THE CHISELED FACE
OLD François sat in the autumn sunshine by the door of his stone cottage. He lived on the very edge of a once happy French village. It was early afternoon, and as the German patrol had passed on its round, and would not return for several hours, François felt a sense of freedom. Into the rough basket by his side he threw handfuls of shreds, made from an old garment, to be used in place of string for tying up his cauliflower plants, on the morrow. A neighbor passed, merely nodded, and went on.
"How strange things are," she said to herself. "No joke with François! Whoever would have believed it four years ago! The poor old stone-carver must have found it hard to work in the fields. How sad he looks, and thin, he that was always so fat, with a merry twinkle in his eye, too." She smiled as she thought of François dropping into her cottage to sing a new snatch of song through his nose his cap on the side of his head. Yes, François had always lent the comic element to the village group.
"Well, they can't stay forever," he had said of the Germans, just as the housewife said, "Ah, the flies will go when frost comes."
But the prospect was that the Germans would stay forever. That very morning his daughter, because she was ill, had been sent away with some others back to a part of France that the Germans had not invaded. Now he was left alone to care for her little Julie. He was troubled, because he was so old that he might be sent away very soon, too, and in the meantime he had to spend long hours in the fields.
"Food, food," sighed François, "it is ever food!" Suddenly he thought of Julie. He was not looking after the little one. He put the remaining shreds in his basket, rose, and crept noiselessly around to the north corner of the cottage. "Perhaps she is playing on the stones," he said. Yes, there she was, poor little Julie! quiet as a mouse, hugging an old rag doll-baby and thinking.
Tears filled old François' eyes as he hesitated a moment, to watch the deserted child. "Ah, why would they not send her with her mother?" François sighed, turned and entered the cottage. He had much to do in a few hours, for his mind was made up to one thing, at least; to-morrow he would take little Julie to the school of the Good Sisters in the next village; then, if the dear God granted his prayer, he would finish cutting the stone face before anything more happened.
He went to the clothes-press, hoping that Julie's things were ready. Yes, there they lay, in a small pile, clean and neat. He got a little basket and laid each garment in tenderly. "Poor baby! poor Julie! with no father or mother at home, not even a grandmother to love her!" "Oh, well, they can't stay forever."
He closed the basket, looked at the clock, and decided that he could go to the cathedral for a little work on the stone face.
How well he remembered the day before the Great War, when he had asked permission of the foreman to do the carving in the gable. "No, no," the man had replied," it is too high from the ground, Grandfather, you might lose your head and fall."
"But," François had persisted, "I am not so old, and see how stout I am. My head is yet very good, monsieur."
The foreman had laughed. "Very well," he said, and with that François began what he meant to be his greatest work of devotion and praise to God.
"But see," said François, suddenly returning from his reverie, "am I losing my head, to stand gaping at the clock, and only two hours before the patrol returns!"
Hastily calling Julie and taking her little hand in his big one, he left the cottage and went down the hill to the cathedral.
The air was so fresh and the sky so blue that François felt gayer than usual. He would leave the child to play where he could watch her. Then, too, he would try today the new way of going up his stone ladder.
Only the walls of the church were erected, and with much pains, François had cut stones away to make a sort of stairway for himself to a window in the west wall, through which he might reach the upper scaffolding. These footholds were not noticeable, and he hoped that in secret he could continue his carving. Julie dropped down on the ground very languidly with her doll in her arms, and François, making sure that no one was about, slipped quickly inside the church, and began the ascent. He dared not be seen or his plan might fail. Ah, but it dare not fail. François felt that he had promised God to complete the stone face.
Up, up the improvised steps he went. He got on quite well, by grasping the wall firmly. Reaching the top scaffold, he took from his pocket the bit of bread which he hid each day, placed it in a hole in the wall, and closed the opening with a stone to keep it from the birds. Then he worked half an hour, climbed down, and, glad to find that he had been unobserved, took Julie quietly home again.
The next afternoon François put Julie in a small push-cart, with the basket of clothes, and established her at the Sisters' school. As he left, he turned to the picture of the Virgin on the wall, saying, "Holy Mother, thou wilt bless and care for little Julie while she is away from her own!" And François returned to his cauliflowers and to his secret carving.
Six days later the German officer gave François his order for repatriation.
Now it had come the day! After the officer left, François remained standing with the paper in his hand. He felt stunned, but with the numbness was a sense of exhilaration. He had permission to leave the village. His mind reached out into the days ahead of him, his body stood motionless. He was making a great decision. Yes, he would risk it; it was his only chance to finish his work.
That afternoon François worked among his cauliflowers as usual. He tied them up carefully and put all his tools away. Then he went into the cottage, got out some food, hidden in a hole in the floor, and tied it in a red handkerchief. Next he said a short prayer, and reverently unhooking the wooden picture of the Virgin from the wall, wrapped it in another handkerchief and put it inside of his jacket where it would be safe.
These few preparations made, François occupied himself as usual until an hour after the patrol had passed. Then he stole quietly out of the cottage and across the fields to the cathedral.
Before going inside the wall, François sat down under a tree to listen. Not a sound reached his ears except the distant booming from the battle front. All was safe. He rose and entered the church to begin his perilous climb up the stairway in the twilight. He prayed as he groped for each step. When he reached the window, he rested, then, creeping through it, he got out on the upper scaffolding of the west wall. Now he could walk steadily up to the platform on which he worked.
"Dear Lord," he prayed, as he sank down exhausted at the top, "this is to be my sanctuary for many days. Wilt thou grant that this service may be finished before my body grows too feeble to work."
After this night, François began a new life. He awoke when the day dawned, worked while it was safe, then rested, and worked again at times when the sound of his mallet would be unnoticed. He ate as little as possible, and drank little, though rainy days allowed him to catch water and refill his bottles. For two weeks François lived thus. The scanty food and the cold autumn weather told on his strength, but still he toiled on, trying to complete the pictured face of his Lord.
Finally a morning came when his arms were too weak to hold his tools. "Ah, well," said François, "I have all but finished the work. I will eat and drink more today, and perhaps the morning will bring more strength." In the afternoon, he dragged himself up with difficulty, and grasping the wall, got out his crust of bread, but sank back too exhausted to eat it.
The next day, and the next, François lay on his platform unable to rise to his work. The birds chirped, "Rouse up, François, the sun shines!" The fleecy white clouds threw shadows on his body. "Wake! François, wake! The day is fine!" they seemed to call, but the old mason heard nothing. And all the time the beautiful face of the Christ looked down on François' quiet body as though it said, "Thou hast loved me, François, I say to thee, arise!" So he lay.
Then a morning dawned clear and mild, when, suddenly, bells began to ring and whistles to blow; people shouted and laughed. The air seemed full of gladness. "Peace! Peace!" rang the bells. "Peace on earth! Peace! Peace!"
François opened his eyes. Joy filled his soul. Suddenly a voice reached his ears," Father! Father!" It was his own son bending over him. "Rouse, Father! Listen! It is I, Jules, your son!" But François only smiled. "I found your chisel below, and so I searched for you," Jules continued; "oh, the Christ!" and little Julie's father gazed with awe upon the stone face. "Thou Son of God," he murmured, "thou hast brought us peace. We thank thee."
Tenderly Jules lifted the shrunken body of the old man and bore him home.
François smiled at everyone but never spoke again, and before the family were reunited, he slept the long sleep in the shadow of the cathedral. But the chiseled face of the smiling Christ shines still upon all the village, bearing witness to the devotion of the old man who carved it there, and who cut the words beneath: "I am the way, follow thou Me."