Had you lived thirty-five or forty years ago at Gravesend, a dirty, smoky town on the Thames near London, you might have read chalked up on doors and on hoardings in boyish handwriting, these words—
And had you asked any of the ragged little lads that you met, who was "The Kernel," their faces would have lit up at once, while they told you that their "Kernel" was the best and bravest soldier in the world, and that his name was Colonel Gordon.
For six years after he left China, Gordon was Commanding Royal Engineer at Gravesend, and these years, he said, were "the most peaceful and happy of any portion of his life."
His work there was done, as all his work throughout his life was done, with all his might.
When he first took command he was worried by the amount of time that was wasted as he rowed from one port which he had to inspect, to another, in a pair-oared boat. He put away the pair-oared boat and got a four-oared gig, and soon had the men who pulled it trained to row him in racing style. They might sometimes have waited for hours on the chance of Colonel Gordon wanting them, but the minute his trim little figure was seen marching smartly down to the jetty, there was a rush for the boat. Almost before he was seated, the oars would be dipped and the men's backs bent as if they meant to win a boat race.
"A little faster, boys! a little faster!" Gordon would constantly say, and when he jumped ashore and hurried off to his work, he would leave behind him four very breathless men, who were proud of being the crew of the very fastest boat pulled in those waters.
The engineers under him he also trained never to lose any time,—always to do a thing not only as thoroughly and as well as possible, but as quickly as possible.
He would land at a port, and run up the steep earthworks in front of it, while his followers, many of them big, heavy men, would come puffing and panting after him.
One of his friends writes of him, "He was a severe and unsparing taskmaster, and allowed no shirking. No other officer could have got half the work out of the men that he did. He used to keep them up to the mark by exclaiming, whenever he saw them flag: 'Another five minutes gone, and this not done yet, my men! We shall never have them again."
The old-fashioned house, with its big old garden, which was Gordon's home during those six years, saw many strange guests during that time.
"His house," says one writer, "was school, and hospital, and almshouse in turn—was more like the abode of a missionary than of a Colonel of Engineers."
In his working hours he worked his hardest to serve his Queen and country. In the hours in which he might have rested or amused himself, he worked equally hard. And this other work was to serve the poor, the sick, the lonely, and to give a helping hand to every one of those who needed help. The boys whose work was on the river or the sea, and the "mud-larks" of Gravesend, were his special care. Many a boy who had no work and no right home, he took from the streets, washed, clothed, fed, and took into his house to stay with him as his guest. When he had found work for those boys, either as sailors or in other ways, he would give them outfits and money, and start them in life. For the boys who were being sheltered by him, and for others from outside, he began evening classes. There he taught them, and read to them, and did all that he could to make them Christian gentlemen. His "Kings" he called them, perhaps remembering the many Kings or "Wang's" who ruled in the Tae-Ping army.
A map of the world, hanging over his mantelpiece, was stuck full of pins. Some one asked the meaning of this, and was told by Gordon that they marked and followed the course of his boys on their voyages. The pins were moved from point to point as the boys sailed onward. "I pray for each one of them day by day," he said.
Soon Gordon's class grew too big for his room to hold, and he then began to have a class at the Ragged Schools. The mud-larks of Gravesend needed no coaxing to go to "The Kernel's" class. Here was a teacher who did not only try to teach them to be good and manly, and straight and true, and gentle men, but who, when he taught them geography, could tell them the most splendid and exciting stories of countries beyond the seas, where he himself had fought in great battles. He never preached at them, or looked solemn and shocked, but made them laugh more than any one else ever did, and had the merriest twinkle in his kind, keen eyes, that were like the sea, and looked sometimes blue, sometimes grey.
He found out one day that what his "Kings" most longed to do was to go up to London to see the Zoo. No sooner did he know it than every plan was made for the little campaign. He himself could not leave his work, but he got some one else to take them, saw them safely off with their dinner in baskets, and welcomed them back in the evening to a great strawberry feast.
Three or four of the boys who stayed with him got scarlet fever, and far into the night he would sit with them, telling them stories, and soothing them until they stopped tossing about and fell asleep.
At first, when he came to Gravesend, he clothed two or three boys in the year. But it was not long before he gave away, each year, several hundreds of suits, and had to buy boys' boots by the gross.
All this came out of his pay. Gordon was always well-dressed, well-groomed, and looked like an officer and a gentleman, but upon himself he spent next to nothing.
His food was of the plainest, and sometimes of the scantiest. He would tell, with a twinkle in his eye, what a surprise it was to the boys who came to stay with him, expecting to be fed with all sorts of dainties, to find that salt beef, and just what other things were necessary, was what the Colonel had to eat.
Constantly his purse and pockets were empty, for scarcely ever did any one come to Gordon for help without getting it, and Gordon had no money save his pay as a colonel.
Often he had disappointments. There were people who were mean enough to deceive him, and people with no gratitude in their hearts.
One boy he found starving, in rags, and miserably ill. He fed him, clothed him, had him doctored and nursed, and, when he was well, sent him back to his parents in Norfolk. But neither boy nor parents ever sent him one line of thanks.
Another starving, ragged boy he took into his house. He fed, clothed, and taught him, and at last found him a good place on a ship, and sent him to sea. Three times did this little scamp run away from the ship, and turn up filthy, starving, and in rags. The third time Gordon found him in the evening lurking at the door, half dead with hunger and cold. The boy was much too dirty to be brought into the house with other boys, and Gordon looked at him for a minute in silence. He then led him to the stable, gave him a heap of clean straw in an empty stall to sleep on, and some bread and milk for supper. Early next morning Gordon appeared with soap, towels, a brush, a sponge, and a fresh suit of clothes. He poured a bucket of hot water in to the horse trough, and himself gave him a thorough scrubbing.
We do not know what afterwards became of the boy. It would be nice to think that he was the unknown man who came to the house of Sir Henry Gordon, when the news of General Gordon's death was heard, and wished to give £25 towards a memorial to him. "All my success and prosperity I own to the Colonel," he said.
There were many boys—there are many men now—with good cause for saying from their hearts, "God Bless the Colonel."
A boy, who worked in a ship, stole some money from his master, who was very angry, and said he would have him put in prison. The boy's mother, in a terrible state of grief, came to Gordon and begged him to help her. Gordon went to the boy's master, and persuaded him to let the boy off. He then sent the little lad to school for twelve months, and afterwards found him a berth at sea. The boy has grown up into an honest, good man. "God bless the Colonel," he, too, can say.
Two afternoons a week Gordon went to the infirmary, to cheer up the sick people there. And in all parts of Gravesend he would find out old and bedridden men and women, sit with them, cheer them up with tales of his days in Russia and China, and make them feel less lonely and less sad. "He always had handy a bit o' baccy for the old men, and a screw o' tea for the old women," it was said.
One poor, sick old woman was told by the doctor that she must have some dainties and some wine, which she had no money to buy. But each day a good fairy brought them to her, and the good fairy was Colonel Gordon.
A sick man, who lay fretting in bed, feeling there was nothing to do, nothing to interest him, found each day a Daily News left at his door. Again the good fairy was Colonel Gordon.
A big, rough waterman, tossing about in bed with an aching, parched throat, and in a burning fever, also knew the good fairy. Night after night the Colonel sat by his bed, tending him as gently as the gentlest nurse, and placing cool grapes in his parched mouth.
In the Colonel's big, old-fashioned garden, with its trim borders of boxwood, one would find on summer days the old and the halt sunning themselves. Many nice flowers and vegetables were grown in the garden, but they did not belong to him. He allowed some of his poor people to plant and sow there what vegetables they chose, and then to make money for themselves by selling them.
Presents of fruit and flowers sent to him at once found their way to the hospital or to the workhouse. People saw that it was no use ever to give Gordon any presents, because they at once went to those who needed the things more than he did.
To the poor he gave pensions of so much a week—from 1s. to £1. Some of these pensions were still kept up and paid to the day of his death, thirteen years later.
He was always tender-hearted, always merciful, and he always forgave.
A soldier got tipsy, and stole five valuable patent locks. Gordon asked the manager of the works from which they had been taken what he meant to do.
"The carpenters were to blame for leaving the locks about, so I am going to let the soldier off," said the manager.
"Thank you, thank you," said Gordon, as eagerly as if he himself had been the thief. "That is what I should have done myself."
One day a woman called on him and told him a piteous story. He left the room to get her half-a-sovereign, and while he was gone she stole his overcoat, and hid it under her skirt. When he came back with the money, she thanked him again and again, and went away. As she walked along the street, the overcoat—a brown one—slipped down. A policeman noticed it, and asked her what it meant. The woman, too frightened to tell a lie, said she had stolen it from "the Kernel." Back to Gordon's house the policeman marched her. The coat was shown to Gordon, and the policeman asked him to charge the woman with the theft, and have her put in prison. But this Gordon refused to do. He was really far more distressed than was the thief herself. At last, his eyes twinkling, he turned to the woman.
"You wanted it, I suppose?" he asked. "Yes," said the surprised woman.
"There, there, take her away and send her about her business," he said to the policeman, and the policeman could only obey.
The gold medal which the Empress of China had had made for him mysteriously disappeared, no one could tell how or where. Years afterwards, by accident, it was found that Gordon had had the inscription taken off it, and had sent it anonymously to Manchester, to help to buy food for the people who were starving there because of the Cotton Famine. It cost him so much to give it up that often, when he meant that others should give up something that was to cost them a very great deal, he would say, "You must give up your medal."
"In slums, hospitals, and workhouse, or knee-deep in the river at work upon the Thames defence," so he spent the six happiest years of his life.
In 1871, to the deep sorrow of all Gravesend, he was made British Commissioner to the European Commission of the Danube, where he had done good work fifteen years earlier.
To his "Kings" at the Ragged Schools he left a number of magnificent Chinese flags, trophies of his victories in China. They are still carried aloft every year at school treats, and the name of their giver is cheered until the echoes ring and voices grow hoarse.
To the people of Gravesend, and to people of all lands who hear the story of those six years, he left the memory of a man whose charity was perfect, whose mercy was without limit, and whose faith in the God he served was never-failing.