The warm, transparent light of an African autumnal noon shone down through the white canvas roof of a great tent in the heart of the encamped divisions at the headquarters of the Army of the South. In the tent there was a densely packed throng — an immense, close, hushed, listening crowd, of which every man wore the uniform of France, of which the mute, undeviating attention, forbidden by discipline alike to be broken by sound of approval or dissent, had in it something that was almost terrible, contrasted with the vivid eagerness in their eyes and the strained absorption of their countenances; for they were in court, and that court was the Council of War of their own southern camp.
The prisoner was arraigned on the heaviest charge that can be laid against the soldier of any army, and yet, as the many eyes of the military crowd turned on him where he stood surrounded by his guard, his crime against his chief was forgotten, and they only remembered — Zaraila.
Many of those present had seen him throughout that day of blood, at the head of his decimated squadron, with the guidon held aloft above every foe; to them that tall, slender form standing there, with a calm, weary dignity, that had nothing of the passion of the mutinous or the consciousness of the criminal in its serene repose, had shed upon it the luster of a heroism that made them ready almost to weep like women that the death of a mutineer should be the sole answer given by France to the savior of her honor.
He preserved entire reticence in court. The instant the accusation had been read to him, he had seen that his chief would not dare to couple with it the proud, pure name he had dared to outrage; his most bitter anxiety was thus at an end. For all the rest, he was tranquil.
No case could be clearer, briefer, less complex, more entirely incapable of defense. The soldiers of the guard gave evidence as to the violence and fury of the assault. The sentinel bore witness to having heard the refusal to reply; a moment after, he had seen the attack made and the blow given. The accuser merely stated that, meeting his sous-officier out of the bounds of the cavalry camp, he had asked him where he had been, and why he was there, and, on his commanding an answer, had been assaulted in the manner described, with violence sufficient to have cost his life had not the guard been so near at hand. When questioned as to what motive he could assign for the act, he replied that he considered his corporal had always incited evil feeling and mutinous conduct in the squadrons, and had, he believed, that day attributed to himself his failure to receive the Cross. The statement passed without contradiction by the prisoner, who, to the interrogations and entreaties of his legal defender, only replied that the facts were stated accurately as they occurred, and that his reasons for the deed he declined to assert.
When once more questioned as to his country and his past by the president, he briefly declined to give answer. When asked if the names by which he was enrolled were his own, he replied that they were two of his baptismal names, which had served his purpose on entering the army. When asked if he accepted as true the charge of exciting sedition among the troops, he replied that it was so little true that, over and over again, the men would have mutinied if he had given them a sign, and that he had continually induced them to submit to discipline sheerly by force of his own example. When interrogated as to the cause of the language he had used to his commanding officer, he said briefly that the language deserved the strongest censure as for a soldier to his colonel, but that it was justified as he had used it, which was as man to man, though he was aware the plea availed nothing in military law, and was impermissible for the safety of the service. When it was inquired of him if he had not repeatedly inveighed against his commanding officer for severity, he briefly denied it; no man had ever heard him say a syllable that could have been construed into complaint; at the same time, he observed that all the squadrons knew perfectly well personal enmity and oppression had been shown him by his chief throughout the whole time of his association with the regiment. When pressed as to the cause that he assigned for this, he gave, in a few comprehensive outlines, the story of the capture and the deliverance of the Emir’s bride; this was all that could be elicited from him; and even this was answered only out of deference to the authority of the court, and from his unwillingness, even now, to set a bad example before the men with whom he had served so long. When it was finally demanded of him if he had aught to urge in his own extenuation, he paused a moment, with a gaze under which even the hard, eagle eyes grew restless, looked across to Chateauroy, and addressed his antagonist rather than the president.
“Only this: that a tyrant, a liar, and a traducer cannot wonder if men prefer death to submission beneath insult. But I am well aware this is no vindication of my act as a soldier, and I have no desire to say words which, whatever their truth, might become hereafter dangerous legacies, and dangerous precedents to the army.”
That was all which he answered, and neither his counsel nor his accusers could extort another syllable from him.
He knew that what he had done was justified to his own conscience, but he did not seek to dispute that it was unjustifiable in military law. True, had all been told, it was possible enough that his judges would exonerate him morally, even if they condemned him legally; his act would be seen blameless as a man’s, even while still punishable as a soldier’s; but to purchase immunity for himself at the cost of bringing the fairness of her fame into the coarse babble of men’s tongues was an alternative, craven and shameful, which never even once glanced across his thoughts.
He had kept faith to a woman whom he had known heartless and well-nigh worthless; it was not to the woman whom he loved with all the might of an intense passion, and whom he knew pure and glorious as the morning sun, that he would break his faith now.
All through the three days that the council sat his look and his manner never changed — the first was quite calm, though very weary; the latter courteous, but resolute, with the unchanged firmness of one who knew his own past action justified. For the rest, many noticed that, during the chief of the long, exhausting hours of his examination and his trial, his thoughts seemed far away, and he appeared to recall them to the present with difficulty, and with nothing of the vivid suspense of an accused, whose life and death swung in the judgment-balance.
In truth, he had no dread as he had no hope left; he knew well enough that by the blow which had vindicated her honor he had forfeited his own existence. All he wished was that his sentence had been dealt without this formula of debate and of delay, which could have issue but in one end. There was not one man in court who was not more moved than he, more quick to terror and regret for his doom. To many among his comrades who had learned to love the gentle, silent “aristocrat,” who bore every hardship so patiently, and humanized them so imperceptibly by the simple force of an unvaunted example, those three days were torture. Wild, brutal brigands, whose year was one long razzia of plunder, rapine, and slaughter, felt their lips tremble like young girls’ when they asked how the issue went for him; and the blood-stained marauders, who thought as little of assassination for a hidden pot of gold as butchers of drawing a knife across a sheep’s throat, grew still and fear-stricken with a great awe when the muttering passed through the camp that they would see no more among their ranks that “woman’s face” which they had beheld so often foremost in the fight, with a look on it that thrilled their hearts like their forbidden chant of the Marseillaise. For when the third day closed, they knew that he must die.
There were men, hard as steel, ravenous of blood as vultures, who, when they heard that sentence given, choked great, deep sobs down into the cavernous depths of their broad, seared, sinewy breasts; but he never gave sigh or sign. He never moved once while the decree of death was read to him; and there was no change in the weary calmness of his eyes. He bent his head in acquiescence.
“C’est bien!” he said simply.
It seemed well to him. Dead, his secret would lie in the grave with him, and the long martyrdom of his life be ended.
In the brightness of the noon Cigarette leaned out of her little oval casement that framed her head like an old black oak carving — a head with the mellow bloom on its cheeks, and the flash of scarlet above its dark curls, and the robin-like grace of poise and balance as it hung out there in the sun.
Cigarette had been there a whole hour in thought; she who never had wasted a moment in meditation or reverie, and who found the long African day all too short for her busy, abundant, joyous life, that was always full of haste and work, just as a bird’s will seem so, though the bird have no more to do than to fly at its will through summer air, and feed at its will from brook and from berry, from a ripe ear of the corn or from a deep cup of the lily. For the first time she was letting time drift away in the fruitless labor of vain, purposeless thought, because, for the first time also, happiness was not with her.
They were gone forever — all the elastic joyance, all the free, fair hours, all the dauntless gayety of childhood, all the sweet, harmonious laughter of a heart without a care. They were gone forever; for the touch of love and of pain had been laid on her; and never again would her radiant eyes smile cloudlessly, like the young eagle’s, at a sun that rose but to be greeted as only youth can great another dawn of life that is without a shadow.
And she leaned wearily there, with her cheek lying on the cold, gray Moorish stone; the color and the brightness were in the rays of the light, in the rich hues of her hair and her mouth, in the scarlet glow of her dress; there was no brightness in her face. The eyes were vacant as they watched the green lizard glide over the wall beyond, and the lips were parted with a look of unspeakable fatigue; the tire, not of the limbs, but of the heart. She had come thither, hoping to leave behind her on the desert wind that alien care, that new, strange passion, which sapped her strength, and stung her pride, and made her evil with such murderous lust of vengeance; and they were with her still. Only something of the deadly, biting ferocity of jealousy had changed into a passionate longing to be as that woman was who had his love; into a certain hopeless, sickening sense of having forever lost that which alone could have given her such beauty and such honor in the sight of men as those this woman had.
To her it seemed impossible that this patrician who had his passion should not return it. To the child of the camp, though she often mocked at caste, all the inexorable rules, all the reticent instincts of caste, were things unknown. She would have failed to comprehend all the thousand reasons which would have forbidden any bond between the great aristocrat and a man of low grade and of dubious name. She only thought of love as she had always seen it, quickly born, hotly cherished, wildly indulged, and without tie or restraint.
“And I came without my vengeance!” she mused. To the nature that felt the ferocity of the vendetta a right and a due, there was wounding humiliation in her knowledge that she had left her rival unharmed, and had come hither, out from his sight and his presence, lest he should see in her one glimpse of that folly which she would have killed herself under her own steel rather than have been betrayed, either for his contempt or his compassion.
“And I came without my vengeance!” she mused, in that oppressive noon, in that gray and lonely place, in that lofty tower-solitude, where there was nothing between her and the hot, hard, cruel blue of the heavens, vengeance looked the only thing that was left her; the only means whereby that void in her heart could be filled, that shame in her life be washed out. To love! and to love a man who had no love for her, whose eyes only beheld another’s face, whose ears only thirsted for another’s voice! Its degradation stamped her a traitress in her own sight — traitress to her code, to her pride, to her country, to her flag!
And yet, at the core of her heart so tired a pang was aching! She who had gloried in being the child of the whole people, the daughter of the whole army, felt lonely and abandoned, as though she were some bird which an hour ago had been flying in all its joy among its brethren and now, maimed with one shot, had fallen, with broken pinion and torn plumage, to lie alone upon the sand and die.
The touch of a bird’s wing brushing her hair brought the dreamy comparison to her wandering thoughts. She started and lifted her head; it was a blue carrier-pigeon, one of the many she fed at that casement, and the swiftest and surest of several she sent with messages for the soldiers between the various stations and corps. She had forgotten she had left the bird at the encampment.
She caressed it absently, while the tired creature sank down on her bosom; then only she saw that there was a letter beneath one wing. She unloosed it, and looked at it without being able to tell its meaning; she could not read a word, printed or written. Military habits were too strong with her for the arrival not to change her reverie into action; whoever it was for, it must be seen. She gave the pigeon water and grain, then wound her way down the dark, narrow stairs, through the height of the tower, out into the passage below.
She found an old French cobbler sitting at a stall in a casement, stitching leather; he was her customary reader and scribe in this quarter. She touched him with the paper. “Bon Mathieu! Wilt thou read this to me?”
“It is for thee, Little One, and signed ‘Petit Pot-deterre.’”
Cigarette nodded listlessly.
“’Tis a good lad, and a scholar,” she answered absently. “Read on!”
And he read aloud:
“‘There is ill news. I send the bird on a chance to find thee. Bel-a-faire-peau struck the Black Hawk — a slight blow, but with threat to kill following it. He has been tried, and is to be shot. There is no appeal. The case is clear; the Colonel could have cut him down, were that all. I thought you should know. We are all sorry. It was done on the night of the great fete. I am thy humble lover and slave.’”
So the boy-Zouave’s scrawl, crushed, and blotted, and written with great difficulty, ran in its brief phrases that the slow muttering of the old shoemaker drew out in tedious length.
Cigarette heard; she never made a movement or gave a sound, but all the blood fled out of her brilliant face, leaving it horribly blanched beneath its brown sun-scorch; and her eyes — distended, senseless, sightless — were fastened on the old man’s slowly moving mouth.
“Read it again!” she said simply, when all was ended. He started and looked up at her face; the voice had not one accent of its own tone left.
He obeyed, and read it once more to the end. Then a loud, shuddering sigh escaped her, like the breath of one stifling under flames.
“Shot!” she said vacantly. “Shot!”
Her vengeance had come without her once lifting her hand to summon it.
The old man rose hurriedly.
“Child! Art thou ill?”
“The blow was struck for her!” she muttered. “It was that night, you hear — that night!”
“What night? Thou lookest so strangely! Dost thou love this doomed soldier?”
Cigarette laughed — a laugh whose echo thrilled horribly through the lonely Moresco courtway.
“Love? Love? I hated him, look you! So I said. And I longed for my vengeance. It is come!”
She was still a moment; her white, parched mouth quivering as though she were under physical torture, her strained eyes fastened on the empty air, the veins in her throat swelling and throbbing till they glowed to purple. Then she crushed the letter in one hand, and flew, fleet as any antelope through the streets of the Moorish quarter, and across the city to the quay.
The people ever gave way before her; but now they scattered like frightened sheep from her path. There was something that terrified them in that bloodless horror set upon her face, and in that fury of resistless speed with which she rushed upon her way.
Once only in her headlong career through the throngs she paused; it was as one face, on which the strong light of the noontide poured, came before her. The senseless look changed in her eyes; she wheeled out of her route, and stopped before the man who had thus arrested her. He was leaning idly over the stall of a Turkish bazaar, and her hand grasped his arm before he saw her.
“You have his face!” she muttered. “What are you to him?”
He made no answer; he was too amazed.
“You are of his race,” she persisted. “You are brethren by your look. What are you to him?”
“To the man who calls himself Louis Victor! A Chasseur of my army!”
Her eyes were fastened entirely on him; keen, ruthless, fierce, in this moment as a hawk’s. He grew pale and murmured an incoherent denial. He sought to shake her off, first gently, then more rudely; he called her mad, and tried to fling her from him; but the lithe fingers only wound themselves closer on his arm.
“Be still — fool!” she muttered; and there was that in the accent that lent a strange force and dignity in that moment to the careless and mischievous plaything of the soldiery — force that overcame him, dignity that overawed him. “You are of his people; you have his eyes, and his look, and his features. He disowns you, or you him. No matter which. He is of your blood; and he lies under sentence of death. Do you know that?”
With a stifled cry, the other recoiled from her; he never doubted that she spoke the truth; nor could any who had looked upon her face.
“Do not lie to me,” she said curtly. “It avails you nothing. Read that.”
She thrust before him the paper the pigeon had brought; his hand trembled sorely as he held it; he believed in that moment that this strange creature — half soldier, half woman, half brigand, half child — knew all his story and all his shame from his brother.
“Shot!” he echoed hoarsely, as she had done, when he had read on to the end. “Shot! Oh, my God! and I——”
She drew him out of the thoroughfare into a dark recess within the bazaar, he submitting unresistingly. He was filled with the horror, the remorse, the overwhelming shock of his brother’s doom.
“He will be shot,” she said with a strange calmness. “We shoot down many men in our army. I knew him well. He was justified in his act, I do not doubt; but discipline will not stay for that —”
“Silence, for mercy’s sake! Is there no hope — no possibility?”
Her lips were parched like the desert sand as her dry, hard words came through them. “None. His chief could have cut him down in the instant. It took place in camp. You feel this thing; you are of his race, then?”
“I am his brother!”
She was silent; looking at him fixedly, it did not seem to her strange that she should thus have met one of his blood in the crowds of Algiers. She was absorbed in the one catastrophe whose hideousness seemed to eat her very life away, even while her nerve, and her brain, and her courage remained at their keenest and strongest.
“You are his brother,” she said slowly, so much as an affirmation that his belief was confirmed that she had learned both their relationship and their history from Cecil. “You must go to him, then.”
He shook from head to foot.
“Yes, yes! But it will be too late!”
She did not know that the words were cried out in all the contrition of an unavailing remorse; she gave them only their literal significance, and shuddered as she answered him.
“That you must risk. You must go to him. But, first, I must know more. Tell me his name, his rank.”
He was silent; coward and egotist though he was, both cowardice and egotism were killed in him under the overwhelming horror with which he felt himself as truly by moral guilt a fratricide as though he had stabbed his elder through the heart.
“Speak!” hissed Cigarette through her clenched teeth. “If you have any kindness, any pity, any love for the man of your blood, who will be shot there like a dog, do not waste a second — answer me, tell me all.”
He turned his wild, terrified glance upon her; he had in that moment no sense but to seize some means of reparation, to declare his brother’s rights, to cry out to the very stones of the streets his own wrong and his victim’s sacrifice.
“He is the head of my house!” he answered her, scarce knowing what he answered. “He should bear the title that I bear now. He is here, in this misery, because he is the most merciful, the most generous, the most long-suffering of living souls! If he dies, it is not they who have killed him; it is I!”
She listened, with her face set in that stern, fixed, resolute command which never varied; she neglected all that wonder, or curiosity, or interest would have made her as at any other time, she only heeded the few great facts that bore upon the fate of the condemned.
“Settle with yourself for that sin,” she said bitterly. “Your remorse will not save him. But do the thing that I bid you, if that remorse be sincere. Write me out here that title you say he should bear, and your statement that he is your brother, and should be the chief of your house; then sign it, and give it to me.”
He seized her hands, and gazed with imploring eyes into her face.
“Who are you? What are you? If you have the power to do it, for the love of God rescue him! It is I who have murdered him — I— who have let him live on in this hell for my sake!”
“For your sake!”
She flung his hands off her and looked him full in the face; that glance of the speechless scorn, the unutterable rebuke of the woman-child who would herself have died a thousand deaths rather than have purchased a whole existence by a single falsehood or a single cowardice, smote him like a blow, and avenged his sin more absolutely than any public chastisement. The courage and the truth of a girl scorned his timorous fear and his living lie. His head sank, he seemed to shrink under her gaze; his act had never looked so vile to him as it looked now.
She gazed a moment longer at him with her mute and wondering disdain that there should be on earth a male life capable of such fear and of such ignominy as this. Then the strong and rapid power in her took its instant ascendancy over the weaker nature.
“Monsieur, I do not know your story, I do not want. I am not used to men who let others suffer for them. What I want is your written statement of your brother’s name and station; give it me.”
He made a gesture of consent; he would have signed away his soul, if he could, in the stupor of remorse which had seized him. She brought him pens and paper from the Turk’s store, and dictated what he wrote:
“I hereby affirm that the person serving in the Chasseurs d’Afrique under the name of Louis Victor is my older brother, Bertie Cecil, lawfully, by inheritance, the Viscount Royallieu, Peer of England. I hereby also acknowledge that I have succeeded to and borne the title illegally, under the supposition of his death.
“BERKELEY CECIL.” (Signed)
He wrote it mechanically; the force of her will and the torture of his own conscience driving him, on an impulse, to undo in an instant the whole web of falsehood that he had let circumstance weave on and on to shelter him through twelve long years. He let her draw the paper from him and fold it away in her belt. He watched her with a curious, dreamy sense of his own impotence against the fierce and fiery torrent of her bidding.
“What is it you will do?” he asked her.
“The best that shall lie in my power. Do you the same.”
“Can his life yet be saved?”
“His honor may — his honor shall.”
Her face had an exceeding beauty as she spoke though it was stern and rigid still, a look that was sublime gleamed over it. She, the waif and stray of a dissolute camp, knew better than the scion of his own race how the doomed man would choose the vindication of his honor before the rescue of his life. He laid his hand on her as she moved.
“Stay! — stay! One word ——”
She flung him off her again.
“This is no time for words. Go to him — coward! — and let the balls that kill him reach you too, if you have one trait of manhood left in you!”
Then, swiftly as a swallow darts, she quitted him and flew on her headlong way, down through the pressure of the people, and the throngs of the marts, and the noise, and the color, and the movement of the streets.
The sun was scarce declined from its noon before she rode out of the city, on a half-bred horse of the Spahis, swift as the antelope and as wild, with her only equipment some pistols in her holsters, and a bag of rice and a skin of water slung at her saddle-bow.
They asked her where she went; she never answered. The hoofs struck sharp echoes out of the rugged stones, and the people were scattered like chaff as she went at full gallop down through Algiers. Her comrades, used to see her ever with some song in the air and some laugh on the lips as she went, looked after her with wonder as she passed them, silent, and with her face white and stern as though the bright, brown loveliness of it had been changed to alabaster.
“What is it with the Cigarette?” they asked each other. None could tell; the desert horse and his rider flew by them as a swallow flies. The gleam of her Cross and the colorless calm of the childlike face that wore the resolve of a Napoleon’s on it were the last they ever saw of Cigarette.
All her fluent, untiring speech was gone — gone with the rose hue from her cheek, with the laugh from her mouth, with the child’s joyance from her heart; but the brave, stanch, dauntless spirit lived with a soldier’s courage, with a martyr’s patience.
And she rode straight through the scorch of the midday sun, along the sea-coast westward. The dizzy swiftness would have blinded most who should have been carried through the dry air and under the burning skies at that breathless and pauseless speed; but she had ridden half-maddened colts with the skill of Arabs themselves; she had been tossed on a holster from her earliest years, and had clung with an infant’s hands in fearless glee to the mane of roughriders’ chargers. She never swerved, she never sickened; she was borne on and on against the hard, hot currents of the cleft air with only one sense — that she went so slowly, so slowly, when with every beat of the ringing hoofs one of the few moments of a charmed life fled away!
She had a long route before her; she had many leagues to travel, and there were but four-and-twenty hours, she knew well, left to the man who was condemned to death. Four-and-twenty hours left open for appeal — no more — betwixt the delivery and execution of the sentence. That delay was always interpreted by the French Code as a delay extending from the evening of the day to the dawn of the second day following; and some slight interval might then ensue, according as the general in command ordained. But the twenty-four hours was all of which she could be certain; and even of them some must have flown by since the carrier-pigeon had been loosed to her. She could not tell how long he had to live.
There were fifty miles between her and her goal; Abd-el-Kader’s horse had once covered that space in three hours, so men of the Army of D’Aumale had told her; she knew what they had done she could do. Once only she paused, to let her horse lie a brief while, and cool his foam-flecked sides, and crop some short, sweet grass that grew where a cleft of water ran and made the bare earth green. She sat quite motionless while he rested; she was keenly alive to all that could best save his strength and further her travel; but she watched him during those few minutes of rest and inaction with a fearful look of hunger in her eyes — the worst hunger — that which craves Time and cannot seize it fast enough. Then she mounted again, and again went on, on her flight.
She swept by cantonments, villages, soldiers on the march, douairs of peaceful Arabs, strings of mules and camels, caravans of merchandise; nothing arrested her; she saw nothing that she passed, as she rode over the hard, dust-covered, shadowless roads; over the weary, sun-scorched, monotonous country; over the land without verdure and without foliage, the land that yet has so weird a beauty, so irresistible a fascination; the land to which men, knowing that death waits for them in it, yet return with as mad an infatuation as her lovers went back across the waters to Circe.
The horse was reeking with smoke and foam, and the blood was coursing from his flanks, as she reached her destination at last, and threw herself off his saddle as he sank, faint and quivering, to the ground. Whither she had come was to a fortress where the Marshal of France, who was the Viceroy of Africa, had arrived that day in his progress of inspection throughout the provinces. Soldiers clustered round her eagerly beneath the gates and over the fallen beast; a thousand questions pouring from their curious tongues. She pointed to the animal with one hand, to the gaunt pile of stone that bristled with cannon with the other.
“Have a care of him; and lead me to the chief.”
She spoke quietly; but a certain sensation of awe and fear moved those who heard. She was not the Child of the Army whom they knew so well. She was a creature, desperate, hard-pressed, mute as death, strong as steel; above all, hunted by despair.
They hesitated to take her message, to do her bidding. The one whom she sought was great and supreme here as a king; they dreaded to approach his staff, to ask his audience.
Cigarette looked at them a moment, then loosened her Cross and held it out to an adjutant standing beneath the gates.
“Take that to the man who gave it me. Tell him Cigarette waits; and with each moment that she waits a soldier’s life is lost. Go!”
The adjutant took it, and went. Over and over again she had brought intelligence of an Arab movement, news of a contemplated razzia, warning of an internal revolt, or tidings of an encounter on the plains, that had been of priceless value to the army which she served. It was not lightly that Cigarette’s words were ever received when she spoke as she spoke now; nor was it impossible that she now brought to them that which would brook neither delay nor trifling.
She waited patiently; all the iron discipline of military life had never bound her gay and lawless spirit down; but now she was singularly still and mute. Only there gleamed thirstily in her eyes that fearful avarice which begrudges every moment in its flight as never the miser grudged his hoarded gold into the robber’s grasp.
A few minutes and the decoration was brought back to her, and her demand granted. She was summoned to the Marshal’s presence. It was the ordnance room, a long, vast, silent chamber filled with stands of arms, with all the arts and appliances of war brought to their uttermost perfection, and massed in all the resource of a great empire against the sons of the desert, who had nothing to oppose to them save the despair of a perishing nationality and a stifled freedom.
The Marshal, leaning against a brass field-piece, turned to her with a smile in his keen, stern eyes.
“You, my young one! What brings you here?”
She came up to him with her rapid leopard-like grace, and he started as he saw the change upon her features. She was covered with sand and dust, and with the animal’s blood-flecked foam. The beating of her heart from the fury of the gallop had drained every hue from her face; her voice was scarcely articulate in its breathless haste as she saluted him.
“Monsieur, I have come from Algiers since noon —”
“From Algiers!” He and his officers echoed the name of the city in incredulous amaze; they knew how far from them down along the sea-line the white town lay.
“Since noon, to rescue a life — the life of a great soldier, of a guiltless man. He who saved the honor of France at Zaraila is to die the death of a mutineer at dawn!”
“What! — your Chasseur!”
A dusky, scarlet fire burned through the pallor of her face; but her eyes never quailed, and the torrent of her eloquence returned under the pangs of shame that were beaten back under the noble instincts of her love.
“Mine! — since he is a soldier of France; yours, too, by that title. I am come here, from Algiers, to speak the truth in his name, and to save him for his own honor and the honor of my Empire. See here! At noon, I have this paper, sent by a swift pigeon. Read it! You see how he is to die, and why. Well, by my Cross, by my Flag, by my France, I swear that not a hair of his head shall be touched, and not a drop of blood in his veins shall be shed!”
He looked at her, astonished at the grandeur and the courage which could come on this child of razzias and revelries, and give to her all the splendor of a fearless command of some young empress. But his face darkened and set sternly as he read the paper; it was the greatest crime in the sight of a proud soldier, this crime against discipline, of the man for whom she pleaded.
“You speak madly,” he said, with cold brevity. “The offense merits the chastisement. I shall not attempt to interfere.”
“Wait! You will hear, at least, Monsieur?”
“I will hear you — yes, but I tell you, once for all, I never change sentences that are pronounced by councils of war; and this crime is the last for which you should attempt to plead for mercy with me.”
“Hear me, at least!” she cried, with passionate ferocity — the ferocity of a dumb animal wounded by a shot. “You do not know what this man is — how he has had to endure; I do. I have watched him; I have seen the brutal tyranny of his chief, who hated him because the soldiers loved him. I have seen his patience, his obedience, his long-suffering beneath insults that would have driven any other to revolt and murder. I have seen him — I have told you how — at Zaraila, thinking never of death or life, only of our Flag, that he has made his own, and under which he has been forced to lead the life of a galley slave —”
“The finer soldier he be, the less pardonable his offense.”
“That I deny! If he were a dolt, a brute, a thing of wood as many are, he would have no right to vengeance; as it is, he is a gentleman, a hero, a martyr; may he not forget for one hour that he is a slave? Look you! I have seen him so tried that I told him — I, who love my army better than any living thing under the sun — that I would forgive him if he forgot duty and dealt with his tyrant as man to man. And he always held his soul in patience. Why? Not because he feared death — he desired it; but because he loved his comrades, and suffered in peace and in silence lest, through him, they should be led into evil ——”
His eyes softened as he heard her; but the inflexibility of his voice never altered.
“It is useless to argue with me,” he said briefly; “I never change a sentence.”
“But I say that you shall!” As the audacious words were flung forth, she looked him full in the eyes, while her voice rang with its old imperious oratory. “You are a great chief; you are as a monarch here; you hold the gifts and the grandeur of the Empire; but, because of that — because you are as France in my eyes — I swear, by the name of France, that you shall see justice done to him; after death, if you cannot in life. Do you know who he is — this man whom his comrades will shoot down at sunrise as they shoot down the murderer and the ravisher in their crimes?”
“He is a rebellious soldier; it is sufficient.”
“He is not! He is a man who vindicated a woman’s honor; he is a man who suffers in a brother’s place; he is an aristocrat exiled to a martyrdom; he is a hero who has never been greater than he will be great in his last hour. Read that! What you refuse to justice, and mercy, and courage, and guiltlessness, you will grant, maybe, to your Order.”
She forced into his hand the written statement of Cecil’s name and station. All the hot blood was back in her cheek, all the fiery passion back in her eyes. She lashed this potent ruler with the scourge of her scorn as she had lashed a drunken horde of plunderers with her whip. She was reckless of what she said; she was conscious only of one thing — the despair that consumed her.
The French Marshal glanced his eye on the fragment, carelessly and coldly. As he saw the words, he started, and read on with wondering eagerness.
“Royallieu!” he muttered —“Royallieu!”
The name was familiar to him; he it was who, when he had murmured, “That man has the seat of the English Guards,” as a Chasseur d’Afrique had passed him, had been ignorant that in that Chasseur he saw one whom he had known in many a scene of court splendor and Parisian pleasure. The years had been many since Cecil and he had met, but not so many but that the name brought memories of friendship with it, and moved him with a strange emotion.
He turned with grave anxiety to Cigarette.
“You speak strangely. How came this in your hands?”
“Thus: the day that you gave me the Cross, I saw Mme. la Princesse Corona. I hated her, and I went — no matter! From her I learned that he whom we call Louis Victor was of her rank, was of old friendship with her house, was exiled and nameless, but for some reason unknown to her. She needed to see him; to bid him farewell, so she said. I took the message for her; I sent him to her.” Her voice grew husky and savage, but she forced her words on with the reckless sacrifice of self that moved her. “He went to her tent, alone, at night; that was, of course, whence he came when Chateauroy met him. I doubt not the Black Hawk had some foul thing to hint of his visit, and that blow was struck for her — for her! Well; in the streets of Algiers I saw a man with a face like his own, different, but the same race, look you. I spoke to him; I taxed him. When he found that the one whom I spoke of was under sentence of death, he grew mad; he cried out that he was his brother and had murdered him — that it was for his sake that the cruelty of this exile had been borne — that, if his brother perished, he would be his destroyer. Then I bade him write down that paper, since these English names were unknown to me, and I brought it hither to you that you might see, under his hand and with your own eyes, that I have uttered the truth. And now, is that man to be killed like a mad beast whom you fear? Is that death the reward France will give for Zaraila?”
Her eyes were fixed with a fearful intensity of appeal upon the stern face bent over her; her last arrow was sped; if this failed, all was over. As he heard, he was visibly moved; he remembered the felon’s shame that in years gone by had fallen across the banished name of Bertie Cecil; the history seemed clear as crystal to him, seen beneath the light shed on it from other days.
His hand fell heavily on the gun-carriage.
“Mort de Dieu! it was his brother’s sin, not his!”
There was a long silence; those present, who knew nothing of all that was in his memory, felt instinctively that some dead weight of alien guilt was lifted off a blameless life forever.
She drew a deep, long, sighing breath; she knew that he was safe. Her hands unconsciously locked on the great chief’s arms; her eyes looked up, senselessly in their rapture and their dread, to his.
“Quick, quick!” she gasped. “The hours go so fast; while we speak here he ——”
The words died in her throat. The Marshal swung around with a rapid sign to a staff officer.
“Pens and ink! Instantly! My brave child, what can we say to you? I will send an aid to arrest the execution of the sentence. It must be deferred till we know the whole truth of this. If it be as it looks now, he shall be saved if the Empire can save him!”
She looked up in his eyes with a look that froze his very heart.
“His honor!” she muttered; “his honor — if not his life!”
He understood her; he bowed his haughty head low down to hers.
“True. We will cleanse that, if all other justice be too late.”
The answer was infinitely gentle, infinitely solemn. Then he turned and wrote his hurried order, and bade his aid go with it without a second’s loss. But Cigarette caught it from his hand.
“To me! to me! No other will go so fast!”
“But, my child, you are worn out already.”
She turned on him her beautiful, wild eyes, in which the blinding, passionate tears were floating.
“Do you think I would tarry for that? Ah! I wish that I had let them tell me of God, that I might ask Him now to bless you! Quick, quick! Lend me your swiftest horse! One that will not tire. And send a second order by your aid-decamp; the Arabs may kill me as I go, and then, they will not know!”
He stooped and touched her little, brown, scorched, feverish hand with reverence.
“My child, Africa has shown me much heroism, but none like yours. If you fall, he shall be safe, and France will know how to avenge its darling’s loss.”
She turned and gave him one look, infinitely sweet, infinitely eloquent.
“Ah, France!” she said, so softly that the last word was but a sign of unutterable tenderness. The old, imperishable early love was not dethroned; it was there, still before all else. France was without rival with her.
Then, without another second’s pause, she flew from them, and vaulting into the saddle of a young horse which stood without in the court-yard, rode once more, at full speed out into the pitiless blaze of the sun, out to the wasted desolation of the plains.
The order of release, indeed, was in her bosom; but the chances were as a million to one that she would reach him with it in time, ere with the rising of the sun his life would have set forever.
All the horror of remorse was on her; to her nature the bitter jealousy in which she had desired vengeance on him seemed to have rendered her a murderess. She loved him — loved him with an exceeding passion; and only in this extremity, when it was confronted with the imminence of death, did the fullness and the greatness of that love make their way out of the petulant pride and the wounded vanity which had obscured them. She had been ere now a child and a hero; beneath this blow which struck at him she changed — she became a woman and a martyr.
And she rode at full speed through the night, as she had done through the daylight, her eyes glancing all around in the keen instinct of a trooper, her hand always on the butt of her belt pistol. For she knew well what the danger was of these lonely, unguarded, untraveled leagues that yawned in so vast a distance between her and her goal. The Arabs, beaten, but only rendered furious by defeat, swept down on to those plains with the old guerrilla skill, the old marvelous rapidity. She knew that with every second shot or steel might send her reeling from her saddle; that with every moment she might be surrounded by some desperate band who would spare neither her sex nor her youth. But that intoxication of peril, the wine-draught she had drunk from her infancy, was all which sustained her in that race with death. It filled her veins with their old heat, her heart with its old daring, her nerves with their old matchless courage; but for it she would have dropped, heart-sick with terror and despair, ere her errand could be done; under it she had the coolness, the keenness, the sagacity, the sustained force, and the supernatural strength of some young hunted animal. They might slay her, so that she left perforce her mission unaccomplished; but no dread of such a fate had even an instant’s power to appall her or arrest her. While there should be breath in her, she would go on to the end.
There were eight hours’ hard riding before her, at the swiftest pace her horse could make; and she was already worn by the leagues already traversed. Although this was nothing new that she did now, yet as time flew on and she flew with it, ceaselessly, through the dim, solitary, barren moonlit land, her brain now and then grew giddy, her heart now and then stood still with a sudden numbing faintness. She shook the weakness off her with the resolute scorn for it of her nature, and succeeded in its banishment. They had put in her hand, as she had passed through the fortress gates, a lance with a lantern muffled in Arab fashion, so that the light was unseen from before, while it streamed over herself, to enable her to guide her way if the moon should be veiled by clouds. With that single, starry gleam aslant on a level with her eyes, she rode through the ghastly twilight of the half-lit plains; now flooded with luster as the moon emerged, now engulfed in darkness as the stormy western winds drove the cirrhi over it. But neither darkness nor light differed to her; she noted neither; she was like one drunk with strong wine, and she had but one dread — that the power of her horse would give way under the unnatural strain made on it, and that she would reach too late, when the life she went to save would have fallen forever, silent unto death, as she had seen the life of Marquise fall.
Hour on hour, league on league, passed away; she felt the animal quiver under the spur, and she heard the catch in his panting breath as he strained to give his fleetest and best, that told her how, ere long, the racing speed, the extended gallop at which she kept him, would tell, and beat him down, despite his desert strain. She had no pity; she would have killed twenty horses under her to reach her goal. She was giving her own life, she was willing to lose it, if by its loss she did this thing, to save even the man condemned to die with the rising of the sun. She did not spare herself; and she would have spared no living thing, to fulfill the mission that she undertook. She loved with the passionate blindness of her sex, with the absolute abandonment of the southern blood. If to spare him she must have bidden thousands fall, she would have given the word for their destruction without a moment’s pause.
Once, from some screen of gaunt and barren rock, a shot was fired at her, and flew within a hair’s breadth of her brain; she never even looked around to see whence it had come; she knew it was from some Arab prowler of the plains. Her single spark of light through the half-veiled lantern passed as swiftly as a shooting-star across the plateau. And as she felt the hours steal on — so fast, so hideously fast — with that horrible relentlessness which tarries for no despair, as it hastens for no desire, her lips grew dry as dust, her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth, the blood beat like a thousand hammers on her brain.
What she dreaded came.
Midway in her course, when, by the stars, she knew midnight was passed, the animal strained with hard-drawn, panting gasps to answer the demand made on him by the spur and by the lance-shaft with which he was goaded onward. In the lantern light she saw his head stretched out in the racing agony, his distended eyeballs, his neck covered with foam and blood, his heaving flanks that seemed bursting with every throb that his heart gave; she knew that, half a league more forced from him, he would drop like a dead thing never to rise again. She let the bridle drop upon the poor beast’s neck, and threw her arms above her head with a shrill, wailing cry, whose despair echoed over the noiseless plains like the cry of a shot-stricken animal. She saw it all: the breaking of the rosy, golden day; the stillness of the hushed camp; the tread of the few picked men; the open coffin by the open grave; the leveled carbines gleaming in the first rays of the sun . . . She had seen it so many times — seen it to the awful end, when the living man fell down in the morning light a shattered, senseless, soulless, crushed-out mass.
That single moment was all the soldier’s nature in her gave to the abandonment of despair, to the paralysis that seized her. With that one cry from the depths of her breaking heart, the weakness spent itself; she knew that action alone could aid him. She looked across, southward and northward, east and west, to see if there were aught near from which she could get aid. If there were none, the horse must drop down to die, and with his life the other life would perish as surely as the sun would rise.
Her gaze, straining through the darkness, broken here and there by fitful gleams of moonlight, caught sight in the distance of some yet darker thing, moving rapidly — a large cloud skimming the earth. She let the horse, which had paused the instant the bridle had touched his neck, stand still a while, and kept her eyes fixed on the advancing cloud till, with the marvelous surety of her desert-trained vision, she disentangled it from the floating mists and wavering shadows and recognized it, as it was, a band of Arabs.
If she turned eastward out of her route, the failing strength of her horse would be fully enough to take her into safety from their pursuit, or even from their perception, for they were coming straightly and swiftly across the plain. If she were seen by them, she was certain of her fate; they could only be the desperate remnant of the decimated tribes, the foraging raiders of starving and desperate men, hunted from refuge to refuge, and carrying fire and sword in their vengeance wherever an unprotected caravan or a defenseless settlement gave them the power of plunder and of slaughter, that spared neither age nor sex. She was known throughout the length and the breadth of the land to the Arabs; she was neither child nor woman to them; she was but the soldier who had brought up the French reserve at Zaraila; she was but the foe who had seen them defeated, and ridden down with her comrades in their pursuit in twice a score of vanquished, bitter, intolerably shameful days. Some among them had sworn by their God to put her to a fearful death if ever they made her captive, for they held her in superstitious awe, and thought the spell of the Frankish successes would be broken if she were slain. She knew that; yet, knowing it, she looked at their advancing band one moment, then turned her horse’s head and rode straight toward them.
“They will kill me, but that may save him,” she thought. “Any other way he is lost.”
So she rode directly toward them; rode so that she crossed their front, and placed herself in their path, standing quite still, with the cloth torn from the lantern, so that its light fell full about her, as she held it above her head. In an instant they knew her. They were the remnant who had escaped from the carnage of Zaraila; they knew her with all the rapid, unerring surety of hate. They gave the shrill, wild war-shout of their tribe, and the whole mass of gaunt, dark, mounted figures with their weapons whirling round their heads inclosed her; a cloud of kites settled down with their black wings and cruel beaks upon one young silvery-plumed falcon.
She sat unmoved, and looked up at the naked blades that flashed above her; there was no fear upon her face, only a calm, resolute, proud beauty — very pale, very still in the light that gleamed on it from the lantern rays.
“I surrender,” she said briefly; she had never thought to say these words of submission to her scorned foes; she would not have been brought to utter them to spare her own existence. Their answer was a yell of furious delight, and their bare blades smote each other with a clash of brutal joy. They had her, the Frankish child who had brought shame and destruction on them at Zaraila, and they longed to draw their steel across the fair young throat, to plunge their lances into the bright, bare bosom, to twine her hair round their spear handles, to rend her delicate limbs apart, as a tiger rends the antelope, to torture, to outrage, to wreak their vengeance on her. Their chief, only, motioned their violence back from her, and bade them leave her untouched. At him she looked still with the same fixed, serene, scornful resolve; she had encountered these men so often in battle, she knew so well how rich a prize she was to him. But she had one thought alone with her; and for it she subdued contempt, and hate, and pride, and every passion in her.
“I surrender,” she said, with the same tranquillity. “I have heard that you have sworn by your God and your Prophet to tear me limb from limb because that I— a child, and a woman-child — brought you to shame and to grief on the day of Zaraila. Well, I am here; do it. You can slake your will on me. But that you are brave men, and that I have ever met you in fair fight, let me speak one word with you first.”
Through the menaces and the rage around her, fierce as the yelling of starving wolves around a frozen corpse, her clear, brave tones reached the ear of the chief in the lingua sabir that she used. He was a young man, and his ear was caught by that tuneful voice, his eyes by that youthful face. He signed upward the swords of his followers, and motioned them back as their arms were stretched to seize her, and their shouts clamored for her slaughter.
“Speak on,” he said briefly to her.
“You have sworn to take my body, sawn in two, to Ben–Ihreddin?” she pursued, naming the Arab leader whom her Spahis had driven off the field of Zaraila. “Well, here it is; you can take it to him; and you will receive the piasters, and the horses, and the arms that he has promised to whoever shall slay me. I have surrendered; I am yours. But you are bold men, and the bold are never mean; therefore, I will ask one thing of you. There is a man yonder, in my camp, condemned to death with the dawn. He is innocent. I have ridden from Algiers today with the order of his release. If it is not there by sunrise he will be shot; and he is guiltless as a child unborn. My horse is worn out; he could not go another half league. I knew that, since he had failed, my comrade would perish, unless I found a fresh beast or a messenger to go in my stead. I saw your band come across the plain. I knew that you would kill me, because of your oath and of your Emir’s bride; but I thought that you would have greatness enough in you to save this man who is condemned, without crime, and who must perish unless you, his foes, have pity on him. Therefore I came. Take the paper that frees him; send your fleetest and surest with it, under a flag of truce, into our camp by the dawn; let him tell them there that I, Cigarette, gave it him. He must say no word of what you have done to me, or his white flag will not protect him from the vengeance of my army — and then receive your reward from your chief, Ben–Ihreddin, when you lay my head down for his horse’s hoofs to trample into the dust. Answer me — is the compact fair? Ride on with this paper northward, and then kill me with what torments you choose.”
She spoke with calm, unwavering resolve, meaning that which she uttered to its very uttermost letter. She knew that these men had thirsted for her blood; she offered it to be shed to gain for him that messenger on whose speed his life was hanging. She knew that a price was set upon her head; but she delivered herself over to the hands of her enemies so that thereby she might purchase his redemption.
As they heard, silence fell upon the brutal, clamorous herd around — the silence of amaze and of respect. The young chief listened gravely; by the glistening of his keen, black eyes, he was surprised and moved, though, true to his teaching, he showed neither emotion as he answered her.
“Who is this Frank for whom you do this thing?”
“He is the warrior to whom you offered life on the field of Zaraila because his courage was as the courage of gods.”
She knew the qualities of the desert character; knew how to appeal to its reverence and to its chivalry.
“And for what does he perish?” he asked.
“Because he forgot for once that he was a slave, and because he has borne the burden of guilt that was not his own.”
They were quite still now, closed around her; these ferocious plunderers, who had been thirsty a moment before to sheathe their weapons in her body, were spellbound by the sympathy of courageous souls, by some vague perception that there was a greatness in this little tigress of France, whom they had sworn to hunt down and slaughter, which surpassed all they had known or dreamed.
“And you have given yourself up to us that, by your death, you may purchase a messenger from us for this errand?” pursued their leader. He had been reared as a boy in the high tenets and the pure chivalries of the school of Abd-el-Kader; and they were not lost in him, despite the crimes and the desperation of his life.
She held the paper out to him, with a passionate entreaty breaking through the enforced calm of despair with which she had hitherto spoken.
“Cut me in ten thousand pieces with your swords, but save him, as you are brave men, as you are generous foes!”
With a single sign of his hand their leader waved them back where they crowded around her, and leaped down from his saddle, and led the horse he had dismounted to her.
“Maiden,” he said gently, “we are Arabs, but we are not brutes. We swore to avenge ourselves on an enemy; we are not vile enough to accept a martyrdom. Take my horse — he is the swiftest of my troop — and go you on your errand. You are safe from me.”
She looked at him in stupor; the sense of his words was not tangible to her; she had had no hope, no thought, that they would ever deal thus with her; all she had ever dreamed of was so to touch their hearts and their generosity that they would spare one from among their troop to do the errand of mercy she had begged of them.
“You play with me!” she murmured, while her lips grew whiter and her great eyes larger in the intensity of her emotion. “Ah! for pity’s sake, make haste and kill me, so that this only may reach him!”
The chief, standing by her, lifted her up in his sinewy arms, up on to the saddle of his charger. His voice was very solemn, his glance was very gentle; all the nobility of the highest Arab nature was aroused in him at the heroism of a child, a girl, an infidel — one, in his sight abandoned and shameful among her sex.
“Go in peace,” he said simply; “it is not with such as thee that we war.”
Then, and then only, as she felt the fresh reins placed in her hand, and saw the ruthless horde around her fall back and leave her free, did she understand his meaning; did she comprehend that he gave her back both liberty and life, and, with the surrender of the horse he loved, the noblest and most precious gift that the Arab ever bestows or ever receives. The unutterable joy seemed to blind her, and gleam upon her face like the blazing light of noon, as she turned her burning eyes full on him.
“Ah! now I believe that thine Allah rules thee, equally with Christians! If I live, thou shalt see me back ere another night; if I die, France will know how to thank thee!”
“We do not do the thing that is right for the sake that men may recompense us,” he answered her gently. “Fly to thy friend, and hereafter do not judge that those who are in arms against thee must needs be as the brutes that seek out whom they shall devour.”
Then, with one word in his own tongue, he bade the horse bear her southward, and, as swiftly as a spear launched from his hand, the animal obeyed him and flew across the plains. He looked after a while, through the dim, tremulous darkness that seemed cleft by the rush of the gallop as the clouds are cleft by lightning, while his tribe sat silent on their horses in moody, unwilling consent; savage in that they had been deprived of prey, moved in that they were sensible of this martyrdom which had been offered to them.
“Verily the courage of a woman has put the best among us unto shame,” he said, rather to himself than them, as he mounted the stallion brought him from the rear and rode slowly northward; unconscious that the thing he had done was great, because conscious only that it was just.
And, borne by the fleetness of the desert-bred beast, she went away through the heavy, bronze-hued dullness of the night. Her brain had no sense, her hands had no feeling, her eyes had no sight; the rushing of waters was loud on her ears, the giddiness of fasting and of fatigue sent the gloom eddying round and round like a whirlpool of shadow. Yet she had remembrance enough left to ride on, and on, and on without once flinching from the agonies that racked her cramped limbs and throbbed in her beating temples; she had remembrance enough to strain her blind eyes toward the east and murmur, in her terror of that white dawn, that must soon break, the only prayer that had been ever uttered by the lips no mother’s kiss had ever touched:
“O God! keep the day back!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12