Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Blondin had been waiting for her at the church door. Harriet, coming out, had indicated without a word that he might walk beside her. The service had been ill-attended, and the few women who drifted away from it did not walk in their direction, so they found themselves alone. Harriet had been realizing ever since his arrival that Blondin had lost none of his unique and baffling charm. His handsome person, his unusual voice, his fashion of dreamily contributing to the conversation some viewpoint entirely unexpected and fresh, his utter indifference to general opinion-- these made him a distinct entity in any group, and would account for Nina's immediately renewed alliance, and for the general disposition on the part of the household to accept him on his own terms.
Harriet opened the conversation this morning with a frank yet reluctant confession.
"I'm so sorry, Roy! But it is only fair to you to say that I've changed. You will have to do what you think fit about it, of course. But I can't pretend that I'm--I'm playing your game any longer."
"What game?" Blondin, falling into graceful step beside her, asked pleasantly.
"I mean any possible--idea you might have of Nina!" Harriet said, bravely.
"Oh, Nina!" he shrugged his shoulders lightly. "Don't take me too seriously, my dear Harriet," he said. "Why, whenever we are alone together, should you promptly begin to cross-question me about that little person? Look about you--isn't this a divine morning? I always rather fancy September, somehow. It's dry, panting, finished--and yet there's something about the mornings and the evenings--"
Harriet made a faint, impatient ejaculation.
"Well, anyway, you know where I stand!" she said.
"And you know where I do," he answered, after a pause. "I can see Carter has no particular enthusiasm for me--I suppose that's your work."
"I've said nothing definite," she answered, in a troubled voice.
"Then I shall!" Royal said, with sudden feeling. "I'm sick of this shilly-shallying, and weighing words! If he will accept me as I am, well and good--if not, I'm done! But he has a high opinion of you, Harriet; what you say really counts!"
"You know where I stand," she could only repeat. They had reached the garden now, and were at the foot of the steps.
"I don't quite see how you can take that tone," Blondin hinted. "Do you expect to marry the boy?"
Harriet did not answer, except by a faint shrug. Her heart was sick with fright, but there was no reason why he should be informed that she had definitely broken with Ward. But he had never come so near a threat before.
"Of course I am entirely at your mercy," she said, simply. Blondin watched her for a full moment of silence before he said suddenly:
"All I ask you to do is assume, for the time being, that you and I met as strangers a few weeks ago!"
"Oh, Roy," the girl exclaimed, "as if I were likely to do anything else!"
She despised herself for the sense of relief that flooded her heart.
"Look here then," he said, after a moment of thought. "I'll make a bargain with you. If you will consent not to make any allusion to- -well, to ten years ago, I'll do the same. I'll give you my solemn promise on it. Say what you please about me now. You're under no bond to protect me. I can hold my own. But the past is dead. Neither you nor I will speak of it without agreeing to do so. How about it?"
She hesitated, the black lashes dropped, her restless hands twisting and torturing her handkerchief. It protected her, she thought, while leaving her free to oppose him.
"I'll agree," she said, finally.
"Oh, I promise!" She bit her lip, and frowned, as if she would add something more. But no words came, only her troubled eyes met his fully and splendidly for a second.
Then with the brief, familiar nod which Richard Carter saw from his upstairs window, she turned, and without another word went into the house.
The morning dragged. It was dry and hot, with promise of a storm later. The men piled into the car, and went off for their golf. It was ten o'clock before Nina and Amy came chattering downstairs; Royal was in the music room then, evoking a tangle of dim chords from the piano, smoking endless cigarettes. Presently Ward and his friend thundered down to join the girls at breakfast; a maid circled the table with toast and covered dishes.
Madame Carter's breakfast had been sent upstairs, and Mrs. Tabor had joined her, for when the old lady sent a message to Harriet, the two women were together, in elaborate negligee, and a litter of Sunday papers was scattered about the beautiful bedroom. Upon Harriet's entrance Mrs. Tabor gracefully rose to go, but she paused for a pleasant good-morning.
Alone with her determined old enemy, Harriet assumed her usual air of respectful readiness. Madame Carter had sent for her?
"Yes," said the old lady, looking aimlessly about her before gathering her garments together, and sinking into a chair. "I wanted you to know that the young people propose to drive to Easthampton, at about two o'clock--my granddaughter has been here, teasing Granny for the plan, and I have consented. They will dine there and be back at about--well, after dinner."
"But won't that tire you?" Harriet asked.
"I? Oh, I shall not go. Ward will chaperon his sister, and Nina, Amy. Mr. Blondin will see that they get home in time. It's quite all right, Miss Field; I am entirely satisfied. They--"
"But, Madame Carter!" Harriet interrupted her as she had expected to be interrupted. "Surely it would be better--"
"We won't discuss it, please, Miss Field!"
Harriet's cheeks reddened; she was silent.
"Your devotion to my son and his family is extremely praiseworthy," said Madame Carter, coldly. "But, as Mrs. Tabor, who is of course a woman of the world, and comes of a very fine family--she was a Kingdon, the Charleston family--as Mrs. Tabor was saying, Richard is just the sort of chivalrous, splendid man who is perfectly helpless in his own house!"
Harriet smiled, with a touch of scorn.
"When Mr. Carter is dissatisfied with me, Madame Carter, I shall of course consider myself--dismissed. But until that time I am very glad to make his own house comfortable for him."
The hard, angry colour of old age had been rising in Madame Carter's face during this speech, and now she was quite obviously enraged.
"You are hardly in a position to dictate to me in this matter!" she said, shaking. Harriet watched her gravely as she rose from her chair, made a few restless turns about the room, opened and shut bureau drawers, dropped and plucked up handkerchiefs and newspapers. In a dead silence the girl asked:
"Was that all?"
A sort of sniff was the answer, and, leaving the room, Harriet saw the door of Mrs. Tabor's room, adjoining, open cautiously. The ally was creeping back for news of the fray, thought the girl, with a little grin at the thought of the two women's discomfiture. But she sighed again as she entered her own suite to find Nina and Amy complacently dressing themselves for the afternoon's run.
"We're going to Easthampton, Miss Harriet; Granny said it was all right," Nina said, in great spirits. "I know you won't feel hurt, because the car simply won't accommodate more than five, and it's too long a run to sit on laps--"
"But, dearie child," Harriet said, in her friendliest manner, "I don't believe you had better do that! You're all pretty young, in case anything occurred--"
A mutinous line marked Nina's babyish mouth. She would not yield to any nursery control before Amy!
"Granny said it was all right, Miss Harriet, so just don't bother your head about us!" she said, airily.
"Yes, I know, dear. But Granny's ideas are old-fashioned--"
"Old-fashioned people are apt to be even more rigid than we are, aren't they?" Amy submitted lightly and sweetly.
Harriet, a trifle nonplussed by this determined resistance, stood looking from one to the other, pondering.
"Anyway, I'm going!" Nina muttered, lacing high white buckskin shoes, with some shortening of breath. "Granny says a girl's brother--"
Harriet paid no further attention to them, and the two developed a splendid case for themselves. But she went down to find Ward, and took him partially into her confidence. Would he please be a darling, and see that there was no nonsense? She could not well cross his grandmother and Nina without his father to back her. She disliked to call his father at the club and make too much of the whole thing. Would he promise her that they would be home by ten o'clock, at latest?
Somewhat comforted by Ward's affectionate loyalty, Harriet went up to dress for the one o'clock luncheon, and while she was dressing a new idea came to her. For a few minutes she shook her head, stood thinking, with a face of distaste.
"I could do that!" she said, aloud. And she picked up the gingham dress that she had laid on the bed.
But there was a prettier dress in Harriet's wardrobe, a gift from Isabelle, that she had never worn. It was a flowered silk mull, of a soft deep blue that was exactly the colour of Harriet's eyes, and at the throat and wrists it had frills of transparent lace. The soft ruffles that made the skirt were cunningly edged with black, and there was a great open pink rose at the belt.
Harriet put on this enchanting garment, and as she did so she felt some half-forgotten power rise strong within her. There was one trump in her hand that she had never thought to play in a game with Nina Carter, but she was glad to find it now.
She went downstairs, and found Royal Blondin lounging in the billiard room, and idly knocking balls about. The second thing he said to her was of the gown, the third of her eyes. Harriet stood beside him, raising the eyes in question, and smiling. When she turned and went slowly away, Blondin went after her.
At half-past two o'clock the car was at the side door, and Nina and Amy came downstairs with their wraps, and Saunders and Ward ran about laughing and confusing things. Blondin watched the performance lazily from a basket chair on the porch, but when Nina called him a half-laughing, half-daring, "We're ready, Mr. Blondin!" he sauntered down to the car with his pleasantest expression, but with the regretful statement that he was not going: a vicious headache had developed since luncheon.
Whatever the effect on Amy and the young men, to Nina this was a staggering blow. Harriet felt sorry for her as she saw the girl try to meet it gallantly; she knew that the heart died from Nina's day there and then. Nina had triumphed all through luncheon, had laughed and chattered, had made Ward telephone a dinner reservation for five, and had assumed a hundred coquettish airs. Now all this crumpled, faded away, and Harriet knew, as she stood beside the car looking down at the folded light rug on her arm, that she was ready to cry.
"No, you'll have a far nicer time without me," said Royal, throwing away his cigarette, and resting one arm on the car. "I wouldn't interfere, because I knew you'd all give it up! You just all have a perfectly wonderful time, and I'll be down next week- end and hear about it!"
Nina stood irresolute; too choked with sudden disappointment to risk her voice. It was all hateful, maddening, horrible! Those two boys and Amy--ah, there would be no "fun" now! She loathed Amy, getting in so briskly, and saying, "Come on, Nina!" She hated Ward, she wished that they were all dead, and herself, too. It was impossible that she should be carried farther and farther away from him--after last night and to-day!
The storm came at Good Ground, and they all had to scramble with curtains, "smelly" curtains, Nina called them. And the dinner was eaten in warm, sticky half-darkness on a hotel porch, with horrible music making a horrible racket, according to the same authority. Saunders and Amy held hands all the way home, too, and Nina thought it was disgusting; everyone was too tired to talk, they bounced along silently and crossly.
And upon getting home, Miss Harriet came out of the shadows on the porch, looking perfectly exquisite in her new gown, sweetly interested and cheerful. She said that she was so sorry the dinner was poor, they had had such a nice dinner at home, and that she had had a talk with their father, and they were to go back to Crownlands next week. Nina did not see Blondin; she heard his voice from the smoking room, but her arrival caused no cessation of the men's laughter and voices in there, and the only news she had from him that night was from her grandmother, who was in a bad temper, and reported that he and Miss Field had been walking half the afternoon. Nina, for the first time in her life, cried herself to sleep.
"Never mind, my dear," said the old lady with terrible insight, "if I ask my son to choose between me and any other woman, I have no doubt of the outcome!"
Harriet had assuredly triumphed, but it was on terms that for more than one reason did not entirely please her. To affect a confidential intimacy with Royal Blondin was utterly distasteful, and to have poor little Nina sulky and silent far from pleasant. But most disquieting of all was the immediate result of old Madame Carter's meddling.
For Richard, finding the pretty secretary prettier than ever in her blue gown, and warmed by a relaxed day at the club and a mood of friendliness, had specifically instructed her that she was to dine with the family on all occasions, and to dress as the others did, and to regard herself as "a member of the family." And this, Harriet was quick to realize, really did place her in a peculiar position, made difficult by Richard's kindly championing no less than his mother's hostility, by the adoring sympathy of the servants, and the affectionate familiarities of the Carter children. Richard's friends took their cue from him, as was natural, and in the first early winter dinner parties at Crownlands Harriet could not but sparkle and lead; she had reached her own level at last.
Perhaps the master of the house but dimly saw the truth of this, but he did see a most charming and pretty woman at the head of his establishment, his daughter and son protected, his affairs capably managed, and such hospitality and entertainment as he felt suitable well handled. She and Nina shared Isabelle's old rooms, and Harriet balanced Nina's first evening gowns with discreet but dignified black.
A sense of well-being and happiness began to envelop Richard Carter for the first time in many years. He was conscious of a desire to express his appreciation to Miss Field. It was natural that this should take the form of money; a little present, in the form of a check. She had a sister who was not rich; she would like to go home with laden hands. But the question was, how much?
He was musing over this very point and other matters of deeper moment one morning when Harriet herself came in. She returned his smile with her usual bright nod, but he thought she looked pale and troubled.
"Mr. Carter," she said, bravely going to the point, "do you think Nina is able, with your mother's help, to manage your house?"
Richard looked at her silently for perhaps two minutes. Then he said, quietly:
"Mr. Blondin, eh?"
The girl looked bewildered.
"My mother has given me a hint, indeed I've seen, that he would want to take you away from us!" Richard said.
Harriet, without any show of emotion, looked down, and was silent in her turn. But it was not, he saw with surprise, the silence of confusion. On the contrary, she seemed simply a little thoughtful and puzzled.
"Mr. Carter," she said, presently, "I have reason to believe that Mr. Blondin would be a very bad husband for Nina. I had no scruple in--in diverting his thoughts. But if he was the only man in the world"--and to his surprise, she slowly got to her feet, and spoke as if to herself, her eyes fixed far away--"I would sooner kill him than marry him!" she said.
Richard sat genuinely dumfounded. Her beauty, her assurance, and the cleverness with which she had managed that Blondin's allegiance should be temporarily shifted from his own daughter, held him mute. It was with the charm of watching perfect acting that he followed this extremely amusing and unexpected woman.
"I confess that I am glad to hear it!" he said, drily.
"Nina is very angry at me," Harriet said. "Well, I have to stand that!"
And she gave Nina's father a whimsical and friendly look.
"But what then?" Richard asked. Harriet immediately became serious again.
"But this," she said, "you know your mother is right. You're all too kind to me; I am really a member of the family. I love it. I love to dress for dinner, and order the car, and charge things to your accounts! But--it's not possible. You see that?"
Richard was quietly looking down. Now he made several parallel lines with a pencil before he looked up.
"No. I don't see that!"
"Mary--Mrs. Putnam, for instance, who is very fond of me, and Mrs. Jay. They want to ask me to dinner--to Christmas parties--and they're not quite comfortable about it. I am not a member of your family even though you are kind enough to treat me as one. I am a paid employee, and Madame Carter naturally resents their treating me as anything else. But most of all," said Harriet, seeing that she was not making headway, "it's myself. Nina, and your mother, and Mrs. Tabor--it's just a hint here and there--nothing at all! But it undermines my position--even with Bottomley. I dress, I entertain your friends, I join you in town; it makes talk. And I can't--I can't--"
She stood up, and turned her back on him proudly, and he knew that she was crying.
"Just a minute," Richard said, finding himself more shaken than he would have believed. "It is--you're sure it isn't Blondin?"
"Royal Blondin!" There was in her tone a pleasant, childish scorn and indignation that again he thought amusing. She sat down facing him again, and quite openly dried her eyes, and smiled. "No, it's more serious," Harriet said. "It means constant irritation for your mother. It means that she is always in a state of exasperation. I think--I don't know, but I have reason to think-- that she made it a choice, for Mary Putnam, between us!"
"She has no right to do that," said Richard, soberly.
"I'm not--you know that!--criticizing," Harriet said. The man sighed, and tossed a few papers on his desk.
"Sometimes I have hoped," he began, on a fresh tack, "that you and the boy might fancy each other. I'm not satisfied with Ward. He needs an anchor. That would be a solution for us all!" It was a random shot, but to his surprise she flushed brightly.
"Ward knows that there is no chance of that," she said, quickly, "dearly as I love him!"
Richard's eyes widened with whimsical amusement again.
"So you've refused Ward, have you?"
"Long ago," she answered, simply. The man laughed; but a moment later his face grew dark and troubled again as he said:
"I hardly know what to do! The girl is the first consideration, of course, and she needs you. I feel that she is not only safe, but happy, when you are here. My mother needs you, too; she would pay, like the rest of us, for worrying you out of the house. She couldn't manage it--bringing Nina into town, ordering her clothes, entertaining the boy's friends, answering letters--I know what it is! I've unfortunately reached a place where I've got to feel free. You've heard us all talk of this new asbestos merger--my dear girl, that will keep me going like a slave for months, perhaps years! I won't know when I am to be home, or what I shall have to cancel. I wish I could convince you that a woman of seventy-five and a girl of seventeen are not exactly a jury--"
"This is the jury!" Harriet said, touching her own breast lightly. He looked at her sombrely.
"I suppose so! I suppose I can't convince you how badly we need you. My mother--well, she has always taken life that way; she can't change now. I shall have Ida Tabor as a fixture here, I suppose, Nina running wild, Ward never home! You--you give me exactly what I want here! Good dinners, fires, hospitality, a good report from Nina and Ward; I can bring men home, I can--" He mused, with a smile touching his fine, tired face. "In short, I wish there was some fortunate young man somewhere to make you Mrs. Smith or Jones, Miss Field, and let you come back to the Carters immediately again!"
Harriet laughed, sighed sharply immediately upon the laugh.
"Unfortunately, there isn't such a man," she said. And she added, "Even a widow, sometimes, is vulnerable!"
Richard smiled, but some sudden thought made the smile but an absent one, and he sat quite obviously plunged in meditation for a long minute. The clock and the fire ticked sleepily, and outside the high windows the first tentative flutter of snow was melting on bare boughs and brick walls.
"Here's another suggestion, Miss Field," he said, suddenly, looking up, "I don't know how this will strike you; it has occurred to me before. Gardiner hinted it--or I thought he did, and the more I think of it, the more possible it seems. You are a business woman, and I am a business man. You know exactly what I am, exactly what occurred in my married life, after twenty-two years. That--that sort of thing is over, of course. But there is that way of settling it, if you care to consider it--"
He paused, with a questioning look of encouragement, embarrassment, and affectionate interest. Harriet had grown pale, and had fixed her eyes upon his as if under a spell.
"You mean--" Her voice failed her.
"I mean marriage. I mean that you and I shall quietly get married in a few weeks, when I am free," he answered. "I have just indicated to you what it would mean to me. I hope," he added, watching her closely, as she sat stunned and silent, "I hope that it would also have its advantages to you. Your position then would be unquestionable, my mother--Nina--the world, would have nothing to say. I think you know how thoroughly we all like you, and that my share of our--our business partnership would be to make you as happy as was in my power. Your influence on Ward is the one thing that may save the boy. Of Nina we've already spoken. My mother--I know her!--would immediately become the champion of her son's wife. There would be a three days' buzzing--that would end it!"
The swift uprushing of joy in Harriet's heart was accompanied with the first agonies of renunciation, was perhaps all the more poignantly sweet because of them. She had not come to this hour without knowing what he meant to her, this quiet man with the splendid mouth and the keen gray eyes, and she trembled now with an exquisite emotion that seemed to drown out all the past and all the future--everything except that she loved him, and he needed her! But when she spoke it was as coolly as he:
"Mr. Carter--what of your wife?"
His eyes met hers wearily.
"Divorce proceedings were instituted immediately it was definitely established she had gone with young Pope. The decree will be absolute."
"But that will not--cannot alter the situation--" Harriet faltered.
"You mean--" the man hesitated "--you mean you--that you regard me as married still?"
Harriet, mute with emotions absolutely overpowering, nodded without speaking.
"Will you--will you let me think about it?" she faltered. A sudden brightness came into his face. "You know how I was brought up to think of divorce," she went on, pleadingly. "I've made plenty of mistakes in my life, but I've never deliberately done what I felt was wrong."
"And this would be?" Richard asked, slowly.
"Well--I haven't thought about it!" she answered, slowly. "My people--my sister and her husband--would say so! I--I would have said so of some other woman!"
"This would not be an ordinary marriage; you would be entirely your own mistress," Richard said, with quiet significance. "It would be a marriage only in the eyes of the world. You--have a higher tribunal!"
"My own, you mean?" she asked, thoughtfully.
"Your own. You would know exactly why this marriage was not in violation of any code of yours! The world might not acquit you, but you would know in your own heart."
"I see," she said. "I--I must have time to think about it!"
"As long as you like!" She had risen, and now he rose, too, and went with her to the library door, and opened it for her. "When you decide, come and tell me," he said, bowing.
She turned to give him a parting smile, with a desperate wish to tell him half the honour and joy she would feel in taking his name, in sharing his responsibilities, but the pleasantly impersonal nod he gave her chilled the words unspoken. Harriet fled to her room, and to the porch beyond it, and flinging herself into a basket chair, covered her face with her two hands, and for half an hour rocked to and fro audibly gasping, half-laughing, half-crying, almost beside herself with amazement and excitement.
To be Mrs. Richard Carter--to be Mrs. Richard Carter--to be mistress of Crownlands, to command the cars and the maids, to enter the opera box and the big shops--recognized, envied, triumphant--ah, it was a prospect brilliant enough to dazzle a far more fortunate woman than Harriet Field! To sign "Harriet Carter," to enter his office with assurance, to say at the telephone, "Mrs. Carter, if you please--!"
"My chance," whispered Harriet, pressing her cold finger tips to her hot cheeks again, "my chance at last--and I can't take it! No, I can't take it--I don't care what his world does or thinks--my world doesn't permit it! My father would never have spoken to me again--Linda wouldn't! No--I can't. Not a divorced man, not a man with a living wife! I've been a fool--I've been wrong, plenty of times, but I've never committed myself to folly and wrong!"
She stared blindly ahead of her. After awhile she spoke again, half-aloud:
"Oh, but why does it have to be this way! If I could go to him, tell him what he means to me, if we were poor--if we could take a little place next to Linda--never see Nina or his mother or Ward or Roy again--Oh, what Heaven! How I should love it, planning for things together, as Linda and Fred did, having him come home to me every night!
"But it isn't that way," Harriet suddenly recalled herself sensibly, "and it is folly even to think about it! He is a rich man, and a married man, and that ends it. That ends it."
A great desolation swept her spirit. She fell from bitter musing to weakening. The law permitted it, after all. Plenty of good women had shown her the way. The family needed her; she might do good here. And above all, she loved him. Again the dream triumphed, and she was Mrs. Carter, young, beautiful, and radiant, taking her place beside him. How she would watch him, how she would guard him, what a life she would build for him!
"But no, I mustn't think of that," Harriet said, sternly. "It would be even different if he loved me. But he made that very clear! He made that extremely clear! And the fact is this: that I marry a divorced man the week he is free, a man who does not love me, but who can give me an establishment! No--no--no--everything I've tried for all my life counts for very little if I can do that!"
She heard a stirring in the bedroom.
"What time is it, Rosa?" she called, suddenly aware of weakness and fatigue.
"My goodness, how you frightened me, Miss Field! It's just noon."
"Do you happen to know if Mr. Carter is still downstairs?"
"Yes'm, he is; he's expecting Mr. Fox to come!"
Harriet smoothed her tumbled hair, and went slowly downstairs.
"But I love him!" she said, suddenly standing still on the landing, to look out at the softly falling snow with brimming eyes. "I love him with all my soul!"
A moment later she knocked at the library door, opened it in answer to his call, and went in, closing it behind her.