The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Peter went to Semmering the next morning, tiptoeing out very early and without breakfast. He went in to cover Jimmy, lying diagonally across his small bed amid a riot of tossed blankets. The communicating door into Harmony's room was open. Peter kept his eyes carefully from it, but his ears were less under control. He could hear her soft breathing. There were days coming when Peter would stand where he stood then and listen, and find only silence.
He tore himself away at last, closing the outer door carefully behind him and lighting a match to find his way down the staircase. The Portier was not awake. Peter had to rouse him, and to stand by while he donned the trousers which he deemed necessary to the dignity of his position before he opened the street door.
Reluctant as he had been to go, the change was good for Peter. The dawn grew rosy, promised sunshine, fulfilled its promise. The hurrying crowds at the depot interested him: he enjoyed his coffee, taken from a bare table in the station. The horizontal morning sunlight, shining in through marvelously clean windows, warmed the marble of the floor, made black shadows beside the heaps of hand luggage everywhere, turned into gold the hair of a toddling baby venturing on a tour of discovery. The same morning light, alas! revealed to Peter a break across the toe of one of his shoes. Peter sighed, then smiled. The baby was catching at the bits of dust that floated in the sunshine.
Suddenly a great wave of happiness overwhelmed Peter. It was a passing thing, born of nothing, but for the instant that it lasted Peter was a king. Everything was well. The world was his oyster. Life was his, to make it what he would--youth and hope and joy. Under the beatific influence he expanded, grew, almost shone. Youth and hope and joy--that cometh in the morning.
The ecstasy passed away, but without reaction. Peter no longer shone; he still glowed. He picked up the golden-haired baby and hugged it. He hunted out a beggar he had passed and gave him five Hellers. He helped a suspicious old lady with an oilcloth-covered bundle; he called the guard on the train "son" and forced a grin out of that dignitary.
Peter traveled third-class, which was quite comfortable, and no bother about "Nicht Rauchen" signs. His unreasonable cheerfulness persisted as far as Gloggnitz. There, with the increasing ruggedness of the scenery and his first view of the Raxalpe, came recollection of the urgency of Stewart's last message, of Marie Jedlicka, of the sordid little tragedy that awaited him at the end of his journey.
Peter sobered. Life was rather a mess, after all, he reflected. Love was a blessing, but it was also a curse. After that he sat back in his corner and let the mountain scenery take care of itself, while he recalled the look he had surprised once or twice in Marie's eyes when she looked at Stewart. It was sad, pitiful. Marie was a clever little thing. If only she'd had a chance!-- Why wasn't he rich enough to help the ones who needed help. Marie could start again in America, with no one the wiser, and make her way.
"Smart as the devil, these Austrian girls!" Peter reflected. "Poor little guttersnipe!"
The weather was beautiful. The sleet of the previous day in Vienna had been a deep snowfall on the mountains. The Schwarza was frozen, the castle of Liechtenstein was gray against a white world. A little pilgrimage church far below seemed snowed in against the faithful. The third-class compartment filled with noisy skiing parties. The old woman opened her oilcloth bundle, and taking a cat out of a box inside fed it a sausage.
Up and up, past the Weinzettelwand and the Station Breitenstein, across the highest viaduct, the Kalte Rinne, and so at last to Semmering.
The glow had died at last for Peter. He did not like his errand, was very vague, indeed, as to just what that errand might be. He was stiff and rather cold. Also he thought the cat might stifle in the oilcloth, but the old woman too clearly distrusted him to make it possible to interfere. Anyhow, he did not know the German for either cat or oilcloth.
He had wired Stewart; but the latter was not at the station. This made him vaguely uneasy, he hardly knew why. He did not know Stewart well enough to know whether he was punctilious in such matters or not: as a matter of fact he hardly knew him at all. It was because he had appealed to him that Peter was there, it being only necessary to Peter to be needed, and he was anywhere.
The Pension Waldheim was well up the mountains. He shouldered his valise and started up--first long flights of steps through the pines, then a steep road. Peter climbed easily. Here and there he met groups coming down, men that he thought probably American, pretty women in "tams" and sweaters. He watched for Marie, but there was no sign of her.
He was half an hour, perhaps, in reaching the Waldheim. As he turned in at the gate he noticed a sledge, with a dozen people following it, coming toward him. It was a singularly silent party. Peter, with his hand on the door-knocker, watched its approach with some curiosity.
It stopped, and the men who had been following closed up round it. Even then Peter did not understand. He did not understand until he saw Stewart, limp and unconscious, lifted out of the straw and carried toward him.
Suicide may be moral cowardice; but it requires physical bravery. And Marie was not brave. The balcony had attracted her: it opened possibilities of escape, of unceasing regret and repentance for Stewart, of publicity that would mean an end to the situation. But every inch of her soul was craven at the thought. She crept out often and looked down, and as often drew back, shuddering. To fall down, down on to the tree tops, to be dropped from branch to branch, a broken thing, and perhaps even not yet dead--that was the unthinkable thing, to live for a time and suffer!
Stewart was not ignorant of all that went on in her mind. She had threatened him with the balcony, just as, earlier in the winter, it had been a window-ledge with which she had frightened him. But there was this difference, whereas before he had drawn her back from the window and clapped her into sanity, now he let her alone. At the end of one of their quarrels she had flung out on to the balcony, and then had watched him through the opening in the shutter. He had lighted a cigarette!
Stewart spent every daylight hour at the hotel, or walking over the mountain roads, seldom alone with Anita, but always near her. He left Marie sulking or sewing, as the case might be. He returned in the evening to find her still sulking, still sewing.
But Marie did not sulk all day, or sew. She too was out, never far from Stewart, always watching. Many times she escaped discovery only by a miracle, as when she stooped behind an oxcart, pretending to tie her shoe, or once when they all met face to face, and although she lowered her veil Stewart must have known her instantly had he not been so intent on helping Anita over a slippery gutter.
She planned a dozen forms of revenge and found them impossible of execution. Stewart himself was frightfully unhappy. For the first time in his life he was really in love, with all the humility of the condition. There were days when he would not touch Anita's hand, when he hardly spoke, when the girl herself would have been outraged at his conduct had she not now and then caught him watching her, seen the wretchedness in his eyes.
The form of Marie's revenge was unpremeditated, after all. The light mountain snow was augmented by a storm; roads were ploughed through early in the morning, leaving great banks on either side. Sleigh-bells were everywhere. Coasting parties made the steep roads a menace to the pedestrian; every up-climbing sleigh carried behind it a string of sleds, going back to the starting-point.
Below the hotel was the Serpentine Coast, a long and dangerous course, full of high-banked curves, of sudden descents, of long straightaway dashes through the woodland. Two miles, perhaps three, it wound its tortuous way down the mountain. Up by the highroad to the crest again, only a mile or less. Thus it happened that the track was always clear, except for speeding sleds. No coasters, dragging sleds back up the slide, interfered.
The track was crowded. Every minute a sled set out, sped down the straightaway, dipped, turned, disappeared. A dozen would be lined up, waiting for the interval and the signal. And here, watching from the porch of the church, in the very shadow of the saints, Marie found her revenge.
Stewart had given her a little wrist watch. Stewart and Anita were twelfth in line. By the watch, then, twelve minutes down the mountain-side, straight down through the trees to a curve that Marie knew well, a bad curve, only to be taken by running well up on the snowbank. Beyond the snowbank there was a drop, fifteen feet, perhaps more, into the yard of a Russian villa. Stewart and Anita were twelfth; a man in a green stocking-cap was eleventh. The hillside was steep. Marie negotiated it by running from tree to tree, catching herself, steadying for a second, then down again. Once she fell and rolled a little distance. There was no time to think; perhaps had she thought she would have weakened. She had no real courage, only desperation.
As she reached the track the man in the green stocking-cap was in sight. A minute and a half she had then, not more. She looked about her hastily. A stone might serve her purpose, almost anything that would throw the sled out of its course. She saw a tree branch just above the track and dragged at it frantically. Some one was shouting at her from an upper window of the Russian villa. She did not hear. Stewart and Anita had made the curve above and were coming down at frantic speed. Marie stood, her back to the oncoming rush of the sled, swaying slightly. When she could hear the singing of the runners she stooped and slid the tree branch out against the track.
She had acted almost by instinct, but with devilish skill. The sled swung to one side up the snowbank, and launched itself into the air. Marie heard the thud and the silence that followed it. Then she turned and scuttled like a hunted thing up the mountain side.
Peter put in a bad day. Marie was not about, could not be located. Stewart, suffering from concussion, lay insensible all day and all of the night. Peter could find no fracture, but felt it wise to get another opinion. In the afternoon he sent for a doctor from the Kurhaus and learned for the first time that Anita had also been hurt--a broken arm. "Not serious," said the Kurhaus man. "She is brave, very brave, the young woman. I believe they are engaged?" Peter said he did not know and thought very hard. Where was Marie? Not gone surely. Here about him lay all her belongings, even her purse.
Toward evening Stewart showed some improvement. He was not conscious, but he swallowed better and began to toss about. Peter, who had had a long day and very little sleep the night before, began to look jaded. He would have sent for a nurse from the Kurhaus, but he doubted Stewart's ability to stand any extra financial strain, and Peter could not help any.
The time for supper passed, and no Marie.
The landlady sent up a tray to Peter, stewed meat and potatoes, a salad, coffee. Peter sat in a corner with his back to Stewart and ate ravenously. He had had nothing since the morning's coffee. After that he sat down again by the bed to watch. There was little to do but watch.
The meal had made him drowsy. He thought of his pipe. Perhaps if he got some fresh air and a smoke! He remembered the balcony.
It was there on the balcony that he found Marie, a cowering thing that pushed his hands away when he would have caught her and broke into passionate crying.
"I cannot! I cannot!"
"Cannot what?" demanded Peter gently, watching her. So near was the balcony rail!
"Throw myself over. I've tried, Peter. I cannot!"
"I should think not!" said Peter sternly. "Just now when we need you, too! Come in and don't be a foolish child."
But Marie would not go in. She held back, clinging tight to Peter's big hand, moaning out in the dialect of the people that always confused him her story of the day, of what she had done, of watching Stewart brought back, of stealing into the house and through an adjacent room to the balcony, of her desperation and her cowardice.
She was numb with cold, exhaustion, and hunger, quite childish, helpless. Peter stood out on the balcony with his arm round her, while the night wind beat about them, and pondered what was best to do. He thought she might come in and care for Stewart, at least, until he was conscious. He could get her some supper.
"How can I?" she asked. "I was seen. They are searching for me now. Oh, Peter! Peter!"
"Who is searching for you? Who saw you?"
"The people in the Russian villa."
"Did they see your face?"
"I wore a veil. I think not."
"Then come in and change your clothes. There is a train down at midnight. You can take it."
"I have no money."
This raised a delicate question. Marie absolutely refused to take Stewart's money. She had almost none of her own. And there were other complications--where was she to go? The family of the injured girl did not suspect her since they did not know of her existence. She might get away without trouble. But after that, what?
Peter pondered this on the balcony, while Marie in the bedroom was changing her clothing, soaked with a day in the snow. He came to the inevitable decision, the decision he knew at the beginning that he was going to make.
"If I could only put it up to Harmony first!" he reflected. "But she will understand when I tell her. She always understands."
Standing there on the little balcony, with tragedy the thickness of a pine board beyond him, Peter experienced a bit of the glow of the morning, as of one who stumbling along in a dark place puts a hand on a friend.
He went into the room. Stewart was lying very still and breathing easily. On her knees beside the bed knelt Marie. At Peter's step she rose and faced him.
"I am leaving him, Peter, for always."
"Good!" said Peter heartily. "Better for you and better for him."
Marie drew a long breath. "The night train," she said listlessly, "is an express. I had forgotten. It is double fare."
"What of that, little sister?" said Peter. "What is a double fare when it means life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? And there will be happiness, little sister."
He put his hand in his pocket.