VIII. Refugees
 

The Twins and their Father followed the resolute figure of Mother Meraut down the street, not. knowing at all where she was leading them, but with implicit confidence that she knew what she was about. She was carrying the heaviest bundles, and the Twins carried the rest between them, packed in a clothes-basket. On her other arm Pierrette bore her dearly loved Jacqueline. Father Meraut could carry nothing but such small articles as could be put in his pockets, but it was joy enough that he could carry himself, and it was quite wonderful to see how speedily he got over the ground with his crutch.

Not far from their house in the Rue Charly ran the River Vesle, which flows through Rheims, and as the Merauts knew well a man whose business it was to let boats to pleasure parties in summer, the children were not surprised to see their Mother walk down the street toward the little wharf where his boats were kept. He was waiting to receive them, and, drawn up to the water's edge was a red and white row-boat, with the name "The Ark" painted upon her prow. Mother Meraut smiled when she saw the name. "If we only had the animals to go in two by two, we should be just like Noah and his family, shouldn't we?" she said, as she put the bundles in the stern.

In a few moments they were all seated in the boat, with their few belongings carefully balanced, and Jacqueline safely reposing in Pierrette's lap. The boatman pushed them away from the pier. "Au revoir," called Mother Meraut as the boat slid into the stream. "We will come back again when the Germans are gone, and in some way I shall have a chance to send your boat to you, I know. Meanwhile we will take good care of it."

"There will be few pleasure-seekers on the Vesle this summer," answered the boat-man, "and the Ark will be safer with you than rotting at the pier, let alone the chance of its being blown up by a shell. I'm glad you've got her, and glad you are going away from Rheims. It will be easy pulling, for you're going down- stream, and about all you'll have to do is to keep her headed right. Au revoir, and good luck." He stood on the pier looking after them and waving his hat until they were well out in the middle of the stream.

Father Meraut had the oars, and, as his arms had not been injured, he was able to guide the boat without fatigue, and soon the current had carried them through the City and out into the open country which lay beyond. Mother Meraut sat in the prow, looking back toward the Cathedral she had so loved, until the blackened towers were hidden from view by trees along the riverbank. They had started early in order to be well out of Rheims before the daily bombardment should begin.

Spring was already in the air, and as they drifted along they heard the skylarks singing in the fields. The trees were turning green, and there were blossoms on the apple trees. The wild flowers along the riverbank were already humming with bees, and the whole scene seemed so peaceful and quiet after all they had endured in Rheims, that even the shell-holes left in the fields which had been fought over in the autumn and the crosses marking the graves of fallen soldiers did not sadden them.

Mother Meraut sat for a long time silent, then heaved a deep sigh of relief. "I feel like Lot's wife looking back upon Sodom and Gomorrah," she said. Suddenly her eyes filled with tears and she kissed her finger-tips and blew the kiss toward Rheims. "Farewell, my beautiful City!" she cried. "It is not for your sins we must leave you! And some happy day we shall return."

There was a report, and a puff of smoke far away over the City, then the sound of a distant explosion. The daily bombardment had begun!

"Your friends are firing a farewell salute," said Father Meraut.

All the morning they slipped quietly along between greening banks, carried by the current farther and farther down-stream. At noon they drew the boat ashore beneath some willow trees, where they ate their lunch, and then spent an hour in such rest as they had not had for many weary months.

It was then, and not until then, that Father Meraut ventured to .ask his wife her plans. "My dear," he said, as he stretched himself out in a sunny spot and put his head in Pierrette's lap, "I have great confidence in you, and will follow you willingly anywhere, but I should really like to know where we are going."

Mother Meraut looked at him in surprise. "Why, haven't I told you? " she said "My mind has been so full of it I can't believe you didn't know that we are going to my father's, if we can get there! You know their village is on a little stream which flows into the Aisne some distance beyond its junction with the Vesle. We could drift down to the place where the two rivers join, and go on from there to the little stream which flows past Fontanelle. Then we could row up-stream to the village."

"It's as plain as day, now you tell it," answered her husband, "and a very good plan, too."

"You see," said Mother Meraut, as she packed away the remains of the lunch, "I haven't heard a word from them all winter. I don't know whether they are dead or alive. I haven't said anything about it, because you were so ill and there were so many other worries, but this plan has been in my mind all the time. What we shall do when we get to Fontanelle I do not know, but we shall be no worse off than other refugees, and at any rate we shall not be under shell-fire every day."

"If we can't find any place to stay there, why can't we go on and on down the river, until we get clear to the sea," said Pierre with enthusiasm.

"It's just like being gypsies, isn't it?" added Pierrette.

"So far as I can see," said Mother Meraut, "we've got to go on and on! Certainly we can't go back."

"No, we can't go back," echoed her husband, with a sigh.

All the pleasant afternoon they drifted peacefully along, and nightfall found them in open country. It began to grow colder as darkness came on. "We shall need all our blankets if we are to sleep in the fields," said Mother Meraut at last. "It's time for supper and bed, anyway. Let's go ashore."

"We'll build a fire on the bank and cook our supper there," said her husband.

"What is there, Mother, that we can cook?"

"There are eggs to fry, and potatoes to roast in the ashes," she answered, " and coffee besides."

"I am as hungry as a wolf," said Pierrette.

"I'm as hungry as two wolves," said Pierre.

They found a landing-place, and the Ark was drawn ashore. Pierre and Pierrette ran at once to gather sticks and leaves. These they brought to their Father, and soon a cheerful fire flamed red against the shadows. Then the smell of coffee floated out upon the evening air, and the sputter of frying eggs gave further promise to their hungry stomachs.

Before they had finished their supper the stars were winking down at them, and over the brow of a distant hill rose a slender crescent moon. Pierrette saw it first. "Oh," she cried, "the new moon! And I saw it over my right shoulder, too! We are sure to have wonderful luck this month."

Pierre shut his eyes. "Which way is it?" he cried. Pierrette turned him carefully about so that he too might see it over his right shoulder, and then, this ceremony completed, they washed the dishes and helped pack the things carefully away in the clothes-basket once more.

They slept that night under the edge of a straw-stack in the meadow near the river, and though they were homeless wanderers without a roof to cover them, they slept well, and awakened next morning to the music of bird-songs instead of to the sound of guns and the whistling of shells.