The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter III

The first thing that struck Sara Lee was the way she was saying her nightly prayers in all sorts of odd places. In trains and in hotels and, after sufficient interval, in the steamer. She prayed under these novel circumstances to be made a better girl, and to do a lot of good over there, and to be forgiven for hurting Harvey. She did this every night, and then got into her narrow bed and studied French nouns—because she had decided that there was no time for verbs—and numbers, which put her to sleep.

"Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq," Sara Lee would begin, and go on, rocking gently in her berth as the steamer rolled, "Vingt, vingt-et-un, vingt-deux, trente, trente-et-un—" Her voice would die away. The book on the floor and Harvey's picture on the tiny table, Sara Lee would sleep. And as the ship trembled the light over her head would shine on Harvey's ring, and it glistened like a tear.

One thing surprised her as she gradually met some of her fellow passengers. She was not alone on her errand. Others there were on board, young and old women, and men, too, who had felt the call of mercy and were going, as ignorant as she, to help. As ignorant, but not so friendless. Most of them were accredited somewhere. They had definite objectives. But what was more alarming—they talked in big figures. Great organizations were behind them. She heard of the rehabilitation of Belgium, and portable hospitals, and millions of dollars, and Red Cross trains.

Not once did Sara Lee hear of anything so humble as a soup kitchen. The war was a vast thing, they would observe. It could only be touched by great organizations. Individual effort was negligible.

Once she took her courage in her hands.

"But I should think," she said, "that even great organizations depend on the—on individual efforts."

The portable hospital woman turned to her patronizingly.

"Certainly, my dear," she said. "But coördinated—coördinated."

It is hard to say just when the lights went down on Sara Lee's quiet stage and the interlude began. Not on the steamer, for after three days of discouragement and good weather they struck a storm; and Sara Lee's fine frenzy died for a time, of nausea. She did not appear again until the boat entered the Mersey, a pale and shaken angel of mercy, not at all sure of her wings, and most terribly homesick.

That night Sara Lee made a friend, one that Harvey would have approved of, an elderly Englishman named Travers. He was standing by the rail in the rain looking out at the blinking signal lights on both sides of the river. The ship for the first time had abandoned its policy of darkness and the decks were bathed in light.

Overhead the yardarm blinkers were signaling, and directly over Sara Lee's head a great white searchlight swept the water ahead. The wind was blowing a gale, and the red and green lights of the pilot boat swung in great arcs that seemed to touch the waves on either side.

Sara Lee stood beside Mr. Travers, for companionship only. He had preserved a typically British aloofness during the voyage, and he had never spoken to her. But there was something forlorn in Sara Lee that night as she clutched her hat with both hands and stared out at the shore lights. And if he had been silent during the voyage he had not been deaf. So he knew why almost every woman on the ship was making the voyage; but he knew nothing about Sara Lee.

"Bad night," said Mr. Travers.

"I was wondering what they are trying to do with that little boat."

Mr. Travers concealed the surprise of a man who was making his seventy-second voyage.

"That's the pilot boat," he explained. "We are picking up a pilot."

"But," marveled Sara Lee rather breathlessly, "have we come all the way without any pilot?"

He explained that to her, and showed her a few moments later how the pilot came with incredible rapidity up the swaying rope ladder and over the side.

To be honest, he had been watching for the pilot boat, not to see what to Sara Lee was the thrilling progress of the pilot up the ladder, but to get the newspapers he would bring on with him. It is perhaps explanatory of the way things went for Sara Lee from that time on that he quite forgot his newspapers.

The chairs were gone from the decks, preparatory to the morning landing, so they walked about and Sara Lee at last told him her story—the ladies of the Methodist Church, and the one hundred dollars a month she was to have, outside of her traveling expenses, to found and keep going a soup kitchen behind the lines.

"A hundred dollars a month," he said. "That's twenty pounds. Humph! Good God!"

But this last was under his breath.

Then she told him of Mabel Andrews' letter, and at last read it to him. He listened attentively. "Of course," she said when she had put the letter back into her bag, "I can't feed a lot, even with soup. But if I only help a few, it's worth doing, isn't it?"

"Very much worth doing," he said gravely. "I suppose you are not, by any chance, going to write a weekly article for one of your newspapers about what you are doing?"

"I hadn't thought of it. Do you think I should?"

Quite unexpectedly Mr. Travers patted her shoulder.

"My dear child," he said, "now and then I find somebody who helps to revive my faith in human nature. Thank you."

Sara Lee did not understand. The touch on the shoulder had made her think suddenly of Uncle James, and her chin quivered.

"I'm just a little frightened," she said in a small voice.

"Twenty pounds!" repeated Mr. Travers to himself. "Twenty pounds!" And aloud: "Of course you speak French?"

"Very little. I've had six lessons, and I can count—some."

The sense of unreality which the twenty pounds had roused in Mr. Travers' cautious British mind grew. No money, no French, no objective, just a great human desire to be useful in her own small way—this was a new type to him. What a sporting chance this frail bit of a girl was taking! And he noticed now something that had escaped him before—a dauntlessness, a courage of the spirit rather than of the body, that was in the very poise of her head.

"I'm not afraid about the language," she was saying. "I have a phrase book. And a hungry man, maybe sick or wounded, can understand a bowl of soup in any language, I should think. And I can cook!"

It was a perplexed and thoughtful Mr. Travers who sipped his Scotch-and-soda in the smoking room before retiring, he took the problem to bed with him and woke up in the night saying: "Twenty pounds! Good God!"

In the morning they left the ship. He found Sara Lee among the K's, waiting to have her passport examined, and asked her where she was stopping in London. She had read somewhere of Claridge's—in a novel probably.

"I shouldn't advise Claridge's," he said, reflecting rather grimly on the charges of that very exclusive hotel. "Suppose you let me make a suggestion."

So he wrote out the name of a fine old English house on Trafalgar Square, where she could stay until she went to France. There would be the matter of a passport to cross the Channel. It might take a day or two. Perhaps he could help her. He would give himself the pleasure of calling on her very soon.

Sara Lee got on the train and rode up to London. She said to herself over and over: "This is England. I am really in England." But it did not remove the sense of unreality. Even the English grass, bright green in midwinter, only added to the sense of unreality.

She tried, sitting in the strange train with its small compartments, to think of Harvey. She looked at her ring and tried to recall some of the tender things he had said to her. But Harvey eluded her. She could not hear his voice. And when she tried to see him it was Harvey of the wide face and the angry eyes of the last days that she saw.

Morley's comforted her. The man at the door had been there for forty years, and was beyond surprise. He had her story in twenty-four hours, and in forty-eight he was her slave. The elderly chambermaid mothered her, and failed to report that Sara Lee was doing a small washing in her room and had pasted handkerchiefs over the ancient walnut of her wardrobe.

"Going over, are you?" she said. "Dear me, what courage you've got, miss! They tell me things is horrible over there."

"That's why I'm going," replied Sara Lee, and insisted on helping to make up the bed.

"It's easier when two do it," she said casually.

Mr. Travers put in a fretful twenty-four hours before he came to see her. He lunched at Brooks', and astounded an elderly member of the House by putting her problem to him.

"A young girl!" exclaimed the M. P. "Why, deuce take it, it's no place for a young girl."

"An American," explained Mr. Travers uncomfortably. "She's perfectly able to look after herself."

"Probably a correspondent in disguise. They'll go to any lengths."

"She's not a correspondent."

"Let her stay in Boulogne. There's work there in the hospitals."

"She's not a nurse. She's a—well, she's a cook. Or so she says."

The M. P. stared at Mr. Travers, and Mr. Travers stared back defiantly.

"What in the name of God is she going to cook?"

"Soup," said Mr. Travers in a voice of suppressed irritation. "She's got a little money, and she wants to establish a soup kitchen behind the Belgian trenches on a line of communication. I suppose," he continued angrily, "even you will admit that the Belgian Army needs all the soup it can get."

"I don't approve of women near the lines."

"Neither do I. But I'm exceedingly glad that a few of them have the courage to go there."

"What's she going to make soup out of?"

"I'm not a cooking expert. But I know her and I fancy she'll manage."

It ended by the M. P. agreeing to use his influence with the War Office to get Sara Lee to France. He was very unwilling. The spy question was looming large those days. Even the Red Cross had unwittingly spread its protection over more than one German agent. The lines were being drawn in.

"I may possibly get her to France. I don't know, of course," he said in that ungracious tone in which an Englishman often grants a favor which he will go to any amount of trouble to do. "After that it's up to her."

Mr. Travers reflected rather grimly that after that it was apparently up to him.

Sara Lee sat in her room at Morley's Hotel and looked out at the life of London—policemen with chin straps; schoolboys in high silk hats and Eton suits, the hats generally in disreputable condition; clerks dressed as men at home dressed for Easter Sunday church; and men in uniforms. Only a fair sprinkling of these last, in those early days. On the first afternoon there was a military funeral. A regiment of Scots, in kilts, came swinging down from the church of St. Martin in the Fields, tall and wonderful men, grave and very sad. Behind them, on a gun carriage, was the body of their officer, with the British flag over the casket and his sword and cap on the top.

Sara Lee cried bitterly. It was not until they had gone that she remembered that Harvey had always called the Scots men in women's petticoats. She felt a thrill of shame for him, and no amount of looking at his picture seemed to help.

Mr. Travers called the second afternoon and was received by August at the door as an old friend.

"She's waiting in there," he said. "Very nice young lady, sir. Very kind to everybody."

Mr. Travers found her by a window looking out. There was a recruiting meeting going on in Trafalgar Square, the speakers standing on the monument. Now and then there was a cheer, and some young fellow sheepishly offered himself. Sara Lee was having a mad desire to go over and offer herself too. Because, she reflected, she had been in London almost two days, and she was as far from France as ever. Not knowing, of course, that three months was a fair time for the slow methods then in vogue.

There was a young man in the room, but Sara Lee had not noticed him. He was a tall, very blond young man, in a dark-blue Belgian uniform with a quaint cap which allowed a gilt tassel to drop over his forehead. He sat on a sofa, curling up the ends of a very small mustache, his legs, in cavalry boots, crossed and extending a surprising distance beyond the sofa.

The lights were up now, beyond the back drop, the stage darkened. A new scene with a vengeance, a scene laid in strange surroundings, with men, whole men and wounded men and spying men—and Sara Lee and this young Belgian, whose name was Henri and whose other name, because of what he suffered and what he did, we may not know.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.