The little leopard of France.
“V’la ce que c’est la gloire—au grabat!”
The contemptuous sentence was crushed through Cigarette’s tight-pressed, bright-red lips, with an irony sadder than tears. She was sitting on the edge of a grabat, hard as wood, comfortless as a truss of straw, and looking down the long hospital room, with its endless rows of beds and its hot sun shining blindingly on its glaring, whitewashed walls.
She was well known and well loved there. When her little brilliant-hued figure fluttered, like some scarlet bird of Africa, down the dreary length of those chambers of misery, bloodless lips, close-clinched in torture, would stir with a smile, would move with a word of welcome. No tender-voiced, dove-eyed Sister of Orders of Mercy, gliding gray and soft, and like a living psalm of consolation, beside those couches of misery, bore with them the infinite, inexpressible charm that the Friend of the Flag brought to the sufferers. The Sisters were good, were gentle, were valued as they merited by the greatest blackguard prostrate there; but they never smiled, they never took the dying heart of a man back with one glance to the days of his childhood, they never gave a sweet, wild snatch of song like a bird’s on a spring-blossoming bough that thrilled through half-dead senses, with a thousand voices from a thousand buried hours. “But the Little One,” as said a gaunt, gray-bearded Zephyr once, where he lay with the death-chill stealing slowly up his jagged, torn frame—“the Little One—do you see—she is youth, she is life; she is all we have lost. That is her charm! The Sisters are good women, they are very good; but they only pity us. The Little One, she loves us. That is the difference; do you see?”
It was all the difference—a wide difference; she loved them all, with the warmth and fire of her young heart, for the sake of France and of their common Flag. And though she was but a wild, wayward, mischievous gamin,—a gamin all over, though in a girl’s form,—men would tell in camp and hospital, with great tears coursing down their brown, scarred cheeks, how her touch would lie softly as a snowflake on their heated foreheads; how her watch would be kept by them through long nights of torment; how her gifts of golden trinkets would be sold or pawned as soon as received to buy them ice or wine; and how in their delirium the sweet, fresh voice of the child of the regiment would soothe them, singing above their wretched beds some carol or chant of their own native province, which it always seemed she must know by magic; for, were it Basque or Breton, were it a sea-lay of Vendee or a mountain-song of the Orientales, were it a mere, ringing rhyme for the mules of Alsace, or a wild, bold romanesque from the country of Berri—Cigarette knew each and all, and never erred by any chance, but ever sung to