Amid the mirth, the noise, the festivity, which reigned throughout the camp as the men surrendered themselves to the enjoyment of the largesses of food and of wine allotted to them by their Marshal’s command in commemoration of Zaraila, one alone remained apart; silent and powerless to rouse himself even to the forced semblance, the forced endurance, of their mischief and their pleasure. They knew him well, and they also loved him too well to press such participation on him. They knew that it was no lack of sympathy with them that made him so grave amid their mirth, so mute amid their volubility. Some thought that he was sorely wounded by the delay of the honors promised him. Others, who knew him better, thought that it was the loss of his brother-exile which weighed on him, and made all the scene around him full of pain. None approached him; but while they feasted in their tents, making the celebration of Zaraila equal to the Jour de Mazagran, he sat alone over a picket-fire on the far outskirts of the camp.
His heart was sick within him. To remain here was to risk with every moment that ordeal of recognition which he so utterly dreaded; and to flee was to leave his name to the men, with whom he had served so long, covered with obloquy and odium, buried under all the burning shame and degradation of a traitor’s and deserter’s memory. The latter course was impossible to him; the only alternative was to trust that the vastness of that great concrete body, of which he was one unit, would suffice to hide him from the discovery of the friend whose love he feared as he feared the hatred of no foe. He had not been seen as he had passed the flag-staff; there was little fear that in the few remaining hours any chance could bring the illustrious guest of a Marshal to the outpost of the scattered camp.
Yet he shuddered as he sat in the glow of the fire of pinewood; she was so near, and he could not behold her! — though he might never see her face again; though they must pass out of Africa, home to the land that he desired as only exiles can desire, while he still remained silent, knowing that, until death should release him, there could be no other fate for him, save only this one, hard, bitter, desolate, uncompanioned, unpitied, unrewarded life. But to break his word as the price of his freedom was not possible to his nature or in his creed. This fate was, in chief, of his own making; he accepted it without rebellion, because rebellion would have been in this case both cowardice and self-pity.
He was not conscious of any heroism in this; it seemed to him the only course left to a man who, in losing the position, had not abandoned the instincts of a gentleman.
The evening wore away, unmeasured by him; the echoes of the soldiers’ mirth came dimly on his ear; the laughter, and the songs, and the music were subdued into one confused murmur by distance; there was nothing near him except a few tethered horses, and far way the mounted figure of the guard who kept watch beyond the boundaries of the encampment. The fire burned on, for it had been piled high before it was abandoned; the little white dog of his regiment was curled at his feet; he sat motionless, sunk in thought, with his head drooped upon his breast. The voice of Cigarette broke on his musing.
“Beau sire, you are wanted yonder.”
He looked up wearily; could he never be at peace? He did not notice that the tone of the greeting was rough and curt; he did not notice that there was a stormy darkness, a repressed bitterness, stern and scornful, on the Little One’s face; he only thought that the very dogs were left sometimes at rest and unchained, but a soldier never.
“You are wanted!” repeated Cigarette, with imperious contempt.
He rose on the old instinct of obedience.
She stood looking at him without replying; her mouth was tightly shut in a hard line that pressed inward all its soft and rosy prettiness. She was seeing how haggard his face was, how heavy his eyes, how full of fatigue his movements. Her silence recalled him to the memory of the past day.
“Forgive me, my dear child, if I have seemed without sympathy in all your honors,” he said gently, as he laid his hand on her shoulder. “Believe me, it was unintentional. No one knows better than I how richly you deserved them; no one rejoices more that you should have received them.”
The very gentleness of the apology stung her like a scorpion; she shook herself roughly out of his hold.
“Point de phrases! All the army is at my back; do you think I cannot do without you? Sympathy too! Bah! We don’t know those fine words in camp. You are wanted, I tell you — go!”
“To your Silver Pheasant yonder — go!”
“Who? I do not —”
“Dame! Can you not understand? Milady wants to see you; I told her I would send you to her. You can use your dainty sentences with her; she is of your Order!”
“What! she wishes —”
“Go!” reiterated the Little One with a stamp of her boot. “You know the great tent where she is throned in honor — Morbleu! — as if the oldest and ugliest hag that washes out my soldiers’ linen were not of more use and more deserved such lodgment than Mme. la Princesse, who has never done aught in her life, not even brushed out her own hair of gold! She waits for you. Where are your palace manners? Go to her, I tell you. She is of your own people; we are not!”
The vehement, imperious phrases coursed in disorder one after another, rapid and harsh, and vibrating with a hundred repressed emotions. He paused one moment, doubting whether she did not play some trick upon him; then, without a word, left her, and went rapidly through the evening shadows.
Cigarette stood looking after him with a gaze that was very evil, almost savage, in its wrath, in its pain, in its fiery jealousy, that ached so hotly in her, and was chained down by that pride which was as intense in the Vivandiere of Algeria as ever it could be in any Duchess of a Court. Reckless, unfeminine, hardened, vitiated in much, as all her sex would have deemed, and capable of the utmost abandonment to her passion had it been returned, the haughty young soul of the child of the People was as sensitively delicate in this one thing as the purest and chastest among women could have been; she dreaded above every other thing that he should ever suspect that she loved him, or that she desired his love.
Her honor, her generosity, her pity for him, her natural instinct to do the thing that was right, even to her foes, any one of the unstudied and unanalyzed qualities in her had made her serve him even at her rival’s bidding. But it had cost her none the less hardly because so manfully done; none the less did all the violent, ruthless hate, the vivid, childlike fury, the burning, intolerable jealousy of her nature combat in her with the cruel sense of her own unlikeness with that beauty which had subdued even herself, and with that nobler impulse of self-sacrifice which grew side by side with the baser impulses of passion.
As she crouched down by the side of the fire all the gracious, spiritual light that had been upon her face was gone; there was something of the goaded, dangerous, sullen ferocity of a brave animal hard-pressed and over-driven.
Her native generosity, the loyal disinterestedness of her love for him, had overborne the jealousy, the wounded vanity, and the desire of vengeance that reigned in her. Carried away by the first, she had, for the hour, risen above the last, and allowed the nobler wish to serve and rescue him to prevail over the baser egotism. Nothing with her was ever premeditated; all was the offspring of the caprices of the impulse of the immediate moment. And now the reaction followed; she was only sensible of the burning envy that consumed her of this woman who seemed to her more than mortal in her wonderful, fair loveliness, in her marvelous difference from everything of their sex that the camp and the barrack ever showed.
“And I have sent him to her when I should have fired my pistol into her breast!” she thought, as she sat by the dying embers. And she remembered once more the story of the Marseilles fisherwoman. She understood that terrible vengeance under the hot, southern sun, beside the ruthless, southern seas.
Meanwhile he, who so little knew or heeded how he occupied her heart, passed unnoticed through the movements of the military crowds, crossed the breadth that parted the encampment from the marquees of the generals and their guests, gave the countersign and approached unarrested, and so far unseen save by the sentinels, the tents of the Corona suite. The Marshal and his male visitors were still over their banquet wines; she had withdrawn early, on the plea of fatigue; there was no one to notice his visit except the men on guard, who concluded that he went by command. In the dusky light, for the moon was very young, and the flare of the torches made the shadows black and uncertain, no one recognized him; the few soldiers stationed about saw one of their own troopers, and offered him no opposition, made him no question. He knew the password; that was sufficient. The Levantine waiting near the entrance drew the tent-folds aside and signed to him to enter. Another moment, and he was in the presence of her mistress, in that dim, amber light from the standing candelabra, in that heavy, soft-scented air perfumed from the aloe-wood burning in a brazier, through which he saw, half blinded at first coming from the darkness without, that face which subdued and dazzled even the antagonism and the lawlessness of Cigarette.
He bowed low before her, preserving that distant ceremonial due from the rank he ostensibly held to hers.
“Madame, this is very merciful! I know not how to thank you.”
She motioned to him to take a seat near to her, while the Levantine, who knew nothing of the English tongue, retired to the farther end of the tent.
“I only kept my word,” she answered, “for we leave the camp tomorrow; Africa next week.”
She saw the blood forsake the bronzed fairness of his face, and leave the dusky pallor there. It wounded her as if she suffered herself. For the first time she believed what the Little One had said — that this man loved her.
“I sent for you,” she continued hurriedly, her graceful languor and tranquillity for the first time stirred and quickened by emotion, almost by embarrassment. “It was very strange, it was very painful, for me to trust that child with such a message. But you know us of old; you know we do not forsake our friends for considerations of self-interest or outward semblance. We act as we deem right; we do not heed untrue constructions. There are many things I desire to say to you ——”
She paused; he merely bent his head; he could not trust the calmness of his voice in answer.
“First,” she continued, “I must entreat you to allow me to tell Philip what I know. You cannot conceive how intensely oppressive it becomes to me to have any secret from him. I never concealed so much as a thought from my brother in all my life, and to evade even a mute question from his brave, frank eyes makes me feel a traitress to him.”
“Anything else,” he muttered. “Ask me anything else. For God’s sake, do not let him dream that I live!”
“But why? You still speak to me in enigmas. To-morrow, moreover, before we leave, he intends to seek you out as what he thinks you — a soldier of France. He is interested by all he hears of your career; he was first interested by what I told him of you when he saw the ivory carvings at my villa. I asked the little vivandiere to tell you this, but, on second thoughts it seemed best to see you myself once more, as I had promised.”
There was a slow weariness in the utterance of the words. She had said that she could not reflect on leaving him to such a fate as this of his in Africa without personal suffering, or without an effort to induce him to reconsider his decision to condemn himself to it for evermore.
“That French child,” she went on rapidly, to cover both the pain that she felt and that she dealt, “forced her entrance here in a strange fashion; she wished to see me, I suppose, and to try my courage too. She is a little brigand, but she had a true and generous nature, and she loves you very loyally.”
“Cigarette?” he asked wearily; his thoughts could not stay for either the pity or interest for her in this moment. “Oh, no! I trust not. I have done nothing to win her love, and she is a fierce little condottiera who disdains all such weakness. She forced her way in here? That was unpardonable; but she seems to bear a singular dislike to you.”
“Singular, indeed! I never saw her until today.”
He answered nothing; the conviction stole on him that Cigarette hated her because he loved her.
“And yet she brought you my message?” pursued his companion. “That seems her nature — violent passions, yet thorough loyalty. But time is precious. I must urge on you what I bade you come to hear. It is to implore you to put your trust, your confidence in Philip. You have acknowledged to me that you are guiltless — no one who knows what you once were could ever doubt it for an instant — then let him hear this, let him be your judge as to what course is right and what wrong for you to pursue. It is impossible for me to return to Europe knowing you are living thus and leaving you to such a fate. What motive you have to sentence yourself to such eternal banishment I am ignorant; but all I ask of you is, confide in him. Let him learn that you live; let him decide whether or not this sacrifice of yourself be needed. His honor is an punctilious as that of any man on earth; his friendship you can never doubt. Why conceal anything from him?”
His eyes turned on her with that dumb agony which once before had chilled her to the soul.
“Do you think, if I could speak in honor, I should not tell you all?”
A flush passed over her face, the first that the gaze of any man had ever brought there. She understood him.
“But,” she said, gently and hurriedly, “may it not be that you overrate the obligations of honor? I know that many a noble-hearted man has inexorably condemned himself to a severity of rule that a dispassionate judge of his life might deem very exaggerated, very unnecessary. It is so natural for an honorable man to so dread that he should do a dishonorable thing through self-interest or self-pity, that he may very well overestimate the sacrifice required of him through what he deems justice or generosity. May it not be so with you? I can conceive no reason that can be strong enough to require of you such fearful surrender of every hope, such utter abandonment of your own existence.”
Her voice failed slightly over the last words; she could not think with calmness of the destiny that he accepted. Involuntarily some prescience of pain that would forever pursue her own life unless his were rescued lent an intense earnestness, almost entreaty, to her argument. She did not bear him love as yet; she had seen too little of him, too lately only known him as her equal; but there were in her, stranger than she knew, a pity, a tenderness, a regret, an honor for him that drew her toward him with an indefinable attraction, and would sooner or later warm and deepen into love. Already it was sufficient, though she deemed it but compassion and friendship, to make her feel that an intolerable weight would be heavy on her future if his should remain condemned to this awful isolation and oblivion while she alone of all the world should know and hold his secret.
He started from her side as he heard, and paced to and fro the narrow limits of the tent like a caged animal. For the first time it grew a belief to him, in his thoughts, that were he free, were he owner of his heritage, he could rouse her heart from its long repose and make her love him with the soft and passionate warmth of his dead Arab mistress — a thing that had been so distant from her negligence and her pride as warmth from the diamond or the crystal. He felt as if the struggle would kill him. He had but to betray his brother, and he would be unchained from his torture; he had but to break his word, and he would be at liberty. All the temptation that had before beset him paled and grew as naught beside this possibility of the possession of her love which dawned upon him now.
She, knowing nothing of this which moved him, believed only that he weighed her words in hesitation, and strove to turn the balance.
“Hear me,” she said softly. “I do not bid you decide; I only bid you confide in Philip — in one who, as you must well remember, would sooner cut off his own hand than counsel a base thing or do an unfaithful act. You are guiltless of this charge under which you left England; you endure it rather than do what you deem dishonorable to clear yourself. That is noble — that is great. But it is possible, as I say, that you may exaggerate the abnegation required of you. Whoever was the criminal should suffer. Yours is magnificent magnanimity; but it may surely be also false justice alike to yourself and the world.”
He turned on her almost fiercely in the suffering she dealt him.
“It is! It was a madness — a Quixotism — the wild, unconsidered act of a fool. What you will! But it is done; it was done forever — so long ago — when your young eyes looked on me in the pity of your innocent childhood. I cannot redeem its folly now by adding to it baseness. I cannot change the choice of a madman by repenting of it with a coward’s caprice. Ah, God! you do not know what you do — how you tempt. For pity’s sake, urge me no more. Help me — strengthen me — to be true to my word. Do not bid me do evil that I may enter paradise through my sin!”
He threw himself down beside her as the incoherent words poured out, his arms flung across the pile of cushions on which he had been seated, his face hidden on them. His teeth clinched on his tongue till the blood flowed; he felt that if the power of speech remained with him he should forswear every law that had bound him to silence, and tell her all, whatever the cost.
She looked at him, she heard him, moved to a greater agitation than ever had had sway over her; for the first time the storm winds that swept by her did not leave her passionless and calm; this man’s whole future was in her hands. She could bid him seek happiness dishonored; or cleave to honor, and accept wretchedness forever.
It was a fearful choice to hold.
“Answer me! Choose for me!” he said vehemently. “Be my law, and be my God!”
She gave a gesture almost of fear.
“Hush, hush! The woman does not live who should be that to any man.”
“You shall be it to me! Choose for me!”
“I cannot! You leave so much in darkness and untold ——”
“Nothing that you need know to decide your choice for me, save one thing only — that I love you.”
“This is madness! What have you seen of me?”
“Enough to love you while my life shall last, and love no other woman. Ah! I was but an African trooper in your sight, but in my own I was your equal. You only saw a man to whom your gracious alms and your gentle charity were to be given, as a queen may stoop in mercy to a beggar; but I saw one who had the light of my old days in her smile, the sweetness of my old joys in her eyes, the memories of my old world in her every grace and gesture. You forget! I was nothing to you; but you were so much to me. I loved you the first moment that your voice fell on my ear. It is madness! Oh, yes! I should have said so, too, in those old years. A madness I would have sworn never to feel. But I have lived a hard life since then, and no men ever love like those who suffer. Now you know all; know the worst that tempts me. No famine, no humiliation, no obloquy, no loss I have known, ever drove me so cruelly to buy back my happiness with the price of dishonor as the one desire — to stand in my rightful place before men, and be free to strive with you for what they have not won!”
As she heard, all the warmth, all the life, faded out of her face; it grew as white as his own, and her lips parted slightly, as though to draw her breath was oppressive. The wild words overwhelmed her with their surprise not less than they shocked her with their despair. An intense truth vibrated through them, a truth that pierced her and reached her heart, as no other such supplication ever had done. She had no love for him yet, or she thought not; she was very proud, and resisted such passions; but in that moment the thought swept by her that such love might be possible. It was the nearest submission to it she had ever given. She heard him in unbroken silence; she kept silence long after he had spoken. So far as her courage and her dignity could be touched with it, she felt something akin to terror at the magnitude of the choice left to her.
“You give me great pain, great surprise,” she murmured. “All I can trust is that your love is of such sudden birth that it will die as rapidly —”
He interrupted her.
“You mean that, under no circumstances — not even were I to possess my inheritance — could you give me any hope that I might wake your tenderness?”
She looked at him full in the eyes with the old, fearless, haughty instinct of refusal to all such entreaty, which had made her so indifferent — and many said so pitiless — to all. At his gaze, however her own changed and softened, grew shadowed, and then wandered from him.
“I do not say that. I cannot tell ——”
The words were very low; she was too truthful to conceal from him what half dawned on herself — the possibility that, more in his presence and under different circumstances, she might feel her heart go to him with a warmer and a softer impulse than that of friendship. The heroism of his life had moved her greatly.
His head dropped down again upon his arms.
“O God! It is possible, at least! I am blind — mad. Make my choice for me! I know not what to do.”
The tears that had gathered in her eyes fell slowly down over her colorless cheeks; she looked at him with a pity that made her heart ache with a sorrow only less than his own. The grief was for him chiefly; yet something of it for herself. Some sense of present bitterness that fell on her from his fate, some foreboding of future regret that would inevitably and forever follow her when she left him to his loneliness and his misery, smote on her with a weightier pang than any her caressed and cloudless existence had encountered. Love was dimly before her as the possibility he called it; remote, unrealized, still unacknowledged, but possible under certain conditions, only known as such when it was also impossible through circumstances.
He had suffered silently; endured strongly; fought greatly; these were the only means through which any man could have ever reached her sympathy, her respect, her tenderness. Yet, though a very noble and a very generous woman, she was also a woman of the world. She knew that it was not for her to say even thus much to a man who was in one sense well-nigh a stranger, and who stood under the accusation of a crime whose shadow he allowed to rest on him unmoved. She felt sick at heart; she longed unutterably, with a warmer longing than had moved her previously, to bid him, at all cost, lay bare his past, and throw off the imputed shame that lay on him. Yet all the grand traditions of her race forbade her to counsel the acceptance of an escape whose way led through a forfeiture of honor.
“Choose for me, Venetia!” he muttered at last once more.
She rose with what was almost a gesture of despair, and thrust the gold hair off her temples.
“Heaven help me, I cannot — I dare not! And — I am no longer capable of being just!”
There was an accent almost of passion in her voice; she felt that so greatly did she desire his deliverance, his justification, his return to all which was his own — desired even his presence among them in her own world — that she could no longer give him calm and unbiased judgment. He heard, and the burning tide of a new joy rushed on him, checked almost ere it was known, by the dread lest for her sake she should ever give him so much pity that such pity became love.
He started to his feet and looked down imploringly into her eyes — a look under which her own never quailed or drooped, but which they answered with that same regard which she had given him when she had declared her faith in his innocence.
“If I thought it possible you could ever care ——”
She moved slightly from him; her face was very white still, and her voice, though serenely sustained, shook as it answered him.
“If I could — believe me, I am not a woman who would bid you forsake your honor to spare yourself or me. Let us speak no more of this. What can it avail, except to make you suffer greater things? Follow the counsels of your own conscience. You have been true to them hitherto; it is not for me, or through me, that you shall ever be turned aside from them.”
A bitter sigh broke from him as he heard.
“They are noble words. And yet it is so easy to utter, so hard to follow them. If you had one thought of tenderness for me, you could not speak them.”
A flush passed over her face.
“Do not think me without feeling — without sympathy — pity —”
“These are not love.”
She was silent; they were, in a sense, nearer to love than any emotion she had ever known.
“If you loved me,” he pursued passionately —“ah, God! the very word from me to you sounds insult; and yet there is not one thought in me that does not honor you — if you loved me, could you stand there and bid me drag on this life forever; nameless, friendless, hopeless; having all the bitterness, but none of the torpor of death; wearing out the doom of a galley slave, though guiltless of all crime?”
“Why speak so? You are unreasoning. A moment ago you implored me not to tempt you to the violation of what you hold your honor; because I bid you be faithful to it, you deem me cruel!”
“Heaven help me! I scarce know what I say. I ask you, if you were a woman who loved me, could you decide thus?”
“These are wild questions,” she murmured; “what can they serve? I believe that I should — I am sure that I should. As it is — as your friend —”
“Ah, hush! Friendship is crueler than hate.”
“Yes; the worst cruelty when we seek love — a stone proffered us when we ask for bread in famine!”
There was desperation, almost ferocity, in the answer; she was moved and shaken by it — not to fear, for fear was not in her nature, but to something of awe, and something of the despairing hopelessness that was in him.
“Lord Royallieu,” she said slowly, as if the familiar name were some tie between them, some cause of excuse for these, the only love words she had ever heard without disdain and rejection —“Lord Royallieu, it is unworthy of you to take this advantage of an interview which I sought, and sought for your own sake. You pain me, you wound me. I cannot tell how to answer you. You speak strangely, and without warrant.”
He stood mute and motionless before her, his head sunk on his chest. He knew that she rebuked him justly; he knew that he had broken through every law he had prescribed himself, and that he had sinned against the code of chivalry which should have made her sacred from such words while they were those he could not utter, nor she hear, except in secrecy and shame. Unless he could stand justified in her sight and in that of all men, he had no right to seek to wring out tenderness from her regret and from her pity. Yet all his heart went out to her in one irrepressible entreaty.
“Forgive me, for pity’s sake! After to-night I shall never look upon your face again.”
“I do forgive,” she said gently, while her voice grew very sweet. “You endure too much already for one needless pang to be added by me. All I wish is that you had never met me, so that this last, worst thing had not come unto you!”
A long silence fell between them; where she leaned back among her cushions, her face was turned from him. He stood motionless in the shadow, his head still dropped upon his breast, his breathing loud and slow and hard. To speak of love to her was forbidden to him, yet the insidious temptation wound close and closer round his strength. He had only to betray the man he had sworn to protect, and she would know his innocence, she would hear his passion; he would be free, and she — he grew giddy as the thought rose before him — she might, with time, be brought to give him other tenderness than that of friendship. He seemed to touch the very supremacy of joy; to reach it almost with his hand; to have honors, and peace, and all the glory of her haughty loveliness, and all the sweetness of her subjugation, and all the soft delights of passions before him in their golden promise, and he was held back in bands of iron, he was driven out from them desolate and accursed.
Unlike Cain, he had suffered in his brother’s stead, yet, like Cain, he was branded and could only wander out into the darkness and the wilderness.
She watched him many minutes, he unconscious of her gaze; and while she did so, many conflicting emotions passed over the colorless delicacy of her features; her eyes were filled and shadowed with many altering thoughts; her heart was waking from its rest, and the high, generous, unselfish nature in her strove with her pride of birth, her dignity of habit.
“Wait,” she said softly, with the old imperial command of her voice subdued, though not wholly banished. “I think you have mistaken me somewhat. You wrong me if you think that I could be so callous, so indifferent, as to leave you here without heed as to your fate. Believe in your innocence you know that I do, as firmly as though you substantiated it with a thousand proofs; reverence your devotion to your honor you are certain that I must, or all better things were dead in me.”
Her voice sank inaudible for the instant; she recovered her self-control with an effort.
“You reject my friendship — you term it cruel — but at least it will be faithful to you; too faithful for me to pass out of Africa and never give you one thought again. I believe in you. Do you not know that that is the highest trust, to my thinking, that one human life can show in another’s? You decide that it is your duty not to free yourself from this bondage, not to expose the actual criminal, not to take up your rights of birth. I dare not seek to alter that decision. But I cannot leave you to such a future without infinite pain, and there must — there shall be-means through which you will let me hear of you — through which, at least, I can know that you are living.”
She stretched her hands toward him with that same gesture with which she had first declared her faith in his guiltlessness; the tears trembled in her voice and swam in her eyes. As she had said, she suffered for him exceedingly. He, hearing those words which breathed the only pity that had ever humiliated him, and the loyal trust which was but the truer because the sincerity of faith in lieu of the insanity of love dictated it, made a blind, staggering, unconscious movement of passionate, dumb agony. He seized her hands in his and held them close against his breast one instant, against the loud, hard panting of his aching heart.
“God reward you! God keep you! If I stay, I shall tell you all. Let me go, and forget that we ever met! I am dead — let me be dead to you!”
With another instant he had left the tent and passed out into the red glow of the torchlit evening. And Venetia Corona dropped her proud head down upon the silken cushions where his own had rested, and wept as women weep over their dead — in such a passion as had never come to her in all the course of her radiant, victorious, and imperious life.
It seemed to her as if she had seen him slain in cold blood, and had never lifted her hand or her voice against his murder.
His voice rang in her ear; his face was before her with its white, still, rigid anguish; the burning accents of his avowal of love seemed to search her very heart. If this man perished in any of the thousand perils of war she would forever feel herself his assassin. She had his secret, she had his soul, she had his honor in her hands; and she could do nothing better for them both than to send him from her to eternal silence, to eternal solitude!
Her thoughts grew unbearable; she rose impetuously from her couch and paced to and fro in the narrow confines of her tent. Her tranquillity was broken down; her pride was abandoned; her heart, at length, was reached and sorely wounded. The only man she had ever found, whom it would have been possible to her to have loved, was one already severed from her by a fate almost more hideous than death.
And yet, in her loneliness, the color flushed back into her face; her eyes gathered some of their old light; one dreaming, shapeless fancy floated vaguely through her mind.
If, in the years to come, she knew him in all ways worthy, and learned to give him back this love he bore her, it was in her to prove that love, no matter what cost to her pride and her lineage. If his perfect innocence were made clear in her own sight, there was greatness and there was unselfishness enough in her nature to make her capable of regarding alone his martyrdom and his heroism, and disregarding the opinion of the world. If, hereafter, she grew to find his presence the necessity of her life, and his sacrifice of that nobility and of that purity she now believed it, she — proud as she was with the twin pride of lineage and of nature — would be capable of incurring the odium and the marvel of all who knew her by uniting her fate to his own, by making manifest her honor and her tenderness for him, though men saw in him only a soldier of the empire, only a base-born trooper, beneath her as Riom beneath the daughter of D’Orleans. She was of a brave nature, of a great nature, of a daring courage, and of a superb generosity. Abhorring dishonor, full of glory in the stainless history of her race, and tenacious of the dignity and of the magnitude of her House, she yet was too courageous and too haughty a woman not to be capable of braving calumny, if conscious of her own pure rectitude beneath it; not to be capable of incurring false censure, if encountered in the path of justice and of magnanimity. It was possible, even on herself it dawned as possible, that so great might become her compassion and her tenderness for this man that she would, in some distant future, when the might of his love and the severity of his suffering should prevail with her, say to him:
“Keep your secret from the world as you will. Prove your innocence only to me; let me and the friend of your youth alone know your name and your rights. And knowing all, knowing you myself to be hero and martyr in one, I shall not care what the world thinks of you, what the world says of me. I will be your wife; I have lands, and riches, and honors, and greatness enough to suffice for us both.”
If ever she loved him exceedingly, she would become capable of this sacrifice from the strength, and the graciousness, and the fearlessness of her nature, and such love was not so distant from her as she thought.
Outside her tent there was a peculiar mingling of light and shadow; of darkness from the moonless and now cloud-covered sky, of reddened warmth from the tall, burning pine-boughs thrust into the soil in lieu of other illumination. The atmosphere was hot from the flames, and chilly with the breath of the night winds; it was oppressively still, though from afar off the sounds of laughter in the camp still echoed, and near at hand the dull and steady tramp of the sentinels fell on the hard, parched soil. Into that blended heat and cold, dead blackness and burning glare, he reeled out from her presence; drunk with pain as deliriously as men grow drunk with raki. The challenge rang on the air:
“Who goes there?”
He never heard it. Even the old, long-accustomed habits of a soldier’s obedience were killed in him.
“Who goes there?” the challenge rang again.
Still he never heard, but went on blindly. From where the tents stood there was a stronger breadth of light through which he had passed, and was passing still — a light strong enough for it to be seen whence he came, but not strong enough to show his features.
“Halt, or I fire!” The sentinel brought the weapon to his shoulder and took a calm, close, sure aim. He did not speak; the password he had forgotten as though he had never heard or never given it.
Another figure than that of the soldier on guard came out of the shadow, and stood between him and the sentinel. It was that of Chateauroy; he was mounted on his gray horse and wrapped in his military cloak, about to go the round of the cavalry camp. Their eyes met in the wavering light like the glow from a furnace-mouth: in a glance they knew each other.
“It is one of my men,” said the chief carelessly to the sentinel. “Leave me to deal with him.”
The guard saluted, and resumed his beat.
“Why did you refuse the word, sir?”
“I did not hear.”
There was no reply.
“Why are you absent from your squadron?”
There was no reply still.
“Have you no tongue, sir? The stick shall soon make you speak! Why are you here?”
There was again no answer.
Chateauroy’s teeth ground out a furious oath; yet a flash of brutal delight glittered in his eyes. At last he had hounded down this man, so long out of his reach, into disobedience and contumacy.
“Why are you here, and where have you been?” he demanded once more.
“I will not say.”
The answer, given at length, was tranquil, low, slowly and distinctly uttered, in a deliberate refusal, in a deliberate defiance.
The dark and evil countenance above him grew livid with fury.
“I can have you thrashed like a dog for that answer, and I will. But first listen here, beau sire! I know as well as though you had confessed to me. Your silence cannot shelter your great mistress’ shame. Ah, ha! So Mme. la Princesse is so cold to her equals, only to choose her lovers out of my blackguards, and take her midnight intrigues like a camp courtesan!”
Cecil’s face changed terribly as the vile words were spoken. With the light and rapid spring of a leopard, he reached the side of his commander, one hand on the horse’s mane, the other on the wrists of his chief, that it gripped like an iron vise.
“You lie! And you know that you lie. Breathe her name once more, and, by God, as we are both living men, I will have your life for your outrage!”
And, as he spoke, with his left hand he smote the lips that had blasphemed against her.
It was broken asunder at last — all the long and bitter patience, all the calm and resolute endurance, all the undeviating serenity beneath provocation, which had never yielded through twelve long years, but which had borne with infamy and with tyranny with such absolute submission for sake of those around him, who would revolt at his sign and be slaughtered for his cause. The promise he had given to endure all things for their sakes — the sakes of his soldiery, of his comrades — was at last forgotten. All he remembered was the vileness that dared touch her name, the shame that through him was breathed on her. Rank, duty, bondage, consequence, all were forgotten in that one instant of insult that mocked in its odious lie at her purity. He was no longer the soldier bound in obedience to submit to the indignities that his chief chose to heap on him; he was a gentleman who defended a woman’s honor, a man who avenged a slur on the life that he loved.
Chateauroy wrenched his wrist out of the hold that crushed it, and drew his pistol. Cecil knew that the laws of active service would hold him but justly dealt with if the shot laid him dead in that instant for his act and his words.
“You can kill me — I know it. Well, use your prerogative; it will be the sole good you have ever done to me.”
And he stood erect, patient, motionless, looking into his chief’s eyes with a calm disdain, with an unuttered challenge that, for the first moment, wrung something of savage respect and of sullen admiration out from the soul of his great foe.
He did not fire; it was the only time in which any trait of abstinence from cruelty had been ever seen in him. He signed to the soldiers of the guard with one hand, while with the other he still covered with his pistol the man whom martial law would have allowed him to have shot down, or have cut down, at his horse’s feet.
“Arrest him,” he said simply.
Cecil offered no resistance; he let them seize and disarm him without an effort at the opposition which could have been but a futile, unavailing trial of brute force. He dreaded lest there should be one sound that should reach her in that tent where the triad of standards drooped in the dusky distance. He had been, moreover, too long beneath the yoke of that despotic and irresponsible authority to waste breath or to waste dignity in vain contest with the absolute and the immutable. He was content with what he had done — content to have met once, not as soldier to chief, but as man to man, the tyrant who held his fate.
For once, beneath the spur of that foul outrage to the dignity and the innocence of the woman he had quitted, he had allowed a passionate truth to force its way through the barriers of rank and the bonds of subservience. Insult to himself he had borne as the base prerogative of his superior, but insult to her he had avenged with the vengeance of equal to equal, of the man who loved on the man who calumniated her.
And as he sat in the darkness of the night with the heavy tramp of his guards forever on his ear, there was peace rather than rebellion in his heart — the peace of one heartsick with strife and with temptation, who beholds in death a merciful ending to the ordeal of existence. “I shall die in her cause at least,” he thought. “I could be content if I were only sure that she would never know.”
For this was the chief dread which hung on him, that she should ever know, and in knowing, suffer for his sake.
The night rolled on, the army around him knew nothing of what had happened. Chateauroy, conscious of his own coarse guilt against the guest of his Marshal, kept the matter untold and undiscovered, under the plea that he desired not to destroy the harmony of the general rejoicing. The one or two field-officers with whom he took counsel agreed to the wisdom of letting the night pass away undisturbed. The accused was the idol of his own squadron; there was no gauge what might not be done by troops heated with excitement and drunk with wine, if they knew that their favorite comrade had set the example of insubordination, and would be sentenced to suffer for it. Beyond these, and the men employed in his arrest and guard, none knew what had chanced; not the soldiery beneath that vast sea of canvas, many of whom would have rushed headlong to mutiny and to destruction at his word; not the woman who in the solitude of her wakeful hours was haunted by the memory of his love-words, and felt steal on her the unacknowledged sense that, if his future were left to misery, happiness could never more touch her own; not the friend of his early days, laughing and drinking with the officers of the staff.
None knew; not even Cigarette. She sat alone, so far away that none sought her out, beside the picket-fire that had long died out, with the little white dog of Zaraila curled on the scarlet folds of her skirt. Her arms rested on her knees, and her temples leaned on her hands tightly twisted among the dark, silken curls of her boyish hair. Her face had the same dusky, savage intensity upon it; and she never once moved from that rigid attitude.
She had the Cross on her heart — the idol of her long desire, the star to which her longing eyes had looked up ever since her childhood through the reek of carnage and the smoke of battle; and she would have flung it away like dross, to have had his lips touch hers once with love.
And she knew herself mad; for the desires and the delights of love die swiftly, but the knowledge of honor abides always. Love would have made her youth sweet with an unutterable gladness, to glide from her and leave her weary, dissatisfied, forsaken. But that Cross, the gift of her country, the symbol of her heroism, would be with her always, and light her forever with the honor of which it was the emblem; and if her life should last until youth passed away, and age came, and with age death, her hand would wander to it on her dying bed, and she would smile, as she died, to hear the living watchers murmur: “That life had glory — that life was lived for France.”
She knew this; but she was young; she was a woman-child; she had the ardor of passionate youth in her veins, she had the desolation of abandoned youth in her heart. And honor looked so cold beside love!
She rose impetuously; the night was far spent, the camp was very still, the torches had long died out, and a streak of dawn was visible in the east. She stood a while, looking very earnestly across the wide, black city of tents.
“I shall be best away for a time. I grow mad, treacherous, wicked here,” she thought. “I will go and see Blanc–Bec.”
Blanc–Bec was the soldier of the Army of Italy.
In a brief while she had saddled and bridled Etoile–Filante, and ridden out of the camp without warning or farewell to any; she was as free to come and to go as though she were a bird on the wing. Thus she went, knowing nothing of his fate. And with the sunrise went also the woman whom he loved — in ignorance.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53