The Church and the People
The sunlight of the clear September afternoon shone across the roofs of the City of Rheims, and fell in a yellow flood upon the towers of the most beautiful cathedral in the world, turning them into two shining golden pillars against the deep blue of the eastern sky.
The streets below were already in shadow, but the sunshine still poured through the great rose window above the western portal, lighting the dim interior of the church with long shafts of brilliant reds, blues, and greens, and falling at last in a shower of broken color upon the steps of the high altar. Somewhere in the mysterious shadows an unseen musician touched the keys of the great organ, and the voice of the Cathedral throbbed through its echoing aisles in tremulous waves of sound. Above the deep tones of the bass notes a delicate melody floated, like a lark singing above the surf.
Though the great church seemed empty but for sound and color, there lingered among its shadows a few persons who loved it well. There were priests and a few worshipers. There was also Father Varennes, the Verger, and far away in one of the small chapels opening from the apse in the eastern end good Mother Meraut was down upon her knees, not praying as you might suppose, but scrubbing the stone floor. Mother Meraut was a wise woman; she knew when to pray and when to scrub, and upon occasion did both with equal energy to the glory of God and the service of his Church. Today it was her task to make the little chapel clean and sweet, for was not the Abbe coming to examine the Confirmation Class in its catechism, and were not her own two children, Pierre and Pierette, in the class? In time to the heart-beats of the organ, Mother Meraut swept her brush back and forth, and it was already near the hour for the class to assemble when at last she set aside her scrubbing-pail, wiped her hands upon her apron, and began to dust the chairs which had been standing outside the arched entrance, and to place them in orderly rows within the chapel.
She had nearly completed her task, when there was a tap-tapping upon the stone floor, and down the long aisle, leaning upon his crutch, came Father Varennes. He stopped near the chapel and watched her as she whisked the last chair into place and then paused with her hands upon her hips to make a final inspection of her work.
"Bonjour, Antoinette," said the Verger.
Mother Meraut turned her round, cheerful face toward him. "Ah, it is you, Henri," she cried, "come, no doubt, to see if the chapel is clean enough for the Abbe! Well, behold."
The Verger peered through the arched opening, and sniffed the wet, soapy smell which pervaded the air. "One might even eat from your clean floor, Antoinette," he said, smiling, "and taste nothing worse with his food than a bit of soap. Truly the chapel is as clean as a shriven soul."
"It's a bold bit of dirt that would try to stand out against me," declared Mother Meraut, with a flourish of her dust-cloth, "for when I go after it I think to myself, 'Ah, if I but had one of those detestable Germans by the nose, how I would grind it!' and the very thought brings such power to my elbow that I check myself lest I wear through the stones of the floor."
The Verger laughed, then shook his head. "Truly, Antoinette," he said, "I believe you could seize your husband's gun if he were to fall, and fill his place in the Army as well as you fill his place here in the Cathedral, doing a man's work with a woman's strength, and smiling as if it were but play! Our France can never despair while there are women like you."
"My Jacques shall carry his own gun," said Mother Meraut, stoutly, "and bring it home with him when the war is over, if God wills, and may it be soon! Meanwhile I will help to keep our holy Cathedral clean as he used to do. It is not easy work, but one must do what one can, and surely it is better to do it with smiles than with tears!"
The Verger nodded. "That is true," he said, "yet it is hard to smile in the face of sorrow."
"But we must smile—though our hearts break—for France, and for our children, lest they forget joy!" cried Mother Meraut. She smiled as she spoke, though her lip trembled "I will you the truth, Henri, sometimes when I think of what the Germans have already done in Belgium, and may yet do in France, I feel my heart breaking in my bosom. And then I say to myself, 'Courage, Antoinette! It is our business to live bravely for the France that is to be when this madness is over. Our armies are still between us and the Boche. It is not time to be afraid.'"
"And I tell you, they shall not pass," cried Father Varennes, striking his crutch angrily upon the stone floor. "The brave soldiers of France will not permit it! Oh, if I could but carry a gun instead of this!" He rattled his crutch despairingly as he spoke.
Mother Meraut sighed. "Though I am a woman, I too wish I might fight the invaders," she said, "but since I may not carry a gun, I will put all the more energy into my broom and sweep the dirt from the Cathedral as I would sweep the Germans back to the Rhine if I could."
"It is, indeed, the only way for women, children, and such as I," grieved the Verger.
"Tut, tut," answered Mother Meraut cheerfully, "it isn't given us to choose our service. If God had wanted us to fight he would have given us power to do it."
The Verger shook his head. "I wish I were sure of that," he said, "for there's going to be need for all the fighting blood in France if half one hears is true. They say now that the Germans are already far over the French border and that our Army is retreating before them. The roads are more than ever crowded with refugees, and the word they bring is that the Germans have already reached the valley of the Aisne."
"But that is at our very doors!" cried Mother Meraut. "It is absurd, that rumor. Chicken hearts! They listen to nothing but their fears. As for me, I will not believe it until I must. I will trust in the Army as I do in my God and the holy Saints."
"Amen," responded the Verger devoutly.
At this moment the great western portal swung on its hinges, a patch of light showed itself against the gloom of the interior of the Cathedral, and the sound of footsteps and of fresh young voices mingled with the tones of the organ.
"It's the children, bless their innocent hearts," said Mother Meraut. "I hear the voices of my Pierre and Pierrette."
"And I of my Jean," said the Verger, starting hastily down the aisle. "The little magpies forget they must be quiet in the House of God!" He shook his finger at them and laid it warningly upon his lips. The noise instantly subsided, and it was a silent and demure little company that tiptoed up the aisle, bent the knee before the altar, and then filed past Mother Meraut into the chapel which she had made so clean.
Pierre and Pierrette led the procession, and Mother Meraut beamed with pride as they blew her a kiss in passing. They were children that any mother might be proud of. Pierrette had black, curling hair and blue eyes with long black lashes, and Pierre was a straight, tall, and manly-looking boy. The Twins were nine years old.
Mother Meraut knew many of the children in the Confirmation Class, for they were all schoolmates and companions of Pierre and Pierrette. There was Paul, the sore of the inn-keeper, with Marie, his sister. There was Victor, whose father rang the Cathedral chimes. There were David and Genevieve, and Madeleine and Virginie and Etienne, and last of all there was jean, the Verger's son—little Jean, the youngest in the class. Mother Meraut nodded to them all as they passed.
Promptly on the first stroke of the hour the Abbe appeared in the north transept of the Cathedral and made his way with quick, decided steps toward the chapel. He was a young man with thick dark hair almost concealed beneath his black three-cornered cap, and as he walked, his long black soutane swung about him in vigorous folds. When he appeared in the door of the chapel the class rose politely to greet him. "Bonjour, my children," said the Abbe, and then, turning his back upon them, bowed before the crucifix upon the chapel altar.
Mother Meraut and the Verger slipped quietly away to their work in other portions of the church, and the examination began. First the Abby asked the children to recite the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments in unison, and when they had done this without a mistake, he said "Bravo! Now I wonder if you can each do as well alone? Let me see, I will call upon—" He paused and looked about as if he were searching for the child who was most likely to do it well.
Three girls—Genevieve, Virginie, and Pierrette—raised their hands and waved them frantically in the air, but, curiously enough, the Abbe did not seem to see them. Instead his glance fell upon Pierre, who was gazing thoughtfully at the vaulted ceiling and hoping with all his heart that the Abbe would not call upon him. "Pierre!" he said, and any one looking at him very closely might have seen a twinkle in his eye as Pierre withdrew his gaze from the ceiling and struggled reluctantly to his feet. "You may recite the Ten Commandments."
Pierre began quite glibly, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," and went on, with only two mistakes and one long wait, until he had reached the fifth. "Thou shalt not kill," he recited, and then to save his life he could not think what came next. He gazed imploringly at the ceiling again, and at the high stained-glass window, but they told him nothing. He kicked backward gently, hoping that Pierrette, who sat next, would prompt him, but she too failed to respond. "I'll ask a question," thought Pierre des perately, "and while the Abbe is answering maybe it will come to me." Aloud he said: "If you please, your reverence, I don't understand about that commandment. It says, 'Thou shalt not kill,' and yet our soldiers have gone to war on purpose to kill Germans, and the priests blessed them as they marched away!"
This was indeed a question! The class gasped with astonishment at Pierre's boldness in asking it. The Abbe paused a moment before answering. Then he said, "If you, Pierre, were to shoot a man in the street in order to take his purse, would that be wrong?"
"Yes," answered the whole class.
"Very well," said the Abbe, "so it would. But if you should see a murderer attack your mother or your sister, and you should kill him before he could carry out his wicked purpose, would that be just the same thing?"
"No," wavered the class, a little doubtfully.
"If instead of defending your mother or sister you were simply to stand aside and let the murderer kill them both, you would really be helping the murderer, would you not? It is like that today in France. An enemy is upon us who seeks to kill us so that he may rob us of our beautiful home land. God sees our hearts. He knows that the soldiers of France go forth not to kill Germans but to save France! not wantonly to take life, but because it is the only way to save lives for which they themselves are ready to die. Ah, my children, it is one thing to kill as a murderer kills; it is quite another to be willing to die that others may live! Our Blessed Lord—"
The Abbe lifted his hand to make the sign of the Cross—but it was stayed in mid-air. The sentence he had begun was never finished, for at that moment the great bell in the Cathedral tower began to ring. It was not the clock striking the hour; it was not the chimes calling the people to prayer. Instead, it was the terrible sound of the alarm bell ringing out a warning to the people of Rheims that the Germans were at their doors.
Wide-eyed with terror, the children sprang from their seats, but the Abbe, with hand uplifted, blocked the entrance and commanded them to stay where they were.
"Let no one leave the Cathedral," he cried.
At this instant Mother Meraut appeared upon the threshold searching for her children, and behind her, coming as fast as his lameness would permit, came the Verger. The Abbe turned to them. "I leave these children all in your care," he said. "Stay with them until I return."
And without another word he disappeared in the shadows.
Mother Meraut sat down on one of the chairs she had dusted so carefully, and gathered the frightened children about her as a hen gathers her chickens under her wing. "There, now," she said cheerfully, as she wiped their tears upon the corner of her apron, "let's save our tears until we really know what we have to cry for. There never yet was misery that couldn't be made worse by crying, anyway. The boys will be brave, of course, whatever happens. And the girls—surely they will remember that it was a girl who once saved France, and meet misfortune bravely, like our blessed Saint Jeanne d'Arc."
The Cathedral organ had ceased to fill the great edifice with sweet and inspiring sounds. Instead, there now was only the muffled tread of marching feet, the rumble of heavy wheels, and the low, ominous beating of drums to break the stillness.
Mother Meraut and the children waited obediently in the chapel, scarcely breathing in their suspense, while Father Varennes went tap-tapping up and down the aisles eagerly watching for the Abbe to reappear. At last he came. Mother Meraut, the Verger, and the children all crowded about him, waiting breathlessly for him to speak.
The Abbe was pale, but his voice was firm. "I have been to the north tower," he said, "and there I could see for miles in every direction. Far away to the east and north are massed the hordes of the German Army; they are coming toward Rheims as a thunder- cloud comes rolling over the sky. Between us and them is our Army, but alas, their faces are turned this way. They are retreating before the German hosts! Already French troops are marching through Rheims; already the streets are filled with people who are fleeing from their homes for fear of the Boche. Unless God sends a miracle, our City is indeed doomed, for a time at least, to wear the German yoke."
He paused, and the children burst into wild weeping. Mother Meraut hushed them with comforting words. "Do not cry, my darlings," she said. "God is not dead, and we shall yet live to see justice done and our dear land restored to us. The soldiers now in the streets are all our own brave defenders. We shall be able to go in safety, even though in sorrow, to our homes."
"Come," said the Abbe, "there is no time to lose. Our Army will, without doubt, make a stand on the plains west of the City, and it will not be long before the Germans pass through. You must go to your homes as fast as possible. Henri, you remain here with your Jean, that you may meet any of the parents who come for their children. Tell them I have gone with them myself and will deliver each child safely at his own door."
"I can take cart of my own," said Mother Meraut. "You need have no fear for us."
"Very well," said the Abbe, and, calling the rest of the children about him, he marched them down the aisle and out into the street.
Mother Meraut followed with Pierre and Pierrette. At the door they paused and stood for a moment under the great sculptured arches to survey the scene before them. The great square before the Cathedral was filled with people, some weeping, others standing about as if dazed by sorrow. Between the silent crowds which lined the sidewalks passed the soldiers, grim and with set faces, keeping time to the throbbing of the drums as they marched. Above the scene, in the center of the square, towered the beautiful statue of Jeanne d'Arc, mounted upon her charger and lifting her sword toward the sky.
"Ah," murmured Mother Meraut to herself, "our blessed Maid still keeps guard above the City!" She lifted her clasped hands toward the statue. "Blessed Saint Jeanne," she prayed, "hear us in Paradise, and come once more to save our beautiful France!"
Then, waving a farewell to the Verger and Jean, who had followed them to the door, she took her children by the hand and plunged with them into the sad and silent crowd.