The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Jimmy was dying. Peter, fighting hard, was beaten at last. All through the night he had felt it; during the hours before the dawn there had been times when the small pulse wavered, flickered, almost ceased. With the daylight there had been a trifle of recovery, enough for a bit of hope, enough to make harder Peter's acceptance of the inevitable.
The boy was very happy, quite content and comfortable. When he opened his eyes he smiled at Peter, and Peter, gray of face, smiled back. Peter died many deaths that night.
At daylight Jimmy fell into a sleep that was really stupor. Marie, creeping to the door in the faint dawn, found the boy apparently asleep and Peter on his knees beside the bed. He raised his head at her footstep and the girl was startled at the suffering in his face. He motioned her back.
"But you must have a little sleep, Peter."
"No. I'll stay until--Go back to bed. It is very early."
Peter had not been able after all to secure the Nurse Elisabet, and now it was useless. At eight o'clock he let Marie take his place, then he bathed and dressed and prepared to face another day, perhaps another night. For the child's release came slowly. He tried to eat breakfast, but managed only a cup of coffee.
Many things had come to Peter in the long night, and one was insistent--the boy's mother was in Vienna and he was dying without her. Peter might know in his heart that he had done the best thing for the child, but like Harmony his early training was rising now to accuse him. He had separated mother and child. Who was he to have decided the mother's unfitness, to have played destiny? How lightly he had taken the lives of others in his hand, and to what end? Harmony, God knows where; the boy dying without his mother. Whatever that mother might be, her place that day was with her boy. What a wreck he had made of things! He was humbled as well as stricken, poor Peter!
In the morning he sent a note to McLean, asking him to try to trace the mother and inclosing the music-hall clipping and the letter. The letter, signed only "Mamma," was not helpful. The clipping might prove valuable.
"And for Heaven's sake be quick," wrote Peter. "This is a matter of hours. I meant well, but I've done a terrible thing. Bring her, Mac, no matter what she is or where you find her." The Portier carried the note. When he came up to get it he brought in his pocket a small rabbit and a lettuce leaf. Never before had the combination failed to arouse and amuse the boy. He carried the rabbit down again sorrowfully. "He saw it not," he reported sadly to his wife. "Be off to the church while I deliver this letter. And this rabbit we will not cook, but keep in remembrance."
At eleven o'clock Marie called Peter, who was asleep on the horsehair sofa.
"He asks for you."
Peter was instantly awake and on his feet. The boy's eyes were open and fixed on him.
"Is it another day?" he asked.
"Yes, boy; another morning."
"I am cold, Peter."
They blanketed him, although the room was warm. From where he lay he could see the mice. He watched them for a moment. Poor Peter, very humble, found himself wondering in how many ways he had been remiss. To see this small soul launched into eternity without a foreword, without a bit of light for the journey! Peter's religion had been one of life and living, not of creed.
Marie, bringing jugs of hot water, bent over Peter.
"He knows, poor little one!" she whispered.
And so, indeed, it would seem. The boy, revived by a spoonful or two of broth, asked to have the two tame mice on the bed. Peter, opening the cage, found one dead, very stiff and stark. The catastrophe he kept from the boy.
"One is sick, Jimmy boy," he said, and placed the mate, forlorn and shivering, on the pillow. After a minute:--
"If the sick one dies will it go to heaven?"
"Yes, honey, I think so."
The boy was silent for a time. Thinking was easier than speech. His mind too worked slowly. It was after a pause, while he lay there with closed eyes, that Peter saw two tears slip from under his long lashes. Peter bent over and wiped them away, a great ache in his heart.
"What is it, dear?"
"I'm afraid--it's going to die!"
"Would that be so terrible, Jimmy boy?" asked Peter gently. "To go to heaven, where there is no more death or dying, where it is always summer and the sun always shines?"
No reply for a moment. The little mouse sat up on the pillow and rubbed its nose with a pinkish paw. The baby mice in the cage nuzzled their dead mother.
"Is there grass?"
"Yes--soft green grass."
"Do--boys in heaven--go in their bare feet?" Ah, small mind and heart, so terrified and yet so curious!
"Indeed, yes." And there on his knees beside the white bed Peter painted such a heaven as no theologue has ever had the humanity to paint--a heaven of babbling brooks and laughing, playing children, a heaven of dear departed puppies and resurrected birds, of friendly deer, of trees in fruit, of speckled fish in bright rivers. Painted his heaven with smiling eyes and death in his heart, a child's heaven of games and friendly Indians, of sunlight and rain, sweet sleep and brisk awakening.
The boy listened. He was silent when Peter had finished. Speech was increasingly an effort.
"I should--like--to go there," he whispered at last.
He did not speak again during all the long afternoon, but just at dusk he roused again.
"I would like--to see--the sentry," he said with difficulty.
And so again, and for the last time, Rosa's soldier from Salzburg with one lung.
Through all that long day, then, Harmony sat over her work, unaccustomed muscles aching, the whirring machines in her ears. Monia, upset over the morning's excitement, was irritable and unreasonable. The gold-tissue costume had come back from Le Grande with a complaint. Below in the courtyard all day curious groups stood gaping up the staircase, where the morning had seen such occurrences.
At the noon hour, while the girls heated soup and carried in pails of salad from the corner restaurant, Harmony had fallen into the way of playing for them. To the music-loving Viennese girls this was the hour of the day. To sit back, soup bowl on knee, the machines silent, Monia quarreling in the kitchen with the Hungarian servant, and while the pigeons ate crusts on the window-sills, to hear this American girl play such music as was played at the opera, her slim figure swaying, her whole beautiful face and body glowing with the melody she made, the girls found the situation piquant, altogether delightful. Although she did not suspect it, many rumors were rife about Harmony in the workroom. She was not of the people, they said--the daughter of a great American, of course, run away to escape a loveless marriage. This was borne out by the report of one of them who had glimpsed the silk petticoat. It was rumored also that she wore no chemise, but instead an infinitely coquettish series of lace and nainsook garments--of a fineness!
Harmony played for them that day, played, perhaps, as she had not played since the day she had moved the master to tears, played to Peter as she had seen him at the window, to Jimmy, to the little Georgiev as he went down the staircase. And finally with a choke in her throat to the little mother back home, so hopeful, so ignorant.
In the evening, as was her custom, she took the one real meal of the day at the corner restaurant, going early to avoid the crowd and coming back quickly through the winter night. The staircase was always a peril, to be encountered and conquered night after night and even in the daytime not to be lightly regarded. On her way up this night she heard steps ahead, heavy, measured steps that climbed steadily without pauses. For an instant Harmony thought it sounded like Peter's step and she went dizzy.
But it was not Peter. Standing in the upper hall, much as he had stood that morning over the ammunition boxes, thumbs in, heels in, toes out, chest out, was the sentry.
Harmony's first thought was of Georgiev and more searching of the building. Then she saw that the sentry's impassive face wore lines of trouble. He saluted. "Please, Fraulein."
"I have not told the Herr Doktor."
"I thank you."
"But the child dies."
"He dies all of last night and to-day. To-night, it is, perhaps, but of moments."
Harmony clutched at the iron stair-rail for support. "You are sure? You are not telling me so that I will go back?"
"He dies, Fraulein. The Herr Doktor has not slept for many hours. My wife, Rosa, sits on the stair to see that none disturb, and her cousin, the wife of the Portier, weeps over the stove. Please, Fraulein, come with me."
"When did you leave the Siebensternstrasse?"
"And he still lives?"
"Ja, Fraulein, and asks for you."
Now suddenly fell away from the girl all pride, all fear, all that was personal and small and frightened, before the reality of death. She rose, as women by divine gift do rise, to the crisis; ceased trembling, got her hat and coat and her shabby gloves and joined the sentry again. Another moment's delay--to secure the Le Grande's address from Monia. Then out into the night, Harmony to the Siebensternstrasse, the tall soldier to find the dancer at her hotel, or failing that, at the Ronacher Music-Hall.
Harmony took a taxicab--nothing must be spared now--bribed the chauffeur to greater speed, arrived at the house and ran across the garden, still tearless, up the stairs, past Rosa on the upper flight, and rang the bell.
Marie admitted her with only a little gasp of surprise. There was nothing to warn Peter. One moment he sat by the bed, watch in hand, alone, drear, tragic-eyed. The next he had glanced up, saw Harmony and went white, holding to the back of his chair. Their eyes met, agony and hope in them, love and death, rapture and bitterness. In Harmony's, pleading, promise, something of doubt; in Peter's, only yearning, as of empty arms. Then Harmony dared to look at the bed and fell on her knees in a storm of grief beside it. Peter bent over and gently stroked her hair.
Le Grande was singing; the boxes were full. In the body of the immense theater waiters scurried back and forward among the tables. Everywhere was the clatter of silver and steel on porcelain, the clink of glasses. Smoke was everywhere--pipes, cigars, cigarettes. Women smoked between bites at the tables, using small paper or silver mouthpieces, even a gold one shone here and there. Men walked up and down among the diners, spraying the air with chemicals to clear it. At a table just below the stage sat the red-bearded Dozent with the lady of the photograph. They were drinking cheap native wines and were very happy.
From the height of his worldly wisdom he was explaining the people to her.
"In the box--don't stare, Liebchen, he looks--is the princeling I have told you of. Roses, of course. Last night it was orchids."
"Last night! Were you here?" He coughed.
"I have been told, Liebchen. Each night he sits there, and when she finishes her song he rises in the box, kisses the flowers and tosses them to her."
"Shameless! Is she so beautiful?"
"No. But you shall see. She comes."
Le Grande was very popular. She occupied the best place on the program; and because she sang in American, which is not exactly English and more difficult to understand, her songs were considered exceedingly risque. As a matter of fact they were merely ragtime melodies, with a lilt to them that caught the Viennese fancy, accustomed to German sentinental ditties and the artificial forms of grand opera. And there was another reason for her success. She carried with her a chorus of a dozen pickaninnies.
In Austria darkies were as rare as cats, and there were no cats! So the little chorus had made good.
Each day she walked in the Prater, ermine from head to foot, and behind her two by two trailed twelve little Southern darkies in red-velvet coats and caps, grinning sociably. When she drove a pair sat on the boot.
Her voice was strong, not sweet, spoiled by years of singing against dishes and bottles in smoky music halls; spoiled by cigarettes and absinthe and foreign cocktails that resembled their American prototypes as the night resembles the day.
She wore the gold dress, decolletee, slashed to the knee over rhinestone-spangled stockings. And back of her trailed the twelve little darkies.
She sang "Dixie," of course, and the "Old Folks at Home"; then a ragtime medley, with the chorus showing rows of white teeth and clogging with all their short legs. Le Grande danced to that, a whirling, nimble dance. The little rhinestones on her stockings flashed; her opulent bosom quivered. The Dozent, eyes on the dancer, squeezed his companion's hand.
"I love thee!" he whispered, rather flushed.
And then she sang "Doan ye cry, mah honey." Her voice, rather coarse but melodious, lent itself to the negro rhythm, the swing and lilt of the lullaby. The little darkies, eyes rolling, preternaturally solemn, linked arms and swayed rhythmically, right, left, right, left. The glasses ceased clinking; sturdy citizens forgot their steak and beer for a moment and listened, knife and fork poised. Under the table the Dozent's hand pressed its captive affectionately, his eyes no longer on Le Grande, but on the woman across, his sweetheart, she who would be mother of his children. The words meant little to the audience; the rich, rolling Southern lullaby held them rapt:--
"Doan ye Cry, mah honey--
The little darkies swayed; the singer swayed, empty arms cradled.
She picked the tiniest darky up and held him, woolly head against her breast, and crooned to him, rocking on her jeweled heels. The crowd applauded; the man in the box kissed his flowers and flung them. Glasses and dishes clinked again.
The Dozent bent across the table.
"Some day--" he said.
The girl blushed.
Le Grande made her way into the wings, surrounded by her little troupe. A motherly colored woman took them, shooed them off, rounded them up like a flock of chickens.
And there in the wings, grimly impassive, stood a private soldier of the old Franz Josef, blocking the door to her dressing room. For a moment gold dress and dark blue-gray uniform confronted each other. Then the sentry touched his cap.
"Madam," he said, "the child is in the Riebensternstrasse and to-night he dies."
"What child?" Her arms were full of flowers.
"The child from the hospital. Please to make haste."
Jimmy died an hour after midnight, quite peacefully, died with one hand in Harmony's and one between Peter's two big ones.
Toward the last he called Peter "Daddy" and asked for a drink. His eyes, moving slowly round the room, passed without notice the grayfaced woman in a gold dress who stood staring down at him, rested a moment on the cage of mice, came to a stop in the doorway, where stood the sentry, white and weary, but refusing rest.
It was Harmony who divined the child's unspoken wish.
"The manual?" she whispered.
The boy nodded. And so just inside the door of the bedroom across from the old salon of Maria Theresa the sentry, with sad eyes but no lack of vigor, went again through the Austrian manual of arms, and because he had no carbine he used Peter's old walking-stick.
When it was finished the boy smiled faintly, tried to salute, lay still.