The French Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins
III. The Coming of the Germans
When the Twins opened their eyes the next morning, the first thing they saw was the sun shining in at the eastern window of the kitchen, and Mother Meraut bending over the fire. There was a smell of chocolate in the air, and on the table there were rolls and butter. Pierre yawned and rubbed his eyes. Pierrette sat up and tried to think what it was she was so unhappy about; sleep had, for the time being, swept the terrors of the night quite out of her mind. In an instant more the fearful truth rolled over her like a wave, and she sank back upon the pillow with a little moan.
Her Mother heard and understood. She too had waked from sleep to sorrow, but she only cried out cheerfully, "Bonjour, my sleepy heads! Last night you did not want to go to your beds at all. This morning you wish not to leave them! Hop into your clothes as fast as you can, or we shall be late."
"Late where?" asked Pierre.
"To my work at the Cathedral, to be sure," answered Mother Meraut promptly. "Where else? Did you think the Germans would make me sit at home and cry for terror while my work waits? Whoever rules in Rheims, the Cathedral still stands and must be kept clean."
It was wonderful how the dismal world brightened to Pierre and Pierrette as they heard their Mother's brave voice. They flew out of bed at once and were dressed in a twinkling.
While they ate their breakfast, Pierre thought of a plan. "We ought to take a lot of food with us to-day," he said to his Mother. "There's no telling what may happen before night. Maybe we can't get home at all and shall have to sleep in the Cathedral."
"Oh," shuddered Pierrette, "among all those tombs?"
"There are worse places where one might sleep," said the Mother. "The dead are less to be feared than the living, and the Cathedral is the safest place in Rheims." She brought out a wicker basket and began to pack it with food as she talked. First she put in two pots of jam. "There," said she, "that's the jam Grandmother made from her gooseberries at the farm."
She paused, struck by a new alarm. Her father and mother lived in a tiny village far west of Rheims. What if the Germans should succeed in getting so far as that? What would become of them? She shut her fears in her breast, saying nothing to the children, and went on filling the basket. "Here is a bit of cheese left from last night. I'll put that in, and a pat of butter," she said; "but we must stop at Madame Coudert's for more bread. You two little pigs have eaten every scrap there was in the house."
"There are eggs left," suggested Pierrette.
"So there are, ma mie," said her Mother. "We will boil them all and take them with us. There's a great deal of nourishment in eggs." She flew to get the saucepan, and while the eggs bubbled and boiled on the stove, she and the children set the little kitchen in order and got themselves ready for the street.
It was after nine o'clock when at last Mother Meraut took the basket on her arm and gave Pierrette her knitting to carry, and the three started down the steps.
"Everything looks just the same as it did yesterday," said Pierrette as they walked down the street. "There's that little raveled-out dog that always barks at Pierre, and there's Madame Coudert's cat asleep on the railing, just as she always is."
"Yes," said Mother Meraut, with a sigh, "the cats and dogs are the same, it is only the people who are different!"
They entered the shop and exchanged greetings with Madame Coudert. They had bought a long loaf of bread, and Mother Mcraut was just opening her purse to pay for it, when suddenly a shot rang out. It was followed by the rattle of falling tiles. Another and another came, and soon there was a perfect rain of shot and shell.
"It is the Germans knocking at the door of Rheims before they enter," remarked Madame Coudert with grim humor. "I did not expect so much politeness!"
Mother Meraut did not reply. For once her cheerful tongue found nothing comforting to say. Pierre clung to her arm, and Pierrette put her fingers in her ears and hid her face against her Mother's breast.
For some time the deafening sounds continued. From the window they could see people running for shelter in every direction. A man came dashing down the street; dodging falling tiles as he ran, and burst into Madame Coudert's shop. He had just come from the Rue Colbert and had news to tell. "The Boches have sent an emissary to the Mayor to demand huge supplies of provisions from the City, and a great sum of money besides," he told them, as he gasped for breath. "They are shelling the champagne cellars and the public buildings of the City to scare us into giving them what they demand. The German Army will soon be here."
In a few moments there was a lull in the roar of the guns, and then in the distance another sound was heard. It was a mighty song of triumph as the conquerors came marching into Rheims!
"There won't be any more shooting for a while anyway," said the stranger, who had now recovered his breath. "They won't shell the City while it's full of their own men. I'm going to see them come in."
All Pierre's fears vanished in an instant. "Come on," he cried, wild with excitement; "let us go too."
"I'll not stir a foot from my shop," said Madame Coudert firmly. "I don't want to see the Germans, and if they want to see me, they can come where I am."
But Pierre had not waited for a reply, from her or any one else. He was already running up the street.
"Catch him, catch him," gasped Mother Meraut.
Pierrette dashed after Pierre, and as she could run like the wind, she soon caught up with him and seized him by the skirt of his blouse. "Stop! stop!" she screamed. "Mother doesn't want you to go."
But she might as well have tried to argue with a hurricane. Pierre danced up and down with rage, as Pierrette braced herself, and firmly anchored him by his blouse. "Leggo, leggo!" he shrieked. "I'm going, I tell you! I'm not afraid of any Germans alive."
Just then, panting and breathless, Mother Meraut arrived upon the scene. While Pierrette held on to his blouse, she attached herself to his left ear. It had a very calming effect upon Pierre. He stopped tugging to get away lest he lose his ear.
"Foolish boy," said his Mother, "see how much trouble you give me! You shall see the Germans, but you shall not run away from me. If we should get separated, God only knows whether we should ever find each other again."
The music had grown louder and louder, and was now very near. "I'll stay with you, if you'll only go," pleaded Pierre, "but you aren't even moving."
"Come, Pierrette," said his Mother, "take hold of his left arm. I will attend to his right; he might forget again. What he really needs is a bit and bridle!"
The three moved up the street, Pierre chafing inwardly, but helpless in his Mother's grasp, and at the next crossing the great spectacle burst upon them. A whole regiment of cavalry was passing, singing at the top of their lungs, "Lieb' Vaterland, macht ruhig sein." The sun glistened on their helmets, and the clanking of swords and the jingling of spurs kept time with the swelling chorus. After the cavalry came soldiers on foot--miles of them.
"Oh," murmured Pierrette, clinging to her Mother, "it's like a river of men!"
Her Mother did not answer. Pierrette looked up into her face. The tears were streaming down her cheeks, but her head was proudly erect. She looked at the other French people about them. There were tears on many cheeks, but not a head was bowed. Pierre was glaring at the troops and muttering through his teeth: "Just you wait till I grow up! I'll make you pay for this, you pirates! I'll--"
"Hush!" whispered Pierrette. "Suppose they should hear you!"
"I don't care if they do! I wish they would!" raged Pierre. "I'm going--"
But the German Army was destined not to suffer the consequences of Pierre's wrath. He did not even have a chance to tell Pierrette his plan for their destruction, for at this point his Mother, unable longer to endure the sight, dragged him forcibly from the scene. "They shall not parade their colors before me," she said firmly, "I will not stand still and look in silence upon my conquerors! If I could but face them with a gun, that would be different!"
She led the children through a maze of small streets by a roundabout way to the Cathedral, and there they were met at the entrance by the Verger, who gazed at them with sad surprise. "You've been out in the street during the bombardment," he said reproachfully. "It's just like you, Antoinette."
"Oh, but how was I to know it was coming?" cried Mother Meraut. "We left home before it began!"
"It would have been just the same if you had known," scolded the Verger. "Germans or devils--it would make no difference to you! You have no fear in you."
"You misjudge me," cried Mother Meraut; "but what good would it do to sit and quake in my own house? There is no safety anywhere, and here at least there is work to do."
"You can go about your work as usual with the noise of guns ringing in your ears and the Germans marching through Rheims?" exclaimed the Verger.
"Why not?" answered Mother Meraut, with spirit. "I guess our soldiers don't knock off work every time a gun goes off or a few Germans come in sight! It would be a shame if we could not follow their example!" `
"Antoinette, you are a wonderful woman. I have always said so," declared the Verger solemnly. "You are as brave as a man!"
"Pooh!" said Mother Meraut, mockingly. "As if the men, bless their hearts, were so much braver than women, anyway! Oh, la! la! the conceit of you!" She wagged a derisive finger at the Verger, and, calling the children, went to get her scrubbing-pail and brushes.
All day long, while distant guns roared, she went about her daily tasks, keeping one spot of order and cleanliness in the midst of the confusion, disorder, and destruction of the invaded city. The Twins were busy, too; their Mother saw to that. They dusted chairs and placed them in rows; and at noon they found a corner where the light falling through one of the beautiful stained- glass windows made a spot of cheerful color in the gloom, and there they ate part of the lunch which they had packed in the wicker basket. During all the excitement of the morning they had not forgotten the lunch!
When the day's work was done, they ventured out upon the streets in the gathering dusk. They found them full of German soldiers, drinking, swaggering, singing, and they saw many strange and terrifying sights in the havoc wrought by the first bombardment. As they passed the door of Madame Coudert's shop, they peeped in and saw her sitting stolidly behind the counter, knitting.
"Oh," said Pierrette, "doesn't it seem like a year since we were here this morning?"
Mother Meraut called out a cheerful greeting to Madame Coudert. "Still in your place, I see," she said.
"Like the Pyramids," came the calm answer; and, cheered by her fortitude, they hurried on their way to the little house in the Rue Charly.
Mother Meraut sighed with relief as she unlocked the door. "Everything just as we left it," she said. "We at least shall have one more night in our own home." Then she drew the children into the shelter of the dear, familiar roof and locked the door from the inside.