The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
For three days Byrne hardly saw Harmony. He was off early in the morning, hurried back to the midday meal and was gone again the moment it was over. He had lectures in the evenings, too, and although he lingered for an hour or so after supper it was to find Harmony taken possession of by the little Bulgarian, seized with a sudden thirst for things American.
On the evening of the second day he had left Harmony, enmeshed and helpless in a tangle of language, trying to explain to the little Bulgarian the reason American women wished to vote. Byrne flung down the stairs and out into the street, almost colliding with Stewart.
They walked on together, Stewart with the comfortably rolling gait of the man who has just dined well, Byrne with his heavy, rather solid tread. The two men were not congenial, and the frequent intervals without speech between them were rather for lack of understanding than for that completeness of it which often fathers long silences. Byrne was the first to speak after their greeting.
"Marie all right?"
"Fine. Said if I saw you to ask you to supper some night this week."
"Thanks. Does it matter which night?"
"Any but Thursday. We're hearing 'La Boheme.'"
"Say Friday, then."
Byrne's tone lacked enthusiasm, but Stewart in his after-dinner mood failed to notice it.
"Have you thought any more about our conversation of the other night?"
"What was that?"
Stewart poked him playfully in the ribs.
"Wake up, Byrne !" he said. "You remember well enough. Neither the Days nor any one else is going to have the benefit of your assistance if you go on living the way you have been. I was at Schwarz's. It is the double drain there that tells on one--eating little and being eaten much. Those old walls are full of vermin. Why don't you take our apartment?"
"Yes, for a couple of months. I'm through with Schleich and Breidau can't take me for two months. It's Marie's off season and we're going to Semmering for the winter sports. We're ahead enough to take a holiday. And if you want the flat for the same amount you are spending now, or less, you can have it, and--a home, old man."
Byrne was irritated, the more so that he realized that the offer tempted him. To his resentment was added a contempt of himself.
"Thanks," he said. "I think not."
"Oh, all right." Stewart was rather offended. "I can't do more than give you a chance."
They separated shortly after and Byrne went on alone. The snow of Sunday had turned to a fine rain which had lasted all of Monday and Tuesday. The sidewalks were slimy; wagons slid in the ooze of the streets; and the smoke from the little stoves in the street-cars followed them in depressing horizontal clouds. Cabmen sat and smoked in the interior of musty cabs. The women hod-carriers on a new building steamed like horses as they worked.
Byrne walked along, his head thrust down into his up-turned collar; moisture gathered on his face like dew, condensed rather than precipitated. And as he walked there came before him a vision of the little flat on the Hochgasse, with the lamp on the table, and the general air of warmth and cheer, and a figure presiding over the brick stove in the kitchen. Byrne shook himself like a great dog and turned in at the gate of the hospital. He was thoroughly ashamed of himself.
That week was full of disappointments for Harmony. Wherever she turned she faced a wall of indifference or, what was worse, an interest that frightened her. Like a bird in a cage she beat helplessly against barriers of language, of strange customs, of stolidity that were not far from absolute cruelty.
She held to her determination, however, at first with hope, then, as the pension in advance and the lessons at fifty Kronen--also in advance,--went on, recklessly. She played marvelously those days, crying out through her violin the despair she had sealed her lips against. On Thursday, playing for the master, she turned to find him flourishing his handkerchief, and went home in a sort of daze, incredulous that she could have moved him to tears.
The little Bulgarian was frankly her slave now. He had given up the coffee-houses that he might spend that hour near her, on the chance of seeing her or, failing that, of hearing her play. At night in the Cafe Hungaria he sat for hours at a time, his elbows on the table, a bottle of native wine before him, and dreamed of her. He was very fat, the little Georgiev, very swarthy, very pathetic. The Balkan kettle was simmering in those days, and he had been set to watch the fire. But instead he had kindled a flame of his own, and was feeding it with stray words, odd glances, a bit of music, the curve of a woman's hair behind her ears. For reports he wrote verses in modern Greek, and through one of those inadvertences which make tragedy, the Minister of War down in troubled Bulgaria once received between the pages of a report in cipher on the fortifications of the Danube a verse in fervid hexameter that made even that grim official smile.
Harmony was quite unconscious. She went on her way methodically: so many hours of work, so many lessons at fifty Kronen, so many afternoons searching for something to do, making rounds of shops where her English might be valuable.
And after a few weeks Peter Byrne found time to help. After one experience, when Harmony left a shop with flaming face and tears in her eyes, he had thought it best to go with her. The first interview, under Peter's grim eyes, was a failure. The shopkeeper was obviously suspicious of Peter. After that, whenever he could escape from clinics, Peter went along, but stayed outside, smoking his eternal cigarette, and keeping a watchful eye on things inside the shop.
Only once was he needed. At that time, suspecting that all was not well, from the girl's eyes and the leer on the shopkeeper's face, he had opened the door in time to hear enough. He had lifted the proprietor bodily and flung him with a crash into a glass showcase of ornaments for the hair. Then, entirely cheerful and happy, and unmolested by the frightened clerks, he led Harmony outside and in a sort of atavistic triumph bought her a bunch of valley lilies.
Nevertheless, in his sane moments, Peter knew that things were very bad, indeed. He was still not in love with the girl. He analyzed his own feeling very carefully, and that was his conclusion. Nevertheless he did a quixotic thing--which was Peter, of course, all over.
He took supper with Stewart and Marie on Friday, and the idea came to him there. Hardly came to him, being Marie's originally. The little flat was cozy and bright. Marie, having straightened her kitchen, brought in a waist she was making and sat sewing while the two men talked. Their conversation was technical, a new extirpation of the thyroid gland, a recent nephrectomy.
In her curious way Marie liked Peter and respected him. She struggled with the technicalities of their talk as she sewed, finding here and there a comprehensive bit. At those times she sat, needle poised, intelligent eyes on the speakers, until she lost herself again in the mazes of their English.
At ten o'clock she rose and put away her sewing. Peter saw her get the stone pitcher and knew she was on her way for the evening beer. He took advantage of her absence to broach the matter of Harmony.
"She's up against it, as a matter of fact," he finished. "It ought to be easy enough for her to find something, but it isn't."
"I hardly saw her that day in the coffee-house; but she's rather handsome, isn't she?"
"That's one of the difficulties. Yes."
Stewart smoked and reflected. "No friends here at all?"
"None. There were three girls at first. Two have gone home."
"Could she teach violin?"
"I should think so."
"Aren't there any kids in the American colony who want lessons? There's usually some sort of infant prodigy ready to play at any entertainments of the Doctors' Club."
"They don't want an American teacher, I fancy; but I suppose I could put a card up in the club rooms. Damn it all!" cried Peter with a burst of honest resentment, "why do I have to be poor?"
"If you were rolling in gold you could hardly offer her money, could you?"
Peter had not thought of that before. It was the only comfort he found in his poverty. Marie had brought in the beer and was carefully filling the mugs. "Why do you not marry her?" she asked unexpectedly. "Then you could take this flat. We are going to Semmering for the winter sports. I would show her about the stove."
"Marry her, of course!" said Peter gravely. "Just pick her up and carry her to church! The trifling fact that she does not wish to marry me need have nothing to do with it."
"Ah, but does she not wish it?" demanded Marie. "Are you so certain, stupid big one? Do not women always love you?"
Ridiculous as the thought was, Peter pondered it as he went back to the Pension Schwarz. About himself he was absurdly modest, almost humble. It had never occurred to him that women might care for him for himself. In his struggling life there had been little time for women. But about himself as the solution of a problem--that was different.
He argued the thing over. In the unlikely contingency of the girl's being willing, was Stewart right--could two people live as cheaply as one? Marie was an Austrian and knew how to manage--that was different. And another thing troubled him. He dreaded to disturb the delicate adjustment of their relationship; the terra incognita of a young girl's mind daunted him. There was another consideration which he put resolutely in the back of his mind--his career. He had seen many a promising one killed by early marriage, men driven to the hack work of the profession by the scourge of financial necessity. But that was a matter of the future; the necessity was immediate.
The night was very cold. Gusts of wind from the snow-covered Schneeberg drove along the streets, making each corner a fortress defended by the elements, a battlement to be seized, lost, seized again. Peter Byrne battled valiantly but mechanically. And as he fought he made his decision.
He acted with characteristic promptness. Possibly, too, he was afraid of the strength of his own resolution. By morning sanity might prevail, and in cold daylight he would see the absurdity of his position. He almost ran up the winding staircase. At the top his cold fingers fumbled the key and he swore under his breath. He slammed the door behind him. Peter always slammed doors, and had an apologetic way of opening the door again and closing it gently, as if to show that he could. Harmony's room was dark, but he had surprised her once into a confession that when she was very downhearted she liked to sit in the dark and be very blue indeed. So he stopped and knocked. There was no reply, but from Dr. Gates's room across there came a hum of conversation. He knew at once that Harmony was there.
Peter hardly hesitated. He took off his soft hat and ran a hand over his hair, and he straightened his tie. These preliminaries to a proposal of marriage being disposed of, he rapped at the door.
Anna Gates opened it. She wore a hideous red-flannel wrapper, and in deference to Harmony a thimble. Her flat breast was stuck with pins, and pinkish threads revealed the fact that the bathrobe was still under way.
"Peter!" she cried. "Come in and get warm."
Harmony, in the blue kimono, gave a little gasp, and flung round her shoulders the mass of pink on which she had been working.
"Please go out!" she said. "I am not dressed."
"You are covered," returned Anna Gates. "That's all that any sort of clothing can do. Don't mind her, Peter, and sit on the bed. Look out for pins!"
Peter, however, did not sit down. He stood just inside the closed door and stared at Harmony--Harmony in the red light from the little open door of the stove; Harmony in blue and pink and a bit of white petticoat; Harmony with her hair over her shoulders and tied out of her eyes with an encircling band of rosy flannel.
"Do sit!" cried Anna Gates. "You fill the room so. Bless you, Peter, what a collar!"
No man likes to know his collar is soiled, especially on the eve of proposing marriage to a pink and blue and white vision. Peter, seated now on the bed, writhed.
"I rapped at Miss Wells's door," he said. "You were not there."
This last, of course, to Harmony.
Anna Gates sniffed.
"I had something to say to you. I--I dare say it is hardly pension etiquette for you to go over to your room and let me say it there?"
Harmony smiled above the flannel.
"Could you call it through the door?"
"Fiddlesticks!" said Dr. Gates, rising. "I'll go over, of course, but not for long. There's no fire."
With her hand on the knob, however, Harmony interfered.
"Please!" she implored. "I am not dressed and I'd rather not." She turned to Peter. "You can say it before her, can't you? She--I have told her all about things."
Peter hesitated. He felt ridiculous for the second time that night. Then:--
"It was merely an idea I had. I saw a little apartment furnished--you could learn to use the stove, unless, of course, you don't like housekeeping--and food is really awfully cheap. Why, at these delicatessen places and bakeshops--"
Here he paused for breath and found Dr. Gates's quizzical glance fixed on him, and Harmony's startled eyes.
"What I am trying to say," he exploded, "is that I believe if you would marry me it would solve some of your troubles anyhow." He was talking for time now, against Harmony's incredulous face. "You'd be taking on others, of course. I'm not much and I'm as poor--well, you know. It--it was the apartment that gave me the idea--"
"And the stove!" said Harmony; and suddenly burst into joyous laughter. After a rather shocked instant Dr. Gates joined her. It was real mirth with Harmony, the first laugh of days, that curious laughter of women that is not far from tears.
Peter sat on the bed uncomfortably. He grinned sheepishly and made a last feeble attempt to stick to his guns.
"I mean it. You know I'm not in love with you or you with me, of course. But we are such a pair of waifs, and I thought we might get along. Lord knows I need some one to look after me!"
"There is no Emma. I made her up."
Harmony sobered at that.
"It is only"--she gasped a little for breath--"it is only your--your transparency, Peter." It was the first time she had called him Peter. "You know how things are with me and you want to help me, and out of your generosity you are willing to take on another burden. Oh, Peter!"
And here, Harmony being an emotional young person, the tears beat the laughter to the surface and had to be wiped away under the cover of mirth.
Anna Gates, having recovered herself, sat back and surveyed them both sternly through her glasses.
"Once for all," she said brusquely, "let such foolishness end. Peter, I am ashamed of you. Marriage is not for you--not yet, not for a dozen years. Any man can saddle himself with a wife; not every man can be what you may be if you keep your senses and stay single. And the same is true for you, girl. To tide over a bad six months you would sacrifice the very thing you are both struggling for?"
"I'm sure we don't intend to do it," replied Harmony meekly.
"Not now. Some day you may be tempted. When that time comes, remember what I say. Matrimonially speaking, each of you is fatal to the other. Now go away and let me alone. I'm not accustomed to proposals of marriage."
It was in some confusion of mind that Peter Byrne took himself off to the bedroom with the cold tiled stove and the bed that was as comfortable as a washtub. Undeniably he was relieved. Also Harmony's problem was yet unsolved. Also she had called him Peter.
Also he had said he was not in love with her. Was he so sure of that?
At midnight, just as Peter, rolled in the bedclothing, had managed to warm the cold concavity of his bed and had dozed off, Anna Gates knocked at his door.
"Yes?" said Peter, still comfortably asleep.
"It is Dr. Gates."
"Sorry, Doctor--have to 'xcuse me," mumbled Peter from the blanket.
Peter roused to a chilled and indignant consciousness and sat up in bed.
"Open the door just a crack."
Resignedly Peter crawled out of bed, carefully turning the coverings up to retain as much heat as possible. An icy blast from the open window blew round him, setting everything movable in the little room to quivering. He fumbled in the dark for his slippers, failed to find them, and yawning noisily went to the door.
Anna Gates, with a candle, was outside. Her short, graying hair was out of its hard knot, and hung in an equally uncompromising six-inch plait down her back. She had no glasses, and over the candle-frame she peered shortsightedly at Peter.
"It's about Jimmy," she said. "I don't know what's got into me, but I've forgotten for three days. It's a good bit more than time for a letter."
"Both yesterday and to-day he asked for it and to-day he fretted a little. The nurse found him crying."
"The poor little devil!" said Peter contritely. "Overdue, is it? I'll fix it to-night."
"Leave it under the door where I can get it in the morning. I'm off at seven."
"Here it is. And take my candle. I'm going to bed."
That was at midnight or shortly after. Half after one struck from the twin clocks of the Votivkirche and echoed from the Stephansplatz across the city. It found Peter with the window closed, sitting up in bed, a candle balanced on one knee, a writing-tablet on the other.
He was writing a spirited narrative of a chamois hunt in which he had taken part that day, including a detailed description of the quarry, which weighed, according to Peter, two hundred and fifty pounds, Peter being strong on imagination and short on facts as regards the Alpine chamois. Then, trying to read the letter from a small boy's point of view and deciding that it lacked snap, he added by way of postscript a harrowing incident of avalanche, rope, guide, and ice axe. He ended in a sort of glow of authorship, and after some thought took fifty pounds off the chamois.
The letter finished, he put it in a much-used envelope addressed to Jimmy Conroy--an envelope that stamped the whole episode as authentic, bearing as it did an undecipherable date and the postmark of a tiny village in the Austrian Tyrol.
It was almost two when Peter put out the candle and settled himself to sleep.
It was just two o'clock when the night nurse, making rounds in her ward in the general hospital, found a small boy very much awake on his pillow,and taking off her felt slipper shook it at him in pretended fury.
"Now, thou bad one!" she said. "Awake, when the Herr Doktor orders sleep! Shall I use the slipper?"
The boy replied in German with a strong English accent.
"I cannot sleep. Yesterday the Fraulein Elisabet said that in the mountains there are accidents, and that sometimes--"
"The Fraulein Elisabet is a great fool. Tomorrow comes thy letter of a certainty. The post has been delayed with great snows. Thy father has perhaps captured a great boar, or a--a chamois, and he writes of it."
"Do chamois have horns?"
"Ja. Great horns--so."
"He will send them to me! And there are no accidents?"
"None. Now sleep, or--the slipper."