The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
So far Harmony's small world in the old city had consisted of Scatchy and the Big Soprano, Peter, and Anna Gates, with far off in the firmament the master. Scatchy and the Big Soprano had gone, weeping anxious postcards from every way station it is true, but never theless gone. Peter and Anna Gates remained, and the master as long as her funds held out. To them now she was about to add Jimmy.
The bathrobe was finished. Out of the little doctor's chaos of pink flannel Harmony had brought order. The result, masculine and complete even to its tassels and cord of pink yarn, was ready to be presented. It was with mingled emotions that Anna Gates wrapped it up and gave it to Harmony the next morning.
"He hasn't been so well the last day or two," she said. "He doesn't sleep much--that's the worst of those heart conditions. Sometimes, while I've been working on this thing, I've wondered--Well, we're making a fight anyhow. And better take the letter, too, Harry. I might forget and make lecture notes on it, and if I spoil that envelope--"
Harmony had arranged to carry the bathrobe to the hospital, meeting the doctor there after her early clinic. She knew Jimmy's little story quite well. Anna Gates had told it to her in detail.
"Just one of the tragedies of the world, my dear," she had finished. "You think you have a tragedy, but you have youth and hope; I think I have my own little tragedy, because I have to go through the rest of life alone, when taken in time I'd have been a good wife and mother. Still I have my work. But this little chap, brought over here by a father who hoped to see him cured, and spent all he had to bring him here, and then--died. It gets me by the throat."
"And the boy does not know?" Harmony had asked, her eyes wide.
"No, thanks to Peter. He thinks his father is still in the mountains. When we heard about it Peter went up and saw that he was buried. It took about all the money there was. He wrote home about it, too, to the place they came from. There has never been any reply. Then ever since Peter has written these letters. Jimmy lives for them."
Peter! It was always Peter. Peter did this. Peter said that. Peter thought thus. A very large part of Harmony's life was Peter in those days.
She was thinking of him as she waited at the gate of the hospital for Anna Gates, thinking of his shabby gray suit and unkempt hair, of his letter that she carried to Jimmy Conroy, of his quixotic proposal of the night before. Of the proposal, most of all--it was so eminently characteristic of Peter, from the conception of the plan to its execution. Harmony's thought of Peter was very tender that morning as she stood in the arched gateway out of reach of the wind from the Schneeberg. The tenderness and the bright color brought by the wind made her very beautiful. Little Marie, waiting across the Alserstrasse for a bus, and stamping from one foot to the other to keep warm, recognized and admired her. After all, the American women were chic, she decided, although some of the doctors had wives of a dowdiness--Himmel! And she could copy the Fraulein's hat for two Kronen and a bit of ribbon she possessed.
The presentation of the bathrobe was a success. Six nurses and a Dozent with a red beard stood about and watched Jimmy put into it, and the Dozent, who had been engaged for five years and could not marry because the hospital board forbade it, made a speech for Jimmy in awe-inspiring German, ending up with a poem that was intended to be funny, but that made the nurses cry. From which it will be seen that Jimmy was a great favorite.
During the ceremony, for such it was, the Germans loving a ceremony, Jimmy kept his eyes on the letter in Anna Gates's hand and waited. That the letter had come was enough. He lay back in anticipatory joy, and let himself be talked over, and bathrobed, and his hair parted Austrian fashion and turned up over a finger, which is very Austrian indeed. He liked Harmony. The girl caught his eyes on her more than once. He interrupted the speech once to ask her just what part of the robe she had made, and whether she had made the tassel. When she admitted the tassel, his admiration became mixed with respect.
It was a bright day, for a marvel. Sunlight came through the barred window behind Jimmy's bed, and brought into dazzling radiance the pink bathrobe, and Harmony's eyes, and fat Nurse Elisabet's white apron. It lay on the bedspread in great squares, outlined by the shadows of the window bars. Now and then the sentry, pacing outside, would advance as far as Jimmy's window, and a warlike silhouette of military cap and the upper end of a carbine would appear on the coverlet. These events, however, were rare, the sentry preferring the shelter of the gateway and the odor of boiling onions from the lodge just inside.
The Dozent retired to his room for the second breakfast; the nurses went about the business of the ward; Dr. Anna Gates drew a hairpin from her hair and made a great show of opening the many times opened envelope.
"The letter at last!" she said. "Shall I read it or will you?"
"You read it. It takes me so long. I'll read it all day, after you are gone. I always do."
Anna Gates read the letter. She read aloud poor Peter's first halting lines, when he was struggling against sleep and cold. They were mainly an apology for the delay. Then forgetting discomfort in the joy of creation, he became more comfortable. The account of the near-accident was wonderfully graphic; the description of the chamois was fervid, if not accurate. But consternation came with the end.
The letter apparently finished, there was yet another sheet. The doctor read on.
"For Heaven's sake," said Peter's frantic postscript, "find out how much a medium-sized chamois--"
Dr. Gates stopped "--ought to weigh," was the rest of it, "and fix it right in the letter. The kid's too smart to be fooled and I never saw a chamois outside of a drug store. They have horns, haven't they?"
"That's funny!" said Jimmy Conway.
"That was one of my papers slipped in by mistake," remarked Dr. Gates, with dignity, and flashing a wild appeal for help to Harmony.
"How did one of your papers get in when it was sealed?"
"I think," observed Harmony, leaning forward, "that little boys must not ask too many questions, especially when Christmas is only six weeks off."
"I know! He wants to send me the horns the way he sent me the boar's tusks."
For Peter, having in one letter unwisely recorded the slaughter of a boar, had been obliged to ransack Vienna for a pair of tusks. The tusks had not been so difficult. But horns!
Jimmy was contented with his solution and asked no more questions. The morning's excitement had tired him, and he lay back. Dr. Gates went to hold a whispered consultation vith the nurse, and came back, looking grave.
The boy was asleep, holding the letter in his thin hands.
The visit to the hospital was a good thing for Harmony--to find some one worse off than she was, to satisfy that eternal desire of women to do something, however small, for some one else. Her own troubles looked very small to her that day as she left the hospital and stepped out into the bright sunshine.
She passed the impassive sentry, then turned and went back to him.
"Do you wish to do a very kind thing?" she asked in German.
Now the conversation of an Austrian sentry consists of yea, yea, and nay, nay, and not always that. But Harmony was lovely and the sun was moderating the wind. The sentry looked round; no one was near.
"What do you wish?"
"Inside that third window is a small boy and he is very ill. I do not think--perhaps he will never be well again. Could you not, now and then, pass the window? It pleases him."
"Pass the window! But why?"
"In America we see few of our soldiers. He likes to see you and the gun."
"Ah, the gun!" He smiled and nodded in comprehension, then, as an officer appeared in the door of a coffee-house across the street, he stiffened into immobility and stared past Harmony into space. But the girl knew he would do as she had desired.
That day brought good luck to Harmony. The wife of one of the professors at the hospital desired English conversation at two Kronen an hour.
Peter brought the news home at noon, and that afternoon Harmony was engaged. It was little enough, but it was something. It did much more than offer her two Kronen an hour; it gave her back her self-confidence, although the immediate result was rather tragic.
The Frau Professor Bergmeister, infatuated with English and with Harmony, engaged her, and took her first two Kronen worth that afternoon. It was the day for a music-lesson. Harmony arrived five minutes late, panting, hat awry, and so full of the Frau Professor Bergmeister that she could think of nothing else.
Obedient to orders she had placed the envelope containing her fifty Kronen before the secretary as she went in. The master was out of humor. Should he, the teacher of the great Koert, be kept waiting for a chit of a girl--only, of course, he said "das Kindchen" or some other German equivalent for chit--and then have her come into the sacred presence breathless, and salute him between gasps as the Frau Professor Bergmeister?
Being excited and now confused by her error, and being also rather tremulous with three flights of stairs at top speed, Harmony dropped her bow. In point of heinousness this classes with dropping one's infant child from an upper window, or sitting on the wrong side of a carriage when with a lady.
The master, thus thrice outraged, rose slowly and glared at Harmony. Then with a lordly gesture to her to follow he stalked to the outer room, and picking up the envelope with the fifty Kronen held it out to her without a word.
Harmony's world came crashing about her ears. She stared stupidly at the envelope in her hand, at the master's retreating back.
Two girl students waiting their turn, envelopes in hand, giggled together. Harmony saw them and flushed scarlet. But the lady secretary touched her arm.
"It does not matter, Fraulein. He does so sometimes. Always he is sorry. You will come for your next lesson, not so? and all will be well. You are his well-beloved pupil. To-night he will not eat for grief that he has hurt you."
The ring of sincerity in the shabby secretary's voice was unmistakable. Her tense throat relaxed. She looked across at the two students who had laughed. They were not laughing now. Something of fellowship and understanding passed between them in the glance. After all, it was in the day's work--would come to one of them next, perhaps. And they had much in common--the struggle, their faith, the everlasting loneliness, the little white envelopes, each with its fifty Kronen.
Vaguely comforted, but with the light gone out of her day of days, Harmony went down the three long flights and out into the brightness of the winter day.
On the Ring she almost ran into Peter. He was striding toward her, giving a definite impression of being bound for some particular destination and of being behind time. That this was not the case was shown by the celerity with which, when he saw Harmony, he turned about and walked with her.
"I had an hour or two," he explained, "and I thought I'd walk. But walking is a social habit, like drinking. I hate to walk alone. How about the Frau Professor?"
"She has taken me on. I'm very happy. But, Dr. Byrne--"
"You called me Peter last night."
"That was different. You had just proposed to me."
"Oh, if that's all that's necessary--" He stopped in the center of the busy Ring with every evident intention of proposing again.
"Aha! Victory! Well, what about the Frau Professor Bergmeister?"
"She asks so many questions about America; and I cannot answer them."
"Well, taxes now. She's very much interested in taxes."
"Never owned anything taxable except a dog--and that wasn't a tax anyhow; it was a license. Can't you switch her on to medicine or surgery, where I'd be of some use?"
"She says to-morrow we'll talk of the tariff and customs duties."
"Well, I've got something to say on that." He pulled from his overcoat pocket a largish bundle--Peter always bulged with packages--and held it out for her to see. "Tell the Frau Professor Bergmeister with my compliments," he said, "that because some idiot at home sent me five pounds of tobacco, hearing from afar my groans over the tobacco here, I have passed from mere financial stress to destitution. The Austrian customs have taken from me to-day the equivalent of ten dollars in duty. I offered them the tobacco on bended knee, but they scorned it."
Under this lightness Harmony sensed the real anxiety. Ten dollars was fifty Kronen, and fifty Kronen was a great deal of money. She reached over and patted his arm.
"You'll make it up in some way. Can't you cut off some little extravagance?"
"I might cut down on my tailor bills." He looked down at himself whimsically. "Or on ties. I'm positively reckless about ties!"
They walked on in silence. A detachment of soldiery, busy with that eternal military activity that seems to get nowhere, passed on a dog-trot. Peter looked at them critically.
"Bosnians," he observed. "Raw, half-fed troops from Bosnia, nine out of ten of them tubercular. It's a rotten game, this military play of Europe. How's Jimmy?"
"We left him very happy with your letter."
Peter flushed. "I expect it was pretty poor stuff," he apologized. "I've never seen the Alps except from a train window, and as for a chamois--"
"He says his father will surely send him the horns."
"Of course!" he said. "Why, in Heaven's name, didn't I make it an eagle? One can always buy a feather or two. But horns? He really liked the letter?"
"He adored it. He went to sleep almost at once with it in his hands."
Peter glowed. The small irritation of the custom-house forgotten, he talked of Jimmy; of what had been done and might still be done, if only there were money; and from Jimmy he talked boy. He had had a boys' club at home during his short experience in general practice. Boys were his hobby.
"Scum of the earth, most of them," he said, his plain face glowing. "Dirty little beggars off the street. At first they stole my tobacco; and one of them pawned a medical book or two! Then they got to playing the game right. By Jove, Harmony, I wish you could have seen them! Used to line 'em up and make 'em spell, and the two best spellers were allowed to fight it out with gloves--my own method, and it worked. Spell! They'd spell their heads off to get a chance at the gloves. Gee, how I hated to give them up!"
This was a new Peter, a boyish individual Harmony had never met before. For the first time it struck her that Peter was young. He had always seemed rather old, solid and dependable, the fault of his elder brother attitude to her, no doubt. She was suddenly rather shy, a bit aloof. Peter felt the change and thought she was bored. He talked of other things.
A surprise was waiting for them in the cold lower hallway of the Pension Schwarz. A trunk was there, locked and roped, and on the trunk, in ulster and hat, sat Dr. Gates. Olga, looking rather frightened, was coming down with a traveling-bag. She put down the bag and scuttled up the staircase like a scared rabbit. The little doctor was grim. She eyed Peter and Harmony with an impersonal hostility, referable to her humor.
"I've been waiting for you two," she flung at them. "I've had a terrific row upstairs and I'm going. That woman's a devil!"
It had been a bad day for Harmony, and this new development, after everything else, assumed the proportions of a crisis. She had clung, at first out of sheer loneliness and recently out of affection, to the sharp little doctor with her mannish affectations, her soft and womanly heart.
"Sit down, child." Anna Gates moved over on the trunk. " You are fagged out. Peter, will you stop looking murderous and listen to me? How much did it cost the three of us to live in this abode of virtue?"
It was simple addition. The total was rather appalling.
"I thought so. Now this is my plan. It may not be conventional, but it will be respectable enough to satisfy anybody. And it will be cheaper, I'm sure of that: We are all going out to the hunting-lodge of Maria Theresa, and Harmony shall keep house for us!"