The French Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins
V. At Madame Coudert's
The joy of the people of Rheims was short-lived. The Germans had been driven out, it is true, but they had gone only a short distance to the east, and there, upon the banks of the Aisne, had securely entrenched themselves, venting their rage upon the City by daily bombardments. From ten until two nearly every day the inhabitants of the stricken City for the most part sat in their cellars listening to the whistling of shells and the crash of falling timbers and tiles. When the noise ceased, they returned to the light and air once more and looked about to see the extent of the damage done. Dur ing the rest of the day they went about their routine as usual, hoping against hope that the French Armies, which were now between Rheims and the enemy, would be able not only to defend the City but to drive the Germans still farther toward the Rhine.
When the Twins reached the Cathedral the morning after the return of the French troops, they found their Father resting after an operation which had removed from his leg a piece of shell, which had nearly cost his life and would make him permanently lame. Their Mother met them as they came in. She was pale but smiling. "What a joy to see you!" she cried, as she pressed them to her breast. "You may take one look at your Father and throw him a kiss; then you must go back to Madame Coudert."
"Mayn't we stay with you and help take care of Father?" begged Pierre.
"No," answered his Mother firmly, "the sights here are not for young eyes. I can wait upon the nurses and keep things clean: My place is here for the present, but tomorrow, if all goes well, we will sleep once more in our own little home, if it is still standing. In the mean time, be good children, and mind Madame Coudert. Now run along before the shells begin to fall."
The Twins obediently trotted away, and regained the little shop just as the clock struck ten. The day seemed long to them, for their thoughts were with their parents, but Madame Coudert was so cheerful herself; and kept them so busy they had no time to mope. Pierrette helped make the little cakes, and Pierre scraped the remains of the icing from the mixing-bowl and ate it lest any be wasted. In some ways Pierre was a very thrifty boy. Then, too, Madame Coudert allowed them to stand behind the counter and help wait upon the customers. Moreover, there was Fifine, the cat, for Pierrette to play with, and the little raveled-out dog lived only two doors below; so they did not lack for entertainment.
The next evening their Mother called for them, as she had promised to do, and they once more had supper and slept beneath their own roof. For three days they followed this routine, going with their Mother to Madame Coudert's, where they spent the day, returning at night. On the fourth day they were again allowed to visit the Cathedral and to see their Father. "It will do him good to be with his children," the doctor had said, and so, while Mother Meraut attended to her duties, Pierre and Pierrette sat on each side of the straw bed where he lay, proud and responsible to be left in charge of the patient.
Pierre was bursting with curiosity to know about the Battle of the Marne. Not another boy of his acquaintance had a wounded father, and though his opportunities for seeing his friends had been few, he had already done a good deal of boasting; and was pointed out by other boys on the street as a person of special distinction. "Tell me about the battle, Father," he begged.
His Father lifted his tired eyes to a statue of Jeanne d'Arc, which was in plain sight from where he lay. "Well, my boy," he said after a pause, "there is much I should not wish you to know, but this I will tell you. On the day the battle turned, the watchword of the Army was Jeanne d'Arc. Our soldiers sprang to the attack with her name upon their lips, and some have sworn to me that they saw her ride before us into battle on her white charger, carrying in her hand the very banner which you see there upon the altar. I do not know whether or not it is true, but certainly the victory was with us, and I for my part find it easy to be lieve that our blessed Saint Jeanne has not forgotten France." He raised himself a little on his elbow and pointed to a place not far distant in the nave. "There," he said, "is the very spot upon which she knelt while her king was being crowned here in our Cathedral after she had driven our enemies from French soil and had given him his throne! The happiest moments of her life were here! What place should be revisited by her pure spirit if not Rheims? My children, I wish you every day to pray that she may come again to deliver France!" Exhausted by emotion and by the effort he had made, he sank back upon the straw and closed his eyes.
Pierrette took his hand. "Dear papa, she said, "every day we will pray to her as you say, and give thanks to the Bon Dieu that your life has been spared to us. If only your poor leg--" she stopped, overcome by tears.
Her Father opened his eyes and smiled. "Ah, little one, what is a leg more or less;--or a life either for that matter,--when our France is in danger?" he said. "Is it not so, Pierre?"
Pierre gulped. "France can have all of my legs!" he cried, in a burst of patriotism. "And when I'm big enough, I'm going to dig a hole in the ground and put in millions of tons of dynamite and blow up the whole of Germany! That's what I'm going to do!"
His Father's eyes twinkled. "It seems a long while to wait," he said, "because now you are only nine, you see."
Just then their Mother came toward the little group. "Magpies!" she cried, " it seems that you are talking my patient to death. Run along now to Madame Coudert." At the Cathedral entrance she kissed them, and then stood for a moment to watch them as they hurried down the street out of sight.