Author: Rinehart, Mary
BiographyMary Roberts Rinehart
BORN: 12 August 1876.(50)
DIED: 22 September 1958.(51)
While her general novels were her best-selling books, she was most highly regarded by critics for her carefully plotted murder mysteries. It was one of her books that produced the phrase, "The butler did it," and in her prime, she was more famous than her chief rival, England's Agatha Christie. (52)
Our Famous Woman Writer.
One of Pittsburgh's most famous women is Mary Roberts Rinehart, the writer.
She was born Aug. 12, 1876, in a little house in Arch St., now North Side, but then the City of Allegheny. She lives today at 630 Park Ave., New York City, in an 18-room apartment.
She's still writing--about 4000 words a day on a "good day." She has written more than 50 books, eight plays, hundreds of short stories, poems, travelogues and special articles. Three of her plays were running on Broadway at one time.
When she was in Allegheny High School she got $1 each for three short stories from a Pittsburgh newspaper. In her own words, "I did no further so-called literary work until 12 years later when I was 27."
Her first book, "The Circular Staircase," was published in 1908 when Theodore Roosevelt was President, the hobble skirt was something of a national scandal and ministers spoke of the lawn hammock as a challenge to morals.
In this book, Mrs. Rinehart proved, for the first time, that mystery, crime and humor can be combined.
It has generally been believed in Pittsburgh for many years that the Singer mansion in Wilkinsburg was the site of the Circular Staircase. Mrs. Rinehart tells me it was not--that, at the time, she had never known of a house with such a staircase.
Last year she wrote "A Light in the Window," the story of two World War generations, with the flush and hard times in between. Her writings have encompassed two generations; outlived two Roosevelt presidents.
She never has believed that life is easy, but that if a guy is down he can always get up and keep on fighting. That's been the rich history of her own life.
Her parents were Thomas B. and Cornelia Roberts. She early learned about financial insecurity. Her father was handsome, dreamy, impractical--a frustrated inventor, always in pursuit of fortune, never finding it. His most practical invention was a rotary shuttle for sewing machines. He hated the sewing machine business.
Mrs. Rinehart's mother took in two boarders--made Mary help with the housework, after school, and take piano lessons--both of which she hated with equal vigor. Her grandmother, partially blind, was a seamstress. It was a constant struggle for the family to "keep up appearances," Mrs. Rinehart writes in her autobiography, "My Story."
Mary Roberts Rinehart's writing career blossomed in debt, found its creative equality in her retentive memory and a discipline to put it down.
Her early memories were of the house next door, where a mute son talked with his hands to his patient white-haired mother; wagons clattering along cobblestone streets; the Mayor's office, where she could read good books; the high walls of the state penitentiary, when it was only a few blocks from her house; watching the debris and bodies of the Johnstown Flood roll by; the time her father, in a high silk hat, calmly and serenely rowed his flood-beleagured family past the second floor windows of Pittsburgh office buildings. The one-armed park policeman, who marched in GAR [Grand Army of the Republic] parades and once arrested his own son; tradesmen scattering for cover when drovers reported the escape of a wild bull; the jolly neighborhood butcher, always wearing a stained straw hat.
She was born left-handed, in the days when this was looked upon as irrational and unladylike. To make her use her right hand, the left was tied behind her back. She now writes right-handed, with a bold sweep of a special pen and never uses the typewriter.
About the pen. She once complained she had never found one which could write as fast as she could think. Kenneth Parker of the Parker Co. sent her this snub-nosed one.
No servant may touch it. When she leaves her desk, the pen goes with her--to a special box by her bedside. If she leaves New York, the pen goes too. (53)
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
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 scène_, 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
"I was just thinking," said Sara Lee.
"You'd better do your thinking in bed. Jump in and I'll put out your
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
"It's horrible," said Aunt Harriet. "Do you want another blanket? It's
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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 scène_.
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
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
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
_matériel_ 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
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
"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
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
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
"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,
"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
"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
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
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 fenêtre_, 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
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 coördinated--coördinated."
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
"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
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!
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!
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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 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
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 m
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