It had been a sanguinary, fruitless, cruel campaign; it had availed nothing, except to drive the Arabs away from some hundred leagues of useless and profitless soil; hundreds of French soldiers had fallen by disease, and drought, and dysentery, as well as by shot and saber, and were unrecorded save on the books of the bureaus; unlamented, save, perhaps, in some little nestling hamlet among the great, green woods of Normandy, or some wooden hut among the olives and the vines of Provence, where some woman, toiling till sunset among the fields, or praying before some wayside saint’s stone niche, would give a thought to the far-off and devouring desert that had drawn down beneath its sands the head that used to lie upon her bosom, cradled as a child’s, or caressed as a lover’s.
But the drums rolled out their long, deep thunder over the water; and the shot-torn standards fluttered gayly in the breeze blowing from the west; and the clear, full music of the French bands echoed away to the dim, distant, terrible south, where the desert-scorch and the desert-thirst had murdered their bravest and best—and the Army was en fete. En fete, for it did honor to its darling. Cigarette received the Cross.
Mounted on her own little, bright bay, Etoile-Filante, with tricolor ribbons flying from his bridle and among the glossy fringes of his mane, the Little One rode among her Spahis. A scarlet kepi was set on her thick, silken curls, a tricolor sash was knotted round her waist, her wine-barrel was slung on her left hip, her pistols thrust in her ceinturon, and a light carbine held in her hand with the butt-end resting on her foot. With the sun on her childlike brunette face, her eyes flashing like brown diamonds in the light, and her marvelous horsemanship showing its skill in a hundred daring tricks, the little Friend of the Flag had come hither among her half-savage warriors, whose red robes surrounded her like a sea of blood.
And on a sea of blood she, the Child of War, had floated; never sinking in that awful flood, but buoyant ever above its darkest waves; catching ever some ray of sunlight upon her fair young head, and being oftentimes like a star of hope to those over whom its dreaded waters closed. Therefore they loved her, these grim, slaughterous, and lustful warriors, to whom no other thing of womanhood was sacred; by whom in their wrath or their crime no friend and no brother was spared, whose law was license, and whose mercy was murder. They loved her, these brutes whose greed was like the tiger’s, whose hate was like the devouring flame; and any who should have harmed a single lock of her curling hair would have had the spears of the African Mussulmans buried by the score in his body. They loved her, with the one fond, triumphant love these vultures of the army ever knew; and to-day they gloried in her with fierce, passionate delight. To-day she was to her wild wolves of Africa what Jeanne of Vaucouleurs was to her brethren of France. And today was the crown of her young life.