“Hold!” cried Cigarette, interrupting herself in her chant in honor of the attributes of war, as the Tringlo’s mules which she was driving, some three weeks after the fray of Zaraila, stopped, by sheer force of old habit, in the middle of a green plateau on the outskirts of a camp pitched in its center, and overlooked by brown, rugged scarps of rock, with stunted bushes on their summits, and here and there a maritime pine clinging to their naked slopes. At sight of the food-laden little beasts, and the well-known form behind them, the Tirailleurs, Indigenes, and the Zouaves, on whose side of the encampment she had approached, rushed toward her with frantic shouts, and wild delight, and vehement hurrahs in a tempest of vociferous welcome that might have stunned any ears less used, and startled any nerves less steeled, to military life than the Friend of the Flag. She signed back the shouting, disorderly crowd with her mule-whip, as superbly as though she were a Marshal of France signing back a whole army’s mutiny.
“What children you are! You push, and scramble, and tear, like a set of monkeys over a nut. Get out of my way, or I swear you shall none of you have so much as a morsel of black bread — do you hear!”
It was amusing to see how they minded her contemptuous orders; how these black-bearded fire-eaters, the terror of the country, each one of whom could have crushed her in his grasp as a wolf crushes a lamb, slunk back, silenced and obedient, before the imperious bidding of the little vivandiere. They had heeded her and let her rule over them almost as much when she had been seven years old, and her curls, now so dark, had been yellow as corn in the sun.
“Ouf!” growled only one insubordinate, “if you had been a day and night eating nothing but a bit of moist clay, you might be hungry too.”
The humiliated supplication of the reply appeased their autocratic sovereign. She nodded her head in assent.
“I know; I know. I have gone days on a handful of barley-ears. M. le Colonel has his marmitons, and his fricassees, and his fine cuisine where he camps — ho! — but we soldiers have nothing but a hunch of baked chaff. Well, we win battles on it!”
Which was one of the impromptu proverbs that Cigarette was wont to manufacture and bring into her discourse with an air of authority as of one who quotes from profound scholastic lore. It was received with a howl of applause and of ratification. The entrails often gnaw with bitter pangs of famine in the Army of Algiers, and they knew well how sharp an edge hunger gives to the steel.
Nevertheless, the sullen, angry roar of famished men, that is so closely, so terribly like the roar of wild beasts, did not cease.
“Where is Biribi?” they growled. “Biribi never keeps us waiting. Those are Biribi’s beasts.”
“Right,” said Cigarette laconically, with a crack of her mule-whip on to the arm of a Zouave who was attempting to make free with her convoy and purloin a loaf off the load.
“Where is Biribi, then?” they roared in concert, a crowd of eager, wolfish, ravenous, impatient men, hungry as camp fasting could make them, and half inclined even to tear their darling in pieces, since she kept them thus from the stores.
Cigarette uncovered her head with a certain serious grace very rare in her.
“Biribi had made a good end.”
Her assailants grew very quiet.
“Shot?” they asked briefly. Biribi was a Tringlo well beloved in all the battalions.
Cigarette nodded, with a gesture outward to the solitary country. She was accustomed to these incidents of war; she thought of them no more than a girl of civilized life thinks of the grouse or the partridges that are killed by her lovers and brothers.
“I was out yonder, two leagues or more away. I was riding; I was on my own horse; Etoile–Filante. Well I heard shots; of course I made for the place by my ear. Before I got up I saw what was the mischief. There were the mules in a gorge, and Biribi in front of them, fighting, mon Dieu! — fighting like the devil — with three Arbis on him. They were trying to stop the convoys, and Biribi was beating them back with all his might. I was too far off to do much good; but I shouted and dashed down to them. The Arbis heard, Biribi heard; he flew on to them like a tiger, that little Tringlo. It was wonderful! Two fell dead under him; the third took fright and fled. When I got up, Biribi lay above the dead brutes with a dozen wounds in him, if there were one. He looked up, and knew me. ‘Is it thee, Cigarette?’ he asked; and he could hardly speak for the blood in his throat. ‘Do not wait with me; I am dead already. Drive the mules into camp as quick as thou canst; the men will be thinking me late.’”
“Biribi was always bon enfant,” muttered the listening throng; they forgot their hunger as they heard.
“Ah! he thought more of you than you deserve, you jackals! I drew him aside into a hole in the rocks out of the heat. He was dead; he was right. No man could live, slashed about like that. The Arbicos had set on him as he went singing along; if he would have given up the brutes and the stores, they would not have harmed him; but that was not Biribi. I did all I could for him. Dame! It was no good. He lay very still for some minutes with his head on my lap; then he moved restlessly and tossed about. ‘They will think me so late — so late,’ he muttered; ‘and they are famished by this. There is that letter, too, from his mother for Petit–Pot-deTerre; there is all that news from France; I have so much for them, and I shall be so late — so late!’ All he thought was that he should be so late into camp. Well, it was all over very soon. I do not think he suffered; but he was so afraid you should not have the food. I left him in the cave, and drove the mules on as he asked. Etoile–Filante had galloped away; have you seen him home?”
There broke once more from the hearkening throng a roar that shook the echoes from the rocks; but it was not now the rage of famished longing, but the rage of the lust for vengeance, and the grief of passionate hearts blent together. Quick as the lightning flashes, their swords leaped from their scabbards and shook in the sun-lighted air.
“We will avenge him!” they shouted as with one throat, the hoarse cry rolling down the valley like a swell of thunder. If the bonds of discipline had loosed them, they would have rushed forth on the search and to the slaughter, forgetful of hunger, of heat, of sun-stroke, of self-pity, of all things, save the dead Tringlo, whose only fear in death had been lest they should want and suffer through him.
Their adjutants, alarmed by the tumult, hurried to the spot, fearing a bread riot; for the camp was far from supplies, and had been ill victualed for several days. They asked rapidly what was the matter.
“Biribi had been killed,” some soldier answered.
“Ah! and the bread not come.”
“Yes, mon adjutant; the bread is there, and Cigarette too.”
“There is no need for me, then,” muttered the adjutant of Zouaves; “the Little One will keep order.”
The Little One had before now quelled a mutiny with her pistol at the ringleader’s forehead, and her brave, scornful words scourging the insubordinates for their dishonor to their arms, for their treason to the Tricolor; and she was equal to the occasion now. She lifted her right hand.
“We will avenge him. That is of course. The Flag of France never hangs idly when there is a brave life’s loss to be reckoned for; I shall know again the cur that fled. Trust to me, and now be silent. You bawl out your oath of vengeance, oh, yes! But you bawled as loud a minute ago for bread. Biribi loved you better than you deserved. You deserve nothing; you are hounds, ready to tear for offal to eat as to rend the foe of your dead friend. Bah!”
The roar of the voices sank somewhat; Cigarette had sprung aloft on a gun-carriage, and as the sun shone on her face it was brilliant with the scorn that lashed them like whips.
“Sang de Dieu!” fiercely swore a Zouave. “Hounds, indeed! If it were anyone but you! When one has had nothing but a snatch of raw bullock’s meat, and a taste of coffee black with mud, for a week through, is one a hound because one hungers?”
“No,” said the orator from her elevation, and her eyes softened wonderfully. In her heart she loved them so well, these wild, barbaric warriors that she censured —“no, one is not a hound because one hungers; but one is not a soldier if one complains. Well! Biribi loved you; and I am here to do his will, to do his work. He came laden; his back was loaded heavier than the mules’. To the front, all of you, as I name you! Petit–Pot-deTerre, there is your old mother’s letter. If she knew as much as I do about you, scapegrace, she would never trouble herself whether you were dead or alive! Fagotin! Here is a bundle of Paris newspapers for you; they are quite new — only nine months old! Potele! Some woman has sent you a love-scrawl and some tobacco; I suppose she knew your passions all ended in smoke! Rafle! Here is a little money come for you from France; it has not been stolen, so it will have no spice for you! Racoleur! Here is a love-billet from some simpleton, with a knife as a souvenir; sharpen it on the Arbicos. Poupard, Loup-terrible, Jean Pagnote, Pince–Maille, Louis Magot, Jules Goupil — here! There are your letters, your papers, your commissions. Biribi forgot nothing. As if you deserved to be worked for, or thought of!”
With which reproach Cigarette relieved herself of the certain pain that was left on her by the death of Biribi; she always found that to work yourself into a passion with somebody is the very best way in the world to banish an unwelcome emotion.
The men summoned by their camp-sobriquets, which were so familiar that they had, many of them, fairly forgotten their original names, rallied around her to receive the various packets with which a Tringlo is commonly charged by friends in the towns, or relatives away in France, for the soldiers of African brigades, and which, as well as his convoy of food and his budget of news, render him so precious and so welcome an arrival at an encampment. The dead Biribi had been one of the lightest, brightest, cheeriest, and sauciest of the gay, kindly, industrious wanderers of his branch of the service; always willing to lead; always ready to help; always smoking, singing, laughing, chattering; treating his three mules as an indulgent mother her children; calling them Plick, Plack, et Plock, and thinking of Plick, Plack, et Plock far beyond himself at all times; a merry, busy, smiling, tender-hearted soul, who was always happy, trudging along the sunburned road, and caroling in his joyous voice chansonnettes and gaudrioles to the African flocks and herds, amid the African solitudes. If there were a man they loved, it was Biribi; Biribi, whose advent in camp had always been the signal for such laughter, such abundance, such showers of newspapers, such quantities of intelligence from that France for tidings of which the hardest-featured veteran among them would ask with a pang at the heart, with a thrill in the words. And they had sworn, and would keep what they had sworn in bitter intensity, to avenge him to the uttermost point of vengeance. Yet five minutes afterward when the provisions Plick, Plack, et Plock had brought were divided and given out, they were shouting, eating, singing, devouring, with as eager a zest, and as hearty an enjoyment, as though Biribi were among them, and did not lie dead two leagues away, with a dozen wounds slashed on his stiffening frame.
“What heartless brutes! Are they always like that?” muttered a gentleman painter who, traveling through the interior to get military sketches, had obtained permission to take up quarters in the camp.
“If they were not like that they could not live a day,” a voice answered curtly, behind him. “Do you know what this service is, that you venture to judge them? Men who meet death in the face every five minutes they breathe cannot afford the space for sentimentalism which those who saunter at ease and in safety can do. They laugh when we are dead, perhaps, but they are true as steel to us while we live — it is the reverse of the practice of the world!”
The tourist started, turned, and looked aghast at the man who had reproved him; it was a Chasseur d’Afrique, who, having spoken, was already some way onward, moving through the press and tumult of the camp to his own regiment’s portion of it.
Cigarette, standing by to see that Plick, Plack, and Plock were property baited on the greenest forage to be found, heard, and her eyes flashed with a deep delight.
“Dame!” she thought, “I could not have answered better myself! He is a true soldier, that.” And she forgave Cecil all his sins to her with the quick, impetuous, generous pardon of her warm little Gallic heart.
Cigarette believed that she could hate very bitterly; indeed, her power of resentment she rated high among her grandest qualities. Had the little leopard been told that she could not resent to the death what offended her, she would have held herself most infamously insulted. Yet hate was, in truth, foreign to her frank, vivacious nature; its deadliness never belonged to her, if its passion might; and at a trait akin to her, at a flash of sympathetic spirit in the object of her displeasure, Cigarette changed from wrath to friendship with the true instinct of her little heart of gold. A heart which, though it had been tossed about on a sea of blood, and had never been graven with so much as one tender word or one moral principle from the teachings of any creature, was still gold, despite all; no matter the bruises and the stains and the furnace-heats that had done their best to harden it into bronze, to debase it into brass.
The camp was large, and a splendid picture of color, movement, picturesque combination, and wonderful light and shadow, as the sun-glow died out and the fires were lighted; for the nights were now intensely cold — cold with the cutting, icy, withering bise, and clear above as an Antarctic night, though the days were still hot and dry as flame.
On the left were the Tirailleurs, the Zouaves, the Zephyrs; on the right were the Cavalry and the Artillery; in the center of all was the tent of the chief. Everywhere, as evening fell, the red warmth of fires rose; the caldron of soup or of coffee simmered, gypsy-like, above; the men lounged around, talking, laughing, cooking, story-telling at their pleasure; after the semi-starvation of the last week, the abundance of stores that had come in with other Tringlos besides poor Biribi caused a universal hilarity. The glitter of accouterments, the contents of open knapsacks, the skins of animals just killed for the marmite, the boughs of pines broken for firewood, strewed the ground. Tethered horses, stands of arms, great drums and eagle-guidons, the looming darkness of huge cannon, the blackness, like dromedaries couched, of caissons and ambulance-wagons, the whiteness of the canvas tents, the incessant movement as the crowds of soldiery stirred, and chattered, and worked, and sang — all these, on the green level of the plain, framed in by the towering masses of the rugged rocks, made a picture of marvelous effect and beauty.
Cecil, looking at it, thought so; though the harsh and bitter misery which he knew that glittering scene enfolded, and which he had suffered so many years himself — misery of hunger, of cold, of shot-wounds, of racking bodily pains — stole from it, in his eyes, that poetry and that picturesque brilliancy which it bore to the sight of the artist and the amateur. He knew the naked terrors of war, the agony, the travail, the icy chills, the sirocco heats, the grinding routine, the pitiless chastisements of its reality; to those who do, it can no longer be a spectacle dressed in the splendid array of romance. It is a fearful tragedy and farce woven close one in another; and its sole joy is in that blood-thirst which men so lustfully share with the tiger, and yet shudder from when they have sated it.
It was this knowledge of war, in its bitter and deadly truth, which had made him give the answer that had charmed Cigarette, to the casual visitor of the encampment.
He sat now, having recovered from the effects of the day of Zaraila, within a little distance of the fire at which his men were stewing some soup in the great simmering copper bowl. They had eaten nothing for nigh a week, except some moldy bread, with the chance of a stray cat or a shot bird to flavor it. Hunger was a common thorn in Algerian warfare, since not even the matchless intendance of France could regularly supply the troops across those interminable breadths of arid land, those sun-scorched plains, swept by Arab foragers.
“Beau Victor! You took their parts well,” said a voice behind him, as Cigarette vaulted over a pile of knapsacks and stood in the glow of the fire, with a little pipe in her pretty rosebud mouth and her cap set daintily on one side of her curls.
He looked up, and smiled.
“Not so well as your own clever tongue would have done. Words are not my weapons.”
“No! You are as silent as the grave commonly; but when you do speak, you speak well,” said the vivandiere condescendingly. “I hate silence myself! Thoughts are very good grain, but if they are not whirled round, round, round, and winnowed and ground in the millstones of talk, they keep little, hard, useless kernels, that not a soul can digest.”
With which metaphor Cigarette blew a cloud of smoke into the night air, looking the prettiest little genre picture in the ruddy firelight that ever was painted on such a background of wavering shadow and undulating flame.
“Will your allegory hold good, petite?” smiled Cecil, thinking but little of his answer or of his companion, of whose service to him he remained utterly ignorant. “I fancy speech is the chaff most generally, little better. So, they talk of you for the Cross? No soldier ever, of a surety, more greatly deserved it.”
Her eyes gleamed with a luster like the African planets above her; her face caught all the fire, the light, the illumination of the flames flashing near her.
“I did nothing,” she said curtly. “Any man on the field would have done the same.”
“That is easy to say; not so easy to prove. In all great events there may be the same strength, courage, and desire to act greatly in those who follow as in the one that leads; but it is only in that one that there is also the daring to originate, the genius to seize aright the moment of action and of success.”
Cigarette was a little hero; she was, moreover, a little desperado; but she was a child in years and a woman at heart, valiant and ruthless young soldier though she might be. She colored all over her mignonne face at the words of eulogy from this man whom she had told herself she hated; her eyes filled; her lips trembled.
“It was nothing” she said softly, under her breath. “I would die twenty deaths for France.”
He looked at her, and for the hour understood her aright; he saw that there was the love for her country and the power of sacrifice in this gay-plumaged and capricious little hawk of the desert.
“You have a noble nature, Cigarette,” he said, with an earnest regard at her. “My poor child, if only ——” He paused. He was thinking what it was hard to say to her — if only the accidents of her life had been different, what beauty, race, and genius might have been developed out of the untamed, untutored, inconsequent, but glorious nature of the child-warrior.
As by a fate, unconsciously his pity embittered all the delight his praise had given, and this implied regret for her stung her as the rend of the spur a young Arab colt — stung her inwardly into cruel wrath and pain; outwardly into irony, deviltry, and contemptuous retort.
“Oh! Child, indeed! Was I a child the other day, my good fellow, when I saved your squadron from being cut to pieces like grass with a scythe? As for nobility? Pouf! Not much of that in me. I love France — yes. A soldier always loves his country. She is so brave, too, and so fair, and so gay. Not like your Albion — if it is yours — who is a great gobemouche stuffed full of cotton, steaming with fog, clutching gold with one hand and the Bible with the other, that she may swell her money-bags, and seem a saint all the same; never laughing, never learning, always growling, always shuffling, who is like this spider — look! — a tiny body and huge, hairy legs — pull her legs, the Colonies, off, and leave her little English body, all shriveled and shrunk alone, and I should like to know what size she would be then, and how she would manage to swell and to strut?”
Wherewith Cigarette tossed the spider into the air, with all the supreme disdain she could impel into that gesture. Cigarette, though she knew not her A B C, and could not have written her name to save her own life, had a certain bright intelligence of her own that caught up political tidings, and grasped at public subjects with a skill education alone will not bestow. One way and another she had heard most of the floating opinions of the day, and stored them up in her fertile brain as a bee stores honey into his hive by much as nature-given and unconscious an instinct as the bee’s own.
Cecil listened, amused.
“You little Anglophobist! You have the tongue of a Voltaire!”
“Voltaire?” questioned Cigarette. “Voltaire! Let me see. I know that name. He was the man who championed Calas? Who had a fowl in the pot for every poor wretch that passed his house? Who was taken to the Pantheon by the people in the Revolution?”
“Yes. And the man whom the wise world pretends still to call without a heart or a God!”
“Chut! He fed the poor, and freed the wronged. Better than pattering Paters, that!” said Cigarette, who thought a midnight mass at Notre Dame or a Salutation at the Madeleine a pretty coup de theatre enough, but who had for all churches and creeds a serene contempt and a fierce disdain. “Go to the grandams and the children!” she would say, with a shrug of her shoulders, to a priest, whenever one in Algiers or Paris attempted to reclaim her; and a son of the Order of Jesus, famed for persuasiveness and eloquence, had been fairly beaten once when, in the ardor of an African missionary, he had sought to argue with the little Bohemian of the Tricolor, and had had his logic rent in twain, and his rhetoric scattered like dust, under the merciless home-thrusts and the sarcastic artillery of Cigarette’s replies and inquiries.
“Hola!” she cried, leaving Voltaire for what took her fancy. “We talk of Albion — there is one of her sons. I detest your country, but I must confess she breeds uncommonly handsome men.”
She was a dilettante in handsome men; she nodded her head now to where, some yards off, at another of the camp-fires, stood, with some officers of the regiment, one of the tourists; a very tall, very fair man, with a gallant bearing, and a tawny beard that glittered to gold in the light of the flames.
Cecil’s glance followed Cigarette’s. With a great cry he sprang to his feet and stood entranced, gazing at the stranger. She saw the startled amaze, the longing love, the agony of recognition, in his eyes; she saw the impulse in him to spring forward, and the shuddering effort with which the impulse was controlled. He turned to her almost fiercely.
“He must not see me! Keep him away — away, for God’s sake!”
He could not have leave his men; he was fettered there where his squadron was camped. He went as far as he could from the flame-light into the shadow, and thrust himself among the tethered horses. Cigarette asked nothing; comprehended at a glance with all the tact of her nation; and sauntered forward to meet the officers of the regiment as they came up to the picket-fire with the yellow-haired English stranger. She knew how charming a picture there, with her hands lightly resting on her hips, and her bright face danced on by the ruddy fire-glow, she made; she knew she could hold thus the attention of a whole brigade. The eyes of the stranger lighted on her, and his voice laughed in mellow music to his companions and ciceroni.
“Your intendance is perfect; your ambulance is perfect; your camp-cookery is perfect, messieurs; and here you have even perfect beauty, too! Truly, campaigning must be pleasant work in Algeria!”
Then he turned to her with compliments frank and gay, and full of a debonair grace that made her doubt he could be of Albion.
Retort was always ready to her; and she kept the circle of officers in full laughter round the fire with a shower of repartee that would have made her fortune on the stage. And every now and then her glance wandered to the shadow where the horses were tethered.
Bah! why was she always doing him service? She could not have told.
Still she went on — and did it.
It was a fantastic picture by the bright scarlet light of the camp-fire, with the Little One in her full glory of mirth and mischief, and her circle of officers laughing on her with admiring eyes; nearest her the towering height of the English stranger, with the gleam of the flame in the waves of his leonine beard.
From the darkness, where the scores of gray horses were tethered, Cecil’s eyes were riveted on it. There were none near to see him; had there been, they would have seen an agony in his eyes that no physical misery, no torture of the battlefield, had brought there. His face was bloodless, and his gaze strained through the gleam on to the fire-lit group with a passionate intensity of yearning — he was well used to pain, well used to self-control, well used to self-restraint, but for the first time in his exile the bitterness of a struggle almost vanquished him. All the old love of his youth went out to this man, so near to him, yet so hopelessly severed from him; looking on the face of his friend, a violence of longing shook him. “O God, if I were dead!” he thought, “they might know then ——”
He would have died gladly to have had that familiar hand once more touch his; those familiar eyes once more look on him with the generous, tender trust of old.
His brain reeled, his thoughts grew blind, as he stood there among his horses, with the stir and tumult of the bivouac about him. There was nothing simpler, nothing less strange, than that an English soldier should visit the Franco–Arab camp; but to him it seemed like a resurrection of the dead.
Whether it was a brief moment, or an hour through, that the circle stood about the great, black caldron that was swinging above the flames, he could not have told; to him it was an eternity. The echo of the mellow, ringing tones that he knew so well came to him from the distance, till his heart seemed breaking with but one forbidden longing — to look once more in those brave eyes that made every coward and liar quail, and say only, “I was guiltless.”
It is bitter to know those whom we love dead; but it is more bitter to be as dead to those who, once having loved us, have sunk our memory deep beneath oblivion that is not the oblivion of the grave.
A while, and the group broke up and was scattered; the English traveler throwing gold pieces by the score among the waiting troopers. “A bientot!” they called to Cigarette, who nodded farewell to them with a cigar in her mouth, and busied herself pouring some brandy into the old copper caldron in which some black coffee and muddy water, three parts sand, was boiling. A few moments later, and they were out of sight among the confusion, the crowds, and the flickering shadows of the camp. When they were quite gone, she came softly to him; she could not see him well in the gloom, but she touched his hand.
“Dieu! how cold you are! He is gone.”
He could not answer her to thank her, but he crushed in his the little, warm, brown palm. She felt a shiver shake his limbs.
“Is he your enemy?” she asked.
“The man I love best on earth.”
“Ah!” She had felt a surprise she had not spoke that he should flee thus from any foe. “He thinks you dead, then?”
“And must always think so?”
“Yes.” He held her hand still, and his own wrung it hard — the grasp of comrade to comrade, not of man to woman. “Child, you are bold, generous, pitiful; for God’s sake, get me sent out of this camp to-night. I am powerless.”
There was that in the accent which struck his listener to the heart. He was powerless, fettered hand and foot as though he were a prisoner; a night’s absence, and he would be shot as a deserter. He had grown accustomed to this rendering up of all his life to the rules of others; but now and then the galled spirit chafed, the netted stag strained at the bonds.
“I will try,” said Cigarette simply, without any of her audacity or of her vanity in the answer. “Go you to the fire; you are cold.”
“Are you sure he will not return?”
“Not he. They are gone to eat and drink; I go with them. What is it you fear?”
“My own weakness.”
She was silent. She could just watch his features by the dim light, and she saw his mouth quiver under the fullness of his beard. He felt that if he looked again on the face of the man he loved he might be broken into self-pity, and unloose his silence, and shatter all the work of so many years. He had been strong where men of harder fiber and less ductile temper might have been feeble; but he never thought that he had been so; he only thought that he had acted on impulse, and had remained true to his act through the mere instinct of honor — an instinct inborn in his blood and his Order — an instinct natural and unconscious with him as the instinct by which he drove his breath.
“You are a fine soldier,” said Cigarette musingly; “such men are not weak.”
“Why? We are only strong as tigers are strong — just the strength of the talon and fang. I do not know. I was weak as water once; I may be again, if — if ——”
He scarcely knew that he was speaking aloud; he had forgotten her! His whole heart seemed burned as with fire by the memory of that one face so familiar, so well loved, yet from which he must shrink as though some cowardly sin were between them. The wretchedness on him seemed more than he could bear; to know that this man was so near that the sound of his voice raised could summon him, yet that he must remain as dead to him — remain as one dead after a craven and treacherous guilt.
He turned suddenly, almost violently, upon Cigarette.
“You have surprised my folly from me; you know my secret so far; but you are too brave to betray me, you are too generous to tell of this? I can trust you to be silent?”
Her face flushed scarlet with astonished anger; her little, childlike form grew instinct with haughty and fiery dignity.
“Monsieur, that question from one soldier of France to another is insult. We are not dastards!”
There was a certain grave reproach that mingled with the indignant scorn of the answer, and showed that her own heart was wounded by the doubt, as well as her military pride by the aspersion. Even amid the conflict of pain at war in him he felt that, and hastened to soothe it.
“Forgive me, my child; I should not have wronged you with the question. It is needless, I know. Men can trust you to the death, they say.”
“To the death — yes.”
The answer was thoughtful, dreamy, almost sad, for Cigarette. His thoughts were too far from her in their tumult of awakened memories to note the tone as he went rapidly on:
“You have ingenuity, compassion, tact; you have power here, too, in your way. For the love of Heaven get me sent out on some duty before dawn! There is Biribi’s murder to be avenged — would they give the errand to me?”
She thought a moment.
“We will see,” she said curtly. “I think I can do it. But go back, or you will be missed. I will come to you soon.”
She left him, then, rapidly; drawing her hand quickly out of the clasp of his.
Cigarette felt her heart aching to its core for the sorrow of this man who was nothing to her. He did not know what she had done for him in his suffering and delirium; he did not know how she had watched him all that night through, when she was weary, and bruised, and thirsting for sleep; he did not know; he held her hand as one comrade another’s, and never looked to see if her eyes were blue or were black, were laughing or tear-laden. And yet she felt pain in his pain; she was always giving her life to his service. Many besides the little Friend of the Flag beat back as folly the noblest and purest thing in them.
Cecil mechanically returned to the fire at which the men of his tribe were cooking their welcome supper, and sat down near them; rejecting, with a gesture, the most savory portion which, with their customary love and care for him, they were careful to select and bring to him. There had never been a time when they had found him fail to prefer them to himself, or fail to do them kindly service, if of such he had a chance; and they returned it with all that rough and silent attachment that can be so strong and so stanch in lives that may be black with crime or red with slaughter.
He sat like a man in a dream, while the loosened tongues of the men ran noisily on a hundred themes as they chaffed each other, exchanged a fire of bivouac jokes more racy than decorous, and gave themselves to the enjoyment of their rude meal, that had to them that savor which long hunger alone can give. Their voices came dull on his ear; the ruddy warmth of the fire was obscured to his sight; the din, the laughter, the stir all over the great camp, at the hour of dinner were lost on him. He was insensible to everything except the innumerable memories that thronged upon him, and the aching longing that filled his heart with the sight of the friend of his youth.
“He said once that he would take my hand before all the world always, come what would,” he thought. “Would he take it now, I wonder? Yes; he never believed against me.”
And, as he thought, the same anguish of desire that had before smitten him to stand once more guiltless in the presence of men, and once more bear, untarnished, the name of his race and the honor of his fathers, shook him now as strong winds shake a tree that yet is fast rooted at its base, though it sway a while beneath the storm.
“How weak I am!” he thought bitterly. “What does it matter? Life is so short, one is a coward indeed to fret over it. I cannot undo what I did. I cannot, if I could. To betray him now! God! not for a kingdom, if I had the chance! Besides, she may live still; and, even were she dead, to tarnish her name to clear my own would be a scoundrel’s baseness — baseness that would fail as it merited; for who could be brought to believe me now?”
The thoughts unformed drifted through his mind, half dulled, half sharpened by the deadly pain, and the rush of old brotherly love that had arisen in him as he had seen the face of his friend beside the watch-fire of the French bivouac. It was hard; it was cruelly hard; he had, after a long and severe conflict, brought himself into contentment with his lot, and taught himself oblivion of the past, and interest in the present, by active duties and firm resolve; he had vanquished all the habits, controlled most of the weaknesses, and banished nearly all the frailties and indulgences of his temperament in the long ordeal of African warfare. It was cruelly hard that now when he had obtained serenity, and more than half attained forgetfulness, these two — her face and his — must come before him; one to recall the past, the other to embitter the future!
As he sat with his head bent down and his forehead leaning on his arm, while the hard biscuit that served for a plate stood unnoticed beside him, with the food that the soldiers had placed on it, he did not hear Cigarette’s step till she touched him on the arm. Then he looked up; her eyes were looking on him with a tender, earnest pity.
“Hark! I have done it,” she said gently. “But it will be an errand very close to death that you must go on —”
He raised himself erect, eagerly.
“No matter that! Ah, mademoiselle, how I thank you!”
“Chut! I am no Paris demoiselle!” said Cigarette, with a dash of her old acrimony. “Ceremony in a camp — pouf! You must have been a court chamberlain once, weren’t you? Well, I have done it. Your officers were talking yonder of a delicate business; they were uncertain who best to employ. I put in my speech — it was dead against military etiquette, but I did it. I said to M. le General: ‘You want the best rider, the most silent tongue, and the surest steel in the squadrons? Take Bel-a-faire-peur, then.’ ‘Who is that?’ asked the general; he would have sent out of camp anybody but Cigarette for the interruption. ‘Mon General,’ said I, ‘the Arabs asked that, too, the other day, at Zaraila.’ ‘What!’ he cried, ‘the man Victor — who held the ground with his Chasseurs? I know — a fine soldier. M. le Colonel, shall we send him?’ The Black Hawk had scowled thunder on you; he hates you more still since that affair of Zaraila, especially because the general has reported your conduct with such praise that they cannot help but promote you. Well, he had looked thunder, but now he laughed. ‘Yes, mon General,’ he answered him, ‘take him, if you like. It is fifty to one whoever goes on that business will not come back alive, and you will rid me of the most insolent fine gentleman in my squadrons.’ The general hardly heard him; he was deep in thought; but he asked a good deal about you from the Hawk, and Chateauroy spoke for your fitness for the errand they are going to send you on, very truthfully, for a wonder. I don’t know why; but he wants you to be sent, I think; most likely that you may be cut to pieces. And so they will send for you in a minute. I have done it as you wished.”
There was something of her old brusquerie and recklessness in the closing sentences; but it had not her customary debonair lightness. She knew too well that the chances were as a hundred to one that he would never return alive from this service on which he had entreated to be dispatched. Cecil grasped both her hands in his with warm gratitude, that was still, like the touch of his hands, the gratitude of comrade to comrade, not of man to woman.
“God bless you, Cigarette! You are a true friend, my child. You have done me immeasurable benefits —”
“Oh! I am a true friend,” said the Little One, somewhat pettishly. She would have preferred another epithet. “If a man wants to get shot as a very great favor, I always let him pleasure himself. Give a man his own way, if you wish to be kind to him. You are children, all of you, nothing but children, and if the toy that pleases you best is death, why — you must have it. Nothing else would content you. I know you. You always want what flies from you, and are tired of what lies to your hand. That is always a man.”
“And a woman, too, is it not?”
Cigarette shrugged her shoulders.
“Oh, I dare say! We love what is new — what is strange. We are humming-tops; we will only spin when we are fresh wound up with a string to our liking.”
“Make an exception of yourself, my child. You are always ready to do a good action, and never tire of that. From my heart I thank you. I wish to Heaven I could prove it better.”
She drew her hands away from him.
“A great thing I have done, certainly! Got you permission to go and throw a cartel at old King Death; that is all! There! That is your summons.”
The orderly approached, and brought the bidding of the general in command of the Cavalry for Cecil to render himself at once to his presence. These things brook no second’s delay in obedience; he went with a quick adieu to Cigarette, and the little Friend of the Flag was left in his vacant place beside the fire.
And there was a pang at her heart.
“Ten to one he goes to his death,” she thought. But Cigarette, little mischief-maker though she was, could reach very high in one thing; she could reach a love that was unselfish, and one that was heroic.
A few moments, and Cecil returned.
“Rake,” he said rapidly, in the French he habitually used, “saddle my horse and your own. I am allowed to choose one of you to accompany me.”
Rake, in paradise, and the envied of every man in the squadron, turned to his work — with him a task of scarce more than a second; and Cecil approached his little Friend of the Flag.
“My child, I cannot attempt to thank you. But for you, I should have been tempted to send my lance through my own heart.”
“Keep its lunge for the Arbicos, mon ami,” said Cigarette brusquely — the more brusquely because that new and bitter pang was on her. “As for me, I want no thanks.”
“No; you are too generous. But not the less do I wish I could render them more worthily than by words. If I live, I will try; if not, keep this in my memory. It is the only thing I have.”
He put into her hand the ring she had seen in the little bon-bon box; a ring of his mother’s that he had saved when he had parted with all else, and had put off his hand and into the box of Petite Reine’s gift the day he entered the Algerian army.
Cigarette flushed scarlet with passions he could not understand, and she could not have disentangled.
“The ring of your mistress! Not for me, if I know it! Do you think I want to be paid?”
“The ring was my mother’s,” he answered her simply. “And I offer it only as souvenir.”
She lost all her color and all her fiery wrath; his grave and gentle courtesy always strangely stilled and rebuked her; but she raised the ring off the ground where she had flung it, and placed it back in his hand.
“If so, still less should you part with it. Keep it; it will bring you happiness one day. As for me, I have done nothing!”
“You have done what I value the more for that noble disclaimer. May I thank you thus, Little One?”
He stooped and kissed her; a kiss that the lips of a man will always give to the bright, youthful lips of a women, but a kiss, as she knew well, without passion, even without tenderness in it.
With a sudden impetuous movement, with a shyness and a refusal that had never been in her before, she wrested herself from him, her face burning, her heart panting, and plunged away from him into the depth of the shadow; and he never sought to follow her, but threw himself into saddle as his gray was brought up. Another instant, and, armed to the teeth, he rode out of the camp into the darkness of the silent, melancholy, lonely Arab night.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53