PRACTICAL JOKERS IN THE ARMY.
Written for the “ Spirit of the Times,” by an Officer of the U. S. Army.
NED C. was a young and merry Sub. of the --th Infantry, and what is termed in the Army “ a clever fellow.” It is true, that Ned was somewhat given to keeping his “ spirits up by pouring spirits down,” especially when stationed at an out-post ; but he never would have been called an intemperate man.
At the time of my story, the detachment of the Army to which Ned belonged occupied a post on the South-Western frontier, and might be said to be in close quarters ; as the officers and men, from the crowded state of the garrison, were reduced to less than half the allowance of eating and sleeping room, authorized by regulations. To this arrangement was Ned indebted for the society of the post, who shared with him the comforts and conveniences of an apartment twelve feet square.
The Doctor, actuated by feelings of regard for Ned’s well-being, (it may have been with an eye to his own quiet and repose,) was in the habit of administering to him, occasionally, a dose of good advice ; and remonstrating with him on the impropriety of staying out late at night, getting “ tight,” and coming home “ disturbing people after they had gone to bed ;” all of which Ned took very patiently, but without mending his ways. The Doctor, finding that it was utterly useless to appeal to Ned’s sense of propriety, with the hope of effecting a change in his mode of life, began to address himself to his fears.
“ Ned,” said he, “ if you don’t stop this frolicking, and drinking, and spreeing, you’ll get the dropsy—I know you will—and you’ll die in spite of the d—l ! I tell you once for all to stop it, for if you get the dropsy on your chest, you are a gone sucker ! all the medicine in my chest won’t save you ! No, sir, burnt brandy won’t save you !”
The Doctor chid in vain, in vain did he continue to enumerate the various cases of hard drinking terminating in dropsy, that had come under his observation, since he had been a member of the Medical Staff—Ned was incorrigible.
As the lectures on temperance, and the terrible pictures of disease and death, from indulgence in strong drink, held up to his view, were of no avail in exciting his fears, the Doctor was about to despair of effecting a reform, when it was brought about, for a time, in the following manner :—
As usual, late one night, Ned came home very glorious, singing at the top of his voice, and winding up each verse of his song with a whoop, loud enough to “ wake up half creation.” After making several lurches towards the door, he succeeded in entering, and in the vain attempt of disencumbering himself of coat and boots, at the same moment made a pitch forward, and lighted with his head against the short-ribs of his sleeping room-mate. The Doctor’s bowels of compassion were sadly disturbed ; however, after venting on the head of his fallen friend a few hearty curses, he kindly assisted him in divesting himself of his clothes, and saw him decently laid out on his mattress.
Next morning, as soon as it was light, the Doctor possessed himself of the sleeper’s pantaloons and drawers, and with the assistance of the Hospital matron, had them neatly taken in about four inches in the waist, then quietly replaced them, and tumbled into bed to await the result. Half an hour before breakfast, (his accustomed time for rising,) Ned slid out of bed, cooled his coppers by a long pull at the water jug, and then commenced the operation of making his toilet. The Doctor, who was lying with one eye open and a wad of bed-clothes stuffed in his mouth—by way of smothering a desire to laugh—watched closely the dressing process going on before him.
“ ‘Tis very strange,” exclaimed Ned ; “ I wonder what has got into these d—d drawers ? they were large enough yesterday, and now I can’t make them meet ! ‘Tis no use in trying—I’ll hitch them up to my pants.”
Ned then drew on his pantaloons, and strained himself to the utmost to make them meet over his bread-basket, but it was no go—for with every effort he only increased the size of the bunch of shirt that stuck out “ a feet” between the buttons and button-holes of the waistband. After exhausting himself in vain attempts to close the opening in his nether garments, he approached the Doctor, who appeared to be asleep, and after arousing him, enquired if he could tell what had occasioned the sudden disproportion between his unmentionables and that part of his person which now refused to be enclosed in them.
“ Why, yes !” said the Doctor, rising and scrutinizing Ned closely—“ it is just as plain as the nose on your face—you have been drinking and swilling, at such a rate lately, that just what I predicted has come true—you have got the dropsy !”
“ Great God ! you don’t tell me so !” ejaculated the poor Lieutenant, as he clasped his hands together and fell back in an arm-chair. “ Oh ! that I had listened to your advice, my dear fellow ! Can’t you do something to save me ?”
“ I’ll try !” was the reply, “ but you must go to bed, keep on low diet, avoid all stimulating drinks, and take such medicines as I may prescribe !”
“ Thank you, Doctor, I will do anything in the world to get rid of this horrible disease,” said Ned, “ and if you will only cure me, I’ll promise to stop drinking altogether—Doctor, do you think I shall have to be tapped ?”
“ It is impossible to say, Ned, but,” added the Doctor, “ as you are young, and have a good constitution, I think we may avoid that operation, provided you keep still and lie on your back !”
Ned followed the Doctor’s advice strictly, took simples, dieted, and kept on his back, whilst the Doctor and Ned’s brother officers, to whom the joke had been imparted, were enjoying themselves at his expense. Every day he would receive half a dozen visits of condolence from the subs. of the garrison—each of whom would express his surprise at the enlarged state of Ned’s corporosity.
At the end of a week, the Doctor again abstracted Ned’s breeches and drawers—had them restored to their fair proportion, replaced by the bedside of his unsuspecting patient, and then told him to rise and dress himself. So indeed he did, and Ned soon found, to his infinite joy, that his clothes were almost as much too large for him now, as they were before too small—all symptoms of dropsy having disappeared—thanks to the kind attention of the Doctor, which were liberally bestowed on him by Ned. The Doctor bound all the officers to secrecy, and Ned’s dropsy became the standing joke of the garrison.
Time passed on, and by accident or design, Ned made the acquaintance of the fair (I would not say frail) one, whom the Doctor employed as seamstress—the very person he had engaged to sew up the Lieutenant’s inexpressibles—as a matter of course, he had not advanced very far into her affections, before she threw out hints that awakened Ned’s suspicions, and with a little management, he soon possessed himself of all the particulars of the trick that had been played on him.
No longer having the fear of death from dropsy before his eyes, Ned relapsed into his old habits, “ just as easy as falling off a log,” and the Doctor’s nightly persecutions again commenced. The temperance lectures were renewed, and the late hair-breadth escape was held up before him “ in terrorem ;” but to no purpose. Ned’s constant reply to all the admonitions of the Doctor was, “ a short life and a merry one !” At times, however, Ned would appear melancholy and dejected, and would say to the Doctor, that he was tired of this existence, and that he must not be surprised if he put an end to himself. 
About 11 o’clock one night, after the Doctor had retired to rest, and was snoozing it away very comfortably, protected from the assaults of musquitoes by a well tucked pavillion, he was suddenly aroused from his slumber by the entrance of Ned, who was very much disguised by liquor—
“ Doctor,” said he, (reeling backwards and forward, and introducing a hickup now and then between his words), “ Doctor, get up ! I want to talk to you ‘bout something that concerns life and death—I want your advice, my dear fellow. I am about to commit a deed—a fearful deed—a horrid deed ! Get up, won’t you ?”
“ Clear out and go to bed, and stop your d—d noise,” growled the Doctor as he turned over in bed.
“ Well, it is the last favor I have to ask you, Doctor, and I ask it for the last time. I am tired of this life, and if you don’t get up I’ll blow my d—d brains out, (and here he drew and cocked a pistol). Will you get up and hear what I have to say or not ?”
“ No, and be d—d to you,” shouted the Doctor.
“ Then here goes,” and as he said it bang went the pistol, and poor Ned was stretched on the floor weltering in blood.
“ Great God,” cried the Doctor, as he leaped from the bed, (carrying with him the musquito-bar, through which he had bolted his head), “ what have you done !” then casting a glance in the corner of the room, he saw by the flickering of light in an expiring candle, the mutilated remains of the unfortunate young man. As he rushed in agony from the room he encountered several of the officers, who hearing the report of the pistol were proceeding to the spot, to learn the cause of this unusual disturbance. To their enquiries the Doctor only replied by exclaiming—“ O ! he begged me to get up—he said he would kill himself if I didn’t get up, and he has done it ! I might have prevented him. Oh ! I never, never shall forgive myself !” Such were the lamentations uttered by the Doctor, as he paced backward and forward before the door, when he was accosted by the commanding officer, who demanded the cause of the alarm.
“ He has just shot himself, and I might have prevented it, Sir, but I wouldn’t get up when he begged me to do so—Oh ! I shall always have his death upon my conscience.”
“ But speak, Sir, who has shot himself ?” asked the commandant, seizing the frantic Doctor by the remnant of the musquito-bar, which still streamed from his neck.
“ Lieut. C., Sir—he has just blown his brains out !”
“ And have you examined the wound ?” demanded the commandant.
“ No Sir, no—I shall never be able to look upon him again.”
“ Calm yourself, Doctor, and go immediately and ascertain the extent of the injury,” said the commandant, sternly.
The Doctor yielding to the tone of authority with which the last words were spoken, slowly returned to the room where the tragical scene had just been enacted, and approaching the gory remains of the poor Lieutenant, placed his hand professionally on the pulse. At the same time the corpse rising on one elbow, and bringing the tip of the thumb in contact with the end of the nose, and waving his open hand, said, “you’ll sew up my breeches again, old Pill Box, will you ?” Then shout of laughter that followed showed that most of the persons present were in the secret, and doubtless had aided Ned with the help of Bullocks blood, to represent the mangled corpse. The commandant with difficulty restrained his laughter, but for the sake of discipline administered a reproof to the party, and forbade for the future the perpetration of practical jokes in Garrison. The Doctor didn’t see that there was anything to laugh at, and said this was no fun, in causing him to ruin a fine musquito-bar, that had cost him five dollars, with their infernal nonsense.
N. C. M. J.
Source: New York Spirit of the Times 15.31 (27 September 1845): 357. University of Virginia Alderman Library.
Erin Bartels prepared this typescript.
 Original text reads “if he put an to himself.”
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