THREE ravens flew overhead, their black wings casting a sinister shadow over the land; suddenly, with hoarse croaks, they wheeled and descended on a brown field which showed not even a blade of grass where once there had been verdant crops.
"If our friends, the ravens, find food to eat in this forlorn country, it is more than we shall do, Pere Perrin."
Pere Perrin shook his head sadly. "Now I know what 'the abomination of desolation' means, Pere Le Brun. I always used to wonder about it. Look, we are coming to the Chang village; we shall soon see what our poor children are suffering here."
Slowly and footsore they plodded to the little hamlet, sorrowful because of the sights they had seen, and the stories they had heard. Pere Perrin fingered his rosary and his lips moved constantly, though no sound escaped them.
Pere Le Brun knew that he was praying for his flock.
For fifty years these two good Fathers had lived in China; they had studied at the same seminary in France and had sailed on the same ship to the Far East. The result of this daily and hourly companionship was that, as Pere Le Brun used laughingly to say, "We even think the same thoughts; we have no need to talk."
They had often seen destitution. Even in good years, the streets were full of hungry people, but in the past summer there had been floods that broke all records, and during the winter came the most appalling famine that they had ever known. With the February cold, terrible rumours reached them of the conditions in their country parishes, so they had decided to make a tour of inspection to see what could be done. The results had confirmed their worst fears, and Pere Le Brun noticed that Pere Perrin seemed to age greatly from day to day.
On the outskirts of the village they met an old man in a single ragged garment; his teeth chattered when the cold wind struck him. At first they did not recognise him, but when he approached them and began to speak, they saw to their consternation that it was Chang, the head man of the hamlet, who had been a prosperous, well-dressed farmer when last they had seen him. Even in his misery he did not forget his native courtesy. "Ah, good Fathers, are you out in the country?" (It is always proper in China to ask an obvious question by way of salutation.)
"Yes, Mr. Chang, we are visiting our hungry sheep. But where are your doors and windows, and where are the roofs of your houses?"
"The hungry wolf, Pere Perrin, has come and eaten them all," he replied.
It was easy to see that grim want was stalking through the village. A crowd of hungry, gaunt people soon gathered, clad in rags, and with the look of famished animals. It was a subdued and orderly group, however; no demonstration of suffering was made, and only dumb curiosity and wonder were shown. They had been a quiet, respectable people in their prosperity, and they were equally peaceful in their adversity. A few scrawny little hands tugged at the skirts of the Fathers' gowns, for the children remembered the sweetmeats that these friends always carried for them at other visits. The Fathers had not forgotten the little ones, and they were soon munching solemnly.
Pere Perrin turned again to Mr. Chang. "I see there are no pigs or dogs in sight. Are they all gone, and what are you living on?"
"The scum from the ponds and the bark from the trees will have to keep us until next harvest," was the reply.
The kindly priest groaned, and drawing a purse from his gown, opened it and extracted a few Mexican dollars. "Take these, Mr. Chang, and buy food for the villagers and yourself. I wish it were twice as much, but it is all we have left fron our last remittance. The next is not due for another month."
The Chinaman shook his head. "It's no use, Pere Perrin, it's no use; there's no food to be bought nearer than the Fu, and we are too weak to walk there and carry supplies back. Our buffaloes are gone long ago."
Pere Perrin sighed, but returned the purse to his pocket; he knew the man spoke truly, and that he must save his scanty store for those it could succour. He bade a sorrowful farewell to the villagers, and raising his hand in blessing, turned and left them.
"My blessing was all. that I could give them," he said to Pere Le Brun sadly, as they started on their homeward way.
It was noon when they left the Chang village, and they did not reach the Fu until late in the evening. They had taken no food, for there was none to buy. Hungry, therefore, and almost fainting, they stumbled along the deep ruts of the narrow roads, and it was with much relief that at last they saw the little twinkling lights of the distant city. When they reached their humble Chinese house, Pere Perrin refused to eat.
"I fast to-night with my starving people," he replied to his faithful servant Lao Liu, when he urged the evening bowl of rice upon the exhausted Father.
After a few minutes' rest, Pere Perrin quietly arose and went into the tiny chapel. All the long hours of that night he spent in prayer for the famished multitudes.
"I simply had to say my paternosters, for if ever my children need their daily bread it is today," explained Pere Perrin as the two Fathers lingered a little longer than usual over their frugal breakfast.
jWhile he was speaking Lao Liu entered and Handed Pere Perrin a note, stating that it had just come by special messenger from Feng Ti Fu. Pere Perrin opened the letter and read it aloud—the two old men had no secrets from each other. It ran as follows:
Feng Ti Fu.
My dear Pere Perrin,
Our friends in America have sent my colleagues and myself money for famine relief work; the American Red Cross Society has also put supplies at our disposal. On behalf of our station and the Famine Relief Committee, I am sending you five hundred dollars for use in your district; later I hope to increase the amount. You and I realize, Pere Perrin, that hunger knows no creed. With kindest regards for Pere Le Brun and yourself,
Pere Perrin laid the letter down and for a moment could not speak. Then he said, "The hon Dieu never forgets us, Pere Le Brun; surely he has prompted this thought of the benevolent American doctor. I cannot help feeling that he must love our friend especially dearly, for he puts so many kinds things into his heart to do. Do you remember that two years ago, when the doctor operated on my eyes, that he took me into his own house because there was no room in the hospital? And what tender care both he and his wife gave me! I have changed my mind a little about heretics since I knew them. It may be, Pere Le Brun, that when at last we reach heaven's high gate the kind Americans will speak a word for us to good St. Peter."
There was little time for talk, however, with the ready money at hand and the poor dying at their doors. With all his gentle ways Pere Perrin had a great deal of executive ability, and it did not take him long to lay out a campaign of relief measures.
"Pere Le Brun, perhaps it would be better for you to go to Wuhu and oversee the work there. I will stay here and forward supplies to you as they come in; you can take two of the lay helpers with you. I shall live in the houseboat at present and be ready to receive the stores as soon as they come up the river; but before you go we must send a wheelbarrow of provisions to the Chang village. I cannot get those poor patient people off my mind."