The Burning of the Cathedral
On the evening of the 18th of September, Mother Meraut was late in leaving the Cathedral, and it was nearly dark when she reached Madame Coudert's door. Pierrette sat on the steps waiting for her, with Fifine, the cat, in her arms. Madame Coudert was knitting, as usual, and Pierre was trying to teach the little raveled-out dog to stand on his hind legs. As their Mother appeared, the children sprang to meet her.
"How is Father?" cried Pierrette. It was always the first question when they saw her.
"Better," answered her Mother. " In another week or two the doctor thinks he can be moved."
She was about to enter the shop to speak to Madame Coudert, when the air was suddenly rent by a fearful roar of sound. She clasped her children in her arms. "It's like thunder," she said, patting them soothingly; "if you hear the roar you know at once that you aren't killed. Come, we must hurry to the cellar." But before she could take a single step in that direction there was another terrible explosion.
"Look, oh look!" screamed Pierre, pointing to the Cathedral towers, which were visible from where they stood; "they are shelling the Cathedral!"
For an instant they stood as if rooted to the spot. Was it possible the Germans would shell the place where their own wounded lay—a place protected by the cross? They saw the scaffolding about one of the towers burst suddenly into flames. In another moment the fire had caught and devoured the Red Cross flag itself and then sprang like a thing possessed to the roof. An instant more, and that too was burning.
"Father!" screamed Pierre, and before any one could stop him or even say a word, the boy was far up the street, running like a deer toward the Cathedral. Pierrette was but a few steps behind him.
When she saw her children rushing madly into such danger, Mother Meraut's exhausted body gave way beneath the demands of her spirit. If Madame Coudert had not caught her, she would have sunk down upon the step. It was only for an instant, but in that instant the children had passed out of sight. Not stopping even to close her door, Madame Coudert seized Mother Meraut's hand, and together the two women ran after them. But they could not hope to rival the speed of fleet young feet, and when they reached the Cathedral square the flames were already roaring upward into the very sky. The streets were crowded by this time, and their best speed brought them to the square ten minutes after the children had reached the burning Cathedral, and, heedless of danger, had dashed in and to the corner where their helpless Father lay.
The place was swarming with doctors and nurses working frantically to move the wounded. The Abbe' was there, and the Archbishop also. Already the straw had caught fire in several places from falling brands. "Out through the north transept," shouted the Abbe.
Pierre and Pierrette knew well what they had come to do. For them there was but one person in the Cathedral, and that person was their Father. They had but one purpose—to get him out. Young as they were, they were already well used to danger, and it scarcely occurred to them that they were risking their lives. Certainly they were not afraid. When they reached their Father's side, they found him vainly struggling to rise.
"Here we are, Father," shouted Pierre: "Lean on us!" He flew to one side; Pierrette was already struggling to lift him on the other. As his bed was the one farthest from the spot where the fire first appeared, the doctors and nurses had sought to rescue those in greatest danger, and so the children for the time being were alone in their effort to save him.
The flames were now leaping through the Cathedral aisles, devouring the straw beds as if they were tinder. In vain Father Meraut ordered them to leave him. For once his children refused to obey. Somehow they got him to his feet, and he, for their sakes making a superhuman effort, succeeded in staggering between them, using their lithe young bodies as crutches. How they reached the door of the north transept they never knew, but reach it they did, before the burning flames. And there a new terror appeared.
The people of Rheims, infuriated by the long abuse which they had suffered, stood with guns pointed at the wounded and helpless Germans whom the doctors and nurses had succeeded in getting so far on the way to safety. Above the roar of flames rose the roar of angry voices. "It is the Germans who burn our Cathedral. Let them die with it," shouted one.
Between the helpless Germans and the angry mob; facing their guns, towered the figures of the Abby and the Archbishop! "If you kill them, you must first kill us," cried the Archbishop. Kill the Archbishop and the Abbe'! Unthinkable! The guns were immediately lowered, and the work of rescue went on.
Out of the north door crept Father Meraut, supported by his brave children. "Bravo! Bravo!" shouted the crowd, and then hands that would have killed Germans willingly, were stretched in instant sympathy and helpfulness to the wounded French soldier and his brave children. Two men made a chair of their arms, and Father Meraut was carried in safety to the square before the Cathedral, Pierre and Pierrette following close behind. At the foot of the statue of Jeanne d'Arc they stopped to rest and change hands, and there, frantic with joy, Mother Meraut found them.
"A soldier of France—wounded at the Marne!" shouted the crowd, and if he had been able to endure it, they would have borne him upon their grateful shoulders. As it was, he was carried in no less grateful arms clear to Madame Coudert's door, and there, lying upon an improvised stretcher, and attended by his wife and children, he rested from his journey, while Madame Coudert ran to prepare a cup of coffee for a stimulant. From Madame Coudert's door they watched the further destruction of the beautiful Cathedral which Mother Meraut had so often called the "safest place in Rheims." As it burned, a wonderful thing happened. High above the glowing roof there suddenly flamed the blue fleur-de- lis of France!
"See! See! " cried Mother Meraut. "A Miracle! The Lily of France! Oh, surely it is a sign sent by the Bon Dieu to keep us from despair!"
"It is only the gas from an exploding shell, bursting in blue flame," said her husband. "Yet—who knows?—it may also be a true promise that France shall rise in beauty from its ruins."