It was growing late, and they turned toward the estalagem. As they strolled on, L’Isle, in the same strain of thought which had last occupied them, said: “War is essentially a greedy thing, a great and speedy consumer of what has been slowly produced in peace. We hear of veteran armies, but an army of veterans does not, perhaps never existed. We collect materials and munitions of war, expecting to expend them in military operations; but we are not aware, until we have tried it, how close a parallel there is between the fates of the inanimate and the living constituents that furnish forth an army for the field. It is not the sword chiefly that kills; the hospital swallows more than the battle-field. After a few campaigns, what has been falsely called the skeleton, but is, in truth, the soul of an army, the remnant of experienced officers and tried soldiers, only remains, and new flesh, blood, and bones must be provided for this soul, in the shape of new levies. When we see an old soldier glorying in his score of campaigns, we should call to mind the score of youths prematurely covered by the sod.”
“Few, then,” said Lady Mabel, “can enjoy Gonsalvo of Cordova’s fortune. On retiring to a monastery, he avowed that every soldier needed for repentance an interval of some years between his life and his death.”
“The great captain’s conscience must have pricked him,” said L’Isle, “when he made that speech. An unjust war, or a war unjustly waged, lay heavy on him. A soldier knows the likelihood of his dying in his vocation. If he think it criminal, let him abandon it. Up to this day my conscience has not troubled me on that score. War, always an evil, is often a necessity; and I wonder whether, after an hundred years of peace, we would not find nations worse and more worthless than they now are.”
Mrs. Shortridge now called their attention to the number of storks in the air. The sun had set, and these grave birds were seeking their roosts; every tower of church and monastery affording a domicil to some feathered family, with the full sanction of the biped denizens below.
“The social position of these long-legged gentry all over the peninsula,” said L’Isle, “is one of the characteristics of the country. It is astonishing what an amount of respect, and an immunity from harm, they enjoy. I am afraid they would fare worse at the hands of the more brutal part of our English populace. They are useful, too; but are more indebted for their safety, and the respect shown them here, to the clerical gravity of their demeanor.”
They had now reached their lodgings, and were soon after joined by the commissary, who came in rubbing his hands, and exclaiming: “Capital bargains to be made here! Corn plenty, and bullocks that would make a figure in Smithfield. Some farmers have not threshed last year’s crop. A curious country this: one province starving, and plenty in the next. It is all owing to the want of roads. But, luckily, Elvas is not far off.”