The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter XVII

There was a question to settle, and it was for Henri to do it. Two questions indeed. One was a matter of engineering, and before the bottom fell out of his world Henri had studied engineering. The second was more serious.

For the first, this thing had happened. Of all the trenches to be held, the Belgians had undeniably the worst. Properly speaking they were not trenches at all, but shallow gutters dug a foot or two into the saturated ground and then built man-high with bags of earth or sand. Here and there they were not dug at all, but were purely shelters, against a railway embankment, of planks or sandbags, and reinforced by rails from the deserted track behind which they were hidden.

For this corner of Belgium had been saved by turning it into a shallow lake. By opening the gates in the dikes the Allies had let in the sea and placed a flood in front of the advancing enemy. The battle front was a reeking pond. The opposing armies lived like duck hunters in a swamp. To dig a foot was to encounter water. Machine guns here and there sat but six inches above the yellow flood. Men lay in pools to fire them. To reach outposts were narrow paths built first of bags of earth—a life, sometimes for every bag. And, when this filling was sufficient, on top a path of fascines, bound together in bundles, made a footway.

For this reason the Belgians approached their trenches not through deep cuts which gave them shelter but with no other cover than the darkness of night. During the day, they lay in their shallow dugouts, cut off from any connection with the world behind them. Food, cooked miles away, came up at night, cold and unappetizing. For water, having exhausted their canteens, there was nothing but the brackish tide before them, ill-smelling and reeking of fever. Water carts trundled forward at night, but often they were far too few.

The Belgians, having faced their future through long years of anxiety, had been trained to fight. In a way they had been trained to fight a losing war, for they could not hope to defeat their greedy neighbor on the east. But now they found themselves fighting almost not at all, condemned to inactivity, to being almost passively slaughtered by enemy artillery, and to living under such conditions as would have sapped the courage of a less desperate people.

To add to the difficulties, not only did the sea encroach, turning a fertile land into a salt marsh, but the winter rains, unusually heavy that tragic first winter, and lacking their usual egress to the sea, spread the flood. There were many places well back of the lines where fields were flooded, and where roads, sadly needed, lost themselves in unfordable wallows of mud and water.

Henri then, knowing all this—none better—had his first question to settle, which was this: As spring advanced the flood had commenced to recede. Time came when, in those trenches now huddled shallow behind the railway track, one could live in a certain comfort. In the deeper ones, the bottom of the trench appeared for the first time.

On a day previous, however, the water had commenced to come back. There had been no rain, but little by little in a certain place yellow, ill-smelling little streams began to flow sluggishly into the trenches. Seeped, rather than flowed. At first the Belgian officers laid it to that bad luck that had so persistently pursued them. Then they held a conference in the small brick house with its maps and its pine tables and its picture of an American harvester on the wall, which was now headquarters.

Sitting under the hanging lamp, with an orderly making coffee at a stove in the corner, they talked it over. Henri was there, silent before his elders, but intently listening. And at last they turned to him.

"I can go and find out," he said quietly. "It is possible, though I do not see how." He smiled. "They are, I think, only drying themselves at our expense. It is a bit of German humor."

But the cry of "Calais in a month!" was in the air, and undoubtedly there had been renewed activity along the German Front near the sea. The second question to be answered was dependent on the first.

Had the Germans, as Henri said, merely shifted the water, by some clever engineering, to the Belgian trenches, or was there some bigger thing on hand? What, for instance, if they were about to attempt to drain the inundation, smash the Belgian line, and march by the Dunkirk road to Calais?

So, that night while Henri jested about Pierre's right elbow and watched Sara Lee for a smile, he had difficult work before him.

Sometime near midnight he slipped away. Jean was waiting in the street, and wrung the boy's hand.

"I could go with you," he said rather wistfully.

"You don't speak their ugly tongue."

"I could be mute—shell shock. You could be helping me back."

But Henri only held his hand a moment and shook his head.

"You would double the risk, and—what good would it do?"

"Two pistols are better than one."

"I have two pistols, my friend," said Henri, and turned the corner of the building, past the boards René had built in, toward the house of the mill. But once out of Jean's sight he stopped a moment, his hand resting against that frail wall to Sara Lee's room. It was his good-by to her.

For three days Jean stayed in the village. He slept at the mill, but he came for his meals to the little house. Once he went to Dunkirk and brought out provisions and the mail, including Sara Lee's monthly allowance. But mostly he sat in the mill house and waited. He could not read.

"You do not eat at all, Jean," Sara Lee said to him more than once. And twice she insisted that he was feverish, and placed a hand that was somewhat marred with much peeling of vegetables, on his forehead.

"I am entirely well, mademoiselle," he would say, and draw back. He had anxieties enough just now without being reminded by the touch of a woman's hand of all that he had lost.

Long before that Sara Lee had learned not to question Jean about Henri's absences. Even his knowledge, now, that she knew something of Henri's work, did not remove the barrier. So Sara Lee waited, as did Jean, but more helplessly. She knew something was wrong, but she had not Jean's privilege of going at night to the trenches and there waiting, staring over the gray water with its ugly floating shadows, for Henri to emerge from the flood.

Something rather forced and mechanical there was those days in her work. Her smile was rather set. She did not sleep well. And one night she violated Henri's orders and walked across the softened fields to beyond the poplar trees.

There was nothing to see except an intermittent flash from the clouds that hung low over the sea at Nieuport, where British gunboats were bombarding the coast; or the steady streaks from the Ypres salient, where night and day the guns never rested.

From the Belgian trenches, fifteen hundred feet or so away, there was no sound. A German electric signal blazed its message in code, and went out quickly. Now and then a rifle shot, thin and sharp, rang out from where, under the floating starlights, keen eyes on each side watched for movements on the other.

Sara Lee sat down under a tree and watched for a while. Then she found herself crying softly. It was all so sad, and useless, and cruel. And somewhere there ahead was Henri, Henri with his blue eyes, his smile, the ardor of his young arms—Henri, who had been to her many friends.

Sara Lee had never deceived herself about Henri. She loved him. But she was quite certain she was not in love with him, which is entirely different. She knew that this last was impossible, because she was engaged to Harvey. What was probably the truth was that she loved them both in entirely different ways. Men have always insisted on such possibilities, and have even asserted their right, now and then, to love two women at the same time. But women are less frank with themselves.

And, in such cases, there is no grand passion. There are tenderness, and the joy of companionship, and sometimes a touching dependence. But it is not a love that burns with a white fire.

Perhaps Sara Lee was one of those women who are always loved more than they love. There are such women, not selfish, not seeking love, but softly feminine, kind, appealing and genuine. Men need, after all, but an altar on which to lay tribute. And the high, remote white altar that was Sara Lee had already received the love of two strong men.

She was not troubling her head that night, however, about being an altar, of a sort. She cried a little at first, because she was terrified for Henri and because Jean's face was growing pinched and gray. Then she cried very hard, prone on the ground and face down, because Henri was young, and all of life should have been before him. And he was missing.

Henri was undeniably missing. Even the King knew it now, and set down in his heart, among the other crosses there, Henri's full name, which we may not know, and took to pacing his little study and looking out at the spring sea.

That night Marie, having ladled to the bottom of her kettle, found Sara Lee missing, and was told by René of the direction she had taken. Marie, muttering to herself, set out to find her, and almost stumbled over her in the wood by the road.

She sat down on the ground without a word and placed a clumsy hand on the girl's shoulder. It was not until Sara Lee ceased sobbing that she spoke:

"It is far from hopeless, mademoiselle."

They had by now established a system of communication. Sara Lee spoke her orders in halting French, but general conversation was beyond her. And much hearing of English had taught the Belgian girl enough to follow.

Sara Lee replied, then, in smothered English:

"He is gone, Marie. He will never come back."

"Who can tell? There are many missing who are not dead."

Sara Lee shuddered. For spies were not made prisoners. They had no rights as prisoners of war. Their own governments did not protect them. To Henri capture was death. But she could not say this to Marie.

Marie sat softly stroking Sara Lee's hair, her own eyes tragic and tearless.

"Even if it were—the other," she said, "it is not so bad to die for one's country. The thing that is terrible, that leaves behind it only bitterness and grief and no hope, mademoiselle, even with many prayers, is that one has died a traitor."

She coaxed Sara Lee back at last. They went through the fields, for fresh troops were being thrown into the Belgian trenches and the street was full of men. Great dray horses were dragging forward batteries, the heavy guns sliding and slipping In the absence of such information as only Henri had been wont to bring it was best to provide for the worst.

The next day Jean did not come over for breakfast, and René handed Sara Lee a note.

"I am going to England," Jean had written that dawn in the house of the mill. "And from there to Holland. I can get past the barrier and shall work down toward the Front. I must learn what has happened, mademoiselle. As you know, if he was captured, there is no hope. But there is an excellent chance that he is in hiding, unable to get back. Look for me in two weeks."

There followed what instructions he had given as to her supplies, which would come as before. Beautifully written in Jean's small fine hand, it spelled for Sara Lee the last hope. She read Jean's desperation through its forced cheerfulness. And she faced for the first time a long period of loneliness in the crowded little house.

She tried very hard to fill the gap that Henri had left—tried to joke with the men in her queer bits of French; was more smiling than ever, for fear she might be less. But now and then in cautious whispers she heard Henri's name, and her heart contracted with very terror.

A week. Two weeks. Twice the village was bombarded severely, but the little house escaped by a miracle. Marie considered it the same miracle that left holy pictures unhurt on the walls of destroyed houses, and allowed the frailest of old ebony and rosewood crucifixes to remain unharmed.

Great generals, often as tall as they were great, stopped at the little house to implore Sara Lee to leave. But she only shook her head.

"Not unless you send me away," she always said; "and that would break my heart."

"But to move, mademoiselle, only to the next village!" they would remonstrate, and as a final argument: "You are too valuable to risk an injury."

"I must remain here," she said. And some of them thought they understood. When an unusually obdurate officer came along, Sara Lee would insist on taking him to the cellar.

"You see!" she would say, holding her candle high. "It is a nice cellar, warm and dry. It is"—proudly—"one of the best cellars in the village. It is a really homelike cellar."

The officer would go away then, and send her cigarettes for her men or, as in more than one case, a squad with bags of earth and other things to protect the little house as much as possible. After a time the little house began to represent the ideas in protection and camouflage, then in its early stages, of many different minds.

René shot a man there one night, a skulking figure working its way in the shadows up the street. It was just before dawn, and René, who was sleepless those days, like the others, called to him. The man started to run, dodging behind walls. But René ran faster and killed him.

He was a German in Belgian peasant's clothing. But he wore the great shoes of the German soldier, and he had been making a rough map of the Belgian trenches.

Sara Lee did not see him. But when she heard the shot she went out, and René told her breathlessly.

From that time on her terrors took the definite form of Henri lying dead in a ruined street, and being buried, as this man was buried, without ceremony and without a prayer, in some sodden spring field.

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