Before the sun had declined from his zenith the French were masters of the field, and pursued the retreat of the Arabs till, for miles along the plain, the line of their flight was marked with horses that had dropped dead in the strain, and with the motionless forms of their desert-riders, their cold hands clinched in the loose, hot sands, and their stern faces turned upward to the cloudless scorch of their native skies, under whose freedom they would never again ride forth to the joyous clash of the cymbals and the fierce embrace of the death-grapple.
When at length she returned, coming in with her ruthless Spahis, whose terrible passions she feared no more than Vergil’s Volscian huntress feared the beasts of the forest and plain, the raven still hovered above her exhausted mare, the torn flag was still in her left hand; and the bright laughter, the flash of ecstatic triumph, was still in her face as she sang the last lines of her own war-chant. The leopard nature was roused in her. She was a soldier; death had been about her from her birth; she neither feared to give nor to receive it; she was proud as ever was young Pompeius flushed with the glories of his first eastern conquests; she was happy as such elastic, sun-lit, dauntless youth as hers alone can be, returning in the reddening after-glow, at the head of her comrades, to the camp that she had saved.
She could be cruel — women are, when roused, as many a revolution has shown; she could be heroic — she would have died a hundred deaths for France; she was vain with a vivacious, childlike vanity; she was brave with a bravery beside which many a man’s high courage paled. Cruelty, heroism, vanity, and bravery were all on fire, and all fed to their uttermost, most eager, most ardent flame, now that she came back at the head of her Spahis; while all who remained of the soldiers who, but for her, would have been massacred long ere then, without one spared among them, threw themselves forward, crowded round her, caressed, and laughed, and wept, and shouted with all the changes of their intense mercurial temperaments; kissed her boots, her sash, her mare’s drooping neck, and, lifting her, with wild vivas that rent the sky, on to the shoulders of the two tallest men among them, bore her to the presence of the only officer of high rank who had survived the terrors of the day, a Chef de Bataillon of the Zouaves.
And he, a grave and noble-looking veteran, uncovered his head and bowed before her as courtiers bow before their queens.
“Mademoiselle, you saved the honor of France. In the name of France, I thank you.”
The tears rushed swift and hot into Cigarette’s bright eyes — tears of joy, tears of pride. She was but a child still in much, and she could be moved by the name of France as other children by the name of their mothers.
“Chut! I did nothing,” she said rapidly. “I only rode fast.”
The frenzied hurrahs of the men who heard her drowned her words. They loved her for what she had done; they loved her better still because she set no count on it.
“The Empire will think otherwise,” said the Major of the Zouaves. “Tell me, my Little One, how did you do this thing?”
Cigarette, balancing herself with a foot on either shoulder of her supporters, gave the salute, and answered:
“Simply, mon Commandant — very simply. I was alone, riding midway between you and the main army — three leagues, say, from each. I was all alone; only Vole-qui-veut flying with me for fun. I met a colon. I knew the man. For the matter of that, I did him once a service — saved his geese and his fowls from burning, one winter’s day, in their house, while he wrung his hands and looked on. Well, he was full of terror, and told me there was fighting yonder — here he meant — so I rode nearer to see. That was just upon sunrise. I dismounted, and ran up a palm there.” And Cigarette pointed to a far-off slope crowned with the remains of a once mighty palm forest. “I got up very high. I could see miles round. I saw how things were with you. For the moment I was coming straight to you. Then I thought I should do more service if I let the main army know, and brought you a reenforcement. I rode fast. Dieu! I rode fast. My horse dropped under me twice; but I reached them at last, and I went at once to the General. He guessed at a glance how things were, and I told him to give me my Spahis and let me go. So he did. I got on the mare of his own staff, and away we came. It was a near thing. If we had been a minute later, it had been all up with you.”
“True, indeed,” muttered the Zouave in his beard. “A superb action, my Little One. But did you meet no Arab scouts to stop you?”
“Did I not? Met them by dozens. Some had a shot at me; some had a shot from me. One fellow nearly winged me; but I got through them all somehow. Sapristi! I galloped so fast I was very hard to hit flying. These things only require a little judgment; but some men, pardi! always are creeping when they should fly, and always are scampering when they should saunter; and then they wonder when they make fiasco! Bah!”
And Cigarette laughed again. Men were such bunglers — ouf!
“Mademoiselle, if all soldiers were like you,” answered the Major of Zouaves curtly, “to command a battalion would be paradise!”
“All soldiers would do anything I have done,” retorted Cigarette, who never took a compliment at the expense of her “children.” “They do not all get the opportunity, look you. Opportunity is a little angel; some catch him as he goes, some let him pass by forever. You must be quick with him, for he is like an eel to wriggle away. If you want a good soldier, take that aristocrat of the Chasse–Marais — that beau Victor. Pouf! All his officers were down; and how splendidly he led the troop! He was going to die with them rather than surrender. Napoleon”— and Cigarette uncovered her curly head reverentially as at the name of a deity —“Napoleon would have given him his brigade ere this. If you had seen him kill the chief!”
“He will have justice done him, never fear. And for you — the Cross shall be on your breast, Cigarette, if I live over to-night to write my dispatches.”
And the Chef de Bataillon saluted her once more, and turned away to view the carnage-strewn plain, and number the few who remained out of those who had been wakened by the clash of the Arab arms in the gray of the earliest dawn.
Cigarette’s eyes flashed like sun playing on water, and her flushed cheeks grew scarlet. Since her infancy it had been her dream to have the Cross, to have the Grande Croix to lie above her little lion’s heart; it had been the one longing, the one ambition, the only undying desire of her soul; and lo! she touched its realization!
The wild, frantic, tumultuous cheers and caresses of her soldiery, who could not triumph in her and triumph with her enough to satiate them, recalled her to the actual moment. She sprang down from her elevation, and turned on them with a rebuke. “Ah! you are making this fuss about me while hundreds of better soldiers than I lie yonder. Let us look to them first; we will play the fool afterward.”
And, though she had ridden fifty miles that day, if she had ridden one — though she had eaten nothing since sunrise, and had only had one draught of bad water — though she was tired, and stiff, and bruised, and parched with thirst, Cigarette dashed off as lightly as a young goat to look for the wounded and the dying men who strewed the plain far and near.
She remembered one whom she had not seen after that first moment in which she had given the word to the squadrons to charge.
It was a terrible sight — the arid plain, lying in the scarlet glow of sunset, covered with dead bodies, with mutilated limbs, with horses gasping and writhing, with men raving like mad creatures in the torture of their wounds. It was a sight which always went to her heart. She was a true soldier, and, though, she could deal death pitilessly, could, when the delirium of war was over, tend and yield infinite compassion to those who were in suffering. But such scenes had been familiar to her from the earliest years when, on an infant’s limbs, she had toddled over such battlefields, and wound tiny hands in the hair of some dead trooper who had given her sweetmeats the hour before, vainly trying to awaken him. And she went through all the intense misery and desolation of the scene now without shrinking, and with that fearless, tender devotion to the wounded which Cigarette showed in common with other soldiers of her nation; being, like them, a young lion in the combat, but a creature unspeakably gentle and full of sympathy when the fury of the fight was over.
She had seen great slaughter often enough, but even she had not seen any struggle more close, more murderous, than this had been. The dead lay by hundreds; French and Arab locked in one another’s limbs as they had fallen when the ordinary mode of warfare had failed to satiate their violence, and they had wrestled together like wolves fighting and rending each ocher over a disputed carcass. The bitterness and the hatred of the contest were shown in the fact that there were very few merely wounded or disabled; almost all the numbers that strewed the plain were dead. It had been a battle-royal, and, but for her arrival with the fresh squadrons, not one among her countrymen would have lived to tell the story of this terrible duello which had been as magnificent in heroism as any Austerlitz or Gemappes, but which would pass unhonored, almost unnamed, among the futile, fruitless heroisms of Algerian warfare.
“Is he killed? Is he killed?” she thought, as she bent over each knot of motionless bodies, where, here and there, some faint, stifled breath, or some moan of agony, told that life still lingered beneath the huddled, stiffening heap. And a tightness came at her heart, an aching fear made her shrink, as she raised each hidden face, that she had never known before. “What if he be?” she said fiercely to herself. “It is nothing to me. I hate him, the cold aristocrat! I ought to be glad if I see him lie here.”
But, despite her hatred for him, she could not banish that hot, feverish hope, that cold, suffocating fear, which, turn by turn, quickened and slackened the bright flow of her warm, young blood as she searched among the slain.
“Ah! le pauvre Picpon!” she said softly, as she reached at last the place where the young Chasseur lay, and lifted the black curls off his forehead. The hoofs of the charging cavalry had cruelly struck and trampled his frame; the back had been broken, and the body had been mashed as in a mortar under the thundering gallop of the Horse; but the face was still uninjured, and had a strange, pathetic beauty, a calm and smiling courage on it. It was ashen pale; but the great black eyes that had glistened in such malicious mirth, and sparkled in such malignant mischief during life, were open, and had a mournful, pitiful serenity in their look as if from their depths the soul still gazed — that soul which had been neglected and cursed, and left to wander among evil ways, yet which, through all its darkness, all its ignorance, had reached, unguided, to love and to nobility.
Cigarette closed their long, black lashes down on the white cheeks with soft and reverent touch; she had seen that look ere now on the upturned faces of the dead who had strewn the barricades of Paris, with the words of the Marseillaise the last upon their lips.
To her there could be no fate fairer, no glory more glorious, than this of his — to die for France. And she laid him gently down, and left him, and went on with her quest.
It was here that she had lost sight of Cecil as they had charged together, and her mare, enraged and intoxicated with noise and terror, had torn away at full speed that had outstripped even the swiftest of her Spahis. A little farther on a dog’s moan caught her ear; she turned and looked across. Upright, among a ghastly pile of men and chargers, sat the small, snowy poodle of the Chasseurs, beating the air with its little paws, as it had been taught to do when it needed anything, and howling piteously as it begged.
“Flick–Flack? What is it, Flick–Flack?” she cried to him, while, with a bound, she reached the spot. The dog leaped on her, rejoicing. The dead were thick there — ten or twelve deep — French trooper and Bedouin rider flung across each other, horribly entangled with the limbs, the manes, the shattered bodies of their own horses. Among them she saw the face she sought, as the dog eagerly ran back, caressing the hair of a soldier who lay underneath the weight of his gray charger, that had been killed by a musket-ball.
Cigarette grew very pale, as she had never grown when the hailstorm of shots had been pouring on her in the midst of a battle; but, with the rapid skill and strength she had acquired long before, she reached the place, lifted aside first one, then another of the lifeless Arabs that had fallen above him, and drew out from beneath the suffocating pressure of his horse’s weight the head and the frame of the Chasseur whom Flick–Flack had sought out and guarded.
For a moment she thought him dead; then, as she drew him out where the cooled breeze of the declining day could reach him, a slow breath, painfully drawn, moved his chest; she saw that he was unconscious from the stifling oppression under which he had been buried since the noon; an hour more without the touch of fresher air, and life would have been extinct.
Cigarette had with her the flask of brandy that she always brought on such errands as these; she forced the end between his lips, and poured some down his throat; her hand shook slightly as she did so, a weakness the gallant little campaigner never before then had known.
It revived him in a degree; he breathed more freely, though heavily, and with difficulty still; but gradually the deadly, leaden color of his face was replaced by the hue of life, and his heart began to beat more loudly. Consciousness did not return to him; he lay motionless and senseless, with his head resting on her lap, and with Flick–Flack, in eager affection, licking his hands and his hair.
“He was as good as dead, Flick–Flack, if it had not been for you and me,” said Cigarette, while she wetted his lips with more brandy. “Ah, bah! and he would be more grateful, Flick–Flack, for a scornful scoff from Milady!”
Still, though she thought this, she let his head lie on her lap, and, as she looked down on him, there was the glisten as of tears in the brave, sunny eyes of the little Friend of the Flag. She was of a vivid, voluptuous, artistic nature; she was thoroughly woman-like in her passions and her instincts, though she so fiercely contemned womanhood. If he had not been beautiful she would never have looked twice at him, never once have pitied his fate.
And he was beautiful still, though his hair was heavy with dew and dust; though his face was scorched with powder; though his eyes were closed as with the leaden weight of death, and his beard was covered with the red stain of blood that had flowed from the lance-wound on his shoulder.
He was not dead; he was not even in peril of death. She knew enough of medical lore to know that it was but the insensibility of exhaustion and suffocation; and she did not care that he should waken. She dropped her head over him, moving her hand softly among the masses of his curls, and watching the quickening beatings of his heart under the bare, strong nerves. Her face grew tender, and warm, and eager, and melting with a marvelous change of passionate hues. She had all the ardor of southern blood; without a wish he had wakened in her a love that grew daily and hourly, though she would not acknowledge it. She loved to see him lie there as though he were asleep, to cheat herself into the fancy that she watched his rest to wake it with a kiss on his lips. In that unconsciousness, in that abandonment, he seemed wholly her own; passion which she could not have analyzed made her bend above him with a half-fierce, half-dreamy delight in that solitary possession of his beauty, of his life.
The restless movements of little Flick–Flack detached a piece of twine passed round his favorite’s throat; the glitter of gold arrested Cigarette’s eyes. She caught what the poodle’s impatient caress had broken from the string. It was a small, blue-enamel medallion bonbon-box, with a hole through it by which it had been slung — a tiny toy once costly, now tarnished, for it had been carried through many rough scenes and many years of hardship; had been bent by blows struck at the breast against which it rested, and was clotted now with blood. Inside it was a woman’s ring, of sapphires and opals.
She looked at both close, in the glow of the setting sun; then passed the string through and fastened the box afresh. It was a mere trifle, but it sufficed to banish her dream; to arouse her to contemptuous, impatient bitterness with that new weakness that had for the hour broken her down to the level of this feverish folly. He was beautiful — yes! She could not bring herself to hate him; she could not help the brimming tears blinding her eyes when she looked at him, stretched senseless thus. But he was wedded to his past; that toy in his breast, whatever it might be, whatever tale might cling to it, was sweeter to him than her lips would ever be. Bah! there were better men than he; why had she not let him lie and die as he might, under the pile of dead?
Bah! she could have killed herself for her folly! She, who had scores of lovers, from princes, to piou-pious, and never had a heartache for one of them, to go and care for a silent “ci-devant,” who had never even noticed that her eyes had any brightness or her face had any charm!
“You deserve to be shot — you!” said Cigarette, fiercely abusing herself as she put his head off her lap, and rose abruptly and shouted to a Tringlo, who was at some distance searching for the wounded. “Here is a Chasse–Marais with some breath in him,” she said curtly, as the man with his mule-cart and his sad burden of half-dead, moaning, writhing frames drew near to her summons. “Put him in. Soldiers cost too much training to waste them on jackals and kites, if one can help it. Lift him up — quick!”
“He is badly hurt?” said the Tringlo.
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Oh, no! I have had worse scratches myself. The horse fell on him, that was the mischief. I never saw a prettier thing — every Lascar has killed his own little knot of Arbicos. Look how nice and neat they lie.”
Cigarette glanced over the field, with the satisfied appreciation of a dilettante glancing over a collection unimpeachable for accuracy and arrangement; and drank a toss of her brandy, and lighted her little amber pipe, and sang loudly, as she did so, the gayest ballad of the Langue Verte.
She was not going to have him imagine she cared for that Chasseur whom he lifted up on his little wagon with so kindly a care — not she! Cigarette was as proud in her way as was ever the Princesse Venetia Corona.
Nevertheless, she kept pace with the mules, carrying little Flick–Flack, and never paused on her way, though she passed scores of dead Arabs, whose silver ornaments and silk embroideries, commonly replenished the knapsack and adorned in profusion the uniform of the young filibuster; being gleaned by her, right and left, as her lawful harvest after the fray.
“Leave him there. I will have a look at him,” she said, at the first empty tent they reached. The camp had been the scene of as fierce a struggle as the part of the plain which the cavalry had held, and it was strewn with the slaughter of Zouaves and Tirailleurs. The Tringlo obeyed her, and went about his errand of mercy. Cigarette, left alone with the wounded man, lying insensible still on a heap of forage, ceased her song and grew very quiet. She had a certain surgical skill, learned as her untutored genius learned most things, with marvelous rapidity, by observation and intuition; and she had saved many a life by her knowledge and her patient attendance on the sufferers — patience that she had been famed for when she had been only six years old, and a surgeon of the Algerian regiments had affirmed that he could trust her to be as wakeful, as watchful, and as sure to obey his directions as though she were a Soeur de Charite. Now, “the little fagot of opposites,” as Cecil had called her, put this skill into active use.
The tent had been a scullion’s tent; the poor marmiton had been killed, and lay outside, with his head clean severed by an Arab flissa; his fire had gone out, but his brass pots and pans, his jar of fresh water, and his various preparations for the General’s dinner were still there. The General was dead also; far yonder, where he had fallen in the van of his Zouaves, exposing himself with all the splendid, reckless gallantry of France; and the soup stood unserved; the wild plovers were taken by Flick–Flack; the empty dishes waited for the viands which there were no hands to prepare and no mouths to eat. Cigarette glanced round, and saw all with one flash of her eyes; then she knelt down beside the heap of forage, and, for the first thing, dressed his wounds with the cold, clear water, and washed away the dust and the blood that covered his breast.
“He is too good a soldier to die; one must do it for France,” she said to herself, in a kind of self-apology. And as she did it, and bound the lance-gash close, and bathed his breast, his forehead, his hair, his beard, free from the sand and the powder and the gore, a thousand changes swept over her mobile face. It was one moment soft, and flushed, and tender as passion; it was the next jealous, fiery, scornful, pale, and full of impatient self-disdain.
He was nothing to her — morbleu! He was an aristocrat, and she was a child of the people. She had been besieged by dukes and had flouted princes; she had borne herself in such gay liberty, such vivacious freedom, such proud and careless sovereignty — bah! what was it to her whether this man lived or died? If she saved him, he would give her a low bow as he thanked her; thinking all the while of Milady!
And yet she went on with her work.
Cecil had been stunned by a stroke from his horse’s hoof as the poor beast fell beneath and rolled over him. His wounds were light — marvelously so, for the thousand strokes that had been aimed at him; but it was difficult to arouse him from unconsciousness, and his face was white as death where he lay on the heap of dry reeds and grasses. She began to feel fear of that lengthened syncope; a chill, tight, despairing fear that she had never known in her life before. She knelt silent a moment, drawing through her hand the wet locks of his hair with the bright threads of gold gleaming in it.
Then she started up, and, leaving him, found a match, and lighted the died-out wood afresh; the fire soon blazed up, and she warmed above it the soup that had grown cold, poured into it some red wine that was near, and forced some, little by little, down his throat. It was with difficulty at first that she could pass any though his tightly locked teeth; but by degrees she succeeded, and, only half-conscious still, he drank it faster; the heat and the strength reviving him as its stimulant warmed his veins. His eyes did not unclose, but he stirred, moved his limbs, and, with some muttered words she could not hear, drew a deeper breath and turned.
“He will sleep now — he is safe,” she thought to herself, while she stood watching him with a curious conflict of pity, impatience, anger, and relief at war within her.
Bah! Why was she always doing good services to this man, who only cared for the blue, serene eyes of a woman who would never give him aught except pain? Why should she take such care to keep the fire of vitality alight in him, when it had been crushed out in thousands as good as he, who would have no notice save a hasty thrust into the earth; no funeral chant except the screech of the carrion-birds?
Cigarette had been too successful in her rebellion against all weakness, and was far too fiery a young warrior to find refuge or consolation in the poet’s plea,
“How is it under our control to love or not to love?”
To allow anything to gain ascendancy over her that she resisted, to succumb to any conqueror that was unbidden and unwelcome, was a submission beyond words degrading to the fearless soldier-code of the Friend of the Flag. And yet — there she stayed and watched him. She took some food, for she had been fasting all day; then she dropped down before the fire she had lighted, and, in one of those soft, curled, kitten-like attitudes that were characteristic of her, kept her vigil over him.
She was bruised, stiff, tired, longing like a tired child to fall asleep; her eyes felt hot as flame; her rounded, supple limbs were aching, her throat was sore with long thirst and the sand that she seemed to have swallowed till no draught of water or wine would take the scorched, dry pain out of it. But, as she had given up her fete-day in the hospital, so she sat now — as patient in the self-sacrifice as she was impatient when the vivacious agility of her young frame was longing for the frenzied delights of the dance or the battle.
Yonder she knew, where her Spahis bivouacked on the hard-won field, there were riotous homage, wild applause, intoxicating triumph waiting for the Little One who had saved the day, if she chose to go out for it; and she loved to be the center of such adoration and rejoicing, with all the exultant vanity of a child and a hero in one. Here there were warmth of flames, quietness of rest, long hours for slumber; all that her burning eyes and throbbing nerves were longing for, as the sleep she would not yield to stole on her, and the racking pain of fatigue cramped her bones. But she would not go to the pleasure without, and she would not give way to the weariness that tortured her.
Cigarette could crucify self with a generous courage, all the purer because it never occurred to her that there was anything of virtue or of sacrifice in it. She was acting en bon soldat — that was all. Pouf! That wanted no thanks.
Silence settled over the camp; half the slain could not be buried, and the clear, luminous stars rose on the ghastly plateau. All that were heard were the challenge of sentinels, the tramp of patrols. The guard visited her once.
She kept herself awake in the little dark tent, only lit by the glow of the fire. Dead men were just without, and in the moonlight without, as the night came on, she could see the severed throat of the scullion, and the head further off, like a round, gray stone. But that was nothing to Cigarette; dead men were no more to her than dead trees are to others.
Every now and then, four or five times in an hour, she gave him whom she tended the soup or the wine that she kept warmed for him over the embers. He took it without knowledge, sunk half in lethargy, half in sleep; but it kept the life glowing in him which, without it, might have perished of cold and exhaustion as the chills and northerly wind of the evening succeeded to the heat of the day, and pierced through the canvas walls of the tent. It was very bitter; more keenly felt because of the previous burning of the sun. There was no cloak or covering to fling over him; she took off her blue cloth tunic and threw it across his chest, and, shivering despite herself, curled closer to the little fire.
She did not know why she did it — he was nothing to her — and yet she kept herself wide awake through the dark autumn night, lest he should sigh or stir and she not hear him.
“I have saved his life twice,” she thought, looking at him; “beware of the third time, they say!”
He moved restlessly, and she went to him. His face was flushed now; his breath came rapidly and shortly; there was some fever on him. The linen was displaced from his wounds; she dipped it again in water, and laid the cooled bands on them. “Ah, bah! If I were not unsexed enough for this, how would it be with you now?” she said in her teeth. He tossed wearily to and fro; detached words caught her ear as he muttered them.
“Let it be, let it be-he is welcome! How could I prove it at his cost? I saved him — I could do that. It was not much ——”
She listened with intent anxiety to hear the other whispers ending the sentence, but they were stifled and broken.
“Tiens!” she murmured below her breath. “It is for some other he has ruined himself.”
She could not catch the words that followed. They were in an unknown language to her, for she knew nothing of English, and they poured fast and obscure from his lips as he moved in feverish unrest; the wine that had saved him from exhaustion inflaming his brain in his sleep. Now and then French phrases crossed the English ones; she leaned down to seize their meaning till her cheek was against his forehead, till her lips touched his hair; and at that half caress her heart beat, her face flushed, her mouth trembled with a too vivid joy, with an impulse, half fear and half longing, that had never so moved her before.
“If I had my birthright,” he muttered in her own tongue. “If I had it — would she look so cold then? She might love me — women used once. O God! if she had not looked on me, I had never known all I had lost!”
Cigarette started as if a knife had stabbed her, and sprang up from her rest beside him.
“She — she — always she!” she muttered fiercely, while her face grew duskily scarlet in the fire-glow of the tent; and she went slowly away, back to the low wood fire.
This was to be ever her reward!
Her eyes glistened and flashed with the fiery, vengeful passions of her hot and jealous instincts. Cigarette had in her the violence, as she had the nobility, of a grand nature that has gone wholly untutored and unguided; and she had the power of southern vengeance in her, though she had also the swift temper. It was bitter, beyond any other bitterness that could have wounded her, for the spoilt, victorious, imperious, little empress of the Army of Algeria to feel that, though she had given his life twice back to the man, she was less to him than the tiny white dog that nestled in his breast; that she, who never before had endured a slight, or known what neglect could mean, gave care, and pity, and aid, and even tenderness, to one whose only thought was for a woman who had accorded him nothing but a few chill syllables of haughty condescension!
He lay there unconscious of her presence, tossing wearily to and fro in fevered, unrefreshing sleep, murmuring incoherent words of French and English strangely mingled; and Cigarette crouched on the ground, with the firelight playing all over her picturesque, childlike beauty, and her large eyes strained and savage, yet with a strange, wistful pain in them; looking out at the moonlight where the headless body lay in a cold, gray sea of shadow.
Yet she did not leave him.
She was too generous for that. “What is right is right. He is a soldier of France,” she muttered, while she kept her vigil. She felt no want of sleep; a hard, hateful wakefulness seemed to have banished all rest from her; she stayed there all the night so, with the touch of water on his forehead, or of cooled wine to his lips, by the alteration of the linen on his wounds, or the shifting of the rough forage that made his bed. But she did it without anything of that loving, lingering attendance she had given before; she never once drew out the task longer than it needed, or let her hands wander among his hair, or over his lips, as she had done before.
And he never once was conscious of it; he never once knew that she was near. He did not waken from the painful, delirious, stupefied slumber that had fallen on him; he only vaguely felt that he was suffering pain; he only vaguely dreamed of what he murmured of — his past, and the beauty of the woman who had brought all the memories of that past back on him.
And this was Cigarette’s reward — to hear him mutter wearily of the proud eyes and of the lost smile of another!
The dawn came at last; her constant care and the skill with which she had cooled and dressed his wounds had done him infinite service; the fever had subsided, and toward morning his incoherent words ceased, his breathing grew calmer and more tranquil; he fell asleep — sleep that was profound, dreamless, and refreshing.
She looked at him with a tempestuous shadow darkening her face, that was soft with a tenderness that she could not banish. She hated him; she ought to have stabbed or shot him rather than have tended him thus; he neglected her, and only thought of that woman of his old Order. As a daughter of the People, as a child of the Army, as a soldier of France, she ought to have killed him rather than have caressed his hair and soothed his pain! Pshaw! She ground one in another her tiny white teeth, that were like a spaniel’s.
Then gently, very gently, lest she should waken him, she took her tunic skirt with which she had covered him from the chills of the night, put more broken wood on the fading fire, and with a last, lingering look at him where he slept, passed out from the tent as the sun rose in a flushed and beautiful dawn. He would never know that she had saved him thus: he never should know it, she vowed in her heart.
Cigarette was very haughty in her own wayward, careless fashion. At a word of love from him, at a kiss from his lips, at a prayer from his voice, she would have given herself to him in all the abandonment of a first passion, and have gloried in being known as his mistress. But she would have perished by a thousand deaths rather than have sought him through his pity or through his gratitude; rather than have accepted the compassion of a heart that gave its warmth to another; rather than have ever let him learn that he was any more to her than all their other countless comrades who filled up the hosts of Africa.
“He will never know,” she said to herself, as she passed through the disordered camp, and in a distant quarter coiled herself among the hay of a forage-wagon, and covered up in dry grass, like a bird in a nest, let her tired limbs lie and her aching eyes close in repose. She was very tired; and every now and then, as she slept, a quick, sobbing breath shook her as she slumbered, like a worn-out fawn who has been wounded while it played.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58