The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The coffee-house was warm and bright. Round its small tables were gathered miscellaneous groups, here and there a woman, but mostly men--uniformed officers, who made of the neighborhood coffee-house a sort of club, where under their breath they criticized the Government and retailed small regimental gossip; professors from the university, still wearing under the beards of middle life the fine horizontal scars of student days; elderly doctors from the general hospital across the street; even a Hofrath or two, drinking beer and reading the "Fliegende Blaetter" and "Simplicissimus"; and in an alcove round a billiard table a group of noisy Korps students. Over all a permeating odor of coffee, strong black coffee, made with a fig or two to give it color. It rose even above the blue tobacco haze and dominated the atmosphere with its spicy and stimulating richness. A bustle of waiters, a hum of conversation, the rattle of newspapers and the click of billiard balls--this was the coffee-house.
Harmony had never been inside one before. The little music colony had been a tight-closed corporation, retaining its American integrity, in spite of the salon of Maria Theresa and three expensive lessons a week in German. Harmony knew the art galleries and the churches, which were free, and the opera, thanks to no butter at supper. But of that backbone of Austrian life, the coffee-house, she was profoundly ignorant.
Her companion found her a seat in a corner near a heater and disappeared for an instant on the search for the Paris edition of the "Herald." The girl followed him with her eyes. Seen under the bright electric lights, he was not handsome, hardly good-looking. His mouth was wide, his nose irregular, his hair a nondescript brown,--but the mouth had humor, the nose character, and, thank Heaven, there was plenty of hair. Not that Harmony saw all this at once. As he tacked to and fro round the tables, with a nod here and a word there, she got a sort of ensemble effect--a tall man, possibly thirty, broadshouldered, somewhat stooped, as tall men are apt to be. And shabby, undeniably shabby!
The shabbiness was a shock. A much-braided officer, trim from the points of his mustache to the points of his shoes, rose to speak to him. The shabbiness was accentuated by the contrast. Possibly the revelation was an easement to the girl's nervousness. This smiling and unpressed individual, blithely waving aloft the Paris edition of the "Herald" and equally blithely ignoring the maledictions of the student from whom he had taken it--even Scatchy could not have called him a vulture or threatened him with the police.
He placed the paper before her and sat down at her side, not to interfere with her outlook over the room.
"Warmer?" he asked.
"Coffee is coming. And cinnamon cakes with plenty of sugar. They know me here and they know where I live. They save the sugariest cakes for me. Don't let me bother you; go on and read. See which of the smart set is getting a divorce--or is it always the same one? And who's President back home."
"I'd rather look round. It's curious, isn't it?"
"Curious? It's heavenly! It's the one thing I am going to take back to America with me--one coffee-house, one dozen military men for local color, one dozen students ditto, and one proprietor's wife to sit in the cage and shortchange the unsuspecting. I'll grow wealthy."
"But what about the medical practice?"
He leaned over toward her; his dark-gray eyes fulfilled the humorous promise of his mouth.
"Why, it will work out perfectly," he said whimsically. "The great American public will eat cinnamon cakes and drink coffee until the feeble American nervous system will be shattered. I shall have an office across the street!"
After that, having seen how tired she looked, he forbade conversation until she had had her coffee. She ate the cakes, too, and he watched her with comfortable satisfaction.
"Nod your head but don't speak," he said. "Remember, I am prescribing, and there's to be no conversation until the coffee is down. Shall I or shall I not open the cheese?"
But Harmony did not wish the cheese, and so signified. Something inherently delicate in the unknown kept him from more than an occasional swift glance at her. He read aloud, as she ate, bits of news from the paper, pausing to sip his own coffee and to cast an eye over the crowded room. Here and there an officer, gazing with too open admiration on Harmony's lovely face, found himself fixed by a pair of steel-gray eyes that were anything but humorous at that instant, and thought best to shift his gaze.
The coffee finished, the girl began to gather up her wraps. But the unknown protested.
"The function of a coffee-house," he explained gravely, "is twofold. Coffee is only the first half. The second half is conversation."
"I converse very badly."
"So do I. Suppose we talk about ourselves. We are sure to do that well. Shall I commence?"
Harmony was in no mood to protest. Having swallowed coffee, why choke over conversation? Besides, she was very comfortable. It was warm there, with the heater at her back; better than the little room with the sagging bed and the doors covered with wall paper. Her feet had stopped aching, too, She could have sat there for hours. And--why evade it?--she was interested. This whimsical and respectful young man with his absurd talk and his shabby clothes had roused her curiosity.
"Please," she assented.
"Then, first of all, my name. I'm getting that over early, because it isn't much, as names go. Peter Byrne it is. Don't shudder."
"Certainly I'm not shuddering."
"I have another name, put in by my Irish father to conciliate a German uncle of my mother's. Augustus! It's rather a mess. What shall I put on my professional brassplate? If I put P. Augustus Byrne nobody's fooled. They know my wretched first name is Peter."
"I rather like Patrick--if I thought it might pass as Patrick! Patrick has possibilities. The diminutive is Pat, and that's not bad. But Peter!"
"Do you know," Harmony confessed half shyly, "I like Peter as a name."
"Peter it shall be, then. I go down to posterity and fame as Peter Byrne. The rest doesn't amount to much, but I want you to know it, since you have been good enough to accept me on faith. I'm here alone, from a little town in eastern Ohio; worked my way through a coeducational college in the West and escaped unmarried; did two years in a drygoods store until, by saving and working in my vacations, I got through medical college and tried general practice. Didn't like it--always wanted to do surgery. A little legacy from the German uncle, trying to atone for the 'Augustus,' gave me enough money to come here. I've got a chance with the Days--surgeons, you know--when I go back, if I can hang on long enough. That's all. Here's a traveler's check with my name on it, to vouch for the truth of this thrilling narrative. Gaze on it with awe; there are only a few of them left!"
Harmony was as delicately strung, as vibratingly responsive as the strings of her own violin, and under the even lightness of his tone she felt many things that met a response in her--loneliness and struggle, and the ever-present anxiety about money, grim determination, hope and fear, and even occasional despair. He was still young, but there were lines in his face and a hint of gray in his hair. Even had he been less frank, she would have known soon enough--the dingy little pension, the shabby clothes--
She held out her hand.
"Thank you for telling me," she said simply. "I think I understand very well because--it's music with me: violin. And my friends have gone, so I am alone, too."
He leaned his elbows on the table and looked out over the crowd without seeing it.
"It's curious, isn't it?" he said. "Here we are, you and I, meeting in the center of Europe, both lonely as the mischief, both working our heads off for an idea that may never pan out! Why aren't you at home to-night, eating a civilized beefsteak and running upstairs to get ready for a nice young man to bring you a box of chocolates? Why am I not measuring out calico in Shipley & West's? Instead, we are going to Frau Schwarz', to listen to cold ham and scorched compote eaten in six different languages."
Harmony made no immediate reply. He seemed to expect none. She was drawing on her gloves, her eyes, like his, roving over the crowd.
Far back among the tables a young man rose and yawned. Then, seeing Byrne, he waved a greeting to him. Byrne's eyes, from being introspective, became watchful.
The young man was handsome in a florid, red-checked way, with black hair and blue eyes. Unlike Byrne, he was foppishly neat. He was not alone. A slim little Austrian girl, exceedingly chic, rose when he did and threw away the end of a cigarette.
"Why do we go so soon?" she demanded fretfully in German. "It is early still."
He replied in English. It was a curious way they had, and eminently satisfactory, each understanding better than he spoke the other's language.
"Because, my beloved," he said lightly, "you are smoking a great many poisonous and highly expensive cigarettes. Also I wish to speak to Peter."
The girl followed his eyes and stiffened jealously.
"Who is that with Peter?"
"We are going over to find out, little one. Old Peter with a woman at last!"
The little Austrian walked delicately, swaying her slim body with a slow and sensuous grace. She touched an officer as she passed him, and paused to apologize, to the officer's delight and her escort's irritation. And Peter Byrne watched and waited, a line of annoyance between his brows. The girl was ahead; that complicated things.
When she was within a dozen feet of the table he rose hastily, with a word of apology, and met the couple. It was adroitly done. He had taken the little Austrian's arm and led her by the table while he was still greeting her. He held her in conversation in his absurd German until they had reached the swinging doors, while her companion followed helplessly. And he bowed her out, protesting his undying admiration for her eyes, while the florid youth alternately raged behind him and stared back at Harmony, interested and unconscious behind her table.
The little Austrian was on the pavement when Byrne turned, unsmiling, to the other man.
"That won't do, you know, Stewart," he said, grave but not unfriendly.
"The Kid wouldn't bite her."
"We'll not argue about it."
After a second's awkward pause Stewart smiled.
"Certainly not," he agreed cheerfully. "That is up to you, of course. I didn't know. We're looking for you to-night."
A sudden repulsion for the evening's engagement rose in Byrne, but the situation following his ungraciousness was delicate.
"I'll be round," he said. "I have a lecture and I may be late, but I'll come."
The "Kid" was not stupid. She moved off into the night, chin in air, angrily flushed.
"You saw!" she choked, when Stewart had overtaken her and slipped a hand through her arm. "He protects her from me! It is because of you. Before I knew you--"
"Before you knew me, little one," he said cheerfully, "you were exactly what you are now."
She paused on the curb and raised her voice.
"So! And what is that?"
"Beautiful as the stars, only--not so remote."
In their curious bi-lingual talk there was little room for subtlety. The "beautiful" calmed her, but the second part of the sentence roused her suspicion.
"Remote? What is that?"
"I was thinking of Worthington."
The name was a signal for war. Stewart repented, but too late.
In the cold evening air, to the amusement of a passing detail of soldiers trundling a breadwagon by a rope, Stewart stood on the pavement and dodged verbal brickbats of Viennese idioms and German epithets. He drew his chin into the up-turned collar of his overcoat and waited, an absurdly patient figure, until the hail of consonants had subsided into a rain of tears. Then he took the girl's elbow again and led her, childishly weeping, into a narrow side street beyond the prying ears and eyes of the Alserstrasse.
Byrne went back to Harmony. The incident of Stewart and the girl was closed and he dismissed it instantly. That situation was not his, or of his making. But here in the coffee-house, lovely, alluring, rather puzzled at this moment, was also a situation. For there was a situation. He had suspected it that morning, listening to the delicatessen-seller's narrative of Rosa's account of the disrupted colony across in the old lodge; he had been certain of it that evening, finding Harmony in the dark entrance to his own rather sordid pension. Now, in the bright light of the coffee-house, surmising her poverty, seeing her beauty, the emotional coming and going of her color, her frank loneliness, and God save the mark!--her trust in him, he accepted the situation and adopted it: his responsibility, if you please.
He straightened under it. He knew the old city fairly well--enough to love it and to loathe it in one breath. He had seen its tragedies and passed them by, or had, in his haphazard way, thrown a greeting to them, or even a glass of native wine. And he knew the musical temperament; the all or nothing of its insistent demands; its heights that are higher than others, its wretchednesses that are hell. Once in the Hofstadt Theater, where he had bought standing room, he had seen a girl he had known in Berlin, where he was taking clinics and where she was cooking her own meals. She had been studying singing. In the Hofstadt Theater she had worn a sable coat and had avoided his eyes.
Perhaps the old coffee-house had seen nothing more absurd, in its years of coffee and billiards and Munchener beer, than Peter's new resolution that night: this poverty adopting poverty, this youth adopting youth, with the altruistic purpose of saving it from itself.
And this, mind you, before Peter Byrne had heard Harmony's story or knew her name, Rosa having called her "The Beautiful One" in her narrative, and the delicatessen-seller being literal in his repetition.
Back to "The Beautiful One" went Peter Byrne, and, true to his new part of protector and guardian, squared his shoulders and tried to look much older than he really was, and responsible. The result was a grimness that alarmed Harmony back to the forgotten proprieties.
"I think I must go," she said hurriedly, after a glance at his determinedly altruistic profile. "I must finish packing my things. The Portier has promised--"
"Go! Why, you haven't even told me your name!"
"Frau Schwarz will present you to-night," primly and rising.
Peter Byrne rose, too.
"I am going back with you. You should not go through that lonely yard alone after dark."
"Yard! How do you know that?"
Byrne was picking up the cheese, which he had thoughtlessly set on the heater, and which proved to be in an alarming state of dissolution. It took a moment to rewrap, and incidentally furnished an inspiration. He indicated it airily.
"Saw you this morning coming out--delicatessen shop across the street," he said glibly. And then, in an outburst of honesty which the girl's eyes seemed somehow to compel: "That's true, but it's not all the truth. I was on the bus last night, and when you got off alone I--I saw you were an American, and that's not a good neighborhood. I took the liberty of following you to your gate!"
He need not have been alarmed. Harmony was only grateful, and said so. And in her gratitude she made no objection to his suggestion that he see her safely to the old lodge and help her carry her hand-luggage and her violin to the pension. He paid the trifling score, and followed by many eyes in the room they went out into the crisp night together.
At the lodge the doors stood wide, and a vigorous sound of scrubbing showed that the Portier's wife was preparing for the inspection of possible new tenants. She was cleaning down the stairs by the light of a candle, and the steam of the hot water on the cold marble invested her like an aura. She stood aside to let them pass, and then went cumbrously down the stairs to where, a fork in one hand and a pipe in the other, the Portier was frying chops for the evening meal.
"What have I said?" she demanded from the doorway. "Your angel is here."
"She with whom you sing, old cracked voice! Whose money you refuse, because she reminds you of your opera singer! She is again here, and with a man!"
"It is the way of the young and beautiful--there is always a man," said the Portier, turning a chop.
His wife wiped her steaming hands on her apron and turned away, exasperated.
"It is the same man whom I last night saw at the gate," she threw back over her shoulder. "I knew it from the first; but you, great booby, can see nothing but red lips. Bah!"
Upstairs in the salon of Maria Theresa, lighted by one candle and freezing cold, in a stiff chair under the great chandelier Peter Byrne sat and waited and blew on his fingers. Down below, in the Street of Seven Stars, the arc lights swung in the wind.