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The Captain’s Vices
by [?]


It is of no importance, the name of the little provincial city where Captain Mercadier–twenty-six years of service, twenty-two campaigns, and three wounds–installed himself when he was retired on a pension.

It was quite like all those other little villages which solicit without obtaining it a branch of the railway; just as if it were not the sole dissipation of the natives to go every day, at the same hour, to the Place de la Fontaine to see the diligence come in at full gallop, with its gay cracking of the whips and clang of bells.

It was a place of three thousand inhabitants–ambitiously denominated souls in the statistical tables–and was exceedingly proud of its title of chief city of the canton. It had ramparts planted with trees, a pretty river with good fishing, a church of the charming epoch of the flamboyant Gothic, disgraced by a frightful station of the cross, brought directly from the quarter of Saint Sulpice. Every Monday its market was gay with great red and blue umbrellas, and countrymen filled its streets in carts and carriages. But for the rest of the week it retired with delight into that silence and solitude which made it so dear to its rustic population. Its streets were paved with cobble-stones; through the windows of the ground-floor one could see samplers and wax-flowers under glass domes, and, through the gates of the gardens, statuettes of Napoleon in shell-work. The principal inn was naturally called the Shield of France; and the town-clerk made rhymed acrostics for the ladies of society.

Captain Mercadier had chosen that place of retreat for the simple reason that he had been born there, and because, in his noisy childhood, he had pulled down the signs and plugged up the bell-buttons. He returned there to find neither relations, nor friends, nor acquaintances; and the recollections of his youth recalled only the angry faces of shop-keepers who shook their fists at him from the shop-doors, a catechism which threatened him with hell, a school which predicted the scaffold, and, finally, his departure for his regiment, hastened by a paternal malediction.

For the Captain was not a saintly man; the old record of his punishment was black with days in the guard-house inflicted for breaches of discipline, absences from roll-calls, and nocturnal uproars in the mess-room. He had often narrowly escaped losing his stripes as a corporal or a sergeant, and he needed all the chance, all the license of a campaigning life to gain his first epaulet. Firm and brave soldier, he had passed almost all his life in Algiers at that time when our foot soldiers wore the high shako, white shoulder-belts and huge cartridge-boxes. He had had Lamoriciere for commander. The Due de Nemours, near whom he received his first wound, had decorated him, and when he was sergeant-major, Pere Bugrand had called him by his name and pulled his ears. He had been a prisoner of Abd-el-Kader, bearing the scar of a yataghan stroke on his neck, of one ball in his shoulder and another in his chest; and notwithstanding absinthe, duels, debts of play, and almond-eyed Jewesses, he fairly won, with the point of the bayonet and sabre, his grade of captain in the First Regiment of Sharp-shooters.

Captain Mercadier–twenty-six years of service, twenty-two campaigns, and three wounds–had just retired on his pension, not quite two thousand francs, which, joined to the two hundred and fifty francs from his cross, placed him in that estate of honorable penury which the State reserves for its old servants.

His entry into his natal city was without ostentation. He arrived one morning on the imperiale of the diligence, chewing an extinguished cigar, and already on good terms with the conductor, to whom, during his journey, he had related the passage of the Porte de Fer; full of indulgence, moreover, for the distractions of his auditor, who often interrupted the recital by some oath or epithet addressed to the off mare. When the diligence stopped he threw on the sidewalk his old valise, covered with railway placards as numerous as the changes of garrison that its proprietor had made, and the idlers of the neighborhood were astonished to see a man with a decoration–a rare thing in the province–offer a glass of wine to the coachman at the bar of an inn near by.