I had been a fortnight in the infirmary, when one morning at ten o’clock one of the Sergeants of my squadron ordered me to dress in tunic and kept saying that he had received orders to take me before the Conseil. This word simply means court, and is applied to the Conseil de discipline (regimental court-martial) as well as to the Conseil de réforme (Invalidation Commission), but I had by that time become so accustomed to threats of being sent before a regimental court-martial, that I could only think of that, and asked the Sergeant on what charge I was going to be tried.
“I can’t tell you” he replied, smiling. He was a friend of mine, and I thought him most heartless to ridicule my trouble. In vain I asked him, while I was dressing, to explain what it meant, but he would not, and tortured me by asking in a jocular way how I would like a change of air and surroundings. At last I lost my temper.
“It’s all very fine” I said, “to chaff a fellow when you know that he is going to be sent for three years and a half to hard labour in Algeria. You are simply a brute, that’s all I can say.
But suppose I don’t know anything of the kind?” he replied, still smiling “Why do you think so?”
“Well, I suppose, if I am going to be tried before the Conseil de discipline”
“You ass!” he laughingly replied ; “who spoke to you of Conseil de discipline? Aren’t there other Conseils?” I looked astonished.
“Have you never heard of the Conseil de réforme?” (Invalidation Commission) he said.
“You don’t mean to say- ”
“Yes” he replied, “I do mean to say that you are proposed for invalidation, and most likely you will cease to be a Dragoon this afternoon” My heart nearly stopped. The Corporal in charge of the infirmary came in at that moment (I had been put alone in a small ward of only two beds).
“You’ve heard the news?” he said. I asked him how it had happened, and how I had not heard of it sooner. He proceeded to explain that, for the last two or three months past, our surgeon had meant to have me invalided, but that the Surgeon-major of the infantry, who was senior surgeon of the district, had always scratched my name off the list, as he had taken a particular dislike to me, and also wished to spite our surgeon, whom he hated.
The previous day this infantry surgeon had been suddenly summoned to his mother’s bedside in the South of France, so that Surgeon-major Lesage (our own surgeon) was in his absence the head of the medical service, and as such he had included me in the list of men proposed for invalidation.
My joy knew no bounds, and my only fear was that the Commission would reject the proposal. I was taken to the hospital with five other Dragoons, and on arriving there we found half a dozen men from the Line regiment, who were also to be examined. At 11 A.M. the members of the Commission arrived, but we did not see them coming, as they entered the room where we were to be examined by another door. At the end of a few minutes a Dragoon was called in : he was the Breton of whom I spoke at the beginning ot this book, who cried so bitterly at the thought of his cow. Since he had joined the regiment the poor fellow had gradually been sinking, and he was reduced to a mere skeleton. They did not keep him long, and when he came out he was laughing and crying hysterically. “Sergeant” he cried, “oh, Sergeant, let me kiss you. I am going to see her again, my cow, and the hens and the fields, the dear old house!” He had put his arms round the Sergeant’s neck, and was sobbing like a child on his shoulders. He then sat on one of the benches, and kept saying, ‘I should have died, you know, if they had not sent me home. It’s the Blessed Virgin – she has heard my prayers! I prayed so hard to her, and every Sunday I burnt a candle before her altar. I must go and thank her.”
He then asked the Sergeant to let him go to the church, but the latter said that he was not allowed to let him leave the hospital until the Commission had retired.
“Then I will thank her here ; she will hear all the same ” And so saying the poor fellow knelt down and buried his head in his hands, muttering a prayer. so genuine, so simple, and yet so beautiful, that not a single one of those coarse soldiers assembled there thought of chaffing him, although he had been unmercifully derided for saying his prayers in the room at the barracks.
In the meantime two other men had been examined, the last one being sent back to his service. Then came the turn of a Volontaire, a poor fellow whose knee-cap had been broken. Although the doctors were unanimous, in declaring that he would not be able to walk at all for two years, and although certificates from two of the greatest French surgeons, who had been sent by his family to operate on him, were produced, stating, that he would be lame for life, the Commission refused to invalid him.
When my turn came my heart was beating so fast that I could hardly speak. One of our Majors presided over the Commission, of which the other members were two Captains and four Lieutenants. To my horror, Captain Hermann was one. Our Surgeon-major, assisted by the assistant Surgeon-major of the Line regiment, examined each man. I was presented by Surgeon-major Lesage.
This is “Trooper Decle” he said ; “he is absolutely unfit for service. He suffers from general weakness of constitution and heart palpitation” The other doctor examined my heart and confirmed my Surgeon-major’s diagnosis. The assistant Surgeon-major said that he fully shared Surgeon-major Lesage’s views, and was absolutely in favour of my being invalided.
“I should like to listen to the fellow’s heart myself” remarked the Major.
“By all means,” said the doctor, smiling, for he knew that the Major knew nothing of medicine. I stood beside the Major and he put his bald head against my chest. Of course my heart was beating furiously, as I was in a blue funk about the decision which would be arrived at.
“I would be sorry to exchange with him” growled the old Major, “he’s a regular roarer.”
“Well gentlemen” said the Surgeon-major, “you have heard Major Vieu confirm what I told you, and I will ask you to pronounce your decision.”
“Allow me to ask you first” said Captain Hermann “whether the trooper could not do his service in the infantry?”
“I would not have him,” replied the infantry doctor.
“But supposing we sent him into the transport service” again suggested Captain Hermann.
“No, sir” replied Surgeon-major Lesage ; you are wasting your time and mine. Invalid him, or don’t invalid him that’s for you to decide ; but I warn you that if you don’t invalid him I shall make him finish his term in hospital”
“Come on, Hermann,” said the Major, half asleep “we have a lot of others to see ; let us vote – I want my lunch”
“What do you say?” asked Surgeon-major Lesage from the youngest Lieutenant.
“Oh, invalid him” he quickly replied.
“Yes” said the next Lieutenant.
“Yes” said his neighbour.
“No” replied the fourth Lieutenant, who sat near Captain Hermann.
“Decidedly not” said my Captain.
This looked bad ; two nays to three ayes.
“Better invalid him” said the second Captain.
“By all means” murmured the Major with his eyes shut.
I was no longer a trooper I thought I was going to faint.
“Invalidation No.1?” queried the doctor.
“Yes, yes,” the Major cried, striking his chair with his fist; ce but d- it, let us go on. I want my lunch, and I am off if you don’t hurry up”.
A form was filled in by the dispensary Corporal acting as clerk : this was signed, and the doctor told me that my papers would be handed over to me in the evening. When I came out there was no need to ask me what the result was : it was written on my face.
“Must I congratulate you?” asked the Sergeant.
“Yes” I said, shaking him by the hand “but tell me” I added, “what does Invalidation No. 1 mean? ”
“You don’t mean to say that they have granted you that! Why, man alive! it means a pension of £24 a year for life!”
I was astounded. Half an hour later the Commission had retired, and I suggested stopping at a café on our way. The Sergeant assented, and back offered him and my comrades a bottle of champagne to celebrate this glorious day – the happiest day in my existence, I believe. When I returned to the barracks I met Sergeant de Cormet in the yard.
“Where are you coming from?” he cried “I thought that you were at the infirmary”
“Yes, Sergeant, but I have just come from a turn in the town”
“We shall see about that” he answered
“I went out on duty Sergeant”
“I’Il make sure of that ; but in any case” he sneered, “you won’t be always at the infirmary, and when you come out you will soon find yourself in the wrong box”
“I don’t think so, Sergeant” I said, laughing ; “in fact, I am going to Paris to-night!”
“With whose leave, please?”
“Superior authorities” I said.
“If you mean to laugh at me”” he replied in angry tones, “I shall have you consigned to prison.”
“No, Sergeant, no more Šalle de Police, prison, or cells for me-in fact, in case I do not see you again, I shall wish you good-bye now, or rather au revoir, as I hope I may meet you soon. You see I am no longer a Dragoon : I have just been invalided”
“It can’t be” he said, astounded. “I should have heard of your being proposed for invalidation”
“You don’t hear everything” I replied ; “but if you don’t believe me, here comes the dispensary Corporal, and he has my papers”
He did not add a word, and went off shrugging his shoulders eloquently. The news soon spread through the barracks, and many were the congratulations I received.
In the afternoon the Surgeon-major came to the infirmary, where I expressed my deep thanks to him. He told me that I should have to sleep in the barracks again that night, as an error had been made in drawing up my papers, a pension having been granted to me by mistake. As to this I was quite indifferent, for I would willingly have given more than £1000 to have secured my release. The Surgeon-major also advised me to be very careful until I had received my papers, and changed my uniform for civilian clothes, for until this was done I was still under military law. The following morning my papers were handed over to me, and I returned all my outfit to the regimental stores, making a present to Titi and Piatte of all such uniforms and kits as were my personal property.
I gave twenty francs to the troopers of my peloton to drink my health, and I did not forget my friends Titi and Piatte. I then took leave of my Sergeants, gave a parting kiss to my charger, and stepped into the street, a free man at lastI Half an hour later I had discarded my uniform for ever. Not only had I ceased to be a Dragoon, but I had also altogether ceased to belong to the French army.
A fortnight later I arrived in England, a country I already loved, and ever since my life has been spent in travelling through the vast domains of the British Empire.