The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter XII

That morning there was a conference in the little house—Colonel Lilias, who had come in before for a mute but appreciative call on Sara Lee, and for a cup of chocolate; Captain Tournay, Jean and Henri. It was held round the little table in the salle à manger, after Marie had brought coffee and gone out.

"They had information undoubtedly," said the colonel. "The same thing happened at Pervyse when an ammunition train went through. They had the place, and what is more they had the time. Of course there are the airmen."

"It did not leave the main road until too late for observation from the air," Henri put in shortly.

"Yet any one who saw it waiting at the crossroads might have learned its destination. The drivers talk sometimes."

"But the word had to be carried across," said Captain Tournay. "That is the point. My men report flashes of lights from the fields. We have followed them up and found no houses, no anything. In this flat country a small light travels far."

"I shall try to learn to-night," Henri said. "It is, of course, possible that some one from over there—" He shrugged his shoulders.

"I think not." Colonel Lilias put a hand on Henri's shoulder affectionately. "They have not your finesse, boy. And I doubt if, in all their army, they have so brave a man."

Henri flushed.

"There is a courage under fire, with their fellows round—that is one thing. And a courage of attack—that is even more simple. But the bravest man is the one who works alone—the man to whom capture is death without honor."

The meeting broke up. Jean and Henri went away in the car, and though supplies came up regularly Sara Lee did not see the battered gray car for four days. At the end of that time Henri came alone. Jean, he said briefly, was laid up for a little while with a flesh wound in his shoulder. He would be well very soon. In the meantime here at last was mutton. It had come from England, and he, Henri, had found it lying forgotten and lonely and very sad and had brought it along.

After that Henri disappeared on foot. It was midafternoon and a sunny day. Sara Lee saw him walking briskly across the fields and watched him out of sight. She spoke some French now, and she had gathered from René, who had no scruples about listening at a door, that Henri was the bravest man in the Belgian Army.

Until now Sara Lee had given small thought to Henri's occupation. She knew nothing of war, and the fact that Henri, while wearing a uniform, was unattached, had not greatly impressed her. Had she known the constitution of a modern army she might have wondered over his freedom, his powerful car, his passes and maps. But his detachment had not seemed odd to her. Even his appearance during the bombardment in the uniform of a German lieutenant had meant nothing to her. She had never seen a German uniform.

That evening, however, when he returned she ventured a question. They dined together, the two of them, for the first time at the little house alone. Always before Jean had made the third. And it was a real meal, for Sara Lee had sacrificed a bit of mutton from her soup, and Henri had produced from his pocket a few small and withered oranges.

"A gift!" he said gayly, and piled them in a precarious heap in the center of the table. On the exact top he placed a walnut.

"Now speak gently and walk softly," he said. "It is a work of art and not to be lightly demolished."

He was alternately gay and silent during the meal, and more than once Sara Lee found his eyes on her, with something new and different in them.

"Just you and I together!" he said once. "It is very wonderful."

And again: "When you go back to him, shall you tell him of your good friend who has tried hard to serve you?"

"Of course I shall," said Sara Lee. "And he will write you, I know. He will be very grateful."

But it was she who was silent after that, because somehow it would be hard to make Harvey understand. And as for his being grateful—

"Mademoiselle," said Henri later on, "would you object if I make a suggestion? You wear a very valuable ring. I think it is entirely safe, but—who can tell? And also it is not entirely kind to remind men who are far from all they love that you—"

Sara Lee flushed and took off her ring.

"I am glad you told me," she said. And Henri did not explain that the Belgian soldiers would not recognize the ring as either a diamond or a symbol, but that to him it was close to torture.

It was when he insisted on carrying out the dishes, singing a little French song as he did so, that Sara Lee decided to speak what was in her mind. He was in high spirits then.

"Mademoiselle," he said, "shall I show you something that the eye of no man has seen before, and that, when we have seen it, shall never be seen again?"

On her interested consent he called in Marie and René, making a great ceremony of the matter, and sending Marie into hysterical giggling.

"Now see!" he said earnestly. "No eye before has ever seen or will again. Will you guess, mademoiselle? Or you, Marie? René?"

"A tear?" ventured Sara Lee.

"But—do I look like weeping?"

He did not, indeed. He stood, tall and young and smiling before them, and produced from his pocket the walnut.

"Perceive!" he said, breaking it open and showing the kernel. "Has human eye ever before seen it?" He thrust it into Marie's open mouth. "And it is gone! Voilà tout!"

It was that evening, while Sara Lee cut bandages and Henri rolled them, that she asked him what his work was. He looked rather surprised, and rolled for a moment without replying. Then: "I am a man of all work," he said. "What you call odd jobs."

"Then you don't do any fighting?"

"In the trenches—no. But now and then I have a little skirmish."

A sort of fear had been formulating itself in Sara Lee's mind. The trenches she could understand or was beginning to understand. But this alternately joyous and silent idler, this soldier of no regiment and no detail—was he playing a man's part in the war?

"Why don't you go into the trenches?" she asked with her usual directness. "You say there are too few men. Yet—I can understand Monsieur Jean, because he has only one eye. But you!"

"I do something," he said, avoiding her eyes. "It is not a great deal. It is the thing I can do best. That is all."

He went away some time after that, leaving the little house full and busy justifying its existence. The miller's son, who came daily to chat with Marie, was helping in the kitchen. By the warm stove, and only kept from standing over it by Marie's sharp orders, were as many men as could get near. Each held a bowl of hot soup, and—that being a good day—a piece of bread. Tall soldiers and little ones, all dirty, all weary, almost all smiling, they peered over each other's shoulders, to catch, if might be, a glimpse of Marie's face.

When they came too close she poked an elbow into some hulking fellow and sent him back.

"Elbow-room, in the name of God," she would beg.

Over all the room hung the warm steam from the kettles, and a delicious odor, and peace.

Sara Lee had never heard of the word morale. She would have been astonished to have been told that she was helping the morale of an army. But she gave each night in that little house of mercy something that nothing else could give—warmth and welcome, but above all a touch of home.

That night Henri did not come back. She stood by her table bandaging, washing small wounds, talking her bits of French, until one o'clock. Then, the last dressing done, she went to the kitchen. Marie was there, with Maurice, the miller's son.

"Has the captain returned?" she asked.

"Not yet, mademoiselle."

"Leave a warm fire," Sara Lee said. "He will probably come in later."

Maurice went away, with a civil good night. Sara Lee stood in the doorway after he had gone, looking out. Farther along the line there was a bombardment going on. She knew now what a bombardment meant and her brows contracted. Somewhere there in the trenches men were enduring that, while Henri—

She said a little additional prayer that night, which was that she should have courage to say to him what she felt—that there were big things to do, and that it should not all be left to these smiling, ill-clad peasant soldiers.

At that moment Henri, in his gray-green uniform, was cutting wire before a German trench, one of a party of German soldiers, who could not know in the darkness that there had been a strange addition to their group. Cutting wire and learning many things which it was well that he should know.

Now and then, in perfect German, he whispered a question. Always he received a reply. And stowed it away in his tenacious memory for those it most concerned.

At daylight he was asleep by Sara Lee's kitchen fire. And at daylight Sara Lee was awakened by much firing, and putting on a dressing gown she went out to see what was happening. René was in the street looking toward the poplar trees.

"An attack," he said briefly.

"You mean—the Germans?"

"Yes, mademoiselle."

She went back into the little ruined house, heavy-hearted. She knew now what it meant, an attack. That night there would be ambulances in the street, and word would come up that certain men were gone—would never seek warmth and shelter in her kitchen or beg like children for a second bowl of soup.

On the kitchen floor by the dying fire Henri lay asleep.

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