An Angel in Disguise
Hortense shivered as she carried the milking pails out into
evening. Her shoes made crisp noises in the snow as she walked down through
the orchard to the barn. She liked the snow and the way it made the world
look new. Marthe began lowing as soon as Hortense put the pails down to open
the barn door.
"I'm here," she said, lighting the lantern and going over to the stall where
the big brown and white cow stood with her head down. "Are you uncomfortable
you poor thing?" She dropped the pails in alarm. Marthe had stopped calling
and was nuzzling at someone lying in the straw at her feet. The girl was
afraid at first and stood very still. There was no sound apart from the
rasping of Marthe's tongue against cloth. Perhaps the person lying down was
hurt. Hortense went closer and saw that it was a young man. He was lying on
his side with his back to her. His clothes were not very clean. He had taken
his shoes and stockings off and she could see that his feet were blistered
"Monsieur?" she said "would you like some milk?"
He stirred and rolled onto his back. His fair hair was loose. She stared at
his face. It looked familiar to her. He muttered some words she didn't
understand and opened his eyes. They were the color of the sky. Suddenly
Hortense knew where she had seen him before. He was exactly like one of the
angels in the big painting that hung over the altar in church. He didn't say
anything and he seemed very tired. Marthe shifted her feet and he pulled
himself out of her way and leaned against the side of the stall.
"I must milk her," said Hortense getting the stool and sitting down. He
nodded. He wasn't smiling but she thought his expression was very kind. He
watched with half closed eyes as the steaming milk began to spurt and hiss
into the pail. When there was enough she filled a dipper and handed it to
him. He drank it all and as he handed it back he smiled and said "Merci
Hortense did not know what was happening to her. It was as if her heart had
grown as light as thistledown and was floating inside her. She usually only
felt like that in church, on special joyful days like Easter Sunday. Perhaps
he really was an angel, in which case he would understand that she had to
milk Marthe before she could do anything else. She worked swiftly and soon
had two brimming pails.
"I must take these to the house, " she said "I will come straight back and I
will bring food." She was not sure if angels ate but he had drunk the milk
and he did look hungry. Perhaps while they were on earth they had to eat
like ordinary people. Hortense knew this was the time of year when God sent
some of his angels down to remind everyone about Jesus being born. She had
thought they would be cleaner than this one and have wings, but perhaps he
had met with an accident and lost them. He said nothing when she picked up
the milk and left.
She put the pails in the small dairy and hurried to the larder. Her
employer, Madame Distelle had left plenty of food to last the seven days
that she would be away visiting her brother. Hortense picked up bread,
cheese, the remains of a vegetable terrine and a couple of sweet autumn
apples. She put all this in a basket together with two bottles of cider and
then darted into her own small room off the kitchen and picked up two of the
blankets off her bed. He was sitting just as she had left him. She showed
him what was in the basket and he smiled at her again and said something in
a quiet, gentle voice.
"You should come over here to eat Monsieur Ange," she said, moving to the
part of the barn where the hay was stored. "Marthe is a kind creature but
she may step on you without meaning to."
He got up slowly and limped to where she had spread the blankets for him to
sit on. He certainly ate as if her were hungry. As she watched him dispose
of the bread and cheese and then make short work of the terrine she began
think that he might be just a man after all. She could see by the state of
his feet that he bled like anyone else. He turned his attention to the cider
and picked up one of the bottles, breaking the seal and pulling out the
stopper. With a smile he offered it to her, together with one of the apples.
Once again she felt her heart do a dance but this time she also clearly saw
a great deal of sadness in his eyes. 'He is an angel' she thought 'and he is
here to gather up the cares of the world.' He lay down soon afterwards and
went to sleep. She arranged the blankets around him and crept away.
Abbe Coultard was dozing comfortably at his fireside when the
his front door woke him. He heard the housekeeper shuffling along the
passage to answer. When he heard her say, "No you can't see him, he is
resting after his supper," for the third time, he got up and walked out into
"Who is it Madame Gounod?" he asked.
"Only this silly girl" she said grumbling as she opened the door wider so
that he could see. "I've already told her you cannot be disturbed."
"Let her come in," said the abbe "we can at least let her get warm before
she has to walk home again. Come along child." He smiled and waved her into
the study, past Madame Gounod's disapproving stare, and closed the door
"What brings you into the village at this time of night Hortense? Are you
afraid to stay at Madame Distelle's alone?"
"Oh no mon pere, I just wanted to tell you about the angel."
"What angel is that?"
"The one I found in the barn."
As Hortense told him all about the stranger she had found in Marthe's stall
the priest's mind went back to the soldiers who had come to the village two
days ago. The lieutenant in charge had told him they were searching for an
English naval officer who had escaped from the prison at Verdun and was
thought to be in the area. He had described the fugitive as young and well
favored with fair hair and blue eyes.
"I should very much like to meet your angel," he said gently.
"Oh I knew you would," said Hortense "but you mustn't mind about the wings."
"I shall not," he assured her.
As they walked together through the lightly falling snow he wondered if he
should have waited until the lieutenant and his men could be sent for. They
were billeted in the next village and would not take more than an hour to
arrive. From what Hortense had told him the young man did not sound
dangerous but perhaps that was because the girl was plainly no threat. He
decided to take the risk of confronting him. After all, most men would
surely respect a priest and if the escaped prisoner was as weary as Hortense
had suggested he was not likely to be aggressive.
"There he is," whispered Hortense as they entered the barn. The lantern
light fell on a sleeping figure and the abbe found himself looking down at
an exhausted boy who matched the description the lieutenant had given him.
He opened his eyes. He did not move but lay where he was, looking steadily
at them. Hortense was not surprised that the abbe could talk to the angel in
his own language. She listened uncomprehendingly for several minutes as they
spoke quietly and seemed to reach some kind of agreement.
"My child, I want you to go and bring the handcart that you use to take the
cheeses to market. We are going to take him to my house and look after him
for a while."
"Is he going to stay long?"
"No," said the priest "he stay cannot long, perhaps only a day. There are
some people waiting to take him on a journey."
They lined the cart with hay to keep him warm. When he climbed in they piled
more on top of him and covered him with the blankets as well. They were
about to set off for the village when the he spoke anxiously to the abbe.
The priest hurried back inside the barn and emerged a few moments later
carrying a sack. He gave it to the angel who put it beside him on the cart.
"Are his wings in there?" asked Hortense.
"Oh my child!" said the abbe laughing quietly. The angel asked him something
and when the abbe replied he looked at Hortense with a very sad expression
and then pulled the blanket over his head.
It was late when they reached the abbe's house and the housekeeper had
already gone to bed. Hortense fetched some hot water and took it into the
study. The angel was sitting in a chair by the fire with a glass of wine in
his hand. Hortense helped to wash his battered feet and was rewarded with
another beautiful smile. He could not walk easily and so she and the abbe
half carried him up the stairs. The abbe sent her out of the room while he
put the angel to bed.
"Is he asleep?" asked Hortense when the abbe came back down the stairs.
"Yes he is and you must go home child. I will walk part of the way with
"I can go by myself mon pere. Can I see him again tomorrow? I have only to
milk Marthe first thing in the morning and then I could come."
"He will be leaving tomorrow Hortense. He must go away with some soldiers."
"I know he cannot stay but I would like to see him one more time, just to
The abbe did not have the heart to refuse her and she went out into the
night smiling. Hortense was a poor little creature and yet, of all his
flock, the abbe believed she had the purest soul. Her conviction that the
escaped English prisoner lying upstairs was an angel touched him. The girl's
innocent notion had drawn a sharp reaction from the young man himself. On
being told that she thought the sack contained his wings the boy's eyes had
registered disbelief, then sorrow and still more emotions that the abbe had
not been able to put a name to. He found that he too was drawn to the young
man, in part because of his obvious need of help, but also because of his
kind treatment of the girl. Many others would have been offhand, if not
downright cruel. Perhaps Hortense was not so far wrong after all. A gentle
creature herself, she had sensed the same qualities in this boy.
The next day Hortense rose early and hurried through all her
tasks. She made
sure that Marthe was milked and made properly comfortable before setting out
for the village. She took some new laid eggs in case the abbe's hens had not
managed to provide any for the angel's breakfast. When she came in sight of
the abbe's house she noticed that the priest was looking out of one of the
upstairs windows, as if waiting to see her. As she got close to the house he
came hurrying out of the front door.
"Hortense my child, I'm very glad you have come. I need you to do something
"What is it mon pere?" She had never seen the priest so agitated.
"Do you remember that sack that I brought out of the barn last night?"
"The one with the angel's wings in it?"
"Yes my child. We cannot find it. It must have fallen off the wagon on the
way here and..."
"Oh! Then I will go and look for it."
"Thank you my dear! I must ask you to hurry. The soldiers will be arriving
at noon and our guest is very anxious not to leave without it."
"I will find it mon pere. Tell him I will find it," said Hortense already
hurrying to retrace her steps. The abbe watched her little figure scurrying
away and prayed that she would indeed be successful in her search. The sack
contained the prisoner's uniform coat. If he did not have it with him when
the soldiers arrived, he could be shot as a spy.
Not much snow had fallen during the night and Hortense could
still see the
tracks the wagon had made. She followed them all the way back to the barn
without finding the sack. Before turning to walk back to the village once
more she went inside and sat on the place in the hay where the angel had
"O Lord, please show me where they are," she prayed "I know you want me to
find them for him."
She began to follow the tracks again. This time as she came to the place
where the path from the barn joined the road to the village she remembered
something. Last night she and the abbe had struggled just here to get the
cart over some shallow ruts and she had wondered if the angel would mind
being jolted about. There were bushes close to each side of the path. She
pulled branches and undergrowth aside hoping it would be there. And it was!
She picked up the sack with a cry of joy. She hesitated for a moment and
then, very cautiously, she untied the opening and looked inside.
The abbe glanced anxiously at the church clock. In another
ten minutes it
would be noon and he did not doubt that the lieutenant would arrive on time
with his men. He had been most prompt in replying to the note that the abbe
had sent him first thing that morning. Turning away from the window the abbe
looked at the young man laying on the bed. He seemed curiously unmoved by
his perilous situation. He had spoken very little about what he must have
endured in the prison at Verdun or during his weeks as a fugitive. He was
certainly a good looking boy and, in a moment of sympathetic insight, the
abbe realized that a pretty face might not be an advantage in a place where
men were locked up together and guarded by other men. The sound of an
approaching horse drawn wagon sent the abbe back to the window. A group of
soldiers had just appeared at the bend in the village street. They were
bringing the transport that the abbe had suggested they would need for a
prisoner who could barely walk. In two minutes the lieutenant would be at
the front door. The abbe supposed that it would be possible to detain him
for a short while with a glass of cognac but what to do after that? No,
wait. Here came Hortense! Running as fast as she could, bless the child. She
drew level with the soldiers and then stopped as one of them approached her,
holding out his hand.
Hortense had a pain in her side. She had run most of the way. In another
minute she would be at the house. As she passed the soldiers one of them
called out to her.
"What have you got there mademoiselle? Anything for me?" She stopped and
turned to face the man and his smile faded. That often happened.
"Angel's wings," she said. Some of the other soldiers laughed.
"Leave her be!" said the officer sharply "go along with you girl."
She ran ahead and did not stop until she met the abbe. He whispered that she
was to go upstairs and give the angel his sack and then she was to leave
quickly by the back door and go and wait inside the church. The angel was
sitting on the edge of the bed. His hair was neatly tied back with a ribbon
today and he had put his shoes and stockings on. He smiled kindly at her
when she held the sack out to him. He beckoned her over and took it, putting
it on the bed beside him. Then the most wonderful thing happened. He held
out his arms to her. When she came close he put his hands on either side of
her face and kissed her lightly on both cheeks. He spoke softly in his own
language. She knew he was saying thank you.
They abbe brought the prisoner down to the study where the
waiting. It was regrettable but they would have to put chains on his wrists
and ankles. He was not being returned to Verdun but would be taken instead
to the fortress at Bitche and locked up with all the other prisoners of war
who had made nuisances of themselves by trying to escape.
"Who was that poor creature we saw running past us earlier?" asked the
lieutenant as the prisoner was put in the back of the open wagon.
"Her name is Hortense," said the abbe "she was found abandoned on the church
steps as an infant."
"And the scarring on her face?"
"A fire when she was seven years old. We were sure she would die but as you
can see she was spared."
"Yes. God can be very cruel sometimes don't you think?"
When the abbe slipped into the back of the church he found Hortense kneeling
in her usual place, her eyes fixed on the altar.
"You did very well my child. All is well."
"Is the angel gone now?"
"Yes he is. But he wished me to say something to you. He said that you had
been his angel and he would never forget you."
"He did?" breathed Hortense, her eyes shining with pleasure. "Oh! I will
come and see him everyday."
"What do you mean?"
"Look up at the painting mon pere. He is the one at the left, just behind
Our Lord's shoulder."
The abbe followed her eyes. Just to one side of Christ ascending in glory
was a fair-haired angel with eyes the color of the sky. His robe was deep
blue. British navy blue.