On a wild night in January Sara Lee inaugurated a new branch of service. There had been a delay in sending up to the Front the men who had been on rest, and an incessant bombardment held the troops prisoners in their trenches.
A field kitchen had been destroyed. The men were hungry, disheartened, wet through. They needed her, she felt. Even the little she could do would help. All day she had made soup, and at evening Marie led from its dilapidated stable the little horse that Henri had once brought up, trundling its cart behind it. The boiler of the cart was scoured, a fire lighted in the fire box. Marie, a country girl, harnessed the shaggy little animal, but with tears of terror.
"You will be killed, mademoiselle," she protested, weeping.
"But I have gone before. Don't you remember the man whose wife was English, and how I wrote a letter for him before he died?"
"What will become of the house if you are killed?"
"Dear Marie," said Sara Lee, "that is all arranged for. You will send to Poperinghe for your aunt, and she will come until Mrs. Cameron or some one else can come from England. And you will stay on. Will you promise that?"
Marie promised in a loud wail.
"Of course I shall come back," Sara Lee said, stirring her soup preparatory to pouring it out. "I shall be very careful."
"You will not come back, mademoiselle. You do not care to live, and to such—"
"Those are the ones who live on," said Sara Lee gravely, and poured out her soup.
She went quite alone. There was a great deal of noise, but no shells fell near her. She led the little horse by its head, and its presence gave her comfort. It had a sense that she had not, too, for it kept her on the road.
In those still early days the Belgian trenches were quite accessible from the rear. There were no long tunneled ways to traverse to reach them. One went along through the darkness until the sound of men's voices, the glare of charcoal in a bucket bored with holes, the flicker of a match, told of the buried army almost underfoot or huddled in its flimsy shelters behind the railway embankment.
Beyond the lines a sentry stopped her, hailing her sharply.
"It is I," she called through the rain. "I have brought some chocolate and some soup."
He lowered his bayonet.
She went on, the rumbling of her little cart deadened by the Belgian guns.
Through the near-by trenches that night went the word that near the Repose of the Angels—which was but a hole in the ground and scarcely reposeful—there was to be had hot soup and chocolate and cigarettes. A dozen or so at a time, the men were allowed to come. Officers brought their great capes to keep the girl dry. Boards appeared as if by magic for her to stand on. The rain and the bombardment had both ceased, and a full moon made the lagoon across the embankment into a silver lake.
When the last soup had been dipped from the tall boiler, when the final drops of chocolate had oozed from the faucet, Sara Lee turned and went back to the little house again. But before she went she stood a moment staring across toward that land of the shadow on the other side, where Henri had gone and had not returned.
Once, when the King had decorated her, she had wished that, wherever Uncle James might be, on the other side, he could see what was happening. And now she wondered if Henri could know that she had come back, and was again looking after his men while she waited for that reunion he had so firmly believed in.
Then she led the little horse back along the road.
At the poplar trees she turned and looked behind, toward the trenches. The grove was but a skeleton now, a strange and jagged thing of twisted branches, as though it had died in agony. She stood there while the pony nuzzled her gently. If she called, would he come? But, then, all of life was one call now, for her. She went on slowly.
After that it was not unusual for her to go to the trenches, on such nights as no men could come to the little house. Always she was joyously welcomed, and always on her way back she turned to send from the poplar trees that inarticulate aching call that she had come somehow to believe in.
January, wet and raw, went by; February, colder, with snow, was half over. The men had ceased to watch for Henri over the parapet, and his brave deeds had become fireside tales, to be told at home, if ever there were to be homes again for them.
Then one night Henri came back—came as he had gone, out of the shadows that had swallowed him up; came without so much as the sound of a sniper's rifle to herald him. A strange, thin Henri, close to starvation, dripping water over everything from a German uniform, and very close indeed to death before he called out.
There was wild excitement indeed. Bearded private soldiers, forgetting that name and rank of his which must not be told, patted his thin shoulders. Officers who had lived through such horrors as also may not be told, crowded about him and shook hands with him, and with each other.
It was as though from the graveyard back in the fields had come, alive and smiling, some dearly beloved friend.
He would have told the story, but he was wet and weary.
"That can wait," they said, and led him, a motley band of officers and men intermixed, for once forgetting all decorum, toward the village. They overtook the lines of men who had left the trenches and were moving with their slow and weary gait up the road. The news spread through the column. There were muffled cheers. Figures stepped out of the darkness with hands out. Henri clasped as many as he could.
When with his escort he had passed the men they fell, almost without orders, into columns of four, and swung in behind him. There was no band, but from a thousand throats, yet cautiously until they passed the poplar trees, there gradually swelled and grew a marching song.
Behind Henri a strange guard of honor—muddy, tired, torn, even wounded—they marched and sang:
Trou là là, ça ne va guère;
Trou là là, çe ne va pas.
Sara Lee, listening for that first shuffle of many feet that sounded so like the wind in the trees or water over the pebbles of a brook, paused in her work and lifted her head. The rhythm of marching feet came through the wooden shutters. The very building seemed to vibrate with it. And there was a growling sound with it that soon she knew to be the deep voices of singing men.
She went to the door and stood there, looking down the street. Behind her was the warm glow of the lamp, all the snug invitation of the little house.
A group of soldiers had paused in front of the doorway, and from them one emerged—tall, white, infinitely weary—and looked up at her with unbelieving eyes.
After all, there are no words for such meetings. Henri took her hand, still with that sense of unreality, and bent over it. And Sara Lee touched his head as he stooped, because she had called for so long, and only now he had come.
"So you have come back!" she said in what she hoped was a composed tone—because a great many people were listening. He raised his head and looked at her.
"It is you who have come back, mademoiselle."
There was gayety in the little house that night. Every candle was lighted. They were stuck in rows on mantel-shelves. They blazed—and melted into strange arcs—above the kitchen stove. There were cigarettes for everybody, and food; and a dry uniform, rather small, for Henri. Marie wept over her soup, and ran every few moments to the door to see if he was still there. She had kissed him on both cheeks when he came in, and showed signs, every now and then, of doing it again.
Sara Lee did her bandaging as usual, but with shining eyes. And soon after Henri's arrival a dispatch rider set off post haste with certain papers and maps, hurriedly written and drawn. Henri had not only returned, he had brought back information of great value to all the Allied armies.
So Sara Lee bandaged, and in the little room across the way, where no longer Harvey's photograph sat on the mantel, Henri told his story to the officers—of his imprisonment in the German prison at Crefeld; of his finding Jean there, weeks later when he was convalescing from typhoid; of their escape and long wandering; of Jean's getting into Holland, whence he would return by way of England. Of his own business, of what he had done behind the lines after Jean had gone, he said nothing. But his listeners knew and understood.
But his dispatches off, his story briefly told, Henri wandered out among the men again. He was very happy. He had never thought to be so happy. He felt the touch on his sleeves of hard brown, not overclean hands, infinitely tender and caressing; and over there, as though she had never gone, was Sara Lee, slightly flushed and very radiant.
And as though he also had never gone away, Henri pushed into the salle à manger and stood before her smiling.
"You bandage well, mademoiselle," he said gayly. "But I? I bandage better! See now, a turn here, and it is done! Does it hurt, Paul?"
The man in the dressing chair squirmed and grinned sheepishly.
"The iodine," he explained. "It is painful."
"Then I shall ask you a question, and you will forget the iodine. Why is a dead German like the tail of a pig?"
Paul failed. The room failed. Even Colonel Lilias confessed himself at fault.
"Because it is the end of the swine," explained Henri, and looked about him triumphantly. A gust of laughter spread through the room and even to the kitchen. A door banged. Henri upset a chair. There was noise again, and gayety in the little house of mercy. And much happiness.
And there I think we may leave them all—Henri and Sara Lee; and Jean of the one eye and the faithful heart; and Marie, with her kettles; and even René, who still in some strange way belonged to the little house, as though it were something too precious to abandon.
The amazing interlude had become the play itself. Never again for Sara Lee would the lights go up in front, and Henri with his adoring eyes and open arms fade into the shadows.
The drama of the war plays on. The Great Playwright sees fit, now and then, to take away some well-beloved players. New faces appear and disappear. The music is the thunder of many guns. Henri still plays his big part, Sara Lee her little one. Yet who shall say, in the end, which one has done the better? There are new and ever new standards, but love remains the chief. And love is Sara Lee's one quality—love of her kind, of tired men and weary, the love that shall one day knit this broken world together. And love of one man.
On weary nights, when Henri is again lost in the shadows, Sara Lee, her work done, the men gone, sits in her little house of mercy and waits. The stars on clear evenings shine down on the roofless buildings, on the rubbish that was once the mill, on the ruined poplar trees, and on the small acre of peace where tiny crosses mark the long sleep of weary soldiers.
And sometimes, though she knows it now by heart, she reads aloud that letter of Henri's to her. It comforts her. It is a promise.
"If that is to be, then think of me, somewhere, perhaps with René by my side, since he, too, loved you. And I shall still be calling you, and waiting. Perhaps, even beyond the stars, they have need of a little house of mercy. And God knows, wherever I am, I shall have need of you."