The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The card in the American Doctors' Club brought a response finally. It was just in time. Harmony's funds were low, and the Frau Professor Bergmeister had gone to St. Moritz for the winter. She regretted the English lessons, but there were always English at St. Moritz and it cost nothing to talk with them. Before she left she made Harmony a present. "For Christmas," she explained. It was a glass pin-tray, decorated beneath with labels from the Herr Professor's cigars and in the center a picture of the Emperor.
The response came in this wise. Harmony struggling home against an east wind and holding the pin-tray and her violin case, opened the old garden gate by the simple expedient of leaning against it. It flew back violently, almost overthrowing a stout woman in process of egress down the walk. The stout woman was Mrs. Boyer, clad as usual in the best broadcloth and wearing her old sable cape, made over according to her oldest daughter's ideas into a staid stole and muff. The muff lay on the path now and Mrs. Boyer was gasping for breath.
"I'm so sorry!" Harmony exclaimed. "It was stupid of me; but the wind--Is this your muff?"
Mrs. Boyer took the muff coldly. From its depths she proceeded to extract a handkerchief and with the handkerchief she brushed down the broadcloth. Harmony stood apologetically by. It is explanatory of Mrs. Boyer's face, attitude, and costume that the girl addressed her in English.
"I backed in," she explained. "So few people come, and no Americans."
Mrs. Boyer, having finished her brushing and responded to this humble apology in her own tongue, condescended to look at Harmony.
"It really is no matter," she said, still coolly but with indications of thawing. "I am only glad it did not strike my nose. I dare say it would have, but I was looking up to see if it were going to snow." Here she saw the violin case and became almost affable.
"There was a card in the Doctors' Club, and I called--" She hesitated.
"I am Miss Wells. The card is mine."
"One of the women here has a small boy who wishes to take violin lessons and I offered to come. The mother is very busy."
"I see. Will you come in? I can make you a cup of tea and we can talk about it."
Mrs. Boyer was very willing, although she had doubts about the tea. She had had no good tea since she had left England, and was inclined to suspect all of it.
They went in together, Harmony chatting gayly as she ran ahead, explaining this bit of the old staircase, that walled-up door, here an ancient bit of furniture not considered worthy of salvage, there a closed and locked room, home of ghosts and legends. To Harmony this elderly woman, climbing slowly behind her, was a bit of home. There had been many such in her life; women no longer young, friends of her mother's who were friends of hers; women to whom she had been wont to pay the courtesy of a potted hyacinth at Easter or a wreath at Christmas or a bit of custard during an illness. She had missed them all cruelly, as she had missed many things--her mother, her church, her small gayeties. She had thought at first that Frau Professor Bergmeister might allay her longing for these comfortable, middle-aged, placid-eyed friends of hers. But the Frau Professor Bergmeister had proved to be a frivolous and garrulous old woman, who substituted ease for comfort, and who burned a candle on the name-day of her first husband while her second was safely out of the house.
So it was with something of excitement that Harmony led the way up the stairs and into the salon of Maria Theresa.
Peter was there. He was sitting with his back to the door, busily engaged in polishing the horns of the deer. Whatever scruples Harmony had had about the horns, Peter had none whatever, save to get them safely out of the place and to the hospital. So Peter was polishing the horns. Harmony had not expected to find him home, and paused, rather startled.
"Oh, I didn't know you were home."
Peter spoke without turning.
"Try to bear up under it," he said. "I'm home and hungry, sweetheart!"
Peter turned at that and rose instantly. It was rather dark in the salon and he did not immediately recognize Mrs. Boyer. But that keen-eyed lady had known him before he turned, had taken in the domesticity of the scene and Peter's part in it, and had drawn the swift conclusion of the pure of heart.
"I'll come again," she said hurriedly. "I--I must really get home. Dr. Boyer will be there, and wondering--"
"Mrs. Boyer!" Peter knew her.
"Oh, Dr. Byrne, isn't it? How unexpected to find you here!"
"I live here."
"So I surmised."
"Three of us," said Peter. "You know Anna Gates, don't you?"
"I'm afraid not. Really I--"
Peter was determined to explain. His very eagerness was almost damning.
"She and Miss Wells are keeping house here and have kindly taken me in as a boarder. Please sit down."
Harmony found nothing strange in the situation and was frankly puzzled at Peter. The fact that there was anything unusual in two single women and one unmarried man, unrelated and comparative strangers, setting up housekeeping together had never occurred to her. Many a single woman whom she knew at home took a gentleman into the house as a roomer, and thereafter referred to him as "he" and spent hours airing the curtains of smoke and even, as "he" became a member of the family, in sewing on his buttons. There was nothing indecorous about such an arrangement; merely a concession to economic pressure.
She made tea, taking off her jacket and gloves to do it, but bustling about cheerfully, with her hat rather awry and her cheeks flushed with excitement and hope. Just now, when the Frau Professor had gone, the prospect of a music pupil meant everything. An American child, too! Fond as Harmony was of children, the sedate and dignified youngsters who walked the parks daily with a governess, or sat with folded hands and fixed eyes through hours of heavy music at the opera, rather daunted her. They were never alone, those Austrian children--always under surveillance, always restrained, always prepared to kiss the hand of whatever relative might be near and to take themselves of to anywhere so it were somewhere else.
"I am so glad you are going to talk to me about an American child," said Harmony, bringing in the tea.
But Mrs. Boyer was not so sure she was going to talk about the American child. She was not sure of anything, except that the household looked most irregular, and that Peter Byrne was trying to cover a difficult situation with much conversation. He was almost glib, was Peter. The tea was good; that was one thing.
She sat back with her muff on her knee, having refused the concession of putting it on a chair as savoring too much of acceptance if not approval, and sipped her tea out of a spoon as becomes a tea-lover. Peter, who loathed tea, lounged about the room, clearly in the way, but fearful to leave Harmony alone with her. She was quite likely, at the first opportunity, to read her a lesson on the conventions, if nothing worse; to upset the delicate balance of the little household he was guarding. So he stayed, praying for Anna to come and bear out his story, while Harmony toyed with her spoon and waited for some mention of the lessons. None came. Mrs. Boyer, having finished her tea, rose and put down her cup.
"That was very refreshing," she said. "Where shall I find the street-car? I walked out, but it is late."
"I'll take you to the car." Peter picked up his old hat.
"Thank you. I am always lost in this wretched town. I give the conductors double tips to put me down where I want to go; but how can they when it is the wrong car?" She bowed to Harmony without shaking hands. "Thank you for the tea. It was really good. Where do you get it?"
"There is a tea-shop a door or two from the Grand Hotel."
"I must remember that. Thank you again. Good-bye."
Not a word about the lessons or the American child!
"You said something about my card in the Doctors' Club--"
Something wistful in the girl's eyes caught and held Mrs. Boyer.
After all she was the mother of daughters. She held out her hand and her voice was not so hard.
"That will have to wait until another time. I have made a social visit and we'll not spoil it with business."
"I really think the boy's mother must attend to that herself. But I shall tell her where to find you, and"--here she glanced at Peter--"all about it."
"Thank you," said Harmony gratefully.
Peter had no finesse. He escorted Mrs. Boyer across the yard and through the gate with hardly a word. With the gate closed behind them he turned and faced her:--
"You are going away with a wrong impression, Mrs. Boyer."
Mrs. Boyer had been thinking hard as she crossed the yard. The result was a resolution to give Peter a piece of her mind. She drew her ample proportions into a dignity that was almost majesty.
"I--I can understand why you think as you do. It is quite without foundation."
"I am glad of that." There was no conviction in her voice.
"Of course," went on Peter, humbling himself for Harmony's sake, "I suppose it has been rather unconventional, but Dr. Gates is not a young woman by any means, and she takes very good care of Miss Wells. There were reasons why this seemed the best thing to do. Miss Wells was alone and--"
"There is a Dr. Gates?"
"Of course. If you will come back and wait she'll be along very soon."
Mrs. Boyer was convinced and defrauded in one breath; convinced that there might be a Dr. Gates, but equally convinced that the situation was anomalous and certainly suspicious; defrauded in that she had lost the anticipated pleasure of giving Peter a piece of her mind. She walked along beside him without speaking until they reached the street-car line. Then she turned.
"You called her--you spoke to her very affectionately, young man," she accused him.
Peter smiled. The car was close. Some imp of recklessness, some perversion of humor seized him.
"My dear Mrs. Boyer," he said, "that was in jest purely. Besides, I did not know that you were there!"
Mrs. Boyer was a literal person without humor. It was outraged American womanhood incarnate that got into the street-car and settled its broadcloth of the best quality indignantly on the cane seat. It was outraged American womanhood that flung open the door of Marie Jedlicka's flat, and stalking into Marie Jedlicka's sitting room confronted her husband as he read a month-old newspaper from home.
"Did you ever hear of a woman doctor named Gates?" she demanded.
Boyer was not unaccustomed to such verbal attacks. He had learned to meet domestic broadsides with a shield of impenetrable good humor, or at the most with a return fire of mild sarcasm.
"I never hear of a woman doctor if it can be avoided."
"Dr. Gates--Anna Gates?"
"There are a number here. I meet them in the hospital, but I don't know their names."
"Where does Peter Byrne live?"
"In a pension, I believe, my dear. Are we going to have anything to eat or do we sup of Peter Byrne?"
Mrs. Boyer made no immediate reply. She repaired to the bedroom of Marie Jedlicka, and placed her hat, coat and furs on one of the beds with the crocheted coverlets. It is a curious thing about rooms. There was no change in the bedroom apparent to the eye, save that for Marie's tiny slippers at the foot of the wardrobe there were Mrs. Boyer's substantial house shoes. But in some indefinable way the room had changed. About it hung an atmosphere of solid respectability, of impeccable purity that soothed Mrs. Boyer's ruffled virtue into peace. Is it any wonder that there is a theory to the effect that things take on the essential qualities of people who use them, and that we are haunted by things, not people? That when grandfather's wraith is seen in his old armchair it is the chair that produces it, while grandfather himself serenely haunts the shades of some vast wilderness of departed spirits?
Not that Mrs. Boyer troubled herself about such things. She was exceedingly orthodox, even in the matter of a hereafter, where the most orthodox are apt to stretch a point, finding no attraction whatever in the thing they are asked to believe. Mrs. Boyer, who would have regarded it as heterodox to substitute any other instrument for the harp of her expectation, tied on her gingham apron before Marie Jedlicka's mirror, and thought of Harmony and of the girls at home.
She told her husband over the supper-table and found him less shocked than she had expected.
"It's not your affair or mine," he said. "It's Byrne's business."
"Think of the girl!"
"Even if you are right it's rather late, isn't it?"
"You could tell him what you think of him."
Dr. Boyer sighed over a cup of very excellent coffee. Much living with a representative male had never taught his wife the reserves among members of the sex masculine.
"I might, but I don't intend to," he said. "And if you listen to me you'll keep the thing to yourself."
"I'll take precious good care that the girl gets no pupils," snapped Mrs. Boyer. And she did with great thoroughness.
We trace a life by its scars. Destiny, marching on by a thousand painful steps, had left its usual mark, a footprint on a naked soul. The soul was Harmony's; the foot--was it not encased at that moment in Mrs. Boyer's comfortable house shoes?
Anna was very late that night. Peter, having put Mrs. Boyer on her car, went back quickly. He had come out without his overcoat, and with the sunset a bitter wind had risen, but he was too indignant to be cold. He ran up the staircase, hearing on all sides the creaking and banging with which the old house resented a gale, and burst into the salon of Maria Theresa.
Harmony was sitting sidewise in a chair by the tea-table with her face hidden against its worn red velvet. She did not look up when he entered. Peter went over and put a hand on her shoulder. She quivered under it and he took it away.
"A little," very smothered. "Just dis-disappointment. Don't mind me, Peter."
"You mean about the pupil?"
Harmony sat up and looked at him. She still wore her hat, now more than ever askew, and some of the dye from the velvet had stained her cheek. She looked rather hectic, very lovely.
"Why did she change so when she saw you?"
Peter hesitated. Afterward he thought of a dozen things he might have said, safe things. Not one came to him.
"She--she is an evil-thinking old woman, Harry," he said gravely.
"She did not approve of the way we are living here, is that it?"
"She did not believe there was an Anna. Not that it matters," he added hastily. "I'll make Anna go to her and explain. It's her infernal jumping to a conclusion that makes me crazy."
"She will talk, Peter. I am frightened."
"I'll take Anna to-night and we'll go to Boyer's. I'll make that woman get down on her knees to you. I'll--"
"You'll make bad very much worse," said Harmony dejectedly. "When a thing has to be explained it does no good to explain it."
The salon was growing dark. Peter was very close to her again. As in the dusky kitchen only a few days before, he felt the compelling influence of her nearness. He wanted, as he had never wanted anything in his life before, to take her in his arms, to hold her close and bid defiance to evil tongues. He was afraid of himself. To gain a moment he put a chair between them and stood, strong hands gripping its back, looking down at her.
"There is one thing we could do."
"We could marry. If you cared for me even a little it--it might not be so bad for you."
"But I am not in love with you. I care for you, of course, but--not that way, Peter. And I do not wish to marry."
"Not even if I wish it very much?"
"If you are thinking of my future--"
"I'm thinking for both of us. And although just now you think you care a little for me, you do not care enough, Peter. You are lonely and I am the only person you see much, so you think you want to marry me. You don't really. You want to help me."
Few motives are unmixed. Poor Peter, thus accused, could not deny his altruism.
And in the face of his poverty and the little he could offer, compared with what she must lose, he did not urge what was the compelling motive after all, his need of her.
"It would be a rotten match for you," he agreed. "I only thought, perhaps--You are right, of course; you ought not to marry."
"And what about you?"
"I ought not, of course."
Harmony rose, smiling a little.
"Then that's settled. And for goodness' sake, Peter, stop proposing to me every time things go wrong." Her voice changed, grew grave and older, much older than Peter's. "We must not marry, either of us, Peter. Anna is right. There might be an excuse if we were very much in love: but we are not. And loneliness is not a reason."
"I am very lonely," said Peter wistfully.