ALONG the old Roman road that crosses the rolling hills
from the upper waters of the Marne to the Meuse, a soldier of France was
passing in the night.
In the broader pools of summer moonlight he showed as
a hale and husky a fellow of about thirty years, with dark hair and eyes
and a handsome, downcast face. His uniform was faded and dusty; not a trace
of the horizon-blue was left; only a gray shadow. He had no knapsack on his
back, no gun on his shoulder. Wearily and doggedly he plodded his way, without
eyes for the veiled beauty of the sleeping country. The quick, firm military
step was gone. He trudged like a tramp, choosing always the darker side of
He was a figure of flight, a broken soldier. Presently
the road led him into a thick forest of oaks and beeches, and so to the Crest
of a hill overlooking a long, open valley with wooded heights beyond. Below
him was the pointed spire of some temple or shrine, lying at the edge of
the wood, with no houses near it. Farther down he could see a cluster of
white houses with the tower of a church in the center.
Other villages were dimly visible up and down the valley
on either slope. The cattle were lowing from the barnyards. The cocks crowed
for the dawn. Already the moon had sunk behind the western trees. But the
valley was still bathed in its misty, vanishing light. Over the eastern ridge
the gray glimmer of the little day was rising, faintly tinged with rose.
It was time for the broken soldier to seek his covert and rest till night
So he stepped aside from the road and found a little
dell thick with underwoods, and in it a clear spring gurgling among the ferns
and mosses. Around the opening grew wild gooseberries and golden broom and
a few tall spires of purple fox-glove. He drew off his dusty boots and socks
and bathed his feet in a small pool, drying them with fern leaves. Then he
took a slice of bread and a piece of cheese from his pocket and made his
breakfast. Going to the edge of the thicket, he parted the branches and peered
out over the vale.
Its eaves sloped gently to the level floor where the river
loitered in loops and curves. The sun was just topping the eastern hills;
the heads of the trees were dark against a primrose sky.
In the fields the hay had been cut and gathered. The
aftermath was already greening the moist places. Cattle and sheep sauntered
out to pasture. A thin silvery mist floated here and there, spreading in
broad sheets over the wet ground and shredding into filmy scarves and ribbons
as the breeze caught it among the pollard willows and poplars on the border
of the stream. Far away the water glittered where the river made a sudden
bend or a long, smooth reach. It was like the flashing of distant shields.
Overhead a few white clouds climbed up from the north. The rolling ridges,
one after another, enfolded the valley as far as eye could see; pale green
set in dark green, with here and there an arm of forest running down on a
sharp promontory to meet and turn the meandering stream.
"It must be the valley of the Meuse," said the soldier.
"My faith, but France is beautiful and tranquil here!"
The northerly wind was rising. The clouds climbed more
swiftly. The poplars shimmered, the willows glistened, the veils of mist
vanished. From very far away there came a rumbling thunder, heavy, insistent,
continuous, punctuated with louder crashes.
"It is the guns," muttered the soldier, shivering. "It
is the guns around Verdun! Those damned Boches!"
He turned back into the thicket and dropped among the
ferns beside the spring. Stretching himself with a gesture of abandon, he
pillowed his face on his crossed arms to sleep.
A rustling in the bushes roused him. He sprang to his
feet quickly. It was a priest, clad in a dusty cassock, his long black beard
streaked with gray. He came slowly treading up beside the trickling rivulet,
carrying a bag on a stick over his shoulder.
"Good morning, my son," he said. "You have chosen a pleasant
spot to rest."
The soldier, startled, but not forgetting his manners
learned from boyhood, stood up and lifted his hand to take off his cap. It
was already lying on the ground. "Good morning, Father," he answered. "l
did not choose the place, but stumbled on it by chance. It is pleasant enough,
for am very tired and have need of sleep."
"No doubt," said the priest. "I can see that you look
weary, and I beg you to pardon me if I have interrupted your repose. But
why do you say you came here ' by chance'? If you are a good Christian you
know that nothing is by chance. All is ordered and designed by Providence."
"So they told me in church long ago," said the soldier,
coldly; "but now it does not seem so true -- at least not with me."
The first feeling of friendliness and respect into which
he had been surprised was passing. He had fallen back into the mood of his
journey -- mistrust, secrecy, resentment.
The priest caught the tone. His gray eyes under their
bushy brows looked kindly but searchingly at the soldier and smiled a little.
He set down his bag and leaned on his stick. "Well," he said, "I can tell
you one thing, my son. At all events, it was not chance that brought me here.
I came with a purpose."
The soldier started, a little stung by suspicion. "What
then," he cried, roughly, "were you looking for me? What do you know of me?
What is this talk of chance and purpose?"
"Come, come," said the priest, his smile spreading from
his eyes to his lips, "do not be angry. I assure you that I know nothing
of you whatever, not even your name nor why you are here. When I said that
I came with a purpose I meant only that a certain thought, a wish, led me
to this spot. Let us sit together awhile beside the spring and make better
"I do not desire it," said the soldier, with a frown.
"But you will not refuse it?" queried the priest, gently.
"It is not good to refuse the request of one old enough to be your father.
Look, I have here some excellent tobacco and cigarette-papers. Let us sit
down and smoke together. I will tell you who I am and the purpose that brought
The soldier yielded grudgingly, not knowing what else
to do. They sat down on a mossy bank beside the spring, and while the blue
smoke of their cigarettes went drifting under the little trees the priest
"My name is Antoine Courcy. I am the curé of Darney,
a village among the Reaping Hook Hills, a few leagues south from here. For
twenty-five years I have reaped the harvest of heaven in that blessed little
field. I am sorry to leave it. But now this war, this great battle for freedom
and the life of France, calls me. It is a divine vocation. France has need
of all her sons to-day, even the old ones. I cannot keep the love of God
in my heart unless I follow the love of country in my life. My younger brother,
who used to be the priest of the next parish to mine, was in the army. He
has fallen. I am going to replace him. I am on my way to join the troops
-- as a chaplain, if they will; if not, then as a private. I must get into
the army of France or be left out of the host of heaven."
The soldier had turned his face away and was plucking
the lobes from a frond of fern. "A brave resolve, Father," he said, with
an ironic note. "But you have not yet told me what brings you off road, to
"I will tell you," replied the priest, eagerly; "it is
the love of Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid who saved France long ago. You know about
"A little," nodded the soldier. "I have learned in the
school. She was a famous saint."
"Not yet a saint," said the priest, earnestly; "the Pope
has not yet pronounced her a saint. But it will be done soon. Already he
has declared her among the Blessed Ones. To me she is the most blessed of
all. She never thought of herself or of a saint's crown. She gave her life
entire for France. And this is the place that she came from! Think of that
-- right here!"
"I did not know that," said the soldier.
"But yes," the priest went on, kindling. "I tell you
it was here that the Maid of France received her visions and set out to her
work. You see that village below us -- Look out through the branches -- that
is Domrémy, where she was born. That spire just at the edge of the
wood -- you saw that? It is the basilica they have built to her memory. It
is full of pictures of her. It stands where the old beech-tree, ' Fair May,'
used to grow. There she heard the voices and saw the saints who sent her
on her mission. And this is the Gooseberry Spring, the Well of the Good Fairies.
Here she came with the other children, at the festival of the well-dressing,
to spread their garlands around it, and sing, and eat their supper on the
green. Heavenly voices spoke to her, but the others did not hear them. Often
did she drink of this water. It became a fountain of life springing up in
her heart. I have come to drink at the same source. It will strengthen me
as a sacrament. Come, son, let us take it together as we go to our duty in
Father Courcy stood up and opened his old black bag.
He took out a small metal cup. He filled it carefully at the spring. He made
the sign of the cross over it.
"In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,"
he murmured, "blessed and holy is this water." Then he held the cup toward
the soldier. "Come, let us share it and make our vows together."
The bright drops trembled and fell from the bottom of
the cup. The soldier sat still, his head in his hands.
"No," he answered, heavily, "I cannot take it. I am not
worthy. Can a man take a sacrament without confessing his Sins?"
Father Courcy looked at him with pitying eyes. "I see,"
he said, slowly; "I see, my son. You have a burden on your heart. Well, I
will stay with you and try to lift it. But first I shall make my own vow."
He raised the cup toward the sky. A tiny brown wren sang
canticles of rapture in the thicket. A great light came into the priest's
face -- a sun-ray from the east, far beyond the tree-tops.
"Blessed Jeanne d'Arc, I drink from thy fountain in thy
name. I vow my life to thy cause. Aid me, aid this my son, to fight valiantly
for freedom and for France. In the name of God, amen."
The soldier looked up at him. Wonder, admiration, and
shame were struggling in the look. Father Courcy wiped the empty cup carefully
and put it back in his bag. Then he sat down beside the soldier, laying a
fatherly hand on his shoulder.
"Now, my son, you shall tell me what is on your heart."