Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Madame Carter, gathering her draperies about her, was one of the first to leave the terrace. Dressing for dinner was a slow and serious business for her. She gave Harriet a cold, appraising glance as she passed her; Richard Carter had risen to escort his mother, but she delayed him for a moment.
"Miss Nina gone in, Miss Field?"
Harriet, whose manner with all old persons was the essence of scrupulous formality, rose at once to her feet.
"Nina has gone to change her dress, Madame Carter."
"She took it upon herself to ask you to help us out this afternoon?" the old lady added, with the sort of gracious cruelty of which she was mistress. Richard Carter gave his daughter's companion a look that asked indulgence. Harriet coloured brightly, fixing her eyes upon his mother.
"Nina brought me a message from her mother, Madame Carter."
"Miss Nina did?" Madame Carter amended the title as if absently. "Mrs. Carter," she added, with a glance toward the near-by group in whose centre they could see the cream-coloured gown with its pink poppies, "told me that she was surprised to see that you had- -had stepped into the breach so nicely--" Her son's reproachful glance had the effect of interrupting her, and she turned to him. "Well, I am saying that it was very nice of Miss Field, Richard," she protested. "I am sure there is no harm in my saying that, my dear!"
Harriet said nothing, and resumed her seat as the old lady rustled slowly away. Her heart was hot with fury, and she was only partly soothed by hearing Richard Carter's murmur of reproach: "How can you be so perverse, Mother--"
"Of all the detestable, horrible, maddening--" Harriet thought, splashing hot water and clattering tea-cups. "Who's coming?" she added aloud in an undertone to Ward, as one more motor swept about the carriage drive.
"What is it, Beautiful?" Ward laughed. Harriet's glorious eyes widened into smiling warning. His open and boyish admiration was a sort of joke between them. Yet in this second, as he craned his neck to get a glimpse of the approaching guests, a sudden thought was born in her. Honour had compelled her to a generous policy with Ward. She had held his admiration firmly in check, she had maintained a big-sister attitude that was as wholesome for herself as for him.
But here, she thought with sudden satisfaction, might be her answer to his grandmother's snubs, might be the realization of her own ambition, after all. Ward was but four years her junior, and Ward would be Richard Carter's heir.
No, that was nonsense, of course. And yet she played with the thought amusedly, enjoying the vision of the old lady's anger and confusion, and of the world's amazement at the masterly move of the quiet secretary. Richard would be generous, thought Harriet idly, Isabelle philosophical and indifferent, but how old Madame Carter would writhe!
"It's the Bellamys and their crowd," said Ward, watching the approach of newcomers. "Look at that man with them, that fellow with the hair--that's Blondin! That's the man I was telling you about the other night, the man whose name I couldn't remember!"
Harriet did not know whether she said it or screamed it. She lost all consciousness of her surroundings and her neighbours for a few terrible seconds; her mouth was dry, her throat constricted, and a hideous weakness ran like nausea through her entire body. The brilliant terrace swam in a mass of mingled colours before her eyes; the casual, happy chatter about her was brassy and unintelligible. The hand with which she touched the sugar tongs was icy cold, a pain split her forehead, and she felt suddenly tired and broken. She sat perfectly still, like a trembling little mouse in a trap, the colour drained from her face, her breast rising and falling as if she had been running.
Ward had gone across to greet the Bellamys; Harriet fixed her eyes with a sort of fascination upon the man to whom she presently saw him talking. Almost everyone else in the group was looking at him, too; Royal Blondin was used to it; one of his favourite affectations was an apparent unconsciousness of being observed.
He talked to everyone, to children, to great persons and small, with the same air of intense concentration with which he was now honouring Ward. Well over six feet in height, he had dropped his leonine head, with its thick locks of dark hair, a little on one side; his mobile, thin lips were set, and his piercing eyes searched the boy's face with a sort of passionate attention.
His figure was one to challenge attention anywhere. He wore a loosely cut suit of pongee silk, the collar of the shirt flowing open, and a blue scarf knotted at the throat. On one of his long dark hands there was a blazing sapphire ring, and about his wide- brimmed Panama hat the folded silk was of the same colour. Harriet could catch the intonations of his voice, a deep and musical voice, which turned the trifles they were discussing into matters of sudden import and beauty.
Introductions were in order, everyone wanted to meet the Bellamys' friend, and Harriet saw that it pleased him, for some inscrutable reason, to continue his ridiculous conversation with the flattered Ward, and to accept names and greetings absently, in an aside, as it were, smiling perfunctorily and briefly at the eager girls and women, and returning immediately to his concerned and passionate undertones with the boy.
Isabelle fluttered forward, to fare a little more fortunately. Ward dropped into the background now, and his beautiful little mother stood in a full sunset flood of light, with her small hand in that of the lion, and the cream and black hat, with its pink roses, close to the drooping, reverential head.
It was Isabelle who brought him to the tea table. Harriet had felt, with a sure premonition of disaster, that it must be. She might not escape, there was nothing for it but courage, now. Her breath was behaving badly, and the muscles contracted in her throat, but she managed a smile.
"And this is Miss Field, Mr. Blondin," said Isabella. "She will give you some tea!"
"Miss Field," said Royal Blondin, and his dark hand came across the tea-cups. Harriet, as his thin mouth twitched with just the hint of a smile, looked straight into his eyes, and she knew he was as frightened as she. But from neither was there a visible sign of consternation. "No tea," the man said, making of the decision a splendid and significant renunciation. "Nothing-- nothing!"
"He only eats about once a month, and then it's dates and hay and camel's milk and carrots!" Ward was beginning. Royal Blondin gave him a look, deeply amused and affectionate.
"Not quite so bad, Laddie!" he protested, mildly.
"We might manage the dates," Isabelle smiled. Harriet had not spoken because she was quite unable to command her voice. But she gained it now to say in an undertone:
"I think I shall have to go in, Mrs. Carter. I promised Nina some help with her Spanish. I wonder--"
"You speak Spanish, Miss Field?" said Royal Blondin, in Spanish.
This was an invitation to Ward to burst into involved sentences in the tongue; Royal Blondin turned to him seriously. The rest of the company might be bored or not, as they pleased, but he was only interested in testing the boy's accent and vocabulary. As a matter of fact, everyone laughed and listened, perfectly appreciating Ward's mad ventures and the other man's liquid and easy assistance. A few seconds later Harriet Field slipped from her place, crossed the terrace with her heart beating sick and fast with fright, and made her escape.
She ran up the awninged steps that led to the square great hall, and ascertained with relief that it was empty. On all sides wide doorways gave her perspectives: the drawing rooms, in their brilliant summer covers; the porches, with wicker tables and chairs; the music room; the breakfast room all cheerful green and white; the library, in cool north shadow; and the dining room, long and dark and dignified, where maids were already moving noiselessly about the business of dinner. Here in the hall was the pleasant shade and coolness, the subtle drifting scent of early summer flowers, space, and the simplicity of dark polished floors and sombre rugs. The whole house seemed empty, lovely, silent, after the confusion of the terrace and the heat of the summer day.
Harriet mounted the stairs, threaded the familiar, pleasant hallways above. She and Nina had a luxurious suite on the second floor, shut off from the rest of the house by a single door, and rather remotely placed in a wing that commanded a superb view of the river. There were guest rooms on this floor, Richard Carter's room and his wife's beautiful rooms, and there was an upstairs sitting room. But Madame Carter and her grandson and his friends had their rooms on the third floor, the old lady demanding a quiet and isolation that her daughter-in-law's proximity did not favour.
Nina, half-dressed, was sprawling luxuriously on her bed when Harriet came in. The three rooms of their suite were joined by doors almost always open; they were small rooms, but to both the young women they had always seemed entirely satisfactory. Just now they were in shade, but outside the windows the blue river glittered, and the fresh, heavy foliage of the trees moved softly, and inside was every charm of furnishing, of brilliant flowered draperies, and of exquisite order. There was a business-like heap of mail on Harriet's big desk; there were flowers everywhere; fan- tailed Japanese gold fish moved languidly about in a tall bowl of clear glass, and Nina's emerald-green parrot walked upon his gaily painted perch, and muttered in a significant and chuckling undertone. Glass doors were open upon a square porch, and the sweet afternoon air stirred the crisp, transparent curtains.
Harriet shut the door, and leaned against it, and the world spun about her. What now? What now? What now? hammered her heart. Nina tossed aside her magazine, and regarded her with affectionate reproach.
"You ran upstairs!" she said. "I'm lying on your bed because Maude had the laundry all over mine. Are you going to lie down?"
"No, my dear!" said Harriet, in an odd, breathy whisper.
"You did run upstairs!" murmured Nina. She sat up, and put her bare feet on the floor, groping for slippers, and yawned, with a red face. "What time is it?"
"It's--" Harriet shook back the ruffle at her wrist, twisted her arm slightly, and looked blindly down.
"Well?" said Nina, when she dropped her hand. But Harriet, smiling at her blankly, had to look again.
"Six, dear--almost. Brush your hair, and get into something, and we'll have half an hour before dinner comes up. I must be downstairs for awhile to-night, I want to see just how the new cook sends dinner in Your mother wasn't at all satisfied with luncheon yesterday. I don't know why this comes to me," she added, busy with her mail in the little sitting room. "Something your father ordered through the club. I'll send that to Mr. Fox. Here's the bill for your two hats--Miss Nina Carter, by Miss Field."
"What was the blue one?" asked Nina in the doorway, from a cloud of hair.
"The-blue-one," Harriet said, absently, "was forty-five dollars. Not bad for a smart little English hat with a little curled cock feather on it, was it? It's quite the nicest you've ever had, I think." What now?--What now? hammered her heart.
"Granny paid three times that for that brown hat last winter," observed Nina.
"I know she did, and it was absolutely an unsuitable hat, and your mother wouldn't let you wear it," Harriet said, mildly. "You are a type, my dear. You must dress for that type."
Nina looked pleased. She was at an age when all girls are vain. Few people noticed the appearance of the young heiress of Richard Carter, except perhaps with kindly pity, but it was part of Miss Field's duty to make the best of it, and Nina was grateful.
"I'll wear it to Francesca's tea!" she said, of the blue hat. The social bow of a young neighbour, a little older than Nina, was to be made in a few days' time, at a garden party, and Nina was absorbed in the exciting prospect of assisting formally.
"No, it's not full dress," Harriet told her. "You'll have to wear the white mull, and the white hat, and look very girly-girly."
"My eye-glasses make me look like a school-teacher playing baby," Nina said, gloomily. Harriet laughed, dazed, but not ungrateful to find that she could laugh and speak at all.
"He's come back!" she said in her heart. "My darling child, you aren't going to wear your glasses!" she assured Nina, aloud. "Not if you have to have a dog and a cane! Not if you fall into the fountain!"
"I shall be scared stiff!" Nina grumbled, coming out with her Spanish books. Harriet, distracted for a moment, came to lean over her shoulder, and the terror of half an hour ago began to flood her soul and mind again. She went out to the porch, and looked down into the clear shade of the early twilight, under the trees. The terrace was deserted; every sign of the tea-party had vanished, not a crumb marred the order of the grass-grown bricks. The chairs held formal attitudes, the table was empty. All the motor-cars were gone from the drive. She turned back into the room, breathing more easily.
At half-past seven she came up from a little diplomatic adjusting in the service end of the house, to peep at Nina, who was reading in bed, and to go on to Isabelle's room. If Mrs. Carter was alone, she liked to see Harriet then, to be sure of any last message, or to discuss any domestic plan.
Harriet found her, exquisite in twinkling black spangles, before her mirror. Isabelle's hair was dressed in dark and shining waves and scallops, netted invisibly, set with brilliant pins. There was not an inch of her whole beautiful little person that would not have survived a critical inspection. Her skin, her white throat, her arms and hands and fingernails, her waist and ankles and her pretty feet, were all absolute perfection. The illusion that veiled her slender arms stood at crisp angles; the silk stockings showed a warm skin tint through their thinness; her lower eyelids had been skillfully darkened, her cheeks delicately rouged, and her lips touched with carmine; her brows had been clipped and trained and pencilled, her lashes brushed with liquid dye, and what fragrant powders and perfumes could add, had been added in generous measure. She wore diamonds on her fingers, in her ears, and about her throat, and her gown was held at her full smooth breast by a platinum bar that bore a double line of magnificent stones. Harriet always thought her handsome; to-night she had to admit that her employer was truly beautiful.
Mrs. Carter was in a pleasant mood; she had a good disposition, and there was nothing in her life now to ruffle it. She liked her bright, luxurious dressing room, and the progress of her toilette was soothing and restful. Her maid had been busy with her for nearly two hours. The air was warm and fragrant, the prospect of dinner, with its eagerly attendant Tony, rather stirred her, and the mirror had everything delightful to say. Like all women of forty, Isabelle liked the night, tempered lights and becoming settings, and the dignity of formal entertaining. Last but not least, she had a new toy to-night, a great black fan of uncurled wild ostrich plumes whose tumbled beauty she waved about her slowly as Harriet came in, watching the effect in the mirror with intense satisfaction.
"Oh, pretty--pretty!" Harriet said, seeing it.
"Isn't it ducky? Anthony Pope just sent it to me--the dear boy. I don't know where he picks things up, or how he knows what's right." Mrs. Carter half-closed the fan, and laid it against her bare shoulder, and looked at it with tipped head and half-closed eyes.
"Did you see What's-His-Name?" she asked.
Harriet understood the allusion to the new chef.
"I've just been down there," she said. "Everything seems to be all right, and looks delicious!"
"That's nice of you, Harriet," Isabelle said. The kitchen was not strictly Harriet's responsibility, but Mrs. Carter had been making changes there of late, and the girl's interest and interference were invaluable. She laid down the fan, and pushed a silver case toward her secretary, at the same time helping herself to a cigarette. But Harriet shook her head.
"You're very clever, you know," Isabelle smiled, through a cloud of pale smoke. "You're always in character, Harriet!"
Harriet smiled her inscrutable smile; there was just the suggestion of a shrug. She had her own cigarette-case, and not infrequently used it in Isabelle's presence. But at this hour, when Richard or Ward or Nina, or even Madame Carter, might come in, she felt any familiarity unsuitable. Isabelle, the least affected of women, for all her spoiling and vanity, perfectly appreciated this, and liked Harriet for it.
"You amuse me," said Isabelle, making a long arm to brush away the ash from her cigarette, "playing your part so discreetly. Your neat little old-maidy silks--"
"Is it old-maidy?" Harriet asked, mildly, glancing down at the severe blue cross-barred gown she wore, and straightening a transparent cuff.
"Not on you!" Isabella assured her. But her thoughts never left herself long, and presently she discontentedly introduced her favourite topic: "I could have been a business woman," she announced, thoughtfully, "my father wouldn't hear of it, of course. We had no money!"
"We had no money, and no father," Harriet observed. "So I had no choice. At eighteen I had to make my own way."
"At eighteen I jumped into marriage," the older woman said, still with a reminiscent resentment in her tone. "Mr. Carter had his mother to support, of course. We thought we were pretty reckless to pay sixty dollars rent. He was only twenty, he was getting what was supposed to be an enormous salary then. Heavens--it seems thousands of years ago!"
Harriet, who had imagination, could see it. The little brilliant wife, insisting upon the fashionable apartment, worrying over the extravagances of the one maid. The man eager only to push on, to more money, more responsibility, wider fields, to make to-day's extravagance to-morrow's reasonable expenditure.
Isabelle picked up the fan again, and gave her brilliant presentment in the mirror a complacent glance.
"Is Mr. Pope's apartment attractive?" Harriet, who knew where her thoughts were, asked idly. The older woman heard her perfectly, but she affected indifference.
"Is--I didn't hear you. Oh--Mr. Pope's apartment. My dear, it is perfection--absolutely. I have never seen anything so beautiful, and so beautifully managed. And all by that boy. He has two coloured women and the man--just a perfect menage. And they adore him. Absolutely!" She mused happily, her lips twitching with some amusing memory. Then she became businesslike. "Harriet, do you go to the city this week?"
"Nina and the girls are to see Ruth St. Denis on Friday," Harriet said. "I thought Madame Carter would take them, but now she says no. But if Nina stays with her grandmother overnight, I thought I would like to see my sister; she hasn't been very well. That can wait, of course. Miss Jay's tea-party is to-morrow; that's Thursday--"
"And that reminds me that Louise Jay telephoned to-day, and asked me if you would take charge of the tea table," Isabelle said, with a shrewd glance.
"At Mrs. Jay's house?" Harriet asked, after a second.
"Yes, at Francesca's tea-party!"
Harriet hesitated, and the colour crept into her smooth cheeks.
"I wonder why she asked that?"
"Because, in the first place, no one will drink tea," Isabelle who was watching her intently said promptly. "In the second, Morgan won't be there, because she says it's a kiddies' tea. I can't be there, and presumably Mrs. Jay wants to depend on someone."
"One wonders," mused Harriet, in a most unpromising tone, "whether one is asked as a maid, or a guest?"
"In this case, as a mother," Isabelle was inspired to answer. "Personally, I should very much like it for Nina's sake. But you suit yourself!"
The tone denied the words; Harriet knew what she was expected to do. She knew that Isabelle would tell Mrs. Jay, in a day or two, that she had simply mentioned it to Miss Field, and Miss Field had been free to act exactly as she pleased. She knew that faintly annoyed expression on Isabelle's face.
"I'll be delighted to help!" she said, lifelessly. "A lot of women and children," she reflected, "and nobody drinking tea anyway, this weather!"
"I say, Mater," Ward said from the doorway, with what he fondly believed to be an English accent, "I'm no end peckish, what what? Say, Mother," he added, becoming suddenly serious, "what do you think of Blondin? Isn't he a corker? Say, listen, are you going to ask him to dinner? Do we have to have the whole Bellamy tribe if we ask him, Miss Harriet?"
"Don't spill things and fuss with things, Ward," his mother protested plaintively, protecting her bottles and jars from his big hands as he sat down. "Yes, dear, we'll have him. I like him because he was so enthusiastic about you. He's really quite a person."
"Person--you bet he is!" Ward said. "Gosh, he knows everything. You ought to get him started about--oh, I don't know, philosophy, and the way we all are forever getting things we don't want, and music--he can beat the box, believe me! He gave talks at the Pomeroys' last year--"
Nina, trailing in in a blue wrapper, sat herself upon a chair, wrapped her garments about her, and entered interestedly into the conversation.
"'The Ethics of the Everyday'," she contributed. "I remember it because Adelaide Pomeroy and I used to be in the pantry, eating the tea things. And he talked at our school about Tagore."
"I remember those talks at Lizzie Pomeroy's," Isabelle said, thoughtfully. "I wish I had gone! I suppose he's got a book out. Will you see if you can get me anything he's written when you're in town, Harriet? If we're going to have him here--"
She glanced at herself in the glass, where a more primitive woman, in a jungle, would have commenced a slow, solitary dance and song. If the hint of a scornful smile touched the secretary's beautiful mouth, she suppressed it. She had a little notebook in her pocket, and in it she duly entered the name of Royal Blondin.
"Too much rouge on this side, Mother," said Ward. Mrs. Carter picked up a hand-mirror, and studied herself carefully. When she had powdered and rubbed one cheek, she thoughtfully rouged her lips again, pouting them artfully, while Harriet and the children chattered. Nina was full of excited anticipation. Francesca's tea to-morrow, and the box-party on Friday, and a new gown for each- Nina fancied herself already a popular and lovely debutante. Harriet imagined that she saw something of a brother's pity in Ward's eyes as he watched her. Ward himself looked his best in his evening black, and several years older than he really was.
"We're a handsome couple, Miss Harriet," said Ward, with a glance toward the door of solid mirror that chanced to reflect them both. "Aren't we, Mother?"
"You're an idiot!" said Nina, scornfully. Harriet laughed maternally, but in spite of herself her idle dream of the afternoon returned for a second, and she wondered just how that faintly supercilious smile of Isabelle's would be affected if she had her own right, here in this family group, a Carter of the Carters, daughter of the house. And thinking this, her smoky blue eyes met Ward's, and perhaps there was something in them that he had not seen there before. At all events, she was ashamed to see him colour suddenly, and become a little incoherent, and to have him turn to her his full attention, with a sort of boyish clumsiness that was touching in its way. Imaginary or not, the trifling episode troubled her, and as Madame Carter came majestically in and the little clock on the dresser pointed to the hour, she said her good-nights, and carried Nina off again.
Richard Carter's wife and mother differed in no particular more strikingly than in their attitude toward the toilet artifices they both employed so lavishly. The old lady's beauty was even more than Isabelle's assisted by art, for her snowy-white hair was a wig, her teeth not her own, and her eyebrows quite openly manufactured without one single natural hair to build upon. But it pleased her generation to regard these facts as sacred, and to assume that the secrets of the boudoir were unsuspected. Even Nina never saw so much as a powder puff in her grandmother's dressing room, and any compliment upon her hair or complexion Madame Carter received with gracious dignity.
She looked at Ward's departing back, now, and remarked with pointed reproof:
"My son has never seen his mother even in the act of brushing her hair! There are reserves--there are niceties--"
"Where did you have it brushed--down at the shop?" Isabelle asked, laughing. Madame Carter never failed to be staggered by her daughter-in-law's irreverence, yet she never could quite resist the criticisms that courted it.
"For the last few years, I admit," she conceded with a somewhat shaken dignity, "I admit that I have had recourse to what they call 'puffs'--you know what I mean? Made of my own hair, of course--"
"Made of your own imagination!" Isabelle amended, in her own heart. But she only gave the old lady a somewhat disquieting smile as she picked up the tumbled black fan and led the way down to dinner.