Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THE BURNING OF THE CATHEDRAL
On the evening of the 18th of September, Mother Meraut was late
in leaving the Cathedral, and it was nearly dark when she reached
Madame Coudert's door. Pierrette sat on the steps waiting for
her, with Fifine, the cat, in her arms. Madame Coudert was
knitting, as usual, and Pierre was trying to teach the little
raveled-out dog to stand on his hind legs. As their Mother
appeared, the children sprang to meet her.
"How is Father?" cried Pierrette. It was always the first
question when they saw her.
"Better," answered her Mother. " In another week or two the
doctor thinks he can be moved."
She was about to enter the shop to speak to Madame Coudert, when
the air was suddenly rent by a fearful roar of sound. She clasped
her children in her arms. "It's like thunder," she said, patting
them soothingly; "if you hear the roar you know at once that you
aren't killed. Come, we must hurry to the cellar." But before she
could take a single step in that direction there was another
"Look, oh look!" screamed Pierre, pointing to the Cathedral
towers, which were visible from where they stood; "they are
shelling the Cathedral!"
For an instant they stood as if rooted to the spot. Was it
possible the Germans would shell the place where their own
wounded lay—a place protected by the cross? They saw the
scaffolding about one of the towers burst suddenly into flames.
In another moment the fire had caught and devoured the Red Cross
flag itself and then sprang like a thing possessed to the roof.
An instant more, and that too was burning.
"Father!" screamed Pierre, and before any one could stop him or
even say a word, the boy was far up the street, running like a
deer toward the Cathedral. Pierrette was but a few steps behind
When she saw her children rushing madly into such danger, Mother
Meraut's exhausted body gave way beneath the demands of her
spirit. If Madame Coudert had not caught her, she would have sunk
down upon the step. It was only for an instant, but in that
instant the children had passed out of sight. Not stopping even
to close her door, Madame Coudert seized Mother Meraut's hand,
and together the two women ran after them. But they could not
hope to rival the speed of fleet young feet, and when they
reached the Cathedral square the flames were already roaring
upward into the very sky. The streets were crowded by this time,
and their best speed brought them to the square ten minutes after
the children had reached the burning Cathedral, and, heedless of
danger, had dashed in and to the corner where their helpless
The place was swarming with doctors and nurses working
frantically to move the wounded. The Abbe' was there, and the
Archbishop also. Already the straw had caught fire in several
places from falling brands. "Out through the north transept,"
shouted the Abbe.
Pierre and Pierrette knew well what they had come to do. For them
there was but one person in the Cathedral, and that person was
their Father. They had but one purpose—to get him out. Young as
they were, they were already well used to danger, and it scarcely
occurred to them that they were risking their lives. Certainly
they were not afraid. When they reached their Father's side, they
found him vainly struggling to rise.
"Here we are, Father," shouted Pierre: "Lean on us!" He flew to
one side; Pierrette was already struggling to lift him on the
other. As his bed was the one farthest from the spot where the
fire first appeared, the doctors and nurses had sought to rescue
those in greatest danger, and so the children for the time being
were alone in their effort to save him.
The flames were now leaping through the Cathedral aisles,
devouring the straw beds as if they were tinder. In vain Father
Meraut ordered them to leave him. For once his children refused
to obey. Somehow they got him to his feet, and he, for their
sakes making a superhuman effort, succeeded in staggering between
them, using their lithe young bodies as crutches. How they
reached the door of the north transept they never knew, but reach
it they did, before the burning flames. And there a new terror
The people of Rheims, infuriated by the long abuse which they had
suffered, stood with guns pointed at the wounded and helpless
Germans whom the doctors and nurses had succeeded in getting so
far on the way to safety. Above the roar of flames rose the roar
of angry voices. "It is the Germans who burn our Cathedral. Let
them die with it," shouted one.
Between the helpless Germans and the angry mob; facing their
guns, towered the figures of the Abby and the Archbishop! "If you
kill them, you must first kill us," cried the Archbishop. Kill
the Archbishop and the Abbe'! Unthinkable! The guns were
immediately lowered, and the work of rescue went on.
Out of the north door crept Father Meraut, supported by his brave
children. "Bravo! Bravo!" shouted the crowd, and then hands that
would have killed Germans willingly, were stretched in instant
sympathy and helpfulness to the wounded French soldier and his
brave children. Two men made a chair of their arms, and Father
Meraut was carried in safety to the square before the Cathedral,
Pierre and Pierrette following close behind. At the foot of the
statue of Jeanne d'Arc they stopped to rest and change hands, and
there, frantic with joy, Mother Meraut found them.
"A soldier of France—wounded at the Marne!" shouted the crowd,
and if he had been able to endure it, they would have borne him
upon their grateful shoulders. As it was, he was carried in no
less grateful arms clear to Madame Coudert's door, and there,
lying upon an improvised stretcher, and attended by his wife and
children, he rested from his journey, while Madame Coudert ran to
prepare a cup of coffee for a stimulant. From Madame Coudert's
door they watched the further destruction of the beautiful
Cathedral which Mother Meraut had so often called the "safest
place in Rheims." As it burned, a wonderful thing happened. High
above the glowing roof there suddenly flamed the blue fleur-de-
lis of France!
"See! See! " cried Mother Meraut. "A Miracle! The Lily of France!
Oh, surely it is a sign sent by the Bon Dieu to keep us from
"It is only the gas from an exploding shell, bursting in blue
flame," said her husband. "Yet—who knows?—it may also be a true
promise that France shall rise in beauty from its ruins."