The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter X

From Dunkirk to the Front, the road, after the Belgian line was passed, was lightly guarded. Henri came out of a reverie to explain to Sara Lee.

"We have not many men," he said. "And those that remain are holding the line. It is very weary, our army."

Now at home Uncle James had thought very highly of the Belgian Army. He had watched the fight they made, and he had tried to interest Sara Lee in it. But without much result. She had generally said: "Isn't it wonderful!" or "horrible," as the case might be, and put out of her mind as soon as possible the ringing words he had been reading. But she had not forgotten, she found. They came back to her as she rode through that deserted countryside. Henri, glancing back somewhat later, found her in tears.

He climbed back at once into the rear of the car and sat down beside her.

"You are homesick, I think?"

"Yes. But not for myself. I am just homesick for all the people who have lost their homes. You—and Jean, and all the rest."

"Some day I shall tell you about my home and what has happened to it," he said gravely. "Not now. It is not pleasant. But you must remember this: We are going back home, we Belgians." And after a little pause: "Just as you are."

He lapsed into silence after that, and Sara Lee, stealing a glance at him, saw his face set and hard. She had a purely maternal impulse to reach over and pat his hand.

Jean did not like Henri's shift to the rear of the car. He drove with a sort of irritable feverishness, until Henri leaned over and touched him on the shoulder.

"We have mademoiselle with us, Jean," he said in French.

"It is not difficult to believe," growled Jean. But he slackened his pace somewhat.

So far the road had been deserted. Now they had come up to a stream of traffic flowing slowly toward the Front. Armored cars, looking tall and top-heavy, rumbled and jolted along. Many lorries, one limousine containing a general, a few Paris buses, all smeared a dingy gray and filled with French soldiers, numberless and nondescript open machines, here and there a horse-drawn vehicle—these filled the road. In and out among them Jean threaded his way, while Sara Lee grew crimson with the effort to see it all, and Henri sat very stiff and silent.

At a crossroads they were halted by troops who had fallen out for a rest. The men stood at ease, and stared their fill at Sara Lee. Save for a few weary peasants, most of them had seen no women for months. But they were respectful, if openly admiring. And their admiration of her was nothing to Sara Lee's feeling toward them. She loved them all—boys with their first straggly beards on their chins; older men, looking worn and tired; French and Belgian; smiling and sad. But most of all, for Uncle James' sake, she loved the Belgians.

"I cannot tell you," she said breathlessly to Henri. "It is like a dream come true. And I shall help. You look doubtful sometimes, but I am sure."

"You are heaven sent," Henri replied gravely.

They turned into a crossroad after a time, and there in a little village Sara Lee found her new home. A strange village indeed, unoccupied and largely destroyed. Piles of bricks and plaster lined the streets. Broken glass was everywhere. Jean blew out a tire finally, because of the glass, and they were obliged to walk the remainder of the way.

"A poor place, mademoiselle," Henri said as they went along. "A peaceful little town, and quite beautiful, once. And it harbored no troops. But everything is meat for the mouths of their guns."

Sara Lee stopped and looked about her. Her heart was beating fast, but her lips were steady enough.

"And it is here that I—"

"A little distance down the street. You must see before you decide."

Steady, passionless firing was going on, not near, but far away, like low thunder before a summer storm. She was for months to live, to eat and sleep and dream to that rumbling from the Ypres salient, to waken when it ceased or to look up from her work at the strange silence. But it was new to her then, and terrible.

"Do they still shell this—this town?" she asked, rather breathlessly.

"Not now. They have done their work. Of course—" he did not finish.

Sara Lee's heart slowed down somewhat. After all, she had asked to be near the Front. And that meant guns and such destruction as was all about her. Only one thing troubled her.

"It is rather far from the trenches, isn't it?"

He smiled slightly.

"Far! It is not very far. Not so far as I would wish, mademoiselle. But, to do what you desire, it is the best I have to offer."

"How far away are the trenches?"

"A quarter of a mile beyond those poplar trees." He indicated on a slight rise a row of great trees broken somewhat but not yet reduced to the twisted skeletons they were to become later on. In a long line they faced the enemy like sentinels, winter-quiet but dauntless, and behind them lay the wreck of the little village, quiet and empty.

"Will the men know I am here?" Sara Lee asked anxiously.

"But, yes, mademoiselle. At night they come up from the trenches, and fresh troops take their places. They come up this street and go on to wherever they are to rest. And when they find that a house of—mercy is here—and soup, they will come. More than you wish."

"Belgian soldiers?"

"Only Belgian soldiers. That is as you want it to be, I think."

"If only I spoke French!"

"You will learn. And in the meantime, mademoiselle, I have taken the liberty of finding you a servant—a young peasant woman. And you will also have a soldier always on guard."

Something that had been in the back of Sara Lee's mind for some time suddenly went away. She had been thinking of Aunt Harriet and the Ladies' Aid Society of the Methodist Church. She had, in fact, been wondering how they would feel when they learned that she was living alone, the only woman among thousands of men. It had, oddly enough, never occurred to her before.

"You have thought of everything," she said gratefully.

But Henri said nothing. He had indeed thought of everything with a vengeance, with the net result that he was not looking at Sara Lee more than he could help.

These Americans were strange. An American girl would cross the seas, and come here alone with him—a man and human. And she would take for granted that he would do what he was doing for love of his kind—which was partly true; and she would be beautiful and sweet and amiable and quite unself-conscious. And then she would go back home, warm of heart with gratitude, and marry the man of the picture.

The village had but one street, and that deserted and in ruins. Behind its double row of houses, away from the enemy, lay the fields, a muddy canal and more poplar trees. And from far away, toward Ypres, there came constantly that somewhat casual booming of artillery which marked the first winter of the war.

The sound of the guns had first alarmed, then interested Sara Lee. It was detached then, far away. It meant little to her. It was only later, when she saw some of the results of the sounds she heard, that they became significant. But this is not a tale of the wounding of men. There are many such. This is the story of a little house of mercy, and of a girl with a dauntless spirit, and of two men who loved her. Only that.

The maid Henri had found was already in the house, sweeping. Henri presented her to Sara Lee, and he also brought a smiling little Belgian boy, in uniform and with a rifle.

"Your staff, mademoiselle!" he said. "And your residence!"

Sara Lee looked about her. With the trifling exception that there was no roof, it was whole. And the roof was not necessary, for the floors of the upper story served instead. There was a narrow passage with a room on either side, and a tiny kitchen behind.

Henri threw open a door on the right.

"Your bedroom," he said. "Well furnished, as you will see. It should be, since there has been brought here all the furniture not destroyed in the village."

His blacker mood had fallen away before her naive delight. He went about smiling boyishly, showing her the kettles in the kitchen; the supply, already so rare, of firewood; the little stove. But he stiffened somewhat when she placed her hand rather timidly on his arm.

"How am I ever to thank you?" she asked.

"By doing much good. And by never going beyond the poplar trees."

She promised both very earnestly.

But she was a little sad as she followed Henri about, he volubly expatiating on such advantages as plenty of air owing to the absence of a roof; and the attraction of the stove, which he showed much like a salesman anxious to make a sale. "Such a stove!" he finished contentedly. "It will make soup even in your absence, mademoiselle! Our peasants eat much soup; therefore it is what you would call a trained stove."

Before Sara Lee's eyes came a picture of Harvey and the Leete house, its white dining room, its bay window for plants, its comfortable charm and prettiness. And Harvey's face, as he planned it for her anxious, pleading, loving. She drew a long breath. If Henri noticed her abstraction he ignored it. He was all over the little house. One moment he was instructing Marie volubly, to her evident confusion. On René, the guard, he descended like a young cyclone, with warnings for mademoiselle's safety and comfort. He was everywhere, sitting on the bed to see if it was soft, tramping hard on the upper floor to discover if any plaster might loosen below, and pausing in that process to look keenly at a windmill in the field behind.

When he came down it was to say: "You are not entirely alone in the village, after all, mademoiselle. The miller has come back. I shall visit him now and explain."

He found Sara Lee, however, still depressed. She was sitting in a low chair in the kitchen gazing thoughtfully at the stove.

"I am here," she said. "And here is the house, and a stove, and—everything. But there are no shops; and what shall I make my soup out of?"

Henri stared at her rather blankly.

"True!" he said. "Very true. And I never thought of it!"

Then suddenly they both laughed, the joyous ringing laugh of ridiculous youth, which can see its own absurdities and laugh at them.

Henri counted off on his fingers.

"I thought of water," he said, "and a house, and firewood, and kettles and furniture. And there I ceased thinking."

It was dusk now. Marie lifted the lid from the stove, and a warm red glow of reflected light filled the little kitchen. It was warm and cozy; the kettle sang like the purring of a cat. And something else that had troubled Sara Lee came out.

"I wonder," she said, "if you are doing all this only because I—well, because I persuaded you." Which she had not. "Do the men really need me here?"

"Need you, mademoiselle?"

"Do they need what little I can give? They were smiling, all the ones I saw."

"A Belgian soldier always smiles. Even when he is fighting." His voice had lost its gayety and had taken on a deeper note. "Mademoiselle, I have brought you here, where I can think of no other woman who would have the courage to come, because you are needed. I cannot promise you entire safety"—his mouth tightened—"but I can promise you work and gratitude. Such gratitude, mademoiselle, as you may never know again."

That reassured her. But in her practical mind the matter of supplies loomed large. She brought the matter up again directly.

"It is to be hot chocolate and soup?" he asked.

"Both, if I find I have enough money. Soup only, perhaps."

"And soup takes meat, of course."

"It should, to be strengthening."

Henri looked up, to see Jean in the doorway smiling grimly.

"It is very simple," Jean said to him in French. "You have no other duties of course; so each day you shall buy in the market place at Dunkirk, with American money. And I shall become a delivery boy and bring out food for mademoiselle, and whatever is needed."

Henri smiled back at him cheerfully. "An excellent plan, Jean," he said. "Not every day, but frequently."

Jean growled and disappeared.

However, there was the immediate present to think of, and while Jean thawed his hands at the fire and Sara Lee was taking housewifely stock of her new home, Henri disappeared.

He came back in a half hour, carrying in a small basket butter, eggs, bread and potatoes.

"The miller!" he explained cheerfully to Sara Lee. "He has still a few hens, and hidden somewhere a cow. We can have milk—is there a pail for Marie to take to the mill?—and bread and an omelet. That is a meal!"

There was but one lamp, which hung over the kitchen stove. The room across from Sara Lee's bedroom contained a small round dining table and chairs. Sara Lee, enveloped in a large pinafore apron, made the omelet in the kitchen. Marie brought a pail of fresh milk. Henri, with a towel over his left arm, and in absurd mimicry of a Parisian waiter, laid the table; and Jean, dour Jean, caught a bit of the infection, and finding four bottles set to work with his pocketknife to fit candles into their necks.

Standing in corners, smiling, useless against the cheerful English that flowed from the kitchen stove to the dining room and back again, were René and Marie. It was of no use to attempt to help. Did the fire burn low, it was the young officer who went out for fresh wood. But René could not permit that twice. He brought in great armfuls of firewood and piled them neatly by the stove.

Henri was absurdly happy again. He would come to the door gravely, with Sara Lee's little phrase book in hand, and read from it in a solemn tone:

"'Shall we have duck or chicken?' 'Where can we get a good dinner at a moderate price?' 'Waiter, you have spilled wine on my dress.' 'Will you have a cigar?' 'No, thank you. I prefer a pipe.'"

And Sara Lee beat up the eggs and found, after a bad moment, some salt in a box, and then poured her omelet into the pan. She was very anxious that it be a good omelet. She must make good her claim as a cook or Henri's sublime faith in her would die.

It was a divine omelet. Even Jean said so. They sat, the three of them, in the cold little dining room and never knew that it was cold, and they ate prodigious quantities of omelet and bread and butter, and bully beef out of a tin, and drank a great deal of milk.

Even Jean thawed at last, under the influence of food and Sara Lee. Before the meal was over he was planning how to get her supplies to her and making notes on a piece of paper as to what she would need at once. They adjourned to Sara Lee's bedroom, where Marie had kindled a fire in the little iron stove, and sat there in the warmth with two candles, still planning. By that time Sara Lee had quite forgotten that at home one did not have visitors in one's bedroom.

Suddenly Henri held up his hand.

"Listen!" he said.

That was the first time Sara Lee had ever heard the quiet shuffling step of tired men, leaving their trenches under cover of darkness. Henri threw his military cape over her shoulders and she stood in the dark doorway, watching.

The empty street was no longer empty. From gutter to gutter flowed a stream of men, like a sluggish river which narrowed where a fallen house partly filled the way; not talking, not singing, just moving, bent under their heavy and mud-covered equipment. Here and there the clack of wooden sabots on the cobbles told of one poor fellow not outfitted with leather shoes. The light of a match here and there showed some few lucky enough to have still remaining cigarettes, and revealed also, in the immediate vicinity, a white bandage or two. Some few, recognizing Henri's officer's cap, saluted. Most of them stumbled on, too weary to so much as glance aside.

Nothing that Sara Lee had dreamed of war was like this. This was dreary and sodden and hopeless. Those fresh troops at the crossroads that day had been blithe and smiling. There had been none of the glitter and panoply of war, but there had been movement, the beating of a drum, the sharp cries of officers as the lines re-formed.

Here there were no lines. Just such a stream of men as at home might issue at night from a coal mine, too weary for speech. Only here they were packed together closely, and they did not speak, and some of them were wounded.

"There are so many!" she whispered to Henri. "A hundred such efforts as mine would not be enough."

"I would to God there were more!" Henri replied, through shut teeth.

"Listen, mademoiselle," he said later. "You cannot do all the kind work of the world. But you can do your part. And you will start by caring for only such as are wounded or ill. The others can go on. But every night some twenty or thirty, or even more, will come to your door—men slightly wounded or too weary to go on without a rest. And for those there will be a chair by the fire, and something hot, or perhaps a clean bandage. It sounds small? But in a month, think! You will have given comfort to perhaps a thousand men. You—alone!"

"I—alone!" she said in a queer choking voice. "And what about you? It is you who have made it possible."

But Henri was looking down the street to where the row of poplars hid what lay beyond. Far beyond a star shell had risen above the flat fields and floated there, a pure and lovely thing, shedding its white light over the terrain below. It gleamed for some thirty seconds and went out.

"Like that!" Henri said to her, but in French. "Like that you are to me. Bright and shining—and so soon gone."

Sara Lee thought he had asked her if she was cold.

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