The girl was singularly adaptable. In a few days it was as though she had been for years in her little ruined house. She was very happy, though there was scarcely a day when her heart was not wrung. Such young-old faces! Such weary men! And such tales of wretchedness!
She got the tales by intuition rather than by words, though she was picking up some French at that. Marie would weep openly, at times. The most frequent story was of no news from the country held by the Germans, of families left with nothing and probably starving. The first inquiry was always for news. Had the American lady any way to make inquiry?
In time Sara Lee began to take notes of names and addresses, and through Mr. Travers, in London, and the Relief Commission, in Belgium, bits of information came back. A certain family was in England at a village in Surrey. Of another a child had died. Here was one that could not be located, and another reported massacred during the invasion.
Later on Sara Lee was to find her little house growing famous, besieged by anxious soldiers who besought her efforts, so that she used enormous numbers of stamps and a great deal of effort. But that was later on. And when that time came she turned to the work as a refuge from her thoughts. For days were coming when Sara Lee did not want to think.
But like all big things the little house made a humble beginning. A mere handful of men, daring the gibes of their comrades, stopped in that first night the door stood open, with its invitation of firelight and candles. But these few went away with a strange story—of a beautiful American, and hot soup, and even a cigarette apiece. That had been Henri's contribution, the cigarettes. And soon the fame of the little house went up and down the trenches, and it was like to die of overpopularity.
It was at night that the little house of mercy bloomed like a flower. During the daytime it was quiet, and it was then, as time went on, that Sara Lee wrote her letters home and to England, and sent her lists of names to be investigated. But from the beginning there was much to do. Vegetables were to be prepared for the soup, Marie must find and bring in milk for the chocolate, René must lay aside his rifle and chop firewood.
One worry, however, disappeared with the days. Henri was proving a clever buyer. The money she sent in secured marvels. Only Jean knew, or ever knew, just how much of Henri's steadily decreasing funds went to that buying. Certainly not Sara Lee. And Jean expostulated only once—to be met by such blazing fury as set him sullen for two days.
"I am doing this," Henri finished, a trifle ashamed of himself, "not for mademoiselle, but for our army. And since when have you felt that the best we can give is too much for such a purpose?"
Which was, however lofty, only a part of the truth.
So supplies came in plentifully, and Sara Lee pared vegetables and sang a bit under her breath, and glowed with good will when at night the weary vanguard of a weary little army stopped at her door and scraped the mud off its boots and edged in shyly.
She was very happy, and her soup was growing famous. It is true that the beef she used was not often beef, but she did not know that, and merely complained that the meat was stringy. Now and then there was no beef at all, and she used hares instead. On quiet days, when there was little firing beyond the poplar trees, she went about with a basket through the neglected winter gardens of the town. There were Brussels sprouts, and sometimes she found in a cellar carrots or cabbages. She had potatoes always.
It was at night then, from seven in the evening until one, that the little house was busiest. Word had gone out through the trenches beyond the poplar trees that slightly wounded men needing rest before walking back to their billets, exhausted and sick men, were welcome to the little house. It was soon necessary to give the officers tickets for the men. René took them in at the door, with his rifle in the hollow of his arm, and he was as implacable as a ticket taker at the opera.
Never once in all the months of her life there did Sara Lee have an ugly word, an offensive glance. But, though she never knew this, many half articulate and wholly earnest prayers were offered for her in those little churches behind the lines where sometimes the men slept, and often they prayed.
She was very businesslike. She sent home to the Ladies' Aid Society a weekly record of what had been done: So many bowls of soup; so many cups of chocolate; so many minor injuries dressed. Because, very soon, she found first aid added to her activities. She sickened somewhat at first. Later she allowed to Marie much of the serving of food, and in the little salle à manger she had ready on the table basins, water, cotton, iodine and bandages.
Henri explained the method to her.
"It is a matter of cleanliness," he said. "First one washes the wound and then there is the iodine. Then cotton, a bandage, and—a surgeon could do little more."
Henri and Jean came often. And more than once during the first ten days Jean spent the night rolled in a blanket by the kitchen fire, and Henri disappeared. He was always back in the morning, however, looking dirty and very tired. Sara Lee sewed more than one rent for him, those days, but she was strangely incurious. It was as though, where everything was strange, Henri's erratic comings and goings were but a part with the rest.
Then one night the unexpected happened. The village was shelled.
Sara Lee had received her first letter from Harvey that day. The maid at Morley's had forwarded it to her, and Henri had brought it up.
"I think I have brought you something you wish for very much," he said, looking down at her.
"Mutton?" she inquired anxiously.
"Better than that."
"A letter, mademoiselle."
Afterward he could not quite understand the way she had suddenly drawn in her breath. He had no memory, as she had, of Harvey's obstinate anger at her going, his conviction that she was doing a thing criminally wrong and cruel.
"Give it to me, please."
She took it into her room and closed the door. When she came out again she was composed and quiet, but rather white. Poor Henri! He was half mad that day with jealousy. Her whiteness he construed as longing.
This is a part of Harvey's letter:
You may think that I have become reconciled, but I have not. If I could see any reason for it I might. But what reason is there? So many others, older and more experienced, could do what you are doing, and more safely.
In your letter from the steamer you tell me not to worry. Good God, Sara Lee, how can I help worrying? I do not even know where you are! If you are in England, well and good. If you are abroad I do not want to know it. I know these foreigners. I run into them every day. And they do not understand American women. I get crazy when I think about it. I have had to let the Leete house go. There is not likely to be such a chance soon again. Business is good, but I don't seem to care much about it any more. Honestly, dear, I think you have treated me very badly. I always feel as though the people I meet are wondering if we have quarreled or what on earth took you away on this wild-goose chase. I don't know myself, so how can I tell them?
I shall always love you, Sara Lee. I guess I'm that sort. But sometimes I wonder if, when we are married, you will leave me again in some such uncalled-for way. I warn you now, dear, that I won't stand for it. I'm suffering too much.
Sara Lee wore the letter next her heart, but it did not warm her. She went through the next few hours in a sort of frozen composure and ate nothing at all.
Then came the bombardment.
Henri and Jean, driving out from Dunkirk, had passed on the road ammunition trains, waiting in the road until dark before moving on to the Front. Henri had given Sara Lee her letter, had watched jealously for its effect on her, and then, his own face white and set, had gone on down the ruined street.
Here within the walls of a destroyed house he disappeared. The place was evidently familiar to him, for he moved without hesitation. Broken furniture still stood in the roofless rooms, and in front of a battered bureau Henri paused. Still whistling under his breath, he took off his uniform and donned a strange one, of greenish gray. In the pocket of the blouse he stuffed a soft round cap of the same color. Then, resuming his cape and Belgian cap, with its tassel over his forehead, he went out into the street again. He carried in his belt a pistol, but it was not the one he had brought in with him. As a matter of fact, by the addition of the cap in his pocket, Henri was at that moment in the full uniform of a lieutenant of a Bavarian infantry regiment, pistol and all.
He went down the street and along the road toward the poplars. He met the first detachment of men out of the trenches just beyond the trees, and stepped aside into the mud to let them pass, calling a greeting to them out of the darkness.
"Bonsoir!" they replied, and saluted stiffly. There were few among them who did not know his voice, and fewer still who did not suspect his business.
"A brave man," they said among themselves as they went on.
"How long will he last?" asked one young soldier, a boy in his teens.
"One cannot live long who does as he does," replied a gaunt and bearded man. "But it is a fine life while it continues. A fine life!"
The boy stepped out of the shuffling line and looked behind him. He could see only the glow of Henri's eternal cigarette. "I should like to go with him," he muttered wistfully.
The ammunition train was in the village now. It kept the center of the road, lest it should slide into the mud on either side and be mired. The men moved out of its way into the ditch, grumbling.
Henri went whistling softly down the road.
The first shell fell in the neglected square. The second struck the rear wagons of the ammunition train. Henri heard the terrific explosion that followed, and turning ran madly back into the village. More shells fell into the road. The men scattered like partridges, running for the fields, but the drivers of the ammunition wagons beat their horses and came lurching and shouting down the road.
There was cold terror in Henri's heart. He ran madly, throwing aside his cape as he went. More shells fell ahead in the street. Once in the darkness he fell flat over the body of a horse. There was a steady groaning from the ditch near by. But he got up and ran on, a strange figure with his flying hair and his German uniform.
He was all but stabbed by René when he entered the little house.
"Mademoiselle?" Henri gasped, holding René's bayonet away from his heaving chest.
"I am here," said Sara Lee's voice from the little salle à manger. "Let them carry in the wounded. I am getting ready hot water and bandages. There is not much space, for the corner of the room has been shot away."
She was as dead white in the candlelight, but very calm.
"You cannot stay here," Henri panted. "At any time—"
Another shell fell, followed by the rumble of falling walls.
"Some one must stay," said Sara Lee. "There must be wounded in the streets. Marie is in the cellar."
Henri pleaded passionately with her to go to the cellar, but she refused. He would have gathered her up in his arms and carried her there, but Jean came in, leading a wounded man, and Henri gave up in despair.
All that night they worked, a ghastly business. More than one man died that night in the little house, while a blond young man in a German uniform gave him a last mouthful of water or took down those pitifully vague addresses which were all the dying Belgians had to give.
"I have not heard—last at Aarschot, but now—God knows where."
No more shells fell. At dawn, with all done that could be done, Sara Lee fainted quietly in the hallway. Henri carried her in and placed her on her bed. A corner of the room was indeed gone. The mantel was shattered and the little stove. But on the floor lay Harvey's photograph uninjured. Henri lifted it and looked at it. Then he placed it on the table, and very reverently he kissed the palm of Sara Lee's quiet hand.
Daylight found the street pitiful indeed. Henri, whose costume René had been casting wondering glances at all night, sent a request for men from the trenches to clear away the bodies of the horses and bury them, and somewhat later over a single grave in the fields there was a simple ceremony of burial for the men who had fallen. Henri had changed again by that time, but he sternly forbade Sara Lee to attend.
"On pain," he said, "of no more supplies, mademoiselle. These things must be. They are war. But you can do nothing to help, and it will be very sad."
Ambulances took away the wounded at dawn, and the little house became quiet once more. With planks René repaired the damage to the corner, and triumphantly produced and set up another stove. He even put up a mantelshelf, and on it, smiling somewhat, he placed Harvey's picture.
Sara Lee saw it there, and a tiny seed of resentment took root and grew.
"If there had been no one here last night," she said to the photograph, "many more would have died. How can you say I am cruel to you? Isn't this worth the doing?"
But Harvey remained impassive, detached, his eyes on the photographer's white muslin screen. And the angle of his jaw was set and dogged.