In the little house of mercy two weeks went by, and then a third. Soldiers marching out to the trenches sometimes wore flowers tucked gayly in their caps. More and more Allied aëroplanes were in the air. Sometimes, standing in the streets, Sara Lee saw one far overhead, while balloon-shaped clouds of bursting shells hung far below it.
Once or twice in the early morning a German plane, flying so low that one could easily see the black cross on each wing, reconnoitered the village for wagon trains or troops. Always they found it empty.
Hope had almost fled now. In the afternoons Marie went to the ruined church, and there knelt before the heap of marble and masonry that had once been the altar, and prayed. And Sara Lee, who had been brought up a Protestant and had never before entered a Catholic church, took to going there too. In some strange fashion the peace of former days seemed to cling to the little structure, roofless as it was. On quiet days its silence was deeper than elsewhere. On days of much firing the sound from within its broken walls seemed deadened, far away.
Marie burned a candle as she prayed, for that soul in purgatory which she had once loved, and now pitied. Sara Lee burned no candle, but she knelt, sometimes beside Marie, sometimes alone, and prayed for many things: that Henri should be living, somewhere; that the war might end; that that day there would be little wounding; that some day the Belgians might go home again; and that back in America Harvey might grow to understand and forgive her. And now and then she looked into the very depths of her soul, and on those days she prayed that her homeland might, before it was too late, see this thing as she was seeing it. The wanton waste of it all, the ghastly cruelty the Germans had brought into this war.
Sara Lee's vague thinking began to crystallize. This war was not a judgment sent from on high to a sinful world. It was the wicked imposition of one nation on other nations. It was national. It was almost racial. But most of all it was a war of hate on the German side. She had never believed in hate. There were ugly passions in the world—jealousy, envy, suspicion; but not hate. The word was not in her rather limited vocabulary.
There was no hate on the part of the men she knew. The officers who stopped in on their way to and from the trenches were gentlemen and soldiers. They were determined and grave; they resented, they even loathed. But they did not hate. The little Belgian soldiers were bewildered, puzzled, desperately resentful. But of hate, as translated into terms of frightfulness, they had no understanding.
Yet from the other side were coming methods of war so wantonly cruel, so useless save as inflicting needless agony, as only hate could devise. No strategic value justified them. They were spontaneous outgrowths of venom, nursed during the winter deadlock and now grown to full size and destructive power.
The rumor of a gas that seared and killed came to the little house as early as February. In March there came the first victims, poor writhing creatures, deprived of the boon of air, their seared lungs collapsed and agonized, their faces drawn into masks of suffering. Some of them died in the little house, and even after death their faces held the imprint of horror.
To Sara Lee, burying her own anxiety under the cloak of service, there came new and terrible thoughts. This was not war. The Germans had sent their clouds of poisoned gas across the inundation, but had made no attempt to follow. This was killing, for the lust of killing; suffering, for the joy of inflicting pain.
And a day or so later she heard of The Hague Convention. She had not known of it before. Now she learned of that gentlemen's agreement among nations, and that it said: "The use of poison or of poisoned weapons is forbidden." She pondered that carefully, trying to think dispassionately. Now and then she received a copy of a home newspaper, and she saw that the use of poison gases was being denied by Germans in America and set down to rumor and hysteria.
So, on a cold spring day, she sat down at the table in the salle à manger and wrote a letter to the President, beginning "Dear Sir"; and telling what she knew of poison gas. She also, on second thought, wrote one to Andrew Carnegie, who had built a library in her city. She felt that the expense to him of sending some one over to investigate would not be prohibitive, and something must be done.
She never heard from either of her letters, but she felt better for having written them. And a day or two later she received from Mrs. Travers, in England, a small supply of the first gas masks of the war. Simple and primitive they were, those first masks; useless, too, as it turned out—a square of folded gauze, soaked in some solution and then dried, with tapes to tie it over the mouth and nose. To adjust them the soldiers had but to stoop and wet them in the ever-present water in the trench, and then to tie them on.
Sara Lee gave them out that night, and there was much mirth in the little house, such mirth as there had not been since Henri went away. The Belgians called it a bal masque, and putting them on bowed before one another and requested dances, and even flirted coyly with each other over their bits of white gauze. And in the very middle of the gayety some one propounded one of Henri's idiotic riddles; and Sara Lee went across to her little room and closed the door and stood there with her eyes shut, for fear she would scream.
Then, one day, coming out of the little church, she saw the low broken gray car turn in at the top of the street and come slowly, so very slowly, toward her. There were two men in it.
One was Henri.
She ran, stumbling because of tears, up the street. It was Henri! There was no mistake. There he sat beside Jean, brushed and very neat; and very, very white.
"Mademoiselle!" he said, and came very close to crying himself when he saw her face. He was greatly excited. His sunken eyes devoured her as she ran toward him. Almost he held out his arms. But he could not do that, even if he would, for one was bandaged to his side.
It is rather sad to record how many times Sara Lee wept during her amazing interlude. For here is another time. She wept for joy and wretchedness. She stood on the running board and cried and smiled. And Jean winked his one eye rapidly.
"This idiot, mademoiselle," he said gruffly, "this maniac—he would not remain in Calais, with proper care. He must come on here. And rapidly. Could he have taken the wheel from me we should have been here an hour ago. But for once I have an advantage."
The car jolted to the little house, and Jean helped Henri out. Such a strange Henri, smiling and joyous, and walking at a crawl, even with Jean's support. He protested violently against being put to bed, and when he found himself led into Sara Lee's small room he openly rebelled.
"Never!" he said stubbornly, halting in the doorway. "This is mademoiselle's boudoir. Her drawing-room as well. I am going to the mill house and—"
So Sara Lee's room had a different occupant for a time, a thin and fine-worn young Belgian, who yielded to Sara Lee when Jean gave up in despair, and who proceeded, most unmanfully, to faint as soon as he was between the blankets.
If Sara Lee hoped to nurse Henri she was doomed to disappointment. Jean it was who took over the care of the boy, a Jean who now ate prodigiously, and whistled occasionally, and slept at night robed in his blanket on the floor beside Henri's bed, lest that rebellious invalid get up and try to move about.
On the first night, with the door closed, against Henri's entreaties, while the little house received its evening complement of men, and with Henri lying back on his pillows, fresh dressed as to the wounds in his arm and chest, fed with Sara Lee's daintiest, and resting, Jean found the boy's eyes resting on the mantel.
"Dear and obstinate friend," said Henri, "do you wish me to be happy?"
"You shall not leave the room or your bed. That is arranged for."
"How?" demanded Henri with interest.
"Because I have hidden away your trousers."
Henri laughed, but he sobered quickly.
"If you wish me to be happy," he said, "take away that American photograph. But first, please to bring it here."
Jean brought it, holding it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger. And Henri lay back and studied it.
"It is mademoiselle's fiancé," he said.
"Look at it, Jean," Henri said in his half-bantering tone, with despair beneath it; "and then look at me. Or no—remembering me as I was when I was a man. He is better, eh? It is a good face. But there is a jaw, a—Do you think he will be kind to her as she requires? She requires much kindness. Some women—"
He broke off and watched Jean anxiously.
"A half face!" Jean said scornfully. "The pretty view! As for kindness—" He put the photograph face down on the table. "I knew once a man in Belgium who married an American. At Antwerp. They were most unhappy."
"You are lying," he said with boyish pleasure in his own astuteness. "You knew no such couple. You are trying to make me resigned."
But quite a little later, when Jean thought he was asleep, he said: "I shall never be resigned."
So at last spring had come, and Henri and the great spring drive. The Germans had not drained the inundation, nor had they broken through to Calais. And it is not to be known here how much this utter failure had been due to the information Henri had secured before he was wounded.
One day in his bed Henri received a visit from the King, and was left lying with a decoration on his breast and a beatific, if somewhat sheepish, expression on his face. And one night the village was bombarded, and on Henri's refusing to be moved to the cellar Sara Lee took up a determined stand in his doorway, until at last he made a most humiliating move for safety.
Bit by bit Sara Lee got the story, its bare detail from Henri, its courage and sheer recklessness from Jean. It would, for instance, run like this, with Henri in a chair perhaps, and cutting dressings—since that might be done with one hand—and Sara Lee, sleeves rolled up and a great bowl of vegetables before her:
"And when you got through the water, Henri?" she would ask: "What then?"
"It was quite simple. They had put up some additional wire, however—"
"There was a break," he would explain. "I have told you—between their trenches. I had used it before to get through."
"But how could you go through?"
"Like a snake," he would say, smiling. "Very flat and wriggling. I have eaten of the dirt, mademoiselle."
Then he would stop and cut, very awkwardly, with his left hand.
"Go on," she would prompt him. "But they had put barbed wire there. Is that it? So you could not get through?"
"With tin cans on it, and stones in the cans. I thought I had removed them all, but there was one left. So they heard me."
More cutting and a muttered French expletive. Henri was not a particularly patient cripple. And apparently there was an end to the story.
"For goodness' sake," Sara Lee would exclaim despairingly; "so they heard you! That isn't all, is it?"
"It was almost all," he would say with his boyish smile.
"And they shot at you?"
"Even better. They shot me. That was this one." And he would point to his arm.
More silence, more cutting, a gathering exasperation on Sara Lee's part.
"Are you going on or not?"
"Then I pretended to be one of them, mademoiselle. I speak German as French. I pretended not to be hurt, but to be on a reconnoissance. And I got into the trench and we had a talk in the darkness. It was most interesting. Only if they had shown a light they would have seen that I was wounded."
By bits, not that day, but after many days, she got the story. In the next trench he slipped a sling over the wounded arm and, as a Bavarian on his way to the dressing station, got back.
"I had some trouble," he confessed one day. "Now and then one would offer to go back with me. And I did not care for assistance!"
But sometime later there was trouble. She was four days getting to that part of it. He had got behind the lines by that time, and he knew that in some way suspicion had been roused. He was weak by that time, and could not go far. He had lain hidden, for a day and part of a night, without water, in a destroyed barn, and then had escaped.
He got into the Belgian costume as before, but he could not wear a sling for his wounded arm. He got the peasant to thrust his helpless right hand into his pocket, and for two days he made a close inspection of what was going on. But fever had developed, and on the third night, half delirious, when he was spoken to by an officer he had replied, of all tongues, in English.
The officer shot him instantly in the chest. He fell and lay still and the officer bent over him. In that moment Henri stabbed him with a knife in his left hand. Men were coming from every direction, but he got away—he did not clearly remember how. And at dawn he fell into the Belgian farmhouse, apparently dying.
Jean's story, on the other hand, was given early and with no hesitation. He had crossed the border at Holland in civilian clothes, by the simple expedient of bribing a sentry. He had got, with little difficulty, to the farmhouse, and found Henri, now recovering but very weak; he was lying hidden in a garret, and he was suffering from hunger and lack of medical attention. In a wagon full of market stuff, Henri hidden in the bed of it, they had got to the border again. And there Jean had, it seemed, stabbed the sentry he had bribed before and driven on to neutral soil.
Not an unusual story, that of Henri and Jean. The journey across Belgium in the springless farm wagon was the worst. They had had to take roundabout lanes, avoiding the main highways. Fortunately, always at night there were friendly houses, kind hands to lift Henri into warm fire-lighted interiors. Many messages they had brought back, some of cheer, but too often of tragedy, from the small farmsteads of Belgium.
Then finally had been Holland, and the chartering of a boat—and at last—"Here we are, and here we are, and here we are again," sang Henri, chopping at his cotton and making a great show of cheerfulness before Sara Lee.
But with Jean sometimes he showed the black depression beneath. He would never be a man again. He was done for. He gained strength so slowly that he believed he was not gaining at all. He was not happy, and the unhappy mend slowly.
After the time he had asked Jean to take away Harvey's photograph he did not recur to the subject, but he did not need to. Jean knew, perhaps even better than Henri himself, that the boy was recklessly, hopelessly, not quite rationally in love with the American girl.
Also Henri was fretting about his work. Sometimes at night, following Henri's instructions, Jean wandered quietly along roads and paths that paralleled the Front. At such times his eyes were turned, not toward the trenches, but toward that flat country which lay behind, still dotted at that time with groves of trees, with canals overhung with pollard willows, and with here and there a farmhouse that at night took on in the starlight the appearance of being whole again.
Singularly white and peaceful were those small steadings of Belgium in the night hours—until cruel dawn showed them for what they were—skeletons of dead homes, clothed only at night with wraithlike roofs and chimneys; ghosts of houses, appearing between midnight and cock crow.
Jean had not Henri's eyes nor his recklessness nor his speed, for that matter. Now and then he saw the small appearing and disappearing lights on some small rise. He would reach the spot, with such shelter as possible, to find only a sugar-beet field, neglected and unplowed.
Then, one night, tragedy came to the little house of mercy.