Trooper 3809 – Part 10

It must not be imagined that a trooper can be sent to hospital without having to go through innumerable formalities, the French administrative system being so devised as to complicate the simplest matter. Before going to hospital, a full inventory of all the trooper’s belongings has to be drawn up by the Sergeant fourrier, the trooper being allowed to retain only the undress uniform which he wears. The remainder of his kit, including his arms, are returned to the stores, where a fresh inventory is made, his saddle alone remaining in the squadron saddle-room. It would be tedious to describe the in-numerable documents which have to be drawn up on the occasion. All these formalities having been at length completed, I was marched to the hospital by a Corporal, and, on arriving there, fresh ceremonials had to be gone through, after which I was handed over to the tender mercies of a Sister of Charity. 

She took me to the ward reserved for soldiers, the hospital being a mixed one, where civilians also were received. Our ward contained about twenty-four beds, and was spotlessly clean. The beds were excellent, and certainly far superior to those usually found in English hospitals. I then received my hospital kit, consisting of a huge night-shirt, a pair of dark blue flannel trousers, with a dressing-gown of the same material, a pair of woollen socks, slippers, and a bonnet de coton, a most extraordinary head-gear made of thick knitted cotton, finishing up in a point with a tassel sewn on to it. (Most of the French peasants still sleep in a similar night-cap, and, until thirty years ago, every Frenchman, even if belonging to the higher classes, used to wear this strange head-gear at night.) I was put to bed ; my temperature was taken, and then I was left to my own thoughts. In the next bed to mine a poor fellow lay with typhoid fever, while in the bed on the other side lay an infantry soldier suffering from jaundice. 

The personnel of the hospital, or at least of the military wards, consisted of three Sisters of Mercy, with an old male nurse belonging to the Hospital Service Corps. The latter, however, was of little use, as he was usually drunk during three parts of the day. The Sisters, however, did not look harshly on this little vice of his, for the fellow was a most fervent Catholic, who never failed to go to Confession, and to High Mass every Sunday. I had been about half an hour in my bed, when one of the Sisters brought me a cup of tisane, a kind of tea made of harmless herbs, which is always given in case of sickness, whatever may be the disease one may be suffering from. That Sister was a middle-aged woman, with hard, drawn features; the turned-down corners of her mouth expressed a violent temper, and a square chin showed indomitable energy. She sat down near me, and asked me if I was a Catholic. I replied that I had been baptized a Roman Catholic, but that I did not approve of the teachings of that religion, all my tendencies being Protestant. She expressed absolute horror at my being so plain-spoken, and told me that all the patients who were Roman Catholics were expected to go to Confession and Mass every Sunday. 

“If they don’t” she added, “we can’t compel them, and that is their own look out, but they do not usually stay here very long. You had better think the matter over, my lad” she added, as she arose from her chair. “I will send, in any case, the chaplain to talk to you of your spiritual state” 

I thanked her, but had no wish to discuss matters with her. Later in the afternoon the head doctor of the hospital, who was Surgeon-major to the infantry regiment, and held the rank of Major, came on a visit of inspection. 

When he came to my bedside, he did not even give me a word of greeting, but looked at the board which hung at the head of my bed, and reading the diagnosis made by our regimental doctor shrugged his shoulders. “Again a Dragoon” he said. “Why can’t Dr. Lesage keep his patients in his own dispensary? Why did he send you here?” he went on, addressing me. 

“I don’t know, sir” I answered ; “I suppose he found that I needed to be sent here” 

“Well, let me see your throat” He examined me, and remarked to the Sister that there was nothing much the matter with me, and that, although I might have a slight rise of temperature, every man had fever sometimes, adding that, if every Dragoon who had fever was to be sent to hospital, the place would soon be overflowing. He walked away with the Sister, and I could see that they were having an animated con versation. 

The doctor then came back to my bed : “I hear” he said, “that you are a d- -d heathen ; is that so?”‘

“No, sir,” I replied “I told the Sister that I did not approve of the Roman Catholic religion, and that, although I had been baptized a Roman Catholic, I was a Protestant at heart”

“Oh” he said, “that is all the same ; you are a heathen. and you ought to be ashamed of yourself. That is why, I suppose, Dr. Lesage sent you here. He likes heathens, and I don’t. Well, he can Îook after you if he chooses”  And, turning on his heel, he walked of. 

Later in the afternoon Dr. Lesage came to see me, and I told him what had taken place. He said that he was not in the least surprised, and that he was thoroughly disgusted with the bigotry of all the people connected with the place. He then called the Sister, and told her to show him the register where the head surgeon had written out his orders concerning my case. After looking through it, he told me that, just as he had expected, the head surgeon had put me on ordinary rations, but that he was not going to have it ; and he immediately ordered that I should be put on a diet of chicken, eggs, and the like. He found my throat very bad, and said that I ought to have come to see him much sooner than I did. He also explained to me that he would give orders enabling me to get from outside whatever food I fancied, as well as books ; he promised too to come and see me on the following day. I took advantage of his permission to send the hospital orderly to fetch me a stock of eatables, books, and some newspapers.

Our dinner was served at six o’clock, and I was much astonished when the Sister brought me a piece of beef which had been boiled to a rag to make soup. I reminded her that Dr. Lesage had put me on “fowl and egg diet” 

“I know it” she said, “but, as there is none to be had to-night, you will have to put up with what there is” 

I pointed out to her that rations of fowl had been served to at least six of the other patients. . “Well” she said “the fact is there is none left” 

Upon this I declared that, unless I had a portion immediately brought to me, I would forthwith send a letter to Dr. Lesage to explain how matters stood. 

“Oh” she said, “please don’t trouble yourself, and I’ll go to the kitchen, and see if there is some remaining.” 

Ten minutes later she returned with the wing of a fowl, and when I had finished it she brought me an omelette. I mention this incident to show the gross partiality which is usually displayed by Sisters of Mercy in French hospitals. Most of the patients, who belong to the humbler classes, are afraid to complain, and I have constantly seen patients who make a display of deep religious zeal treated with the utmost attention, receiving the best of fare, while others who were lax in the practice of religion, or who had the misfortune to be Protestants, were given the commonest food, even if the doctor had ordered special delicacies for them. The Sisters of Mercy have absolutely no training in nursing, and an English nurse, after a year’s hospital work, is far more efficient than Sisters of Mercy who have spent years in the wards. I do not mean to say that there are not to be found among the Sisters touching examples of disinterested devotion to their fellow creatures, but, taking them as a class, their employment in hospitals is not calculated to benefit the patients, and they are far inferior to English trained nurses in education, manners, and skill. They have no fear of dismissal, as, in case of their failing to do their duty, they are merely removed to the headquarters of their order. lt is true that it would be most difficult to replace them in French hospitals, as there exists in France no body of trained nurses like those in this country. The French lay nurses are almost invariably middle-aged women of the charwoman type, who have had no practical training, and are usually addicted to drink. In the largest hospitals the administration of drugs and the dressing of wounds devolves entirely on the medical students, and nurses, whether Sisters of Mercy or lay, merely stand in the wards to watch the patients, and in case of need they have to go and summon a student. 

While I was in the hospital, I witnessed some shocking examples of the way in which sufferers were treated. I remember one night when a patient, who was suffering from a most serious attack of jaundice, cried out to the Sister on duty for a basin. The Sister, who was counting her beads and muttering prayers in a half-dozing state, merely lifted her eyes dreamily towards the patient, but took no notice. The poor fellow called her again and again, and, seeing how matters stood, I got out of bed, and, going to the Sister, called her attention to the patient. “Go to bed” she said to me :”it is no business of yours. The female attendant has gone out! it is her work, and not mine, to carry basins about” thereupon I went to fetch what was needed myself, and rendered what help I could to my sick comrade. Facts such as these help to explain why the poor in France have a greater dread of the hospital than many people have of the workhouse in England. It took me a few minutes to find a basin that night, and while I looked about I must have caught a chill, for the following day I had a relapse. I had been rather upset, too, by the death of the typhoid patient in the bed next to mine. His old mother came with his father that afternoon, and their distress was heartrending to witness. “They have taken my boy, they have killed him” the poor mother kept repeating ; complaining bitterly that she had not been informed of his illness till too late. 

Two days later, early in the morning, as luck would have it, none other than Piatte was brought into the hospital ; he was carried on a stretcher, and carefully laid in the vacant bed next to mine. “You see, old chap” he said,  “I would not leave my chum Decle, so here i am” 

“What is the matter with you?” I asked. 

“Oh, broken leg, that is all” 

The two cavalry and infantry doctors then arrived, and Piatte was questioned as to the way in which the accident occurred. 

“It’s a beast of a charger that’s kicked me in the stables” he told the doctor. He was carefully examined, and the doctors found that he had broken his leg below the knee. The limb was set, and although the poor fellow must have suffered dreadfully, beads of perspiration running down his face during the process, he did not utter a single complaint. Dr. Lesage remained near him after the others had retired, and told him that he would soon be all right, 

“Ah, that’s nothing, sir” said Piatte ; “but look here, sir, I’ll tell you what : if you would like to do me a great favour you would come and look after me yourself. You can do anything you like to me, but I do not want that other infantry doctor to mess about with me” 

Dr. Lesage promised that he would attend him, and before retiring held out his hand to the injured man. This evidently went to the poor chap’s heart, and his eyes moistened. “Thank you, sir” he said ; “thank you. It is good of you to shake hands with me – a bad character as they make me out. If the officers were all like you, why I would jump into the fire for them – and mind you, sir, I won’t forget it” 

Dr. Lesage retired, more moved than he liked to show. When he had gone, I asked Piatte how he felt. 

“A bit queer,” he said “but you don’t know, old chap, how well I worked it. I thought I had killed myself, you know” 

“Weren’t you kicked?” I queried. 

“Kicked”  he said ; “well, it wasn’t a horse kicked me. I’ll tell you how it all happened. When I got out of prison yesterday, I said to myself, I must have a spree, so, after “Lights out” I got over the wall. You see, my old granny had sent me another ten francs for the New Year, but, of course, being in prison, I only got my money when I came out, so then I jumped over the wall, and, my boy, I can tell you I had a grand booze. At two o’clock this morning I said to myself,’It is time to go back.’ So I got into the little lane at the back of our stable, you know. The wall there on the top side of the lane is only six feet high, So I easily got on top of it, but on the other side there is a drop oř at least thirty feet, you know, alongside our stable. I had often done it, and it was only thirty yards along the wall to get to the back door of the barracks, where you can get down quite easy. 

But last night it had been raining, and freezing afterwards, so that the wall was that slippery that I had to walk on all-fours to keep my balance. I was a bit on, I suppose, and I don’t know how it happened, but just as I was getting near the end of the wall I slipped, and down I went. Oh, my boy, what a drop it was! came down flop, and when I tried to rise it was no go; one of my legs felt like cotton-wool.  I knew that if I called for help I should be nabbed, so I crept on all-fours as far as the room. I then went to wake up Titi; he took off my clothes and laid me on my bed. By jove didn’t it hurt me. Titi says to me, :Let me go and call for help, you can say that you have fallen down stairs. But I say, No, that’s no go, and it won’t wash. So we arranged with Titi, that just before véveille he would take me down to the stables, which he did. By God, you don’t know what it meant to go to the stables : I felt my heart in my mouth the whole way; to come down the stairs I sat down, and holding on to Titi’s neck, I let myself slide, and then to cross the yard I tried to stand on my other leg, but it was all numb; so I sent Titi to fetch Monard, and between them they carried me to the stables and lay me behind your kicking mare, as she’s known as a kicker. As soon as the others come down to clean the stables, I shout, Ah, murder, murder!

One of them goes and fetches the Sergeant, and I tell him how, passing behind your mare’s heels, Í got kicked. Titi, in the mean time, had gone to fetch me a stiff glass of brandy, as I felt pretty queer. The Sergeant then sent for a stretcher, and they carried me to the dispensary. When the doctor came I told him I had been kicked, and when he looks at my leg, he says: It’s jolly funny that it should have got swollen up so quickly.’ Of course I told him that I have got a queer constitution, and he says, :Yes, a queer constitution indeed  and then he tells the Corporal that I must be taken to the hospital at once, and he sends everybody out of the room, and he says to me :

 ‘It was not a horse that kicked you, eh, Piatte?’

‘Well, sir,’ I says, ‘if you ask me, not as an officer, but as the gentleman that you are, I will tell you the truth’ 

‘Go on’, he says,  ’tis not as an officer that I am asking you’ . ‘

Oh, then’ says I, ‘that mare, sir, that kicked me, ’twas a paving-stone.’ And I tell him the whole story, from beginning to end, and then he got very wild, and asked why I hadn’t sent for him at once, and he also asked whether I supposed that he would give me away. 

“My boy” concluded Piatte, “he is a ripper, that man”

“I remember one day – it was two years ago – I went to the medical visit, and he says, ‘What is the matter with you?’ so I replied, ‘I rather tell you privately, sir’ and he says, ‘Very well’ After the medical visit he calls me to his room. ‘Well?’ he says. I then told him what was the matter with me, and as it is the rule, you know, that men suffering with that complaint are punished with thirty days’ confinement to barracks, I asked him if he would mind keeping it dark. ‘Of course’ he said, and he sent me to the dispensary for a fortnight for rheumatism. Now don’t you think that he was a brick?”

I quite agreed with him. This matter is one which has given rise to many discussions in Parliament, and in the English Press, especially with regard to the British troops in India. The French system appears to me one of the chief causes of depopulation in France, when one considers that nine-tenths of the male population have to pass through the ranks of the army. The fear of punishment prevents most soldiers from attending the medical visit when they suffer from complaints of this kind, and the consequence is that in most cases they wait until the disease has made such progress that the doctors are unable to cope successfully with it. 

The day Piatte was brought to hospital the Roman Catholic chaplain came to see me. I told him exactly what my religious views were, but far from showing himself offended, he showed me the utmost kindness, and asked me to go and visit him when I was able to leave my bed. I did so, and found him to be the most enlightened man. I frankly explained to him my views, and although we could not, of course, agree, our discussion was carried on in the most courteous terms, and he told me that although he regretted that he was unable to convince me, he should always be glad to see me, placing at the same time his fine library at my disposal. He was a man well versed in science, and, although a fervent Catholic, did not consider those whose opinions differed from his as black sheep, and he had the utmost respect for sincere religion of every kind. 

I stopped a week longer in hospital, and felt rather glad of Piatte’s companionship, as I had taken quite a liking for this poor fellow, who interested me. I asked him many a time why he did not give up drink, which meant his ruin. 

“Give up drink, old fellow” he invariably replied, “why should I? It is the only thing which makes a man forget. Don’t imagine that I was a drunkard before I came to the regiment ; but they’ve driven me to it. During my first year’s service I was keen on doing my best, and I hoped to be promoted to the rank of Corporal. I had got through the exams. all right, and had been actually nominated for promotion after the manoeuvres we were in the thick of were over, when the crash came. One night, when three other troopers and myself had made ourselves comfortable in a barn full of straw, in comes a Corporal with a pipe in his mouth. Just then he hears a step outside, and suspecting that it is an officer, he shouts out:’Who’s been smoking here? Now look sharp – are you going to tell me or not?’ I wasn’t asleep, and I saw through his dirty trick in an instant. The other fellows were soon aroused, and confusedly asked what was the matter. The Corporal repeated his question, but of course there was no culprit to answer it. Then in comes the officer – for the Corporal’s suspicion was right enough. ‘Go and fetch a lantern’ says he. Off goes the Corporal and gets one. Then the officer says : ‘Some one has been smoking here, let the man come forward’ Of course nobody moves because nobody has done it, for ’twas the Corporal all along. ‘Very well’ the officer says ; let’s have your numbers, and he tells the Corporal to put them down.

Mine was the highest as it happened, and on finding this out the officer says : ‘You put eight days’ Salle de Police to that trooper.’ When the officer has gone I go out to the Corporal – he was a Hussar chap, and so was the officer – and I tell him that it’s not right what he’s done, and that he knows well enough that it’s him that had been smoking, So he turns savage on me, and he says: ;You’ll have two days more for insulting me’ 

“The next day I tell what’s happened to my Lieutenant, and he says that he will speak to the Hussar officer ; but my Lieutenant comes back, and he says that the officer doesn’t mind cancelling my punishment, but that the Corporal insists on letting his two days stand as they are, and that he won’t cancel them. All that makes a shindy between the younger officers of our regiment and those of the Hussars, and the General hears of it, because two of them officers actually applied for leave to fight a duel. The General sends for me – he was just mad because during the past fortnight two other barns had been set on fire – and he tells me I am a scoundrel to have smoked in the barn ; but I tell him how things happened, and that ’twas the Corporal himself who’d been smoking. The Colonel of the Hussars, who just happened to be coming for some report to the General, says  ‘Ah, that’s the swine who nearly set a barn on fire last night, and now he tries to take away the character of one of my Corporals!’ 

This makes the General quite mad, and he gives me fifteen days’ prison. Yes, old chap, fifteen days’ prison, when I’d done nothing. Ít fairly turned my blood, and Í went away hardly knowing what I was doing. I passed a pub and went in. I called for absinthe and brandy and the Lord knows what else. The more I drunk the more I wanted, and I was that mad that when two Hussars walked into the pub I sprang on them, and if others hadn’t come to their rescue ‘twould have been a case of murder, I think. They had to tie me up, and by Gad it took eight of them to do it. 

To my first punishment, fifteen days’ prison, and fifteen days’ solitary confinement in cells, were added, and when, two days later, the manoeuvres ended, I was marched back to barracks – a prisoner. Of course any question of promotion was at an end – to think of it after I had worked so hard to become a Corporal. When I came out of prison I no longer cared a b- d – what happened to me. I drank whenever I had money, and if I hadn’t, Decle, my boy, I would have shot myself. How I have got through these last three years I don’t know. They threatened more than once to send me to Biribi. What did I care? If it hadn’t been for our late Colonel he understood me, that man – I should have done something desperate ; but since he is dead – ah, malheur! The new Colonel calls me a disgrace to the regiment, and a disgrace to the French army : but what do I care? But then when a chap like our doctor doesn’t feel ashamed to hold out his hand to me – well, my boy, it goes to my heart. You, too, old Decle, although we are both mere troopers, you are a gentleman, while I am but a labourer and a low blackguardly drunkard ; and yet you treat me as a friend. Give me your hand, old boy.” 

I gave it to him, and he pressed it between his two enormous palms, and then, in a husky voice, he added, “Ah! it’s long since I have felt so happy” and with the back of his hand he wiped off a tear. 

“Forgive me, old chap” he said, “I know I’m making a fool of myself! 

For answer I could only squeeze his hand, and I turned round to hide a tear of my own – a tear of pity for the poor fellow whose feelings I could now understand so well. During the long days we spent together Piatte delighted to speak of his home ; he belonged to the country, where he drove a diligence : he loved horses and animals, and he was still full of old and quaint superstitions.

“I was seventeen” he once said to me, “when I drove a coach for the first time, and I shall never forget that night. I had never driven the coach except to bring it round from the stables to the inn, when one night the governor orders the diligence to be got ready for a foreign gentleman who wanted to catch a train twenty miles from our place. All the other carriages were out, and the diligence alone was available. When Jean-Paul, the usual driver, hears of it he says that he will not drive it for all the money in the world, it being a Friday night in the month of January. ‘Why?’ I asked him. He told me that at one place where the road meets the Strasbourg road there was a ghost which always came out from behind a tree when the diligence passed along at night on a Friday in January his grandfather, his father, and him too had seen it, and he did not want to see it no more.’ I didn’t believe much in ghosts, so I offered to drive, and my governor, to whom the coach belonged, let me go. 

The horses were fresh, the carriage light, and we were rattling along at a good pace when all of a sudden I see a woman dressed in white jump from behind a tree and stand in the middle of the road. ‘Hi! hi ! look out!’ I shout, but she did not seem to heed me, and before I could pull up the leaders were on her. They shied and reared, but there she rises between the two of them and seems to jump over the wheelers, and for a second or two she flitters in front of me like a huge bat. As I looked round I saw that we were just at the spot which Jean-Paul had told me was haunted. I felt my heart in my mouth, and lashing the horses put them at a gallop – and they didn’t want no urging either ; but the ghost seemed to fly in the air alongside the coach for a distance of about a hundred yards, when she disappeared in a bush.”

I told Piatte that it was the effect of his imagination, but he was positive about it ; according to him the ghost had the face of a young girl with very dark hair, and was draped in white garments with a kind of hood over her head. Soon after his first adventure he became the regular driver of the diligence, the former driver having been upset with the coach and killed on the spot. 

During the year previous to his military service he had worked in some large engineering works, and he always swore to me that until he was first punished he had never been drunk. adding at the same time that during the fourteen months he had still to serve he meant to drink whenever he could get a chance. I thoroughly believe that if he had become a Corporal he would have been one of the best men in the regiment, and there is no doubt that it was the injustice with which he had been treated which led him to drink and degradation. 

At the end of ten days I left hospital, and, on my return to barracks, was kept for three days in the dispensary as a convalescent. During the whole time I had been in hospital I had been unable to get a bath, and when I suggested taking one the doctor laughed at me, and the Sisters considered me a kind of lunatic to want a bath when I had a sore throat. It was therefore with great relief that, on my return to barracks, I was allowed by our doctor to go out to the town to have the wash of which I was naturally in great need.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *