The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter IX

While she was breakfasting the next morning there was a tap at the door, and thinking it the maid she called to her to come in.

But it was Jean, an anxious Jean, twisting his cap in his hands.

"You have had a message from the captain, mademoiselle?"

"No, Jean."

"He was to have returned during the night. He has not come, mademoiselle."

Sara Lee forgot her morning negligée in Jean's harassed face.

"But—where did he go?"

Jean shrugged his shoulders and did not reply.

"Are you worried about him?"

"I am anxious, mademoiselle. But I am often anxious; and—he always returns."

He smiled almost sheepishly. Sara Lee, who had no subtlety but a great deal of intuition, felt that there was a certain relief in the smile, as though Jean, having had no message from his master, was pleased that she had none. Which was true enough, at that. Also she felt that Jean's one eye was inspecting her closely, which was also true. A new factor had come into Henri's life—by Jean's reasoning, a new and dangerous one. And there were dangers enough already.

Highly dangerous, Jean reflected in the back of his head as he backed out with a bow. A young girl unafraid of the morning sun and sitting at a little breakfast table as fresh as herself—that was a picture for a war-weary man.

Jean forgot for a moment his anxiety for Henri's safety in his fear for his peace of mind. For a doubt had been removed. The girl was straight. Jean's one sophisticated eye had grasped that at once. A good girl, alone, and far from home! And Henri, like all soldiers, woman-hungry for good women, for unpainted skins and clear eyes and the freshness and bloom of youth.

All there, behind that little breakfast table which might so pleasantly have been laid for two.

Jean took a walk that morning, and stood staring for twenty minutes into a clock maker's window, full of clocks. After which he drew out his watch and looked at the time!

At two in the afternoon Sara Lee saw Henri's car come into the square. It was, if possible, more dilapidated than before, and he came like a gray whirlwind, scattering people and dogs out of his way. Almost before he had had time to enter the hotel Sara Lee heard him in the hall, and the next moment he was bowing before her.

"I have been longer than I expected," he explained. "Have you been quite comfortable?"

Sara Lee, however, was gazing at him with startled eyes. He was dirty, unshaven, and his eyes looked hollow and bloodshot. From his neck to his heels he was smeared with mud, and his tidy tunic was torn into ragged holes.

"But you—you have been fighting!" she gasped.

"I? No, mademoiselle. There has been no battle." His eyes left her and traveled over the room. "They are doing everything for you? They are attentive?"

"Everything is splendid," said Sara Lee. "If you won't tell me how you got into that condition, at least you can send your coat down to me to mend."

"My tunic!" He looked at it smilingly. "You would do that?"

"I am nearly frantic for something to do."

He smiled, and suddenly bending down he took her hand and kissed it.

"You are not only very beautiful, mademoiselle, but you are very good."

He went away then, and Sara Lee got out her sewing things. The tunic came soon, carefully brushed and very ragged. But it was not Jean who brought it; it was the Flemish boy.

And upstairs in a small room with two beds Sara Lee might have been surprised to find Jean, the chauffeur, lying on one, while Henri shaved himself beside the other. For Jean, of the ragged uniform and the patch over one eye, was a count of Belgium, and served Henri because he loved him. And because, too, he was no longer useful in that little army where lay his heart.

Sometime a book will be written about the Jeans of this war, the great friendships it has brought forth between men. And not the least of its stories will be that of this Jean of the one eye. But its place is not here.

And perhaps there will be a book about the Henris, also. But not for a long time, and even then with care. For the heroes of one department of an army in the field live and die unsung. Their bravest exploits are buried in secrecy. And that is as it must be. But it is a fine tale to go untold.

After he had bathed and shaved, Henri sat down at a tiny table and wrote. He drew a plan also, from a rough one before him. Then he took a match and burned the original drawing until it was but charred black ashes. When he had finished Jean got up from the bed and put on his overcoat.

"To the King?" he said.

"To the King, old friend."

Jean took the letter and went out.

Down below, Sara Lee sat with Henri's ragged tunic on her lap and stitched carefully. Sometime, she reflected, she would be mending worn garments for another man, now far away. A little flood of tenderness came over her. So helpless these men! There was so much to do for them! And soon, please God, she would be helping other tired and weary men, with food, and perhaps a word—when she had acquired some French—and perhaps a thread and needle.

She dined alone that night, as usual. Henri did not appear, though she had sent what she suspected was his only tunic back to him neatly mended at five o'clock. As a matter of fact Henri was sound asleep. He had meant to rest only for an hour a body that was crying aloud with fatigue. But Jean, coming in quietly, had found him sleeping like a child, and had put his own blanket over him and left him. Henri slept until morning, when Jean, coming up from his vigil outside the American girl's door, found him waking and rested, and rang for coffee.

Jean sat down on the edge of his bed and put on his shoes and puttees. He was a taciturn man, but now he had something to say that he did not like to say. And Henri knew it.

"What is it?" he asked, his arms under his head. "Come, let us have it! It is, of course, about the American lady."

"It is," Jean said bluntly. "You cannot mix women and war."

"And you think I am doing that?"

"I am not an idiot," Jean growled. "You do not know what you are doing. I do. She is young and lonely. You are young and not unattractive to women. Already she turns pale when I so much as ask if she has heard from you."

"You asked her that?"

"You were gone much longer than—"

"And you thought I might send her word, and not you!" Henri's voice was offended. He lay back while the boy brought in the morning coffee and rolls.

"Let me tell you something," he said when the boy had gone. "She is betrothed to an American. She wears a betrothal ring. I am to her—the French language!"

But, though Henri laughed, Jean remained grave and brooding. For Henri had not said what Sara Lee already was to him.

It was later in the morning that Henri broached the subject again. They were in the courtyard of an old house, working over the engine of the car.

"I think I have found a location for the young American lady," he said.

Jean hammered for a considerable time at a refractory rim.

"And where?" he asked at last.

Henri named the little town. Like Henri's family name, it must not be told. Too many things happened there, and perhaps it is even now Henri's headquarters. For that portion of the line has changed very little.

Jean fell to renewed hammering.

"If you will be silent I shall explain a plan," Henri said in a cautious tone. "She will make soup, with help which we shall find. And if coming in for refreshments a soldier shall leave a letter for me it is natural, is it not?"

"She will suspect, of course."

"I think not. And she reads no French. None whatever."

Yet Jean's suspicions were not entirely allayed. The plan had its advantages. It was important that Henri receive certain reports, and already the hotel whispered that Henri was of the secret service. It brought him added deference, of course, but additional danger.

So Jean accepted the plan, but with reservation. And it was not long afterward that he said to Sara Lee, in French: "There is a spider on your neck, mademoiselle."

But Sara Lee only said, "I'm sorry, Jean; you'll have to speak English to me for a while, I'm afraid."

And though he watched her for five minutes she did not put her hand to her neck.

However, that was later on. That afternoon Henri spent an hour with the Minister of War. And at the end of that time he said: "Thank you, Baron. I think you will not regret it. America must learn the truth, and how better than through those friendly people who come to us to help?"

It is as well to state, however, that he left the Minister of War with the undoubted impression that Miss Sara Lee Kennedy was a spinster of uncertain years.

Sara Lee packed her own suitcase that afternoon, doing it rather nervously because Henri was standing in the room by the window waiting for it. He had come in as matter-of-factly as Harvey had entered the parlor at Aunt Harriet's, except that he carried in his arms some six towels, a cake of soap and what looked suspiciously like two sheets.

"The house I have under consideration," he said, "has little to recommend it but the building, and even that—The occupants have gone away, and—you are not a soldier."

Sara Lee eyed the bundle.

"I don't need sheets," she expostulated.

"There are but two. And Jean has placed blankets in the car. You must have a pillow also."

He calmly took one of the hotel pillows from the bed.

"What else?" he asked calmly. "Cigarettes? But no, you do not smoke."

Sara Lee eyed him with something very like despair.

"Aren't you ever going to let me think for myself?"

"Would you have thought of these?" he demanded triumphantly. "You—you think only of soup and tired soldiers. Some one must think of you."

And there was a touch of tenderness in his voice. Sara Lee felt it and trembled slightly. He was so fine, and he must not think of her that way. It was not real. It couldn't be. Men were lonely here, where everything was hard and cruel. They wanted some of the softness of life, and all of kindness and sweetness that she could give should be Henri's. But she must make it clear that there could never be anything more.

There was a tightness about her mouth as she folded the white frock.

"I know that garment," he said boyishly. "Do you remember the night you wore it? And how we wandered in the square and made the plan that has brought us together again?"

Sara Lee reached down into her suitcase and brought up Harvey's picture.

"I would like you to see this," she said a little breathlessly. "It is the man I am to marry."

For a moment she thought Henri was not going to take it. But he came, rather slowly, and held out his hand for it. He went with it to the window and stood there for some time looking down at it.

"When are you going to marry him, mademoiselle?"

"As soon as I go back."

Sara Lee had expected some other comment, but he made none. He put the photograph very quietly on the bed before her, and gathered up the linen and the pillow in his arms.

"I shall send for your luggage, mademoiselle. And you will find me at the car outside, waiting."

And so it was that a very silent Henri sat with Jean going out to that strange land which was to be Sara Lee's home for many months. And a very silent Sara Lee, flanked with pillow and blankets, who sat back alone and tried to recall the tones of Harvey's voice.

And failed.

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