The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter XX

Harvey proceeded to put his plan into effect at once, with the simple method of an essentially simple nature. The thing had become intolerable; therefore it must end.

On the afternoon following his talk with Belle he came home at three o'clock. Belle heard him moving about in his room, and when she entered it, after he had gone, she found that he had shaved and put on his best suit.

She smiled a little. It was like Harvey to be literal. He had said he was going to go round and have a good time, and he was losing no time. But in their restricted social life, where most of the men worked until five o'clock or even later, there were fewer afternoon calls paid. Belle wondered with mild sisterly curiosity into what arena Harvey was about to fling his best hat.

But though Harvey paid a call that afternoon it was not on any of the young women he knew. He went to see Mrs. Gregory. She was at home—he had arranged for that by telephone—and the one butler of the neighborhood admitted him. It was a truculent young man, for all his politeness, who confronted Mrs. Gregory in her drawing-room—a quietly truculent young man, who came to the point while he was still shaking hands.

"You're not going to be glad to see me in a minute," he said in reply to her greeting.

"How can you know that?"

"Because I've come to get you to do something you won't want to do."

"We won't quarrel before we begin, then," she said pleasantly. "Because I really never do anything I don't wish to do."

But she gave him a second glance and her smile became a trifle forced. She knew all about Harvey and Sara Lee. She had heard rumors of his disapproval also. Though she was not a clever nor a very keen woman, she saw what was coming and braced herself for it.

Harvey had prepared in his mind a summary of his position, and he delivered it with the rapidity and strength of a blow.

"I know all about the Belgians, Mrs. Gregory," he said. "I'm sorry for them. So is every one, I suppose. But I want to know if you think a girl of twenty ought to be over there practically at the Front, and alone?" He gave her time to reply. "Would you like to have your daughter there, if you had one?"

"Perhaps not, under ordinary circumstances. But this is war."

"It is not our war."

"Humanity," said Mrs. Gregory, remembering the phrase she had written for a speech—"humanity has no nationality. It is of all men, for all men."

"That's men. Not women!"

He got up and stood on the hearthrug. He was singularly reminiscent of the time he had stood on Aunt Harriet's white fur rug and had told Sara Lee she could not go.

"Now see here, Mrs. Gregory," he said, "we'll stop beating about the bush, if you don't mind. She's got to come home. She's coming, if I have to go and get her!"

"You needn't look at me so fiercely. I didn't send her. It was her own idea."

Harvey sneered.

"No," he said slowly. "But I notice your society publishes her reports in the papers, and that the names of the officers are rarely missing."

Mrs. Gregory colored.

"We must have publicity to get money," she said. "It is hard to get. Sometimes I have had to make up the deficit out of my own pocket."

"Then for God's sake bring her home! If the thing has to go on, send over there some of the middle-aged women who have no ties. Let 'em get shot if they want to. They can write as good reports as she can, if that's all you want. And make as good soup," he added bitterly.

"It could be done, of course," she said, thoughtfully. "But—I must tell you this: I doubt if an older woman could have got where she has. There is no doubt that her charm, her youth and beauty have helped her greatly. We cannot—"

The very whites of his eyes turned red then. He shouted furiously that for their silly work and their love of publicity, they were trading on a girl's youth and beauty; that if anything happened to her he would publish the truth in every newspaper in the country; that they would at once recall Sara Lee or he would placard the city with what they were doing. These were only a few of the things he threw at her.

When he was out of breath he jerked the picture of the little house of mercy out of his pocket and flung it into her lap.

"There!" he said. "Do you know where that house is? It's in a ruined village. She hasn't said that, has she? Well, look at the masonry there. That's a shell hole in the street. That soldier's got a gun. Why? Because the Germans may march up that street any day on their way to Calais."

Mrs. Gregory looked at the picture. Sara Lee smiled into the sun. And René, ignorant that his single rifle was to oppose the march of the German Army to Calais—René smiled also.

Mrs. Gregory rose.

"I shall report your view to the society," she said coldly. "I understand how you feel, but I fail to see the reason for this attack on me."

"I guess you see all right!" he flung at her. "She's my future wife. If you hadn't put this nonsense into her head we'd be married now and she'd be here in God's country and not living with a lot of foreigners who don't know a good woman when they see one. I want her back, that's all. But I want her back safe. And if anything happens to her I'll make you pay—you and all your notoriety hunters."

He went out then, and was for leaving without his hat or coat, but the butler caught him at the door. Out in the spring sunlight he walked rapidly, still seething, remembering other bitter things he had meant to say, and repeating them to himself.

But he had said enough.

Mrs. Gregory's account of his visit she reported at a meeting specially called. The narrative lost nothing in the repetition. But the kindly women who sat in the church house sewing or knitting listened to what Harvey had said and looked troubled. They liked Sara Lee, and many of them had daughters of their own.

The photograph was passed around. Undoubtedly Sara Lee was living in a ruined village. Certainly ruined villages were only found very near the Front. And René unquestionably held a gun. Tales of German brutalities to women had come and were coming constantly to their ears. Mabel Andrews had written to them for supplies, and she had added to the chapter of horrors.

Briefly, the sense of the meeting was that Harvey had been brutal, but that he was right. An older woman in a safe place they might continue to support, but none of them would assume the responsibility of the crushing out of a young girl's life.

To be quite frank, possibly Harvey's appeal would have carried less weight had it not coincided with Sara Lee's request for more money. Neither one alone would have brought about the catastrophe, but altogether they made question and answer, problem and solution. Money was scarce. Demands were heavy. None of them except Mrs. Gregory had more than just enough. And there was this additional situation to face: there was no end of the war in sight; it gave promise now of going on indefinitely.

Joifre had said, "I nibble them." But to nibble a hole in the Germany Army might take years. They had sent Sara Lee for a few months. How about keeping her there indefinitely?

Oddly enough, it was Harvey's sister Belle who made the only protest against the recall.

"Of course, I want her back," she said slowly. "You'd understand better if you had to live with Harvey. I'm sorry, Mrs. Gregory, that he spoke to you as he did, but he's nearly crazy." She eyed the assembly with her tired shrewd eyes. "I'm no talker," she went on, "but Sara Lee has done a big thing. We don't realize, I guess, how big it is. And I think we'll just about kill her if we bring her home."

"Better to do that than to have her killed over there," some one said.

And in spite of Belle's protest, that remained the sense of the meeting. It was put to the vote and decided to recall Sara Lee. She could bring a report of conditions, and if she thought it wise an older woman could go later, to a safer place.

Belle was very quiet that evening. After dinner she went to Harvey's room and found him dressing to go out.

"I'm going with a crowd to the theater," he said. "First week of the summer stock company, you know."

He tied his tie defiantly, avoiding Belle's eyes in the mirror.

"Harvey," she said, "they're going to bring Sara Lee home."

He said nothing, but his hands shook somewhat. "And I think," Belle said, "that you will be sorry for what you have done—all the rest of your life."

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