The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter XIV

For four days the gray car did not come again. Supplies appeared in another gray car, driven by a surly Fleming. The waking hours were full, as usual. Sara Lee grew a little thin, and seemed to be always listening. But there was no Henri, and something that was vivid and joyous seemed to have gone out of the little house.

Even Marie no longer sang as she swept or washed the kettles, and Sara Lee, making up the records to send home, put little spirit into the letter that went with them.

On the second day she wrote to Harvey.

"I am sorry that you feel as you do," she wrote, perhaps unconsciously using Henri's last words to her. "I have not meant to be cruel. And if you were here you would realize that whether others could have done what I am doing or not—and of course many could—it is worth doing. I hear that other women are establishing houses like this, but the British and the French will not allow women so near the lines. The men come in at night from the trenches so tired, so hungry and so cold. Some of them are wounded too. I dress the little wounds. I do give them something, Harvey dear—if it is only a reminder that there are homes in the world, and everything is not mud and waiting and killing."

She told him that his picture was on her mantel, but she did not say that a corner of her room had been blown away or that the mantel was but a plank from a destroyed house. And she sent a great deal of love, but she did not say that she no longer wore his ring on her finger. And, of course, she was coming back to him if he still wanted her.

More than Henri's absence was troubling Sara Lee those days. Indeed she herself laid all her anxiety to one thing, a serious one at that. With all the marvels of Henri's buying, and Jean's, her money was not holding out. The scope of the little house had grown with its fame. Now and then there were unexpected calls, too—Marie's mother, starving in Havre; sickness and death in the little town at the crossroads: a dozen small emergencies, but adding to the demands on her slender income. She had, as a matter of fact, already begun to draw on her private capital.

And during the days when no gray car appeared she faced the situation, took stock, as it were, and grew heavy-eyed and wistful.

On the fifth day the gray car came again, but Jean drove it alone. He disclaimed any need for sympathy over his wound, and with René's aid carried in the supplies.

There was the business of checking them off, and the further business of Sara Lee's paying for them in gold. She sat at the table, Jean across, and struggled with centimes and francs and louis d'or, an engrossed frown between her eyebrows.

Jean, sitting across, thought her rather changed. She smiled very seldom, and her eyes were perhaps more steady. It was a young girl he and Henri had brought out to the little house. It was a very serious and rather anxious young woman who sat across from him and piled up the money he had brought back into little stacks.

"Jean," she said finally, "I am not going to be able to do it."

"To do what?"

"To continue—here."


"You see I had a little money of my own, and twenty pounds I got in London. You and—and Henri have done miracles for me. But soon I shall have used all my own money, except enough to take me back. And now I shall have to start on my English notes. After that—"

"You are too good to the men. These cigarettes, now—you could do without them."

"But they are very cheap, and they mean so much, Jean."

She sat still, her hands before her on the table. From the kitchen came the bubbling of the eternal soup. Suddenly a tear rolled slowly down her cheek. She had a hatred of crying in public, but Jean apparently did not notice.

"The trouble, mademoiselle, is that you are trying to feed and comfort too many."

"Jean," she said suddenly, "where is Henri?"

"In England, I think."

The only clear thought in Sara Lee's mind was that Henri was not in France, and that he had gone without telling her. She had hurt him horribly. She knew that. He might never come back to the little house of mercy. There was, in Henri, for all his joyousness, an implacable strain. And she had attacked his honor. What possible right had she to do that?

The memory of all his thoughtful kindness came back, and it was a pale and distracted Sara Lee who looked across the table at Jean.

"Did he tell you anything?"

"Nothing, mademoiselle."

"He is very angry with me, Jean."

"But surely no, mademoiselle. With you? It is impossible."

But though they said nothing more, Jean considered the matter deeply. He understood now, for instance, a certain strangeness in Henri's manner before his departure. They had quarreled, these two. Perhaps it was as well, though Jean was by now a convert to Sara Lee. But he looked out, those days, on but half a world, did Jean. So he saw only the woman hunger in Henri, and nothing deeper. And in Sara Lee a woman, and nothing more.

And—being Jean he shrugged his shoulders.

They fell to discussing ways and means. The chocolate could be cut out, but not the cigarettes. Sara Lee, arguing vehemently for them and trying to forget other things, remembered suddenly how Uncle James had hated cigarettes, and that Harvey himself disapproved of them. Somehow Harvey seemed, those days, to present a constant figure of disapproval. He gave her no moral support.

At Jean's suggestion she added to her report of so many men fed with soup, so much tobacco, sort not specified, so many small wounds dressed—a request that if possible her allowance be increased. She did it nervously, but when the letter had gone she felt a great relief. She enclosed a snapshot of the little house.

Jean, as it happens, had lied about Henri. Not once, but several times. He had told Marie, for instance, that Henri was in England, and later on he told René. Then, having done his errand, he drove six miles back along the main road to Dunkirk and picked up Henri, who was sitting on the bank of a canal watching an ammunition train go by.

Jean backed into a lane and turned the car round. After that Henri got in and they went rapidly back toward the Front. It was a different Henri, however, who left the car a mile from the crossroads—a Henri in the uniform of a French private soldier, one of those odd and impracticable uniforms of France during the first year, baggy dark blue trousers, stiff cap, and the long-tailed coat, its skirts turned back and faced. Round his neck he wore a knitted scarf, which covered his chin, and, true to the instinct of the French peasant in a winter campaign, he wore innumerable undergarments, the red of a jersey showing through rents in his coat.

Gone were Henri's long clean lines, his small waist and broad shoulders, the swing of his walk. Instead, he walked with the bent-kneed swing of the French infantryman, that tireless but awkward marching step which renders the French Army so mobile.

He carried all the impedimenta of a man going into the trenches, an extra jar of water, a flat loaf of bread strapped to his haversack, and an intrenching tool jingling at his belt.

Even Jean smiled as he watched him moving along toward the crowded crossroads—smiled and then sighed. For Jean had lost everything in the war. His wife had died of a German bullet long months before, and with her had gone a child much prayed for and soon to come. But Henri had brought back to Jean something to live for—or to die for, as might happen.

Henri walked along gayly. He hailed other French soldiers. He joined a handful and stood talking to them. But he reached the crossroads before the ammunition train.

The crossroads was crowded, as usual—many soldiers, at rest, waiting for the word to fall in, a battery held up by the breaking of a wheel. A temporary forge had been set up, and soldiers in leather aprons were working over the fire. A handful of peasants watched, their dull eyes following every gesture. And one of them was a man Henri sought.

Henri sat down on the ground and lighted a cigarette. The ammunition train rolled in and halted, and the man Henri watched turned his attention to the train. He had been dull and quiet at the forge, but now he became smiling, a good fellow. He found a man he knew among the drivers and offered him a cigarette. He also produced and presented an entire box of matches. Matches were very dear, and hardly to be bought at any price.

Henri watched grimly and hummed a little song:

"Trou la la, çà ne va guère;

Trou la la, çà ne va pas."

Still humming under his breath, when the peasant left the crossroads he followed him. Not closely. The peasant cut across the fields. Henri followed the road and entered the fields at a different angle. He knew his way quite well, for he had done the same thing each day for four days. Only twice he had been a Belgian peasant, and once he was an officer, and once he had been a priest.

Four days he had done this thing, but to-day was different. To-day there would be something worth while, he fancied. And he made a mental note that Sara Lee must not be in the little house that night.

When he had got to a canal where the pollard willows were already sending out their tiny red buds, Henri sat down again. The village lay before him, desolate and ruined, a travesty of homes. And on a slight rise, but so concealed from him by the willows that only the great wings showed, stood the windmill.

It was the noon respite then, and beyond the line of poplars all was quiet. The enemy liked time for foods and the Belgians crippled by the loss of that earlier train, were husbanding their ammunition. Far away a gap in the poplar trees showed a German observation balloon, a tiny dot against the sky.

The man Henri watched went slowly, for he carried a bag of grain on his back. Henri no longed watched him, He watched the wind wheel. It had been broken, and one plane was now patched with what looked like a red cloth. There was a good wind, but clearly the miller was idle that day. The great wings were not turning.

Henri sat still and smoked. He thought of many things—of Sara Lee's eyes when in the center of the London traffic she had held the dying donkey; of her small and radiant figure at the Savoy; of the morning he had found her at Calais, in the Gare Maritime, quietly unconscious that she had done a courageous thing. And he thought, too, of the ring and the photograph she carried. But mostly he remembered the things she had said to him on their last meeting.

Perhaps there came to him his temptation too. It would be so easy that night, if things went well, to make a brave showing before her, to let her see that these odd jobs he did had their value and their risks. But he put that from him. The little house of mercy must be empty that night, for her sake. He shivered as he remembered the room where she slept, the corner that was shot away and left open to the street.

So he sat and watched. And at one o'clock the mill wheel began turning. It was easy to count the revolutions by the red wing. Nine times it turned, and stopped. After five minutes or so it turned again, thirty times. Henri smiled: an ugly smile.

"A good guess," he said to himself. "But it must be more than a guess."

His work for the afternoon was done. Still with the bent-kneed swing he struck back to the road, and avoiding the crossroads, went across more fields to a lane where Jean waited with the car. Henri took a plunge into the canal when he had removed his French uniform, and producing a towel from under a bush rubbed himself dry. His lean boyish body gleamed, arms and legs brown from much swimming under peaceful summer suns. On his chest he showed two scars, still pink. Shrapnel bites, he called them. But he had, it is to be feared, a certain young satisfaction in them.

He was in high good humor. The water was icy, and Jean had refused to join him.

"My passion for cleanliness," Henri said blithely, "is the result of my English school days. You would have been the better for an English education, Jean."

"A canal in March!" Jean grunted. "You will end badly."

Henri looked longingly at the water.

"Had I a dry towel," he said, "I would go in again."

Jean looked at him with his one eye.

"You would be prettier without those scars," he observed. But in his heart he prayed that there might be no others added to them, that nothing might mar or destroy that bright and youthful body.

"Dépêchez-vous! Vous sommes pressés!" he added.

But Henri was minded to play. He girded himself with the towel and struck an attitude.

"The Russian ballet, Jean!" he said, and capering madly sent Jean into deep grumbles of laughter by his burlesque.

"I must have exercise," Henri said at last when, breathless and with flying hair, he began to dress. "That, too, is my English schooling. If you, Jean—"

"To the devil with your English schooling!" Jean remonstrated.

Henri sobered quickly after that. The exhilaration of his cold plunge was over.

"The American lady?" he asked. "She is all right?"

"She is worried. There is not enough money."

Henri frowned.

"And I have nothing!"

This opened up an old wound with Jean.

"If you would be practical and take pay for what you are doing," he began.

Henri cut him short.

"Pay!" he said. "What is there to pay me with? And what is the use of reopening the matter? A man may be a spy for love of his country. God knows there is enough lying and deceit in the business. But to be a spy for money—never!"

There was a little silence. Then: "Now for mademoiselle," said Henri. "She must be out of the village to-night. And that, dear friend, must be your affair. She does not like me."

All the life had gone out of his voice.

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