Once upon a time an army was sent into the field. Far away from any city was its encampment, in the midst of a rolling country, surrounded by high and partly wooded hills. The army was commanded by a general greatly beloved by all the troops, who were always eager to go into service under him.
Some distance from the camp itself, with its long rows of tents, its busy camp-fires, its picketed horses, and its glittering cannon, its noise and bustle of incessant movement, was posted, upon a high point commanding quite an extent of country, a solitary sentinel. He had but to pace up and down his allotted beat, and to demand the password from any who should approach, meantime watching lest anything that threatened danger should be descried upon the long white dusty road that stretched so far into the distance.
There he paced, solitary and silent, hour after hour, and day after day. The sentinels relieved each other only at long intervals, and their tents were apart from the main camp, so that of what went on there even in his hours of rest the sentinel knew but little. From his lofty perch he could see the busy aides-de-camp coming and going, with orders from the commander-in-chief, he could see the forage wagons driving in with their load of provisions, and the mess-cooks stirring up the fires and preparing the soldiers' meals. Once in a while he could descry the figure of the beloved general, as he moved from one part of the camp to another on a tour of inspection, or as he rode towards the city, surrounded by his officers. In the camp, all was busy, active life, each man seemed to have his own special work, and to do it in consort with his fellows, and the lonely sentinel who gazed down upon them almost fancied he could hear the merry jests that passed from man to man, or the hot discussions on some point of military interest.
But on the hillside, where he paced back and forth, there was a deadly stillness, broken by no human voice. Only the grasshoppers chirred in the short grass, and the birds sang in the woods above, no one came near him, no friend toiled up the hill to talk with him, no enemy approached for him to challenge, and hour after hour, and day after day passed in the same leaden quiet.
At last the lonely sentinel began to murmur, and to say to himself, "Not for this inactive life did I enlist, but for a soldier's duty with my fellow-soldiers; to follow our general into the fight, to storm a fortification, or to capture a battery, not to rot in inglorious ease on the sunny side of a hill. There is nothing here that I can do for my general or my country, this is mere idleness, and I am the most useless member of a useless expedition. Oh, that for once I might go down into the field, and meet the enemy face to face and man to man! No one cares whether I live or die, and as I can do nothing to win fame and honor like my fellows down below there, I had much better die."
But while the lonely sentinel was thus murmuring, the general suddenly rode up softly behind him across the yielding grass, and the startled soldier wheeled quickly with a shamefaced expression, and saluted. The general looked down upon him, as he sat in the saddle, somewhat sadly and held out to him a little red book.
"These are the orders," said the general. "Open the book and read what you see there." The sentinel took the book reverently, for he knew that it came from the commander-in chief; and his heart leaped within him, as he thought, "Now I shall surely have something given me to do, something that will call out all my powers, and give me a chance to show of what I am made."
He opened the book as he was bidden, and his eyes rested on these words: It is better to do one's own duty, even though it be devoid of excellence, than to perform another's duty well. As he read them his head sank upon his breast, and a flush rose to his cheek, as he felt the keen, quiet gaze of the general resting upon him.
"Open the book and read again," said the general. The sentinel obeyed and read: For those who, thinking of me as identical with all, constantly worship me, I bear the burden of the responsibility of their happiness.
"Art thou satisfied?" asked the general, with a smile, as he took the little book and turned away, and the sentinel answered, as well as his shame would allow: "I am satisfied."
And although he was once more alone, and none of his fellows came near him, and the birds and insects sang on as before, and he had nothing to do save to pace up and down his accustomed path, yet the whole world seemed transfigured in his eyes, his egotism fell from him like a garment and in the depths of his soul resounded evermore the words of that poet made forever lonely by his blindness: They also serve who only stand and wait.
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