The Amazing Interlude

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter XXVII

Very pale and desperate, Henri took the night A train for Folkestone after he had said good-by to Sara Lee. He alternately chilled and burned with fever, and when he slept, as he did now and then, going off suddenly into a doze and waking with a jerk, it was to dream of horrors.

He thought, in his wilder intervals, of killing himself. But his code did not include such a shirker's refuge. He was going back to tell his story and to take his punishment.

He had cabled to Jean to meet him at Calais, but when, at dawn the next morning, the channel boat drew in to the wharf there was no sign of Jean or the car. Henri regarded the empty quay with apathetic eyes. They would come, later on. If he could only get his head down and sleep for a while he would be better able to get toward the Front. For he knew now that he was ill. He had, indeed, been ill for days, but he did not realize that. And he hated illness. He regarded it with suspicion, as a weakness not for a strong man.

The drowsy girl in her chair at the Gare Maritime regarded him curiously and with interest. Many women turned to look after Henri, but he did not know this. Had he known it he would have regarded it much as he did illness.

The stupid boy was not round. The girl herself took the key and led the way down the long corridor upstairs to a room. Henri stumbled in and fell across the bed. He was almost immediately asleep.

Late in the afternoon he wakened. Strange that Jean had not come. He got up and bathed his face. His right arm was very stiff now, and pains ran from the old wound in his chest down to the fingers of his hand. He tried to exercise to limber it, and grew almost weak with pain.

At six o'clock, when Jean had not come, Henri resorted to ways that he knew of and secured a car. He had had some coffee by that time, and he felt much better—so well indeed that he sang under his breath a strange rambling song that sounded rather like René's rendering of Tipperary. The driver looked at him curiously every now and then.

It was ten o'clock when they reached La Panne. Henri went at once to the villa set high on a sand dune where the King's secretary lived. The house was dark, but in the library at the rear there was a light. He stumbled along the paths beside the house, and reached at last, after interminable miles, when the path sometimes came up almost to his eyes and again fell away so that it seemed to drop from under his feet—at last he reached the long French doors, with their drawn curtains. He opened the door suddenly and thereby surprised the secretary, who was a most dignified and rather nervous gentleman, into laying his hand on a heavy inkwell.

"I wish to see the King," said Henri in a loud tone. Because at that moment the secretary, lamp and inkwell and all, retired suddenly to a very great distance, as if one had viewed them through the reverse end of an opera glass.

The secretary knew Henri. He, too, eyed him curiously.

"The King has retired, monsieur."

"I think," said Henri in a dangerous tone, "that he will see me."

To tell the truth, the secretary rather thought so too. There was a strange rumor going round, to the effect that the boy had followed a woman to England at a critical time. Which would have been a pity, the secretary thought. There were so many women, and so few men like Henri.

The secretary considered gravely. Henri was by that time in a chair, but it moved about so that he had to hold very tight to the arms. When he looked up again the secretary had picked up his soft black hat and was at the door.

"I shall inquire," he said. Henri saluted him stiffly, with his left hand, as he went out.

The secretary went to His Majesty's equerry, who was in the next house playing solitaire and trying to forget the family he had left on the other side of the line.

So it was that in due time Henri again traversed miles of path and pavement, between tall borders of wild sea grass, miles which perhaps were a hundred yards. And went round the screen, and—found the King on the hearthrug. But when he drew himself stiffly to attention he overdid the thing rather and went over backward with a crash.

He was up again almost immediately, very flushed and uncomfortable. After that he kept himself in hand, but the King, who had a way all his own of forgetting his divine right to rule, and a great many other things—the King watched him gravely.

Henri sat in a chair and made a clean breast of it. Because he was feeling rather strange he told a great many things that an agent of the secret service is hardly expected to reveal to his king. He mentioned, for instance, the color of Sara Lee's eyes, and the way she bandaged, like one who had been trained.

Once, in the very middle of his narrative, where he had put the letter from the Front in his pocket and decided to go to England anyhow, he stopped and hummed René's version of Tipperary. Only a bar or two. Then he remembered.

But one thing brought him round with a start.

"Then," said the King slowly, "Jean was not with you?"

Only he did not call him Jean. He gave him his other name, which, like Henri's, is not to be told.

Henri's brain cleared then with the news that Jean was missing. When, somewhat later, he staggered out of the villa, it was under royal instructions to report to the great hospital along the sea front and near by, and there to go to bed and have a doctor. Indeed, because the boy's eyes were wild by that time, the equerry went along and held his arm. But that was because Henri was in open revolt, and while walking steadily enough showed a tendency to bolt every now and then.

He would stop on the way and argue, though one does not argue easily with an equerry.

"I must go," he would say fretfully. "God knows where he is. He'd never give me up if I were the one."

And once he shook off the equerry violently and said:

"Let go of me, I tell you! I'll come back and go to bed when I've found him."

The equerry soothed him like a child.

An English nurse took charge of Henri in the hospital, and put him to bed. He was very polite to her, and extremely cynical. She sat in a chair by his bed and held the key of the room in her hand. Once he thought she was Sara Lee, but that was only for a moment. She did not look like Sara Lee. And she was suspicious, too; for when he asked her what she could put in her left hand that she could not put in her right, she moved away and placed the door key on the stand, out of reach.

However, toward morning she dozed. There was steady firing at Nieuport and the windows shook constantly. An ambulance came in, followed by a stirring on the lower floor. Then silence. He got up then and secured the key. There was no time for dressing, because she was a suspicious person and likely to waken at any time. He rolled his clothing into a bundle and carried it under his well arm. The other was almost useless.

The ambulance was still waiting outside, at the foot of the staircase. There were voices and lights in the operating room, forward along the tiled hall. Still in his night clothing, Henri got into the ambulance and threw his uniform behind him. Then he got the car under way.

Outside the village he paused long enough to dress. His head was amazingly clear. He had never felt so sure of himself before. As to his errand he had no doubt whatever. Jean had learned that he had crossed the channel. Therefore Jean had taken up his work—Jean, who had but one eye and was as clumsy as a bear. The thought of Jean crawling through the German trenches set him laughing until he ended with a sob.

It was rather odd about the ambulance. It did not keep the road very well. Sometimes it was on one side and sometimes on the other. It slid as though the road were greased. And after a time Henri made an amazing discovery. He was not alone in the car.

He looked back, without stopping, and the machine went off in a wide arc. He brought it back again, grinning.

"Thought you had me, didn't you?" he observed to the car in general, and the engine in particular. "Now no tricks!"

There was a wounded man in the car. He had had morphia and he was very comfortable. He was not badly hurt, and he considered that he was being taken to Calais. He was too tired to talk, and the swinging of the car rather interested him. He would doze and waken and doze again. But at last he heard something that made him rise on his elbow.

It was the hammering of the big guns.

He called Henri's attention to this, but Henri said:

"Lie down, Jean, and don't talk. We'll make it yet."

The wounded man intended to make a protest, but he went to sleep instead.

They had reached the village now where was the little house of mercy. The ambulance rolled and leaped down the street, with both lights full on, which was forbidden, and came to a stop at the door. The man inside was grunting then, and Henri, whose head had never been so clear, got out and went round to the rear of the car.

"Now, out with you, comrade!" he said. "I have made an error, but it is immaterial. Can you walk?"

He lighted a cigarette, and the man inside saw his burning eyes and shaking hands. Even through the apathy of the morphia he felt a thrill of terror. He could walk. He got out while Henri pounded at the door.

"Attention!" he called. "Attention!"

Then he hummed an air of the camps:

Trou là là, ça ne va guère;

Trou là là, ça ne va pas.

When he heard steps inside Henri went back to the ambulance. He got in and drove it, lights and all, down the street.

Trou là là, ça ne va guère;

Trou là là, ça ne va pas.

Somewhere down the road beyond the poplar trees he abandoned the ambulance. They found it there the next morning, or rather what was left of it. Evidently its two unwinking eyes had got on the Germans' nerves.

Early the next morning a Saxon regiment, standing on the firing step ready for what the dawn might bring forth, watched the mist rise from the water in front of them. It shone on a body in a Belgian uniform, lying across their wire, and very close indeed.

Now the Saxons are not Prussians, so no one for sport fired at the body. Which was rather a good thing, because it moved slightly and stirred. And then in a loud voice, which is an unusual thing for bodies to possess, it began to sing:

Trou là là, ça ne va guère;

Trou là là, ça ne va pas.

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