I have omitted to mention that in compliance with the regulations I had been obliged, before being taken to the prison, to hand over to my Sergeant-major whatever money or jewellery I had at the time. Accordingly I handed over to Sergeant-major Vaillant my gold watch and chain, £30 in bank-notes, and two valuable rings, only keeping with me a few pounds in gold and silver, which I carefully hid. The day before I was to leave prison, the Sergeant-major came to see me, and explained that as he was going away on leave he wanted to give me back my belongings. This he did, and he further reminded me that he owed me a long-standing gambling debt of £5 and this he also handed over to me. He added that he might be a long time away, and that I could render him a great service by lending him some civilian clothes. He had allowed me to keep in his room a suit of clothes and an overcoat, and I told him that he was very welcome to them. I also offered to lend him some money, and suggested his paying me the gambling debt on his return ; but he absolutely refused to accept either offer. He then bade me good-bye, and I thought no more of the matter until a week later, when de Lanoy having come to see me in hospital, startled me by saying that Sergeant-major Vaillant had deserted, having absconded the day before I left prison, and that he was further accused by the Captain of having stolen 31 francs from the moneys belonging to the squadron.
I assured de Lanoy that it was quite impossible that Vaillant should have stolen the money, and I told him how he had repaid me the large amount I had entrusted him with, and even £5 that he owed me, and de Lanoy agreed with me that if 32 francs (about 25s.) was missing from the squadron money it was a pure mistake, and not a theft.
The following day Captain Hermann, who, as will be remembered, was in command of our squadron, came to the hospital and walked to my bed.
“I am afraid, Decle” he began, “that you are going to find yourself in Queer Street. You probably know that Sergeant-major Vaillant has deserted, but I should like to know if you are aware that he has run off with money belonging to the squadron, and that he has further stolen your civilian clothes?”
“Yes, sir” I said, “I heard that Sergeant-major Vaillant had deserted, but he has not stolen my clothes, for the good reason that I lent them to him ; and I don’t believe either that he has stolen any money from the squadron”
“Just so” said the Captain ; “what you have told me fully confirms my information. You have helped the Sergeant-major to desert, and you have given him £30 to help him to do so”
I grew indignant “I do not know, sir” I replied, “where you derived your information from. Far from having received money from me, the Sergeant-major came to me while I was in prison and returned the £30 I had entrusted him with, together with my jewellery, when I was sent to prison, so that you see that you have been quite misinformed.”
“It’s all very well for you to say so” replied the Captain, “butI have only your word for it, while I have distinct information that you lent him £30, and that further he stole your clothes, and that you did not lend them to him. Of course you must remember that, if it is proved that you lent the Sergeant-major the money I have mentioned, you will be court-martialled as an accessory to his desertion. If you want, however, to avoid serious consequences of your act, I am prepared to over-look it provided that you swear that Sergeant-major Vaillant has stolen your clothes”
“I am sorry I cannot do so, sir” I replied, “as that would be committing perjury. I have previously lent the Sergeant-major my clothes on several occasions, and also lent them to him in the present instance. As to being court-martialled for having lent him £30, I am in no way afraid of the consequences, for I can prove by my solicitor’s account that I did not lend him the money, unless I stole it myself. In fact” I added, “I can produce at once the very bank-notes he handed over to me”
And so saying, I pulled my pocket-book from under the pillow, and showed the Captain the money.
“Oh” he said, “I know you’ ve, got money, but that does not prove that you did not lend the £30. However, you can please yourself; I have warned you, and whatever happens will be your own fault”
“Yes, sir” I answered, “I fully understand”
The Captain retired, but a quarter of an hour later he returned and insisted upon my swearing that the Sergeant-major had stolen my clothes. He even went so far as to promise me, or at least to make me understand, that if I pleased him in the matter, he would see that I was released from the regiment after the following examination. But I was obdurate, and frankly told the Captain that I quite understood his motives, and realised why he was so anxious that I should give testimony as to the theft of my clothes, for otherwise he would not be able to obtain Vaillant’s extradition from whatever country he might have taken refuge in, and I once more “declared that whatever might be the consequences I would not commit perjury.
The Captain retired in great wrath. The following day the doctor told me that I would have to be at the gendarmerie at two o’clock. When I arrived there I found an old Corporal of the gendarmes sitting at a table, with another gendarme standing near him. He asked for my name, regimental number, and, as usual in France, I had also to give him full particulars about my father and mother. Having taken all this down, he told me to put up my right hand, and to swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Having thus administered the oath to me he began to question me.
“You had a suit of civilian clothes?” he first asked.
“Well” I replied, “I had, and still have, a good many”
“Why do you have a good many?”
“Because Í did not always wear the same suit”
“But you had a suit of clothes which has been stolen from you by the Sergeant-major Vaillant?”
“No” I said, “I have had no suit of clothes stolen from me. I lent Sergeant-major Vaillant a suit of clothes, if that is what you are driving at”
“What !” exclaimed the gendarme, evidently much astonished, “how can you say that Sergeant-maju Vaillant did not steal a suit of clothes from you when your Captain says he did!”
“I don’t know what the Captain says” I replied, “and what he says does not concern me. I am here on my oath, I have sworn to tell the truth, and all you have to do is to take down my words
“What am I to do?” said the old Corporal, turning helplessly to his subordinate.
“This is a most serious matter. How on earth can I write down that a Dragoon swears that he has had no clothes stolen when his Captain says they have been stolen! This is what discipline has come to nowadays” he went on. £When I was in the Guards, if my Captain had said to me, ‘Bouchard, some one has stolen your clothes’ I should have said, ‘Yes, sir!’ It breaks my old heart to see such goings on”
“Corporal” I insisted, “whether you like it or not you will have to write down what I say. If you won’t I shall decline to sign the declaration, and shall state in writing the reason for my refusal”
“I think you had better take down what he says” suggested the gendarme, and the Corporal, with a sigh, proceeded to write out my deposition.
I gave a full account of all I knew about the matter, pointing out that my Sergeant-major had, before leaving, returned a large sum of money I had entrusted to him. I finally, having read my deposition through carefully, signed it. When the old gendarme learned incidentally that I had been in prison, he turned to his subordinate and cried exultingly,
“Of course he has! Of course I I knew all along he was a bad un!”
And after I had signed the declaration he could not refrain from a farewell shot “Now, youngster” he said impressively “mark my words, for I don’t make a mistake often – you will come to a bad end. It’s always the case with fellows who don’t respect their betters. You begin with the regimental prison ; then, when your time is up, you soon get a month or two, then a year, and it’s not long before you are sent to La ‘Nouvelle,”, and, if you don’t get a lifer,’ it’s ten to one ‘The Widow’ ends your days.
With these encouraging words, the gendarme dismissed me, and the Sergeant took me back to the hospital, chafing me unmercifully all the way. I soon discovered that the Captain had only threatened me with a court-martial in order to try and induce me to place documents in his hands which would enable him to obtain an extradition warrant against Vaillant,, who was known to have taken refuge in Belgium. My deposition had defeated his object, but I afterwards heard that two years later Vaillany surrendered and was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment.
The charge against him of stealing money belonging to the squadron was withdrawn, my testimony showing that he had no inducement to commit a petty theft.
When I left the hospital I entered once more on my duties with the other Voloniaires, but although I. did my best to avoid punishments, I was a “marked man” I had the misfortune, too, of being senior Volontaire, so that whenever we were left without Sergeant or Corporal in the schoolroom I was held responsible in case the others caused a disturbance or indulged in horseplay.
One Saturday – kit inspection day – I discovered, when I returned from the stables in the morning, that my great-coat had been stolen. It was the only article of outfit of which I had no duplicate, and after searching for it throughout the room I could not find it. I reported the matter to de Lanoy, my Sergeant, and he promised that when all the great-coats were unrolled before the inspection he would carefully examine the numbers. He did this he was, however, unable to trace it. When the officer came to pass the inspection, de Lanoy duly reported the matter to him, but the Lieutenant merely said that I had no business to have my great-coat stolen and gave me eight days’ Salle de Police. I was determined to find the thief, and after making careful enquiries, I learnt by accident that a trooper from the fourth squadron had been through our room while we were at morning stables. I heard this while we were coming back from afternoon stables, and I accordingly rushed to the fellow’s room, and pulling down the great-coat which was rolled up and placed on the shelf above his bed, I unrolled it, and found that it was my own. Just then the trooper, a Parisian rough, came into the room, and asked me with a volley of oaths what the devil I was doing there. I was in no mood to stand abuse, and I replied in forcible language, that he was a thief, and had “stolen my great-coat” Thereupon, he struck at me, and we had a fierce coat. Twice he knocked me down, and the second time fight. he kicked me viciously before I could rise : we had closed once more, and I had given him a blow which made his teeth rattle, when the Sergeant-major of his squadron, hearing the disturbance, walked into the room.
He separated us, and gave each of us four days’ Salle de Police for fighting in the room. I tried to explain to him what had taken place, but he would not listen to me, and sent me back to my room, where I retired – with my great-coat. The following day the Colonel ordered “that the troopers Gerbal and Decle, who had fought in the room, would fight a duel on the Monday morning in the riding- school”
I have omitted to mention that all troopers at the end of six months had to spend one hour every week in the fencing school, where they were taught fencing with the sword and the foils. A good many of the Volontaires used also to take extra lessons, and, for my own part, I used to take one daily. The moment I heard that I was to fight a duel on the following day, I went to the fencing-master to ask his advice. He told me that we should have to fight with cavalry swords, not, however, of the kind we were accustomed to use, but with old-fashioned swords of the 1810 pattern. He produced one of these – I had never seen such an unwieldy weapon. The blade was about four feet long, and when you held the sword in your hand, it was so badly balanced that all the weight seemed to be thrown towards the point. The fencing-master explained to me that in regimental duels all strokes were legitimate from the head down to the knee. He then made me practise with the sword in question, but although I was a pretty good fencer, I confess that I was at first absolutely at sea with the weapon I had in my hand.
In the evening I took an extra lesson, and got a little more accustomed to the use of the cumbrous sword. The encounter was to take place at 10 A.M. Each of us had selected a second, and we were told to come to the riding-school in “stable” costume, being allowed to use whatever shoes we liked. When I arrived with my second I found the two doctors present, with half a dozen officers and the fencing-master, who had brought the swords.
We were told to strip to the waist, our weapons were handed over to us, and the fencing-master, having put us on guard, stood between us, holding in his hand a scabbard with which he was supposed to stop any deadly stroke. My adversary was a regular bully, and of course a coward, and had imbibed a large quantity of brandy to brace himself up, and when we were placed in position I noticed that he was flushed, and that he was shaking all over. His second, noticing the state he was in, whispered to him, “Buck up, old man ; don’t be afraid”
“Afraid” he replied loudly “I ain’t afraid, it’s the cold that gives me the shivers”
He was sharply rebuked and warned that he must remain silent. The fencing-master then released our swords, which he held crossed, and gave us the signal “Go”.
I made a few feints and could have easily touched my opponent, but I meant to inflict a serious injury on the ruffian, and did not take advantage of the chances he gave me. The beginning of the duel was rather a farce, as the fellow kept jumping back whenever I made a feint, and at the end of a minute or two he had already retreated ten paces. The fencing-master ordered us to stop, and warned him that if he went on retreating in that way he would stick him in a corner. We were then placed once more in position, and the second round began. My adversary showed a little more pluck this time, and the moment the signal was given he made a cut at my head, but I easily parried it, and in doing so my sword slightly scratched his arm ; we had closed, and I was watching the moment when he would step back, to slip my sword alongside his and with a “une, deux” to stick him in the ribs. Just then, however, his second noticed a drop of blood on his arm, and the duel was once more stopped.
The doctor came forward to examine the “wound” but he declared that it was just a scratch, and that we must go on. My adversary raised strong objections to this decision, saying that the duel being au premier sang (to be stopped the moment blood was drawn), and blood having been drawn, he acknowledged that he was beaten, and that ought to put an end to it, as he was not at all keen to bleed me.
“The officers, the fencing-master, and even his second could not help laughing, and the fencing-master, without replying, placed us once more in position, and for the third time gave us the signal “Go!”
I was getting very tired, the weight of the sword telling heavily on my wrist, and I determined to put a speedy end to the encounter. I made a series of quick feints, and as the man uncovered himself well I quickly raised my sword to strike him a coup de flanc which would have cut him along the chest from the shoulder to the waist ; seeing this the fencing-master put up his scabbard to stop the blow, and instead of striking the man, my sword fell on the fencing-master’s scabbard, and just as the fencing- master cried “Halt!” my adversary, taking advantage of my defenceless position, stuck the point of his sword in my wrist.
The duel was at once stopped, and I dropped my sword, my fingers becoming instantly benumbed. The doctor bandaged my arm and sent me to the dispensary. It was of course a cowardly act, deliberately done, but the same thing constantly happens in military duels, and even when the two adversaries fight quite fairly. Good fencers have hardly any chance, as the fencing-master, who is responsible for the conduct of the duel, has to stop any strokes which may possibly endanger the life of one of the adversaries, and when he stops the sword of one of them, the other may not stop in time, and he thus wounds the first.
In my case things were still worse, as my adversary had deliberately struck me while I was incapable of defending myself, my sword resting on the fencing-master’s scabbard. I must, however, acknowledge that the officers who were present at the duel reported what had taken place, and the ruffian with whom I had been fighting was punished with thirty days’ prison. Had I been fairly wounded I should have had eight days Salle de Police myself for having fought a duel under orders, as in my time it was customary to punish the wounded man, absurd as this may appear.
Military duels are certainly a most ridiculous custom, as ridiculous indeed as Parliamentary duels. It is well known beforehand that neither of the adversaries will be seriously hurt, and therefore the point of fighting at all seems obscure. The idea is, I believe, that duelling acts as a deterrent to fights between soldiers. Frenchmen, like most citizens of the other Continental nations, considering the use of fists a low and degrading way of settling a quarrel. Duels between officers are also frequent, but they can only fight if they hold the same rank ; for instance, no Captain can fight a duel with a Lieutenant, nor can a Major challenge a Captain. Officers must in any case obtain their Colonel’s leave to fight. No officer, challenged by one of his comrades, would dare to refuse to fight ; if he did so, he would probably be severely punished by the Colonel and sent to Coventry by his comrades.
When I reached the dispensary my wound was thoroughly washed. It was only then that It began to hurt me ; when the sword penetrated my wrist I did not feel it in the least, the only sensation I had being that of sudden numbness in the fingers. On examination, the wound proved more serious than it had appeared at first, several of the tendons having been severed. I was therefore detained at the infirmary, and after a couple of days inflammation set in, this being due, I believe, to the fact that during one of the stoppages which had occurred in the course. of the duel my adversary had stuck his sword in the ground. It must also be remembered that antiseptics were not known then as they are now, so that my wound had only been washed with a solution of salt and water. This duel (if such a name can be given to such a farce) was, I may add, the first and the last I ever fought or shall fight. It seems incredible that such an absurd custom should subsist among civilised nations.