The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Walter Stewart had made an uncomplicated recovery, helped along by relief at the turn events had taken. In a few days he was going about again, weak naturally, rather handsomer than before because a little less florid. But the week's confinement had given him an opportunity to think over many things. Peter had set him thinking, on the day when he had packed up the last of Marie's small belongings and sent them down to Vienna.
Stewart, lying in bed, had watched him. "Just how much talk do you suppose this has made, Byrne?" he asked.
"Haven't an idea. Some probably. The people in the Russian villa saw it, you know."
Stewart's brows contracted.
"Damnation! Then the hotel has it, of course!"
Stewart groaned. Peter closed Marie's American trunk of which she had been so proud, and coming over looked down at the injured man.
"Don't you think you'd better tell the girl all about it?"
"I know, of course, it wouldn't be easy, but--you can't get away with it, Stewart. That's one way of looking at it. There's another."
"Starting with a clean slate. If she's the sort you want to marry, and not a prude, she'll understand, not at first, but after she gets used to it."
"She wouldn't understand in a thousand years."
"Then you'd better not marry her. You know, Stewart, I have an idea that women imagine a good many pretty rotten things about us, anyhow. A sensible girl would rather know the truth and be done with it. What a man has done with his life before a girl--the right girl--comes into it isn't a personal injury to her, since she wasn't a part of his life then. You know what I mean. But she has a right to know it before she chooses."
"How many would choose under those circumstances?" he jibed.
Peter smiled. "Quite a few," he said cheerfully. "It's a wrong system, of course; but we can get a little truth out of it."
"You can't get away with it" stuck in Stewart's mind for several days. It was the one thing Peter said that did stick. And before Stewart had recovered enough to be up and about he had made up his mind to tell Anita. In his mind he made quite a case for himself; he argued the affair against his conscience and came out victorious.
Anita's party had broken up. The winter sports did not compare, they complained, with St. Moritz. They disliked German cooking. Into the bargain the weather was not good; the night's snows turned soft by midday; and the crowds that began to throng the hotels were solid citizens, not the fashionables of the Riviera. Anita's arm forbade her traveling. In the reassembling of the party she went to the Kurhaus in the valley below the pension with one of the women who wished to take the baths.
It was to the Kurhaus, then, that Stewart made his first excursion after the accident. He went to dinner. Part of the chaperon's treatment called for an early retiring hour, which was highly as he had wished it and rather unnerving after all. A man may decide that a dose of poison is the remedy for all his troubles, but he does not approach his hour with any hilarity. Stewart was a stupid dinner guest, ate very little, and looked haggard beyond belief when the hour came for the older woman to leave.
He did not lack courage however. It was his great asset, physical and mental rather than moral, but courage nevertheless. The evening was quiet, and they elected to sit on the balcony outside Anita's sitting room, the girl swathed in white furs and leaning back in her steamer chair.
Below lay the terrace of the Kurhaus, edged with evergreen trees. Beyond and far below that was the mountain village, a few scattered houses along a frozen stream. The townspeople retired early; light after light was extinguished, until only one in the priest's house remained. A train crept out of one tunnel and into another, like a glowing worm crawling from burrow to burrow.
The girl felt a change in Stewart. During the weeks he had known her there had been a curious restraint in his manner to her. There were times when an avowal seemed to tremble on his lips, when his eyes looked into hers with the look no women ever mistakes; the next moment he would glance away, his face would harden. They were miles apart. And perhaps the situation had piqued the girl. Certainly it had lost nothing for her by its unusualness.
To-night there was a difference in the man. His eyes met hers squarely, without evasion, but with a new quality, a searching, perhaps, for something in her to give him courage. The girl had character, more than ordinary decision. It was what Stewart admired in her most, and the thing, of course, that the little Marie had lacked. Moreover, Anita, barely twenty, was a woman, not a young girl. Her knowledge of the world, not so deep as Marie's, was more comprehensive. Where Marie would have been merciful, Anita would be just, unless she cared for him. In that case she might be less than just, or more.
Anita in daylight was a pretty young woman, rather incisive of speech, very intelligent, having a wit without malice, charming to look at, keenly alive. Anita in the dusk of the balcony, waiting to hear she knew not what, was a judicial white goddess, formidably still, frightfully potential. Stewart, who had embraced many women, did not dare a finger on her arm.
He had decided on a way to tell the girl the story--a preamble about his upbringing, which had been indifferent, his struggle to get to Vienna, his loneliness there, all leading with inevitable steps to Marie. From that, if she did not utterly shrink from him, to his love for her.
It was his big hour, that hour on the balcony. He was reaching, through love, heights of honesty he had never scaled before. But as a matter of fact he reversed utterly his order of procedure. The situation got him, this first evening absolutely alone with her. That and her nearness, and the pathos of her bandaged, useless arm. Still he had not touched her.
The thing he was trying to do was more difficult for that. General credulity to the contrary, men do not often make spoken love first. How many men propose marriage to their women across the drawing-room or from chair to chair? Absurd! The eyes speak first, then the arms, the lips last. The woman is in his arms before he tells his love. It is by her response that he gauges his chances and speaks of marriage. Actually the thing is already settled; tardy speech only follows on swift instinct. Stewart, wooing as men woo, would have taken the girl's hand, gained an encouragement from it, ventured to kiss it, perhaps, and finding no rebuff would then and there have crushed her to him; What need of words? They would follow in due time, not to make a situation but to clarify it.
But he could not woo as men woo. The barrier of his own weakness stood between them and must be painfully taken down.
"I'm afraid this is stupid for you," said Anita out of the silence. "Would you like to go to the music-room?"
"God forbid. I was thinking."
"Of what?" Encouragement this, surely.
"I was thinking how you had come into my life, and stirred it up."
"You know that."
"How did I stir it up?"
"That's hardly the way I meant to put it. You've changed everything for me. I care for you--a very great deal."
He was still carefully in hand, his voice steady. And still he did not touch her. Other men had made love to her, but never in this fashion, or was he making love?
"I'm very glad you like me."
"Like you!" Almost out of hand that time. The thrill in his voice was unmistakable. "It's much more than that, Anita, so much more that I'm going to try to do a hideously hard thing. Will you help a little?"
"Yes, if I can." She was stirred, too, and rather frightened.
Stewart drew his chair nearer to her and sat forward, his face set and dogged.
"Have you any idea how you were hurt? Or why?"
"No. There's a certain proportion of accidents that occur at all these places, isn't there?"
"This was not an accident."
"The branch of a tree was thrown out in front of the sled to send us over the bank. It was murder, if intention is crime."
After a brief silence--
"Somebody who wished to kill you, or me?"
"Both of us, I believe. It was done by a woman--a girl, Anita. A girl I had been living with."
A brutal way to tell her, no doubt, but admirably courageous. For he was quivering with dread when he said it--the courage of the man who faces a cannon. And here, where a less-poised woman would have broken into speech, Anita took the refuge of her kind and was silent. Stewart watched her as best he could in the darkness, trying to gather further courage to go on. He could not see her face, but her fingers, touching the edge of the chair, quivered.
"May I tell you the rest?"
"I don't think I want to hear it."
"Are you going to condemn me unheard?"
"There isn't anything you can say against the fact?"
But there was much to say, and sitting there in the darkness he made his plea. He made no attempt to put his case. He told what had happened simply; he told of his loneliness and discomfort. And he emphasized the lack of sentiment that prompted the arrangement.
Anita spoke then for the first time: "And when you tried to terminate it she attempted to kill you!"
"I was acting the beast. I brought her up here, and then neglected her for you."
"Then it was hardly only a business arrangement for her."
"It was at first. I never dreamed of any thing else. I swear that, Anita. But lately, in the last month or two, she--I suppose I should have seen that she--"
"That she had fallen in love with you. How old is she?"
A sudden memory came to Anita, of a slim young girl, who had watched her with wide, almost childish eyes.
"Then it was she who was in the compartment with you on the train coming up?"
"Where is she now?"
"In Vienna. I have not heard from her. Byrne, the chap who came up to see me after the--after the accident, sent her away. I think he's looking after her. I haven't heard from him."
"Why did you tell me all this?"
"Because I love you, Anita. I want you to marry me."
"What! After that?"
"That, or something similar, is in many men's lives. They don't tell it, that's the difference. I 'm not taking any credit for telling you this. I'm ashamed to the bottom of my soul, and when I look at your bandaged arm I'm suicidal. Peter Byrne urged me to tell you. He said I couldn't get away with it; some time or other it would come out. Then he said something else. He said you'd probably understand, and that if you married me it was better to start with a clean slate."
No love, no passion in the interview now. A clear statement of fact, an offer--his past against hers, his future with hers. Her hand was steady now. The light in the priest's house had been extinguished. The chill of the mountain night penetrated Anita's white furs; and set her--or was it the chill?--to shivering.
"If I had not told you, would you have married me?"
"I think so. I'll be honest, too. Yes."
"I am the same man you would have married. Only--more honest."
"I cannot argue about it. I am tired and cold."
Stewart glanced across the valley to where the cluster of villas hugged the mountain-side There was a light in his room; outside was the little balcony where Marie had leaned against the railing and looked down, down. Some of the arrogance of his new virtue left the man. He was suddenly humbled. For the first time he realized a part of what Marie had endured in that small room where the light burned.
"Poor little Marie!" he said softly.
The involuntary exclamation did more for him than any plea he could have made. Anita rose and held out her hand.
"Go and see her," she said quietly. "You owe her that. We'll be leaving here in a day or so and I'll not see you again. But you've been honest, and I will be honest, too. I--I cared a great deal, too."
"And this has killed it?"
"I hardly comprehend it yet. I shall have to have time to think."
"But if you are going away--I'm afraid to leave you. You'll think this thing over, alone, and all the rules of life you've been taught will come--"
"Please, I must think. I will write you, I promise."
He caught her hand and crushed it between both of his.
"I suppose you would rather I did not kiss you?" humbly.
"I do not want you to kiss me."
He released her hand and stood looking down at her in the darkness. If he could only have crushed her to him, made her feel the security of his love, of his sheltering arms! But the barrier of his own building was between them. His voice was husky.
"I want you to try to remember, past what I have told you, to the thing that concerns us both--I love you. I never loved the other woman. I never pretended I loved her. And there will be nothing more like that."
"I shall try to remember."
Anita left Semmering the next day, against the protests of the doctor and the pleadings of the chaperon. She did not see Stewart again. But before she left, with the luggage gone and the fiacre at the door, she went out on the terrace, and looked across to the Villa Waldheim, rising from among its clustering trees. Although it was too far to be certain, she thought she saw the figure of a man on the little balcony standing with folded arms, gazing across the valley to the Kurhaus.
Having promised to see Marie, Stewart proceeded to carry out his promise in his direct fashion. He left Semmering the evening of the following day, for Vienna. The strain of the confession was over, but he was a victim of sickening dread. To one thing only he dared to pin his hopes. Anita had said she cared, cared a great deal. And, after all, what else mattered? The story had been a jolt, he told himself. Girls were full of queer ideas of right and wrong, bless them! But she cared. She cared!
He arrived in Vienna at nine o'clock that night. The imminence of his interview with Marie hung over him like a cloud. He ate a hurried supper, and calling up the Doctors' Club by telephone found Peter's address in the Siebensternstrasse. He had no idea, of course, that Marie was there. He wanted to see Peter to learn where Marie had taken refuge, and incidentally to get from Peter a fresh supply of moral courage for the interview. For he needed courage. In vain on the journey down had he clothed himself in armor of wrath against the girl; the very compartment in the train provoked softened memories of her. Here they had bought a luncheon, there Marie had first seen the Rax. Again at this station she had curled up and put her head on his shoulder for a nap. Ah, but again, at this part of the journey he had first seen Anita!
He took a car to the Siebensternstrasse. His idea of Peter's manner of living those days was exceedingly vague. He had respected Peter's reticence, after the manner of men with each other. Peter had once mentioned a boy he was looking after, in excuse for leaving so soon after the accident. That was all.
The house on the Siebensternstrasse loomed large and unlighted. The street was dark, and it was only after a search that Stewart found the gate. Even then he lost the path, and found himself among a group of trees, to touch the lowest branches of any of which resulted in a shower of raindrops. To add to his discomfort some one was walking in the garden, coming toward him with light, almost stealthy steps.
Stewart by his tree stood still, waiting. The steps approached, were very close, were beside him. So intense was the darkness that even then all he saw was a blacker shadow, and that was visible only because it moved. Then a hand touched his arm, stopped as if paralyzed, drew back slowly, fearfully.
"Good Heavens!" said poor Harmony faintly.
"Please don't be alarmed. I have lost the path." Stewart's voice was almost equally nervous. "Is it to the right or the left?"
It was a moment before Harmony had breath to speak. Then:--
"To the right a dozen paces or so."
"Thank you. Perhaps I can help you to find it."
"I know it quite well. Please don't bother."
The whole situation was so unexpected that only then did it dawn on Stewart that this blacker shadow was a countrywoman speaking God's own language. Together, Harmony a foot or so in advance, they made the path.
"The house is there. Ring hard, the bell is out of order."
"Are you not coming in?"
"No. I--I do not live here."
She must have gone just after that. Stewart, glancing at the dark facade of the house, turned round to find her gone, and a moment later heard the closing of the gate. He was bewildered. What sort of curious place was this, a great looming house that concealed in its garden a fugitive American girl who came and went like a shadow, leaving only the memory of a sweet voice strained with fright?
Stewart was full of his encounter as he took the candle the Portier gave him and followed the gentleman's gruff directions up the staircase. Peter admitted him, looking a trifle uneasy, as well he might with Marie in the salon.
Stewart was too preoccupied to notice Peter's expression. He shook the rain off his hat, smiling.
"How are you?" asked Peter dutifully.
"Pretty good, except for a headache when I'm tired. What sort of a place have you got here anyhow, Byrne?"
"Old hunting-lodge of Maria Theresa," replied Peter, still preoccupied with Marie and what was coming. "Rather interesting old place."
"Rather," commented Stewart, "with goddesses in the garden and all the usual stunts."
"Ran into one just now among the trees. 'A woman I forswore, but thou being a goddess I forswore not thee.' English-speaking goddess, by George!"
Peter was staring at him incredulously; now he bent forward and grasped his arm in fingers of steel.
"For Heaven's sake, Stewart, tell me what you mean! Who was in the garden?"
Stewart was amused and interested. It was not for him to belittle a situation of his own making, an incident of his own telling.
"I lost my way in your garden, wandered among the trees, broke through a hedgerow or two, struck a match and consulted the compass--"
Peter's fingers closed.
"Quick," he said.
Stewart's manner lost its jauntiness.
"There was a girl there," he said shortly. "Couldn't see her. She spoke English. Said she didn't live here, and broke for the gate the minute I got to the path."
"You didn't see her?"
"No. Nice voice, though. Young."
The next moment he was alone. Peter in his dressing-gown was running down the staircase to the lower floor, was shouting to the Portier to unlock the door, was a madman in everything but purpose. The Portier let him out and returned to the bedroom.
"The boy above is worse," he said briefly. "A strange doctor has just come, and but now the Herr Doktor Byrne runs to the drug store."
The Portier's wife shrugged her shoulders even while tears filled her eyes.
"What can one expect?" she demanded. "The good Herr Gott has forbidden theft and Rosa says the boy was stolen. Also the druggist has gone to visit his wife's mother."
"Perhaps I may be of service; I shall go up."
"And see for a moment that hussy of the streets! Remain here. I shall go."
Slowly and ponderously she climbed the stairs.
Stewart, left alone, wandered along the dim corridor. He found Peter's excitement rather amusing. So this was where Peter lived, an old house, isolated in a garden where rambled young women with soft voices. Hello, a youngster asleep! The boy, no doubt.
He wandered on toward the lighted door of the salon and Marie. The place was warm and comfortable, but over it all hung the indescribable odor of drugs that meant illness. He remembered that the boy was frail.
Marie turned as he stopped in the salon doorway, and then rose, white-faced. Across the wide spaces of the room they eyed each other. Marie's crisis had come. Like all crises it was bigger than speech. It was after a distinct pause that she spoke.
"Hast thou brought the police?"
Curiously human, curiously masculine at least was Stewart's mental condition at that moment. He had never loved the girl; it was with tremendous relief he had put her out of his life. And yet--
"So it's old Peter now, is it?"
"No, no, not that, Walter. He has given me shelter, that is all. I swear it. I look after the boy."
"Who else is here?"
"No one else; but--"
"Tell that rot to some one who does not know you."
"It is true. He never even looks at me. I am wicked, but I do not lie." There was a catch of hope in her voice. Marie knew men somewhat, but she still cherished the feminine belief that jealousy is love, whereas it is only injured pride. She took a step toward him. "Walter, I am sorry. Do you hate me?" She had dropped the familiar "thou."
Stewart crossed the room until only Peter's table and lamp stood between them.
"I didn't mean to be brutal," he said, rather largely, entirely conscious of his own magnanimity. "It was pretty bad up there and I know it. I don't hate you, of course. That's hardly possible after--everything."
"You--would take me back?"
"No. It's over, Marie. I wanted to know where you were, that's all; to see that you were comfortable and not frightened. You're a silly child to think of the police."
Marie put a hand to her throat.
"It is the American, of course."
She staggered a trifle, recovered, threw up her head. "Then I wish I had killed her!"
No man ever violently resents the passionate hate of one woman for her rival in his affections. Stewart, finding the situation in hand and Marie only feebly formidable, was rather amused and flattered by the honest fury in her voice. The mouse was under his paw; he would play a bit. "You'll get over feeling that way, kid. You don't really love me."
"You were my God, that is all."
"Will you let me help you--money, I mean?"
"Keep it for her."
"Peter will be here in a minute." He bent over the table and eyed her with his old, half-bullying, half-playful manner. "Come round here and kiss me for old times."
She stood stubbornly still, and Stewart, still smiling, took a step or two toward her. Then he stopped, ceased smiling, drew himself up.
"You are quite right and I'm a rotter." Marie's English did not comprehend "rotter," but she knew the tone. "Listen, Marie, I've told the other girl, and there's a chance for me, anyhow. Some day she may marry me. She asked me to see you."
"I do not wish her pity."
"You are wasting your life here. You cannot marry, you say, without a dot. There is a chance in America for a clever girl. You are clever, little Marie. The first money I can spare I'll send you--if you'll take it. It's all I can do."
This was a new Stewart, a man she had never known. Marie recoiled from him, eyed him nervously, sought in her childish mind for an explanation. When at last she understood that he was sincere, she broke down. Stewart, playing a new part and raw in it, found the situation irritating. But Marie's tears were not entirely bitter. Back of them her busy young mind was weaving a new warp of life, with all of America for its loom. Hope that had died lived again. Before her already lay that great country where women might labor and live by the fruit of their labor, where her tawdry past would be buried in the center of distant Europe. New life beckoned to the little Marie that night in the old salon of Maria Theresa, beckoned to her as it called to Stewart, opportunity to one, love and work to the other. To America!
"I will go," she said at last simply. "And I will not trouble you there."
"Good!" Stewart held out his hand and Marie took it. With a quick gesture she held it to her cheek, dropped it.
Peter came back half an hour later, downcast but not hopeless. He had not found Harmony, but life was not all gray. She was well, still in Vienna, and--she had come back! She had cared then enough to come back. To-morrow he would commence again, would comb the city fine, and when he had found her he would bring her back, the wanderer, to a marvelous welcome.
He found Stewart gone, and Marie feverishly overhauling her few belongings by the salon lamp. She turned to him a face still stained with tears but radiant with hope.
"Peter," she said gravely, "I must prepare my outfit. I go to America."
"Alone, Peter, to work, to be very good, to be something. I am very happy, although--Peter, may I kiss you?"
"Certainly," said Peter, and took her caress gravely, patting her thin shoulder. His thoughts were in the garden with Harmony, who had cared enough to come back.
"Life," said Peter soberly, "life is just one damned thing after another, isn't it?"
But Marie was anxiously examining the hem of a skirt.
The letter from Anita reached Stewart the following morning. She said:--
"I have been thinking things over, Walter, and I am going to hurt you very much--but not, believe me, without hurting myself. Perhaps my uppermost thought just now is that I am disappointing you, that I am not so big as you thought I would be. For now, in this final letter, I can tell you how much I cared. Oh, my dear, I did care!
"But I will not marry you. And when this reaches you I shall have gone very quietly out of your life. I find that such philosophy as I have does not support me to-night, that all my little rules of life are inadequate. Individual liberty was one--but there is no liberty of the individual. Life--other lives--press too closely. You, living your life as seemed best and easiest, and carrying down with you into shipwreck the little Marie and--myself!
"For, face to face with the fact, I cannot accept it, Walter. It is not only a question of my past against yours. It is of steady revolt and loathing of the whole thing; not the flash of protest before one succumbs to the inevitable, but a deep-seated hatred that is a part of me and that would never forget.
"You say that you are the same man I would have married, only more honest for concealing nothing. But--and forgive me this, it insists on coming up in my mind--were you honest, really? You told me, and it took courage, but wasn't it partly fear? What motive is unmixed? Honesty--and fear, Walter. You were preparing against a contingency, although you may not admit this to yourself.
"I am not passing judgment on you. God forbid that I should! I am only trying to show you what is in my mind, and that this break is final. The revolt is in myself, against something sordid and horrible which I will not take into my life. And for that reason time will make no difference.
"I am not a child, and I am not unreasonable. But I ask a great deal of this life of mine that stretches ahead, Walter--home and children, the love of a good man, the fulfillment of my ideals. And you ask me to start with a handicap. I cannot do it. I know you are resentful, but--I know that you understand.