The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Peter had had many things to think over during the ride down the mountains. He had the third-class compartment to himself, and sat in a corner, soft hat over his eyes. Life had never been particularly simple to Peter--his own life, yes; a matter of three meals a day--he had had fewer--a roof, clothing. But other lives had always touched him closely, and at the contact points Peter glowed, fused, amalgamated. Thus he had been many people--good, indifferent, bad, but all needy. Thus, also, Peter had committed vicarious crimes, suffered vicarious illnesses, starved, died, loved--vicariously.
And now, after years of living for others, Peter was living at last for himself--and suffering.
Not that he understood exactly what ailed him. He thought he was tired, which was true enough, having had little sleep for two or three nights. Also he explained to himself that he was smoking too much, and resolutely--lighted another cigarette.
Two things had revealed Peter's condition to himself: McLean had said: "You are crazy in love with her." McLean's statement, lacking subtlety, had had a certain quality of directness. Even then Peter, utterly miserable, had refused to capitulate, when to capitulate would have meant the surrender of the house in the Siebensternstrasse. And the absence from Harmony had shown him just where he stood.
He was in love, crazy in love. Every fiber of his long body glowed with it, ached with it. And every atom of his reason told him what mad folly it was, this love. Even if Harmony cared--and at the mere thought his heart pounded--what madness for her, what idiocy for him! To ask her to accept the half of--nothing, to give up a career to share his struggle for one, to ask her to bury her splendid talent and her beauty under a bushel that he might wave aloft his feeble light!
And there was no way out, no royal road to fortune by the route he had chosen; nothing but grinding work, with a result problematical and years ahead. There were even no legacies to expect, he thought whimsically. Peter had known a chap once, struggling along in gynecology, who had had a fortune left him by a G. P., which being interpreted is Grateful Patient. Peter's patients had a way of living, and when they did drop out, as happened now and then, had also a way of leaving Peter an unpaid bill in token of appreciation; Peter had even occasionally helped to bury them, by way, he defended himself, of covering up his mistakes.
Peter, sitting back in his corner, allowed the wonderful scenery to slip by unnoticed. He put Harmony the Desirable out of his mind, and took to calculating on a scrap of paper what could be done for Harmony the Musician. He could hold out for three months, he calculated, and still have enough to send Harmony home and to get home himself on a slow boat. The Canadian lines were cheap. If Jimmy lived perhaps he could take him along: if not--
He would have to put six months' work in the next three. That was not so hard. He had got along before with less sleep, and thrived on it. Also there must be no more idle evenings, with Jimmy in the salon propped in a chair and Harmony playing, the room dark save for the glow from the stove and for the one candle at Harmony's elbow.
All roads lead to Rome. Peter's thoughts, having traveled in a circle, were back again to Harmony the Desirable--Harmony playing in the firelight, Harmony Hushed over the brick stove, Harmony paring potatoes that night in the kitchen when he--Harmony! Harmony!
Stewart knew all about the accident and its cause. Peter had surmised as much when the injured man failed to ask for Marie.
He tested him finally by bringing Marie's name into the conversation. Stewart ignored it, accepted her absence, refused to be drawn.
That was at first. During the day, however, as he gained strength, he grew restless and uneasy. As the time approached for Peter to leave, he was clearly struggling with himself. The landlady had agreed to care for him and was bustling about the room. During one of her absences he turned to Peter.
"I suppose Marie hasn't been round?"
"She came back last night."
"Did she tell you?"
"Yes, poor child."
"She's a devil!" Stewart said, and lay silent. Then: "I saw her shoot that thing out in front of us, but there was no time--Where is she now?"
"Marie? I sent her to Vienna."
Stewart fell back, relieved, not even curious.
"Thank Heaven for that!" he said. "I don't want to see her again. I'd do something I'd be sorry for. The kindest thing to say for her is that she was not sane."
"No," said Peter gravely, "she was hardly sane."
Stewart caught his steady gaze and glanced away. For him Marie's little tragedy had been written and erased. He would forget it magnanimously. He had divided what he had with her, and she had repaid him by attempting his life. And not only his life, but Anita's. Peter followed his line of reasoning easily.
"It's quite a frequent complication, Stewart," he said, "but every man to whom it happens regards himself more or less as a victim. She fell in love with you, that's all. Her conduct is contrary to the ethics of the game, but she's been playing poor cards all along."
"Where is she?"
"That doesn't matter, does it?"
Stewart had lain back and closed his eyes. No, it didn't matter. A sense of great relief overwhelmed him. Marie was gone, frightened into hiding. It was as if a band that had been about him was suddenly loosed: he breathed deep, he threw out his arms and laughed from sheer reaction. Then, catching Peter's not particularly approving eyes, he colored.
"Good Lord, Peter!" he said, "you don't know what I've gone through with that little devil. And now she's gone!" He glanced round the disordered room, where bandages and medicines crowded toilet articles on the dressing-table, where one of Marie's small slippers still lay where it had fallen under the foot of the bed, where her rosary still hung over the corner of the table. "Ring for the maid, Peter, will you! I've got to get this junk out of here. Some of Anita's people may come."
During that afternoon ride, while the train clump-clumped down the mountains, Peter thought of all this. Some of Marie's "junk" was in his bag; her rosary lay in his breastpocket, along with the pin he had sent her at Christmas. Peter happened on it, still in its box, which looked as if it had been cried over. He had brought it with him. He admired it very much, and it had cost money he could ill afford to spend.
It was late when the train drew into the station. Peter, encumbered with Marie's luggage and his own, lowered his window and added his voice to the chorus of plaintive calls: "Portier! Portier!" they shouted. "Portier!" bawled Peter.
He was obliged to resort to the extravagance of a taxicab. Possibly a fiacre would have done as well, but it cost almost as much and was slower. Moments counted now: a second was an hour, an hour a decade. For he was on his way to Harmony. Extravagance became recklessness. As soon die for a sheep as a lamb! He stopped the taxicab and bought a bunch of violets, stopped again and bought lilies of the valley to combine with the violets, went out of his tray to the American grocery and bought a jar of preserved fruit.
By that time he was laden. The jar of preserves hung in one shabby pocket, Marie's rosary dangled from another; the violets were buttoned under his overcoat against the cold.
At the very last he held the taxi an extra moment and darted into the delicatessen shop across the Siebensternstrasse. From there, standing inside the doorway, he could see the lights in the salon across the way, the glow of his lamp, the flicker that was the fire. Peter whistled, stamped his cold feet, quite neglected--in spite of repeated warnings from Harmony--to watch the Herr Schenkenkaufer weigh the cheese, accepted without a glance a ten-Kronen piece with a hole in it.
"And how is the child to-day?" asked the Herr Schenkenkaufer, covering the defective gold piece with conversation.
"I do not know; I have been away," said Peter. He almost sang it.
"All is well or I would have heard. Wilhelm the Portier was but just now here."
"All well, of course," sang Peter, eyes on the comfortable Floor of his lamp, the flicker that was the fire. "Auf wiedersehen, Herr Schenkenkaufer."
"Auf wiedersehen, Herr Doktor."
Violets, lilies-of-the-valley, cheese, rosary, luggage--thus Peter climbed the stairs. The Portier wished to assist him, but Peter declined. The Portier was noisy. There was to be a moment when Peter, having admitted himself with extreme caution, would present himself without so much as a creak to betray him, would stand in a doorway until some one, Harmony perhaps--ah, Peter!--would turn and see him. She had a way of putting one slender hand over her heart when she was startled.
Peter put down the jar of preserved peaches outside. It was to be a second surprise. Also he put down the flowers; they were to be brought in last of all. One surprise after another is a cumulative happiness. Peter did not wish to swallow all his cake in one bite.
For once he did not slam the outer door, although he very nearly did, and only caught it at the cost of a bruised finger. Inside he listened. There was no clatter of dishes, no scurrying back and forth from table to stove in the final excitement of dishing up. There was, however, a highly agreeable odor of stewing chicken, a crisp smell of baking biscuit.
In the darkened hall Peter had to pause to steady himself. For he had a sudden mad impulse to shout Harmony's name, to hold out his arms, to call her to him there in the warm darkness, and when she had come, to catch her to him, to tell his love in one long embrace, his arms about her, his rough cheek against her soft one. No wonder he grew somewhat dizzy and had to pull himself together.
The silence rather surprised him, until he recalled that Harmony was probably sewing in the salon, as she did sometimes when dinner was ready to serve. The boy was asleep, no doubt. He stole along on tiptoe, hardly breathing, to the first doorway, which was Jimmy's.
Jimmy was asleep. Round him were the pink and yellow and white flower fairies with violet heads. Peter saw them and smiled. Then, his eyes growing accustomed to the light, he saw Marie, face down on the floor, her head on her arms. Still as she was, Peter knew she was not sleeping, only fighting her battle over again and losing.
Some of the joyousness of his return fled from Peter, never to come back. The two silent figures were too close to tragedy. Peter, with a long breath, stole past the door and on to the salon. No Harmony there, but the great room was warm and cheery. The table was drawn near the stove and laid for Abendessen. The white porcelain coffee-pot had boiled and extinguished itself, according to its method, and now gently steamed.
On to the kitchen. Much odor of food here, two candles lighted but burning low, a small platter with money on it, quite a little money--almost all he had left Harmony when he went away.
Peter was dazed at first. Even when Marie, hastily summoned, had discovered that Harmony's clothing was gone, when a search of the rooms revealed the absence of her violin and her music, when at last the fact stared them, incontestable, in the face, Peter refused to accept it. He sat for a half-hour or even more by the fire in the salon, obstinately refusing to believe she was gone, keeping the supper warm against her return. He did not think or reason, he sat and waited, saying nothing, hardly moving, save when a gust of wind slammed the garden gate. Then he was all alive, sat erect, ears straining for her hand on the knob of the outer door.
The numbness of the shock passed at last, to be succeeded by alarm. During all the time that followed, that condition persisted, fright, almost terror. Harmony alone in the city, helpless, dependent, poverty-stricken. Harmony seeking employment under conditions Peter knew too well. But with his alarm came rage.
Marie had never seen Peter angry. She shrank from this gaunt and gray-faced man who raved up and down the salon, questioning the frightened Portier, swearing fierce oaths, bringing accusation after accusation against some unnamed woman to whom he applied epithets that Marie's English luckily did not comprehend. Not a particularly heroic figure was Peter that night: a frantic, disheveled individual, before whom the Portier cowered, who struggled back to sanity through a berserk haze and was liable to swift relapses into fury again.
To this succeeded at last the mental condition that was to be Peter's for many days, hopelessness and alarm and a grim determination to keep on searching.
There were no clues. The Portier made inquiries of all the cabstands in the neighborhood. Harmony had not taken a cab. The delicatessen seller had seen her go out that afternoon with a bundle and return without it. She had been gone only an hour or so. That gave Peter a ray of hope that she might have found a haven in the neighborhood--until he recalled the parcel-post.
One possibility he clung to: Mrs. Boyer had made the mischief, but she had also offered the girl a home. She might be at the Boyers'. Peter, flinging on a hat and without his overcoat, went to the Boyers'. Time was valuable, and he had wasted an hour, two hours, in useless rage. So he took a taxicab, and being by this time utterly reckless of cost let it stand while he interviewed the Boyers.
Boyer himself, partially undressed, opened the door to his ring. Peter was past explanation or ceremonial.
"Is Harmony here?" he demanded.
"Harmony Wells. She's disappeared, missing."
"Come in," said Boyer, alive to the strain in Peter's voice. "I don't know, I haven't heard anything. I'll ask Mrs. Boyer."
During the interval it took for a whispered colloquy in the bedroom, and for Mrs. Boyer to don her flannel wrapper, Peter suffered the tortures of the damned. Whatever Mrs. Boyer had meant to say by way of protest at the intrusion on the sacred privacy of eleven o'clock and bedtime died in her throat. Her plump and terraced chin shook with agitation, perhaps with guilt. Peter, however, had got himself in hand. He told a quiet story; Boyer listened; Mrs. Boyer, clutching her wrapper about her unstayed figure, listened.
"I thought," finished Peter, "that since you had offered her a refuge--from me--she might have come here."
"I offered her a refuge--before I had been to the Pension Schwarz."
"Ah!" said Peter slowly. "And what about the Pension Schwarz?"
"Need you ask? I learned that you were all put out there. I am obliged to say, Dr. Byrne, that under the circumstances had the girl come here I could hardly--Frank, I will speak!--I could hardly have taken her in."
Peter went white and ducked as from a physical blow, stumbling out into the hall again. There he thought of something to say in reply, repudiation, thought better of it, started down the stairs.
Boyer followed him helplessly. At the street door, however, he put his hand on Peter's shoulder. "You know, old man, I don't believe that. These women--"
"I know," said Peter simply. "Thank you. Good-night."