Chapter XIV
 

For two days at Semmering it rained. The Raxalpe and the Schneeberg sulked behind walls of mist. From the little balcony of the Pension Waldheim one looked out over a sea of cloud, pierced here and there by islands that were crags or by the tops of sunken masts that were evergreen trees. The roads were masses of slippery mud, up which the horses steamed and sweated. The gray cloud fog hung over everything; the barking of a dog loomed out of it near at hand where no dog was to be seen. Children cried and wild birds squawked; one saw them not.

During the second night a landslide occurred on the side of the mountain with a rumble like the noise of fifty trains. In the morning, the rain clouds lifting for a moment, Marie saw the narrow yellow line of the slip.

Everything was saturated with moisture. It did no good to close the heavy wooden shutters at night: in the morning the air of the room was sticky and clothing was moist to the touch. Stewart, confined to the house, grew irritable.

Marie watched him anxiously. She knew quite well by what slender tenure she held her man. They had nothing in common, neither speech nor thought. And the little Marie's love for Stewart, grown to be a part of her, was largely maternal. She held him by mothering him, by keeping him comfortable, not by a great reciprocal passion that might in time have brought him to her in chains.

And now he was uncomfortable. He chafed against the confinement; he resented the food, the weather. Even Marie's content at her unusual leisure irked him. He accused her of purring like a cat by the fire, and stamped out more than once, only to be driven in by the curious thunderstorms of early Alpine winter.

On the night of the second day the weather changed. Marie, awakening early, stepped out on to the balcony and closed the door carefully behind her. A new world lay beneath her, a marvel of glittering branches, of white plain far below; the snowy mane of the Raxalpe was become a garment. And from behind the villa came the cheerful sound of sleigh-bells, of horses' feet on crisp snow, of runners sliding easily along frozen roads. Even the barking of the dog in the next yard had ceased rumbling and become sharp staccato.

The balcony extended round the corner of the house. Marie, eagerly discovering her new world, peered about, and seeing no one near ventured so far. The road was in view, and a small girl on ski was struggling to prevent a collision between two plump feet. Even as Marie saw her the inevitable happened and she went headlong into a drift. A governess who had been kneeling before a shrine by the road hastily crossed herself and ran to the rescue.

It was a marvelous morning, a day of days. The governess and the child went on out of vision. Marie stood still, looking at the shrine. A drift had piled about its foot, where the governess had placed a bunch of Alpine flowers. Down on her knees on the balcony went the little Marie, regardless of the snow, and prayed to the shrine of the Virgin below--for what? For forgiveness? For a better life? Not at all. She prayed that the heels of the American girl would keep her in out of the snow.

The prayer of the wicked availeth nothing; even the godly at times must suffer disappointment. And when one prays of heels, who can know of the yearning back of the praying? Marie, rising and dusting her chilled knees, saw the party of Americans on the road, clad in stout boots and swinging along gayly. Marie shrugged her shoulders resignedly. She should have gone to the shrine itself; a balcony was not a holy place. But one thing she determined--the Americans went toward the Sonnwendstein. She would advise against the Sonnwendstein for that day.

Marie's day of days had begun wrong after all. For Stewart rose with the Sonnwendstein in his mind, and no suggestion of Marie's that in another day a path would be broken had any effect on him. He was eager to be off, committed the extravagance of ordering an egg apiece for breakfast, and finally proclaimed that if Marie feared the climb he would go alone.

Marie made many delays: she dressed slowly, and must run back to see if the balcony door was securely closed. At a little shop where they stopped to buy mountain sticks she must purchase postcards and send them at once. Stewart was fairly patient: air and exercise were having their effect.

It was eleven o'clock when, having crossed the valley, they commenced to mount the slope of the Sonnwendstein. The climb was easy; the road wound back and forward on itself so that one ascended with hardly an effort. Stewart gave Marie a hand here and there, and even paused to let her sit on a boulder and rest. The snow was not heavy; he showed her the footprints of a party that had gone ahead, and to amuse her tried to count the number of people. When he found it was five he grew thoughtful. There were five in Anita's party. Thanks to Marie's delays they met the Americans coming down. The meeting was a short one: the party went on down, gayly talking. Marie and Stewart climbed silently. Marie's day was spoiled; Stewart had promised to dine at the hotel.

Even the view at the tourist house did not restore Marie's fallen spirits. What were the Vienna plain and the Styrian Alps to her, with this impatient and frowning man beside her consulting his watch and computing the time until he might see the American again? What was prayer, if this were its answer?

They descended rapidly, Stewart always in the lead and setting a pace that Marie struggled in vain to meet. To her tentative and breathless remarks he made brief answer, and only once in all that time did he volunteer a remark. They had reached the Hotel Erzherzog in the valley. The hotel was still closed, and Marie, panting, sat down on an edge of the terrace.

"We have been very foolish," he said.

"Why?"

"Being seen together like that."

"But why? Could you not walk with any woman?"

"It's not that," said Stewart hastily. "I suppose once does not matter. But we can't be seen together all the time."

Marie turned white. The time had gone by when an incident of the sort could have been met with scorn or with threats; things had changed for Marie Jedlicka since the day Peter had refused to introduce her to Harmony. Then it had been vanity; now it was life itself.

"What you mean," she said with pale lips, "is that we must not be seen together at all. Must I--do you wish me to remain a prisoner while you--" she choked.

"For Heaven's sake," he broke out brutally, "don't make a scene. There are men cutting ice over there. Of course you are not a prisoner. You may go where you like."

Marie rose and picked up her muff.

Marie's sordid little tragedy played itself out in Semmering. Stewart neglected her almost completely; he took fewer and fewer meals at the villa. In two weeks he spent one evening with the girl, and was so irritable that she went to bed crying. The little mountain resort was filling up; there were more and more Americans. Christmas was drawing near and a dozen or so American doctors came up, bringing their families for the holidays. It was difficult to enter a shop without encountering some of them. To add to the difficulty, the party at the hotel, finding it crowded there, decided to go into a pension and suggested moving to the Waldheim.

Stewart himself was wretchedly uncomfortable. Marie's tragedy was his predicament. He disliked himself very cordially, loathing himself and his situation with the new-born humility of the lover. For Stewart was in love for the first time in his life. Marie knew it. She had not lived with him for months without knowing his every thought, every mood. She grew bitter and hard those days, sitting alone by the green stove in the Pension Waldheim, or leaning, elbows on the rail, looking from the balcony over the valley far below. Bitter and hard, that is, during his absences; he had but to enter the room and her rage died, to be replaced with yearning and little, shy, tentative advances that he only tolerated. Wild thoughts came to Marie, especially at night, when the stars made a crown over the Rax, and in the hotel an orchestra played, while people dined and laughed and loved.

She grew obstinate, too. When in his desperation Stewart suggested that they go back to Vienna she openly scoffed.

"Why?" she demanded. "That you may come back here to her, leaving me there?"

"My dear girl," he flung back exasperated, "this affair was not a permanent one. You knew that at the start."

"You have taken me away from my work. I have two months' vacation. It is but one month."

"Go back and let me pay--"

"No!"

In pursuance of the plan to leave the hotel the American party came to see the Waldheim, and catastrophe almost ensued. Luckily Marie was on the balcony when the landlady flung open the door, and announced it as Stewart's apartment. But Stewart had a bad five minutes and took it out, manlike, on the girl.

Stewart had another reason for not wishing to leave Semmering. Anita was beautiful, a bit of a coquette, too; as are most pretty women. And Stewart was not alone in his devotion. A member of the party, a New Yorker named Adam, was much in love with the girl and indifferent who knew it. Stewart detested him.

In his despair Stewart wrote to Peter Byrne. It was characteristic of Peter that, however indifferent people might be in prosperity,they always turned to him in trouble. Stewart's letter concluded:--

"I have made out a poor case for myself; but I'm in a hole, as you can see. I would like to chuck everything here and sail for home with these people who go in January. But, confound it, Byrne, what am I to do with Marie? And that brings me to what I 've been wanting to say all along, and haven't had the courage to. Marie likes you and you rather liked her, didn't you? You could talk her into reason if anybody could. Now that you know how things are, can't you come up over Sunday? It's asking a lot, and I know it; but things are pretty bad."

Peter received the letter on the morning of the day before Christmas. He read it several times and, recalling the look he had seen more than once in Marie Jedlicka's eyes, he knew that things were very bad, indeed.

But Peter was a man of family in those days, and Christmas is a family festival not to be lightly ignored. He wired to Stewart that he would come up as soon as possible after Christmas. Then, because of the look in Marie's eyes and because he feared for her a sad Christmas, full of heartaches and God knows what loneliness, he bought her a most hideous brooch, which he thought admirable in every way and highly ornamental and which he could not afford at all. This he mailed, with a cheery greeting, and feeling happier and much poorer made his way homeward.