When they came near to bind the covering over his eyes, he motioned them away, taking the bandage from their hands and casting it far from him.
“Did I ever fear to look down the depths of my enemies’ muskets?”
It was the single outbreak, the single reproach, that escaped from him—the single utterance by which he ever quoted his services to France. Not one who heard him dared again force on him that indignity which would have blinded his sight, as though he had ever dreaded to meet death.
That one protest having escaped from him, he was once more still and calm, as though the vacant grave yawning at his feet had been but a couch of down to rest his tired limbs. His eyes watched the daylight deepen, and widen, and grow into one sheet of glowing roseate warmth; but there was no regret in the gaze; there was a fixed, fathomless resignation that moved with a vague sense of awe those who had come to slay him, and who had been so used to slaughter that they fired their volley into their comrade’s breast as callously as into the ranks of their antagonists.
“It is best thus,” he thought, “if only she never knows——”
Over the slope of brown and barren earth that screened the camp from view there came, at the very moment that the ramrods were drawn out with a shrill, sharp ring from the carbine-barrels, a single figure—tall, stalwart, lithe, with the spring of the deerstalker in its rapid step, and the sinew of the northern races in its mold.
Cecil never saw it; he was looking at the east, at the deepening of the morning flush that was the signal of his slaughter, and his head was turned away.
The newcomer went straight to the adjutant in command, and addressed him with brief preface, hurriedly and low.
“Your prisoner is Victor of the Chasseurs?—he is to be shot this morning?”
The officer assented; he suffered the interruption, recognizing the rank of the speaker.
“I heard of it yesterday; I rode all night from Oran. I feel great pity for this man, though he is unknown to me,” the stranger pursued, in rapid, whispered words. “His crime was—”
“A blow to his colonel, monsieur.”
“And there is no possibility of a reprieve?”
“May I speak with him an instant? I have heard it said that he is of my country, and of a rank above his standing in his regiment here.”
“You may address him, M. le Duc; but be brief. Time presses.”
He thanked the officer for the unusual permission, and turned to approach the prisoner. At that moment Cecil turned also, and their eyes met. A great, shuddering cry broke from them both; his head sank as though the bullet had already pierced his breast, and the man who believed him dead stood gazing at him, paralyzed with horror.
For a moment there was an awful silence. Then the Seraph’s voice rang out with a terror in it that thrilled through the careless, callous hearts of the watching soldiery.