The French Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins
XIII. Children of the Legion
It must not be supposed, because things were more cheerful for the inhabitants of Fontanelle, that they had forgotten the war. They were reminded of it every day, not only by the presence of soldiers, but by the sound of distant guns, and by the visits of German airplanes. Often in the middle of the night an alarm would be given, and the people of the village would spring from their beds and seek refuge in the cellars of the. Chateau--that is, all but Kathleen; she obstinately refused to go, even when the Doctor reasoned with her. "Let me die in my bed," she pleaded. "It's better form. Our best people have always done it, and besides when I'm waked suddenly that way I'm apt to be cross." So, when the sound of the buzzing motor was heard in the sky, she simply drew the covers over her head, and stayed where she was, while a strange, half-clad procession, recruited from stables and granary, filed into the Chateau cellar. These raids were likely to occur on bright nights, and as the time of the full moon approached, the people of the village grew more watchful and slept less soundly.
On the night following the adventure of the Twins in the meadow, though the moon shone, no aerial visitor appeared, nor did one come the next night after. Neither did any news from camp come to the village. Pierre and Pierrette longed to tell Mademoiselle and the Doctor their secret, but Uncle Sam had told them to share it with no one but their parents, and they knew obedience was the first requisite of a good soldier; so they said nothing, and nearly burst in consequence. They went no more to the meadow after cress, however. Mother Meraut saw to that. If they had gone there on the morning of the next day but one after their encounter with the spies, they would have had a still more thrilling expe rience, for at midnight Uncle Sam, Jim, and the Captain had quietly stolen away from camp and hidden themselves in the straw. There they stayed until in the gray of the early dawn they saw a boat come up the river, and the slouching figure of the spy stalk across the meadow to his rendez-vous under the shed. They stayed there until the soldier appeared, and until they had heard with their own ears the plan for signaling the German airplane that night, and for giving information which would en able the aviator to blow up their stores of powder and ammunition. Then, suddenly and swiftly, at a prearranged signal, the three men sprang from the straw, and the astonished spies found themselves surrounded and covered by the muzzles of three guns. They saw at once that resistance was useless, and sullenly obeyed the Captain's order to throw up their hands. They were then marched back to camp, turned over to the proper authorities, and the next morning at sunrise they met the fate of all spies who are caught.
That was not the end of the affair, however, for, knowing that the airplane which the spy had referred to as the "Buzzard" was to be expected that night, and that the German aviator would look for signals from the straw-stack, plans were made for his reception, and this part of the drama was witnessed from the village as well as from the camp. The night was clear, and at about eleven o'clock the whirr of a motor was heard in the distance. The Doctor, who had returned late from a visit to a sick patient in an adjoining village, heard it, and at once gave the alarm. Out of their beds tumbled the sleepy people of Fontanelle, and, wrapping themselves in blankets or any garment they could snatch, they ran out of doors and gazed anxiously into the sky.
Pierre and Pierrette, with their parents and grandparents, were among the first to appear. They saw the black speck sail swiftly from the east, and hover like a bird of ill omen over the meadows. No alarm sounded from the camp, but suddenly from the shadows three French planes shot into the air. Two at once engaged the enemy, while a third cut off his retreat. The battle was soon over. There were sharp reports of guns and blinding flashes of fire as the great machines whirled and maneuvered in the air, and then the German, finding himself outnumbered and with no way of escape, came to earth and was taken prisoner.
"Three of 'em bagged, by George," exclaimed Jim to Uncle Sam, when the aviator was safely locked up in the guardhouse, "and all due to the pluck and sense of those two kids. If it hadn't been for them, the chances are we'd all have been ready for cold storage by this time. They've saved the camp--that's what they've done! There are explosives enough stored here to have blown every one of us to Kingdom-come!"
"Right you are, Jim," replied Uncle Sam with hearty emphasis, "we surely do owe them something, and that's a cinch. Let's talk with the boys."
That night Uncle Sam and Jim made eloquent use of all the French they knew as they sat about the camp-fire, and told the story of Pierre and Pierrette to their comrades in arms. Not only did they tell of their finding the spies and saving the camp from destruction, but of their Father, wounded at the Marne, of their experience in the Cathedral at Rheims, and of all they had suffered there, and especially of their plucky Mother whose spirit no misfortune could break. And when they had finished the tale, the men gave such a hearty cheer for the whole Meraut family that it was heard in the village a mile away, though no one there had the least idea what the noise was about.
The next day Uncle Sam and Jim appeared in Fontanelle and told the story of the spies to the Doctor and Mademoiselle, and then they held a long private conference with Mother Meraut. The children were on pins and needles to know what they were talking about, and why Mother Meraut looked so happy afterward, but she only shook her head when they begged her to tell them, and said, "Someday you'll find out."
Two days later an orderly rode into the Chateau gate on horseback, and inquired for Pierre and Pierrette Meraut. At the moment he arrived the Twins were feeding the rabbits, but they came running to the gate when their Mother called them, and the orderly handed them an envelope with their names on it in large letters. The Twins were so excited they could hardly wait to know what was inside. They had never before received a letter. Their Mother opened it and read the contents to the astonished children. This was the note:--
"The Commandant and men of the Foreign Legion request the pleasure of the company of Pierre and Pierrette Meraut, and of all the people of Fontanelle at a birthday party to be held at Camp (of course the exact name of the camp has to be left out on account of the Censor) "on July 14th at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. R. S. V. P."
The eyes of Pierre and Pierrette almost popped out of their heads with surprise. "Why, Mother," they cried, "that's our birthday! And it's Bastille Day too! Do you suppose it is the birthday of the Com- mandant also?"
"Maybe," said their Mother, smiling. "Anyway it is the birthday of our dear France."
The orderly smiled, too, and touched his hat. "Is there an answer?" he asked.
"There will be," said Mother Meraut, "but first the others must be told."
The Twins ran with their wonderful letter to the dispensary and told the Doctor. Then they found Mademoiselle, who, with Kathleen's assistance, was putting a new tire on one wheel of the truck. They found Louise mending a chicken-coop, and Mary and Martha sorting supplies in the storeroom. They found all the other people of the village, some in the garden and some working elsewhere, and every single one said they should be delighted to go.
"Now," said Mademoiselle, when they returned to her and reported, "you must write your acceptance."
The Twins looked blank. "Can't we just tell him?" they asked anxiously. "We can't write very well--not well enough to write to the Commandant."
"Oh, but," said Mademoiselle, "I'm sure he will expect a letter, and you must just write the very best you can, and it will be good enough, I'm sure. Get writing-materials, and I will help you."
At her direction Pierre brought paper and ink from her little house, and the two children sat down on the ground beside the truck.
"Now, what shall we say?" asked Pierrette.
"I know," said Pierre; "let's say: 'Thank you for asking us to your party. We are all coming. Amen!' Don't you think that would do?"
Mademoiselle bent over her tire. "Yes," she said, "I think he will like that, but I'd both sign it if I were you."
So the Twins signed it and put it in an envelope and gave it to the orderly, who promptly put it in his pocket, saluted, wheeled his horse, and galloped away toward camp.
The days before the party were full of excitement for the Twins. They thought of nothing else, and how strange it was that Bastille Day and the Commandant's birthday both should be the same as theirs. Mother Meraut bought some cloth, and made Pierrette a new dress, and Pierre a new blouse, to wear on the great occasion, and when the day finally came, the children searched the fields to find flowers for a bouquet for the Commandant; since they had no other birthday gift to offer him.
At three o'clock in the afternoon the whole village was ready to start. Mademoiselle drove the truck with the old people and little children sitting in it on heaps of straw. Kathleen was the driver of the Ford car, and had as passengers Father Meraut, because he was lame, and Grandpere because he was Grandpere, and the Twins because it was their birthday; and everybody else walked.
When they reached the camp, they found Jim and Uncle Sam ready to act as guard of honor to conduct them to the Commandant, who, with the Captain beside him, waited to receive them beside the flagstaff at the reviewing-stand of the parade-ground. It seemed very strange to Pierre and Pierrette that they should walk before their parents, and even before the Doctor and Mademoiselle, but Uncle Sam and Jim arranged the procession, and placed them at its head. So, carrying their bouquet of flowers, they followed obediently where their escort led. "Now, kids," said Uncle Sam in a low voice as they neared the reviewing-stand, "walk right up and mind your manners. Salute and give him the bouquet, and speak your piece."
"We haven't any piece to speak," quavered Pierrette, very much frightened, "except to wish him many happy returns of his birthday."
Uncle Sam's eyes twinkled. "That'll do all right," he said; only of course he said it in French.
The regiment was massed before the reviewing-stand as the little company came forward to meet their host, and when at last Pierre and Pierrette stood before the Commandant, with the beautiful flag of France floating over them, though they had been fearless under shell-fire, their knees knocked together with fright, and it was in a very small voice that they said, together, "Bonjour, Monsieur le Commandant, accept these flowers and our best wishes for many happy returns of your birthday."
The Commandant took the flowers and smiled down at them. "It is not my birthday, my little ones," he said gently, "it is the birthday of our glorious France and of two of her brave soldiers, Pierre and Pierrette Meraut, as well, and the Foreign Legion is here to celebrate it! Come up here beside me." He drew them up beside him on the reviewing-stand and turned their astonished faces toward the regiment.
"Men of the Foreign Legion," he said, "these are the children who discovered two spies, and by reporting them saved our camp from probable destruction." Then, turning again to the children, he said: "By your prompt and intelligent action you have prevented a terrible catastrophe. In recognition of your services the Foreign Legion desires to make you honorary members of the regiment, and France is proud to claim you as her children!" Then he pinned upon their breasts a cockade of blue, white, and red, the colors of France, and kissed them on both cheeks, the regiment meanwhile standing at attention.
When he had finished the little ceremony, the men, responding to a signal from the Captain; burst into a hearty cheer. "Vive Pierre! Vive Pierrette! Vive tous les Meraut," they cried.
For a moment the Twins stood stunned, petrified with astonishment, looking at the cheering men and at the proud upturned faces of their parents and the people of Fontanelle. Then Pierre was suddenly inspired. He waved his hat in salutation to the flag which, floated above them and shouted back to the regiment, "Vive la France!" and Pierrette saluted and kissed her hand. Then the band struck up the Marseillaise, and everybody sang it at the top of his lungs.
It was a wonderful golden time that followed, for when the children had thanked the Commandant, all the people of Fontanelle were invited to sit on the reviewing-stand and watch the regiment go through the regular drill and extra maneuvers in honor of the day, and when that was over, the guests were escorted back to the mess tent, and there they had supper with the men. Moreover, the camp cook had made a magnificent birthday cake, all decorated with little French flags. It was cut with the Captain's own sword, and though there wasn't enough for the whole regiment, every one from Fontanelle had a bite, and Pierre and Pierrette each had a whole piece.
When the beautiful bright day was over and they were back again in Fontanelle, the Twins found that even this was not the end of their joy and good fortune, for Mother Meraut told them that the regiment had put in her care a sum of money to provide for their education. "Children of such courage and good sense must be well equipped to serve their country when they grow up," the Commandant had said, and the men, responding to his appeal, had put their hands in their pockets and brought out a sum sufficient to make such equipment possible.
More than that, Uncle Sam and Jim had two small uniforms made for them,--only Pierrette's had a longer skirt to the coat,--and on parade days and other great occasions they wore them to the camp, with the blue, white, and red cockades pinned proudly upon their breasts. Indeed, they became the friends and pets of the whole regiment, and were quite as much at home with the soldiers as with the people of Fontanelle.
Then one day Uncle Sam had a letter from home in which there was wonderful news. It said that the city of Rheims had been "adopted" by the great, rich city of Chicago far away across the seas, and that some happy day when the war should be over and peace come again to the distracted world, Rheims should rise again from its ashes, rebuilt by its American friends.
In this hope the Twins still live and work, performing their duties faithfully each day, like good soldiers, and praying constantly to the Bon Dieu and their adored Saint Jeanne that the blessings which have come to them may yet come also to all their beloved France.