Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
There was trouble at Linda's house; trouble so terrible that Harriet's unexpected arrival caused no comment, caused no more than a weary flicker of Linda's heavy eyes. Pip, the adored first- born son, lay dangerously ill, and the whole household moved on tiptoe, heartsick with dread. Fred, a white and unshaven Fred, was home in the cold gray midday; the telephone was muted, the hall door stood ajar, the maid was red-eyed. Harriet, entering with a cheerful call hushed suddenly on her lips, kissed her brother-in- law while her eyes anxiously questioned him, and put a heartening arm about Josephine, who came out in a kitchen apron, and wept pitifully on her aunt's shoulder.
It was diphtheria, very bad, Fred stated lifelessly. Linda hardly left the room; they were afraid for her, too, "if anything happened." "If anything happened!" Harriet thought she had heard the phrase a hundred times before the dreadful night came. The sympathetic neighbours whispered it, the doctor said it gravely, the nurse muttered it in the kitchen, and the little sisters, clinging together, faltered it with trembling lips. The invalid was isolated on the upper floor; Harriet only waited to get into a thin gown before noiselessly mounting to the sick room. Linda, sitting beside the haggard little feverish boy, looked at her sister apathetically, the nurse was glad to whisper directions and slip away,
A bitter winter afternoon was waning, but the air in Pip's room was warm, and there was the order and silence of recognized crisis. The swollen little mouth moved, the heavy eyes; Linda bent above the child.
"What is it, my darling? Mother is right here--"
There was a new note in the passionate, tender voice. Linda was all alive for the few seconds he needed her, then she sank into her voiceless apathy again, and the short winter afternoon wore away, and there was no change. The doctor came, the nurse returned, Fred appeared at the door. After awhile it was dark, and a shaded lamp was lighted, and Harriet went downstairs, to the world of subdued voices, and smothered sobs, and fearful glances. And always horror brooded over the little house, and over the simple, normal family living that had been so taken for granted a few days before.
Harriet talked to the little girls, and while they were going to bed amused Nammy, whose lighter attack of the disease, a week ago, had begun the siege. Fred, tenderly attempting to reassure his daughters, buttoned his small son into woollen sleeping-wear, brought the inevitable drink, heard the garbled prayers, glancing now and then toward the door, as if fearing a summons, and looking, Harriet thought, stooped and gray and suddenly old.
She took Linda's place for an hour, but before it was up the mother came back, and they kept their vigil together. Fred answered the strange, untimely ringing of the door-bell, brought in packages, conferred in the halls with the doctors. Midnight came, two o'clock, four o'clock.
Suddenly there was panic. Harriet, by chance in the hall, saw Linda and Fred and the doctors together, heard Linda's quick, anguished "Yes!" and Fred's hoarse "Anything!" Her heart pounded; the nurse ran upstairs. Harriet fell upon her knees with a sobbing whisper, "No--no--no!" and Linda clung to her husband with a cry torn, from the deeps of her heart, "Oh, Pip--my own boy!"
They were all needed; they were back in the sick room, there was hurry, quick whispers, breathless replies. No time to think now, though Harriet cast more than one agonized glance at Linda's drawn face, and nodded more than once to Fred that she should not be here. The child protested with a choked cry; and Linda's voice, that new, deep, terrible voice, answered him, "Never mind, my dearest--just a minute, that's all! Mother is taking care of you!" And Harriet heard her sister say, in a breath almost inaudible: "Thy will be done--Thy will be done!"
Dawn came slowly and reluctantly at seven; the village lay bleak and closed under a sky of unbroken gray. Here and there smoke streamed upward from a chimney, or a window-pane showed an oblong of pale light. The dirty snow, frozen in thick lumps about the yard, was trodden by a furtive black cat, that mounted a fence and meowed desolately.
Harriet saw this from Linda's kitchen, when she put out the light that was becoming unnecessary. But her heart was singing for joy, and the house was brimful of an inner light and cheer that no winter bleakness could touch. The girl had been crying until she was almost blind, but it was a crying mixed with laughter and prayers of utter thankfulness. She and Fred had built up a roaring fire, had given the nurse a royal breakfast, had had their own coffee, and now Harriet was waiting for Linda, in that mood when the commonplaces of life take on an exquisite flavour, and just to be free to eat and sleep and live is luxury.
She met Linda at the door, a weary Linda, ghastly as to face, grayer as to straggling hair, but with such radiance in her eyes that Harriet, clasped in her arms, began to cry again.
"What you need is coffee!" she faltered, trying to laugh, as Linda sat down and rested her head in her hands.
"Oh, Harriet--if I can ever thank God enough!" Pip's mother said, beginning on her breakfast with one long sigh. "Oh, my dear--! He's sleeping like a baby, God bless him, and dear old Fred is sleeping, too. Oh, Harriet, to go about the house, as I just have, covering Nammy and the girls, and feeling that we're all going to be together again, in a few days--my dear, I don't know what I've done to be so blessed! My boy, who has never given any one one moment's care or trouble since he was born--my darling, who looked up at me yesterday with his beautiful eyes--"
The floodgates were loosed, and Linda laughed and cried, while she enjoyed her breakfast with the appetite of a normal woman released from cruel strain, whose whole brood lies safely sleeping under her roof. Nammy's light illness, Pip's wet feet, Linda's unwillingness to believe that it was anything but a cold, every hour of the four awful days of danger, she reviewed them all. And oh, the goodness of people, the solicitude of nurse and doctor, the generosity of God!
"Fred has been a miracle," said Linda, with her third cup of coffee, "this will cost him five hundred dollars, but Harriet, I'll never forget the way his voice rang out yesterday, 'I don't want you to think of anything but giving me back my boy!' And Harriet, only ten days ago--it seems ten years--I felt so terribly, I acted so terribly, about that old house that I've been wanting so long! They sold it at auction, and the Paysons got it for forty-three hundred, and I was perfectly sick that Fred wouldn't bid! But now," said Linda, reverently, putting her arm about Josephine, who came yawning into the kitchen, in her blue wrapper, "now, if the Father spares me my girls and boys, and their daddy, I shall never ask anything happier than this! Pip's better, Jo," she said to the child, who was kissing her dreamily, over and over, "they put a tube in his throat last night, and saved him for us! And now Mother must get a bath, and change, and perhaps some sleep, and then go back and stay with him when he wakes up!" It was the afternoon of the next day when Harriet could first speak of her own affairs. Pip, recuperating with the amazing speed of childhood, was asleep, the other children walking, the nurse gone. She could lay the whole matter before Linda, who listened, over her mending, nodded, pursed her lips, or raised her eyebrows.
If Linda might ever have been worldly minded, she had had her lesson now, and the viewpoint she gave Harriet was the lofty one of a woman who has faced a supreme sacrifice without shrinking and with unwavering faith.
"You did right, dear," she assured her sister. "You could not stay there, under the circumstances. Whatever their code is, yours is different, yours has not been vitiated by luxury and idleness. As for Mr. Carter's talk of marriage, that, of course, is simply an insult!"
"No, I don't think it was that," Harriet said, feeling herself revolt inwardly at this plain speaking. She listened to Linda; she knew Linda was right, but she fought an almost overwhelming impulse to say rudely, "Oh, shut up, you don't know what you're talking about."
"I don't see what else it could be," Linda pursued, serenely. "A married man--you would be no better than his--well, it's not a nice word--but his mistress!"
"Not at all," Harriet said, trying hard to hide the irritation that rose rebellious within her, "he is legally free, or will be soon, and so am I!"
"I am speaking of God's law, not man's," Linda said, gently but awfully, and Harriet was silent. "Fred says that such men regard these matters far too lightly," Linda finished. Fred's name, thus introduced, always had the effect of angering Harriet. She was suffering cruelly, in these days, and moral reflections held small consolation for her. She was homesick with an aching, gnawing homesickness that arose with her in the morning, and went to bed with her at night; under everything she said and did was the longing for Crownlands, for just one more word or look from Richard Carter.
She had shared the family exaltation over Pip's recovery, and had thought more than once in that fearful night of his illness that even poverty, gray hairs, and the agony of parenthood, shared with the man she loved, would have been ecstasy to her. But in the slow days and weeks that followed, her spirit became exhausted with the struggle that never ended within her. Her bridges were burned behind her; it was all over. Whatever her emotions had been in leaving Crownlands, the Carters' feelings had been quite obvious and simple. Old Madame Carter had wished her well; Ward had written from college that he thought it was "rotten," and that she had been a corker to get Dad to raise his allowance for him; Nina had felt her own wings the stronger for the change; and Richard had interrupted his little speech of regret twice to answer the telephone, and had given her a check that placed, it seemed to Harriet, the obligation permanently with her. The utter desolation of spirit with which she had left them was evidently unshared; the only word she had had from that old life had been from Mary Putnam, and even this cordial note jarred Harriet with its frank revelation of the change in her position. Mary wrote:
I telephoned Mr. Carter for your address, and he reports them all well. I wanted to tell you that I am giving you a tremendous reputation with Kane Bassett, who wants someone to be with his little girls. You know their mother died, and the grandmother lives in England. It would be a beautiful thing for you if I could manage it. The Putnams are all full of happy plans for a month at Nassau, as usual running away from January in New York.
Harriet looked at the two words that stood for Richard Carter, and her heart beat thickly.
"I can't keep this up!" she told herself, playing games with little convalescent Pip, walking over frozen roads with the girls, reading under the evening lamp. "I can't keep this up! Twenty- seven, and a governess, and in love with a married man who does not know I am alive!" summarized Harriet, bitterly. "I will simply have to forget it, and begin again, that's all."
And she meditated upon David, the excellent, steady, devoted David, who was Fred's brother and a dentist in Brooklyn, and who gave the children wonderful holidays at Asbury Park. It would make Linda and Fred very happy to have her change toward him: they were a little hurt and silent about David. He always went with them to the crowded beach where they spent July and August, had had a car this year, Linda told her sister, and had been "so popular."
Harriet would look off from her book; David's nearness did not hold the thrill, the shaking, the happy suffusion of colour that the most casual remembered glance of Richard Carter still possessed. No, she was richer in her memory of Richard--
"I think you're a wonder! Don't you think Fred is a wonder!" Linda would say. Fred's precious bank-account had been almost wiped out now; he made evening calculations with a sharp pencil. But what was a bank-account to a Pip coming downstairs on Christmas Day, shaky but gay, in his wrapper, and glad to be with the family again?
David was there, Christmas Day, and there was a fire and a tree, happy children everywhere, rosy little neighbours coming in to see the toys, snowy wet garments spread on the porch after church. David took Harriet walking in the fresh cold air, a Harriet so beautiful in her furry hat and long coat, with her brilliant cheeks and her blue eyes shining under a blown film of golden hair, that Linda, as she basted the turkey in the hot kitchen, couldn't help a little prayer that that would all come out "right."
"But, Davy dear!" Harriet and David had stopped short in the exquisite, silent woods. "There is a feeling--a something that makes marriage right! And I haven't it, that's all!"
"How do you know you haven't?" he said, smiling.
"Well---" She looked up bravely; David knew her whole story. "I've had it!"
"You don't mean that old feeling ten years ago? My dear girl, that wasn't love! That was just a little girl's first feeling. But look at Fred and Linda after seventeen years. Why, it's sacred--it's holy. Harriet, if once you said you would, it would come. Why, that's the very proof that you're as fine--as sensitive as you are--that you don't feel it now. But, Harriet," his arm was about her now, his voice close to her ear "don't let those years with rich people spoil you for the real thing, dear! Think of our hunting for an apartment--Fred and I haven't Mother to care for now; I've some of her good old mahogany, we could pick out cretonnes and things--think of next summer, all together, down at the beach! Linda's children---"
She looked up at him, with something wistful in her blue eyes.
"Sounds nice, Davy!" she said, childishly. Instantly she saw leap to his face the look he had hidden so many years; she heard a new ring in his voice.
"Ah--you darling! You will? You'll let me tell them---?"
"No, no, no!" Half-angry, half-sorry, she put away his embrace. "I'll--Davy, I hate to spoil your Christmas Day--I don't know what to say! I'll think about it!"
"And tell me--it's noon now---" He took out his watch.
"Oh, David, you make me feel as if I were catching a train!"
"And so you are, the Matrimonial Limited!" He would have his kiss, but only caught it where the bright hair mingled with the dark fur of her cap. Then she turned to go home, forbidding the topic imperatively, meeting every buoyant hint with a suddenly serious warning. Her heart was lead within her.
"I suppose there's no help for it," she thought, in a panic. "Linda'll see--it'll all be out in five seconds!"
But Linda met them at the door, full of an announcement.
"Harriet, Mr. Carter is here!"
Back came the tide with a great rush, nothing else mattered. For a moment Harriet was turned to stone. Then in a dream of radiance and delight she went into the little parlour, and Richard Carter stood up to greet her, and there was nobody else in the world. Linda had introduced herself; David was introduced. Harriet glanced about helplessly; he had not come here to say "Merry Christmas," surely.
"I suggested that Hansen take the little people for a five- minutes' drive," he explained, "and then I shall have to hurry back. I wanted to speak to you on a matter of business, Miss Field. I wonder--since you're well wrapped--if we might walk to the corner and meet them; I'll only steal you from your family for five minutes."
"Certainly!" Harriet's heart was singing. The voice, the pleasantly certain manner, the firm, kind mouth--she drank in a fresh impression as if she had been starving! She was hardly conscious of what he said; it was enough that he had sought her out, that she was to have one more word with him.
"I came here to discuss my own plans, Miss Field," he said at the gate, "but a hint from your sister has made me fear that perhaps I am too late. She tells me that you may be making plans of your own."
"David?" Harriet said, resentfully. "I have no plans with David!" she said, simply.
"I didn't know," Richard answered. "I came to ask you to come back. Things are in an absolute mess with us. We have not had a serene moment since you left us--three weeks ago."
To go back--back to Crownlands! Harriet's spirit soared. She had been strong enough to leave, to leave Nina's young impertinence, and Madame Carter's coldness, but she knew she must go back! She had only despaired of their ever needing her again. Every fibre of her being strained toward the old life.
"Linda, my sister, thinks it would be unwise," she began. The man interrupted her.
"There has been a new turn of events, Miss Field. I had some information last night which may make a difference," he said, gravely. "I received a wire from Pope, in France. My wife-- Isabelle--died on an operating table yesterday afternoon, in Paris."
Harriet, stupefied, could only look at him fixedly for a long minute. Her lips parted, but she did not speak.
"Died?" she whispered, sharply. The man nodded without speaking. "But--but what was it?" Harriet said.
For answer he gave her the crumpled cable, with the bare statement of fact. She read it dazedly, looked at his sombre face, and read it again.
"I need not tell you that it is a shock," Richard said, looking off toward the bare village in its mantle of trampled snow. "It-- it is--a shock." And he folded the cable and returned it to his pocket. "We were married twenty-three years," he said, simply. "She was an extremely pretty girl, vivacious and happy--I imagine hers was a happy life!"
"I can't believe it!" Harriet said.
"Well, now," Richard began presently in a different tone, "we are, as I said, Miss Field, in a mess. I haven't told the children this; they have a lot of young people there over Christmas. Bottomley tells me that he is leaving on the first. My mother and Nina are planning some entertainment for New Year's night, and I suppose this will end all that; I should suppose that Nina and her brother must have a period of mourning. I am deeply involved in a big project in Brazil, committee meetings all through January--I can't swing it, that's all.
"Now, when we last talked of the subject together," Richard pursued in a businesslike way, "you objected to the suggestion of a marriage, because my wife was then still alive. Am I correct?"
"Yes, that's correct!" Harriet said, voicelessly. She felt herself beginning to tremble.
"My purpose in coming to-day was to suggest that, if that was your sole objection," the man continued, painstakingly, "you might feel the situation changed now. I need you. We all do. If it is my mother who makes it impossible, or some other thing that I cannot change--why, I must get along as best I can. But my proposition is that you and I are quietly married to-morrow; you come back to- morrow night, and announce it whenever you see fit. Of course, it might be wiser not to have the two announcements come together; there will be the usual talk; Nina and my mother prostrated; and so on, and perhaps--but you must use your own judgment there. I may seem a little matter-of-fact about this, Miss Field, but I am hoping you understand. You have impressed me as a woman of unusual intelligence and sagacity; I am making you an unsentimental business offer. I need you in my life and I offer you certain advantages which it would be silly and school-boyish for me to deny I possess. I have a certain standing in the community which even Mrs. Carter's madness has not seemed to impair seriously. The boy and the girl both love you, and you have my warmest friendship. As for the financial end there will be the usual provision made for you in case of my death and I will make the same monthly arrangement with you that I had with Isabelle. I mention these matters so that you may understand that your position in my household will be as free and independent as was Isabella's. I do not know whether you will consider this a fair return for what I ask, for after all you are giving your services for life to the Carter household--
"Now, this is of course entirely subject to what pleases you in the matter," he broke off to say emphatically. "I merely throw it out as a suggestion. It would please me very much. I would draw a long breath of relief to have it settled. Mrs. Tabor is there-- stays there; takes the head of my table. I spent last night at the club; I had cabled Pope--and expected an answer, but my mother telephoned me at three o'clock this morning to say that Ward and some of his friends had gone out ice-skating. Ward's been dropped from his university. I can't have that sort of thing, you know!"
"When--did you want me?" Harriet brought her beautiful eyes back from some far vista.
"To-morrow?" he said, with sudden hope in his voice.
"To-morrow!" the girl echoed, in a dream.
"I thought that if you could meet me at my office to-morrow, I would have all the arrangements made. Nina is to be at the Hawkes'; I send the car for her at three. I thought that you and she could go home together to Crownlands. I'll have to be in town that night."
"Home--to Crownlands!" Suddenly Harriet's lip quivered, and her eyes brimmed with tears. "I'll be very glad to go back," she said, in a low voice.
"Good!" he said. "I needn't tell you how I feel about it, it helps me out tremendously. Now, about to-morrow, how would you like that to be?"
"Well," she laughed desperately through her tears. "We're Church of England!" She laughed again when he took out his notebook and wrote the words down.
"Once it's done," he said, reassuringly, "you'll see my mother and all the rest of them come into line! It puts you in a definite position, and although I may seem to be rushing and confusing you now, there is a more peaceful time to come--we'll hope!" he added, grimly. "Here's Hansen now. Lovely children," he added, of the young Davenports and some intimates who were tumbling out of the car, "lovely mother."
"You'll not speak of this yet?" Harriet said, suddenly thinking of David and Linda. "My sister might think it lacked deliberation--so close upon Mrs. Carter's death. I'd rather have a little time, get things straightened out---"
"Oh, certainly--certainly!" She could see he was relieved, was indeed in cheerful spirits, as he gave his furred hand to the children's mittened ones. They thanked him shrilly and Hansen smiled warmly upon Harriet as he touched his cap. Then they were gone. Linda, watching from the window, thought that the chauffeur's obvious respect for Harriet was rather impressive. She came to the porch, and Richard waved his farewell to them en masse.
"He's very nice," said Linda. "Poor fellow, he probably would have had an entirely different moral code, if his life had been different!" Harriet inwardly writhed, but she did not stir in the sisterly embrace of Linda's arm. "Now if he would marry this Mrs. Tabor, whoever she is," Linda resumed, comfortably, "that would be quite suitable! Then you could go back with perfect propriety--"
"Oh, hush, for Heaven's sake!" Harriet said, in the deeps of her being. But she said nothing aloud as they turned back into the warm house.
Fred's face was radiant; for no apparent purpose he caught his sister-in-law in his arms as she passed him, and kissed the top of her hair
"Here--here--here--what's all this!" Linda laughed.
"Nothing at all!" Fred said, evidently in boisterous spirits. Harriet looked sharply at David, but he was innocently laying train tracks for little Nammy. But she suspected at once that the elder brother had had a hint that matters were at least under consideration, and the rather aimless laugh with which Linda presently embraced her, and the air of suppressed excitement that marked the Christmas dinner, all confirmed the suspicion. She felt a prickling sensation of the skin; a flush of helpless annoyance.