“Send for the milingtary.”
NOAH CLAYPOLE in Oliver Twist.
WHAT’S now in the wind? Sounds of distant music float in at my window on this still October air. Hurrying drum-beat, shrill fife-tones, wailing bugle-notes, and, by way of accompaniment, hurrahs from the urchins on the crowded sidewalks. Here come the citizen-soldiers, each martial foot beating up the mud of yesterday’s storm with the slow, regular, up-and-down movement of an old-fashioned churn-dasher. Keeping time with the feet below, some threescore of plumed heads bob solemnly beneath me. Slant sunshine glitters on polished gun-barrels and tinselled uniform. Gravely and soberly they pass on, as if duly impressed with a sense of the deep responsibility of their position as self-constituted defenders of the world’s last hope,–the United States of America, and possibly Texas. They look out with honest, citizen faces under their leathern visors (their ferocity being mostly the work of the tailor and tinker), and, I doubt not, are at this moment as innocent of bloodthirstiness as yonder worthy tiller of the Tewksbury Hills, who sits quietly in his wagon dispensing apples and turnips without so much as giving a glance at the procession. Probably there is not one of them who would hesitate to divide his last tobacco-quid with his worst enemy. Social, kind-hearted, psalm-singing, sermon-hearing, Sabhath-keeping Christians; and yet, if we look at the fact of the matter, these very men have been out the whole afternoon of this beautiful day, under God’s holy sunshine, as busily at work as Satan himself could wish in learning how to butcher their fellow-creatures and acquire the true scientific method of impaling a forlorn Mexican on a bayonet, or of sinking a leaden missile in the brain of some unfortunate Briton, urged within its range by the double incentive of sixpence per day in his pocket and the cat-o’-nine-tails on his back!
Without intending any disparagement of my peaceable ancestry for many generations, I have still strong suspicions that somewhat of the old Norman blood, something of the grins Berserker spirit, has been bequeathed to me. How else can I account for the intense childish eagerness with which I listened to the stories of old campaigners who sometimes fought their battles over again in my hearing? Why did I, in my young fancy, go up with Jonathan, the son of Saul, to smite the garrisoned Philistines of Michmash, or with the fierce son of Nun against the cities of Canaan? Why was Mr. Greatheart, in Pilgrim’s Progress, my favorite character? What gave such fascination to the narrative of the grand Homeric encounter between Christian and Apollyon in the valley? Why did I follow Ossian over Morven’s battle-fields, exulting in the vulture-screams of the blind scald over his fallen enemies? Still later, why did the newspapers furnish me with subjects for hero-worship in the half-demented Sir Gregor McGregor, and Ypsilanti at the head of his knavish Greeks? I can account for it only in the supposition that the mischief was inhered,–an heirloom from the old sea-kings of the ninth century.
Education and reflection have, indeed, since wrought a change in my feelings. The trumpet of the Cid, or Ziska’s drum even, could not now waken that old martial spirit. The bull-dog ferocity of a half- intoxicated Anglo-Saxon, pushing his blind way against the converging cannon-fire from the shattered walls of Ciudad Rodrigo, commends itself neither to my reason nor my fancy. I now regard the accounts of the bloody passage of the Bridge of Lodi, and of French cuirassiers madly transfixing themselves upon the bayonets of Wellington’s squares, with very much the same feeling of horror and loathing which is excited by a detail of the exploits of an Indian Thug, or those of a mad Malay running a-muck, creese in hand, through the streets of Pulo Penang. Your Waterloo, and battles of the Nile and Baltic,–what are they, in sober fact, but gladiatorial murder-games on a great scale,–human imitations of bull-fights, at which Satan sits as grand alguazil and master of ceremonies? It is only when a great thought incarnates itself in action, desperately striving to find utterance even in sabre-clash and gun-fire, or when Truth and Freedom, in their mistaken zeal and distrustful of their own powers, put on battle-harness, that I can feel any sympathy with merely physical daring. The brawny butcher-work of men whose wits, like those of Ajax, lie in their sinews, and who are “yoked like draught-oxen and made to plough up the wars,” is no realization of my ideal of true courage.