The French Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins
XII. Morning in the Meadow
As summer came on, life seemed less and less sad to the people of Fontanelle. With the coming of the Americans the outlook had so changed that, although the war was not yet over, they could look forward to the future with some degree of hope. The news brought from Rheims by occasional refugees was always sad. The Germans con tinued to shell the defenseless city, and the Cathedral sustained more and more injuries, but the beautiful stained-glass windows had been carefully taken down, the broken pieces put together as far as possible, and the whole shipped to safer places in France. The statue of Jeanne d'Arc within the church had also been taken from its niche, while the one before the Cathedral doors still remained unharmed by shot and shell.
It comforted Mother Meraut to think of that valiant figure standing alone amid such desolation. She had other things to comfort her as well. With food and fresh air the roses bloomed again in the cheeks of her children. Soon, too, the gardens began to yield early vegetables. In the morning, instead of hearing the sound of guns, they were awakened by bird-songs, or by the crowing of cocks and the bleating of goats. These were pleasant sounds to the people of Fontanelle, for they brought memories of peaceful and prosperous days, and the promise of more to come.
The rebuilding of the village was begun by the end of June, and the sound of saws and hammers cheered them with the prospect of comfortable homes before cold weather should come again. The work proceeded slowly, for the workers were few, even though their good friend the Commandant gave them all the help he could. There were now a multitude of little chicks running about on what had been the stately lawns of the Chateau, and there were twenty new little rabbits in the rabbit-hutch. As the rabbits could not forage for themselves, it was necessary for others to forage for them, and this work fell to the lot of Pierre and Pierrette.
One summer morning one of the roosters crowed very, very early, and the Twins, having no clock, supposed it was time for them to get up and go for fresh leaves and roots for the rabbits, as they did every day. They rose at once, and the sun was just peering above the eastern horizon as they came out of the stable door. They went to the rabbit-hutch, and the rabbits, seeing them, stood up on their hind legs and wiggled their noses hungrily.
"Rabbits do have awful appetites," said Pierre, a little ruefully, as he looked down at the empty food-box. "Just think what a pile of things we brought them yesterday."
"There's nothing to do but get them more, I suppose," answered Pierrette.
"I know where there's just bushels and bushels of water-cress," said Pierre, "but it's quite a long distance off. You know the brook that flows through the meadow between here and camp? It's just stuffed with it, and rabbits like it better than almost anything."
"Let's go and get some now," said Pierrette. "We can take the clothes-basket and bring back enough to last all day."
Pierre went for the basket, and the two children started down the road which ran beside the meadow toward the camp. It was so early that not another soul in the village was up. Even the rooster had gone to sleep again after his misguided crowing. One pale little star still winked in the morning sky, but the birds were already winging and singing, as the children, carrying the basket between them, set forth upon their quest.
When they reached the brook, they set down the basket, took off their wooden shoes, and, wading into the stream, began gathering great bunches of the cress. They were so busy filling their basket that they did not notice the sun had gone out of sight behind a cloud-bank, and that the air was still with that strange breathless stillness that precedes a storm. It was not until a loud clap of thunder, accompanied by a flash of light ning, suddenly broke the silence, that they knew the storm was upon them. When they looked up, the meadow grasses were bend ing low before a sudden wind, and the trees were swaying to and fro as if in terror, against the background of an angry sky.
"Wow!" said Pierre. "I guess we're in for it! We can't possibly get home before it breaks."
"Oh," gasped Pierrette, as another peal of thunder shook the air, "I don't want to stay out in it. What shall we do?"
Pierre looked about him. A little distance beyond the brook, toward the camp, there was a straw-stack with a rough straw- thatched shed beside it, half hidden under a group of small trees. Pierre pointed to it. "We'll leave the basket here," he said, "and hide under the straw until the storm is over. Then we can come back again, get it, and go home."
Another clap of thunder, louder still, sent them flying on their way, and they did not speak again until they were under the shelter of the shed. The first big drops fell as they reached it, and then the storm broke in a fury of wind and water. The children cowered against the stack itself as far as possible out of reach of the driving rain.
They had been there but a few moments, when they heard a new sound in addition to the roar of the wind and the patter of the rain upon the leaves. It was the dull tread of heavy footsteps, and they were surprised to see a man running toward the straw- stack, his head bent to shield his face from the rain, under the brim of an old hat. His clothes were rough and unkempt, and altogether his appearance was so forbidding that the children instinctively dived under the straw at the edge of the stack like frightened mice, and burrowed backward until they were completely hidden, though they could still peep out through the loose straw.
The man reached the shed almost before they were out of view, but it was evident that he had not seen them, for he did not glance in their direction. He took off his hat and shook the rain-drops from it. Then he wiped his face and neck with a soiled handkerchief and sat down on the edge of a bench that had once been used for salting cattle. He sat still for a little while, with his feet drawn up on the bench and his hands clasping his knees, the better to escape the rain. Then he began to grow restless. He walked back and forth and peered out into the rain in the direction of the camp. The children were so frightened they could hear their own hearts beat, but they had been in danger so many times, and in so many different ways that they kept their presence of mind, and were able to follow closely his every move. Soon they heard the sound of more footsteps, and suddenly there dashed under the shed a soldier in the uniform of France. It was evident that the first man expected him, for he showed no surprise at his coming, and the two sat down together on the bench and began to talk.
The wind had now subsided a little, and though they spoke in low tones the children could hear every word.
"Whew!" said the soldier as he shook his rain-coat. "Nasty weather."
"All the better for our purposes," answered the other man. "There's less chance of our being seen."
"Not much chance of that, anyway, so early in the morning as this," answered the soldier, looking at his watch. "It's not yet four o'clock!"
"Best not to linger, anyway," said the other man. "That Captain of yours has the eyes of a hawk. I was up at camp the other day selling cigarettes and chocolate, and he eyed me as if he was struck with my beauty."
"I wish you'd keep away from camp," said the soldier, impatiently. "It isn't necessary, and you might run into some one who knew you back in Germany. There are all kinds of people in the Foreign Legion. I tell you, it isn't safe, and besides, I can get all the information we need without it."
"All right, General," responded the other, grinning. "But have you got it? That's the question. I expect that buzzard will be flying around again over this field in a night or so,--the moon is 'most full now, and the nights are light,--and I've got to be able to signal him just how to find the powder magazine and the other munitions. Then he can swoop right over there and drop one of his little souvenirs where it will do the most good and fly away home. I advise you to keep away from that section of the camp yourself."
"Here is the map," said the soldier, drawing a paper from his pocket, "and there are also statistics as to the number of men and all I can find out about plans for using them. Take good care of it. It wouldn't be healthy to be found with it on you."
The first man pocketed the paper. "That's all, is it?" he asked.
"All for this time, anyway," answered the soldier.
The man looked at him narrowly.
"Well," said the soldier, "what's the matter? Don't I look like a Frenchman?"
"You'd deceive the devil himself," answered the man with a short laugh. "No one would ever think you were born in Bavaria. Don't forget and stick up the corners of your mustache, though. That might give you away. When do you think you can get over to see that fort?"
"I don't know," answered the soldier sharply, " but I'll meet you here day after to-morrow at the same hour. Auf Wiedersehen," and he was gone.
After his departure, his companion lingered a moment, lit a cigarette, looked up at the sky, and, seeing that the shower was nearly over, strolled off in the opposite direction.
The children, looking after him, saw him come upon their basket near the brook, examine it carefully, and then look about in every direction as if searching for the owners. Seeing no one, he gave it a kick and passed on. They watched him, not daring to move until he turned toward the river and was out of sight. Later they saw a boat come from the shelter of some bushes on the bank, and slip quietly down the stream with the man in it.
When they dared move once more they crawled out from under the straw, and Pierrette said, "Well, what do you think of that?"
"Think!" Pierre said, choking with wrath. "I think he's a miserable dog of a spy! They are both spies! And they are going to try to blow up the whole camp! You come along with me." He seized Pierrette by the hand, and the two flew over the wet meadow toward the distant camp.
"Whatever should we do if we met that soldier?" gasped Pierrette, breathless with running and excitement.
"Look stupid," said Pierre promptly. "He didn't see us, and he'd never dream we had seen him; but, by our blessed Saint Jeanne, this is where I get even with the Germans! Let's find Jim and Uncle Sam."
Reveille was just sounding as they entered the camp and presented themselves at the door of Uncle Sam's tent. During the weeks that had elapsed since their arrival in France, Jim and Uncle Sam had acquired a fair working knowledge of the language, and, though it still remained a queer mixture of French and English, they and the children managed to understand each other very well.
"Bonjour, kids!" cried Uncle Sam in astonishment, when he saw the two children at the tent door. "What on earth are you doing here? Don't you know visitors are not expected in camp at this hour?"
"Sh--sh!" said Pierre, laying his finger on his lips. "Nobody must see us! We have important news!"
Uncle Sam sat up in bed. "Why, I believe you have," he said, looking attentively. at their pale faces. "Just wait a minute while I get my clothes on. Here, you--Jim," he added, poking a recumbent figure in the adjoining cot. "Roll out! It's reveille!"
Jim sat up at once and rubbed his eyes, and, after a hurried consultation, the two men turned the two children with their faces to the wall in one corner of the tent, while they made a hasty toilet in the other.
"Now, then, out with it," said Uncle Sam a few moments later. "Que vooly-voo? What's up?"
Jim sat down beside him on the edge of the cot, and the two men listened in amazement to the story the two children had to tell. When they had finished, Uncle Sam wasted no words. "Come with me to the Captain tooty sweet," he said. And Jim added, as he patted the Twins tenderly on the head, "By George, mes enfants, you ought to get the war cross for this day's work."
A few moments more, and the children and Uncle Sam were ushered by an orderly into the presence of the Captain, who was just in the act of shaving. Uncle Sam's message to him had been so imperative that they were admitted at once to his presence, even though his face was covered with lather and he was likely to fill his mouth with soap if he opened it. Uncle Sam saluted, and the Twins, wishing to be as polite as possible, saluted too. The Captain returned the salute, and went on shaving as he listened to their story, grunting now and then emphatically instead of speaking, on account of the soap. When Pierre came to what the soldier had said under the shed, he was so much interested that he cut his chin.
"So that's their program, is it?" he sputtered, soap and all, mopping his chin. "But how on earth did you happen to be in such a place as that at such an hour in the morning?"
Pierre explained about the rabbits and the cress, and Uncle Sam added: "They're from Fontanelle. Their father is a soldier wounded at the Marne, and they lived under fire in Rheims for eight months before coming here. They're some kids, believe me! They know what war is."
"Yes," said the Captain, "I remember them; they came up the river some weeks ago." Then he turned to the children. "Would you know that soldier if you were to see him again?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," said the children.
"Very well," said the Captain, "the men will go to breakfast soon. You stay with Sam and watch them, and if you see that man go by you step on Sam's foot. No one must see you do it. Be sure you don't make a mistake now," he added, "and if you really do unearth the rascal, it's the best day's work you ever did, for yourselves as well as for France. Sam, you report to me afterwards, and be sure you give no occasion for suspicion to any one."
"Yes, sir," said Sam, and saluted. Pierre and Pierrette saluted also.
The Captain returned the salute with ceremony. "You are true soldiers of France," he said to the Twins as they left his tent.
If their comrades were surprised to see Uncle Sam standing with two children by his side while the others passed into the mess tent with cups and plates in hand, no one said anything. It was a little irregular to be sure--but then--Americans were always unexpected! For a long time the men filed by, and still there was no sign of the face they sought. At last, however, Pierre came down solidly on Uncle Sam's right foot, and at the same time Pierrette touched his left with her wooden shoe. There, right in front of them, carrying his plate and cup, and twirling his mustache, was the man they sought!
The Twins stood still, and not by the quiver of an eyelash did they betray any excitement until the man had passed into the tent. Then Uncle Sam said to them, "Now you scoot for home, or your Mother will be worried to death! Tell your Father and Mother all about it, but don't tell another soul at present." The children flew back across the meadow, picked up their basket of cress, and when they reached the Chateau, fed the hungry rabbits. Then they found their Father and Mother and told them their morning's adventures.