The Return of the French
One unhappy day followed upon another for the inhabitants of Rheims. Each night they went to bed in terror; each morning they rose to face new trials and dangers. Yet their spirit did not fail. Each day the roar of guns toward the west grew fainter and more distant, and the people knew with sinking hearts that the Germans had driven the Armies of France farther and farther back toward Paris. Each day the conduct of the conquerors grew more arrogant. "Our Emperor will soon be in Paris!" they said.
On the public monuments and in the squares of the City appeared German proclamations printed upon green paper, warning the people of Rheims of terrible punishments which would befall them if they in any way rebelled against the will of the victorious invaders. It was only with great difficulty that Pierre could be dragged by these signs. Each morning as they went to the Cathedral they had to pass several of them, and Pierrette and her Mother soon learned to take precautions against an outburst of rage which might bring down upon his rash head the wrath of the enemy. The eye of the Germans seemed everywhere. One of these posters was fixed to the window of Madame Coudert's shop. On the morning that it first appeared, Pierre in passing made a dash for the gutter, picked up a handful of mud, and threw it squarely into the middle of the poster.
Madame Coudert saw him, and winked solemnly, but did not move. His Mother instantly collared Pierre, and led him up a side street just in time to escape the clutches of a German officer who had seen him a block away, and came on the run after him. When, puffing and blowing, he at last reached the shop there was no one in sight except Madame Coudert behind her counter. The enraged officer pointed out the insult that had been offered his country.
Madame Coudert looked surprised and concerned. She followed the officer to the door, and gazed at the disfigured poster. "I will clean it at once," she said obligingly. She got out soap and a brush immediately, and when she had finished, her work had been so thoroughly done that not a spot of mud was left, but unfortunately the center of the poster was rubbed through and quite illegible, and the rest of it was all streaked and stained! "Will that do?" she asked the officer, looking at him with round, innocent eyes and so evident a desire to please that, in spite of an uneasy suspicion, he merely grunted and went his way.
The first time they came into the shop after this episode Madame Coudert gave Pierre a cake with pink frosting on it.
In this way a whole week dragged itself by, and, on the morning of the eighth day after the German entry into Rheims, Mother Meraut and the Twins left home earlier than usual in order to reach the Cathedral before the bombardment, which they had learned daily to expect, should begin. They found Madame Coudert in front of her shop; washing the window. A large corner of the poster was now gone. "It rained last night," she said to Mother Meraut, "and the green color ran down on my window. I had to wash it, and accidentally I rubbed off a corner of the poster. It can't be very good paper." She looked solemly at Pierre. "Too bad, isn't it?" she said, and closed one eye behind her round spectacles.
"The weather seems to have damaged a good many of them, I notice," answered Mother Meraut, with just a suspicion of a smile. "The weather has been quite pleasant too,—strange!"
"Weather—nothing!" said Pierre, scornfully. "I'll bet you that—"
It seemed as if Pierre was always being interrupted at just the most exciting moment of his remarks, but this time he interrupted himself. "What's that?" he said, stopping short. Madame Coudert, his Mother, and Pierrette, all stood perfectly still, their eyes wide, their lips parted, listening, listening! They heard cannon- shots, then music—toward the west—coming nearer—nearer.
"It is—oh, it is the Marseillaise!" shrieked Pierrette.
Mother Meraut and the Twins ran toward the sound. Now shouts were heard—joyous shouts—from French throats! Never had they heard such a sound! People came tumbling out of their houses, some not fully dressed—but who cared? The French were returning victorious from the battle of the Marne. They were coming again into Rheims, driving the Germans before them! Ah, but when the red trousers actually appeared in the streets the populace went mad with joy! They embraced the soldiers; they marched beside them with tears streaming down their cheeks, singing "March on! March on!" as though they would split their throats. Pierre and Pierrette marched and sang with the others, their Mother close beside them.
On and on came the singing, joy-maddened people, right past Madame Coudert's shop, and there, standing on the curb, with a tray in her arms piled high with goodies, was Madame Coudert herself. The green poster was already torn in shreds and lying in the gutter. It even looked as if some one had stamped on it, and above her door waved the tricolor of France! "Come here," she cried to Pierre and Pierrette, "Quick! Hand these out to the soldiers as long as there's one left!"
Pierre seized a pink frosted cake, and ran with it to a Captain. Pierrette gave a sugar roll to the first soldier she could reach; other hands helped. Mother Meraut ran into the shop and brought out more cakes. Shop-keepers all along the way followed Madame Coudert's example, and soon people everywhere were bringing offerings of candy, chocolate, and cigars to the soldiers, and the streets suddenly blossomed with blue, white, and red flags. At the corner, near Madame Coudert's shop, Pierre had the joy of seeing the German officer who had tried to catch him surrender to the Captain who had taken the pink cake. Oh, what a moment that was for Pierre! He sprang into the gutter as the German passed and savagely jumped up and down upon the fragments of the green poster! It was a matter for bitter regret to him long after that the German did not seem to notice him.
The whole morning passed in such joy and excitement that it was nearly noon when at last Mother Meraut, beaming with happiness, and accompanied by a radiant Pierre and Pierrette, entered the Cathedral. They were astonished to find it no longer the silent and dim sanctuary to which they were accustomed. The Abbe' was there, and the Verger, looking quite distracted, was directing a group of men in moving the praying-chairs from the western end of the Cathedral, and the space where they had been was already covered with heaps of straw. Under the great choir at the western end there were piles of broken glass. Part of the wonderful rose window had been shattered by a shell, and lay in a million fragments on the stone floor.
Mother Meraut clasped her hands in dismay. "What does it all mean?" she demanded of the Verger, as he went tap-tapping by after the workmen. "What do you wish me to do?"
"Gather up every fragment of glass," said the Verger briefly, "and put them in a safe place. The wounded are on the way, and are to be housed in the Cathedral. We must be ready for them. There is no time to lose."
As Mother Meraut flew to carry out his directions, the Abbe' beckoned to the children. "Can you be trusted to do an errand for me?" he said.
"Yes, Your Reverence," answered Pierre.
"Very well," said the Abbe. "I want you to get for the towers two Red Cross flags. They must be the largest size, and we must have them soon. The wounded may arrive at any moment now, and the Red Cross will protect the Cathedral from shell-fire, for not even Germans would destroy a hospital." He gave them careful directions, and a note for the shop-keeper. "Now run along, both of you," he said. "Tell your Mother where you are going, and that I sent you."
In two minutes the Twins were on their way, but it was more than an hour before they got back. First, the shop-keeper was out, and when he got back it took him some time to find large enough flags. At last, however, they returned, each carrying one done up in a paper parcel.
"Here are the flags," Pierre announced proudly to the Verger, who met them at the entrance.
"Yes," said Father Varennes, "here they are, and here you are. Come in, your Mother wants to see you." The children followed him through the door, and although they had been told that the wounded were to be brought to the Cathedral, they were not prepared for the sight that met their eyes as they entered. On the heaps of straw lay tossing moaning men, in the gray uniforms of the German army.
Pierrette seized Pierre's hand. "Oh," she shuddered, "I didn't think they'd be Germans!"
"They aren't—all of them," said the Verger, a little huskily. "Some of them are French. The Church shelters them all."
Doctors in white aprons were already in attendance upon the wounded, and nurses with red crosses on the sleeves of their white uniforms flitted silently back and forth on errands of mercy. The two children, clinging to each other and gazing fearfully about them, followed the Verger down the aisle. As they passed a heap of straw upon which a wounded German lay, something bright rolled from it to them and dropped at Pierrette's feet. Pierre sprang to pick it up. It was a German helmet. Across the front of it were letters. Pierre spelled them—"Gott mit uns." "What does that mean?" he asked the Verger.
"God with us," snorted Father Varennes. "I suppose the poor wretches actually believe He is."
The Abbe' was waiting for them in the aisle, and he took from them the flags and the helmet. He had heard the Verger's reply, and guessed what the question must have been. "My boy," he said, laying his hand gently upon Pierre's head for an instant, "God is not far from any of his children. It is they who, through sin, separate themselves from Him! But never mind theology now. Your Mother is waiting for you. I will take you to her."
The Twins thought it strange that the Abbe' should himself guide them to their Mother. They followed his broad back and swinging black soutane to the farthest corner of the hospital space. There, beside a mound of straw upon which was stretched a wounded soldier in French uniform, knelt their Mother, and the Twins, looking down, met the eyes of their own Father gazing up at them.
"Gently! my dears, gently!" cautioned their Mother, as the children fell upon their knees beside her in an agony of tears. "Don't cry! he is wounded, to be sure, but he will get well, though he can never again fight for France. We shall see him every day, and by and by he will be at home again with us."
Too stunned for speech, the Twins only kissed the blood-stained hands, and then their Mother led them away. Under the western arches she kissed them good-by. "Go now to Madame Coudert," she said, "and tell her your Father is here, and that I shall stay in the Cathedral. Ask her to take care of you for the night. In the morning, if it is quiet, come again to me."
Dazed, happy, grieved, the children obeyed. They found Madame Coudert beaming above her empty counter. "Bless you," she cried, when they gave her their Mother's message, "of course you can stay! There are no pink cakes for Pierre, but who cares for cakes now that the French are once more in Rheims! And to think you have your Father back again! Surely this is a happy day for you, even though he came back with a wound!"