He had seen from the first, capabilities that might be turned to endless uses; in the conscript drawn from the populace of the provinces there was almost always a knowledge of self-help, and often of some trade, coupled with habits of diligence; in the soldier made from the street Arab of Paris there were always inconceivable intelligence, rapidity of wit, and plastic vivacity; in the adventurers come, like himself, from higher grades of society, and burying a broken career under the shelter of the tricolor, there were continually gifts and acquirements, and even genius, that had run to seed and brought forth no fruit. Of all these France always avails herself in a great degree; but, as far as Cecil’s influence extended, they were developed much more than usual. As his own character gradually changed under the force of fate, the desire for some interest in life grew on him (every man, save one absolutely brainless and self-engrossed, feels this sooner or late); and that interest he found, or rather created, in his regiment. All that he could do to contribute to its efficiency in the field he did; all that he could do to further its internal excellence he did likewise.
Coarseness perceptibly abated, and violence became much rarer in that portion of his corps with which he had immediately to do; the men gradually acquired from him a better, a higher tone; they learned to do duties inglorious and distasteful as well as they did those which led them to the danger and the excitation that they loved; and, having their good faith and sympathy, heart and soul, with him, he met, in these lawless leopards of African France, with loyalty, courage, generosity, and self-abnegation far surpassing those which he had ever met with in the polished civilization of his early experience.
For their sakes, he spent many of his free hours in the Chambree. Many a man, seeing him there, came and worked at some ingenious design, instead of going off to burn his brains out with brandy, if he had sous enough to buy any, or to do some dexterous bit of thieving on a native, if he had not. Many a time knowing him to be there sufficed to restrain the talk around from lewdness and from ribaldry, and turn it into channels at once less loathsome and more mirthful, because they felt that obscenity and vulgarity were alike jarring on his ear, although he had never more than tacitly shown that they were so. A precisian would have been covered with their contumely and ridicule; a saint would have been driven out from their midst with every missile merciless tongues and merciless hands could pelt with; a martinet would have been cursed aloud, and cheated, flouted, rebelled against, on every possible occasion. But the man who was “one of them” entirely, while yet simply and thoroughly a gentleman, had great influence—an influence exclusively for good.
The Chambree was empty when he returned; the men were scattered over the town in one of their scant pauses of liberty; there was only the dog of the regiment, Flick-Flack, a snow-white poodle, asleep in the heat, on a sack, who, without waking, moved his tail in a sign of gratification as Cecil stroked him and sat down near; betaking himself to the work he had in hand.