THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND ME
THE little cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, in that right hand bottom corner of the map, having gathered into a tremendous bank of clouds of inky blackness, having already partially broken, and with red rain mad the harvest grow where you wot of, seems not to loom nearer and nearer over this land; and there is a wind, the precursor of the tornado, in whose fitful soughing I seem to hear, the sad notes of the “Girl I left behind me.”
Sad, sad indeed, to many thousand hearts. Farms and homesteads were never made to be burnt, nor churches battered by Paixhan guns: the worst and most devilish use you can put a cornfield to is to blow your brother’s brains out in it. These are not the days, thank God! when the mere idle brag and vaunt of glory for the withdrawal of one tompion from a cannon; for the accension of one fusse, the crossing of one bayonet upon another. There must be an awful necessity; this business must be inevitable, or it is inexcusable and abominable; and upon mere Field-Marshal Anybody, strutting forth “to conquer or to die” in any other cause save that of right against might, I look with profoundest contempt, as upon a madman who is behind this world, and had better be consigned to the next.
At this hour I write, the tune of the “Girl I left behind me” is reverberating in thousands, nay, millions of English hearts. The rocky fastnesses of the Scottish highlands sent it back to the Cornish headlands; it runs round the coast faster than the light of the beacons that told of the approach of the Armada; it crosses the Irish Channel quicker than the messages can flash along the submerged wires of the telegraph; it is hears in the Queen’s palace and the Grenadiers’ barrack-room; in the labourer’s cottage, and the gillie’s sheeling, and the bogtrorrer’s shebeen; it is the refrain of the languid gossip of the drawing-room, and the boisterous argument of the village alehouse. It comes home, this tune, and the thoughts it awakens, and it as interesting to every one as death – death that sings the bass to the fife’s shrill treble. Who shall say but that the maniac in his padded room, and the convict in his solitary cell, have heard their guardian or their gaoler whistle this tune ere this, and that they know a great war is afoot, and that thousands of brave soldiers have left home, followed by the smiles and tears, the hopes and fears, and tender wishes of thousands more, to the tune of the “Girl I left behind me.”
Here it on the bridge. It is six o’clock in the morning, and the white-aproned collector of the Bridge Company’s revenues is peacefully taking the coppers from newspaper compositors going home. The sleepy night cabs crawling to their Kennington yards; the gloved and belted policeman; the twinkling gas-lamps; the moored barges on the river; the utter quietude and stillness of the giant city, sleeping too heavily even to snore; save now and then snoring droningly, in the wheels of the lumbering market-carts; the labourer going to his work; the coffee-stall keep retiring (till to-morrow night) from business; the placards covering the hoardings outside the bridge gates – placards of quiet, harmless, pacific entertainments – “carpet bags,” “ascents” of mountains, “songs and sayings,” and the like – the very morning moon, and first grey whisper of dawn, all seem to denote peace, tranquility, security. There is nothing warlike about the bridge that its name, and perhaps a notification on the outlying hording of the forthcoming “benefit” of some favourite prize fighter.
Here it on the bridge: “The Girl I left behind me,” played in all the brass clangour of the military band, as the footguards march by. Suddenly – and yet, oh so softly – you heard its first notes to the westward borne faintly, and yet faithfully, on the morning air. The carriage-gates of the bridge a moment before were closed, as it is befitting the gates of the temple of Janus should be closed in time of peace; in an instant they are opened wide – when, O Future, to be closed again?
Here it on the bridge, the measured tramp of these armed scarlet men – the famous Guards of the Queen of England. Proud and magnificent in scarlet and gold is the band-master, conscious in his whiskers of glorious experiences – of campaigns in the Queen’s antechamber during the time of dinner, of brilliant sorties at the Horticultural Fetes, of dashing charges at the balls and suppers of the Peerage. Secure you are too, O Band-master in your scarlet and gold! No Kalafatian trenches yawn for you; no Russian bayonets thirst for your melodious blood; for you and your brave bandsmen do not go abroad. Not but what you would fight, and fight like a very “Pandarus of Troy” were you called upon to do so. But fate has ordered it otherwise. You and your embroidered hosts of Orpheonists have the good luck or ill luck to be simply ornamental appendages to the regiment, and imbursed by a subscription among the officers thereof. Sambo, or Muley Mahomed, or whatever may be his name – the glorious being of dark complexion, with the turban and the bullion and the crimson cloth garments – his habiliments are not stained with the darker, duller crimson of blood. Ye are to remain at home, O ye warriors of the wind instruments – you play the “Girl I left behind me,” but your country wills that you shall remain behind to be the comfort and solace of those said girls – to be the ornament of St. James’s Palace-yard and the delight of the dinner-table. They are fierce men to look at, these bandsmen, but mild as sucking doves in reality. I have known a bandsman personally, I, Scriblerus; and the modest and unassuming manner in which he would eat bread and cheese and drink mild porter in Popkin’s little parlour, opposite the Theatre Royal Lincoln’s Inn Fields, was positively charming. No pride about him: none of the license of the camp, the brutality of the barrack room, and the brusquerie of the bivouac. I have seen him in his gorgeous regimentals, with his big fierce muff cap under a three-legged stool, sit meekly in the dark corner of a dark orchestra during rehearsal, and pipe forth plaintive notes for a young lady in a very short and shabby muslin skirt, with a plaid scarf crossed over her chest; noted known in ballet practice as a “practicing dress,” to dance to. I have heard him taken to task, ay and smartly too, concerning his time or tune by the orchestral conductor – a mere foreigner in a beard. I have seen him sit placidly behind his instrument at fashionable morning concerts with Signors and Senors and Herrs have been inflicting atrocious cruelties upon unresisting pianos, and never dare to stir a finger in their defence. I have known him when off duty lend his valuable aid to polka parties, sup on Welsh rabbits afterwards, and go home to Camberwell in a worsted comforter and American overshoes.
Very different is the fate of these other musicians who come after the glittering band, and alternately with them take up in a ruder, sterner strain the notes of the “Girl I left behind me.” Hear the drummers and fifers, from the stern man pounding away at the big drum as though it were a Russian, to the wee little fifer-boy half extinguished by his huge bearskin. No scarlet and gold here, but coarse red and worsted lace, and plenty of it. The bridle is for the ass, and the rod for the fool’s back, and the drummer is for the battles. These mere children, these parvi parvulorum, may be spared – but, drummer of the strong arm and adult age, to the complexion of Kalafat you must come. And in the din of the battle, amid the thundering cannons, and the roaring muskets, and the cracking rifles, your drums are to be heard and are to answer back the pibroch of the Highlander and the bugles of the Rifles; though you cannot drown – would you could, would you could! – the groans of the wounded and the dying.
Strike up, drums louder, fifes shriller, aggravate the strain with metallic lungs, trombones and bassoons, for here is the colonel commandant of the regiment on his charger! He is but a scarlet and gold man like his brother officers, yet strikes me I shall bear him in remembrance for many a long year. Though his face is indistinct in the (increasing yet still faint) light, I shall still call him to mind, I think, by his horse. You can never forget a man on horseback. I cannot instance the great Duke of Wellington as a proof of this equestrian connection with memory for he was as well known all over England off his horse as on – in his blue frock and white ducks, in his Field-Marshal’s uniform and his peer’s robes, in his queer Trinity-house dress and cocked hat, and his preposterous costume as Chancellor of the University of Oxford. There was no mistaking that old hero anywhere, and he was as recognizable in the Hessians and whiskers of eighteen hundred and twelve as in the snowy hair and faultless English gentleman’s dress of eighteen hundred and forty; in the bronze medal as in the unheard-of hat and cloak in which Mr. Wyatt has stuck him a-top of Decimus Burton’s archway; but take his groom, that sober, grave-paced domestic with the red waistcoat, who followed him with the umbrella. Take him without his horse, and he was nothing – a mere item of domesticity easily to be confounded with the porter of an insurance office, or any one of the portly servitors who, with their well-fed waistcoats, block up the small apertures in the doorways of lordly mansions. But on his horse once seen he was never to be forgotten. On Constitution Hill, at the House Guards, at Apsley House Gate, in Sir Edwin Landseer’s picture of the field of Waterloo, there he was unmistakable – a type of individuality. What would the goblin trooper in Lenore be without his ghastly charger? The horse makes the man. I remember a worthy old friend of mine, a Catholic priest (he loved a rubber of backgammon after Sunday vespers dearly, good man!) who in his youth had witnessed the cruel campaign of 1813, when Napoleon was contesting the soil of Champagne rood by rood with the Allies, and each victory that he gained was a draught of the life-blood of France. It was my Abbe’s fate, as a mere child, to see the great man once, and once only. He passed through my friend’s native village at the head of his decimated Guards. The Abbe had not the slightest recollection of what Napoleon was like. He could not even remember the grey great coat, the little hat, the star of the legion. But he could remember the Emperor’s horse. That white charger, the embroidered housings, the very splashes of mud on its flank were ever vividly present to his mind, he said, and would be to his dying day.
Marching, still marching to the “Girl I left behind me,” to the “British Grenadiers,” to “Rule Britannia,” to some other tunes of recent introduction, which are not patriotic, which are not inspiring, which are simply jingling and nonsensical – come the Pioneers – Gracious! how can these men, stalwart as they be, manage to get along in this tremendously heavy marching order. Suppose now, brother six-foot (say in the Tithe office or the Bank of England) the authorities were to put you into scarlet blanketing, heavy shoes, and a tremendous bearskin. Suppose you had to carry on your back a knapsack with its kit, or accompaniments of shirts, socks, towels, gloves, soap, pipeclay, sponges, button-brushes, and the multifarious et ceteras known as “regimental necessaries;” likewise a canteen for water, and a great coat, neatly rolled up into the form of a sausage. Also by your side a bag containing your beef and biscuit. Also a cartouch box, with its heavy belts and rounds of ammunition. To say nothing of a musket and bayonet, a bill-hook, and that huge hatchet. How would you pioneer, or sap, or mine, thing you, with all the cumbrous paraphernalia about you; with your chest hampered with straps and buckles, with your windpipe half-throttled in a leathern stock? It is recorded of a life-guardsman – a Waterloo man – that, being asked by the finest and fattest gentleman in England, in what sort of costume he would like to fight such another battle as Waterloo, he answered, “in my shirt-sleeves, an it please your Majesty.” Would not some of these heavily laden Pioneers now, like to march to Turkey in ponchos, and wide-awakes? If one of them were to fall down, would he ever be able to get up again?
Marching, still marching in serried columns – marching as one bayonet, one bearskin, one foot, one man – come the long array of these tremendous grenadiers. Very dissimilar is their style of procedure to that of the open order and careless manner of carrying the musket, adopted by our lively neighbours across the channel. Ours is a business march, a pounds shillings and pence march, befitting a commercial nation. High, erect, and proud among the bayonets are the glorious flags on which more victories are yet to be emblazoned. Marching come the captains at the head of their companies, the trim subalterns holding their swords daintily, but marching as cheerfully as they would to Almack’s, or to their clubs. There are young lads here you not many months since had fags at Eton, and “tick” at the sweetstuff shops. There are here mothers’ darlings, heirs to coronets, dandies of Belgravian drawing-rooms. Many of these youths have, I daresay, beneath their martial gorgets, embroidered bracelets and crochet purses, and fillagreed handkerchiefs, the purchases of fancy fairs, or the gifts of sisters, cousins, or sweethearts. What boots now the unrivalled dog that killed so many rats in so few minutes, the half made up “book” for the Derby, the “engagements” for Ascot, the park hack, the Richmond pink bonnets, the Greenwich whitebait, the select society of fighting men, the mess jokes, the Tower guard, the royal parade, the Pall Mall loiter, all the delights that make up a guardsman’s life? Othello’s occupation is not gone; it is come. These boys are to learn, in a sterner school, the great lessons of life and death. Beardless dandies, bucks of Almack’s and Court balls; they are to show – and they WILL show – in a foreign land and a strange climate, and in the fury of deadly fight, what they are the same guards who died so mathematically in square at Waterloo; who lay down patiently for so many hours biding their time and when the time did come, who rushed so gloriously and resistlessly down the hill of Mont St. Jean. They are to show mobs of serf-soldiers, civilized by the stick and disciplined by the whip, that indomitable perseverance, and that inextinguishable pluck which in every age have distinguished English men and English gentlemen.
Yet these are the same Guards (though hundreds of them have never smelt anything stronger than review powder), these are the same British Grenadiers, that on the plains of Flanders, long ago, fought like Alexanders under Marlborough. These are the Guards that routed the famous Maison du Roy, that vanquished at Minden, that were themselves vanquished, but ah! so gloriously, at Fontenoy. These are the Guards that marched to Finchley, and that Hogarth drew. These are the Guards of the Peninsula, of Waterloo: the Guards that went to Canada, and to Lisbon. These dresses are altered, pigtails and pomatum have been abolished, and pipeclay nearly so; the times are altered, and generations of officers and privates have died since the Guards were first enrolled. But they are the same Guards: they have the same bold bearing, the same manly hearts, the same strong hands.
And the girls they leave behind them? There are grand old houses in green England, in whose parks the deer browse, on whose lawns and graveled walks the gaudy peacocks sweep – and a Russian Mujik on three copecks a day can cause these houses to change owners: and the lance of a Cossack can give employment to Mr. Mattock, the mortuary sculptor, and Mr. Jay, the mourning furnisher, and Mr. Resurgam, the herald painter. While these young sparks are cheapening chiboucks and Damascus pistols in the Stamboul Bezesteen, sipping thimblefuls of coffee with thick bearded pachas, pattering about the mosaic floors of St. Sophia, in slippers, and dodging after a laquais de place; lounging about the bazaars of Hadrianiple, snipe-shooting on the sedgy islands in the Danube; reconnoitering with their best Dolland’s telescopes the opposite bank; indulging in sly flirtations with Bulgarian maidens, the girls they leave behind them will be waiting with sore anxiety for every newspaper, every dispatch, every letter, to tell them of the welfare of the well beloved in the East. And there are many here, too, perchance, the sons of widowed mothers – who have lost their sons by the deadly fever, or the deadlier sword, in India. But of what avail is al this? The band strikes up again, and the regiment marches gaily over the bridge towards the railway station, and the girls that are left behind can but weep and pray and hope.
In Mr. Thackeray’s good book, where Amelia is mourning for her husband gone to battle, and will not be comforted, there is a little Belgian chambermaid who endeavours to solace her by this remark: “Tenez, Madame, est-ce-qu’il n’est pas aussi a l’armee, mon home a moi?” Was not her sweetheart gone to battle too? Had she not as great and sad a stake in the dread game of war? So, there are some thousands of non-commissioned individuals, privates – common soldiers in fact – who must also listen with sad feelings to the tune of the “Girl I left behind me.” These girls, poor, decent, but thinly clad, - hang on the arms, about, around, almost upon, the scarlet items that make up the regiment marching past. As they clear the bridge, a mighty multitude encompasses them. The Waterloo Road casts its heterogeneous population out upon them. The disreputable denizens of the New Cut rush forward with wild whoops to “see the sodgers off.” The ragged street boys throw savage somersaults into the air at the unwonted sight. The city, wakening up, sends forth people of all classes. Policemen bustle to and fro. And amidst the loudest brazening of the band, and the tremendous cheers of the people, the Guards march into the railway station, gates are closed, and the show is over.
As I turn back, and pick my way among the dispersing crowd I see a woman with a little basket weeping silently; and in the distance the band, which is not on the railway platform, sends forth, once more, the suggestive strains of the “Girl I left behind me.”
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