Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
The move to Huntington was made quickly and quietly, and lazy weeks followed, to Harriet weeks of almost cloudless content. She and Nina walked and rode, swam and practised their tennis stroke, paddled about in a canoe, motored over miles of exquisite country. Madame Carter was often with them, suggesting, disapproving, meddling, awaiting her chance to score. Ward, early in August, after a serious talk with Harriet, joined some friends for a motor run of three thousand miles, and presently was sending them post cards from Monterey and Tahoe. There was naturally no entertaining or formal social life for the family this summer, but Richard almost always brought men down for golf, over the week-ends, and seemed, if quiet and reserved, to be well content.
They had been in the new home only a few days when Harriet had reason to stop short in a busy morning of unpacking with one hand upon her heart, and a great satisfaction in her eyes. Nina, reading from a note from Royal Blondin, announced the sensational news that he had broken his ankle. He was with friends at Newport, and must remain there now for weeks, perhaps a month. Nina was please to write him, and to give his regard to Miss Field, and ask her not to forget him.
Harriet was quite willing to overlook the delicate menace of the message for the sake of the other news. For several weeks they were safe. Nina did not know the family Royal had been visiting, there was a long interval before she could possibly see him again. He would write to the girl, of course, and Harriet knew with what absorbing emotion she would look for his letters. But Nina was young and Nina wrote wretchedly, and anything might happen, thought Harriet, consoling herself with a vague argument that was in itself youthful, too.
Old Madame Carter was the only stumbling block now; there was no question of her definite hostility. It was partly the jealousy of age for youth, of departed beauty for beauty in its prime, but it was mainly actuated by the old lady's sense of pride, her firm belief that there was some mysterious merit of birth in the Carter blood, and that to friendship with the Carters a mere upstart, a secretary, a working-woman, could not with any justice aspire. In a thousand ways, many of them approaching actual mendacity, she undermined Harriet's usefulness, and annoyed and distracted the domestic force. If Harriet decided that the weather was too warm for an out-of-door luncheon, Madame Carter pleasantly overruled her, and there was much running to and fro for the change. Messages undelivered by the old lady were attributed to the secretary's carelessness, and there was more than one occasion when Harriet had no choice between silence toward Madame Carter or the flat accusation of untruthfulness.
Every hour under his roof, however, helped to convince her that Richard Carter was unaware of very little that transpired there. His reading of Nina's young secret had proved that; Harriet never remembered his ready allusion to "In a Gondola" without surprise. How he had managed to obtain that particular detail she could not imagine. But she hoped that he read the relationship between her and his mother as truly, and that time would reconcile the old lady to her presence in the house.
With September came changes. Blondin wrote that he was limping about with a stick, and wanted to limp down to them as soon as they would ask him. Ward was home again, as always irresponsible, a little older and in some vague way a little coarser, Harriet thought, but still a most enlivening element in the quiet household. Madame Carter had brought with her, for several weeks' stay, a friend of Isabelle's, a pretty, dashing little grass widow, Mrs. Tabor. The resolute brightness and sweetness with which Ida Tabor attempted to amuse Richard gave Harriet some hint of the plan which was taking shape in the back of his mother's head. But she could only make Mrs. Tabor comfortable, and fit her somehow into the youthful plans of the household.
"Miss Harriet," Nina said, without preamble, lying flat on the gently rocking float, and catching little handfuls of water as she spoke, "what'll I wear to-morrow?"
Harriet had already settled this question several times, but she was always patient with Nina.
"White is prettiest," she said; "didn't we decide for the organdie?"
"The white with the rolled hem," Nina said with unction, "and pale pink stockings, and white shoes."
"That will do nicely!" Harriet, always happiest in the water, was sitting on the edge of the float, with her feet idly splashing. A glorious September sun blazed down upon the water, there was absolute silence up and down the curving shore. Above the plumy tops of the trees, rising abruptly from the beach with its weather-burned bath houses, the gables and porches of the new home showed here and there. There were other country mansions scattered up and down beside the blue waters of the Sound, but the Carters had no sense of having neighbours.
Nina, Ward, and Harriet fairly lived in the water, and Ward had unconsciously served his father's cause by bringing home with him a tongue-tied pleasant youth named Saunders Archer, whose presence in the house had helped to keep Nina pleased and amused. She had already imparted to Harriet the valuable information that Saunders had never known his mother, and had never had a sister, "and of course I have always been such an oddity in the family," said Nina, "that I got right at his confidence in that dreadful way of mine! He said he didn't know why he talked to me so frankly."
Harriet had seen to it that a variety of delightful plans awaited the young people at every turn. The retirement natural after the recent domestic catastrophe was too dangerous to risk now. They drove to Piping Rock, to Easthampton; they yachted and swam; and the evenings were filled with riotous entertainments of their own devising, and once or twice with country club dances ten or twenty miles away. And Harriet hoped, hoped, hoped, feverishly, incessantly, wearyingly, that the danger was past.
But Amy came down, mild and colourless as ever, yet still more poised, more socially adept than Nina, and with Amy innocently diverting Saunders's bashful attentions, Nina returned to thoughts of Royal. The "to-morrow" for which the white organdie had been selected was to bring Royal for his first visit to Huntington. He was coming down with Madame Carter and Mrs. Tabor in her car. The man, the old lady had protested indignantly, had already been asked to visit them, and it was preposterous, just because Richard fancied every man who looked at Nina was in love with her, that he should be insulted! No matter, Richard said, in an aside to Harriet, accepting the situation philosophically, there was no need for suddenness. Harriet tried to be philosophical, too. Richard was bringing two men down for golf this week-end, and with Saunders and Amy, Royal and Madame Carter and Mrs. Tabor, the house would be filled. She had plenty to do with the managing, the endless details that were brought her mercilessly, hour after hour, by maids and housekeeper. And yet under her quiet busyness and her happy hours with the young people there lurked incessantly a fretted sense of danger approaching.
Something of this was in her mind as she and Nina basked on the gently heaving float, in the sunshine. Amy, with no particular desire to hide the fact that she was a better swimmer than Nina, had essayed a swim to the buoy, a hundred yards out in the channel. Nina, therefore, was naturally turned to thoughts of a male who quite frankly did not admire Amy; and she talked incessantly of Blondin. Harriet, the best swimmer among them, remained with Nina, and now fancied she saw an opening for a little talk she felt extremely timely.
"Mr. Blondin likes you, Nina, just because you aren't flirtatious and silly, like the other girls. But he isn't the sort of man to get very deeply interested in any woman, dear."
"No, I know he's not!" Nina said, quickly, turning suddenly red, and looking attentively at the print of her wet hand on the dry, hot boards.
"And I would be sorry if he were," Harriet pursued, not too seriously, "for I want you to marry a man of your own age, when you do marry, and not a man who has had--well, other affairs, who has that confidential, flattering manner with all women!"
"If you think I don't realize perfectly that you don't like Royal Blondin, you are mistaken!" Nina said, airily, even with a yawn. "I am perfectly able to manage my own affairs in that direction!"
"Yes, I know, dear. But we want you--" Harriet was beginning pacifically. But Nina angrily interrupted:
"Oh, I know you and Father talk about me, if that's what you mean!"
"No, dear, listen. We want you to see other types of men, to see all kinds. You will be rich, Nina--"
"Why don't you say that Royal is after my money!" Nina burst out, with symptoms of tears. The ready name frightened Harriet afresh; she knew that they corresponded, that grass was not growing under Royal's feet. She and Nina were sitting close together now, their drying hair tossed backward, their faces flushed. "The first man I ever really liked," Nina said, with a heaving breast, "the first man who ever understood me--!"
"Nina," Harriet said, "you don't want to have to write your husband a check on your honeymoon?"
She felt it a cruel cut; but seventeen years of flattery and smoothness had armed Nina in impregnable complacence. She gave a sneering laugh that trembled on the brink of tears, and tried to control a mouth that was shaking with anger. One look of utter scorn she did manage, then she shrugged not so much her shoulders as her whole body, and flung herself furiously into the water. Harriet called "Nina!" first impatiently, and then coaxingly. But the younger girl swam steadily to the shore, and Harriet saw her a minute later, shaking herself outside the shower, before she disappeared into the big bath house. With a grave face, as she absentmindedly tossed and spread the glorious mass of her glittering hair, Harriet sat on, pondering. They had reached a crisis; Nina, between delicious confidences to Amy and aggrieved appeal to Royal, would commit herself now. There was no help for it; she, Harriet, must act.
Amy and Saunders swam by her, breathless and screaming as they made for shore, and fought and shrieked under the shower. Then they, too, entered the dressing rooms, and there was absolute silence in the world. Harriet had entirely forgotten Ward, until he swam under the float, and with a characteristic yell, rose streaming like a seal under her very feet.
Genuinely startled, she gratified him with a scream, and they both laughed like children as he flung himself dripping on the hot boards, and proceeded to bake luxuriously in the sun.
"It's the most gorgeous thing I ever saw, do you know that?" he asked, with one hand touching the river of sparkling gold that blazed and tumbled on her shoulders. "Listen, Harriet, do you remember the little talk we had some weeks ago?"
"Perfectly," she said, a little unwillingly.
"Before I went to California, I mean," he further elucidated.
"Yes, I know what you mean, Ward!"
"Well, how about it?" the boy said, after a pause. Harriet, her beautiful flushed face framed in curtains of shining hair, was regarding him steadily, and almost sorrowfully.
"Do you mean to ask if I have changed?"
"Well--" he looked up. "I thought you might! They do--the ladies!"
"It wouldn't be fair to you. Ward," the girl said, slowly, after a pause. "I love you, but I don't love you the way your wife will!"
"Why do you talk like that--it's all bunk!" he said, impatiently. "If you try it and don't like it, why, you can get out, can't you?"
"Ward, don't say those things!" the girl said, distressedly.
"I want you!" he said, sullenly. "I'm crazy about you! My God--"
"Ward, please don't touch me!" she said, sharply, getting to her feet with a spring, as he put his arm about her. "Don't--! I shall tell your father if you do!"
"You didn't talk that way at Crownlands last June," the man said, sulkily. "I don't see what has made such a difference now!"
"I think perhaps I'm different, Ward. The summer--" Harriet's voice died into silence. Her eyes were fixed upon the figure of a man who came down the little pier, and dove into the shining water. Two minutes later, with a great gasp of satisfaction, Richard Carter drew himself up beside them.
"Ha! That is something like! My Lord, the water is beautiful to- day! How about the buoy? Who swims with me to the buoy?"
"Come on, Harriet!" Ward said, poising.
The girl hesitated, glanced toward the shore. Saunders, with a white-clad girl on each side of him, was walking up to the house.
"Did your friends come down with you, Mr. Carter?" she asked, before quite abandoning all responsibilities.
"Briggs and Gardiner--yes. They're getting into golf clothes. We're going to play nine holes anyway, at the club. What time is dinner?"
"Eight o'clock. Unless you prefer--"
"No, no! Eight is fine. We'll be back at seven. My mother and Mrs. Tabor and Blondin will be down from town at about six."
Harriet rose, too, and bundled the glory of her hair into a blue rubber cap that made her look like a beautiful rosy French peasant. With no further speech she made a splendid dive, and the men followed her.
It was one of life's beautiful hours, she thought, as in a great splash of salt water she reached the buoy, and hung laughing and panting to its restless bulk. Ward had preceded her by a full minute, Richard was half a minute behind her. With much vainglorious boasting from the men, they all rested there before the homeward swim. Harriet hardly spoke, her cup was full to the brim with a mysterious felicity born of the summer hour, the heaving waters, and the joyous mood of father and son. When Richard praised her swimming she flushed in the severe blue cap, and the blue eyes met his with the shy pleasure of a child. It was while she was hastily dressing, in the hot bath house a little later, that a sudden thought came to her, and flushed the lovely face again, and brought her to a sudden pause.
A tremendous thought, that made her breast rise suddenly, and her eyes fix themselves vaguely on space for a long, long minute. Her palms were damp, and she put them over her hot cheeks. But that-- she whispered in the deeps of her soul, that was nonsense!
When Blondin arrived she did not see him, for Mrs. Tabor and Madame Carter, elaborately entering at five, reported him "perfectly wonderful" on the trip down, and that he had shown such transports at the sight of the woods and the water that they had put him down perhaps a mile away, to walk alone for the rest of the way, and commune with his own exquisite soul. The expectantly waiting Nina, at this, followed Amy upstairs in the direction of the white organdie, and Harriet felt a little premonitory chill.
"Oh, Miss Field!" said Madame Carter's voice, an hour later, as Harriet passed her door. The old lady had been talking with her grandson, while she was resting, magnificent in a pale blue negligee, but her maid was now extremely busy at the toilet table, and an elaborate dinner costume was laid out upon the bed. Harriet entered.
"Well, how has the little household been running?" asked Madame Carter, who had been away for almost a week. "Miss Nina looks sweet." And without waiting for a reply, which indeed would have been of no interest to her, she added, blandly, "Ward tells me that you are a beautiful swimmer!"
"Ward did not find that out to-day," Harriet said, mildly, thus informed that her radiant hour with both the Carters was known to the mother and grandmother.
"My son is a brilliant man," said Madame Carter, with apparent irrelevance, "but the most brilliant men in the world are the stupidest in domestic life, isn't that so?"
Harriet, ready for the knife, said pleasantly that perhaps it was sometimes so.
"Now my son," Madame Carter said, confidentially, "is a man of scrupulous honour. But he is capable of placing a young woman, and"--she bowed graciously--"a beautiful young woman, in a very false position! I confess that if I were in that young woman's place, I should resent it. I should feel--"
"If you mean me," Harriet said, interrupting the smooth, innocent old voice, "I assure you that I do not feel my position here at all false--" ["She always gets me wild, and gets me talking," Harriet added to herself, with anger at her own weakness, "but I can't help it!"] And aloud she finished, "I am Nina's companion, and in a sense, housekeeper--"
"Pilgrim is housekeeper," Mrs. Carter corrected, Miss Pilgrim, a one-time maid, was really Mrs. Bottomley, and had been manager below stairs for a long time.
"There are things Pilgrim cannot do," Harriet suggested.
"I feel myself the difficulty of explaining your position here!" said the old lady, raising both hands and arms in an elaborate gesture of deprecation, and smiling kindly. "You put me in a false position, too!"
But Harriet had now reached the point she always did reach, sooner or later, in these talks with Madame Carter, the point of mentally pitying the old lady, and recollection that after all her mischievous tongue could do no real harm.
"You will have to discuss that with Mr. Carter, of course!" It was always ace of trumps, and Harriet only blamed herself for ever beginning a conversation with anything else. Now she retired from the field with all honours, forcing herself to dismiss the unpleasant memory the instant she was out of reach of Madame Carter's voice. But the old lady fumed for an hour, and took up the subject with her son when he came dutifully in to take her down to dinner.
"Ida feels as I do," she said, when Mrs. Tabor, charming in blue, joined them on the way downstairs. Richard felt a sensation of anger. It was poor taste to involve a casual stranger like Ida Tabor in this rather delicate family discussion. But he thought that the little widow showed excellent sense in her rather slangy fashion.
"Well, of course, she's filled the bill this summer, Dick, ab-so- loo-tely! But, let me tell you, that Nina of yours is beginning to take notice, and she won't need a governess forever! With you to keep an eye on things generally, Nina will soon be able to manage Dad's affairs. I know just how you feel--never'll forget how utterly blank I felt when Jack Tabor just quietly packed his trunks and walked out! Why, I couldn't get hold of myself for months!"
"Where is Miss Field?" Richard was looking for the demure blue gown and the bright head as they joined the young group downstairs.
"She is not coming down, Richard," his mother explained.
"Why not?" he asked, abruptly. His mother gave him a magnificent look, warning, silencing, appealing.
"I'll explain it to you later, dear!" she said, half-annoyed and half-pleading. "You may announce dinner, Bottomley!"
Bottomley duly announced dinner. But he might have added something to the conversation, had he been permitted. He had had some simple and direct conversation with Madame Carter, not an hour before, and had in consequence sent up a dinner tray to Miss Field. Rosa, taking the tray, had been instructed to say simply that Madame Carter had told Mr. Bottomley that Miss Field wished her dinner upstairs. But Rosa was perfectly in touch with the situation, too, and carried the news below stairs that Miss Field had got as red as fire, and had stood looking from Rosa to the tray, and from the tray to Rosa, for--well, full five minutes, before she had said, "Thank you, Rosa, you may put it there on the table!"
Madame Carter sparkled her best that evening. Mrs. Tabor, too, carried along the conversation noisily if not brilliantly, until the young people got well under way. Richard was rather silent, but then he was always silent. And after awhile the rich, significant tones of Royal Blondin were heard. It was well after nine when they all drifted out into the cool dimness of the porch for coffee; Ward started music, Saunders and Amy danced. The men attempted a little pool, but were too weary, and by half-past ten Mrs. Tabor had tripped upstairs after the young girls, with a buoyant good-night for her host, and the old lady, lingering for a minute, had a chance to explain.
"About Miss Field, dear. I gave her just a kindly hint as to the propriety of her being always present at dinner, and she was sensible enough to take it! Now and then, of course--"
He jerked impatiently.
"I wish you would be a trifle more careful with your kindly hints, Mother! Miss Field is a most exceptional girl--"
"My dear boy," said the old lady, fanning rapidly, "I could get you a dozen women infinitely more capable--"
"--and I don't want her feelings hurt!" Richard finished, with a return to his usual gentleness.
"You won't hurt her feelings!" his mother predicted, roundly. "Not while the entire household is taking her orders, and the bank honouring her checks--oh, no, my dear! don't worry about that!"
"To-morrow night," Richard said, half to himself, "I shall make it a point to ask her to come down to dinner. If she prefers her room--"
"Richard," his mother said, in a low, furious tone, "if you do that, you may be kind enough to excuse me! While poor Isabelle was here, while Nina was a child, it was all well enough! But nothing could be more unfortunate for your daughter, for your young son, than to have any fresh gossip--the sort of thing people are only too ready to say, and are beginning to say now!"
"Why, how you do cook up things from whole cloth, Mother!" the man said with his indulgent smile. "You see the thing too closely, you are right in the middle of it!"
"I see that Harriet Field is an extremely pretty woman," his mother said, hotly.
Richard looked from the tip of his unlighted cigar into his mother's eyes, looked back again.
"Why, yes, I suppose she is!" he said, thoughtfully. "Gardiner said something about it just now. Said she'd make her fortune in the movies."
"I don't know about that," Madame Carter said, indifferently.
"Why can't you consider that we are fortunate to have her, Mother?"
"Because I don't want to see you in a false position before the world, my son. You must consider---"
The man kissed her hand lightly, with a laugh that closed the conversation.
"Consider nothing! It's all nonsense!" he said, and as she began her leisurely and dignified ascent he turned toward the porch and the solace of his cigar. While he and the other men smoked and mused, he decided to see Harriet and have a long talk with her the next day, to tell her that no matter what his mother said or did her word in the house was law, to assure her that in his eyes at least her position was secure beyond any question. Even with the varied group at the table to-night, he had missed her; there was an influence even in her silences, and a certain power in her very glances.
"Why the boy isn't heels over head in love with her I don't know!" he thought of Ward. And when Gardiner, who had had merely a chance encounter with her in the hall spoke again of the gold hair and dark blue eyes, Richard fell into a benevolent dream of the little secretary married to Gardiner, who was rich and a bachelor, and a very decent fellow, too. He fancied young Mrs. Gardiner coming to visit the Carters, and himself toasting her at a formal dinner, and wondered if he had ever seen Harriet in evening dress. He would tell her to-morrow that she must get an evening gown. Richard, always the man of business, selected the hour on Sunday that would be most suitable for his talk with her. He and the other men would get up at seven, and go to the country club, where they would manage eighteen holes before breakfast was served on the club porch, the famous chicken Maryland and waffles of which the golfers dreamed for six days. After that they might get into a game of bridge, pleasantly tired, well fed; there were less agreeable things to do than sit on the shady club porch, ordering mild drinks, and quarrelling over two or three hard-fought rubbers. Nina and her crowd were to lunch at the club; last Sunday Harriet Field had come out with Nina and looked on for a hand or two, other people were drifting about, and it was extremely social and agreeable.
But he would be home to dress for dinner, at six, and then he would get hold of Miss Field, and somewhat clear up the situation. Richard slept upon the resolution, and arose in the sweet summer morning to a satisfied recollection of it. He looked from his window into the green, warm garden, and saw Miss Field herself emerging from the wood, and Nina's friend, Blondin, beside her. Harriet had evidently been to church; she carried a prayer-book; a broad-brimmed hat made the slender figure, from this distance anyway, extremely picturesque. The man and she were in earnest conversation.
"Now that" thought Richard, still paternally busy with matrimonial plans for her, "that wouldn't do at all. I hope she isn't wasting any time on that fellow. He's clever, he has a good manner, but by George, that girl could marry any man, and make him a magnificent wife, too! I rather thought we'd disposed of this Blondin, anyway! But they seem friendly enough--"
For they had parted with a nod unmistakably familiar.