Chapter XVI
 

Morning found them half-buried in a bright dazzle of snow, the midwinter miracle that sets the most jaded heart singing and the weariest blood to moving more quickly. The bare trees glittered in a glassy casing, and every twig carried its burden of soft fur. Half-a-dozen shovels were scraping and clinking about Crownlands when Nina and Harriet came downstairs, and Harriet saw the men laughing and talking as they worked. The telephone announced Francesca Jay, with an eager luncheon invitation for Nina and Ward; they were bob-sledding, and it was perfectly glorious!

"I wish I liked people as much as they like me," Nina remarked over her breakfast. "Now I like the Jays--but this being invited everywhere--all the time!" Harriet, who suspected that Miss Jay's hospitality was really directed at the engaging Ward, good- naturedly persuaded him to go with his sister, thus assuring a real welcome from Francesca. He looked pale, complained of a headache, and breakfasted on black coffee, but agreed with her that fresh air and exercise would be the one sure cure for him, and tramped off beside Nina at eleven o'clock willingly enough.

Harriet was through with her housekeeping and her luncheon, and meditating a letter to Linda, when Ida Tabor fluttered in. Harriet heard the gay voice at the foot of the stairs: "Oh, sweetheart! Where's my little girl?"

Mrs. Tabor looked a trifle dashed when only Harriet responded, although she immediately assured Miss Field cordially with bright insincerity that she had known of her return, and was "so glad!"

"I've been a sort of big sister here," she said, laughingly, "and, my Lord, these kids have managed things wonderfully! But I suppose sooner or later the machinery would have stalled without your fine Italian hand!"

"Mr. Carter asked me to come back," Harriet stated, simply. She thought the truth her best weapon, but Mrs. Tabor was ready for her.

"Mary Putnam told us that you were just resting and looking about," she said, innocently, "and Dick--generous that he is!-- couldn't feel comfortably about it, I suppose! Well, I wanted to see Nina--?"

Harriet explained Nina's absence, and Mrs. Tabor pouted.

"I'd have stopped there," she said. "I'm on my way to the Fordyces'; they have a regular New Year's party, you know--"

This was deliberate, Harriet knew. Ida Tabor had not always been admitted to the Fordyces' sacred portals.

"Blondin and I are getting it up," she further elucidated, "I want Nina in it, and Ward, too. Blondin is lending us the most gorgeous tapestries and things you ever saw!"

Harriet was not concerned for Nina's plans after today; for Richard had telephoned her at three o'clock that the morning papers would have "the news," and that he was coming home to tell his children of their mother's death, to-night. But she must get rid of this woman now, somehow. It would be fatal to have Ida Tabor here when Richard Carter returned. Her time was short, Harriet thought anxiously, for at any minute now the young people might stream back for tea.

"I might run up now and see the old lady!" said Mrs. Tabor who had flung off her furs, and beautified herself at her hand-bag mirror. "I don't really have to get to the Fordyces' until just before dinner--really not then, if Nina wanted me!" She pressed her lips together for the red colouring. "Mr. Carter be here to-night?" she asked, casually.

Bottomley caused an interruption. Harriet turned to him with relief. But unfortunately he answered the very question she was trying to evade.

"Mr. Carter had just telephoned, 'm, and says that he'll be 'ere at about six, 'm!"

"Oh, thank you, Bottomley!" Harriet turned back to Ida, to see her complacently loosening outer wraps.

"I came in the Warrens' car," said she, "they were to run over and say Merry Christmas to the Bellamys, and then pick me up. But--if I won't be in the way!--perhaps I might stay and see Nina; we've become great chums. I suppose I'd better go to the room I always have? Then I'll run up and get the latest news of the Battle of Shiloh from Madame Carter!"

It was now or never; Harriet's heart began to beat.

"Madame Carter has gone driving," she said. "She may be in at any moment, but before she comes, I want to speak to you. We've had terrible news here, Mrs. Tabor. Mr. Carter is coming home to tell the children and his mother to-night. Mr. Pope cabled from Paris on Christmas Eve that Mrs. Carter suddenly died that day!"

Ida Tabor never felt anything very deeply, but her emotions were accessible enough, and violent while they lasted. She grew white, gasped, somehow reached a chair, and burst into honest tears. Isabelle--! Why, they had been friends for years! Why, she had been so wonderfully well and strong!

"My God, isn't that the limit!" said Mrs. Tabor, drying her eyes. "I don't know why I'm such a fool," she added, with perhaps a faint resentment of Harriet's calm, "but I declare it's just about taken my breath away! And they don't know it! Isn't that simply terrible!"

"Nobody knows it," Harriet said. And not quite innocently she added: "The Fordyces, the Bellamys--everyone who knew her--are in total ignorance of it! If you do tell them, Mrs. Tabor--and there is no reason why you shouldn't--"

"Oh, I shall stay here with Nina to-night, anyway!" the visitor said, decidedly. "She'll need me, of course! Poor little thing!"

"It seems too bad to spoil your New Year's plans," Harriet said, smiling, "but you know Nina! She will put those long arms of hers about you--and she won't hear of your leaving her for days! With Nina," Harriet pursued, thoughtfully, "it isn't so much that one can't find a good excuse, as that she won't hear of excuses at all! I remember when Mrs. Carter first went away, there were days of it--weeks of it!--just talk, tears, tears, and talk--my arm used to ache from the weight of Nina's arm! Mr. Carter intends to leave for Chicago to-morrow, Ward will probably go up to the Eatons'---" Harriet rambled on, not unconscious that she was making an impression. "Anyway," she finished, "we shall be fearfully quiet and alone here, and your being here would simply save the day for Nina!"

"Oh, I really couldn't stay over New Year's," Mrs. Tabor, looking slightly discomfited, said slowly. "You see, the Fordyces--"

"Nina may keep you," Harriet said, lightly. Perhaps the other woman had a sudden vision of the overwhelming Nina, a Nina so convinced of her friend's real desire to stay that with a certain sportive heaviness she would do the necessary telephoning and explaining herself, to keep her. Perhaps she saw the alternate vision of herself at the Fordyces' inaccessible, and it must be confessed dull, dinner table, electrifying them all with the news of Isabelle Carter, coming as one admitted to the family confidence and councils. She looked undecided, and bit her under- lip.

"One wonders--?" she said, musingly. "Of course, I shouldn't want to intrude to-night--it would be merely to have them feel that I was here--"

"Mr. Carter has asked me to see that the family is alone to- night," Harriet said, courageously, "but of course he may feel that you are an exception," she added, with the impersonal air of a mere employee. "I only want to be able to tell him that I repeated his request, and told you the reason for it. That's"--and she smiled pleasantly--"that is as far as my authority goes, of course. I shall say simply that you know of his wishes, and if you remain, I know I can say that it was to please Nina!"

And now the two women exchanged an open glance that needed no pretence and no concealment, and it was a glance of enmity.

"When I visit this house it is not at your invitation, Miss Field!" said Mrs. Tabor, frankly. "I am aware of that," Harriet said, simply.

"Will you be so kind as to tell Nina and Madame Carter," the visitor was resuming her wraps, and arranging her handsome hat and veil, "that I will be here to-morrow, and that anything I can do I will be so glad to do!--Is that Mrs. Warren's car, Bottomley? Thank you. Good afternoon, Miss Field!"

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Tabor!" Harriet followed her to the hall door, and heard a Parthian shot, ad-dressed in a cheerfully high voice to kindly old Mrs. Warren, Mrs. Fordyce's mother, who was in the limousine.

"Nobody home! All my trouble for nothing!"

Old Mrs. Warren leaned against the frosted glass; waved from the holly-dressed interior at Harriet, and the girl saw her lips frame "Merry Christmas!" The door slammed; Bottomley came with stately footsteps up to the hall again. Harriet gave a little laugh of triumph. Now the coast was clear!

Thus it was that Richard Carter found only his mother and his children at the dinner table that night, and no guests under his roof. Miss Field, to be sure, was at the head of the table, but then Miss Field was a member of the family. He interrogated her briefly as they went in.

"Ward's gang? That Eaton ass?"

"Oh, they went yesterday!"

"Speak to Bottomley?"

"Yes. He and Pilgrim are quite reconciled to remaining." Harriet buttoned a cuff, to hide a dimple that would come to the corner of her mouth. "And Mrs. Tabor came, and would have stayed," she could not resist the temptation to add, "but I persuaded her that some other time would be better!"

"Scene with Nina about it?" Richard had asked, curiously.

"Nina was not here," Harriet answered. And there was a faint smile in the deep blue eyes that she raised suddenly to his.

"Ah, well, I knew of course that you would manage it!" he said, contentedly. "It seems black art to me. I had enough of it!"

She smiled again, and went quietly to her place. But when he summoned Ward and Nina to his mother's room, after dinner, she had disappeared, and the family was quite alone when he broke the news to them.

Harriet, presently needed again, was astonished at the emotion of the old lady, who had been genuinely fond of her daughter-in-law, and had always been loyal to Isabelle, as one of the Carters. Madame Carter was greatly shaken, Nina hysterical, Ward aggrieved, irritated at his own feeling. He had not seen his mother for seven months, she had brought nothing but a certain unpleasant notoriety to her children, yet her death struck both the young creatures forcibly, and they felt shocked and shaken.

"We can't be in the Fordyce tableaux," said Nina in an interval between floods of sobs. "Not that I would want to, now! But I don't know; it seems to me that I am the most unfortunate girl in the world!"

"I think both you and Ward should wear black for a certain period," Richard said to her. He had been walking the floor nervously, stopping now and then beside the great chair where his mother sat silent and stricken, to put his arm about her shoulders, and murmur to her consolingly.

"When my mother died," Madame Carter quavered, with her handkerchief pressed to the tip of her nose, "my sisters and I wore black, and refused all social engagements for one year. We then, I remember distinctly, began to wear white and lavender--"

Harriet smiled inwardly at the picture of Victorian mourning and compared it to the mourning of to-day, as different indeed as was the conception of motherhood to-day.

"I remember that a cousin of my mother, Cousin Mallie we used to call her, got in a sewing woman, and all our black things were made right there in the house--" the old lady was pursuing, mournfully, when Nina broke in pettishly:

"I don't see why I have to wear black!"

"Why should you?" Ward said with bitter scorn. "It's only your mother!" Nina began to cry.

"You and I will go down to Landmann's early to-morrow, Nina," Harriet suggested, "and we'll have someone show us what is simple and nice--not crape, you know," Harriet said with a glance at Richard Carter, "but black, for a few months anyway."

"I think that would be the least, Richard," his mother approved. "I believe I will go with you," she condescended to Harriet, "after all, Isabelle was my daughter-in-law, and the mother of my grandchildren!"

"And I won't go to California or Bermuda or any-where else unless Ladybird comes!" Nina burst out, with a broken sob.

"Nonsense!" her father began harshly. Harriet said:

"Bermuda? Is there a plan for Bermuda?"

"I suggested it for a few weeks," Richard said, frowning, "but I don't propose to have Nina invite a group of friends. That isn't exactly the idea."

"We could ask Mrs. Tabor," Harriet said, soothingly; "it is right in the middle of the season, and perhaps she will feel she can hardly spare the time. But I'm sure that if she can--"

"If I ask her, she'll go," Nina said, in a sulky, confident undertone.

Harriet had her doubts, but she did not express them. A month at Nassau, in the undiluted company of Nina and her grandmother, was enough to appall even Harriet's stout heart.

The event proved her right, for while Ida Tabor flew at once to her disconsolate little friend, and assured Richard with tears in her eyes that she would do anything in the world to help him, she weakened when the actual test arrived.

"If just you and I and your dear grandmother were going, dearest girl," she said to Nina, "then it would be perfect. But as long as Miss Field, who is perfectly charming and conscientious and all that, feels that she must accompany us, why--you and I would never be a moment alone, sweetheart, you know that! I don't like to think that it's jealousy--"

"Of course it's jealousy," Nina was pleased to decide, gloomily. "Granny says that we don't need her, but Father just sticks to it that she must manage everything!"

"I am going to run in every few days and amuse your father, and get the news of you," said Ida Tabor. "You don't think that your father perhaps trusts Miss Field too far, do you?" she added, carelessly. She was standing behind Nina at the dressing table, experimenting with the girl's thick, straight hair. "You look like one of the little Russian princesses with it that way!" said she.

Nina was instantly diverted.

"I had to laugh at Christine yesterday," she said. "She said, 'Oh, Ma'm'selle, you've got enough for two people here!' 'Oh,' I said, 'then I ought to pay you double'!" Nina laughed. "And I did, too!" she finished. For Nina, without ever being unselfish, was often extremely generous. Ida Tabor smiled automatically.

"I don't suppose your father sees anything in Miss Field," she submitted again, lightly.

"Oh, Heavens, no!" Nina said, studying herself in a handglass. "Christine says that I ought to have my eyebrows pulled," she added, thoughtfully. There was a rather steely look in the eyes of her friend Ladybird, but she did not see it. Her smile of pleasure gradually gave place to a pout. "I'm going to ask Father if we need Miss Harriet!" she said.

And that evening she did indeed attack Richard on the subject, although not as decidedly as she had planned. He listened to her interestedly enough, with his evening paper held ready for his next glance.

"Let you roam about the country with Mrs. Tabor," he said, as the girl's faltering accents stopped. "No, my dear, it's out of the question! In the first place, she is not the sort of companion I would choose for any girl, and in the second place I would never know where you and your grandmother were, or what was happening to you! While Miss Field is in charge I shall feel entirely safe. Of course, if Mrs. Tabor chooses to invite herself, that's her affair!"

"Then I don't want to go!" Nina stormed. But in the end she did go. The alternative of moping about Crownlands, and seeing her idol only at intervals, was not alluring, and Mrs. Tabor herself urged her to go. Madame Carter, Nina, and Harriet duly sailed, in the second week of January, and Ward joined them almost a month later, in Nassau. And here Harriet had the brother and sister at their best, free to show the genuine childishness that was in them, to swim and picnic and tramp, and here she indulged Nina in long talks, and encouraged her to associate with the young people she met. Madame Carter found the island air a help to her rheumatic knee, and consequently made no protest against a lengthened stay. She slept, ate, and felt better than in the cold northern winter, and at seventy-five these considerations were important.

Harriet wrote once a week to Richard, making a general report, and enclosing receipted hotel and miscellaneous bills. His communications usually took the form of cables, although once or twice she received typewritten letters.

In mid-April they all came home again, and Crownlands, in the year's first shy filming of green, looked wonderful to Harriet's homesick eyes. With joyous noises and confusion Ward and Nina scattered their possessions about, and the old lady bustled, chattered, and commented. Bottomley and Pilgrim were apparently enchanted to welcome home their one-time tormentors, and in the fresh, orderly rooms, and the scent of early flowers, and the burgeoning winds that shook the blossoms, there was a wholesome order and familiarity delicious to the wanderers.

Richard was to join them at dinner; it had been impossible for him to meet them when the boat arrived, but Fox had been there and attended to the formalities. It had pleased them all to make the occasion formal and to dress accordingly. Nina looked her prettiest in a white silk, and the old lady was magnificent in diamonds and brocade. Harriet deliberately selected her handsomest gown, a severe black satin that wrapped her slender body with one superb and shining sweep, and left her white arms and firm, flawless shoulders bare. The weeks of sunshine and fresh air had been good for her, as for the others, and when she was dressed, and stood in the full blaze of the lights, looking at herself, she would not have been human not to be pleased. Her bright hair was dressed high, and shone in rich waves and curves against the soft, dusky forehead, and above the black-fringed, smoke-blue eyes. The firm young lines of chin and throat, the swelling white breast that met the encasing satin, the slippers with their twinkling buckles--she could not but find every detail pleasing, and her scarlet mouth, firmly shut, was twitched by a sudden dimple.

She glanced at the clock, went slowly to the door, and slowly down the big square stairway. Richard and his children were in the lower hall, and they all glanced up.

Down in the soft glow of light came Harriet, smiling as she slipped her left arm about Nina, and gave the free hand to Nina's father. She was apparently cool and unself-conscious; inwardly she felt feverish, frightened and excited and happy, all at once. Richard was in evening dress, too; he looked his best; his dark hair brushed to a shining crest, and his gray eyes full of pleasure.

"Well, Miss Field--!" he said, a little breathlessly. "Well! Your vacation hasn't done you any harm!"

"We had to make an occasion of our coming home!" Harriet said, with a nervous laugh, trying not to see the admiration in his eyes.

"I must say I like the gown," Richard said, simply. It was impossible not to speak of it, and of her; they were all staring at her.

"You look wonderful!" Nina said.

"Why, you saw this gown at Nassau," Harriet protested.

"Louise--or whoever she was of Prussia, or whatever you call it, turned in the family vault when you walked down those stairs!" Ward said. "Oo-oo--caught you under the mistletoe--oo-oo, you would!" he added, with an effort to envelop her in his embrace.

"Ward, behave yourself!" Harriet said, evading him, and walking toward the dining room with his grandmother, who came downstairs in her turn, and joined them. "No pain in the knee?" Richard heard her say, solicitously.

"Not a bit!" the old lady said, eagerly. "Why, my dear," she added, grandly, "there's no rheumatism in our family! Not a bit! It was just that fall I had, ten years ago, that settled there, that was all! Immediately after that fall---"

Harriet had heard of the fall before. She had heard of it one hundred times. But she listened attentively. She had an aside for Bottomley, she drew Nina into the conversation, she was most at ease with Ward, teasing him, drawing him out.

Richard Carter watched her, the incarnation of young and beautiful womanhood. Clever he knew her to be, capable and conscientious, but to-night she was in a new role. He liked to see her there at the other end of the table; he realized that she was the centre of things, here in his house, and that he had missed her.

After dinner it chanced that Bottomley called her to the telephone, and that a moment later she passed the call on to Richard.

"It's Mr. Gardiner, Mr. Carter. He didn't know that you were here, but he would rather speak to you," Harriet said. Richard went to the telephone, and as she moved to make room for him, and gave him the receiver, he had a sudden breath of the sweetness and freshness of her, of hair and young firm skin, of the rustling satin gown, and the little handkerchief that she dropped, and that he picked up for her. He smiled as he gave it, and flushed inexplicably, and his first few words to the bewildered Gardiner were a little shaken and breathless. But Richard was quite himself again an hour or two later, when he sent for Miss Field, and she came into the library.

"I needn't say that I'm entirely pleased with the way matters have gone, Harriet," said Richard, when she had seated herself on the opposite side of his big, flat desk, and locking her white hands on the shining surface, had fixed her magnificent eyes on him. "Nina seems in fine shape, and I have never seen my mother better. You seem to have a genius for managing the Carters. Ward, of course, is the real problem now--I wish the boy might have made his degree; but it wasn't to be expected perhaps. He's clever, but his heart wasn't in it; he never made the slightest effort to get through. I'm seriously considering this offer from Gardiner; he's got to take his boy out to Nevada for his health. Ward wants to go, and would very probably like it when he got there. Gardiner's brother is a magnificent fellow, 'P. J.,' they call him; he and his cattle are known all over that part of the country. He's got two or three pretty girls--I hope Ward will try it, anyhow! So that leaves Nina, who is safe enough with you, and my mother, who seems perfectly well and happy. Meanwhile, while you've been gone, we've gotten the Brazilian company well started, so that I shall have a little more freedom than I've had for years."

"You look as if you needed it," Harriet observed.

"You look wonderful," Richard returned, simply. "Wonderful! Is that a new gown?"

"Well, I had it made last November just before I went away. Mrs. Carter gave me the material a year ago." Harriet glanced down at herself and smiled.

"You might wear pearls--or something--with it," Richard said. "Do you like pearls?"

It was astonishing to see the colour come up in her dusky skin; her eyes met his almost pleadingly.

"Why--I never thought!" she said, in some confusion.

"I suppose a man may ask his wife if she likes pearls?" Richard said, impelled by some feeling he did not define. He had leaned back in his chair, and half-closed his eyes, as he studied her.

"Oh--please!" Harriet said in an agony. She gave a horrified glance about, but the library was closed and silent. "Someone might hear you!" she whispered. And a moment later she rose to her feet, and eyed him quietly. "Was that all, Mr. Carter?" she asked. It was Richard's turn to look a trifle confused.

"That's all--my dear!" he said, obediently. The term made her flush again. He was still smiling when she closed the door.