The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Peter took the polished horns to the hospital the next morning and approached Jimmy with his hands behind him and an atmosphere of mystery that enshrouded him like a cloak. Jimmy, having had a good night and having taken the morning's medicine without argument, had been allowed up in a roller chair. It struck Peter with a pang that the boy looked more frail day by day, more transparent.
"I have brought you," said Peter gravely, "the cod-liver oil."
"I've had it!"
"You've just had one. Don't be a piggy."
"Animal, vegetable, or mineral?"
"Vegetable," said Peter shamelessly.
"Soft or hard!"
This was plainly a disappointment. A pair of horns might be vegetable; they could hardly be soft.
"A kitten is not vegetable, James."
"I know. A bowl of gelatin from Harry!" For by this time Harmony was his very good friend, admitted to the Jimmy club, which consisted of Nurse Elisabet, the Dozent with the red beard, Anna and Peter, and of course the sentry, who did not know that he belonged.
"Gelatin, to be sure," replied Peter, and produced the horns.
It was a joyous moment in the long low ward, with its triple row of beds, its barred windows, its clean, uneven old floor. As if to add a touch of completeness the sentry outside, peering in, saw the wheeled chair with its occupant, and celebrated this advance along the road to recovery by placing on the window-ledge a wooden replica of himself, bayonet and all, carved from a bit of cigar box.
"Everybody is very nice to me," said Jimmy contentedly. "When my father comes back I shall tell him. He is very fond of people who are kind to me. There was a woman on the ship--What is bulging your pocket, Peter?"
"That is not where you mostly carry your handkerchief."
Peter was injured. He scowled ferociously at being doubted and stood up before the wheeled chair to be searched. The ward watched joyously, while from pocket after pocket of Peter's old gray suit came Jimmy's salvage--two nuts, a packet of figs, a postcard that represented a stout colonel of hussars on his back on a frozen lake, with a private soldier waiting to go through the various salutations due his rank before assisting him. A gala day, indeed, if one could forget the grave in the little mountain town with only a name on the cross at its head, and if one did not notice that the boy was thinner than ever, that his hands soon tired of playing and lay in his lap, that Nurse Elisabet, who was much inured to death and lived her days with tragedy, caught him to her almost fiercely as she lifted him back from the chair into the smooth white bed.
He fell asleep with Peter's arm under his head and the horns of the deer beside him. On the bedside stand stood the wooden sentry, keeping guard. As Peter drew his arm away he became aware of the Nurse Elisabet beckoning to him from a door at the end of the ward Peter left the sentinel on guard and tiptoed down the room. Just outside, round a corner, was the Dozent's laboratory, and beyond the tiny closet where he slept, where on a stand was the photograph of the lady he would marry when he had become a professor and required no one's consent.
The Dozent was waiting for Peter. In the amiable conspiracy which kept the boy happy he was arch-plotter. His familiarity with Austrian intrigue had made him invaluable. He it was who had originated the idea of making Jimmy responsible for the order of the ward, so that a burly Trager quarreling over his daily tobacco with the nurse in charge, or brawling over his soup with another patient, was likely to be hailed in a thin soprano, and to stand, grinning sheepishly, while Jimmy, in mixed English and German, restored the decorum of the ward. They were a quarrelsome lot, the convalescents. Jimmy was so busy some days settling disputes and awarding decisions that he slept almost all night. This was as it should be.
The Dozent waited for Peter. His red beard twitched and his white coat, stained from the laboratory table, looked quite villainous. He held out a letter.
"This has come for the child," he said in quite good English. He was obliged to speak English. Day by day he taught in the clinics Americans who scorned his native tongue, and who brought him the money with which some day he would marry. He liked the English language; he liked Americans because they learned quickly. He held out an envelope with a black border and Peter took it.
"From Paris!" he said. "Who in the world--I suppose I'd better open it."
"So I thought. It appears a letter of--how you say it? Ah, yes, condolence."
Peter opened the letter and read it. Then without a word he gave it open to the Dozent. There was silence in the laboratory while the Dozent read it, silence except for his canary, which was chipping at a lump of sugar. Peter's face was very sober.
"So. A mother! You knew nothing of a mother?"
"Something from the papers I found. She left when the boy was a baby--went on the stage, I think. He has no recollection of her, which is a good thing. She seems to have been a bad lot."
"She comes to take him away. That is impossible."
"Of course it is impossible," said Peter savagely. "She's not going to see the child if I can help it. She left because--she's the boy's mother, but that's the best you can say of her. This letter--Well, you've read it."
"She is as a stranger to him?"
"Absolutely. She will come in mourning--look at that black border--and tell him his father is dead, and kill him. I know the type."
The canary chipped at his sugar; the red beard of the Dozent twitched, as does the beard of one who plots. Peter re-read the gushing letter in his hand and thought fiercely.
"She is on her way here," said the Dozent. "That is bad. Paris to Wien is two days and a night. She may hourly arrive."
"We might send him away--to another hospital."
The Dozent shrugged his shoulders.
"Had I a home--" he said, and glanced through the door to the portrait on the stand. "It would be possible to hide the boy, at least for a time. In the interval the mother might be watched, and if she proved a fit person the boy could be given to her. It is, of course, an affair of police."
This gave Peter pause. He had no money for fines, no time for imprisonment, and he shared the common horror of the great jail. He read the letter again, and tried to read into the lines Jimmy's mother, and failed. He glanced into the ward. Still Jimmy slept. A burly convalescent, with a saber cut from temple to ear and the general appearance of an assassin, had stopped beside the bed and was drawing up the blanket round the small shoulders.
"I can give orders that the woman be not admitted to-day," said the Dozent. "That gives us a few hours. She will go to the police, and to-morrow she will be admitted. In the mean time--"
"In the mean time," Peter replied, "I'll try to think of something. If I thought she could be warned and would leave him here--"
"She will not. She will buy him garments and she will travel with him through the Riviera and to Nice. She says Nice. She wishes to be there for carnival, and the boy will die."
Peter took the letter and went home. He rode, that he might read it again in the bus. But no scrap of comfort could he get from it. It spoke of the dead father coldly, and the father had been the boy's idol. No good woman could have been so heartless. It offered the boy a seat in one of the least reputable of the Paris theaters to hear his mother sing. And in the envelope, overlooked before, Peter found a cutting from a French newspaper, a picture of the music-hall type that made him groan. It was indorsed "Mamma."
Harmony had had a busy morning. First she had put her house in order, working deftly, her pretty hair pinned up in a towel--all in order but Peter's room. That was to have a special cleaning later. Next, still with her hair tied up, she had spent two hours with her violin, standing very close to the stove to save fuel and keep her fingers warm. She played well that morning: even her own critical ears were satisfied, and the Portier, repairing a window lock in an empty room below, was entranced. He sat on the window sill in the biting cold and listened. Many music students had lived in the apartment with the great salon; there had been much music of one sort and another, but none like this.
"She tears my heart from my bosom," muttered the Portier, sighing, and almost swallowed a screw that he held in his teeth.
After the practicing Harmony cleaned Peter's room. She felt very tender toward Peter that day. The hurt left by Mrs. Boyer's visit had died away, but there remained a clear vision of Peter standing behind the chair and offering himself humbly in marriage, so that a bad situation might be made better. And as with a man tenderness expresses itself in the giving of gifts, so with a woman it means giving of service. Harmony cleaned Peter's room.
It was really rather tidy. Peter's few belongings did not spread to any extent and years of bachelorhood had taught him the rudiments of order. Harmony took the covers from washstand and dressing table and washed and ironed them. She cleaned Peter's worn brushes and brought a pincushion of her own for his one extra scarfpin. Finally she brought her own steamer rug and folded it across the foot of the bed. There was no stove in the room; it had been Harmony's room once, and she knew to the full how cold it could be.
Having made all comfortable for the outer man she prepared for the inner. She was in the kitchen, still with her hair tied up, when Anna came home.
Anna was preoccupied. Instead of her cheery greeting she came somberly back to the kitchen, a letter in her hand. History was making fast that day.
"Hello, Harry," she said. "I'm going to take a bite and hurry off. Don't bother, I'll attend to myself." She stuffed the letter in her belt and got a plate from a shelf. "How pretty you look with your head tied up! If stupid Peter saw you now he would fall in love with you."
"Then I shall take it off. Peter must be saved!"
Anna sat down at the tiny table and drank her tea. She felt rather better after the tea. Harmony, having taken the towel off, was busy over the brick stove. There was nothing said for a moment. Then:--
"I am out of patience with Peter," said Anna.
"Because he hasn't fallen in love with you. Where are his eyes?"
"It's better as it is, no doubt, for both of you. But it's superhuman of Peter. I wonder--"
"I think I'll not tell you what I wonder."
And Harmony, rather afraid of Anna's frank speech, did not insist.
As she drank her tea and made a pretense at eating, Anna's thoughts wandered from Peter to Harmony to the letter in her belt and back again to Peter and Harmony. For some time she had been suspicious of Peter. From her dozen years of advantage in age and experience she looked down on Peter's thirty years of youth, and thought she knew something that Peter himself did not suspect. Peter being unintrospective, Anna did his heart-searching for him. She believed he was madly in love with Harmony and did not himself suspect it. As she watched the girl over her teacup, revealing herself in a thousand unposed gestures of youth and grace, a thousand lovelinesses, something of the responsibility she and Peter had assumed came over her. She sighed and felt for her letter.
"I've had rather bad news," she said at last.
"Yes. My father--did you know I have a father?"
"You hadn't spoken of him."
"I never do. As a father he hasn't amounted to much. But he's very ill, and--I 've a conscience."
Harmony turned a startled face to her.
"You are not going back to America?"
"Oh, no, not now, anyhow. If I become hag ridden with remorse and do go I'll find some one to take my place. Don't worry."
The lunch was a silent meal. Anna was hurrying off as Peter came in, and there was no time to discuss Peter's new complication with her. Harmony and Peter ate together, Harmony rather silent. Anna's unfortunate comment about Peter had made her constrained. After the meal Peter, pipe in mouth, carried the dishes to the kitchen, and there it was that he gave her the letter. What Peter's slower mind had been a perceptible time in grasping Harmony comprehended at onceÄand not only the situation, but its solution.
"Don't let her have him!" she said, putting down the letter. "Bring him here. Oh, Peter, how good we must be to him!"
And that after all was how the thing was settled. So simple, so obvious was it that these three expatriates, these waifs and estrays, banded together against a common poverty, a common loneliness, should share without question whatever was theirs to divide. Peter and Anna gave cheerfully of their substance, Harmony of her labor, that a small boy should be saved a tragic knowledge until he was well enough to bear it, or until, if God so willed, he might learn it himself without pain.
The friendly sentry on duty again that night proved singularly blind. Thus it happened that, although the night was clear when the twin dials of the Votivkirche showed nine o'clock, he did not notice a cab that halted across the street from the hospital.
Still more strange that, although Peter passed within a dozen feet of him, carrying a wriggling and excited figure wrapped in a blanket and insisting on uncovering its feet, the sentry was able the next day to say that he had observed such a person carrying a bundle, but that it was a short stocky person, quite lame, and that the bundle was undoubtedly clothing going to the laundry.
Perhaps--it is just possible--the sentry had his suspicions. It is undeniable that as Jimmy in the cab on Peter's knee, with Peter's arm close about him, looked back at the hospital, the sentry was going through the manual of arms very solemnly under the stars and facing toward the carriage.