The Foreign Legion
Fortunately for our pilgrims the weather remained clear and unusually warm for the season of year, and they were able to continue their journey the following day in comfort. That night they slept in a cowshed, where no cows had been since the Germans passed through so many months before, and on the morning of the third day they reached the large market town which marked the junction of the little river upon which the village of Fontanelle was situated with the Aisne.
Mother Meraut was now upon familiar territory, among the scenes of her childhood. She had often come here with her father when he had brought a load of produce to sell in the town market. Here they disembarked, bought a load of provisions, and once more resumed their journey. Progress from this point on was slower than that of previous days, for now the current was against them. Father and Mother Meraut took turns at the oars, and they had gone some four or five miles up the stream when they came in sight of something quite unfamiliar to Mother Meraut. Stretching across the level meadows beside the river, as far, as the eye could see, were rows and rows of tents. Companies of soldiers in French uniforms were drilling in an open field. Groups of cavalry horses were herded in an enclosure, and everywhere there were the activities of a great military encampment.
"It's a French training-camp," cried Father Meraut, and he waved his cap on the end of an oar and shouted "Vive la France" at the top of his lungs. Pierre and Pierrette waved and shouted too, and Mother Meraut, caught by the general excitement, snatched up Jacqueline, who had been reposing in the basket, and frantically waved her. Some soldiers answered their signal, and shouted to them.
Father Meraut looked puzzled. "That's not French," he said; "I can't understand what they say. But they have on French uniforms! I wonder what regiment it can be. I'm going to find out."
"We're not far from Fontanelle now," said Mother Meraut; "don't you think we'd better go on?"
"We can't get there without stopping somewhere to eat, anyway," said Father Meraut. "It's already eleven o'clock, and I'd rather find out about the soldiers than eat." So they tied the Ark to a willow tree and went ashore.
In a moment more they were in a city of soldiers, and Father Meraut was making friends with some of the men who were lounging near the cook-house, sniffing the savory smell of soup which issued from it in appetizing gusts. Pierre and Pierrette sniffed too, and even Mother Meraut could not help saying appreciatively, "That cook knows how to make soup." Pierre laid his hand upon his stomach and smacked his lips. "Pierre," said his mother, reprovingly, "where are your manners, child?"
At that moment two soldiers were passing—one a tall, thin man, and one much smaller. They paused and laughed, and the tall man laid his hand on his stomach, too, and smacked his lips.
"Are you hungry, kid?" he said genially to Pierre. Pierre looked blank.
The short man punched the tall man in the ribs. "Don't you see he's French," he said derisively. "Did you think you were back home in Illinois? Why don't you try some of your parley-voo on him? You're not getting on with the language; here's your chance for a real Parisian accent."
"Oh, g'wan," answered the tall man. "Try your own French on him! I guess it won't kill him; he looks strong."
The short man came nearer to Pierre and shouted at him as if he were deaf. "Avvy-voo-doo faim?"
Pierre withdrew a step nearer his mother and Pierrette. "Je ne comprends pas!" he said politely. "Pardon."
The tall man took off his cap and rumpled his hair. "Try it again, Jim," he said, "even if he is scared. They look to me like refugees, and as if a good bowl of soup wouldn't strike their insides amiss, but your French would stampede a herd of buffaloes!"
"Try it yourself, then," said the short man, grinning.
The tall man sat down on a box at the door of the tent and beckoned to Pierre. "I say, kid," he began, "avvy-voo-doo-fam— fam?" He rubbed his stomach in expressive pantomime.
"Mamma," cried poor puzzled Pierre, "he asks me if I have a wife, and rubs his stomach as if he had a stomach-ache. What does he mean?"
Mother Meraut came forward, trying hard not to laugh. "Que voulez- vous, Messieurs?" she said politely.
The tall man was on his feet instantly with his cap in his hand. "You see, ma'am," he began, "we're from the States-des Etats- Unis! We've come here to fight le Boche—savez-vows? —combattre le Boche!" He waved his arms frantically and made a motion as if shooting with a gun.
A smile broke over Mother Meraut's face, and she held out both hands. "Les Americains!"she cried joyfully, "des Etats-Unis, dans l'uniforme de la France! Mais maintenant nous exterminons le Boche!" She called Pierrette and Pierre to her side. "These are Americans," she explained in French, "come from the United States of America to fight with us. Shake hands with them."
The Twins obeyed shyly, and when their Father rejoined the family a few moments later, their friendship had progressed to such an extent that Pierre was seated on one side of the tall man and Pierrette on the other, and they were all three studying a French phrase-book. The short man, called Jim, was gesticulating wildly, and talking to Mother Meraut, and she, good soul, looked so wise, and said "Oui" and "Non," and nodded her head so intelligently to encourage him, that he never suspected that she did not understand one word in ten, and cast triumphant glances at the tall man to see if he was observing his success.
At this moment a French Captain came by. The men sprang to their feet, clicked their heels together, and saluted. Father Meraut stiffened into military position and saluted also. The officer returned the salute, then stopped and spoke to him. "You are a soldier of France, I see," he said. "Where did you get your wound?"
"With Joffre, at the Marne, mon Capitaine," answered Father Meraut, proudly. And then he told the Captain of his being brought wounded to the Cathedral in Rheims, of its bombardment and burning, and of his rescue by Pierre and Pierrette.
The Captain turned to the Americans and said to them in English: "We have here three heroes of France instead of one! These children have lived under constant fire since last September, and they rescued their wounded father from the burning Cathedral of Rheims at the risk of their own lives." The Americans saluted Father Meraut, then they saluted Pierre and Pierrette, while Mother Meraut stood by, beaming with pride.
"We will ask them to dine with us as our guests," said the Captain, and, turning to Father Meraut, he spoke again in French. "This is the Foreign Legion," he said. "It is made up of friends of France, brave men of different countries who came voluntarily to fight with us against the Boche. Here they receive special training under French officers before going to the front. These Americans have only just come. They do not know much French, but they wish you to dine with them."
Ah, what a day that was for Pierre and Pierrette! Their story was passed about from one to another, and, instead of being homeless, wandering refugees, they found themselves suddenly treated as distinguished guests, by real soldiers. Pierre swelled with pride, and if he had only been able to speak their language, how glad he would have been to tell the Americans about the return of the French to Rheims, the green poster, Madame Coudert, and many other things! Alas, he could only eat his soup and gaze about him at all the activities that were going on in camp. When at last it was time for them to go, it was with the greatest difficulty that Pierre could be torn away from his new-found friends.
"Come again, old pal," said the tall man, slapping Pierre cordially on the back as he said good-by. "Come again and see your Uncle Sam! Come and bring your family!"
Pierre grinned, although he did not understand a word, shook hands, and ran down the river-bank to join his parents and Pierrette, who were already climbing into the boat.
"Jim" and "Uncle Sam" looked after them as the Ark swung out into the stream. "Au revoir," shouted Pierre, waving his hand. "Vive la France!" And back came the reply like an echo, "You bet your life, vive la France!"