Chapter XXI
 

After that life took on a mysterious fragrance and beauty that made every hour of it an intoxication to the master and mistress of Crownlands. The fact that their secret was all their own was all the more enchanting. To the domestic staff, to the children, to the outside world, life went upon its usual smooth way. Mr. Carter would be in town to-night, Mr. Carter was detained at the office, Mrs. Carter was chaperoning the young people, there were flowers for Mrs. Carter. That was all Bottomley and Pilgrim and Ward and Nina saw.

But to Harriet and Richard the delicious, secret game of hide-and- go-seek made everything else in the world insignificant. Harriet opened the boxes of flowers he sent her with a heart suffocating with joy. Richard consented to be absent from the dinner table over which she presided with an agony of renunciation that almost made him feel ill. When he chanced one day to meet her with Nina, in a breezy, awninged summer restaurant, the sight of the slender figure thrilled him as he had never been thrilled by any woman he had ever known. He was to speak to her, to hear her voice! One day he bought her shoes; in the shop she looked at him for approval. He thought the shoes, low shoes with buckles, that showed the silk-clad ankle, very suitable and pretty. He was thrown into sudden confusion when the shoe clerk turned to him with a murmured mention of the price.

Ten dollars? Richard fumbled for his purse. He had met her walking alone in the Avenue; she had said that she must get shoes. Hundreds of other men were presumably buying their wives shoes, up and down the brilliant street. But Richard found the adventure shaking to the soul.

"They're lovely shoes," Harriet said, as they walked out into the sunshine. She told him that she was to meet Nina at his mother's at five. Richard, with sudden eagerness, wondered if she would spend the interval in having tea somewhere, but instead they went into a bookshop, and she carried a new book triumphantly away. "It's a frightful day in town," Harriet said, "and if we're a little early we may all get away to the country that much sooner!"

She established herself contentedly beside him when they did finally start for Crownlands. Ward, beside Hansen, did most of the talking; Nina was silent, and Harriet noticed that she was very pale. Richard was repeating to himself one phrase all the way; a phrase that he found so thrilling and absorbing that it was enough to keep him from speaking aloud, or listening to what the others said.

"I love her--I love her--I love her!" thought Richard. And sometimes he glanced sidewise at her, her beautiful hair rippling in thick waves under the thin veil, her face a little pale from the heat of the day, her glorious eyes faintly shadowed. When the swift movement of the car brought her shoulder against his, their eyes met for a smiling second, and it seemed to Richard that his heart brimmed with the most delicious emotion that he had ever known.

Nina complained of a headache when they reached home, and went early to bed. Harriet, when she had tubbed and changed to an evening gown, glanced in at Nina, and thought the girl asleep. There were men guests for dinner, and afterward there was bridge. Harriet sat with Madame Carter for awhile, for the old lady had also dined upstairs, went about the house upon her usual errands, and, going to her own room, found Nina reading, at about ten o'clock. Nina did not look up or speak as Harriet came in.

The door that led to Richard's room was not only unlocked, but actually ajar. Harriet gave it a surprised glance, and spoke to Nina, in the next room.

"Nina, did you unlock this door?"

"What door?" Nina called. "Oh, yes!" she added. "I did."

"Oh," Harriet murmured. And she stepped to the door, and looked into Richard's room.

It was a sort of upstairs sitting room, furnished simply, in man fashion, with deep leather chairs on each side of the fireplace, broad tables carrying only the essential lamps and ashtrays, a shabby desk where Richard kept personal papers, and bookshelves crammed with novels. Harriet, making a timid round, saw Balzac and Dickens, Dumas and Fielding, several Shakespeares and a complete Meredith, jostling elbows with modern novels in bright jackets, and yellow French romances losing their paper covers.

With a great sense of adventure she looked down from the unfamiliar windows at a new perspective of driveway and garden, peeped into the big square bedroom beyond. Two large photographs of Nina and Ward and an oil painting of his mother were here; there had been several pictures of Isabelle once, Harriet knew, but these had long ago disappeared.

Suddenly her heart turned to water; some tiny sound in the silence warning her that someone had entered. She turned, discovered here in the very centre of his own private apartment. He was standing not three feet away from her. For a second they stared at each other with a sort of mutual trepidation.

"Hello!" he said; then matter-of-factly, "I brought home a paper to-night; I wanted Unger to see it! I left it in the suit I wore."

He stepped to the dressing room, and groped in a pocket, without moving his pleasant look from her.

"Giving my room the once over?" he said.

"Nina left the door open. I've never been in here before," Harriet said, trying to make her voice as natural as his own. Confused and ashamed, she was hardly conscious of what she said.

"Here we are!" Richard glanced at the paper he had found. "See here," he said, presently, going to a window, "come here a minute, I want to show you this! You see," they were both looking out into the moonlight now, "you see, this is where I propose to build on that big room downstairs, throw the library into the blue room, and have a big sleeping porch upstairs here," he explained. "Perfectly feasible, and yet it will make a different house of it!"

Harriet commented interestedly enough. But she heard his voice rather than his words, and saw only the well-groomed, black-clad figure, the shining patent-leather shoes, the fine hand that indicated the changes.

Perhaps he was conscious of confusion, too, for his words stopped, and presently they were looking at each other in a strange silence, Richard still smiling, Harriet wide eyed.

Then suddenly his strong arms held her close, and her blue, frightened eyes were close to his, and she felt everything else in the world slip away from her except the exquisite knowledge that she loved this man with all her heart and soul.

"I want to tell you something," Richard said, quickly and incoherently. "I want you to know that I love you--I think I've always loved you! This wasn't in our bond, I know, but I think I couldn't have wanted you so without loving you! If--if the time comes, Harriet, when you can care for me, you'll tell me, won't you? That's all I want, just to know that you will tell me. You're going to tell me, yourself! I'm going to make you love me! I'll be patient--I'll not hurry you--but some day you'll have to tell me that I've--I've won you!"

He had spoken swiftly, almost sternly, with a sort of desperate determination. Now he freed her arms as suddenly as he had grasped them, and added, in a lower tone:

"Until that time I'll not--not even--kiss the top of your hair, Harriet," he said.

In the mad rushing of her senses she could not find the right word, but she detained him with an entreating hand. Her eyes, shining with a look that he had never seen there before, were fixed on his. But Richard did not look at her eyes, he looked down at the hand she had laid on his own.

"I don't think," Harriet said, breathlessly, "that I can ever like you any more than I do!"

She had meant it for surrender; her heart was beating wildly with the glorious shame of a proud woman who gives herself. But Richard was not looking at the betraying eyes. In the great new love that had swept him from all his old moorings there was a deep humility. He only heard her say that she could never learn to love him. He bent his head over her finger tips, and kissed them, as he said quietly:

"But I'm going to try to make you, just the same!"

Then he was gone, and Harriet was standing alone in the softly lighted room. For a few moments she remained perfectly still, with her white hands pressed to her burning cheeks. Then, shaken with joy and surprise, with a delicious terror and something of a child's innocent chagrin, she went noiselessly back to her own room, closed the communicating door, and undressed with pauses for the dreams that would come creeping over body and soul, and hold her in their exquisite stillness for long minutes together.

She was brushing her hair when Nina suddenly appeared, and came lifelessly in to sit on the edge of Harriet's bed. "I want to ask you something!" Nina said, in an odd voice. "And, Harriet, I want you to tell me the truth!"

Harriet, turning, faced her between two curtains of rippling gold. She saw a new Nina, a subdued, thoughtful, serious woman in the old confident Nina's place.

"But first I ought to tell you that I wasn't with Amy to-day!" Nina said.

"Oh, Nina! Must we begin that sort of thing?" Harriet reproached her. But she was puzzled by Nina's manner. "Back to school-girl tricks!" she said.

"Never back to a school-girl," Nina said, with trembling lips. "No," she added, passionately, "I'll never be that again. Harriet," she went on, "I've written Royal three times, since my birthday, and I've seen him twice."

"You saw him to-day?" Harriet ventured.

"I went there this afternoon," Nina admitted, heavily. Then suddenly, "Harriet, did my father pay him--did he take money--to break our engagement?"

"Nina, what a horrible thought! Of course not!" Harriet could fortunately answer in perfect honesty.

"Oh, Harriet," the girl caught her hands, turning sick and imploring eyes toward her, "are you sure?"

"Nina, dear, your father would have told me!"

"He might not--he might not!" Nina said, feverishly. "But if he did----!" she whispered, half to herself. "That's Pilgrim, I rang for her," she said, of a knock on her own door. "Ask my father to come up, will you?" she said to the maid, when Pilgrim appeared. "We'll settle it now!"

"Mr. Carter is just coming up," Pilgrim said. And a moment later Richard, with an interested face, came through Nina's room, and joined them. Harriet had had time only to knot her hair back carelessly, and slip into the most formal of her big Chinese coats.

"Father," Nina said, when they three were alone together, "did Royal Blondin take a check from you ten days ago?"

Richard, taken unaware, glanced sharply at Harriet, who shook her head, with an anxious look. He sat down beside Nina on the bed, and put a fatherly arm about her.

"Ah, Father, don't put me off!" the girl begged. "I wrote him, after my birthday," she said, "and told him that money made no difference to me. He didn't answer. Then I got Bruce Hopper to ask his mother to have Blondin meet her at the club for tea, and I saw him then. Bruce," Nina cast in, still in the new, self-contained tone, "has been wonderful about it! I know he only seems a silent sort of boy, but I'll never forget what he's done for me! Royal," she resumed, "didn't want to see me, and said he had promised Father that it was over. He--but I needn't tell you all he said. It sounded----" Nina clung to her father's hands, and shut her eyes. "It sounded so--so false!" she whispered, bitterly. "So I went to his studio to-day!" she presently continued. "And--there were two or three women there, but it wasn't that. They were-- well, perhaps they were just having fun. But----" And Nina looked pitifully from Harriet's sympathetic face to her father's troubled eyes. "But I've not been having much fun!" she faltered, with a suddenly trembling mouth. "I've been planning--praying!--that somehow it would come out right. He told me to-day that he had promised not to see or speak to me for two years," she said, slowly. "I--Father, I knew that he had a reason! He was changed. I never saw him so! And two hours ago," she pointed to the door that led into her father's room, "two hours ago I went in there," she said, "and I looked over your own check book. Father, did you write him a check? Was that the stub that had 'R.B.' on it?"

Richard looked at her sorrowfully.

"I'm sorry, Nina," he said, simply. "I told him you should not know, from me! I would have spared you that."

For a few minutes there was silence in the room. Then Nina said bravely, through tears:

"I don't know why you should be sorry for what will save me months of slow worry, all at one blow! You and Harriet needn't worry any more. I'm cured. I've been a fool, I let him flatter me and lie to me," said this new Nina, with bitter courage, "but I'm over it now. I'm sorry I gave you so much trouble, Father----"

"My darling girl," her father said, tenderly. "I only wish I could spare you all this!"

"Better now than two or three years after we were married," Nina said. "Plenty of girls find it out then! Father, I want you to get that check, through the clearing-house, for me," she said, heroically, "and I want to keep it. If ever I'm a fool about a man again, I'll take it out and look at it!"

"I have it, I told Fox to get it to-day," Richard said. "You shall have it!"

Nina had turned suddenly white; it was as if a last little hope had been killed.

"You have it!" she whispered. "He cashed it, then!"

"He cashed it the next morning," Richard said. Nina was silent for a moment.

"How you must laugh at me, Harriet!" she said then.

"I? Laugh at you!" Harriet said, stricken. "My darling girl, I am the last woman in the world who could do that! I was only your age, Nina, when I met him--you know that story. Why, Nina, you're but eighteen, after all, you'll have many and many an affair before the right man comes along," Harriet said. "You'll look back on this some day, and say, 'It was an experience, and I learned from it! It is only going to make me happier and more sure when the man whom I really love comes to me!' Aren't you much richer now, in actual knowledge of men, than Amy and Francesca, who haven't had anything but school flirtations?"

Nina, sitting between Richard and Harriet on the bed, looked wistfully from one face to another.

"I'll try to make it so, Harriet!" she said. And somewhat timidly she added, "Father--and Harriet--shall you feel dreadfully if I say that I don't want to go to Brazil? I'll tell you why. Ward is going out to the Gardiner ranch, and Bruce is going, too, and it seems to me that riding and camping and living in the open air will be--well, will seem better to me than just being on the steamer! I dread seeing strange places and meeting people," said Nina. "The Gardiner girls were simply darling to me the term they were in school, and--don't you remember, Harriet?--we were the only people who took them out for Christmas and Easter holidays, and they like me! And--if you wouldn't be too disappointed, Harriet, I believe I would like it better!"

"My darling girl," Harriet said, warmly, "you must do what seems right to you. But you won't need me?" she added, tactfully.

"Well, you see Mrs. Gardiner and Mrs. Hopper are sisters," Nina explained, readily, "and they'll be with us. But if you'd like to come--we are going camping in the most glorious canon that you ever saw!" Nina interrupted herself with sudden enthusiasm. "And I am so glad I really can ride! I'd feel so horribly if I couldn't!"

"I think you'll have a wonderful two months of it," Harriet said, "and then Granny'll be coming West, to spend the winter in Santa Barbara, and that will be delightful, too! And now, Nina love, it's after eleven o'clock," she ended with a change of tone, "and you have had a terrible day! We will have to do some more shopping to-morrow afternoon, and try on the riding habits, and do a thousand things. And, Nina," Richard heard her add tenderly, when his daughter had given him a rather sober good-night kiss at the door of her room, "whenever you feel sad and depressed about it, just remember to say to yourself, 'This won't last! In a few months the sting will all be gone!'"

"Nina is in safe hands!" Richard said to himself, thankfully, as he closed the door. He carried a memory of Harriet's earnest eyes, her low, eager voice, her encouraging arm about Nina's shoulders.

They were all at breakfast when he came down the next morning. His mother, in one of the lacy, flowing robes she always wore before noon, laid down a letter half-read, to smile at him. Ward, his dark head very sleek above his informal summer costume, was deep in talk with Bruce Hopper, who had evidently ridden over from the country club, and was in a well-fitting, shabby jersey that became his somewhat lanky frame. Nina, somewhat silent, but interested in everything, wore an expression of quiet self- possession that her father found touching. Nina was growing up, he thought.

Completing the group, and officiating at the foot of the table, was the radiant Harriet. She looked as fresh as one of the creamy rosebuds that were massed in the dull blue bowl before her, her shining hair framing the dusky forehead like dull gold wings, the frail sleeves of her blue gown falling back from her rounded arm.

"You're late, my son," said Madame Carter, as he kissed her temple.

"Never mind," Harriet said, serenely, "I've just this instant come, and he saves my face! Do turn that toast, Ward!" she added. And to the maid, "Mr. Carter's fruit, Mollie, please."

Breakfast was the least formal of all the informal meals at Crownlands. Bottomley was never in evidence until the late luncheon; mail and newspapers, and the morning gaiety of the young people all made for cheerful disorder.

"If you're going into town at ten, Father, we'll go, too," Nina suggested. "But I can't," she was heard to murmur in an undertone to the disappointed Bruce. "I have to get clothes, don't I?"

"Oh, Brazil--Brazil--Brazil!" the youth said, disgustedly. "I hate the sound of it!"

"These clothes are for the ranch," Nina said, smiling. Both her father and Harriet augured well from the youth's instantly transformed face.

"Say--honestly?" he asked, ineloquently, with an irrepressible grin.

"I think so," Nina murmured. The rest of their conversation was inaudible; they presently wandered forth to finish it on the tennis court. Ward followed his grandmother upstairs, and Harriet and Richard were left to finish their breakfast alone.

"You look tired," Harriet said, rising, when his omelette came in, and pausing beside the head of the table for an instant on her way to the pantry.

"I had a bad night," Richard admitted. "But that's not all you're going to have for breakfast?" he protested.

"I never have more!" Harriet smiled. "I'm sorry about the bad night," said she.

"I couldn't help thinking----" Richard began.

"What is it, Mollie?" he added, harshly, to the hovering maid.

"Nothing--no matter--sir," Mollie stammered, retreating. "It was just that the man about the sheep came, sir----" she faltered.

"The sheep!" Richard echoed, frowning. Harriet laughed gaily.

"Oh, yes!" she said. "I told you I had ordered two or three young sheep," she explained, "to keep our lawns cropped. They look so adorable, and they do it so nicely! Has he got them, Mollie?" she added, eagerly. "Oh, I must see them! I'll be back in exactly five minutes, Mr. Carter," she said.

"What are we supposed to do with them in winter?" Richard asked, smiling.

"Oh, they will have a little--a little byre!" she answered, readily. "You'll--you'll like them!" And he heard her joyous voice following Mollie away.

Richard pushed back his plate, and looked irresolutely after her. Then suddenly he rose, and walked through the pantry, asking two startled maids for Mrs. Carter. Etelka had been several years in the house without ever seeing "him" in this neighbourhood before.

Richard crossed a sunshiny brick-walled yard, where linen was drying, and went through a brick gateway that gave on a neglected little lane. The lane had once been the driveway for a carriage and a prancing pair, but there were only riding horses at Crownlands now, and three of these were looking over the wall at the grass-grown road. And Richard found Harriet here.

She was on her knees, in the pleasant green shadow of the old sycamores and maples, her back was toward him, she was looking up into the face of the old stableman, Trotter, who stood before her, his crooked, dwarfed old figure still further bent, as he held two strong young ewes by their thick, woolly shoulders.

As Trotter gave him a respectful good morning, Harriet sprang to her feet, and whirled about, and Richard saw the woodeny stiff legs of a very young lamb dangling from her arms, and the lamb's meek little black-rubber face close to the beautiful face he loved.

"Oh, Richard!" she said, carried away by her own delight. "Look at it! Isn't it the sweetest darling baby that ever was! Oh, you sweet!" she said, putting her lips to the little woolly head.

"You are!" Richard said quite without premeditation.

Harriet laughed, surrendered the little lamb to Trotter, and followed the old man's departure to the stables with an anxious warning.

"They're to have this little enclosure all to themselves," she explained to Richard, when they were alone. "He's going to build them a little shed." And as Richard, his back leaning against the low brick wall, made no immediate attempt to move, she looked at him expectantly. "Shall we go back?" she suggested.

"That sounded very pleasant to me," Richard said, with deliberate irrelevance.

Harriet looked at him in puzzled silence.

"I mean your calling me Richard," he said.

She flushed brightly, and laughed.

"Did I? I always think of you as Richard!" she explained.

"So you abandon me on the Brazil trip?" he asked, watching her seriously.

"Well----?" Harriet shrugged. "I thought you had to go," she added. "I'm--I'll confess I'm disappointed. But to have Nina want to do anything is such a relief to me that I'm only going to think of that!"

"Yes, I have to go," Richard said, slowly. "I must be there for a month at least. But I'm disappointed, too. I got thinking of it, in the night--I couldn't sleep! I'm disappointed, too." He fell silent. "I wish," he said, hesitatingly, "that you had not told me that you--you don't feel that you--are going to love me!" he said. "I love you with all my heart and soul. It--well, it's all I think of, now. I want----" He turned, and picking an ivy leaf from the wall, looked at it intently for a moment, and tore it apart before he let it fall. "However," he said, philosophically, smiling at her, "we'll let that wait!"

Harriet, close to him, laid one hand upon his shoulder.

"You misunderstood me," she said, steadily. "What I said was that I could not love you more than I do! Aren't you--ever--going to understand?"

For a long minute they looked straight into each other's eyes.

"Harriet, do you mean it?" Richard said then, simply.

"Yes," she answered, "I mean it! I've always meant it. I've always loved you, I think. No man could want any woman to love him more!"

The blue eyes so near his own were misty with sudden tears. In the deserted little lane, in the blue summer morning and the green shade of the sycamores, they were alone. Richard put his arms about her.

And for a moment he held all the beauty and fragrance and laughter and tears that was Harriet close to his heart; the soft hair tumbled, the brown, firm young hand resting on his shoulder, the warm cheek against his own.

A breeze rustled through the branches high above them; the blue river, beyond the brick wall, flowed on in an even sheet of satin; two birds looped the enclosure in a sudden twittering flight; and from the stable region came the plaintive bleating of a mother sheep. But to Harriet and Richard the world was all their own.

"My wife!" said Richard Carter.

THE END