The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
In looking back after a catastrophe it is easy to trace the steps by which the inevitable advanced. Destiny marches, not by great leaps but with a thousand small and painful steps, and here and there it leaves its mark, a footprint on a naked soul. We trace a life by its scars, as a tree by its rings.
Anna Gates was not the best possible companion for Harmony, and this with every allowance for her real kindliness, her genuine affection for the girl. Life had destroyed her illusions, and it was of illusions that Harmony's veil had been woven. To Anna Gates, worn with a thousand sleepless nights, a thousand thankless days, withered before her time with the struggling routine of medical practice, sapped with endless calls for sympathy and aid, existence ceased to be spiritual and became physiological.
Life and birth and death had lost their mysteries. The veil was rent.
To fit this existence of hers she had built herself a curious creed, a philosophy of individualism, from behind which she flung strange bombshells of theories, shafts of distorted moralities, personal liberties, irresponsibilities, a supreme scorn for modern law and the prophets. Nature, she claimed, was her law and her prophet.
In her hard-working, virginal life her theories had wrought no mischief. Temptation had been lacking to exploit them, and even in the event of the opportunity it was doubtful whether she would have had the strength of her convictions. Men love theories, but seldom have the courage of them, and Anna Gates was largely masculine. Women, being literal, are apt to absorb dangerous doctrine and put it to the test. When it is false doctrine they discover it too late.
Harmony was now a woman.
Anna would have cut off her hand sooner than have brought the girl to harm; but she loved to generalize. It amused her to see Harmony's eyes widen with horror at one of her radical beliefs. Nothing pleased her more than to pit her individualism against the girl's rigid and conventional morality, and down her by some apparently unanswerable argument.
On the day after the incident in the kitchen such an argument took place--hardly an argument, for Harmony knew nothing of mental fencing. Anna had taken a heavy cold, and remained at home. Harmony had been practicing, and at the end she played a little winter song by some modern composer. It breathed all the purity of a white winter's day; it was as chaste as ice and as cold; and yet throughout was the thought of green things hiding beneath the snow and the hope of spring.
Harmony, having finished, voiced some such feeling. She was rather ashamed of her thought.
"It seems that way to me," she finished apologetically. "It sounds rather silly. I always think I can tell the sort of person who composes certain things."
"And this gentleman who writes of winter?"
"I think he is very reserved. And that he has never loved any one."
"When there is any love in music, any heart, one always feels it, exactly as in books--the difference between a love story and--and--"
"--a dictionary !"
"You always laugh," Harmony complained
"That's better than weeping. When I think of the rotten way things go in this world I want to weep always."
"I don't find it a bad world. Of course there are bad people, but there are good ones."
"Where? Peter and you and I, I suppose."
"There are plenty of good men."
"What do you call a good man?"
Harmony hesitated, then went on bravely:--
Anna smiled. "My dear child," she said, "you substitute the code of a gentleman for the Mosaic Law. Of course your good man is a monogamist?"
Harmony nodded, puzzled eyes on Anna.
"Then there are no 'good' people in the polygamous countries, I suppose! When there were twelve women to every man, a man took a dozen wives. To-day in our part of the globe there is one woman--and a fifth over--for every man. Each man gets one woman, and for every five couples there is a derelict like myself, mateless."
Anna's amazing frankness about herself often confused Harmony. Her resentment at her single condition, because it left her childless, brought forth theories that shocked and alarmed the girl. In the atmosphere in which Harmony had been reared single women were always presumed to be thus by choice and to regard with certain tolerance those weaker sisters who had married. Anna, on the contrary, was frankly a derelict, frankly regretted her maiden condition and railed with bitterness against her enforced childlessness. The near approach of Christmas had for years found her morose and resentful. There are, here and there, such women, essentially mothers but not necessarily wives, their sole passion that of maternity.
Anna, argumentative and reckless, talked on. She tore away, in her resentment, every theory of existence the girl had ever known, and offered her instead an incredible liberty in the name of the freedom of the individual. Harmony found all her foundations of living shaken, and though refusing to accept Anna's theories, found her faith in her own weakened. She sat back, pale and silent, listening, while Anna built up out of her discontent a new heaven and a new earth, with liberty written high in its firmament.
When her reckless mood had passed Anna was regretful enough at the girl's stricken face.
"I'm a fool!" she said contritely. "If Peter had been here he'd have throttled me. I deserve it. I'm a theorist, pure and simple, and theorists are the anarchists of society. There's only one comfort about us--we never live up to our convictions. Now forget all this rot I've been talking."
Peter brought up the mail that afternoon, a Christmas card or two for Anna, depressingly early, and a letter from the Big Soprano for Harmony from New York. The Big Soprano was very glad to be back and spent two pages over her chances for concert work.
". . . I could have done as well had I stayed at home. If I had had the money they wanted, to go to Geneva and sing 'Brunnhilde,' it would have helped a lot. I could have said I'd sung in opera in Europe and at least have had a hearing at the Met. But I didn't, and I'm back at the church again and glad to get my old salary. If it's at all possible, stay until the master has presented you in a concert. He's quite right, you haven't a chance unless he does. And now I'll quit grumbling.
"Scatchy met her Henry at the dock and looked quite lovely, flushed with excitement and having been up since dawn curling her hair. He was rather a disappointment--small and blond, with light blue eyes, and almost dapper. But oh, my dear, I wouldn't care how pale a man's eyes were if he looked at me the way Henry looked at her.
"They asked me to luncheon with them, but I knew they wanted to be alone together, and so I ate a bite or two, all I could swallow for the lump in my throat, by myself. I was homesick enough in old Wien, but I am just as homesick now that I am here, for we are really homesick only for people, not places. And no one really cared whether I came back or not."
Peter had been miserable all day, not with regret for the day before, but with fear. What if Harmony should decide that the situation was unpleasant and decide to leave? What if a reckless impulse, recklessly carried out, were to break up an arrangement that had made a green oasis of happiness and content for all of them in the desert of their common despair?
If he had only let her go and apologized! But no, he had had to argue, to justify himself, to make an idiot of himself generally. He almost groaned aloud as he opened the gate end crossed the wintry garden.
He need not have feared. Harmony had taken him entirely at his word. "I am not a beast. I'll let you alone," he had said. She had had a bad night, as nights go. She had gone through the painful introspection which, in a thoroughly good girl, always follows such an outburst as Peter's. Had she said or done anything to make him think--Surely she had not! Had she been wrong about Peter after all? Surely not again.
While the Portier's wife, waked, as may happen, by an unaccustomed silence, was standing guard in the hall below, iron candlestick in hand, Harmony, having read the Litany through in the not particularly religious hope of getting to sleep, was dreaming placidly. It was Peter who tossed and turned almost all night. Truly there had been little sleep that night in the old hunting-lodge of Maria Theresa.
Peter, still not quite at ease, that evening kept out of the kitchen while supper was preparing. Anna, radical theories forgotten and wearing a knitted shawl against drafts, was making a salad, and Harmony, all anxiety and flushed with heat, was broiling a steak.
Steak was an extravagance, to be cooked with clear hot coals and prayer.
"Peter," she called, "you may set the table. And try to lay the cloth straight."
Peter, exiled in the salon, came joyously. Obviously the wretched business of yesterday was forgiven. He came to the door, pipe in mouth.
"Suppose I refuse?" he questioned. "You--you haven't been very friendly with me to-day, Harry."
"Don't quarrel, you children," cried Anna, beating eggs vigorously. "Harmony is always friendly, too friendly. The Portier loves her."
"I'm sure I said good-evening to you."
"You usually say, 'Good-evening, Peter.' "
"And I did not?"
"You did not."
His steady eyes met hers. In them there was a renewal of his yesterday's promise, abasement, regret. Harmony met him with forgiveness and restoration.
"Sometimes," said Peter humbly, "when I am in very great favor, you say, 'Good-evening, Peter, dear.' "
"Good-evening, Peter, dear," said Harmony.