Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
The summer Sunday ran its usual course. Ward and his sister went to luncheon at the club; Madame Carter drove majestically to a late service in the pretty, vine-covered village church. Harriet, at last able to relax in soul and body, slept hour after glorious hour. Richard, returning from golf for a late luncheon, asked for her. Mrs. Carter was still asleep, Bottomley assured him, and received orders not to disturb her. But when Mr. Blondin called, Richard told the butler he was to be shown to the terrace at once.
At three o'clock, therefore, Royal Blondin followed his guide out to the basket chairs that were set under the trees, and here he found Richard, comfortably smoking, and alone. The host rose to greet him, but they did not shake hands, and measured each other like wrestlers as they sat down.
"I had your message," Royal said, as an opening.
"You've not seen Nina to-day?" Nina's father asked.
"I broke an engagement with her at the club," the other man assured him. "We will probably meet at the Bellamys', at dinner this evening."
"Ah, it was about that I wished to speak." Richard paused, and Blondin watched him with polite interest. "You have held your knowledge of Mrs. Carter as a sort of weapon for some months," Richard said. presently, "to use it when you saw fit. I have always been in my wife's confidence--"
He paused, but for no reason that Blondin could divine. As a matter of fact, it gave Richard a sudden and unexpected pleasure to speak of her so, to realize that he really might give the most wonderful title in the world to this beautiful and spirited woman.
"And I have also talked with Nina this morning," he went on. "I regret to say that her intentions have not altered."
"A loyal little heart!" Blondin said, gravely and contentedly. "I knew I could depend upon her!"
Richard looked at him steadily for a moment, and felt carefully for his next words.
"You know how I feel about her marrying you--" he began.
Royal nodded, regretfully, broke the ash from his cigarette with a delicately poised little finger, and regarded Richard questioningly. "That is my misfortune," he said, resignedly; pleasantly aware that Nina's father would never be his match in phrases and self-control.
"I needn't go over all that," Richard said. "I love my daughter; I believe she will make a fine woman. But she isn't anything but a child now!"
"Perhaps you fail to do her justice in that respect," Royal Blondin said. Richard flushed with anger, but felt helpless under the other man's quiet insolence.
"I said I wanted to see you on business, Mr. Blondin," Richard continued, trying to keep impatience and contempt out of his voice, "and we'll keep to business. I don't know what your circumstances are, of course--"
He hesitated, and Blondin looked at him with a faint interest.
"I live simply," he said. "Nina's money will be all her own."
"Nina will have no money, not one five-cent piece, for exactly three years!" Richard said.
"She is quite willing to try it!" he reminded her father.
"I know she is! But how about you?" Richard asked. "You are not a boy, you have some idea of what marriage means. For three years you must take care of her, dress her, amuse her, satisfy her that she has not made a mistake. Then she does come into her money-- yes. But three years is a long time in which to keep her certain that the wisest thing she can do is turn it over to you."
He paused; Blondin smoked imperturbably.
"The marriage must be a notorious one, in any case," Richard pursued. "For I intend to make my stand too clear ever to permit of a retraction. I shall forbid it--let the world know that I forbid it. I shall forbid my daughter the house, and her wedding gift will be simply the clothes she happens to have. From Tuesday- -her eighteenth birthday--she will turn to you for her actual pocket money, for her theatre tickets and cab fares."
"I understand that perfectly!" Royal said, serenely. But underneath, while not moved from his intention, he felt his customary assurance shaken.
"She is extravagant, naturally," her father said. "She will want new gowns, want to display her new importance a little. Those bills will come to you, Mr. Blondin. All the world will know as well as you do that I have washed my hands of the whole affair."
Royal nodded again. He began to be conscious of a growing disquietude. He had naturally given much thought to this exact question during the past few weeks, and had solved it only by dismissing it. He had assured himself that with his only daughter no man as generous as Carter could be really harsh, and had always held his knowledge of Harriet comfortably in the back of his mind, as an irresistible lever. Now both these considerations were losing their force, and the empty satisfaction of defying Richard seemed to be losing its flavour, too.
Blondin had no money, and lived with an extravagance that kept him perpetually worried for money. The rent of his studio had been raised; he was conscious of the necessity of returning hospitalities, of buying clothes. His credit would receive an immediate assistance from a marriage with Richard Carter's daughter, to be sure, but to sustain a credit for three years upon that shadowy footing would be extremely trying.
He liked Nina; despite his contempt for the girl, there was a certain pitying affection for her stubborn loyalty and simplicity. But he knew exactly what hideous scenes must follow upon his marriage with her. What could he do with her, even suppose him to have borrowed money enough to make their honeymoon a success? He imagined her dawdling about his studio, imagined his social standing as necessarily affected, imagined Mr. and Mrs. Royal Blondin attempting to reach an agreement as to which invitations would be accepted and which rejected. Railway fares, luncheons downtown, all these cost money--lots of money. Nina would want to entertain "the girls." And Royal had at present several serious debts. He had lost money on three morning lectures, delightful lectures and well-attended, but still a financial loss. He had been foolish enough to lose money at bridge, at the Bellamys' a week ago, and young Bellamy was carrying his check for three hundred and twelve dollars, drawn upon a bank where Royal was already overdrawn. Then there was an unpleasantness about three rugs, rugs he had taken four years ago, in a moment of unbelievable prosperity, but for which seven hundred and twenty dollars had been promised, and never paid. Royal had indeed offered Hagopian the rugs and a bonus, back again; he was sick of the studio, and the endless reminders from his landlord's agent that the monthly one hundred and seventy-five dollars was overdue; he was sick of the whole business.
But Hagopian had refused to take back the rugs, and the rent had reached the four-figure mark, and until he had settled for the last lectures, he did not feel encouraged to begin more.
This was not a cheerful outlook with which to begin three years of penniless matrimony. Royal, suavely smiling, and smoking on the terrace, wondered suddenly if old Madame Carter, who had always been his champion, would help out.
But Richard seemed to read his thought.
"Nina has appealed to her grandmother," he said, "and I know my mother sympathizes, and would be glad to help you. But her affairs are in my hands. She preferred it so, when I offered her some securities years ago, and it has always been so. Her bank account receives a monthly check; she sends all her household bills to my secretary, Fox. He O. K's and pays them. Consequently, she is not able to act in this matter, and I think she is glad of it! I believe she would regret the--the inevitable estrangement as much as I."
Blondin elevated his eyebrows politely, as one interested but not concerned. But he knew, with a sort of rage, that he was beaten. His only recourse now would be to plead to Nina an all-important wire from the Pacific coast, a dying friend, a temporary absence. He could sub-let his studio for twice the rent, and live on the margin until kindly Fate, as always, turned up a new card. Nina would protest, would weep that her beloved studio, where her first exciting housekeeping was to begin, was occupied by strangers, but that was unavoidable. However, he would annoy this gray-eyed, firm-lipped business man first.
But Richard had taken a small slip of tan paper from his pocket, and was studying it thoughtfully. Royal saw it, and his eyes narrowed.
"Now, Mr. Blondin," Nina's father said, simply, "I'm a business man. I can't beat about the bush, and call things by pretty names. I want a favour of you, and I'm willing to pay for it. I telephoned you this morning that I wanted to see you on a matter of business. This is my proposition."
He leaned forward, and Royal saw the paper. He boasted to women of his indifference to money, it was true, but as with all adventurers, it held first place in his thoughts. No man who was in debt could look upon that check unmoved. Royal might win at cards to-night, to be sure; Carter might weaken to-morrow, it was true. But this check bore his name, and it was sure.
To enter the bank, with Richard Carter's check for so substantial an amount, to deposit it, exchange a careless word with the cashier, to write his check for the overdue rent, with a casual apology; to play bridge again, this evening, with young Bellamy, and this time win back that accursed check of his own, as he knew he would win it. ...
It all fluttered before his eyes, despite his attempt to look indifferent. It weighed down the little tarnished thing he called his pride, already half-forfeited in this group. His last attempt at bravado was obviously that, and he knew it.
"Just one moment, Mr. Carter. You say that you and I know what marriage is. How do you reconcile it with your knowledge of Nina, your knowledge of her upbringing, to plan deliberately what would make our marriage--or any marriage--foredoomed to failure from the start? I didn't spoil Nina, I didn't form her tastes. She has thought of herself as an heiress, she has spent money, lived luxuriously. I only ask a fair chance. Make it an allowance, if you like. Keep the matter in the family; don't blaze to the world that you disapprove! Many a less-promising marriage has turned out a brilliant success. She loves me. I--I am devoted to her. I see tremendous possibilities in her!"
"She loves you as a child does, and because she doesn't know you," Richard said, inflexibly. "But you haven't heard what I propose, Blondin. Hear me out. I give you this now, to-day, on condition that before to-night you talk to Nina. Represent anything you wish to her. Tell her what you please. But convince her that she must wait for two years--with no letters, no meetings, no engagement-- that's all.
"On my part, I promise that nobody in the world, not Mrs. Carter, not anybody, will hear of this for two years from to-day, at least. Meanwhile, we'll amuse Nina. Her grandmother wants to take her to Santa Barbara next fall--Gardiner wants both the youngsters on his ranch this summer, or she may go with me to Brazil. She'll have enough to think about. We'll not hurt you with her, you may take my word for it. And I tell you frankly that I shall be deeply grateful. I'm not paying you for giving her up. I'm paying you for two years' delay. Young Hopper will be at the Gardiners' this summer--she likes him, and he likes her! Well, that's speculation." Richard dismissed it with a movement of his fine hands. "But we'll distract her!" he promised. "Hopper may buy a ranch out there--that sort of thing might suit Nina down to the ground!"
"Buy it with Nina's money," Royal could not help sneering.
Richard eyed him in surprise.
"When Joe Hopper died he left that boy's mother something in the millions," he said. "There's an immense estate." And then, with a reversion to business: "Come, now, Mr. Blondin. We understand each other. Nina's dining at the Bellamys' to-night; you're staying there. Will you see her?"
The check fluttered to the table between them. There was a long silence. Then Blondin ground out his cigarette in a stone saucer, rose, in all the easy beauty of his white summer clothes, his flowing scarf, his dark, romantic locks. He lifted his straw hat, put it on, picked up his stick, and laid it on the table. Then he took the check and read it thoughtfully.
"Thank you!" he said. Yet the shameful thing struck him, an adept now in evading and lying, as surprisingly easy, and as he sauntered away in the June warmth and silence, it was not of Nina, or her father, or even of himself that he was thinking.
He had met the widow of Joe Hopper a few nights ago: a faded little pleasant woman of fifty, pathetically grateful for his casual politeness in her strangeness and shyness. He had chanced, quite idly and accidentally, to make an impression on her. She had promised to come to the studio and look at his rugs.
Royal wondered why she dressed so badly; she needed simple materials and flowing lines. He heard himself telling her so.
Richard sat on, on the terrace, thinking, and presently his mother came out and joined him. Wasn't he, the old lady asked elaborately, going to the club? It was almost five o'clock, her son reminded her. Two or three of his business associates were coming to dinner; Hansen was to drive them all into the city later. Now, he just felt lazy.
"No tea to-day?" he asked, presently. People usually went to the club on Sunday, said his mother. She added, irrelevantly, that Harriet was asleep. Richard said that she had looked tired this morning; sleep was the best thing for her.
But suddenly life became significant and thrilling again; he heard her voice, her laugh. She came swiftly and quietly out to them, smiling at him, settling herself in the chair beside his mother. She wore white, transparent, simple; there were coral beads about her firm young throat. The dew of her deep sleep made her blue eyes wonderful; her cheeks were as pink as a baby's.
"Aren't the June days delicious?" she said. Richard studied her, smilingly, without answering. What would she say next, where would she move her eyes, or lay her white hand, he wondered. When she murmured to his mother in an undertone, he tried to catch the words.
"We're to have tea," Harriet announced. When it came, she poured it; for awhile the three were alone. Richard found himself talking to make her talk, but she was apparently interested only to draw out his mother and himself. "I'm starving," she presently said, apologetically, "this is luncheon and breakfast, too, for me!"
"Did you have a good sleep?" Richard asked. She flashed him an eloquent look.
"Oh--the most delightful of my whole life! Eight hours without stirring!"
The Hoyts arrived: a handsome mother and two equally handsome daughters. Harriet went to them gracefully; Richard saw that she was accepting good wishes. She took the callers to his mother, and filled their cups herself.
"She certainly is wonderful!" Richard said. He perfectly realized his own suddenly deepening feeling for her, but he dared not analyze it yet. When Mrs. Hoyt hinted at a dinner, he took part in the conversation. "Thursday? Why not, Harriet? We have no engagement for Thursday?"
She flushed brightly, signalling to him that she had already indicated an excuse. They had never dined together away from home. He need not think, said Harriet's anxious manner, that he need carry the appearance of marriage so far.
"But--but aren't Nina and I to be in town Thursday?" she ventured,
"Shopping. You can make that next week!" Richard said. He loved her confusion.
"Then we surely will! Thank you," she said to Mrs. Hoyt.
"Thursday, then, at eight!" the caller said, departing. Richard sauntered with them to their car, and returned to find Harriet half-scandalized, half-laughing.
"But do you want to dine with them?" she asked.
"Why not?" His smile challenged her, and she laughed hardily.
"I suppose there is no reason why not, Mr. Carter!"
"You can wear"--he gestured--"the black and goldy thing. They'll all be watching you!"
"Oh," she said, considering earnestly, "I have a much handsomer one than that. Blue and silver. You've not seen it."
"Blue and silver, then." Richard felt a distinct regret when the men he expected appeared. There was but one figure of any interest to him on the shady, flower-scented terrace, and that was a woman's figure in a white gown.
For two or three days he was conscious of a constant interest in her appearances and disappearances, a constant desire to please her. He found himself liking a certain young man, in his city club, for no other reason than that he had asked admiringly for Mrs. Carter. He found Harriet deeply interested in a book, and took the time to go into a bookstore and ask the clerk for something "on the same line as the Poulteney Letters." In Nina's old Kodak album, idly opened, he was suddenly held by pictures of Nina's governess, beautiful even in a bathing-suit, with dripping hair; lovely in the gipsy hats and short skirts of camp life.
Richard Carter was conscious of one mastering curiosity: he wanted to know just how Harriet regarded him. It seemed suddenly of supreme importance. He thought of it in his office, and smiled to himself during important business conferences, wondering about it. It seemed incredible to him, now, that his experiences of the past year had been so largely concerned with Harriet. His wife's companion, his daughter's governess, his own capable and dignified housekeeper, the woman he had so hastily married, all seemed a different person, a quite visionary person, with whom just such businesslike arrangements had been possible.
But Harriet was beginning to seem to him a stranger who possessed at once the most mysterious and childlike, the most beautiful and the most baffling personality that he had ever known. He made excuses to go home early, just to catch glimpses of this wife who was not his wife. That he had ever taken a fatherly, advisory tone with this woman was unbelievable; her mere approach made him catch his breath and lose his coherency. He had walked into her room--he had patronized her--he had asked her as casually to marry him as if she had been fifty, and as plain as she was lovely!
Richard shuddered as he thought of it. He made constant efforts to engage her in personalities, but she evaded him. There was a real thrill for him in the quiet dinner at the Hoyts'. Mrs. Carter, said slow old bewhiskered John Hoyt, was an extremely pretty woman. My wife--Richard in answering called her that--looks particularly well in an evening gown. Indeed she looked exquisite in the blue and silver dress, laughing--still with that adorable mist of strangeness and shyness about her--with her neighbours at the table, and afterward in the drawing room, waving her silver fan slowly while Freda Hoyt, who quite obviously adored her, whispered her long confidences.
Coming home in the limousine they had neighbours with them, old Doctor and Mrs. Carmichael, so he might not have the word alone with her for which he had been longing all evening. But he stopped her in the wide, dim hallway when they reached Crownlands.
"Tired?" he said, at the foot of the stairs.
"Not a bit!" There was an enchanting vitality about her. She had slipped the thin wrap from her shoulders, and she turned to him her lovely, happy face. "Did you want me?"
"I wanted to say something to you," Richard said, feeling awkward as a boy.
"In there?" She nodded, suddenly alert, toward the library.
"Why in there?" he asked, with a little husky laugh. His one impulse was to put his arms about her.
"I thought--bills, perhaps?" Harriet said, innocently. It was the third day of the month; he had often consulted her as to expenses before this.
"No," Richard said, with another unsteady little laugh. "It wasn't bills. I was just wondering--if I had been very stupid," he said, taking one of her hands, and looking up from the fingers that lay in his to the face that now wore an expression a little frightened despite the smile.
"Never with me!" Harriet said, in a low tone.
"Never so blind," Richard said, "never so matter-of-fact that I hurt your feelings? Nothing of--that sort?"
"Always the kindest friend I ever had!" the girl answered, unsteadily, and with suddenly wet eyes. "The--the most generous!"
He looked at her hand again, looked up at her as if he would speak. But instead she felt her fingers pressed, and felt her heart thump with a delicious terror.
"Do--do you like the blue and silver dress?" she asked with an excited laugh.
"I like it better than any dress I have ever seen!" Richard answered, seriously. Her hand free now, Harriet, standing on the lowest step, made him a little bow that displayed the frail silver fan, the silver slippers, the stockings with their silver lace.
"And wait until you see our frocks for the boat!" she warned him. "Nina has a yellow coat--and I have a black lace and a white embroidery! Really--really I have never seen anything like the white one. Sheer, you know--"
Bottomley came noiselessly, discreetly, across the hall. Instantly the woman in blue and silver was all the mistress.
"Is Mr. Ward in, Bottomley?"
"He dined at 'ome, Mrs. Carter."
"Oh, thank you! You may lock up, then. Good-night, Mr. Carter! Good-night, Bottomley!"
She was gone. The blue and silver gown and the bunched folds of the furred coat vanished on the stairway landing. The tall clock that she passed struck eleven. And Richard, going into his library, realized that he was deeply and passionately in love. He could think of nothing else--he did not wish to think of anything else. Her face came between him and his book, her voice loitered in his ears, her precise, pretty phrasing, the laughter that sometimes lurked beneath her tones.
He went upstairs, and to his own suite. There was a door between his own sitting room and the room that had been Isabelle's. From the other side of his door, to-night, came the murmur of voices: Harriet and Nina were talking. Their conversation seemed full of fascination to Richard, although he could not hear a word, and would not have made an effort to do so. But he liked the thought of this lovely woman near his little girl, of their conferences and confidences.
Next day Harriet told him that Nina had been talking of young Hopper.
"It seems that this awkward, tongue-tied youth is desperately enamoured of Rosa Artures, of the Metropolitan Opera Company," Harriet said in rich amusement. "Of course the Artures is forty- five, and has a domestic life that is the delight of the women's magazines. But poor little Hopper haunts her performances, and sends her orchids, just the same. He had never met her until a week or two ago, then some friends had her and her husband on their yacht, and he was there. And she ate, it seems, and laughed, and even drank a little too much--he's entirely disillusioned! Isn't it too bad? And somebody told me about it, so I encouraged Nina to get him to talk last night. They talked only too well! They exchanged tragedies."
"Well, that won't hurt her!" Richard said, thoughtfully.
"Hurt her!" Harriet answered, eagerly. "It will be the best thing in the world for her!"
They were at the country club; Harriet chaperoning Nina, who was down at the tennis court with a group of young persons; Richard breathless and happy from a hard game of eighteen holes. He had encountered her on the porch, on his way to the showers, experiencing, as he did so, the thrill that belongs only to the unexpected encounter. Now they loitered at the railing, in the shade of the green awnings, as entirely oblivious of watching eyes as if the clubhouse were the library at home.
"Nina is charming as a confidante," Harriet said, "and she would make a boy of that type a delightful wife. She is the sort that marries early, or not at all. and I'm going deliberately to encourage this affair in a quiet way. He's a dear fellow, domestic and shy; they'd love their home and their children and Nina would develop into the ideal wife and mother. She's discriminating, she makes nice friends, she has splendid French and Spanish. She looks lovely to-day; I persuaded her to leave her glasses at home, even if she did miss them a little, and she has on one of the gowns we bought for the Brazilian trip."
"I made the reservations to-day. We sail the third of August," Richard said. "We've got to have your pictures taken for the passports."
"South America!" Harriet gave a great sigh of joy. "You don't know how excited I am!" she said. "Three weeks on a big liner--and we have to have bathing-suits, somebody said for the canvas tank, and they have all sorts of things on board. I've always wanted to go to Rio!"
"There are eight big staterooms with baths on this liner," Richard said. "I've taken two adjoining ones, so we ought to be very comfortable. Yes," he conceded, enjoying her enthusiasm, "it ought to be a great trip! Will you and Nina want a maid?"
"A maid?" She widened her blue eyes. "Oh, no! Why should we?"
Richard laughed at her surprise.
"You might take Pilgrim," he suggested. And with an amused glance he added: "You forget that you are a rich man's wife."
"Indeed I don't!" Harriet said, quickly. "I spend simply scandalous sums! When I saw my sister last week," she confided, gaily, "she explained that the payment on the new house would prevent the usual six weeks at the beach this year, and I simply made them go! I paid the rent on their cottage and bought the tickets, and--oh, all sorts of things, little dresses and sandals and shade hats, and off they went! You never saw such joy!"
Richard blinked his eyes, and managed a smile.
"What did you pay it out of?" he wondered,
"My bank account! Linda and I shopped a whole morning, and had lunch downtown--it was more fun!" Harriet said, youthfully. "The rent," she explained, "was eighty dollars--"
"What? For six weeks!" Richard interrupted.
"Do you think that's a lot?" she asked, anxiously.
"Go on!" he said. "They all went off, did they? Eighty dollars gives them a cottage until the middle of August, does it?"
"Until school opens," she nodded. "All the other things--well, it came to about two hundred."
"That's happiness, isn't it?" Richard said. "A cottage on a swarming beach. Sons and daughters in bathing-suits, no real housekeeping for the mother, nothing but sleep and swimming and plain meals!"
"They love it!" But Harriet's eyes drank in the awninged shade of the country club porches, the flowered cretonne on the wicker chairs, the women in their exquisite gowns, the smooth curves of the green links, where brightly clad figures went to and fro. Riders were disappearing into the green shade of the bridle paths; girls in white, demanding tea, came up the shallow steps. A group of four women, at a card table, broke up with laughter. "Yes, it's honester than this," she said, bringing her eyes back to his. "I'll have Linda and the girls here some day," she added, "and they'll think it is wonderful. But after all, they get more taste out of life!"
"You know they do!" Richard said.
"Mrs. Carter," said a woman in bright yellow, coming up to them suddenly, "will you be a darling and come and talk to my French officer? The girls have all been practising their Berlitz on him, and he's almost losing his mind! Dick," added this matron, who had linked her arm about Harriet's waist, "for heaven's sake go clean up! Can't you find time to talk to your wife at home? I've been watching you for five minutes, getting my arms burned simply black--will you come, Mrs. Carter? That's the poor soul, over there with Sarah. I don't know why I've had a French governess for that girl for seven years!"
"To save the life of a fellow creature--" Harriet said in her liquid French. She went off, laughingly, in the other woman's custody; Richard looked after them a moment.
He saw them join the group of smiling girls and the harassed Frenchman; saw the alien's face brighten as Harriet was introduced. A moment later a boy with a tennis racket dashed up to them, and there was a scattering in the direction of the courts. The girls surrounded the boy, and streamed away chattering. The matron in yellow came back to her card table. And Harriet, unfurling her parasol, deep in conversation with the captured soldier, sauntered slowly after the tennis players. The afternoon sunshine sent clean shadows across the clipped grass; the stretched blue silk of Harriet's parasol threw a mellow orange light upon her tawny hair and saffron-coloured gown.
Richard had a child's desperate wish that he was dressed, and might run after them.
"They are playing the semi-finals," he said to himself, hurrying through his change of garments. "I wish to the Lord I had gotten through in time to get down there!"
But it was not at the tennis that he looked, twenty minutes later, when he reached the courts; although a brilliant play was being made, and there was a spattering of applause. His eyes instantly found Harriet's figure; she was still talking to the Frenchman, whose olive face was glowing with interest and admiration, and not more than eight inches, Richard thought, from her own. Harriet's own face wore the shadow of a smile, her lashes were dropped, and she was gently pushing the point of her closed parasol into the green turf. The chairs in which they sat had been slightly turned from the court.
Richard engaged himself in conversation with two or three men and women who were watching the youngsters' game, and presently found himself applauding his son for a brilliant ace. But after perhaps five minutes he walked quite without volition, straight to Harriet's neighbourhood, and she rose at once, introduced her new friend, and with a glance at her wrist, announced that she must go.
"Ward said he would drive me home the instant it was over," said Harriet, clapping heartily for the triumphant finish of the set.
"I'll drive you home!" Richard said, instantly. "I've the small car."
"Friday night!" Harriet smiled. For Friday night was the night for a men's dinner and poker game at the country club, and Richard usually liked to be there.
"I can come back!" he persisted, suddenly caring more for this concession than anything else in the world. Without another word she agreed, bade her Frenchman what seemed to Richard a voluble good-bye, and when the bowing officer disappeared turned with a reminiscent smile.
"And now what?"
"Where did you learn to chatter French that way?" Richard said, leading the way to the line of parked motors.
"Oh, we lived in Paris--old Mrs. Rogers and I," Harriet reminded him carelessly. And reaching the little rise of ground that lay between the clubhouse and the parking field, she stood still, looking off across the exquisite spread of fields and valleys, banded by great strips of woods, and flooded now by the streaming shadows and golden lights of the late afternoon. "What a day!" she said, filling her lungs with great breaths of the sweet air. "What an hour!"
"What I meant to say to you up there on the porch," Richard said, "when that--that woman interrupted--"
Harriet herself interrupted with a laugh.
"You say 'that woman' as if it was a bitter, deadly curse!" she said.
"Well--" They had reached the car now, and Richard was investigating the oil gauge and spark plugs under the hood. "Well, a woman like that breaks in--nothing to her!" he said with scorn, straightening up.
"Yes, but at a country club?" Harriet offered, placatingly, as she got into the front seat, and tucked the pongee robe snugly about the saffron-coloured gown.
"I suppose so!" He got in beside her; there was a moment of backing and wrenching before they glided out smoothly on the white driveway. "What I meant to say was this," he added, suddenly, with a sidewise glance from his wheel. "I--I want you to realize that I appreciate the injustice--the crudeness of my rushing to you in New Jersey that Christmas Day. I realize that we all have imposed on you--we've taken you too much for granted! I was in trouble, and I couldn't think of any other way out of it. But for any man to put a proposition like that to any woman--"
They were driving very slowly. He looked at her again, and met a wondering look in her beautiful eyes that still further confused him. He had been uncomfortably conscious of an odd confusion in touching upon this subject at all. Yet his mind had been full of it all day.
"I never felt it so, I assure you!" Harriet said with her lucid, friendly look. Richard felt that there was more to say, but realized that he had selected an unfortunate time for these confidences.
"I'm afraid I've been extremely stupid in the matter," he said, feeling for his words. "I've gone about it clumsily. To tell you the truth--What does that boy want?"
It was Ward who was coming toward them across the green, with great springs and leaps, like some mountain animal.
"Give us a lift!" shrieked Ward, flinging himself upon the car as its speed decreased. "Something is the matter with my engine-- engina pectoris is what I call it! Father, Mr. Tom Grant expects you to dine at his table to-night, he said to remind you. And, Harriet, angel of angels, we will be about six or seven about the groaning board; is that all right?"
"I told Bottomley six or seven," Harriet said, serenely. "Ward, get in or get out," she added, maternally, "don't hang over the door in that blood-curdling way!"
She had put her arm about the boy to steady him; they began to discuss tennis scores with enthusiasm. Richard drove the rest of the way home almost without speaking.
He planned to see Harriet again that evening, and left the club at eleven o'clock, after an incredibly dull game, with the definite hope that the youngsters would dance, or in some other way prolong the summer evening at least until midnight. His heart sank when he reached Crownlands; the lower floor showed only the tempered lights that burned until the latest member of the family came in, and Bottomley reported that the young persons had gone upstairs at about half-past ten, sir. It was now half-past eleven.
Richard debated sending Harriet a message to the effect that he would like to see her for a moment. The flaw in this plan was that he could think of nothing about which there was the slightest necessity of seeing her. He felt restless and anything but sleepy, and glanced irresolutely at the library door, and at the stairway.
Suddenly uproar broke out upstairs: there were thumping feet, shrieks, wild laughter, and slamming doors. With a suddenly lightened heart Richard ran up the wide, square flight to the landing. His son, in pajamas that were more or less visible beneath his streaming robe of Oriental silk, was pirouetting about the upper hall with a siphon of soda water. Subdued giggles and smothered gasps indicated that the young ladies were somewhere near, in hiding. Young Hopper, under Ward's direction, was investigating doors and alcoves.
"Amy Hawkes--Amy Hawkes--Amy Hawkes--come into court!" Ward intoned. "Drunk and disorderly!"
"Here, here, here!" Richard said. "What's all this?" Amy and Nina, with hysteric shrieks, immediately forsook cover, and dashed down to him, clinging to him wildly.
"Oh, Father! Make them stop! Oh, Mr. Carter, save us!" screamed the girls in delicious terror. "Oh, they got poor Francesca--she's locked up in your room! They climbed up our porch, after they swore to Harriet that they wouldn't make another sound--"
Harriet now appeared in the hallway, her hair falling in a braid over her shoulder, and the long lines of the black robe she wore giving her figure an unusual effect of height. She did not see Richard immediately, for she had eyes only for Ward, as she caught his shoulder, and took away the siphon.
"Now, Ward--look here," she said, sternly. "What sort of honour do you call this! Half an hour ago I thought all this nonsense was stopped. Shame on you! Those girls promised me--"
She saw Richard, and laughed, the colour flooding her face.
"Aren't they simply shameless!" she said. "I had them all settled down, once! Nina, where's Francesca? You see," Harriet said, in rapid explanation to Richard, "I gave the girls my room to-night, so that they could all be together, and this is my reward!"
The girls, entirely unalarmed by her severity, had deserted Richard now, and were clinging to her with weak laughter and feeble explanations.
"Francesca unlocked that door, and rushed into Mr. Carter's room!" Amy explained, wiping her eyes. "And then the boys locked her in there!"
The composed reappearance of Francesca at this point, however, added to the general hilarity.
"You did not lock me in, Smarties!" Francesca drawled, childishly. "They climbed to the balcony, and we were--well, we were undressing," she said to Richard, "and here they were hammering and yelling like--like Siwashes! We grabbed our wrappers, we wanted to---"
"We wanted to lock them out there!" Amy explained, laughing uncontrollably. "But--"
"And I snapped off the light--" Nina interposed, with deep satisfaction.
"And, mind you--"
"And the wonder was that we didn't die of fright--"
"Now, look here," Harriet said, in the babel, "I'll give you all exactly two minutes to quiet down. Never in the course of my life- -"
Richard thought her maternal indulgence delightful; he thought the young people who clung about her charming in their apologetic and laughing promises. Ward and Bruce Hopper mounted to their own region; Richard went with the girls and Harriet to the rooms that had been attacked. Pilgrim, the tireless, was already there, replacing pillows, straightening beds, untwisting curtains. The girls, with reminiscent bubbles of laughter, began to help her.
After the last good-nights, Richard and Harriet had no choice but to cross the hall again, and they stood there for a moment, laughing at the recent excitement.
"After twelve," Harriet said, with a smiling shake of her head. "Aren't they young demons! However," she added in an undertone, "it's the best thing in the world for Nina! This sort of nonsense will blow cobwebs away!"
Richard was only conscious of a desire to prolong this intimate little moment of parental consultation.
"She doesn't speak of Blondin?" he asked.
"Not at all. The birthday came and went placidly enough," Harriet answered, suddenly intent after her laughing. And as he did not speak for a second, she looked up at him, innocently. "You don't think she's hiding anything?" she asked, anxiously.
"I--no, I hardly think so," Richard answered, confusedly. Their eyes met, and he smiled vaguely. Then Harriet slowly crossed the hall to the door of the guest room where she was spending the night, and gave him an only half-audible good-night. Richard stood watching the door for a moment or two after it had closed upon the slender, dimly seen figure. Then he went to his own rooms, and began briskly enough to move about between the mirrors and dressing room, windows and bed. But two or three times he stopped short, and found himself staring vacantly into space, all movement arrested, even thought arrested for whole long minutes at a time.
Harriet, entering her room, closed the door noiselessly, and remained for a long time standing with her hands resting against it behind her, her eyes alert, her breath coming as if she had been running. There was only a night light in the bedroom; the covers were still tumbled back from her sudden flight toward the rioting youngsters in the hall. She got back into her bed, and opened her book. But for a long time she neither slept nor read; her eyes widened at the faintest sound of the summer night; her heart thumped madly when the curtains whispered at the window, or the wicker chairs gave the faintest creak. It had not been only for Richard that the midnight hour of responsibility and informality shared had had its thrill.
One o'clock. Harriet closed her book and snapped off her light. But first she went to the window, and leaned out into the sweet darkness. There was shadow unbroken everywhere; no light in all the big house was burning as late as her own.