I stood where Nelson's Column stands--a stranger, and alone. Alone amidst a mighty multitude of men and maids. I saw a people drunk with joy. I looked from face to face, and in each flashing eye, and on each quivering lip, a nation's heart lay bared to all the world, for England's capital was but the throbbing pulse of England's Empire. Our nation spoke to the nations that dwell where the sea foam flies, and woe to them who do not heed the tale that the city told. There was no sun, the city lay enveloped in silvery shadows, like some grey lioness that knows her might and is not quickly stirred to wrath or joy, like meaner things. I looked above, and saw the monument of him whose peerless genius gave us empire on the seas. I looked below, and saw, far as my eyes could range, a seething mass of men, as good, as gallant, and as great of heart as those who fought and fell beneath his flag, and in my blood I felt the pride of empire stirring, and knew how great a thing it is to call one's self a Briton.
I looked along that swaying mass of human flesh and blood, and saw the best that England owns waiting to welcome, with heart-stirring cheers, the gallant lads whose lion hearts had carried London's name and fame along the rough-hewn tracks of war. I saw the cream of Britain's chivalry and Britain's beauty there. Men and women from the countryside, from Ireland and from Scotland, all eager to pay tribute to the London lads who had so proudly proved to all the world that it was not for a soldier's pay, not for the love of gain, but for a nation's glory that they had risked limb and life beneath an African sun. Then, as I looked, I caught a distant hum of voices--a far-off sound, such as I have heard amid Pacific isles when wind and waves were beating upon coral crags, and foam-topped rollers thrashed the surf into the magic music of the storm-tossed sea. It was the roar of London's multitudes welcoming home her own; and what a sound it was! I have heard the music of the guns when our nation spoke in the stern tones of battle to a nation in arms; I have heard the crash of tempests on Southern coasts when ships were reeling in the breath of the blast, and souls to their God were going; I have crouched low in my saddle when the tornado has swept trees from the forest as a boy brushes flowers with his footsteps. But never had I heard a sound like that. It was the voice of millions, it was the great heart-beats of a mighty nation, it was a welcome and a warning--a welcome to the descendants of the 'prentice lads of Old London, a warning to the world. I caught the echoes in my hands, I hugged them to my heart, I let them pour into my brain, and this is the tale they told: "Sluggish we are, ye people, slow to wake, strong in the strength of conscious might. Jibe at us, jeer at us, flout us and threaten us; but beware the day we turn in our strength. We have sent forth a few of our children, but they were but as a drop in the ocean. All Britain sent two hundred and fifty thousand strong men to Africa; London, if need be, can send five hundred thousand more to the uttermost parts of the earth. Aye, and when they have died, as these would have died if need be, we can open our hearts and send five hundred thousand more, and yet be strong for our home fighting." It was a nation speaking to the nations, and that is the tale it told. Let the nations take heed and beware, for the language was the language of truth.
I listened; and lo! through the storm of cheering, through the cries of women and the strong shouting of men in their prime, I caught another sound, a sound I knew and loved--the sound of marching men. Music hath charms to stir the blood and make men mad, but there is no music in all the earth like the trained tread of men who have marched to battle. I knew the rhythm of that tread; I knew that the "boys" of Old London were coming, and my nostrils seemed filled with the fumes of fighting. I looked again, and, saw them, hard faced, clean limbed, close set, as soldiers should be who have faced the storm and stress of war, as proud a band as Britain ever had, soldier and citizen both in one, fit to be a nation's bulwark and a nation's trust; and in the crowd around them there were a thousand thousand men as good, as game, as gritty, as they, for they were the children of the people, the men of the shop-counter, the men of the city office, the men of every artisan craft, the very vitals of London. They had sprung from the womb of the city, and the city could give birth to a million more if need be.
I saw them pass amidst a storm of cheers, and I, who had seen them out on the African veldt under the foeman's guns, lifted up my voice to cheer them onward, for well I knew that there was nothing in the gift of England that they were not worthy of, those children of the "flat caps," those offspring of the 'prentice lads of London. I knew how they had starved; I knew how they had suffered through the freezing cold of the African winter; I knew how gallantly, how uncomplainingly, they had marched with empty bellies and aching limbs, ready to go anywhere, to do anything, ready to fight, and, if it were the will of the great God of Battles, ready to lay down their young lives and die. I knew those things, and, knowing them, gave them a cheer for the sake of Australia, for the sake of the kinship which binds us as no bonds of steel could bind us and them. I heard a voice at my knee whimpering, the voice of a gutter kid, who had dodged in there out of the way of the police. I looked at his ragged clothes, looked at his grimy face, looked at his hands, which looked as if they had never looked at soap, and I said: "What are you yelping for, kiddie?" And he, looking up at me through his tears, fired a voice at me through his sobs, and said: "I'm yelping, mister, because I'm only a little 'un, and can't see me mates come home from the war." Then I laughed, and tossing him up on my shoulder let him jamb his dirty fist on the only silk hat I possess, whilst he looked at his "mates" march home; for they were his mates--he was a child of London, and some day--who knows?--he may be a general.