On the Way Home
For some time after leaving the Cathedral, Mother Meraut and the Twins lingered in the streets, forgetful of everything but the retreating Army and the coming invasion. Everywhere there were crowds surging to and fro. Some were hastening to close their places of business and put up their shutters before the Germans should arrive. Some were hurrying through the streets carrying babies and bundles. Others were wheeling their few belongings upon barrows or in baby-carriages. Still others flew by on bicycles with packages of clothing fastened to the handle-bars; and there were many automobiles loaded to the brim with household goods and fleeing families.
Doors were flung open and left swinging on their hinges as people escaped, scarcely looking behind them as they fled. These were refugees from Rheims itself. There were many others wearily plodding through the City, people who had come from Belgium and the border towns of France. Some who had come from farms drove pitiful cattle before them, and some journeyed in farm wagons, with babies and old people, chickens, dogs, and household goods mixed in a heap upon beds of straw. In all the City there was not a cheerful sight, and everywhere, above all other sounds, were heard the rumble of wheels, the sharp clap-clap of horses' hoofs upon the pavement, and the steady beat of marching feet.
At last, weary and heartsick, the three wanderers turned into a side street and stepped into a little shop where food was sold. "We must have some supper," said Mother Meraut to the Twins, "Germans or no Germans! One cannot carry a stout heart above an empty stomach! And if it is to be our last meal in French Rheims, let us at least make it a good one!" Though there was a catch in her voice, she smiled almost gaily as she spoke. "Who knows?" she went on. "Perhaps after to-morrow we shall be able to get nothing but sauerkraut and sausage!"
The shop was not far from the little home of the Merauts, and they often bought things of stout Madame Coudert, whose round face with its round spectacles rose above the counter like a full moon from behind a cloud. "Ah, mon amie," said Mother Meraut as she entered the shop, "it is good to see you sitting in your place and not running away like a hare before the hounds!"
Madame Coudert shrugged her shoulders. "But of what use is it to run when one has no place to run to?" she demanded. "As for me, I stay by the shop and die at least respectably among my own cakes and pies. To run through the country and die at last in a ditch— it would not suit me at all!"
"Bravo," cried Mother Meraut triumphantly. "Just my own idea! My children and I will remain in our home and take what comes, rather than leap from the frying-pan into the fire as so many are doing. If every one runs away, there will be no Rheims at all." Then to Pierre and Pierrette she said "Choose, each of you. What shall we buy for our supper?"
Pierre pointed a grimy finger at a small cake with pink frosting. "That," he said briefly.
His mother smiled. "Ah, Pierre, that sweet-tooth of yours!" she cried. "Like Marie Antoinette you think if one lacks bread one may eat cakes! And now it is Pierrette's turn; only be quick, ma mie, for it is already late."
"Eggs," said Pierrette promptly, "for one of your savory omelets, mamma, and a bit of cheese."
The purchases were quickly made, and, having said good-night to Madame Coudert, they hurried on to the little house in the Rue Charly where they lived. When they reached home, it was already quite dark. Mother Meraut hastened up the steps and unlocked the door, and in less time than it takes to tell it her bonnet was off, the fire was burning, and the omelet was cooking on the stove.
Pierrette set the table. "I'm going to place father's chair too," she said to her mother. "He is no doubt thinking of us as we are of him, and it will make him stem nearer."
Mother Meraut nodded her head without speaking, and wiped her eyes on her apron as she slid the omelet on to a hot plate. Then she seated herself opposite the empty chair and with a steady voice prayed for a blessing upon the food and upon the Armies of France.
When they had finished supper, cleared it away, and put the kitchen in order, Mother Meraut pointed to the clock. "Voila!" she cried, "hours past your bedtime, and here you are still flapping about like two young owls! To bed with you as fast as you can go."
"But, Mother," began Pierre.
"Not a single 'but,'" answered his Mother, wagging her finger at him. "Va!"
The children knew protest was useless, and in a few minutes they were snugly tucked away. Long after they were both sound asleep, their Mother sat with her head bowed upon the table, listening, listening to the distant sound of marching feet. At last, worn out with grief and anxiety, shat too undressed, said her rosary, and, after a long look at her sleeping children, blew out the candle and crept into bed beside Pierrette.
Silence and darkness settled down upon the little household, and, for a time at least, their sorrows were forgotten in the blessed oblivion of sleep.