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The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Part 5 out of 5

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small, without vision. Harvey was for his own fireside, his office, his
little family group. His labor would always be for himself and his own.
Whereas Sara Lee was, now and forever, for all the world, her hands
consecrated to bind up its little wounds and to soothe its great ones.
Harvey craved a cheap and easy peace. She wanted no peace except that
bought by service, the peace of a tired body, the peace of the little
house in Belgium where, after days of torture, weary men found quiet
and ease and the cheer of the open door.


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

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--"

"Four months."

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 scene--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 Rene 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
Rene'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
aeroplanes 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

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."


On a wild night in January Sara Lee inaugurated a new branch of service.
There had been a delay in sending up to the Front the men who had been
on rest, and an incessant bombardment held the troops prisoners in their

A field kitchen had been destroyed. The men were hungry, disheartened,
wet through. They needed her, she felt. Even the little she could do
would help. All day she had made soup, and at evening Marie led from
its dilapidated stable the little horse that Henri had once brought up,
trundling its cart behind it. The boiler of the cart was scoured, a
fire lighted in the fire box. Marie, a country girl, harnessed the
shaggy little animal, but with tears of terror.

"You will be killed, mademoiselle," she protested, weeping.

"But I have gone before. Don't you remember the man whose wife was
English, and how I wrote a letter for him before he died?"

"What will become of the house if you are killed?"

"Dear Marie," said Sara Lee, "that is all arranged for. You will send
to Poperinghe for your aunt, and she will come until Mrs. Cameron or
some one else can come from England. And you will stay on. Will you
promise that?"

Marie promised in a loud wail.

"Of course I shall come back," Sara Lee said, stirring her soup
preparatory to pouring it out. "I shall be very careful."

"You will not come back, mademoiselle. You do not care to live, and to

"Those are the ones who live on," said Sara Lee gravely, and poured out
her soup.

She went quite alone. There was a great deal of noise, but no shells
fell near her. She led the little horse by its head, and its presence
gave her comfort. It had a sense that she had not, too, for it kept her
on the road.

In those still early days the Belgian trenches were quite accessible
from the rear. There were no long tunneled ways to traverse to reach
them. One went along through the darkness until the sound of men's
voices, the glare of charcoal in a bucket bored with holes, the flicker
of a match, told of the buried army almost underfoot or huddled in its
flimsy shelters behind the railway embankment.

Beyond the lines a sentry stopped her, hailing her sharply.

"Qui vive?"

"It is I," she called through the rain. "I have brought some chocolate
and some soup."

He lowered his bayonet.

"Pass, mademoiselle."

She went on, the rumbling of her little cart deadened by the Belgian

Through the near-by trenches that night went the word that near the
Repose of the Angels--which was but a hole in the ground and scarcely
reposeful--there was to be had hot soup and chocolate and cigarettes.
A dozen or so at a time, the men were allowed to come. Officers brought
their great capes to keep the girl dry. Boards appeared as if by magic
for her to stand on. The rain and the bombardment had both ceased, and
a full moon made the lagoon across the embankment into a silver lake.

When the last soup had been dipped from the tall boiler, when the final
drops of chocolate had oozed from the faucet, Sara Lee turned and went
back to the little house again. But before she went she stood a moment
staring across toward that land of the shadow on the other side, where
Henri had gone and had not returned.

Once, when the King had decorated her, she had wished that, wherever
Uncle James might be, on the other side, he could see what was happening.
And now she wondered if Henri could know that she had come back, and was
again looking after his men while she waited for that reunion he had so
firmly believed in.

Then she led the little horse back along the road.

At the poplar trees she turned and looked behind, toward the trenches.
The grove was but a skeleton now, a strange and jagged thing of twisted
branches, as though it had died in agony. She stood there while the
pony nuzzled her gently. If she called, would he come? But, then, all
of life was one call now, for her. She went on slowly.

After that it was not unusual for her to go to the trenches, on such
nights as no men could come to the little house. Always she was joyously
welcomed, and always on her way back she turned to send from the poplar
trees that inarticulate aching call that she had come somehow to
believe in.

January, wet and raw, went by; February, colder, with snow, was half
over. The men had ceased to watch for Henri over the parapet, and his
brave deeds had become fireside tales, to be told at home, if ever
there were to be homes again for them.

Then one night Henri came back--came as he had gone, out of the shadows
that had swallowed him up; came without so much as the sound of a
sniper's rifle to herald him. A strange, thin Henri, close to
starvation, dripping water over everything from a German uniform, and
very close indeed to death before he called out.

There was wild excitement indeed. Bearded private soldiers, forgetting
that name and rank of his which must not be told, patted his thin
shoulders. Officers who had lived through such horrors as also may not
be told, crowded about him and shook hands with him, and with each other.

It was as though from the graveyard back in the fields had come, alive
and smiling, some dearly beloved friend.

He would have told the story, but he was wet and weary.

"That can wait," they said, and led him, a motley band of officers and
men intermixed, for once forgetting all decorum, toward the village.
They overtook the lines of men who had left the trenches and were moving
with their slow and weary gait up the road. The news spread through the
column. There were muffled cheers. Figures stepped out of the darkness
with hands out. Henri clasped as many as he could.

When with his escort he had passed the men they fell, almost without
orders, into columns of four, and swung in behind him. There was no
band, but from a thousand throats, yet cautiously until they passed the
poplar trees, there gradually swelled and grew a marching song.

Behind Henri a strange guard of honor--muddy, tired, torn, even wounded
--they marched and sang:

Trou la la, ce ne va guere;
Trou la la, ca ne va pas.

Sara Lee, listening for that first shuffle of many feet that sounded so
like the wind in the trees or water over the pebbles of a brook, paused
in her work and lifted her head. The rhythm of marching feet came
through the wooden shutters. The very building seemed to vibrate with
it. And there was a growling sound with it that soon she knew to be the
deep voices of singing men.

She went to the door and stood there, looking down the street. Behind
her was the warm glow of the lamp, all the snug invitation of the little

A group of soldiers had paused in front of the doorway, and from them
one emerged--tall, white, infinitely weary--and looked up at her with
unbelieving eyes.

After all, there are no words for such meetings. Henri took her hand,
still with that sense of unreality, and bent over it. And Sara Lee
touched his head as he stooped, because she had called for so long, and
only now he had come.

"So you have come back!" she said in what she hoped was a composed
tone--because a great many people were listening. He raised his head
and looked at her.

"It is you who have come back, mademoiselle."

There was gayety in the little house that night. Every candle was
lighted. They were stuck in rows on mantel-shelves. They blazed--and
melted into strange arcs--above the kitchen stove. There were
cigarettes for everybody, and food; and a dry uniform, rather small, for
Henri. Marie wept over her soup, and ran every few moments to the door
to see if he was still there. She had kissed him on both cheeks when
he came in, and showed signs, every now and then, of doing it again.

Sara Lee did her bandaging as usual, but with shining eyes. And soon
after Henri's arrival a dispatch rider set off post haste with certain
papers and maps, hurriedly written and drawn. Henri had not only
returned, he had brought back information of great value to all the
Allied armies.

So Sara Lee bandaged, and in the little room across the way, where no
longer Harvey's photograph sat on the mantel, Henri told his story to
the officers--of his imprisonment in the German prison at Crefeld; of
his finding Jean there, weeks later when he was convalescing from
typhoid; of their escape and long wandering; of Jean's getting into
Holland, whence he would return by way of England. Of his own business,
of what he had done behind the lines after Jean had gone, he said
nothing. But his listeners knew and understood.

But his dispatches off, his story briefly told, Henri wandered out among
the men again. He was very happy. He had never thought to be so happy.
He felt the touch on his sleeves of hard brown, not overclean hands,
infinitely tender and caressing; and over there, as though she had never
gone, was Sara Lee, slightly flushed and very radiant.

And as though he also had never gone away, Henri pushed into the salle
a manger and stood before her smiling.

"You bandage well, mademoiselle," he said gayly. "But I? I bandage
better! See now, a turn here, and it is done! Does it hurt, Paul?"

The man in the dressing chair squirmed and grinned sheepishly.

"The iodine," he explained. "It is painful."

"Then I shall ask you a question, and you will forget the iodine. Why
is a dead German like the tail of a pig?"

Paul failed. The room failed. Even Colonel Lilias confessed himself at

"Because it is the end of the swine," explained Henri, and looked about
him triumphantly. A gust of laughter spread through the room and even
to the kitchen. A door banged. Henri upset a chair. There was noise
again, and gayety in the little house of mercy. And much happiness.

And there I think we may leave them all--Henri and Sara Lee; and Jean
of the one eye and the faithful heart; and Marie, with her kettles; and
even Rene, who still in some strange way belonged to the little house,
as though it were something too precious to abandon.

The amazing interlude had become the play itself. Never again for Sara
Lee would the lights go up in front, and Henri with his adoring eyes
and open arms fade into the shadows.

The drama of the war plays on. The Great Playwright sees fit, now and
then, to take away some well-beloved players. New faces appear and
disappear. The music is the thunder of many guns. Henri still plays
his big part, Sara Lee her little one. Yet who shall say, in the end,
which one has done the better? There are new and ever new standards,
but love remains the chief. And love is Sara Lee's one quality--love
of her kind, of tired men and weary, the love that shall one day knit
this broken world together. And love of one man.

On weary nights, when Henri is again lost in the shadows, Sara Lee,
her work done, the men gone, sits in her little house of mercy and
waits. The stars on clear evenings shine down on the roofless buildings,
on the rubbish that was once the mill, on the ruined poplar trees, and
on the small acre of peace where tiny crosses mark the long sleep of
weary soldiers.

And sometimes, though she knows it now by heart, she reads aloud that
letter of Henri's to her. It comforts her. It is a promise.

"If that is to be, then think of me, somewhere, perhaps with Rene 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."

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