The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter VII

Now up to this point Sara Lee's mind had come to rest at Calais. She must get there; after that the other things would need to be worried over. Henri had already in their short acquaintance installed himself as the central figure of this strange and amazing interlude—not as a good-looking young soldier surprisingly fertile in expedients, but as a sort of agent of providence, by whom and through whom things were done.

And Henri had said she was to go to the Gare Maritime at Calais and make herself comfortable—if she got there. After that things would be arranged.

Sara Lee therefore took a hot bath, though hardly a satisfactory one, for there was no soap and she had brought none. She learned later on to carry soap with her everywhere. So she soaked the chill out of her slim body and then dressed. The room was cold, but a great exultation kept her warm. She had run the blockade, she had escaped the War Office—which, by the way, was looking her up almost violently by that time, via the censor. It had found the trunk she left at Morley's, and cross-questioned the maid into hysteria—and here she was, safe in France, the harbor of Calais before her, and here and there strange-looking war craft taking on coal. Destroyers, she learned later. Her ignorance was rather appalling at first.

It was all unreal—the room with its cold steam pipes, the heavy window hangings, the very words on the hot and cold taps in the bathroom. A great vessel moved into the harbor. As it turned she saw its name printed on its side in huge letters, and the flag, also painted, of a neutral country—a hoped-for protection against German submarines. It brought home to her, rather, the thing she had escaped.

After a time she thought of food, but rather hopelessly. Her attempts to get savon from a stupid boy had produced nothing more useful than a flow of unintelligible French and no soap whatever. She tried a pantomime of washing her hands, but to the boy she had appeared to be merely wringing them. And, as a great many females were wringing their hands in France those days, he had gone away, rather sorry for her.

When hunger drove her to the bell again he came back and found her with her little phrase book in her hands, feverishly turning the pages. She could find plenty of sentences such as "Garçon, vous avez renversé du vin sur ma robe," but not an egg lifted its shining pate above the pages. Not cereal. Not fruit. Not even the word breakfast.

Long, long afterward Sara Lee found a quite delightful breakfast hidden between two pages that were stuck together. But it was then far too late.

"Donnez-moi," began Sara Lee, and turned the pages rapidly, "this; do you see?" She had found roast beef.

The boy observed stolidly, in French, that it was not ready until noon. She was able to make out, from his failing to depart, that there was no roast beef.

"Good gracious!" she said, ravenous and exasperated. "Go and get me some bread and coffee, anyhow." She repeated it, slightly louder.

That was the tableau that Henri found when, after a custom that may be war or may be Continental, he had inquired the number of her room and made his way there.

There was a twinkle in his blue eyes as he bowed before her—and a vast relief too.

"So you are here!" he said in a tone of satisfaction. He had put in an extremely bad night, even for him, by whom nights were seldom wasted in a bed. While he was with her something of her poise had communicated itself to him. He had felt the confidence, in men and affairs, that American girls are given as a birthright. And her desire for service he had understood as a year or two ago he could not have understood. But he had stood by the rail staring north, and cursing himself for having placed her in danger during the entire crossing.

There was nothing about him that morning, however to show his bad hours. He was debonnaire and smiling.

"I am famishing," said Sara Lee. "And there are no eggs in this book—none whatever."

"Eggs! You wish eggs?"

"I just want food. Almost anything will do. I asked for eggs because they can come quickly."

Henri turned to the boy and sent him off with a rapid order. Then: "May I come in?" he said.

Sara Lee cast an uneasy glance over the room. It was extremely tidy, and unmistakably it was a bedroom. But though her color rose she asked him in. After all, what did it matter? To have refused would have looked priggish, she said to herself. And as a matter of fact one of the early lessons she learned in France was learned that morning—that though convention had had to go, like many other things in the war, men who were gentlemen ignored its passing.

Henri came in and stood by the center table.

"Now, please tell me," he said. "I have been most uneasy. On the quay last night you looked—frightened."

"I was awfully frightened. Nothing happened. I even slept."

"You were very brave."

"I was very seasick."

"I am sorry."

Henri took a turn up and down the room.

"But," said Sara Lee slowly, "I—I—can't be on your hands, you know. You must have many things to do. If you are going to have to order my meals and all that, I'm going to be a dreadful burden."

"But you will learn very quickly."

"I'm stupid about languages."

Henri dismissed that with a gesture. She could not, he felt, be stupid about anything. He went to the window and looked out. The destroyers were still coaling, and a small cargo was being taken off the boat at the quay. The rain was over, and in the early sunlight an officer in blue tunic, red breeches and black cavalry boots was taking the air, his head bent over his chest. Not a detail of the scene escaped him.

"I have agreed to find the right place for you," he said thoughtfully. "There is one, but I think—" He hesitated. "I do not wish to place you again in danger."

"You mean that it is near the Front?"

"Very near, mademoiselle."

"But I should be rather near, to be useful."

"Perhaps, for your work. But what of you? These brutes—they shell far and wide. One can never be sure."

He paused and surveyed her whimsically.

"Who allowed you to come, alone, like this?" he demanded. "Is there no one who objected?"

Sara Lee glanced down at her ring.

"The man I am going to marry. He is very angry."

Henri looked at her, and followed her eyes to Harvey's ring. He said nothing, however, but he went over and gave the bell cord a violent jerk.

"You must have food quickly," he said in a rather flat voice. "You are looking tired and pale."

A sense of unreality was growing on Sara Lee. That she should be alone in France with a man she had never seen three days before; that she knew nothing whatever about that man; that, for the present at least, she was utterly and absolutely dependent on him, even for the food she ate—it was all of a piece with the night's voyage and the little room at the Savoy. And it was none of it real.

When the breakfast tray came Henri was again at the window and silent. And Sara Lee saw that it was laid for two. She was a little startled, but the businesslike way in which the young officer drew up two chairs and held one out for her made protest seem absurd. And the flat-faced boy, who waited, looked unshocked and uninterested.

It was not until she had had some coffee that Henri followed up his line of thought.

"So—the fiance did not approve? It is not difficult to understand. There is always danger, for there are German aëroplanes even in remote places. And you are very young. You still wish to establish yourself, mademoiselle?"

"Of course!"

"Would it be a comfort to cable your safe arrival in France to the fiancé?" When he saw her face he smiled. And if it was a rather heroic smile it was none the less friendly. "I see. What shall I say? Or will you write it?"

So Sara Lee, vastly cheered by two cups of coffee, an egg, and a very considerable portion of bread and butter, wrote her cable. It was to be brief, for cables cost money. It said, "Safe. Well. Love." And Henri, who seemed to have strange and ominous powers, sent it almost immediately. Total cost, as reported to Sara Lee, two francs. He took the money she offered him gravely.

"We shall cable quite often," he said. "He will be anxious. And I think he has a right to know."

The "we" was entirely unconscious.

"And now," he said, when he had gravely allowed Sara Lee to pay her half of the breakfast, "we must arrange to get you out of Calais. And that, mademoiselle, may take time."

It took time. Sara Lee, growing accustomed now to little rooms entirely filled with men and typewriters, went from one office to another, walking along the narrow pavements with Henri, through streets filled with soldiers. Once they drew aside to let pass a procession of Belgian refugees, those who had held to their village homes until bombardment had destroyed them—stout peasant women in short skirts and with huge bundles, old men, a few young ones, many children. The terror of the early flight was not theirs, but there was in all of them a sort of sodden hopelessness that cut Sara Lee to the heart. In an irregular column they walked along, staring ahead but seeing nothing. Even the children looked old and tired.

Sara Lee's eyes filled with tears.

"My people," said Henri. "Simple country folk, and going to England, where they will grieve for the things that are gone—their fields and their sons. The old ones will die, quickly, of homesickness. It is difficult to transplant an old tree."

The final formalities seemed to offer certain difficulties. Henri, who liked to do things quickly and like a prince, flushed with irritation. He drew himself up rather haughtily in reply to one question, and glanced uneasily at the girl. But it was all as intelligible as Sanskrit to her.

It was only after a whispered sentence to the man at the head of the table that the paper was finally signed.

As they went down to the street together Sara Lee made a little protest.

"But I simply must not take all your time," she said, looking up anxiously. "I begin to realize how foolhardy the whole thing is. I meant well, but—it is you who are doing everything; not I."

"I shall not make the soup, mademoiselle," he replied gravely.

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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.