The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Jimmy was not so well, although Harmony's flight had had nothing to do with the relapse. He had found Marie a slavishly devoted substitute, and besides Peter had indicated that Harmony's absence was purely temporary. But the breaking-up was inevitable. All day long the child lay in the white bed, apathetic but sleepless. In vain Marie made flower fairies for his pillow, in vain the little mice, now quite tame, played hide-and-seek over the bed, in vain Peter paused long enough in his frantic search for Harmony to buy colored postcards and bring them to him.
He was contented enough; he did not suffer at all; and he had no apprehension of what was coming. He asked for nothing, tried obediently to eat, liked to have Marie in the room. But he did not beg to be taken into the salon, as he once had done. There was a sort of mental confusion also. He liked Marie to read his father's letters; but as he grew weaker the occasional confusing of Peter with his dead father became a fixed idea. Peter was Daddy.
Peter took care of him at night. He had moved into Harmony's adjacent room and dressed there. But he had never slept in the bed. At night he put on his shabby dressing-gown and worn slippers and lay on a haircloth sofa at the foot of Jimmy's bed--lay but hardly slept, so afraid was he that the slender thread of life might snap when it was drawn out to its slenderest during the darkest hours before the dawn. More than once in every night Peter rose and stood, hardly breathing, with the tiny lamp in his hand, watching for the rise and fall of the boy's thin little chest. Peter grew old these days. He turned gray over the ears and developed lines about his mouth that never left him again. He felt gray and old, and sometimes bitter and hard also. The boy's condition could not be helped: it was inevitable, hopeless. But the thing that was eating his heart out had been unnecessary and cruel.
Where was Harmony? When it stormed, as it did almost steadily, he wondered how she was sheltered; when the occasional sun shone he hoped it was bringing her a bit of cheer. Now and then, in the night, when the lamp burned low and gusts of wind shook the old house, fearful thoughts came to him--the canal, with its filthy depths. Daylight brought reason, however. Harmony had been too rational, too sane for such an end.
McLean was Peter's great support in those terrible days. He was young and hopeful. Also he had money. Peter could not afford to grease the machinery of the police service; McLean could and did. In Berlin Harmony could not have remained hidden for two days. In Vienna, however, it was different. Returns were made to the department, but irregularly. An American music student was missing. There were thousands of American music students in the city: one fell over them in the coffee-houses. McLean offered a reward and followed up innumerable music students.
The alternating hope and despair was most trying. Peter became old and haggard; the boy grew thin and white. But there was this difference, that with Peter the strain was cumulative, hour on hour, day on day. With McLean each night found him worn and exhausted, but each following morning he went to work with renewed strength and energy. Perhaps, after all, the iron had not struck so deep into his soul. With Peter it was a life-and-death matter.
Clinics and lectures had begun again, but he had no heart for work. The little household went on methodically. Marie remained; there had seemed nothing else to do. She cooked Peter's food--what little he would eat; she nursed Jimmy while Peter was out on the long search; and she kept the apartment neat. She was never intrusive, never talkative. Indeed, she seemed to have lapsed into definite silence. She deferred absolutely to Peter, adored him, indeed, from afar. She never ate with him, in spite of his protests.
The little apartment was very quiet. Where formerly had been music and Harmony's soft laughter, where Anna Gates had been wont to argue with Peter in loud, incisive tones, where even the prisms of the chandelier had once vibrated in response to Harmony's violin, almost absolute silence now reigned. Even the gate, having been repaired, no longer creaked, and the loud altercations between the Portier and his wife had been silenced out of deference to the sick child.
On the day that Harmony, in the gold dress, had discovered Jimmy's mother in the American dancer Peter had had an unusually bad day. McLean had sent him a note by messenger early in the morning, to the effect that a young girl answering Harmony's description had been seen in the park at Schonbrunn and traced to an apartment near by.
Harmony had liked Schonbrunn, and it seemed possible. They had gone out together, McLean optimistic, Peter afraid to hope. And it had been as he feared--a pretty little violin student, indeed, who had been washing her hair, and only opened the door an inch or two.
McLean made a lame apology, Peter too sick with disappointment to speak. Then back to the city again.
He had taken to making a daily round, to the master's, to the Frau Professor Bergmeister's, along the Graben and the Karntnerstrasse, ending up at the Doctors' Club in the faint hope of a letter. Wrath still smouldered deep in Peter; he would not enter a room at the club if Mrs. Boyer sat within. He had had a long 1 hour with Dr. Jennings, and left that cheerful person writhing in abasement. And he had held a stormy interview with the Frau Schwarz, which left her humble for a week, and exceedingly nervous, being of the impression from Peter's manner that in the event of Harmony not turning up an American gunboat would sail up the right arm of the Danube and bombard the Pension Schwarz.
Schonbrunn having failed them, McLean and, Peter went back to the city in the street-car, neither one saying much. Even McLean's elasticity was deserting him. His eyes, from much peering into crowds, had taken on a strained, concentrated look.
Peter was shabbier than ever beside the other man's ultrafashionable dress. He sat, bent forward, his long arms dangling between his knees, his head down. Their common trouble had drawn the two together, or had drawn McLean close to Peter, as if he recognized that there were degrees in grief and that Peter had received almost a death-wound. His old rage at Peter had died. Harmony's flight had proved the situation as no amount of protestation would have done. The thing now was to find the girl; then he and Peter would start even, and the battle to the best man.
They had the car almost to themselves. Peter had not spoken since he sat down. McLean was busy over a notebook, in which he jotted down from day to day such details of their search as might be worth keeping. Now and then he glanced at Peter as if he wished to say something, hesitated, fell to work again over the notebook. Finally he ventured.
"How's the boy?"
"Not so well to-day. I'm having a couple of men in to see him to-night. He doesn't sleep."
"Do you sleep?"
"Not much. He's on my mind, of course."
That and other things, Peter.
"Don't you think--wouldn't it be better to have a nurse. You can't go like this all day and be up all night, you know. And Marie has him most of the day." McLean, of course, had known Marie before. "The boy ought to have a nurse, I think."
"He doesn't move without my hearing him."
"That's an argument for me. Do you want to get sick?"
Peter turned a white face toward McLean, a face in which exasperation struggled with fatigue.
"Good Lord, boy," he rasped, "don't you suppose I'd have a nurse if I could afford it?"
"Would you let me help? I'd like to do something. I'm a useless cub in a sick-room, but I could do that. Who's the woman he liked in the hospital?"
"Nurse Elisabet. I don't know, Mac. There's no reason why I shouldn't let you help, I suppose. It hurts, of course, but--if he would be happier--"
"That's settled, then," said McLean. "Nurse Elisabet, if she can come. And--look here, old man. I 've been trying to say this for a week and haven't had the nerve. Let me help you out for a while. You can send it back when you get it, any time, a year or ten years. I'll not miss it."
But Peter refused. He tempered the refusal in his kindly way.
"I can't take anything now," he said. "But I'll remember it, and if things get very bad I'll come to you. It isn't costing much to live. Marie is a good manager, almost as good as--Harmony was." This with difficulty. He found it always hard to speak of Harmony. His throat seemed to close on the name.
That was the best McLean could do, but he made a mental reservation to see Marie that night and slip her a little money. Peter need never know, would never notice.
At a cross-street the car stopped, and the little Bulgarian, Georgiev, got on. He inspected the car carefully before he came in from the platform, and sat down unobtrusively in a corner. Things were not going well with him either. His small black eyes darted from face to face suspiciously, until they came to a rest on Peter.
It was Georgiev's business to read men. Quickly he put together the bits he had gathered from Harmony on the staircase, added to them Peter's despondent attitude, his strained face, the abstraction which required a touch on the arm from his companion when they reached their destination, recalled Peter outside the door of Harmony's room in the Pension Schwarz--and built him a little story that was not far from the truth.
Peter left the car without seeing him. It was the hour of the promenade, when the Ring and the larger business streets were full of people, when Demel's was thronged with pretty women eating American ices, with military men drinking tea and nibbling Austrian pastry, the hour when the flower women along the Stephansplatz did a rousing business in roses, when sterile women burned candles before the Madonna in the Cathedral, when the lottery did the record business of the day.
It was Peter's forlorn hope that somewhere among the crowd he might happen on Harmony. For some reason he thought of her always as in a crowd, with people close, touching her, men staring at her, following her. He had spent a frightful night in the Opera, scanning seat after seat, not so much because he hoped to find her as because inaction was intolerable.
And so, on that afternoon, he made his slow progress along the Karntnerstrasse, halting now and then to scrutinize the crowd. He even peered through the doors of shops here and there, hoping while he feared that the girl might be seeking employment within, as she had before in the early days of the winter.
Because of his stature and powerful physique, and perhaps, too, because of the wretchedness in his eyes, people noticed him. There was one place where Peter lingered, where a new building was being erected, and where because of the narrowness of the passage the dense crowd was thinned as it passed. He stood by choice outside a hairdresser's window, where a brilliant light shone on each face that passed.
Inside the clerks had noticed him. Two of them standing together by the desk spoke of him: "He is there again, the gray man!"
"Ah, so! But, yes, there is his back!"
"Poor one, it is the Fraulein Engel he waits to see, perhaps."
"More likely Le Grande, the American. He is American."
"He is Russian. Look at his size."
"But his shoes!" triumphantly. "They are American, little one."
The third girl had not spoken; she was wrapping in tissue a great golden rose made for the hair. She placed it in a box carefully.
"I think he is of the police," she said, "or a spy. There is much talk of war."
"Foolishness! Does a police officer sigh always? Or a spy have such sadness in his face? And he grows thin and white."
"The rose, Fraulein."
The clerk who had wrapped up the flower held it out to the customer. The customer, however, was not looking. She was gazing with strange intentness at the back of a worn gray overcoat. Then with a curious clutch at her heart she went white. Harmony, of course, Harmony come to fetch the golden rose that was to complete Le Grande's costume.
She recovered almost at once and made an excuse to leave by another exit.
She took a final look at the gray sleeve that was all she could see of Peter, who had shifted a bit, and stumbled out into the crowd, walking along with her lip trembling under her veil, and with the slow and steady ache at her heart that she had thought she had stilled for good.
It had never occurred to Harmony that Peter loved her. He had proposed to her twice, but that had been in each case to solve a difficulty for her. And once he had taken her in his arms, but that was different. Even then he had not said he loved her--had not even known it, to be exact. Nor had Harmony realized what Peter meant to her until she had put him out of her life.
The sight of the familiar gray coat, the scrap of conversation, so enlightening as to poor Peter's quest, that Peter was growing thin and white, made her almost reel. She had been too occupied with her own position to realize Peter's. With the glimpse of him came a great longing for the house on the Siebensternstrasse, for Jimmy's arms about her neck, for the salon with the lamp lighted and the sleet beating harmlessly against the casement windows, for the little kitchen with the brick stove, for Peter.
Doubts of the wisdom of her course assailed her. But to go back meant, at the best, adding to Peter's burden of Jimmy and Marie, meant the old situation again, too, for Marie most certainly did not add to the respectability of the establishment. And other doubts assailed her. What if Jimmy were not so well, should die, as was possible, and she had not let his mother see him!
Monia Reiff was very busy that day. Harmony did not leave the workroom until eight o'clock. During all that time, while her slim fingers worked over fragile laces and soft chiffons, she was seeing Jimmy as she had seen him last, with the flower fairies on his pillow, and Peter, keeping watch over the crowd in the Karntnerstrasse, looking with his steady eyes for her.
No part of the city was safe for a young girl after night, she knew; the sixteenth district was no better than the rest, rather worse in places. But the longing to see the house on the Siebensternstrasse grew on her, became from an ache a sharp and insistent pain. She must go, must see once again the comfortable glow of Peter's lamp, the flicker that was the fire.
She ate no supper. She was too tired to eat, and there was the pain. She put on her wraps and crept down the whitewashed staircase.
The paved courtyard below was to be crossed and it was poorly lighted. She achieved the street, however, without molestation. To the street-car was only a block, but during that block she was accosted twice. She was white and frightened when she reached the car.
The Siebensternstrasse at last. The street was always dark; the delicatessen shop was closed, but in the wild-game store next a light was burning low, and a flame flickered before the little shrine over the money drawer. The gameseller was a religious man.
The old stucco house dominated the neighborhood. From the time she left the car Harmony saw it, its long flat roof black against the dark sky, its rows of unlighted windows, its long wall broken in the center by the gate. Now from across the street its whole facade lay before her. Peter's lamp was not lighted, but there was a glow of soft firelight from the salon windows. The light was not regular--it disappeared at regular intervals, was blotted out. Harmony knew what that meant. Some one beyond range of where she stood was pacing the floor, back and forward, back and forward. When he was worried or anxious Peter always paced the door.
She did not know how long she stood there. One of the soft rains was falling, or more accurately, condensing. The saturated air was hardly cold. She stood on the pavement unmolested, while the glow died lower and lower, until at last it was impossible to trace the pacing figure. No one came to any of the windows. The little lamp before the shrine in the wild-game shop burned itself out; the Portier across the way came to the door, glanced up at the sky and went in. Harmony heard the rattle of the chain as it was stretched across the door inside.
Not all the windows of the suite opened on the street. Jimmy's windows--and Peter's--opened toward the back of the house, where in a brick-paved courtyard the wife of the Portier hung her washing, and where the Portier himself kept a hutch of rabbits. A wild and reckless desire to see at least the light from the child's room possessed Harmony. Even the light would be something; to go like this, to carry with her only the memory of a dark looming house without cheer was unthinkable. The gate was never locked. If she but went into the garden and round by the spruce tree to the back of the house, it would be something.
She knew the garden quite well. Even the darkness had no horror for her. Little Scatchy had had a habit of leaving various articles on her window-sill and of instigating searches for them at untimely hours of night. Once they had found her hairbrush in the rabbit hutch! So Harmony, ashamed but unalarmed, made her way by the big spruce to the corner of the old lodge and thus to the courtyard.
Ah, this was better! Lights all along the apartment floor and moving shadows; on Jimmy's window-sill a jar of milk. And voices--some one was singing.
Peter was singing, droning softly, as one who puts a drowsy child to sleep. Slower and slower, softer and softer, over and over, the little song Harmony had been wont to sing:--
"Ah well! For us all some sweet hope lies
Slower and slower, softer and softer, until it died away altogether. Peter, in his old dressing-gown, came to the window and turned down the gaslight beside it to a blue point. Harmony did not breathe. For a minute, two minutes, he stood there looking out. Far off the twin clocks of the Votivkirche struck the hour. All about lay the lights of the old city, so very old, so wise, so cunning, so cold.
Peter stood looking out, as he had each night since Harmony went away. Each night he sang the boy to sleep, turned down the light and stood by the window. And each night he whispered to the city that sheltered Harmony somewhere, what he had whispered to the little sweater coat the night before he went away:--
"Good-night, dear. Good-night, Harmony."
The rabbits stirred uneasily in the hutch; a passing gust shook the great tree overhead and sent down a sharp shower on to the bricks below. Peter struck a match and lit his pipe; the flickering light illuminated his face, his rough hair, his steady eyes.
"Good-night, Peter," whispered Harmony. "Good-night, dear."