1839-1908 Ouida.

Wisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida online

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maybe got in him, all rascal though he is, the pluck to
turn into a hero. It makes a wonderful difference, this
'ere, whether you're looked at as stuff that's only fit to be
shovelled into the sand after a battle ; or as stuff that'll
belike churn into a great man. And it's just that dif-


ference, sir, that France has found out, and England
hasn't God bless her all the same."

With which the soldier whom England had turned
adrift, and France had won in her stead, concluded
his long oration by dropping on his knees to refill his
Corporal's chibouque.

"A army's just a machine, sir, in course," he con-
cluded, as he rammed in the Turkish tobacco. " But
then it's a live machine for all that ; and each little bit
of it feels for itself like the joints in an eel's body. Now,
if only one of them little bits smarts, the whole crittur
goes wrong there's the mischief."

'T makes all the difference in life, whether hope is left,
or left out !

C HE 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, untravelled
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 guerilla skill, the old marvellous 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 intoxica-


tion 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
appal 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 numb-
ing 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 her 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 lustre as the moon
emerged, now engulfed in darkness as the stormy western
winds drove the cirri 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
for ever, 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 fulfil 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 relentless-
ness, " ohne Hast, ohne Rast," which tarries for no de-
spair, 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
eyeballsj his neck covered with foam and blood, his
heaving flanks that seem 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 breathing of the rosy, golden day ; the still-
ness of the hushed camp ; the tread of the few picked
men ; the open coffin by the open grave ; the levelled
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 awhile, and kept her eyes fixed on the
advancing cloud till, with the marvellous surety of her
desert-trained vision, she disentangled it from the float-

2 B


ing mists and wavering shadows, and recognised 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 per-
ception, 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 defenceless settle-
ment gave them the power of plunder and of slaughter,
that spared neither age nor sex. She was known through-
out 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 Prankish 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
enclosed her : a cloud of kites settled down with their
black wings and cruel beaks upon one young silvery-
plumed gerfalcon.

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 Prankish 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 fol-
lowers, and motioned them back as their arms were
stretched to seize her, and their shouts clamoured for her

" 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 piastres, and the horse, and the arms that he
has promised to whosoever shall slay me. I have sur-
rendered ; 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 to-day with the order of his release. If it
is not there by sunrise, he will be shot ; and he is guilt-
less 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 must die, 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 bribe ;
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 a 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 spell-


bound 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

"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

She held the paper out to him with a passionate en-
treaty breaking through the enforced calm of despair
with which she had hitherto spoken.

" Cut me in ten thousand pieces with your swords,
but save htm, 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 dis-
mounted 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, on to the saddle of his charger. His voice was
very solemn, his glance was very gentle ; all the nobi-
lity 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 hands, and saw the ruthless horde around her fall
back and leave her free, did she understand his meaning,
did she comprehend that she 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

" 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 her awhile,
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 dulness
of the night. Her brain had no sense, her hands had
no feeling, her eyes had no sight ; the rushing as 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.'"

/^NE of the most brilliant of Algerian autumnal days
^-' shone over the great camp in the south. The war
was almost at an end for a time ; the Arabs were
defeated and driven desertwards ; hostilities -irksome,
harassing, and annoying, like all guerilla warfare, would
long continue, but peace was virtually established, and
Zaraila had been the chief glory that had been added by
the campaign to the flag of Imperial France. The kites


and the vultures had left the bare bones by thousands to
bleach upon the sands, and the hillocks of brown earth
rose in crowds where those more cared for in death
had been hastily thrust beneath the brown crust of the
earth. The dead had received their portion of reward
in the jackall's teeth, in the crow's beak, in the worm's
caress. And the living received theirs in this glorious
rose-flecked glittering autumn morning, when the breath
of winter made the air crisp and cool, but the ardent
noon still lighted with its furnace glow the hillside and
the plain.

The whole of the Army of the South was drawn up
on the immense level of the plateau to witness the pre-
sentation of the Cross of the Legion of Honour.

It was full noon. The sun shone without a single cloud
on the deep sparkling azure of the skies. The troops
stretched east and west, north and south, formed up in
three sides of one vast massive square.

The red white and blue of the standards, the brass
of the eagle guidons, the grey tossed manes of the
chargers, the fierce swarthy faces of the soldiery, the
scarlet of the Spahis' cloaks, and the snowy folds of the
Demi-Cavalerie turbans, the shine of the sloped lances,
and the glisten of the carbine barrels, fused together in
one sea of blended colour, flashed into a million of
prismatic hues against the sombre bistre shadow of the
sunburnt plains and the clear blue of the skies.

It had been a sanguinary, fruitless, cruel campaign ;
it had availed nothing except to drive the Arabs away
from some hundred leagues of useless and profitless soil ;
hundreds of French soldiers had fallen by disease, and
drought, and dysentery, as well as by shot and sabre,
and were unrecorded save on the books of the bureaus,
unlamented save, perhaps, in some little nestling hamlet
among the great green woods of Normandy, or some
wooden hut among the olives and the vines of Provence,


where some woman toiling till sunset among the fields,
or praying before some wayside saint's stone niche, would
give a thought to the far-off and devouring desert that
had drawn down beneath its sands the head that had used
to lie upon her bosom, cradled as a child's, or caressed
as a lover.

But the drums rolled out their long deep thunder
over the wastes ; and the shot-torn standards fluttered
gaily in the breeze blowing from the west, and the clear
full music of the French bands echoed away to the dim
distant terrible south, where the desert-scorch and the
desert-thirst had murdered their bravest and best and
the Army was en fete. En fete, for it did honour to its
darling. Cigarette received the Cross.

Mounted on her own little bright bay, Etoile-Filante,
with tricolour ribbons flying from his bridle and among
the glossy fringes of his mane, the Little One rode among
her Spahis. A scarlet kpi was set on her thick silken
curls, a tricolour sash was knotted round her waist, her
wine-barrel was slung on her left hip, her pistols thrust
in her ceinturon, and a light carbine held in her hand
with the butt-end resting on her foot. With the sun on
her child-like brunette face, her eyes flashing like brown
diamonds in the light, and her marvellous horsemanship,
showing its skill in a hundred (tisinvoltures and daring
tricks, the little Friend of the Flag had come hither
among her half-savage warriors, whose red robes sur-
rounded her like a sea of blood.

And on a sea of blood she, the Child of War, had
floated, never sinking in that awful flood, but buoyant
ever above its darkest waves, catching ever some ray of
sunlight upon her fair young head, and being oftentimes
like a star of hope to those over whom its dreaded waters
closed. Therefore they loved her, these grim, slaughter-
ous, and lustful warriors, to whom no other thing of
womanhood was sacred, by whom in their wrath or their


crime no friend and no brother was spared, whose law
was license, and whose mercy was murder. They loved
her, these brutes whose greed was like the tiger's, whose

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 27 of 39)