The fantassin, par excellence, is a soldier of the regular infantry. The cavalry pretend that the foot-soldier wears spurs on his elbows, but this is only a stale joke perpetrated before the bayonet came into general use.
The regular infantry is really the French army. It has shed its blood upon every battle-field, and has come off victorious again and again. It is the infantry that has carried the standards of France through conquered Europe. It is the regular infantry which, without shoes, provisions, or artillery, swept down from the Alps upon Italy. It is the infantry that fought at the Pyramids, at Eylau and at Moscow. The infantry is the queen of battles; with her one can go in any direction and always maintain one's position.
There is nothing brilliant about the infantry uniform, and yet when seen in masses it produces an excellent effect. It is also the most comfortable and the best adapted to all the needs of a soldier in the field.
At reviews, upon the parade ground, and on the boulevards there are, perhaps, regiments that attract more attention; but such is not the case if it is seen in line of battle. One should see it maneuvering under fire with the same precision as on the Champs de Mars. Each regiment has become a corps, with its officers at its head. A cannon-ball cuts down an entire file. "Close up the ranks!" The ranks are closed; the void is filled without haste, disorder, or confusion.
Nothing could be more beautiful, nothing could be more magnificent than a regiment of the line advancing for a bayonet charge upon the enemy. Search the ranks; examine one by one these soldiers blackened with powder, try to find the foot-soldier you have seen lounging about the shop windows in large cities, with his shako on the back of his head. The lounger of yesterday is the hero of to-day. Now, danger illumines every face; courage, like an aureole, shines resplendent on every brow. All honor to the regulars! upon their banners is written our glorious history!
The foot-soldier in garrison bears no resemblance whatever to the hero of the battle-field. He does not even remember his exploits of yesterday; he little suspects the great deeds he will perform to-morrow should France have need of his devotion and courage.
The foot-soldier in garrison is the best and most inoffensive of men, always trying to make himself useful, ever ready to do a favor. His tastes are simple, and his desires modest; boisterous amusements have no attractions for him, and he rarely indulges in the bottle.
The foot-soldier, like all the members of his profession, is generally in straitened circumstances.
"For in France as in Austria
The soldier is not rich,
Every one knows that."
It is true that one can not indulge in much extravagance on five centimes a day. Fortunately there are ways to increase this meager income. In many regiments, the soldiers are allowed to find occupation in the city, provided, of course, that discipline does not suffer thereby. Those who have a trade devote all their leisure time to it; those who have only their two hands and their good-will—and they are by far the largest number—nevertheless find a way to make themselves useful. In some bourgeoisie households they hire a soldier to take care of the garden and scrub the floors.
There is also another source of revenue which, though not the most honorable, is certainly the most in vogue; this is playing a trick on one's family.
The fraud is generally suggested by some old grumbler who is an adept in the art of deception. A mischievously inclined volunteer, who is a good penman, generally writes the letter. Illness is the usual pretext. It is the simplest of all, and seldom fails to produce the desired effect. How can you suppose that parents will refuse to forward a few francs on receiving from their child a letter beginning thus:
The object of this letter is to inform you that I am in the hospital."
The family send money. A letter arrives, inclosing a post-office order. The vaguemestre quickly changes it into shining coin. But alas! this money vanishes like a dream. And how could it be otherwise? So many friends must have a share of this windfall. First, there is the bedfellow, then the inventor of the trick, then the writer, then two or three comrades, fellow-countrymen—then a corporal who has been obliging, and many others. Besides, it is not considered seemly for a trooper to spend his money alone.
A soldier who goes out alone, and who drinks alone, is disgraced in the eyes of his comrades.
When he has finished his daily task at the barracks, polished his weapons, and answered to his name at roll-call, the foot-soldier is at liberty, provided he is not on duty, or on guard, or on the corveę, or undergoing punishment, and he can leave the barracks if he chooses. Generally he is eager to improve the opportunity. There must be something of importance to detain him if he does not go out; a letter to write, some little job to do, a pipe of unusual length to color for an officer who is making a collection. But such instances are rare. He loves long walks. If he is stationed in a small town, you can always meet him in the shady paths in the suburbs. He is generally cutting little switches to beat his clothing.
If he is in a large city, he has a variety of amusements. He delights in gazing into the shop-windows; he haunts the promenades and the public gardens; mountebanks always find in him a patient and appreciative patron, ever ready to laugh at their stale jokes. The mountebank and the fantassin have had a mutual understanding for a long time. "Walk in. Walk in, gentlemen and ladies. Admission is ten centimes; two sous. The military only half-price."
But there is no place like Paris for the soldier. Wine is a trifle dear; but how many diversions there are. This is a city! one can stroll about five hours without danger of seeing the same objects. Moreover, Paris contains the Jardin des Plantes, and the Jardin des Plantes is, as every one knows, the soldier's earthly Paradise.
There, he can spend his hours of liberty most delightfully. He visits, in succession, all the cabinets of natural history. He almost splits his sides laughing as he stands before the monkey's palace, watching the pranks of its occupants; he goes into ecstasies over the wild animals, and shudders while contemplating the reptiles. But his favorites are the bear and the elephant. He never leaves the Jardin des Plantes until he has seen Martin climb the tree, and given the elephant a crust of bread, held in reserve in his cap—for want of pantaloon pockets.
But the foot-soldier would be a body without a soul, if he had no countrywoman. The payse, as he styles her, has been created for the fantassin, as the fantassin has been created for the payse. They love and understand each other. He accompanies the payse, who is usually a child's nurse, in her walks; he assists her in watching the children, when he does not prevent her from watching them; on the promenade, the fantassin seats himself near the payse and pours sweet nothings into her ears, while the children play on the gravel-walk. "Honi soit qui mal y pense!"
In spite of the fatigue that results from it, the foot-soldier loves a change of garrison. He goes cheerfully from one end of France to the other, singing as he plods along. Every day, before two o'clock, his legs fail him, which does not prevent him from strolling around to see the curiosities of the neighborhood as soon as he reaches the town where he is to spend the night.
The billet troubles the soldier a little. It is like a ticket in a lottery. Some are very good, some are bad. As a general thing, the soldier is cordially received; though the contrary happens sometimes. So far as the fantassin is concerned, he hardly ever abuses the hospitality accorded him. The billet is considered very good when the people of the house invite the soldier to share their dinner. It is a saving of time and of money for him. The fantassin is overjoyed, and to repay his entertainers, he tells them his history.
When his term of service expires and he returns to his fireside, the soldier does not presume upon his superiority. He talks freely but not boastingly of his travels and campaigns. He always finds attentive auditors, for we all love and respect the old defenders of France.
Some accuse the fantassin of being too unsophisticated; there are occasions when simplicity of speech is the height of eloquence.
"What were you doing at Solferino?" some one once asked a soldier.
"I?—I was doing like the rest—killing and being killed," he replied modestly.
Sublimely artless speech in which is summed up all the philosophy of war.