By the time Henri was well enough to resume his former activities it was almost the first of May. The winter quiet was over with a vengeance, and the Allies were hammering hard with their first tolerably full supply of high-explosive shells.
Cheering reports came daily to the little house—, of rapidly augmenting armies, of big guns on caterpillar trucks that were moving slowly up to the Allied Front. Great Britain had at last learned her lesson, that only shells of immense destructiveness were of any avail against the German batteries. She was moving heaven and earth to get them, but the supply was still inadequate. With the new shells experiments were being made in barrage fire—costly experiments now and then; but the Allies were apt in learning the ugly game of modern war.
Only on the Belgian Front was there small change. The shattered army was being freshly outfitted. England was sending money and ammunition, and on the sand dunes small bodies of fresh troops drilled and smiled grimly and drilled again. But there were not, as in England and in France, great bodies of young men to draw from. Too many had been caught beyond the German wall of steel.
Yet a wave of renewed courage had come with the sun and the green fields. And conditions had improved for the Belgians in other ways. They were being paid, for one thing, with something like regularity. Food was better and more plentiful. One day Henri appeared at the top of the street and drove down triumphantly a small unclipped horse, which trundled behind it a vertical boiler on wheels with fire box and stovepipe.
"A portable kitchen!" he explained. "See, here for soup and here for coffee. And more are coming."
"Very soon, Henri, they will not need me," Sara Lee said wistfully.
But he protested almost violently. He even put the question to the horse, and blowing in his ear made him shake his head in the negative.
She was needed, indeed. To the great base hospital at La Panne went more and more wounded men. But to the little house of mercy came the small odds and ends in increasing numbers. Medical men were scarce, and badly overworked. There was talk, for a time, of sending a surgeon to the little house, but it came to nothing. La Panne was not far away, and all the surgeons they could get there were not too many.
So the little house went on much as before. Henri had moved to the mill. He was at work again, and one day, in the King's villa and quietly, because of many reasons, Henri, a very white and erect Henri, received a second medal, the highest for courage that could be given.
He did not tell Sara Lee.
But though he and the men who served under him worked hard, they could not always perform miracles. The German planes still outnumbered the Allied ones. They had grown more daring with the spring, too, and whatever Henri might learn of ground operations, he could not foretell those of the air.
On a moonlight night in early May, Sara Lee, setting out her dressings, heard a man running up the street. René challenged him sharply, only to step aside. It was Henri. He burst in on Sara Lee.
"To the cellar, mademoiselle!" he said.
"A bombardment?" asked Sara Lee.
"From the air. They may pass over, but there are twelve taubes, and they are circling overhead."
The first bomb dropped then in the street. It was white moonlight and the Germans must have seen that there were no troops. Probably it was as Henri said later, that they had learned of the little house, and since it brought such aid and comfort as might be it was to be destroyed.
The house of the mill went with the second bomb. Then followed a deafening uproar as plane after plane dropped its shells on the dead town. Marie and Sara Lee were in the cellar by that time, but the cellar was scarcely safer than the floor above. From a bombardment by shells from guns miles away there was protection. From a bomb dropped from the sky, the floors above were practically useless.
Only Henri and René remained on the street floor. Henri was extinguishing lights. In the passage René stood, not willing to take refuge until Henri, whom he adored, had done so. For a moment the uproar ceased, and in a spirit of bravado René stepped out into the moonlight and made a gesture of derision into the air.
He fell there, struck by a piece of splintered shell.
"Come, René!" Henri called. "The brave are those who live to fight again, not—"
But René's figure against the moonlight was gone. Henri ran to the doorway then and found him lying, his head on the little step where he had been wont to sit and whittle and sing his Tipperaree. He was dead. Henri carried him in and laid him in the little passage, very reverently. Then he went below.
"Where is René?" Sara Lee asked from the darkness.
"A foolish boy," said Henri, a catch in his throat. "He is, I think, watching these fiends of the air, from some shelter."
"There is no shelter," shivered the girl.
He groped for her hand in the darkness, and so they stood, hand in hand, like two children, waiting for what might come.
It was not until the thing was over that he told her. He had gone up first and so that she would not happen on his silent figure unwarned, had carried René to the open upper floor, where he lay, singularly peaceful, face up to the awful beauty of the night.
"Good night, little brother," Henri said to him, and left him there with a heavy heart. Never again would René sit and whittle on the doorstep and sing his tuneless Tipperaree. Never again would he gaze with boyish adoring eyes at Sara Lee as she moved back and forth in the little house.
Henri stared up at the sky. The moon looked down, cold, and cruelly bright, on the vanishing squadron of death, on the destroyed town and on the boy's white face. Somewhere, Henri felt, vanishing like the German taubes, but to peace instead of war, was moving René's brave and smiling spirit—a boyish angel, eager and dauntless, and still looking up.
Henri took off his cap and crossed himself.
Another sentry took René's place the next day, but the little house had lost something it could not regain. And a greater loss was to come.
Jean brought out the mail that day. For Sara Lee, moving about silent and red-eyed, there was a letter from Mr. Travers. He inclosed a hundred pounds and a clipping from a London newspaper entitled The Little House of Mercy.
"Evidently," he wrote, "you were right and we were wrong. One-half of the inclosed check is from my wife, who takes this method of showing her affectionate gratitude. The balance is from myself. Once, some months ago, I said to you that almost you restored my faith in human nature. To-day I may say that, in these hours of sorrow for us all, what you have done and are doing has brought into my gray day a breath of hope."
There was another clipping, but no comment. It recorded the death of a Reginald Alexander Travers, aged thirty.
It was then that Sara Lee, who was by way of thinking for herself those days, and of thinking clearly, recognized the strange new self-abnegation of the English—their attitude not so much of suppressing their private griefs as of refusing to obtrude them. A strongly individualistic people, they were already commencing to think nationally. Grief was a private matter, to be borne privately. To the world they must present an unbroken front, an unshaken and unshakable faith. A new attitude, and a strange one, for grumbling, crochety, gouty-souled England.
A people who had for centuries insisted not only on its rights but on its privileges was now giving as freely as ever it had demanded. It was as though, having hoarded all those years, it had but been hoarding against the day of payment. As it had received it gave—in money, in effort, in life. And without pretext.
So the Traverses, having given up all that had made life for them, sent a clipping only, and no comment. Sara Lee, through a mist of tears, saw them alone in their drawing-room, having tea as usual, and valiantly speaking of small things, and bravely facing the future, but never, in the bitterest moments, making complaint or protest.
Would America, she wondered, if her hour came, be so brave? Harvey had a phrase for such things. It was "stand the gaff." Would America stand the gaff so well? Courage was America's watchword, but a courage of the body rather than of the soul—physical courage, not moral. What would happen if America entered the struggle and the papers were filled, as were the British and the French, with long casualty lists, each name a knife thrust somewhere?
And then, before long, it was Sara Lee's turn to stand the gaff. There was another letter, a curiously incoherent one from Harvey's sister. She referred to something that the society had done, and hoped that Sara Lee would take it in kindness, as it was meant. Harvey was well and much happier. She was to try to understand Harvey's part. He had been almost desperate. Evidently the letter had preceded one that should have arrived at the same time. Sara Lee was sadly puzzled. She went to Henri with it, but he could make nothing out of it. There was nothing to do but to wait.
The next night Henri was to go through the lines again. Since his wounding he had been working on the Allied side, and fewer lights there were in his district that flashed the treacherous message across the flood, between night and morning. But now it was imperative that he go through the German lines again. It was feared that with grappling hooks the enemy was slowly and cautiously withdrawing the barbed wire from the inundated fields; and that could mean but one thing.
On the night he was to go Henri called Sara Lee from the crowded salle à manger and drawing her into the room across closed the door.
"Mademoiselle," he said gravely, "once before, long ago, you permitted me to kiss you. Will you do that for me again?"
She kissed him at once gravely. Once she would have flushed. She did not now. For there was a change in Sara Lee as well as in her outlook. She had been seeing for months the shortness of life, the brief tenure men held on it, the value of such happiness as might be for the hours that remained. She was a woman now, for all her slim young body and her charm of youth. Values had changed. To love, and to show that love, to cheer, to comfort and help—that was necessary, because soon the chance might be gone, and there would be long aching years of regret.
So she kissed him gravely and looked up into his eyes, her own full of tears.
"God bless and keep you, dear Henri," she said.
Then she went back to her work.