Story type: Literature
The name was singularly appropriate, for assuredly Felice was the happiest of all four-footed creatures. Her nature was gentle; she was obedient, long-suffering, kind. She had known what it was to toil and to bear burdens; sometimes she had suffered from hunger and from thirst; and before she came into the possession of Jacques she had been beaten, for Pierre, her former owner, was a hard master. But Felice was always a kind, faithful, and gentle creature; presumably that was why they named her that pretty name, Felice. She may not have been happy when Pierre owned and overworked and starved and beat her; that does not concern us now, for herein it is to tell of that time when she belonged to Jacques, and Jacques was a merciful man.
Jacques was a farmer; he lived a short distance from Cinqville, which, as you are probably aware, is a town of considerable importance upon what used to be the boundary line between France and Germany. The country round about is devoted to agriculture. You can fancy that, with its even roads, leafy woods, quiet lanes, velvety paddocks, tall hedges, and bountiful fields, this country was indeed as pleasant a home as Felice–or, for that matter, any other properly minded horse–could hope for. Toward the southern horizon there were hills that looked a grayish blue from a distance; upon these hills were vineyards, and the wine that came therefrom is very famous wine, as your uncle, if he be a club man, will very truly assure you. There was a pretty little river that curled like a silver snake through the fertile meadows, and lost its way among the hills, and there were many tiny brooks that scampered across lots and got tangled up with that pretty little river in most bewildering fashion. So, as you can imagine, this was a fair country, and you do not wonder that, with so merciful a master as Jacques, our friend Felice was happy.
But what perfected her happiness was the coming of her little colt, as cunning and as blithe a creature as ever whisked a tail or galloped on four legs. I do not know why they called him by that name, but Petit-Poulain was what they called him, and that name seemed to please Felice, for when farmer Jacques came thrice a day to the stile and cried, “Petit-Poulain, petit, petit, Petit-Poulain!” the kind old mother would look up fondly, and, with doting eyes, watch her dainty little colt go bounding toward his calling master. And he was indeed a lovely little fellow. The cure, the holy pere Francois, predicted that in due time that colt would make a great name for himself and a great fortune for his owner. The holy pere knew whereof he spake, for in his youth he had tasted of the sweets of Parisian life, and upon one memorable occasion had successfully placed ten francs upon the winner of le grand prix. We can suppose that Felice thought well of the holy pere. He never came down the road that she did not thrust her nose through the hedge and give a mild whinny of recognition, as if she fain would say: “Pray stop a moment and see Petit-Poulain and his old mother!”
What happy days those were for Felice and her darling colt. With what tenderness they played together in the paddock; or, when the sky was overcast and a storm came on, with what solicitude would the old mother lead the way into the thatched stable, where there was snug protection against the threatening element. There are those who say that none but humankind is immortal,–that none but man has a soul. I do not make or believe that claim. There is that within me which tells me that no thing in this world and life of ours which has felt the grace of maternity shall utterly perish. And this I say in all reverence, and with the hope that I offend neither God nor man.
You are to know that old Felice’s devotion to Petit-Poulain was human in its tenderness. As readily, as gladly, and as surely as your dear mother would lay down her life for you would old Felice have yielded up her life for her innocent, blithe darling. So old Felice was happy that pleasant time in that fair country, and Petit-Poulain waxed hale and evermore blithe and beautiful.
Happy days, too, were those for that peaceful country and the other dwellers therein. There was no thought of evil there; the seasons were propitious, the vineyards thrived, the crops were bountiful; as far as eye could see all was prosperity and contentment. But one day the holy Father Francois came hurrying down the road, and it was too evident that he brought evil tidings. Felice thought it very strange that he paid no heed to her when, as was her wont, she thrust her nose through the hedge and gave a mild whinny of welcome. Anon she saw that he talked long and earnestly with her master Jacques, and presently she saw that Jacques went into the cottage and came again therefrom with his wife Justine and kissed her, and then went away with Pere Francois toward the town off yonder. Felice saw that Justine was weeping, and with never a suspicion of impending evil, she wondered why Justine should weep when all was so prosperous and bright and fair and happy about her. Felice saw and wondered, and meanwhile Petit-Poulain scampered gayly about that velvety paddock.
That night the vineyard hills, bathed in the mellow grace of moonlight, saw a sight they had never seen before. From the east an army came riding and marching on,–an army of strange, determined men, speaking a language before unheard in that fair country and threatening things of which that peaceful valley had never dreamed. You and I, of course, know that these were the Germans advancing upon France,–a nation of immortals eager to destroy the possessions and the human lives of fellow-immortals! But old Felice, hearing the din away off yonder,–the unwonted noise of cavalry and infantry advancing with murderous intent,–she did not understand it all, she did not even suspect the truth. You cannot wonder, for what should a soulless beast know of the noble, the human privilege of human slaughter? Old Felice heard that strange din, and instinct led her to coax her little colt from the pleasant paddock into that snug and secure retreat, the thatched stable, and there, in the early morning, they found her, Petit-Poulain pulling eagerly at her generous dugs.
Those who came riding up were strangers in those parts; they were ominously accoutred and they spoke words that old Felice had never heard before. Yes, as you have already guessed, they were German cavalry-men. A battle was impending, and they needed more horses.
“Old enough; but in lieu of a better, she will do.” That was what they said. They approached her carefully, for they suspected that she might be vicious. Poor old Felice, she had never harmed even the flies that pestered her. “They are going to put me at the plough,” she thought. “It is a long time since I did work of any kind,–nothing, in fact, since Petit-Poulain was born. Poor Petit-Poulain will miss me; but I will soon return.” With these thoughts she turned her head fondly and caressed her pretty colt.
“The colt must be tied in the stall or he will follow her.” So said the cavalrymen. They threw a rope about his neck and made him fast in the stable. Petit-Poulain was very much surprised, and he remonstrated vainly with his fierce little heels.
They put a halter upon old Felice. Justine, the farmer’s wife, met them in the yard, and reproached them wildly in French. They laughed boisterously, and answered her in German. Then they rode away, leading old Felice, who kept turning her head and whinnying pathetically, for she was thinking of Petit-Poulain.
Of peace I know and can speak,–of peace, with its solace of love, plenty, honor, fame, happiness, and its pathetic tragedy of poverty, heartache, disappointment, tears, bereavement. Of war I know nothing, and never shall know; it is not in my heart of for my hand to break that law which God enjoined from Sinai and Christ confirmed in Galilee. I do not know of war, nor can I tell you of that battle which men with immortal souls fought one glorious day in a fertile country with vineyard hills all round about. But when night fell there was desolation everywhere and death. The Eden was a wilderness; the winding river was choked with mangled corpses; shell and shot had mowed down the acres of waving grain, the exuberant orchards, the gardens and the hedgerows; black, charred ruins, gaunt and ghostlike, marked the spots where homes had stood. The vines had been cut and torn away, and the despoiled hills seemed to crouch down like bereaved mothers under the pitiless gaze of the myriad eyes of heaven.
The victors went their way; a greater triumph was in store for them; a mighty capital was to be besieged; more homes were to be desolated,–more blood shed, more hearts broken. So the victors went their way, their hands red and their immortal souls elated.
In the early dawn a horse came galloping homeward. It is Felice, old Felice, riderless, splashed with mud, wild-eyed, sore with fatigue! Felice, Felice, what horrors hast thou not seen! If thou couldst speak, if that tongue of thine could be loosed, what would it say of those who, forgetful of their souls, sink lower than the soulless brutes! Better it is thou canst not speak; the anguish in thine eyes, the despair in thy honest heart, the fear, the awful fear in thy mother breast,–what tongue could utter them?
Adown the road she galloped,–the same road she had traversed, perhaps, a thousand times before, yet it was so changed now she hardly knew it. Twenty-four hours had ruthlessly levelled the noble trees, the hedgerows, and the fields of grain. Twenty-four hours of battle had done all this and more. In all those ghastly hours, one thought had haunted Felice; one thought alone,–the thought of Petit-Poulain! She pictured him tied in that far-away stall, wondering why she did not come. He was hungry, she knew; her dugs were full of milk and they pained her; how sweet would be her relief when her Petit-Poulain broke his long fast. Petit-Poulain, Petit-Poulain, Petit-Poulain,–this one thought and this alone had old Felice throughout those hours of battle and of horror.
Could this have been the farm-house? It was a ruin now. Shells had torn it apart. Where was the good master Jacques; had he gone with the cure to the defence of the town? And Justine,–where was she? Bullets had cut away the rose-trees and the smoke-bush; the garden was no more. The havoc, the desolation, was complete. The cote, which had surmounted the pole around which an ivy twined, had been swept away. The pigeons now circled here and there bewildered; wondering, perhaps, why Justine did not come and call to them and feed them.
To this seared, scarred spot came old Felice. He that had ridden her into battle lay with his face downward near those distant vineyard hills. His blood had stained Felice’s neck; a bullet had grazed her flank, but that was a slight wound,–riderless, she turned and came from the battle-field and sought her Petit-Poulain once again.
Hard by the ruins of cottage, of garden, and of cote, she came up standing; she was steaming and breathless. She rolled her eyes wildly around,–she looked for the stable where she had left Petit-Poulain. She trembled as if an overwhelming apprehension of disaster suddenly possessed her. She gave a whinny, pathetic in its tenderness. She was calling Petit-Poulain. But there was no answer.
Petit-Poulain lay dead in the ruins of the stable. His shelter had not escaped the fury of the battle. He could not run away, for they had tied him fast when they carried his old mother off. So now he lay amid that debris, his eyes half open in death and his legs stretched out stark and stiff.
And old Felice,–her udder bursting with the maternal grace he never again should know, and her heart breaking with the agony of sudden and awful bereavement,–she staggered, as if blinded by despair, toward that vestige of her love, and bent over him and caressed her Petit-Poulain.