So far none of the Volontaires had been punished, and it fell to my lot to be the first to become acquainted with the Salle de Police. I had been ordered to ride that evening the kicking mare I described just now, but the revengeful beast, remembering the lesson I had given her on the previous day, let out with her hind legs the moment she saw me coming near her stall with a saddle. I laid it on the ground and tried to get into the stall in order to tie her head up before saddling her. Try as I would, I could not possibly manage to get alongside of her, the stalls being very narrow, and consisting of wooden partitions hung up by a chain fixed to the ceiling. These partitions, which are two feet broad, stand about four feet from the ground, so, getting into the next stall, I climbed over the partition and got alongside the charger and caught her by the head-stall. A more vicious beast I never came across; not only did she try to bite me, but she also tried to stamp on my foot, then she kicked me with her near hind leg, and while I was tying her head up she gave me a forward kick with her foreleg; and when I brought the saddle to put it on her back, she lashed out so furiously that she broke the rope by which I had tied her head high up and bit me viciously. She was Titi’s charger, and he alone was able to manage her, so I sent a trooper to call him to help me. Titi came, and I was holding the mare’s head while he was putting the saddle on her back when the Sergeant-major suddenly appeared.
“What are you doing there?” he asked Titi.
“Sergeant-major” I replied, “I could not manage to saddle the beast, and as I have to ride her to-night, I asked Titi to help me”
“Very well” answered the Sergeant-major, “you will both have eight days’ Salle de Police, and if I catch you another time” he went on, addressing Titi, “it’s eight days’ prison you will get”
So saying he walked away pompously, evidently well pleased with himself.
“Well, old chap” said Titi to me, “so you’ve got it at last”
I felt very crestfallen, but I had no time to think much about the matter, as I was already late and had to rush to riding-school.
The drill over, I hastened to De Lanoy’s room and asked him to intercede for me with the Sergeant-major. He promised to do so at once, and I anxiously awaited the result of his interview. At the end of a few minutes I was called into the Sergeant-major’s room.
“I am very sorry for you, Decle” said the latter; “de Lanoy has spoken to me on your behalf, and if he had done so sooner I might have overlooked the matter this time, on account of the special circumstances, but your punishment has already been put down on the report, so the best thing you can do is to go through it with good grace.”
When I returned to my room all the other troopers chaffed me unmercifully, but Titi was practical and sympathetic.
“Now look here, old man” said be, “let me give you a few tips. First of all, as you’ve got warm drawers I advise you to put on two or three pairs one on the top of the other, and I also advise you to wear two or three thick vests, because you know you’ll have to be searched before you go to the cells, and you are not allowed to wear any regimentals under your canvas trousers and blouse. You’ll have to put on your clogs, and all the covering you are allowed is your bread-bag” (a canvas bag I have already described, and called a bread-bag because it is generally used for fetching the loaves of bread from the bakery. It afforded very little covering, being only about four feet by two).
At a quarter to eight the trumpeters called “The men under punishment” and I went down with Titi to the guardroom. There were a dozen troopers punished with Salle de Police that evening, and we were drawn up in front of the guard-room. The Sergeant came out with a lantern and having called out our names he began to search us. He felt us all over to see that we had neither matches, tobacco, candles, nor spirits concealed under our clothes. But he was a good fellow, and did not make as thorough a search as I have seen made by some others. One trooper only, who had his riding trousers under his canvas ones, was ordered to pull them off, getting two days more for wearing them. We were then marched off to the cells.
We first reached a huge door which the Sergeant opened with an enormous key. This door led into a passage, on the left of which were five heavily bolted doors leading into the cells reserved to the men punished with solitary confinement. At the end of the corridor stood a solid door reminding one of the traditional prison portal of the old melodrama; it was locked with two gigantic iron bolts, each one closing with a key; when these had been drawn, a key half a foot long and more than an inch thick was inserted in the centre lock, in which it turned with a grating noise. The door itself was at least six inches thick and covered with heavy iron nails. We had to stoop to pass through the doorway, and were immediately greeted by a dreadful stench. The light of the lantern being turned on our faces we could hardly see where we were going, but when we had all marched in the Sergeant gave a look round with his lantern and thus enabled me to get a glance at the place.
The room, a kind of cellar, was about twenty feet square. On each side of it ran a sloping wooden platform about seven feet broad, its base standing a couple of feet above the cement floor; at the top of the platform was a raised board about two inches high and one foot broad, which was meant as a pillow; this platform was our bed. The room was about ten feet high, and at the extremity of it, near the ceiling, was a small window, perhaps three square feet in area, strongly and closely barred. The only furniture consisted of an earthenware jug containing water and an iron cup.
In a corner of the room, in a small recess, stood a large barrel about four feet high, with two steps leading to the top of it, and with two iron handles on each side. This, in regimental slang, is called “Jules” and is the only sanitary convenience at the disposal of the prisoners.
The whole place, having no means of ventilation, was musty and slimy. We all stretched ourselves on the platform, and the Sergeant, having seen us thus comfortably settled for the night, retired.
As soon as the key had been removed from the outer door I heard the cracking of a match, and a candle was lit by my friend Titi. Having stuck the candle on the flat edge at the top of the bed he at once jumped to the floor and addressed us.
“Look here, boy” he began, “I am the chairman of this ‘ere meeting, as I hold the record for attendance in this hall, where I have already presided over many a merry gathering. As chairman, and as your senior, I must warn you that my authority has to be recognised by every one of you, and in my capacity of commander of the place, I may as well remind you of the regulations. Remember that refusal to obey is a most heinous crime, the offender being liable to be tried by court-martial. As I notice that there are a few uninitiated members here to-night, I will let them know what are the rules and regulations of the place. will first proceed to the inspection”
So saying, he ordered us to stand in a single file in the middle of the room: and all the troopers, scenting fun, readily obeyed. He then commanded four of us, who were making our first appearance in the place, to step, forward, allowing the others to sit down.
“Troopers” he said, addressing us and mimicking the Colonel capitally ” you have the honour of being admitted for the first time to these ancient precincts, which have sheltered many a great man, and it now becomes necessary that you should pay due homage to our military patron, the great and noble Jules. In order not to interrupt the sanctity of your devotions, we shall leave you in tête-d-tête with our noble patron, whom you will have at the same time to guard. Trooper Decle,” he concluded, “right turn by the left, quick march!”
Having been warned beforehand of this traditional farce, I executed the movement, and when I came within a step of “Jules” was ordered to halt. “Now” said Titi, closing the door upon me, here are your orders: In case any one knocks at the door you are to challenge the fellow and inquire what he wants, and you must also see that Jules does not run away”
The door was then closed upon me, and I was nearly stifled. At the end of a minute or two came a knock.
“Who goes there?” I said
“Your commander” replied Titi from outside; ” have you followed my instructions, and has Jules inspired you?” he went on.
“Yes” I replied, ” he told me that the distinguished company would feel thirsty in the morning, and he advised me to allay their thirst.
“That’s right,” answered Titi, opening the door; I then handed over to him a five-franc piece to pay my footing.
“Boys,” he exclaimed, “tis a hind wheel” (une roue de derrière, the slang word for a silver dollar). Three cheers for Decle”
The cheers were duly given. The three other recruits were still standing in the middle of the room.
“Now what may your name be, you pug-nosed, carroty villain?” demanded Titi, addressing one of the fellows standing up – a recruit.
“Dieudonné, present” shouted the boy, adding to his name the answer given at a roll-call.
Promptly he was marched to Jules as I had been, and locked in, but he was left there for ten minutes at least. When Titi went to release him the lad only offered one franc.
“It won’t do, my boy,” said Titi.
The fellow replied that this was all he possessed; but on his promising to give fifty centimes more in the morning, “to make up the price of a quart of brandy,” he was released.
Then came the turn of the third recruit: he was a tall and magnificently built fellow, 6 feet 1 inch high.
“Now, you Colonne de la Bastille, what name has your father transmitted to his pillar of a son?”
“Look ‘ere you” cried the recruit, “don’t imagine that I am going to let myself be bullied like those two other idiots.”
“I say, Tommy” remarked an old trooper of four years’ standing, “don’t be an ass; we’re having a bit of fun, and even the Volontaire has played the game like a man: we’ve all been through it; if you don’t go willing, you’ll be made to go unwilling. Go on, old chap”
It was of no use; the man sulked and would not budge. Thereupon Titi began another speech, giving this time an imitation of one of our lieutenants.
“Ahem, I warned you, my friend, of the – as I might say – disastrous; yes, disastrous consequences of disobedience; you, er understand well disobedience – well, as I said, I shall have you removed where you won’t – or, rather, where you decline to go. “Now, boys” he added, turning towards the other men. Four of them had already jumped up, and among them a certain Piatte, a kind-hearted, clumsy-looking chap, but a most powerful man.
The first who approached the recruit were knocked down, but Piatte, catching him by the legs from behind, brought him to the floor. The three others at once seized him by the arms and head, while Piatte held his legs, and so carried he was roughly bundled into Jules corner, and the door locked upon him. To make it the more secure the door was then tightly held by four men, while the recruit inside kicked and hammered at it in vain.
“You cowards” he howled, with curses; “you took me unawares, four to one, and from behind too; wait until I get out! You don’t know who I am. I am Jeannot the butcher, the Terror of Belleville!”
“Shut up, Jeannot, and listen one minute” cried Piatte, in his deep bass voice.
“If you like I’ll stand up to you; fair fight, mind you; square fall, both shoulders touching. Is that a go?”
Jeannot ceased hammering upon the door. “All right” he shouted.
“Now, you fellows, open the door!”
“Let go, boys,” said Piatte.
Slowly the tall recruit stepped out; his face was flushed, his eyes bloodshot. Folding his arms on his chest he looked round.
“Where’s the idiot who dares challenge me?” he said, surveying us with contempt.
“I am that ‘ere idiot” said Piatte, good-naturedly.
Jeannot looked at him and laughed.
“So” he said, “you want me to crush your bones? You fancy yourself pretty strong, but presently you’ll be sorry you spoke, putty-face!”
“Very well, my boy, very well” quietly replied Piatte, beginning to strip.
Jeannot followed his example, and as he had but a shirt under his blouse, he was soon naked to the waist. He was a magnificent specimen of humanity. His muscles looked as if made of cast-iron; his chest was broad, his body supple, and his wrists and hands were not coarse like those usually found among the labouring classes. Piatte took longer to strip, having a couple of flannel shirts and three heavy vests to remove. When he was bare to the waist, he appeared immensely powerful indeed, but lacking the manly beauty of Jeannot. He was thick set, with a short neck, breasts like a woman’s, and a tendency to stoop. His hands were enormous (he could not get on No. 9 gloves). He was fully two inches shorter than his opponent.
Both men were, however, equally matched in weight, each being about 14 stone, but at first sight I felt sure that Jeannot would easily win the day.
“Who is to be umpire?” said Jeannot.
“Titi, of course” answered Piatte.
“Titi? Who is Titi?”
My chum came forward.
“You don’t know me, old fellow,” he began, “but you’ve often heard my name. I was one year with old Blanc the wrestler. “Titi de la Villette, don’t you remember now “
“What, cried Jeannot, “Titi de la Villette, the champion lightweight? Shake hands” and so saying he extended his palm, which Titi firmly grasped.
“Now, boys,” said Titi, addressing the adversaries, “here are the conditions of the match: No grasping below the waist or by the clothes; no foul tripping, and both shoulders to touch the ground”
“Right you are- agreed,” answered Piatte and Jeannot simultaneously.
The two adversaries shook hands, and immediately stood in an attitude of attack, with their knees bent, and both arms half extended forward with open hands. Then Titi gave the signal ” Go!”
Jeannot thereupon advanced towards Piatte, who did not shift his position. The assailant then laid one hand on Piatte’s shoulder, while he tried to get his left arm round his adversary’s waist, but every feint was baffled by Piatte, who still remained on the defensive. Not a whisper could be heard, but only the loud breathing of the two wrestlers, and the sound of flesh striking flesh. All of a sudden Jeannot sprang back, and immediately rushing once more upon his adversary, caught hold of him round the waist with his left arm, putting his right arm over Piatte’s left shoulder. Piatte stood the shock without flinching, and with a rapid movement he brought Jeannot’s right arm down, allowing him to pass it under his own arm so that Jeannot was grasping Piatte round the body, while Piatte was encircling him over the arms.
Under ordinary circumstances Piatte would have been at a disadvantage, but so powerful was his grasp that Jeannot, though the taller man, could not bend to catch his opponent round the waist, while Piatte fairly encircled his man-over the arms, it is true, but under the elbows. For a few seconds the two men held each other in a grip of iron, but I noticed that, while Jeannot was panting, Piatte did not seem out of breath. Then Piatte, with a tremendous effort, lifted Jeannot slightly from the ground; but, as he did so, Jeannot arched himself to regain his footing, and both men crashed heavily to the floor: they both fell on the side without loosening their grip, but Piatte quickly disengaged his left hand from under his adversary’s body, with the evident intention of using his two hands to force his shoulders down.
Taking advantage of the movement, Jeannot, arching himself on his head and feet, so that his two shoulders should not touch the ground, succeeded in turning Piatte a little round, and nearly managed to get on the top of him. Before he could do so, however, Piatte had slipped one hand on Jeannot’s shoulder, and placed his other hand ‘against his waist, thus pushing him away. Jeannot was still holding Piatte round the body, but the moment Piatte slipped his hand on to his shoulder he let go, and, with one hand on the ground, pushed himself away from Piatte, and the next instant both men were kneeling alongside each other. With a hand planted firmly on the ground, each one tried in turn to grasp the other by the waist, but in vain.
It was a fine sight to see these two powerful athletes rooted to the ground in grim silence, broken only by the impact of hands against muscular backs. At last Jeannot managed to encircle Piatte’s waist, but, before he had succeeded in doing so, Piatte had caught him round the neck; for a second they were entangled, but Jeannot threw his legs up, and, turning a back somersault, slipped his hand from Piatte’s arm and fell on his feet, standing in front of his adversary. Piatte had meanwhile remained on his knees, and, with tremendous efforts, Jeannot tried to move him, first by seizing him by the waist, then by the shoulders. But Piatte remained immovable as a rock.
He told me afterwards that his chief object was to let Jeannot exhaust himself while he was saving his own wind. This struggle lasted for a few minutes more, when Jeannot suddenly slipped on the damp cement floor, and, to save himself from being seized by Piatte, he flung himself away, and rolled behind his adversary. In an instant both men were on their legs once more, Piatte as cool as when he had first begun, Jeannot panting heavily.
For a short time they both stood feinting, when Piatte, changing his tactics, made a rush at the Parisian giant, and, before the latter knew where he was, he had been lifted in the air and heavily thrown on his back with Piatte on the top of him. In order to well assert his victory, Piatte twice lifted Jeannot bodily, and made his two shoulders touch the ground. Then the victor stood up, greeted by our unanimous applause. Titi handed over to him a flask of brandy he had managed to smuggle in, and, after taking a long pull, Piatte wiped his mouth and, turning round, said, “Now it’s your turn, Jeannot”
It was only then that we noticed that Jeannot was lying where he had been felled, and we all feared that he might be seriously injured. Piatte hastened to his side, and was about to lift him when Jeannot opened his eyes and jumped up unaided. Turning towards Piatte, he extended his hand to him.
“Shake hands” he said; “you are the first man who has ever felled Jeannot the butcher; but you’re a good ‘un; you fight fair, and I like that; but you fairly took the wind out of me that last go. Now, boys” he went on, “to show you that I don’t bear any grudge, I’ll pay my footing, and I’ll be as generous as that blasted millionaire of a Volontaire. Here goes ‘ a hind wheel,’ and good health to you all?”
So saying, he took a long pull at the flask which Titi had handed over to him. The combatants then wiped off the blood that ran from a good many scratches on their bodies, and donned their garments once more. In the excitement of the contest the fourth recruit was forgotten, and, as he hailed from Normandy (the Scotland of France), he kept cannily in the background, and so avoided paying his footing.
Titi then suggested that we should have a song or two, and it was fully midnight when, the candle having died out, we all tried to go to sleep. The night was bitterly cold, and as we had no blankets to cover ourselves with, we all slept huddled together like sardines in a tin. Having been awake since 5 A.M., I was quite exhausted, and soon dropped off to sleep, but only to wake up almost immediatelv with a horrid sensation that something had run over my face. I awoke my faithful Titi, who was sleeping beside me.
“Got any matches?” I asked hurriedly.
“Yes, why–want a smoke?” he replied, handing me a match.
Just as I was going to sit up to strike the match something else stirred my hair. When I had obtained a light I looked round, and to my disgust I saw half a dozen huge rats running about over my companions’ bodies.
“Ah, it’s the rats that worry you” said Titi; ” you’ll soon get accustomed to them the place swarms with those fellows.”
A nice prospect indeed! Every time I tried to go to sleep I was aroused by a rat cantering over my face, so at last I determined to sit up, gladly accepting Titi’s offer of tobacco and cigarette-papers.
“The Sergeant of the Guard to-night is a good sort,” Titi told me, “and he won’t say anything if he smells a whiff of smoke.”
At 2.30 A.M. the Sergeant turned up, and when he ordered us to get up and to clear out, I was already rejoicing at the idea that I should be able to spend a few hours in bed: but I was sorely disappointed when we were taken to the pump and ordered to fill the two huge tanks where the chargers had to be watered in the morning. The night it was early in December – was a bitterly cold one, and the nipping wind pierced us to the bones in the intervals between our turns at the pump.
It was nearly five o’clock before we had concluded our work: I rushed to my bed, and when, a few minutes later; the Corporal called out for the names of the sick men who wanted to go to the medical visit, I put mine down, not withstanding Titi’s warning that if the Surgeon-major did not consider me ill, I should get an extra four days Sall de Police for malingering.
At 6 A.M., after réveille, the Sergeant-major came to the room and called me. “Look here” he said, “you are not going to begin these tricks with me – to report yourself sick just because you have slept in the Salle de Police”
I assured him that I was really ill.
“So much the better for you, if you really are,” he replied; “but mind you, I shall warn the Surgeon-major, and if he finds that you are shamming there’ll be another eight days for you. And, by-the-by,” he added, “I want to warn you that troopers who are punished with Salle de Police are not allowed to use the canteen, and if I find that you’ve set foot there – God help you! You will also, during the two hours of rest you get every day, have to do corvées (hard work, such as cleaning the cells, carrying jules about, and doing any unpleasant jobs that have to be performed in the barracks”
With this intimation he walked away. Need I say that, now I knew all that Salle de Police implied, it was not without dread that I looked forward to the seven days I had still to undergo.
Although the description of my adventures has been but just begun, enough has, perhaps, already been said to indicate that the military training which might be made of real educational value to French youngsters is but a sordid and degrading experience, to be remembered with loathing, or forgotten -if possible.