Trooper 3809 – Part 8

According to the doctor’s orders I went to the medical visit in the morning. Being a Sunday, there were but a few men who had reported themselves, but besides myself there were two Volontaires, one of them being the poor fellow of whom I spoke when I described our first riding-lesson under Sergeant Legros ; the inside of his knee had been so badly scraped that further riding had caused extensive inflammation, and he was ordered to the Infirmerie (a kind of hospital ward in the barracks, where sick soldiers who want special attention, but are not ill enough to go to hospital, are kept). 

As before, the doctor kept me waiting until he had disposed of the other cases, and then exempted me from duty for two days. I was thus excused from all work, and, what I still more appreciated, had not to sleep in the Salle de Police. The doctor also inquired very kindly how we were treated by our Sergeant. I frankly told him the truth. I am not astonished,” he said ; “I know the man and I pity you.” He then went on to tell me how different had been the treatment of the Volontaires under the previous Colonel; my friend, de Lanoy, was then in charge of them, and none of the bullying we were subject to ever occurred, or would have been tolerated then.  The doctor further allowed me to make use of the dispensary if I cared to read or write while off duty, and, as will be seen, I owe an immense debt of gratitude to him, as well as to the other Surgeon-major of my regiment, Dr. Lesage, who was Surgeon-captain, Dr. Chatelain holding only the rank of Lieutenant.

In the afternoon I availed myself of the permission which had been granted me of using the dispensary, and I was sitting there sketching when Surgeon-major Lesage stepped into the room. He was a brisk and restless little man, very stern in appearance, but with the kindest of hearts. 

“What the deuce are you doing there?” he asked, as I rose to salute him and stood at attention. I explained matters to him. “

Yes” he said, “I know ; Dr. Chatelain has spoken to me about you, but you’re a bit of a pricorteur, aren’t you?” 

“No, sir,” I replied. 

“Never mind, never mind,” he said in his brusque way “When you are ill, I’ll look after you, but don’t come to me when you aren’t – I don’t like it.” 

He hurried out of the room, and went to visit the troopers in the sick ward. When I resumed work on the Tuesday it had been snowing hard during the night, and the cold was such that our fingers soon became numbed through contact with our carbines. I have omitted to mention that in the cavalry white doeskin gloves are always worn at drill ; and we were even allowed during the winter months to wear white woollen gloves. In the infantry the men drill without gloves, and only wear them on parade, or when they go out of barracks, their gloves being of white cotton. Before drilling us Sergeant Legros carefully examined our carbines, and gave “Salle de Police” to three of us. As I have already explained, a læil means that the punishment is not reported to the officers, and therefore is not recorded. In my time this led to monstrous abuse, as neither the Captains nor the Colonel were aware of the number of men who were daily punished. 

It was so cold that we felt quite delighted when we were commanded to start at pas gymnastique (a quick run), the Sergeant and the Corporal running with us for a couple of hundred yards, when they fell out. We soon, however, began to feel exhausted, but Legros noticing this called out to us : “You d- — lazy brutes, keep your distances, or I’ll leave you on the run for half an hour longer” First one, then another, fell out, utterly unable to go on, each one of them being told that he would sleep in the Salle de Police that night ; then came my turn, with the same result, but little did I care for the punishment, as I had to sleep in the den in any case. Altogether six of us were punished after we had been kept on the run for more than a quarter of an hour! 

We were kept drilling on foot for half an hour longer, and during that time our Sergeant took a delight in making us “Shoulder arms” “Slope arms” “Present arms” and leaving us in the same position for three or four minutes at a time, while if a single one of us wavered in the least he never failed to make us repeat the movement. Day after day the same thing occurred, until the two hours of foot drill became a daily terror to us. Sergeant Legros took also special pleasure in the voltige. The few of us who, like myself, had soon learnt to run alongside the horse while cantering in a circle and to jump on his back facing the head or the tail, or to jump on the horse and then to alight by passing the leg over the neck jumping up once more astride the animal, were seldom called. The Sergeant’s delight was to get a Volontaire who could just manage to jump on the cantering horse, and then to order another clumsy chap to jump behind him : if the man succeeded in doing so without bringing the first rider to the ground, the Sergeant whipped the horse until both riders fell off, and in that case he usually gave each of them one or two days’ Salle de Police. Another trick he was particularly fond of making us perform was “the scissors” This was usually done on the circus saddle, although some of us could do it on the bareback horse with only a surcingle. It may be thus described : Being on the horse you seize the iron handles fixed on each side in front of the saddle, then putting your weight on your wrists you throw your legs high up in the air, bending forward as much as you can ; you then cross your legs, and letting the handies go you drop back into the saddle facing the horse’s tail. To face once more the horse’s head you repeat the movement, laying hold of two leather loops fixed` at the back of the saddle, but you must be careful to bend your head downwards towards the outside of the circle described by the horse, or else instead of falling on the saddle you are violently jerked to the ground. A fairly good rider can soon learn to perform this trick bareback, throwing himself back with the aid of the handles fixed on to the surcingle, while to face once more the horse’s head he pushes himself well forward towards the withers, and placing his hand on the animal’s back he vaults with the weight of his body thrown well towards the inside of the circle. 

Had we had a different Sergeant who, instead of having but one object in view – to punish us – had put us on our mettle and developed a spirit of emulation, we would have soon proved the pick of the regiment. One or two of the Volontaires were splendid athletes, two of us at least being able to jump over the whole length of a horse leap-frog fashion, leaping from behind and landing in front of the animal’s head. Most of us could in the same way jump standing on to the horse’s back, my friend Delbruck being among the best athletes of our lot. It is true that his mother was English and that he had received an English education. 

That evening it was freezing so hard that we were allowed to take our great-coats to the Salle de Police, and the Sergeant of the Guard being a friend of de Lanoy’s I was excused from pumping water, and sent to my bed at 3 A.M.

The following day I was still more lucky, for de Lanoy having taken the guard, allowed me to sleep in the stables instead of the Salle de Police. I made myself snug alongside my mare, and the dear little beast cannot have moved for hours, for I slept beside her from 8.30 P.M. till 3 A.M. I was awakened by a great commotion : one of the chargers had kicked in such a way as to get astride the partition of his stall, where he got stuck. I arose to help the stable guard, and with the handle of a broom we managed after a good deal of trouble to unhook the partition, which fell to the ground, releasing the unfortunate horse. I then returned to my own charger’s stall, and passed a most comfortable night. I had once more to sleep in the Salle de Police, but, fortunately, that was my last day of it for the time being. The frost was getting more intense every day, and it has, indeed, been recorded that the winter of 1879 was one of the severest within the memory of man. The cold at last was such that orders were given by various Captains that we should drill in the stables instead of out of doors ; this at least saved us from having to run round a yard until we were completely exhausted. 

As we began to know Sergeant Legros better we were able to realise into what hands we had fallen : some days he was in a good humour and none of us would be punished ; at other times he would only put in an appearance when we were assembled for drill on foot but when he failed to appear at morning school, which in his absence was presided over by a Corporal, we were certain that it was a bad sign. The moment he appeared he looked sulky, with a heavy cloud over his face, and his first words to us usually were, “I am going to stick four of you in the Salle de Police to-night, so you had better look out” This promise he never failed to keep, and four of us invariably slept in the lock-up. We were already in the middle of December, and Christmas was fast approaching, so that we all looked forward to the few days’ leave we hoped to get at that festive season ; but, alas, I little suspected what was about to befall me. 

The Colonel seemed to have taken an increased dislike to Volontaires. First came a regimental order by which the Volontaires were strictly forbidden to mess at the canteen. As, however, he could not stretch regulations far enough to prevent us from using the canteen, he worded the order thus : “In future”he said, “the Volontaires will have to go and fetch their rations from the kitchen like other troopers ; Corporals are enjoined to report any Volontaire failing to obey this order” This was all very well, but he could not compel us to eat if we were not hungry. Still, the result of this order was great inconvenience to us, as it meant our being detained in the room until our gamelle had been brought by the orderly. 

On the Sunday before Christmas I was expecting a party of friends who had promised to come and look me up, and had asked me to dinner. At afternoon “Stables” I therefore went to the officer of the week, and asked him for ten o’clock leave, as I said some members of my family were coming to see me. Immediately after “Stables” donning one of the uniforms I had had specially made of better cloth, I went to the station to await my friends’ arrival. They were artists, and were accompanied by two music-hall stars of the day. I waited for them on the platform, and when they alighted from their compartment, one of the ladies complained that an old gentleman, whom she pointed out to me, had been rubbing his foot against hers in so persistent and insulting a manner that she was compelled to request him to desist. I had a good stare at the old man, and made some uncomplimentary remark to the lady about him. We then proceeded to take our seats in a four-in-hand brake I had hired for the occasion, and drove off merrily to the forest a few miles from the town. I was driving, and on the way I observed that we passed in one of the streets the old gentleman of the train. We spent a most pleasant afternoon, and were enjoying our dinner when my friend de Lanoy sent word that he wanted to speak to me. asked him to join us, but he declined to do so, and 13 insisted upon the waiter telling me that it was most important that I should come out to him at once. 

Accordingly I went, and, at de Lanoy’s request, we adjourned to my room. “What the deuce have you been doing, old chap?” he began ;”Major Vian has just been to the barracks, fuming with rage, and ordered me to mount my horse and look for you all over the town, and when I had found you, I was to bring you back with me, and stick you Straight off in prison” 

I simply could not understand what it meant, and told him exactly how the case stood : that some friends, whose names I mentioned, as he knew them also, had come to spend the afternoon with me, and that before dinner we had driven in a brake to the forest. I asked de Lanoy whether by so doing I had in any way infringed the regulations ; but he told me that he did not see anything irregular in my proceedings. He then inquired whether I had met the Major on the way and failed to salute him ; but I was able to assure him that I was quite certain that I had duly saluted every officer I came across. 

“Well” he said, “I cannot understand it; but I will tell you what I will do for you : I will tell the Major that I couldn’t find you ; so go on with your dinner, and, as you have ten o’clock leave, enjoy yourself till then ; but you must expect to be locked up the moment you return to barracks” 

De Lanoy then expressed his regret at being unable to join us, explaining that being on duty he could not possibly do so. This occurrence naturally marred the gaiety of the following proceedings, but my friends tried to cheer me up, and affected to treat the adventure as a joke. At ten o’clock I returned to barracks and reported myself to the Sergeant of the Guard. The Sergeant, a friend of mine, told me that “I had put my foot in it” and that he had strict orders to march me to the cells then and there. At the same time, with some curiosity, he asked me what I had been doing. I was as ignorant as he was of my supposed crime, and could supply him with no information. I handed my sword over to one of the troopers of the guard, and asked him to take it to my room with my helmet. I was then marched off to the cells. 

Between ten o’clock and midnight five more troopers were brought into the prison, all of them in full uniform, and in a disgusting state of drunkenness ; of course they kicked up an awful row, and there was no sleep for me, as may well be imagined. At half-past twelve we heard a tremendous disturbance outside the cell door, and the moment it was opened a trooper, mad with drink, struggling, kicking, and swearing, was chucked inside. As soon as the door had been closed upon him he rushed to it, and for fully a quarter of an hour went on hammering and kicking at it like a maniac ; realising then that his efforts were all in vain, he tottered towards the camp bed and threw himself bodily on two or three men who were lying on it. He was received with curses, and violently thrown off, dropping with a tremendous thud on to the pavement of the cell. He arose, however, madder than ever, and, with oaths and curses, declared that he was going to rip open the whole b- – lot of us. Unfortunately at that moment one of the troopers struck a match and lit a candle. This only added to the fellow’s drunken fury, and to our horror we saw him pull a huge clasp-knife from one of his pockets. We all sprang to our feet, but the drunken man, selecting a trooper against whom he evidently had a grudge, made a rush for him ; at the same time the candle was upset, and in the dark we could hear the two men struggling and rushing about the cell. 

“Who has got a match?” I shouted. As ill luck would have it, nobody could find one for the moment, so, unwilling to be ripped open in the dark, I groped my way towards a recess where “jules” stood, and closed the door behind me. A few minutes, perhaps but a few seconds, later I heard Piatte’s deep bass voice saying, “No you don ‘t, my children, no you don’t!” I carefully peeped out, slightly opening the door. The candle had been re-lighted, and in the middle of the cells stood Piatte, in uniform, holding two men, one by his coat-collar, and the other by the wrist. It appears that Piatte had returned to barracks drunk that night, and had been taken to the lock-up, but, being in a very quiet mood when “boozed” he had merely gone to lie down in a corner. He had been aroused by the noise of the fight, and had immediately jumped up to separate the belligerents. It was dark when he first tackled them, and in the struggle he had been stabbed through the arm. In the meantime someone had found a match and re-lighted the candle just as I emerged from my place of safety. It was superb to see the Hercules Piatte holding these two men, absolutely frenzied as they were, as easily as if they had been mere babies. 

“Put down your knives, you beggara” he said to them, and as the man who had begun the row, and whose wrist he held, swore that he would do no such thing, but that he would soon have his knife through Piatte’s digestive organs, the latter gave a wrench to his wrist which made the weapon drop to the ground. Some of us had in the meantime disarmed the other fellow, and Piatte then addressed them :

”Are you going to be quiet and go to sleep, you silly beggars” A torrent of abuse was the only reply, and the two combatants continued to swear they would have one another’s blood. 

“Very well!” said Piatte. “If you are so anxious to knock each other about here goes “‘ and so saying, he banged the two men one against the other half a dozen times as if they had been mere puppets. He then let them go. 

“Got enough of it, my boys?” he asked grimly. They had apparently had quite enough of it, for they both went to lie down moaning heavily. Curiously enough, neither of them had been stabbed, and they had only received some insignificant scratches. Beckoning to Piatte to come to me, I examined his wound ; luckily for him he was wearing his uniform coat, and the thickness of the cloth had partly stopped the knife, and it had only penetrated slightly into the flesh of his arm. 

It was with difficulty that I induced him to let me bind it up with my pocket handkerchief, a trifling service which the kind-hearted fellow never forgot, and which he repaid in more ways than one. When the Sergeant of the Guard came at 3 A.M. to take the men to the pump, I was ordered to stop in the cells, the Sergeant having received special instructions to keep me there until the Major turned up in the morning. There were two prisoners to keep me company, but dog-tired as I was, I soon dropped off to sleep, and did not awake till half-past six, when my friend de Lanoy came to look me up. He had tried to find out what I was charged with, but had failed to do so ; he promised, however, to come and let me know as soon as he obtained any information, so that I should be prepared to face the Major, before whom I was to be brought at 10 A.M. 

De Lanoy also kindly suggested sending me my washing materials and a razor, in order that I should not look the disgraceful object I then did. Shortly afterwards the Corporal of the Guard: brought me my things, as well as a bucket and a looking-glass, and while I was making my toilet he chattered with me about my case. 

“You’re in a nice hole, old boy” he said, “and I shouldn’t like to stand in your shoes. What on earth have you been doing?” I assured him that this was the very thing I did not know myself. 

“Now that is all rot, he replied. “It must have been something, jolly serious, too, for when the Major came to the barracks yesterday he was in a greater rage than I have ever seen him in before. Yes” he went on, “I really thought he would have had a fit” 

I once more renewed my assurance that I was absolutely unconscious of having done anything wrong. “Get along with you” said the Corporal ;”you won’t get me to believe that, but if you choose to keep it to yourself, do so, by all means, I don’t care” 

He then took my things away, and I was soon left to my own thoughts, the two prisoners being taken out to do work. At 9 o’clock de Lanoy returned, and told me that so far all he knew was that I had been given four days’ Salle de Police by the Lieutenant who had given me ten o’clock leave the previous day. At 10.30 A.M. the door of the cells once more opened, and the Corporal of the Guard ordered me to step out, whereupon I was marched off between two of the troopers of the guard, who, with drawn swords, escorted me as far as the Salle de Rapport. The Adjutant soon came to the door and ordered me to walk in, step- ping out himself at the same time, and closing the door behind him. The room was a spacious one, with a large table in the middle of it, at which a small bald-headed man sat signing documents ; his back was turned to me whilst I stood near the door at attention. After a few minutes’ silence, only interrupted by the grating of his pen upon the paper, the little man, without turning round, called out: “Trooper Decle, come here” I advanced, turned round to face him, and, as I saluted, what was my horror at discovering that the enterprising old gentleman whose foot had annoyed one of my lady friends in the train on the previous day, and about whom I had passed some rather uncivil remarks, was my Major!! 

The reason I had not recognised him as an officer was that since I had joined the regiment he had been away on leave, and he had only just returned. I stood at “Attention” my heart beating fast, but the old gentleman (his age was perhaps fifty-six or fifty-seven) did not speak a word, but stared at me from head to foot with a look that seemed to pierce me. “So,” he said, after a few minutes’ time, “we are one of these Volontaires, one of these dashing Volontaires, who, although they wear a Dragoon uniform, are nothing after all but dirty petits crêvés. We invite painted females, who are nothing but low cocottes, to come and visit us, and we parade them about the streets in a four-horse brake when our officers are content to walk on foo ! Trooper Decle” he proceeded in a Stern voice, you are a disgrace to the 50th Dragoons. You have disgraced your uniform by a contact with such creatures, you have disgraced yourself by passing uncalled-for remarks on your betters, and although you are a Volontaire you are a liar, and nothing but a b- maquereau” 

I turned pale under the insult, but as I had determined to keep my temper, I made no reply. This seemed to excite the gradually rising fury of the Major, who had now risen from his chair and was pacing up and down the room livid with rage. 

“Why don’t you answer?” he cried ; “what have you got to say, dirty swine that you are! I suppose you belong to the class of youngsters who are proud to be seen in the company of cocottes, and afterwards leave those ladies to settle the bill for them” 

This I confess was too much for me, but still determined to outwardly restrain my temper, I took two steps towards the Major, and crossing my arms on my chest, looked him straight in the eyes. “I have let you insult me, sir” I said slowly, “in order to see how far you would go. The ladies of whom you have just spoken are, I know, far above your contempt, and it strikes me that if they had cared to accept your senile advances, you would probably have thought them most divine creatures. I need not defend them, they are too well known to require such defence” I continued, mentioning their names. “As for myself” I went on, “you have accused me of playing the basest part a man can play in this world. It was not through respect for the gold stripes you wear on your sleeve that I kept silent, but through respect for your white hairs. In a few months’ time I shall no longer be a Dragoon, and I hope that in a few years I shall be somebody, while you will be yourself nothing else but one of the mass of retired Majors whose intelligence and means will limit them to a glass of absinthe, and a game of dominoes before dinner, and the company of a local bailiff, or the constable of their native village. You called me a maquereau just now, and you seem to be so well acquainted with the habits of that class, that I can only conclude that you gained that knowledge personally at a time when nature made you more attractive than you are now”

The Major, who had been too dumbfounded to answer a word so far, turned pale when I uttered those words, and, seizing his riding-whip, which lay on the table, lifted it as though about to strike me, shouting at the same time, in a voice choked with rage, “Misérable!” I wrenched the whip from his hands, and replacing it on the table stood once more at “Attention”

I will court-martial you” went on the Major ; “you shall have ten years for this!” 

“I may or may not, sir” I replied ; “but supposing I am court-martialled, I shall bring witnesses to expose the way in which you behaved in the train yesterday, and you may regret the step you have taken. As to our present conversation there is only your word against mine, but I suppose that being only a trooper my word will stand for nothing ; still, as I told you before, think well over the matter before you do anything rash” 

The Major said nothing, but went on feverishly pacing up and down the room, he at last stopped, and sat down at the table. “Decle” he said, “Lieutenant Riel has given your four days’ Salle de Police for having told him a lie in asking for ten o’clock leave on the pretence that you were going to meet your family, and your punishment will be increased to fifteen days’ Sale de Police for having been seen driving a four-in-hand through the town in fancy uniform. Now, go!” 

I did not wait to ask for any further explanation, being only too glad to escape as I had. I must add that the Major was evidently persuaded that he had put himself in the wrong, for I was never afterwards punished by him, and in no case did he increase any punishment given to me. 

The whole thing was pretty rough on me, however, as those fifteen days meant my spending Christmas and New Year in the cells while all my comrades were enjoying a well-deserved leave. After the eight days’ cells I had previously had, those fifteen days given to me within the first two months of my service branded me as a bad character, and I fully realised that in future punishments would be showered upon me.

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