Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
It was the gayest spring that Harriet had ever known at Crownlands, for even at her best, Isabelle had been socially an individualist, devoting herself to one man at a time, and to nobody else, and the whole family had necessarily accepted Isabelle's attitude. Richard had been too busy to notice or protest, the old lady helpless, and Nina a child.
But now there was a beautiful and gracious woman in Isabelle's place, and long before the world knew that Harriet Field was really Harriet Carter, there was a very decided change in the social atmosphere. Nina would be eighteen in June, and affairs for Nina and her friends began to assume a more formal air. Ward, who seemed anxious to placate his father, and convince him of his genuine reform, was almost always at home, and Madame Carter was willing to accept the comfort and amusement that Harriet's return brought to the house, and rarely raised an issue with the triumphant secretary. And, more strange than all, Richard began to bring his friends to the house; he was proud of his smoothly running establishment, and proud of the charming woman who neither flirted with nor ignored the men he brought home. They were plain men sometimes, business associates who might have been ill at ease at Crownlands, and voiceless at the dinner table. But Harriet drew them out, and seemed to have some conversational divining rod by which she touched with unfailing instinct upon the topic of each in turn.
Always beautiful and always busy, constantly in demand on all sides, she went about his house like a smiling worker of miracles, and Richard watched her. When she went home to her sister for a day or two he missed her strangely, and wandered about the empty rooms with a desolate sense of loss.
She was presently back, and amused the young people at the dinner table with a spirited account of her sister's move into a new house--"really an old house," that she and her family had been watching for years. It had been auctioned, forfeited by the purchaser, it had figured in a lawsuit, and now at last it was in the possession of the delighted Davenports. And the move--with the baby carrying his puppy, and Pip the goldfish, and the girls wheeling the old baby-carriage full of their treasures, and Linda whitening her hands with a cut lemon, as she walked the seven short blocks--! Harriet made them see it all, and Richard laughed with the children. His mother, always reminiscent, recalled a move in his own third year, when he had tasted furniture polish, and made himself ill.
Nina and Amy and Ward had rushed from the dinner table to an early dance at the club, and Richard, after a talk with his mother on the terrace, had wandered about with a vague hope of finding Harriet somewhere with her book. But she was not downstairs.
He went back, and presently accompanied his mother to her door. The old lady stopped outside of Nina's open door, from which a subdued light streamed.
"Oh, Miss Field--" said Madame Carter.
"Yes, Madame Carter!" The rich, ready voice responded instantly. Richard hoped she would come to the door, but his mother's message was delivered too quickly to make it necessary.
"You're waiting up for Nina?"
"Oh, yes, Madame Carter!" Harriet answered. The two exchanged good-nights; Richard loitered into his mother's room, left her in her maid's hands, and went back into the dimly lighted, spacious upper hall. He felt oddly stirred; there were letters downstairs, his usual books and amusements, but he felt curiously impelled to try for one more word with Miss Field.
He opened the door of Nina's room, and went in, and knocked on the half-open door within that connected it with Harriet's room.
"Come in. Is it you, Pilgrim?" the pleasant, quiet voice said. Richard stepped to the doorway.
Harriet, seated in a square basket chair, under the soft flood of light from a basket-shaded lamp, rose precipitately, and stood looking at him with widened eyes and parted lips, without speaking. She was plainly frightened, though she made herself smile. She wore a scant, long-sleeved garment of a deep, oriental blue, that covered her from her white throat to her feet, and yet that was obviously only for bedroom wear, and to which she gave a quick, apologetic glance, as the man came in. He noticed that in this mellow light her blue eyes seemed to communicate a blue shadow to their neighbourhood, brows and lids, and the clean arch in which they were set, all wore the same shadowy blueness. The beautiful room was full of shadows; at the wide-open windows thin curtains stirred in the cool night air.
"Frighten you?" Richard said.
"Is there something--?" Her eyes were those of a deer that is afraid to turn.
"Why, I wanted to suggest that we tell our little piece of news to the family," Richard suggested, after a momentary search for a suitable subject. "I came very close to telling my mother, just now. Is there any good reason for further delay?"
"Why, no, I don't--I don't suppose there is!" Harriet stammered.
"You see, my mother had left me in no doubt of her intentions with Mrs. Tabor," Richard said, smiling. "I'll give Mrs. Tabor credit for being as innocent as I am in the matter," he added, simply. "But there's a plan for a Montreal trip--I believe Ida arrives for a week to-morrow, and so on. I should be very glad to let the world know that--my arrangements--in the line, are already made. It will be fairer to you, too, I think. Gardiner asked me last night if the coast was clear--Ward asked me if I thought there was any use in his trying again--"
"There will be talk," said Harriet with distaste, as he paused.
"I suppose so," he answered, simply. "But what we do is our own affair, after all. I shall explain to my mother that for us both it seemed a practical and a--well, not unpleasant solution. There need be no change here, but you will simply have a more assured position--"
She had been watching him, with all June in her face. But as he went on the colour slowly drained away, and about her beautiful eyes a look of strain and even of something like shame gradually deepened. When she spoke, it was as if the muscles of her throat were constricted.
"Yes, I see. Certainly, I see. We will have to let them talk. This is--simply the best arrangement possible under the circumstances!"
"It is an arrangement that a man perhaps has no right to ask of a woman," Richard said. "Love means a great deal in a girl's life, and I suppose there is nothing else that makes up for the lack of it. But you are not an ordinary woman, and I assure you that in every way that I can I mean to prove to you how deeply I appreciate what you are doing for us all."
"Thank you!" Harriet said, almost inaudibly.
"Simply change your name on your checks," Richard said, thoughtfully. "I shall have Fox step into the bank with the authenticated signature. And if there is anything else, use your own judgment. Perhaps, if I tell my mother, you would like to write to certain friends--? You can continue to draw on the Corn Exchange, that's simplest, and I hope you'll remember that you have a large personal credit there," he added, with a smile. "It occurred to me to-night that you--you mustn't let your sister worry about that new house. If you want your own car--"
"Oh, good heavens, Mr. Carter!" Harriet said, suffocating.
"Ask me anything that puzzles you," the man said. And with a brief good-night he was gone. Harriet, who had dropped back into her chair, sat absolutely motionless for a long, long time. Her eyes were fixed on space; she hardly breathed; it almost seemed as if her heart was stopped.
Richard went downstairs, surprised to feel still vaguely unsatisfied. He had had his word with Harriet, had said indeed much that he had not expected to say. However, it was much better to let the world know their relationship; he was perfectly satisfied to have it so. But still, as he settled himself to an hour's reading, the plaguing little impulse persisted. He would like to go upstairs again; he missed her companionship.
There was something very appealing about this woman, thought Richard, suddenly closing his book. Her beauty, her silences, her complete subjugation of her own interests to his, he found strangely fascinating. She had looked extremely beautiful in that long, dark blue bedroom gown, reading Shakespeare. He wondered why she read Shakespeare.
"By George, she has made a most interesting woman of herself!" Richard decided, opening his book again. "She ought to be right in the middle of things, that girl!"
He was still reading when Nina and Amy came in, and yawned him good-nights from the library doorway. He heard them go upstairs, heard a burst of laughter and nonsense, and then Harriet's rich voice, and then the closing door. Then there was silence. Richard discovered that he was sleepy, and went upstairs, too.
A day or two later Madame Carter came out to the terrace at eleven o'clock, beautifully groomed and gowned, and with an imperative hand arrested Harriet, who was tumbled and sunburned from the tennis court and was going toward the house.
"Just a moment, Miss Field," said she, magnificently. Harriet obediently stood still, and watched Madame Carter's magnificence settle itself slowly in a basket chair. The old lady freed an eyeglass ribbon deliberately, straightened a ruffle, laid her magazine beside her on a table. "There was a little matter of which I wished to speak to you," she said, suavely, bringing her distant glance to rest dispassionately for a moment upon Harriet's face.
Harriet waited, amused, annoyed, impatient.
"I understand," Madame Carter said, "that you and my son--for some reason best known to yourselves--have entered into a secret marriage?"
"Your first object, my dear, is not to antagonize his mother!" Harriet reminded herself. Aloud she said mildly: "You have no reason to disbelieve it, have you?"
"No reason to disbelieve my son!" his mother echoed, scandalized. "Why should I have! Mr. Carter is the soul of honour--absolutely the soul. Upon my word, I don't understand you!"
"I said you have no reason to disbelieve him," Harriet repeated. "You said that you understood that we had been married. It is true!"
And she looked off toward the river with an expression as composed as that of Madame Carter herself.
"I suppose you know that old saying: 'A secret bride has a secret to hide!'" the older woman pursued, pleasantly.
"I never heard it. I did not play much with the children of the neighbourhood when I was a child," Harriet answered. "My father was very anxious to protect us from picking up expressions of that sort!"
There was a silence. Harriet, beginning to be ashamed of herself, did not look at her companion.
"A girl of your age has a great deal of confidence when she marries into a family like mine," the old lady said, presently, in a tone that trembled a little. "My son is a rich man--he is a prominent man. He has used his own judgment, of course. But I confess that in your place I should not carry myself with quite so much an air of--triumph! It seems to me--"
Harriet had had time to reflect that such an opening would certainly lead to tears and hysteria now, and might easily begin an estrangement that would sadden and disappoint Richard. A few more such exchanges, and his mother would retire worsted to her room, might possibly leave his house, and punish Harriet cruelly through him. She determinedly regained her calm, and taking the chair next to the enraged old lady, quietly interrupted the flow of her angry words.
"I hope I have shown no air of triumph, Madame Carter," Harriet said. "You yourself--and most wisely!--pointed out to us a few months ago that the arrangement here was unconventional--"
"Everyone was talking, if you mind that!" the old lady snapped. But she was slightly mollified, none-the-less. "But upon my word, you'd think marrying into the family was something to be done every day--!" she was beginning again, when Harriet interrupted again.
"No--no," she said, soothingly, conceding the last words an amused smile that itself rather helped to placate her companion. "It is, of course, the most serious step of my life! But the secrecy--as of course you will appreciate--was because there has been so much terrible notoriety this year! Why, Mr. Carter tells me that never in the history of all the Carters--"
This fortunate lead was enough. Madame Carter launched forth superbly upon a description of the usual Carter weddings, the ceremony, the state. In perhaps twenty minutes she was blandly patronizing Harriet, giving her encouraging little taps with her eyeglasses, warning her of mistakes that Isabelle had made with Richard. Harriet knew that before three days were over her terrible mother-in-law would be telling the world just how wise, under the trying circumstances, the whole thing was, and just how clearly she had foreseen it. She was still listening respectfully, if a trifle confusedly, when Ward bounded from the house, and gave her an effusive embrace.
"Hello, Mamma!" Ward said. Harriet laughed, as she pushed away the filial arm. Hardly knowing what she said or did she made her way to the house, and up to her own room.
But here, in Nina's room, were Nina and Mrs. Tabor, and from their eyes, as she came in, she knew that they knew. Nina got up, and came forward with a sort of sulky graciousness.
"I hope you'll be very happy, Miss Harriet--I suppose I oughtn't to call you Miss Harriet any more," Nina said, with an effort to smile that Harriet thought quite ghastly. She gave Harriet one of her big hands, and hesitated over a kiss. But they did not kiss each other. Ida Tabor watched them with the half-closed eyes of a cat.
"Confess you took my breath away," she said, frankly, "because it doesn't seem the sort of thing that Dick Carter does! Always knew he idolized Isabelle, poor girl, and never dreamed he'd put any one in her place! Of course, Dick's a rich man, and he's the dearest fellow in the world, at that, but knowing, as I do know-- for I've known him since we were kiddies--exactly what a firebrand Dick always has been-mad as a hatter when he was in love, and consequently this talk of a sensible arrangement--"
She had a quick, vivacious way of speaking, this pretty little angry and disappointed woman, that often carried an offensive very successfully. As she spoke, in an innocent voice, she glanced in and out of the magazine she had caught up, and was apparently unconscious of Harriet's blazing cheeks and darkening eyes. But now Harriet interrupted her.
"I don't quite see the point, Mrs. Tabor," Harriet said, bravely and deliberately, "you speak of Mr. Carter's being a rich man, and of his love for his wife, and his having been a fiery young man. What has that to do with me? I was here in his house as his daughter's companion--
"As far as being a companion to me was concerned," Nina interpolated, rapidly, in an airy undertone, and with a toss of her head. But Harriet suppressed her with a glance.
"--that position I could not keep," she pursued, "but for Ward's sake and Nina's there had to be some social life. My birth," said Harriet, steadily, "is quite the equal of theirs; I was well able to fill that place. Mr. Carter took the step that made it possible. That's all!"
There was a silence when she finished speaking. Ida Tabor was outfaced, and she knew it. Her cheeks burned scarlet, and she was able to gasp only the feeblest response.
"Thank you for your kind explanation!" she said, somewhat breathless, and with a bow. Nina, giving Harriet a resentful glance, went over to put her arm about her friend, who had risen, and was facing Harriet.
"It need make no difference with us, Ladybird!" Nina said in passionate loyalty.
"Why, of course not," Harriet hastened to assure them. "Why should it? It has been just as true since December, only you didn't know it!"
"Thank you!" Mrs. Tabor said again, with another twitch of countenance intended for a smile.
"Will you want both these rooms now?" Nina said, insolently. "I don't want to be in your way!"
"Be careful, Nina!" Harriet said with ominous calmness. And going into her own room she added, in her usual quiet manner, "There will be no changes, dear!" She realized that her heart was beating fast with anger, but it died down rapidly, and she consoled herself with some prophecies that the next few days were to justify to the fullest extent. Nina's inseparable Ladybird would find little to interest her in Crownlands now, Harriet suspected, and they would not long be troubled by her company. She smiled as she heard Nina and Ida in the next room.
"Put on your yellow gown, sweetheart," Ida said. "We're going to the Bellamys' after lunch."
"Oh, I don't feel like going anywhere!" Nina said, pathetically. "Would you just as soon stay here--and just read and talk, and fool around as we did yester-day?"
"Just as soon do anything!" But there was a tiny edge to Ladybird's tone that had not been there yesterday. "Only, dearest girl," she added, lightly, "we're expected!"
For answer Nina only gave her rich, mischievous laugh, and Harriet knew that she was embracing her friend.
"But a lot you and I care for that, don't we? We'll get into wrappers and be comfortable. I'll have Bottomley simply telephone after lunch, and say that we are unexpectedly detained. I can't get over it," Nina said, luxuriating in surprise. Her voice sank to speculation, and the two murmured awhile. Then Harriet heard Ida return the attack. "But about the Bellamys, dear," and smiled a little sadly, to think of the swiftness with which, to calculating Mrs. Tabor, the Carter stock was declining, and the Bellamy market looking up.
"That crazy man who--you said--admired me last night," Nina was presently saying, "tell me again what he said. I don't see how he could have said I was picturesque, for there's nothing picturesque about that old blue rag. I don't know, though, it's always been awfully smart. But I'll tell you honestly, Ladybird, I'd rather be picturesque than almost anything else."
"You're certainly that!" said Ida's bored voice.
"Well, if you say so, I'll believe you!" Nina said. Harriet knew that they had been aware of her nearness, but now she very deliberately closed the door.
At luncheon everything was exactly as usual; Richard had gone to the city, not to return for a night or two, and several social engagements distracted the young people from the contemplation of their father's affairs.
Harriet had not dared to hope that they would accept the situation so quietly, or that the world would. There were callers on the terrace every afternoon, there were pleasant congratulations and good wishes, there were a few paragraphs in the social weeklies. Richard had for years been too busy for mere entertaining, and the dinner parties and luncheons to the new Mrs. Carter, it was generally felt, must wait until next season.
Meanwhile, the speculating world saw her going quietly about the house, advising Nina, conferring with the domestic staff, laughing with Ward. She immediately formed a habit of going into the old lady's room every morning: Madame Carter had quite accepted her as a member of the great house of Carter now, and came to depend upon the half-hour of morning gossip. The world saw her in a box at the theatre, with the young Carters, saw that Richard presently joined them, and laughed, in the shadowy back of the box, at something his beautiful new wife said to him over her shoulder. The world was obliged to decide that the little secretary took her promotion very coolly, that there was something queer about it.
But inwardly the little secretary was thrilled to her heart's core. Even to glance at the gold ring on her finger made Harriet feel as if a happiness almost shameful was bared to view. Her new position, modestly as she filled it, was yet a high position. She saw Richard's growing affection and trust, if he did not. She could afford to wait.
She visited Linda, almost afraid to show new gowns and new generosity, almost afraid of the constant "Mrs. Carter."
"They'll be ruined!" Linda laughed, of the children's summer gowns and the camera and wrist watch that transported Julia and Josephine to Paradise. This rustling and perfumed Harriet, with the flowered little French hat, and the filmy little odd gowns, was almost bewildering.
Decorously having tea on the terrace in the June afternoons, knowing herself the centre of interest, Harriet's heart sang with a wild inward delight. She smiled; she could afford the friendliest interest for everyone's affairs. When her own were touched, there was a youthful flushing, a deprecatory smile. But she took no one into her confidence.
"But when are you and Dick Carter going to dine with us?" Mary Putnam said, one afternoon, at tea. Madame Carter, whose Victorian ideal of romance was not at all dissatisfied with the idea of the employer marrying his daughter's beautiful governess, smiled significantly.
"They're very odd lovers, my dear," she said to Mary with an eloquent glance. Mary laughed, and looked at Harriet, whose face was suddenly crimson, though she tried to laugh, too. The visitor, with instant kindness, covered the little break.
"Whenever they're ready, they're going to dine with me!" she said, patting Harriet's hand with real affection and understanding. The arrival of a group from the tennis court, Nina, Ida, Ward, Francesca Jay, and their friends, changed the subject immediately, the old lady was distracted, and Harriet busy. But Mary was free to reflect. She had the eyes of a contented woman, freed from her own problem for those of others. "And Harriet is certainly mad about Richard," Mary mused.
But with the rest of the world she had to decide that there was something in the affair that she did not understand.
When everyone else had gone from the terrace, and the late afternoon light was throwing clear shadows across the warm red bricks, Nina and Ida Tabor remained, talking. Nina had seated herself on the arm of her friend's chair, and was chattering away in happy ignorance of the fact that the older woman was seething within. Nina saw no reason for jealousy because Harriet had just had an hour's petting from everyone, had dominated the scene in her striped blue muslin, had finally sauntered to the house between no more important persons than Granny and Ward.
But to Ida it was insufferable, and she could only revenge herself upon her innocent admirer.
"And now we positively must go in, Nina!" she said. "We've wasted this whole afternoon!" And she added, of the embracing arm: "Don't! It's too hot."
"Is playing tennis and talking with me wasting an afternoon, Ladybird?" Nina asked, archly.
"You know I don't mean that!" Mrs. Tabor said, impatiently, if fondly, freeing herself. "But I have to get packed if I'm going to the Jays'!"
"But you're not going to the Jays'!" Nina said in soft, sweet, confident reminder.
"But I must, darling!"
"Not if I ask you not to!" Nina persisted.
"Truly I must," Mrs. Tabor said, wearily.
"No, you mustn't!"
"But, dearest, I truly have to---"
"But, Ladybird," Nina laughed, happily, "I sent them a message this afternoon that you were staying with me! So now," she finished, triumphantly, "that's settled! And we'll go to bed early, with books, and talk, and maybe creep down for something to eat about eleven, as we did that other night--"
"Nina," Mrs. Tabor said, in a new voice, interrupting her, "you didn't telephone Mrs. Jay, did you?"
"Indeed I did!" Nina was still smiling over the thought of her midnight raid on the pantry with a flattering and laughing and girlish Ladybird, a Ladybird who had simply "never gotten over" that chance encounter with Father in the upper hall, and who had talked of it, and of their slippered feet and kimonos, through hours of delicious giggling and embarrassment.
"Well, then, you were extremely impertinent and officious," said a new voice, that Nina hardly recognized.
Poor Nina! Harriet found her sobbing on her bed, half an hour later, and took it for a sign that the wound would cure, that Nina did not resent her sympathy and comfort. Nina was still heaving with deep sobs, albeit taking steps toward a hot bath and a becoming gown, when Ida went away. Her farewells were made only to the composed interloper, who went with her pleasantly to the hall door, and turned back with some remark for Bottomley that was in the perfect tone of the mistress. Ida's heart was hot within her as she looked her last at Crownlands, in the mellow light of the summer twilight.