The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter XXII

Much of Sara Lee's life at home had faded. She seemed to be two people. One was the girl who had knitted the afghan for Anna, and had hidden it away from Uncle James' kind but curious eyes. And one was this present Sara Lee, living on the edge of eternity, and seeing men die or suffer horribly, not to gain anything—except perhaps some honorable advancement for their souls—but that there might be preserved, at any cost, the right of honest folk to labor in their fields, to love, to pray, and at last to sleep in the peace of God.

She had lost the past and she dared not look into the future. So she was living each day as it came, with its labor, its love, its prayers and at last its sleep. Even Harvey seemed remote and stern and bitter. She reread his letters often, but they were forced. And after a time she realized another quality in them. They were self-centered. It was his anxiety, his loneliness, his humiliation. Sara Lee's eyes were looking out, those days, over a suffering world. Harvey's eyes were turned in on himself.

She realized this, but she never formulated it, even to herself. What she did acknowledge was a growing fear of the reunion which must come sometime—that he was cherishing still further bitterness against that day, that he would say things that he would regret later. Sometimes the thought of that day came to her when she was doing a dressing, and her hands would tremble.

Henri had not returned when, the second day after René's death, the letter came which recalled her. She opened it eagerly. Though from Harvey there usually came at the best veiled reproach, the society had always sent its enthusiastic approval.

She read it twice before she understood, and it was only when she read Belle's letter again that she began to comprehend. She was recalled; and the recall was Harvey's work.

She was very close to hating him that day. He had never understood. She would go back to him, as she had promised; but always, all the rest of their lives, there would be this barrier between them. To the barrier of his bitterness would be added her own resentment. She could never even talk to him of her work, of those great days when in her small way she had felt herself a part of the machinery of mercy of the war.

Harvey had lost something out of Sara Lee's love for him. He had done it himself, madly, despairingly. She still loved him, she felt. Nothing could change that or her promise to him. But with that love there was something now of fear. And she felt, too, that after all the years she had known him she had not known him at all. The Harvey she had known was a tender and considerate man, soft-spoken, slow to wrath, always gentle. But the Harvey of his letters and of the recall was a stranger.

It was the result of her upbringing, probably, that she had no thought of revolt. Her tie to Harvey was a real tie. By her promise to him her life was no longer hers to order. It belonged to some one else, to be ordered for her. But, though she accepted, she was too clear a thinker not to resent.

When Henri returned, toward dawn of the following night, he did not come alone. Sara Lee, rising early, found two men in her kitchen—one of them Henri, who was making coffee, and a soldier in a gray-green uniform, with a bad bruise over one eye and a sulky face. His hands were tied, but otherwise he sat at ease, and Henri, having made the coffee, held a cup to his lips.

"It is good for the spirits, man," he said in German. "Drink it."

The German took it, first gingerly, then eagerly. Henri was in high good humor.

"See, I have brought you a gift!" he exclaimed on seeing Sara Lee. "What shall we do with him? Send him to America? To show the appearance of the madmen of Europe?"

The prisoner was only a boy, such a boy as Henri himself; but a peasant, and muscular. Beside his bulk Henri looked slim as a reed. Henri eyed him with a certain tolerant humor.

"He is young, and a Bavarian," he said. "Other wise I should have killed him, for he fought hard. He has but just been called."

There was another conference in the little house that morning, but Henri's prisoner could tell little. He had heard nothing of an advance. Further along the line it was said that there was much fighting. He sat there, pale and bewildered and very civil, and in the end his frightened politeness brought about a change in the attitude of the men who questioned him. Hate all Germans as they must, who had suffered so grossly, this boy was not of those who had outraged them.

They sent him on at last, and Sara Lee was free to tell Henri her news. But she had grown very wise as to Henri's moods, and she hesitated. A certain dissatisfaction had been growing in the boy for some time, a sense of hopelessness. Further along the spring had brought renewed activity to the Allied armies. Great movements were taking place.

But his own men stood in their trenches, or what passed for trenches, or lay on their hours of relief in such wretched quarters as could be found, still with no prospect of action. No great guns, drawn by heavy tractors, came down the roads toward the trenches by the sea. Steady bombarding, incessant sniping and no movement on either side—that was the Belgian Front during the first year of the war. Inaction, with that eating anxiety as to what was going on in the occupied territory, was the portion of the heroic small army that stretched from Nieuport to Dixmude.

And Henri's nerves were not good. He was unhappy—that always—and he was not yet quite recovered from his wounds. There was on his mind, too, a certain gun which moved on a railway track, back and forth, behind the German lines, doing the work of many. He had tried to get to that gun, and failed. And he hated failure.

Certainly in this story of Sara Lee and of Henri, whose other name must not be known, allowance must be made for all those things. Yet—perhaps no allowance is enough.

Sara Lee told him that evening of her recall, told him when the shuffling of many feet in the street told of the first weary men from the trenches coming up the road.

He heard her in a dazed silence. Then:

"But you will not go?" he said. "It is impossible! You—you are needed, mademoiselle."

"What can I do, Henri? They have recalled me. My money will not come now."

"Perhaps we can arrange that. It does not cost so much. I have friends—and think, mademoiselle, how many know now of what you are doing, and love you for it. Some of them would contribute, surely."

He was desperately revolving expedients in his mind. He could himself do no more than he had done. He, or rather Jean and he together, had been bearing a full half of the expense of the little house since the beginning. But he dared not tell her that. And though he spoke hopefully, he knew well that he could raise nothing from the Belgians he knew best. Henri came of a class that held its fortunes in land, and that land was now in German hands.

"We will arrange it somehow," he said with forced cheerfulness. "No beautiful thing—and this is surely beautiful—must die because of money."

It was then that Sara Lee took the plunge.

"It is not only money, Henri."

"He has sent for you!"

Harvey was always "he" to Henri.

"Not exactly. But I think he went to some one and said I should not be here alone. You can understand how he feels. We were going to be married very soon, and then I decided to come. It made an awful upset."

Henri stood with folded arms and listened. At first he said nothing. When he spoke it was in a voice of ominous calm:

"So for a stupid convention he would destroy this beautiful thing you have made! Does he know your work? Does he know what you are to the men here? Have you ever told him?"

"I have, of course, but—"

"Do you want to go back?"

"No, Henri. Not yet. I—"

"That is enough. You are needed. You are willing to stay. I shall attend to the money. It is arranged."

"You don't understand," said Sara Lee desperately. "I am engaged to him. I can't wreck his life, can I?"

"Would it wreck your life?" he demanded. "Tell me that and I shall know how to reason with you."

But she only looked at him helplessly.

Heavy tramping in the passage told of the arrival of the first men. They did not talk and laugh as usual. As well as they could they came quietly. For René had been a good friend to many of them, and had admitted on slack nights many a weary man who had no ticket. Much as the neighbors had entered the house back home after Uncle James had gone away, came these bearded men that night. And Sara Lee, hearing their muffled voices, brushed a hand over her eyes and tried to smile.

"We can talk about it later," she said. "We mustn't quarrel. I owe so much to you, Henri."

Suddenly Henri caught her by the arm and turned her about so that she faced the lamp.

"Do you love him?" he demanded. "Sara Lee, look at me!" Only he pronounced it Saralie. "He has done a very cruel thing. Do you still love him?"

Sara Lee shut her eyes.

"I don't know. I think I do. He is very unhappy, and it is my fault."

"Your fault!"

"I must go, Henri. The men are waiting."

But he still held her arm.

"Does he love you as I love you?" he demanded. "Would he die for you?"

"That's rather silly, isn't it? Men don't die for the people they love."

"I would die for you, Saralie."

She eyed him rather helplessly.

"I don't think you mean that." Bad strategy that, for he drew her to him. His arms were like steel, and it was a rebellious and very rigid Sara Lee who found she could not free herself.

"I would die for you, Saralie!" he repeated fiercely. "That would be easier, far, than living without you. There is nothing that matters but you. Listen—I would put everything I have—my honor, my life, my hope of eternity—on one side of the scale and you on the other. And I would choose you. Is that love?" He freed her.

"It's insanity," said Sara Lee angrily. "You don't mean it. And I don't want that kind of love, if that is what you call it."

"And you will go back to that man who loves himself better than he loves you?"

"That's not true!" she flashed at him. "He is sending for me, not to get me back to him, but to get me back to safety."

"What sort of safety?" Henri demanded in an ominous tone. "Is he afraid of me?"

"He doesn't know anything about you."

"You have never told him? Why?" His eyes narrowed.

"He wouldn't have understood, Henri."

"You are going back to him," he said slowly; "and you will always keep these days of ours buried in your heart. Is that it?" His eyes softened. "I am to be a memory! Do you know what I think? I think you care for me more than you know. We have lived a lifetime together in these months. You know me better than you know him, already. We have faced death together. That is a strong tie. And I have held you in my arms. Do you think you can forget that?"

"I shall never want to forget you."

"I shall not let you forget me. You may go—I cannot prevent that perhaps. But wherever I am; Saralie, I shall stand between that lover of yours and you. And sometime I shall come from this other side of the world, and I shall find you, and you will come back with me. Back to this country—our country."

They were boyish words, but back of them was the iron determination of a man. His eyes seemed sunken in his head. His face was white. But there was almost a prophetic ring in his voice.

Sara Lee went out and left him there, went out rather terrified and bewildered, and refusing absolutely to look into her own heart.

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