The errand on which he went was one, as he was well aware, from which it were a thousand chances to one that he ever issued alive.
It was to reach a distant branch of the Army of Occupation with dispatches for the chief in command there, and to do this he had to pass through a fiercely hostile region, occupied by Arabs with whom no sort of peace had ever been made, the most savage as well as the most predatory of the wandering tribes. His knowledge of their tongue, and his friendship with some men of their nation, would avail him nothing here; for their fury against the Franks was intense, and it was said that all prisoners who had fallen into their hands had been put to death with merciless barbarities. This might be true or not true; wild tales were common among Algerian campaigners; whichever it were, he thought little of it as he rode out on to the lonely plains. Every kind of hazardous adventure and every variety of peril had been familiar with him in the African life; and now there were thoughts and memories on him which deadened every recollection of merely physical risk.
“We must ride as hard and as fast as we can, and as silently,” were the only words he exchanged with Rake, as he loosened his gray to a gallop.
“All right, sir,” answered the trooper, whose warm blood was dancing, and whose blue eyes were alive like fire with delight. That he had been absent on a far-away foraging raid on the day of Zaraila had been nothing short of agony to Rake, and the choice made of him for this duty was to him a gift of paradise. He loved fighting for fighting’s sake; and to be beside Cecil was the greatest happiness life held for him.
They had two hundred miles to traverse, and had received only the command he had passed to Rake, to ride “hard, fast, and silently.” To the hero of Zaraila the general had felt too much soldierly sympathy to add the superfluous injunction to do his uttermost to carry safely and successfully to their destination the papers that were placed in his care. He knew well that the errand would be done, or the Chasseur would be dead.
It was just nightfall; the after-glow had faded only a few moments before. Giving their horses, which they were to change once, ten hours for the distance, and two for bait and for rest, he reckoned that they would reach the camp before the noon of the coming day, as the beasts, fresh and fast in the camp, flew like greyhounds beneath them.
Another night ride that they had ridden together came to the minds of both; but they spoke not a word as they swept on, their sabers shaken loose in their sheaths, their lances well gripped, and the pistols with which they had been supplied sprung in their belts, ready for instant action if a call should come for it. Every rood of the way was as full of unseen danger as if laid over mines. They might pass in safety; they might any moment be cut down by ten score against two. From every hanging scarp of rugged rock a storm of musket-balls might pour; from every screen of wild-fig foliage a shower of lances might whistle through the air; from every darkling grove of fir trees an Arab band might spring and swoop on them; but the knowledge scarcely recurred to the one save to make him shake his sword more loose for quick disengagement, and only made the sunny blue eyes of the other sparkle with a vivid and longing zest.
The night grew very chill as it wore on; the north wind rose, rushing against them with a force and icy touch that seemed to freeze their bones to the marrow after the heat of the day and the sun that had scorched them so long. There was no regular road; they went across the country, their way sometimes leading over level land, over which they swept like lightning, great plains succeeding one another with wearisome monotony; sometimes on the contrary, lying through ravines, and defiles, and gloomy woods, and broken, hilly spaces, where rent, bare rocks were thrown on one another in gigantic confusion, and the fantastic shapes of the wild fig and the dwarf palm gathered a hideous grotesqueness in the darkness. For there was no moon, and the stars were often hidden by the storm-rack of leaden clouds that drifted over the sky; and the only sound they heard was the cry of the jackal, or the shriek of the night bird, and now and then the sound of shallow water-courses, where the parched beds of hidden brooks had been filled by the autumnal rain.
The first five-and-twenty miles passed without interruption, and the horses lay well and warmly to their work. They halted to rest and bait the beasts in a rocky hollow, sheltered from the blasts of the bise, and green with short, sweet grass, sprung up afresh after the summer drought.
“Do you ever think of him, sir?” said Rake softly, with a lingering love in his voice, as he stroked the grays and tethered them.
“Of the King, sir. If he’s alive, he’s getting a rare old horse now.”
“Think of him! I wish I did not, Rake.”
“Wouldn’t you like to see him agen, sir?”
“What folly to ask! You know —”
“Yes, sir, I know,” said Rake slowly. “And I know — leastways I picked it out of a old paper — that your elder brother died, sir, like the old lord, and Mr. Berk’s got the title.”
Rake had longed and pined for an opportunity to dare say this thing which he had learned, and which he could not tell whether or no Cecil knew likewise. His eyes looked with straining eagerness through the gloom into his master’s; he was uncertain how his words would be taken. To his bitter disappointment, Cecil’s face showed no change, no wonder.
“I have heard that,” he said calmly — as calmly as though the news had no bearing on his fortunes, but was some stranger’s history.
“Well, sir, but he ain’t the lord!” pleaded Rake passionately. “He won’t never be while you’re living, sir!”
“Oh, yes, he is! I am dead, you know.”
“But he won’t, sir!” reiterated Rake. “You’re Lord Royallieu if ever there was a Lord Royallieu, and if ever there will be one.”
“You mistake. An outlaw has no civil rights, and can claim none.”
The man looked very wistfully at him; all these years through he had never learned why his master was thus “dead” in Africa, and he had too loyal a love and faith ever to ask, or ever to doubt but that Cecil was the wronged and not the wrong-doer.
“You ain’t a outlaw, sir,” he muttered. “You could take the title, if you would.”
“Oh, no! I left England under a criminal charge. I should have to disprove that before I could inherit.”
Rake crushed bitter oaths into muttered words as he heard. “You could disprove it, sir, of course, right and away, if you chose.”
“No; or I should not have come here. Let us leave the subject. It was settled long ago. My brother is Lord Royallieu. I would not disturb him, if I had the power, and I have not it. Look, the horses are taking well to their feed.”
Rake asked him no more. He had never had a harsh word from Cecil in their lives; but he knew him too well, for all that, to venture to press on him a question thus firmly put aside. But his heart ached sorely for his master; he would so gladly have seen “the king among his own again,” and would have striven for the restoration as strenuously as ever a Cavalier strove for the White Rose; and he sat in silence, perplexed and ill satisfied, under the shelter of the rock, with the great, dim, desolate African landscape stretching before him, with here and there a gleam of light upon it when the wind swept the clouds apart. His volatile speech was chilled, and his buoyant spirits were checked. That Cecil was justly outlawed he would have thought it the foulest treason to believe for one instant; yet he felt that he might as soon seek to wrench up the great stones above him from their base as seek to change the resolution of this man, whom he had once known pliant as a reed and careless as a child.
They were before long in saddle again and off, the country growing wilder at each stride the horses took.
“It is all alive with Arabs for the next ten leagues,” said Cecil, as he settled himself in his saddle. “They have come northward and been sweeping the country like a locust-swarm, and we shall blunder on some of them sooner or later. If they cut me down, don’t wait; but slash my pouch loose and ride off with it.”
“All right, sir,” said Rake obediently; but he thought to himself, “Leave you alone with them demons? Damn me if I will!”
And away they went once more, in speed and in silence, the darkness of full night closing in on them, the skies being black with the heavy drift of rising storm-clouds.
Meanwhile Cigarette was feasting with the officers of the regiment. The dinner was the best that the camp-scullions could furnish in honor of the two or three illustrious tourists who were on a visit to the headquarters of the Algerian Army; and the Little One, the heroine of Zaraila, and the toast of every mess throughout Algeria, was as indispensable as the champagnes.
Not that she was altogether herself to-night; she was feverish, she was bitter, she was full of stinging ironies; but that delicious gayety, like a kitten’s play, was gone from her, and its place, for the first time in her life was supplied by unreal and hectic excitation. In truth, while she laughed, and coquetted, and fenced with the bright two-edged blade of her wit, and tossed down the wines into her little throat like a trooper, she was thinking nothing at all of what was around her, and very little of what she said or she did. She was thinking of the starless night out yonder, of the bleak, arid country, of the great, dim, measureless plains; of one who was passing through them all, and one who might never return.
It was the first time that the absent had ever troubled her present; it was the first time that ever this foolish, senseless, haunting, unconquerable fear for another had approached her: fear — she had never known it for herself, why should she feel it now for him — a man whose lips had touched her own as lightly, as indifferently, as they might have touched the leaves of a rose or the curls of a dog!
She felt her face burn with the flash of a keen, unbearable passionate shame. Men by the score had wooed her love, to be flouted with the insouciant mischief of her coquetry, and forgotten tomorrow if they were shot today; and now he — he whose careless, calm caress would make her heart vibrate and her limbs tremble with an emotion she had never known — he valued her love so little that he never even knew that he had roused it! To the proud young warrior of France a greater degradation, a deadlier humiliation, than this could not have come.
Yet she was true as steel to him; true with the strong and loyal fealty that is inborn with such natures as hers. To have betrayed what he had trusted to her, because she was neglected and wounded by him, would have been a feminine baseness of which the soldier-like soul of Cigarette would have been totally incapable. Her revenge might be fierce, and rapid, and sure, like the revenge of a soldier; but it could never be stealing and traitorous, and never like the revenge of a woman.
Not a word escaped her that could have given a clew to the secret with which he had involuntarily weighted her; she only studied with interest and keenness the face and the words of this man whom he had loved, and from whom he had fled as criminals flee from their accusers.
“What is your name?” she asked him curtly, in one of the pauses of the amorous and witty nonsense that circulated in the tent in which the officers of Chasseurs were entertaining him.
“Well — some call me Seraph.”
“Ah! you have petite names, then, in Albion? I should have though she was too somber and too stiff for them. Besides?”
“What a droll name! What are you?”
“Good! What grade?”
“A Colonel of Guards.”
Cigarette gave a little whistle to herself; she remembered that a Marshal of France had once said of a certain Chasseur, “He has the seat of the English Guards.”
“My pretty catechist, M. le Duc does not tell you his title,” cried one of the officers.
Cigarette interrupted him with a toss of her head.
“Ouf! Titles are nothing to me. I am a child of the People. So you are a Duke, are you, M. le Seraph? Well, that is not much, to my thinking. Bah! there is Fialin made a Duke in Paris, and there are aristocrats here wearing privates’ uniforms, and littering down their own horses. Bah! Have you that sort of thing in Albion?”
“Attorneys throned on high, and gentlemen glad to sweep crossings? Oh, yes!” laughed her interlocutor. “But you speak of aristocrats in your ranks — that reminds me. Have you not in this corps a soldier called Louis Victor?”
He had turned as he spoke to one of the officers, who answered him in the affirmative; while Cigarette listened with all her curiosity and all her interest, that needed a deeper name, heightened and tight-strung.
“A fine fellow,” continued the Chef d’Escadron to whom he had appealed. “He behaved magnificently the other day at Zaraila; he must be distinguished for it. He is just sent on a perilous errand, but though so quiet he is a croc-mitaine, and woe to the Arabs who slay him! Are you acquainted with him?”
“Not in the least. But I wished to hear all I could of him. I have been told he seems above his present position. Is it so?”
“Likely enough, monsieur; he seems a gentleman. But then we have many gentlemen in the ranks, and we can make no difference for that. Cigarette can tell you more of him; she used to complain that he bowed like a Court chamberlain.”
“Oh, ha! — I did!” cried Cigarette, stung into instant irony because pained and irritated by being appealed to on the subject. “And of course, when so many of his officers have the manners of Pyrenean bears, it is a little awkward for him to bring us the manner of a Palace!”
Which effectually chastised the Chef d’Escadron, who was one of those who had a ton of the roughest manners, and piqued himself on his powers of fence much more than on his habits of delicacy.
“Has this Victor any history?” asked the English Duke.
“He has written one with his sword; a fine one,” said Cigarette curtly. “We are not given here to care much about any other.”
“Quite right; I asked because a friend of mine who had seen his carvings wished to serve him, if it were possible; and —”
“Ho! That is Milady, is suppose!” Cigarette’s eyes flashed fire instantly, in wrath and suspicion. “What did she tell you about him?”
“I am ignorant of whom you speak?” he answered, with something of surprise and annoyance.
“Are you?” said Cigarette, in derision. “I doubt that. Of whom should I speak but of her? Bah? She insulted him, she offered him gold, she sent my men the spoils of her table, as if they were paupers, and he thinks it all divine because it is done by Mme. la Princesse Corona d’Amague! Bah! when he was delirious, the other night, he could babble of nothing but of her — of her — of her!”
The jealous, fiery impatience in her vanquished every other thought; she was a child in much, she was untutored in all; she had no thought that by the scornful vituperation of “Milady” she could either harm Cecil or betray herself. But she was amazed to see the English guest change color with a haughty anger that he strove to subdue as he half rose and answered her with an accent in his voice that reminded her — she knew not why — of Bel-a-faire-peur and of Marquise.
“Mme. la Princess Corona d’Amague is my sister; why do you venture to couple the name of this Chasseur with hers?”
Cigarette sprang to her feet, vivacious, imperious, reckless, dared to anything by the mere fact of being publicly arraigned.
“Pardieu! Is it insult to couple the silver pheasant with the Eagles of France? — a pretty idea, truly! So she is your sister, is she? Milady? Well, then, tell her from me to think twice before she outrages a soldier with ‘patronage’; and tell her, too, that had I been he I would have ground my ivory toys into powder before I would have let them become the playthings of a grande dame who tendered me gold for them!”
The Englishman looked at her with astonishment that was mingled with a vivid sense of intense annoyance and irritated pride, that the name he cherished closest should be thus brought in, at a camp dinner, on the lips of a vivandiere and in connection with a trooper of Chasseurs.
“I do not understand your indignation, mademoiselle,” he said, with an impatient stroke to his beard. “There is no occasion for it. Mme. Corona d’Amague, my sister,” he continued, to the officers present, “became accidentally acquainted with the skill at sculpture of this Corporal of yours; he appeared to her a man of much refinement and good breeding. She chanced to name him to me, and feeling some pity —”
“M. le Duc!” cried the ringing voice of Cigarette, loud and startling as a bugle-note, while she stood like a little lioness, flushed with the draughts of champagne and with the warmth of wrath at once jealous and generous, “keep your compassion until it is asked of you. No soldier of France needs it; that I promise you. I know this man that you talk of ‘pitying.’ Well, I saw him at Zaraila three weeks ago; he had drawn up his men to die with them rather than surrender and yield up the guidon; I dragged him half dead, when the field was won, from under his horse, and his first conscious act was to give the drink that I brought him to a wretch who had thieved from him. Our life here is hell upon earth to such as he, yet none ever heard a lament wrung out of him; he is gone to the chances of death to-night as most men go to their mistresses’ kisses; he is a soldier Napoleon would have honored. Such a one is not to have the patronage of a Milady Corona, nor the pity of a stranger of England. Let the first respect him; let the last imitate him!”
And Cigarette, having pronounced her defense and her eulogy with the vibrating eloquence of some orator from a tribune, threw her champagne goblet down with a crash, and, breaking through the arms outstretched to detain her, forced her way out despite them, and left her hosts alone in their lighted tent.
“C’est Cigarette!” said the Chef d’Escadron, with a shrug of his shoulders, as of one who explained, by that sentence, a whole world of irreclaimable eccentricities.
“A strange little Amazon!” said their guest. “Is she in love with this Victor, that I have offended her so much with his name?”
The Major shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know that, monsieur,” answered one. “She will defend a man in his absence, and rate him to his face most soundly. Cigarette whirls about like a little paper windmill, just as the breeze blows; but, as the windmill never leaves its stick, so she is always constant to the Tricolor.”
Their guest said little more on the subject; in his own thoughts he was bitterly resentful that, by the mention of this Chasseur’s fortunes, he should have brought in the name he loved so well — the purest, fairest, haughtiest name in Europe — into a discussion with a vivandiere at a camp dinner.
Chateauroy, throughout, had said nothing; he had listened in silence, the darkness lowering still more heavily upon his swarthy features; only now he opened his lips for a few brief words:
“Mon cher Duc, tell Madame not to waste the rare balm of her pity. The fellow you inquire for was an outcast and an outlaw when he came to us. He fights well — it is often a blackguard’s virtue!”
His guest nodded and changed the subject; his impatience and aversion at the introduction of his sister’s name into the discussion made him drop the theme unpursued, and let it die out forgotten.
Venetia Corona associated with an Algerian trooper! If Cigarette had been of his own sex he could have dashed the white teeth down her throat for having spoken of the two in one breath.
And as, later on, he stretched his gallant limbs out on his narrow camp pallet, tired with a long day in saddle under the hot African sun, the Seraph fell asleep with his right arm under his handsome golden head, and thought no more of this unknown French trooper.
But Cigarette remained wakeful.
She lay curled up in the straw against her pet horse, Etoile Filante, with her head on the beast’s glossy flank and her hand among his mane. She often slept thus in camp, and the horse would lie still and cramped for hours rather than awaken her, or, if he rose, would take the most watchful heed to leave unharmed the slender limbs, the flushed cheeks, the frank, fair brow of the sleeper beneath him, that one stroke of his hoof could have stamped out into a bruised and shapeless mass.
To-night Etoile Filante slept, and his mistress was awake — wide-awake, with her eyes looking out into the darkness beyond, with a passionate mist of unshed tears in them, and her mouth quivering with pain and with wrath. The vehement excitation had not died away in her, but there had come with it a dull, spiritless, aching depression. It had roused her to fury to hear the reference to her rival spoken — of that aristocrat whose name had been on Cecil’s lips when he had been delirious. She had kept his secret loyally, she had defended him vehemently; there was something that touched her to the core in the thought of the love with which he had recognized this friend who, in ignorance, spoke of him as of some unknown French soldier. She could not tell what the history was, but she could divine nearly enough to feel its pathos and its pain. She had known, in her short life, more of men and of their passions and of their fortunes than many lives of half a century in length can ever do; she could guess, nearly enough to be wounded with its sorrow, the past which had exiled the man who had kept by him his lost mother’s ring as the sole relic of years to which he was dead so utterly as though he were lying in his coffin. No matter what the precise reason was — women, or debt, or accident, or ruin — these two, who had been familiar comrades, were now as strangers to each other; the one slumbered in ignorance near her, the other had gone out to the close peril of death, lest the eyes of his friend recognize his face and read his secret. It troubled her, it weighed on her, it smote her with a pang. It might be that now, even now — this very moment, while her gaze watched the dusky shadows of the night chase one another along the dreary plains — a shot might have struck down this life that had been stripped of name and fame and country; even now all might be over!
And Cigarette felt a cold, sickly shudder seize her that never before, at death or danger, had chilled the warm, swift current of her bright French blood. In bitter scorn at herself, she muttered hot oaths between her pretty teeth.
Mere de Dieu! he had touched her lips as carelessly as her own kiss would have touched the rose-bud, waxen petals of a cluster of oleander-blossoms; and she cared for him still!
While the Seraph slept dreamlessly, with the tents of the French camp around him, and the sleepless eyes of Cigarette watched afar off the dim, distant forms of the vedettes as they circled slowly round at their outpost duty — eight leagues off, through a vast desert of shadow and silence, the two horsemen swept swiftly on. Not a word had passed between them; they rode close together in unbroken stillness; they were scarcely visible to each other for there was no moon, and storm-clouds obscured the skies. Now and then their horses’ hoofs struck fire from a flint-stone, and the flash sparkled through the darkness; often not even the sound of their gallop was audible on the gray, dry, loose soil.
Every rood of the road was sown thick with peril. No frowning ledge of rock, with pine-roots in its clefts, but might serve as the barricade behind which some foe lurked; no knot of cypress-shrubs, black even on that black sheet of shadow, but might be pierced with the steel tubes of leveled, waiting muskets.
Pillaging, burning, devastating wherever they could, in what was to them a holy war of resistance to the infidel and the invader, the predatory tribes had broken out into a revolt which the rout of Zaraila, heavy blow though it had been to them, had by no means ended. They were still in arms, infesting the country everywhere southward; defying regular pursuit, impervious to regular attacks; carrying on the harassing guerilla warfare at which they were such adepts. And causing thus to their Frankish foe more irritation and more loss than decisive engagements would have produced. They feared nothing, had nothing to lose, and could subsist almost upon nothing. They might be driven into the desert, they might even be exterminated after long pursuit; but they would never be vanquished. And they were scattered now far and wide over the country; every cave might shelter, every ravine might inclose them; they appeared here, they appeared there; they swooped down on a convoy, they carried sword and flame into a settlement, they darted like a flight of hawks upon a foraging party, they picked off any vedette, as he wheeled his horse round in the moonlight; and every yard of the sixty miles which the two gray chargers of the Chasseurs d’Afrique must cover ere their service was done was as rife with death as though its course lay over the volcanic line of an earthquake or a hollow, mined and sprung.
They had reached the center of the plain when the sound they had long looked for rang on their ears, piercing the heavy, breathless stillness of the night. It was the Allah-il-Allah of their foes, the war-cry of the Moslem. Out of the gloom — whether from long pursuit or some near hiding-place they could not tell — there broke suddenly upon them the fury of an Arab onslaught. In the darkness all they could see were the flash of steel, the flame of fierce eyes against their own, the white steam of smoking horses, the spray of froth flung off the snorting nostrils, the rapid glitter of the curved flissas — whether two, or twenty, or twice a hundred were upon them they could not know — they never did know. All of which they were conscious was that in an instant, from the tranquil melancholy around them of the great, dim, naked space, they were plunged into the din, the fury, the heat, the close, crushing, horrible entanglement of conflict, without the power to perceive or to number their foes, and only able to follow the sheer, simple instincts of attack and of defense. All they were sensible of was one of those confused moments, deafening, blinding, filled with violence and rage and din — an eternity in semblance, a second in duration — that can never be traced, never be recalled; yet in whose feverish excitement men do that which, in their calmer hours, would look to them a fable of some Amadis of Gaul.
How they were attacked, how they resisted, how they struck, how they were encompassed, how they thrust back those who were hurled on them in the black night, with the north sea-wind like ice upon their faces, and the loose African soil drifting up in clouds of sand around them, they could never have told. Nor how they strained free from the armed ring that circled them, and beat aside the shafts of lances and the blades of swords, and forced their chargers breast to breast against the fence of steel and through the tempest of rage, and blows, and shouts, and wind, and driven sand, cut their way through the foe whose very face they scarce could see, and plunged away into the shadows across the desolation of the plain, pursued, whether by one or by the thousand they could not guess; for the gallop was noiseless on the powdered soil, and the Arab yell of baffled passion and slaughterous lust was half drowned in the rising of the wind-storm. Had it been day, they would have seen their passage across the level table-land traced by a crimson stream upon the sand, in which the blood of Frank and Arab blended equally.
As it was, they dashed headlong down through the darkness that grew yet denser and blacker as the storm rose. For miles the ground was level before them, and they had only to let the half-maddened horses, that had as by a miracle escaped all injury, rush on at their own will through the whirl of the wind that drove the dust upward in spiral columns and brought icy breaths of the north over the sear, sunburned, southern wastes.
For a long space they had no sense but that of rapid, ceaseless motion through the thick gloom and against the pressure of the violent blasts. The speed of their gallop and the strength of the currents of air were like some narcotic that drowned and that dizzied perception. In the intense darkness neither could see, neither hear, the other; the instinct of the beasts kept them together, but no word could be heard above the roar of the storm, and no light broke the somber veil of shadow through which they passed as fast as leopards course through the night. The first faint streak of dawn grew gray in the east when Cecil felt his charger stagger and sway beneath him, and halt, worn out and quivering in every sinew with fatigue. He threw himself off the animal in time to save himself from falling with it as it reeled and sank to the ground.
“Massena cannot stir another yard,” he said. “Do you think they follow us still?”
There was no reply.
He strained his sight to pierce the darkness, but he could distinguish nothing; the gloom was still too deep. He spoke more loudly; still there was no reply. Then he raised his voice in a shout; it rang through the silence, and, when it ceased, the silence reigned again.
A deadly chill came on him. How had he missed his comrade? They must be far apart, he knew, since no response was given to his summons; or — the alternative rose before him with a terrible foreboding.
That intense quiet had a repose as of death in it, a ghastly loneliness that seemed filled with desolation. His horse was stretched before him on the sand, powerless to rise and drag itself a rood onward, and fast expiring. From the plains around him not a sound came, either of friend or foe. The consciousness that he was alone, that he had lost forever the only friend left to him, struck on him with that conviction which so often foreruns the assurance of calamity. Without a moment’s pause he plunged back in the direction he had come, leaving the charger on the ground to pant its life out as it must, and sought to feel his way along, so as to seek as best he could the companion he had deserted. He still could not see a rood before him, but he went on slowly, with some vague hope that he should ere long reach the man whom he knew death or the fatality of accident alone would keep from his side. He could not feel or hear anything that gave him the slightest sign or clew to aid his search; he only wandered farther from his horse, and risked falling afresh into the hands of his pursuers; he shouted again with all his strength, but his own voice alone echoed over the plains, while his heart stood still with the same frozen dread that a man feels when, wrecked on some barren shore, his cry for rescue rings back on his own ear over the waste of waters.
The flicker of the dawn was growing lighter in the sky, and he could see dimly now, as in some winter day’s dark twilight, though all around him hung the leaden mist, with the wild winds driving furiously. It was with difficulty also that he kept his feet against their force; but he was blown onward by their current, though beaten from side to side, and he still made his way forward. He had repassed the ground already traversed by some hundred yards or more, which seemed the length of many miles in the hurricane that was driving over the earth and sky, when some outline still duskier than the dusky shadow caught his sight; it was the body of a horse, standing on guard over the fallen body of a man.
Another moment and he was beside them.
“My God! Are you hurt?”
He could see nothing but an indistinct and shapeless mass, without form or color to mark it out from the brooding gloom and from the leaden earth. But the voice he knew so well answered him with the old love and fealty in it; eager with fear for him.
“When did you miss me, sir? I didn’t mean you to know; I held on as long as I could; and when I couldn’t no longer, I thought you was safe not to see I’d knocked over, so dark as it was.”
“Great Heavens! You are hurt, then?”
“Just finished, sir. Lord! It don’t matter. Only you ride on, Mr. Cecil; ride on, I say. Don’t mind me.”
“What is it? When were you struck? O Heaven! I never dreamt ——”
Cecil hung over him, striving in vain through the shadows to read the truth from the face on which he felt by instinct the seal of death was set.
“I never meant you should know, sir. I meant just to drop behind and die on the quiet. You see, sir, it was just this way; they hit me as we forced through them. There’s the lance-head in my loins now. I pressed it in hard, and kept the blood from flowing, and thought I should hold out so till the sun rose. But I couldn’t do it so long; I got sick and faint after a while, and I knew well enough it was death. So I dropped down while I’d sense left to check the horse and get out of saddle in silence. I hoped you wouldn’t miss me, in the darkness and the noise the wind was making; and you didn’t hear me then, sir. I was glad.”
His voice was checked in a quick, gasping breath; his only thought had been to lie down and die in the solitude so that his master might be saved.
A great sob shook Cecil as he heard; no false hope came to him; he felt that this man was lost to him forever, that this was the sole recompense which the cruelty of Africa would give to a fidelity passing the fidelity of woman; these throes of dissolution the only payment with which fate would ever requite a loyalty that had held no travail weary, no exile pain, and no danger worthy counting, so long as they were encountered and endured in his own service.
“Don’t take on about it, sir,” whispered Rake, striving to raise his head that he might strain his eyes better through the gloom to see his master’s face. “It was sure to come some time; and I ain’t in no pain — to speak of. Do leave me, Mr. Cecil — leave me, for God’s sake, and save yourself!”
“Did you leave me?”
The answer was very low, and his voice shook as he uttered it; but through the roar of the hurricane Rake heard it.
“That was different, sir,” he said simply. “Let me lie here, and go you on. It’ll soon be over, and there’s naught to be done.”
“O God! is no help possible?”
“Don’t take on, sir; it’s no odds. I always was a scamp, and scamps die game, you know. My life’s been a rare spree, count it all and all; and it’s a great, good thing, you see, sir, to go off quick like this. I might have been laid in hospital. If you’d only take the beast and ride on, sir —”
“Hush! hush! Would you make me coward, or brute, or both?”
The words broke in an agony from him. The time had been when he had been himself stretched in what he had thought was death, in just such silence, in just such solitude, upon the bare, baked earth, far from men’s aid, and near only to the hungry eyes of watching beasts of prey. Then he had been very calm, and waited with indifference for the end; now his eyes swept over the remorseless wastes, that were growing faintly visible under the coming dawn, with all the impatience, the terror, of despair. Death had smitten down many beside him; buoyant youth and dauntless manhood he had seen a thousand times swept under the great waves of war and lost forever, but it had an anguish for him here that he would never have known had he felt his own life-blood well out over the sand. The whole existence of this man had been sacrificed for him, and its only reward was a thrust of a lance in a midnight fray — a grave in an alien soil.
His grief fell dully on ears half deafened already to the sounds of the living world. The exhaustion that follows on great loss of blood was upon the soldier who for the last half hour had lain there in the darkness and the stillness, quietly waiting death, and not once seeking even to raise his voice for succor lest the cry should reach and should imperil his master.
The morning had broken now, but the storm had not lulled. The northern winds were sweeping over the plains in tenfold violence, and the rains burst and poured, with the fury of water-spouts on the crust of the parched, cracked earth. Around them there was nothing heard or seen except the leaden, angry mists, tossed to and fro under the hurricane, and the white light of the coming day breaking lividly through the clouds. The world held no place of more utter desolation, more unspeakable loneliness; and in its misery Cecil, flung down upon the sands beside him, could do nothing except — helpless to aid, and powerless to save — watch the last breath grow feebler and feebler, until it faded out from the only life that had been faithful to him.
By the fitful gleams of day he could see the blood slowly ebbing out from the great gap where the lance-head was still bedded with its wooden shaft snapped in two; he could see the drooped head that he had raised upon his knee, with the yellow, northern curls that no desert suns had darkened; and Rake’s eyes, smiling so brightly and so bravely still, looked up from under their weary lids to his.
“I’d never let you take my hand before, sir; just take it once now — will you? — while I can see you still.”
Their hands met as he asked it, and held each other close and long; all the loyal service of the one life, and all the speechless gratitude of the other, told better than by all words in that one farewell.
A light that was not from the stormy dusky morning shone over the soldier’s face.
“Time was, sir,” he said, with a smile, “when I need to think as how, some day or another, when I should have done something great and grand, and you was back among your own again, and they here had given me the Cross, I’d have asked you to have done that before all the Army, and just to have said to ’em, if so you liked, ‘He was a scamp, and he wasn’t thought good for naught; but he kept true to me, and you see it made him go straight, and I aren’t ashamed to call him my friend.’ I used to think that, sir, though ’twas silly, perhaps. But it’s best as it is — a deal best, no doubt. If you was only back safe in camp ——”
“O God! cease! I am not worthy one thought of love like yours.”
“Yes, you are, sir — leastways, you was to me. When you took pity on me, it was just a toss-up if I didn’t go right to the gallows. Don’t grieve that way, Mr. Cecil. If I could just have seen you home again in your place, I should have been glad — that’s all. You’ll go back one day, sir; when you do, tell the King I ain’t never forgot him.”
His voice grew faint as the last sentence stole from his lips; he lay quite still, his head leaned back against his mater; and the day came, with the north winds driving over the plains and the gray mists tossed by them to and fro like smoke.
There was a long silence, a pause in which the windstorm ceased, and the clouds of the loosed sands sunk. Alone, with the wastes stretching around them, were the living and the dying man, with the horse standing motionless beside them, and, above, the gloom of the sullen sky. No aid was possible; they could but wait, in the stupefaction of despair, for the end of all to come.
In that awful stillness, in that sudden lull in the madness of the hurricane, death had a horror which it never wore in the riot of the battlefield, in the intoxication of the slaughter. There was no pity in earth or heaven; the hard, hot ground sucked down its fill of blood; the icy air enwrapped them like a shroud.
The faithfulness of love, the strength of gratitude, were of no avail; the one perished in agony, the other was powerless to save.
In that momentary hush, as the winds sank low, the heavy eyes, half sightless now, sought with their old wistful, doglike loyalty the face to which so soon they would be blind forever.
“Would you tell me once, sir — now? I never asked — I never would have done — but may be I might know in this last minute. You never sinned that sin you bear the charge on?”
“God is my witness, no.”
The light, that was like sunlight, shone once more in the aching, wandering eyes.
“I knew, I knew! It was —”
Cecil bowed his head over him, lower and lower.
“Hush! He was but a child; and I—”
With a sudden and swift motion, as though new life were thrilling in him, Rake raised himself erect, his arms stretched outward to the east, where the young day was breaking.
“I knew, I knew! I never doubted. You will go back to your own some day, and men shall learn the truth — thank God! thank God!”
Then, with that light still on his face, his head fell backward; and with one quick, brief sigh his life fled out forever.
The time passed on; the storm had risen afresh; the violence of the gusts blew yellow sheets of sand whirling over the plains. Alone, with the dead one across his knees, Cecil sat motionless as though turned to stone. His eyes were dry and fixed; but ever and again a great, tearless sob shook him from head to foot. The only life that linked him with the past, the only love that had suffered all things for his sake, were gone, crushed out as though they never had been, like some insect trodden in the soil.
He had lost all consciousness, all memory, save of that lifeless thing which lay across his knees, like a felled tree, like a broken log, with the glimmer of the tempestuous day so chill and white upon the upturned face.
He was alone on earth; and the solitudes around him were not more desolate than his own fate.
He was like a man numbed and stupefied by intense cold; his veins seemed stagnant, and his sight could only see those features that became so terribly serene, so fearfully unmoved with the dread calm of death. Yet the old mechanical instincts of a soldier guided him still; he vaguely knew that his errand had to be done, must be done, let his heart ache as it would, let him long as he might to lie down by the side of his only friend, and leave the torture of life to grow still in him also for evermore.
Instinctively, he moved to carry out the duty trusted to him. He looked east and west, north and south; there was nothing in sight that could bring him aid; there were only the dust clouds hurled in billows hither and thither by the bitter winds still blowing from the sea. All that could be done had to be done by himself alone. His own safety hung on the swiftness of his flight; for aught he knew, at every moment, out of the mist and the driven sheets of sand there might rush the desert horses of his foes. But this memory was not with him; all he thought of was that burden stretched across his limbs, which laid down one hour here unwatched, would be the prey of the jackal and the vulture. He raised it reverently in his arms, and with long, laborious effort drew its weight up across the saddle of the charger which stood patiently waiting by, turning its docile eyes with a plaintive, wondering sadness on the body of the rider it had loved. Then he mounted himself; and with the head of his lost comrade borne up upon his arm, and rested gently on his breast, he rode westward over the great plain to where his mission lay.
The horse paced slowly beneath the double load of dead and living; he would not urge the creature faster on; every movement that shook the drooping limbs, or jarred the repose of that last sleep, seemed desecration. He passed the place where his own horse was stretched; the vultures were already there. He shuddered; and then pressed faster on, as though the beasts and birds of prey would rob him of his burden ere he could give it sanctuary. And so he rode, mile after mile, over the barren land, with no companion save the dead.
The winds blew fiercely in his teeth; the sand was in his eyes and hair; the way was long, and weary, and sown thick with danger; but he knew of nothing, felt and saw nothing save that one familiar face so strangely changed and transfigured by that glory with which death had touched it.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53