The vengeance of the little one.
The warm, transparent light of an African autumnal noon shone down through the white canvas roof of a great tent in the heart of the encamped divisions at the headquarters of the Army of the South. In the tent there was a densely packed throng—an immense, close, hushed, listening crowd, of which every man wore the uniform of France, of which the mute, undeviating attention, forbidden by discipline alike to be broken by sound of approval or dissent, had in it something that was almost terrible, contrasted with the vivid eagerness in their eyes and the strained absorption of their countenances; for they were in court, and that court was the Council of War of their own southern camp.
The prisoner was arraigned on the heaviest charge that can be laid against the soldier of any army, and yet, as the many eyes of the military crowd turned on him where he stood surrounded by his guard, his crime against his chief was forgotten, and they only remembered—Zaraila.
Many of those present had seen him throughout that day of blood, at the head of his decimated squadron, with the guidon held aloft above every foe; to them that tall, slender form standing there, with a calm, weary dignity, that had nothing of the passion of the mutinous or the consciousness of the criminal in its serene repose, had shed upon it the luster of a heroism that made them ready almost to weep like women that the death of a mutineer should be the sole answer given by France to the savior of her honor.
He preserved entire reticence in court. The instant the accusation had been read to him, he had seen that his chief would not dare to couple with it the proud, pure name he had dared to outrage; his most bitter anxiety was thus at an end. For all the rest, he was tranquil.
No case could be clearer, briefer, less complex, more entirely incapable of defense. The soldiers of the guard gave evidence as to the violence and fury of the assault. The sentinel bore witness to having heard the refusal to reply; a moment after, he had seen the attack made and the blow given. The accuser merely stated that, meeting his sous-officier out of the bounds of the cavalry camp, he had asked him where he had been, and why he was there, and, on his commanding an answer, had been assaulted in the manner described, with violence sufficient to have cost his life had not the guard been so near at hand. When questioned as to what motive he could assign for the act, he replied that he considered his corporal had always incited evil feeling and mutinous conduct in the squadrons, and had, he believed, that day attributed to himself his failure to receive the Cross. The statement passed without contradiction by the prisoner, who, to the interrogations and entreaties of his legal defender, only replied that the facts were stated accurately as they occurred, and that his reasons for the deed he declined to assert.