Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
At four o'clock Richard came home, and the instant Harriet saw his face she realized, with a shock even sharper than the original moment of incredulity, that he had had no success in his search. He was alone.
She was standing in one of the doorways of the lower hall when he crossed it, but he did not see her. His face was drawn and gray, he looked hot and rumpled and utterly weary; more, he who had always been the pink of well-groomed perfection looked old. He asked Bottomley briefly if Madame Carter was in her room, and, being informed that she was, went hastily upstairs.
Harriet could only imagine, later, that he had gone in to see his mother before brushing and changing, or perhaps to avoid Nina, who with Amy catapulted down the stairway a few seconds after he went up. At all events, it was to the old lady's beautiful sitting room that Harriet was summoned a few minutes later. She knew at once that he had told his mother all he knew and feared.
Madame Carter was shockingly agitated. She had a deep sense of the dramatic, but she was not entirely acting now. Her face was pale under its rouge, and the painful tears of age stood in her eyes. She was sitting erect in a chair beside the divan where Richard sat; he did not look up as Harriet came in, but continued to stroke his mother's hand.
"Miss Field!" said Madame Carter, "we have just had a most terrible--a most unexpected--blow!"
Harriet simulated expectancy.
"There is every reason to believe," pursued Madame Carter, majestically, "that my unfortunate daughter-in-law, Mr. Carter's wife, Isabelle, has yielded to the passion of her lover! No, let me talk, Richard," she interrupted herself, as the man raised haggard eyes to watch her impersonally, "far better to face the facts, my dear! My son tells me, Miss Field the--the well-nigh incredible statement that--forgetting the honour of womanhood, and the tender claims of maternity--"
"Miss Field," Richard did not have the manner of interruption, but his quiet voice dominated the other voice none-the-less. Madame Carter fell silent, and watched him with mournful pride. "Miss Field," he said, "we want your help. The facts are these: Williams had all the roads watched; they did not go by motor. Mrs. Carter reached New London at five o'clock yesterday; Pope's boat, the Geisha, pulled out at half-past six. From what Williams' men picked up, at the dock, Pope did not expect her, was to have sailed this morning. She arrived, and evidently he thought it wise to hurry their start. The pier had a dozen boxes for the Geisha on it, groceries and what not, that they left behind! They will probably skirt the coast for a few days, and put in somewhere for supplies. But that"--he passed his hand wearily across his forehead--"that doesn't concern us now. We got there at ten last night--hours too late, of course." His voice fell, he mused, with a knitted brow. "Well!" he said, suddenly recalling himself. "Now, Miss Field, I want you to get hold of Ward. I want the boy home at once! He must know. But there is of course a chance that Mrs. Carter is--is planning to return. There may be a woman friend with her--it's not probable, but it's possible. I don't want any one in the house, or out of it, to suspect, and if you think it is possible, I should like Nina protected!"
"I understand," Harriet said, quietly, in the silence.
"You will remember, Richard," Madame Carter said, in the accents of Lady Macbeth, "that this is exactly what I always expected! I told you so, twenty years ago. You brought it on yourself, my dear. A Morrison--who ever heard of the Morrisons?--their mother-- Mrs. Banks tells me--was a school teacher! I have always felt--!"
Harriet heard the man's patient murmur as she slipped away. She crossed the hall, and for the first time in four years entered Isabelle's suite unannounced. It was in exquisite order; streams of late afternoon light were falling on the gay walls and the bright chintzes. The novels Isabelle had been skimming, the gold service of her dressing table, the great four-poster with its deeps of transparent white embroideries over white, all spoke of the beautiful woman who had spent so many hours here. On the dressing table, with its splendid length doubled in the mirror, was the great fan that her hand had idly wielded, only a few days ago, in an hour of domestic felicity and happiness. And the inanimate plumes, that Harriet picked up and idly unfurled, had played their little part in the drama that had ended that bright scene once and for all.
What to tell Nina?--Harriet wondered, going downstairs. But Nina proved pleasantly indifferent to the maternal absence when she and Amy came up from the tennis court for tea. To the guest or two who came calling Harriet, installed quite naturally now behind the cups and saucers, explained that Mrs. Carter was visiting with friends--having a beautiful time, too, apparently. To an accidentally direct remark from Amy she answered that she believed they were taking a motor trip just at the moment, but she would forward a note, if Amy liked. Madame Carter did not come out for tea; they were very quiet on the terrace. But Richard was there, and Amy and Nina were developing their youthful conversational arts upon him, when a maid came to stand respectfully beside Harriet. "If you please, Miss Field, Mr. Bottomley would like to know if you are to have your dinner downstairs to-night, please," said Pauline, incidentally feeling as if she was in a dream of bliss. Her last position had been in a well-to-do stationer's family in Newark, and consesequently she might have entered into the feelings of Miss Field far more intelligently than either imagined.
Harriet hesitated, glanced at Richard, wondering if he had heard. More rested on this decision than there was any estimating. She dared not decide.
"Miss Field will dine downstairs," Richard said, without glancing in their direction. And when the maid had gone he said with pleasant authority, "I wish you and Nina would do that regularly, Miss Field, when you have no other plan."
"Thank you," Harriet said, with her heart singing.
Perhaps Nina suspected that something about his high-handed domestic readjusting was unusual. She looked from her father to Harriet, and after a moment's silence asked abruptly:
"When is Mother coming back?"
"I don't know!" her father answered, quickly.
"Say, listen, are we going to dress?" asked Amy. Nina, instantly diverted, suggested that they go in. Nina's awkward bigness and Amy's mousy neutral tones were as well displayed in one garment as another, but both girls debated over pinks and blues, crepes and mulls, every evening, as if the world was watching them alone. Harriet lingered for only a word.
"Mr. Carter, it occurred to me that old Mrs. Singleton is going to California, in her own car, to-morrow. Would it be possible to let Nina and Amy and the household generally think--"
"Yes?" he encouraged her as she paused dubiously. He had risen to his feet, and fixed his tired eyes on her face.
"I was wondering if we might confide in Mrs. Singleton--she was always very fond of Mrs. Carter--and give out the impression that Mrs. Carter had suddenly decided to make the trip with her."
"That's an idea," Richard said, thoughtfully. "I could see Mrs. Singleton to-night--and--and talk it over."
"It might serve for only a few days," Harriet submitted.
"Yes, I see," he agreed, slowly.
"Well, I can give Nina a hint now!" Harriet said, going. The late golden sunshine struck her bright hair to an aureole, as she went up the brick steps and disappeared.
But it was too late for any soothing deception of Nina. A scene was in full progress in Nina's bedroom, and Harriet's eye had only to go from the prone form on the bed to the crushed newspaper that had drifted to the floor, to know that the secret was out. Isabelle's face, radiant and happy, looked out from the page. It was flanked by two smaller pictures, Richard's and Anthony Pope's. Harriet could see the big letters: "Young Millionaire--Wife of Richard Carter." The deluge was upon them.
"Oh--it's a lie--it's a lie! My beautiful little mother!" Nina was sobbing. "Oh, no, it's not true! It's a lie! Oh, how shall I ever hold up my head again--to be disgraced--now just when I'm so young--and ha-h-happy!"
"Nina, my child, control yourself!" Harriet, ignoring the staring and pale-faced Amy, sat down on the edge of the bed, and shook the girl slightly. "You mustn't give way! Come now, my dear, you must face this like a woman. Think how your father and Ward will look to you--"
Acting, all of it, said Harriet in her soul. But despite the youthful appetite for heroics, there were real tears in Nina's eyes, as there had been in her grandmother's a few hours ago.
"Yes, that's true!" she said, wiping a swollen face on the handkerchief Harriet supplied. "But oh--I don't believe it, and my father will sue them for libel, you see if he doesn't! My mother's the purest and sweetest and best woman alive--and I'll kill any one who says any different!"
"Oo--oo, to see it in the paper there, right on the bed," said Amy, in her reedy, colourless little voice, as Nina stopped suddenly. "Oo--oo, I thought Nina would die!" Nina began to cry again, but more quietly. "I guess I had better go--" Amy finished, plaintively.
"Oh, no!" said Nina in a choked voice, as she clung to her friend. "No, darling! you stay with me. Oh, I must go see my father, and my poor, poor grandmother! Oh, Amy, perhaps you had better go, for my family will need me to-night. My mother--!" said Nina, crying again.
She and Amy parted solemnly, with many kisses.
"It's a thing that might happen to me, or to any girl," said Amy, gravely. Harriet had an upsetting vision of stout, high-busted Mrs. Hawkes, panting as she discussed the details of the Red Cross drive, but she was very sympathetic with the young girls, and even agreed with Nina, when Amy was gone, that it would be much more sensible to take her bath, and put on her white organdie, and then go find her father.
They dined almost silently, and were about to disperse quietly for the night, after an hour of half-hearted conversation in the drawing room, obviously endured by Richard simply for his mother's sake, when Ward burst in. He had travelled almost four hundred miles by motor that day, his face was streaked with dirt and oil, and ghastly with fatigue. He went straight to his father.
"Say, what's all this!" he said, in a voice hardly recognizable. Harriet saw that he had been drinking. "I got your wire, and we started. I thought the Mater was sick, perhaps. My God--that worried me!" he broke off bitterly. "Blondin came with me; we stopped on the road for dinner, and the man had a paper there. Is that what you wanted me for--I don't believe it! It's a dirty lie, and the bounder that put that in the paper--"
"I'm glad you came home, my boy," Richard said. "I've been waiting for you--"
Harriet heard no more; she slipped from the room. There were genuine tears in her own eyes now; for the boy had flung himself face downward against a great chair, and was crying. All the household knew it; Harriet could read it in Bottomley's carefully usual manner and quiet speech. In the little music room across the hall Royal Blondin was waiting.
"This is a terrible thing!" he said, seriously.
"Oh, frightful!" Harriet agreed. A rather flat silence ensued. She seemed to have nothing to say to Royal now.
But she was not surprised when a moment later Nina came softly in, the picture of girlish distress, with her wet eyes and fresh white gown.
"I thought it best to leave Ward with Granny and Father," Nina said, in vague explanation, going straight to Blondin, who rose, dusty and weary, but with a solicitous manner that was infinitely soothing.
"I hoped you wouldn't mind just seeing me," he said in a low tone. "I'm not quite family, and yet I felt myself nearer than all the neighbours and friends, eh?"
"I shan't see any one for ages," Nina murmured, plaintively, "but you--you're different."
"And shall we talk about her sometimes?" Royal pursued, still close to her, and holding both her hands. "As she was, beautiful and sweet and good. For who are you and I, Little Girl, to judge what passion--what love will do with human hearts?"
"Yes, I know!" Nina, who never could keep pace with him, said mournfully.
Harriet could hear the undertones, and imagine what they said. She felt extremely uneasy. If this unforeseen calamity had lifted her suddenly in the family estimation, it would appear to be drawing Royal Blondin closer as well.
His manner, she had grudgingly to admit, was perfection. When Richard and Ward joined them a few moments later, he expressed himself with manly brevity to the older man. He realized, said Blondin simply, that he was absolutely de trop; he had merely imagined, as "the lad" had imagined, that the sudden summons from camp meant illness or ordinary emergency, or he would not have intruded at this time. He would not express a sympathy that must sound extremely airy to the stricken family. And now, if they would lend him Hansen, he would go over to the club---
"Nonsense!" Ward said. "You're all dirty and tired and hungry, and so am I. We'll clean up, and then we'll have something to eat first! Miss Harriet'll look out for us."
"And I'd like to see you for a moment in the library, Miss Field," Richard said, rather wearily. He had been obviously displeased at seeing the stranger, but Blondin's manner would have won a harder heart than his. "I want something sent to the papers," Richard explained, in an undertone.
Ah--they all wanted her, and needed her! How quick, and how efficient, and how self-effacing Harriet was, as she went about the business of making them all comfortable! She and Nina talked with the young men while they demolished the cold roast and drank cup after cup of coffee. Then Blondin selected several books, and went upstairs, and Harriet and Nina disappeared in their own rooms; but Ward came downstairs again, and he and his father settled in the library for a talk.
They talked deep into the night, Harriet knew, for she herself was sleepless, and she could see from the upper balcony that a stream of golden light was pouring across the brilliant flowers beneath the library windows.
She had wrapped herself in a warm robe, over her thin nightgown, and thrust her feet into fur-lined slippers, and after Nina was fathoms deep in youthful slumber Harriet crept out to the balcony, and sat thinking, thinking, thinking. She reviewed the incredible events of the past few days, and the actors drifted before her vision fitfully: Isabelle, white-bosomed and beautiful, in her prime; Tony Pope, passionate and wretched; Royal, low-voiced, dreamy, poetic, with his eloquent black eyes; Nina, newly awakened; Ward, weak, boyish, ardent; Madame Carter full of theatrical dignity and well-rounded phrases, and lastly--simple, strong, anxious to protect them all, even from their own follies-- Richard.
"Not one word of blame, not one ugly insinuation," she mused, "yet she has shamed him, and he is so honourable; and she has made him conspicuous, when he is so modest!"
She thought of Isabelle, fresh from Germaine's careful hands, lying in her exquisite white against the cushions of a deck chair, smiling, in the rosy flattering light under the green awning, at the infatuated man beside her. Isabelle was a splendid sailor, and loved the sea. They would land at some dreamlike Italian city, rising in tiers of pink and cream and blue beside the sapphire Mediterranean, and Isabelle would unfurl her white parasol, and walk beside him through the warmth and beauty--
"Ugh!" said Harriet, with a healthy uprush of utter disgust. These few months would not be cloudless for Isabelle, by any means. And after them, what? Was it conceivable that those fatal sixteen years would fail to identify Tony and Isabelle wherever they went, even if the press was not eagerly assisting them? Supposing that Isabelle never thought of Crownlands, of her handsome son and her young daughter, of the man whose patience and cleverness had lifted her to all this luxury from an apartment in a small town, would no memory of the place she had held, and the friendships she had commanded, haunt her? Truly there was always society for the Isabelles, but to Harriet's clean sense it seemed but the society of a jail.
"I wouldn't change places with her!" Harriet decided, in the soft silence and darkness of the summer night.
From Isabelle's problem her thoughts went to her own, to Royal Blondin. She was wakeful and restless to-night simply because she could not decide just how much she need fear him. Firstly, was there any reason for antagonizing him, and secondly, would he hurt her if she did? For Royal could not punish her without punishing himself, and could not banish her from Crownlands if he ever hoped to show his own face there again.
Nina, reaching her room that night, had flung her arms about Harriet's neck.
"Oh, I'm so happy! Oh, Miss Harriet, were you ever in love?" she had demanded, with a girl's wild, exultant laugh.
This was moving very fast indeed. Harriet had managed a sympathetic yet warning smile.
"I think I have been. But, my dearest girl, you'll be in and out a dozen times before the real thing comes along!"
Nina had smiled inscrutably at this, and slightly diverted the conversation.
"Don't you think it was awfully decent of Mr. Blondin to want to go off to the club to-night? Oh, I thought he looked perfectly stunning when he looked at Father that way! He told me to telephone the club to-morrow if I felt like just a quiet walk. Of course I shan't see any one for weeks, after this. But he said some day when I'm in town with Granny he didn't see why we couldn't go over and have a cup of tea with him, even if we postponed the regular tea. Do you? He's different from any one I ever knew. He says I am different from any girl he ever knew. Do you think I am? I said I thought I was just like the others, except that I like to read poetry and have my own ideas about things, and that I couldn't flirt, or wouldn't if I could, and that the average boy just bored me. I said that those things were sacred to me--"
Sacred to her! Long after the chattering voice was still, Harriet, out on the balcony, remembered the phrase and winced. There would be small sacredness in the hour that gave Nina to Royal Blondin. And yet, if in his cleverness he won her first tenacious affection, it would be a difficult thing to prevent. Isabella, her natural protector, was gone; Richard saw nothing; the old lady was on the lovers' side, and Ward also had been captivated by Blondin. It was only Harriet, only Harriet, who saw and who understood.
Was he so bad? She tried to ask herself the question honestly, and an honest shudder answered it before it was fairly framed. Nearly twenty years Nina's senior, with an interest that could not, he confessed, have existed except for the girl's fortune, that was arraignment enough. But there was more. Harriet knew the smooth coldness, the contemptuous superiority that within a year or two would blast the youth and self-confidence of a dozen Ninas; she knew what his moral code was, a code that made desire and opportunity the only law, and that honoured passion as the crowning emotion of life. She tried to picture Nina's marriage, their early days together, the breakfast table, where the crude little girl blundered and floundered in conversation, her helpless devotion, that would annoy and exasperate him. She saw Nina's near-sighted eyes welling with hurt tears; Nina's check book eagerly surrendered to win from her lord a few delicious hours of the old flattery, the old attention. Harriet fancied Nina, poor, plain, obtuse little Nina, home again: "But you don't know how hard it is, Father. He is never there any more--he hardly ever speaks to me!"
"It would take a clever woman to hold him," Harriet thought, "and it wouldn't be worth a clever woman's while."
Nina-Ward-Royal-Richard. The wearying procession began again. Royal might treat her with honesty and honour. He was not small in everything, and she had never done him harm. But--there might come the terrible moment when she had to face Richard with the confession. Yes, she had known him before. Yes, they had entered into a tacit compact. Yes, she had kept from Nina's father a secret that, while it might be unimportant, certainly should have been told him.
Impossible to think the thing to any conclusion! Too many possibilities might alter the entire situation. If she were married safely to Ward, for example--? But then she dared not marry Ward until Royal's attitude was finally defined. For if her position were dangerous now, what would it be if she had committed herself irrevocably to deception by marriage? Ward's young, crude intolerance sitting in judgment upon his wife!--Harriet shivered.
Suddenly she fell upon her knees, and dropped her bright head against the wide balustrade. She wanted to be a dignified, honourable, helpful woman; not selfish, like Nina; not an intriguer, like Isabelle; not proud, like Madame Carter. Something was changing in her heart and soul; she did not feel angry and bitter any more. With Royal's reappearance had come the realization that the old, sad time was no longer a living wound in her life, it was merely a memory, young, and mistaken, and to be forgotten. For years she had felt that it had maimed her; now it seemed only infinitely pitiable. She could go on, to honour and happiness, despite it. And how she longed to go on, with no further handicap! If he would go away again, and leave her mistress of the field. She only wanted her chance. She wanted to win her way, here in this fascinating world; she wanted to be beloved and successful; above all she wanted to be good!
For a long time Harriet had not prayed. But now, in a few words, and quite without premeditation, there burst from her the most sincere prayer of her life. She looked up at the stars.
"God!" she said, softly, aloud, "help me! Make me do what is right, however hard it is. Father, don't let me make another mistake!"