The French Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins
VII. Home Again
The next day, they were able to move Father Meraut to his own home. In spite of the excitement and strain, he seemed but little the worse for his experience, and the happiness of being again with his family quite offset the effect of his dangerous journey. Mother Meraut was a famous nurse, and when he was safely installed in a bed in a corner of the room which was their living- room and kitchen in one, she was able to give him her best care. There he lay, following her with his eyes as she made good things for him to eat or carried on the regular activities of her home. Pierre and Pierrette sat beside his bed and talked to him, or, better still, got him to tell them stories of the things that had happened during his brief stay in the Army. Pierre brought the little raveled-out dog, with which he was now on the friendliest terms, to see him, and Madame Coudert also came to call now and then, bringing a cake or some other dainty to the invalid.
If only the Germans had gone from their trenches on the Aisne, they and every one else in Rheims would have been quite comfortable, but alas! this was not to be. The Germans stayed where they were, and each day sent a new rain of shells upon the unfortunate City. The inhabitants grew accustomed to it, as one grows used to thundershowers in April. "Hello! it's beginning to sprinkle," they would say when a shell burst, spattering mud and dirt upon the passers-by. Signs appeared upon the street, "Safe Cellars Here," and when the bombardment began, people would dash for the nearest shelter and wait until the storm was over.
Pierre and Pierrette played out of doors every day, though they did not go far from their home, and had no one but each other to play with. Pierrette made a play-house in one corner of the court. Here in a little box she kept a store of broken dishes, and here she sat long hours with her doll Jacqueline. Sometimes Pierre, having no better occupation, played with her. He even took a gingerly interest in Jacqueline, although he would not for the world have let any of the boys know of such a weakness.
When the shells began to fall, they would leave their corner and run quickly to the cellar. As Father Meraut could not go up or down, his wife stayed in the kitchen beside him. In this way several weary weeks went by. Mother Meraut went no more to the Cathedral. There was nothing there that she could do. The great, beautiful church which had been the very soul of Rheims and the pride of France was now nothing but a ruined shell, its wonderful windows broken, its roof gone, its very walls of stone so burned that they crumbled to pieces at a touch. Even the great bronze bells had been melted in the flames and had fallen in molten drops, like tears of grief, into the wreckage below. All the beautiful treasures--the tapestries, wrought by the hands of queens, and even the sacred banner of Jeanne d'Arc itself--had been destroyed.
Mother Meraut knew, but she did not tell her children, that precious lives had also been lost, and that buried somewhere in the ruins were the bodies of doctors and nurses who had given their own in trying to save the lives of others, and of brave citizens of Rheims who had fallen in an attempt to save the precious relics carefully treasured there. Neither did she tell them that little Jean, the Verger's son, was one of that heroic band. These sorrows she bore in her own breast, but she never passed near the Cathedral after that terrible night. Sometimes, when a necessary errand took her to that part of the City, she would pause at a distance to look long at the statue of Jeanne d'Arc, standing unharmed in the midst of the destruction about her still lifting her sword to the sky. In all the rain of shells which had fallen upon the City not one had yet touched the statue. Only the tip of the sword had been broken off. It comforted Mother Meraut to see it standing so strangely safe in the midst of such desolation. "It stands," she thought, " even as her pure spirit stood safe amidst the flames of her martyrdom. But I cannot, like her, pray for my enemies while I burn in the fires they have kindled."
There was yet another burden which she carried safely hidden in her heart. She had not heard from her father and mother since the Battle of the Marne. That the Germans had passed through the village where they lived she knew, but what destruction they had wrought she could only guess. It was impossible for her at that time to go to them; so she waited in silence, hoping that some time good news might come. The slow weeks lengthened into months, and at last Father Meraut was strong enough to get about on a crutch like Father Varennes. It was a great day when first he was able to hobble down the steps and out upon the street, leaning on Mother Meraut's arm on one side, and his crutch upon the other, with Pierre and Pierrette marching before him like a guard of honor.
It was now cold weather; winter had set in, and life became more difficult as food grew scarce and there was not enough fuel to heat the houses. School should have begun in October, but school- buildings had not been spared in the bombardment, and it was dangerous to permit children to stay in them. At last, however, a new way was found to cheat the enemy of its prey. Schools were opened in the great champagne cellars of Rheims, and Pierre and Pierrette were among the first scholars enrolled. Every day after that they hastened through the streets before the usual hour of the bombardment, went down into one of the great tunnels cut in chalk, and there, in rooms deep underground, carried on their studies. It was a strange school, but it was safer than their home, even though there was danger in going back and forth in the streets. By spring the children of Rheims had lived so much in cellars that they were as pale as potato-sprouts.
Mother Meraut watched her two with deepening anxiety. Then, one day in the spring, a corner of their own roof was blown off by a shell. No one was hurt, but when a few moments later a second explosion blew a cat through the hole and dropped it into the soup, Mother Meraut's endurance gave way.
It was the last straw! She put the cat out, yowling but unharmed, and silently cleared away the debris. Then, when the bombardment was over, she put on her bonnet and went out. She came back an hour later, to find the Twins sitting, one on each side of their Father, holding his hands, and all three the picture of despair. Mother Meraut stood before them, her eyes flashing, her cheeks burning a deep red, and this is what she said: "I will not live like this another day. Life in Rheims is no longer possible. I will not stay here to be killed by inches. I have made arrangements to get a little row-boat, and to-morrow morning we will take such things as we can carry and leave this place. Whatever may happen to us elsewhere, it cannot be worse than what is happening here, and it may possibly be better."
Her husband and children looked at her in amazement. She did not ask their opin- ion about the matter, but promptly began the necessary preparations and told them what to do. Clothing was brought to Father Meraut to be packed in compact bundles and tied up with string. Then blankets were made into another bundle; a third held a frying-pan, a coffee-pot, and a kettle, with a few knives, forks, and spoons, while a fourth contained food. The Twins were sent to say good-by to Madame Coudert, and to give her a key to the door, and then all the rest of their household goods were packed away as carefully as time permitted, in the cellar.
Mother Meraut put the Twins to bed early, but she herself remained at work most of the night; yet when morning came and the children woke, she was up and neatly dressed, and had their breakfast ready. She did not linger over their sad departure, nor did she shed a tear as they left the little house which had been their happy home. Instead, she locked the door after them with a snap, put the key in her pocket, and walked down the steps with the grim determination of a soldier going into battle, carrying a big bundle under each arm.