The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Harmony found the little hoard under her pillow that night when, having seen Scatch and the Big Soprano off at the station, she had come back alone to the apartment on the Siebensternstrasse. The trunks were gone now. Only the concerto score still lay on the piano, where little Scatchett, mentally on the dock at New York with Henry's arms about her, had forgotten it. The candles in the great chandelier had died in tears of paraffin that spattered the floor beneath. One or two of the sockets were still smoking, and the sharp odor of burning wickends filled the room.
Harmony had come through the garden quickly. She had had an uneasy sense of being followed, and the garden, with its moaning trees and slamming gate and the great dark house in the background, was a forbidding place at best. She had rung the bell and had stood, her back against the door, eyes and ears strained in the darkness. She had fancied that a figure had stopped outside the gate and stood looking in, but the next moment the gate had swung to and the Portier was fumbling at the lock behind her.
The Portier had put on his trousers over his night garments, and his mustache bandage gave him a sinister expression, rather augmented when he smiled at her. The Portier liked Harmony in spite of the early morning practicing; she looked like a singer at the opera for whom he cherished a hidden attachment. The singer had never seen him, but it was for her he wore the mustache bandage. Perhaps some day--hopefully! One must be ready!
The Portier gave Harmony a tiny candle and Harmony held out his tip, the five Hellers of custom. But the Portier was keen, and Rosa was a niece of his wife and talked more than she should. He refused the tip with a gesture.
"Bitte, Fraulein!" he said through the bandage. "It is for me a pleasure to admit you. And perhaps if the Fraulein is cold, a basin of soup."
The Portier was not pleasant to the eye. His nightshirt was open over his hairy chest and his feet were bare to the stone floor. But to Harmony that lonely night he was beautiful. She tried to speak and could not but she held out her hand in impulsive gratitude, and the Portier in his best manner bent over and kissed it. As she reached the curve of the stone staircase, carrying her tiny candle, the Portier was following her with his eyes. She was very like the girl of the opera.
The clang of the door below and the rattle of the chain were comforting to Harmony's ears. From the safety of the darkened salon she peered out into the garden again, but no skulking figure detached itself from the shadows, and the gate remained, for a marvel, closed.
It was when--having picked up her violin in a very passion of loneliness, only to put it down when she found that the familiar sounds echoed and reechoed sadly through the silent rooms--it was when she was ready for bed that she found the money under her pillow, and a scrawl from Scatchy, a breathless, apologetic scrawl, little Scatchett having adored her from afar, as the plain adore the beautiful, the mediocre the gifted:--
DEAREST HARRY [here a large blot, Scatchy being addicted to blots]: I am honestly frightened when I think what we are doing. But, oh, my dear, if you could know how pleased we are with ourselves you'd not deny us this pleasure. Harry, you have it--the real thing, you know, whatever it is--and I haven't. None of the rest of us had. And you must stay. To go now, just when lessons would mean everything--well, you must not think of it. We have scads to take us home, more than we need, both of us, or at least--well, I'm lying, and you know it. But we have enough, by being careful, and we want you to have this. It isn't much, but it may help. Ten Kronen of it I found to-night under my bed, and it may be yours anyhow.
"Sadie [Sadie was the Big Soprano] keeps saying awful things about our leaving you here, and she has rather terrified me. You are so beautiful, Harry,--although you never let us tell you so. And Sadie says you have a soul and I haven't, and that souls are deadly things to have. I feel to-night that in urging you to stay I am taking the burden of your soul on me! Do be careful, Harry. If any one you do not know speaks to you call a policeman. And be sure you get into a respectable pension. There are queer ones.
"Sadie and I think that if you can get along on what you get from home--you said your mother would get insurance, didn't you?--and will keep this as a sort of fund to take you home if anything should go wrong--. But perhaps we are needlessly worried. In any case, of course it's a loan, and you can preserve that magnificent independence of yours by sending it back when you get to work to make your fortune. And if you are doubtful at all, just remember that hopeful little mother of yours who sent you over to get what she had never been able to have for herself, and who planned this for you from the time you were a kiddy and she named you Harmony.
"I'm not saying good-bye. I can't.
That night, while the Portier and his wife slept under their crimson feather beds and the crystals of the chandelier in the salon shook in the draft as if the old Austrian court still danced beneath, Harmony fought her battle. And a battle it was. Scatchy and the Big Soprano had not known everything. There had been no insurance on her father's life; the little mother was penniless. A married sister would care for her, but what then? Harmony had enough remaining of her letter-of credit to take her home, and she had--the hoard under the pillow. To go back and teach the violin; or to stay and finish under the master, be presented, as he had promised her, at a special concert in Vienna, with all the prestige at home that that would mean, and its resulting possibility of fame and fortune--which?
She decided to stay. There might be a concert or so, and she could teach English. The Viennese were crazy about English. Some of the stores advertised "English Spoken." That would be something to fall back on, a clerkship during the day.
Toward dawn she discovered that she was very cold, and she went into the Big Soprano's deserted and disordered room. The tile stove was warm and comfortable, but on the toilet table there lay a disreputable comb with most of the teeth gone. Harmony kissed this unromantic object! Which reveals the fact that, genius or not, she was only a young and rather frightened girl, and that every atom of her ached with loneliness.
She did not sleep at all, but sat curled up on the bed with her feet under her and thought things out. At dawn the Portier, crawling out into the cold from under his feathers, opened the door into the hall and listened. She was playing, not practicing, and the music was the barcarolle from the "Tales" of Hoffmann. Standing in the doorway in his night attire, his chest open to the frigid morning air, his face upraised to the floor above, he hummed the melody in a throaty tenor.
When the music had died away he went in and closed the door sheepishly. His wife stood over the stove, a stick of firewood in her hand. She eyed him.
"So! It is the American Fraulein now!"
"I did but hum a little. She drags out my heart with her music." He fumbled with hismustache bandage, which was knotted behind, keeping one eye on his wife, whose morning pleasure it was to untie it for him.
"She leaves to-day," she announced, ignoring the knot.
"Why? She is alone. Rosa says--"
"She leaves to-day!"
The knot was hopeless now, double-tied and pulled to smooth compactness. The Portier jerked at it.
"No Fraulein stays here alone. It is not respectable. And what saw I last night, after she entered and you stood moon-gazing up the stair after her! A man in the gateway!"
The Portier was angry. He snarled something through the bandage, which had slipped down over his mouth, and picked up a great knife.
"She will stay if she so desire," he muttered furiously, and, raising the knife, he cut the knotted string. His mustache, faintly gray and sweetly up-curled, stood revealed.
"She will stay!" he repeated. "And when you see men at the gate, let me know. She is an angel!"
"And she looks like the angel at the opera, hein?"
This was a crushing blow. The Portier wilted. Such things come from telling one's cousin, who keeps a brushshop, what is in one's heart. Yesterday his wife had needed a brush, and to-day--Himmel, the girl must go!
Harmony knew also that she must go. The apartment was large and expensive; Rosa ate much and wasted more. She must find somewhere a tiny room with board, a humble little room but with a stove. It is folly to practice with stiffened fingers. A room where her playing would not annoy people, that was important.
She paid Rosa off that morning out of money left for that purpose. Rosa wept. She said she would stay with the Fraulein for her keep, because it was not the custom for young ladies to be alone in the city--young girls of the people, of course; but beautiful young ladies, no!
Harmony gave her an extra krone or two out of sheer gratitude, but she could not keep her. And at noon, having packed her trunk, she went down to interview the Portier and his wife, who were agents under the owner for the old house.
The Portier, entirely subdued, was sweeping out the hallway. He looked past the girl, not at her, and observed impassively that the lease was up and it was her privilege to go. In the daylight she was not so like the angel, and after all she could only play the violin. The angel had a voice, such a voice! And besides, there was an eye at the crack of the door.
The bit of cheer of the night before was gone; it was with a heavy heart that Harmony started on her quest for cheaper quarters.
Winter, which had threatened for a month, had come at last. The cobblestones glittered with ice and the small puddles in the gutters were frozen. Across the street a spotted deer, shot in the mountains the day before and hanging from a hook before a wild-game shop, was frozen quite stiff. It was a pretty creature. The girl turned her eyes away. A young man, buying cheese and tinned fish in the shop, watched after her.
"That's an American girl, isn't it?" he asked in American-German.
The shopkeeper was voluble. Also Rosa had bought much from him, and Rosa talked. When the American left the shop he knew everything of Harmony that Rosa knew except her name. Rosa called her "The Beautiful One." Also he was short one krone four beliers in his change, which is readily done when a customer is plainly thinking of a "beautiful one."
Harmony searched all day for the little room with board and a stove and no objection to practicing. There were plenty--but the rates! The willow plume looked prosperous, and she had a way of making the plainest garments appear costly. Landladies looked at the plume and the suit and heard the soft swish of silk beneath, which marks only self-respect in the American woman but is extravagance in Europe, and added to their regular terms until poor Harmony's heart almost stood still. And then at last toward evening she happened on a gloomy little pension near the corner of the Alserstrasse, and it being dark and the plume not showing, and the landlady missing the rustle owing to cotton in her ears for earache, Harmony found terms that she could meet for a time.
A mean little room enough, but with a stove. The bed sagged in the center, and the toilet table had a mirror that made one eye appear higher than the other and twisted one's nose. But there was an odor of stewing cabbage in the air. Also, alas, there was the odor of many previous stewed cabbages, and of dusty carpets and stale tobacco. Harmony had had no lunch; she turned rather faint.
She arranged to come at once, and got out into the comparative purity of the staircase atmosphere and felt her way down. She reeled once or twice. At the bottom of the dark stairs she stood for a moment with her eyes closed, to the dismay of a young man who had just come in with a cheese and some tinned fish under his arm.
He put down his packages on the stone floor and caught her arm.
"Not ill, are you?" he asked in English, and then remembering. "Bist du krank?" He colored violently at that, recalling too late the familiarity of the "du."
Harmony smiled faintly.
"Only tired," she said in English. "And the odor of cabbage--".
Her color had come back and she freed herself from his supporting hand. He whistled softly. He had recognized her.
"Cabbage, of course!" he said. "The pension upstairs is full of it. I live there, and I've eaten so much of it I could be served up with pork."
"I am going to live there. Is it as bad as that?"
He waved a hand toward the parcels on the floor.
"So bad," he observed, "that I keep body and soul together by buying strong and odorous food at the delicatessens--odorous, because only rugged flavors rise above the atmosphere up there. Cheese is the only thing that really knocks out the cabbage, and once or twice even cheese has retired defeated."
"But I don't like cheese." In sheer relief from the loneliness of the day her spirits were rising.
"Then coffee! But not there. Coffee at the coffee-house on the corner. I say--" He hesitated.
"Would you--don't you think a cup of coffee would set you up a bit?"
"It sounds attractive,"--uncertainly.
"Coffee with whipped cream and some little cakes?"
Harmony hesitated. In the gloom of the hall she could hardly see this brisk young American--young, she knew by his voice, tall by his silhouette, strong by the way he had caught her. She could not see his face, but she liked his voice.
"Do you mean--with you?"
"I'm a doctor. I am going to fill my own prescription."
That sounded reassuring. Doctors were not as other men; they were legitimate friends in need.
"I am sure it is not proper, but--"
"Proper! Of course it is. I shall send you a bill for professional services. Besides, won't we be formally introduced to-night by the landlady? Come now--to the coffee-house and the Paris edition of the 'Herald'!" But the next moment he paused and ran his hand over his chin. "I'm pretty disreputable," he explained. "I have been in a clinic all day, and, hang it all, I'm not shaved."
"What difference does that make?"
"My dear young lady," he explained gravely, picking up the cheese and the tinned fish, "it makes a difference in me that I wish you to realize before you see me in a strong light."
He rapped at the Portier's door, with the intention of leaving his parcels there, but receiving no reply tucked them under his arm. A moment later Harmony was in the open air, rather dazed, a bit excited, and lovely with the color the adventure brought into her face. Her companion walked beside her, tall, slightly stooped. She essayed a fugitive little sideglance up at him, and meeting his eyes hastily averted hers.
They passed a policeman, and suddenly there flashed into the girl's mind little Scatchett's letter.
"Do be careful, Harry. If any one you do not know speaks to you, call a policeman."