Late in October Sara Lee went back to the little house of mercy; went unaccredited, and with her own money. She had sold her bit of property.
In London she went to the Traverses, as before. But with a difference too. For Sara Lee had learned the strangeness of the English, who are slow to friendships but who never forget. Indeed a telegram met her at Liverpool asking her to stop with them in London. She replied, refusing, but thanking them, and saying she would call the next afternoon.
Everything was the same at Morley's: Rather a larger percentage of men in uniform, perhaps; greater crowds in the square; a little less of the optimism which in the spring had predicted victory before autumn. But the same high courage, for all that.
August greeted her like an old friend. Even the waiters bowed to her, and upstairs the elderly chambermaid fussed over her like a mother.
"And you're going back!" she exclaimed. "Fancy that, now! You are brave, miss."
But her keen eyes saw a change in Sara Lee. Her smile was the same, but there were times when she forgot to finish a sentence, and she stood, that first morning, for an hour by the window, looking out as if she saw nothing.
She went, before the visit to the Traverses, to the Church of Saint Martin in the Fields. It was empty, save for a woman in a corner, who did not kneel, but sat staring quietly before her. Sara Lee prayed an inarticulate bit of a prayer, that what the Traverses would have to tell her should not be the thing that she feared, but that, if it were, she be given courage to meet it and to go on with her work.
The Traverses would know; Mrs. Cameron was a friend. They would know about Henri, and about Jean. Soon, within the hour, she would learn everything. So she asked for strength, and then sat there for a time, letting the peace of the old church quiet her, as had the broken walls and shattered altar of that other church, across the channel.
It was rather a surprise to Sara Lee to have Mrs. Travers put her arms about her and kiss her. Mr. Travers, too, patted her hand when he took it. But they had, for all that, the reserve of their class. Much that they felt about Sara Lee they did not express even to each other.
"We are so grateful to you," Mrs. Travers said. "I am only one mother, and of course now—" She looked down at her black dress. "But how many others there are who will want to thank you, when this terrible thing is over and they learn about you!"
Mr. Travers had been eying Sara Lee.
"Didn't use you up, did it?" he asked. "You're not looking quite fit."
Sara Lee was very pale just then. In a moment she would know.
"I'm quite well," she said. "I—do you hear from Mrs. Cameron?"
"Frequently. She has worked hard, but she is not young." It was Mrs. Travers who spoke. "She's afraid of the winter there. I rather think, since you want to go back, that she will be glad to turn your domain over to you for a time."
"Then—the little house is still there?"
"Indeed, yes! A very famous little house, indeed. But it is always known as your house. She has felt like a temporary chatelaine. She always thought you would come back."
Tea had come, as before. The momentary stir gave her a chance to brace herself. Mr. Travers brought her cup to her and smiled gently down at her.
"We have a plan to talk over," he said, "when you have had your tea. I hope you will agree to it."
He went back to the hearthrug.
"When I was there before," Sara Lee said, trying to hold her cup steady, "there was a young Belgian officer who was very kind to me. Indeed, all the credit for what I did belongs to him. And since I went home I haven't heard—"
Her voice broke suddenly. Mr. Travers glanced at his wife. Not for nothing had Mrs. Cameron written her long letters to these old friends, in the quiet summer afternoons when the sun shone down on the lifeless street before the little house.
"I'm afraid we have bad news for you." Mrs. Travers put down her untasted tea. "Or rather, we have no news. Of course," she added, seeing Sara Lee's eyes, "in this war no news may be the best—that is, he may be a prisoner."
"That," Sara Lee heard herself say, "is impossible. If they captured him they would shoot him."
Mrs. Travers nodded silently. They knew Henri's business, too, by that time, and that there was no hope for a captured spy.
They did not know of Jean; so she told them, still in that far-away voice. And at last Mrs. Travers brought an early letter of Mrs. Cameron's and read a part of it aloud.
"He seems to have been delirious," she read, holding her reading glasses to her eyes. "A friend of his, very devoted to him, was missing, and he learned this somehow.
"He escaped from the hospital and got away in an ambulance. He came straight here and wakened us. There had been a wounded man in the machine, and he left him on our doorstep. When I got to the door the car was going wildly toward the Front, with both lamps lighted. We did not understand then, of course, and no one thought of following it. The ambulance was found smashed by a shell the next morning, and at first we thought that he had been in it. But there was no sign that he had been, and that night one of the men from the trenches insisted that he had climbed out of a firing trench where the soldier stood, and had gone forward, bareheaded, toward the German lines.
"I am afraid it was the end. The men, however, who all loved him, do not think so. It seems that he has done miracles again and again. I understand that along the whole Belgian line they watch for him at night. The other night a German on reconnoissance got very close to our wire, and was greeted not by shots but by a wild hurrah. He was almost paralyzed with surprise. They brought him here on the way back to the prison camp, and he still looked dazed."
Sara Lee sat with her hands clenched. Mrs. Travers folded the letter and put it back into its envelope.
"How long ago was that?" Sara Lee asked in a low tone. "Because, if he was coming back at all—"
Suddenly Sara Lee stood up.
"I think I ought to tell you," she said with a dead-white face, "that I am responsible. He cared for me; and I was in love with him too. Only I didn't know it then. I let him bring me to England, because—I suppose it was because I loved him. I didn't think then that it was that. I was engaged to a man at home."
"Sit down," said Mr. Travers. "My dear child, nothing can be your fault."
"He came with me, and the Germans got through. He had had word, but—"
"Have you your salts?" Mr. Travers asked quietly of his wife.
"I'm not fainting. I'm only utterly wretched."
The Traverses looked at each other. They were English. They had taken their own great loss quietly, because it was an individual grief and must not be intruded on the sorrow of a nation. But they found this white-faced girl infinitely appealing, a small and fragile figure, to whose grief must be added, without any fault of hers, a bitter and lasting remorse.
Sara Lee stood up and tried to smile.
"Please don't worry about me," she said. "I need something to do, that's all. You see, I've been worrying for so long. If I can get to work and try to make up I'll not be so hopeless. But I am not quite hopeless, either," she added hastily. It was as though by the very word she had consigned Henri to death. "You see, I am like the men; I won't give him up. And perhaps some night he will come across from the other side, out of the dark."
Mr. Travers took her back to the hotel. When he returned from paying off the taxi he found her looking across at the square.
"Do you remember," she asked him, "the time when the little donkey was hurt over there?"
"I shall never forget it."
"And the young officer who ran out when I did, and shot the poor thing?"
Mr. Travers remembered.
"That was he—the man we have been speaking of."
For the first time that day her eyes filled with tears.
Sara Lee, at twenty, was already living in her memories.
So again the lights went down in front, and the back drop became but a veil, and invisible. And to Sara Lee there came back again some of the characters of the early mise en scène—marching men, forage wagons, squadrons of French cavalry escorting various staffs, commandeered farm horses with shaggy fetlocks fastened in rope corrals, artillery rumbling along rutted roads which shook the gunners almost off the limbers.
Nothing was changed—and everything. There was no René to smile his adoring smile, but Marie came out, sobbing and laughing, and threw herself into the girl's arms. The little house was the same, save for a hole in the kitchen wall. There were the great piles of white bowls and the shining kettles. There was the corner of her room, patched by René's hands, now so long quiet. A few more shell holes in the street, many more little crosses in the field near the poplar trees, more Allied aëroplanes in the air—that was all that was changed.
But to Sara Lee everything was changed, for all that. The little house was grave and still, like a house of the dead. Once it had echoed to young laughter, had resounded to the noise and excitement of Henri's every entrance. Even when he was not there it was as though it but waited for him to stir it into life, and small echoes of his gayety had seemed to cling to its old walls.
Sara Lee stood on the doorstep and looked within. She had come back. Here she would work and wait, and if in the goodness of providence he should come back, here he would find her, all the empty months gone and forgotten.
If he did not—
"I shall still be calling you, and waiting," he had written. She, too, would call and wait, and if not here, then surely in the fullness of time which is eternity the call would be answered.
In October Sara Lee took charge again of the little house. Mrs. Cameron went back to England, but not until the Traverses' plan had been revealed. They would support the little house, as a memorial to the son who had died. It was, Mrs. Travers wrote, the finest tribute they could offer to his memory, that night after night tired and ill and wounded men might find sanctuary, even for a little time, under her care.
Luxuries began to come across the channel, food and dressings and tobacco. Knitted things, too; for another winter was coming, and already the frost lay white on the fields in the mornings. The little house took on a new air of prosperity. There were days when it seemed almost swaggering with opulence.
It had need of everything, however. With the prospect of a second winter, when an advance was impossible, the Germans took to hammering again. Bombardment was incessant. The little village was again under suspicion, and there came days of terror when it seemed as though even the fallen masonry must be reduced to powder. The church went entirely.
By December Sara Lee had ceased to take refuge during the bombardments. The fatalism of the Front had got her. She would die or live according to the great plan, and nothing could change that. She did not greatly care which, except for her work, and even that she felt could be carried on by another as well.
There was no news of Henri, but once the King's equerry, going by, had stopped to see her and had told her the story.
"He was ill, undoubtedly," he said. "Even when he went to London he was ill, and not responsible. The King understands that. He was a brave boy, mademoiselle."
But the last element of hope seemed to go with that verification of his illness. He was delirious, and he had gone in that condition into the filthy chill waters of the inundation. Well and sane there had been a chance, but plunging wild-eyed and reckless, into that hell across, there was none.
She did her best in the evenings to be cheerful, to take the place, in her small and serious fashion, of Henri's old gayety. But the soldiers whispered among themselves that mademoiselle was in grief, as they were, for the blithe young soldier who was gone.
What hope Sara Lee had had died almost entirely early in December. On the evening of a day when a steady rain had turned the roads into slimy pitfalls, and the ditches to canals, there came, brought by a Belgian corporal, the man who swore that Henri had passed him in his trench while the others slept, had shoved him aside, which was unlike his usual courtesy, and had climbed out over the top.
To Sara Lee this Hutin told his story. A short man with a red beard and a kindly smile that revealed teeth almost destroyed from neglect, he was at first diffident in the extreme.
"It was the captain, mademoiselle," he asserted. "I know him well. He has often gone on his errands from near my post. I am"—he smiled—"I am usually in the front line."
"What did he do?"
"He had no cap, mademoiselle. I thought that was odd. And as you know—he does not wear his own uniform on such occasions. But he wore his own uniform, so that at first I did not know what he intended."
"Later on," she asked, "you—did you hear anything?"
"The usual sniping, mademoiselle. Nothing more."
"He went through the inundation?"
"How else could he go? Through the wire first, at the barrier, where there is an opening, if one knows the way, I saw him beyond it, by the light of a fusee. There is a road there, or what was once a road. He stood there. Then the lights went out."