The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter XXVI

Harvey was clamoring for an early wedding. And indeed there were few arguments against it, save one that Sara Lee buried in her heart. Belle's house was small, and though she was welcome there, and more than that, Sara Lee knew that she was crowding the family.

Perhaps Sara Lee would have agreed in the end. There seemed to be nothing else to do, though by the end of the first week she was no longer in any doubt as to what her feeling for Harvey really was. It was kindness, affection; but it was not love. She would marry him because she had promised to, and because their small world expected her to do so; and because she could not shame him again.

For to her surprise she found that that was what he had felt—a strange, self-conscious shame, like that of a man who has been jilted. She felt that by coming back to him she had forfeited the right to break the engagement.

So every hour of every day seemed to make the thing more inevitable. Belle was embroidering towels for her in her scant leisure. Even Anna, with a second child coming, sent in her contribution to the bride's linen chest. By almost desperately insisting on a visit to Aunt Harriet she got a reprieve of a month. And Harvey was inclined to be jealous even of that.

Sometimes, but mostly at night when she was alone, a hot wave of resentment overwhelmed her. Why should she be forced into the thing? Was there any prospect of happiness after marriage when there was so little before?

For she realized now that even Harvey was not happy. He had at last definitely refused to hear the story of the little house.

"I'd rather just forget it, honey!" he said.

But inconsistently he knew she did not forget it, and it angered him. True to his insistence on ignoring those months of her absence, she made no attempt to tell him. Now and then, however, closed in the library together, they would fail of things to talk about, and Sara Lee's knitting needles would be the only sound in the room. At those times he would sit back in his chair and watch the far-away look in her eyes, and it maddened him.

From her busy life Belle studied them both, with an understanding she did not reveal. And one morning when the mail came she saw Sara Lee's face as she turned away, finding there was no letter for her, and made an excuse to follow her to her room.

The girl was standing by the window looking out. The children were playing below, and the maple trees were silent. Belle joined her there and slipped an arm round her.

"Why are you doing it, Sara Lee?" she asked.

"Doing what?"

"Marrying Harvey."

Sara Lee looked at her with startled eyes.

"I'm engaged to him, Belle. I've promised."

"Exactly," said Belle dryly. "But that's hardly a good reason, is it? It takes more than a promise." She stared down at the flock of children in the yard below. "Harvey's a man," she said. "He doesn't understand, but I do. You've got to care a whole lot, Sara Lee, if you're going to go through with it. It takes a lot of love, when it comes to having children and all that."

"He's so good, Belle. How can I hurt him?"

"You'll hurt him a lot more by marrying him when you don't love him."

"If only I could have a little time," she cried wildly. "I'm so—I'm tired, Belle. And I can't forget about the war and all that. I've tried. Sometimes I think if we could talk it over together I'd get it out of my mind."

"He won't talk about it?"

"He's my own brother, and I love him dearly. But sometimes I think he's hard. Not that he's ever ugly," she hastened to add; "but he's stubborn. There's a sort of wall in him, and he puts some things behind it. And it's like beating against a rock to try to get at them."

After a little silence she said hesitatingly:

"We've got him to think of too. He has a right to be happy. Sometimes I've looked at you—you're so pretty, Sara Lee—and I've wondered if there wasn't some one over there who—cared for you."

"There was one man, an officer—Oh, Belle, I can't tell you. Not you!"

"Why not!" asked Belle practically. "You ought to talk it out to some one, and if Harvey insists on being a fool that's his own fault."

For all the remainder of that sunny morning Sara Lee talked what was in her heart. And Belle—poor, romantic, starved Belle—heard and thrilled. She made buttonholes as she listened, but once or twice a new tone in Sara Lee's voice caused her to look up. Here was a new Sara Lee, a creature of vibrant voice and glowing eyes; and Belle was not stupid. She saw that it was Henri whose name brought the deeper note.

Sara Lee had stopped with her recall, had stopped and looked about the room with its shiny new furniture and had shivered. Belle bent over her work.

"Why don't you go back?" she asked.

Sara Lee looked at her piteously.

"How can I? There is Harvey. And the society would not send me again. It's over, Belle. All over."

After a pause Belle said: "What's become of Henri? He hasn't written, has he?"

Sara Lee got up and went to the window.

"I don't know where he is. He may be dead."

Her voice was flat and lifeless. Belle knew all that she wanted to know. She rose and gathered up her sewing.

"I'm going to talk to Harvey. You're not going to be rushed into a wedding. You're tired, and it's all nonsense. Well, I'll have to run now and dress the children."

That night Harvey and Belle had almost a violent scene. He had taken Sara Lee over the Leete house that evening. Will Leete's widow had met them there, a small sad figure in her mourning, but very composed, until she opened the door into a tiny room upstairs with a desk and a lamp in it.

"This was Will's study," she said. "He did his work here in the evenings, and I sat in that little chair and sewed. I never thought then—" Her lips quivered.

"Pretty rotten of Will Leete to leave that little thing alone," said Harvey on their way home. "He had his fling; and she's paying for it."

But Sara Lee was silent. It was useless to try to make Harvey understand the urge that had called Will Leete across the sea to do his share for the war, and that had brought him that peace of God that passeth all understanding.

It was not a good time for Belle to put up to him her suggestion for a delay in the marriage, that evening after their return. He took it badly and insisted on sending upstairs for Sara Lee.

"Did you ask Belle to do this?" he demanded bluntly.

"To do what?"

"To put things off."

"I have already told you, Harvey," Belle put in. "It is my own idea. She is tired. She's been through a lot. I've heard the story you're too stubborn to listen to. And I strongly advise her to wait a while."

And after a time he agreed ungraciously. He would buy the house and fix it over, and in the early fall it would be ready.

"Unless," he added to Sara Lee with a bitterness born of disappointment—"unless you change your mind again."

He did not kiss her that night when she and Belle went together up the stairs. But he stared after her gloomily, with hurt and bewilderment in his eyes.

He did not understand. He never would. She had come home to him all gentleness and tenderness, ready to find in him the things she needed so badly. But out of his obstinacy and hurt he had himself built up a barrier.

That night Sara Lee dreamed that she was back in the little house of mercy. René was there; and Henri; and Jean, with the patch over his eye. They were waiting for the men to come, and the narrow hall was full of the odor of Marie's soup. Then she heard them coming, the shuffling of many feet on the road. She went to the door, with Henri beside her, and watched them coming up the road, a deeper shadow in the blackness—tired men, wounded men, homeless men coming to her little house with its firelight and its warmth. Here and there the match that lighted a cigarette showed a white but smiling face. They stopped before the door, and the warm little house, with its guarded lights and its food and cheer, took them in.

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