When at length she returned, coming in with her ruthless Spahis, whose terrible passions she feared no more than Vergil’s Volscian huntress feared the beasts of the forest and plain, the raven still hovered above her exhausted mare, the torn flag was still in her left hand; and the bright laughter, the flash of ecstatic triumph, was still in her face as she sang the last lines of her own war-chant. The leopard nature was roused in her. She was a soldier; death had been about her from her birth; she neither feared to give nor to receive it; she was proud as ever was young Pompeius flushed with the glories of his first eastern conquests; she was happy as such elastic, sun-lit, dauntless youth as hers alone can be, returning in the reddening after-glow, at the head of her comrades, to the camp that she had saved.
She could be cruel—women are, when roused, as many a revolution has shown; she could be heroic—she would have died a hundred deaths for France; she was vain with a vivacious, childlike vanity; she was brave with a bravery beside which many a man’s high courage paled. Cruelty, heroism, vanity, and bravery were all on fire, and all fed to their uttermost, most eager, most ardent flame, now that she came back at the head of her Spahis; while all who remained of the soldiers who, but for her, would have been massacred long ere then, without one spared among them, threw themselves forward, crowded round her, caressed, and laughed, and wept, and shouted with all the changes of their intense mercurial temperaments; kissed her boots, her sash, her mare’s drooping neck, and, lifting her, with wild vivas that rent the sky, on to the shoulders of the two tallest men among them, bore her to the presence of the only officer of high rank who had survived the terrors of the day, a Chef de Bataillon of the Zouaves.
And he, a grave and noble-looking veteran, uncovered his head and bowed before her as courtiers bow before their queens.
“Mademoiselle, you saved the honor of France. In the name of France, I thank you.”
The tears rushed swift and hot into Cigarette’s bright eyes—tears of joy, tears of pride. She was but a child still in much, and she could be moved by the name of France as other children by the name of their mothers.
“Chut! I did nothing,” she said rapidly. “I only rode fast.”
The frenzied hurrahs of the men who heard her drowned her words. They loved her for what she had done; they loved her better still because she set no count on it.
“The Empire will think otherwise,” said the Major of the Zouaves. “Tell me, my Little One, how did you do this thing?”
Cigarette, balancing herself with a foot on either shoulder of her supporters, gave the salute, and answered: