The Silver Stirrup by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
In the most unexpected spots vital sparks of history blaze out. Time seems, once in a while, powerless to kill a great memory. Romance blooms sometimes untarnished across centuries of commonplace. In a new world old France lives.
* * * * *
It is computed that about one-seventh of the French-Canadian population of Canada enlisted in the great war. The stampede of heroism seems to have left them cold. A Gospel of the Province first congealed the none too fiery blood of the habitants, small farmers, very poor, thinking in terms of narrowest economy, of one pig and ten children, of painstaking thrift and a bare margin to subsistence. Such conditions stifle world interests. The earthquake which threatened civilization disturbed the habitant merely because it hazarded his critical balance on the edge of want. The cataclysm over the ocean was none of his affair. And his affairs pressed. What about the pig if one went to war? And could Alphonse, who is fourteen, manage the farm so that there would be vegetables for winter? Tell me that.
When in September, 1914, I went to Canada for two weeks of camping I had heard of this point of view. Dick Lindsley and I were met at the Club Station on the casual railway which climbs the mountains through Quebec Province, by four guides, men from twenty to thirty-five, powerfully built chaps, deep-shouldered and slim-waisted, lithe as wild-cats. It was a treat to see their muscles, like machines in the pink of order, adjust to the heavy pacquetons, send a canoe whipping through the water. There was one exception to the general physical perfection; one of Dick's men, a youngster of perhaps twenty-two, limped. He covered ground as well as the others, for all of that; he picked the heaviest load and portaged it at an uneven trot, faster than his comrades; he was what the habitants call "ambitionne." Dick's canoe was loaded first, owing to the fellow's efficiency, and I waited while it got away and watched the lame boy. He had an interesting face, aquiline and dark, set with vivid light-blue eyes, shooting restless fire. I registered an intention to get at this lad's personality. The chance came two days later. My men were off chopping on a day, and I suddenly needed to go fishing.
"Take Philippe," offered Dick. "He handles a boat better than any of them."
Philippe and I shortly slipped into the Guardian's Pool, at the lower end of the long lake of the Passes. "It is here, M'sieur," Philippe announced, "that it is the custom to take large ones."
By which statement the responsibility of landing record trout was on my shoulders. I thought I would have a return whack. My hands in the snarly flies and my back to Philippe I spoke around my pipe, yet spoke distinctly.
"Why aren't you in France fighting?"
The canoe shivered down its length as if the man at its stern had jumped. There was a silence. Then Philippe's deep, boyish voice answered.
"As M'sieur sees, one is lame."
I felt a hotness emerging from my flannel collar and rushing up my face as I bent over that damned Silver Doctor that wouldn't loose its grip on the Black Hackle. I didn't see the Black Hackle or the Silver Doctor for a moment. "Beg pardon," I growled. "I forgot." I mumbled platitudes.
"M'sieur le Docteur has right," Philippe announced unruffled. "One should fight for France. I have tried to enlist, there are three times, explaining that I am 'capable' though I walk not evenly. But one will not have me. Therefore I have shame, me. I have, naturally, more shame than another because of Jeanne."
"Because of Jeanne?" I repeated. "Who is Jeanne?"
There was a pause; a queer feeling made me slew around. Philippe's old felt hat was being pulled off as if he were entering a church.
"But--Jeanne, M'sieur," he stated as if I must understand. "Jeanne d'Arc. Tiens--the Maid of France."
"The Maid of France!" I was puzzled. "What has she to do with it?"
"But everything, M'sieur." The vivid eyes flamed. "M'sieur does not know, perhaps, that my grandfather fought under Jeanne?"
"Your grandfather!" I flung it at him in scorn. The man was a poor lunatic.
"But yes, M'sieur. My grandfather, lui-meme."
"But, Philippe, the Maid of Orleans died in 1431." I remembered that date. The Maid is one of my heroic figures.
Philippe shrugged his shoulders. "Oh--as for a grandpere! But not the grandpere a present, he who keeps the grocery shop in St. Raymond. Certainly not that grandfather. It is to say the grandpere of that grandpere. Perhaps another yet, or even two or three more. What does it matter? One goes back a few times of grandfathers and behold one arrives at him who was armorer for the Maid--to whom she gave the silver stirrup."
"The silver stirrup." My Leonard rod bumped along the bow; my flies tangled again in the current. I squirmed about till I faced the guide in the stern. "Philippe, what in hell do you mean by this drool of grandfathers and silver stirrups?"
The boy, perfectly respectful, not forgetting for a second his affair of keeping the canoe away from the fish-hole, looked at me squarely, and his uncommon light eyes gleamed out of his face like the eyes of a prophet. "M'sieur, it is a tale doubtless which seems strange to you, but to us others it is not strange. M'sieur lives in New York, and there are automobiles and trolley-cars and large buildings en masse, and to M'sieur the world is made of such things. But there are other things. We who live in quiet places, know. One has not too much of excitement, we others, so that one remembers a great event which has happened to one's family many years. Yes, indeed, M'sieur, centuries. If one has not much one guards as a souvenir the tale of the silver stirrup of Jeanne. Yes, for several generations."
The boy was apparently unconscious that his remarks were peculiar. "Philippe, will you tell me what you mean by a silver stirrup which Jeanne d'Arc gave to your ancestors?"
"But with pleasure, M'sieur," he answered readily, with the gracious French politeness which one meets among the habitants side by side with sad lapses of etiquette. "It is all-simple that the old grandfather, the ancient, he who lived in France when the Maid fought her wars, was an armorer. 'Ca fait que'--sa fak, Philippe pronounced it--'so it happened that on a day the stirrup of the Maid broke as her horse plunged, and my grandfather, the ancient, he ran quickly and caught the horse's head. And so it happened--ce fait que--that my grandfather was working at that moment on a fine stirrup of gold for her harness, for though they burned her afterwards, they gave her then all that there was of magnificence. And the old follow--le vieux--whipped out the golden stirrup from his pocket, quite prepared for use, so it happened--and he put it quickly in the place of the silver one which she had been using. And Jeanne smiled. 'You are ready to serve France, Armorer.'
"She bent then and looked le vieux in the face--but he was young at the time.
"'Are you not Baptiste's son, of Doremy?' asked the Maid.
"'Yes, Jeanne,' said my grandpere.
"'Then keep the silver stirrup to remember our village, and God's servant Jeanne,' she said, and gave it to him with her hand."
If a square of Gobelin tapestry had emerged from the woods and hung itself across the gunwale of my canvas canoe it would not have been more surprising. I got my breath. "And the stirrup, what became of it?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders. "Sais pas," he answered with French nonchalance. "One does not know that. It is a long time, M'sieur le Docteur. It was lost, that stirrup, some years ago. It may be a hundred years. It may be two hundred. My grandfather, he who keeps the grocery shop, has told me that there is a saying that a Martel must go to France to find the silver stirrup. In every case I do not know. It is my wish to fight for France, but as for the stirrup or Jeanne--sais pas." Another shrug. With that he was making oration, his light eyes flashing, his dark face working with feeling, about the bitterness of being a cripple, and unable to go into the army.
"It is not comme il faut, M'sieur le Docteur, that a man whose very grandfather fought for Jeanne should fail France now in her need. Jeanne, one knows, was the saviour of France. Is it not?" I agreed. "It is my inheritance, therefore, to fight as my ancient grandfather fought." I looked at the lame boy, not knowing the repartee. He began again. "Also I am the only one of the family proper to go, except Adolphe, who is not very proper, having had a tree to fall on the lungs and leave him liable to fits; and also Jacques and Louis are too young, and Jean Baptiste he is blind of one eye, God knows. So it is I who fail! I fail! Jesus Christ! To stay at home like a coward when France needs men!"
"But you are Canadian, Philippe. Your people have been here two hundred years."
"M'sieur, I am of France. I belong there with the fighting men." His look was a flame, and suddenly I know why he was firing off hot shot at me. I am a surgeon.
"What's the matter with your leg?" I asked.
The brilliant eyes flashed. "Ah!" he brought out, "One hoped--If M'sieur le Docteur would but see. I may be cured. To be straight--to march!" He was trembling.
Later, in the shifting sunshine at the camp door, with the odors of hemlocks and balsams about us, the lake rippling below, I had an examination. I found that the lad's lameness was a trouble to be cured easily by an operation. I hesitated. Was it my affair to root this youngster out of safety and send him to death in the debacle over there? Yet what right had I to set limits? He wanted to offer his life; how could I know what I might be blocking if I withheld the cure? My job was to give strength to all I could reach.
"Philippe," I said, "if you'll come to New York next month I'll set you up with a good leg."
In September, 1915, Dick and I came up for our yearly trip, but Philippe was not with us. Philippe, after drilling at Valcartier, was drilling in England. I had lurid post cards off and on; after a while I knew that he was "somewhere in France." A grim gray card came with no post-mark, no writing but the address and Philippe's labored signature; for the rest there were printed sentences: "I am well. I am wounded. I am in hospital. I have had no letter from you lately." All of which was struck out but the welcome words, "I am well." So far then I had not cured the lad to be killed. Then for weeks nothing. It came to be time again to go to Canada for the hunting. I wrote the steward to get us four men, as usual, and Lindsley and I alighted from the rattling train at the club station in September, 1916, with a mild curiosity to see what Fate had provided as guides, philosophers and friends to us for two weeks. Paul Sioui--that was nice--a good fellow Paul; and Josef--I shook hands with Josef; the next face was a new one--ah, Pierre Beaurame--one calls one's self that--on s'appelle comme ca. Bon jour! I turned, and got a shock. The fourth face, at which I looked, was the face of Philippe Martel. I looked, speechless. And with that the boy laughed. "It is that M'sieur cannot again cure my leg," answered Philippe, and tapped proudly on a calf which echoed with a wooden sound.
"You young cuss," I addressed him savagely. "Do you mean to say you have gone and got shot in that very leg I fixed up for you?"
Philippe rippled more laughter--of pure joy--of satisfaction. "But, yes, M'sieur le Docteur, that leg meme. Itself. In a battle, M'sieur le Docteur gave me the good leg for a long enough time to serve France. It was all that there was of necessary. As for now I may not fight again, but I can walk and portage comme il faut. I am capable as a guide. Is it not, Josef?" He appealed, and the men crowded around to back him up with deep, serious voices.
"Ah, yes, M'sieur."
"He can walk like us others--the same!" they assured me impressively.
Philippe was my guide this year. It was the morning after we reached camp. "Would M'sieur le Docteur be too busy to look at something?"
I was not. Philippe stood in the camp doorway in the patch of sunlight where he had sat two years before when I looked over his leg. He sat down again, in the shifting sunshine, the wooden leg sticking out straight and pathetic, and began to take the covers off a package. There were many covers; the package was apparently valuable. As he worked at it the odors of hemlock and balsam, distilled by hot sunlight, rose sweet and strong, and the lake splashed on pebbles, and peace that passes understanding was about us.
"It was in a bad battle in Lorraine," spoke Philippe into the sunshiny peace, "that I lost M'sieur le Docteur's leg. One was in the front trench and there was word passed to have the wire cutters ready, and also bayonets, for we were to charge across the open towards the trenches of the Germans--perhaps one hundred and fifty yards, eight arpents--acres--as we say in Canada. Our big guns back did the preparation, making what M'sieur le Docteur well knows is called a rideau--a fire curtain. We climbed out of our trench with a shout and followed the fire curtain; so closely we followed that it seemed we should be killed by our own guns. And then it stopped--too soon, M'sieur le Docteur. Very many Boches were left alive in that trench in front, and they fired as we came, so that some of us were hit, and so terrible was the fire that the rest were forced back to our own trench which we had left. It is so sometimes in a fight, M'sieur le Docteur. The big guns make a little mistake, and many men have to die. Yet it is for France. And as I ran with the others for the shelter of the trench, and as the Boches streamed out of their trench to make a counter attack with hand-grenades I tripped on something. It was little Rene Dumont, whom M'sieur le Docteur remembers. He guided for our camp when Josef was ill in the hand two years ago. In any case he lay there, and I could not let him lie to be shot to pieces. So I caught up the child and ran with him across my shoulders and threw him in the trench, and as he went in there was a cry behind me, 'Philippe!'
"I turned, and one waved arms at me--a comrade whom I did not know very well--but he lay in the open and cried for help. So I thought of Jeanne d'Arc, and how she had no fear, and was kind, and with that, back I trotted to get the comrade. But at that second--pouf!--a big noise, and I fell down and could not get up. It was the good new leg of M'sieur le Docteur which those sacres Boches had blown off with a hand-grenade. So that I lay dead enough. And when I came alive it was dark, and also the leg hurt--but yes! I was annoyed to have ruined that leg which you gave me--M'sieur le Docteur."
I grinned, and something ached inside of me.
Philippe went on. "It was then, when I was without much hope and weak and in pain and also thirsty, that a thing happened. It is a business without pleasure, M'sieur le Docteur, that--to lie on a battle-field with a leg shot off, and around one men dead, piled up--yes, and some not dead yet, which is worse. They groan. One feels unable to bear it. It grows cold also, and the searchlights of the Boches play so as to prevent rescue by comrades. They seem quite horrible, those lights. One lives, but one wishes much to die. So it happened that, as I lay there, I heard a step coming, not crawling along as the rescuers crawl and stopping when the lights flare, but a steady step coming freely. And with that I was lifted and carried quickly into a wood. There was a hole in the ground there, torn by a shell deeply, and the friend laid me there and put a flask to my lips, and I was warm and comforted. I looked up and I saw a figure in soldier's clothing of an old time, such as one sees in books--armor of white. And the face smiled down at me. 'You will be saved,' a voice said; and the words sounded homely, almost like the words of my grandfather who keeps the grocery shop. 'You will be saved.' It seemed to me that the voice was young and gentle and like a woman's.
"'Who are you?' I asked, and I had a strange feeling, afraid a little M'sieur, yet glad to a marvel. I got no answer to my question, but I felt something pressed into my hand, and then I spoke, but I suppose I was a little delirious, M'sieur, for I heard myself say a thing I had not been thinking. 'A Martel must return to France to find the silver stirrup'--I said that, M'sieur. Why I do not know. They were the words I had heard my grandfather speak. Perhaps the hard feeling in my hand--but I cannot explain, M'sieur le Docteur. In any case, there was all at once a great thrill through my body, such as I have never known. I sat up quickly and stared at the figure. It stood there. M'sieur will probably not believe me--the figure stood there in white armor, with a sword--and I knew it for Jeanne--the Maid. With that I knew no more. When I woke it was day. I was still lying in the crater of the shell which had torn up the earth of a very old battle-field, but in my hand I held tight--this."
Philippe drew off the last cover with a dramatic flourish and opened the box which had been wrapped so carefully. I bent over him. In the box, before my eyes, lay an ancient worn and battered silver stirrup. There were no words to say. I stared at the boy. And with that suddenly he had slewed around clumsily--because of his poor wooden leg--and was on his knees at my feet. He held out the stirrup.
"M'sieur le Docteur, you gave me a man's chance and honor, and the joy of fighting for France. I can never tell my thanks. I have nothing to give you--but this. Take it, M'sieur le Docteur. It is not much, yet to me the earth holds nothing so valuable. It is the silver stirrup of Jeanne d'Arc. It is yours."
* * * * *
In a glass case on the wall of my library hangs an antique bit of harness which is my most precious piece of property. How its story came about I do not even try to guess. As Philippe said the action of that day took place on a very old battle-field. The shell which made the sheltering crater doubtless dug up earth untouched for hundreds of years. That it should have dug up the very object which was a tradition in the Martel family and should have laid it in the grasp of a Martel fighting for France with that tradition at the bottom of his mind seems incredible. The story of the apparition of the Maid is incredible to laughter, or tears. No farther light is to be got from the boy, because he believes his story. I do not try to explain, I place the episode in my mind alongside other things incredible, things lovely and spiritual, and, to our viewpoint of five years ago, things mad. Many such have risen luminous, undesirable, unexplained, out of these last horrible years, and wait human thought, it may be human development, to be classified. I accept and treasure the silver stirrup as a pledge of beautiful human gratitude. I hold it as a visible sign that French blood keeps a loyalty to France which ages and oceans may not weaken.