The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter XVI

Time passed quickly, as always it does when there is work to do. Round the ruined houses the gray grass turned green again, and in travesties of gardens early spring flowers began to show a touch of color.

The first of them greeted Sara Lee one morning as she stood on her doorstep in the early sun. She gathered them and placed them, one on each grave, in the cemetery near the poplar trees, where small wooden crosses, sometimes surmounted by a cap, marked many graves.

Marie, a silent subdued Marie, worked steadily in the little house. She did not weep, but now and then Sara Lee found her stirring something on the stove and looking toward the quiet mill in the fields. And once Sara Lee, surprising that look on her face, put her arms about the girl and held her for a moment. But she did not say anything. There was nothing to say.

With the opening up of the spring came increased movement and activity among the troops. The beach and the sand dunes round La Panne were filled with drilling men, Belgium's new army. Veterans of the winter, at rest behind the lines, sat in the sun and pared potatoes for the midday meal. Convalescents from the hospital appeared in motley garments from the Ambulance Ocean and walked along the water front, where the sea, no longer gray and sullen, rolled up in thin white lines of foam to their very feet. Winter straw came out of wooden sabots. Winter-bitten hands turned soft. Canal boats blossomed out with great washings. And the sentry at the gun emplacement in the sand up the beach gave over gathering sticks for his fire, and lay, when no one was about, in a hollow in the dune, face to the sky.

So spring came to that small fragment of Belgium which had been saved, spring and hope. Soon now the great and powerful Allies would drive out the Huns, and all would be as it had been. Splendid rumors were about. The Germans were already yielding at La Bassée. There was to be a great drive along the entire Front, and hopefully one would return home in time for the spring planting.

A sort of informal council took place occasionally in the little house. Maps replaced the dressings on the table in the salle à manger, and junior officers, armed with Sara Lee's box of pins, thrust back the enemy at various points and proved conclusively that his position was untenable. They celebrated these paper victories with Sara Lee's tea, and went away the better for an hour or so of hope and tea and a girl's soft voice and quiet eyes.

Now and then there was one, of course, who lagged behind his fellows, with a yearning tenderness in his face that a glance from the girl would have quickly turned to love. But Sara Lee had no coquetry. When, as occasionally happened, there was a bit too much fervor when her hand was kissed, she laid it where it belonged—to loneliness and the spring—and became extremely maternal and very, very kind. Which—both of them—are death blows to young love.

The winter floods were receding. Along the Yser Canal mud-caked flats began to appear, with here and there rusty tangles of barbed wire. And with the lessening of the flood came new activities to the little house. The spring drive was coming.

There was spring indeed, everywhere but in Henri's heart.

Day after day messages were left with Sara Lee by men in uniform—sometimes letters, sometimes a word. And these she faithfully cared for until such time as Jean came for them. Now and then it was Henri who came, but when he stayed in the village he made his headquarters at the house of the mill. There, with sacking over the windows, he wrote his reports by lamplight, reports which Jean carried back to the villa in the fishing village by the sea.

However, though he no longer came and went as before, Henri made frequent calls at the house of mercy. But now he came in the evenings, when the place was full of men. Sara Lee was doing more dressings than before. The semi-armistice of winter was over, and there were nights when a row of wounded men lay on the floor in the little salle à manger and waited, in a sort of dreadful quiet, to be taken away.

Rumors came of hard fighting farther along the line, and sometimes, on nights when the clouds hung low, the flashes of the guns at Ypres looked like incessant lightning. From the sand dunes at Nieuport and Dixmude there was firing also, and the air seemed sometimes to be full of scouting planes.

The Canadians were moving toward the Front at Neuve Chapelle at that time. And one day a lorry, piled high with boxes, rolled and thumped down the street, and halted by René.

"Rather think we are lost," explained the driver, grinning sheepishly at René.

There were four boys in khaki on the truck, and not a word of French among them. Sara Lee, who rolled her own bandages now, heard the speech and came out.

"Good gracious!" she said, and gave an alarmed glance at the sky. But it was the noon hour, when every good German abandons war for food, and the sky was empty.

The boys cheered perceptibly. Here was at last some one who spoke a Christian tongue.

"Must have taken the wrong turning, miss," said one of them, saluting.

"Where do you want to go?" she asked. "You are very close to the Belgian Front here. It is not at all safe."

They all saluted; then, staring at her curiously, told her.

"Dear me!" said Sara Lee. "You are a long way off. And a long way from home too."

They smiled. They looked, with their clean-shaven faces, absurdly young after the bearded Belgian soldiers.

"I am an American, too," said Sara Lee with just a touch of homesickness in her voice. She had been feeling lonely lately. "If you have time to come in I could give you luncheon. René can tell us if any German air machines come over."

Would they come in? Indeed, yes! They crawled down off the lorry, and took off their caps, and ate every particle of food in the house. And, though they were mutely curious at first, soon they were asking questions. How long had she been there? What did she do? Wasn't it dangerous?

"Not so dangerous as it looks," said Sara Lee, smiling. "The Germans seldom bother the town now. It is not worth while."

Later on they went over the house. They climbed the broken staircase and stared toward the break in the poplar trees, from the roofless floor above.

"Some girl!" one of them said in an undertone.

The others were gazing intently toward the Front. Never before had they been so close. Never had they seen a ruined town. War, until now, had been a thing of Valcartier, of a long voyage, of much drill in the mud at Salisbury Plain. Now here they saw, at their feet, what war could do.

"Damn them!" said one of the boys suddenly. "Fellows, we'll get back at them soon."

So they went away, a trifle silent and very grateful. But before they left they had a glimpse of Sara Lee's room, with the corner gone, and Harvey's picture on the mantel.

"Some girl!" they repeated as they drove up the street. It was the tribute of inarticulate youth.

Sara Lee went back to her bandages and her thoughts. She had not a great deal of time to think, what with the officers stopping in to fight their paper-and-pin battles, and with letters to write and dressings to make and supplies to order. She began to have many visitors—officers from the French lines, correspondents on tours of the Front, and once even an English cabinet member, who took six precious lumps of sugar in his tea and dug a piece of shell out of the wall with his pocketknife as a souvenir.

Once a British aviator brought his machine down in the field by the mill, and walked over with the stiff stride of a man who has been for hours in the air. She gave him tea and bread and butter, and she learned then of the big fighting that was to come.

When she was alone she thought about Henri. Generally her thoughts were tender; always they were grateful. But she was greatly puzzled. He had said that he loved her. Then, if he loved her, why should he not be gentle and kind to her? Men did not hurt the women they loved. And because she was hurt, she was rather less than just. He had not asked her to marry him. He had said that he loved her, but that was different. And the insidious poison of Harvey's letter about foreigners began to have its effect.

The truth was that she was tired. The strain was telling on her. And at a time when she needed every moral support Henri had drawn off behind a wall of misery, and all her efforts at a renewal of their old friendship only brought up against a sort of stony despair.

There were times, too, when she grew a little frightened. She was so alone. What if Henri went away altogether? What if he took away the little car, and his protection, and the supplies that came so regularly? It was not a selfish fear. It was for her work that she trembled.

For the first time she realized her complete dependence on his good will. And now and then she felt that it would be good to see Harvey again, and be safe from all worry, and not have to depend on a man who loved her as Henri did. For that she never doubted. Inexperienced as she was in such matters, she knew that the boy loved her. Just how wildly she did not know until later, too late to undo what the madness had done.

Then one day a strange thing happened. It had been raining, and when in the late afternoon the sun came out it gleamed in the puddles that filled the shell holes in the road and set to a red blaze the windows of the house of the mill.

First, soaring overhead, came a half dozen friendly planes. Next, the eyes of the enemy having thus been blinded, so to speak, there came a regiment of fresh troops, swinging down the street for all the world as though the German Army was safely drinking beer in Munich. They passed René, standing open-mouthed in the doorway, and one wag of a Belgian boy, out of sheer joy of spring, did the goose step as he passed the little sentry and, head screwed round in the German salute, crossed his eyes over his impudent nose.

Came, then, the planes. Came the regiment, which turned off into a field and there spread itself, like a snake uncoiling, into a double line. Came a machine, gray and battered, containing officers. Came a general with gold braid on his shoulder, and a pleasant smile. Came the strange event.

The general found Sara Lee in the salle à manger cutting cotton into three-inch squares, and he stood in the doorway and bowed profoundly.

"Mademoiselle Kennedy?" he inquired.

Sara Lee replied to that, and then gave a quick thought to her larder. Because generals usually meant tea. But this time at last, Sara Lee was to receive something, not to give. She turned very white when she was told, and said she had not deserved it; she was indeed on the verge of declining, not knowing that there are certain things one does not decline. But Marie brought her hat and jacket—a smiling, tremulous Marie—and Sara Lee put them on.

The general was very tall. In her short skirt and with flying hair she looked like a child beside him as they walked across the fields. Suddenly Sara Lee was terribly afraid she was going to cry.

The troops stood rigidly at attention. And a cold wind flapped Sara Lee's skirts, and the guns hammered at Ypres, and the general blew on his fingers. And soon a low open car came down the street and the King got out. Sara Lee watched him coming—his tall, slightly stooped figure, his fair hair, his plain blue uniform. Sara Lee had never seen a king before, and she had always thought of them as sitting up on a sort of platform—never as trudging through spring mud.

"What shall I do?" she asked nervously.

"He will shake hands, mademoiselle. Bow as he approaches. That is all."

The amazing interlude, indeed! With Sara Lee being decorated by the King, and troops drawn up to do her honor, and over all the rumbling of the great guns. A palpitating and dazed Sara Lee, when the decoration was fastened to her black jacket, a Sara Lee whose hat blew off at exactly the worst moment and rolled, end on, like a hoop, into a puddle.

But, oddly, she did not mind about the hat. She had only one conscious thought just then. She hoped that, wherever Uncle James might be in that world of the gone before, he might know what was happening to her—or even see it. He would have liked it. He had believed in the Belgians and in the King. And now—the King did not go at once. He went back to the little house and went through it. And he and one of his generals climbed to the upper floor, and the King stood looking out silently toward the land he loved and which for a time was no longer his. p>

He came down after a time, stooping his tall figure in the low doorway, and said he would like some tea. So Marie put the kettle on, and Sara Lee and the King talked. It was all rather dazing. Every now and then she forgot certain instructions whispered her by the general, and after a time the King said: "Why do you do that, mademoiselle?"

For Sara Lee, with an intent face and moving lips, had been stepping backward.

Sara Lee flushed to the eyes.

"Because, sire, I was told to remain at a distance of six feet."

"But we are being informal," said the King, smiling. "And it is a very little room."

Sara Lee, who had been taught in the schoolroom that kings are usurpers of the divine rights of the people—Sara Lee lost just a bit of her staunch democracy that day. She saw the King of the Belgians for what he really was, a ruler, but a symbol as well. He represented his country, as the Flag she loved represented hers. The flag was America, the King was Belgium. That was all.

It was a very humble and flushed Sara Lee who watched the gray car go flying up the street later on. She went in and told the whole story to Harvey's picture, but it was difficult to feel that he was hearing. His eyes were turned away and his face was set and stern. And, at last, she gave it up. This thing which meant so much to her would never mean anything to Harvey. She knew, even then, what he would say.

"Decorate you! I should think they might. Medals are cheap. Everybody over there is getting medals. You feed their men and risk your life and your reputation, and they give you a thing to pin on. It's cheap at the price."

And later on those were Harvey's very words. But to be fair to him they were but the sloughing of a wound that would not heal.

That evening Henri came again. He was, for the first time, his gay self again—at least on the surface. It was as though, knowing what he was going into, he would leave with Sara Lee no feeling, if he never returned, that she had inflicted a lasting hurt. He was everywhere in the little house, elbowing his way among the men with his cheery nonsense, bantering the weary ones until they smiled, carrying hot water for Sara Lee and helping her now and then with a bad dressing.

"If you would do it in this fashion, mademoiselle," he would say, "with one turn of the bandage over the elbow—"

"But it won't hold that way."

"You say that to me, mademoiselle? I who have taught you all you know of bandaging?"

They would wrangle a bit, and end by doing it in Sara Lee's way.

He had a fund of nonsense that he drew on, too, when a dressing was painful. It would run like this, to an early accompaniment of groans:

"Pierre, what can you put in your left hand that you cannot place in the right? Stop grunting like a pig, and think, man!"

Pierre would give a final rumble and begin to think deeply.

"I cannot think. I—in my left hand, monsieur le capitaine?"

"In your left hand."

The little crowd in the dressing room would draw in close about the table to listen.

"I do not know, monsieur."

"Idiot!" Henri would say. "Your right elbow, man!"

And the dressing was done.

He had an inexhaustible stock of such riddles, almost never guessed. He would tell the answer and then laugh delightedly. And pain seemed to leave the little room when he entered it.

It was that night that Henri disappeared.

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