The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Harmony's only thought had been flight, from Peter, from McLean, from Mrs. Boyer. She had devoted all her energies to losing herself, to cutting the threads that bound her to the life in the Siebensternstrasse. She had drawn all her money, as Peter discovered later. The discovery caused him even more acute anxiety. The city was full of thieves; poverty and its companion, crime, lurked on every shadowy staircase of the barracklike houses, or peered, red-eyed, from every alleyway.
And into this city of contrasts--of gray women of the night hugging gratings for warmth and accosting passers-by with loathsome gestures, of smug civilians hiding sensuous mouths under great mustaches, of dapper soldiers to whom the young girl unattended was potential prey, into this night city of terror, this day city of frightful contrasts, ermine rubbing elbows with frost-nipped flesh, destitution sauntering along the fashionable Prater for lack of shelter, gilt wheels of royalty and yellow wheels of courtesans--Harmony had ventured alone for the second time.
And this time there was no Peter Byrne to accost her cheerily in the twilight and win her by sheer friendliness. She was alone. Her funds were lower, much lower. And something else had gone--her faith. Mrs. Boyer had seen to that. In the autumn Harmony had faced the city clear-eyed and unafraid; now she feared it, met it with averted eyes, alas! understood it.
It was not the Harmony who had bade a brave farewell to Scatchy and the Big Soprano in the station who fled to her refuge on the upper floor of the house in the Wollbadgasse. This was a hunted creature, alternately flushed and pale, who locked her door behind her before she took off her hat, and who, having taken off her hat and surveyed her hiding-place with tragic eyes, fell suddenly to trembling, alone there in the gaslight.
She had had no plans beyond flight. She had meant, once alone, to think the thing out. But the room was cold, she had had nothing to eat, and the single slovenly maid was a Hungarian and spoke no German. The dressmaker had gone to the Ronacher. Harmony did not know where to find a restaurant, was afraid to trust herself to the streets alone. She went to bed supperless, with a tiny picture of Peter and Jimmy and the wooden sentry under her cheek.
The pigeons, cooing on the window-sill, wakened her early. She was confused at first, got up to see if Jimmy had thrown off his blankets, and wakened to full consciousness with the sickening realization that Jimmy was not there.
The dressmaker, whose name was Monia Reiff, slept late after her evening out. Harmony, collapsing with hunger and faintness, waited as long as she could. Then she put on her things desperately and ventured out. Surely at this hour Peter would not be searching, and even if he were he would never think of the sixteenth district. He would make inquiries, of course--the Pension Schwarz, Boyers', the master's.
The breakfast brought back her strength and the morning air gave her confidence. The district, too, was less formidable than the neighborhood of the Karntnerstrasse and the Graben. The shops were smaller. The windows exhibited cheaper goods. There was a sort of family atmosphere about many of them; the head of the establishment in the doorway, the wife at the cashier's desk, daughters, cousins, nieces behind the wooden counters. The shopkeepers were approachable, instead of familiar. Harmony met no rebuffs, was respectfully greeted and cheerfully listened to. In many cases the application ended in a general consultation, shopkeeper, wife, daughters, nieces, slim clerks with tiny mustaches. She got addresses, followed them up, more consultations, more addresses, but no work. The reason dawned on her after a day of tramping, during which she kept carefully away from that part of the city where Peter might be searching for her.
The fact was, of course, that her knowledge of English was her sole asset as a clerk. And there were few English and no tourists in the sixteenth district. She was marketing a commodity for which there was no demand.
She lunched at a Konditorei, more to rest her tired body than because she needed food. The afternoon was as the morning. At six o'clock, long after the midwinter darkness had fallen, she stumbled back to the Wollbadgasse and up the whitewashed staircase.
She had a shock at the second landing. A man had stepped into the angle to let her pass. A gasjet dared over his head, and she recognized the short heavy figure and ardent eyes of Georgiev. She had her veil down luckily, and he gave no sign of recognition. She passed on, and she heard him a second later descending. But there had been something reminiscent after all in her figure and carriage. The little Georgiev paused, halfway down, and thought a moment. It was impossible, of course. All women reminded him of the American. Had he not, only the day before, followed for two city blocks a woman old enough to be his mother, merely because she carried a violin case? But there was something about the girl he had just passed--Bah!
A bad week for Harmony followed, a week of weary days and restless nights when she slept only to dream of Peter--of his hurt and incredulous eyes when he found she had gone; of Jimmy--that he needed her, was worse, was dying. More than once she heard him sobbing and wakened to the cooing of the pigeons on the window-sill. She grew thin and sunken-eyed; took to dividing her small hoard, half of it with her, half under the carpet, so that in case of accident all would not be gone.
This, as it happened, was serious. One day, the sixth, she came back wet to the skin from an all-day rain, to find that the carpet bank had been looted. There was no clue. The stolid Hungarian, startled out of her lethargy, protested innocence; the little dressmaker, who seemed honest and friendly, wept in sheer sympathy. The fact remained--half the small hoard was gone.
Two days more, a Sunday and a Monday. On Sunday Harmony played, and Georgiev in the room below, translating into cipher a recent conference between the Austrian Minister of War and the German Ambassador, put aside his work and listened. She played, as once before she had played when life seemed sad and tragic, the "Humoresque." Georgiev, hands behind his head and eyes upturned, was back in the Pension Schwarz that night months ago when Harmony played the "Humoresque" and Peter stooped outside her door. The little Bulgarian sighed and dreamed.
Harmony, a little sadder, a little more forlorn each day, pursued her hopeless quest. She ventured into the heart of the Stadt and paid a part of her remaining money to an employment bureau, to teach English or violin, whichever offered, or even both. After she had paid they told her it would be difficult, almost impossible without references. She had another narrow escape as she was leaving. She almost collided with Olga, the chambermaid, who, having clashed for the last time with Katrina, was seeking new employment. On another occasion she saw Marie in the crowd and was obsessed with a longing to call to her, to ask for Peter, for Jimmy. That meeting took the heart out of the girl. Marie was white and weary--perhaps the boy was worse. Perhaps Peter--Her heart contracted. But that was absurd, of course, Peter was always well and strong.
Two things occurred that week, one unexpected, the other inevitable. The unexpected occurrence was that Monia Reiff, finding Harmony being pressed for work, offered the girl a situation. The wage was small, but she could live on it.
The inevitable was that she met Georgiev on the stairs without her veil.
It was the first day in the workroom. The apprentices were carrying home boxes for a ball that night. Thread was needed, and quickly. Harmony, who did odds and ends of sewing, was most easily spared. She slipped on her jacket and hat and ran down to the shop near by.
It was on the return that she met Georgiev coming down. The afternoon was dark and the staircase unlighted. In the gloom one face was as another. Georgiev, listening intently, hearing footsteps, drew back into the embrasure of a window and waited. His swarthy face was tense, expectant. As the steps drew near, were light feminine instead of stealthy, the little spy relaxed somewhat. But still he waited, crouched.
It was a second before he recognized Harmany, another instant before he realized his good fortune. She had almost passed. He put out an unsteady hand.
The little Bulgarian was profoundly stirred. His fervid eyes gleamed. He struggled against the barrier of language, broke out in passionate Bulgar, switched to German punctuated with an English word here and there. Made intelligible, it was that he had found her at last. Harmony held her spools of thread and waited for the storm of languages to subside. Then:--
"But you are not to say you have seen me, Herr Georgiev."
"I am--am hiding," she explained. "Something very uncomfortable happened and I came here. Please don't say you have seen me."
Georgiev was puzzled at first. She had to explain very slowly, with his ardent eyes on her. But he understood at last and agreed of course. His incredulity was turning to certainty. Harmony had actually been in the same building with him while he sought her everywhere else.
"Then," he said at last, "it was you who played Sunday."
She made a move to pass him, but he held out an imploring hand.
"Fraulein, I may see you sometimes?"
"We shall meet again, of course."
"Fraulein,--with all respect,--sometime perhaps you will walk out with me?"
"I am very busy all day."
"At night, then? For the exercise? I, with all respect, Fraulein!"
Harmony was touched.
"Sometime," she consented. And then impulsively: "I am very lonely, Herr Georgiev."
She held out her hand, and the little Bulgarian bent over it and kissed it reverently. The Herr Georgiev's father was a nobleman in his own country, and all the little spy's training had been to make of a girl in Harmony's situation lawful prey. But in the spy's glowing heart there was nothing for Harmony to fear. She knew it. He stood, hat in hand, while she went up the staircase. Then:--
"Was there below at the entrance a tall man in a green velours hat?"
"I saw no one there."
"I thank you, Fraulein."
He watched her slender figure ascend, lose itself in the shadows, listened until she reached the upper floors. Then with a sigh he clapped his hat on his head and made his cautious way down to the street. There was no man in a green velours hat below, but the little spy had an uneasy feeling that eyes watched him, nevertheless. Life was growing complicated for the Herr Georgiev.
Life was pressing very close to Harmony also in those days, a life she had never touched before. She discovered, after a day or two in the work-room, that Monia Reiff's business lay almost altogether among the demi-monde. The sewing-girls, of Marie's type many of them, found in the customers endless topics of conversation. Some things Harmony was spared, much of the talk being in dialect. But a great deal of it she understood, and she learned much that was not spoken. They talked freely of the women, their clothes, and they talked a great deal about a newcomer, an American dancer, for whom Monia was making an elaborate outfit. The American's name was Lillian Le Grande. She was dancing at one of the variety theaters.
Harmony was working on a costume for the Le Grande woman--a gold brocade slashed to the knee at one side and with a fragment of bodice made of gilt tissue. On the day after her encounter with Georgiev she met her.
There was a dispute over the gown, something about the draping. Monia, flushed with irritation, came to the workroom door and glanced over the girls. She singled out Harmony finally and called her.
"Come and put on the American's gown," she ordered. "She wishes--Heaven knows what she wishes!"
Harmony went unwillingly. Nothing she had heard of the Fraulein Le Grande had prepossessed her. Her uneasiness was increased when she found herself obliged to shed her gown and to stand for one terrible moment before the little dressmaker's amused eyes.
"Thou art very lovely, very chic," said Monia. The dress added to rather than relieved Harmony's discomfiture. She donned it in one of the fitting-rooms, made by the simple expedient of curtaining off a corner of the large reception room. The slashed skirt embarrassed her; the low cut made her shrink. Monia was frankly entranced. Above the gold tissue of the bodice rose Harmony's exquisite shoulders. Her hair was gold; even her eyes looked golden. The dressmaker, who worshiped beauty, gave a pull here, a pat there. If only all women were so beautiful in the things she made!
She had an eye for the theatrical also. She posed Harmony behind the curtain, arranged lights, drew down the chiffon so that a bit more of the girl's rounded bosom was revealed. Then she drew the curtain aside and stood smiling.
Le Grande paid the picture the tribute of a second's silence. Then:--
"Exquisite!" she said in English. Then in halting German: "Do not change a line. It is perfect."
Harmony must walk in the gown, turn, sit. Once she caught a glimpse of herself and was startled. She had been wearing black for so long, and now this radiant golden creature was herself. She was enchanted and abashed. The slash in the skirt troubled her: her slender leg had a way of revealing itself.
The ordeal was over at last. The dancer was pleased. She ordered another gown. Harmony, behind the curtain, slipped out of the dress and into her own shabby frock. On the other side of the curtain the dancer was talking. Her voice was loud, but rather agreeable. She smoked a cigarette. Scraps of chatter came to Harmony, and once a laugh.
"That is too pink--something more delicate."
"Here is a shade; hold it to your cheek."
"I am a bad color. I did not sleep last night."
"Still no news, Fraulein?"
"None. He has disappeared utterly. That isn't so bad, is it? I could use more rouge."
"It is being much worn. It is strange, is it not, that a child could be stolen from the hospital and leave no sign!"
The dancer laughed a mirthless laugh. Her voice changed, became nasal, full of venom.
"Oh, they know well enough," she snapped. "Those nurses know, and there's a pig of a red-bearded doctor--I'd like to poison him. Separating mother and child! I'm going to find him, if only to show them they are not so smart after all."
In her anger she had lapsed into English. Harmony, behind her curtain, had clutched at her heart. Jimmy's mother!