The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The supper that evening was even unusually bad. Frau Schwarz, much crimped and clad in frayed black satin, presided at the head of the long table. There were few, almost no Americans, the Americans flocking to good food at reckless prices in more fashionable pensions; to the Frau Gallitzenstein's, for instance, in the Kochgasse, where there was to be had real beefsteak, where turkeys were served at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and where, were one so minded, one might revel in whipped cream.
The Pension Schwarz, however, was not without adornment. In the center of the table was a large bunch of red cotton roses with wire stems and green paper leaves, and over the side-table, with its luxury of compote in tall glass dishes and its wealth of small hard cakes, there hung a framed motto which said, "Nicht Rauchen," "No Smoking,"--and which looked suspiciously as if it had once adorned a compartment of a railroad train.
Peter Byrne was early in the dining-room. He had made, for him, a careful toilet, which consisted of a shave and clean linen. But he had gone further: He had discovered, for the first time in the three months of its defection, a button missing from his coat, and had set about to replace it. He had cut a button from another coat, by the easy method of amputating it with a surgical bistoury, and had sewed it in its new position with a curved surgical needle and a few inches of sterilized catgut. The operation was slow and painful, and accomplished only with the aid of two cigarettes and an artery clip. When it was over he tied the ends in a surgeon's knot underneath and stood back to consider the result. It seemed neat enough, but conspicuous. After a moment or two of troubled thought he blacked the white catgut with a dot of ink and went on his way rejoicing.
Peter Byrne was entirely untroubled as to the wisdom of the course he had laid out for himself. He followed no consecutive line of thought as he dressed. When he was not smoking he was whistling, and when he was doing neither, and the needle proved refractory in his cold fingers, he was swearing to himself. For there was no fire in the room. The materials for a fire were there, and a white tile stove, as cozy as an obelisk in a cemetery, stood in the corner. But fires are expensive, and hardly necessary when one sleeps with all one's windows open--one window, to be exact, the room being very small--and spends most of the day in a warm and comfortable shambles called a hospital.
To tell the truth he was not thinking of Harmony at all, except subconsciously, as instance the button. He was going over, step by step, the technic of an operation he had seen that afternoon, weighing, considering, even criticizing. His conclusion, reached as he brushed back his hair and put away his sewing implements, was somewhat to the effect that he could have done a better piece of work with his eyes shut and his hands tied behind his back; and that if it were not for the wealth of material to work on he'd pack up and go home. Which brought him back to Harmony and his new responsibility. He took off the necktie he had absently put on and hunted out a better one.
He was late at supper--an offense that brought a scowl from the head of the table, a scowl that he met with a cheerful smile. Harmony was already in her place. Seated between a little Bulgarian and a Jewish student from Galicia, she was almost immediately struggling in a sea of language, into which she struck out now and then tentatively, only to be again submerged. Byrne had bowed to her conventionally, even coldly, aware of the sharp eyes and tongues round the table, but Harmony did not understand. She had expected moral support from his presence, and failing that she sank back into the loneliness and depression of the day. Her bright color faded; her eyes looked tragic and rather aloof. She ate almost nothing, and left the table before the others had finished.
What curious little dramas of the table are played under unseeing eyes! What small tragedies begin with the soup and end with dessert! What heartaches with a salad! Small tragedies of averted eyes, looking away from appealing ones; lips that tremble with wretchedness nibbling daintily at a morsel; smiles that sear; foolish bits of talk that mean nothing except to one, and to that one everything! Harmony, freezing at Peter's formal bow and gazing obstinately ahead during the rest of the meal, or no nearer Peter than the red-paper roses, and Peter, showering the little Bulgarian next to her with detestable German in the hope of a glance. And over all the odor of cabbage salad, and the "Nicht Rauchen" sign, and an acrimonious discussion on eugenics between an American woman doctor named Gates and a German matron who had had fifteen children, and who reduced every general statement to a personal insult.
Peter followed Harmony as soon as he dared. Her door was closed, and she was playing very softly, so as to disturb no one. Defiantly, too, had he only known it, her small chin up and her color high again; playing the "Humoresque," of all things, in the hope, of course, that he would hear it and guess from her choice the wild merriment of her mood. Peter rapped once or twice, but obtained no answer, save that the "Humoresque" rose a bit higher; and, Dr. Gates coming along the hall just then, he was forced to light a cigarette to cover his pausing.
Dr. Gates, however, was not suspicious. She was a smallish woman of forty or thereabout, with keen eyes behind glasses and a masculine disregard of clothes, and she paused by Byrne to let him help her into her ulster.
"New girl, eh?" she said, with a birdlike nod toward the door. "Very gay, isn't she, to have just finished a supper like that! Honestly, Peter, what are we going to do?"
"Growl and stay on, as we have for six months. There is better food, but not for our terms."
Dr. Gates sighed, and picking a soft felt hat from the table put it on with a single jerk down over her hair.
"Oh, darn money, anyhow!" she said. "Come and walk to the corner with me. I have a lecture."
Peter promised to follow in a moment, and hurried back to his room. There, on a page from one of his lecture notebooks, he wrote--
"Are you ill? Or have I done anything?"
This with great care he was pushing under Harmony's door when the little Bulgarian came along and stopped, smiling. He said nothing, nor did Peter, who rose and dusted his knees. The little Bulgarian spoke no English and little German. Between them was the wall of language. But higher than. this barrier was the understanding of their common sex. He held out his hand, still smiling, and Peter, grinning sheepishly, took it. Then he followed the woman doctor down the stairs.
To say that Peter Byrne was already in love with Harmony would be absurd. She attracted him, as any beautiful and helpless girl attracts an unattracted man. He was much more concerned, now that he feared he had offended her, than he would have been without this fillip to his interest. But even his concern did not prevent his taking copious and intelligent notes at his lecture that night, or interfere with his enjoyment of the Stein of beer with which, after it was over, he washed down its involved German.
The engagement at Stewart's irked him somewhat. He did not approve of Stewart exactly, not from any dislike of the man, but from a lack of fineness in the man himself--an intangible thing that seems to be a matter of that unfashionable essence, the soul, as against the clay; of the thing contained, by an inverse metonymy, for the container.
Boyer, a nerve man from Texas, met him on the street, and they walked to Stewart's apartment together. The frosty air and the rapid exercise combined to drive away Byrne's irritation; that, and the recollection that it was Saturday night and that to-morrow there would be no clinics, no lectures, no operations; that the great shambles would be closed down and that priests would read mass to convalescents in the chapels. He was whistling as he walked along.
Boyer, a much older man, whose wife had come over with him, stopped under a street light to consult his watch.
"Almost ten!" he said. "I hope you don't mind, Byrne; but I told Jennie I was going to your pension. She detests Stewart."
"Oh, that's all right. She knows you're playing poker?"
"Yes. She doesn't object to poker. It's the other. You can't make a good woman understand that sort of thing."
"Thank God for that!"
After a moment of silence Byrne took up his whistling again. It was the "Humoresque."
Stewart's apartment was on the third floor. Admission at that hour was to be gained only by ringing, and Boyer touched the bell. The lights were still on, however, in the hallways, revealing not overclean stairs and, for a wonder, an electric elevator. This, however, a card announced as out of order. Boyer stopped and examined the card grimly.
"'Out of order'!" he observed. "Out of order since last spring, judging by that card. Vorwarts!"
They climbed easily, deliberately. At home in God's country Boyer played golf, as became the leading specialist of his county. Byrne, with a driving-arm like the rod of a locomotive, had been obliged to forswear the more expensive game for tennis, with a resulting muscular development that his slight stoop belied. He was as hard as nails, without an ounce of fat, and he climbed the long steep flights with an elasticity that left even Boyer a step or so behind.
Stewart opened the door himself, long German pipe in hand, his coat replaced by a worn smoking-jacket. The little apartment was thick with smoke, and from a room on the right came the click of chips and the sound of beer mugs on wood.
Marie, restored to good humor, came out to greet them, and both men bowed ceremoniously over her hand, clicking their heels together and bowing from the waist. Byrne sniffed.
"What do I smell, Marie?" he demanded. "Surely not sausages!"
Marie dimpled. It was an old joke, to be greeted as one greets an old friend. It was always sausages.
"Sausages, of a truth--fat ones.'
"But surely not with mustard?"
"Ach, ja--englisch mustard."
Stewart and Boyer had gone on ahead. Marie laid a detaining hand on Byrne's arm.
"I was very angry with you to-day."
Like the others who occasionally gathered in Stewart's unconventional menage, Byrne had adopted Stewart's custom of addressing Marie in English, while she replied in her own tongue.
"Ja. I wished but to see nearer the American Fraulein's hat, and you--She is rich, so?"
"I really don't know. I think not."
"Yes, of course."
Marie was small; she stood, her head back, her eyes narrowed, looking up at Byrne. There was nothing evil in her face, it was not even hard. Rather, there was a sort of weariness, as of age and experience. She had put on a white dress, cut out at the neck, and above her collarbones were small, cuplike hollows. She was very thin.
"I was sad to-night," she said plaintively. "I wished to jump out the window."
Byrne was startled, but the girl was smiling at the recollection.
"And I made you feel like that?"
"Not you--the other Fraulein. I was dirt to her. I--" She stopped tragically, then sniffled.
"The sausages!" she cried, and gathering up her skirts ran toward the kitchen. Byrne went on into the sitting-room.
Stewart was a single man spending two years in post-graduate work in Germany and Austria, not so much because the Germans and Austrians could teach what could not be taught at home, but because of the wealth of clinical material. The great European hospitals, filled to overflowing, offered unlimited choice of cases. The contempt for human life of overpopulated cities, coupled with the extreme poverty and helplessness of the masses, combined to form that tragic part of the world which dies that others may live.
Stewart, like Byrne, was doing surgery, and the very lack of fineness which Byrne felt in the man promised something in his work, a sort of ruthlessness, a singleness of purpose, good or bad, an overwhelming egotism that in his profession might only be a necessary self-reliance.
His singleness of purpose had, at the beginning of his residence in Vienna, devoted itself to making him comfortable. With the narrow means at his control he had the choice of two alternatives: To live, as Byrne was living, in a third-class pension, stewing in summer, freezing in winter, starving always; or the alternative he had chosen.
The Stewart apartment had only three rooms, but it possessed that luxury of luxuries, a bath. It was not a bath in the usual sense of water on tap, and shining nickel plate, but a bath for all that, where with premeditation and forethought one might bathe. The room had once been a fuel and store room, but now boasted a tin tub and a stove with a reservoir on top, where water might be heated to the boiling point, at the same time bringing up the atmosphere to a point where the tin tub sizzled if one touched it.
Behind the bathroom a tiny kitchen with a brick stove; next, a bedroom; the whole incredibly neat. Along one side of the wall a clothespress, which the combined wardrobes of two did not fill. And beyond that again, opening through an arch with a dingy chenille curtain, the sitting-room, now in chaotic disorder.
Byrne went directly to the sitting-room. There were four men already there: Stewart and Boyer, a pathology man named Wallace Hunter, doing research work at the general hospital, and a young piano student from Tennessee named MacLean. The cards had been already dealt, and Byrne stood by waiting for the hand to be played.
The game was a small one, as befitted the means of the majority. It was a regular Saturday night affair, as much a custom as the beer that sat in Steins on the floor beside each man, or as Marie's boiled Wiener sausages.
The blue chips represented a Krone, the white ones five Hellers. MacLean, who was hardly more than a boy, was winning, drawing in chips with quick gestures of his long pianist's fingers.
Byrne sat down and picked up his cards. Stewart was staying out, and so, after a glance, did he. The other three drew cards and fell to betting. Stewart leaned back and filled his long pipe, and after a second's hesitation Byrne turned to him.
"I don't know just what to say, Stewart," he began in an undertone. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to hurt Marie, but--"
"Oh, that's all right." Stewart drew at his pipe and bent forward to watch the game with an air of ending the discussion.
"Not at all. I did hurt her and I want to explain. Marie has been kind to me, and I like her. You know that."
"Don't be an ass!" Stewart turned on him sharply. "Marie is a little fool, that's all. I didn't know it was an American girl."
Byrne played in bad luck. His mind was not on the cards. He stayed out of the last hand, and with a cigarette wandered about the room. He glanced into the tidy bedroom and beyond, to where Marie hovered over the stove.
She turned and saw him.
"Come," she called. "Watch the supper for me while I go down for more beer."
"But no," he replied, imitating her tone. "Watch the supper for me while I go down for more beer."
"I love thee," she called merrily. "Tell the Herr Doktor I love thee. And here is the pitcher."
When he returned the supper was already laid in the little kitchen. The cards were put away, and young MacLean and Wallace Hunter were replacing the cover and the lamp on the card-table. Stewart was orating from a pinnacle of proprietorship.
"Exactly," he was saying, in reply to something gone before; "I used to come here Saturday nights--used to come early and take a bath. Worthington had rented it furnished for a song. Used to sit in a corner and envy Worthington his bathtub, and that lamp there, and decent food, and a bed that didn't suffer from necrosis in the center. Then when he was called home I took it."
"Girl and all, wasn't it?"
"Girl and all. Old Worth said she was straight, and, by Jove, she is. He came back last fall on his wedding trip--he married a wealthy girl and came to see us. I was out, but Marie was here. There was the deuce to pay."
He lowered his voice. The men had gathered about him in a group.
"Jealous, eh?" from Hunter.
"Jealous? No! He tried to kiss her and she hit him--said he didn't respect her!"
"It's a curious code of honor," said Boyer thoughtfully. And indeed to none but Stewart did it seem amusing. This little girl of the streets, driven by God knows what necessity to make her own code and, having made it, living up to it with every fiber of her.
"Bitte zum speisen!" called Marie gayly from her brick stove, and the men trooped out to the kitchen.
The supper was spread on the table, with the pitcher of beer in the center. There were Swiss cheese and cold ham and rolls, and above all sausages and mustard. Peter drank a great deal of beer, as did the others, and sang German songs with a frightful accent and much vigor and sentiment, as also did the others.
Then he went back to the cold room in the Pension Schwarz, and told himself he was a fool to live alone when one could live like a prince for the same sum properly laid out. He dropped into the hollow center of his bed, where his big figure fitted as comfortably as though it lay in a washtub, and before his eyes there came a vision of Stewart's flat and the slippers by the fire--which was eminently human.
However, a moment later he yawned, and said aloud, with considerable vigor, that he 'd be damned if he would--which was eminently Peter Byrne. Almost immediately, with the bed coverings, augmented by his overcoat, drawn snug to his chin, and the better necktie swinging from the gasjet in the air from the opened window, Peter was asleep. For four hours he had entirely forgotten Harmony.