The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The Portier was almost happy that morning. For one thing, he had won honorable mention at the Schubert Society the night before; for another, that night the Engel was to sing Mignon, and the Portier had spent his Christmas tips for a ticket. All day long he had been poring over the score.
"'Kennst du das Land wo die Citronen bluhen?'" he sang with feeling while he polished the floors. He polished them with his feet, wearing felt boots for the purpose, and executing in the doing a sort of ungainly dance--a sprinkle of wax, right foot forward and back, left foot forward and back, both feet forward and back in a sort of double shuffle; more wax, more vigorous polishing, more singing, with longer pauses for breath. " 'Knowest thou the land where the lemon trees bloom?' " he bellowed--sprinkle of wax, right foot, left foot, any foot at all. Now and then he took the score from his pocket and pored over it, humming the air, raising his eyebrows over the high notes, dropping his chin to the low ones. It was a wonderful morning. Between greetings to neighbors he sang--a bit of talk, a bit of song.
"'Kennst du das Land'--Good-morning, sir--the old Rax wears a crown. It will snow soon. 'Kennst du das Land wo die Citronen'--Ah, madam the milk Frau, and are the cows frozen up to-day like the pump? No? Marvelous! Dost thou know that to-night is Mignon at the Opera, and that the Engel sings? 'Kennst du das Land'--"
At eleven came Rosa with her husband, the soldier from Salzburg with one lung. He was having a holiday from his sentry duty at the hospital, and the one lung seemed to be a libel, for while the women had coffee together and a bit of mackerel he sang a very fair bass to the Portier's tenor. Together they pored over the score, and even on their way to the beer hall hummed together such bits as they recalled.
On one point they differed. The score was old and soiled with much thumbing. At one point, destroyed long since, the sentry sang A sharp: the Portier insisted on A natural. They argued together over three Steins of beer; the waiter, referred to, decided for A flat. It was a serious matter to have one's teeth set, as one may say, for a natural and then to be shocked with an unexpected half-tone up or down! It destroyed the illusion; it disappointed; it hurt.
The sentry stuck to the sharp--it was sung so at the Salzburg opera. The Portier snapped his thumb at the Salzburg opera. Things were looking serious; they walked back to the locale in silence. The sentry coughed. Possibly there was something, after all, in the one-lung rumor.
It was then that the Portier remembered Harmony. She would know; perhaps she had the score.
Harmony was having a bad morning. She had slept little until dawn, and Peter's stealthy closing of the outer door had wakened her by its very caution. After that there had been no more sleep. She had sat up in bed with her chin in her hands and thought.
In the pitiless dawn, with no Peter to restore her to cheerfulness, things looked black, indeed. To what had she fallen, that first one man and then another must propose marriage to her to save her. To save her from what? From what people thought, or--each from the other?
Were men so evil that they never trusted each other? McLean had frankly distrusted Peter, had said so. Or could it be that there was something about her, something light and frivolous? She had been frivolous. She always laughed at Peter's foolishnesses. Perhaps that was it. That was it. They were afraid for her. She had thrown herself on Peter's hands--almost into his arms. She had made this situation.
She must get away, of course. If only she had some one to care for Jimmy until Peter returned! But there was no one. The Portier's wife was fond of Jimmy, but not skillful. And suppose he were to wake in the night and call for her and she would not come. She cried a little over this. After a time she pattered across the room in her bare feet and got from a bureau drawer the money she had left. There was not half enough to take her home. She could write; the little mother might get some for her, but at infinite cost, infinite humiliation. That would have to be a final, desperate resort.
She felt a little more cheerful when she had had a cup of coffee. Jimmy wakened about that time, and she went through the details of his morning toilet with all the brightness she could assume--bath blankets, warm bath, toenails, finger-nails, fresh nightgown, fresh sheets, and--final touch of all--a real barber's part straight from crown to brow. After that ten minutes under extra comforters while the room aired.
She hung over the boy that morning in an agony of tenderness--he was so little, so frail, and she must leave him. Only one thing sustained her. The boy loved her, but it was Peter he idolized. When he had Peter he needed nothing else. In some curious process of his childish mind Peter and Daddy mingled in inextricable confusion. More than once he had recalled events in the roving life he and his father had led.
"You remember that, don't you?" he would say.
"Certainly I remember," Peter would reply heartily.
"That evening on the steamer when I ate so many raisins."
"Of course. And were ill."
"Not ill--not that time. But you said I'd make a good pudding! You remember that, don't you?"
And Peter would recall it all.
Peter would be left. That was the girl's comfort.
She made a beginning at gathering her things together that morning, while the boy dozed and the white mice scurried about the little cage. She could not take her trunk, or Peter would trace it. She would have to carry her belongings, a few at a time, to wherever she found a room. Then when Peter came back she could slip away and he would never find her.
At noon came the Portier and the sentry, now no longer friends, and rang the doorbell. Harmony was rather startled. McLean and Mrs. Boyer had been her only callers, and she did not wish to see either of them. But after a second ring she gathered her courage in her hands and opened the door.
She turned pale when she saw the sentry in his belted blue-gray tunic and high cap. She thought, of course, that Jimmy had been traced and that now he would be taken away. If the sentry knew her, however, he kept his face impassive and merely touched his cap. The Portier stated their errand. Harmony's face cleared. She even smiled as the Portier extended to her the thumbed score with its missing corner. What, after all, does it matter which was right --whether it was A sharp or A natural? What really matters is that Harmony, having settled the dispute and clinched the decision by running over the score for a page or two, turned to find the Portier, ecstatic eyes upturned, hands folded on paunch, enjoying a delirium of pleasure, and the sentry nowhere in sight.
He was discovered a moment later in the doorway of Jimmy's room, where, taciturn as ever, severe, martial, he stood at attention, shoulders back, arms at his sides, thumbs in. In this position he was making, with amazing rapidity, a series of hideous grimaces for the benefit of the little boy in the bed: marvelous faces they were, in which nose, mouth, and eyes seemed interchangeable, where features played leapfrog with one another. When all was over--perhaps when his repertoire was exhausted--the sentry returned his nose to the center of his face, replaced eyes and mouth, and wiped the ensemble with a blue cotton handkerchief. Then, still in silence, he saluted and withdrew, leaving the youngster enraptured, staring at the doorway.
Harmony had decided the approximate location of her room. In the higher part of the city, in the sixteenth district, there were many unpretentious buildings. She had hunted board there and she knew. It was far from the Stadt, far from the fashionable part of town, a neighborhood of small shops, of frank indigence. There surely she could find a room, and perhaps in one of the small stores what she failed to secure in the larger, a position.
Rosa having taken her soldier away, Harmony secured the Portier's wife to sit with Jimmy and spent two hours that afternoon looking about for a room. She succeeded finally in finding one, a small and wretchedly furnished bedroom, part of the suite of a cheap dressmaker. The approach was forbidding enough. One entered a cavelike, cobble-paved court under the building, filled with wagons, feeding horses, quarrelsome and swearing teamsters. From the side a stone staircase took off and led, twisting from one landing cave to another, to the upper floor.
Here lived the dressmaker, amid the constant whirring of sewing-machines, the Babel of workpeople. Harmony, seeking not a home but a hiding-place, took the room at once. She was asked for no reference. In a sort of agony lest this haven fail her she paid for a week in advance. The wooden bed, the cracked mirror over the table, even the pigeons outside on the windowsill were hers for a week.
The dressmaker was friendly, almost garrulous.
"I will have it cleaned," she explained. "I have been so busy: the masquerade season is on. The Fraulein is American, is she not?"
"One knows the Americans. They are chic, not like the English. I have some American customers."
Harmony started. The dressmaker was shrewd. Many people hid in the sixteenth district. She hastened to reassure the girl.
"They will not disturb you. And just now I have but one, a dancer. I shall have the room cleaned. Good-bye, Fraulein."
So far, good. She had a refuge now, one spot that the venom of scandal could not poison, where she could study and work--work hard, although there could be no more lessons--one spot where Peter would not have to protect her, where Peter, indeed, would never find her. This thought, which should have brought comfort, brought only new misery. Peace seemed dearly bought all at once; shabby, wholesome, hearty Peter, with his rough hair and quiet voice, his bulging pockets and steady eyes--she was leaving Peter forever, exchanging his companionship for that of a row of pigeons on a window-sill. He would find some one, of course; but who would know that he liked toast made hard and plenty of butter, or to leave his bed-clothing loose at the foot, Peter being very long and apt to lop over? The lopping over brought a tear or two. A very teary and tragic young heroine, this Harmony, prone to go about for the last day or two with a damp little handkerchief tucked in her sleeve.
She felt her way down the staircase and into the cave below. Fate hangs by a very slender thread sometimes. If a wagon had not lumbered by as she reached the lowest step, so that she must wait and thus had time to lower her veil, she would have been recognized at once by the little Georgiev, waiting to ascend. But the wagon was there, Harmony lowered her veil, the little Georgiev, passing a veiled young woman in the gloom, went up the staircase with even pulses and calm and judicial bearing, up to the tiny room a floor or two below Harmony's, where he wrote reports to the Minister of War and mixed them with sonnets--to Harmony.
Harmony went back to the Siebensternstrasse, having accomplished what she had set out to do and being very wretched in consequence. Because she was leaving the boy so soon she strove to atone for her coming defection by making it a gala evening. The child was very happy. She tucked him up in the salon, lighted all the candles, served him the daintiest of suppers there. She brought in the mice and tied tiny bows on their necks; she played checkers with him while the supper dishes waited, and went down to defeat in three hilarious games; and last of all she played to him, joyous music at first, then slower, drowsier airs, until his heavy head dropped on his shoulder and she gathered him up in tender arms and carried him to bed.
It was dawn when Marie arrived. Harmony was sleeping soundly when the bell rang. Her first thought was that Peter had come back--but Peter carried a key. The bell rang again, and she slipped on the old kimono and went to the door.
"Is it Peter?" she called, hand on knob.
"I come from Peter. I have a letter," in German.
"Who is it?"
"You do not know me--Marie Jedlicka. Please let me come in."
Bewildered, Harmony opened the door, and like a gray ghost Marie slipped by her and into the hall.
There was a gaslight burning very low; Harmony turned it up and faced her visitor. She recognized her at once--the girl Dr. Stewart had been with in the coffee-house.
"Something has happened to Peter!"
"No. He is well. He sent this to the Fraulein Wells."
"I am the Fraulein Wells."
Marie held out the letter and staggered. Harmony put her in a chair; she was bewildered, almost frightened. Crisis of some sort was written on Marie's face. Harmony felt very young, very incapable. The other girl refused coffee, would not even go into the salon until Peter's letter had been read. She was a fugitive, a criminal; the Austrian law is severe to those that harbor criminals. Let Harmony read:--
DEAR HARRY,--Will you forgive me for this and spread the wings of
your splendid charity over this poor child? Perhaps I am doing
wrong in sending her to you, but just now it is all I can think
of. If she wants to talk let her talk. It will probably help her.
Also feed her, will you? And if she cannot sleep, give her one of
the blue powders I fixed for Jimmy. I'll be back later to-day if
I can make it.
Harmony glanced up from the letter. Marie sat drooping in her chair. Her eyes were sunken in her head. She had recognized her at once, but any surprise she may have felt at finding Harmony in Peter's apartment was sunk in a general apathy, a compound of nervous reaction and fatigue. During the long hours in the express she had worn herself out with fright and remorse: there was nothing left now but exhaustion.
Harmony was bewildered, but obedient. She went back to the cold kitchen and lighted a fire. She made Marie as comfortable as she could in the salon, and then went into her room to dress. There she read the letter again, and wondered if Peter had gone through life like this, picking up waifs and strays and shouldering their burdens for them. Decidedly, life with Peter was full of surprises.
She remembered, as she hurried into her clothes; the boys' club back in America and the spelling-matches. Decidedly, also, Peter was an occupation, a state of mind, a career. No musician, hoping for a career of her own, could possibly marry Peter.
That was a curious morning in the old lodge of Maria Theresa, while Stewart in the Pension Waldheim struggled back to consciousness, while Peter sat beside him and figured on an old envelope the problem of dividing among four enough money to support one, while McLean ate his heart out in wretchedness in his hotel.
Marie told her story over the early breakfast, sitting with her thin elbows on the table, her pointed chin in her palms.
"And now I am sorry," she finished. "It has done no good. If it had only killed her but she was not much hurt. I saw her rise and bend over him."
Harmony was silent. She had no stock of aphorisms for the situation, no worldly knowledge, only pity.
"Did Peter say he would recover?"
"Yes. They will both recover and go to America. And he will marry her."
Perhaps Harmony would have been less comfortable, Marie less frank, had Marie realized that this establishment of Peter's was not on the same basis as Stewart's had been, or had Harmony divined her thought.
The presence of the boy was discovered by his waking. Marie was taken in and presented. She looked stupefied. Certainly the Americans were a marvelous people--to have taken into their house and their hearts this strange child--if he were strange. Marie's suspicious little slum mind was not certain.
In the safety and comfort of the little apartment the Viennese expanded, cheered. She devoted herself to the boy, telling him strange folk tales, singing snatches of songs for him. The youngster took a liking to her at once. It seemed to Harmony, going about her morning routine, that Marie was her solution and Peter's.
During the afternoon she took a package to the branch post-office and mailed it by parcel-post to the Wollbadgasse. On the way she met Mrs. Boyer face to face. That lady looked severely ahead, and Harmony passed her with her chin well up and the eyes of a wounded animal.
McLean sent a great box of flowers that day. She put them, for lack of a vase, in a pitcher beside Jimmy's bed.
At dusk a telegram came to say that Stewart was better and that Peter was on his way down to Vienna. He would arrive at eight. Time was very short now--seconds flashed by, minutes galloped. Harmony stewed a chicken for supper, and creamed the breast for Jimmy. She fixed the table, flowers in the center, the best cloth, Peter's favorite cheese. Six o'clock, six-thirty, seven; Marie was telling Jimmy a fairy tale and making the fairies out of rosebuds. The studylamp was lighted, the stove glowing, Peter's slippers were out, his old smoking-coat, his pipe.
A quarter past seven. Peter would be near Vienna now and hungry. If he could only eat his supper before he learned--but that was impossible. He would come in, as he always did, and slam the outer door, and open it again to close it gently, as he always did, and then he would look for her, going from room to room until he found her--only to-night he would not find her.
She did not say good-bye to Jimmy. She stood in the doorway and said a little prayer for him. Marie had made the flower fairies on needles, and they stood about his head on the pillow--pink and yellow and white elves with fluffy skirts. Then, very silently, she put on her hat and jacket and closed the outer door behind her. In the courtyard she turned and looked up. The great chandelier in the salon was not lighted, but from the casement windows shone out the comfortable glow of Peter's lamp.