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; hunger, only sharpened by a snatch of raw meat or a handful 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 flame bursts forth.
That evening, at the Villa Aioussa, there gathered a courtly assembly, of much higher rank than Algiers can commonly afford, because many of station as lofty as her own had been drawn thither to follow her to what the Princesse Corona called her banishment—an endurable banishment enough under those azure skies, in that clear, elastic air, and with that charming “bonbonniere” in which to dwell, yet still a banishment to the reigning beauty of Paris, to one who had the habits and the commands of a wholly undisputed sovereignty in the royal splendor of her womanhood.
There was a variety of distractions to prevent ennui; there were half a dozen clever Paris actors playing the airiest of vaudevilles in the Bijou theater beyond the drawing-rooms; there were some celebrated Italian singers whom an Imperial Prince had brought over in his yacht; there was the best music; there was wit as well as homage whispered in her ear. Yet she was not altogether amused; she was a little touched with ennui.
“Those men are very stupid. They have not half the talent of that soldier!” she thought once, turning from a Peer of France, an Austrian Archduke, and a Russian diplomatist. And she smiled a little, furling her fan and musing on the horror that the triad of fashionable conquerors near her would feel if they knew that she thought them duller than an African lascar!
But they only told her things of which she had been long weary, specially of her own beauty; he had told her of things totally unknown to her—things real, terrible, vivid, strong, sorrowful—strong as life, sorrowful as death.
“Chateauroy and his Chasseurs have an order de route,” a voice was saying, that moment, behind her chair.
“Indeed?” said another. “The Black Hawk is never so happy as when unhooded. When do they go?”
“To-morrow. At dawn.”
“There is always fighting here, I suppose?”
“Oh, yes! The losses in men are immense; only the journals would get a communique, or worse, if they ventured to say so in France. How delicious La Doche is! She comes in again with the next scene.”
The Princesse Corona listened; and her attention wandered farther from the Archduke, the Peer, and the diplomatist, as from the Vaudeville. She did not find Mme. Doche very charming; and she was absorbed for a time looking at the miniatures on her fan.