"But why should I go?" Sara Lee asked. "It is kind of you to ask me, Jean. But I am here to work, not to play."
Long ago Sara Lee had abandoned her idea of Jean as a paid chauffeur. She even surmised, from something Marie had said, that he had been a person of importance in the Belgium of before the war. So she was grateful, but inclined to be obstinate.
"You have been so much alone, mademoiselle—"
"Cut off from your own kind. And now and then one finds, at the hotel in Dunkirk, some English nurses who are having a holiday. You would like to talk to them perhaps."
"Jean," she said unexpectedly, "why don't you tell me the truth? You want me to leave the village to-night. Why?"
"Because, mademoiselle, there will be a bombardment."
"The village itself?"
"We expect it," he answered dryly.
Sara Lee went a little pale.
"But then I shall be needed, as I was before."
"No troops will pass through the town to-night. They will take a road beyond the fields."
"How do you know these things?" she asked, wondering. "About the troops I can understand. But the bombardment."
"There are ways of finding out, mademoiselle," he replied in his noncommittal voice. "Now, will you go?"
"May I tell Marie and René?"
"Then I shall not go. How can you think that I would consider my own safety and leave them here?"
Jean had ascertained before speaking that Marie was not in the house. As for René, he sat on the single doorstep and whittled pegs on which to hang his rifle inside the door. And as he carved he sang words of his own to the tune of Tipperary.
Inside the little salle à manger Jean reassured Sara Lee. It was important—vital—that René and Marie should not know far in advance of the bombardment. They were loyal, certainly, but these were his orders. In abundance of time they would be warned to leave the village.
"Who is to warn them?"
"Henri has promised, mademoiselle. And what he promises is done."
"You said this morning that he was in England."
"He has returned."
Sara Lee's heart, which had been going along merely as a matter of duty all day, suddenly began to beat faster. Her color came up, and then faded again. He had returned, and he had not come to the little house. But then—what could Henri mean to her, his coming or his going? Was she to add to her other sins against Harvey the supreme one of being interested in Henri?
Not that she said all that, even to herself. There was a wave of gladness and then a surge of remorse. That is all. But it was a very sober Sara Lee who put on her black suit with the white collar that afternoon and ordered, by Jean's suggestion, the evening's preparations as though nothing was to happen.
She looked round her little room before she left it. It might not be there when she returned. So she placed Harvey's photograph under her mattress for safety, and rather uncomfortably she laid beside it the small ivory crucifix that Henri had found in a ruined house and brought to her. Harvey was not a Catholic. He did not believe in visualizing his religion. And she had a distinct impression that he considered such things as did so as bordering on idolatry.
Sometime after dusk that evening the ammunition train moved out. At a point a mile or so from the village a dispatch rider on a motor cycle stopped the rumbling lorry at the head of the procession and delivered a message, which the guide read by the light of a sheltered match. The train moved on, but it did not turn down to the village. It went beyond to a place of safety, and there remained for the night.
But before that time Henri, lying close in a field, had seen a skulking figure run from the road to the mill, and soon after had seen the mill wheel turn once, describing a great arc; and on one of the wings, showing only toward the poplar trees, was a lighted lantern.
Five minutes later, exactly time enough for the train to have reached the village street, German shells began to fall in it. Henri, lying flat on the ground, swore silently and deeply.
In every land during this war there have been those who would sell their country for a price. Sometimes money. Sometimes protection. And of all betrayals that of the man who sells his own country is the most dastardly. Henri, lying face down, bit the grass beneath him in sheer rage.
One thing he had not counted on, he who foresaw most things. The miller and his son, being what they were, were cowards as well. Doubtless the mill had been promised protection. It was too valuable to the Germans to be destroyed. But with the first shot both men left the house by the mill and scurried like rabbits for the open fields.
Maurice, poor Marie's lover by now, almost trampled on Henri's prostrate body. And Henri was alone, and his work was to take them alive. They had information he must have—how the modus vivendi had been arranged, through what channels. And under suitable treatment they would tell.
He could not follow them through the fields. He lay still, during a fiercer bombardment than the one before, raising his head now and then to see if the little house of mercy still stood. No shells came his way, but the sky line of the village altered quickly. The standing fragment of the church towers went early. There was much sound of falling masonry. From somewhere behind him a Belgian battery gave tongue, but not for long. And then came silence.
Henri moved then. He crept nearer the mill and nearer. And at last he stood inside and took his bearings. A lamp burned in the kitchen, showing a dirty brick floor and a littered table—such a house as men keep, untidy and unhomelike. A burnt kettle stood on the hearth, and leaning against the wall was the bag of grain Maurice had carried from the crossroads.
"A mill which grinds without grain," Henri said to himself.
There was a boxed-in staircase to the upper floor, and there, with the door slightly ajar, he stationed himself, pistol in hand. Now and then he glanced uneasily at the clock. Sara Lee must not be back before he had taken his prisoners to the little house and turned them over to those who waited there.
There were footsteps outside, and Henri drew the door a little closer. But he was dismayed to find it Marie. She crept in, a white and broken thing, and looked about her.
"Maurice!" she called.
She sat down for a moment, and then, seeing the disorder about her, set to work to clear the table. It was then that Henri lowered his pistol and opened the door.
"Don't shriek, Marie," he said.
She turned and saw him, and clutched at the table.
"Marie," he said quietly, "go up these stairs and remain quiet. Do not walk round. And do not come down, no matter what you hear!"
She obeyed him, stumbling somewhat. For she had seen his revolver, and it frightened her. But as she passed him she clutched at his sleeve.
"He is good—Maurice," she said, gasping. "Of the father I know nothing, but Maurice—"
"Go up and be silent!" was all he said.
Now, by all that goes to make a story, Sara Lee should have met Mabel at the Hôtel des Arcades in Dunkirk, and should have been able to make that efficient young woman burn with jealousy—Mabel, who from the safety of her hospital in Boulogne considered Dunkirk the Front.
Indeed Sara Lee, to whom the world was beginning to seem very small, had had some such faint hope. But Mabel was not there, and it was not until long after that they met at all, and then only when the lights had gone down and Sara Lee was again knitting by the fire.
There were a few nurses there, in their white veils with the red cross over the forehead, and one or two Englishwomen in hats that sat a trifle too high on the tops of their heads and with long lists before them which they checked as they ate. Aviators in leather coats; a few Spahis in cloak and turban, with full-gathered bloomers and high boots; some American ambulance drivers, rather noisy and very young; and many officers, in every uniform of the Allied armies—sat at food together and for a time forgot their anxieties under the influence of lights, food and warmth, and red and white wine mixed with water.
When he chose, Jean could be a delightful companion; not with Henri's lift of spirits, but quietly interesting. And that evening he was a new Jean to Sara Lee, a man of the world, talking of world affairs. He found her apt and intelligent, and for Sara Lee much that had been clouded cleared up forever that night. Until then she had known only the humanities of the war, or its inhumanities. There, over that little table, she learned something of its politics and its inevitability. She had been working in the dark, with her heart only. Now she began to grasp the real significance of it all, of Belgium's anxiety for many years, of Germany's cold and cruel preparation, and empty protests of friendship. She learned of the flight of the government from Brussels, the most important state papers being taken away in a hand cart, on top of which, at the last moment, some flustered official had placed a tall silk hat! She learned of the failure of great fortifications before the invaders' heavy guns. And he had drawn for her such a picture of Albert of Belgium as she was never to forget.
Perhaps Sara Lee's real growth began that night, over that simple dinner at the Hôtel des Arcades.
"I wish," she said at last, "that Uncle James could have heard all this. He was always so puzzled about it all. And—you make it so clear."
When dinner was over a bit of tension had relaxed in her somewhat. She had been too close, for too long. And when a group of Belgian officers, learning who she was, asked to be presented and gravely thanked her, she flushed with happiness.
"We must see if mademoiselle shall not have a medal," said the only one who spoke English.
"A medal? For what?"
"For courage," he said, bowing. "Belgium has little to give, but it can at least do honor to a brave lady."
Jean was smiling when they passed on. What a story would this slip of a girl take home with her!
But: "I don't think I want a medal, Jean," she said. "I didn't come for that. And after all it is you and Henri who have done the thing—not I."
Accustomed to women of a more sophisticated class, Jean had at first taken her naïveté for the height of subtlety. He was always expecting her to betray herself. But after that evening with her he changed. Just such simplicity had been his wife's. Sometimes Sara Lee reminded him of her—the upraising of her eyes or an unstudied gesture.
"You are very wonderful, you Americans," he said. It was the nearest to a compliment that he had ever come. And after that evening he was always very gentle with her. Once he had protected her because Henri had asked him to do so; now he himself became in his silent way her protector.
The ride home through the dark was very quiet. Sara Lee sat beside him watching the stars and growing increasingly anxious as they went, not too rapidly, toward the little house. There were no lights. Air raids had grown common in Dunkirk, and there were no street lights in the little city. Once on the highway Jean lighted the lamps, but left them very low, and two miles from the little house he put them out altogether. They traveled by starlight then, following as best they could the tall trees that marked the road. Now and then they went astray at that, and once they tilted into the ditch and had hard pulling to get out.
At the top of the street Jean stopped and went on foot a little way down. He came back, with the report that new shells had made the way impassable; and again Sara Lee shivered. If the little house was gone!
But it was there, and lighted too. Through its broken shutters came the yellow glow of the oil lamp that now hung over the table in the salle à manger.
Whatever Jean's anxieties had been fell from him as he pushed open the door. Henri's voice was the first thing they heard. He was too much occupied to notice their approach.
So it was that Sara Lee saw, for the last time, the miller and his son, Maurice; saw them, but did not know them, for over their heads were bags of their own sacking, with eyeholes roughly cut in them. Their hands were bound, and three soldiers were waiting to take them away.
"I have covered your heads," Henri was saying in French, "because it is not well that our brave Belgians should know that they have been betrayed by those of their own number."
It was a cold and terrible Henri who spoke.
"Take them away," he said to the waiting men.
A few moments later he turned from the door and heard Sara Lee sobbing in her room. He tapped, and on receiving no reply he went in. The room was unharmed, and by the light of a candle he saw the girl, face down on the bed. He spoke to her, but she only lay crouched deeper, her shoulders shaking.
"It is war, mademoiselle," he said, and went closer. Then suddenly all the hurt of the past days, all the bitterness of the last hour, were lost in an overwhelming burst of tenderness.
He bent over her and put his arms round her.
"That I should have hurt you so!" he said softly. "I, who would die for you, mademoiselle. I who worship you." He buried his face in the warm hollow of her neck and held her close. He was trembling. "I love you," he whispered. "I love you."
She quieted under his touch. He was very strong, and there was refuge in his arms. For a moment she lay still, happier than she had been for weeks. It was Henri who was shaken now and the girl who was still.
But very soon came the thing that, after all, he expected. She drew herself away from him, and Henri, sensitive to every gesture, stood back.
"Who are they?" was the first thing she said. It rather stabbed him. He had just told her that he loved her, and never before in his careless young life had he said that to any woman.
"Spies," he said briefly.
A flushed and tearful Sara Lee stood up then and looked up at him gravely.
"Then—that is what you do?"
Quite suddenly she went to him and held up her face.
"Please kiss me, Henri," she said very simply. "I have been cruel and stupid, and—"
But he had her in his arms then, and he drew her close as though he would never let her go. He was one great burst of joy, poor Henri. But when she gently freed herself at last it was to deliver what seemed for a time his death wound.
"You have paid me a great tribute," she said, still simply and gravely. "I wanted you to kiss me, because of what you said. But that will have to be all, Henri dear."
"All?" he said blankly.
"You haven't forgotten, have you? I—I am engaged to somebody else."
Henri stood still, swaying a little.
"And you love him? More than you care for me?"
"He is—he is my kind," said Sara Lee rather pitifully. "I am not what you think me. You see me here, doing what you think is good work, and you are grateful. And you don't see any other women. So I—"
"And you think I love you because I see no one else?" he demanded, still rather stunned.
"Isn't that part of it?"
He flung out his hands as though he despaired of making her understand.
"This man at home—" he said bitterly; "this man who loves you so well that he let you cross the sea and come here alone—do you love him very dearly?"
"I am promised to him."
All at once Sara Lee saw the little parlor at home, and Harvey, gentle, rather stolid and dependable. Oh, very dependable. She saw him as he had looked the night he had said he loved her, rather wistful and very, very tender. She could not hurt him so. She had said she was going back to him, and she must go.
"I love him very much, Henri."
Very quietly, considering the hell that was raging in him, Henri bent over and kissed her hand. Then he turned it over, and for an instant he held his cheek against its warmth. He went out at once, and Sara Lee heard the door slam.