Late in May she started for home. It had not been necessary to close the little house. An Englishwoman of mature years and considerable wealth, hearing from Mr. Travers of Sara Lee's recall, went out a day or two before she left and took charge. She was a kindly woman, in deep mourning; and some of the ache left Sara Lee's heart when she had talked with her successor.
Perhaps, too, Mrs. Cameron understood some of the things that had puzzled her before. She had been a trifle skeptical perhaps about Sara Lee before she saw her. A young girl alone among an army of men! She was a good woman herself, and not given to harsh judgments, but the thing had seemed odd. But Sara Lee in her little house, as virginal, as without sex-consciousness as a child, Sara Lee with her shabby clothes and her stained hands and her honest eyes—this was not only a good girl, this was a brave and high-spirited and idealistic woman.
And after an evening in the house of mercy, with the soldiers openly adoring and entirely respectful, Mrs. Cameron put her arms round Sara Lee and kissed her.
"You must let me thank you," she said. "You have made me feel what I have not felt since—"
She stopped. Her mourning was only a month old. "I see to-night that, after all, many things may be gone, but that while service remains there is something worth while in life."
The next day she asked Sara Lee to stay with her, at least through the summer. Sara Lee hesitated, but at last she agreed to cable. As Henri had disappeared with the arrival of Mrs. Cameron it was that lady's chauffeur who took the message to Dunkirk and sent it off.
She had sent the cable to Harvey. It was no longer a matter of the Ladies' Aid. It was between Harvey and herself.
The reply came on the second day. It was curt and decisive.
"Now or never," was the message Harvey sent out of his black despair, across the Atlantic to the little house so close under the guns of Belgium.
Henri was half mad those last days. Jean tried to counsel him, but he was irritable, almost savage. And Jean understood. The girl had grown deep into his own heart. Like Henri, he believed that she was going back to unhappiness; he even said so to her in the car, on that last sad day when Sara Lee, having visited René's grave and prayed in the ruined church, said good-by to the little house, and went away, tearless at the last, because she was too sad for tears.
It was not for some time that Jean spoke what was in his mind, and when he had done so she turned to him gravely:
"You are wrong, Jean. He is the kindest of men. Once I am back, and safe, he will be very different. I'm afraid I've given you a wrong impression of him."
"You think then, mademoiselle, that he will forget all these months—he will never be unhappy over them?"
"Why should he?" said Sara Lee proudly. "When I tell him everything he will understand. And he will be very proud that I have done my share."
But Jean's one eye was dubious.
At the wharf in Dunkirk they found Henri, a pale but composed Henri. Jean's brows contracted. He had thought that the boy would follow his advice and stay away. But Henri was there.
It was as well, perhaps, for Sara Lee had brought him a letter, one of those missives from the trenches which had been so often left at the little house.
Henri thrust it into his pocket without reading it.
"Everything is prepared," he said. "It is the British Admiralty boat, and one of the officers has offered his cabin. You will be quite comfortable."
He appeared entirely calm. He saw to carrying Sara Lee's small bag on board; he chatted with the officers; he even wandered over to a hospital ship moored near by and exchanged civilities with a wounded man in a chair on the deck. Perhaps he swaggered a bit too much, for Jean watched him with some anxiety. He saw that the boy was taking it hard. His eyes were very sunken now, and he moved his right arm stiffly, as though the old wound troubled him.
Jean did not like leave-takings. Particularly he did not like taking leave of Sara Lee. Some time before the boat sailed he kissed her hand, and then patted it and went away in the car without looking back.
The boat was preparing to get under way. Henri was standing by her very quietly. He had not slept the night before, but then there were many nights when Henri did not sleep. He had wandered about, smoking incessantly, trying to picture the black future.
He could see no hope anywhere. America was far away, and peaceful. Very soon the tranquillity of it all would make the last months seem dreamlike and unreal. She would forget Belgium, forget him. Or she would remember him as a soldier who had once loved her. Once loved her, because she had never seemed to realize the lasting quality of his love. She had always felt that he would forget her. If he could only make her believe that he would not, it would not be so hopeless.
He had written a bit of a love letter on the little table at Dunkirk that morning, written it with the hope that the sight of the written words might carry conviction where all his protests had failed.
"I shall love you all the years of my life," he wrote. "At any time, in any place, you may come to me and know that I am waiting. Great love like this comes only once to any man, and once come to him it never goes away. At any time in the years to come you may know with certainty that you are still to me what you are now, the love of my life.
"Sometimes I think, dearest—I may call you that once, now that you have left me—that far away you will hear this call of mine and come back to me. Perhaps you will never come. Perhaps I shall not live. I feel to-day that I do not care greatly to live.
"If that is to be, then think of me somewhere, perhaps with René by my side, since he, too, loved you. And I shall still be calling you, and waiting. Perhaps even beyond the stars they have need of a little house of mercy; and, God knows, wherever I am I shall have need of you."
He had the letter in the pocket of his tunic, and at last the moment came when the boat must leave. Suddenly Henri knew that he could not allow her to cross to England alone. The last few days had brought many stories of submarine attacks. Here, so far north, the Germans were particularly active. They had for a long time lurked in waiting for this British Admiralty boat, with its valuable cargo, its officers and the government officials who used it.
"Good-by, Henri," said Sara Lee. "I—of course it is no use to try to tell you—"
"I am going across with you."
"I allowed you to come over alone. I shiver when I think of it. I shall take you back myself."
"Is it very dangerous?"
"Probably not. But can you think of me standing safe on that quay and letting you go into danger alone?"
"I am not afraid."
"I know that. I have never seen you afraid. But if you wish to see a coward, look at me. I am a coward for you."
He put his hand into his pocket. It occurred to him to give her the letter now so that if anything happened she would at least have had it. He wanted no mistake about that appointment beyond the stars. But the great world of eternity was very large, and they must have a definite understanding about that meeting at the little house of mercy Over There.
Perhaps he had a little fever that day. He was alternately flushed and pale; and certainly he was not quite rational. His hand shook as he brought out her letter—and with it the other letter, from the Front.
"Have you the time to come with me?" Sara Lee asked doubtfully. "I want you to come, of course, but if your work will suffer—"
He held out his letter to her.
"I shall go away," he said, "while you read it. And perhaps you will not destroy it, because—I should like to feel that you have it always."
He went away at once, saluting as he passed other officers, who gravely saluted him. On the deck of the hospital ship the invalid touched his cap. Word was going about, in the stealthy manner of such things, that Henri whose family name we may not know, was a brave man and doing brave things.
The steamer had not yet cast off. As usual, it was to take a flying start from the harbor, for it was just outside the harbor that the wolves of the sea lay in wait. Henri, alone at last, opened his letter, and stood staring at it. There was again movement behind the German line, a matter to be looked into, as only he could do it. Probably nothing, as before; but who could say?
Henri looked along the shore to where but a few miles away lay the ragged remnant of his country. And he looked forward to where Sara Lee, his letter in her hand, was staring blindly at nothing. Then he looked out toward the sea, where lay who knew what dangers of death and suffering.
After that first moment of indecision he never hesitated. He stood on the deck and watched, rather frozen and rigid, and with a mind that had ceased working, while the steamer warped out from the quay. If in his subconsciousness there was any thought it was doubtless that he had done his best for a long time, and that he had earned the right to protect for a few hours the girl he loved. That, too, there had been activity along the German-Belgian line before, without result.
Perhaps subconsciously those things were there. He himself was conscious of no thought, of only a dogged determination to get Sara Lee across the channel safely. He put everything else behind him. He counted no cost.
The little admiralty boat sped on. In the bow, on the bridge, and at different stations lookouts kept watch. The lifeboats were hung overboard, ready to lower instantly. On the horizon a British destroyer steamed leisurely. Henri stood for a long time on the deck. The land fell away quickly. From a clear silhouette of the town against the sky—the dunes, the spire of the cathedral, the roof of the mairie—it became vague, shadowy—the height of a hand—a line—nothing.
Henri roused himself. He was very thirsty, and the wound in his arm ached. When he raised his hand to salute the movement was painful.
It was a very grave Sara Lee he found in the officer's cabin when he went inside later on. She was sitting on the long seat below the open port, her hat slightly askew and her hands folded in her lap. Her bag was beside her, and there was in her eyes a perplexity Henri was too wretched to notice.
For the first time Sara Lee was realizing the full value of the thing she was throwing away. She had persistently discounted it until now. She had been grateful for it. She had felt unworthy of it. But now, on the edge of leaving it, she felt that something infinitely precious and very beautiful was going out of her life. She had already a sense of loss.
For the first time, too, she was allowing herself to think of certain contingencies that were now forever impossible. For instance, suppose she had stayed with Mrs. Cameron? Suppose she had broken her promise to Harvey and remained at the little house? Suppose she had done as Henri had so wildly urged her, and had broken entirely with Harvey? Would she have married Henri?
There was a certain element of caution in the girl. It made the chances she had taken rather more courageous, indeed, because she had always counted the cost. But marriage was not a matter for taking chances. One should know not only the man, but his setting, though she would not have thought of it in that way. Not only the man, but the things that made up his life—his people, his home.
And Henri was to her still a figure, not so much now of mystery as of detachment. Except Jean he had no intimates. He had no family on the only side of the line she knew. He had not even a country.
She had reached that point when Henri came below and saluted her stiffly from the doorway.
"Henri!" she said. "I believe you are ill!"
"I am not ill," he said, and threw himself into the corner of the seat. "You have read it?"
She nodded. Even thinking of it brought a lump into her throat. He bent forward, but he did not touch her.
"I meant it, Saralie," he said. "Sometimes men are infatuated, and write what they do not mean. They are sincere at the time, and then later on—But I meant it. I shall always mean it."
Not then, nor during the three days in London, did he so much as take her hand. He was not well. He ate nothing, and at night he lay awake and drank a great deal of water. Once or twice he found her looking at him anxiously, but he disclaimed all illness.
He had known from the beginning what he was doing. But he did not touch her, because in his heart he knew that where once he had been worthy he was no longer worthy. He had left his work for a woman.
It is true that he had expected to go back at once. But the Philadelphia, which had been listed to sail the next day, was held up by a strike in Liverpool, and he waited on, taking such hours as she could give him, feverishly anxious to make her happy, buying her little gifts, mostly flowers, which she wore tucked in her belt and smiled over, because she had never before received flowers from a man.
He was alternately gay and silent. They walked across the Thames by the Parliament buildings, and midway across he stopped and looked long at the stream. And they went to the Zoölogical Gardens, where he gravely named one of the sea lions for Colonel Lilias because of its mustache, and insisted on saluting it each time before he flung it a fish. Once he soberly gathered up a very new baby camel, all legs, in his arms, and presented it to her.
"Please accept it, mademoiselle," he said. "With my compliments."
They dined together every night, very modestly, sitting in some crowded restaurant perhaps, but seeing little but each other. Sara Lee had bought a new hat in London—black, of course, but faced with white. He adored her in it. He would sit for long moments, his elbows propped on the table, his blond hair gleaming in the candlelight, and watch her.
"I wonder," he said once, "if you had never met him would you have loved me?"
"I do love you, Henri."
"I don't want that sort of love." And he had turned his head away.
But one evening he called for her at Morley's, a white and crushed boy, needing all that she could give him and much more. He came as a man goes to the woman he loves when he is in trouble, much as a child to his mother. Sara Lee, coming down to the reception room, found him alone there, walking rapidly up and down. He turned desperate eyes on her.
"I have brought bad news," he said abruptly.
"The little house—"
"I do not know. I ran away, mademoiselle. I am a traitor. And the Germans broke through last night."
"They broke through. We were not ready. That is what I have done."
"Don't you think," Sara Lee said in a frozen voice, "that is what I have done? I let you come."
"You? You are taking the blame? Mademoiselle, I have enough to bear without that."
He explained further, still standing in his rigid attitude. If he had been white before at times he was ghastly now. It had not been an attack in force. A small number had got across and had penetrated beyond the railway line. There had been hand-to-hand fighting in the road beyond the poplars. But it looked more like an experiment, an endeavor to discover the possibility of a real advance through the inundation; or perhaps a feint to cover operations elsewhere.
"For every life lost I am responsible," he ended in a flat and lifeless tone.
"But you might not have known," she protested wildly. "Even if you had been there, Henri, you might not have known." She knew something of war by that time. "How could you have told that a small movement of troops was to take place?"
"I should have been there."
"But—if they came without warning?"
"I did not tell you," he said, looking away from her. "There had been a warning. I disregarded it."
He went back to Belgium that night. Sara Lee, at the last, held out her hand. She was terrified for him, and she showed it.
"I shall not touch your hand," he said. "I have forfeited my right to do that." Then, seeing what was in her face, he reassured her. "I shall not do that," he said. "It would be easier. But I shall have to go back and see what can be done."
He was the old Henri to the last, however. He went carefully over her steamship ticket, and inquired with equal care into the amount of money she had.
"It will take you home?" he asked.
"Very comfortably, Henri."
"It seems very little."
Then he said, apropos of nothing: "Poor Jean!"
When he left her at last he went to the door, very erect and soldierly. But he turned there and stood for a moment looking at her, as though through all that was coming he must have with him, to give him strength, that final picture of her.
The elderly chambermaid, coming into Sara Lee's room the next morning, found her fully dressed in the frock she had worn the night before, face down on her bed.