The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Christmas-Eve in the saloon of Maria Theresa! Christmas-Eve, with the great chandelier recklessly ablaze and a pig's head with cranberry eyes for supper! Christmas-Eve, with a two-foot tree gleaming with candles on the stand, and beside the stand, in a huge chair, Jimmy!
It had been a busy day for Harmony. In the morning there had been shopping and marketing, and such a temptation to be reckless, with the shops full of ecstasies and the old flower women fairly overburdened. There had been anxieties, too, such as the pig's head, which must be done a certain way, and Jimmy, who must be left with the Portier's wife as nurse while all of them went to the hospital. The house revolved around Jimmy now, Jimmy, who seemed the better for the moving, and whose mother as yet had failed to materialize.
In the afternoon Harmony played at the hospital. Peter took her as the early twilight was falling in through the gate where the sentry kept guard and so to the great courtyard. In this grim playground men wandered about, smoking their daily allowance of tobacco and moving to keep warm, offscourings of the barracks, derelicts of the slums, with here and there an honest citizen lamenting a Christmas away from home. The hospital was always pathetic to Harmony; on this Christmas-Eve she found it harrowing. Its very size shocked her, that there should be so much suffering, so much that was appalling, frightful, insupportable. Peter felt her quiver under his hand. A hospital in festivity is very affecting. It smiles through its tears. And in every assemblage there are sharply defined lines of difference. There are those who are going home soon, God willing; there are those who will go home some time after long days and longer nights. And there are those who will never go home and who know it. And because of this the ones who are never going home are most festively clad, as if, by way of compensation, the nurses mean to give them all future Christmasses in one. They receive an extra orange, or a pair of gloves, perhaps,--and they are not the less grateful because they understand. And when everything is over they lay away in the bedside stand the gloves they will never wear, and divide the extra orange with a less fortunate one who is almost recovered. Their last Christmas is past.
"How beautiful the tree was!" they say. Or, "Did you hear how the children sang? So little, to sing like that! It made me think--of angels."
Peter led Harmony across the courtyard, through many twisting corridors, and up and down more twisting staircases to the room where she was to play. There were many Christmas trees in the hospital that afternoon; no one hall could have held the thousands of patients, the doctors, the nurses. Sometimes a single ward had its own tree, its own entertainment. Occasionally two or three joined forces, preempted a lecture-room, and wheeled or hobbled or carried in their convalescents. In such case an imposing audience was the result.
Into such a room Peter led Harmony. It was an amphitheater, the seats rising in tiers, half circle above half circle, to the dusk of the roof. In the pit stood the tree, candle-lighted. There was no other illumination in the room. The semi-darkness, the blazing tree, the rows of hopeful, hoping, hopeless, rising above, white faces over white gowns, the soft rustle of expectancy, the silence when the Dozent with the red beard stepped out and began to read an address--all caught Harmony by the throat. Peter, keenly alive to everything she did, felt rather than heard her soft sob.
Peter saw the hospital anew that dark afternoon, saw it through Harmony's eyes. Layer after layer his professional callus fell away, leaving him quick again. He had lived so long close to the heart of humanity that he had reduced its throbbing to beats that might be counted. Now, once more, Peter was back in the early days, when a heart was not a pump, but a thing that ached or thrilled or struggled, that loved or hated or yearned.
The orchestra, insisting on sadly sentimental music, was fast turning festivity into gloom. It played Handel's "Largo"; it threw its whole soul into the assurance that the world, after all, was only a poor place, that Heaven was a better. It preached resignation with every deep vibration of the cello. Harmony fidgeted.
"How terrible!" she whispered. "To turn their Christmas-Eve into mourning! Stop them!"
"Stop a German orchestra?"
"They are crying, some of them. Oh, Peter!"
The music came to an end at last. Tears were dried. Followed recitations, gifts, a speech of thanks from Nurse Elisabet for the patients. Then--Harmony.
Harmony never remembered afterward what she had played. It was joyous, she knew, for the whole atmosphere changed. Laughter came; even the candles burned more cheerfully. When she had finished, a student in a white coat asked her to play a German Volkspiel, and roared it out to her accompaniment with much vigor and humor. The audience joined in, at first timidly, then lustily.
Harmony stood alone by the tree, violin poised, smiling at the applause. Her eyes, running along the dim amphitheater, sought Peter's, and finding them dwelt there a moment. Then she began to play softly and as softly the others sang.
"Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,"--they sang, with upturned eyes.
"Alles schlaeft, einsam wacht..."
Visions came to Peter that afternoon in the darkness, visions in which his poverty was forgotten or mattered not at all. Visions of a Christmas-Eve in a home that he had earned, of a tree, of a girl-woman, of a still and holy night, of a child.
"Nur das traute, hoch heilige Paar Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar Schlaf' in himmlischer Ruh', Schlaf' in himmlischer Ruh'," they sang.
There was real festivity at the old lodge of Maria Theresa that night.
Jimmy had taken his full place in the household. The best room, which had been Anna's, had been given up to him. Here, carefully tended, with a fire all day in the stove, Jimmy reigned from the bed. To him Harmony brought her small puzzles and together they solved them.
"Shall it be a steak to-night?" thus Harmony humbly. "Or chops?"
"With tomato sauce?"
"If Peter allows, yes."
Much thinking on Jimmy's part, and then:--
"Fish," he would decide. "Fish with egg dressing."
They would argue for a time, and compromise on fish.
The boy was better. Peter shook his head over any permanent improvement, but Anna fiercely seized each crumb of hope. Many and bitter were the battles she and Peter fought at night over his treatment, frightful the litter of authorities Harmony put straight every morning.
The extra expense was not much, but it told. Peter's carefully calculated expenditures felt the strain. He gave up a course in X-ray on which he had set his heart and cut off his hour in the coffee-house as a luxury. There was no hardship about the latter renunciation. Life for Peter was spelling itself very much in terms of Harmony and Jimmy those days. He resented anything that took him from them.
There were anxieties of a different sort also. Anna's father was failing. He had written her a feeble, half-senile appeal to let bygones be bygones and come back to see him before he died. Anna was Peter's great prop. What would he do should she decide to go home? He had built his house on the sand, indeed.
So far the threatened danger of a mother to Jimmy had not materialized. Peter was puzzled, but satisfied. He still wrote letters of marvelous adventure; Jimmy still watched for them, listened breathless, treasured them under his pillow. But he spoke less of his father. The open page of his childish mind was being written over with new impressions. "Dad" was already a memory; Peter and Harmony and Anna were realities. Sometimes he called Peter "Dad." At those times Peter caught the boy to him in an agony of tenderness.
And as the little apartment revolved round Jimmy, so was this Christmas-Eve given up to him. All day he had stayed in bed for the privilege of an extra hour propped up among pillows in the salon. All day he had strung little red berries that looked like cranberries for the tree, or fastened threads to the tiny cakes that were for trimming only, and sternly forbidden to eat.
A marvelous day that for Jimmy. Late in the afternoon the Portier, with a collar on, had mounted the stairs and sheepishly presented him with a pair of white mice in a wooden cage. Jimmy was thrilled. The cage was on his knees all evening, and one of the mice was clearly ill of a cake with pink icing. The Portier's gift was a stealthy one, while his wife was having coffee with her cousin, the brushmaker. But the spirit Of Christmas does strange things. That very evening, while the Portier was roistering in a beer hall preparatory to the midnight mass, came the Portier's wife, puffing from the stairs, and brought a puzzle book that only the initiated could open, and when one succeeded at last there was a picture of the Christ-Child within.
Young McLean came to call that evening--came to call and remained to worship. It was the first time since Mrs. Boyer that a visitor had come. McLean, interested with everything and palpably not shocked, was a comforting caller. He seemed to Harmony, who had had bad moments since the day of Mrs. Boyer's visit, to put the hallmark of respectability on the household, to restore it to something it had lost or had never had.
She was quite unconscious of McLean's admiration. She and Anna put Jimmy to bed. The tree candles were burned out; Peter was extinguishing the dying remnants when Harmony came back. McLean was at the piano, thrumming softly. Peter, turning round suddenly, surprised an expression on the younger man's face that startled him.
For that one night Harmony had laid aside her mourning, and wore white, soft white, tucked in at the neck, short-sleeved, trailing. Peter had never seen her in white before.
It was Peter's way to sit back and listen: his steady eyes were always alert, good-humored, but he talked very little. That night he was unusually silent. He sat in the shadow away from the lamp and watched the two at the piano: McLean playing a bit of this or that, the girl bending over a string of her violin. Anna came in and sat down near him.
"The boy is quite fascinated," she whispered. "Watch his eyes!"
"He is a nice boy." This from Peter, as if he argued with himself.
"As men go!" This was a challenge Peter was usually quick to accept. That night he only smiled. "It would be a good thing for her: his people are wealthy."
Money, always money! Peter ground his teeth over his pipestem. Eminently it would be a good thing for Harmony, this nice boy in his well-made evening clothes, who spoke Harmony's own language of music, who was almost speechless over her playing, and who looked up at her with eyes in which admiration was not unmixed with adoration.
Peter was restless. As the music went on he tiptoed out of the room and took to pacing up and down the little corridor. Each time as he passed the door he tried not to glance in; each time he paused involuntarily. Jealousy had her will of him that night, jealousy, when he had never acknowledged even to himself how much the girl was to him.
Jimmy was restless. Usually Harmony's music put him to sleep; but that night he lay awake, even after Peter had closed all the doors. Peter came in and sat with him in the dark, going over now and then to cover him, or to give him a drink, or to pick up the cage of mice which Jimmy insisted on having beside him and which constantly slipped off on to the floor. After a time Peter lighted the night-light, a bit of wick on a cork floating in a saucer of lard oil, and set it on the bedside table. Then round it he arranged Jimmy's treasures, the deer antlers, the cage of mice, the box, the wooden sentry. The boy fell asleep. Peter sat in the room, his dead pipe in his teeth, and thought of many things.
It was very late when young McLean left. The two had played until they stopped for very weariness. Anna had yawned herself off to bed. From Jimmy's room Peter could hear the soft hum of their voices.
"You have been awfully good to me," McLean said as he finally rose to go. "I--I want you to know that I'll never forget this evening, never."
"It has been splendid, hasn't it? Since little Scatchy left there has been no one for the piano. I have been lonely sometimes for some one to talk music to."
Lonely! Poor Peter!
"Then you will let me come back?"
"Will I, indeed! I--I'll be grateful."
"How soon would be proper? I dare say to-morrow you'll be busy--Christmas and all that."
"Do you mean you would like to come to-morrow?"
"If old Peter wouldn't be fussed. He might think--"
"Peter always wants every one to be happy. So if you really care--"
"And I'll not bore you?"
"How--about what time?"
"In the afternoon would be pleasant, I think. And then Jimmy can listen. He loves music."
McLean, having found his fur-lined coat, got into it as slowly as possible. Then he missed a glove, and it must be searched for in all the dark corners of the salon until found in his pocket. Even then he hesitated, lingered, loath to break up this little world of two.
"You play wonderfully," he said.
"So do you."
"If only something comes of it! It's curious, isn't it, when you think of it? You and I meeting here in the center of Europe and both of us working our heads off for something that may never pan out."
There was something reminiscent about that to Harmony. It was not until after young McLean had gone that she recalled. It was almost word for word what Peter had said to her in the coffee-house the night they met. She thought it very curious, the coincidence, and pondered it, being ignorant of the fact that it is always a matter for wonder when the man meets the woman, no matter where. Nothing is less curious, more inevitable, more amazing. "You and I," forsooth, said Peter!
"You and I," cried young McLean!