1839-1908 Ouida.

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

. (page 29 of 39)
Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 29 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


useless kernels, that not a soul can digest.



T OVE was all very well, so Cigarette's philosophy had
*-* always reckoned ; a chocolate bonbon, a firework, a
bagatelle, a draught of champagne, to flavour an idle
moment. " Vin et Vnus" she had always been accus-
tomed to see worshipped together, as became their
alliterative ; it was a bit of fun that was all. A pas-
sion that had pain in it had never touched the Little
One ; she had disdained it with lightest, airiest con-
tumely. " If your sweetmeat has a bitter almond in it,
eat the sugar, and throw the almond away, you goose !
that is simple enough, isn't it ? Bah ! I don't pity the
people who eat the bitter almond ; not I ce sont bien
btttes, ces gens / " she had said once, when arguing with
an officer on the absurdity of a melancholy love which
possessed him, and whose sadness she rallied most un-
mercifully. Now, for once in her young life, the Child
of France found that it was remotely possible to meet
with almonds so bitter that the taste will remain and



UNDER TWO FLAGS. 409

taint all things, do what philosophy may to throw its
acridity aside.



""THERE were before them death, deprivation, long days
* of famine, long days of drought and thirst ; parching
sun-baked roads ; bitter chilly nights ; fiery furnace-
blasts of sirocco ; killing, pitiless, northern winds ; hun-
ger, only sharpened by a snatch of raw meat or a hand-
ful of maize ; and the probabilities, ten to one, of being
thrust under the sand to rot, or left to have their skeletons
picked clean by the vultures. But what of that ? There
were also the wild delight of combat, the freedom of
lawless warfare, the joy of deep strokes thrust home,
the chance of plunder, of wine-skins, of cattle, of women ;
above all, that lust for slaughter which burns so deep
down in the hidden souls of men, and gives them such
brotherhood with wolf and vulture, and tiger, when once
its flames burst forth.



HP HE levelled carbines covered him ; he stood erect
A with his face full toward the sun ; ere they could fire,
a shrill cry pierced the air

" Wait ! in the name of France."

Dismounted, breathless, staggering, with her arms
flung upward, and her face bloodless with fear, Cigarette
appeared upon the ridge of rising ground.

The cry of command pealed out upon the silence in
the voice that the Army of Africa loved as the voice of
their Little One. And the cry came too late ; the volley
was fired, the crash of sound thrilled across the words
that bade them pause, the heavy smoke rolled out upon
the air, the death that was doomed was dealt.



410 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.

But beyond the smoke-cloud he staggered slightly,
and then stood erect still, almost unharmed, grazed only
by some few of the balls. The flash of fire was not so
fleet as the swiftness of her love ; and on his breast she
threw herself, and flung her arms about him, and turned
her head backward with her old dauntless sunlit smile
as the balls pierced her bosom, and broke her limbs,
and were turned away by that shield of warm young life
from him.

Her arms were gliding from about his neck, and her
shot limbs were sinking to the earth as he caught her
up where she dropped to his feet.

" O God ! my child ! they have killed you ! "

He suffered more, as the cry broke from him, than if
the bullets had brought him that death which he saw at
one glance had stricken down for ever all the glory of
her childhood, all the gladness of her youth.

She laughed all the clear, imperious, arch laughter
of her sunniest hours unchanged.

" Chut ! It is the powder and ball of France ! that
does not hurt. If it were an Arbico's bullet now !
But wait ! Here is the Marshal's order. He suspends
your sentence ; I have told him all. You are safe !
do you hear ? you are safe ! How he looks ! Is he
grieved to live ? Mes Francais / tell him clearer than
I can tell here is the order. The General must have
it. No not out of my hand till the General sees it.
Fetch him, some of you fetch him to me."

" Great Heaven ! you have given your life for mine ! "

The words broke from him in an agony as he held
her upward against his heart, himself so blind, so stunned,
with the sudden recall from death to life, and with the
sacrifice whereby life was thus brought to him, that he
could scarce see her face, scarce hear her voice, but only
dimly, incredulously, terribly knew, in some vague sense,
that she was dying, and dying thus for him.



UNDER TWO FLAGS. 411

She smiled up in his eyes, while even in that moment,
when her life was broken down like a wounded bird's, and
the shots had pierced through from her shoulder to her
bosom, a hot scarlet flush came over her cheeks as she
felt his touch and rested on his heart.

" A life ! Tiens ! what is it to give ? We hold it in
our hands every hour, we soldiers, and toss it in change
for a draught of wine. Lay me down on the ground
at your feet so ! I shall live longest that way, and I
have much to tell. How they crowd around me ! Mes
soldats, do not make that grief and that rage over me.
They are sorry they fired ; that is foolish. They were
only doing their duty, and they could not hear me in
time."

But the brave words could not console those who had
killed the Child of the Tricolour ; they flung their carbines
away, they beat their breasts, they cursed themselves and
the mother who had borne them ; the silent, rigid,
motionless phalanx that had stood there in the dawn to
see death dealt in the inexorable penalty of the law was
broken up into a tumultuous, breathless, heart-stricken,
infuriated throng, maddened with remorse, convulsed
with sorrow, turning wild eyes of hate on him as on the
cause through which their darling had been stricken. He,
laying her down with unspeakable gentleness as she had
bidden him, hung over her, leaning her head against his
arm, and watching in paralysed horror the helplessness
of the quivering limbs, the slow flowing of the blood
beneath the Cross that shone where that young heroic
heart so soon would beat no more.

" Oh, my child, my child ! " he moaned, as the full
might and meaning of this devotion which had saved
him at such cost rushed on him. " What am I worth
that you should perish for me ? Better a thousand times
have left me to my fate ! Such nobility, such sacrifice,
such love ! "



412 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.

The hot colour flushed her face once more ; she was
strong to the last to conceal that passion for which she
was still content to perish in her youth.

" Chut ! we are comrades, and you are a brave man.
I would do the same for any of my Spahis. Look you,
I never heard of your arrest till I heard too of your sen-
tence "

She paused a moment, and her features grew white,
and quivered with pain and with the oppression that
seemed to lie like lead upon her chest. But she forced
herself to be stronger than the anguish which assailed
her strength ; and she motioned them all to be silent as
she spoke on while her voice still should serve her.

" They will tell you how I did it I have not time.
The Marshal gave his word you shall be saved ; there is
no fear. That is your friend who bends over me here ?
is it not ? A fair face, a brave face ! You will go
back to your land you will live among your own people
and she, she will love you now now she knows you
are of her Order ! "

Something of the old thrill of jealous dread and hate
quivered through the words, but the purer, nobler nature
vanquished it ; she smiled up in his eyes, heedless of
the tumult round them.

" You will be happy. That is well. Look you it is
nothing that I did. I would have done it for any one
of my soldiers. And for this " she touched the blood
flowing from her side with the old, bright, brave smile
"it was an accident ; they must not grieve for it.
My men are good to me ; they will feel such regret and
remorse ; but do not let them. I am glad to die."

The words were unwavering and heroic, but for one
moment a convulsion went over her face ; the young
life was so strong in her, the young spirit was so joyous in
her, existence was so new, so fresh, so bright, so daunt-
less a thing to Cigarette. She loved life : the darkness,



UNDER TWO FLAGS. 413

the loneliness, the annihilation of death were horrible to
her as the blackness and the solitude of night to a young
child. Death, like night, can be welcome only to the
weary, and she was weary of nothing on the earth that
bore her buoyant steps ; the suns, the winds, the delights
of the sights, the joys of the senses, the music of her
own laughter, the mere pleasure of the air upon her
cheeks, or of the blue sky above her head, were all
so sweet to her. Her welcome of her death-shot was
the only untruth that had ever soiled her fearless lips.
Death was terrible ; yet she was content content to
have come to it for his sake.

There was a ghastly stricken silence round her. The
order she had brought had just been glanced at, but no
other thought was with the most callous there than the
heroism of her act, than the martyrdom of her death.

The colour was fast passing from her lips, and a
mortal pallor settling there in the stead of that rich
bright hue, once warm as the scarlet heart of the pome-
granate. Her head leant back on Cecil's breast, and
she felt the great burning tears fall one by one upon her
brow as he hung speechless over her ; she put her hand
upward and touched his eyes softly.

" Chut ! What is it to die just to die ? You have
lived your martyrdom ; I could not have done that.
Listen, just one moment. You will be rich. Take care
of the old man he will not trouble long and of Vole-
qui-veut and Etoile, and Boule Blanche, and the rat,
and all the dogs, will you ? They will show you the
Chateau de Cigarette in Algiers. I should not like to
think that they would starve."

She felt his lips move with the promise he could not
find voice to utter ; and she thanked him with that old
child-like smile that had lost nothing of its light.

" That is good ; they will be happy with you. And
see here ; that Arab must have back his white horse :



414 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.

he alone saved you. Have heed that they spare him.
And make my grave somewhere where my Army passes ;
where I can hear the trumpets, and the arms, and the pas-
sage of the troops O God ! I forgot ! I shall not wake
when the bugles sound. It will all end now, will it not ?
That is horrible, horrible ! "

A shudder shook her as, for the moment, the full
sense that all her glowing, redundant, sunlit, passionate
life was crushed out for ever from its place upon the
earth forced itself on and overwhelmed her. But she was
of too brave a mould to suffer any foe even the foe that
conquers kings to have power to appal her. She raised
herself, and looked at the soldiery around her, among
them the men whose carbines had killed her, whose
anguish was like the heartrending anguish of women.

" Mes Frangais ! That was a foolish word of mine.
How many of my bravest have fallen in death ; and
shall I be afraid of what they welcomed ? Do not grieve
like that. You could not help it ; you were doing your
duty. If the shots had not come to me, they would
have gone to him ; and he has been unhappy so long,
and borne wrong so patiently, he has earned the right
to live and enjoy. Now I I have been happy all my
days, like a bird, like a kitten, like a foal, just from
being young and taking no thought. I should have
had to suffer if I had lived ; it is much best as it is "

Her voice failed her when she had spoken the heroic
words ; loss of blood was fast draining all strength from
her, and she quivered in a torture she could not wholly
conceal ; he for whom she perished hung over her in an
agony greater far than hers ; it seemed a hideous dream
to him that this child lay dying in his stead.

" Can nothing save her ?" he cried aloud. " O God !
that you had fired one moment sooner ! "

She heard ; and looked up at him with a look in
which all the passionate, hopeless, imperishable love she



UNDER TWO FLAGS. 415

had resisted and concealed so long spoke with an in-
tensity she never dreamed.

" She is content," she whispered softly. " You did
not understand her rightly ; that was all."

" All ! O God ! how I have wronged you ! "

The full strength, and nobility, and devotion of this
passion he had disbelieved in and neglected rushed on
him as he met her eyes ; for the first time he saw her
as she was, for the first time he saw all of which the
splendid heroism of this untrained nature would have
been capable under a different fate. And it struck him
suddenly, heavily, as with a blow ; it filled him with a
passion of remorse.

" My darling ! my darling ! what have I done to be
worthy of such love ? " he murmured, while the tears fell
from his blinded eyes, and his head drooped until his
lips met hers. At the first utterance of that word
between them, at the unconscious tenderness of his
kisses that had the anguish of a farewell in them, the
colour suddenly flushed all over her blanched face ; she
trembled in his arms ; and a great shivering sigh ran
through her. It came too late, this warmth of love.
She learned what its sweetness might have been only
when her lips grew numb, and her eyes sightless, and
her heart without pulse, and her senses without con-
sciousness.

" Hush ! " she answered, with a look that pierced his
soul. " Keep those kisses for Miladi. She will have
the right to love you ; she is of your ' aristocratesj she
is not 'unsexed.' As for me, I am only a little
trooper who has saved my comrade ! My soldiers,
come round me one instant ; I shall not long find
words."

Her eyes closed as she spoke ; a deadly faintness and
coldness passed over her ; and she gasped for breath.
A moment, and the resolute courage in her conquered :



416 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.

her eyes opened and rested on the war-worn faces of
her "children" rested in a long-lost look of unspeak-
able wistfulness and tenderness.

" I cannot speak as I would," she said at length,
while her voice grew very faint. " But I have loved you.
All is said ! "

All was uttered in those four brief words. " She had
loved them." The whole story of her young life was
told in the single phrase. And the gaunt, battle-scarred,
murderous, ruthless veterans of Africa who heard her
could have turned their weapons against their own
breasts, and sheathed them there, rather than have
looked on to see their darling die.

" I have been too quick in anger sometimes forgive
it," she said gently. "And do not fight and curse among
yourselves ; it is bad amid brethren. Bury my Cross with
me, if they will let you ; and let the colours be over my
grave, if you can. Think of me when you go into battle ;
and tell them in France "

For the first time her own eyes filled with great tears
as the name of her beloved land paused upon her lips ;
she stretched her arms out with a gesture of infinite long-
ing, like a lost child that vainly seeks its mother.

" If I could only see France once more ! France "

It was the last word upon her utterance ; her eyes
met Cecil's in one fleeting upward glance of unutterable
tenderness ; then with her hands still stretched out west-
ward to where her country was, and with the dauntless
heroism of her smile upon her face like light, she gave a
tired sigh as of a child that sinks to sleep, and in the
midst of her Army of Africa the Little One lay dead.



STRATHMORE.

'"THE sun was setting, sinking downward beyond purple
* bars of cloud, and leaving a long golden trail behind
it in its track sinking slowly and solemnly towards the
west as the day declined, without rest, yet without haste,
as though to give to all the sons of earth warning and
time to leave no evil rooted, no bitterness unhealed, no
feud to ripen, and no crime to bring forth seed, when the
day should have passed away to be numbered with hours
irrevocable, and the night should cast its pall over the
dark deeds done, and seal their graves never to be un-
closed. The sun was setting, and shedding its rich and
yellow light over the green earth, on the winding waters,
and the blue hills afar off, and down the thousand leafy
aisles close by ; but to one place that warm radiance
wandered not, in one spot the rays did not play, the glory
did not enter. That place was the deer-pond of the old
Bois, where the dark plants brooding on the fetid waters,
which only stirred with noisome things, had washed
against the floating hair of lifeless women, and the sombre
branches of the crowding trees had been dragged earth-
ward by the lifeless weight of the self-slain, till the air
seemed to be poisonous with death, and the grasses, as
they moved, to whisper to the winds dread secrets of the
Past. And here the light of the summer evening did not
come, but only through the leafless boughs of one seared
tree, which broke and parted the dark barrier of fore?'.'

2 D



4i8 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF OUIDA.

growth, they saw the west, and the sun declining slowly
in its haze of golden air, sinking downward past the bars
of cloud.

All was quiet, save the dull sounds of the parting waters,
when some loathsome reptiles stirred among its brakes,
or the hot breeze moved its pestilential plants ; and in
the silence they stood fronting each other ; in this silence
they had met, in it they would part. And there, on their
right hand, through the break in the dank wall of leaves,
shone the sun, looking earthward, luminous, and blind-
ing human sight like the gaze of God.

The light from the west fell upon Erroll, touching the
fair locks of his silken hair, and shining in his azure eyes
as they looked up at the sunny skies, where a bird was
soaring and circling in space, happy through its mere
sense and joy of life ; and on Strathmore's face the deep
shadows slanted, leaving it as though cast in bronze, chill
and tranquil as that of an Eastern Kabyl, each feature
set into the merciless repose of one immovable purpose.
Their faces were strangely contrasted, for the serenity of
the one was that of a man who fearlessly awaits an in-
evitable doom, the serenity of the other that of a man
who mercilessly deals out an implacable fate ; and while
in the one those present saw but the calmness of courage
and of custom, in the other they vaguely shrank from a
new and an awful meaning. For beneath the suave
smile of the Duellist they read the intent of the Murderer.

The night was nigh at hand, and soon the day had to be
gathered to the past, such harvest garnered with it as men s
hands had sown throughout its brief twelve hours, which
are so short in span, yet are so long in sin. " LET NOT
THE SUN GO DOWN UPON YOUR WRATH." There, across
the west, in letters of flame, the warning of the Hebrew
scroll was written on the purple skies ; but he who
should have read them stood immutable yet insatiate,
with the gleam of a tiger's lust burning in his eyes



STRATHMORE. 419



the lust when it scents blood ; the lust that only slakes
its thirst in life.

They fronted one another, those who had lived as
brothers ; while at their feet babbled the poisonous waters,
nnd on their right hand shone the evening splendour of
the sun.

One ! "

The word fell down upon the silence, and the hiss of a
shrill cicada echoed to it like a devil's laugh. Their eyes
met, and in the gaze of the one was a compassionate
pardon, but in the gaze of the other a relentless lust.

And the sun sank slowly downward beyond the barrier
of purple cloud, passing away from earth.

" Two ! "

Again the single word dropped out upon the stillness,
marking the flight of the seconds ; again the hoot of the
cicada echoed it, laughing hideously from its noisome
marsh.

And the sun sank slowly, still slowly, nearer and nearer
to its shroud of mist, bearing with it all that lingered of
the day.

"Three!"

The white death-signal nickered in the breeze, and the
last golden rays of the sun were still above the edge of the
storm-cloud.

There was yet time.

But the warning was not read : there was the assassin's
devilish greed within Strathmore's soul, the assassin's
devilish smile upon his lips ; the calmness of his face
never changed, the tranquil pulse of his wrist never
quickened, the remorseless gleam of his eyes never soft-
ened. It was for him to fire first, and the doom written
in his look never relaxed. He turned in seeming care-
lessness, as you may turn to aim at carrion bird but his
shot sped home.

One moment Erroll stood erect, his fair hair blowing



420 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.

in the wind, his eyes full open to the light ; then he
reeled slightly backward, raised his right arm, and fired
in the air ! The bullet flew far and harmless amidst the
forest foliage, his arm dropped, and without sign or
sound he fell down upon the sodden turf, his head strik-
ing against the earth with a dull echo, his hands draw-
ing up the rank herbage by the roots, as they closed
convulsively in one brief spasm.

He was shot through the heart.

And the sun sank out of sight, leaving a dusky, sultry
gloom to brood over the noxious brakes and sullen stag-
nant waters, leaving the world to Night, as fitting watch
and shroud of Crime ; and those who stood there were
stricken with a ghastly horror, were paralysed by a vague
and sudden awe, for they knew that they were in the
presence of death, and that the hand which had dealt it
was the hand of his chosen friend. But he, who had
slain him, more coldly, more pitilessly than the merciful
amongst us would slay a dog, stood unmoved in the
shadow, with his ruthless calm, his deadly serenity,
which had no remorse as it had had no mercy, while
about his lips there was a cold and evil smile, and in his
eyes gleamed the lurid flame of a tiger's triumph the
triumph when it has tasted blood, and slaked its thirst
in life.

" Voyez lil est mart ! "

The words, uttered in his ear by Valdor, were hoarse
and almost tremulous ; but he heard and assented to
them unmoved. An exultant light shone and glittered
in his eyes ; he had avenged himself and her ! Life was
the sole price that his revenge had set ; his purpose had
been as iron, and his soul was as bronze. He went
nearer, leisurely, and stooped and looked at the work of
his hand. In the gloom the dark-red blood could yet be
clearly seen, slowly welling out and staining the clotted
herbage as it flowed, while one stray gleam of light still



STRATHMORE. 42 I



stole across, as if in love and pity, and played about the
long fair hair which trailed amidst the grass.

Life still lingered, faintly, flickeringly, as though loth
to leave for ever that which one brief moment before had
been instinct with all its richest glory ; the eyes opened
wide once more, and looked up to the evening skies with
a wild, delirious, appealing pain, and the lips which were
growing white and drawn moved in a gasping prayer :

"Oh, God! I forgive I forgive. He did not
know"

Then his head fell back, and his eyes gazed upward
without sight or sense, and murmuring low a woman's
name, " Lucille ! Lucille ! " while one last breath shivered
like a deep-drawn sigh through all his frame he died.
And his murderer stood by to see the shudder convulse
the rigid limbs, and count each lingering pang calm,
pitiless, unmoved, his face so serene in its chill indiffer-
ence, its brutal and unnatural tranquillity, whilst beneath
the drooped lids his eyes watched with the dark glitter
of a triumphant vengeance the last agony of the man
whom he had loved, that the two who were with him in
this ghastly hour shrank involuntarily from his side, awed
more by the Living than the Dead. Almost unconsciously
they watched him, fascinated basilisk-wise, as he stooped
and severed a long flake of hair that was soiled by the
dank earth and wet with the dew : unarrested they let
him turn away with the golden lock in his hand and
the fatal calm on his face, and move to the spot where
his horse was waiting. The beat of the hoofs rang muffled
on the turf, growing fainter and fainter as the gallop re-
ceded. Strathmore rode to her whose bidding had steeled
his arm, and whose soft embrace would be his reward ;
rode swift and hard, with his hand closing fast on the
promised pledge of his vengeance ; while behind him, in
the shadows of the falling night, lay a man whom he had
once loved, whom he had now slain, with the light of



422 WISDOM, WIT, AND PATHOS OF QUID A.

early stars breaking pale and cold, to shine upon the
oozing blood as it trailed slowly in its death-stream



Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 29 of 39)