Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Sudden peace and confidence flooded her spirit. She sat on, dreaming and planning, but with no more mental distress. With the prayer she had gained, in some subtle fashion, a new self-respect. She would not let him frighten her again; after all, while she commanded her own soul, Royal Blondin could not hurt her.
"And he shall not marry Nina, either!" Harriet decided, going in, stiff and cold, but full of resolution. She looked at a clock, it was almost four. Three hours' sleep was not to be despised, but Harriet was in no mood for it. Instead she took a bath, and just as the dawn was beginning to flood the world with mysterious half- lights and long wet shadows, she crept out into the dew-drenched garden, and with a triumphant sense of being alone, went into the wood. Early walks were one of her delights. She was rarely alone otherwise; her position afforded her almost every other luxury, but not often this one. Nina's plans were usually cut to fit Harriet's; even the shortest errand, or least interesting trip into town was pleasanter to Nina than her own society.
It was exquisite in the wood. The light flashed on wet leaves, the birds were awaking. A little steamer went up the satiny, dreaming surface of the river, and when Harriet walked through the village, heartening whiffs of boiling coffee and wood smoke came from the labourers' cottages. She was young; she could have danced with exultation in the hour and mood. It was almost seven o'clock when she came back, glowing, beginning to feel warm and headachy, beginning to realize that the July day would be hot, beginning to be conscious of the eight-mile tramp. In the garden at Crownlands she met Royal, leaving the house.
He studied her approvingly.
"Harriet, do you know you are extraordinarily easy to look upon? What gets you up so early?"
"I've been walking," she said, briefly and unresponsively. His social pleasantries instantly antagonized her, and he saw it.
"Well, I thought perhaps I had better get out. I'm at the club for a day or two. I believe Miss Hawkes, Rosa, the eldest sister, wants me to get up a reading, the great Indian Epic Poems, something along that line. It's for the Red Cross, of course." He yawned, and smiled at the early summer sky. "Ward tells me," he added, giving the girl a sharp glance, "that you and he--eh?"
"I'm sorry he told you!"
"Oh, my dear child!" Blondin made a deprecatory motion of his hands. "Of course, I think you're very wise," he added.
This smote upon her new-born self-respect, and all the glory departed from the day. She had taken off her loose white coat, and pushed back the hat that pressed upon her thick, shining hair. It clung in damp ringlets to the soft duskiness of forehead and temples, her cheeks glowed rosily under their warm olive, and her clouded smoke-blue eyes were averted; he could see only the thick, upcurling black lashes that fringed them so darkly. The man saw her breast rise and fall with some quick emotion as he half- smilingly watched her.
"The lad gets a beautiful and wise and very discreet wife," he was beginning, but Harriet silenced him angrily.
"We need not indulge in compliments, Roy! If I marry Ward--"
"If--? I supposed it definite!"
"Well, when I marry him, then, it will be because I truly---" She paused, halted at the great word. "Because I truly do admire and care for him," she substituted, somewhat lamely.
"It isn't quite a pillar of smoke by day, and of fire by night?" he suggested, quietly. Harriet saw the words written, in the handwriting of a girl of seventeen, and had a moment of vertigo. She attempted no answer. "In other words, you would hardly consider him if he had his own way to make, if he had a salary of two hundred a month, like Fred Davenport!" Royal added. "There's a certain magic about a background of motorcars and Sherry's, and the opera Monday nights, and the bank account, isn't there?"
Silence. But it was only for a moment. Then Harriet raised her eyes.
"He loves me," she reminded the man, quietly. "I don't know what a boy's love is worth; he's only twenty-two, after all. But he does love me! But believe me, Royal, you couldn't hurt me--as you are hurting me!-if there was no truth in what you say. Ward has had three years at college--I've not been a member of the family all that time without knowing that he is not a saint! He has lived as other men do--as women permit decent men to live, I suppose. Nina's different. She's younger. She has never had an affair---"
"We were not discussing Nina!"
"No, I know it. But you reminded me that what I object to in you, with her, I myself am doing with him--or something very like it! Except that--" Harriet floundered a little, but regained her thread--"except that he does care for me," she repeated; "he loves beauty--I can say that to you without your misunderstanding!--and then, he knows me, we have been intimate for years, we are congenial!"
"He knows everything about you," Royal repeated, innocently, as if the defence she made were perfectly acceptable. But again she was stung to silence.
"I am going to tell him frankly, exactly what you have said to me," Harriet said, presently, with decision and relief in her voice. "I shall remind him that I have always been poor, and that it is utterly impossible for me to separate the thought of him from the thought of what my life as his wife would gain."
"Be careful how you play your hand alone!" the man said. "Half confidence isn't much more than none at all!"
A moment later they parted: the woman entering the house for a cup of coffee, and some conference with butler and housekeeper, and the man starting off briskly for his early walk. But Blondin was smiling, as he went upon his way, and Harriet was white with anger and impotence.
"I'll put everything else I have in this world in the balance, Roy!" she said to herself, in the sunshiny silence of the breakfast room. "But I'll hold no more stolen conversations with you! I'll break my engagement with Ward, I'll go to Richard Carter and humiliate myself, I'll go back to Linda's house without a penny in the world--but I'll be done with you! Thank God, however the story may sound, especially with your interpretations on it, you haven't my honour in your keeping, though you may seem to have!"
The house was absolutely quiet; the clock on the stairs struck a silvery seven. Harriet went noiselessly to her own room; Nina was sleeping heavily. She flung off her clothes, sank into bed. And now at last sleep came, deep, delicious, satisfying. Nina awoke, had her breakfast in bed, tubbed and dressed, and still Harriet slept on.
"Miss Harriet, it's nearly noon!" The monitory voice penetrated at last; Harriet awoke, smiling. "Father's gone to the city, and Ward with him," Nina said, "and I telephoned the club and asked Mr. Blondin to lunch--Granny said I might. And the papers--you ought to see them! Father said to Bottomley that he was to say that the family was not answering the telephone. Granny was darling to me this morning. She thinks I could keep house for Father. I said no, thank you, not while Miss Harriet was here. She said, Oh, no, she didn't mean immediately, but if you married, or something. But of course I may move into Mother's room, after awhile, although-- isn't it funny?-I keep thinking that she may come back. And Father said I was not to leave the place to-day. I had nine letters; Amy said that she had cried all night, and Mrs. Jay wrote Father, and oh--Father had a letter from Mother written just before the boat went; he didn't show it to any one. And she said they were going to Italy, and maybe Spain, he told Granny. Isn't it terrible?"
Thus Nina, excited and pleased by the importance of being so close to the calamity.
"I'll be dressed directly," Harriet said, in a matter-of-fact voice. "Get at your Spanish, Nina, and I'll be with you in a few minutes!"
A day or two later there was a family conference in the library, and Harriet realized more clearly than ever that it was impossible to forecast the march of events. Richard announced that after consideration he had decided that it would be wiser for the family to weather the storm of talk that would follow Isabelle's disappearance, in some neighbourhood less connected with her. He had therefore leased an establishment on Long Island, where the children could have their swimming and tennis, and his mother her usual nearness to town, but where they would be comparatively inaccessible to a curious press and public, and might disappear for a grateful interval. The life at Huntington would be less formal than at Crownlands, but the house he had taken was comfortable and roomy; there would be plenty of room for Nina's girl friends and Ward's guests. Miss Field, Bottomley, and Hansen would please see to it that the move was made with all possible expedition. He would join the family there every week-end, possibly now and then during the week, and he hoped the change would do them all good, and bridge the difficult first months of-- their misfortune. "I have explained to my mother and the children," he said, quietly, to Harriet, "that Mrs. Carter has asked for a divorce, which will, of course, be immediately arranged.
"The trip," he ended, turning to his mother, "is only about the distance this is, in the car. I've not seen the place, but I'm confident that you'll like it."
"I shall of course remain there steadily, Richard," said the old lady, with graciousness. "The length of the trip makes no difference. You naturally have not had time to consider--how should you--that there is a change in your circumstances, my son. The presence of an older woman in your house is imperative."
He smiled at her patiently, and Ward laughed outright.
"You mean on Miss Field's account, Mother?"
Madame Carter was outraged at this outspokenness; she had supposed herself somewhat obscure.
"If I do, my dear, it is a feeling that any woman would share with me, although possibly men--as the less delicate--"
"Oh, shucks, Granny!" Ward said, affectionately. "Where did you ever get that line of dope?"
"Never mind, Ward," his father interrupted in turn. "We needn't discuss that now. We'll be delighted for every hour you can spend with us, Mother, whether it's for Miss Field's sake or ours. She'll take care of us all, and herself into the bargain, I'm sure of that. Now, Miss Field, about your check book; I've arranged---"
"The world, my dear, is less blind than you imagine!" his mother reminded him pleasantly, gathering her draperies for departure.
"Well, about your checks," Richard said, with his indulgent smile, when she was gone. "Where were we?"
"I have never respected and admired and been so grateful to any human being as I am to you," thought Harriet. "I think you are the finest and the strongest man I ever saw in my life!" Aloud she said, "I can send Bottomley and his wife, and one or two of the girls down to-day, if you think best. Then he can telephone me how things go."
Nina interposed an objection on the score of the tennis tournament at the club, was overruled, and departed in her turn to discover, as Harriet tactfully suggested, the condition of her bathing suit. Ward had already gone to do some necessary telephoning, so that Harriet and her employer were alone.
"Now, Miss Field," Richard said, when various details of management were delegated, "you understand that you are in charge from now on. My mother will--well, you know how to handle her! She is old--enjoys her little bit of mischief sometimes! Anything unusual you can refer to me; I shall be there every week, anyway."
He paused, and ruffled the scattered papers that were on the flat- topped desk before him. Harriet watched him anxiously. She thought he looked tired and old, and her heart ached at the troubled attempt he was making to simplify the tragedy for them all. He was not handsome, she reflected, but surely there had never been keener or pleasanter gray eyes, and a mouth so strong when it was in repose, so honest when it smiled. Not like Ward's ready and incessant laughter, not like Royal Blondin's carefully calculated amusement.
Reaching this point in her thought, facing him with her whole beautiful face alive with emotion and interest, Harriet smiled herself, involuntarily and faintly. It was a smile of almost daughterly sympathy and comradeship, friendly and innocent, and wholly irresistible. As usual, her masses of hair were trimly pinned and braided, but stray little golden feathers had loosened about the soft olive forehead, and the neck of her thin white blouse was open, showing the straight column of her young throat; the effect was unstudied and youthful, almost childishly engaging and fresh.
Richard, catching the look, was perhaps unconsciously cheered by it. Even at forty-four, and under his present difficulties and harassments, he must have been dead not to be refreshed by the vision of earnest youth and beauty that was so near him in the tempered summer light of the great library.
"Thank you!" he said, as if she had spoken. "There is one more thing, Miss Field," he added, idly rumpling his papers again, and then moving his fine hand to his thick brown hair, whose shining order he rumpled, too. "About this man Blondin. Do you know anything about him?"
A more direct shot at her innermost fastnesses could hardly have been made. Robbed of breath and senses by the suddenness of it, and with dry lips, Harriet could only falter a repetition:
"Know anything about him?"
"I don't know much, and what I do know I don't like," Richard continued, noticing nothing amiss in her manner, perhaps because he was so deeply absorbed in what he was saying. "He's a handsome fellow; he knows his subject, I guess. He's the modern substitute for the mediaeval minnesinger," he added, "a sort of father confessor--and the women like to talk to him! But I don't like him. Now, I don't know how he feels to Nina, or she to him, but as you know, she will come into her uncle's fortune in a few months, unless the trustee, who is myself, decides to defer payment for another three years. I merely want to say that it might be as well to intimate to this young fellow that there are conditions under which I would see fit to defer it, and anything that brought him into that connection would--well, would constitute one!"
"I didn't know of that!" Harriet exclaimed, in such obvious relief that the man smiled involuntarily.
"Then you agree with me?" he asked, eagerly.
Here in the sombre sweetness of the library, with the man she admired and respected above all others looking to her for confidence and counsel, what could she say? Even had Royal Blondin been present, Harriet might have cast every secondary consideration to the winds as readily. As it was, she could only tell him the truth.
"Oh, yes--yes! I told Ward that I would rather see Nina dead!"
"Why do you say so?" Richard asked. "Now, I'll tell you why I do," he added, as Harriet was, not unnaturally, groping for definite phrases, "I've been watching this man. I had his record looked into. There's nothing extremely bad in it--he seems to be a gentleman adventurer. But there was an affair several years ago, his name mixed into some divorce, and it developed then that he holds rather peculiar ideas about free love, natural relationships--I needn't go into that. I don't want him mixed up with my family. I'm going to speak to Ward about it, warn him that his sister's happiness mustn't be risked by having the fellow about at all. Meanwhile, you can take it up with Nina. Just let her see that she isn't the only girl who has ever listened to him reading 'In a Gondola.' You might hint that there was a good deal of talk about him five or six years ago; there was a Swedish woman--I didn't get the details!--but I imagine trial marriage comes pretty close to it. You're tired," said Richard, abruptly.
"Indeed I'm not!" the girl protested, with white lips.
"You don't imagine the man is serious?" Richard asked, alarmed by her manner.
"I don't know!" Harriet answered at random. "They've--they've hardly known each other three weeks!"
"Ah, well! And she's only seventeen," her father said. "Distract her, amuse her--if she's inclined to mope a bit. Get riding horses!"
No time to think--no time to trim her course. Harriet must plunge blindly ahead now.
"Mr. Carter, would you--if you think wise--give your mother a hint of this? Madame Carter is romantic, you know--"
"Oh, certainly! Certainly!" he said, approvingly. "I'll speak to her. We must keep Nina a little girl this summer. And, Miss Field- -"
It was said with only a slight change in the pleasant voice. But it brought a sudden change in their relationship, a tightening of the bonds that were all Harriet's world now.
"--Miss Field, I may say here and now that it is an unmixed privilege, in my estimation," Richard Carter said, simply, "that my daughter, and my son, too, for the matter of that, should have the advantage of your influence, and your example, at this time. Of course it infinitely simplifies my own problem. But I don't mean only that. I mean that with your knowledge of the world, of work and poverty--I know them, too, I know their value--you are infinitely qualified to balance their whole social vision just now. I have never been unappreciative of the value of a simple, good, unspoiled woman in my household. I have seen the effect in a thousand ways. But at the present moment, I hardly know where I could turn without you. I can only hope that in some way the Carters may be able to repay you!"
The secretary's shining head dropped, and she rested her elbow on the table, and pressed a white hand tight across her eyes for a moment of silence. When she faced him again her face was a little pale, and her magnificent eyes heavy with tears.
"I love all the Carters," she said, simply. "I only wish I were-- half what you say!"
And without another word she stood up, folded into a tiny oblong the paper upon which she had been making a few notes, and went slowly to the library door. More deeply stirred than she had been since the days of her passionate girlhood, she turned on the threshold for a look of farewell. But Richard Carter had left the desk, and was kneeling on one knee before his safe; he had forgotten her. Harriet went across the hall, mounted the stairs, and found her own room. She was hardly conscious of what she was doing or thinking.
"Oh, what shall I do?" she whispered. "He trusts me to protect her! Oh, why didn't I--the moment I knew that Royal was thinking of her--why didn't I go to him then, and make a clean breast of it all! Now--now I've promised! And they trust me and love me--and what shall I do! Oh, God," whispered Harriet, sinking on her knees beside the bed, "You know that I am good--You know that I can really help them all--can really protect the girl! You know how I have chosen what was fine and good, all these years, how I have longed for an opportunity to be useful and happy! Don't let him come into my life again, and spoil it again. Don't let Richard Carter lose faith in me, and despise me! I don't know what's the matter with me," sobbed Harriet, burying her brimming eyes in the pillows; "I never cry, I haven't cried like this for years and years! I think I'm losing my mind!"