His heart was sick within him. To remain here was to risk with every moment that ordeal of recognition which he so utterly dreaded; and to flee was to leave his name to the men, with whom he had served so long, covered with obloquy and odium, buried under all the burning shame and degradation of a traitor’s and deserter’s memory. The latter course was impossible to him; the only alternative was to trust that the vastness of that great concrete body, of which he was one unit, would suffice to hide him from the discovery of the friend whose love he feared as he feared the hatred of no foe. He had not been seen as he had passed the flag-staff; there was little fear that in the few remaining hours any chance could bring the illustrious guest of a Marshal to the outpost of the scattered camp.
Yet he shuddered as he sat in the glow of the fire of pinewood; she was so near, and he could not behold her!—though he might never see her face again; though they must pass out of Africa, home to the land that he desired as only exiles can desire, while he still remained silent, knowing that, until death should release him, there could be no other fate for him, save only this one, hard, bitter, desolate, uncompanioned, unpitied, unrewarded life. But to break his word as the price of his freedom was not possible to his nature or in his creed. This fate was, in chief, of his own making; he accepted it without rebellion, because rebellion would have been in this case both cowardice and self-pity.
He was not conscious of any heroism in this; it seemed to him the only course left to a man who, in losing the position, had not abandoned the instincts of a gentleman.
The evening wore away, unmeasured by him; the echoes of the soldiers’ mirth came dimly on his ear; the laughter, and the songs, and the music were subdued into one confused murmur by distance; there was nothing near him except a few tethered horses, and far way the mounted figure of the guard who kept watch beyond the boundaries of the encampment. The fire burned on, for it had been piled high before it was abandoned; the little white dog of his regiment was curled at his feet; he sat motionless, sunk in thought, with his head drooped upon his breast. The voice of Cigarette broke on his musing.
“Beau sire, you are wanted yonder.”
He looked up wearily; could he never be at peace? He did not notice that the tone of the greeting was rough and curt; he did not notice that there was a stormy darkness, a repressed bitterness, stern and scornful, on the Little One’s face; he only thought that the very dogs were left sometimes at rest and unchained, but a soldier never.
“You are wanted!” repeated Cigarette, with imperious contempt.
He rose on the old instinct of obedience.
She stood looking at him without replying; her mouth was tightly shut in a hard line that pressed inward all its soft and rosy prettiness. She was seeing how haggard his face was, how heavy his eyes, how full of fatigue his movements. Her silence recalled him to the memory of the past day.