“Ouf!” growled only one insubordinate, “if you had been a day and night eating nothing but a bit of moist clay, you might be hungry too.”
The humiliated supplication of the reply appeased their autocratic sovereign. She nodded her head in assent.
“I know; I know. I have gone days on a handful of barley-ears. M. le Colonel has his marmitons, and his fricassees, and his fine cuisine where he camps—ho!—but we soldiers have nothing but a hunch of baked chaff. Well, we win battles on it!”
Which was one of the impromptu proverbs that Cigarette was wont to manufacture and bring into her discourse with an air of authority as of one who quotes from profound scholastic lore. It was received with a howl of applause and of ratification. The entrails often gnaw with bitter pangs of famine in the Army of Algiers, and they knew well how sharp an edge hunger gives to the steel.
Nevertheless, the sullen, angry roar of famished men, that is so closely, so terribly like the roar of wild beasts, did not cease.
“Where is Biribi?” they growled. “Biribi never keeps us waiting. Those are Biribi’s beasts.”
“Right,” said Cigarette laconically, with a crack of her mule-whip on to the arm of a Zouave who was attempting to make free with her convoy and purloin a loaf off the load.
“Where is Biribi, then?” they roared in concert, a crowd of eager, wolfish, ravenous, impatient men, hungry as camp fasting could make them, and half inclined even to tear their darling in pieces, since she kept them thus from the stores.
Cigarette uncovered her head with a certain serious grace very rare in her.
“Biribi had made a good end.”
Her assailants grew very quiet.
“Shot?” they asked briefly. Biribi was a Tringlo well beloved in all the battalions.
Cigarette nodded, with a gesture outward to the solitary country. She was accustomed to these incidents of war; she thought of them no more than a girl of civilized life thinks of the grouse or the partridges that are killed by her lovers and brothers.
“I was out yonder, two leagues or more away. I was riding; I was on my own horse; Etoile-Filante. Well I heard shots; of course I made for the place by my ear. Before I got up I saw what was the mischief. There were the mules in a gorge, and Biribi in front of them, fighting, mon Dieu!—fighting like the devil—with three Arbis on him. They were trying to stop the convoys, and Biribi was beating them back with all his might. I was too far off to do much good; but I shouted and dashed down to them. The Arbis heard, Biribi heard; he flew on to them like a tiger, that little Tringlo. It was wonderful! Two fell dead under him; the third took fright and fled. When I got up, Biribi lay above the dead brutes with a dozen wounds in him, if there were one. He looked up, and knew me. ‘Is it thee, Cigarette?’ he asked; and he could hardly speak for the blood in his throat. ’Do not wait with me; I am dead already. Drive the mules into camp as quick as thou canst; the men will be thinking me late.’”