The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter XXIV

It was early in June when at last the lights went down behind the back drop and came up in front, to show Sara Lee knitting again, though not by the fire. The amazing interlude was over.

Over, except in Sara Lee's heart. The voyage had been a nightmare. She had been ill for one thing—a combination of seasickness and heartsickness. She had allowed Henri to come to England with her, and the Germans had broken through. All the good she had done—and she had helped—was nothing to this mischief she had wrought.

It had been a small raid. She gathered that from the papers on board. But that was not the vital thing. What mattered was that she had let a man forget his duty to his country in his solicitude for her.

But as the days went on the excitement of her return dulled the edge of her misery somewhat. The thing was done. She could do only one thing to help. She would never go back, never again bring trouble and suffering where she had meant only to bring aid and comfort.

She had a faint hope that Harvey would meet her at the pier. She needed comforting and soothing, and perhaps a bit of praise. She was so very tired; depressed, too, if the truth be known. She needed a hand to lead her back to her old place on the stage, and kind faces to make her forget that she had ever gone away.

Because that was what she had to do. She must forget Henri and the little house on the road to the poplar trees; and most of all, she must forget that because of her Henri had let the Germans through.

But Harvey did not meet her. There was a telegram saying he would meet her train if she wired when she was leaving—an exultant message breathing forgiveness and signed "with much love." She flushed when she read it.

Of course he could not meet her in New York. This was not the Continent in wartime, where convention had died of a great necessity. And he was not angry, after all. A great wave of relief swept over her. But it was odd how helpless she felt. Since her arrival in England months before there had always been Henri to look after things for her. It was incredible to recall how little she had done for herself.

Was she glad to be back? She did not ask herself. It was as though the voyage had automatically detached her from that other Sara Lee of the little house. That was behind her, a dream—a mirage—or a memory. Here, a trifle confused by the bustle, was once again the Sara Lee who had knitted for Anna, and tended the plants in the dining-room window, and watched Uncle James slowly lowered into his quiet grave.

She had but to close her eyes to see Henri's tragic face that last night at Morley's. And part of the detachment was because, after all, the interlude had been but a matter of months, and reaching out familiar hands to her were the habits and customs and surroundings of all the earlier years of her life, drawing her back to them.

It was strange how Henri's face haunted her. She could close her eyes and see it, line by line, his very swagger—for he did swagger, just a little; his tall figure and unruly hair; his long, narrow, muscular hands. Strange and rather uncomfortable. Because she could not summon Harvey's image at all. She tried to bring before her, that night in the train speeding west, his solid figure and kind eyes as they would greet her the next day—tried, and failed. All she got was the profile of the photograph, and the stubborn angle of the jaw.

She was up very early the next morning, and it was then, as the train rolled through familiar country, that she began to find Harvey again. A flush of tenderness warmed her. She must be very kind to him because of all that he had suffered.

The train came to a stop. Rather breathless Sara Lee went out on the platform. Harvey was there, in the crowd. He did not see her at first. He was looking toward the front of the train. So her first glimpse of him was the view of the photograph. His hat was off, and his hair, carefully brushed back, gave him the eager look of the picture.

He was a strong and manly figure, as unlike Henri as an oak is unlike one of Henri's own tall and swaying poplars. Sara Lee drew a long breath. Here after all were rest and peace; love and gentleness; quiet days and still evenings. No more crowds and wounds and weary men, no more great thunderings of guns, no imminence of death. Rest and peace.

Then Harvey saw her, and the gleam of happiness and relief in his eyes made her own eyes misty. She saw even in that first glance that he looked thinner and older. A pang of remorse shot through her. Was happiness always bought at the cost of happiness? Did one always take away in order to give? Not in so many words, but in a flash of doubt the thought went through her mind.

There was no reserve in Harvey's embrace. He put his arms about her and held her close. He did not speak at first. Then:

"My own little girl," he said. "My own little girl!"

Suddenly Sara Lee was very happy. All her doubts were swept away by his voice, his arms. There was no thrill for her in his caress, but there were peace and quiet joy. It was enough for her, just then, that she had brought back some of the happiness she had robbed him of.

"Oh, Harvey!" she said. "I'm glad to be back again—with you."

He held her off then and looked at her.

"You are thin," he said. "You're not pale, but you are thin." And in a harder voice: "What did they do to you over there?"

But he did not wait for a reply. He did not seem to want one. He picked up her bag, and guiding her by the elbow, piloted her through the crowd.

"A lot of folks wanted to come and meet you," he said, "but I steered them off. You'd have thought Roosevelt was coming to town the way they've been calling up."

"To meet me?"

"I expect the Ladies' Aid Society wanted to get into the papers again," he said rather grimly. "They are merry little advertisers, all right."

"I don't think that, Harvey."

"Well, I do," he said, and brought her to a stop facing a smart little car, very new, very gay.

"How do you like it?" he asked.

"Like it? Why, it's not yours, is it?"

"Surest thing you know. Or, rather, it's ours. Had a few war babies, and they grew up."

Sara Lee looked at it, and for just an instant, a rather sickening instant, she saw Henri's shattered low car, battle-scarred and broken.

"It's—lovely," said Sara Lee. And Harvey found no fault with her tone.

Sara Lee had intended to go to Anna's, for a time at least. But she found that Belle was expecting her and would not take no.

"She's moved the baby in with the others," Harvey explained as he took the wheel. "Wait until you see your room. I knew we'd be buying furniture soon, so I fixed it up."

He said nothing for a time. He was new to driving a car, and the traffic engrossed him. But when they had reached a quieter neighborhood he put a hand over hers.

"Good God, how I've been hungry for you!" he said. "I guess I was pretty nearly crazy sometimes." He glanced at her apprehensively, but if she knew his connection with her recall she showed no resentment. As a matter of fact there was in his voice something that reminded her of Henri, the same deeper note, almost husky.

She was, indeed, asking herself very earnestly what was there in her of all people that should make two men care for her as both Henri and Harvey cared. In the humility of all modest women she was bewildered. It made her rather silent and a little sad. She was so far from being what they thought her.

Harvey, stealing a moment from the car to glance at her, saw something baffling in her face.

"Do you still care, Sara Lee?" he asked almost diffidently. "As much as ever?"

"I have come back to you," she said after an imperceptible pause.

"Well, I guess that's the answer."

He drew a deep satisfied breath. "I used to think of you over there, and all those foreigners in uniform strutting about, and it almost got me, some times."

And again, as long before, he read into her passivity his own passion, and was deeply content.

Belle was waiting on the small front porch. There was an anxious frown on her face, and she looked first, not at Sara Lee, but at Harvey. What she saw there evidently satisfied her, for the frown disappeared. She kissed Sara Lee impulsively.

All that afternoon, much to Harvey's resentment, Sara Lee received callers. The Ladies' Aid came en masse and went out to the dining-room and there had tea and cake. Harvey disappeared when they came.

"You are back," he said, "and safe, and all that. But it's not their fault. And I'll be hanged if I'll stand round and listen to them."

He got his hat and then, finding her alone in a back hall for a moment, reverted uneasily to the subject.

"There are two sides to every story," he said. "They're going to knife me this afternoon, all right. Damned hypocrites! You just keep your head, and I'll tell you my side of it later."

"Harvey," she said slowly, "I want to know now just what you did. I'm not angry. I've never been angry. But I ought to know."

It was a very one-sided story that Harvey told her, standing in the little back hall, with Belle's children hanging over the staircase and begging for cake. Yet in the main it was true. He had reached his limit of endurance. She was in danger, as the photograph plainly showed. And a fellow had a right to fight for his own happiness.

"I wanted you back, that's all," he ended. And added an anticlimax by passing a plate of sliced jelly roll through the stair rail to the clamoring children.

Sara Lee stood there for a moment after he had gone. He was right, or at least he had been within his rights. She had never even heard of the new doctrine of liberty for women. There was nothing in her training to teach her revolt. She was engaged to Harvey; already, potentially, she belonged to him. He had interfered with her life, but he had had the right to interfere.

And also there was in the back of her mind a feeling that was almost guilt. She had let Henri tell her he loved her. She had even kissed him. And there had been many times in the little house when Harvey, for days at a time, had not even entered her thoughts. There was, therefore, a very real tenderness in the face she lifted for his good-by kiss.

To Belle in the front hall Harvey gave a firm order.

"Don't let any reporters in," he said warningly. "This is strictly our affair. It's a private matter. It's nobody's business what she did over there. She's home. That's all that matters."

Belle assented, but she was uneasy. She knew that Harvey was unreasonably, madly jealous of Sara Lee's work at the little house of mercy, and she knew him well enough to know that sooner or later he would show that jealousy. She felt, too, that the girl should have been allowed her small triumph without interference. There had been interference enough already. But it was easier to yield to Harvey than to argue with him.

It was rather a worried Belle who served tea that afternoon in her dining room, with Mrs. Gregory pouring; the more uneasy, because already she divined a change in Sara Lee. She was as lovely as ever, even lovelier. But she had a poise, a steadiness, that were new; and silences in which, to Belle's shrewd eyes, she seemed to be weighing things.

Reporters clamored to see Sara Lee that day, and, failing to see her, telephoned Harvey at his office to ask if it was true that she had been decorated by the King. He was short to the point of affront.

"I haven't heard anything about it," he snapped. "And I wouldn't say if I had. But it's not likely. What d'you fellows think she was doing anyhow? Leading a charge? She was running a soup kitchen. That's all."

He hung up the receiver with a jerk, but shortly after that he fell to pacing his small office. She had not said anything about being decorated, but the reporters had said it had been in a London newspaper. If she had not told him that, there were probably many things she had not told him. But of course there had been very little time. He would see if she mentioned it that night.

Sara Lee had had a hard day. The children loved her. In the intervals of calls they crawled over her, and the littlest one called her Saralie. She held the child in her arms close.

"Saralie!" said the child, over and over; "Saralie! That's your name. I love your name."

And there came, echoing in her ears, Henri and his tender Saralie.

There was an oppression on her too. Her very bedroom thrust on her her approaching marriage. This was her own furniture, for her new home. It was beautiful, simple and good. But she was not ready for marriage. She had been too close to the great struggle to be prepared to think in terms of peace so soon. Perhaps, had she dared to look deeper than that, she would have found something else, a something she had not counted on.

She and Belle had a little time after the visitors had gone, before Harvey came home. They sat in Belle's bedroom, and her sentences were punctuated by little backs briskly presented to have small garments fastened, or bows put on stiffly bobbed yellow hair.

"Did you understand my letter?" she asked. "I was sorry I had sent it, but it was too late then."

"I put your letter and—theirs, together. I supposed that Harvey—"

"He was about out of his mind," Belle said in her worried voice. "Stand still, Mary Ellen! He went to Mrs. Gregory, and I suppose he said a good bit. You know the way he does. Anyhow, she was very angry. She called a special meeting, and—I tried to prevent their recalling you. He doesn't know that, of course."

"You tried?"

"Well, I felt as though it was your work," Belle said rather uncomfortably. "Bring me the comb, Alice. I guess we get pretty narrow here and—I've been following things more closely since you went over. I know more than I did. And, of course, after one marries there isn't much chance. There are children and—" Her face twisted. "I wish I could do something."

She got up and brought from the dresser a newspaper clipping.

"It's the London newspaper," she explained. "I've been taking it, but Harvey doesn't know. He doesn't care much for the English. This is about your being decorated."

Sara Lee held it listlessly in her hands.

"Shall I tell him, Belle?" she asked.

Belle hesitated.

"I don't believe I would," she said forlornly. "He won't like it. That's why I've never showed him that clipping. He hates it all so."

Sara Lee dressed that evening in the white frock. She dressed slowly, thinking hard. All round her was the shiny newness of her furniture, a trifle crowded in Belle's small room. Sara Lee had a terrible feeling of being fastened in by it. Wherever she turned it gleamed. She felt surrounded, smothered.

She had meant to make a clean breast of things—of the little house, and of Henri, and of the King, pinning the medal on her shabby black jacket and shaking hands with her. Henri she must tell about—not his name of course, nor his madness, nor even his love. But she felt that she owed it to Harvey to have as few secrets from him as possible. She would tell about what the boy had done for her, and how he, and he alone, had made it all possible.

Surely Harvey would understand. It was a page that was closed. It had held nothing to hurt him. She had come back.

She stood by her window, thinking. And a breath of wind set the leaves outside to rustling. Instantly she was back again in the little house, and the sound was not leaves, but the shuffling of many stealthy feet on the cobbles of the street at night, that shuffling that was so like the rustling of leaves in a wood or the murmur of water running over a stony creek bed.

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