The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The peace of a gray Sunday morning hung like a cloud over the little Pension Schwarz. In the kitchen the elderly maid, with a shawl over her shoulders and stiffened fingers, made the fire, while in the dining-room the little chambermaid cut butter and divided it sparingly among a dozen breakfast trays--on each tray two hard rolls, a butter pat, a plate, a cup. On two trays Olga, with a glance over her shoulder, placed two butter pats. The mistress yet slept, but in the kitchen Katrina had a keen eye for butter--and a hard heart.
Katrina came to the door.
"The hot water is ready," she announced. "And the coffee also. Hast thou been to mass?"
"That is a lie." This quite on general principle, it being one of the cook's small tyrannies to exact religious observance from her underling, and one of Olga's Sunday morning's indulgences to oversleep and avoid the mass. Olga took the accusation meekly and without reply, being occupied at that moment in standing between Katrina and the extra pats of butter.
"For the lie," said Katrina calmly, "thou shalt have no butter this morning. There, the Herr Doktor rings for water. Get it, wicked one!"
Katrina turned slowly in the doorway.
"The new Fraulein is American?"
Katrina shrugged her shoulders.
"Then I shall put more water to heat," she said resignedly. " The Americans use much water. God knows it cannot be healthy!"
Olga filled her pitcher from the great copper kettle and stood with it poised in her thin young arms.
"The new Fraulein is very beautiful," she continued aloud. "Thinkest thou it is the hot water?"
"Is an egg more beautiful for being boiled?" demanded Katrina. "Go, and be less foolish. See, it is not the Herr Doktor who rings, but the new American."
Olga carried her pitcher to Harmony's door, and being bidden, entered. The room was frigid and Harmony, at the window in her nightgown, was closing the outer casement. The inner still swung open. Olga, having put down her pitcher, shivered.
"Surely the Fraulein has not slept with open windows?"
"Always with open windows." Harmony having secured the inner casement, was wrapping herself in the blue silk kimono with the faded butterflies. Merely to look at it made Olga shiver afresh. She shook her head.
"But the air of the night," she said, "it is full of mists and illnesses! Will you have breakfast now?"
"In ten minutes, after I have bathed."
Olga having put a match to the stove went back to the kitchen, shaking her head.
"They are strange, the Americans!" she said to latrine. "And if to be lovely one must bathe daily, and sleep with open windows--"
Harmony had slept soundly after all. Her pique at Byrne had passed with the reading of his note, and the sensation of his protection and nearness had been almost physical. In the virginal little apartment in the lodge of Maria Theresa the only masculine presence had been that of the Portier, carrying up coals at ninety Hellers a bucket, or of the accompanist who each alternate day had played for the Big Soprano to practice. And they had felt no deprivation, except for those occasional times when Scatchy developed a reckless wish to see the interior of a dancing-hall or one of the little theaters that opened after the opera.
But, as calmly as though she had never argued alone with a cabman or disputed the bill at the delicatessen shop, Harmony had thrown herself on the protection of this shabby big American whom she had met but once, and, having done so, slept like a baby. Not, of course, that she realized her dependence. She had felt very old and experienced and exceedingly courageous as she put out her light the night before and took a flying leap into the bed. She was still old and experienced, if a trifle less courageous, that Sunday morning.
Promptly in ten minutes Olga brought the breakfast, two rolls, two pats of butter--shades of the sleeping mistress and Katrina the thrifty--and a cup of coffee. On the tray was a bit of paper torn from a notebook:--
"Part of the prescription is an occasional walk in good company. Will you walk with me this afternoon? I would come in person to ask you, but am spending the morning in my bathrobe, while my one remaining American suit is being pressed.
Harmony got the ink and her pen from her trunk and wrote below:--
"You are very kind to me. Yes, indeed.
When frequent slamming of doors and steps along the passageway told Harmony that the pension was fully awake, she got out her violin. The idea of work obsessed her. To-morrow there would be the hunt for something to do to supplement her resources, this afternoon she had rashly promised to walk. The morning, then, must be given up to work. But after all she did little.
For an hour, perhaps, she practiced. The little Bulgarian paused outside her door and listened, rapt, his eyes closed. Peter Byrne, listening while he sorted lecture memoranda at his little table in bathrobe and slippers, absently filed the little note with the others--where he came across it months later--next to a lecture on McBurney's Point, and spent a sad hour or so over it. Over all the sordid little pension, with its odors of food and stale air, its spotted napery and dusty artificial flowers, the music hovered, and made for the time all things lovely.
In her room across from Harmony's, Anna Gates was sewing, or preparing to sew. Her hair in a knob, her sleeves rolled up, the room in violent disorder, she was bending over the bed, cutting savagely at a roll of pink flannel. Because she was working with curved surgeon's scissors, borrowed from Peter, the cut edges were strangely scalloped. Her method as well as her tools was unique. Clearly she was intent on a body garment, for now and then she picked up the flannel and held it to her. Having thus, as one may say, got the line of the thing, she proceeded to cut again, jaw tight set, small veins on her forehead swelling, a small replica of Peter Byrne sewing a button on his coat.
After a time it became clear to her that her method was wrong. She rolled up the flannel viciously and flung it into a corner, and proceeded to her Sunday morning occupation of putting away the garments she had worn during the week, a vast and motley collection.
On the irritability of her mood Harmony's music had a late but certain effect. She made a toilet, a trifle less casual than usual, seeing that she put on her stays, and rather sheepishly picked up the bundle from the corner. She hunted about for a thimble, being certain she had brought one from home a year before, but failed to find it. And finally, bundle under her arm and smiling, she knocked at Harmony's door.
"Would you mind letting me sit with you?" she asked. "I'll not stir. I want to sew, and my room is such a mess!"
Harmony threw the door wide. "You will make me very happy, if only my practicing does not disturb you."
Dr. Gates came in and closed the door.
"I'll probably be the disturbing element," she said. "I'm a noisy sewer."
Harmony's immaculate room and radiant person put her in good humor immediately. She borrowed a thimble--not because she cared whether she had one or not, but because she knew a thimble was a part of the game--and settled herself in a corner, her ragged pieces in her lap. For an hour she plodded along and Harmony played. Then the girl put down her bow and turned to the corner. The little doctor was jerking at a knot in her thread.
"It's in the most damnable knot!" she said, and Harmony was suddenly aware that she was crying, and heartily ashamed of it.
"Please don't pay any attention to me," she implored. "I hate to sew. That's the trouble. Or perhaps it's not all the trouble. I'm a fool about music."
"Perhaps, if you hate to sew--"
"I hate a good many things, my dear, when you play like that. I hate being over here in this place, and I hate fleas and German cooking and clinics, and I hate being forty years old and as poor as a church-mouse and as ugly as sin, and I hate never having had any children!"
Harmony was very uncomfortable and just a little shocked. But the next moment Dr. Gates had wiped her eyes with a scrap of the flannel and was smiling up through her glasses.
"The plain truth really is that I have indigestion. I dare say I'm really weeping in anticipation over the Sunday dinner! The food's bad and I can't afford to live anywhere else. I'd take a room and do my own cooking, but what time have I?" She spread out the pieces of flannel on her knee. "Does this look like anything to you?"
"A petticoat, isn't it?"
"I didn't intend it as a petticoat."
"I thought, on account of the scallops--"
"Scallops!" Dr. Gates gazed at the painfully cut pink edges and from them to Harmony. Then she laughed, peal after peal of joyous mirth.
"Scallops!" she gasped at last. "Oh, my dear, if you'd seen me cutting 'em! And with Peter Byrne's scissors!"
Now here at last they were on common ground. Harmony, delicately flushed, repeated the name, clung to it conversationally, using little adroitnesses to bring the talk back to him. All roads of talk led to Peter--Peter's future, Peter's poverty, Peter's refusing to have his hair cut, Peter's encounter with a major of the guards, and the duel Peter almost fought. It developed that Peter, as the challenged, had had the choice of weapons, and had chosen fists, and that the major had been carried away. Dr. Gates grew rather weary of Peter at last and fell back on the pink flannel. She confided to Harmony that the various pieces, united, were to make a dressing-gown for a little American boy at the hospital. "Although," she commented, "it looks more like a chair cover."
Harmony offered to help her, and got out a sewing-box that was lined with a piece of her mother's wedding dress. And as she straightened the crooked edges she told the doctor about the wedding dress, and about the mother who had called her Harmony because of the hope in her heart. And soon, by dint of skillful listening, which is always better than questioning, the faded little woman doctor knew all the story.
She was rather aghast.
"But suppose you cannot find anything to do?"
"I must," simply.
"It's such a terrible city for a girl alone."
"I'm not really alone. I know you now."
"An impoverished spinster! Much help I shall be!"
"And there is Peter Byrne."
"Peter!" Dr. Gates sniffed. "Peter is poorer than I am, if there is any comparison in destitution!"
Harmony stiffened a trifle.
"Of course I do not mean money," she said. "There are such things as encouragement, and--and friendliness."
"One cannot eat encouragement," retorted Dr. Gates sagely. "And friendliness between you and any man--bah! Even Peter is only human, my dear."
"I am sure he is very good."
"So he is. He is very poor. But you are very attractive. There, I'm a skeptic about men, but you can trust Peter. Only don't fall in love with him. It will be years before he can marry. And don't let him fall in love with you. He probably will."
Whereupon Dr. Gates taking herself and her pink flannel off to prepare for lunch, Harmony sent a formal note to Peter Byrne, regretting that a headache kept her from taking the afternoon walk as she had promised. Also, to avoid meeting him, she did without dinner, and spent the afternoon crying herself into a headache that was real enough.
Anna Gates was no fool. While she made her few preparations for dinner she repented bitterly what she had said to Harmony. It is difficult for the sophistry of forty to remember and cherish the innocence of twenty. For illusions it is apt to substitute facts, the material for the spiritual, the body against the soul. Dr. Gates, from her school of general practice, had come to view life along physiological lines.
With her customary frankness she approached Peter after the meal.
"I've been making mischief, Peter. I been talking too much, as usual."
"Certainly not about me, Doctor. Out of my blameless life--"
"About you, as a representative member of your sex. I'm a fool."
Peter looked serious. He had put on the newly pressed suit and his best tie, and was looking distinguished and just now rather stern.
"To the young Wells person. Frankly, Peter, I dare say at this moment she thinks you are everything you shouldn't be, because I said you were only human. Why it should be evil to be human, or human to be evil--"
"I cannot imagine," said Peter slowly, "the reason for any conversation about me."
"Nor I, when I look back. We seemed to talk about other things, but it always ended with you. Perhaps you were our one subject in common. Then she irritated me by her calm confidence. The world was good, everybody was good. She would find a safe occupation and all would be well."
"So you warned her against me," said Peter grimly.
"I told her you were human and that she was attractive. Shall I make 'way with myself?"
"Cui bono?" demanded Peter, smiling in spite of himself. "The mischief is done."
Dr. Gates looked up at him.
"I'm in love with you myself, Peter!" she said gratefully. "Perhaps it is the tie. Did you ever eat such a meal?"