Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER VI

The Crimp Waggon — military Episodes

The covered waggon to which I was ordered to march was standing, as I have said, in the courtyard of the farm, with another dismal vehicle of the same kind hard by it. Each was pretty well filled with a crew of men, whom the atrocious crimp who had seized upon me, had enlisted under the banners of the glorious Frederick; and I could see by the lanterns of the sentinels, as they thrust me into the straw, a dozen dark figures huddled together in the horrible moving prison where I was now to be confined. A scream and a curse from my opposite neighbour showed me that he was most likely wounded, as I myself was; and, during the whole of the wretched night, the moans and sobs of the poor fellows in similar captivity kept up a continual painful chorus, which effectually prevented my getting any relief from my ills in sleep. At midnight (as far as I could judge) the horses were put to the waggons, and the creaking lumbering machines were put in motion. A couple of soldiers, strongly armed, sat on the outer bench of the cart, and their grim faces peered in with their lanterns every now and then through the canvas curtains, that they might count the number of their prisoners. The brutes were half-drunk, and were singing love and war songs, such as ‘O Gretchen mein Taubchen, mein Herzenstrompet, Mein Kanon, mein Heerpauk und meine Musket,’ ‘Prinz Eugen der edle Ritter.’ and the like; their wild whoops and jodels making doleful discord with the groans of us captives within the waggons. Many a time afterwards have I heard these ditties sung on the march, or in the barrack-room, or round the fires as we lay out at night.

I was not near so unhappy, in spite of all, as I had been on my first enlisting in Ireland. At least, thought I, if I am degraded to be a private soldier there will be no one of my acquaintance who will witness my shame; and that is the point which I have always cared for most. There will be no one to say, ‘There is young Redmond Barry, the descendant or the Barrys, the fashionable young blood of Dublin, pipeclaying his belt and carrying his brown Bess.’ Indeed, but for that opinion of the world, with which it is necessary that every man of spirit should keep upon equal terms, I, for my part, would have always been contented with the humblest portion. Now here, to all intents and purposes, one was as far removed from the world as in the wilds of Siberia, or in Robinson Crusoe’s Island. And I reasoned with myself thus:—‘Now you are caught, there is no use in repining: make the best of your situation, and get all the pleasure you can out of it. There are a thousand opportunities of plunder, &c., offered to the soldier in war-time, out of which he can get both pleasure and profit: make use of these, and be happy. Besides, you are extraordinarily brave, handsome, and clever: and who knows but you may procure advancement in your new service?’

In this philosophical way I looked at my misfortunes, determining not to be cast down by them; and bore woes and my broken head with perfect magnanimity. The latter was, for the moment, an evil against which it required no small powers of endurance to contend; for the jolts of the waggon were dreadful, and every shake caused a throb in my brain which I thought would have split my skull. As the morning dawned, I saw that the man next me, a gaunt yellow-haired creature, in black, had a cushion of straw under his head.

‘Are you wounded, comrade?’ said I.

‘Praised be the Lord,’ said he, ‘I am sore hurt in spirit and body, and bruised in many members; wounded, however, am I not. And you, poor youth?’

‘I am wounded in the head,’ said I, ‘and I want your pillow: give it me — I’ve a clasp-knife in my pocket!’ and with this I gave him a terrible look, meaning to say (and mean it I did, for look you, A LA GUERRE C’EST A LA GUERRE, and I am none of your milksops) that, unless he yielded me the accommodation, I would give him a taste of my steel.

‘I would give it thee without any threat, friend,’ said the yellow-haired man meekly, and handed me over his little sack of straw.

He then leaned himself back as comfortably as he could against the cart, and began repeating, ‘Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott,’ by which I concluded that I had got into the company of a parson. With the jolts of the waggon, and accidents of the journey, various more exclamations and movements of the passengers showed what a motley company we were. Every now and then a countryman would burst into tears; a French voice would be heard to say, ‘O mon Dieu! — mon Dieu!’ a couple more of the same nation were jabbering oaths and chattering incessantly; and a certain allusion to his own and everybody else’s eyes, which came from a stalwart figure at the far corner, told me that there was certainly an Englishman in our crew.

But I was spared soon the tedium and discomforts of the journey. In spite of the clergyman’s cushion, my head, which was throbbing with pain, was brought abruptly in contact with the side of the waggon; it began to bleed afresh: I became almost light-headed. I only recollect having a draught of water here and there; once stopping at a fortified town, where an officer counted us:— all the rest of the journey was passed in a drowsy stupor, from which, when I awoke, I found myself lying in a hospital bed, with a nun in a white hood watching over me.

‘They are in sad spiritual darkness,’ said a voice from the bed next to me, when the nun had finished her kind offices and retired: ‘they are in the night of error, and yet there is the light of faith in those poor creatures.’

It was my comrade of the crimp waggon, his huge broad face looming out from under a white nightcap, and ensconced in the bed beside.

‘What! you there, Herr Pastor?’ said I.

‘Only a candidate, sir,’ answered the white nightcap. ‘But, praised be Heaven! you have come to. You have had a wild time of it. You have been talking in the English language (with which I am acquainted) of Ireland, and a young lady, and Mick, and of another young lady, and of a house on fire, and of the British Grenadiers, concerning whom you sung us parts of a ballad, and of a number of other matters appertaining, no doubt, to your personal history.’

‘It has been a very strange one,’ said I; ‘and, perhaps, there is no man in the world, of my birth, whose misfortunes can at all be compared to mine.’

I do not object to own that I am disposed to brag of my birth and other acquirements; for I have always found that if a man does not give himself a good word, his friends will not do it for him.

‘Well,’ said my fellow-patient, ‘I have no doubt yours is a strange tale, and shall be glad to hear it anon; but at present you must not be permitted to speak much, for your fever has been long, and your exhaustion great.’

‘Where are we?’ I asked; and the candidate informed me that we were in the bishopric and town of Fulda, at present occupied by Prince Henry’s troops. There had been a skirmish with an out-party of French near the town, in which a shot entering the waggon, the poor candidate had been wounded.

As the reader knows already my history, I will not take the trouble to repeat it here, or to give the additions with which I favoured my comrade in misfortune. But I confess that I told him ours was the greatest family and finest palace in Ireland, that we were enormously wealthy, related to all the peerage descended from the ancient kings, &c.; and, to my surprise, in the course of our conversation, I found that my interlocutor knew a great deal more about Ireland than I did. When, for instance, I spoke of my descent —

‘From which race of kings?’ said he.

‘Oh!’ said I (for my memory for dates was never very accurate), ‘from the old ancient kings of all.’

‘What! can you trace your origin to the sons Japhet?’ said he.

‘‘Faith, I can,’ answered I, ‘and farther too — Nebuchadnezzar, if you like.’

‘I see,’ said the candidate, smiling, ‘that you look upon those legends with incredulity. These Partholans and Nemedians, of whom your writers fondly make mention, cannot be authentically vouched for in history. Nor do I believe that we have any more foundation for the tales concerning them, than for the legends relative to Joseph of Arimathea and King Bruce which prevailed two centuries back in the sister island.

And then he began a discourse about the Phoenicians, the Scyths or Goths, the Tuath de Danans, Tacitus, and King MacNeil; which was, to say the truth, the very first news I had heard of those personages. As for English, he spoke it as well as I, and had seven more languages, he said, equally at his command; for, on my quoting the only Latin line that I knew, that out of the poet Homer, which says —

‘As in praesenti perfectum fumat in avi,’

he began to speak to me in the Roman tongue; on which I was fain to tell him that we pronounced it in a different way in Ireland, and so got off the conversation.

My honest friend’s history was a curious one, and it may be told here in order to show of what motley materials our levies were composed:—

‘I am,’ said he, ‘a Saxon by birth, my father being pastor of the village of Pfannkuchen, where I imbibed the first rudiments of knowledge. At sixteen (I am now twenty-three), having mastered the Greek and Latin tongues, with the French, English, Arabic, and Hebrew; and having come into possession of a legacy of a hundred rixdalers, a sum amply sufficient to defray my University courses, I went to the famous academy of Gottingen, where I devoted four years to the exact sciences and theology. Also, I learned what worldly accomplishments I could command; taking a dancing-tutor at the expense of a groschen a lesson, a course of fencing from a French practitioner, and attending lectures on the great horse and the equestrian science at the hippodrome of a celebrated cavalry professor. My opinion is, that a man should know everything as far as in his power lies: that he should complete his cycle of experience; and, one science being as necessary as another, it behoves him.

‘I am not of a saving turn, hence my little fortune of a hundred rixdalers, which has served to keep many a prudent man for a score of years, barely sufficed for five years’ studies; after which my studies were interrupted, my pupils fell off, and I was obliged to devote much time to shoe-binding in order to save money, and, at a future period, resume my academic course. During this period I contracted an attachment’ (here the candidate sighed a little) ‘with a person, who, though not beautiful, and forty years of age, is yet likely to sympathise with my existence; and, a month since, my kind friend and patron, University Prorector Doctor Nasenbrumm, having informed me that the Pfarrer of Rumpelwitz was dead, asked whether I would like to have my name placed upon the candidate list, and if I were minded to preach a trial sermon? As the gaining of this living would further my union with my Amalia, I joyously consented, and prepared a discourse.

‘If you like I will recite it to you — No? — Well, I will give you extracts from it upon our line of march. To proceed, then, with my biographical sketch, which is now very near a conclusion; or, as I should more correctly say, which has very nearly brought me to the present period of time: I preached that sermon at Rumpelwitz, in which I hope that the Babylonian question was pretty satisfactorily set at rest. I preached it before the Herr Baron and his noble family, and some officers of distinction who were staying at his castle. Mr. Doctor Moser of Halle followed me in the evening discourse; but, though his exercise was learned, and he disposed of a passage of Ignatius, which he proved to be a manifest interpolation, I do not think his sermon had the effect which mine produced, and that the Rumpelwitzers much relished it. After the sermon, all the candidates walked out of church together, and supped lovingly at the “Blue Stag” in Rumpelwitz.

‘While so occupied, a waiter came in and said that a person without wished to speak to one of the reverend candidates, “the tall one.” This could only mean me, for I was a head and shoulders higher than any other reverend gentleman present. I issued out to see who was the person desiring to hold converse with me, and found a man whom I had no difficulty in recognising as one of the Jewish persuasion.

‘“Sir,” said this Hebrew, “I have heard from a friend, who was in your church today, the heads of the admirable discourse you pronounced there. It has affected me deeply, most deeply. There are only one or two points on which I am yet in doubt, and if your honour could but condescend to enlighten me on these, I think — I think Solomon Hirsch would be a convert to your eloquence.”

‘“What are these points, my good friend?” said I; and I pointed out to him the twenty-four heads of my sermon, asking him in which of these his doubts lay.

‘We had been walking up and down before the inn while our conversation took place, but the windows being open, and my comrades having heard the discourse in the morning, requested me, rather peevishly, not to resume it at that period. I, therefore, moved on with my disciple, and, at his request, began at once the sermon; for my memory is good for anything, and I can repeat any book I have read thrice.

‘I poured out, then, under the trees, and in the calm moonlight, that discourse which I had pronounced under the blazing sun of noon. My Israelite only interrupted me by exclamations indicative of surprise, assent, admiration, and increasing conviction. “Prodigious!” said he; —“Wunderschon!” would he remark at the conclusion of some eloquent passage; in a word, he exhausted the complimentary interjections of our language: and to compliments what man is averse? I think we must have walked two miles when I got to my third head and my companion begged I would enter his house, which we now neared, and partake of a glass of beer; to which I was never averse.

‘That house, sir, was the inn at which you, too, if I judge aright, were taken. No sooner was I in the place, than three crimps rushed upon me, told me I was a deserter, and their prisoner, and called upon me to deliver up my money and papers; which I did with a solemn protest as to my sacred character. They consisted of my sermon in MS., Prorector Nasenbrumm’s recommendatory letter, proving my identity, and three groschen four pfennigs in bullion. I had already been in the cart twenty hours when you reached the house. The French officer, who lay opposite you (he who screamed when you trod on his foot, for he was wounded), was brought in shortly before your arrival. He had been taken with his epaulets and regimentals, and declared his quality and rank; but he was alone (I believe it was some affair of love with a Hessian lady which caused him to be unattended); and as the persons into whose hands he fell will make more profit of him as a recruit than as a prisoner, he is made to share our fate. He is not the first by many scores so captured. One of M. de Soubise’s cooks, and three actors out of a troop in the French camp, several deserters from your English troops (the men are led away by being told that there is no flogging in the Prussian service), and three Dutchmen were taken besides.’

‘And you,’ said I—‘you who were just on the point of getting a valuable living — you who have so much learning, are you not indignant at the outrage?’

‘I am a Saxon,’ said the candidate, ‘and there is no use in indignation. Our government is crushed under Frederick’s heel these five years, and I might as well hope for mercy from the Grand Mogul. Nor am I, in truth, discontented with my lot; I have lived on a penny bread for so many years, that a soldier’s rations will be a luxury to me. I do not care about more or less blows of a cane; all such evils are passing, and therefore endurable. I will never, God willing, slay a man in combat; but I am not unanxious to experience on myself the effect of the war-passion, which has had so great an influence on the human race. It was for the same reason that I determined to marry Amalia, for a man is not a complete Mensch until he is the father of a family; to be which is a condition of his existence, and therefore a duty of his education. Amalia must wait; she is out of the reach of want, being, indeed, cook to the Frau Prorectorinn Nasenbrumm, my worthy patron’s lady. I have one or two books with me, which no one is likely to take from me, and one in my heart which is the best of all. If it shall please Heaven to finish my existence here, before I can prosecute my studies further, what cause have I to repine? I pray God I may not be mistaken, but I think I have wronged no man, and committed no mortal sin. If I have, I know where to look for forgiveness; and if I die, as I have said, without knowing all that I would desire to learn, shall I not be in a situation to learn EVERYTHING, and what can human soul ask for more?

‘Pardon me for putting so many I’s in my discourse,’ said the candidate, ‘but when a man is talking of himself, ’tis the briefest and simplest way of talking.’

In which, perhaps, though I hate egotism, I think my friend was right. Although he acknowledged himself to be a mean-spirited fellow, with no more ambition than to know the contents of a few musty books, I think the man had some good in him; especially in the resolution with which he bore his calamities. Many a gallant man of the highest honour is often not proof against these, and has been known to despair over a bad dinner, or to be cast down at a ragged-elbowed coat. MY maxim is to bear all, to put up with water if you cannot get Burgundy, and if you have no velvet to be content with frieze. But Burgundy and velvet are the best, bien entendu, and the man is a fool who will not seize the best when the scramble is open.

The heads of the sermon which my friend the theologian intended to impart to me, were, however, never told; for, after our coming out of the hospital, he was drafted into a regiment quartered as far as possible from his native country, in Pomerania; while I was put into the Bulow regiment, of which the ordinary headquarters were Berlin. The Prussian regiments seldom change their garrisons as ours do, for the fear of desertion is so great, that it becomes necessary to know the face of every individual in the service; and, in time of peace, men live and die in the same town. This does not add, as may be imagined, to the amusements of the soldier’s life. It is lest any young gentleman like myself should take a fancy to a military career, and fancy that of a private soldier a tolerable one, that I am giving these, I hope, moral descriptions of what we poor fellows in the ranks really suffered.

As soon as we recovered, we were dismissed from the nuns and the hospital to the town prison of Fulda, where we were kept like slaves and criminals, with artillerymen with lighted matches at the doors of the courtyards and the huge black dormitory where some hundreds of us lay; until we were despatched to our different destinations. It was soon seen by the exercise which were the old soldiers amongst us, and which the recruits; and for the former, while we lay in prison, there was a little more leisure: though, if possible, a still more strict watch kept than over the broken-spirited yokels who had been forced or coaxed into the service. To describe the characters here assembled would require Mr. Gilray’s own pencil. There were men of all nations and callings. The Englishmen boxed and bullied; the Frenchmen played cards, and danced, and fenced; the heavy Germans smoked their pipes and drank beer, if they could manage to purchase it. Those who had anything to risk gambled, and at this sport I was pretty lucky, for, not having a penny when I entered the depot (having been robbed of every farthing of my property by the rascally crimps), I won near a dollar in my very first game at cards with one of the Frenchmen; who did not think of asking whether I could pay or not upon losing. Such, at least, is the advantage of having a gentlemanlike appearance; it has saved me many a time since by procuring me credit when my fortunes were at their lowest ebb.

Among the Frenchmen there was a splendid man and soldier, whose real name we never knew, but whose ultimate history created no small sensation, when it came to be known in the Prussian army. If beauty and courage are proofs of nobility, as (although I have seen some of the ugliest dogs and the greatest cowards in the world in the noblesse) I have no doubt courage and beauty are, this Frenchman must have been of the highest families in France, so grand and noble was his manner, so superb his person. He was not quite so tall as myself, fair, while I am dark, and, if possible, rather broader in the shoulders. He was the only man I ever met who could master me with the small-sword; with which he would pink me four times to my three. As for the sabre, I could knock him to pieces with it; and I could leap farther and carry more than he could. This, however, is mere egotism. This Frenchman, with whom I became pretty intimate — for we were the two cocks, as it were, of the depot, and neither had any feeling of low jealousy — was called, for want of a better name, Le Blondin, on account of his complexion. He was not a deserter, but had come in from the Lower Rhine and the bishoprics, as I fancy; fortune having proved unfavourable to him at play probably, and other means of existence being denied him. I suspect that the Bastile was waiting for him in his own country, had he taken a fancy to return thither.

He was passionately fond of play and liquor, and thus we had a considerable sympathy together: when excited by one or the other, he became frightful. I, for my part, can bear, without wincing, both ill luck and wine; hence my advantage over him was considerable in our bouts, and I won enough money from him to make my position tenable. He had a wife outside (who, I take it, was the cause of his misfortunes and separation from his family), and she used to be admitted to see him twice or thrice a week, and never came empty-handed —— a little brown bright-eyed creature, whose ogles had made the greatest impression upon all the world.

This man was drafted into a regiment that was quartered at Neiss in Silesia, which is only at a short distance from the Austrian frontier; he maintained always the same character for daring and skill, and was, in the secret republic of the regiment — which always exists as well as the regular military hierarchy — the acknowledged leader. He was an admirable soldier, as I have said; but haughty, dissolute, and a drunkard. A man of this mark, unless he takes care to coax and flatter his officers (which I always did), is sure to fall out with them. Le Blondin’s captain was his sworn enemy, and his punishments were frequent and severe.

His wife and the women of the regiment (this was after the peace) used to carry on a little commerce of smuggling across the Austrian frontier, where their dealings were winked at by both parties; and in obedience to the instructions of her husband, this woman, from every one of her excursions, would bring in a little powder and ball: commodities which are not to be procured by the Prussian soldier, and which were stowed away in secret till wanted. They WERE to be wanted, and that soon.

Le Blondin had organised a great and extraordinary conspiracy. We don’t know how far it went, how many hundreds or thousands it embraced; but strange were the stories told about the plot amongst us privates: for the news was spread from garrison to garrison, and talked of by the army, in spite of all the Government efforts to hush it up — hush it up, indeed! I have been of the people myself; I have seen the Irish rebellion, and I know what is the free-masonry of the poor.

He made himself the head of the plot. There were no writings nor papers. No single one of the conspirators communicated with any other than the Frenchman; but personally he gave his orders to them all. He had arranged matters for a general rising of the garrison, at twelve o’clock on a certain day: the guard-houses in the town were to be seized, the sentinels cut down, and — who knows the rest? Some of our people used to say that the conspiracy was spread through all Silesia, and that Le Blondin was to be made a general in the Austrian service.

At twelve o’clock, and opposite the guard-house by the Bohmer-Thor of Neiss, some thirty men were lounging about in their undress, and the Frenchman stood near the sentinel of the guard-house, sharpening a wood hatchet on a stone. At the stroke of twelve, he got up, split open the sentinel’s head with a blow of his axe, and the thirty men, rushing into the guard-house, took possession of the arms there, and marched at once to the gate. The sentry there tried to drop the bar, but the Frenchman rushed up to him, and, with another blow of the axe, cut off his right hand, with which he held the chain. Seeing the men rushing out armed, the guard without the gate drew up across the road to prevent their passage; but the Frenchman’s thirty gave them a volley, charged them with the bayonet, and brought down several, and the rest flying, the thirty rushed on. The frontier is only a league from Neiss, and they made rapidly towards it.

But the alarm was given in the town, and what saved it was that the clock by which the Frenchman went was a quarter of an hour faster than any of the clocks in the town. The generale was beat, the troops called to arms, and thus the men who were to have attacked the other guard-houses, were obliged to fall into the ranks, and their project was defeated. This, however, likewise rendered the discovery of the conspirators impossible, for no man could betray his comrade, nor, of course, would he criminate himself.

Cavalry was sent in pursuit of the Frenchman and his thirty fugitives, who were, by this time, far on their way to the Bohemian frontier. When the horse came up with them, they turned, received them with a volley and the bayonet, and drove them back. The Austrians were out at the barriers, looking eagerly on at the conflict. The women, who were on the look-out too, brought more ammunition to these intrepid deserters, and they engaged and drove back the dragoons several times. But in these gallant and fruitless combats much time was lost, and a battalion presently came up, and surrounded the brave thirty; when the fate of the poor fellows was decided. They fought with the fury of despair: not one of them asked for quarter. When their ammunition failed, they fought with the steel, and were shot down or bayoneted where they stood. The Frenchman was the very last man who was hit. He received a bullet in the thigh, and fell, and in this state was overpowered, killing the officer who first advanced to seize him.

He and the very few of his comrades who survived were carried back to Neiss, and immediately, as the ringleader, he was brought before a council of war. He refused all interrogations which were made as to his real name and family. ‘What matters who I am?’ said he; ‘you have me and will shoot me. My name would not save me were it ever so famous.’ In the same way he declined to make a single discovery regarding the plot. ‘It was all my doing,’ he said; ‘each man engaged in it only knew me, and is ignorant of every one of his comrades. The secret is mine alone, and the secret shall die with me.’ When the officers asked him what was the reason which induced him to meditate a crime so horrible? —‘It was your infernal brutality and tyranny,’ he said. ‘You are all butchers, ruffians, tigers, and you owe it to the cowardice of your men that you were not murdered long ago.’

At this his captain burst into the most furious exclamations against the wounded man, and rushing up to him, struck him a blow with his fist. But Le Blondin, wounded as he was, as quick as thought seized the bayonet of one of the soldiers who supported him, and plunged it into the officer’s breast. ‘Scoundrel and monster,’ said he, ‘I shall have the consolation of sending you out of the world before I die.’ He was shot that day. He offered to write to the King, if the officers would agree to let his letter go sealed into the hands of the postmaster; but they feared, no doubt, that something might be said to inculpate themselves, and refused him the permission. At the next review Frederick treated them, it is said, with great severity, and rebuked them for not having granted the Frenchman his request. However, it was the King’s interest to conceal the matter, and so it was, as I have said before, hushed up — so well hushed up, that a hundred thousand soldiers in the army knew it; and many’s the one of us that has drunk to the Frenchman’s memory over our wine, as a martyr for the cause of the soldier. I shall have, doubtless, some readers who will cry out at this, that I am encouraging insubordination and advocating murder. If these men had served as privates in the Prussian army from 1760 to 1765, they would not be so apt to take objection. This man destroyed two sentinels to get his liberty; how many hundreds of thousands of his own and the Austrian people did King Frederick kill because he took a fancy to Silesia? It was the accursed tyranny of the system that sharpened the axe which brained the two sentinels of Neiss: and so let officers take warning, and think twice ere they visit poor fellows with the cane.

I could tell many more stories about the army; but as, from having been a soldier myself, all my sympathies are in the ranks, no doubt my tales would be pronounced to be of an immoral tendency, and I had best, therefore, be brief. Fancy my surprise while in this depot, when one day a well-known voice saluted my ear, and I heard a meagre young gentleman, who was brought in by a couple of troopers and received a few cuts across the shoulders from one of them, say in the best English, ‘You infernal WASCAL, I’ll be wevenged for this. I’ll WITE to my ambassador, as sure as my name’s Fakenham of Fakenham.’ I burst out laughing at this: it was my old acquaintance in MY corporal’s coat. Lischen had sworn stoutly, that he was really and truly the private, and the poor fellow had been drafted off, and was to be made one of us. But I bear no malice, and having made the whole room roar with the story of the way in which I had tricked the poor lad, I gave him a piece of advice, which procured him his liberty. ‘Go to the inspecting officer,’ said I; ‘if they once get you into Prussia it is all over with you, and they will never give you up. Go now to the commandant of the depot, promise him a hundred — five hundred guineas to set you free; say that the crimping captain has your papers and portfolio’ (this was true); ‘above all, show him that you have the means of paying him the promised money, and I will warrant you are set free.’ He did as I advised, and when we were put on the march Mr. Fakenham found means to be allowed to go into hospital, and while in hospital the matter was arranged as I had recommended. He had nearly, however, missed his freedom by his own stinginess in bargaining for it, and never showed the least gratitude towards me his benefactor.

I am not going to give any romantic narrative of the Seven Years’ War. At the close of it, the Prussian army, so renowned for its disciplined valour, was officered and under-officered by native Prussians, it is true; but was composed for the most part of men hired or stolen, like myself, from almost every nation in Europe. The deserting to and fro was prodigious. In my regiment (Bulow’s) alone before the war, there had been no less than 600 Frenchmen, and as they marched out of Berlin for the campaign, one of the fellows had an old fiddle on which he was flaying a French tune, and his comrades danced almost, rather than walked, after him, singing, ‘Nous allons en France.’ Two years after, when they returned to Berlin, there were only six of these men left; the rest had fled or were killed in action. The life the private soldier led was a frightful one to any but men of iron courage and endurance. There was a corporal to every three men, marching behind them, and pitilessly using the cane; so much so that it used to be said that in action there was a front rank of privates and a second rank of sergeants and corporals to drive them on. Many men would give way to the most frightful acts of despair under these incessant persecutions and tortures; and amongst several regiments of the army a horrible practice had sprung up, which for some time caused the greatest alarm to the Government. This was a strange frightful custom of CHILD-MURDER. The men used to say that life was unbearable, that suicide was a crime; in order to avert which, and to finish with the intolerable misery of their position, the best plan was to kill a young child, which was innocent, and therefore secure of heaven, and then to deliver themselves up as guilty of the murder. The King himself — the hero, sage, and philosopher, the prince who had always liberality on his lips and who affected a horror of capital punishments — was frightened at this dreadful protest, on the part of the wretches whom he had kidnapped, against his monstrous tyranny; but his only means of remedying the evil was strictly to forbid that such criminals should be attended by any ecclesiastic whatever, and denied all religious consolation.

The punishment was incessant. Every officer had the liberty to inflict it, and in peace it was more cruel than in war. For when peace came the King turned adrift such of his officers as were not noble; whatever their services might have been. He would call a captain to the front of his company and say, ‘He is not noble, let him go.’ We were afraid of him somehow, and were cowed before him like wild beasts before their keeper. I have seen the bravest men of the army cry like children at a cut of the cane; I have seen a little ensign of fifteen call out a man of fifty from the ranks, a man who had been in a hundred battles, and he has stood presenting arms, and sobbing and howling like a baby, while the young wretch lashed him over the arms and thighs with the stick. In a day of action this man would dare anything. A button might be awry THEN and nobody touched him; but when they had made the brute fight, then they lashed him again into subordination. Almost all of us yielded to the spell — scarce one could break it. The French officer I have spoken of as taken along with me, was in my company, and caned like a dog. I met him at Versailles twenty years afterwards, and he turned quite pale and sick when I spoke to him of old days. ‘For God’s sake,’ said he, ‘don’t talk of that time: I wake up from my sleep trembling and crying even now.’

As for me, after a very brief time (in which it must be confessed I tasted, like my comrades, of the cane) and after I had found opportunities to show myself to be a brave and dexterous soldier, I took the means I had adopted in the English army to prevent any further personal degradation. I wore a bullet around my neck, which I did not take the pains to conceal, and I gave out that it should be for the man or officer who caused me to be chastised. And there was something in my character which made my superiors believe me; for that bullet had already served me to kill an Austrian colonel, and I would have given it to a Prussian with as little remorse. For what cared I for their quarrels, or whether the eagle under which I marched had one head or two? All I said was, ‘No man shall find me tripping in my duty; but no man shall ever lay a hand upon me.’ And by this maxim I abided as long as I remained in the service.

I do not intend to make a history of battles in the Prussian any more than in the English service. I did my duty in them as well as another, and by the time that my moustache had grown to a decent length, which it did when I was twenty years of age, there was not a braver, cleverer, handsomer, and I must own, wickeder soldier in the Prussian army. I had formed myself to the condition of the proper fighting beast; on a day of action I was savage and happy; out of the field I took all the pleasure I could get, and was by no means delicate as to its quality or the manner of procuring it. The truth is, however, that there was among our men a much higher tone of society than among the clumsy louts in the English army, and our service was generally so strict that we had little time for doing mischief. I am very dark and swarthy in complexion, and was called by our fellows the ‘Black Englander,’ the ‘Schwartzer Englander,’ or the English Devil. If any service was to be done, I was sure to be put upon it. I got frequent gratifications of money, but no promotion; and it was on the day after I had killed the Austrian colonel (a great officer of Uhlans, whom I engaged — singly and on foot) that General Bulow, my colonel, gave me two Frederics-d’or in front of the regiment, and said, ‘I reward thee now; but I fear I shall have to hang thee one day or other.’ I spent the money, and that I had taken from the colonel’s body, every groschen, that night with some jovial companions; but as long as war lasted was never without a dollar in my purse.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/lyndon/chapter6.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07