The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Mrs. Boyer, bursting with indignation, went to the Doctors' Club. It was typical of the way things were going with Peter that Dr. Boyer was not there, and that the only woman in the clubrooms should be Dr. Jennings. Young McLean was in the reading room, eating his heart out with jealousy of Peter, vacillating between the desire to see Harmony that night and fear lest Peter forbid him the house permanently if he made the attempt. He had found a picture of the Fraulein Engel, from the opera, in a magazine, and was sitting with it open before him. Very deeply and really in love was McLean that afternoon, and the Fraulein Engel and Harmony were not unlike. The double doors between the reading room and the reception room adjoining were open. McLean, lost in a rosy future in which he and Harmony sat together for indefinite periods, with no Peter to scowl over his books at them, a future in which life was one long piano-violin duo, with the candles in the chandelier going out one by one, leaving them at last alone in scented darkness together--McLean heard nothing until the mention of the Siebensternstrasse roused him.
After that he listened. He heard that Dr. Jennings was contemplating taking Anna's place at the lodge, and he comprehended after a moment that Anna was already gone. Even then the significance of the situation was a little time in dawning on him. When it did, however, he rose with a stifled oath.
Mrs. Boyer was speaking.
"It is exactly as I tell you," she was saying. "If Peter Byrne is trying to protect her reputation he is late doing it. Personally I have been there twice. I never saw Anna Gates. And she is registered here at the club as living in the Pension Schwarz. Whatever the facts may be, one thing remains, she is not there now."
McLean waited to hear no more. He was beside himself with rage. He found a "comfortable" at the curb. The driver was asleep inside the carriage. McLean dragged him out by the shoulder and shouted an address to him. The cab bumped along over the rough streets to an accompaniment of protests from its frantic passenger.
The boy was white-lipped with wrath and fear. Peter's silence that afternoon as to the state of affairs loomed large and significant. He had thought once or twice that Peter was in love with Harmony; he knew it now in the clearer vision of the moment. He recalled things that maddened him: the dozen intimacies of the little menage, the caress in Peter's voice when he spoke to the girl, Peter's steady eyes in the semi-gloom of the salon while Harmony played.
At a corner they must pause for the inevitable regiment. McLean cursed, bending out to see how long the delay would be. Peter had been gone for half an hour, perhaps, but Peter would walk. If he could only see the girl first, talk to her, tell her what she would be doing by remaining--
He was there at last, flinging across the courtyard like a madman. Peter was already there; his footprints were fresh in the slush of the path. The house door was closed but not locked. McLean ran up the stairs. It was barely twilight outside, but the staircase well was dark. At the upper landing he was compelled to fumble for the bell.
Peter admitted him. The corridor was unlighted, but from the salon came a glow of lamplight. McLean, out of breath and furious, faced Peter.
"I want to see Harmony," he said without preface.
Peter eyed him. He knew what had happened, had expected it when the bell rang, had anticipated it when Harmony told him of Mrs. Boyer's visit. In the second between the peal of the bell and his opening the door he had decided what to do.
McLean stepped inside. He was smaller than Peter, not so much shorter as slenderer. Even Peter winced before the look in his eyes.
"Where is she?"
"In the kitchen, I think. Come into the salon."
McLean flung off his coat. Peter closed the door behind him and stood just inside. He had his pipe as usual. "I came to see her, not you, Byrne."
"So I gather. I'll let you see her, of course, but don't you want to see me first?"
"I want to take her away from here."
"Why? Are you better able to care for her than I am?"
McLean stood rigid. He had thrust his clenched hands into his pockets.
"You're a scoundrel, Byrne," he said steadily. "Why didn't you tell me this this afternoon?"
"Because I knew if I did you'd do just what you are doing."
"Are you going to keep her here?"
Peter changed color at the thrust, but he kept himself in hand.
"I'm not keeping her here," he said patiently. "I'm doing the best I can under the circumstances."
"Then your best is pretty bad."
"Perhaps. If you would try to remember the circumstances, McLean,--that the girl has no place else to go, practically no money, and that I--"
"I remember one circumstance, that you are living here alone with her and that you're crazy in love with her."
"That has nothing to do with you. As long as I treat her--"
"Will you be good enough to let me finish what I am trying to say? She's safe with me. When I say that I mean it. She will not go away from here with you or with any one else if I can prevent it. And if you care enough about her to try to keep her happy you'll not let her know you have been here. I've got a woman coming to take Anna's place. That ought to satisfy you."
"She'll not come. Mrs. Boyer has been talking to her. Inside of an hour the whole club will have it--every American in Vienna will know about it in a day or so. I tell you, Byrne, you're doing an awful thing."
Peter drew a long breath. He had had his bad half-hour before McLean came; had had to stand by, wordless, and see Harmony trying to smile, see her dragging about, languid and white, see her tragic attempts to greet him on the old familiar footing. Through it all he had been sustained by the thought that a day or two days would see the old footing reestablished, another woman in the house, life again worth the living and Harmony smiling up frankly into his eyes. Now this hope had departed.
"You can't keep me from seeing her, you know," McLean persisted. "I've got to put this thing to her. She's got to choose."
"What alternative have you to suggest?"
"I'd marry her if she'd have me."
After all Peter had expected that. And, if she cared for the boy wouldn't that be best for her? What had he to offer against that? He couldn't marry. He could only offer her shelter, against everything else. Even then he did not dislike McLean. He was a man, every slender inch of him, this boy musician. Peter's heart sank, but he put down his pipe and turned to the door.
"I'll call her," he said. "But, since this concerns me very vitally, I should like to be here while you put the thing to her. After that if you like--"
He called Harmony. She had given Jimmy his supper and was carrying out a tray that seemed hardly touched.
"He won't eat to-night," she said miserably. "Peter, if he stops eating, what can we do? He is so weak!"
Peter, took the tray from her gently.
"Harry dear," he said, "I want you to come into the salon. Some one wishes to speak to you."
"Yes. Harry, do you remember that evening in the kitchen when--Do you recall what I promised?"
"You are sure you know what I mean?"
"That's all right, then. McLean wants to see you."
She hesitated, looking up at him.
"McLean? You look so grave, Peter. What is it?"
"He will tell you. Nothing alarming."
Peter gave McLean a minute alone after all, while he carried the tray to the kitchen. He had no desire to play watchdog over the girl, he told himself savagely; only to keep himself straight with her and to save her from McLean's impetuosity. He even waited in the kitchen to fill and light his pipe.
McLean had worked himself into a very fair passion. He was intense, almost theatrical, as he stood with folded arms waiting for Harmony. So entirely did the girl fill his existence that he forgot, or did not care to remember, how short a time he had known her. As Harmony she dominated his life and his thoughts; as Harmony he addressed her when, rather startled, she entered the salon and stood just inside the closed door.
"Peter said you wanted to speak to me."
McLean groaned. "Peter!" he said. "It is always Peter. Look here, Harmony, you cannot stay here."
"It is only for a few hours. To-morrow some one is coming. And, anyhow, Peter is going to Semmering. We know it is unusual, but what can we do?"
"Unusual! It's--it's damnable. It's the appearance of the thing, don't you see that?"
"I think it is rather silly to talk of appearance when there is no one to care. And how can I leave? Jimmy needs me all the time--"
"That's another idiocy of Peter's. What does he mean by putting you in this position?"
"I am one of Peter's idiocies."
Peter entered on that. He took in the situation with a glance, and Harmony turned to him; but if she had expected Peter to support her, she was disappointed. Whatever decision she was to make must be her own, in Peter's troubled mind. He crossed the room and stood at one of the windows, looking out, a passive participant in the scene.
The day had been a trying one for Harmony. What she chose to consider Peter's defection was a fresh stab. She glanced from McLean, flushed and excited, to Peter's impassive back. Then she sat down, rather limp, and threw out her hands helplessly.
"What am I to do?" she demanded. "Every one comes with cruel things to say, but no one tells me what to do."
Peter turned away from the window.
"You can leave here," ventured McLean. "That's the first thing. After that--"
"Yes, and after that, what?"
McLean glanced at Peter. Then he took a step toward the girl.
"You could marry me, Harmony," he said unsteadily. "I hadn't expected to tell you so soon, or before a third person." He faltered before Harmony's eyes, full of bewilderment. "I'd be very happy if you--if you could see it that way. I care a great deal, you see."
It seemed hours to Peter before she made any reply, and that her voice came from miles away.
"Is it really as bad as that?" she asked. "Have I made such a mess of things that some one, either you or Peter, must marry me to straighten things out? I don't want to marry any one. Do I have to?"
"Certainly you don't have to," said Peter. There was relief in his voice, relief and also something of exultation. "McLean, you mean well, but marriage isn't the solution. We were getting along all right until our friends stepped in. Let Mrs. Boyer howl all over the colony; there will be one sensible woman somewhere to come and be comfortable here with us. In the interval we'll manage, unless Harmony is afraid. In that case--"
"Afraid of what?"
The two men exchanged glances, McLean helpless, Peter triumphant.
"I do not care what Mrs. Boyer says, at least not much. And I am not afraid of anything else at all."
McLean picked up his overcoat.
"At least," he appealed to Peter, "you'll come over to my place?"
"No!" said Peter.
McLean made a final appeal to Harmony.
"If this gets out," he said, "you are going to regret it all your life."
"I shall have nothing to regret," she retorted proudly.
Had Peter not been there McLean would have made a better case, would have pleaded with her, would have made less of a situation that roused her resentment and more of his love for her. He was very hard hit, very young. He was almost hysterical with rage and helplessness; he wanted to slap her, to take her in his arms. He writhed under the restraint of Peter's steady eyes.
He got to the door and turned, furious.
"Then it's up to you," he flung at Peter. "You're old enough to know better; she isn't. And don't look so damned superior. You're human, like the rest of us. And if any harm comes to her--"
Here unexpectedly Peter held out his hand, and after a sheepish moment McLean took it.
"Good-night, old man," said Peter. "And--don't be an ass."
As was Peter's way, the words meant little, the tone much. McLean knew what in his heart he had known all along--that the girl was safe enough; that all that was to fear was the gossip of scandal-lovers. He took Peter's hand, and then going to Harmony stood before her very erect.
"I suppose I've said too much; I always do," he said contritely. "But you know the reason. Don't forget the reason, will you?"
"I am only sorry."
He bent over and kissed her hand lingeringly. It was a tragic moment for him, poor lad! He turned and went blindly out the door and down the dark stone staircase. It was rather anticlimax, after all that, to have Peter discover he had gone without his hat and toss it down to him a flight below.
All the frankness had gone out of the relationship between Harmony and Peter. They made painful efforts at ease, talked during the meal of careful abstractions, such as Jimmy, and Peter's proposed trip to Semmering, avoided each other's eyes, ate little or nothing. Once when Harmony passed Peter his coffee-cup their fingers touched, and between them they dropped the cup. Harmony was flushed and pallid by turns, Peter wretched and silent.
Out of the darkness came one ray of light. Stewart had wired from Semmering, urging Peter to come. He would be away for two days. In two days much might happen; Dr. Jennings might come or some one else. In two days some of the restraint would have worn off. Things would never be the same, but they would be forty-eight hours better.
Peter spent the early part of the evening with Jimmy, reading aloud to him. After the child had dropped to sleep he packed a valise for the next day's journey and counted out into an envelope half of the money he had with him. This he labeled "Household Expenses" and set it up on his table, leaning against his collar-box. There was no sign of Harmony about. The salon was dark except for the study lamp turned down.
Peter was restless. He put on his shabby dressing-gown and worn slippers and wandered about. The Portier had brought coal to the landing; Peter carried it in. He inspected the medicine bottles on Jimmy's stand and wrote full directions for every emergency he could imagine. Then, finding it still only nine o'clock, he turned up the lamp in the salon and wrote an exciting letter from Jimmy's father, in which a lost lamb, wandering on the mountain-side, had been picked up by an avalanche and carried down into the fold and the arms of the shepherd. And because he stood so in loco parentis, and because it seemed so inevitable that before long Jimmy would be in the arms of the Shepherd, and, of course, because it had been a trying day all through, Peter's lips were none too steady as he folded up the letter.
The fire was dead in the stove; Peter put out the salon lamp and closed the shutters. In the warm darkness he put out his hand to feel his way through the room. It touched a little sweater coat of Harmony's, hanging over the back of a chair. Peter picked it up in a very passion of tenderness and held it to him.
"Little girl!" he choked. "My little girl! God help me!"
He was rather ashamed, considerably startled. It alarmed him to find that the mere unexpected touch of a familiar garment could rouse such a storm in him. It made him pause. He put down the coat and pulled himself up sharply. McLean was right; he was only human stuff, very poor human stuff. He put the little coat down hastily, only to lift it again gently to his lips.
"Good-night, dear," he whispered. "Goodnight, Harmony."
Frau Schwarz had had two visitors between the hours of coffee and supper that day. The reason of their call proved to be neither rooms nor pension. They came to make inquiries.
The Frau Schwarz made this out at last, and sat down on the edge of the bed in the room that had once been Peter's and that still lacked an occupant.
Mrs. Boyer had no German; Dr. Jennings very little and that chiefly medical. There is, however, a sort of code that answers instead of language frequently, when two or three women of later middle life are gathered together, a code born of mutual understanding, mutual disillusion, mutual distrust, a language of outspread hands, raised eyebrows, portentous shakings of the head. Frau Schwarz, on the edge of Peter's tub-shaped bed, needed no English to convey the fact that Peter was a bad lot. Not that she resorted only to the sign language.
"The women were also wicked," she said. "Of a man what does one expect? But of a woman! And the younger one looked--Herr Gott! She had the eyes of a saint! The little Georgiev was mad for her. When the three of them left, disgraced, as one may say, he came to me, he threatened me. The Herr Schwarz, God rest his soul, was a violent man, but never spoke he so to me!"
"She says," interpreted Dr. Jennings, "that they were a bad lot--that the younger one made eyes at the Herr Schwarz!"
Mrs. Boyer drew her ancient sables about her and put a tremulous hand on the other woman's arm.
"What an escape for you!" she said. "If you had gone there to live and then found the establishment--queer!"
From the kitchen of the pension, Olga was listening, an ear to the door. Behind her, also listening, but less advantageously, was Katrina.
"American ladies!" said Olga. "Two, old and fat."
"More hot water!" growled Katrina. "Why do not the Americans stay in their own country, where the water, I have learned, comes hot from the earth."
Olga, bending forward, opened the door a crack wider.
"Sh! They do not come for rooms. They inquire for the Herr Doktor Byrne and the others!"
"Of a certainty."
"Then let me to the door!"
"A moment. She tells them everything and more. She says--how she is wicked, Katrina! She says the Fraulein Harmony was not good, that she sent them all away. Here, take the door!"
Thus it happened that Dr. Jennings and Mrs. Boyer, having shaken off the dust of a pension that had once harbored three malefactors, and having retired Peter and Anna and Harmony into the limbo of things best forgotten or ignored, found themselves, at the corner, confronted by a slovenly girl in heelless slippers and wearing a knitted shawl over her head. "The Frau Schwarz is wrong," cried Olga passionately in Vienna dialect. "They were good, all of them!"
"What in the world--"
"And, please, tell me where lives the Fraulein Harmony. The Herr Georgiev eats not nor sleeps that he cannot find her."
Dr. Jennings was puzzled.
"She wishes to know where the girl lives," she interpreted to Mrs. Boyer. "A man wishes to know."
"Naturally!" said Mrs. Boyer. "Well, don't tell her."
Olga gathered from the tone rather than the words that she was not to be told. She burst into a despairing appeal in which the Herr Georgiev, Peter, a necktie Peter had forgotten, open windows, and hot water were inextricably confused. Dr. Jennings listened, then waved her back with a gesture.
"She says," she interpreted as they walked on, "that Dr. Peter--by which I suppose she means Dr. Byrne--has left a necktie, and that she'll be in hot water if she does not return it."
Mrs. Boyer sniffed.
"In love with him, probably, like the others!" she said.