The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart
It was the middle of November when Anna Gates, sitting on her trunk in the cold entrance hall on the Hirschengasse, flung the conversational bomb that left empty three rooms in the Pension Schwarz.
Mid-December found Harmony back and fully established in the lodge of Maria Theresa on the Street of Seven Stars--back, but with a difference. True, the gate still swung back and forward on rusty hinges, obedient to every whim of the December gales; but the casement windows in the salon no longer creaked or admitted drafts, thanks to Peter and a roll of rubber weather-casing. The grand piano, which had been Scatchy's rented extravagance, had gone never to return, and in its corner stood a battered but still usable upright. Under the great chandelier sat a table with an oil lamp, and evening and morning the white-tiled stove gleamed warm with fire. On the table by the lamp were the combined medical books of Peter and Anna Gates, and an ash-tray which also they used in common.
Shabby still, of course, bare, almost denuded, the salon of Maria Theresa. But at night, with the lamp lighted and the little door of the stove open, and perhaps, when the dishes from supper had been washed, with Harmony playing softly, it took resolution on Peter's part to put on his overcoat and face a lecture on the resection of a rib or a discussion of the function of the pituitary body.
The new arrangement had proved itself in more ways than one not only greater in comfort, but in economy. Food was amazingly cheap. Coal, which had cost ninety Hellers a bucket at the Pension Schwarz, they bought in quantity and could afford to use lavishly. Oil for the lamp was a trifle. They dined on venison now and then, when the shop across boasted a deer from the mountains. They had other game occasionally, when Peter, carrying home a mysterious package, would make them guess what it might contain. Always on such occasions Harmony guessed rabbits. She knew how to cook rabbits, and some of the other game worried her.
For Harmony was the cook. It had taken many arguments and much coaxing to make Peter see it that way. In vain Harmony argued the extravagance of Rosa, now married to the soldier from Salzburg with one lung, or the tendency of the delicatessen seller to weigh short if one did not watch him. Peter was firm.
It was Dr. Gates, after all, who found the solution.
"Don't be too obstinate, Peter," she admonished him. "The child needs occupation; she can't practice all day. You and I can keep up the financial end well enough, reduced as it is. Let her keep house to her heart's content. That can be her contribution to the general fund."
And that eventually was the way it settled itself, not without demur from Harmony, who feared her part was too small, and who irritated Anna almost to a frenzy by cleaning the apartment from end to end to make certain of her usefulness.
A curious little household surely, one that made the wife of the Portier shake her head, and speak much beneath her breath with the wife of the brushmaker about the Americans having queer ways and not as the Austrians.
The short month had seen a change in all of them. Peter showed it least of all, perhaps. Men feel physical discomfort less keenly than women, and Peter had been only subconsciously wretched. He had gained a pound or two in flesh, perhaps, and he was unmistakably tidier. Anna Gates was growing round and rosy, and Harmony had trimmed her a hat. But the real change was in Harmony herself.
The girl had become a woman. Who knows the curious psychology by which such changes come--not in a month or a year; but in an hour, a breath. One moment Harmony was a shy, tender young creature, all emotion, quivering at a word, aloof at a glance, prone to occasional introspection and mysterious daydreams; the next she was a young woman, tender but not shyly so, incredibly poised, almost formidably dignified on occasion, but with little girlish lapses into frolic and high spirits.
The transition moment with Harmony came about in this wise: They had been settled for three weeks. The odor of stewing cabbages at the Pension Schwarz had retired into the oblivion of lost scents, to be recalled, along with its accompanying memory of discomfort, with every odor of stewing cabbages for years to come. At the hospital Jimmy had had a bad week again. It had been an anxious time for all of them. In vain the sentry had stopped outside the third window and smiled and nodded through it; in vain--when the street was deserted and there was none to notice--he went through a bit of the manual of arms on the pavement outside, ending by setting his gun down with a martial and ringing clang.
In vain had Peter exhausted himself in literary efforts, climbing unheard-of peaks, taking walking-tours through such a Switzerland as never was, shooting animals of various sorts, but all hornless, as he carefully emphasized.
And now Jimmy was better again. He was propped up in bed, and with the aid of Nurse Elisabet he had cut out a paper sentry and set it in the barred window. The real sentry had been very much astonished; he had almost fallen over backward. On recovering he went entirely through the manual of arms, and was almost seen by an Oberst-lieutenant. It was all most exciting.
Harmony had been to see Jimmy on the day in question. She had taken him some gelatin, not without apprehension, it being her first essay in jelly and Jimmy being frank with the candor of childhood. The jelly had been a great success.
It was when she was about to go that Jimmy broached a matter very near his heart.
"The horns haven't come, have they?" he asked wistfully.
"No, not yet."
"Do you think he got my letter about them?"
"He answered it, didn't he?"
Jimmy drew a long breath. "It's very funny. He's mostly so quick. If I had the horns, Sister Elisabet would tie them there at the foot of the bed. And I could pretend I was hunting."
Harmony had a great piece of luck that day. As she went home she saw hanging in front of the wild-game shop next to the delicatessen store a fresh deer, and this time it was a stag. Like the others it hung head down, and as it swayed on its hook its great antlers tapped against the shop door as if mutely begging admission.
She could not buy the antlers. In vain she pleaded, explained, implored. Harmony enlisted the Portier, and took him across with her. The wild-game seller was obdurate. He would sell the deer entire, or he would mount head and antlers for his wife's cousin in Galicia as a Christmas gift.
Harmony went back to the lodge and climbed the stairs. She was profoundly depressed. Even the discovery that Peter had come home early and was building a fire in the kitchen brought only a fleeting smile. Anna was not yet home.
Peter built the fire. The winter dusk was falling and Harmony made a movement to light the candles. Peter stopped her.
"Can't we have the firelight for a little while? You are always beautiful, but--you are lovely in the firelight, Harmony."
"That is because you like me. We always think our friends are beautiful."
"I am fond of Anna, but I have never thought her beautiful."
The kitchen was small. Harmony, rolling up her sleeves by the table, and Peter before the stove were very close together. The dusk was fast fading into darkness; to this tiny room at the back of the old house few street sounds penetrated. Round them, shutting them off together from the world of shops with lighted windows, rumbling busses and hurrying humanity, lay the old lodge with its dingy gardens, its whitewashed halls, its dark and twisting staircases.
Peter had been very careful. He had cultivated a comradely manner with the girl that had kept her entirely at her ease with him. But it had been growing increasingly hard. He was only human after all. And he was very comfortable. Love, healthy human love, thrives on physical ease. Indigestion is a greater foe to it than poverty. Great love songs are written, not by poets starving in hall bedrooms, with insistent hunger gnawing and undermining all that is of the spirit, but by full-fed gentlemen who sing out of an overflowing of content and wide fellowship, and who write, no doubt, just after dinner. Love, being a hunger, does not thrive on hunger.
Thus Peter. He had never found women essential, being occupied in the struggle for other essentials. Women had had little part in his busy life. Once or twice he had seen visions, dreamed dreams, to waken himself savagely to the fact that not for many years could he afford the luxury of tender eyes looking up into his, of soft arms about his neck. So he had kept away from women with almost ferocious determination. And now!
He drew a chair before the stove and sat down. Standing or sitting, he was much too large for the kitchen. He sat in the chair, with his hands hanging, fingers interlaced between his knees.
The firelight glowed over his strong, rather irregular features. Harmony, knife poised over the evening's potatoes, looked at him.
"I think you are sad to-night, Peter."
"Depressed a bit. That's all."
"It isn't money again?"
It was generally money with any of the three, and only the week before Peter had found an error in his bank balance which meant that he was a hundred Kronen or so poorer than he had thought. This discovery had been very upsetting.
"Not more than usual. Don't mind me. I'll probably end in a roaring bad temper and smash something. My moody spells often break up that way!"
Harmony put down the paring-knife, and going over to where he sat rested a hand on his shoulder. Peter drew away from it.
"I have hurt you in some way?"
"Of course not."
"Could--could you talk about whatever it is? That helps sometimes."
"You wouldn't understand."
"You haven't quarreled with Anna?" Harmony asked, real concern in her voice.
"No. Good Lord, Harmony, don't ask me what's wrong! I don't know myself."
He got up almost violently and set the little chair back against the wall. Hurt and astonished, Harmony went back to the table. The kitchen was entirely dark, save for the firelight, which gleamed on the bare floor and the red legs of the table. She was fumbling with a match and the candle when she realized that Peter was just behind her, very close.
"Dearest," he said huskily. The next moment he had caught her to him, was kissing her lips, her hair.
Harmony's heart beat wildly. There was no use struggling against him. The gates of his self-control were down: all his loneliness, his starved senses rushed forth in tardy assertion.
After a moment Peter kissed her eyelids very gently and let her go. Harmony was trembling, but with shock and alarm only. The storm that had torn him root and branch from his firm ground of self-restraint left her only shaken. He was still very close to her; she could hear him breathing. He did not attempt to speak. With every atom of strength that was left in him he was fighting a mad desire to take her in his arms again and keep her there.
That was the moment when Harmony became a woman.
She lighted the candle with the match she still held. Then she turned and faced him.
"That sort of thing is not for you and me, Peter," she said quietly.
"There isn't any question about it."
He was still reckless, even argumentative; the crying need of her still obsessed him. "Why not? Why should I not take you in my arms? If there is a moment of happiness to be had in this grind of work and loneliness--"
"It has not made me happy."
Perhaps nothing else she could have said would have been so effectual. Love demands reciprocation; he could read no passion in her voice. He knew then that he had left her unstirred. He dropped his outstretched arms.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do it."
"I would rather not talk about it, please."
The banging of a door far off told them that Anna Gates had arrived and was taking off her galoshes in the entry. Peter drew a long breath, and, after his habit, shook himself.
"Very well, we'll not talk of it. But, for Heaven's sake, Harmony, don't avoid me. I'm not a cad. I'll let you alone."
There was only time for a glance of understanding between them, of promise from Peter, of acceptance from the girl. When Anna Gates entered the kitchen she found Harmony peeling potatoes and Peter filling up an already overfed stove.
That night, during that darkest hour before the dawn when the thrifty city fathers of the old town had shut off the street lights because two hours later the sun would rise and furnish light that cost the taxpayers nothing, the Portier's wife awakened.
The room was very silent, too silent. On those rare occasions when the Portier's wife awakened in the night and heard the twin clocks of the Votivkirche strike three, and listened, perhaps, while the delicatessen seller ambled home from the Schubert Society, singing beerily as he ambled, she was wont to hear from the bed beside hers the rhythmic respiration that told her how safe from Schubert Societies and such like evils was her lord. There was no sound at all.
The Portier's wife raised herself on her elbow and reached over. Owing to the width of the table that stood between the beds and to a sweeping that day which had left the beds far apart she met nothing but empty air. Words had small effect on the Portier, who slept fathoms deep in unconsciousness. Also she did not wish to get up--the floor was cold and a wind blowing. Could she not hear it and the creaking of the deer across the street, as it swung on its hook?
The wife of the Portier was a person of resource. She took the iron candlestick from the table and flung it into the darkness at the Portier's pillow. No startled yell followed.
Suspicion thus confirmed, the Portier's wife forgot the cold floor and the wind, and barefoot felt her way into the hall.
Suspicion was doubly confirmed. The chain was off the door; it even stood open an inch or two.
Armed with a second candlestick she stationed herself inside the door and waited. The stone floor was icy, but the fury of a woman scorned kept her warm. The Votivkirche struck one, two, three quarters of an hour. The candlestick in her hand changed from iron to ice, from ice to red-hot fire. Still the Portier had not come back and the door chain swung in the wind.
At four o'clock she retired to the bedroom again. Indignation had changed to fear, coupled with sneezing. Surely even the Schubert Society--What was that?
From the Portier's bed was coming a rhythmic respiration!
She roused him, standing over him with the iron candlestick, now lighted, and gazing at him with eyes in which alarm struggled with suspicion.
"Thou hast been out of thy bed!"
"An hour since the bed was empty."
"The chain is off the door."
"Let it remain so and sleep. What have we to steal or the Americans above? Sleep and keep peace."
He yawned and was instantly asleep again. The Portier's wife crawled into her bed and warmed her aching feet under the crimson feather comfort. But her soul was shaken.
The Devil had been known to come at night and take innocent ones out to do his evil. The innocent ones knew it not, but it might be told by the soles of the feet, which were always soiled.
At dawn the Portier's wife cautiously uncovered the soles of her sleeping lord's feet, and fell back gasping. They were quite black, as of one who had tramped in garden mould.
Early the next morning Harmony, after a restless night, opened the door from the salon of Maria Theresa into the hall and set out a pitcher for the milk.
On the floor, just outside, lay the antlers from the deer across the street. Tied to them was a bit of paper, and on it was written the one word, "Still!"