Chapter XV
 

At three o'clock the next afternoon, Nina Carter, leaving the Hawkes' mansion in New York City, with a great many laughing farewells, descended to her father's waiting car, and discovered, sitting therein, an extremely handsome young woman, furred and trimly veiled, and deep in pleasant conversation with Hansen.

"Miss Harriet!" Nina ejaculated, in a tone that betrayed a vague resentment as well as a definite surprise.

"Nina, dear!" Harriet accepted Nina's kiss warmly. "Are you glad to see me?" And as Nina stumbled in, and established herself, Harriet continued easily, "Your father and I had a talk, my dear, and he suggested that I come back for awhile. So Hansen picked me up at the office, and here I am! He tried to telephone you, I know, but you were out. And now," said Harriet, glancing at her wrist watch, "I think we will go right home, please, Hansen!"

Nina had been her own mistress for several delicious weeks, and to have any sort of restriction again was very unpalatable to her. Harriet could almost have laughed at her discomfiture, although she was sorry for her, too. Nina smiled and listened with notable effort; Harriet knew she was chagrined.

She sulked all the way home, and Madame Carter, meeting them at Crownlands, gazed rather stonily at the newcomer, granting her only the briefest greeting. But oh, how homelike and welcoming the beautiful place, mantled in snow, looked to Harriet's eyes. The snapping fires, the warmth and fragrance of the big rooms, and the very obvious welcome of the maids, all were enchanting to her. Her first duty was to make a brief tour below stairs, after which she went up to her own room.

When they returned from Huntington in the fall, she and Nina at Richard's suggestion had taken Isabelle's handsome rooms, turning both into bedrooms, and sharing the dressing rooms and bath that joined them. It was here that Harriet found Nina awaiting her, still with her hat on, and loitering with obvious discomfiture. There had been no actual changes in her room except that the personal touch was gone. Bottomley had put her bags here, and Nina spoke first of them.

"You've got a new suitcase?"

"Yes, I got that this morning; isn't it stunning?" Harriet eyed its shiny blackness with satisfaction. "I had to get a gown or two," she added, "and some little things! We've been so quiet at Mrs. Davenport's that I hadn't any new clothes. Pip was ill, you know."

"Miss Harriet!" Nina said with a rush. "You're so sweet about things like this, I wonder if you will mind taking the yellow guest room--it's really much larger--and leaving this room? You see when I have friends--"

Harriet, at the dressing table, had raised her hands to remove her hat. Like any general, she realized the crisis of the apparently unimportant moment, and met it by instinct.

"But you have an extra bed, besides the couch, in your room, Nina!"

Nina cleared her throat, threw back her head, regarded Harriet between half-closed eyelids in a manner Harriet realized was new, and drawled:

"I know. But if you would be so very kind---?"

"Do you know, I'm afraid I shan't be so very kind!" Harriet said, briskly. "You're one of my duties here, you know, little girl, and I think Daddy would prefer to have me near you! Now, if you like to ask him, perhaps he'll not agree with me; in which case I shall move immediately! But meanwhile--" She picked up a thick book from the table, read the title idly: "'Secret Memoirs of the Favourites of the French Courts!' Where on earth did you get this?" she asked, surprised. '"Five Dollars Net,'" she mused, glancing through it. "How well I know this sort of rubbish! There are thousands of them on the market, exquisitely printed, beautifully bound, and just so much--rot! Secret memoirs of the favourites of the French Courts indeed! Most of them hadn't the brains to write a decent note!" scoffed Harriet, cheerfully.

Nina's face was scarlet; she left the room abruptly. A moment or two later Harriet sauntered into the adjoining room, and found her again. The younger girl was assuming a ruffled and beribboned negligee, and tossing her wraps and street dress about carelessly. Harriet noted this with disapproving eyes, but said nothing. There was an immense picture of Mrs. Tabor on the dressing table, and she found in that a sudden solution of the strange change in Nina.

"'With Ladybird's unending devotion, to Ninette,'" read Harriet, from the inky scrawl across the picture. "Do you call her Ladybird, Nina? You and she have formed a pretty strong friendship, haven't you?"

"Oh, something more than that!" Nina drawled in her new manner. But, being Nina, she could not resist the desire to display the new possession. She jerked open a desk drawer, and Harriet saw thick letters, still in their envelopes, and tied in bundles. "We write each other almost every day!" said Nina, yawning, as she flung herself down upon a couch, and reached for a book.

"I should fancy she would make a loyal friend," Harriet observed, generously. Nina softened a little, although her voice was still carefully bored and arrogant when she spoke:

"Oh, she's the best sort!"

It was one of Mrs. Tabor's phrases, Harriet recognized. She moved easily about the room, picking up other handsome, superbly illustrated volumes: "An American Woman in the Sultan's Harem," "A Favourite of Kings."

"Does she have my room when she is here?" Harriet presently suggested, sympathetically. "Now, my dear," she added, as Nina's quick self-conscious and hostile look gave consent, "Mrs. Tabor is too thoroughly acquainted with convention to blame you if your father keeps you under a governess's eye for a little while longer. You're the most precious thing your father has, Nina, and as I used to remind you years ago, you don't begin to have the restrictions that the European princesses have to bear!"

This view of the case was always pleasing to Nina's vanity; she was quite clever enough to see that a friend protected and confined, watched and valued, would lose no prestige with the charming "Ladybird." She pouted; and Harriet saw that for the moment the battle was hers.

"Darling gown!" said Harriet of the picture.

"Oh, she has the most wonderful clothes!" It was the old Nina's voice. "She doesn't spend much, but she goes to the best places, and they know her there, and the women at Hatson's will say, 'I've got a gown for you, Mrs. Tabor!' She picked out this negligee, and she picked out another gown for me that you haven't seen. That was one thing that made trouble between her and her husband," Nina said, eagerly. "She can't help looking smart, and he used to get so jealous, and she told me that she told the judge exactly what she spent for clothes the last year, and he said that that was less than his wife spent, mind you, and he said he didn't know how she did it! And that was the judge, that had never laid eyes on her before! She used to cry and cry, after she got her divorce, because she said that she thought there was a sort of disgrace about it. But this judge in Nevada said that a man like Jack Tabor ought to be horsewhipped!"

"Has she--been here very much?" Harriet said, after a moment.

"Oh, lots! She loves to be here, and I can't think why," Nina said, "because people are all crazy to get her, and she could go to the most wonderful dinners and things. But she really is just like a girl, herself; sometimes we burst right out laughing, because we think exactly the same about things! And she just loves picnics, and to let her hair down--and she's so funny! You'll just love her when you know her--"

Nina, Harriet reflected, had had a thorough dose of poison. It would take, like many diseases, more poison to cure her, a counter dose. Going to her room to change to one of the new gowns, Harriet had a moment of contempt for the new-found intimate, who could so unscrupulously play upon the girl's hungry soul. But with this situation it was possible to cope; there was definite comfort in the fact that Nina had not mentioned Royal Blondin.

Brave in the new gown, whose lustreless black velvet made even more brilliant her matchless skin, Harriet went to find Ward. She met instead one of his house-guests, Corey Eaton, a man some years older than Ward, a big, rawboned, unscrupulous youth, with a wild and indiscriminate laugh. Mr. Eaton, greeting her enthusiastically, admitted frankly that he was just up from bed, and that he had been "lit up like a battleship" last night, and that he still felt the effects of it.

"Mr. Eaton," Harriet said, in an undertone, making another strategic decision, "come in here to the library, will you? I want to speak to you."

"When you speak to me thus," said Corey Eaton, passionately, "I can refuse you naught!"

But he sobered instantly into tremendous gravity at Harriet's first confidence. She told him simply of Isabelle's death.

"Well, that surely is rotten--the poor old boy!" said Corey, affectionately. "Ward's mad about his mother, too! Well, say, what do you know about that? We'll beat it, Miss Field, Nixon and I. We came in my car and we'll go to the Jays' for dinner. Say, that is tough, though, isn't it?"

It was not eloquent, but it was sincere, and Harriet made her thanks so personal and so flattering that the young man could only fervently push his plans for departure, swearing secrecy, and evidently touched by being taken into her confidence. The fastnesses were yielding one after another; Harriet could have laughed as she left him at the foot of the stairs. Bottomley respectfully addressed her as she turned back into the hall:

"Miss Field, I wonder if you'd be so good--?"

She nodded, and accompanied him instantly into the pantry where they could be alone.

"It's Madame," said Bottomley, bitterly, "she's just 'ad me up there agine, it's really tryin'--that's what it is. It's tryin'! Now she'ad to'ave her say about you bein' at table, Miss Field. I says that you 'ad stipulited that you was to be there. Now, I says, and I says it arbitrarily like, and yet I says it respectful, too---"

"Now, just wait one moment, Bottomley," Harriet said, soothingly. "I want to talk to you and Pilgrim. Is she in her room? Suppose we go there?"

Pleased with the consideration in her manner, the outraged Bottomley led the way. Mrs. Bottomley was enjoying a solitary cup of tea; she bustled hospitably for more cups.

"I want to tell you that your comin' has taken a load off my soul," said Pilgrim, a gray, round-visaged woman who had a sentimental heart," and so I said to Mr. Carter not three days since! I know that Bottomley," said Pilgrim with an Englishwoman's admiring look for her lord, "would never have spoke so harsh if he had but known you might come back. It's been very bad, indeed, Miss, since you went, as we was tellin' you a bit back. Impudence, orders this way and that, confusion and what not, and Mr. Ward very wild, really very wild, and so at last Bottomley said he couldn't stand it."

"I'm hoping he will reconsider that," Harriet said, pleasantly, with a glance at the face Bottomley tried to make inflexible. "For I'm going to tell you two old friends some news. We have always been friends, haven't we?" said Harriet.

"It would be 'ard to be anything else, and I've said it before this! It's a different 'ouse with you in it!" Bottomley said. Pilgrim, rocking to and fro, clasped Harriet's hand to her breast, and beamed. With no further preamble Harriet announced Isabelle's death.

The servants were naturally shocked. There were a few moments of ejaculatory and sorrowful surprise. Her that was so young and so 'andsome, and went off so bold and high! It didn't seem possible, so far away from 'ome and all.

When this had died away, Harriet had more news.

"I'm going to tell you two something," she began. "You are the very first to know, and I know you'll be glad. Before I left the house last October, Mr. Carter did me the--the great honour to ask me to--to marry him."

It gave her inward delight even to voice it; it made the miracle seem more real. Bottomley and Pilgrim exchanged stupefied glances in a dead silence.

"I met him at eleven o'clock to-day," Harriet finished. simply, "and we drove to Greenwich in Connecticut, and we were married at one o'clock."

Bottomley and Pilgrim glanced again at each other, glanced at Harriet, opened their mouths slowly.

Then Pilgrim dropped the hand she was familiarly caressing, and Bottomley rose slowly to his feet.

"Oh, no!" Harriet said, flushing in utter confusion and with a nervous laugh. "Oh, please! Please sit down, Bottomley, and please don't either of you think that it has made any difference. Although I am Mrs. Carter now, I'm still Miss Nina's companion!"

"To think of you bein' Mrs. Carter!" Pilgrim marvelled in a whisper.

"Oh, sh--sh--sh! You mustn't say it even!" Harriet caught both their hands. "No one must know. I only told you so that you would help me, so that you would understand! There will be no change, anywhere--"

Bottomley shook a dazed head; but Pilgrim looked at the other woman with kindly eyes, and presently said:

"Well, now, it's hard on you, so young and pretty and all, and goin' right on as if you wasn't married a bit!"

Harriet only smiled, but she blinked black lashes that the little touch of sympathy had suddenly made wet. And presently when Bottomley was gone, and she about to follow him, she laid one hand on Pilgrim's broad black alpaca shoulder, and said:

"I had my own reasons, Pilgrim, you know. Reasons that make it all seem--right, to me!"

"Well, why wouldn't you?" Pilgrim said, approvingly. "You'd have been a very silly girl not to take him, and--as I always tell the girls--love'll come fast enough afterwards!"

The words came back to Harriet, hours later, when the house was quiet, and when, comfortably wrapped in a loose silk robe, she was musing beside her fire. Nina was asleep; to Ward, who was headachy and feverish, she had paid a late visit. He had been sick enough, after the revel of Christmas Eve, to summon a doctor to-day; and was dozing restlessly now, under the effect of a sedative. Madame Carter had not come down to dinner, and when Harriet had sent in a message, had asked to be excused from any calls, even from Nina and Miss Field, this evening.

Nina had chattered constantly during the meal. Granny had had a terrible time with them all. And Ward and Nina and "Royal"--the name suddenly leaped between them again--had been arrested for speeding. And Daddy had threatened Nina with a boarding-school, and Granny had cried.

"Where is Mr. Blondin now, Nina?" Harriet had asked.

"Oh, he's round!" Nina had said, airily. "I suppose you put Daddy up to saying that I wasn't to see so much of him!" she had added, with her worldly wise drawl.

"Not at all," Harriet had said.

"Ladybird and I are planning a trip," Nina had further confided. "I shall be eighteen in February, you know, and we want to go round the world. Would'nt it be wonderful to go with her, for she's been about fifty times!"

"Wonderful!" Harriet had been obliged to concede.

"You know"-and Nina, in good spirits, had put her arm about Harriet as they left the table--"you know, some day I'd love to do it with you!" she had said, soothingly. "And some day we will, for I mean to travel a great deal. But just now--she spoke of it, you know. And it would be such an unusual opportunity. We're going to Algiers--and Athens--Mr. Blondin is making out the list for us, and wouldn't it be fun if he could go, too? He's afraid he can't, but if he could--!"

"But, dearest child, what does your father think?"

"Father--" Nina had shrugged regretfully. "But I shall be of age!" she had reminded her companion.

"Yes, I know, dear, but Father's ward for another three years, you know!"

"Why, Ladybird says"--the girl had been ready, and had spoken with flushed cheeks--"Ladybird says that in that case we'll go anyway, and she'll pay all expenses! That's the kind of friend she is!"

And Nina had flounced to a telephone, and had telephoned her friend in New York, laughing, coquetting, and murmuring for a blissful half hour.

"Love'll come fast enough afterward!" Pilgrim had said, and Harriet thought Pilgrim was rather a wise woman, in her homely way. The girl stirred the fire and settled herself to watch it again.

After what? Well, certainly not after anything so short, simple, and unconvincing as that three minutes with the clergyman to-day. The utter unreality of that had seemed to blend with the silent, snowy day, and with the dulled and dreamy condition of her own brain. Snow was falling softly when she had met Richard Carter at the office, at half-past ten, and snow lisped against the windows of the limousine as they two, with Irving Fox, Richard's kindly, middle-aged, confidential clerk, were whirled out of the city, and on and on through the bare little wintry towns. They had all talked together, sometimes of herself and her sister, sometimes of Nina and Ward, of Fox's amazing grandchildren, and of business. Fox had had some papers to which they occasionally referred; the old clerk was the only person to congratulate Harriet warmly when the brief and bewildering business was over and she had her wedding ring. It was alone with Fox that she made the return trip. Richard came back by train, saving an hour, and was at the office when they got there. Harriet did not see him again; he was in conference; and presently she quietly got back into the motor-car, and on her way to meet Nina she slipped the plain circle of gold into her hand bag.

She had it out to-night, and put it on her bare, pretty hand, and held it to the fire, and slowly the events of the bewildering and tiring day wheeled before her, and only the reality of the ring assured her that it was not all a confused dream. Married! And all alone before the glowing coals, weary from hostile encounters, on her marriage night! Ward, to be sure, was always her champion, but Ward was drinking heavily just now, and her influence was none the stronger because he admired her while she held him at arm's- length. Nina was all ready to flame into defiance, and the old lady's message had not been reassuring.

"But Bottomley and Pilgrim will stand by me!" Harriet said, with a shaky laugh. She looked about the beautiful familiar room, the room that had been Isabelle's for so many years, and wondered to think of Isabelle, lying dead so far away, and a usurper already holding her name and place.

She had intended to write to Linda to-night; Linda was vexed with her, and small wonder! For Harriet had left the little New Jersey house almost without farewells, had come down to an earlier breakfast even than Fred's, and had said briefly that she was returning to the Carters, and would see them all soon.

Why hadn't she told Linda? Well, for one reason, she had hardly believed her own memory of the talk on Christmas Day with Richard. Then she had feared opposition, feared Linda's shocked references to decent intervals of mourning; Linda's frank unbelief that there was no strong personal feeling involved on Richard's part; Linda's advice to a bride.

Harriet's face burned at the mere thought of it. No, she couldn't tell Linda yet; she was too tired to write to-night, anyway. Linda and Fred had not been at all approving, Christmas night. David had reproached her, had disappeared earlier than was expected or necessary; they had not failed of their suspicions.

"Well! I must go to bed," she said aloud, suddenly. She stood, one elbow on the mantel, her beautiful eyes fixed on the dying fire. It was midnight, the room and the house very still. Outside the snow was still falling--falling. Her loose gown slipped back from the round young arm, fell in folds about the slender figure; her rich hair was braided, and hung in a rope of gold over one shoulder. Her smoke-blue eyes, heavy-lidded in a rather white face, met their own gaze in the mirror. "It isn't exactly what I expected marriage to be," mused Harriet, smiling at the exquisite vision upon which no other eyes would fall. "But after all," she said to herself, beginning to move about with last preparations for bed, "I'm married to the man I love--nothing can change that. And if he doesn't love me, he likes me. I've done nothing wrong, and if my life is just a little different from most women's, why, I shall have to make the best of it! And I did tell him--I did tell him--"

And her thoughts went back to the first few minutes she had spent in Richard's office that day. They had been alone, discussing the last details of their astonishing plan, when she had suddenly taken the plunge.

"Mr. Carter, there is just one thing! Of course," Harriet's cheeks had flamed, "of course, this marriage of ours is not the usual marriage, and yet, there is just one thing of which I would like to speak to you before we--we go up to Greenwich." And finding his gray eyes pleasantly fixed upon her she had gone on, confused but determined: "I'm twenty-seven now-and perhaps I might have married some other man before this--except that-when I was seventeen-I did fall in love with a man! And we were to be married--!" She had stopped short; it was incredibly hard. "He had--or I thought he had, brought something tremendously big and wonderful into my life," Harriet had continued, "and I was a stupid little girl, just taking care of my sister's babies and reading my father's books--"

"You are under no obligation to tell me anything of this," Richard had said, kindly, far more concerned for her distress than interested in what she was saying. "I must have known that there were admirers! I assure you that--"

"No, but just a moment!" Harriet had interrupted him. "I was infatuated--I knew that at once, God knows I've known it ever since! I went away with him, little fool that I was!"

A gleam of genuine surprise had come into Richard Carter's eyes, and he looked at her without speaking.

"I was taken ill the day I left with him. While I was getting well I had time to think it over. I knew then I was too young and too ignorant to be any man's wife. I was frightened and I--well, I ran away; I went back to my sister. Both she and her husband regarded me after that as in some way marked, unprincipled, unworthy--"

"Poor child!" Richard had said. "They naturally would. You were no more than Nina's age!"

"So that's my history," Harriet had finished, simply. "I thought I had done with men. And there have been men, men like Ward, for instance, to whom I could have been married without feeling that I need make any mention of that old time. But I wanted to tell you."

"Thank you very much," Richard had said, gravely. "If the protection of my name and my house seems welcome to you, after some battling with the world, it will be an additional satisfaction to me."

And then before another word was spoken Fox had come in, announcing the car, and they had begun the long, strange drive. And now, deep in the quiet winter night, she was back at Crownlands, alone beside her fire, able at last to rest, and to remember. It seemed to her that ever since Richard's call on Linda's Christmas household yesterday she had walked strangely detached and isolated, with odd booming noises in her ears, and a panicky thumping at her heart. Now she felt suddenly safe and secure again; none of the oppositions she had vaguely feared, from David, from Linda, from the family at Crownlands, had interrupted the mad plan; she was in a stronger position now than ever, and if the path before her was dangerous and difficult, she was not too weary to-night to feel confident of following it to the end.

She got into the luxurious bed, put out the bedside light, and lay with her hands clasped behind her head, thinking. The clock struck one; snow was still falling steadily outside, but in here the last pink glow of firelight flickered and sank--flickered and sank lazily. It touched the flowered basket chairs, the roses that filled a bowl on the bookshelf, the table with its shaded lamp and its magazines.

Some sudden thought made Harriet smile ruefully. She indicated that it was unwelcome by turning over to bury her bright head in the pillow, and resolutely composing herself for sleep.