The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Quite suddenly Peter's house, built on the sand, collapsed. The shock came on Christmas-Day, after young McLean, now frankly infatuated, had been driven home by Peter.
Peter did it after his own fashion. Harmony, with unflagging enthusiasm, was looking tired. Suggestions to this effect rolled off McLean's back like rain off a roof. Finally Peter gathered up the fur-lined coat, the velours hat, gloves, and stick, and placed them on the piano in front of the younger man.
"I'm sorry you must go," said Peter calmly, "but, as you say, Miss Wells is tired and there is supper to be eaten. Don't let me hurry you."
The Portier was at the door as McLean, laughing and protesting, went out. He brought a cablegram for Anna. Peter took it to her door and waited uneasily while she read it.
It was an urgent summons home; the old father was very low. He was calling for her, and a few days or week' would see the end. There were things that must be looked after. The need of her was imperative. With the death the old man's pension would cease and Anna was the bread-winner.
Anna held the paper out to Peter and sat down. Her nervous strength seemed to have deserted her. All at once she was a stricken, elderly woman, with hope wiped out of her face and something nearer resentment than grief in its place.
"It has come, Peter," she said dully. "I always knew it couldn't last. They've always hung about my neck, and now--"
"Do you think you must go? Isn't there some way? If things are so bad you could hardly get there in time, and--you must think of yourself a little, Anna."
"I am not thinking of anything else. Peter, I'm an uncommonly selfish woman, but I--"
Quite without warning she burst out crying, unlovely, audible weeping that shook her narrow shoulders. Harmony heard the sound and joined them. After a look at Anna she sat down beside her and put a white arm over her shoulders. She did not try to speak. Anna's noisy grief subsided as suddenly as it came. She patted Harmony's hand in mute acknowledgment and dried her eyes.
"I'm not grieving, child," she said; "I'm only realizing what a selfish old maid I am. I'm crying because I'm a disappointment to myself. Harry, I'm going back to America."
And that, after hours of discussion, was where they ended. Anna must go at once. Peter must keep the apartment, having Jimmy to look after and to hide. What was a frightful dilemma to him and to Harmony Anna took rather lightly.
"You'll find some one else to take my place," she said. "If I had a day I could find a dozen."
"And in the interval?" Harmony asked, without looking at Peter.
"The interval! Tut! Peter is your brother, to all intents and purposes. And if you are thinking of scandal-mongers, who will know?"
Having determined to go, no arguments moved Anna, nor could either of the two think of anything to urge beyond a situation she refused to see, or rather a situation she refused to acknowledge. She was not as comfortable as she pretended. During all that long night, while snow sifted down into the ugly yard and made it beautiful, while Jimmy slept and the white mice played, while Harmony tossed and tried to sleep and Peter sat in his cold room and smoked his pipe, Anna packed her untidy belongings and added a name now and then to a list that was meant for Peter, a list of possible substitutes for herself in the little household.
She left early the next morning, a grim little person who bent over the sleeping boy hungrily, and insisted on carrying her own bag down the stairs. Harmony did not go to the station, but stayed at home, pale and silent, hovering around against Jimmy's awakening and struggling against a feeling of panic. Not that she feared Peter or herself. But she was conventional; shielded girls are accustomed to lean for a certain support on the proprieties, as bridgeplayers depend on rules.
Peter came back to breakfast, but ate little. Harmony did not even sit down, but drank her cup of coffee standing, looking down at the snow below. Jimmy still slept.
"Won't you sit down?" said Peter.
"I'm not hungry, thank you."
"You can sit down without eating."
Peter was nervous. To cover his uneasiness he was distinctly gruff. He pulled a chair out for her and she sat down. Now that they were face to face the tension was lessened. Peter laid Anna's list on the table between them and bent over it toward her.
"You are hurting me very much, Harry," he said. "Do you know why?"
"I? I am only sorry about Anna. I miss her. I--I was fond of her."
"So was I. But that isn't it, Harry. It's something else."
"I'm uncomfortable, Peter."
"So am I. I'm sorry you don't trust me. For that's it."
"Not at all. But, Peter, what will people say?'
"A great deal, if they know. Who is to know? How many people know about us? A handful, at the most, McLean and Mrs. Boyer and one or two others. Of course I can go away until we get some one to take Anna's place, but you'd be here alone at night, and if the youngster had an attack--"
"Oh, no, don't leave him!"
"It's holiday time. There are no clinics until next week. If you'll put up with me--"
"Put up with you, when it is your apartment I use, your food I eat!" She almost choked. "Peter, I must talk about money."
"I'm coming to that. Don't you suppose you more than earn everything? Doesn't it humiliate me hourly to see you working here?"
"Peter! Would you rob me of my last vestige of self-respect?"
This being unanswerable, Peter fell back on his major premise.
"If you'll put up with me for a day or so I'll take this list of Anna's and hunt up some body. Just describe the person you desire and I'll find her." He assumed a certainty he was far from feeling, but it reassured the girl. "A woman, of course?"
"Of course. And not young."
"'Not young,'" wrote Peter. "Fat?"
Harmony recalled Mrs. Boyer's ample figure and shook her head.
"Not too stout. And agreeable. That's most important."
"'Agreeable,'" wrote Peter. "Although Anna was hardly agreeable, in the strict sense of the word, was she?"
"She was interesting, and--and human."
"'Human!'" wrote Peter. "Wanted, a woman, not young, not too stout, agreeable and human. Shall I advertise?"
The strain was quite gone by that time. Harmony was smiling. Jimmy, waking, called for food, and the morning of the first day was under way.
Peter was well content that morning, in spite of an undercurrent of uneasiness. Before this Anna had shared his proprietorship with him. Now the little household was his. His vicarious domesticity pleased him. He strutted about, taking a new view of his domain; he tightened a doorknob and fastened a noisy window. He inspected the coal-supply and grumbled over its quality. He filled the copper kettle on the stove, carried in the water for Jimmy's morning bath, cleaned the mouse cage. He even insisted on peeling the little German potatoes, until Harmony cried aloud at his wastefulness and took the knife from him.
And afterward, while Harmony in the sickroom read aloud and Jimmy put the wooden sentry into the cage to keep order, he got out his books and tried to study. But he did little work. His book lay on his knee, his pipe died beside him. The strangeness of the situation came over him, sitting there, and left him rather frightened. He tried to see it from the viewpoint of an outsider, and found himself incredulous and doubting. McLean would resent the situation. Even the Portier was a person to reckon with. The skepticism of the American colony was a thing to fear and avoid.
And over all hung the incessant worry about money; he could just manage alone. He could not, by any method he knew of, stretch his resources to cover a separate arrangement for himself. But he had undertaken to shield a girl-woman and a child, and shield them he would and could.
Brave thoughts were Peter's that snowy morning in the great salon of Maria Theresa, with the cat of the Portier purring before the fire; brave thoughts, cool reason, with Harmony practicing scales very softly while Jimmy slept, and with Anna speeding through a white world, to the accompaniment of bitter meditation.
Peter had meant to go to Semmering that day, but even the urgency of Marie's need faded before his own situation. He wired Stewart that he would come as soon as he could, and immediately after lunch departed for the club, Anna's list in his pocket, Harmony's requirements in mind. He paused at Jimmy's door on his way out.
"What shall it be to-day?" he inquired. "A postcard or a crayon?"
"I wish I could have a dog."
"We'll have a dog when you are better and can take him walking. Wait until spring, son."
"Some more mice?"
"You will have them--but not to-day."
"What holiday comes next?"
"New Year's Day. Suppose I bring you a New Year's card."
"That's right," agreed Jimmy. "One I can send to Dad. Do you think he will come back this year?" wistfully.
Peter dropped on his baggy knees beside the bed and drew the little wasted figure to him.
"I think you'll surely see him this year, old man," he said huskily.
Peter walked to the Doctors' Club. On the way he happened on little Georgiev, the Bulgarian, and they went on together. Peter managed to make out that Georgiev was studying English, and that he desired to know the state of health and the abode of the Fraulein Wells. Peter evaded the latter by the simple expedient of pretending not to understand. The little Bulgarian watched him earnestly, his smouldering eyes not without suspicion. There had been much talk in the Pension Schwarz about the departure together of the three Americans. The Jew from Galicia still raved over Harmony's beauty.
Georgiev rather hoped, by staying by Peter, to be led toward his star. But Peter left him at the Doctors' Club, still amiable, but absolutely obtuse to the question nearest the little spy's heart.
The club was almost deserted. The holidays had taken many of the members out of town. Other men were taking advantage of the vacation to see the city, or to make acquaintance again with families they had hardly seen during the busy weeks before Christmas. The room at the top of the stairs where the wives of the members were apt to meet for chocolate and to exchange the addresses of dressmakers was empty; in the reading room he found McLean. Although not a member, McLean was a sort of honorary habitue, being allowed the privilege of the club in exchange for a dependable willingness to play at entertainments of all sorts.
It was in Peter's mind to enlist McLean's assistance in his difficulties. McLean knew a good many people. He was popular, goodlooking, and in a colony where, unlike London and Paris, the great majority were people of moderate means, he was conspicuously well off. But he was also much younger than Peter and intolerant with the insolence of youth. Peter was thinking hard as he took off his overcoat and ordered beer.
The boy was in love with Harmony already; Peter had seen that, as he saw many things. How far his love might carry him, Peter had no idea. It seemed to him, as he sat across the reading-table and studied him over his magazine, that McLean would resent bitterly the girl's position, and that when he learned it a crisis might be precipitated.
One of three things might happen: He might bend all his energies to second Peter's effort to fill Anna's place, to find the right person; he might suggest taking Anna's place himself, and insist that his presence in the apartment would be as justifiable as Peter's; or he might do at once the thing Peter felt he would do eventually, cut the knot of the difficulty by asking Harmony to marry him. Peter, greeting him pleasantly, decided not to tell him anything, to keep him away if possible until the thing was straightened out, and to wait for an hour at the club in the hope that a solution might stroll in for chocolate and gossip.
In any event explanation to McLean would have required justification. Peter disliked the idea. He could humble himself, if necessary, to a woman; he could admit his asininity in assuming the responsibility of Jimmy, for instance, and any woman worthy of the name, or worthy of living in the house with Harmony, would understand. But McLean was young, intolerant. He was more than that, though Peter, concealing from himself just what Harmony meant to him, would not have admitted a rival for what he had never claimed. But a rival the boy was. Peter, calmly reading a magazine and drinking his Munich beer, was in the grip of the fiercest jealousy. He turned pages automatically, to recall nothing of what he had read.
McLean, sitting across from him, watched him surreptitiously. Big Peter, aggressively masculine, heavy of shoulder, direct of speech and eye, was to him the embodiment of all that a woman should desire in a man. He, too, was jealous, but humbly so. Unlike Peter he knew his situation, was young enough to glory in it. Shameless love is always young; with years comes discretion, perhaps loss of confidence. The Crusaders were youths, pursuing an idea to the ends of the earth and flaunting a lady's guerdon from spear or saddle-bow. The older men among them tucked the handkerchief or bit of a gauntleted glove under jerkin and armor near the heart, and flung to the air the guerdon of some light o' love. McLean would have shouted Harmony's name from the housetops. Peter did not acknowledge even to himself that he was in love with her.
It occurred to McLean after a time that Peter being in the club, and Harmony being in all probability at home, it might be possible to see her alone for a few minutes. He had not intended to go back to the house in the Siebensternstrasse so soon after being peremptorily put out; he had come to the club with the intention of clinching his resolution with a game of cribbage. But fate was playing into his hands. There was no cribbage player round, and Peter himself sat across deeply immersed in a magazine. McLean rose, not stealthily, but without unnecessary noise.
So far so good. Peter turned a page and went on reading. McLean sauntered to a window, hands in pockets. He even whistled a trifle, under his breath, to prove how very casual were his intentions. Still whistling, he moved toward the door. Peter turned another page, which was curiously soon to have read two columns of small type without illustrations.
Once out in the hall McLean's movements gained aim and precision. He got his coat, hat and stick, flung the first over his arm and the second on his head, and--
"Going out?" asked Peter calmly.
"Yes, nothing to do here. I've read all the infernal old magazines until I 'm sick of them." Indignant, too, from his tone.
"Mind if I go with you?"
"Not at all."
Peter, taking down his old overcoat from its hook, turned and caught the boy's eye. It was a swift exchange of glances, but illuminating--Peter's whimsical, but with a sort of grim determination; McLean's sheepish, but equally determined.
"Rotten afternoon," said McLean as they started for the stairs. "Half rain, half snow. Streets are ankle-deep."
"I'm not particularly keen about walking, but--I don't care for this tomb alone."
Nothing was further from McLean's mind than a walk with Peter that afternoon. He hesitated halfway down the upper flight.
"You don't care for cribbage, do you?"
"Don't know anything about it. How about pinochle?"
They had both stopped, equally determined, equally hesitating.
"Pinochle it is," acquiesced McLean. "I was only going because there was nothing to do."
Things went very well for Peter that afternoon--up to a certain point. He beat McLean unmercifully, playing with cold deliberation. McLean wearied, fidgeted, railed at his luck. Peter played on grimly.
The club filled up toward the coffee-hour. Two or three women, wives of members, a young girl to whom McLean had been rather attentive before he met Harmony and who bridled at the abstracted bow he gave her. And, finally, when hope in Peter was dead, one of the women on Anna's list.
Peter, laying down pairs and marking up score, went over Harmony's requirements. Dr. Jennings seemed to fit them all, a woman, not young, not too stout, agreeable and human. She was a large, almost bovinely placid person, not at all reminiscent of Anna. She was neat where Anna had been disorderly, well dressed and breezy against Anna's dowdiness and sharpness. Peter, having totaled the score, rose and looked down at McLean.
"You're a nice lad," he said, smiling. "Sometime I shall teach you the game."
"How about a lesson to-night in Seven-Star Street?"
"To-night? Why, I'm sorry. We have an engagement for to-night."
The "we" was deliberate and cruel. McLean writhed. Also the statement was false, but the boy was spared that knowledge for the moment.
Things went well. Dr. Jennings was badly off for quarters. She would make a change if she could better herself. Peter drew her off to a corner and stated his case. She listened attentively, albeit not without disapproval.
She frankly discredited the altruism of Peter's motives when he told her about Harmony. But as the recital went on she found herself rather touched. The story of Jimmy appealed to her. She scolded and lauded Peter in one breath, and what was more to the point, she promised to visit the house in the Siebensternstrasse the next day.
"So Anna Gates has gone home!" she reflected. "When?"
"Then the girl is there alone?"
"Yes. She is very young and inexperienced, and the boy--it's myocarditis. She's afraid to be left with him."
"Is she quite alone?"
"Absolutely, and without funds, except enough for her lessons. Our arrangement was that she should keep the house going; that was her share."
Dr. Jennings was impressed. It was impossible to talk to Peter and not believe him. Women trusted Peter always.
"You've been very foolish, Dr. Byrne," she said as she rose; "but you've been disinterested enough to offset that and to put some of us to shame. To-morrow at three, if it suits you. You said the Siebensternstrasse?"
Peter went home exultant.