He is always busy, very busy, exceedingly busy; that is his specialty. Do not attempt to speak to him, he can not answer you; do not try to stop him, he will march you straight to the guard-house. He does not walk, he runs; he has not an hour to spare, not a moment, not a second.
This morning before the odious reveille had driven the soldiers from their narrow couches he was up and dressed, ready to start.
Should you succeed in questioning him, this will be his response:
"What a life! what a profession! Look, sir, it is not yet nine o'clock, and I have already made thirty trips. I had scarcely time to take my dram this morning, and in my haste I almost choked myself. How do I know I shall have time to swallow my absinthe? Shall I even get my breakfast? That is doubtful. As you see, I invariably reach the cantine an hour after the others. Everything is eaten, there is nothing left, or if there is, it is something no one would eat, and consequently intolerable. Then they bring me an egg. An egg!" (with a bitter laugh), "an egg! for a man who has been running about all the morning. Never adopt my profession, sir; my existence is insupportable—a dog's life! To-morrow, you may rest assured, I shall tender my resignation and take my place in the ranks, like the others. But what am I doing? Here I have lost ten minutes in talking; clear oat, d—n you! I should have had time to drink my absinthe."
It must be admitted that the life of the vaguemestre is not a path of roses.
He is the Mercury of that company of deities known as the staff of a regiment, and like that mythological courier, he must have wings on his feet. He is also the superintendent of the regimental post-office; all letters that come and go pass through his hands; he must know the hours for the arrival and departure of the mails, carry the letters, and go after them. If soldiers receive money through the post, they can not draw it themselves; they carry their order to him, and he draws it and pays it over to them; so I assure you this officer's time is fully occupied. And yet something more than agility is needed, for he must think of everything. The slightest oversight or the least delay might produce serious consequences, for forgetfulness and want of punctuality are severely punished.
In the morning he hastens to the post-office, then to the colonel's house to obtain the order of the day; then he rushes back to the barracks in company with the messenger.
He then hastily sorts the letters, making a separate pile for each squadron; these he gives to the sergeants, who give them to the corporals on duty for the week, who distribute them among the soldiers.
But the hour for the report arrives; he hastens after it; then he starts off again. The report must be submitted to the superior officers. The lieutenant-colonel is waiting for it; the major is waiting for it, so the vaguemestre hurries away. On returning, he must stop to see a captain who has sent for him; besides, the colonel has intrusted him with a letter to be delivered to a lieutenant who lives at the very end of the town. What a nuisance! He rushes to the place, but does not find the lieutenant The letter is important; the lieutenant must be at the café—lieutenants are always at the café—at least, when they are not at breakfast. The vaguemestre visits the café, no lieutenant; at last, he finds him at his boarding-house and delivers the letter.
He heaves a mighty sigh of relief. Now he can breakfast; he hurries on with all the fleetness of which his tired limbs are capable; hunger lends him wings. He reaches the barracks. Alas! the adjutant-major who has just left the table, stops him in the passage; he has a few suggestions to make—adjutant-majors always have suggestions to make.
At last he breakfasts in turn; he is the last of all. But it is useless to describe the experience of the entire day.
The vaguemestre is gifted with an extraordinary memory. Every week, when he distributes the money received by the soldiers, he knows the exact condition of each man's account; he must know if those who are entitled to money are in disgrace or ill. Every week the sergeant on duty in each squadron must furnish him with a report embodying this information; but it would take too much time to consult these documents. He prefers to remember.
So, Sunday morning the trumpeter sounds the vaguemestre's call, that is to say, executes a sort of flourish that signifies:
"All who have received money-orders through the post must come and find the vaguemestre if they desire what is due them."
This call is so well understood that the soldiers respond promptly, and without hesitation, whereupon colloquies of this kind ensue:
The Vaguemestre. Private Demanet, you have received twelve francs.
Private Demanet. Yes, lieutenant Vaguemestre. Private Demanet, your outfit is not yet paid for; you are credited with only eleven francs, which is a deplorable state of things. You must devote your twelve francs to this purpose.
Private Demaret. I entreat you, lieutenant—Vaguemestre. Well, then, here are a hundred sous. I will keep back only seven francs. Make out a receipt example second.
Vaguemestre. Private Oastagnol, you have received fifty francs.
Private Oastagnol. Yes, lieutenant Vaguemestre. Your parents seem to have more money than they know what to do with.
Private Castagnol. Lieutenant, my family—Vaguemestre. Ah! I remember, you are a volunteer. Very well, you may go.
Private Castagnol. But my money?
Vaguemestre. You have eight days in the guard-house to make. Next Sunday, if you are not punished in the meantime, you shall have your money.
Private Oastagkol. But—
Vaguemestre. No remarks.
Private Castagnol (turning angrily away). I shall tell my friends to send bank-notes next time.
The vaguemestre being usually an adjutant, the soldiers address him as lieutenant.