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Philosopher Dick

"Marino, 24th October

"Marino, 24th October.

"I have chummed up with old Sims. We have become quite cronies. We sit and chat for the hour together by the kitchen fire, oblivious of all the Babel and clatter going on around us. I often find my way to the weather-board cabin where they have lodged him, and start him telling me about his former campaigns and old experiences. Cold and draughty is the wretched shed, and we have to sit muffled in our greatcoats, our light a smoky candle, our festive cup a pannikin of cold tea; yet the time passes unperceived, and it is often midnight before we part company. A sturdy veteran is Sergeant Sims. On his hardened features Time has left marks, but has page 376scored no ravages. His eye is not dim, his sonorous voice retains its manly tones, his step is as firm and elastic as when—some fifty years ago—it kept time to the beat of the drum.

"Unlike many talkative old men, the sergeant is not garrulous. Although bruised and battered both in heart and fortune in the arduous struggle of a chequered existence, he is not querulous either.

"There is a noble serenity about the old man. In mind he is as simple as a child, and he retains a spirit, subdued perhaps by age and painful experience, but not crushed.

"The sergeant is not dramatic in his style of narration. In that respect he is totally unlike the typical old soldier represented on the stage, who stamps and attitudinises, rolls forth his thunder, and flourishes his stick and his periods with equal vehemence.

"Yet, at times, when he told in his simple unaffected way of deeds of valour and of trials of endurance, I have felt that thrill of emotion which eloquence imparts, and the pictured scene has risen before my eyes with glowing vividness. On one occasion he described, with more than usual animation, the preparation, for battle. The impending shock, the ominous lull before the fiery outburst; the troops drawn up in line, as if on parade—a page 377frowning mass, with dark forebodings and anxious suspense, yet resolute bearing. The officers to the front, with their swords drawn, addressing the men in terms of confidence and encouragement, reminding them of their past achievements, the glorious record of their regiment, and exhorting them to maintain it unsullied— … until I felt a creeping sensation in all my sinews, my hand clenched, a hectic flush on my cheek—a wild impulse to be 'Up, guards, and at them,' to bear down on the enemy, cut, point, and slash in all directions.

"I verily believe that the sergeant has taken a great liking to me. I feel that I have all his sympathy, with almost a touch of fatherly tenderness, combined with a certain sense of respectful deference, due no doubt to the fact of my being the son of a brave and distinguished officer—possibly also to the vulgar idea that I am a scholar—a ridiculous notion that I have done my best to dispel.

"'Ay, sir!' he exclaimed once, 'if I had only had your parts and education—— But there, I wasn't born to it.'

"'You were born to something much better, sergeant,' I replied, and in my heart I believe it.

"A few days back the old man was in a very confidential mood. He told me a great deal about his page 378early life, some wild pranks and exciting episodes; his rapid promotion; then his happy marriage and many years of domestic bliss; the bringing up of his boys.

"It was all a long time ago, but his heart seemed to be altogether in the past.

"Then he unlocked a travelling bag, and from its inmost recesses he brought out two little packets.

"They were wrapped up in tissue paper and were evidently objects of much-prized value. He unfolded the covering with care, and then placed them on the table with such tender solicitude as excited my curiosity. He opened the first little case; it contained a silver medal—his Waterloo medal. I stooped down to read the inscription upon it, and when I looked up again and caught the old man's eye it seemed to glisten with unwonted fire. He was proud of that medal—well he might be.

What a flood of memories that tiny bright disc must have opened upon him. Memories, not such as the world at large indulges in, dim and faint, read of in books, engraven on monuments or even recited in inspiriting verse to the national glory. Words; words only. But not so to him. He had been there! He had heard the cannons' roar; he had marched, enveloped in lurid smoke, to face the furious page 379onslaught of the enemy; he had stood for hours under the deadly hail, and seen his comrades dropping by his side, his brave officers, in all their pride and splendour, falling at his feet. In ranks thinned and shattered he had awaited inflexible the charge of those fierce cuirassiers. How the earth had trembled under their horses' feet, how the sunlight had flashed from a thousand sabres and breastplates!

"And then, under the rattling fire of the musketry, the heavy booming of the big guns, he had seen the ground glistening with the slain, and riderless horses dashing madly to and fro, frantic with terror, plunging, rearing, falling—a terrible sight!

"It was a long time ago—a matter of history to us—but to him it was as yesterday. Well might his bosom heave, his eye flash, at the token of that memorable day!

"The sergeant then opened the other little case. It was of morocco leather, and held a miniature portrait. It was a picture by no very skilful hand, yet prettily drawn, of a female head.

"The head of a young woman of some twenty summers. A homely little face, fair and fresh, with nothing very noticeable about it beyond its freshness and a dimpling smile that played about its rosy lips. The hair was pale yellow, and in long flat bands, in page 380the style that was considered becoming in those days.

"I examined the picture, then looked up again into the old man's face. His expression had altered—he seemed ever so much older, the wrinkles on his forehead were gathered in deep furrows, there was a tremulous motion about his lips, and he had bent his eyebrows like one straining his sight at a distant view. For a long while—it seemed to me so—he kept his gaze riveted on the little portrait, and he passed his hand several times before his face as if to clear away a mist that obscured his vision. Then he turned to me with a look that conveyed such a sad appeal that I could not meet it—I looked another way.

"'How the colour has faded,' he said.

"I replied that I did not notice it.

"'Why, her hair was of the brightest auburn,' he exclaimed feelingly. 'It was the most lovely hair in the world. My own pretty love! How she used to bind it up for me in different ways, and when she let it down it reached to her waist; but there—there'—The old man sighed.

"That sigh! What a life-long story did it not unfold. The story of youthful ardour, of manly devotion, of requited love—love which had filled his heart and shed a warm and benign lustre over so many page 381years, and the innumerable incidents of a humble and worthy career. Love to be cherished in fond remembrance, and to be looked back upon after so long a lapse of time—heavily borne through old age and afflictions—with tenderness and gratitude.

"Fold up thy little packets, thou grey-headed veteran! Fold them up carefully, and replace them in safe keeping. Each one is a charm that shall never forsake thee. The reward of valour thou shalt carry with thee to an honoured grave, and that sweet countenance shall continue to smile upon thee—it may fade on the painted tablet, but it shall never grow dim in thy heart!"