The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
A very pale and dispirited Harmony it was who bathed her eyes in cold water that evening and obeyed little Olga's "Bitte sum speisen." The chairs round the diningtable were only half occupied--a free concert had taken some, Sunday excursions others. The little Bulgarian, secretly considered to be a political spy, was never about on this one evening of the week. Rumor had it that on these evenings, secreted in an attic room far off in the sixteenth district, he wrote and sent off reports of what he had learned during the week--his gleanings from near-by tables in coffee-houses or from the indiscreet hours after midnight in the cafe, where the Austrian military was wont to gather and drink.
Into the empty chair beside Harmony Peter slid his long figure, and met a tremulous bow and silence. From the head of the table Frau Schwarz was talking volubly--as if, by mere sound, to distract attention from the scantiness of the meal. Under cover of the Babel Peter spoke to the girl. Having had his warning his tone was friendly, without a hint of the intimacy of the day before.
"Not entirely. Somewhat."
"I wish you had sent Olga to me for some tablets. No one needs to suffer from headache, when five grains or so of powder will help them."
"I am afraid of headache tablets."
"Not when your physician prescribes them, I hope!"
This was the right note. Harmony brightened a little. After all, what had she to do with the man himself? He had constituted himself her physician. That was all.
"The next time I shall send Olga."
"Good!" he responded heartily; and proceeded to make such a meal as he might, talking little, and nursing, by a careful indifference, her new-growing confidence.
It was when he had pushed his plate away and lighted a cigarette--according to the custom of the pension, which accorded the "Nicht Rauchen" sign the same attention that it did to the portrait of the deceased Herr Schwarz--that he turned to her again.
"I am sorry you are not able to walk. It promises a nice night."
Peter was clever. Harmony, expecting an invitation to walk, had nerved herself to a cool refusal. This took her off guard.
"Then you do not prescribe air?"
"That's up to how you feel. If you care to go out and don't mind my going along as a sort of Old Dog Tray I haven't anything else to do."
Dr. Gates, eating stewed fruit across the table, gave Peter a swift glance of admiration, which he caught and acknowledged. He was rather exultant himself; certainly he had been adroit.
"I'd rather like a short walk. It will make me sleep," said Harmony, who had missed the by-play. "And Old Dog Tray would be a very nice companion, I'm sure."
It is doubtful, however, if Anna Gates would have applauded Peter had she followed the two in their rambling walk that night. Direction mattering little and companionship everything, they wandered on, talking of immaterial things--of the rough pavements, of the shop windows, of the gray medieval buildings. They came to a full stop in front of the Votivkirche, and discussed gravely the twin Gothic spires and the Benk sculptures on the facade. And there in the open square, casting diplomacy to the winds, Peter Byrne turned to Harmony and blurted out what was in his heart.
"Look here," he said, "you don't care a rap about spires. I don't believe you know anything about them. I don't. What did that idiot of a woman doctor say to you to-day?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"You do very well. And I'm going to set you right. She starts out with two premises: I'm a man, and you're young and attractive. Then she draws some sort of fool deduction. You know what I mean?"
"I don't see why we need discuss it," said poor Harmony. "Or how you know--"
"I know because she told me. She knew she had been a fool, and she came to me. I don't know whether it makes any difference to you or not, but--we'd started out so well, and then to have it spoiled! My dear girl, you are beautiful and I know it. That's all the more reason why, if you'll stand for it, you need some one to look after you--I'll not say like a brother, because all the ones I ever knew were darned poor brothers to their sisters, but some one who will keep an eye on you and who isn't going to fall in love with you."
"I didn't think you were falling in love with me; nor did I wish you to."
"Certainly not. Besides, I--" Here Peter Byrne had another inspiration, not so good as the first--"Besides, there is somebody at home, you understand? That makes it all right, doesn't it?"
"A girl at home?"
"A girl," said Peter, lying manfully.
"How very nice!" said Harmony, and put out her hand. Peter, feeling all sorts of a cheat, took it, and got his reward in a complete restoral of their former comradely relations. From abstractions of church towers and street paving they went, with the directness of the young, to themselves. Thereafter, during that memorable walk, they talked blissful personalities, Harmony's future, Peter's career, money--or its lack--their ambitions, their hopes, even--and here was intimacy, indeed!--their disappointments, their failures of courage, their occasional loss of faith in themselves.
The first real snow of the year was falling as they turned back toward the Pension Schwarz, a damp snow that stuck fast and melted with a chilly cold that had in it nothing but depression. The upper spires of the Votivkirche were hidden in a gray mist; the trees in the park took on, against the gloom of the city hall, a snowy luminosity. Save for an occasional pedestrian, making his way home under an umbrella, the streets were deserted. Byrne and Harmony had no umbrella, but the girl rejected his offer of a taxicab.
"We should be home too quickly," she observed naively. "And we have so much to say about me. Now I thought that perhaps by giving English lessons in the afternoon and working all morning at my music--"
And so on and on, square after square, with Peter listening gravely, his head bent. And square after square it was borne in on him what a precarious future stretched before this girl beside him, how very slender her resources, how more than dubious the outcome.
Poverty, which had only stimulated Peter Byrne in the past, ate deep into his soul that night.
Epochmaking as the walk had been, seeing that it had reestablished a friendship and made a working basis for future comradely relations, they were back at the corner of the Alserstrasse before ten. As they turned in at the little street, a man, lurching somewhat, almost collided with Harmony. He was a short, heavy-set person with a carefully curled mustache, and he was singing, not loudly, but with all his maudlin heart in his voice, the barcarolle from the "Tales" of Hoffmann. He saw Harmony, and still singing planted himself in her path. When Byrne would have pushed him aside Harmony caught his arm.
"It is only the Portier from the lodge," she said.
The Portier, having come to rest on a throaty and rather wavering note, stood before Harmony, bowing.
"The Fraulein has gone and I am very sad," he said thickly. "There is no more music, and Rosa has run away with a soldier from Salzburg who has only one lung."
"But think!" Harmony said in German. "No more practicing in the early dawn, no young ladies bringing mud into your newscrubbed hall! It is better, is it not? All day you may rest and smoke!"
Byrne led Harmony past the drunken Portier, who turned with caution and bowed after them.
"Gute Nacht," he called. "Kuss die Hand, Fraulein. Four rooms and the salon and a bath of the finest."
As they went up the Hirschengasse they could hear him pursuing his unsteady way down the street and singing lustily. At the door of the Pension Schwarz Harmony paused.
"Do you mind if I ask one question?"
"You honor me, madam."
"Then--what is the name of the girl back home?"
Peter Byrne was suddenly conscious of a complete void as to feminine names. He offered, in a sort of panic, the first one he recalled:--
"Emma! What a nice, old-fashioned name!" But there was a touch of disappointment in her voice.
Harmony had a lesson the next day. She was a favorite pupil with the master. Out of so much musical chaff he winnowed only now and then a grain of real ability. And Harmony had that. Scatchy and the Big Soprano had been right--she had the real thing.
The short half-hour lesson had a way with Harmony of lengthening itself to an hour or more, much to the disgust of the lady secretary in the anteroom. On that Monday Harmony had pleased the old man to one of his rare enthusiasms.
"Six months," he said, "and you will go back to your America and show them how over here we teach violin. I will a letter--letters-- give you, and you shall put on the programme, of your concerts that you are my pupil, is it not so?"
Harmony was drawing on her worn gloves; her hands trembled a little with the praise and excitement.
"If I can stay so long," she answered unsteadily.
"You must stay. Have I so long labored, and now before it is finished you talk of going! Gott im Himmel!"
"It is a matter of money. My father is dead. And unless I find something to do I shall have to go back."
The master had heard many such statements. They never ceased to rouse his ire against a world that had money for everything but music. He spent five minutes in indignant protest, then:--
"But you are clever and young, child. You will find a way to stay. Perhaps I can now and then find a concert for you." It was a lure he had thrown out before, a hook without a bait. It needed no bait, being always eagerly swallowed. And no more talk of going away. I refuse to allow. You shall not go."
Harmony paid the lady secretary on her way out. The master was interested. He liked Harmony and he believed in her. But fifty Kronen is fifty Kronen, and South American beef is high of price. He followed Harmony into the outer room and bowed her out of his studio.
"The Fraulein has paid?" he demanded, turning sharply to the lady secretary.
"After the lesson?"
"Ja, Herr Professor."
"It is better," said the master, "that she pay hereafter before the lesson."
"Ja, Herr Professor."
Whereupon the lady secretary put a red-ink cross before Harmony's name. There were many such crosses on the ledger.