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The Barber of the Squadron

(1876)

From Military Sketches

Translated by Laura E. Kendall

As a general thing, it is upon the cheeks of his brother soldiers that he serves his apprenticeship—a severe apprenticeship for the cheeks! Heaven preserve you from ever falling into his clutches and testing his dexterity. In former years, before entering the service, he was a carpenter, a mechanic, or a stone-cutter;—his good conduct elevated him to the important position of barber, and since that time he has plied in turn the scissors and razor with more zeal than discretion.

This office of barber is one of the most popular in the regiment; and the person who holds it is not a little proud of the honor. First of all, he has a right to exact a small monthly payment from each soldier; he also enjoys perfect freedom after ten o'clock; in short, he is excused from all drudgery, and most of the exercises. And yet his position is no sinecure.

The barber is responsible for the heads of the entire company. If the beards are too long, or the hair transgresses the limits prescribed by ordinance, he is the one upon whom the blame will fall. The regulation is there; he must follow it to the letter, and shave his companions-in-arms as closely as possible, and not unfrequently against their will; for there are troopers who cling to their hair—

the natural ornament of man. The military gallant Would love to wear long hair, probably so a loving hand could caress his curls; but the regulations are pitiless.

"As soon as the hair can be seized with the hand, it must positively be cut," says the corporal.

All sorts of means are vainly employed by the foppish trooper to preserve his hair. He wets it every day, or pastes it down with the aid of cosmetique, then hides it carefully under his cap.

'Wasted efforts! the officers are acquainted with all these tricks; they pull off the caps, rumple up the hair, and then the delinquent and the barber, who is held responsible, are almost sure of two, or even four days in the guard house.

Those sly foxes—the old troopers—do not resort to such hackneyed expedients; they feign some affection of the eyes or ears, and thus obtain from the sergeant-major permission to wear their hair long.

The days of grand reviews are trying ordeals for the barber. In less than two hours he must shave one hundred and fifty or two hundred beards, to say nothing of the hair-cutting.

You should see him then, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and armed with a terrible razor which he has not even time to sharpen. The soldiers—I should say, the patients—perhaps martyrs would be still better—lather themselves in advance, and come one after another to take their place in the seat of torture. The work is accomplished in the twinkling of an eye; the most obstinate beards do not resist; hairs that refuse to be cut are torn out; the cheek bleeds a little, but that is nothing. What is a scratch to a French soldier? Moreover, the barber is a conscientious man, and if he occasionally happens to slice off an ear, he always takes the greatest possible pains to restore it to its rightful owner.

The troopers dread the razor, but they jeer at the barber; they call him the butcher, in whispers be it understood—for if he overhears them, it is in his power to avenge himself summarily.

Barbers are the heroes of a host of army legends; there is, first, the story of Barber Plumepate, who belonged to a cavalry regiment.

This barber, who was very skillful in his profession, had an exceedingly vindictive disposition. Very severely punished one day by his captain, he swore vengeance, and openly declared he would kill the man who had so wronged him.

The barber's threats coming to the ears of the captain, he immediately summoned Plumepate.

"You have sworn that you would kill me," he said to him; "that is mere boasting on your part; you would never dare to do it. Wait a moment; I will try you. Prepare your implements and shave me."

The terrible Plumepate was completely disconcerted. He set to work, but he dared not carry out his threats. Never, on the contrary, did he do a neater job.

On another occasion, during a campaign, a barber in one of the regiments of the line was summoned to shave the commander-in-chief. He was badly frightened, and he could but think of the possible consequences should his hand tremble. It did tremble so much that the general's face was covered with blood when the operation was concluded. The unfortunate barber, terrified by what he had done, shook in every limb, and stammered a thousand excuses.

"Hold," said the general; "here is a louis! If your hand had not trembled in shaving your general, you would not be a true trooper."

During a campaign, a barber becomes a soldier like the others, for then both hair and beard are neglected.

"When one finds water in Africa one drinks it; one does not amuse one's self in making soap-suds."

It sometimes happens that the barber of a regiment is a genuine barber, who knows his trade, and who practiced it with honor before he became a soldier. Then there is joy in the squadron; and the troopers flock to be shaved by this artist, who does not mutilate them, and whose well-sharpened razor is scarcely felt. The more foppish, in consideration of a small fee, have their hair dressed and oiled.

The lower officers, not only of the squadron, but of the entire regiment, give him their patronage; he becomes their favorite, their factotum, they treat him affably, almost courteously, and even permit a certain degree of familiarity.

Louis XI. made a prime minister of his barber.


Emile Gaboriau