THE AMAZING INTERLUDE
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
ILLUSTRATIONS BY THE KINNEYS
[Transcriber's Note: Troy and Margaret West]
Officers stopping in to fight their paper and pin battles.
Henri explained the method.
"That I should have hurt you so!" he said softly.
That Henri might be living, somewhere, that some day the Belgians might go home again.
The stage on which we play our little dramas of life and love has for most of us but one setting. It is furnished out with approximately the same things. Characters come, move about and make their final exits through long-familiar doors. And the back drop remains approximately the same from beginning to end. Palace or hovel, forest or sea, it is the background for the moving figures of the play.
So Sara Lee Kennedy had a back drop that had every appearance of permanency. The great Scene Painter apparently intended that there should be no change of set for her. Sara Lee herself certainly expected none.
But now and then amazing things are done on this great stage of ours: lights go down; the back drop, which had given the illusion of solidity, reveals itself transparent. A sort of fairyland transformation takes place. Beyond the once solid wall strange figures move on—a new mise en scene, with the old blotted out in darkness. The lady, whom we left knitting by the fire, becomes a fairy—Sara Lee became a fairy, of a sort—and meets the prince. Adventure, too; and love, of course. And then the lights go out, and it is the same old back drop again, and the lady is back by the fire—but with a memory.
This is the story of Sara Lee Kennedy's memory—and of something more.
* * * * *
The early days of the great war saw Sara Lee playing her part in the setting of a city in Pennsylvania. An ugly city, but a wealthy one. It is only fair to Sara Lee to say that she shared in neither quality. She was far from ugly, and very, very far from rich. She had started her part with a full stage, to carry on the figure, but one by one they had gone away into the wings and had not come back. At nineteen she was alone knitting by the fire, with no idea whatever that the back drop was of painted net, and that beyond it, waiting for its moment, was the forest of adventure. A strange forest, too—one that Sara Lee would not have recognised as a forest. And a prince of course—but a prince as strange and mysterious as the forest.
The end of December, 1914, found Sara Lee quite contented. If it was resignation rather than content, no one but Sara Lee knew the difference. Knitting, too; but not for soldiers. She was, to be candid, knitting an afghan against an interesting event which involved a friend of hers.
Sara Lee rather deplored the event—in her own mind, of course, for in her small circle young unmarried women accepted the major events of life without question, and certainly without conversation. She never, for instance, allowed her Uncle James, with whom she lived, to see her working at the afghan; and even her Aunt Harriet had supposed it to be a sweater until it assumed uncompromising proportions.
Sara Lee's days, up to the twentieth of December, 1914, had been much alike. In the mornings she straightened up her room, which she had copied from one in a woman's magazine, with the result that it gave somehow the impression of a baby's bassinet, being largely dotted Swiss and ribbon. Yet in a way it was a perfect setting for Sara Lee herself. It was fresh and virginal, and very, very neat and white. A resigned little room, like Sara Lee, resigned to being tucked away in a corner and to having no particular outlook. Peaceful, too.
Sometimes in the morning between straightening her room and going to the market for Aunt Harriet, Sara Lee looked at a newspaper. So she knew there was a war. She read the headings, and when the matter came up for mention at the little afternoon bridge club, as it did now and then after the prizes were distributed, she always said "Isn't it horrible!" and changed the subject.
On the night of the nineteenth of December Sara Lee had read her chapter in the Bible—she read it through once each year—and had braided down her hair, which was as smooth and shining and lovely as Sara Lee herself, and had raised her window for the night when Aunt Harriet came in. Sara Lee did not know, at first, that she had a visitor. She stood looking out toward the east, until Aunt Harriet touched her on the arm.
"What in the world!" said Aunt Harriet. "A body would suppose it was August."
"I was just thinking," said Sara Lee.
"You'd better do your thinking in bed. Jump in and I'll put out your light."
So Sara Lee got into her white bed with the dotted Swiss valance, and drew the covers to her chin, and looked a scant sixteen. Aunt Harriet, who was an unsentimental woman, childless and diffident, found her suddenly very appealing there in her smooth bed, and did an unexpected thing. She kissed her. Then feeling extremely uncomfortable she put out the light and went to the door. There she paused.
"Thinking!" she said. "What about, Sara Lee?"
Perhaps it was because the light was out that Sara Lee became articulate. Perhaps it was because things that had been forming in her young mind for weeks had at last crystallized into words. Perhaps it was because of a picture she had happened on that day, of a boy lying wounded somewhere on a battlefield and calling "Mother!"
"About—over there," she said rather hesitatingly. "And about Anna."
"The war," said Sara Lee. "I was just thinking about all those women over there—like Anna, you know. They—they had babies, and got everything ready for them. And then the babies grew up, and they're all getting killed."
"It's horrible," said Aunt Harriet. "Do you want another blanket? It's cold to-night."
Sara Lee did not wish another blanket.
"I'm a little worried about your Uncle James," said Aunt Harriet, at the door. "He's got indigestion. I think I'll make him a mustard plaster."
She prepared to go out then, but Sara Lee spoke from her white bed.
"Aunt Harriet," she said, "I don't think I'll ever get married."
"I said that too, once," said Aunt Harriet complacently. "What's got into your head now?"
"I don't know," Sara Lee replied vaguely. "I just—What's the use?"
Aunt Harriet was conscious of a hazy impression of indelicacy. Coming from Sara Lee it was startling and revolutionary. In Aunt Harriet's world young women did not question their duty, which was to marry, preferably some one in the neighborhood, and bear children, who would be wheeled about that same neighborhood in perambulators and who would ultimately grow up and look after themselves.
"The use?" she asked tartly.
"Of having babies, and getting to care about them, and then—There will always be wars, won't there?"
"You turn over and go to sleep," counseled Aunt Harriet. "And stop looking twenty years or more ahead." She hesitated. "You haven't quarreled with Harvey, have you?"
Sara Lee turned over obediently.
"No. It's not that," she said. And the door closed.
Perhaps, had she ever had time during the crowded months that followed, Sara Lee would have dated certain things from that cold frosty night in December when she began to question things. For after all that was what it came to. She did not revolt. She questioned.
She lay in her white bed and looked at things for the first time. The sky had seemed low that night. Things were nearer. The horizon was close. And beyond that peaceful horizon, to the east, something was going on that could not be ignored. Men were dying. Killing and dying. Men who had been waited for as Anna watched for her child.
Downstairs she could hear Aunt Harriet moving about. The street was quiet, until a crowd of young people—she knew them by their voices—went by, laughing.
"It's horrible," said Sara Lee to herself. There was a change in her, but she was still inarticulate. Somewhere in her mind, but not formulated, was the feeling that she was too comfortable. Her peace was a cheap peace, bought at no price. Her last waking determination was to finish the afghan quickly and to knit for the men at the war.
Uncle James was ill the next morning. Sara Lee went for the doctor, but Anna's hour had come and he was with her. Late in the afternoon he came, however looking a bit gray round the mouth with fatigue, but triumphant. He had on these occasions always a sense of victory; even, in a way, a feeling of being part of a great purpose. He talked at such times of the race, as one may who is doing his best by it.
"Well," he said when Sara Lee opened the door, "it's a boy. Eight pounds. Going to be red-headed, too." He chuckled.
"A boy!" said Sara Lee. "I—don't you bring any girl babies any more?"
The doctor put down his hat and glanced at her.
"Wanted a girl, to be named for you?"
"No. It's not that. It's only—" She checked herself. He wouldn't understand. The race required girl babies. "I've put a blue bow on my afghan. Pink is for boys," she said, and led the way upstairs.
Very simple and orderly was the small house, as simple and orderly as Sara Lee's days in it. Time was to come when Sara Lee, having left it, ached for it with every fiber of her body and her soul—for its bright curtains and fresh paint, its regularity, its shining brasses and growing plants, its very kitchen pans and green-and-white oilcloth. She was to ache, too, for her friends—their small engrossing cares, their kindly interest, their familiar faces.
Time was to come, too, when she came back, not to the little house, it is true, but to her friends, to Anna and the others. But they had not grown and Sara Lee had. And that is the story.
Uncle James died the next day. One moment he was there, an uneasy figure, under the tulip quilt, and the next he had gone away entirely, leaving a terrible quiet behind him. He had been the center of the little house, a big and cheery and not over-orderly center. Followed his going not only quiet, but a wretched tidiness. There was nothing for Sara Lee to do but to think.
And, in the way of mourning women, things that Uncle James had said which had passed unheeded came back to her. One of them was when he had proposed to adopt a Belgian child, and Aunt Harriet had offered horrified protest.
"All right," he had said. "Of course, if you feel that way about it—! But I feel kind of mean, sometimes, sitting here doing nothing when there's such a lot to be done."
Then he had gone for a walk and had come back cheerful enough but rather quiet.
There was that other time, too, when the German Army was hurling itself, wave after wave, across the Yser—only of course Sara Lee knew nothing of the Yser then—and when it seemed as though the attenuated Allied line must surely crack and give. He had said then that if he were only twenty years younger he would go across and help.
"And what about me?" Aunt Harriet had asked. "But I suppose I wouldn't matter."
"You could go to Jennie's, couldn't you?"
There had followed one of those absurd wrangles as to whether or not Aunt Harriet would go to Jennie's in the rather remote contingency of Uncle James' becoming twenty years younger and going away.
And now Uncle James had taken on the wings of the morning and was indeed gone away. And again it became a question of Jennie's. Aunt Harriet, rather dazed at first, took to arguing it pro and con.
"Of course she has room for me," she would say in her thin voice. "There's that little room that was Edgar's. There's nobody in it now. But there's only room for a single bed, Sara Lee."
Sara Lee was knitting socks now, all a trifle tight as to heel. "I know," she would say. "I'll get along. Don't you worry about me."
Always these talks ended on a note of exasperation for Aunt Harriet. For Sara Lee's statement that she could manage would draw forth a plaintive burst from the older woman.
"If only you'd marry Harvey," she would say. "I don't know what's come over you. You used to like him well enough."
"I still like him."
"I've seen you jump when the telephone bell rang. Your Uncle James often spoke about it. He noticed more than most people thought." She followed Sara Lee's eyes down the street to where Anna was wheeling her baby slowly up and down. Even from that distance Sara Lee could see the bit of pink which was the bow on her afghan. "I believe you're afraid."
"Of having children," accused Aunt Harriet fretfully.
Sara Lee colored.
"Perhaps I am," she said; "but not the sort of thing you think. I just don't see the use of it, that's all. Aunt Harriet, how long does it take to become a hospital nurse?"
"Mabel Andrews was three years. It spoiled her looks too. She used to be a right pretty girl."
"Three years," Sara Lee reflected. "By that time—"
The house was very quiet and still those days. There was an interlude of emptiness and order, of long days during which Aunt Harriet alternately grieved and planned, and Sara Lee thought of many things. At the Red Cross meetings all sorts of stories were circulated; the Belgian atrocity tales had just reached the country, and were spreading like wildfire. There were arguments and disagreements. A girl named Schmidt was militant against them and soon found herself a small island of defiance entirely surrounded by disapproval. Mabel Andrews came once to a meeting and in businesslike fashion explained the Red Cross dressings and gave a lesson in bandaging. Forerunner of the many first-aid classes to come was that hour of Mabel's, and made memorable by one thing she said.
"You might as well all get busy and learn to do such things," she stated in her brisk voice. "One of our internes is over there, and he says we'll be in it before spring."
After the meeting Sara Lee went up to Mabel and put a hand on her arm.
"Are you going?" she asked.
"Leaving day after to-morrow. Why?"
"I—couldn't I be useful over there?"
Mabel smiled rather grimly. "What can you do?"
"I can cook."
"Only men cooks, my dear. What else?"
"I could clean up, couldn't I? There must be something. I'd do anything I could. Don't they have people to wash dishes and—all that?"
Mabel was on doubtful ground there. She knew of a woman who had been permitted to take over her own automobile, paying all her expenses and buying her own tires and gasoline.
"She carries supplies to small hospitals in out-of-the-way places," she said. "But I don't suppose you can do that, Sara Lee, can you?"
However, she gave Sara Lee a New York address, and Sara Lee wrote and offered herself. She said nothing to Aunt Harriet, who had by that time elected to take Edgar's room at Cousin Jennie's and was putting Uncle James' clothes in tearful order to send to Belgium. After a time she received a reply.
"We have put your name on our list of volunteers," said the letter, "but of course you understand that only trained workers are needed now. France and England are full of untrained women who are eager to help."
It was that night that Sara Lee became engaged to Harvey.
Sara Lee's attitude toward Harvey was one that she never tried to analyze. When he was not with her she thought of him tenderly, romantically. This was perhaps due to the photograph of him on her mantel. There was a dash about the picture rather lacking in the original, for it was a profile, and in it the young man's longish hair, worn pompadour, the slight thrust forward of the head, the arch of the nostrils,—gave him a sort of tense eagerness, a look of running against the wind. From the photograph Harvey might have been a gladiator; as a matter of fact he was a bond salesman.
So during the daytime Sara Lee looked—at intervals—at the photograph, and got that feel of drive and force. And in the evenings Harvey came, and she lost it. For, outside of a frame, he became a rather sturdy figure, of no romance, but of a comforting solidity. A kindly young man, with a rather wide face and hands disfigured as to fingers by much early baseball. He had heavy shoulders, the sort a girl might rely on to carry many burdens. A younger and tidier Uncle James, indeed—the same cheery manner, the same robust integrity, and the same small ambition.
To earn enough to keep those dependent on him, and to do it fairly; to tell the truth and wear clean linen and not run into debt; and to marry Sara Lee and love and cherish her all his life—this was Harvey. A plain and likable man, a lover and husband to be sure of. But—
He came that night to see Sara Lee. There was nothing unusual about that. He came every night. But he came that night full of determination. That was not unusual, either, but it had not carried him far. He had no idea that his picture was romantic. He would have demanded it back had he so much as suspected it. He wore his hair in a pompadour because of the prosaic fact that he had a cow-lick. He was very humble about himself, and Sara Lee was to him as wonderful as his picture was to her.
Sara Lee was in the parlor, waiting for him. The one electric lamp was lighted, so that the phonograph in one corner became only a bit of reflected light. There was a gas fire going, and in front of it was a white fur rug. In Aunt Harriet's circle there were few orientals. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, not yet entirely paid for, stood against the wall, and a leather chair, hollowed by Uncle James' solid body, was by the fire. It was just such a tidy, rather vulgar and homelike room as no doubt Harvey would picture for his own home. He had of course never seen the white simplicity of Sara Lee's bedroom.
Sara Lee, in a black dress, admitted him. When he had taken off his ulster and his overshoes—he had been raised by women—and came in, she was standing by the fire.
"Raining," he said. "It's getting colder. May be snow before morning."
Then he stopped. Sometimes the wonder of Sara Lee got him in the throat. She had so much the look of being poised for flight. Even in her quietest moments there was that about her—a sort of repressed eagerness, a look of seeing things far away. Aunt Harriet said that there were times when she had a "flighty" look.
And that night it was that impression of elusiveness that stopped Harvey's amiable prattle about the weather and took him to her with his arms out.
"Sara Lee!" he said. "Don't look like that!"
"Like what?" said Sara Lee prosaically.
"I don't know," he muttered. "You—sometimes you look as though—" Then he put his arms round her. "I love you," he said. "I'll be good to you, Sara Lee, if you'll have me." He bent down and put his cheek against hers. "If you'll only marry me, dear."
A woman has a way of thinking most clearly and lucidly when the man has stopped thinking. With his arms about her Harvey could only feel. He was trembling. As for Sara Lee, instantly two pictures flashed through her mind, each distinct, each clear, almost photographic. One was of Anna, in her tiny house down the street, dragged with a nursing baby. The other was that one from a magazine of a boy dying on a battlefield and crying "Mother!"
Two sorts of maternity—one quiet, peaceful, not always beautiful, but the thing by which and to which she had been reared; the other vicarious, of all the world.
"Don't you love me—that way?" he said, his cheek still against hers.
"I don't know."
"You don't know!"
It was then that he straightened away from her and looked without seeing at the blur of light which was the phonograph. Sara Lee, glancing up, saw him then as he was in the photograph, face set and head thrust forward, and that clean-cut drive of jaw and backward flow of heavy hair that marked him all man, and virile man.
She slipped her hand into his.
"I do love you, Harvey," she said, and went into his arms with the complete surrender of a child.
He was outrageously happy. He sat on the arm of Uncle James' chair where she was almost swallowed up, and with his face against hers he made his simple plans. Now and then he kissed the little hollow under her ear, and because he knew nothing of the abandon of a woman in a great passion he missed nothing in her attitude. Into her silence and passivity he read the reflection of his own adoring love and thought it hers.
To be fair to Sara Lee, she imagined that her content in Harvey's devotion was something more, as much more as was necessary. For in Sara Lee's experience marriage was a thing compounded of affection, habit, small differences and a home. Of passion, that passion which later she was to meet and suffer from, the terrible love that hurts and agonizes, she had never even dreamed.
Great days were before Sara Lee. She sat by the fire and knitted, and behind the back drop on the great stage of the world was preparing, unsuspected, the mise en scene.
About the middle of January Mabel Andrews wrote to Sara Lee from France, where she was already installed in a hospital at Calais.
The evening before the letter came Harvey had brought round the engagement ring. He had made a little money in war stocks, and into the ring he had put every dollar of his profits—and a great love, and gentleness, and hopes which he did not formulate even to himself.
It was a solitaire diamond, conventionally set, and larger, far larger, than the modest little stone on which Harvey had been casting anxious glances for months.
"Do you like it, honey?" he asked anxiously.
Sara Lee looked at it on her finger.
"It is lovely! It—it's terrible!" said poor Sara Lee, and cried on his shoulder.
Harvey was not subtle. He had never even heard of Mabel Andrews, and he had a tendency to restrict his war reading to the quarter column in the morning paper entitled "Salient Points of the Day's War News."
What could he know, for instance, of wounded men who were hungry? Which is what Mabel wrote about.
"You said you could cook," she had written. "Well, we need cooks, and something to cook. Sometime they'll have it all fixed, no doubt, but just now it's awful, Sara Lee. The British have money and food, plenty of it. But here—yesterday I cut the clothes off a wounded Belgian boy. He had been forty-eight hours on a railway siding, without even soup or coffee."
It was early in the war then, and between Ypres and the sea stretched a long thin line of Belgian trenches. A frantic Belgian Government, thrust out of its own land, was facing the problem, with scant funds and with no materiel of any sort, for feeding that desolate little army. France had her own problems—her army, non-productive industrially, and the great and constantly growing British forces quartered there, paying for what they got, but requiring much. The world knows now of the starvation of German-occupied Belgium. What it does not know and may never know is of the struggle during those early days to feed the heroic Belgian Army in their wet and almost untenable trenches.
Hospital trains they could improvise out of what rolling stock remained to them. Money could be borrowed, and was. But food? Clothing? Ammunition? In his little villa on the seacoast the Belgian King knew that his soldiers were hungry, and paced the floor of his tiny living-room; and over in an American city whose skyline was as pointed with furnace turrets as Constantinople's is with mosques, over there Sara Lee heard that call of hunger, and—put on her engagement ring.
Later on that evening, with Harvey's wide cheerful face turned adoringly to her, Sara Lee formulated a question:
"Don't you sometimes feel as though you'd like to go to France and fight?"
"Well, they need men, don't they?"
"I guess they don't need me, honey. I'd be the dickens of a lot of use! Never fired a gun in my life."
"You could learn. It isn't hard."
Harvey sat upright and stared at her.
"Oh, if you want me to go—" he said, and waited.
Sara Lee twisted her ring on her finger.
"Nobody wants anybody to go," she said not very elegantly. "I'd just—I'd rather like to think you wanted to go."
That was almost too subtle for Harvey. Something about him was rather reminiscent of Uncle James on mornings when he was determined not to go to church.
"It's not our fight," he said. "And as far as that goes, I'm not so sure there isn't right on both sides. Or wrong. Most likely wrong. I'd look fine going over there to help the Allies, and then making up my mind it was the British who'd spilled the beans. Now let's talk about something interesting—for instance, how much we love each other."
It was always "we" with Harvey. In his simple creed if a girl accepted a man and let him kiss her and wore his ring it was a reciprocal love affair. It never occurred to him that sometimes as the evening dragged toward a close Sara Lee was just a bit weary of his arms, and that she sought, after he had gone, the haven of her little white room, and closed the door, and had to look rather a long time at his photograph before she was in a properly loving mood again.
But that night after his prolonged leave-taking Sara Lee went upstairs to her room and faced the situation.
She was going to marry Harvey. She was committed to that. And she loved him; not as he cared, perhaps, but he was a very definite part of her life. Once or twice when he had been detained by business she had missed him, had put in a lonely and most unhappy evening.
Sara Lee had known comparatively few men. In that small and simple circle of hers, with its tennis court in a vacant lot, its one or two inexpensive cars, its picnics and porch parties, there was none of the usual give and take of more sophisticated circles. Boys and girls paired off rather early, and remained paired by tacit agreement; there was comparatively little shifting. There were few free lances among the men, and none among the girls. When she was seventeen Harvey had made it known unmistakably that Sara Lee was his, and no trespassing. And for two years he had without intentional selfishness kept Sara Lee for himself.
That was how matters stood that January night when Sara Lee went upstairs after Harvey had gone and read Mabel's letter, with Harvey's photograph turned to the wall. Under her calm exterior a little flame of rebellion was burning in her. Harvey's perpetual "we," his attitude toward the war, and Mabel's letter, with what it opened before her, had set the match to something in Sara Lee she did not recognize—a strain of the adventurer, a throw-back to some wandering ancestor perhaps. But more than anything it had set fire to the something maternal that is in all good women.
Yet, had Aunt Harriet not come in just then, the flame might have died. And had it died a certain small page of the history of this war would never have been written.
Aunt Harriet came in hesitatingly. She wore a black wrapper, and her face, with her hair drawn back for the night, looked tight and old.
"Harvey gone?" she asked.
"I thought I'd better come in. There's something—I can tell you in the morning if you're tired."
"I'm not tired," said Sara Lee.
Aunt Harriet sat down miserably on a chair.
"I've had a letter from Jennie," she stated. "The girl's gone, and the children have whooping cough. She'd like me to come right away."
"To do the maid's work!" said Sara Lee indignantly. "You mustn't do it, that's all! She can get somebody."
But Aunt Harriet was firm. She was not a fair-weather friend, and since Jennie was good enough to offer her a home she felt she ought to go at once.
"You'll have to get married right away," she finished. "Goodness knows it's time enough! For two years Harvey has been barking like a watchdog in front of the house and keeping every other young man away."
Sara Lee smiled.
"He's only been lying on the doormat, Aunt Harriet," she observed. "I don't believe he knows how to bark."
"Oh, he's mild enough. He may change after marriage. Some do. But," she added hastily, "he'll be a good husband. He's that sort."
Suddenly something that had been taking shape in Sara Lee's small head, quite unknown to her, developed identity and speech.
"But I'm not going to marry him just yet," she said.
Aunt Harriet's eyes fell on the photograph with its face to the wall, and she started.
"You haven't quarreled with him, have you?"
"No, of course not! I have something else I want to do first. That's all. Aunt Harriet, I want to go to France."
Aunt Harriet began to tremble, and Sara Lee went over and put her young arms about her.
"Don't look like that," she said. "It's only for a little while. I've got to go. I just have to, that's all!"
"Go how?" demanded Aunt Harriet.
"I don't know. I'll find some way. I've had a letter from Mabel. Things are awful over there."
"And how will you help them?" Her face worked nervously. "Is it going to help for you to be shot? Or carried off by the Germans?" The atrocity stories were all that Aunt Harriet knew of the war, and all she could think of now. "You'll come back with your hands cut off."
Sara Lee straightened and looked out where between the white curtains the spire of the Methodist Church marked the east.
"I'm going," she said. And she stood there, already poised for flight.
There was no sleep in the little house that night. Sara Lee could hear the older woman moving about in her lonely bed, where the spring still sagged from Uncle James' heavy form, and at last she went in and crept in beside her. Toward morning Aunt Harriet slept, with the girl's arm across her; and then Sara Lee went back to her room and tried to plan.
She had a little money, and she had heard that living was cheap abroad. She could get across then, and perhaps keep herself. But she must do more than that, to justify her going. She must get money, and then decide how the money was to be spent. If she could only talk it over with Uncle James! Or, with Harvey. Harvey knew about business and money.
But she dared not go to Harvey. She was terribly frightened when she even thought of him. There was no hope of making him understand; and no chance of reasoning with him, because, to be frank, she had no reasons. She had only instinct—instinct and a great tenderness toward suffering. No, obviously Harvey must not know until everything was arranged.
That morning the Methodist Church packed a barrel for the Belgians. There was a real rite of placing in it Mrs. Augustus Gregory's old sealskin coat, now a light brown and badly worn, but for years the only one in the neighborhood. Various familiar articles appeared, to be thrust into darkness, only to emerge in surroundings never dreamed of in their better days—the little Howard boy's first trouser suit; the clothing of a baby that had never lived; big Joe Hemmingway's dress suit, the one he was married in and now too small for him. And here and there things that could ill be spared, brought in and offered with resolute cheerfulness.
Sara Lee brought some of Uncle James' things, and was at once set to work. The women there called Sara Lee capable, but it was to take other surroundings to bring out her real efficiency.
And it was when bending over a barrel, while round her went on that pitying talk of women about a great calamity, that Sara Lee got her great idea; and later on she made the only speech of her life.
That evening Harvey went home in a quiet glow of happiness. He had had a good day. And he had heard of a little house that would exactly suit Sara Lee and him. He did not notice his sister's silence when he spoke about it. He was absorbed, manlike, in his plans.
"The Leete house," he said in answer to her perfunctory question. "Will Leete has lost his mind and volunteered for the ambulance service in France. Mrs. Leete is going to her mother's."
"Maybe he feels it's his duty. He can drive a car, and they have no children."
"Duty nothing!" He seemed almost unduly irritated. "He's tired of the commission business, that's all. Y'ought to have heard the fellows in the office. Anyhow, they want to sub-let the house, and I'm going to take Sara Lee there to-night."
His sister looked at him, and there was in her face something of the expression of the women that day as they packed the barrel. But she said nothing until he was leaving the house that night. Then she put a hand on his arm. She was a weary little woman, older than Harvey, and tired with many children. She had been gathering up small overshoes in the hall and he had stopped to help her.
"You know, Harvey, Sara Lee's not—I always think she's different, somehow."
"Well, I guess yes! There's nobody like her."
"You can't bully her, you know."
Harvey stared at her with honestly perplexed eyes.
"Bully!" he said. "What on earth makes you say that?"
Then he laughed.
"Don't you worry, Belle," he said. "I know I'm a fierce and domineering person, but if there's any bullying I know who'll do it."
"She's not like the other girls you know," she reiterated rather helplessly.
"Sure she's not! But she's enough like them to need a house to live in. And if she isn't crazy about the Leete place I'll eat it."
He banged out cheerfully, whistling as he went down the street. He stopped whistling, however, at Sara Lee's door. The neighborhood preserved certain traditions as to a house of mourning. It lowered its voice in passing and made its calls of condolence in dark clothes and a general air of gloom. Pianos near by were played only with the windows closed, and even the milkman leaving his bottles walked on tiptoe and presented his monthly bill solemnly.
So Harvey stopped whistling, rang the bell apologetically, and—faced a new and vivid Sara Lee, flushed and with shining eyes, but woefully frightened.
She told him almost at once. He had only reached the dining room of the Leete house, which he was explaining had a white wainscoting when she interrupted him. The ladies of the Methodist Church were going to collect a certain amount each month to support a soup kitchen as near the Front as possible.
"Good work!" said Harvey heartily. "I suppose they do get hungry, poor devils. Now about the dining room—"
"Harvey dear," Sara Lee broke in, "I've not finished. I—I'm going over to run it."
"You are not!"
"But I am! It's all arranged. It's my plan. They've all wanted to do something besides giving clothes. They send barrels, and they never hear from them again, and it's hard to keep interested. But with me there, writing home and telling them, 'To-day we served soup to this man, and that man, perhaps wounded.' And—and that sort of thing—don't you see how interested every one will be? Mrs. Gregory has promised twenty-five dollars a month, and—"
"You're not going," said Harvey in a flat tone. "That's all. Don't talk to me about it."
Sara Lee flushed deeper and started again, but rather hopelessly. There was no converting a man who would not argue or reason, who based everything on flat refusal.
"But somebody must go," she said with a tightening of her voice. "Here's Mabel Andrews' letter. Read it and you will understand."
"I don't want to read it."
Nevertheless he took it and read it. He read slowly. He did nothing quickly except assert his masculine domination. He had all the faults of his virtues; he was as slow as he was sure, as unimaginative as he was faithful.
He read it and gave it back to her.
"I don't think you mean it," he said. "I give you credit for too much sense. Maybe some one is needed over there. I guess things are pretty bad. But why should you make it your affair? There are about a million women in this country that haven't got anything else to do. Let them go."
"Some of them will. But they're afraid, mostly."
"Afraid! My God, I should think they would be afraid! And you're asking me to let you go into danger, to put off our wedding while you wander about over there with a million men and no women and—"
"You're wrong, Harvey dear," said Sara Lee in a low voice. "I am not asking you at all. I am telling you that I am going."
* * * * *
Sara Lee's leaving made an enormous stir in her small community. Opinion was divided. She was right according to some; she was mad according to others. The women of the Methodist Church, finding a real field of activity, stood behind her solidly. Guaranties of funds came in in a steady flow, though the amounts were small; and, on the word going about that she was to start a soup kitchen for the wounded, housewives sent in directions for making their most cherished soups.
Sara Lee, going to a land where the meat was mostly horse and where vegetables were scarce and limited to potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cabbage, found herself the possessor of recipes for making such sick-room dainties as mushroom soup, cream of asparagus, clam broth with whipped cream, and from Mrs. Gregory, the wealthy woman of the church—green turtle and consomme.
She was very busy and rather sad. She was helping Aunt Harriet to close the house and getting her small wardrobe in order. And once a day she went to a school of languages and painfully learned from a fierce and kindly old Frenchman a list of French nouns and prefixes like this: Le livre, le crayon, la plume, la fenetre, and so on. By the end of ten days she could say: "La rose sent-elle bon?"
Considering that Harvey came every night and ran the gamut of the emotions, from pleading and expostulation at eight o'clock to black fury at ten, when he banged out of the house, Sara Lee was amazingly calm. If she had moments of weakness, when the call from overseas was less insistent than the call for peace and protection—if the nightly drawn picture of the Leete house, with tile mantels and a white bathroom, sometimes obtruded itself as against her approaching homelessness, Sara Lee made no sign.
She had her photograph taken for her passport, and when Harvey refused one she sent it to him by mail, with the word "Please" in the corner. Harvey groaned over it, and got it out at night and scolded it wildly; and then slept with it under his pillows, when he slept at all.
Not Sara Lee, and certainly not Harvey, knew what was calling her. And even later, when waves of homesickness racked her with wild remorse, she knew that she had had to go and that she could not return until she had done the thing for which she had been sent, whatever that might be.
The first thing that struck Sara Lee was the way she was saying her nightly prayers in all sorts of odd places. In trains and in hotels and, after sufficient interval, in the steamer. She prayed under these novel circumstances to be made a better girl, and to do a lot of good over there, and to be forgiven for hurting Harvey. She did this every night, and then got into her narrow bed and studied French nouns—because she had decided that there was no time for verbs—and numbers, which put her to sleep.
"Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq," Sara Lee would begin, and go on, rocking gently in her berth as the steamer rolled, "Vingt, vingt-et-un, vingt-deux, trente, trente-et-un—" Her voice would die away. The book on the floor and Harvey's picture on the tiny table, Sara Lee would sleep. And as the ship trembled the light over her head would shine on Harvey's ring, and it glistened like a tear.
One thing surprised her as she gradually met some of her fellow passengers. She was not alone on her errand. Others there were on board, young and old women, and men, too, who had felt the call of mercy and were going, as ignorant as she, to help. As ignorant, but not so friendless. Most of them were accredited somewhere. They had definite objectives. But what was more alarming—they talked in big figures. Great organizations were behind them. She heard of the rehabilitation of Belgium, and portable hospitals, and millions of dollars, and Red Cross trains.
Not once did Sara Lee hear of anything so humble as a soup kitchen. The war was a vast thing, they would observe. It could only be touched by great organizations. Individual effort was negligible.
Once she took her courage in her hands.
"But I should think," she said, "that even great organizations depend on the—on individual efforts."
The portable hospital woman turned to her patronizingly.
"Certainly, my dear," she said. "But cooerdinated—cooerdinated."
It is hard to say just when the lights went down on Sara Lee's quiet stage and the interlude began. Not on the steamer, for after three days of discouragement and good weather they struck a storm; and Sara Lee's fine frenzy died for a time, of nausea. She did not appear again until the boat entered the Mersey, a pale and shaken angel of mercy, not at all sure of her wings, and most terribly homesick.
That night Sara Lee made a friend, one that Harvey would have approved of, an elderly Englishman named Travers. He was standing by the rail in the rain looking out at the blinking signal lights on both sides of the river. The ship for the first time had abandoned its policy of darkness and the decks were bathed in light.
Overhead the yardarm blinkers were signaling, and directly over Sara Lee's head a great white searchlight swept the water ahead. The wind was blowing a gale, and the red and green lights of the pilot boat swung in great arcs that seemed to touch the waves on either side.
Sara Lee stood beside Mr. Travers, for companionship only. He had preserved a typically British aloofness during the voyage, and he had never spoken to her. But there was something forlorn in Sara Lee that night as she clutched her hat with both hands and stared out at the shore lights. And if he had been silent during the voyage he had not been deaf. So he knew why almost every woman on the ship was making the voyage; but he knew nothing about Sara Lee.
"Bad night," said Mr. Travers.
"I was wondering what they are trying to do with that little boat."
Mr. Travers concealed the surprise of a man who was making his seventy-second voyage.
"That's the pilot boat," he explained. "We are picking up a pilot."
"But," marveled Sara Lee rather breathlessly, "have we come all the way without any pilot?"
He explained that to her, and showed her a few moments later how the pilot came with incredible rapidity up the swaying rope ladder and over the side.
To be honest, he had been watching for the pilot boat, not to see what to Sara Lee was the thrilling progress of the pilot up the ladder, but to get the newspapers he would bring on with him. It is perhaps explanatory of the way things went for Sara Lee from that time on that he quite forgot his newspapers.
The chairs were gone from the decks, preparatory to the morning landing, so they walked about and Sara Lee at last told him her story—the ladies of the Methodist Church, and the one hundred dollars a month she was to have, outside of her traveling expenses, to found and keep going a soup kitchen behind the lines.
"A hundred dollars a month," he said. "That's twenty pounds. Humph! Good God!"
But this last was under his breath.
Then she told him of Mabel Andrews' letter, and at last read it to him. He listened attentively. "Of course," she said when she had put the letter back into her bag, "I can't feed a lot, even with soup. But if I only help a few, it's worth doing, isn't it?"
"Very much worth doing," he said gravely. "I suppose you are not, by any chance, going to write a weekly article for one of your newspapers about what you are doing?"
"I hadn't thought of it. Do you think I should?"
Quite unexpectedly Mr. Travers patted her shoulder.
"My dear child," he said, "now and then I find somebody who helps to revive my faith in human nature. Thank you."
Sara Lee did not understand. The touch on the shoulder had made her think suddenly of Uncle James, and her chin quivered.
"I'm just a little frightened," she said in a small voice.
"Twenty pounds!" repeated Mr. Travers to himself. "Twenty pounds!" And aloud: "Of course you speak French?"
"Very little. I've had six lessons, and I can count—some."
The sense of unreality which the twenty pounds had roused in Mr. Travers' cautious British mind grew. No money, no French, no objective, just a great human desire to be useful in her own small way—this was a new type to him. What a sporting chance this frail bit of a girl was taking! And he noticed now something that had escaped him before—a dauntlessness, a courage of the spirit rather than of the body, that was in the very poise of her head.
"I'm not afraid about the language," she was saying. "I have a phrase book. And a hungry man, maybe sick or wounded, can understand a bowl of soup in any language, I should think. And I can cook!"
It was a perplexed and thoughtful Mr. Travers who sipped his Scotch-and-soda in the smoking room before retiring, he took the problem to bed with him and woke up in the night saying: "Twenty pounds! Good God!"
In the morning they left the ship. He found Sara Lee among the K's, waiting to have her passport examined, and asked her where she was stopping in London. She had read somewhere of Claridge's—in a novel probably.
"I shouldn't advise Claridge's," he said, reflecting rather grimly on the charges of that very exclusive hotel. "Suppose you let me make a suggestion."
So he wrote out the name of a fine old English house on Trafalgar Square, where she could stay until she went to France. There would be the matter of a passport to cross the Channel. It might take a day or two. Perhaps he could help her. He would give himself the pleasure of calling on her very soon.
Sara Lee got on the train and rode up to London. She said to herself over and over: "This is England. I am really in England." But it did not remove the sense of unreality. Even the English grass, bright green in midwinter, only added to the sense of unreality.
She tried, sitting in the strange train with its small compartments, to think of Harvey. She looked at her ring and tried to recall some of the tender things he had said to her. But Harvey eluded her. She could not hear his voice. And when she tried to see him it was Harvey of the wide face and the angry eyes of the last days that she saw.
Morley's comforted her. The man at the door had been there for forty years, and was beyond surprise. He had her story in twenty-four hours, and in forty-eight he was her slave. The elderly chambermaid mothered her, and failed to report that Sara Lee was doing a small washing in her room and had pasted handkerchiefs over the ancient walnut of her wardrobe.
"Going over, are you?" she said. "Dear me, what courage you've got, miss! They tell me things is horrible over there."
"That's why I'm going," replied Sara Lee, and insisted on helping to make up the bed.
"It's easier when two do it," she said casually.
Mr. Travers put in a fretful twenty-four hours before he came to see her. He lunched at Brooks', and astounded an elderly member of the House by putting her problem to him.
"A young girl!" exclaimed the M. P. "Why, deuce take it, it's no place for a young girl."
"An American," explained Mr. Travers uncomfortably. "She's perfectly able to look after herself."
"Probably a correspondent in disguise. They'll go to any lengths."
"She's not a correspondent."
"Let her stay in Boulogne. There's work there in the hospitals."
"She's not a nurse. She's a—well, she's a cook. Or so she says."
The M. P. stared at Mr. Travers, and Mr. Travers stared back defiantly.
"What in the name of God is she going to cook?"
"Soup," said Mr. Travers in a voice of suppressed irritation. "She's got a little money, and she wants to establish a soup kitchen behind the Belgian trenches on a line of communication. I suppose," he continued angrily, "even you will admit that the Belgian Army needs all the soup it can get."
"I don't approve of women near the lines."
"Neither do I. But I'm exceedingly glad that a few of them have the courage to go there."
"What's she going to make soup out of?"
"I'm not a cooking expert. But I know her and I fancy she'll manage."
It ended by the M. P. agreeing to use his influence with the War Office to get Sara Lee to France. He was very unwilling. The spy question was looming large those days. Even the Red Cross had unwittingly spread its protection over more than one German agent. The lines were being drawn in.
"I may possibly get her to France. I don't know, of course," he said in that ungracious tone in which an Englishman often grants a favor which he will go to any amount of trouble to do. "After that it's up to her."
Mr. Travers reflected rather grimly that after that it was apparently up to him.
Sara Lee sat in her room at Morley's Hotel and looked out at the life of London—policemen with chin straps; schoolboys in high silk hats and Eton suits, the hats generally in disreputable condition; clerks dressed as men at home dressed for Easter Sunday church; and men in uniforms. Only a fair sprinkling of these last, in those early days. On the first afternoon there was a military funeral. A regiment of Scots, in kilts, came swinging down from the church of St. Martin in the Fields, tall and wonderful men, grave and very sad. Behind them, on a gun carriage, was the body of their officer, with the British flag over the casket and his sword and cap on the top.
Sara Lee cried bitterly. It was not until they had gone that she remembered that Harvey had always called the Scots men in women's petticoats. She felt a thrill of shame for him, and no amount of looking at his picture seemed to help.
Mr. Travers called the second afternoon and was received by August at the door as an old friend.
"She's waiting in there," he said. "Very nice young lady, sir. Very kind to everybody."
Mr. Travers found her by a window looking out. There was a recruiting meeting going on in Trafalgar Square, the speakers standing on the monument. Now and then there was a cheer, and some young fellow sheepishly offered himself. Sara Lee was having a mad desire to go over and offer herself too. Because, she reflected, she had been in London almost two days, and she was as far from France as ever. Not knowing, of course, that three months was a fair time for the slow methods then in vogue.
There was a young man in the room, but Sara Lee had not noticed him. He was a tall, very blond young man, in a dark-blue Belgian uniform with a quaint cap which allowed a gilt tassel to drop over his forehead. He sat on a sofa, curling up the ends of a very small mustache, his legs, in cavalry boots, crossed and extending a surprising distance beyond the sofa.
The lights were up now, beyond the back drop, the stage darkened. A new scene with a vengeance, a scene laid in strange surroundings, with men, whole men and wounded men and spying men—and Sara Lee and this young Belgian, whose name was Henri and whose other name, because of what he suffered and what he did, we may not know.
Henri sat on his sofa and watched Sara Lee. Also he shamelessly listened to the conversation, not because he meant to be an eavesdropper but because he liked Sara Lee's voice. He had expected a highly inflected British voice, and instead here was something entirely different—that is, Sara Lee's endeavor to reconcile the English "a" with her normal western Pennsylvania pronunciation. She did it quite unintentionally, but she had a good ear and it was difficult, for instance, to say "rather" when Mr. Travers said "rawther."
Henri had a good ear too. And the man he was waiting for did not come. Also he had been to school in England and spoke English rather better than most British. So he heard a conversation like this, the gaps being what he lost:
MR. TRAVERS: —— to France, anyhow. After that ——
SARA LEE: Awfully sorry to be —— But what shall I do if I do get over? The chambermaid up-stairs —— very difficult.
MR. TRAVERS: The proper and sensible thing is —— home.
SARA LEE: To America? But I haven't done anything yet.
Henri knew that she was an American. He also realized that she was on the verge of tears. He glared at poor Mr. Travers, who was doing his best, and lighted a French cigarette.
"There must be some way," said Sara Lee. "If they need help—and I have read you Mabel Andrews' letter—then I should think they'd be glad to send me."
"They would be, of course," he said. "But the fact is—there's been some trouble about spies, and—"
Henri's eyes narrowed.
"Spies! And they think I'm a spy?"
"My dear child," remonstrated Mr. Travers, slightly exasperated, "they're not thinking about you at all. The War Office has never heard of you. It's a general rule."
Sara Lee was not placated.
"Let them cable home and find out about me. I can give them references. Why, all sorts of prominent people are sending me money. They must trust me, or they wouldn't."
There were no gaps for Henri now. Sara Lee did not care who heard her, and even Mr. Travers had slightly raised his voice. Henri was divided between a conviction that he ought to go away and a mad desire to join in the conversation, greatly augmented when Sara Lee went to the window and wiped her eyes.
"If you only spoke French—" began Mr. Travers.
Sara Lee looked over her shoulder. "But of course I do!" she said. "And German and—and Yiddish, and all sorts of languages. Every spy does."
Henri smiled appreciatively.
It might all have ended there very easily. Sara Lee might have fought the War Office single-handed and won out, but it is extremely unlikely. The chances at that moment were that she would spend endless days and hours in anterooms, and tell her story and make her plea a hundred times. And then—go back home to Harvey and the Leete house, and after a time, like Mrs. Gregory, speak rather too often of "the time I went abroad."
But Sara Lee was to go to France, and even further, to the fragment of unconquered Belgium that remained. And never so long as she lived, would she be able to forget those days or to speak of them easily. So she stood by the window trying not to cry, and a little donkey drawing a coster's cart moved out in front of the traffic and was caught by a motor bus. There was only time for the picture—the tiny beast lying there and her owner wringing his hands. Such of the traffic as could get by swerved and went on. London must move, though a thousand willing little beasts lay dying.
And Sara moved too. One moment she was there by the window. And the next she had given a stifled cry and ran out.
"Bless my soul!" said Mr. Travers, and got up slowly.
Henri was already up and at the window. What he saw was Sara Lee making her way through the stream of vehicles, taking a dozen chances for her life. Henri waited until he saw her crouched by the donkey, its head on her knee. Then he, too, ran out.
That is how Henri, of no other name that may be given, met Sara Lee Kennedy, of Pennsylvania—under a London motor bus. And that, I think, will be the picture he carries of her until he dies, her soft eyes full of pity, utterly regardless of the dirt and the crowd and an expostulating bobby, with that grotesque and agonized head on her knees.
Henri crawled under the bus, though the policeman was extremely anxious to keep him out. And he ran a practiced eye over the injured donkey.
"It's dying," said Sara Lee with white lips.
"It will die," replied Henri, "but how soon? They are very strong, these little beasts."
The conductor of the bus made a suggestion then, one that froze the blood round Sara Lee's heart: "If you'll move away and let us run over it proper it'll be out of its trouble, miss."
Sara Lee raised haggard eyes to Henri.
"Did you hear that?" she said. "They'd do it too!"
The total result of a conference between four policemen, the costermonger, and, by that time, Mr. Travers—was to draw the animal off the street and into the square. Sara Lee stuck close by. So, naturally, did Henri. And when the hopeless condition of Nellie, as they learned she was named, became increasingly evident, Henri behaved like a man and a soldier.
He got out his revolver and shot her in the brain.
"A kindness," he explained, as Sara Lee would have caught his hand. "The only way, mademoiselle."
Mr. Travers had the usual British hatred of a crowd and publicity, coupled with a deadly fear of getting into the papers, except through an occasional letter to the Times. He vanished just before the shot, and might have been seen moving rapidly through the square, turning over in his mind the difficulty of trying to treat young American girls like rational human beings.
But Henri understood. He had had a French mother, and there is a leaven of French blood in the American temperament, old Huguenot, some of it. So Americans love beauty and obey their impulses and find life good to do things rather than to be something or other more or less important. And so Henri could quite understand how Sara Lee had forgotten herself when Mr. Travers could not. And he understood, also, when Sara Lee, having composed the little donkey's quiet figure, straightened up with tears in her eyes.
"It was very dear of you to come out," she said. "And—of course it was the best thing."
She held out her hand. The crowd had gone. Traffic was moving again, racing to make up for five lost precious moments. The square was dark, that first darkness of London, when air raids were threatened but had not yet taken place. From the top of the Admiralty, near by, a flashlight shot up into the air and began its nightly process of brushing the sky. Henri took her hand and bent over it.
"You are very brave, mademoiselle," he said, and touched her hand with his lips.
The amazing interlude had commenced.
Yet for a day or two nothing much was changed. Mr. Travers sent Sara Lee a note that he was taking up her problem with the Foreign Office; and he did indeed make an attempt. He also requested his wife to ask Sara Lee to tea.
Sara Lee was extremely nervous on the day she went. She wore a black jacket suit with a white collar, and she carried Aunt Harriet's mink furs, Aunt Harriet mourning thoroughly and completely in black astrachan. She had the faculty of the young American girl of looking smart without much expense, and she appeared absurdly young.
She followed the neat maid up a wide staircase to a door with a screen just inside, and heard her name announced for the first time in her life. Sara Lee took a long breath and went inside, to a most discouraging half hour.
Mr. Travers was on the hearth rug. Mrs. Travers was in a chair, a portly woman with a not unkindly face, but the brusque manner many Englishwomen acquire after forty. She held Sara Lee's hand and gave her a complete if smiling inspection.
"And it is you who are moving heaven and earth to get to the Front! You—child!"
Sara Lee's heart fell, but she smiled also.
"But I am older than I look," she said. "And I am very strong."
Mrs. Travers looked helplessly at her husband, while she rang the bell for tea. That was another thing Sara Lee had read about but never seen—that ringing for tea. At home no one served afternoon tea; but at a party, when refreshments were coming, the hostess slipped out to the kitchen and gave a whispered order or two.
"I shall be frank with you," said Mrs. Travers. "I think it quite impossible. It is not getting you over. That might be done. And of course there are women over there—young ones too. But the army objects very seriously to their being in danger. And of course one never knows—" Her voice trailed off vaguely. She implied, however, that what one never knows was best unknown.
"I have a niece over there," she said as the tea tray came in. "Her mother was fool enough to let her go. Now they can't get her back."
"Oh, dear!" said Sara Lee. "Can't they find her?"
"She won't come. Little idiot! She's in Paris, however. I daresay she is safe enough."
Mrs. Travers made the tea thoughtfully. So far Mr. Travers had hardly spoken, but he cheered in true British fashion at the sight of the tea. Sara Lee, exceedingly curious as to the purpose of a very small stand somewhat resembling a piano stool, which the maid had placed at her knee, learned that it was to hold her muffin plate.
"And now," said Mr. Travers, "suppose we come to the point. There doesn't seem to be a chance to get you over, my child. Same answer everywhere. Place is full of untrained women. Spies have been using Red Cross passes. Result is that all the lines are drawn as tight as possible."
Sara Lee stared at him with wide eyes.
"But I can't go back," she said. "I—well, I just can't. They're raising the money for me, and all sorts of people are giving things. A—a friend of mine is baking cakes and sending on the money. She has three children, and—"
"I thought everybody wanted to get help to the Belgians," she said.
A slightly grim smile showed itself on Mrs. Travers' face.
"I'm afraid you don't understand. It is you we want to help. Neither Mr. Travers nor I feel that a girl so young as you, and alone, has any place near the firing line. And that, I fancy, is where you wish to go. As to helping the Belgians, we have four in the house now. They do not belong to the same social circles, so they prefer tea in their own rooms. You are quite right about their needing help too. They cannot even make up their own beds."
"They are not all like that," broke in Mr. Travers hastily.
"Of course not. But I merely think that Miss—er—Kennedy should know both sides of the picture."
Somewhat later Sara Lee was ushered downstairs by the neat maid, who stood on the steps and blew a whistle for a taxi—Sara Lee had come in a bus. She carried in her hand the address of a Belgian commission of relief at the Savoy Hotel, and in her heart, for the first time, a doubt of her errand. She gave the Savoy address mechanically and, huddled in a corner, gave way to wild and fearful misgivings.
Coming up she had sat on top of the bus and watched with wide curious, eyes the strange traffic of London. The park had fascinated her—the little groups of drilling men in khaki, the mellow tones of a bugle, and here and there on the bridle paths well-groomed men and women on horseback, as clean-cut as the horses they rode, and on the surface as careless of what was happening across the Channel. But she saw nothing now. She sat back and twisted Harvey's ring on her finger, and saw herself going back, her work undone, her faith in herself shattered. And Harvey's arms and the Leete house ready to receive her.
However, a ray of hope opened for her at the Savoy—not much, a prospect.
The Savoy was crowded. Men in uniform, a sprinkling of anxious-faced wives and daughters, and more than a sprinkling of gaily dressed and painted women, filled the lobby or made their way slowly up and down the staircase. It was all so utterly different from what she had expected—so bright, so full of life. These well-fed people they seemed happy enough. Were they all wrong back home? Was the war the ghastly thing they thought it?
Long months afterward Sara Lee was to learn that the Savoy was not London. She was to learn other things—that America knew more, through a free press, of war conditions than did England. And she was to learn what never ceased to surprise her—the sporting instinct of the British which made their early slogan "Business as usual." Business and pleasure—but only on the surface. Underneath was a dogged and obstinate determination to make up as soon as possible for the humiliation of the early days of the war.
Those were the transition days in England. The people were slowly awaking to the magnitude of the thing that was happening to them. Certain elements of the press, long under political dominion, were preparing to come out for a coalition ministry. The question of high-explosive shells as against shrapnel was bitterly fought, some of the men at home standing fast for shrapnel, as valuable against German artillery as a garden hose. Men coming back from the Front were pleading for real help, not men only, not Red Cross, not food and supplies, but for something more competent than mere man power to hold back the deluge.
But over it all was that surface cheerfulness, that best-foot-forward attitude of London. And Sara Lee saw only that, and lost faith. She had come far to help. But here was food in plenty and bands playing and smiling men in uniform drinking tea and playing for a little. That, too, Sara Lee was to understand later; but just then she did not. At home there was more surface depression. The atrocities, the plight of the Belgians, the honor list in the Illustrated London News—that was the war to Sara Lee. And here!
But later on, down in a crowded dark little room, things were different. She was one of a long line, mostly women. They were unhappy and desolate enough, God knows. They sat or stood with a sort of weary resignation. Now and then a short heavy man with an upcurled mustache came out and took in one or two. The door closed. And overhead the band played monotonously.
It was after seven when Sara Lee's turn came. The heavy-set man spoke to her in French, but he failed to use a single one of the words she had memorized.
"Don't you speak any English?" she asked helplessly.
"I do; but not much," he replied. Though his French had been rapid he spoke English slowly. "How can we serve you, mademoiselle?"
"I don't want any assistance. I—I want to help, if I can."
"In France. Or Belgium."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"We have many offers of help. What we need, mademoiselle, is not workers. We have, at our base hospital, already many English nurses."
"I am not a nurse."
"I am sorry. The whole world is sorry for Belgium, and many would work. What we need"—he shrugged his shoulders again—"is food, clothing, supplies for our brave little soldiers."
Sara Lee looked extremely small and young. The Belgian sat down on a chair and surveyed her carefully.
"You English are doing a—a fine work for us," he observed. "We are grateful. But of course the"—he hesitated—"the pulling up of an entire people—it is colossal."
"But I am not English," said Sara Lee. "And I have a little money. I want to make soup for your wounded men at a railway station or—any place. I can make good soup. And I shall have money each month to buy what I need."
Only then was Sara Lee admitted to the crowded little room.
Long afterward, when the lights behind the back drop had gone down and Sara Lee was back again in her familiar setting, one of the clearest pictures she retained of that amazing interlude was of that crowded little room in the Savoy, its single littered desk, its two typewriters creating an incredible din, a large gentleman in a dark-blue military cape seeming to fill the room. And in corners and off stage, so to speak, perhaps a half dozen men, watching her curiously.
The conversation was in French, and Sara Lee's acquaintance of the passage acted as interpreter. It was only when Sara Lee found that a considerable discussion was going on in which she had no part that she looked round and saw her friend of two nights before and of the little donkey. He was watching her intently, and when he caught her eye he bowed.
Now men, in Sara Lee's mind, had until now been divided into the ones at home, one's own kind, the sort who married one's friends or oneself, the kind who called their wives "mother" after the first baby came, and were easily understood, plain men, decent and God-fearing and self-respecting; and the men of that world outside America, who were foreigners. One might like foreigners, but they were outsiders.
So there was no self-consciousness in Sara Lee's bow and smile. Later on Henri was to find that lack of self and sex consciousness one of the maddening mysteries about Sara Lee. Perhaps he never quite understood it. But always he respected it.
More conversation, in an increasing staccato. Short contributions from the men crowded into corners. Frenzied beating of the typewriting machines, and overhead and far away the band. There was no air in the room. Sara Lee was to find out a great deal later on about the contempt of the Belgians for air. She loosened Aunt Harriet's neckpiece.
So far Henri had not joined in the discussion. But now he came forward and spoke. Also, having finished, he interpreted to Sara Lee.
"They are most grateful," he explained. "It is a—a practical idea, mademoiselle. If you were in Belgium"—he smiled rather mirthlessly—"if you were already in the very small part of Belgium remaining to us, we could place you very usefully. But—the British War Office is most careful, just now. You understand—there are reasons."
Sara Lee flushed indignantly.
"They can watch me if they want to," she said. "What trouble can I make? I've only just landed. You—you'd have to go a good ways to find any one who knows less than I do about the war."
"There is no doubt of that," he said, unconscious of offense. "But the War Office—" He held out his hands.
Sara Lee, who had already caught the British "a" and was rather overdoing it, had a wild impulse to make the same gesture. It meant so much.
More conversation. Evidently more difficulties—but with Henri now holding the center of the stage and speaking rapidly. The heavy-set man retired and read letters under an electric lamp. The band upstairs was having dinner. And Henri argued and wrangled. He was quite passionate. The man in the military cape listened and smiled. And at last he nodded.
Henri turned to Sara Lee.
"You Americans are all brave," he said. "You like—what is it you say?—taking a chance, I think. Would you care to take such a chance?"
"What sort of a chance?"
"May I visit you this evening at your hotel?"
Just for an instant Sara Lee hesitated. There was Harvey at home. He would not like her receiving a call from any man. And Harvey did not like foreigners. He always said they had no respect for women. It struck her suddenly what Harvey would call Henri's bowing and his kissing her hand, and his passionate gesticulations when he was excited. He would call it all tomfool nonsense.
And she recalled his final words, his arms so close about her that she could hardly breathe, his voice husky with emotion.
"Just let me hear of any of those foreigners bothering you," he said, "and I'll go over and wipe out the whole damned nation."
It had not sounded funny then. It was not funny now.
"Please come," said Sara Lee in a small voice.
The other gentlemen bowed profoundly. Sara Lee, rather at a loss, gave them a friendly smile that included them all. And then she and Henri were walking up the stairs and to the entrance, Henri's tall figure the target for many women's eyes. He, however, saw no one but Sara Lee.
Henri, too, called a taxicab. Every one in London seemed to ride in taxis. And he bent over her hand, once she was in the car, but he did not kiss it.
"It is very kind of you, what you are doing," he said. "But, then, you Americans are all kind. And wonderful."
Back at Morley's Hotel Sara Lee had a short conversation with Harvey's picture.
"You are entirely wrong, dear," she said. She was brushing her hair at the time, and it is rather a pity that it was a profile picture and that Harvey's pictured eyes were looking off into space—that is, a piece of white canvas on a frame, used by photographers to reflect the light into the eyes. For Sara Lee with her hair down was even lovelier than with it up. "You were wrong. They are different, but they are kind and polite. And very, very respectful. And he is coming on business."
She intended at first to make no change in her frock. After all, it was not a social call, and if she did not dress it would put things on the right footing.
But slipping along the corridor after her bath, clad in a kimono and slippers and extremely nervous, she encountered a young woman on her way to dinner, and she was dressed in that combination of street skirt and evening blouse that some Englishwomen from the outlying districts still affect. And Sara Lee thereupon decided to dress. She called in the elderly maid, who was already her slave, and together they went over her clothes.
It was the maid, perhaps, then who brought into Sara Lee's life the strange and mad infatuation for her that was gradually to become a dominant issue in the next few months. For the maid chose a white dress, a soft and young affair in which Sara Lee looked like the heart of a rose.
"I always like to see a young lady in white, miss," said the maid. "Especially when there's a healthy skin."
So Sara Lee ate her dinner alone, such a dinner as a healthy skin and body demanded. And she watched tall young Englishwomen with fine shoulders go out with English officers in khaki, and listened to a babel of high English voices, and—felt extremely alone and very subdued.
Henri came rather late. It was one of the things she was to learn about him later—that he was frequently late. It was only long afterward that she realized that such time as he spent with her was gained only at the cost of almost superhuman effort. But that was when she knew Henri's story, and his work. She waited for him in the reception room, where a man and a woman were having coffee and talking in a strange tongue. Henri found her there, at something before nine, rather downcast and worried, and debating about going up to bed. She looked up, to find him bowing before her.
"I thought you were not coming," she said.
"I? Not come? But I had said that I would come, mademoiselle. I may sit down?"
Sara Lee moved over on the velvet sofa, and Henri lowered his long body onto it. Lowered his voice, too, for the man and woman were staring at him.
"I'm afraid I didn't quite understand about this afternoon," began Sara Lee. "You spoke about taking a chance. I am not afraid of danger, if that is what you mean."
"That, and a little more, mademoiselle," said Henri. "But now that I am here I do not know."
His eyes were keen. Sara Lee had suddenly a strange feeling that he was watching the couple who talked over their coffee, and that, oddly enough, the couple were watching him. Yet he was apparently giving his undivided attention to her.
"Have you walked any to-day?" he asked her unexpectedly.
Sara Lee remembered the bus, and, with some bitterness, the two taxis.
"I haven't had a chance to walk," she said.
"But you should walk," he said. "I—will you walk with me? Just about the square, for air?" And in a lower tone: "It is not necessary that those two should know the plan, mademoiselle."
"I'll get my coat and hat," Sara Lee said, and proceeded to do so in a brisk and businesslike fashion. When she came down Henri was emerging from the telephone booth. His face was impassive. And again when in time Sara Lee was to know Henri's face better than she had ever known Harvey's, she was to learn that the masklike look he sometimes wore meant danger—for somebody.
They went out without further speech into the clear cold night. Henri, as if from custom, threw his head back and scanned the sky. Then they went on and crossed into the square.
"The plan," Henri began abruptly, "is this: You will be provided to-morrow with a passport to Boulogne. You will, if you agree, take the midnight train for Folkestone. At the railway station here you will be searched. At Folkestone a board, sitting in an office on the quay, will examine your passport."
"Does any one in Boulogne speak English?" Sara Lee inquired nervously. Somehow that babel of French at the Savoy had frightened her. Her little phrase book seemed pitifully inadequate for the great things in her mind.
"That hardly matters," said Henri, smiling faintly. "Because I think you shall not go to Boulogne."
"Not go!" She stopped dead, under the monument, and looked up at him.
"The place for you to go, to start from, is Calais," Henri explained. He paused, to let pass two lovers, a man in khaki and a girl. "But Calais is difficult. It is under martial law—a closed city. From Boulogne to Calais would be perhaps impossible."
Sara Lee was American and her methods were direct.
"How can I get to Calais?"
"Will you take the chance I spoke of?"
"For goodness' sake," said Sara Lee in an exasperated tone, "how can I tell you until I know what it is?"
Henri told her. He even, standing under a street lamp, drew a small sketch for her, to make it clear. Sara Lee stood close, watching him, and some of the lines were not as steady as they might have been. And in the midst of it he suddenly stopped.
"Do you know what it means?" he demanded.
"Yes, of course."
"And you know what date this is?"
"The eighteenth of February."
But he saw, after all, that she did not entirely understand.
"To-night, this eighteenth of February, the Germans commence a blockade of this coast. No vessels, if they can prevent them, will leave the harbors; or if they do, none shall reach the other side!"
"Oh!" said Sara Lee blankly.
"We are eager to do as you wish, mademoiselle. But"—he commenced slowly to tear up the sketch—"it is too dangerous. You are too young. If anything should go wrong and I had—No. We will find another way."
He put the fragments of the sketch in his pocket.
"How long is this blockade to last?" Sara Lee asked out of bitter disappointment.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Who can say? A week! A year! Not at all!"
"Then," said Sara Lee with calm deliberation, "you might as well get out your pencil and draw another picture—because I'm going."
Far enough away now, the little house at home and the peace that dwelt therein; and Harvey; and the small white bedroom; and the daily round of quiet duties. Sara Lee had set her face toward the east, and the land of dying men. And as Henri looked down at her she had again that poised and eager look, almost of flight, that had brought into Harvey's love for her just a touch of fear.
Sara Lee Kennedy was up at dawn the next morning. There was a very serious matter to decide, for Henri's plan had included only such hand luggage as she herself could carry.
Sara Lee carefully laid out on the bed such articles as she could not possibly do without, and was able to pack into her suitcase less than a fourth of them. She had fortunately brought a soft wool sweater, which required little room. Undergarments, several blouses, the sweater and a pair of heavy shoes—that was her equipment, plus such small toilet outfit as is necessary when a young woman uses no make-up and regards cold cream only as a remedy for chapped hands.
The maid found her in rather a dismal mood.
"Going across, miss!" she said. "Fancy that!"
"It's a secret," cautioned Sara Lee. "I am really not sure I am going. I am only trying to go."
The maid, who found Sara Lee and the picture of Harvey on her dressing table both romantic and appealing, offered to pack. From the first moment it was evident that she meant to include the white dress. Indeed she packed it first.
"You never know what's going to happen over there," she asserted. "They do say that royalties are everywhere, going about like common people. You'd better have a good frock with you."
She had an air of subdued excitement, and after she had established the fact that not only the white frock but slippers and hose also would go in she went to the door and glanced up and down the passage. Then she closed the door.
"There was queer goings-on here last night, miss," she said cautiously. "Spies!"
"Oh, no!" cried Sara Lee.
"Spies," she repeated. "A man and a woman, pretending to be Belgian refugees. They took them away at daylight. I expect by now they've been shot."
Sara Lee ate very little breakfast that morning. All through England it was confidently believed that spies were shot on discovery, a theory that has been persistent—and false, save at the battle line—since the beginning of the war. And Henri's plan assumed new proportions. Suppose she made her attempt and failed? Suppose they took her for a spy, and that tomorrow's sun found her facing a firing squad? Not, indeed, that she had ever heard of a firing squad, as such. But she had seen spies shot in the movies. They invariably stood in front of a brick wall, with the hero in the center.
So she absent-mindedly ate her kippered herring, which had been strongly recommended by the waiter, and tried to think of what a spy would do, so she might avoid any suspicious movements. It struck her, too, that war seemed to have made the people on that side of the ocean extremely ready with weapons. They would be quite likely to shoot first and ask questions afterwards—which would be too late to be helpful.
She remembered Henri, for instance, and the way, without a word, he had shot the donkey.
That day she wrote Harvey a letter.
"Dearest:" it began; "I think I am to leave for France to-night. Things seem to be moving nicely, and I am being helped by the Belgian Relief Commission. It is composed of Belgians and is at the Savoy Hotel."
Here she stopped and cried a little. What if she should never see Harvey again—never have his sturdy arms about her? Harvey gained by distance. She remembered only his unfailing kindness and strength and his love for her. He seemed, here at the edge of the whirlpool, a sort of eddy of peace and quiet. Even then she had no thought of going back until her work was done, but she did an unusual thing for her, unused to demonstration of any sort. She kissed his ring.
Followed directions about sending the money from the church society, a description of Morley's and Trafalgar Square, an account of tea at the Travers', and of the little donkey—without mention, however, of Henri. She felt that Harvey would not understand Henri.
But at the end came the passage which poor Harvey read and re-read when the letter came, and alternately ground his teeth over and kissed.
"I do love you, Harvey dear. And I am coming back to you. I have felt that I had to do what I am doing, but I am coming back. That's a promise. Unless, of course, I should take sick, or something like that, which isn't likely."
There was a long pause in the writing here, but Harvey could not know that.
"I shall wear your ring always; and always, Harvey, it will mean to me that I belong to you. With dearest love.
Then she added a postscript, of course.
"The War Office is not letting people cross to Calais just now. But I am going to do it anyhow. It is perfectly simple. And when I get over I shall write and tell you how.
It was the next day that an indignant official in the censor's office read that postscript, and rose in his wrath and sent a third Undersomething-or-other to look up Sara Lee at Morley's. But by this time she was embarked on the big adventure; and by the time a cable reached Calais there was no trace of Sara Lee.
During the afternoon she called up Mr. Travers at his office, and rather gathered that he did not care to use the telephone during business hours.
"I just wanted to tell you that you need not bother about me any more," she said. "I am being sent over and I think everything is all right."
He was greatly relieved. Mrs. Travers had not fully indorsed his encomiums of the girl. She had felt that no really nice girl would travel so far on so precarious an errand, particularly when she was alone. And how could one tell, coming from America, how her sympathies really lay? She might be of German parentage—the very worst sort, because they spoke American. It was easy enough to change a name.
Nevertheless, Mr. Travers felt a trifle low in his mind when he hung up the receiver. He said twice to himself: "Twenty pounds!" And at last he put four sovereigns in an envelope and sent them to her anonymously by messenger. Sara Lee guessed whence they came, but she respected the manner of the gift and did not thank him. It was almost the first gold money she had ever seen.
She was very carefully searched at the railway station that night and found that her American Red Cross button, which had come with her dollar subscription to the association, made the matron inspector rather kindly inclined. Nevertheless, she took off Sara Lee's shoes, and ran over the lining of her coat, and quite ruined the maid's packing of the suitcase.
"You are going to Boulogne?" asked the matron inspector.
Sara Lee did not like to lie.
"Wherever the boat takes me," she said with smile.
The matron smiled too.
"I shouldn't be nervous, miss," she said. "It's a chance, of course, but they have not done much damage yet."
It was after midnight then, and a cold fog made the station a gloomy thing of blurred yellow lights and raw chill. A few people moved about, mostly officers in uniform. Half a dozen men in civilian clothes eyed her as she passed through the gates; Scotland Yard, but she did not know. And once she thought she saw Henri, but he walked away into the shadows and disappeared. The train, looking as absurdly small and light as all English trains do, was waiting out in the shed. There were no porters, and Sara Lee carried her own bag.
She felt quite sure she had been mistaken about Henri, for of course he would have come and carried it for her.
The train was cold and quiet. When it finally moved out it was under way before she knew that it was going. And then suddenly Sara Lee's heart began to pound hard.
It was a very cold and shivering Sara Lee who curled up, alone in her compartment, and stared hard at Harvey's ring to keep her courage up. But a curious thing had happened. Harvey gave her no moral support. He brought her only disapproval. She found herself remembering none of the loving things he had said to her, but only the bitter ones.
Perhaps it was the best thing for her, after all. For a sort of dogged determination to go through with it all, at any cost, braced her to her final effort.
So far it had all been busy enough, but not comfortable. She was cold, and she had eaten almost nothing all day. As the hours went on and the train slid through the darkness she realized that she was rather faint. The steam pipes, only warm at the start, were entirely cold by one o'clock, and by two Sara Lee was sitting on her feet, with a heavy coat wrapped about her knees.
The train moved quietly, as do all English trains, with no jars and little sound. There were few lights outside, for the towns of Eastern England were darkened, like London, against air attacks. So when she looked at the window she saw only her own reflection, white and wide-eyed, above Aunt Harriet's fur neckpiece.
In the next compartment an officer was snoring, but she did not close her eyes. Perhaps, for that last hour, some of the glow that had brought her so far failed her. She was not able to think beyond Folkestone, save occasionally, and that with a feeling that it should not be made so difficult to do a kind and helpful thing.
At a quarter before three the train eased down. In the same proportion Sara Lee's pulse went up. A long period of crawling along, a stop or two, but no resultant opening of the doors; and at last, in a cold rain and a howling wind from the channel, the little seaport city.
More officers than she had suspected, a few women, got out. The latter Sara Lee's experience on the steamer enabled her to place; buyers mostly, and Americans, on their way to Paris, blockade or no blockade, because the American woman must be well and smartly gowned and hatted. A man with a mourning band on his sleeve carried a wailing child.
The officers lighted cigarettes. The civilians formed a line on the jetty under the roof of the shed, and waited, passports in hand, before a door that gleamed with yellow light. Faces looked pale and anxious. The blockade was on, and Germany had said that no ships would cross that night.
As if defiantly the Boulogne boat, near at hand, was ablaze, on the shore side at least, with lights. Stewards came and went. Beyond it lay the harbor, dark and mysterious save where, from somewhere across, a flashlight made a brave effort to pierce the fog.
One of the buyers ahead of Sara Lee seemed exhilarated by the danger ahead.
"They'll never get us," she said. "Look at that fog!"
"It's lifting, dearie," answered a weary voice behind her. "The wind is carrying it away."
When Sara Lee's turn came she was ready. A group of men in civilian clothes, seated about a long table, looked her over carefully. Her passports moved deliberately from hand to hand. A long business, and the baby wailing harder than ever. But the office was at least warm. Some of her failing courage came back as she moved, following her papers, round the table. They were given back to her at last, and she went out. She had passed the first ordeal.
Suitcase in hand she wandered down the stone jetty. The Boulogne boat she passed, and kept on. At the very end, dark and sinister, lay another boat. It had no lights. The tide was in, and its deck lay almost flush with the pier. Sara Lee walked on toward it until a voice spoke to her out of the darkness and near at hand.
"Your boat is back there, madam."
"I know. Thank you. I am just walking about."
The petty officer—he was a petty officer, though Sara Lee had never heard the term—was inclined to be suspicious. Under excuse of lighting his pipe he struck a match, and Sara Lee's young figure stood out in full relief. His suspicions died away with the flare.
"Bad night, miss," he offered.
"Very," said Sara Lee, and turned back again.
This time, bewildered and uneasy, she certainly saw Henri. But he ignored her. He was alone, and smoking one of his interminable cigarettes. He had not said he was crossing, and why had he not spoken to her? He wandered past down the pier, and she lost him in the shadows. When he came back he paused near her, and at last saluted and spoke.
"Pardon," he said. "If you will stand back here you will find less wind."
He carried her suitcase back, and stooping over to place it at her feet he said: "I shall send him on board with a message to the captain. When I come back try again."
He left her at once. The passengers for Boulogne were embarking now. A silent lot, they disappeared into the warmth and brightness of the little boat and were lost. No one paid any attention to Sara Lee standing in the shadows.
Soon Henri came back. He walked briskly and touched his cap as he passed. He went aboard the Boulogne steamer, and without a backward glance disappeared.
Sara Lee watched him out of sight, in a very real panic. He had been something real and tangible in that shadowy place—something familiar in an unfamiliar world. But he was gone. She threw up her head.
So once more Sara Lee picked up her suitcase and went down the pier. Now she was unchallenged. What lurking figure might be on the dark deck of the Calais boat she could not tell. That was the chance she was to take. The gangway was still out, and as quietly as possible she went aboard. The Boulogne boat had suddenly gone dark, and she heard the churning of the screw. With the extinction of the lights on the other boat came at last deeper night to her aid. A few steps, a stumble, a gasp—and she was on board the forbidden ship.
She turned forward, according to her instructions, where the overhead deck made below an even deeper shadow. Henri had said that there were cabins there, and that the chance was of finding an unlocked one. If they were all locked she would be discovered at dawn, and arrested. And Sara Lee was not a war correspondent. She was not accustomed to arrest. Indeed she had a deep conviction that arrest in her case would mean death. False, of course, but surely it shows her courage.
As she stood there, breathless and listening, the Boulogne boat moved out. She heard the wash against the jetty, felt the rolling of its waves. But being on the landward side she could not see the faint gleam of a cigarette that marked Henri's anxious figure at the rail. So long as the black hulk of the Calais boat was visible, and long after indeed, Henri stood there, outwardly calm but actually shaken by many fears. She had looked so small and young; and who could know what deviltry lurked abroad that night?
He had not gone with her because it was necessary that he be in Boulogne the next morning. And also, the very chance of getting her across lay in her being alone and unobserved.
So he stood by the rail and looked back and said a wordless little prayer that if there was trouble it come to his boat and not to the other. Which might very considerably have disturbed the buyers had they known of it and believed in prayer.
Sara Lee stood in the shadows and listened. There were voices overhead, from the bridge. A door opened onto the deck and threw out a ray of light. Some one came out and went on shore, walking with brisk ringing steps. And then at last she put down her bag and tried door after door, without result.
The man who had gone ashore called another. The gangway was drawn in. The engines began to vibrate under foot. Sara Lee, breathless and terrified, stood close to a cabin door and remained immovable. At one moment it seemed as if a seaman was coming forward to where she stood. But he did not come.
The Calais boat was waiting until the other steamer had got well out of the harbor. The fog had lifted, and the searchlight was moving over the surface. It played round the channel steamer without touching it. But none of this was visible to Sara Lee.
At last the lights of the quay began to recede. The little boat rocked slightly in its own waves as it edged away. It moved slowly through the shipping and out until, catching the swell of the channel, it shot ahead at top speed.
For an hour Sara Lee stood there. The channel wind caught her and tore at her skirts until she was almost frozen. And finally, in sheer desperation, she worked her way round to the other side. She saw no one. Save for the beating heart of the engine below it might have been a dead ship.
On the other side she found an open door and stumbled into the tiny dark deck cabin, as chilled and frightened a philanthropist as had ever crossed that old and tricky and soured bit of seaway. And there, to be frank, she forgot her fright in as bitter a tribute of seasickness as even the channel has ever exacted.
She had locked herself in, and she fell at last into an exhausted sleep. When she wakened and peered out through the tiny window it was gray winter dawn. The boat was quiet, and before her lay the quay of Calais and the Gare Maritime. A gangway was out and a hurried survey showed no one in sight.
Sara Lee picked up her suitcase and opened the door. The fresh morning air revived her, but nevertheless it was an extremely pale young woman who, obeying Henri's instructions, went ashore that morning in the gray dawn unseen, undisturbed and unquestioned. But from the moment she appeared on the gangway until the double glass doors of the Gare Maritime closed behind her this apparently calm young woman did not breathe at all. She arrived, indeed, with lungs fairly collapsed and her heart entirely unreliable.
A woman clerk was asleep at a desk. Sara Lee roused her to half wakefulness, no interest and extremely poor English. A drowsy porter led her up a staircase and down an endless corridor. Then at last he was gone, and Sara Lee turned the key in her door and burst into tears.