The French Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins
XI. A Surprise
The next morning the whole village was up early, and plans were perfected for the voyage of Father Meraut and Grandpere. A long list of necessary articles was made out, and the money for their purchase safely hidden away in their inside pockets. They were just about to start down the road to the river, when suddenly a wonderful thing happened. Right through the great gate of the Chateau rumbled a large motor truck with an American flag fluttering from the radiator! It was driven by a strange young woman in a smart gray uniform. Beside her on the driver's seat sat an older woman dressed the same way and carrying in her hand a black medicine-case.
The girl stopped her engine, climbed down to the ground, and approached the astonished people of Fontanelle: "Bon jour," she said, smiling. Then in excellent French she explained her errand. "We are Americans," she said, and at that name every face smiled back at her. "We have come to help you restore your homes. America loves and admires the French people, and since we women cannot fight with you, we wish at least to help in the reconstruction of your beautiful France. Your government has given us permission to start our work here, and has promised help from the soldiers whose camp is near. The money we bring from America will purchase materials, and with your labor and the help of the soldiers we shall soon see what can be done."
For a moment after she had ceased speaking there was silence. The people of Fontanelle were too astonished for words. So much good fortune after all their sorrow left them stunned. It was Pierre who first found his voice. He took off his cap, swung it in the air and shouted, "Vive l'Amerique," at the top of his lungs, and "Vive l'Amerique," chorused the whole village, relieved to be able to vent their feelings in sound.
Mademoiselle laughed. "Vive la France," she answered, and then, turning to the truck, she cried, "Come and see what we have in our little shop on wheels. But first let me introduce to you Dr. Miller. She is an American doctor who has come to take care of any who may be sick."
The Doctor had already climbed down from her high seat and was opening the back of the truck. She smiled and shook hands with the people. "Is there not something here you wish to buy?" she asked. "The prices are plainly marked."
Everybody now crowded about the truck, and in it,--oh, wonderful,- -piled on the floor and hanging from the top and sides, were the very things for which they had been longing so eagerly! There were hoes, and shovels, and rakes, and garden seeds of all kinds. There were bolts of cloth and woolen garments and wooden shoes, and yarn for knitting. There were even knitting-needles! And, best of all, there was food, food such as they had not seen in many weary months. Ah, it was indeed marvelous what that truck contained!
The buying began at once, and never before had any one been able to purchase so much for a franc! Soon there was nothing left in the truck but some bedding and other articles belonging to the Doctor and Mademoiselle, as the people at once began to call her.
"Will you not come with me to my apartment in the stable?" said Mother Meraut cordially to the two women. "You must be tired from your journey."
"We must first see the Commandant at the camp," said the Doctor, "and then we shall be happy if you will find some lunch for us. It is necessary to see at once if our houses have come."
"Your houses!" cried Pierre, so surprised that he quite forgot his manners. "But, Madame, it is not possible that you carry your houses with you like the snails?"
The Doctor laughed. "Not just like the snails," she said; "our houses have been sent on ahead of us in sections, with the army supplies, and are no doubt here in the care of the Commandant."
"Go, my Pierre, conduct them to the camp," said his Mother, "and when you come back," she added, turning to the two women, "I will have ready for you the best that my poor house affords." The Doctor and Mademoiselle thanked Mother Meraut, and then, following Pierre, started down the river road toward the camp a mile or more away.
The next few days seemed to Pierre and Pierrette, and indeed to all the inhabitants of Fontanelle, little less than a series of miracles. In the first place, the Doctor and Mademoiselle had scarcely finished the good lunch which Mother Meraut had waiting for them on their return from camp, when a great truck, loaded with sections of the portable houses, entered the great gate of the Chateau. It was followed by a detachment of soldiers from the Foreign Legion, sent by the Commandant to erect them. The soldiers were also Americans, and Pierre and Pierrctte were delighted to find that both "Jim" and "Uncle Sam" were among them. Indeed Uncle Sam was in command of the squad, and when he presented himself and his men to the Doctor and Mademoiselle, he explained that the Commandant had detailed Americans to this duty, as he thought that they would more easily understand what the ladies wished to have done.
The whole place now swarmed with people working as busily as bees in a hive. By night one house was fit to be occupied. The following night two more had been erected, and the soldiers had laid tent floors in all of them. The day after that six more young women in gray came, bringing more supplies. Under the generalship of the Doctor, Mother Meraut was installed in the carriage-house which opened from the stable, and here she prepared meals for her family and for all the new-comers as well. The Doctor established a dispensary in one room of the Chateau, and Mademoiselle opened a store in the basement, keeping there for sale a large quantity of the supplies which had been brought by the six young women. Father Meraut and Grandpere worked hard on the gardens, assisted by Pierre and Pierrette and any other person in the village who was capable of wielding a hoe. Soon people began to come in from the neighboring hamlets, bringing their sick babies to the Doctor for treatment. The great truck was loaded with supplies received through the Army Service and the Red Cross, and the young women took turns in driving the "Shop on Wheels" into other, less favored districts, to start there work similar to that begun at Fontanelle.
Uncle Sam and Jim came so often to the village that they were soon on friendly terms with every one in it. They acted as emissaries between the camp and the village, and if anything was needed which was beyond the power of these determined women to supply, Uncle Sam and Jim seemed always by some miracle to accomplish it. One day the Doctor said to Jim "I wish there were some way of getting a good cow here. These little children cannot get rosy and strong without fresh milk, and they haven't had any since the Germans drove away their cows."
A week later Jim appeared at the Chateau gate leading a cow! There was a card tied to one horn. The Doctor removed it and read, "To Dr. Miller for the little children of Fontanelle."
"It's from the Commandant," said Jim, beaming with pride.
The cow proved such a success, and the babies and young children showed at once such improvement, that the Doctor determined that they should have not only milk but fresh eggs, and Mademoiselle was sent to Paris to make investigations, and, if possible, place an order for more cows and some hens. Upon her return she announced that a load of live-stock from southern France would soon arrive at the nearest railroad station, five miles away.
"It's going to be a regular menagerie," said Mademoiselle, when she told Mother Meraut about it. "There will be two more cows, two pigs, a pair of goats, ten pairs of rabbits, and sixty fowls."
"Mercy upon us!" cried Mother Meraut. "Where in the world can we put them all? Must we move out of our apartment to admit the cows?"
"No," laughed Mademoiselle, "we must find another way to take care of them. The cows can stay out of doors now, and there is grass to feed them and the goats. They can all be tethered by ropes, if necessary, but we must find a secure place to keep the pigs and the rabbits, and the chicken-house must be mended and put in order for the fowls."
"But Madame Corbeille now resides in the chicken-house. What will become of her and her children?" cried Mother Meraut.
"Easy enough," said Mademoiselle; "there is still room in your stable, is there not? For example, there is the granary! It will do excellently for the Corbeilles. Pierre and Pierrette will help build the rabbit-hutch, I know, and there we are, all provided for!"
So it was arranged, and that afternoon another family came to live under the same roof with the Merauts. Grandpere, with his new hammer and some nails, mended the chicken-house, and then helped Pierre and Pierrette build enclosures for the rabbits and pigs out of stones and rubble from the fallen walls.
At last the day came when all the creatures were to arrive, and Mademoiselle arranged that the Twins, Mother Meraut, and four of her own party of young women should go to the railroad station to get them. The great truck was brought out, ropes were then thrown in, and all the people who composed what Mademoiselle called the "Reception Committee" climbed in and sat on the floor, while Mademoiselle and the Doctor occupied the driver's seat. The soldiers had done some work on the roads, so they were not as bad as they had been earlier in the spring; but they were still bad enough, and the people in the truck were bounced about like kernels of corn in a popper.
"Now," said Mademoiselle, when they arrived at the station, "the fowls and the rabbits will have to go back in the truck. That will be easy, for they came in crates; but the cows, the goats, and the pigs must be either led or driven."
"It sounds simple enough," said the Doctor, "but have any of you ever known any cows or pigs? Do you know how to manage them?"
"I have an acquaintance with cows," said Mother Meraut, "but to goats and pigs I am a stranger."
"Very well," said Mademoiselle, "Mother Meraut shall lead the way with the cows. You, Kathleen and Louise," she said, turning to two of the gray-uniformed girls, "you shall attend the goats. Mary and Martha may tackle the pigs. Pierre and Pierrette will serve excellently as short-stops in case any of our live-stock gets away, and the Doctor and I will bring up the rear."
"It's going to be a regular circus!" said Kathleen. "I feel as if we ought to wear spangles and be led by a band."
"We haven't any clown, though," said Martha.
"I shouldn't wonder," said Mary, "if we'd all look like clowns in this parade."
The car with the creatures in it was standing on a side track, and the station agent, looking doubtfully at the girls, led the way to it, and after the rabbits and fowls had been loaded into the truck, placed a gangplank for the cows to walk down, and opened the door of the car. But nothing happened; the cows obstinately refused to step down the plank.
"Here's a rope," said Mademoiselle, at last, throwing one up to the agent. "I hoped we shouldn't need it, but I guess we do."
The agent fixed the rope to the horns of one of the cows, and threw the other end to Mademoiselle. "Now," said he, "pull gently to begin with."
Mademoiselle, pale but valiant, pulled, quietly at first, then harder. The cow put her head down, braced her feet and backed.
"Come on," cried Mademoiselle to the others, "we'll all have to pull together."
Any one who could get hold of it seized the rope.
"I never played 'pom pom pull away' with a cow before," quavered Louise. "I--I--don't feel sure she knows the rules of the game!"
"She'll soon learn," said Mademoiselle, grimly. "Don't welch. Now, then, one--two--three--pull!"
At the word, they all leaned back and pulled. The cow, yielding suddenly, shot out of the car like a cork out of a champagne bottle, and the girls attached to the rope went down like a row of bricks. The rope flew out of their hands, and the cow went careering down the track with the rope dangling wildly after her, while the other cow, fired by her example, came bawling after. When they found grass by the roadside they became reasonable at once. Mother Meraut then took charge of them, and, as Kathleen remarked, "that ended the first movement." The second began when the goats were unloaded. Mademoiselle took no chances with them. She got the agent to put ropes on them in the first place, and Kathleen and Louise, cautiously advancing to the plank, held up propitiatory offerings of grass.
"That 's right," laughed Mademoiselle, "leading citizens with bouquets! Perhaps a speech of welcome might help. They aren't the first old goats to be received that way."
"Hush!" implored Louise. "My knees are knocking together so I can hardly stand up now, and suppose they should butt!"
"In the words of the immortal bard 'butt me no butts,'" murmured Kathleen, as they reached the gang-plank.
The agent, having attached the rope and released the goats from their moorings, stood back and gave them full access to the open door, holding the other end of the rope firmly in his hands. "You can take the ropes when they are safely down the plank," he cried gallantly. "They need a man to handle them."
"Oh, thank you," said Kathleen and Louise with one voice.
The goats accepted the suggestion of the open door at once and galloped down the gang-plank with such reckless speed that the agent lost his footing and came coasting down after them. "Mille tonneurs!" he exclaimed, as he reached the end of the gang-plank and struck a bed of gravel. "Those goats are possessed of the devil!"
The Doctor was beside him in an instant. "I hope you are not injured," she cried. "Is there anything I can do for you? I am a doctor."
"No, Madame," said the agent, bowing politely, as he got himself on his feet again, "I am hurt only in my pride, and you have no medicine for that!"
"Oh," cried Mademoiselle, "how brave it was of you! It's as you say--they need a man to manage them!"
The station agent looked at the goats, who were now grazing peacefully, attended by Kathleen and Louise, and then, a little thoughtfully, at Mademoiselle. "It is indeed better that a man should take these risks," he said, throwing out his chest. "And there are still the pigs! I doubt not they are as full of demons as the Gadarene Swine themselves!"
"What should we do without your help?" said Mademoiselle. "The pigs cannot be roped!"
"No," said the agent sadly, "they cannot." He considered a moment. Then he motioned to Pierre and Pierrette, who were standing with Mary and Martha at a respectful distance. "Come here, all of you," he said, addressing them from the top of the gang-plank; "pigs must be taken by strategy. I am an old soldier. I will engineer an encircling movement. Mademoiselle; will you stand here at the left, and, Madame la Docteur, will you station yourself at my right? The rest of you arrange yourselves in a curved line extending westward from Madame. Then I will release the pigs, and you, watching their movements, will head them off if they start in the wrong direction. Voila! We will now commence."
He went back into the car, and in another moment the pigs, squealing vociferously, thundered down the gang-plank, gave one look at the "encircling movement," and, wheeling about, instantly dashed under the car and out on the other side into an open field. It was not until they had made a complete tour of the village, pursued by the entire personnel of the "encircling movement" that they were at last turned into the Fontanelle road.
"This isn't--the way--this parade--was advertised!" gasped Kathleen, as she struggled with her goat in an effort to take her appointed place in the caravan. "The--cows--were to--go--first!"
"Never mind," answered Louise cheerfully, as she pulled her goat into the road. "A little informality will be overlooked, I'm sure."
Mother Meraut followed them with the cows, and last of all Mademoiselle and the Doctor climbed into the truck and brought up the rear of the procession, with all the roosters crowing at the top of their lungs.
There is not time to tell of all the adventures that befell them on the eventful journey back to Fontanelle. One can merely guess that it must have been full of excitement, since the Reception Committee did not reach the village with their charges until some time after dark. Mother Meraut was worried because she was not home in time to get a hot supper for the tired girls, but when they arrived they found that Grand'mere had stepped into the breach, and had made steaming hot soup for every one. Grandpere and Father Meraut took charge of the live-stock, and Mother Corbeille milked the cows.
As they dragged themselves wearily to bed that night, Kathleen decorated Mademoiselle with a huge cross,--cut out of paper,-- which she pinned upon her nightgown. "For extreme gallantry," she explained, "in leading your forces into action in face of a fierce charge by two goats, and for taking prisoner two rebellious pigs!" Then she saluted ceremoniously and tumbled into bed.