The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter VIII

Here were more things to do. Sara Lee's money must be exchanged at a bank for French gold. She had three hundred dollars, and it had been given her in a tiny brown canvas bag. And then there was the matter of going from Calais toward the Front. She had expected to find a train, but there were no trains. All cars were being used for troops. She stared at Henri in blank dismay.

"No trains!" she said blankly. "Would an automobile be very expensive?"

"They are all under government control, mademoiselle. Even the petrol."

She stopped in the street.

"Then I shall have to go back."

Henri laughed boyishly.

"Mademoiselle," he said, "I have been requested to take you to a place where you may render us the service we so badly need. For the present that is my duty, and nothing else. So if you will accept the offer of my car, which is a shameful one but travels well, we can continue our journey."

Long, long afterward, Sara Lee found a snapshot of Henri's car, taken by a light-hearted British officer. Found it and sat for a long time with it in her hand, thinking and remembering that first day she saw it, in the sun at Calais. A long low car it was, once green, but now roughly painted gray. But it was not the crude painting, significant as it was, that brought so close the thing she was going to. It was that the car was but a shell of a car. The mud guards were crumpled up against the side. Body and hood were pitted with shrapnel. A door had been shot away, and the wind shield was but a frame set round with broken glass. Even the soldier-chauffeur wore a patch over one eye, and his uniform was ragged.

"Not a beautiful car, mademoiselle, as I warned you! But a fast one!"

Henri was having a double enjoyment. He was watching Sara Lee's face and his chauffeur's remaining eye.

"But fast; eh, Jean?" he said to the chauffeur. The man nodded and said something in French. It was probably the thing Henri had hoped for, and he threw back his head and laughed.

"Jean is reminding me," he said gayly, "that it is forbidden to officers to take a lady along the road that we shall travel." But when he saw how Sara Lee flushed he turned to the man.

"Mademoiselle has come from America to help us, Jean," he said quietly. "And now for Dunkirk."

The road from Dunkirk to Calais was well guarded in those days. From Nieuport for some miles inland only the shattered remnant of the Belgian Army held the line. For the cry "On to Paris!" the Germans had substituted "On to Calais!"

So, on French soil at least, the road was well guarded. A few miles in the battered car, then a slowing up, a showing of passports, the clatter of a great chain as it dropped to the road, a lowering of leveled rifles, and a salute from the officer—that was the method by which they advanced.

Henri sat with the driver and talked in a low tone. Sometimes he sat quiet, looking ahead. He seemed, somehow, older, more careworn. His boyishness had gone. Now and then he turned to ask if she was comfortable, but in the intervals she felt that he had entirely forgotten her. Once, at something Jean said, he got out a pocket map and went over it carefully. It was a long time after that before he turned to see if she was all right.

Sara Lee sat forward and watched everything. She saw little evidence of war, beyond the occasional sentries and chains. Women were walking along the roads. Children stopped and pointed, smiling, at the battered car. One very small boy saluted, and Henri as gravely returned the salute.

Some time after that he turned to her.

"I find that I shall have to leave you in Dunkirk," he said. "A matter of a day only, probably. But I will see before I go that you are comfortable."

"I shall be quite all right, of course."

But something had gone out of the day for her.

Sara Lee learned one thing that day, learned it as some women do learn, by the glance of an eye, the tone of a voice. The chauffeur adored Henri. His one unbandaged eye stole moments from the road to glance at him. When he spoke, while Henri read his map, his very voice betrayed him. And while she pondered the thing, woman-fashion they drew into the square of Dunkirk, where the statue of Jean Bart, pirate and privateer stared down at this new procession of war which passed daily and nightly under his cold eyes.

Jean and a porter carried in her luggage. Henri and a voluble and smiling Frenchwoman showed her to her room. She felt like an island of silence in a rapid-rolling sea of French. The Frenchwoman threw open the door.

A great room with high curtained windows; a huge bed with a faded gilt canopy and heavy draperies; a wardrobe as vast as the bed; and for a toilet table an enormous mirror reaching to the ceiling and with a marble shelf below—that was her room.

"I think you will be comfortable here, mademoiselle."

Sara Lee, who still clutched her small bag of gold, shook her head.

"Comfortable, yes," she said. "But I am afraid it is very expensive."

Henri named an extremely low figure—an exact fourth, to be accurate, of its real cost. A surprising person Henri, with his worn uniform and his capacity for kindly mendacity. And seeing something in the Frenchwoman's face that perhaps he had expected, he turned to her almost fiercely:

"You are to understand, madame, that this lady has been placed in my care by authority that will not be questioned. She is to have every deference."

That was all, but was enough. And from that time on Sara Lee Kennedy, of Ohio, was called, in the tiny box downstairs which constituted the office, "Mademoiselle La Princesse."

Henri did a characteristic and kindly thing for Sara Lee before he left that evening on one of the many mysterious journeys that he was to make during the time Sara Lee knew him. He came to her door, menus in hand, and painstakingly ordered for her a dinner for that night, and the three meals for the day following.

He made no suggestion of dining with her that evening. Indeed, watching him from her small table, Sara Lee decided that he had put her entirely out of his mind. He did not so much as glance at her. Save the cashier at her boxed-in desk and money drawer, she was the only woman in that room full of officers. Quite certainly Henri was the only man who did not find some excuse for glancing in her direction.

But finishing early, he paused by the cashier's desk to pay for his meal, and then he gave Sara Lee the stiffest and most ceremonious of bows.

She felt hurt. Alone in her great room, the curtains drawn by order of the police, lest a ray of light betray the town to eyes in the air, she went carefully over the hours she had spent with Henri that day, looking for a cause of offense. She must have hurt him or he would surely have stopped to speak to her.

Perhaps already he was finding her a burden. She flushed with shame when she remembered about the meals he had had to order for her, and she sat up in her great bed until late, studying by candlelight such phrases as:

"Il y a une erreur dans la note," and "Garçon, quels fruits avez-vous?"

She tried to write to Harvey that night, but she gave it up at last. There was too much he would not understand. She could not write frankly without telling of Henri, and to this point everything had centered about Henri. It all rather worried her, because there was nothing she was ashamed of, nothing she should have had to conceal. She had yet to learn, had Sara Lee, that many of the concealments of life are based not on wrongdoing but on fear of misunderstanding.

So she got as far as: "Dearest Harvey: I am here in a hotel at Dunkirk"—and then stopped, fairly engulfed in a wave of homesickness. Not so much for Harvey as for familiar things—Uncle James in his chair by the fire, with the phonograph playing "My Little Gray Home in the West"; her own white bedroom; the sun on the red geraniums in the dining-room window; the voices of happy children wandering home from school.

She got up and went to the window, first blowing out the candle. Outside, the town lay asleep, and from a gate in the old wall a sentry with a bugle blew a quiet "All's well." From somewhere near, on top of the mairie perhaps, where eyes all night searched the sky for danger, came the same trumpet call of safety for the time, of a little longer for quiet sleep.

For two days the girl was alone. There was no sign of Henri. She had nothing to read, and her eyes, watching hour after hour the panorama that passed through the square under her window, searched vainly for his battered gray car. In daytime the panorama was chiefly of motor lorries—she called them trucks—piled high with supplies, often fodder for the horses in that vague district beyond ammunition and food. Now and then a battery rumbled through, its gunners on the limbers, detached, with folded arms; and always there were soldiers.

Sometimes, from her window, she saw the market people below, in their striped red-and-white booths, staring up at the sky. She would look up, too, and there would be an aëroplane sliding along, sometimes so low that one could hear the faint report of the exhaust.

But it was the ambulances that Sara Lee looked for. Mostly they came at night, a steady stream of them. Sometimes they moved rapidly. Again, one would be going very slowly, and other machines would circle impatiently round it and go on. A silent, grim procession in the moonlight it was, and it helped the girl to bear the solitude of those two interminable days.

Inside those long gray cars with the red crosses painted on the tops—a symbol of mercy that had ceased to protect—inside those cars were wounded men, men who had perhaps lain for hours without food or care. Surely, surely it was right that she had come. The little she could do must count in the great total. She twisted Harvey's ring on her finger and sent a little message to him.

"You will forgive me when you know, dear," was the message. "It is so terrible! So pitiful!"

Yet during the day the square was gay enough. Officers in spurs clanked across, wide capes blowing in the wind. Common soldiers bought fruit and paper bags of fried potatoes from the booths. Countless dogs fought under the feet of passers-by, and over all leered the sardonic face of Jean Bart, pirate and privateer.

Sara Lee went out daily, but never far. And she practiced French with the maid, after this fashion:

"Draps de toile," said the smiling maid, putting the linen sheets on the bed.

Sara Lee would repeat it some six times.

"Taies d'oreiller," when the pillows came. So Sara Lee called pillows by the name of their slips from that time forward! Came a bright hour when she rang the bell for the boy and asked for matches, which she certainly did not need, with entire success.

On the second night Sara Lee slept badly. At two o'clock she heard a sound in the hall, and putting on her kimono, opened the door. On a stiff chair outside, snoring profoundly, sat Jean, fully dressed.

The light from her candle roused him and he was wide awake in an instant.

"Why, Jean!" she said. "Isn't there any place for you to sleep?"

"I am to remain here, mademoiselle," he replied in English.

"But surely—not because of me?"

"It is the captain's order," he said briefly.

"I don't understand. Why?"

"All sorts of people come to this place, mademoiselle. But few ladies. It is best that I remain here."

She could not move him. He had remained standing while she spoke to him, and now he yawned, striving to conceal it. Sara Lee felt very uncomfortable, but Jean's attitude and voice alike were firm. She thanked him and said good night, but she slept little after that.

Lying there in the darkness, a warm glow of gratitude to Henri, and a feeling of her safety in his care, wrapped her like a mantle. She wondered drowsily if Harvey would ever have thought of all the small things that seemed second nature to this young Belgian officer.

She rather thought not.

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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.