THE CHURCH AND THE PEOPLE
The sunlight of the clear September afternoon shone across the
roofs of the City of Rheims, and fell in a yellow flood upon the
towers of the most beautiful cathedral in the world, turning them
into two shining golden pillars against the deep blue of the
The streets below were already in shadow, but the sunshine still
poured through the great rose window above the western portal,
lighting the dim interior of the church with long shafts of
brilliant reds, blues, and greens, and falling at last in a
shower of broken color upon the steps of the high altar.
Somewhere in the mysterious shadows an unseen musician touched
the keys of the great organ, and the voice of the Cathedral
throbbed through its echoing aisles in tremulous waves of sound.
Above the deep tones of the bass notes a delicate melody floated,
like a lark singing above the surf.
Though the great church seemed empty but for sound and color,
there lingered among its shadows a few persons who loved it well.
There were priests and a few worshipers. There was also Father
Varennes, the Verger, and far away in one of the small chapels
opening from the apse in the eastern end good Mother Meraut was
down upon her knees, not praying as you might suppose, but
scrubbing the stone floor. Mother Meraut was a wise woman; she
knew when to pray and when to scrub, and upon occasion did both
with equal energy to the glory of God and the service of his
Church. Today it was her task to make the little chapel clean and
sweet, for was not the Abbe coming to examine the Confirmation
Class in its catechism, and were not her own two children, Pierre
and Pierette, in the class? In time to the heart-beats of the
organ, Mother Meraut swept her brush back and forth, and it was
already near the hour for the class to assemble when at last she
set aside her scrubbing-pail, wiped her hands upon her apron, and
began to dust the chairs which had been standing outside the
arched entrance, and to place them in orderly rows within the
She had nearly completed her task, when there was a tap-tapping
upon the stone floor, and down the long aisle, leaning upon his
crutch, came Father Varennes. He stopped near the chapel and
watched her as she whisked the last chair into place and then
paused with her hands upon her hips to make a final inspection of
"Bonjour, Antoinette," said the Verger.
Mother Meraut turned her round, cheerful face toward him. "Ah, it
is you, Henri," she cried, "come, no doubt, to see if the chapel
is clean enough for the Abbe! Well, behold."
The Verger peered through the arched opening, and sniffed the
wet, soapy smell which pervaded the air. "One might even eat from
your clean floor, Antoinette," he said, smiling, "and taste
nothing worse with his food than a bit of soap. Truly the chapel
is as clean as a shriven soul."
"It's a bold bit of dirt that would try to stand out against me,"
declared Mother Meraut, with a flourish of her dust-cloth, "for
when I go after it I think to myself, 'Ah, if I but had one of
those detestable Germans by the nose, how I would grind it!' and
the very thought brings such power to my elbow that I check
myself lest I wear through the stones of the floor."
The Verger laughed, then shook his head. "Truly, Antoinette," he
said, "I believe you could seize your husband's gun if he were to
fall, and fill his place in the Army as well as you fill his
place here in the Cathedral, doing a man's work with a woman's
strength, and smiling as if it were but play! Our France can
never despair while there are women like you."
"My Jacques shall carry his own gun," said Mother Meraut,
stoutly, "and bring it home with him when the war is over, if God
wills, and may it be soon! Meanwhile I will help to keep our holy
Cathedral clean as he used to do. It is not easy work, but one
must do what one can, and surely it is better to do it with
smiles than with tears!"
The Verger nodded. "That is true," he said, "yet it is hard to
smile in the face of sorrow."
"But we must smile—though our hearts break—for France, and for
our children, lest they forget joy!" cried Mother Meraut. She
smiled as she spoke, though her lip trembled "I will you the
truth, Henri, sometimes when I think of what the Germans have
already done in Belgium, and may yet do in France, I feel my
heart breaking in my bosom. And then I say to myself, 'Courage,
Antoinette! It is our business to live bravely for the France
that is to be when this madness is over. Our armies are still
between us and the Boche. It is not time to be afraid.'"
"And I tell you, they shall not pass," cried Father Varennes,
striking his crutch angrily upon the stone floor. "The brave
soldiers of France will not permit it! Oh, if I could but carry a
gun instead of this!" He rattled his crutch despairingly as he
Mother Meraut sighed. "Though I am a woman, I too wish I might
fight the invaders," she said, "but since I may not carry a gun,
I will put all the more energy into my broom and sweep the dirt
from the Cathedral as I would sweep the Germans back to the Rhine
if I could."
"It is, indeed, the only way for women, children, and such as I,"
grieved the Verger.
"Tut, tut," answered Mother Meraut cheerfully, "it isn't given us
to choose our service. If God had wanted us to fight he would
have given us power to do it."
The Verger shook his head. "I wish I were sure of that," he said,
"for there's going to be need for all the fighting blood in
France if half one hears is true. They say now that the Germans
are already far over the French border and that our Army is
retreating before them. The roads are more than ever crowded with
refugees, and the word they bring is that the Germans have
already reached the valley of the Aisne."
"But that is at our very doors!" cried Mother Meraut. "It is
absurd, that rumor. Chicken hearts! They listen to nothing but
their fears. As for me, I will not believe it until I must. I
will trust in the Army as I do in my God and the holy Saints."
"Amen," responded the Verger devoutly.
At this moment the great western portal swung on its hinges, a
patch of light showed itself against the gloom of the interior of
the Cathedral, and the sound of footsteps and of fresh young
voices mingled with the tones of the organ.
"It's the children, bless their innocent hearts," said Mother
Meraut. "I hear the voices of my Pierre and Pierrette."
"And I of my Jean," said the Verger, starting hastily down the
aisle. "The little magpies forget they must be quiet in the House
of God!" He shook his finger at them and laid it warningly upon
his lips. The noise instantly subsided, and it was a silent and
demure little company that tiptoed up the aisle, bent the knee
before the altar, and then filed past Mother Meraut into the
chapel which she had made so clean.
Pierre and Pierrette led the procession, and Mother Meraut beamed
with pride as they blew her a kiss in passing. They were children
that any mother might be proud of. Pierrette had black, curling
hair and blue eyes with long black lashes, and Pierre was a
straight, tall, and manly-looking boy. The Twins were nine years
Mother Meraut knew many of the children in the Confirmation
Class, for they were all schoolmates and companions of Pierre and
Pierrette. There was Paul, the sore of the inn-keeper, with
Marie, his sister. There was Victor, whose father rang the
Cathedral chimes. There were David and Genevieve, and Madeleine
and Virginie and Etienne, and last of all there was jean, the
Verger's son—little Jean, the youngest in the class. Mother
Meraut nodded to them all as they passed.
Promptly on the first stroke of the hour the Abbe appeared in the
north transept of the Cathedral and made his way with quick,
decided steps toward the chapel. He was a young man with thick
dark hair almost concealed beneath his black three-cornered cap,
and as he walked, his long black soutane swung about him in
vigorous folds. When he appeared in the door of the chapel the
class rose politely to greet him. "Bonjour, my children," said
the Abbe, and then, turning his back upon them, bowed before the
crucifix upon the chapel altar.
Mother Meraut and the Verger slipped quietly away to their work
in other portions of the church, and the examination began. First
the Abby asked the children to recite the Lord's Prayer, the
Creed, and the Ten Commandments in unison, and when they had done
this without a mistake, he said "Bravo! Now I wonder if you can
each do as well alone? Let me see, I will call upon—" He paused
and looked about as if he were searching for the child who was
most likely to do it well.
Three girls—Genevieve, Virginie, and Pierrette—raised their
hands and waved them frantically in the air, but, curiously
enough, the Abbe did not seem to see them. Instead his glance
fell upon Pierre, who was gazing thoughtfully at the vaulted
ceiling and hoping with all his heart that the Abbe would not
call upon him. "Pierre!" he said, and any one looking at him very
closely might have seen a twinkle in his eye as Pierre withdrew
his gaze from the ceiling and struggled reluctantly to his feet.
"You may recite the Ten Commandments."
Pierre began quite glibly, "Thou shalt have no other gods before
me," and went on, with only two mistakes and one long wait, until
he had reached the fifth. "Thou shalt not kill," he recited, and
then to save his life he could not think what came next. He gazed
imploringly at the ceiling again, and at the high stained-glass
window, but they told him nothing. He kicked backward gently,
hoping that Pierrette, who sat next, would prompt him, but she
too failed to respond. "I'll ask a question," thought Pierre des
perately, "and while the Abbe is answering maybe it will come to
me." Aloud he said: "If you please, your reverence, I don't
understand about that commandment. It says, 'Thou shalt not
kill,' and yet our soldiers have gone to war on purpose to kill
Germans, and the priests blessed them as they marched away!"
This was indeed a question! The class gasped with astonishment at
Pierre's boldness in asking it. The Abbe paused a moment before
answering. Then he said, "If you, Pierre, were to shoot a man in
the street in order to take his purse, would that be wrong?"
"Yes," answered the whole class.
"Very well," said the Abbe, "so it would. But if you should see a
murderer attack your mother or your sister, and you should kill
him before he could carry out his wicked purpose, would that be
just the same thing?"
"No," wavered the class, a little doubtfully.
"If instead of defending your mother or sister you were simply to
stand aside and let the murderer kill them both, you would really
be helping the murderer, would you not? It is like that today in
France. An enemy is upon us who seeks to kill us so that he may
rob us of our beautiful home land. God sees our hearts. He knows
that the soldiers of France go forth not to kill Germans but to
save France! not wantonly to take life, but because it is the
only way to save lives for which they themselves are ready to
die. Ah, my children, it is one thing to kill as a murderer
kills; it is quite another to be willing to die that others may
live! Our Blessed Lord—"
The Abbe lifted his hand to make the sign of the Cross—but it
was stayed in mid-air. The sentence he had begun was never
finished, for at that moment the great bell in the Cathedral
tower began to ring. It was not the clock striking the hour; it
was not the chimes calling the people to prayer. Instead, it was
the terrible sound of the alarm bell ringing out a warning to the
people of Rheims that the Germans were at their doors.
Wide-eyed with terror, the children sprang from their seats, but
the Abbe, with hand uplifted, blocked the entrance and commanded
them to stay where they were.
"Let no one leave the Cathedral," he cried.
At this instant Mother Meraut appeared upon the threshold
searching for her children, and behind her, coming as fast as his
lameness would permit, came the Verger. The Abbe turned to them.
"I leave these children all in your care," he said. "Stay with
them until I return."
And without another word he disappeared in the shadows.
Mother Meraut sat down on one of the chairs she had dusted so
carefully, and gathered the frightened children about her as a
hen gathers her chickens under her wing. "There, now," she said
cheerfully, as she wiped their tears upon the corner of her
apron, "let's save our tears until we really know what we have to
cry for. There never yet was misery that couldn't be made worse
by crying, anyway. The boys will be brave, of course, whatever
happens. And the girls—surely they will remember that it was a
girl who once saved France, and meet misfortune bravely, like our
blessed Saint Jeanne d'Arc."
The Cathedral organ had ceased to fill the great edifice with
sweet and inspiring sounds. Instead, there now was only the
muffled tread of marching feet, the rumble of heavy wheels, and
the low, ominous beating of drums to break the stillness.
Mother Meraut and the children waited obediently in the chapel,
scarcely breathing in their suspense, while Father Varennes went
tap-tapping up and down the aisles eagerly watching for the Abbe
to reappear. At last he came. Mother Meraut, the Verger, and the
children all crowded about him, waiting breathlessly for him to
The Abbe was pale, but his voice was firm. "I have been to the
north tower," he said, "and there I could see for miles in every
direction. Far away to the east and north are massed the hordes
of the German Army; they are coming toward Rheims as a thunder-
cloud comes rolling over the sky. Between us and them is our
Army, but alas, their faces are turned this way. They are
retreating before the German hosts! Already French troops are
marching through Rheims; already the streets are filled with
people who are fleeing from their homes for fear of the Boche.
Unless God sends a miracle, our City is indeed doomed, for a time
at least, to wear the German yoke."
He paused, and the children burst into wild weeping. Mother
Meraut hushed them with comforting words. "Do not cry, my
darlings," she said. "God is not dead, and we shall yet live to
see justice done and our dear land restored to us. The soldiers
now in the streets are all our own brave defenders. We shall be
able to go in safety, even though in sorrow, to our homes."
"Come," said the Abbe, "there is no time to lose. Our Army will,
without doubt, make a stand on the plains west of the City, and
it will not be long before the Germans pass through. You must go
to your homes as fast as possible. Henri, you remain here with
your Jean, that you may meet any of the parents who come for
their children. Tell them I have gone with them myself and will
deliver each child safely at his own door."
"I can take cart of my own," said Mother Meraut. "You need have
no fear for us."
"Very well," said the Abbe, and, calling the rest of the children
about him, he marched them down the aisle and out into the
Mother Meraut followed with Pierre and Pierrette. At the door
they paused and stood for a moment under the great sculptured
arches to survey the scene before them. The great square before
the Cathedral was filled with people, some weeping, others
standing about as if dazed by sorrow. Between the silent crowds
which lined the sidewalks passed the soldiers, grim and with set
faces, keeping time to the throbbing of the drums as they
marched. Above the scene, in the center of the square, towered
the beautiful statue of Jeanne d'Arc, mounted upon her charger
and lifting her sword toward the sky.
"Ah," murmured Mother Meraut to herself, "our blessed Maid still
keeps guard above the City!" She lifted her clasped hands toward
the statue. "Blessed Saint Jeanne," she prayed, "hear us in
Paradise, and come once more to save our beautiful France!"
Then, waving a farewell to the Verger and Jean, who had followed
them to the door, she took her children by the hand and plunged
with them into the sad and silent crowd.