The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter V

Yet for a day or two nothing much was changed. Mr. Travers sent Sara Lee a note that he was taking up her problem with the Foreign Office; and he did indeed make an attempt. He also requested his wife to ask Sara Lee to tea.

Sara Lee was extremely nervous on the day she went. She wore a black jacket suit with a white collar, and she carried Aunt Harriet's mink furs, Aunt Harriet mourning thoroughly and completely in black astrachan. She had the faculty of the young American girl of looking smart without much expense, and she appeared absurdly young.

She followed the neat maid up a wide staircase to a door with a screen just inside, and heard her name announced for the first time in her life. Sara Lee took a long breath and went inside, to a most discouraging half hour.

Mr. Travers was on the hearth rug. Mrs. Travers was in a chair, a portly woman with a not unkindly face, but the brusque manner many Englishwomen acquire after forty. She held Sara Lee's hand and gave her a complete if smiling inspection.

"And it is you who are moving heaven and earth to get to the Front! You—child!"

Sara Lee's heart fell, but she smiled also.

"But I am older than I look," she said. "And I am very strong."

Mrs. Travers looked helplessly at her husband, while she rang the bell for tea. That was another thing Sara Lee had read about but never seen—that ringing for tea. At home no one served afternoon tea; but at a party, when refreshments were coming, the hostess slipped out to the kitchen and gave a whispered order or two.

"I shall be frank with you," said Mrs. Travers. "I think it quite impossible. It is not getting you over. That might be done. And of course there are women over there—young ones too. But the army objects very seriously to their being in danger. And of course one never knows—" Her voice trailed off vaguely. She implied, however, that what one never knows was best unknown.

"I have a niece over there," she said as the tea tray came in. "Her mother was fool enough to let her go. Now they can't get her back."

"Oh, dear!" said Sara Lee. "Can't they find her?"

"She won't come. Little idiot! She's in Paris, however. I daresay she is safe enough."

Mrs. Travers made the tea thoughtfully. So far Mr. Travers had hardly spoken, but he cheered in true British fashion at the sight of the tea. Sara Lee, exceedingly curious as to the purpose of a very small stand somewhat resembling a piano stool, which the maid had placed at her knee, learned that it was to hold her muffin plate.

"And now," said Mr. Travers, "suppose we come to the point. There doesn't seem to be a chance to get you over, my child. Same answer everywhere. Place is full of untrained women. Spies have been using Red Cross passes. Result is that all the lines are drawn as tight as possible."

Sara Lee stared at him with wide eyes.

"But I can't go back," she said. "I—well, I just can't. They're raising the money for me, and all sorts of people are giving things. A—a friend of mine is baking cakes and sending on the money. She has three children, and—"

She gulped.

"I thought everybody wanted to get help to the Belgians," she said.

A slightly grim smile showed itself on Mrs. Travers' face.

"I'm afraid you don't understand. It is you we want to help. Neither Mr. Travers nor I feel that a girl so young as you, and alone, has any place near the firing line. And that, I fancy, is where you wish to go. As to helping the Belgians, we have four in the house now. They do not belong to the same social circles, so they prefer tea in their own rooms. You are quite right about their needing help too. They cannot even make up their own beds."

"They are not all like that," broke in Mr. Travers hastily.

"Of course not. But I merely think that Miss—er—Kennedy should know both sides of the picture."

Somewhat later Sara Lee was ushered downstairs by the neat maid, who stood on the steps and blew a whistle for a taxi—Sara Lee had come in a bus. She carried in her hand the address of a Belgian commission of relief at the Savoy Hotel, and in her heart, for the first time, a doubt of her errand. She gave the Savoy address mechanically and, huddled in a corner, gave way to wild and fearful misgivings.

Coming up she had sat on top of the bus and watched with wide curious, eyes the strange traffic of London. The park had fascinated her—the little groups of drilling men in khaki, the mellow tones of a bugle, and here and there on the bridle paths well-groomed men and women on horseback, as clean-cut as the horses they rode, and on the surface as careless of what was happening across the Channel. But she saw nothing now. She sat back and twisted Harvey's ring on her finger, and saw herself going back, her work undone, her faith in herself shattered. And Harvey's arms and the Leete house ready to receive her.

However, a ray of hope opened for her at the Savoy—not much, a prospect.

The Savoy was crowded. Men in uniform, a sprinkling of anxious-faced wives and daughters, and more than a sprinkling of gaily dressed and painted women, filled the lobby or made their way slowly up and down the staircase. It was all so utterly different from what she had expected—so bright, so full of life. These well-fed people they seemed happy enough. Were they all wrong back home? Was the war the ghastly thing they thought it?

Long months afterward Sara Lee was to learn that the Savoy was not London. She was to learn other things—that America knew more, through a free press, of war conditions than did England. And she was to learn what never ceased to surprise her—the sporting instinct of the British which made their early slogan "Business as usual." Business and pleasure—but only on the surface. Underneath was a dogged and obstinate determination to make up as soon as possible for the humiliation of the early days of the war.

Those were the transition days in England. The people were slowly awaking to the magnitude of the thing that was happening to them. Certain elements of the press, long under political dominion, were preparing to come out for a coalition ministry. The question of high-explosive shells as against shrapnel was bitterly fought, some of the men at home standing fast for shrapnel, as valuable against German artillery as a garden hose. Men coming back from the Front were pleading for real help, not men only, not Red Cross, not food and supplies, but for something more competent than mere man power to hold back the deluge.

But over it all was that surface cheerfulness, that best-foot-forward attitude of London. And Sara Lee saw only that, and lost faith. She had come far to help. But here was food in plenty and bands playing and smiling men in uniform drinking tea and playing for a little. That, too, Sara Lee was to understand later; but just then she did not. At home there was more surface depression. The atrocities, the plight of the Belgians, the honor list in the Illustrated London News—that was the war to Sara Lee. And here!

But later on, down in a crowded dark little room, things were different. She was one of a long line, mostly women. They were unhappy and desolate enough, God knows. They sat or stood with a sort of weary resignation. Now and then a short heavy man with an upcurled mustache came out and took in one or two. The door closed. And overhead the band played monotonously.

It was after seven when Sara Lee's turn came. The heavy-set man spoke to her in French, but he failed to use a single one of the words she had memorized.

"Don't you speak any English?" she asked helplessly.

"I do; but not much," he replied. Though his French had been rapid he spoke English slowly. "How can we serve you, mademoiselle?"

"I don't want any assistance. I—I want to help, if I can."


"In France. Or Belgium."

He shrugged his shoulders.

"We have many offers of help. What we need, mademoiselle, is not workers. We have, at our base hospital, already many English nurses."

"I am not a nurse."

"I am sorry. The whole world is sorry for Belgium, and many would work. What we need"—he shrugged his shoulders again—"is food, clothing, supplies for our brave little soldiers."

Sara Lee looked extremely small and young. The Belgian sat down on a chair and surveyed her carefully.

"You English are doing a—a fine work for us," he observed. "We are grateful. But of course the"—he hesitated—"the pulling up of an entire people—it is colossal."

"But I am not English," said Sara Lee. "And I have a little money. I want to make soup for your wounded men at a railway station or—any place. I can make good soup. And I shall have money each month to buy what I need."

Only then was Sara Lee admitted to the crowded little room.

Long afterward, when the lights behind the back drop had gone down and Sara Lee was back again in her familiar setting, one of the clearest pictures she retained of that amazing interlude was of that crowded little room in the Savoy, its single littered desk, its two typewriters creating an incredible din, a large gentleman in a dark-blue military cape seeming to fill the room. And in corners and off stage, so to speak, perhaps a half dozen men, watching her curiously.

The conversation was in French, and Sara Lee's acquaintance of the passage acted as interpreter. It was only when Sara Lee found that a considerable discussion was going on in which she had no part that she looked round and saw her friend of two nights before and of the little donkey. He was watching her intently, and when he caught her eye he bowed.

Now men, in Sara Lee's mind, had until now been divided into the ones at home, one's own kind, the sort who married one's friends or oneself, the kind who called their wives "mother" after the first baby came, and were easily understood, plain men, decent and God-fearing and self-respecting; and the men of that world outside America, who were foreigners. One might like foreigners, but they were outsiders.

So there was no self-consciousness in Sara Lee's bow and smile. Later on Henri was to find that lack of self and sex consciousness one of the maddening mysteries about Sara Lee. Perhaps he never quite understood it. But always he respected it.

More conversation, in an increasing staccato. Short contributions from the men crowded into corners. Frenzied beating of the typewriting machines, and overhead and far away the band. There was no air in the room. Sara Lee was to find out a great deal later on about the contempt of the Belgians for air. She loosened Aunt Harriet's neckpiece.

So far Henri had not joined in the discussion. But now he came forward and spoke. Also, having finished, he interpreted to Sara Lee.

"They are most grateful," he explained. "It is a—a practical idea, mademoiselle. If you were in Belgium"—he smiled rather mirthlessly—"if you were already in the very small part of Belgium remaining to us, we could place you very usefully. But—the British War Office is most careful, just now. You understand—there are reasons."

Sara Lee flushed indignantly.

"They can watch me if they want to," she said. "What trouble can I make? I've only just landed. You—you'd have to go a good ways to find any one who knows less than I do about the war."

"There is no doubt of that," he said, unconscious of offense. "But the War Office—" He held out his hands.

Sara Lee, who had already caught the British "a" and was rather overdoing it, had a wild impulse to make the same gesture. It meant so much.

More conversation. Evidently more difficulties—but with Henri now holding the center of the stage and speaking rapidly. The heavy-set man retired and read letters under an electric lamp. The band upstairs was having dinner. And Henri argued and wrangled. He was quite passionate. The man in the military cape listened and smiled. And at last he nodded.

Henri turned to Sara Lee.

"You Americans are all brave," he said. "You like—what is it you say?—taking a chance, I think. Would you care to take such a chance?"

"What sort of a chance?"

"May I visit you this evening at your hotel?"

Just for an instant Sara Lee hesitated. There was Harvey at home. He would not like her receiving a call from any man. And Harvey did not like foreigners. He always said they had no respect for women. It struck her suddenly what Harvey would call Henri's bowing and his kissing her hand, and his passionate gesticulations when he was excited. He would call it all tomfool nonsense.

And she recalled his final words, his arms so close about her that she could hardly breathe, his voice husky with emotion.

"Just let me hear of any of those foreigners bothering you," he said, "and I'll go over and wipe out the whole damned nation."

It had not sounded funny then. It was not funny now.

"Please come," said Sara Lee in a small voice.

The other gentlemen bowed profoundly. Sara Lee, rather at a loss, gave them a friendly smile that included them all. And then she and Henri were walking up the stairs and to the entrance, Henri's tall figure the target for many women's eyes. He, however, saw no one but Sara Lee.

Henri, too, called a taxicab. Every one in London seemed to ride in taxis. And he bent over her hand, once she was in the car, but he did not kiss it.

"It is very kind of you, what you are doing," he said. "But, then, you Americans are all kind. And wonderful."

Back at Morley's Hotel Sara Lee had a short conversation with Harvey's picture.

"You are entirely wrong, dear," she said. She was brushing her hair at the time, and it is rather a pity that it was a profile picture and that Harvey's pictured eyes were looking off into space—that is, a piece of white canvas on a frame, used by photographers to reflect the light into the eyes. For Sara Lee with her hair down was even lovelier than with it up. "You were wrong. They are different, but they are kind and polite. And very, very respectful. And he is coming on business."

She intended at first to make no change in her frock. After all, it was not a social call, and if she did not dress it would put things on the right footing.

But slipping along the corridor after her bath, clad in a kimono and slippers and extremely nervous, she encountered a young woman on her way to dinner, and she was dressed in that combination of street skirt and evening blouse that some Englishwomen from the outlying districts still affect. And Sara Lee thereupon decided to dress. She called in the elderly maid, who was already her slave, and together they went over her clothes.

It was the maid, perhaps, then who brought into Sara Lee's life the strange and mad infatuation for her that was gradually to become a dominant issue in the next few months. For the maid chose a white dress, a soft and young affair in which Sara Lee looked like the heart of a rose.

"I always like to see a young lady in white, miss," said the maid. "Especially when there's a healthy skin."

So Sara Lee ate her dinner alone, such a dinner as a healthy skin and body demanded. And she watched tall young Englishwomen with fine shoulders go out with English officers in khaki, and listened to a babel of high English voices, and—felt extremely alone and very subdued.

Henri came rather late. It was one of the things she was to learn about him later—that he was frequently late. It was only long afterward that she realized that such time as he spent with her was gained only at the cost of almost superhuman effort. But that was when she knew Henri's story, and his work. She waited for him in the reception room, where a man and a woman were having coffee and talking in a strange tongue. Henri found her there, at something before nine, rather downcast and worried, and debating about going up to bed. She looked up, to find him bowing before her.

"I thought you were not coming," she said.

"I? Not come? But I had said that I would come, mademoiselle. I may sit down?"

Sara Lee moved over on the velvet sofa, and Henri lowered his long body onto it. Lowered his voice, too, for the man and woman were staring at him.

"I'm afraid I didn't quite understand about this afternoon," began Sara Lee. "You spoke about taking a chance. I am not afraid of danger, if that is what you mean."

"That, and a little more, mademoiselle," said Henri. "But now that I am here I do not know."

His eyes were keen. Sara Lee had suddenly a strange feeling that he was watching the couple who talked over their coffee, and that, oddly enough, the couple were watching him. Yet he was apparently giving his undivided attention to her.

"Have you walked any to-day?" he asked her unexpectedly.

Sara Lee remembered the bus, and, with some bitterness, the two taxis.

"I haven't had a chance to walk," she said.

"But you should walk," he said. "I—will you walk with me? Just about the square, for air?" And in a lower tone: "It is not necessary that those two should know the plan, mademoiselle."

"I'll get my coat and hat," Sara Lee said, and proceeded to do so in a brisk and businesslike fashion. When she came down Henri was emerging from the telephone booth. His face was impassive. And again when in time Sara Lee was to know Henri's face better than she had ever known Harvey's, she was to learn that the masklike look he sometimes wore meant danger—for somebody.

They went out without further speech into the clear cold night. Henri, as if from custom, threw his head back and scanned the sky. Then they went on and crossed into the square.

"The plan," Henri began abruptly, "is this: You will be provided to-morrow with a passport to Boulogne. You will, if you agree, take the midnight train for Folkestone. At the railway station here you will be searched. At Folkestone a board, sitting in an office on the quay, will examine your passport."

"Does any one in Boulogne speak English?" Sara Lee inquired nervously. Somehow that babel of French at the Savoy had frightened her. Her little phrase book seemed pitifully inadequate for the great things in her mind.

"That hardly matters," said Henri, smiling faintly. "Because I think you shall not go to Boulogne."

"Not go!" She stopped dead, under the monument, and looked up at him.

"The place for you to go, to start from, is Calais," Henri explained. He paused, to let pass two lovers, a man in khaki and a girl. "But Calais is difficult. It is under martial law—a closed city. From Boulogne to Calais would be perhaps impossible."

Sara Lee was American and her methods were direct.

"How can I get to Calais?"

"Will you take the chance I spoke of?"

"For goodness' sake," said Sara Lee in an exasperated tone, "how can I tell you until I know what it is?"

Henri told her. He even, standing under a street lamp, drew a small sketch for her, to make it clear. Sara Lee stood close, watching him, and some of the lines were not as steady as they might have been. And in the midst of it he suddenly stopped.

"Do you know what it means?" he demanded.

"Yes, of course."

"And you know what date this is?"

"The eighteenth of February."

But he saw, after all, that she did not entirely understand.

"To-night, this eighteenth of February, the Germans commence a blockade of this coast. No vessels, if they can prevent them, will leave the harbors; or if they do, none shall reach the other side!"

"Oh!" said Sara Lee blankly.

"We are eager to do as you wish, mademoiselle. But"—he commenced slowly to tear up the sketch—"it is too dangerous. You are too young. If anything should go wrong and I had—No. We will find another way."

He put the fragments of the sketch in his pocket.

"How long is this blockade to last?" Sara Lee asked out of bitter disappointment.

He shrugged his shoulders.

"Who can say? A week! A year! Not at all!"

"Then," said Sara Lee with calm deliberation, "you might as well get out your pencil and draw another picture—because I'm going."

Far enough away now, the little house at home and the peace that dwelt therein; and Harvey; and the small white bedroom; and the daily round of quiet duties. Sara Lee had set her face toward the east, and the land of dying men. And as Henri looked down at her she had again that poised and eager look, almost of flight, that had brought into Harvey's love for her just a touch of fear.

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