The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The little Georgiev was in trouble those days. The Balkan engine was threatening to explode, but continued to gather steam, with Bulgaria sitting on the safety-valve. Austria was mobilizing troops, and there were long conferences in the Burg between the Emperor and various bearded gentlemen, while the military prayed in the churches for war.
The little Georgiev hardly ate or slept. Much hammering went on all day in the small room below Harmony's on the Wollbadgasse. At night, when the man in the green velours hat took a little sleep, mysterious packages were carried down the whitewashed staircase and loaded into wagons waiting below. Once on her window-sill Harmony found among the pigeons a carrier pigeon with a brass tube fastened to its leg.
On the morning after Harmony's flight from the garden in the Street of Seven Stars, she received a visit from Georgiev. She had put in a sleepless night, full of heart-searching. She charged herself with cowardice in running away from Peter and Jimmy when they needed her, and in going back like a thief the night before. The conviction that the boy was not so well brought with it additional introspection--her sacrifice seemed useless, almost childish. She had fled because two men thought it necessary, in order to save her reputation, to marry her; and she did not wish to marry. Marriage was fatal to the career she had promised herself, had been promised. But this career, for which she had given up everything else--would she find it in the workroom of a dressmaker?
Ah, but there was more to it than that. Suppose--how her cheeks burned when she thought of it!--suppose she had taken Peter at his word and married him? What about Peter's career? Was there any way by which Peter's poverty for one would be comfort for two? Was there any reason why Peter, with his splendid ability, should settle down to the hack-work of general practice, the very slough out of which he had so painfully climbed?
Either of two things--go back to Peter, but not to marry him, or stay where she was. How she longed to go back only Harmony knew. There in the little room, with only the pigeons to see, she held out her arms longingly. "Peter!" she said. "Peter, dear!"
She decided, of course, to stay where she was, a burden to no one. The instinct of the young girl to preserve her good name at any cost outweighed the vision of Peter at the window, haggard and tired, looking out. It was Harmony's chance, perhaps, to do a big thing; to prove herself bigger than her fears, stronger than convention. But she was young, bewildered, afraid. And there was this element, stronger than any of the others--Peter had never told her he loved her. To go back, throwing herself again on his mercy, was unthinkable. On his love--that was different. But what if he did not love her? He had been good to her; but then Peter was good to every one.
There was something else. If the boy was worse what about his mother? Whatever she was or had been, she was his mother. Suppose he were to die and his mother not see him? Harmony's sense of fairness rebelled. In the small community at home mother was sacred, her claims insistent.
It was very early, hardly more than dawn. The pigeons cooed on the sill; over the ridge of the church roof, across, a luminous strip foretold the sun. An oxcart, laden with vegetables for the market, lumbered along the streets. Puzzled and unhappy, Harmony rose and lighted her fire, drew on her slippers and the faded silk kimono with the pink butterflies.
In the next room the dressmaker still slept, dreaming early morning dreams of lazy apprentices, overdue bills, complaining customers.
Harmony moved lightly not to disturb her. She set her room in order, fed the pigeons,--it was then she saw the carrier with its message,--made her morning coffee by setting the tiny pot inside the stove. And all the time, moving quietly through her morning routine, she was there in that upper room in body only.
In soul she was again in the courtyard back of the old lodge, in the Street of Seven Stars, with the rabbits stirring in the hutch, and Peter, with rapt eyes, gazing out over the city. Bed, toilet-table, coffee-pot, Peter; pigeons, rolls, Peter; sunrise over the church roof, and Peter again. Always Peter!
Monia Reiff was stirring in the next room. Harmony could hear her, muttering and putting coal on the stove and calling to the Hungarian maid for breakfast. Harmony dressed hastily. It was one of her new duties to prepare the workroom for the day. The luminous streak above the church was rose now, time for the day to begin.
She was not certain at once that some one had knocked at the door, so faint was the sound.
She hesitated, listened. The knob turned slightly. Harmony, expecting Monia, called "Come in."
It was the little Georgiev, very apologetic, rather gray of face. He stood in the doorway with his finger on his lips, one ear toward the stairway. It was very silent. Monia was drinking her coffee in bed, whither she had retired for warmth.
"Pardon!" said the Bulgarian in a whisper. "I listened until I heard you moving about. Ah, Fraulein, that I must disturb you!"
"Something has happened!" exclaimed Harmony, thinking of Peter, of course.
"Not yet. I fear it is about to happen. Fraulein, do me the honor to open your window. My pigeon comes now to you to be fed, and I fear--on the sill, Fraulein."
Harmony opened the window. The wild pigeons scattered at once, but the carrier, flying out a foot or two, came back promptly and set about its breakfast.
"Will he let me catch him?"
"Pardon, Fraulein, If I may enter--"
"Come in, of course."
Evidently the defection of the carrier had been serious. A handful of grain on a wrong window-sill, and kingdoms overthrown! Georgiev caught the pigeon and drew the message from the tube. Even Harmony grasped the seriousness of the situation. The little Bulgarian's face, from gray became livid; tiny beads of cold sweat came out on his forehead.
"What have I done?" cried Harmony. "Oh, what have I done? If I had known about the pigeon--"
Georgiev recovered himself.
"The Fraulein can do nothing wrong," he said. "It is a matter of an hour's delay, that is all. It may not be too late."
Monia Reiff, from the next room, called loudly for more coffee. The sulky Hungarian brought it without a glance in their direction.
"Too late for what?"
"Fraulein, if I may trouble you--but glance from the window to the street below. It is of an urgency, or I--Please, Fraulein!"
Harmony glanced down into the half-light of the street. Georgiev, behind her, watched her, breathless, expectant. Harmony drew in her head.
"Only a man in a green hat," she said. "And down the street a group of soldiers."
The situation dawned on the girl then, at least partially.
"They are coming for you?"
"It is possible. But there are many soldiers in Vienna."
"And I with the pigeon--Oh, it's too horrible! Herr Georgiev, stay here in this room. Lock the door. Monia will say that it is mine--"
"Ah no, Fraulein! It is quite hopeless. Nor is it a matter of the pigeon. It is war, Fraulein. Do not distress yourself. It is but a matter of--imprisonment."
"There must be something I can do," desperately. "I hear them below. Is there no way to the roof, no escape?"
"None, Fraulein. It was an oversight. War is not my game; I am a man of peace. You have been very kind to me, Fraulein. I thank you."
"You are not going down!"
"Pardon, but it is better so. Soldiers they are of the provinces mostly, and not for a lady to confront."
"They are coming up!"
He listened. The clank of scabbards against the stone stairs was unmistakable. The little Georgiev straightened, threw out his chest, turned to descend, faltered, came back a step or two.
His small black eyes were fixed on Harmony's face.
"Fraulein," he said huskily, "you are very lovely. I carry always in my heart your image. Always so long as I live. Adieu."
He drew his heels together, gave a stiff little bow and was gone down the staircase. Harmony was frightened, stricken. She collapsed in a heap on the floor of her room, her fingers in her ears. But she need not have feared. The little Georgiev made no protest, submitted to the inevitable like a gentleman and a soldier, went out of her life, indeed, as unobtrusively as he had entered it.
The carrier pigeon preened itself comfortably on the edge of the washstand. Harmony ceased her hysterical crying at last and pondered what was best to do. Monia was still breakfasting so incredibly brief are great moments. After a little thought Harmony wrote a tiny message, English, German, and French, and inclosed it in the brass tube.
"The Herr Georgiev has been arrested," she wrote. An hour later the carrier rose lazily from the window-sill, flapped its way over the church roof and disappeared, like Georgiev, out of her life. Grim-visaged war had touched her and passed on.
The incident was not entirely closed, however. A search of the building followed the capture of the little spy. Protesting tenants were turned out, beds were dismantled, closets searched, walls sounded for hidden hollows. In one room on Harmony's floor was found stored a quantity of ammunition.
It was when the three men who had conducted the search had finished, when the boxes of ammunition had been gathered in the hall, and the chattering sewing-girls had gone back to work, that Harmony, on her way to her dismantled room, passed through the upper passage.
She glanced down the staircase where little Georgiev had so manfully descended.
"I carry always in my heart your image. Always so long as I live."
The clatter of soldiers on their way down to the street came to her ears; the soft cooing of the pigeons, the whirr of sewing-machines from the workroom. The incident was closed, except for the heap of ammunition boxes on the landing, guarded by an impassive soldier.
Harmony glanced at him. He was eying her steadily, thumbs in, heels in, toes out, chest out. Harmony put her hand to her heart.
"You!" she said.
The conversation of a sentry, save on a holiday is, "Yea, yea," and "Nay, nay."
Harmony put her hands together, a little gesture of appeal, infinitely touching.
"You will not say that you have found, have seen me?"
It was in Harmony's mind to ask all her hungry heart craved to learn--of Peter, of Jimmy, of the Portier, of anything that belonged to the old life in the Siebensternstrasse. But there was no time. The sentry's impassive face became rigid; he looked through her, not at her. Harmony turned.
The man in the green hat was coming up the staircase. There was no further chance to question. The sentry was set to carrying the boxes down the staircase.
Full morning now, with the winter sun shining on the beggars in the market, on the crowds in the parks, on the flower sellers in the Stephansplatz; shining on Harmony's golden head as she bent over a bit of chiffon, on the old milkwoman carrying up the whitewashed staircase her heavy cans of milk; on the carrier pigeon winging its way to the south; beating in through bars to the exalted face of Herr Georgiev; resting on Peter's drooping shoulders, on the neglected mice and the wooden soldier, on the closed eyes of a sick child--the worshiped sun, peering forth--the golden window of the East.