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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Edmondo De Amicis (1846–1908)

The Conscript

From “Military Life”

AT the end of the courtyard a conscript was sitting alone on the door-steps, with his elbows resting on his knees and his chin sunk in his fists. He surveyed his comrades as they went out one by one, and when they were all gone fixed his gaze steadfastly to the ground. He looked like one of the worthy fellows who leave home and family with an aching heart, yet who come to their soldier’s duty with a sense of necessity and willingness. But there was something more in his face than the half-bewildered, half-vacant look usually to be observed in conscripts during their first few days of service. The man showed a positively doleful countenance. Perhaps he was sorry he had not gone out with the others. It is a melancholy thing enough to spend a fine Sunday moping at home.

A corporal in undress uniform crossing the court observes the conscript, and confronts him sharply with:

“What are you sitting there for, with your hands doubled up like that?”

“I?” inquires the private.

“I?” mimics the corporal, with a grimace. “Really, how remarkable! Whom do you imagine you are speaking to—the moon? Yes, you! Get up when you address a superior.”

The conscript rises.

“Who are you, and what company do you belong to?”


“Company?” again mocks the other. “Are you aware that you are a regular idiot?” He comes up to the soldier, takes him by the jacket, and, giving him a terrifying tug, exclaims, “Look how you have messed your uniform by sitting on the ground like a beggar!”

The conscript begins to brush off his jacket with his hand.

“Look at the state of your boots!” shouts his superior, bestowing a kick on one of his feet.

The private bends down to dust his boots with his pocket-handkerchief.

“Straighten your necktie; it’s all over your ears!” And, seizing him by the necktie, he swings his subordinate round so that he all but falls down.

No sooner does the conscript attempt to arrange the disordered cravat, when he hears the command:

“Put that cap on properly.”

Up goes a hand to the cap.

“And hoist up those breeches, if you don’t want them to be ruined in a week; smooth the front of your jacket; take out those ridiculous earrings; and don’t stand there with your chin buried in your stomach, like a monk! Drop that idiotic stare!”

The unfortunate youth fumbles with trembling fingers now at his cravat, now at his trousers, now at his cap, and now at his jacket, but the more he fumbles the less does he improve things.

Just then the pretty young canteen woman passes by, and stops to look at him—the heartless creature! To appear ridiculous before the eyes of beauty—ah, that is the worst disaster of all! So the poor wretch loses his head altogether, pulls about his necktie and buttons worse than ever, then drops his arms, his chin, and his eyes in succession, until he stands a mute picture of despair. The canteen woman laughs and moves on. The corporal, looking at him in utter contempt, shakes his head, repeating, “You jackass! You jackass!” Then, in a higher-pitched voice:

“Wake up, my good man, and do it quickly, too, or else you will have to be shown how! Bread and water and the lockup first, and then the lockup and bread and water, and so on, change and change about, by way of variety, so that you won’t get tired of it. You’d better remember that. Now, then, off to your bedroom and brush your uniform! Forward, march!”

He reenforces this command by pointing with his finger at the dormitory window.

“But I——”


“I have not——”

“Hold your tongue, will you, when you address a superior! There’s the lockup for you, if you don’t. Do you see?”

Upon which the corporal swaggers off, mumbling, “Lord, such people! Army’s going to the dogs! Italy’s going to the dogs!”

“Mister Corporal,” timidly remarks the conscript.

The departing one halts, turns, and points menacingly in the direction of the guard-room.

“I wanted to know something, if you please, sir.”

The request was made in a tone so respectful and submissive that it was scarcely possible to prohibit him from speaking.

“What is it you want?”

“I just wanted to ask if you knew whether there was an officer from my home here in this regiment. I think there must be, only I don’t know if——”

“From your home? If all the people from that place are like you, it’s to be hoped you are the only one in the regiment.” And, with a shrug of the shoulders, the corporal strode away.