About the middle of January Mabel Andrews wrote to Sara Lee from France, where she was already installed in a hospital at Calais.
The evening before the letter came Harvey had brought round the engagement ring. He had made a little money in war stocks, and into the ring he had put every dollar of his profits—and a great love, and gentleness, and hopes which he did not formulate even to himself.
It was a solitaire diamond, conventionally set, and larger, far larger, than the modest little stone on which Harvey had been casting anxious glances for months.
"Do you like it, honey?" he asked anxiously.
Sara Lee looked at it on her finger.
"It is lovely! It—it's terrible!" said poor Sara Lee, and cried on his shoulder.
Harvey was not subtle. He had never even heard of Mabel Andrews, and he had a tendency to restrict his war reading to the quarter column in the morning paper entitled "Salient Points of the Day's War News."
What could he know, for instance, of wounded men who were hungry? Which is what Mabel wrote about.
"You said you could cook," she had written. "Well, we need cooks, and something to cook. Sometime they'll have it all fixed, no doubt, but just now it's awful, Sara Lee. The British have money and food, plenty of it. But here—yesterday I cut the clothes off a wounded Belgian boy. He had been forty-eight hours on a railway siding, without even soup or coffee."
It was early in the war then, and between Ypres and the sea stretched a long thin line of Belgian trenches. A frantic Belgian Government, thrust out of its own land, was facing the problem, with scant funds and with no matériel of any sort, for feeding that desolate little army. France had her own problems—her army, non-productive industrially, and the great and constantly growing British forces quartered there, paying for what they got, but requiring much. The world knows now of the starvation of German-occupied Belgium. What it does not know and may never know is of the struggle during those early days to feed the heroic Belgian Army in their wet and almost untenable trenches.
Hospital trains they could improvise out of what rolling stock remained to them. Money could be borrowed, and was. But food? Clothing? Ammunition? In his little villa on the seacoast the Belgian King knew that his soldiers were hungry, and paced the floor of his tiny living-room; and over in an American city whose skyline was as pointed with furnace turrets as Constantinople's is with mosques, over there Sara Lee heard that call of hunger, and—put on her engagement ring.
Later on that evening, with Harvey's wide cheerful face turned adoringly to her, Sara Lee formulated a question:
"Don't you sometimes feel as though you'd like to go to France and fight?"
"Well, they need men, don't they?"
"I guess they don't need me, honey. I'd be the dickens of a lot of use! Never fired a gun in my life."
"You could learn. It isn't hard."
Harvey sat upright and stared at her.
"Oh, if you want me to go—" he said, and waited.
Sara Lee twisted her ring on her finger.
"Nobody wants anybody to go," she said not very elegantly. "I'd just—I'd rather like to think you wanted to go."
That was almost too subtle for Harvey. Something about him was rather reminiscent of Uncle James on mornings when he was determined not to go to church.
"It's not our fight," he said. "And as far as that goes, I'm not so sure there isn't right on both sides. Or wrong. Most likely wrong. I'd look fine going over there to help the Allies, and then making up my mind it was the British who'd spilled the beans. Now let's talk about something interesting—for instance, how much we love each other."
It was always "we" with Harvey. In his simple creed if a girl accepted a man and let him kiss her and wore his ring it was a reciprocal love affair. It never occurred to him that sometimes as the evening dragged toward a close Sara Lee was just a bit weary of his arms, and that she sought, after he had gone, the haven of her little white room, and closed the door, and had to look rather a long time at his photograph before she was in a properly loving mood again.
But that night after his prolonged leave-taking Sara Lee went upstairs to her room and faced the situation.
She was going to marry Harvey. She was committed to that. And she loved him; not as he cared, perhaps, but he was a very definite part of her life. Once or twice when he had been detained by business she had missed him, had put in a lonely and most unhappy evening.
Sara Lee had known comparatively few men. In that small and simple circle of hers, with its tennis court in a vacant lot, its one or two inexpensive cars, its picnics and porch parties, there was none of the usual give and take of more sophisticated circles. Boys and girls paired off rather early, and remained paired by tacit agreement; there was comparatively little shifting. There were few free lances among the men, and none among the girls. When she was seventeen Harvey had made it known unmistakably that Sara Lee was his, and no trespassing. And for two years he had without intentional selfishness kept Sara Lee for himself.
That was how matters stood that January night when Sara Lee went upstairs after Harvey had gone and read Mabel's letter, with Harvey's photograph turned to the wall. Under her calm exterior a little flame of rebellion was burning in her. Harvey's perpetual "we," his attitude toward the war, and Mabel's letter, with what it opened before her, had set the match to something in Sara Lee she did not recognize—a strain of the adventurer, a throw-back to some wandering ancestor perhaps. But more than anything it had set fire to the something maternal that is in all good women.
Yet, had Aunt Harriet not come in just then, the flame might have died. And had it died a certain small page of the history of this war would never have been written.
Aunt Harriet came in hesitatingly. She wore a black wrapper, and her face, with her hair drawn back for the night, looked tight and old.
"Harvey gone?" she asked.
"I thought I'd better come in. There's something—I can tell you in the morning if you're tired."
"I'm not tired," said Sara Lee.
Aunt Harriet sat down miserably on a chair.
"I've had a letter from Jennie," she stated. "The girl's gone, and the children have whooping cough. She'd like me to come right away."
"To do the maid's work!" said Sara Lee indignantly. "You mustn't do it, that's all! She can get somebody."
But Aunt Harriet was firm. She was not a fair-weather friend, and since Jennie was good enough to offer her a home she felt she ought to go at once.
"You'll have to get married right away," she finished. "Goodness knows it's time enough! For two years Harvey has been barking like a watchdog in front of the house and keeping every other young man away."
Sara Lee smiled.
"He's only been lying on the doormat, Aunt Harriet," she observed. "I don't believe he knows how to bark."
"Oh, he's mild enough. He may change after marriage. Some do. But," she added hastily, "he'll be a good husband. He's that sort."
Suddenly something that had been taking shape in Sara Lee's small head, quite unknown to her, developed identity and speech.
"But I'm not going to marry him just yet," she said.
Aunt Harriet's eyes fell on the photograph with its face to the wall, and she started.
"You haven't quarreled with him, have you?"
"No, of course not! I have something else I want to do first. That's all. Aunt Harriet, I want to go to France."
Aunt Harriet began to tremble, and Sara Lee went over and put her young arms about her.
"Don't look like that," she said. "It's only for a little while. I've got to go. I just have to, that's all!"
"Go how?" demanded Aunt Harriet.
"I don't know. I'll find some way. I've had a letter from Mabel. Things are awful over there."
"And how will you help them?" Her face worked nervously. "Is it going to help for you to be shot? Or carried off by the Germans?" The atrocity stories were all that Aunt Harriet knew of the war, and all she could think of now. "You'll come back with your hands cut off."
Sara Lee straightened and looked out where between the white curtains the spire of the Methodist Church marked the east.
"I'm going," she said. And she stood there, already poised for flight.
There was no sleep in the little house that night. Sara Lee could hear the older woman moving about in her lonely bed, where the spring still sagged from Uncle James' heavy form, and at last she went in and crept in beside her. Toward morning Aunt Harriet slept, with the girl's arm across her; and then Sara Lee went back to her room and tried to plan.
She had a little money, and she had heard that living was cheap abroad. She could get across then, and perhaps keep herself. But she must do more than that, to justify her going. She must get money, and then decide how the money was to be spent. If she could only talk it over with Uncle James! Or, with Harvey. Harvey knew about business and money.
But she dared not go to Harvey. She was terribly frightened when she even thought of him. There was no hope of making him understand; and no chance of reasoning with him, because, to be frank, she had no reasons. She had only instinct—instinct and a great tenderness toward suffering. No, obviously Harvey must not know until everything was arranged.
That morning the Methodist Church packed a barrel for the Belgians. There was a real rite of placing in it Mrs. Augustus Gregory's old sealskin coat, now a light brown and badly worn, but for years the only one in the neighborhood. Various familiar articles appeared, to be thrust into darkness, only to emerge in surroundings never dreamed of in their better days—the little Howard boy's first trouser suit; the clothing of a baby that had never lived; big Joe Hemmingway's dress suit, the one he was married in and now too small for him. And here and there things that could ill be spared, brought in and offered with resolute cheerfulness.
Sara Lee brought some of Uncle James' things, and was at once set to work. The women there called Sara Lee capable, but it was to take other surroundings to bring out her real efficiency.
And it was when bending over a barrel, while round her went on that pitying talk of women about a great calamity, that Sara Lee got her great idea; and later on she made the only speech of her life.
That evening Harvey went home in a quiet glow of happiness. He had had a good day. And he had heard of a little house that would exactly suit Sara Lee and him. He did not notice his sister's silence when he spoke about it. He was absorbed, manlike, in his plans.
"The Leete house," he said in answer to her perfunctory question. "Will Leete has lost his mind and volunteered for the ambulance service in France. Mrs. Leete is going to her mother's."
"Maybe he feels it's his duty. He can drive a car, and they have no children."
"Duty nothing!" He seemed almost unduly irritated. "He's tired of the commission business, that's all. Y'ought to have heard the fellows in the office. Anyhow, they want to sub-let the house, and I'm going to take Sara Lee there to-night."
His sister looked at him, and there was in her face something of the expression of the women that day as they packed the barrel. But she said nothing until he was leaving the house that night. Then she put a hand on his arm. She was a weary little woman, older than Harvey, and tired with many children. She had been gathering up small overshoes in the hall and he had stopped to help her.
"You know, Harvey, Sara Lee's not—I always think she's different, somehow."
"Well, I guess yes! There's nobody like her."
"You can't bully her, you know."
Harvey stared at her with honestly perplexed eyes.
"Bully!" he said. "What on earth makes you say that?"
Then he laughed.
"Don't you worry, Belle," he said. "I know I'm a fierce and domineering person, but if there's any bullying I know who'll do it."
"She's not like the other girls you know," she reiterated rather helplessly.
"Sure she's not! But she's enough like them to need a house to live in. And if she isn't crazy about the Leete place I'll eat it."
He banged out cheerfully, whistling as he went down the street. He stopped whistling, however, at Sara Lee's door. The neighborhood preserved certain traditions as to a house of mourning. It lowered its voice in passing and made its calls of condolence in dark clothes and a general air of gloom. Pianos near by were played only with the windows closed, and even the milkman leaving his bottles walked on tiptoe and presented his monthly bill solemnly.
So Harvey stopped whistling, rang the bell apologetically, and—faced a new and vivid Sara Lee, flushed and with shining eyes, but woefully frightened.
She told him almost at once. He had only reached the dining room of the Leete house, which he was explaining had a white wainscoting when she interrupted him. The ladies of the Methodist Church were going to collect a certain amount each month to support a soup kitchen as near the Front as possible.
"Good work!" said Harvey heartily. "I suppose they do get hungry, poor devils. Now about the dining room—"
"Harvey dear," Sara Lee broke in, "I've not finished. I—I'm going over to run it."
"You are not!"
"But I am! It's all arranged. It's my plan. They've all wanted to do something besides giving clothes. They send barrels, and they never hear from them again, and it's hard to keep interested. But with me there, writing home and telling them, 'To-day we served soup to this man, and that man, perhaps wounded.' And—and that sort of thing—don't you see how interested every one will be? Mrs. Gregory has promised twenty-five dollars a month, and—"
"You're not going," said Harvey in a flat tone. "That's all. Don't talk to me about it."
Sara Lee flushed deeper and started again, but rather hopelessly. There was no converting a man who would not argue or reason, who based everything on flat refusal.
"But somebody must go," she said with a tightening of her voice. "Here's Mabel Andrews' letter. Read it and you will understand."
"I don't want to read it."
Nevertheless he took it and read it. He read slowly. He did nothing quickly except assert his masculine domination. He had all the faults of his virtues; he was as slow as he was sure, as unimaginative as he was faithful.
He read it and gave it back to her.
"I don't think you mean it," he said. "I give you credit for too much sense. Maybe some one is needed over there. I guess things are pretty bad. But why should you make it your affair? There are about a million women in this country that haven't got anything else to do. Let them go."
"Some of them will. But they're afraid, mostly."
"Afraid! My God, I should think they would be afraid! And you're asking me to let you go into danger, to put off our wedding while you wander about over there with a million men and no women and—"
"You're wrong, Harvey dear," said Sara Lee in a low voice. "I am not asking you at all. I am telling you that I am going."
Sara Lee's leaving made an enormous stir in her small community. Opinion was divided. She was right according to some; she was mad according to others. The women of the Methodist Church, finding a real field of activity, stood behind her solidly. Guaranties of funds came in in a steady flow, though the amounts were small; and, on the word going about that she was to start a soup kitchen for the wounded, housewives sent in directions for making their most cherished soups.
Sara Lee, going to a land where the meat was mostly horse and where vegetables were scarce and limited to potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cabbage, found herself the possessor of recipes for making such sick-room dainties as mushroom soup, cream of asparagus, clam broth with whipped cream, and from Mrs. Gregory, the wealthy woman of the church—green turtle and consomme.
She was very busy and rather sad. She was helping Aunt Harriet to close the house and getting her small wardrobe in order. And once a day she went to a school of languages and painfully learned from a fierce and kindly old Frenchman a list of French nouns and prefixes like this: Le livre, le crayon, la plume, la fenêtre, and so on. By the end of ten days she could say: "La rose sent-elle bon?"
Considering that Harvey came every night and ran the gamut of the emotions, from pleading and expostulation at eight o'clock to black fury at ten, when he banged out of the house, Sara Lee was amazingly calm. If she had moments of weakness, when the call from overseas was less insistent than the call for peace and protection—if the nightly drawn picture of the Leete house, with tile mantels and a white bathroom, sometimes obtruded itself as against her approaching homelessness, Sara Lee made no sign.
She had her photograph taken for her passport, and when Harvey refused one she sent it to him by mail, with the word "Please" in the corner. Harvey groaned over it, and got it out at night and scolded it wildly; and then slept with it under his pillows, when he slept at all.
Not Sara Lee, and certainly not Harvey, knew what was calling her. And even later, when waves of homesickness racked her with wild remorse, she knew that she had had to go and that she could not return until she had done the thing for which she had been sent, whatever that might be.