pure breeding in his actions. He interested her more than it pleased her that he should. A man so utterly beneath her; doubtless brought into the grade to which he had fallen by every kind of error, of improvidence, of folly — of probably worse than folly!
It was too absurd that she, so difficult to interest, so inaccessible, so fastidious, so satiated with all that was brilliant and celebrated, should find herself seriously spending her thoughts, her pity, and her speculation on an adventurer of the African Army! She laughed a little at herself as she stretched out her hand for a new volume of French poems dedicated to her by their accomplished writer, who was a Parisian diplomatist.
“One would imagine I was just out of a convent, and weaving a marvelous romance from a mystery and a tristesse, because the first soldier I notice in Algeria has a gentleman’s voice and is ill treated by his officers!” she thought with a smile, while she opened the poems which had that day arrived, radiant in the creamy vellum, the white velvet, and the gold of a dedication copy, with the coronet of the Corona d’Amague on their binding. The poems were sparkling with grace and elegant silvery harmonies; but they served ill to chain her attention, for while she read her eyes wandered at intervals to the chess battalions.
“Such a man as that buried in the ranks of this brutalized army!” she mused. “What fatal chance could bring him here? Misfortune, not misconduct, surely. I wonder if Lyon could learn? He shall try.”
“Your Chasseur has the air of a Prince, my love,” said a voice behind her.
“Equivocal compliment! A much better air than most Princes,” said Mme. Corona, glancing up with a slight shrug of her shoulders, as her guest and traveling companion, the Marquise de Renardiere, entered.
“Indeed! I saw him as he passed out; and he saluted me as if he had been a Marshal. Why did he come?”
Venetia Corona pointed to the Napoleons, and told the story; rather listlessly and briefly.
“Ah! The man has been a gentleman, I dare say. So many of them come to our army. I remember General Villefleur’s telling me — he commanded here a while — that the ranks of the Zephyrs and Zouaves were full of well-born men, utterly good-for-nothing, the handsomest scoundrels possible; who had every gift and every grace, and yet come to no better end than a pistol-shot in a ditch or a mortal thrust from Bedouin steel. I dare say your Corporal is one of them.”
“It may be so.”
“But you doubt it, I imagine.”
“I am not sure now that I do. But this person is certainly unlike a man to whom disgrace has ever attached.”
“You think your protege, then, has become what he is through adversity, I suppose? Very interesting!”
“I really can tell you nothing of his antecedents. Through his skill at sculpture, and my notice of it, considerable indignity has been brought upon him; and a soldier can feel, it seems, though it is very absurd that he should! That is all my concern with the matter, except that I have to teach his commander not to play with my name in his barrack yard.”
She spoke with that negligence which always sounded very cold, though the words were so gently spoken. Her best and most familiar friends always knew when, with that courtly chillness, she had signed them their line of demarcation.
And the Marquise de Renardiere said no more, but talked of the Ambassador’s poems.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58