Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
The curtains at the French windows in the library at Crownlands stirred in the breeze of the warm summer night, the pendulum of the big clock behind Richard Carter moved to and fro, but for a long time there was no other sound in the library. Richard had dropped his eyes, was idly staring at the blank sheet of paper before him. Royal Blondin, who had folded his arms, for a moment studied Harriet between half-closed lids, but presently his eyes fell, too, and with a rather troubled expression he studied the pattern of the great Oriental rug.
Harriet stood motionless, turned to stone. If there was anything to be said in her behalf, she could not say it now. For the first time the full measure of her responsibility and the full measure of her deceit smote her, and in utter sickness of spirit she could advance no excuse. It was not that she had failed Blondin, or that she had failed Richard, but the extent of her failure toward herself appalled her. She was not the good, brave, cultivated woman she had liked to think herself; she was one more egotist, with Nina, and Isabelle, and Ida, unscrupulously playing her own game for her own ends.
"I'm extremely sorry," Richard said, presently, in a somewhat lifeless tone. "I imagine that if my daughter had known this, she might have been spared some suffering and some humiliation. But we needn't consider that now." He was silent, frowning faintly. He put up a fine hand and adjusted his eyeglasses with a little impatient muscular twitching of his whole face that Harriet knew to be characteristic of his worried moods. "Mr. Blondin," he said, wearily and politely, "I have had a great deal on my mind, lately, and have perhaps been hasty in my condemnation of you. However, this does not particularly help your cause with my daughter. There are a great many aspects to the matter, and I--I must take time to consider them. Nina must be my first consideration, poor child! Her mother failed her--we have all failed her! She has a right to know of this conversation--"
Harriet stirred, and his eyes moved to her. Without a word, and with a stricken look in her beautiful, ashen face, she turned, and went slowly toward the door. When she reached it, she steadied herself a second by pressing one fine hand against the dark wood, then she opened it and was gone.
"I'm very sorry--" Blondin said, hesitatingly, when the men were alone.
"Mrs. Carter," Richard said, getting to his feet, and very definitely indicating an end to the conversation, "before she consented to the--arrangement into which we entered, of course took me into her confidence in this matter!"
"She--she did?" Royal stammered.
"Certainly she did," Richard said, harshly. And looking at him the other man saw that his face looked haggard and colourless. "She did not mention your name, I presume out of a sense of generosity to you. I could have wished," he added, "that you had been similarly generous, and had seen fit to leave her, and leave my daughter alone. I think I must ask you to excuse me," said Richard at the door. His tone was one of absolute suffocation. "I can see no object in your frankness to-night, unless to distress and humiliate Mrs. Carter. My daughter, and not myself, is the one entitled to your confidence, and you are well aware of my feeling where she is concerned! I would to God," said Richard, with bitterness, "that I had never seen your face! Mrs. Carter has been a useful--and indispensable!--member of this family for many years; if there was in her past some unpleasant and painful event, that is her own affair--!"
"Not when she marries a man who is unaware of it," Blondin suggested, in his pleasant, soft tones.
"That is mine!" Richard said, sternly. And he opened the library door. "Good evening!" he said.
"Good evening!" Blondin, with his light, loitering step, crossed the threshold, and Richard closed the door. He took his chair again, and reached toward the bell that would have brought Bottomley to summon Nina in turn. But halfway to the bell his resolution wavered, disappeared. Instead, he rested his elbows on the table, and his head in his hands, and there sounded from his chest a great sigh that was almost a groan.
Oh, he was tired--he was tired--he was tired! It was all a mess-- the boy, the girl, their mother, his own arrangements for their protection and safety. All a mess.
She had been beautiful, that girl, with her golden hair in the lamplight, and her white arms a little raised to rest her locked hands on the chair. Like some superb actress of tragedy, some splendid and sullen prisoner at the bar. The slender figure in the dull wrapping of satin, and the white bosom, had looked so young, so virginal, the blue eyes were so honestly frightened and ashamed. And she had been that bounder's wife--in his arms! Divorced! Harriet Field? Poor girl, cornered by this unscrupulous scoundrel, this bully, with all the ugly past dragged up like the muddy bottom of a river, staining and clouding the clear waters. And what a look she had given him, there under the lamp!
"It's a funny code," he mused. "Barbarians, that's what we are, when it comes to women. Nina, Ida, Isabelle, Harriet--all of them pay for the man-made rule! I shouldn't have forced her hand in this business marriage; it was taking an advantage of her. No woman wants to marry for anything but love, and if she had married for love, she would have made a clean breast of this old affair, of course. I didn't exact that. We've made a nice mess of it, all around!
"I mustn't let her work herself into a fever over all this!" he found himself thinking.
But Nina must be the first consideration. He must plan for Nina. He brought his thoughts back resolutely--his daughter must break her engagement now, there was that much gained. And for the journey to Rio--
"But why didn't she tell me!" he interrupted himself, suddenly. The reference was not to Nina. Again he saw the superb white shoulders in the soft flood of lamp-light, and the flash of the blue eyes that turned toward Blondin.
"She could have killed him!" Richard said. "My God! how she will love when she does love!"
Meanwhile, to Harriet had come the bitterest hour of her life. She had reached a crossroads, and with steady fingers and an anguished heart she prepared for the only step that to her whirling brain and shamed soul seemed possible. She must disappear. There was no alternative.
She had harmed them all, they could only think of her now as an unscrupulous and mischievous woman who had by chance entered their lives when they were all in desperate need of wisdom and guidance, who had played her own contemptible game, and added one more hurt to the hurt reputation of the house of Carter.
Harriet got out of her evening gown and into a loose wrapper. She went about somewhat aimlessly, yet the suitcases, spread open on the bed, were gradually filled, and her personal possessions gradually disappeared from tables and walls. Now and then she stopped short, heartsick and trembling; once her lips quivered and her eyes filled, but for the most part she did not pause.
Nina, at about eleven, had come to the door between their rooms, and opened it. The girl was undressed, and for a few moments she watched Harriet scowlingly, with narrowed eyes.
"Are you going away?" she said, presently. Harriet brought heavy eyes to meet hers, and stood considering a minute, as if bringing her thoughts back a long distance.
"I--going away? Yes," she said, slowly. "Yes, I may."
Nina still stood watching, which seemed vaguely to trouble Harriet, who gave her a restless glance now and then as she went to and fro. Presently she spoke to Nina again.
"Good-night!" snapped Nina, and the door slammed.
Harriet continued to move about for perhaps half an hour before Nina's odd manner recurred to her, on a wave of memory, and she seemed to hear again Nina's ungracious tone.
"He told her!" she said, suddenly. "She saw Royal, and he told her! Poor child--"
And she went to Nina's room, with a vague idea that she would sit beside the weeping girl for awhile, one heavy heart close to the other, even if no words could pass between them.
But Nina lay sleeping peacefully, and Harriet, after watching her for a few minutes, went back to her own room. She went to the open window, and stood staring absently out at the dark summer night, the great branches of the trees moving in the restless wind, and the oblong of dull light that still fell from the library window.
She could not see the horror as Richard saw it: she could not see herself as only a mistaken woman, a woman with youth, beauty, and intelligence pleading for her, one problem more in his life it is true, but only one among many, and not the greatest. She did not see him as he saw himself, his family as the somewhat troublesome, and yet quite understandable, group of selfish human beings in whose perplexities he had always played the part of arbiter.
To Harriet the thing loomed momentous, unforgivable, incalculable. It assumed to her the proportions of a murder. Bigamy, perjury, deceit--what hadn't she done! Richard, in her estimation, was not what he thought himself, a somewhat ordinary man in the forties whose life had already held poverty and disillusionment and wholesome disappointment, whose nature had been tempered to humour and generosity and philosophy; to Harriet, he was the richest, the finest, the most deserving of men, and she the adventuress who had brought his name down to shame and dishonour.
Until two o'clock she was wretchedly busy in soul and body. When the last of her personal possessions was packed, and when she was aching from head to foot, she took a hot bath, and crept into bed.
But not to sleep. The feverish agonies of shame and reproach held her. She was pleading with Richard, she was talking to Nina--she was making little of it--making much of it--she was saying a reluctant "yes--yes--yes!" to their questioning.
At four o'clock she dressed herself again, half-mad with headache and fatigue, and went out into a world that was just beginning to brighten into faint shapes and colours. The fresh cold air of morning struck her jaded senses with a delicious chill; she went noiselessly across the terrace and down toward the water, her big soft coat brushing spider-webs from the dim rosebushes as she went. The world lay silent, fragrant, saturated with dew. Yet under its chill Harriet felt the pervading warmth of the day that had gone, and the day that was to come.
She drew in great breaths of it; it was her world for another three hours. Then men would begin to stir themselves, down at the river docks, and at the stables and garages, and smoke would go up from the chimneys of Crownlands, and rakes clink on the gravel walks. She went down to the little pier, and sat on a weather-worn bench, and watched the day breaking softly over the river.
Little wrinkles crossed the satiny surface of the Hudson, which looked dark and metallic in the twilight. But presently there was a general glimmering and widening, and across the river trees and houses were touched with light, and window-panes flashed. Harriet, huddled into her coat, did not stir; she might have been, for an hour, a part of the motionless scene.
A steamer moved majestically up the river, the smoothly widening wake spread from shore to shore; pink light showed at one cabin window; and into Harriet's sombre thoughts came unbidden the picture of a yawning cook, stumbling about amid his soot-blackened pots and pans.
With the morning, the peace of a conquered spirit fell upon her. She had thought it all to an ending at last. It seemed to Harriet that never in her life had she thought so clearly, so truly, so bravely. Her duty to Richard, to his children, to Linda; she had faced them without fear and without deception, tasting the humiliating truth to its bitter dregs, planning the few short interviews that must precede her leaving them all forever.
For Harriet emerged from the furnace the mistress of her own soul. She had been wrong; she had been weak; she had been contemptible; but not so wrong or weak or contemptible as they would think her. She would go on her way now, the braver for the lesson and the shame. And what they thought of her must never shake again her own knowledge of her own innocence.
Go on her way to what? She did not know. But she neither feared what the future might hold nor doubted, it. She could make her own way from a new beginning.
"But before I go," said Harriet, resolutely, "I must tell him that I'm sorry. And I must ask Nina to forgive me."
She turned, and buried her face in the thick, soft sleeve of her coat. But she did not cry long, and when Jensen, the boatman, came out on the dock at seven, the lady he knew to be his new mistress was sitting composedly enough on her bench, studying the now glittering and sparkling river with quiet eyes.
Harriet nodded to him, and rose somewhat stiffly, to go up to the house. She mounted the brick steps with a thoughtfully dropped head--the straight shafts of the sunlight were making it impossible to face the house, in any case--and so was within three feet of Richard Carter before she saw him.
He looked fresh, hard, even young, in his white flannels. They stood looking at each other for a moment without speaking.
"Where have you been?" said Richard, sharply, then. "You look ill!"
Tears, despite her desperate resolution, suddenly stung Harriet's eyes. And yet her heart leaped with hope.
"I wanted to see you, Mr. Carter," she faltered. "I couldn't sleep very well. I've been down at the shore. But later--any time will do!"
"You couldn't sleep!" he exclaimed with quick sympathy. He looked from her about him, as if for a shelter for her emotion. "Here," he said, "come down the steps a bit. I was just going down to the court for a little tennis; Ward may follow me, but he won't be dressed for half an hour yet. Sit down here; we can talk."
They had come to the marble bench on the terrace, where Isabelle and Anthony Pope, sheltered by these same towering trees and low brick walls, had had their talk a year ago. Harriet, to her own consternation, felt that she was in danger of tears.
"I--I hardly know how to say it," she began. "But--but you know how ashamed I am!"
"I know--I know how you feel!" Richard said with a sort of brief sympathy. "I'm sorry! But you know you mustn't take this all too hard. I didn't--I was thinking of this last night; I didn't ask you for--well, any more than you gave me, in this marriage of ours. Your divorce was your own affair--"
The girl's tired eyes flashed.
"There was no divorce!" she said, quickly.
"No divorce?" he echoed with a puzzled frown.
"I want to tell you about it!" she said. But the tears would come again. "I'm tired!" Harriet said, childishly, trying to smile. "I've been up--walking. I couldn't sleep!"
The consciousness that he had been able to forget the whole tangle, and sleep soundly, gave Richard's voice a little compunction as he said:
"You don't have to tell me now. We'll find a way out of it that is easy for everyone--"
"No, but let me talk!" Harriet, in her eagerness, laid her fingers on his wrist, and he was shocked to feel that they were icy cold. "I want to tell you the whole thing--I want you to understand!" she said, eagerly. Richard looked at her in some anxiety; there was no acting here. The rich hair was pushed carelessly from the troubled forehead. She was huddled in the enveloping coat, a different figure indeed from his memory of the superb and angry girl of last night in the library lamplight.
"Mr. Carter, I never knew my mother--" she began. But he interrupted her.
"My dear," he said, in a tone he might have used to Nina. He laid his warm, fine hand on hers, and patted it soothingly. "My dear girl, if you feel that you would like to go to that motherly sister of yours--if you feel that it would be wiser--"
"Oh, I am going to Linda at once!" Harriet said, feverishly, hurt to the soul. "I had planned that! But--but won't you let me tell you?" she pleaded. She had framed the sentences a hundred times in the long night; they failed her utterly now, and she groped for words. "I was only three years old when my mother died," she said. "Of course I don't remember her--I only remember Linda. I was shy, my father was a professor, we were too poor to have very much social life. I lived in books, lived in my father's shabby little study really; I never had an intimate girl friend! Linda was always good--angelically good--talking of the Armenian sufferers, and of the outrages in the Congo, and of the poor in New York's lower east side--she never cared that we were poor, and that we hadn't clothes!"
"I know--I know!" Richard's eyes were smiling, as if he knew the picture, and liked it.
"Well, Linda married when I was ten, and Josephine came, and then Julia came. I still lived for books and babies. But, unlike Linda, I cared." Harriet's whole face glowed; she looked off into space, and her voice had a longing note. "I cared for clothes and good times!" she said. "I adored the children, but I dreamed of carriages--maids--glory--achievements! I knew that other women did it--"
"I remember feeling that way!" Richard commented, mildly, as she paused.
"Well," Harriet said, "I met Royal Blondin one night. He lived in our town--Watertown. He had a dreadful, artificial sort of mother. My sister didn't approve of her at all. A friend of his named Street was an artist, and he had a nice little wife, and a baby, and they lived in a big, barnlike sort of studio. It seemed wonderful to me. They loved each other, and their baby, but they were so free! They would have the whole crowd to dinner, twenty of us, bread and red wine and macaroni and music and talk, it was wonderful--or I thought so! It was so different from Linda's ideas, of frosted layer-cake, and chopped nuts, and Five Hundred. I loved the studio, and they--they all loved me, and he--Royal-- loved me especially. He used to talk about Yogi philosophy and Oriental religions and poetry, and after awhile it was understood among them all that he loved me, and I him. And we were engaged. Of course Linda suspected, and there was opposition at home, but in the studio, helping the Streets get their suppers, it seemed so right--so simple! Royal said he did not believe in the orthodox ceremony of marriage. He argued that no one could live up to its promises, and I believed him. Miriam Street, the artist's wife, was a poet, and she wrote the ceremony by which we were married. We had a big supper, and they were all there, and this poem--this marriage poem--was beautiful. It was published in a magazine, afterward, and called 'A Marriage for True Lovers'. It had a part for the woman to say, and a part for the man, and Royal and I said those, and then it had a part for the woman's friend, and the man's friend, and for all their friends. And then there was a promise that when love failed on either side, the two were free, to keep the memory of the perfect love unstained by the ugly years."
She paused; Richard did not speak. She had told him this much in a simple, childish voice, a voice that was an echo of that old time, he knew. Presently she went on:
"There was music, and then they all kissed me, and we had supper, and they drank our health. I went back that night to my sister's; Royal stayed with his mother. We planned to go away on our honeymoon the next day. I did not tell Linda and Fred that I considered myself married. I knew they would not understand and would try to interfere.
"The next morning I slipped away from the house, with my suitcase, and I met Royal Blondin downtown. We motored to Syracuse, and took a train there for New York. I had felt sick when I awakened--it was partly excitement, and partly the supper the night before, when we had all eaten and drunk too much. But I was very sick in the train, I thought I was going to die. Royal persuaded me to eat my lunch in the dining car, and that only made me worse. There was a nice woman in the train, with two little girls, and she took care of me. And when she got to New York--I had told her that I was on my wedding journey, and perhaps that made her kind--she took us to her boarding-house, in West Forty-sixth Street. The landlady was a dear, good woman, a Mrs. Harrington, and--I was very sick by this time!--she put me into her own room, because the house was full, and sent for her own doctor.
"It was a time of horror," Harriet said, smiling a little, after a moment of thought. "The strange women and the strange room, and Royal coming in with flowers, and sitting beside me. The doctor said it was a touch of poisoning, and I was ill only a few days. But the home-sickness, and the strangeness! Somehow, I didn't feel married, I felt like a lost little girl. I wanted to be back in Linda's kitchen again, safe, and scolding because nothing interesting ever happened.
"Well, I was sick for three or four days. It was the fourth day when I was well enough to go out. Royal thanked them, and paid Mrs. Harrington and the doctor and we went to lunch downtown--it was at Martin's, I remember, and Royal was so excited and interested in everything. But I still felt limp and dull. We shopped and went about seeing things after lunch, and then we went to the hotel where he was staying. We were registered there as Mr. and Mrs. Blondin; it was all quite taken for granted."
Harriet stopped; her face was drawn and white, her words coming with difficulty, the phrases brief and dry. Richard was paying her absolute attention, his eyes fixed upon her face.
"We had dinner upstairs," she said. She paused, her lips tight pressed.
"I can't tell you," she began again, suddenly, "I can't tell you how it was that I came suddenly to know that I was too young for marriage! In Miriam Street's little studio, where they were laughing about the baby and the supper, it had seemed different. But here, in a hotel, I suddenly wanted my sister, I wanted to be home again.
"We were talking and planning naturally enough. Royal was coming and going in the two rooms; I had plenty of chance to--to escape. Every time I let one go by my heart beat harder."
He could tell from her voice that her heart was beating hard now with the memory of that old time.
"If I had let them all go by," she recommenced, "my life would have been different. In a few weeks we would have come back to Watertown, as man and wife, and perhaps had a studio near the Streets', and perhaps found a solution. But I couldn't!
"I caught up my coat; left my hat and bag. I went down the stairs, not daring to wait for the elevator. And I went to Mrs. Harrington's. She was very kind and took me in; she said that perhaps it would be better to wait--until I was older. I cried all night, and the next day Mrs. Harrington lent me the money and I went back to Linda.
"Of course, it was terrible, at first. But they were kind to me, in their way. And I was--cured. I went into hysterics at the first mention of the whole hideous thing. They saw Roy, and they told me that I need never see him again. The papers--for it got to the papers!--said that a divorce had been arranged, but there was no need for a divorce. It was all hushed up--Linda and Fred never spoke of it. I--ah, well, I couldn't!
"But when Fred's brother, David, who was in dental college then, began to like me, then they began to make light of it," Harriet remembered. "There had been no marriage, of course, either in law or in fact. They all knew that. And I suppose if I had married David it might have been happier for me. But as it was, I angered them. I didn't want to marry David. And so it was what folly girls got themselves into--what the world thought of a girl who had been 'talked about'--what the least breath of scandal meant!"
"And you went back to Blondin?" Richard suggested.
"I? No, I never saw him again until a year ago in this garden!" Harriet said.
"You never saw him again!" the man ejaculated.
"Not for nine years!"
"But--my God, my dear girl, he spoke of you as his wife!" Richard said.
"He said I had been. Not that I was now!"
The man looked at her, looked away at the river, and shrugged his shoulders as if he were mystified by the ways of women.
"But--you were never his wife?" he said, flatly.
"Oh, no! You didn't think," Harriet said, hurt, "that I would have married you, or any one else, if I had been!"
"You let him blackmail you for that," Richard further marvelled.
"I knew--in my own mind, of course, that I was not to blame," the girl said, anxiously. "But it sounded--horrible."
Richard bit his lower lip, looked critically at his racket, slowly shook his head.
"I didn't mind what any one thought," Harriet said, reading his thought. "But they did!"
"They?" Richard repeated, patiently.
"Everyone," she supplied, promptly. "Your wife, your mother, Mary Putnam! Even Mrs. Tabor."
"I suppose so!" he conceded, after a pause. And beneath his breath he added, "Isabelle--Ida Tabor!"
His tone was all she asked of exquisite reassurance.
"I hoped you wouldn't!" she said, standing up with clasped hands and a sudden brightening of her tired and colourless face. "That's what I tried to make myself believe you would feel! I wanted so to leave it all behind. I thought he had gone, that it was all over, that what it was mattered more than what it sounded like! I thought I could save Nina better, with what I knew, than any one else! But last night," Harriet added, "proved to me that I had been all wrong. I've been so worried," she added, with utter faith in his decision. "I don't know what you think we had better do."
For a full minute Richard watched her in silence. Then he said, mildly:
"About Nina, you mean?"
"About everything!" Harriet suddenly laughed gaily, like a child. Life seemed once more straight and pleasant in this exquisite June morning; she felt puzzled, but somehow no longer afraid. The menacing horrors of all the years, the vague uneasiness that she had never quite dared to face, were fluttering about her awakening spirit like Alice's pack of cards.
"Nina will come into line," her father said, thoughtfully, "she doesn't know what she wants. I wish--I wish he loved her!" he added, with a faint frown. "I'll see him about it again. We'll take her to Rio. She'll get over it."
"And--" Harriet stopped, and began again: "And do you want things to go on just as they are?" she asked.
For answer Richard smiled at her in silence.
"No," he said, finally. "I can't say that I do. I want you to worry less, and to buy yourself some new gowns, and to begin to enjoy life! Shakespeare had you down fine when he talked about conscience making cowards of us all. What did you do it for? A young, capable, good-looking girl scared by a lot of old women! Now, we'll take up this Nina question, later on. You'd better go up and get yourself some coffee, and go to bed for awhile. Better plan to be in town for a day or two, for you'll both need clothes for the steamer--"
"You're very kind," the girl said, eyes averted, voice almost inaudible. They were both standing now, Harriet's head turned aside, so that he could not see her face, but her soft fingers resting in his.
"I'm not kind at all!" Richard said, with a rather confused laugh. He patted her hand encouragingly. "The sea trip will shake both you and Nina up, and do you a world of good!" he said.
"You think--" Harriet raised the soft, dark lashes, and her splendid, weary eyes met his, "You really aren't worried about Nina?"
And she tried by a very faint stirring of her fingers to free them, and finding them held, dropped her eyes again.
"I think I have Blondin's number," Richard said, with more force than eloquence. Then with a little laugh that was partly amused and partly embarrassed, he let her go.
He watched the young, slender figure and the shining, bare head until they disappeared among the great trees about the house.