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The Three Telegrams by Ethel Storm

 

From The Ladies' Home Journal

For two years Claire René's days had been very much alike. It was a dull routine, full of heavy tasks, in the tiny crumbling house, in the shrunken garden patch, and grand'mère—there was always grand'mère to care for. Often in the afternoon Claire René wandered in the forest for an hour. She was used to the silence of the tall trees; the silence in the house frightened her. All the people in her land were gone away; the great noise beyond had taken them. Sometimes the noise had stopped, but the silence in the house, the silence in the garden, and the silence of grand'mère never stopped. It was hard for Claire René to understand.

There was no one left in her land except grand'mère and Jacques. Jacques lived in the forest and cut wood; in the summer time he shot birds, in the winter time rabbits; Jacques was a very old man.

Claire René thought about a great many things when she walked in the forest in the afternoons. She wondered how old she was. She knew that she had been seven years old when her three brothers went away a long time before. She would like to have another birthday, some day, but not until Clément and Fernand and Alphonse came home again. Then they would laugh as they used to laugh on her birthdays, and catch her up in their big, strong arms, and kiss her and call her “Dear little sister.” Clément was the biggest and strongest of all; sometimes he would run off with her on his back into the forest, and the others would follow running and calling; and then at the end of the chase the three brothers would make a throne of their brown, firm hands and carry Claire René back to the door of the tiny house, where grand'mère would be waiting and scolding and smiling and ruddy of cheek. Grand'mère never scolded any more; she never smiled, and her cheeks were like dried figs.

Claire René didn't often let herself think of the day that such a dreadful thing had happened. Many days after Clément and Fernand and Alphonse had gone away, grand'mère had started to walk to the nearest town four miles distant. She was gone for hours and hours; Claire René had watched for her from the doorway until dusk had begun to fall; the dusk had been a queer color, thick and blue; a terrible noise had filled the air. Then the child remembered that her three brothers had told her that they were going away to kill rabbits—like Jacques. At the time she thought it strange that they had cried about killing rabbits. But when she heard such a thunder of noise she knew it must be a very great work indeed.

She was just wondering how there could be so many rabbits in the world, when she saw an old, bent woman coming through the garden gate. It was grand'mère; Jacques was leading her; she was making a strange noise in her throat, and her eyes were closed. Jacques had stayed in the house all the night, looking at grand'mère, lying on the bed with her eyes closed. In the morning, Claire René had spoken to her, but she hadn't answered. After days and days she walked from her bed to a chair by the window. She never again did any more than that; grand'mère was blind—and she was deaf.

Jacques explained how it all happened; Claire René didn't listen carefully, but she did understand that her three brothers were not killing rabbits, but were killing men. She knew then why they had cried; they were so kind and good, Clément and Fernand and Alphonse; they would hate to kill men. But Jacques had said they were wicked men that had to be killed. He said it wouldn't take long, that all the strong men in France were shooting at them.

Claire René had a great deal to do after that. She had to bathe and dress grand'mère; she had to cook the food and scrub the floor and scour the pots and pans. She kept the pans very bright. Grand'mère might some day open her eyes, and there would be a great scolding if the pans were not bright. Claire René also tended the garden; Jacques helped her with the heavy digging. He was very mean about the vegetables; he made her put most of them in the cellar; and the green things that wouldn't keep he himself put into jars and tins and locked them in the closet. When the summer had gone he gave Claire René the keys.

“Ma petite,” he said, “you learn too fast to eat too little. You must be big and well when your brothers come back.”

All the winter long Claire René watched for her brothers. Once a telegram had come, brought by a boy who said he had walked all the miles of the forest. In the memory of Claire René there lay a hidden fear about telegrams. Years before, grand'mère had cried for many days when Jacques had brought from the town just such a thin, crackling envelope. And Claire René knew that after that she had no longer any young mother or father—only grand'mère and her three brothers.

Grand'mère had enough of sorrow. The telegram was better hidden in the room of her brothers. Grand'mère would never find it there; it was far away from her chair by the window, up the straight, narrow stairs, under the high, peaked gable. Then, too, there was a comfort in that room for Claire René; it was quiet; the great silence of downstairs was too big to squeeze up the narrow way. Each day she would stroke and tend the high white bed; each week she would drag the mass of feather mattress to the narrow window ledge and air it for the length of a sunny day.

At evening she would pull and pile high again the snowy layers, as quickly as her tired back could move, as quickly as her thin, blue fingers could smooth the heavy homespun sheets and comforters. Quick she must be lest Clément and Fernand and Alphonse come home before the night fell over their sleeping place. When she placed the telegram under the first high pillow (Clément's pillow) it made a sound that frightened her.

In the evenings grand'mère's chair was pulled to the great hearth fire. Claire René would watch the flamelight spread over the stonelike face. Sometimes bright sparkles from the rows of copper pots and pans would lay spots of light on the heavy closed lids.

Claire René would spring from her chair and kneel beside the dumb figure. “Grand'mère!” she would call. “Do you see? Have you the eyes again?”

Then the lights would shift, and her head would drop over her trembling knees, and she would look away from the dry, sealed eyes of grand'mère. She never cried; it might make a noise in the still, whitewashed room to frighten her. Grand'mère might find the tears when she raised her hands to let them travel over the face of her grandchild. It was enough that once grand'mère had shivered when her fingers found the hollows in Claire René's cheeks. After that the child puffed out her cheeks while the knotted hands made their daily journey. Grand'mère's fingers would smooth the sunny tangled hair, touch the freckled upturned nose; they would pause and tremble at the slightest brush from the eyelashes that fringed the deep, gray eyes.

Claire René would pile more logs on the fire and wonder what thoughts lay in grand'mère's mind; wonder whether she knew that they had so much more wood in the shed than they had food in the larder. She was clever about cooking the roots from the cellar. But grand'mère's coffee was weaker each day, and only once in a long while did Jacques bring milk. Then he used to stand and order Claire René to drink it all, but she would choke and say it was sour and sickened her; only thus could she save enough for grand'mère's coffee in the morning.

There were many things to think about, to look at on the winter evenings by the firelight: Clément's seat by the chimney corner, where he whittled and whistled; Fernand's flute hanging on the wall; the books of Alphonse on the high shelf over the dresser. Claire René found that her heart and her eyes would only find comfort if her fingers were busy. She would tiptoe to the dresser and bring out a basket, once filled with the socks of her brothers. She would crouch by the fireside, first stirring the logs to make more light for her work. It was long since the candles were gone. It was the only joyous moment in the day when she handled the dried everlastings that filled the basket. Always she must hurry, work more quickly, select the withered colors with more care. The wreaths for her three brothers must be beautiful, must be ready on time. Clément and Fernand and Alphonse must be crowned, given the reward when they came home from killing wicked men to save La Belle France!

All the months of the summer before she had watched and tended the flowers. The seeds she had found in grand'mère's cupboard. Jacques had scolded about the place that had been given them in the garden patch. But Claire René had stamped her foot and strong, strange words that belonged to her three brothers when they were angry came to her lips. Jacques had looked startled and funny and had turned his head away; in the end he had patted Claire René on her rigid shoulders and she thought his eyes were just like wet, black beads.

On the other side of the hearth, away from grand'mère's chair, she twined and wound the wreaths. No one must know. The Great Day must be soon! And in her heart she believed that on that day grand'mère would open her eyes.

In the spring Claire René finished the wreaths. The very day she placed them on the highest shelf in the dark closet under the stairs there had come a knock at the door. She was stiff with terror. Jacques never knocked; there was no one else. She clung to a heavy chair back while the same boy who had come before entered slowly and placed a second telegram in her numb fingers.

“I am sorry, mademoiselle,” was all he said.

She watched him disappear through the garden gate; she listened until his steps died in the forest. Grand'mère stirred in her chair by the window; Claire René thought a flicker of pain traveled over the worn face; she thought the closed eyes twitched; Madame Populet stretched out her hands.

Claire René flew up the straight, narrow stairs; she placed the telegram under Fernand's pillow; she pressed her fists deep into the feathers; the crackle of paper made her heart stand still. There were tears starting in her eyes; she held them back. Grand'mère had enough of sorrow; she must never know of the second telegram in the house.

Thoughts came crowding into Claire René's mind. Why not tear up the white-and-blue envelopes or why not show them to Jacques—in some way throw away the fear that was eating at her heart? Then the great silence of the house below seemed to creep up the narrow stairs and lay cold hands on Claire René. Oh, why was it all so lonely! Where were her three brothers? Why must the telegrams make so great a trembling in her heart for them, make her kneel and pray that the Holy Mother would hold them in her arms forever?

Her knees were stiff when she arose; her eyes were bright, but not with tears; her back was very straight, her head held high, for was she not a grandchild of Madame Populet? A sister to Clément and Fernand and Alphonse, and through them, a child of France! She stood on her toes and dropped three kisses on the pillows of her brothers. She was big enough to keep the secret of her fear about the telegrams. It was better so.

She went downstairs singing. The sound was strange in her throat, but she must finish the song. She stood behind grand'mère's chair, and laid her hands on the still white head. When the last, high, treble note fell softly through the room she looked out of the window into the forest. There were threads of pale green showing on the tall trees; there were tiny red buds starting from the brown branches of the pollard willow that swept across the window ledge.

Claire René suddenly wanted to shout! She did shout! There was spring in the world! There was spring in her heart, in her feet, in her tingling finger tips.

She danced to the dark closet under the stairs. There they were, the wreaths, for her three brothers! The deep golden one for Clément—he was strong and square like a rock; the light golden one for Fernand—he was pale and slight; the scarlet one for Alphonse—he was straight and tall like a tree in the forest.

Claire René touched the three wreaths; they crackled dryly under her touch; she turned away and shivered. What did they sound like? Oh, yes; the crackling of the thin paper on the telegrams!

She shut the closet door softly, and went to kneel beside grand'mère's chair and looked again into the forest. The buds on the sweeping willows said “Yes”; the pale-green winding gauze through the tall trees whispered a promise. She stood up and held out her arms; she had faith in the forest; she believed what it said. Through a patch of flickering sunlight she thought she saw three forms moving toward the cottage. It was only the viburnum bushes dipping and swaying in the March wind, against the sturdy growth of darkened holly.

The noise died away entirely as the spring advanced. The silence grew greater and greater. There were few seeds for Claire René to plant in her garden; there was little strength in her arms to work them. Weeds covered the flower patch of a year ago. A few straggling everlastings showed their heads above the tangle. Claire René had plenty of strength to uproot them angrily and throw them into the overgrown path.

The three wreaths were still on the shelf in the dark closet under the stair. Their colors were dimmed, like the hope in their maker's heart; their forms were shrunken, like the forms of Claire René and grand'mère and Jacques.

Grand'mère lay in her bed most of the day. Sometimes, when the sun shone and the birds sang, Claire René would make her aching arms bathe and dress grand'mère and help her into the chair by the window. Then she would sit beside her and try to run threads through the bare places in her frocks.

At times she thought of making frocks for herself out of grand'mère's calico dresses, folded so neatly in the cupboard. But grand'mère, she argued, would need them for herself when the Great Day came, when Clément and Fernand and Alphonse would come with ringing laughter through the forest—laughter that would surely open grand'mère's eyes—and her ears. When the birds sang and the sun shone Claire René believed that day would come.

Jacques was always kind. But he had become a part of the great silence; almost as still as grand'mère he was. For hours he would sit and look at Claire René bending over her sewing, over her scrubbing, over the brightening of the pots and pans. Sometimes his shining black eyes seemed to lie down in his face, to be going away forever behind his bush of eyebrow.

Then she would start toward him and call: “Jacques, Jacques!”

He would always answer, straightening in his chair: “Yes, my little one, be not afraid. Jacques is ever near.”

Claire René would sigh and go back to her work and wish that she was big enough to go out into the forest and shoot birds, as Jacques used to do. She was very hungry. She was tired of eating roots from the garden.

She would like to lie down and go to sleep for the rest of her life, or die and go to heaven and have the Holy Mother hold her in her arms and feed her thick yellow milk. Jacques no longer brought even thin blue milk. There was no coffee in the cupboard, no sugar, no bread—only hateful roots of the garden.

Claire René no longer walked in the forest. Sometimes she would lie down on a mossy place and look up through the tall trees at the patches of blue sky overhead. She wondered whether the good God still kept His home above, whether He, too, were hungry, whether the Holy Mother had work to do when her back ached and her fingers wouldn't move and were thin and bony, like young dead birds that sometimes fell from nests.

Once, when Claire René was thinking such thoughts, she saw Jacques come running toward her. His eyes were bright and shiny, and she had a fear that they might drop out of his head, as the quick breath dropped out of his mouth.

“Listen, ma petite!” he cried.

He dropped on the mossy place beside her and rocked back and forth with his hands clasped about his shaking knees. Claire René was used to waiting. She waited until Jacques found breath for speech.

Then he told her how the “Great Man from America” was coming to save France! How he was sending a million strong sons before him. How there was hope come to heavy hearts!

Claire René wanted to ask a great many questions. But Jacques went right on, talking, talking—about the right flank and the left flank and the boches and the Americans. Claire René hoped his tongue would not be too tired to answer one of her questions.

“What is America, my little one? Why, the greatest country in the world, excepting France. Where is America, my little one? Why, across the Atlantic Ocean, far from France.”

Claire René sat very still with her hands in her lap. Jacques was a wise man. He knew a great deal. All old people were wise; but such strange things made them happy, far-away things that they couldn't ever touch or see, things out in the big world that went round and round. She knew that Clément and Fernand and Alphonse were out in the big world, going round and round; but in her heart she saw them only in the forest, in the garden patch, by the hearth in the tiny house, asleep in their high white bed.

In these places she could still feel their arms about her, hear their laughter, listen for their step. But out in the world! What were they doing? How could she know? Jacques made her feel very lonely. Never once did he speak of her three brothers; on and on he went about the “Great Man from America.”

Presently he ceased for a moment and held Claire René's cold hands against his grizzled cheek. “But, my little one, why are you cold?”

Claire René looked for a long time into Jacques' shining eyes; then she whispered: “My brothers!”

High among the tall trees of the forest the wind was singing and sighing; beneath on a green moss bank Jacques gathered Claire René in his arms; he gathered her up like a baby and rocked her back and forth. He cried and laughed into the bright tangle of her hair.

“My poor little one! My poor little one!” he said over and over. Then he released her from his arms and held her face between his knotted hands. “Now, listen!”

She listened, and even before Jacques had finished a song began in her heart—so strong and high and true that it reached up into the treetops and joined in the chorus of the forest.

The words that came from the lips of Jacques made a great beating in her ears. Could it be so—what he was saying—that the “Great Man from America” had come to save all the Brothers of France? That soon, soon he would send Clément and Fernand and Alphonse back to the tiny house in the forest? That all the wicked men in the world would be no more? That the great and terrible noise would cease—forever?

Jacques was very, very sure that he was right about it; he had read it all in a newspaper; he had walked miles and miles to hear men talk of nothing else.

Claire René asked where the great man lived.

“In Paris, ma petite.”

“And what does he look like—the brave one?”

“He is grave and quiet, like a king.”

“And has he on his head the crown of gold?”

“No, ma petite, but he has in his heart the Sons of France.”

“And Clément and Fernand and Alphonse also?”

Claire René waited while Jacques passed his fingers through her hair. “Yes, ma petite,” he said at last.

Claire René wished that she had more hands and feet and lips and eyes and more than such a little body to hold her joy. She made circles of dancing about Jacques on their way back to the cottage. She said her happiness was so great that she might fly up into the sky and laugh from the tops of the trees. “Dear Jacques,” she said as they paused at the dried garden patch, “do you think to-morrow they will come—my brothers?”

Jacques shook his head.

“Do you think one day from to-morrow?”

Again Jacques shook his head.

But Claire René was busy in her thoughts. She turned suddenly and threw her arms about him. “Will you again walk the miles of the forest for Claire René, will you?”

“But—why—for what reason, ma petite?”

She would send a letter! She would herself write to the “Great Man,” and tell him about Clément and Fernand and Alphonse, tell him how good and brave they were, and about grand'mère and the silence of her eyes and ears, and about—Claire René looked frightened and clapped her fingers over her mouth.

No! She must forever keep the secret about the telegrams. Telegrams meant sorrow; there must be only happiness in the house for the brothers.

Long after twilight had fallen she pleaded with Jacques about the letter. By the firelight that same night she would write. Grand'mère had taught her to make the letters of many words; she knew what to say. In the first light of the day Jacques could be gone to the post. And then! Yes?

Not until he finally nodded his head was she satisfied. Then she wondered why so suddenly he had become heavy with sadness. Why, when she watched him trudge off into the forest, had he seemed to carry a burden on his bent back?

She thought: “Old people are like that. Grand'mère is like that; she, too, grows tired with the end of the day. They had so many long days behind them to remember—grand'mère and Jacques. And the days ahead of them?”

Claire René was often puzzled about their days ahead. They were so tired! But they would be soon happy. And grand'mère would open her eyes to see and her ears to hear when Clément and Fernand and Alphonse came back again.

Claire René ate only a mouthful of her cooked roots on that evening. For grand'mère she made a special brew of dried herbs from the forest and baked a cake from the last bit of brown flour left in the cupboard. Grand'mère was half the shape she used to be; the brothers would surely scold when they saw her so gone away.

Claire René piled the logs high on the fire; she must have light for her work, plenty of light. She searched the house for paper and envelope and pencil and when she had written she threw the paper into the fire and wept with a passion much too great for her years and her body. She had forgotten the words; they wouldn't come. And who was she to be writing to the “Great Man,” a man like a king?

Until the dawn crept through the windows Claire René lay upon the hearth by the dying fire, sobbing through her sleep. The first light of day made her remember Jacques. He would be waiting! He had promised to go, to walk to the post with her letter. She looked at the dark closet under the stairs. She thought of the three wreaths; if she could make wreaths, she could make letters! She bounded to her feet; she seized the last of the paper and the bitten pencil; she struggled with the letters; she wrote: “Dear Great Man: My brothers——”

A step in the still room startled her. Grand'mère was coming from her room, fully dressed. Claire René flew to her side, but Madame Populet stood erect; she walked alone to her chair by the window. Claire René knelt beside her, and the hands that were laid on her head had a new firmness in their pressure. And grand'mère was smiling!

Claire René thought: “She is happy this morning; she feels in the air the gladness. I will make her a hot brew when I come back from Jacques.”

She wrapped a dark cloak about her shoulders; in her hand was tightly clasped the half-written paper and the pencil. At the doorway she turned and called: “Good-by, grand'mère. Good-by.”

Madame Populet was still smiling; her face was turned toward the forest and, through the sweeping willow over the window, sunbeams laid their fingers on the sightless eyes.

Two hours later Claire René walked through the forest singing. Her arms were full of scarlet leaves and branches of holly berries. She wanted to carry all the beautiful things she saw back to the cottage, to make the place a bower, where she and grand'mère and Clément and Fernand and Alphonse could kneel and thank the good God that they were again together.

All the world was kind on this morning. Jacques had been waiting for her at the door of his wooden hut. He had helped her with the letter. He had set out straightway to the post. Claire René had stooped and kissed the feet that had so many miles to go.

Jacques had cried out: “Ma petite, you hope too far.”

But Claire René's mind and heart were a flood of joy; she had no place for doubt, no time for sorrow. She came out of the forest and stood looking at the tiny, crumbling house. No longer was she afraid of the silence. In but a short time her three brothers would fill the air with laughter; they would carry her on their backs around the house and into the forest, and grand'mère would stand waiting and smiling—and perhaps scolding; who could tell?

She pushed her way through the doorway. The berries and leaves made a tall screen about her; she could barely see grand'mère in her chair by the window. She laid the branches on the hearth.

“There!” she said. “That's good.”

Grand'mère was very quiet in her chair by the window. Her hands were folded over her breast. There was something between her still fingers.

Claire René looked again, and then she screamed.

Madame Populet's eyes were open; they were fixed on the thin blue-and-white envelope clasped in her hands. Claire René pressed her fingers into her temples; she was afraid to speak aloud.

She whispered: “The third telegram!”

Who had brought it? Who had given it to grand'mère? Why was she so still? Why were her eyes open, without seeing? Claire René wanted to scream again; but instead, she made her feet take her to the chair by the window; she made her fingers pull the thin envelope from between the stiff fingers. Grand'mère's hands were cold. Her silence was more terrible than any silence Claire René had known before. The glazed, open eyes looked as if they hurt; she closed the lids with the tips of her fingers. She had seen dead birds in the forest and she knew that grand'mère was now like them.

The telegram was better burned in the fire; there it could bring no more sorrow. She watched the thin paper curl and smolder among the smoking embers of last night's blaze. She looked again toward the still figure by the window. If grand'mère was dead, why did she stay on the earth? Why didn't the Holy Mother send an angel to carry her away into the heaven of the good God?

Claire René began to tremble. What if the angels were too tired to come, were as faint and hungry as she! What, then, would become of grand'mère?

Clément and Fernand and Alphonse would be very angry to find her so cold and still and dead; they would be, perhaps, as angry to find her gone away to heaven. But grand'mère had so much of sorrow here on earth; Claire René thought the room was growing very dark; she flung her arms above her head and faintly screamed. But there was no one to hear. She fell on the hearthstone beside the red berries and the red leaves.

There was scarcely a breath left in her body when Jacques found her at dusk.

Three days later she opened her eyes in her little bed beside grand'mère's bed. Grand'mère's bed was smooth and high and white. Claire René was puzzled.

She called: “Grand'mère!”

From the outer room the voice of Jacques replied: “Yes, ma petite; I am here.”

He came and put his arms about her; she laid her head against his rough coat, but her eyes were turned toward the empty bed. She was trying to remember.

Presently she sat up and asked: “Did the angel come and take grand'mère and carry her to the Holy Mother in heaven?”

Jacques crossed his heart. “Yes, ma petite,” he said.

Faintly Claire René smiled and faintly she questioned: “But, my brothers?”

Jacques turned his troubled eyes away. She must wait, he said; when she was strong they would talk of many things. He told her that he had brought food to make her well, and that on the first warm day he would himself carry her out into the sunshine of the forest; there she would again run and sing and be like a happy, bright bird.

In the days that followed Claire René never spoke of grand'mère; she never spoke of her three brothers. She lay in her bed and stared about the quiet room. The silence was different, now that grand'mère was gone. Everything was different.

Jacques gave her food and care, and every day he said: “In only a little time you will be strong again, ma petite.”

But something in his eyes kept her from speaking about Clément and Fernand and Alphonse. Often she thought about the telegrams upstairs in the high, white bed. She wondered if Jacques had found them there. Once she heard him walking on the floor above. He was there a long time, and when he came down his voice was queer and deep and his eyes were hidden behind a mist.

He never spoke any more about the “Great Man from America.” Jacques was like grand'mère; he was old, he was full of sorrow. Claire René was afraid to ask about her letter; she thought about it each day.

But on the morning she was carried to Clément's chair by the chimney corner, she felt a great gladness spring in her heart. Yes; they would come soon—her three brothers. To-morrow she would be strong enough to walk alone to the dark closet under the stairs and look again at the three wreaths on the highest shelf.

Claire René smiled in her sleep that night; she dreamed of laughter in the house, of strong young arms about her, of quick steps and bright eyes.

Once she awoke and must have called out, for Jacques was kneeling beside her bed.

“Poor little one,” he said, “you call, but there is only old Jacques to come.”

Claire René put out her hand and let it rest on the old man's head. “Dear Jacques,” she whispered, “always I will love you.”

The sun was streaming through the tiny house the next morning. Jacques had left Claire René sitting in the warm light of the open doorway while he went to bring wood from the forest. There were no birds singing from the leafless trees, but Claire René saw a sparrow hopping about on the bright brown earth of the garden patch. She was wishing she had a great piece of white fat to hang out on a tree for the bird's winter food; wishing there were crumbs to leave on the window ledge, as grand'mère used to do.

She was wishing so hard about so many things that she failed to see three men coming out of the forest. They were tall and straight and fair, and their eyes were as blue as the sky above their heads. Their clothes were the color of pale brown sand and on their heads were jaunty caps of the selfsame color.

Jacques was with them; he was making a great many motions with his hands. They were all walking very slowly and talking very fast.

As they neared the house Jacques pointed to Claire René, and the three strange men held back. Jacques came slowly forward. The sound of his step on the hard ground interrupted Claire René's reverie; she looked up and around. She saw the three men standing at attention beyond the garden gate.

She threw back the heavy cloak wrapped about her; the thin folds of her calico dress hung limply from her sunken shoulders, and above the wasted child body the sun spun circles of gold in her tangled hair. She made a slight quivering start toward Jacques, which passed into a rigid stare toward the three figures beyond.

She was unaware when Jacques put a caressing, supporting arm about her and said: “Listen, my child.”

The three men were coming forward. One of them had a letter in his hand. With kind eyes and bared heads they stood before the straining gaze of Claire René.

“The letter is for you, ma petite.” Jacques voice was infinitely tender; the added pressure of his arm made Claire René conscious of his presence; she suddenly clung to him and buried her face in his coat sleeve. He went on to say: “The letter is for Claire René—from the 'Great Man from America'!”

The tangled head shook in the angle of his arm. Claire René was crying.

The tallest of the three men handed the letter to Jacques; he wiped his eyes and turned his head away. The others shifted in position and tightly folded their arms across their broad chests.

Jacques read:

     To Mademoiselle Claire René: The soil of France now covers the
     bodies of your three brothers, Clément and Fernand and Alphonse
     Populet. The soil of France covers the Croix de Guerre upon their
     breasts. The sons of France, and of America, hold forever in their
     hearts the memory of their honor. We are all one family now—France
     and America—and so I send to you three brothers—not in place of,
     but in the stead of those others. They come to give you love and
     service in the name of America.

Claire René slowly moved apart from Jacques. She stood alone with head erect and taut arms by her sides. She hesitated a moment, then came forward and held out her hands.

“Bonjour, messieurs,” she said.

The tallest of the three men covered her hands with his own. “Little friend,” he said, “we can't make you forget your brothers; we want to help you remember them. We want to do some of the things for you that they used to do, and we want you to do a lot of things for us. We are pretty big, it is true, but we need a little girl like you to sort of keep us in order. We want to take you right along with us this very day—to a place where we can care for you, and——”

But Claire René slipped with electric swiftness to Jacques' side; from his sheltering arm she made declaration: “Never! I stay here with Jacques—always.” Then struggling against emotion she added with finality: “I thank you, messieurs.”

The tall man lingered with his thoughts a moment before he spoke; he was standing close to Claire René and made as though to lay his hand upon her hair, but drew back and said that they were all pretty good cooks and that they were very, very hungry.

At this Claire René threw a frightened, wistful glance at Jacques.

The tall man interrupted hastily. He said they had brought food with them, and would she allow them to prepare it?

Claire René nodded her head; her eyes looked beyond her questioner—out into the lonely forest.

Jacques presently lifted her into his arms and carried her within the house. With reverence he placed her in grand'mère's chair by the window. Her ears were filled with distant echoes; her sight was blurred; speech had gone from her lips. As through a dark curtain she saw the figures moving about the room; far away she heard the clatter and the talk and sometimes laughter.

After a long time Jacques came and held some steaming coffee to her lips. He made her drink and drink again; a pink flush crept into her cheeks; shyly she met the glances from the eyes of those three fair, kind faces. Then her own eyes filled with tears and she lowered her head.

The tallest of the three men came behind her chair and spoke gently, close to her ear: “Our great and good commander, who sent us here, will be very unhappy if you do not come. You see, he wanted the sister of Clément and Fernand and Alphonse Populet to be a sister to some of his own boys. It would help us a great deal, you know; we're pretty lonely too—sometimes.”

The collaboration in the faces of his friends seemed to put an instant end to his effort and, as if an unspoken command were given, they all sat down and made a prompt finish to the meal.

With no word on her lips Claire René watched from Grand'mère's chair by the window. About her, figures moved like dim marionettes; they cleared the table; they polished the copper pans; they sat in the chimney corner and puffed blue circles of smoke above their heads.

Dimly she saw all this, but clearly she saw the inside of a great man's mind. She, Claire René, had work to do; she was called—for France!

Long, slanting shadows from the sinking sun were streaking the wall of the whitewashed room with slender, forklike fingers. Jacques and the three men were knotted in talk beside the ruddy fire glow. Claire René braced herself with a sharp sigh. No soldier ever went into battle with a more self-made courage than hers.

Unseen, unnoticed, noiselessly she made her pilgrimage across the room. In the dark closet, under the stairs, she reached for the wreaths. With quick, short breath she gathered them in her arms. One moment she lowered her head while her lips touched the faded crackling flowers. The compact was sealed; her sacrifice was ready.

In that attitude she passed swiftly within the circle about the fireplace. She came like a spirit of Peace with the wreaths in her arms. Over and above the serenity in her face there dawned a joyous expectancy. Yes; she could trust les Américains!

On each reverent, bowed head she placed her wreath; and when she had finished, without tremor in her voice she said: “My brothers!”

FOOTNOTE:

Copyright, 1919, by The Curtis Publishing Company. Copyright, 1921, by Ethel Dodd Thomas.

 
 
 

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