The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The affairs of young Stewart and Marie Jedlicka were not moving smoothly. Having rented their apartment to the Boyers, and through Marie's frugality and the extra month's wages at Christmas, which was Marie's annual perquisite, being temporarily in funds the sky seemed clear enough, and Walter Stewart started on his holiday with a comfortable sense of financial security.
Mrs. Boyer, shown over the flat by Stewart during Marie's temporary exile in the apartment across the hall, was captivated by the comfort of the little suite and by its order. Her housewifely mind, restless with long inactivity in a pension, seized on the bright pans of Marie's kitchen and the promise of the brick-and-sheetiron stove. She disapproved of Stewart, having heard strange stories of him, but there was nothing bacchanal or suspicious about this orderly establishment. Mrs. Boyer was a placid, motherly looking woman, torn from her church and her card club, her grown children, her household gods of thirty years' accumulation, that "Frank" might catch up with his profession.
She had explained it rather tremulously at home.
"Father wants to go," she said. "You children are big enough now to be left. He's always wanted to do it, but we couldn't go while you were little."
"But, mother!" expostulated the oldest girl. "When you are so afraid of the ocean! And a year!"
"What is to be will be," she had replied. "If I'm going to be drowned I'll be drowned, whether it's in the sea or in a bathtub. And I'll not let father go alone."
Fatalism being their mother's last argument and always final, the children gave up. They let her go. More, they prepared for her so elaborate a wardrobe that the poor soul had had no excuse to purchase anything abroad. She had gone through Paris looking straight ahead lest her eyes lead her into the temptation of the shops. In Vienna she wore her home-town outfit with determination, vaguely conscious that the women about her had more style, were different. She priced unsuitable garments wistfully, and went home to her trunks full of best materials that would never wear out. The children, knowing her, had bought the best.
To this couple, then, Stewart had rented his apartment. It is hard to say by what psychology he found their respectability so satisfactory. It was as though his own status gained by it. He had much the same feeling about the order and decency with which Marie managed the apartment, as if irregularity were thus regularized.
Marie had met him once for a walk along the Graben. She had worn an experimental touch of rouge under a veil, and fine lines were drawn under her blue eyes, darkening them. She had looked very pretty, rather frightened. Stewart had sent her home and had sulked for an entire evening.
So curious a thing is the mind masculine, such an order of disorder, so conventional its defiance of convention. Stewart breaking the law and trying to keep the letter!
On the day they left for Semmering Marie was up at dawn. There was much to do. The house must be left clean and shining. There must be no feminine gewgaws to reveal to the Frau Doktor that it was not a purely masculine establishment. At the last moment, so late that it sent her heart into her mouth, she happened on the box of rouge hidden from Stewart's watchful eyes. She gave it to the milk girl.
Finally she folded her meager wardrobe and placed it in the Herr Doktor's American trunk: a marvel, that trunk, so firm, so heavy, bound with iron. And with her own clothing she packed Stewart's, the dress-suit he had worn once to the Embassy, a hat that folded, strange American shoes, and books--always books. The Herr Doktor would study at Semmering. When all was in readiness and Stewart was taking a final survey, Marie ran downstairs and summoned a cab. It did not occur to her to ask him to do it. Marie's small life was one of service, and besides there was an element in their relationship that no one but Marie suspected, and that she hid even from herself. She was very much in love with this indifferent American, this captious temporary god of her domestic altar. Such a contingency had never occurred to Stewart; but Peter, smoking gravely in the little apartment, had more than once caught a look in Marie's eyes as she turned them on the other man, and had surmised it. It made him uncomfortable.
When the train was well under way, however, and he found no disturbing element among the three others in the compartment, Stewart relaxed. Semmering was a favorite resort with the American colony, but not until later in the winter. In December there were rains in the mountains, and low-lying clouds that invested some of the chalets in constant fog. It was not until the middle of January that the little mountain train became crowded with tourists, knickerbockered men with knapsacks, and jaunty feathers in their soft hats, boys carrying ski, women with Alpine cloaks and iron-pointed sticks.
Marie was childishly happy. It was the first real vacation of her life, and more than that she was going to Semmering, in the very shadow of the Raxalpe, the beloved mountain of the Viennese.
Marie had seen the Rax all her life, as it towered thirty miles or so away above the plain. On peaceful Sundays, having climbed the cog railroad, she had seen its white head turn rosy in the setting sun, and once when a German tourist from Munich had handed her his fieldglass she had even made out some of the crosses that showed where travelers had met their deaths. Now she would be very close. If the weather were good, she might even say a prayer in the chapel on its crest for the souls of those who had died. It was of a marvel, truly; so far may one go when one has money and leisure.
The small single-trucked railway carriages bumped and rattled up the mountain sides, always rising, always winding. There were moments when the track held to the cliffs only by gigantic fingers of steel, while far below were peaceful valleys and pink-and-blue houses and churches with gilded spires. There were vistas of snow-peak and avalanche shed, and always there were tunnels. Marie, so wise in some things, was a child in others; she slid close to Stewart in the darkness and touched him for comfort.
"It is so dark," she apologized, "and it frightens me, the mountain heart. In your America, have you so great mountains?"
Stewart patted her hand, a patronizing touch that sent her blood racing.
"Much larger," he said magnificently. "I haven't seen a hill in Europe I'd exchange for the Rockies. And when we cross the mountains there we use railway coaches. These toy railroads are a joke. At home we'd use 'em as street-cars."
"Really! I should like to see America."
"So should I."
The conversation was taking a dangerous trend. Mention of America was apt to put the Herr Doktor in a bad humor or to depress him, which was even worse. Marie, her hand still on his arm and not repulsed, became silent.
At a small way station the three Germans in the compartment left the train. Stewart, lowering a window, bought from a boy on the platform beer and sausages and a bag of pretzels. As the train resumed its clanking progress they ate luncheon, drinking the beer from the bottles and slicing the sausage with a penknife. It was a joyous trip, a red-letter day in the girl's rather sordid if not uneventful life. The Herr Doktor was pleased with her. He liked her hat, and when she flushed with pleasure demanded proof that she was not rouged. Proof was forthcoming. She rubbed her cheeks vigorously with a handkerchief and produced in triumph its unreddened purity.
"Thou suspicious one!" she pouted. "I must take off the skin to assure thee! When the Herr Doktor says no rouge, I use none."
"You're a good child." He stooped over and kissed one scarlet cheek and then being very comfortable and the beer having made him drowsy, he put his head in her lap and slept.
When he awakened they were still higher. The snow-peak towered above and the valleys were dizzying! Semmering was getting near. They were frequently in darkness; and between the tunnels were long lines of granite avalanche sheds. The little passage of the car was full of tourists looking down.
"We are very close, I am sure," an American girl was saying just outside the doorway. "See, isn't that the Kurhaus? There, it is lost again."
The tourists in the passage were Americans and the girl who had spoken was young and attractive. Stewart noticed them for the first time and moved to a more decorous distance from Marie.
Marie Jedlicka took her cue and lapsed into silence, but her thoughts were busy. Perhaps this girl was going to Semmering also and the Herr Doktor would meet her. But that was foolish! There were other resorts besides Semmering, and in the little villa to which they went there would be no Americans. It was childish to worry about a girl whose back and profile only she had seen. Also profiles were deceptive; there was the matter of the ears. Marie's ears were small and set close to her head. If the American Fraulein's ears stuck out or her face were only short and wide! But no. The American Fraulein turned and glanced once swiftly into the compartment. She was quite lovely.
Stewart thought so, too. He got up with a great show of stretching and yawning and lounged into the passage. He did not speak to the girl; Marie noted that with some comfort. But shortly after she saw him conversing easily with a male member of the party. Her heart sank again. Life was moving very fast for Marie Jedlicka that afternoon on the train.
Stewart was duly presented to the party of Americans and offered his own cards, bowing from the waist and clicking his heels together, a German custom he had picked up. The girl was impressed; Marie saw that. When they drew into the station at Semmering Stewart helped the American party off first and then came back for Marie. Less keen eyes than the little Austrian's would have seen his nervous anxiety to escape attention, once they were out of the train and moving toward the gate of the station. He stopped to light a cigarette, he put down the hand-luggage and picked it up again, as though it weighed heavily, whereas it was both small and light. He loitered through the gate and paused to exchange a word with the gateman.
The result was, of course, that the Americans were in a sleigh and well up the mountainside before Stewart and Marie were seated side by side in a straw-lined sledge, their luggage about them, a robe over their knees, and a noisy driver high above them on the driving-seat. Stewart spoke to her then, the first time for half an hour.
Marie found some comfort. The villas at Semmering were scattered wide over the mountain breast, set in dense clumps of evergreens, hidden from the roads and from each other by trees and shrubbery separated by valleys. One might live in one part of Semmering for a month and never suspect the existence of other parts, or wander over steep roads and paths for days and never pass twice over the same one. The Herr Doktor might not see the American girl again--and if he did! Did he not see American girls wherever he went?
The sleigh climbed on. It seemed they would never stop climbing. Below in the valley twilight already reigned, a twilight of blue shadows, of cows with bells wandering home over frosty fields, of houses with dark faces that opened an eye of lamplight as one looked.
Across the valley and far above--Marie pointed without words. Her small heart was very full. Greater than she had ever dreamed it, steeper, more beautiful, more deadly, and crowned with its sunset hue of rose was the Rax. Even Stewart lost his look of irritation as he gazed with her. He reached over and covered both her hands with his large one under the robe.
The sleigh climbed steadily. Marie Jedlicka, in a sort of ecstasy, leaned back and watched the mountain; its crown faded from rose to gold, from gold to purple with a thread of black. There was a shadow on the side that looked like a cross. Marie stopped the sleigh at a wayside shrine, and getting out knelt to say a prayer for the travelers who had died on the Rax. They had taken a room at a small villa where board was cheap, and where the guests were usually Germans of the thriftier sort from Bavaria. Both the season and the modest character of the establishment promised them quiet and seclusion.
To Marie the house seemed the epitome of elegance, even luxury. It clung to a steep hillside. Their room, on the third floor, looked out from the back of the building over the valley, which fell away almost sheer from beneath their windows. A tiny balcony outside, with access to it by a door from the bedroom, looked far down on the tops of tall pines. It made Marie dizzy.
She was cheerful again and busy. The American trunk was to be unpacked and the Herr Doktor's things put away, his shoes in rows, as he liked them, and his shaving materials laid out on the washstand. Then there was a new dress to put on, that she might do him credit at supper.
Stewart's bad humor had returned. He complained of the room and the draft under the balcony door; the light was wrong for shaving. But the truth came out at last and found Marie not unprepared.
"The fact is," he said, "I'm not going to eat with you to-night, dear. I'm going to the hotel."
"With the Americans?"
"Yes. I know a chap who went to college with the brother--with the young man you saw."
Marie glanced down at her gala toilet. Then she began slowly to take off the dress, reaching behind her for a hook he had just fastened and fighting back tears as she struggled with it.
"Now, remember, Marie, I will have no sulking."
"I am not sulking."
"Why should you change your clothes?"
"Because the dress was for you. If you are not here I do not wish to wear it."
Stewart went out in a bad humor, which left him before he had walked for five minutes in the clear mountain air. At the hotel he found the party waiting for him, the women in evening gowns. The girl, whose name was Anita, was bewitching in pale green.
That was a memorable night for Walter Stewart, with his own kind once more--a perfect dinner, brisk and clever conversation, enlivened by a bit of sweet champagne, an hour or two on the terrace afterward with the women in furs, and stars making a jeweled crown for the Rax.
He entirely forgot Marie until he returned to the villa and opening the door of the room found her missing.
She had not gone far. At the sound of his steps she moved on the balcony and came in slowly. She was pale and pinched with cold, but she was wise with the wisdom of her kind. She smiled.
"Didst thou have a fine evening?"
"I am sorry if I was unpleasant. I was tired, now I am rested."
"Good, little Marie!"