She may be young or old, dazzlingly pretty or frightfully ugly; in this case looks make no difference, she is ever and always the same. If there is much that is evil in her composition there is quite as much that is good. She is a woman although—or because—she is a cantinière. This much is certain—she loves the soldier, and is ever ready to do him a service.
It is unnecessary to describe the cantinière in her glory; that is to say, at the head of her regiment on review days, arrayed in fall uniform, her glazed cap perched jauntily over one ear and her little cask on her back. Every one knows her traditional jacket, coquettish short skirt, trousers with scarlet stripes, and her fantastic boots.
It is certainly a pretty sight to see her when the drum beats, leading the way, and keeping time to the step, of the soldiers.
But the drum is not always beating, fortunately! glory and noise do not suffice to fill the stomach, so on her return to the quarters, the cantinière lays aside her gorgeous apparel, and resumes her civilian costume, that is, a skirt and drees, and bestows her attention upon the thousand details connected with her establishment.
The cantine is not what the civilian generally supposes; it is at once a restaurant, wine-shop, café, beer-shop, and boarding-house. It is here that the soldier—and sometimes the officer—takes his morning dram; the volunteer spends here a portion of the money sent him by his family; hussars afflicted with a hearty appetite find here a cheap supplement to the mess-room; troopers under arrest can here enjoy a demi-tasse without leaving the quarters, and here all the non-commissioned officers take their meals.
They pay forty-five centimes a day and furnish their bread: in exchange for this amount, they are entitled to two meals a day, each composed of two dishes and a dessert, besides a bowl of soup or porridge in the evening.
The charges are not high, as you see; so cantinières do not accumulate fortunes as rapidly as the restaurant-keepers on the boulevards.
But moderation in price does not prevent the articles from being good, for some cantinières are veritable cor-dons bleus, competent to prepare a dish originated by Dr. Véron.
In the generality of cases the cantinière is the wife of a drummer in the infantry, of a trumpeter in the cavalry; her husband is sometimes the fencing-master, or even a common soldier; but his position or rank is not of the slightest importance. In the cantine, the husband is a nonentity. His existence is scarcely recognized; and he is visible only on great occasions, when there is a crowd, or when it is necessary to quell disorder, which is seldom the case.
The husband of the cantinière, when his duties are over for the day, smokes his pipe behind the door, and drinks brandy—or beer if he is a German; almost all the cantinièrea are Alsatians. Their children are sent to the regimental school; some become officers, the majority become excellent trumpeters.
So the cantinière reigns supreme in her domain, which does not prevent her from serving others. She is generally assisted by a young woman, and by a good-natured soldier, who becomes her soldier, her right arm, in consideration of a small salary. If any disorder arises she quells it, putting the offender out-of-doors herself if necessary.
She does not like to give credit; but she is so kind-hearted that she can not bear to see a man suffer, and it is impossible for her to refuse a drop to a really thirsty soldier. Though she censures herself for her weakness, she does not know how to resist an entreaty; but we must admit that she is generally paid, and that she does not lose much by her liberality.
And what woman would not do the same? How could any one refuse to comply with a request of this kind:
"My good Madame Bajot,—
I have been in the lock-up for four days. I have not a penny nor even a morsel of tobacco to put in my pipe. I entreat you to send me six sous' worth of tobacco—and a quart of brandy—for I am very thirsty—through my comrade, and in a little bottle on account of the corporal. By so doing you will save my life, and I will settle your bill next pay-day. Let the tobacco be very dry and of the best quality.
"Be assured of my eternal gratitude,
"Of the 1st Division, 3d Squadron."
The excellent woman shudders on contemplating the prisoner's privations, and sends him the tobacco and brandy.
Moreover, if a trooper be sick or wounded, though not sufficiently to be sent to the hospital, she nurses him, dresses his wound, and prepares the tisane, for which she will never accept any pay.
If the cantinière is ugly, no one thinks of criticising her.
It is her right, and no one even perceives it; but if she is pretty, it is a very different matter. She makes havoc in the regiment, and all the young conscripts are speedily subjugated by her conquering charms.
It is an old trooper's axiom, that the goodness of the wine is in an inverse ratio to the beauty of the cantinière.
She has a little wagon drawn by one or two horses. It is in this equipage that she follows the troops, and appears upon the parade ground, where she dispenses tobacco and liquors to the officers and men in the intervals of rest during the drill.
During a campaign she devotes herself to her regiment. More than once in the thickest of the fight she has been seen going from rank to rank to carry a drop to the soldiers, and braving the canister and grape in order to give a little water to the wounded. She keeps no accounts at such times; she does not sell, she gives.
Several cantinières have been decorated, and the exploits of one of their number have been related throughout Europe. They have formed the plot of a drama which delineates all the characteristics of "the soldier's mother," under the title of "The Vivandière of the Grand Army."