The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Christmas-Day had had a softening effect on Mrs. Boyer. It had opened badly. It was the first Christmas she had spent away from her children, and there had been little of the holiday spirit in her attitude as she prepared the Christmas breakfast. After that, however, things happened.
In the first place, under her plate she had found a frivolous chain and pendant which she had admired. And when her eyes filled up, as they did whenever she was emotionally moved, the doctor had come round the table and put both his arms about her.
"Too young for you? Not a bit!" he said heartily. "You're better-looking then you ever were, Jennie; and if you weren't you're the only woman for me, anyhow. Don't you think I realize what this exile means to you and that you're doing it for me?"
"I--I don't mind it."
"Yes, you do. To-night we'll go out and make a night of it, shall we? Supper at the Grand, the theater, and then the Tabarin, eh?"
She loosened herself from his arms.
"What shall I wear? Those horrible things the children bought me--"
"Throw 'em away."
"They're not worn at all."
"Throw them out. Get rid of the things the children got you. Go out to-morrow and buy something you like--not that I don't like you in anything or without--"
"Be happy, that's the thing. It's the first Christmas without the family, and I miss them too. But we're together, dear. That's the big thing. Merry Christmas."
An auspicious opening, that, to Christmas-Day. And they had carried out the program as outlined. Mrs. Boyer had enjoyed it, albeit a bit horrified at the Christmas gayety at the Tabarin.
The next morning, however, she awakened with a keen reaction. Her head ached. She had a sense of taint over her. She was virtue rampant again, as on the day she had first visited the old lodge in the Siebensternstrasse.
It is hardly astonishing that by association of ideas Harmony came into her mind again, a brand that might even yet be snatched from the burning. She had been a bit hasty before, she admitted to herself. There was a woman doctor named Gates, although her address at the club was given as Pension Schwarz. She determined to do her shopping early and then to visit the house in the Siebensternstrasse. She was not a hard woman, for all her inflexible morality, and more than once she had had an uneasy memory of Harmony's bewildered, almost stricken face the afternoon of her visit. She had been a watchful mother over a not particularly handsome family of daughters. This lovely young girl needed mothering and she had refused it. She would go back, and if she found she had been wrong and the girl was deserving and honest, she would see what could be done.
The day was wretched. The snow had turned to rain. Mrs. Boyer, shopping, dragged wet skirts and damp feet from store to store. She found nothing that she cared for after all. The garments that looked chic in the windows or on manikins in the shops, were absurd on her. Her insistent bosom bulged, straight lines became curves or tortuous zigzags, plackets gaped, collars choked her or shocked her by their absence. In the mirror of Marie Jedlicka, clad in familiar garments that had accommodated themselves to the idiosyncrasies of her figure, Mrs. Boyer was a plump, rather comely matron. Here before the plate glass of the modiste, under the glare of a hundred lights, side by side with a slim Austrian girl who looked like a willow wand, Mrs. Boyer was grotesque, ridiculous, monstrous. She shuddered. She almost wept.
It was bad preparation for a visit to the Siebensternstrasse. Mrs. Boyer, finding her vanity gone, convinced that she was an absurdity physically, fell back for comfort on her soul. She had been a good wife and mother; she was chaste, righteous. God had been cruel to her in the flesh, but He had given her the spirit.
"Madame wishes not the gown? It is beautiful--see the embroidery! And the neck may be filled with chiffon."
"Young woman," she said grimly, "I see the embroidery; and the neck may be filled with chiffon, but not for me! And when you have had five children, you will not buy clothes like that either."
All the kindliness was gone from the visit to the Siebensternstrasse; only the determination remained. Wounded to the heart of her self-esteem, her pride in tatters, she took her way to the old lodge and climbed the stairs.
She found a condition of mild excitement. Jimmy had slept long after his bath. Harmony practiced, cut up a chicken for broth, aired blankets for the chair into which Peter on his return was to lift the boy.
She was called to inspect the mouse-cage, which, according to Jimmy, had strawberries in it.
"Far back," he explained. "There in the cotton, Harry."
But it was not strawberries. Harmony opened the cage and very tenderly took out the cotton nest. Eight tiny pink baby mice, clean washed by the mother, lay curled in a heap.
It was a stupendous moment. The joy of vicarious parentage was Jimmy's. He named them all immediately and demanded food for them. On Harmony's delicate explanation that this was unnecessary, life took on a new meaning for Jimmy. He watched the mother lest she slight one. His responsibility weighed on him. Also his inquiring mind was very busy.
"But how did they get there?" he demanded.
"God sent them, just as he sends babies of all sorts."
"Did he send me?"
"That's a good one on you, Harry. My father found me in a hollow tree."
"But don't you think God had something to do with it?"
Jimmy pondered this.
"I suppose," he reflected, "God sent Daddy to find me so that I would be his little boy. You never happened to see any babies when you were out walking, did you, Harry?"
"Not in stumps--but I probably wasn't looking."
Jimmy eyed her with sympathy.
"You may some day. Would you like to have one?"
"Very much," said Harmony, and flushed delightfully.
Jimmy was disposed to press the matter, to urge immediate maternity on her.
"You could lay it here on the bed," he offered, "and I'd watch it. When they yell you let 'em suck your finger. I knew a woman once that had a baby and she did that. And it could watch Isabella." Isabella was the mother mouse. "And when I'm better I could take it walking."
"That," said Harmony gravely, "is mighty fine of you, Jimmy boy. I--I'll think about it." She never denied Jimmy anything, so now she temporized.
"I'll ask Peter."
Harmony had a half-hysterical moment; then:
"Wouldn't it be better," she asked, "to keep anything of that sort a secret? And to surprise Peter?"
The boy loved a secret. He played with it in lieu of other occupation. His uncertain future was sown thick with secrets that would never flower into reality. Thus Peter had shamelessly promised him a visit to the circus when he was able to go, Harmony not to be told until the tickets were bought. Anna had similarly promised to send him from America a pitcher's glove and a baseball bat. To this list of futurities he now added Harmony's baby.
Harmony brought in her violin and played softly to him, not to disturb the sleeping mice. She sang, too, a verse that the Big Soprano had been fond of and that Jimmy loved. Not much of a voice was Harmony's, but sweet and low and very true, as became her violinist's ear.
"Ah, well! For us all some sweet hope lies Deeply buried from human eyes,"
she sang, her clear eyes luminous.
"And in the hereafter, angels may Roll the stone from its grave away!"
Mrs. Boyer mounted the stairs. She was in a very bad humor. She had snagged her skirt on a nail in the old gate, and although that very morning she had detested the suit, her round of shopping had again endeared it to her. She told the Portier in English what she thought of him, and climbed ponderously, pausing at each landing to examine the damage.
Harmony, having sung Jimmy to sleep, was in the throes of an experiment. She was trying to smoke.
A very human young person was Harmony, apt to be exceedingly wretched if her hat were of last year's fashion, anxious to be inconspicuous by doing what every one else was doing, conventional as are the very young, fearful of being an exception.
And nearly every one was smoking. Many of the young women whom she met at the master's house had yellowed fingers and smoked in the anteroom; the Big Soprano had smoked; Anna and Scatchy had smoked; in the coffee-houses milliners' apprentices produced little silver mouth-pieces to prevent soiling their pretty lips and smoked endlessly. Even Peter had admitted that it was not a vice, but only a comfortable bad habit. And Anna had left a handful of cigarettes.
Harmony was not smoking; she was experimenting. Peter and Anna had smoked together and it had looked comradely. Perhaps, without reasoning it out, Harmony was experimenting toward the end of establishing her relations with Peter still further on friendly and comradely grounds. Two men might smoke together; a man and a woman might smoke together as friends. According to Harmony's ideas, a girl paring potatoes might inspire sentiment, but smoking a cigarette--never!
She did not like it. She thought, standing before her little mirror, that she looked fast, after all. She tried pursing her lips together, as she had seen Anna do, and blowing out the smoke in a thin line. She smoked very hard, so that she stood in the center of a gray nimbus. She hated it, but she persisted. Perhaps it grew on one; perhaps, also, if she walked about it would choke her less. She practiced holding the thing between her first and second fingers, and found that easier than smoking. Then she went to the salon where there was more air, and tried exhaling through her nose. It made her sneeze.
On the sneeze came Mrs. Boyer's ring. Harmony thought very fast. It might be the bread or the milk, but again--She flung the cigarette into the stove, shut the door, and answered the bell.
Mrs. Boyer's greeting was colder than she had intended. It put Harmony on the defensive at once, made her uncomfortable. Like all the innocent falsely accused she looked guiltier than the guiltiest. Under Mrs. Boyer's searching eyes the enormity of her situation overwhelmed her. And over all, through salon and passage, hung the damning odor of the cigarette. Harmany, leading the way in, was a sheep before her shearer.
"I'm calling on all of you," said Mrs. Boyer, sniping. "I meant to bring Dr. Boyer's cards for every one, including Dr. Byrne."
"I'm sorry. Dr. Byrne is out."
"And Dr. Gates?"
"She--she is away."
Mrs. Boyer raised her eyebrows and ostentatiously changed the subject, requesting a needle and thread to draw the rent together. It had been in Harmony's mind to explain the situation, to show Jimmy to Mrs. Boyer, to throw herself on the older woman's sympathy, to ask advice. But the visitor's attitude made this difficult. To add to her discomfort, through the grating in the stove door was coming a thin thread of smoke.
It was, after all, Mrs. Boyer who broached the subject again. She had had a cup of tea, and Harmony, sitting on a stool, had mended the rent so that it could hardly be seen. Mrs. Boyer, softened by the tea and by the proximity of Harmony's lovely head bent over her task, grew slightly more expansive.
"I ought to tell you something, Miss Wells," she said. "You remember my other visit?"
"Perfectly." Harmony bent still lower.
"I did you an injustice at that time. I've been sorry ever since. I thought that there was no Dr. Gates. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to deny it. People do things in this wicked city that they wouldn't do at home. I confess I misjudged Peter Byrne. You can give him my apologies, since he won't see me."
"But he isn't here or of course he'd see you."
"Then," demanded Mrs. Boyer grimly, "if Peter Byrne is not here, who has been smoking cigarettes in this room? There is one still burning in that stove!"
Harmony's hand was forced. She was white as she cut the brown-silk thread and rose to her feet.
"I think," she said, "that I'd better go back a few weeks, Mrs. Boyer, and tell you a story, if you have time to listen."
"If it is disagreeable--"
"Not at all. It is about Peter Byrne and myself, and--some others. It is really about Peter. Mrs. Boyer, will you come very quietly across the hall?"
Mrs. Boyer, expecting Heaven knows what, rose with celerity. Harmony led the way to Jimmy's door and opened it. He was still asleep, a wasted small figure on the narrow bed. Beside him the mice frolicked in their cage, the sentry kept guard over Peter's shameless letters from the Tyrol, the strawberry babies wriggled in their cotton.
"We are not going to have him very long," said Harmony softly. "Peter is making him happy for a little while."
Back in the salon of Maria Theresa she told the whole story. Mrs. Boyer found it very affecting. Harmony sat beside her on a stool and she kept her hand on the girl's shoulder. When the narrative reached Anna's going away, however, she took it away. From that point on she sat uncompromisingly rigid and listened.
"Then you mean to say," she exploded when Harmony had finished, "that you intend to stay on here, just the two of you?"
"Bah! What has the child to do with it?"
"We will find some one to take Anna's place."
"I doubt it. And until you do?"
"There is nothing wicked in what we are doing. Don't you see, Mrs. Boyer, I can't leave the boy."
"Since Peter is so altruistic, let him hire a nurse."
Bad as things were, Harmony smiled.
"A nurse!" she said. "Why, do you realize that he is keeping three people now on what is starvation for one?"
"Then he's a fool!" Mrs. Boyer rose in majesty. "I'm not going to leave you here."
"I'm sorry. You must see--"
"I see nothing but a girl deliberately putting herself in a compromising portion and worse."
"Get your things on. I guess Dr. Boyer and I can look after you until we can send you home."
"I am not going home--yet," said poor Harmony, biting her lip to steady it.
Back and forth waged the battle, Mrs. Boyer assailing, Harmony offering little defense but standing firm on her refusal to go as long as Peter would let her remain.
"It means so much to me," she ventured, goaded. "And I earn my lodging and board. I work hard and--I make him comfortable. It costs him very little and I give him something in exchange. All men are not alike. If the sort you have known are--are different--"
This was unfortunate. Mrs. Boyer stiffened. She ceased offensive tactics, and retired grimly into the dignity of her high calling of virtuous wife and mother. She washed her hands of Harmony and Peter. She tied on her veil with shaking hands, and prepared to leave Harmony to her fate.
"Give me your mother's address," she demanded.
"You absolutely refuse to save yourself?"
"From what? From Peter? There are many worse people than Peter to save myself from, Mrs. Boyer--uncharitable people, and--and cruel people."
Mrs. Boyer shrugged her plump shoulders.
"Meaning me!" she retorted. "My dear child, people are always cruel who try to save us from ourselves."
Unluckily for Harmony, one of Anna's specious arguments must pop into her head at that instant and demand expression.
"People are living their own lives these days, Mrs. Boyer; old standards have gone. It is what one's conscience condemns that is wrong, isn't it? Not merely breaking laws that were made to fit the average, not the exception."
Mrs. Boyer flung up her hands.
"You are impossible!" she snapped. "After all, I believe it is Peter who needs protection! I shall speak to him."
She started down the staircase, but turned for a parting volley.
"And just a word of advice: Perhaps the old standards have gone. But if you really expect to find a respectable woman to chaperon YOU, keep your views to yourself."
Harmony, a bruised and wounded thing, crept into Jimmy's room and sank on her knees beside the bed. One small hand lay on the coverlet; she dared not touch it for fear of waking him--but she laid her cheek close to it for comfort. When Peter came in, much later, he found the boy wide awake and Harmony asleep, a crumpled heap beside the bed.
"I think she's been crying," Jimmy whispered. "She's been sobbing in her sleep. And strike a match, Peter; there may be more mice."