It will be readily understood that the end of that year was one of the most unpleasant times I ever went through. The cold was bitter, and we were pretty nearly frozen in the Salle de Police. Just before Christmas all my comrades went home with eight days’ leave, and I was the only Voloniaire left behind. There was one comfort, however, in the fact that, Sergeant Legros being also on leave, I escaped his daily bullying. By that time I had also learned how to avoid all fatigue duty, having found out that there was not a single one of our Corporals who was not open to a bribe ; in fact, some of them knowing that I was pretty free with my money, openly came to me, saying,
“I say, Decle, I am thirsty to-day ; are you going to stand a bottle, or do you want to do fatigue duty?” Of course I immediately forked out a franc, and was there upon left alone. I had also made friends with a good many of the Sergeants, and when any of those with whom I was friendly took the guard they invariably allowed me to sleep in the stables instead of the Salle de Police. The cold was so bitter just before Christmas that the Colonel issued an order allowing the troopers punished with Salle de Police to wear their second-best regimental trousers under their canvas ones, and to use their great-coats when sleeping in the cells.
On Christmas Day more than fifteen troopers were thrown into the Salle de Police during the night, all of them having returned to barracks in a state which an English policeman would describe as “drunk and disorderly”‘; prominent among them were Titi and Piatte, both most gloriously drunk, but having just enough sense left to remember that their chum Decle was in durance vile. The moment they got in they called out for me, and on my answering them, they threatened everyone with blue murder if a candle was not produced at once, as they wanted to see their dear Decle. I had smuggled in a candle as well as some matches, and thinking that it might keep them quiet, I lit it. The moment they saw me they rushed to me with demonstrations of affection with which I could well have dispensed, Piatte especially insisting on repeatedly embracing me, and, unconscious of his great strength, hugging me as tightly as a bear, until I feared he would crack my ribs.
The boon companions then produced a miscellaneous collection of articles from their pockets- greasy papers containing sausages and boudin (a kind of sausage made of pig’s blood with a lavish addition of garlic) ; mixed up with these were bits of cheese, cakes, and, last but not least, a pint of brandy. “We brought you that, old chap,” said Piatte, “because we didn’t want an old chum to spend a miserable Christmas.”
It must be remarked that Piatte was a Protestant from Lorraine, where Christmas is, I believe, religiously kept as the greatest festival of the year, while in other parts of France New Year’s Day is considered far more important. To please the poor fellows, whose kind-heartedness, I fully appreciated, I partook sparingly of their victuals, although they were far from appetising. I pretended, too, to drink some of the vile brandy, but a sip of it was quite enough. The two men then sat down near me.
“Oh!” said Piatte, “we’ve had a grand time of it, a grand time, my boy!”
“Yes” interrupted Titi, who was a little muddled; “if you had seen that little infantryman, flying out of the window you would have simply roared”
“Don’t interrupt, Titi” screamed out Piatte, trying at the same time to give Titi a friendly buffet with his open palm; unfortunately, however, I sat between the two, and the badly aimed blow fell on my head and nearly knocked the senses out of me, seeing this, Piatte, to comfort me, hugged me once more in his powerful arms.
“Well,” he resumed, “we started at three o’clock this afternoon, just after stables, and as we got outside Titi says to me, ‘Got any oof, Piatte’?”Oof,’ I says, open your eyes well and look at that” I had received, two days ago, a remittance from the old woman, my old granny – ten francs, mon salop. So Titi looks at it, and he says, “Ah, ten francs ; oh my, I’ll show you something better than that,’ and he pulls out of his pocket a ‘gold un ‘ – a whole twenty-franc piece.
“That’s from my Volontaire ; he’s a rare un” he says. “That’s you, you know” added Piatte, digging me in the ribs. “That’s God’s truth” hiccoughed Titi.
“Shut your head, Titi- -you’re drunk. Isn’t he drunk, that fellow? But, as I was telling you” Piatte went on, “we took the road past the railway, and came to that little pub The Three Jolly Comrades,’ where there’s a sign-board where they’ve painted a Dragoon, a Piou-piou, and a Gunner walking arm-in-arm – you know the place, don’t you?”
I didn’t, but assured Piatte that I knew it well. “Let’s go in” says Titi: but I says, “No, Fancy going into a place where they put a Dragoon arm-in-arm with a Piou-piou!”
But Titi, he says, “Oh, never mind their bally sign-board if their wine’s good” and I says, “There’s sense in that,’ so in we goes. There was a billiard-table in the place, so I says to Titi, after we have had a drink we will have a game, Titi” We called for a drink, and a jolly nice girl comes to serve us. You should have seen her, old chap; she was a regular ripper – plenty of flesh and some to spare; I had taken her hand, and was telling her what a fine girl she was when half a dozen Piou-pious walked in the place. The girl tries to take her hand away and blushes, and I see one of the Piou-pious stare at me like mad. Well, I didn’t say nothing, but I let go the girl’s hand, and she brings us our wine and a flask of brandy ; we finish our bottle, and just as we were drinking our last glass I see one of the Piou-pious take off his coat, and they all take billiard cues and calls out for balls ; so I get up and I say, “No, look here ; ’tis our game and not yours” One of them says, “First come, first served” I says, “Just so; we came first, and first we play.” But the Piou- pious wouldn’t give in, and the one that had stared at me, he calls the landlord. When the old man comes I say, civil like, “Now, look here, landlord I have come into your house, although I didn’t like that ‘ere board on the outside. How dare you call that “The Three Jolly Comrades,” and put up a picture of a Dragoon walking arm-in-arm with a dirty mean bug of Piou-piou, like if any Dragoon would lower himself in that way!’
“Dirty mean bug!’ shout all the Piou-pious together. “You filthy citrouille (A nickname given to Dragoons, meaning pumpkin)
“This was too much for me, so I turns to Titi ad says ‘Did you hear that?’
“Didn’t I!” he says. “What shall we do – chuck all these dirty shrimps out of the window, eh?”
“Thats it”I say, and I goes to open the window. I must tell you Titi and I had taken off our swords and put them in a corner when we came in. I had just opened the window when one of them takes his billiard cue by the tip and hits me with the thick part of it ; but it just struck on my helmet, and you can see it hit hard. Look” added Piatte, picking up his helmet, which was quite bashed in. oh, then,” he went on, “my blood was up and I went for that chap, and without more ceremony I take him by his coat-tails and his collar, and I send him, cue and all, right over the billiard-table, where he falls all of a heap and stops there. At the same time the four others had set on Titi, so I rushed to his help ; he was down, and they were hammering at him like mad ; so I hit one here, I hit another there, I gave the third a dig in the chest with my head, I sent the fourth against the billiard-table with a kick, and Titi gets on his legs. The others, except the one I had chucked over the billiard-table, had also got up, and we were fighting like mad when three other devils who were passing along the road stepped in and joined in the row. ‘Oh,’ I says, ‘is that soHelmets, then !’ Titi understands me ; we take our helmets off, and swinging them by the end of the horse-tail, we strike right in among them promiscuous like. My boy, if you had seen them : they drops one after the other ; only three of them remained standing up, and while Titi was having it out in the corner with one of the chaps I stood facing the two others. One of them, the coward, draws his sword-bayonet, but with a swing of my helmet I knocks it out of his hand, and as the window stood open I chucked him out of it. The other one, in the meantime, had caught hold of me from behind, but I soon shook him off, and lifting him from the ground- he was a miserable little cur- I shook him like a rat. I bang him against the wall, and at last he: cries, Oh don’t, don’t. Going to beg pardon? I asked. Oh yes he says, I beg pardon. Very well, then,I says, sticking him on the ground standing with his back to me, ‘if you move God help you!’ at the same time I holler, Prepare to receive cavalry! and didn’t he receive cavalry, just! With one kick in the back I sent him flying to join the others.”
At the recollection of this Piatte burst into such a roar of laughter that it awoke Titi, who had fallen asleep on my shoulder, and he, too, began to guffaw idiotically.
“Shut up, Titi” yelled Piatte once more. “Where was I? Oh, I know,” he went on.
“Titi had by this time knocked his man down, and without asking for our bill, we pick up our swords and bolt like mad. As we get out, the chap I had chucked out of the window has just regained his feet, and he hollers Murder! Murder! ,’ He was a corporaÍ, and twas a bad case. The landlord had been hollering Murder! the whole time ; but, d’ye see, the place stands all by itself, and only the three chaps I spoke of heard him. We hadn’t gone a hundred yards before we see all the Piou-pious rush out of the pub and make for us like mad. We hadn’t been such fools as to cut towards the town, so when we saw them after us we made off across country, and, as luck would have it, they didn’t chivy us far. But we’d given them too good a dressing to be up to much. All the same, we ran for another mile, and then we sat down and had a good laugh. Then Titi, he says, “It’s all very fine, but I don’t like it ; that ere d- -d Corporal’ll be bad for our health : we must rig up an alleyby. So to rig up his blooming alleyby, he says, Let’s go down to the river, and first of all let’s have a swill! – we were pretty bloody and dirty, you bet – and then we’ll go to a bloke I know who’s got a boat, and then we’ll get back to the town, and make out as how we’ve come from the North Road, and we’ve been in the forest, and you got your helmet smashed bird’s-nesting. And so we did. By a roundabout way we got to the river and had a wash ; we soon found Titi’s bloke, and he took us over in his boat. Give us a hind-wheel, says Titi, and he hands it over to the boat chap. – Mind you,’ says Titi, – you’ve seen no Dragoons today. Mum’s the word,’ he says back, and he pulls off and throws a line into the water quite innocent like. We ran towards the forest until we hit the road, and then we walked quietly down towards the town. On the way we meets Lieutenant Granford riding ; he stops and says, “What’s the matter with your helmet” “Oh, sir” I says, “I tried to get a rook’s nest, and nearly broke my neck.” Well,’ says the Lieutenant – he’s a good sort, you know “you’ll have to pay for it ; but bird’s-nesting is a better occupation than getting drunk” “Yes, sir” says Titi, “we don’t mean to liquor any more!” “I’m glad to hear it” says the Lieutenant, and he canters off.
“There’s our alleyway” says Titi, “all cut and dried, and now for a bally gooă booze!’ Ah! my boy, what a day we had of it! But unluckily we forgot the time. We’d only got ten o’clock leave, and as we were looking for another pub, to blow off our remaining four francs, we found one where the shutters were just being put up. “By Jove!” says Titi, and asking the chap who was putting up the shutters what sort of time it was, we heard “twas a quarter to twelve!” Off we cut to barracks, but on the way, just as we were getting round the corner, Titi didn’t feel well, and he says, “Hold hard a minute, old chap!” That’s just what done it. Titi never can stand a drop of lush, and he began to be that sick, and made such a bally row, that the Adjudant, who was sneaking about the shop, he pounces on us, and wants our names. So long as we were walking it was all right but the moment we had to stand at Attention things began to swim a bit. I see Titi isn’t steady, so I catch hold of him to prop him up; but he clutches me, and we both sprawl on the ground. Well, that finished it. The Adjudant calls out to the sentry to send two men from the guard-room, and he orders them to march us up to the Salle de Police – and here we are. But we had a jolly good drunk,” concluded Piatte, with a satisfied air ; and extinguishing the candle we went to sleep.
The next day the two revellers had fifteen days’ prison by the Colonel’s orders. A complaint was lodged by the Colonel of the infantry regiment that an assault had been committed by Dragoons on one of his Corporals, and it appeared that two of the privates had also been seriously injured in the fray, and were lying in hospital. Fortunately for Piatte and Titi the injured Corporal and his comrades had reported that they were set upon by at least half a dozen Dragoons. The case was a serious one, however, and I feared that Piatte and Titi would be found out; this would mean a court-martial, and very likely they would be sentenced to death, a sentence invariably carried out in all cases when an inferior has been striking a superior.
The following day the Corporal and two of the soldiers who had taken part in the fight were taken through our barracks. We were all mustered by squadrons in stabledress, the prisoners among the others ; the Corporal and the two infantry soldiers were marched along our ranks, and the Corporal soon pointed out a trooper as one of the offenders, while the two privates also declared that they recognised him. It fortunately turned out that the man was on guard duty the previous day; and on discovering this our Captain of the Week, who was in charge of the parade, immediately ordered the infantry soldiers to be taken back to their barracks, and to be sent straight off to prison; he also drew up a strong report against them, which was at once handed over to our Colonel, who demanded an exemplary punishment for the men from the Colonel commanding the infantry regiment.
Doubtless these men merely made a mistake, for troopers look so different in stable-dress and in full uniform, that it is almost impossible to recognise them, unless you know them personally. Nevertheless, it was a narrow escape for Piatte and Titi. Our Captain gladly availed himself of the men’s mistake to prevent further investigation, as the rivalry which exists between troopers and infantry soldiers extends to the officers, and in cases such as the one I have just described officers will generally try and screen their men. It is, indeed, very seldom that infantry officers are seen with cavalry officers, who generally look down upon the former with utter contempt.
Between Christmas and New Year we had hardly any drill, a large number of the troopers being away on leave, so that with the exception of stables we had scarcely any work, and I was able to rest in the daytime. At night I had, of course, to sleep in the Salle de Police ; it was daily more loathsome a trial, as since the frost had set in the rats which infested the place were constantly coming to lie against us for the sake of heat. I devised an arrangement which proved most useful. I got a bag made of very thin india-rubber sheeting; it was about six feet long with a drawing-string at the top of it, so that when I had pulled it on I could fasten it round my neck, and it kept me as warm as if I had several blankets over me. When it was folded up I could wind it round my waist, where it looked like an ordinary belt. I also had the benefit of the mattresses Piatte and Titi were allowed as prisoners, and I soon got accustomed to the Salle de Police without suffering severely from it.
There is no doubt, however, that it is a cruel and barbarous punishment, especially in the cavalry, as neither blankets nor straw mattresses are allowed to the troopers. In the infantry, soldiers punished with Salle de Police are allowed a straw mattress and a blanket, and have, moreover, no pumping to do in the middle of the night. It is scandalous, too, that troopers once in the Salle de Police should be isolated in such a way that in case of sickness or emergency they cannot possibly summon help. Many fatal cases have been the result of this practice. Some years ago a trooper was found in the morning frozen to death in the cells, and yet more serious tragedies have occurred. Since I served there was the case of a Zouave who was put in solitary confinement and forgotten there, his body being only found a week later ; so great had been his pangs of hunger that it was found that he had been trying to eat the flesh of his arms and his hands, and when he was discovered the rats had themselves eaten a portion of his back and of his throat. I also remember another case of a man who was sent to the punishment battalions in Algeria ; he was punished with two days in the sılos and was forgotten there, and when he was discovered six days later he was still breathing, but the whole of his chest, on which he had been lying, was but a vast ulcer swarming with maggots.
“How?” it will be asked, “can such a thing occur?”
It may be explained in a few words. Every morning before the guard is changed a list of all the men who are punished is drawn up by the Adjutant’s clerk. In the columns standing opposite their names is written down the class of punishment which they are undergoing, with the number of days they have still to do. The numbers in the various columns reserved for each punishment indicate how many more days of that class of punishment the soldier has to undergo, and this list is stuck on a board which is hung up in the room of the Sergeant of the Guard, a fresh list being made up every day. Supposing that by some mistake the Adjudant’s clerk should, in making up his fresh list, put the figure belonging to Trooper Duval’s name in the C.B. column instead of the cells, the Sergeant of the Guard would naturally conclude that there were no men in cells, and since in the case of certain barracks the cells are a few hundred yards away from the guard-room, the unfortunate fellow would be left in them without food, and might be unable to make himself heard. This was actually the case in the instance of the Zouave I have just mentioned.
This arrangement turned out, however, to my benefit. One day, as I was complaining to de Lanoy of the hardship of having still ten days Salle de Police before me, he suggested my making friends with the Adjudant’s clerk, who would gradually leave out a few days in the punishment list ; for instance, when I had still eleven days to do, he would mark nine days on his list, and at the end of a couple of days more, instead of marking seven days against my name he would put down five, and the following day mark me as having only three days more, so that in this way I should contrive to sleep in the Salle de Police for seven nights instead of twelve. De Lanoy added that this could never be found out, as the Sergeants of the Guard were daily replaced, and none of them saw anything but the fresh list. immediately followed his advice, and found that a young fellow with whom I had become great friends had previously acted as Adjutants clerk, and was on very good terms with the present occupant of the post.
Both were fond of drawing, and as I did a little in that way myself, my friend suggested that he should take me to the clerk’s office to show me his drawings. We adjourned there at once, and in the course of conversation my friend suggested to the clerk that he might as well strike off a few days from the remainder of my punishment. The latter readily agreed, and explained that it was especially easy to do so the following morning, as on that day the Week would be taken by the second Adjudant. He then asked me how many days I had still to do, and I told him that twelve days remained.
“Oh, that will be alright” he said. “I’ll put you down for seven, so that in case the Adjudant, who is just quitting duty tomorrow morning, should, when he takes back ‘the week’ look through the list, he would again see your name on it. But it is very unlikely that he will see the list. He never calls for it”
This plan was duly carried out, with complete success, though unfortunately it did not prevent my sleeping in the Salle de Police on New Year’s Day. I had purposely avoided going to the medical visit, as we had but little work in the daytime, and I did not like to pester the doctor or to take advantage of his kindness.
I had cause to regret, however, not having done so on New Year’s Day, as I spent a terrible night on that occasion. More than twenty-five troopers were thrown into the Salle de Police, and the disgraceful scenes I have previously described were renewed. Quarrels, fights, and fiendish uproar lasted throughout the night, so that I was unable to close my eyes. I was not, however, ejected from my resting-place, as I was lying between Piatte and Titi, who soon disposed of any man who tried to encroach on our domain. I fully expected that on the occasion of New Year’s Day the Colonel would, in accordance with precedent, cancel all punishments. There was one man in solitary confinement, three in prison (viz., Piatte, Titi, and another trooper who had been absent without leave for five days), and about ten other troopers punished with Salle de Police, ranging from three to five days.
On New Year’s Eve the Colonel proclaimed in the Regimental Orders that all punishments would be cancelled, except in the case of troopers who were undergoing a punishment of more than eight days’ Salle de Police. This, of course, was aimed at me, for the Colonel was fully aware that Í was the only trooper who had lately been punished with fifteen days’ Boite. As, however, I was free in the daytime, although I could not go out of barracks, I got a good dinner prepared at the infantry canteen, where I used to go and take my meals sub rosa. I also managed to bribe the Corporal of the Guard, and sent through him half a bottle of brandy, a bottle of wine, and a large meat pie to my two chums Titi and Piatte in prison. I need not say that my attention was greatly appreciated, and the two fellows heartily thanked me when I joined them in the evening.
On January 3 we resumed our work, under Sergeant Legros, who returned from his leave sulkier and more malicious than ever. Four of the Volontaires were sent to the Salle de Police that night, and the Sergeant threatened me with the same punishment because I was hoarse and was unable to command when ordered to do so.
I had now been sleeping for many nights in the lock-up, and although I did not realise it at the time, the cold and dampness of the place had told heavily on me. I was so weak that I could hardly sit on my horse, and grew worse daily. On the Saturday (inspection-day) we did our usual squadron duty, and after stables, as I was leading my charger to the watering-tanks, I felt hardly able to sit on her back. She was as usual prancing and plunging, and once or twice I had to cling to her mane so as not to drop off. As we were returning from the tanks towards the stables, the Lieutenant of the Week, who was also the Lieutenant of my peloton, shouted to me : “Jump off your charger, and give it to another man” I jumped off, and staggered towards the Lieutenant. “You’re drunk, you dirty pig!” he screamed. “You shall have eight days’ Salle de Police for drunkenness” Then turning towards the Sergeant, he went on, “Sergeant, can’t you see that man is drunk? Get him taken to the cells at once. Why couldn’t you have seen before that he was drunk?”
“I’ll teach you, you blackguard!” he added, turning to me.
I said “Sir, I am not drunk, I am ill”
“And you dare reply! ” he again howled “you are always answering back. I We will see what that will cost you. Sergeant” he said to de Lanoy, “‘you will put down eight days’ Salle de Police to this drunken swine for having come to stables helplessly intoxicated, and having made impertinent remarks to an officer”
I at once realised that if such a report reached the Colonel my punishment would be altered to at least fifteen days’ prison, and seven days’ cells, in solitary confinement, on bread- and-water, and that it would further mean a disgrace for me from which I should never recover. Fortunately, at that very moment, I caught sight in the distance of our regimental doctor, and without asking leave I ran to him for all I was worth. “Sir” I said, “Lieutenant Pernot has just accused me of being drunk, and I implore you to examine me, as I am not drunk, but seriously ill” The doctor told me to follow him to the dispensary, and as I was doing so Sergeant de Lanoy came hurrying along. “Decle” he said, “Lieutenant Pernot has sent me to bring you back to him at once, and he threatens to have you court-martialled for having refused to obey his orders when you were told to go to the cells” The Surgeon-major, who had caught the message, turned round to de Lanoy, “Go and tell Lieutenant Pernot,” he said, that Decle is coming to the dispensary with me by my orders, and there is an end of it” De Lanoy returned to the Lieutenant, but before we had reached the staircase leading to the dispensary he returned once more, saying that the Lieutenant insisted on my going back to him, whether the Surgeon-major liked it or not. The latter, whose temper was shortish, asked in a voice shaking with rage whether de Lanoy was quite sure that he had exactly repeated the Lieutenant’s words. “Yes, sir” replied de Lanoy. “Very well” said the Surgeon-major, “tell Lieutenant Pernot that I, Surgeon-major Lesage, holding the rank of Captain, order Lieutenant Pernot to come to me at once” As de Lanoy hesitated, the Surgeon-major angrily added, “Do you hear me or not? You had better tell your Lieutenant to hurry up”
We did not wait long, for Lieutenant Pernot soon arrived, and had evidently been hurrying, as he was nearly breathless. “What the deuce do you mean” said the surgeon, “by countermanding my orders?”
“Well” replied the Lieutenant, pointing to me, “that man is drunk”
“That remains to be seen” answered the surgeon, “and I am the best judge of that. I advise you not to interfere with my orders another time.”
Thereupon he turned on his heel, and telling me to follow him, hurried up to the dispensary. There he laid me on a sofa, and asked me what was the matter. I told him that I had undergone fifteen days’ Salle de Police, and felt perfectly worn out. He felt my pulse and took my temperature, which was very high.
“You are pretty bad, my boy” he said, “and I am going to send you to hospital” I thanked him warmly, and told him how grateful I felt, pointing out that had it not been for him i might have been disgraced for ever in the regiment.
“Yes” he said, “I don’t like the way they are treating you, and – I will tell you what – whenever you are bullied come to me, and I will excuse you from work. I respect you because you went through your last punishment without ever coming to the medical visit, and, in future, if you don’t feel well, you have only got to come here and tell me what you don’t feel fit for, and I will inform the Colonel.”
He added, “Troopers used to be punished only when they deserved it, but now the Salle de Police seems to have become a regular institution, and I don’t like it – that is all I can say” He concluded by telling me that the dispensary Corporal would make out my Billet de Hopital, and that he himself would come and see how I was that same evening.