Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Royal Blondin went straight from Nina to the tea table, which was almost deserted now. Harriet saw him coming, and she knew what hour had come. She stood up as he reached her, and they measured each other narrowly, with unsmiling eyes.
There was reason for her paleness to-day, and for the faint violet shadows about her beautiful eyes. Harriet had lain awake deep into the night, tossing and feverish. She had gotten up more than once, for a drink of water, for a look from her balcony at the solemn summer stars. And among all the troubled images and memories that had trooped and circled in sick confusion through her brain, the figure of this smiling, handsome man had predominated.
She had always thought that he must come back; for years the fear had haunted her at every street crossing, at every ring of Linda's doorbell. At first it had been but a shivering apprehension of his claims, an anticipation of what he might expect or want from her. Then came a saner time, when she told herself that she was an independent human being as well as he, that she might meet his argument with argument, and his threat with threat.
But for the past year or two her lessening thoughts of him had taken new form. Harriet had hoped that when they met again she might be in a position to punish Royal Blondin, to look down at him from heights that even his audacity might not scale.
That time, she told herself in the fever of the night, had not yet come. Her pitiful achievements, her beauty, her French and Spanish, her sober book reading, and her little affectations of fine linen and careful speech, all seemed to crumple to nothing. She seemed again to be the furious, helpless, seventeen-year-old Harriet of the Watertown days, her armour ineffectual against that suave and self-confident presence.
"Oh, how I hate him!" whispered the dry lips in the silence of the night. And looking up at the wheeling grave procession of powdery jewels against the velvet of the sky, Harriet had mused on escape, on a disappearance as complete as her flight years ago had proved to be.
She had forced herself to unbind the wrappings, to look at the old wound. She had gone in spirit to that old, shabby parlour to which Linda and Fred had carried Josephine's crib late every night, and where sheet music had cascaded from the upright piano. She saw, with the young husband and wife, a fiery, tumblehead girl of fifteen or sixteen, who helped with her sister's cooking and housework, who adored the baby, who planned a future on the stage, or as a great painter, or as a great writer--the means mattered not so that the end was fame and wealth and happiness for Harriet.
Fred had brought Royal Blondin in to supper one night, and Royal had laughed with the others at the spirited little waitress who delivered herself of tremendous decisions while she came and went with plates, and forgot to take off her checked blue apron when she finally slipped into her place.
The man had been a derelict then, as now. But he was nine years older than Harriet Field. He had had the same delightful voice, the same penetrating eyes. He had brought poetry, music, art, into the sordid little parlour of the Watertown apartment; he had helped Harriet to tame and house those soaring ambitions. Seated on Linda's stiff little fringed sofa, they had drunk deep of Keats and Shelley and Browning, and Harriet's eyes had widened at what Royal called "world ethics." To live--that was the gift of the gods! Not to be afraid--not to be bound!
Reaching this point in her recollections, the girl recalled herself with a start. She was safe in luxurious Crownlands, it had all been years ago. But again the abyss seemed to yawn at her feet. She felt again those kisses that had waked the little-girl heart into passionate womanhood; she shut her eyes and pressed her hand tight against them. So young--so happy--so confident!-- plunging headlong into that searing blackness.
And now Royal Blondin was back again, and she was not ready for him. She could not score now. But he could hurt her irreparably if he would. Isabelle was an indifferent mother, and an incorrigible flirt, but at the first word, at the first hint--ah, there would be no arguing, no weighing of the old blame and responsibility! If there was the faintest cloud of doubt, that would be enough! Better the driest and fussiest old Frenchwoman for Nina, the dullest and least responsive of Englishwomen. But by all means settle accounts at once with Miss Field, and pay her railway fare, and wish her well.
Harriet had shaken back her mane of hair, had hammered furious fists together up on the dark balcony. It wasn't fair--it wasn't fair--just now, when she was so secure and happy! She had flung her arms across the railing, and buried her hot face on them, and had wept desperate and angry tears into the silken and golden tangle that shone dully in the starlight.
The stars were paling, and the garden stirred with the first languid breath of the hot day to come, when she suddenly rose and bound up the loosened hair, and went in. Harriet was not yet twenty-seven, and every fibre of her being cried out for sleep. Cold water on the tear-stained face, and the childish prayer she never forgot, and she had crept gratefully into the soft covers, and had had perhaps four hours of such rest as only comes to youth.
So that the morning brought courage. Her heart was heavy and fearful, but she knew that Royal would seek her, and she hoped much for the talk that they were to have now. She did not refuse him her hand when he came to the tea table, or her eyes, and there was friendliness, or the semblance of it, in the voice with which she said his name. That he was waiting, perhaps as fearfully as she, for his cue, was evidenced by the quick relief with which he echoed the old familiarity.
"Harriet! I find you again. I've been waiting all this time to find you! I'd heard Ward speak of 'Miss Field', of course! But it never meant you, to me. I've been thinking of you all night."
"I've been thinking, too," she said, simply.
"It's after six," Blondin said with a glance about. "We can't talk here. Can you get away? Can we go somewhere?"
Without another word she deserted her seat, pinned on her hat, and picked up her gloves.
"There's a very quiet back road straight to Crownlands," she said, considering. "We might walk."
"Anything!" he assented, briefly.
Guided by Harriet, who was familiar with the place, they slipped through the hallway, and out a side door, crossing the lane that led down to the garage, and striking into a splendid old quiet roadway barred now by the shadows of elms and sycamores and maples, and filled with soft green lights from the thick arch of new leaves. They had no sooner gained the silence and solitude it afforded them than the man began deliberately:
"Harriet, I've not thought of anything else since I came upon you yesterday, after all these years. I want you to tell me that you-- you aren't angry with me."
There was a moment of silence. Then the girl said, quietly:
"No. I'm not angry, Roy."
"You knew--you knew how desperately I tried to find you, Harriet? What a hell I went through?"
If she had steeled herself against the possibility of his shaking her, she failed herself now. It was with an involuntary and bitter little laugh that she said:
"You had no monopoly of that, Roy."
"But you ran away from me!" he accused her. "When I went to find you, they told me the Davenports had moved away. Won't you believe that I felt terribly--that I walked the streets, Harriet, praying- -praying!--that I might catch a glimpse of you. It was the uppermost thought for years--how many years? Seven?"
"More than eight," she corrected, in a somewhat lifeless voice. "I was eighteen. My one thought, my one hope, when I last saw you, in Linda's house," she went on, with sudden passion, "was that I would never see you again! But I'm glad to hear you say this, Roy," she added, in a gentler tone. "I'm glad you--felt sorry. Our going away was a mere chance. Fred Davenport was offered a position on a Brooklyn paper, and we all moved from Watertown to Brooklyn. I was grateful for it; I only wanted to disappear! Linda stood by me, her children saved my life. I was a nursery-maid for a year or two--I never saw anybody, or went anywhere! I think Linda's friends thought her sister was queer, melancholy, or weakminded--God knows I was, too! I look back," Harriet said, talking more to herself than to him, and walking swiftly along in the golden sunset light that streamed across the old back road, "and I wonder I didn't go stark, staring mad! Strange streets, strange houses, and myself wheeling Pip Davenport about the curbs and past the little shops!"
"Don't think about it," he urged, with concern.
"No; I'll not think about it. Royal, don't think that all my feeling was for myself. I thought of you, too. I missed you. Truly, I missed what you had given my life!"
A dark flush came to the man's face, and when he spoke it was with an honest shame and gratitude in his voice that would have surprised the women who had only known him in his later years.
"You are generous, Harriet," he said. "You were always the most generous girl in the world!"
More stirred than she wished to show herself, Harriet walked on, and there was a silence.
"I hunted for you," Royal said presently. "For months it seemed to me that we must meet, that we must talk! I came back from Canada in August, I went to the house; it was taken by strangers. I went to Fred's paper; he had been gone for months!"
"I know!" Harriet nodded. The wonderful smoky blue eyes met his for a second, and there was something of sympathy now in their look. "I know, Roy! It was," she shuddered, "it was a wretched business, all round!"
"Linda and Fred made it hard for you?" he asked.
"Oh, no! They were angels. But of course in their eyes, and mine, too--I was marked."
Silence. Royal Blondin gave her a glance full of distress and compunction. But he did not speak, and it was Harriet who ended the pause.
"Well, that's what a little girl of eighteen may do with her life!" she said. "I have been a fool--I have made a wreck of mine! Ambition and youth went out of me then. It wasn't anything actual, Roy. But I have known a hundred times why when I should have courage I had nothing but fear, when I should have self-confidence I failed myself. Something in my soul got broken!"
"You are the most beautiful woman in the world," Royal Blondin said, steadily, "you are established here, they all adore you! Why do you say that your life is a wreck?"
"I am the daughter of Professor Field," said Harriet, "and at twenty-seven I am the paid companion of Mrs. Richard Carter's daughter! Oh, well--I was happy enough to have the opportunity. I had studied French, you know; and Mrs. Rogers took me abroad with her. She was an outrageous old lady, but not curious! No reasonable woman could live with her--I made myself endure it. Then I went to her daughter, Mrs. Igleheart, the famous suffragette, for two years. And the Carters took me from her." She shrugged indifferently. "What of yourself? Where have you been?"
But he was not quite ready to drop the personal note.
"Harriet, now that we have met, we'll be friends? My life now is among these people; you'll not be sorry if we occasionally meet?"
"In this casual way--no, we can stand that!" she agreed. The fears of the night rose like mist, melted away. It was bad enough, but it was not what her inflamed and fantastic apprehension had made it. He was no revengeful villain, after all. He did not mean to harm her.
"I've been everywhere," he said, answering her question. "I made two trips to China from San Francisco. I was interested in Chinese antiques. Then I went into a Persian rug thing, with a dealer. We handled rugs; I went all over the Union. After that, four years ago, I went to Persia and into India, and met some English people, and went with them to London. Then I came back here, as a sort of press agent to a Swami who wanted to be introduced in America, and after he left I rather took up his work, Yogi and interpretive reading, 'Chitra' and 'Shojo'--you don't know them?"
She shook her head, sufficiently at ease now even to smile in faint derision.
"They eat it up, I assure you!" Royal Blondin said, in self- defence.
"Oh, I know they do!" Harriet agreed. "I've been hearing a great deal about you lately! You have a studio?"
"I have--really!--the prettiest studio in New York. I rented my London rooms, with my furniture in them, and I have a little apartment in Paris, too, that I rent."
"And what's the future in it, Roy?" Now that the black dread was laid, she could almost like him.
"The present is extremely profitable," he said, drily, "and I suppose there might be--well, say a marriage in it, some day--"
"A rich widow?" Harriet suggested, simply.
"Or a little girl with a fortune, like this little Carter girl," he added, lightly.
Harriet gave him a swift look.
"Don't talk nonsense! Nina's only a child!"
"She's almost eighteen, isn't she?"
The girl walked swiftly on for a full minute.
"How do you happen to know that?"
"Is it a secret?"
The possibility he hinted, however remote, was enough to stop her short, actually and mentally. Considering, she stood still, with a face of distaste. The hush before sunset flooded the quiet road. A bird called plaintively from some low bush, was still, and called again. From the river came the muffled, mellow note of a boat horn. Two ponies looked over the brick wall, shook their tawny heads, and galloped to the field with a joyous affectation of terror. Nina! By what fantastic turn of the cards was Royal Blondin to be connected in her thoughts, after all these years, with Nina?
She looked at Blondin, who was watching her with a half-sulky, half-ingratiating air.
"My dear girl, that was merely an idle remark!" he said.
"Well, I hope so," Harriet said, going on, "anyway, she's a child!"
"You weren't--quite--a child, at eighteen," he reminded her.
The colour flooded her transparent dusky skin.
"That's--exactly--what I was!" she said, drily. "But talk to Nina, if you don't believe me! Everything that is school-girly and romantic and undeveloped, is Nina. If you held her coat for her, she would embroider the circumstance into something significant and flattering! She is absolutely inexperienced; she's what I called her, a child!"
"I've been talking to her," Blondin said. His companion looked at him sharply, and after a second he laughed. "There is just one chance in the world that I might make that little girl extremely happy!" he said.
"Don't talk nonsense!" Harriet said again, impatiently.
"Is it nonsense?" he asked, smiling.
"I suppose," the man drawled, "that that is a question for the young lady, and her parents, and myself, to decide."
"You suppose nothing of the sort!" Harriet said, sensibly, without wasting a glance upon him. And she added in scorn, "I doubt very much if it's possible!"
"Very probably it isn't," he conceded, amiably. "I seem middle- aged to her. I--"
"You are thirty-eight," Harriet said.
"Exactly! But--don't forget!--I shall have the field to myself. The mother won't interfere. Of the grandmother I have my doubts, but if the father is like the usual American male parent, he will give the girl her head!"
Harriet bit her lip. This was utterly unexpected. Into her calculations, up to this point, she had taken only Royal Blondin and herself. If this casual hint covered any truth, then the matter did not stop there. Nina was involved, and with Nina, Ward and Nina's father and Isabelle--
The complications were endless; her heart sickened before them. For she read Nina's susceptible vanity as truly as he, and she knew besides, what he did not know, that the formidable-appearing grandmother was secretly a little piqued at Nina's lack of masculine attention, and would probably further any romantic absurdity on the girl's part with all her determined old soul. Nina adored at eighteen by the much-talked-of poet; Nina, young and gauche perhaps, but married, and entertaining guests in her husband's studio, would be a Nina far more satisfying to her grandmother than the bread-and-butter Nina of to-day.
And yet, the conviction that Royal dared not betray her had been flooding Harriet's heart with exquisite reassurance during this past half hour. She was safe; her life at Crownlands took on a new and wonderful beauty with that knowledge. And if she was fit to continue there, Nina's companion, Isabelle's confidante, guide and judge for the whole household, could she with any logic warn them against this man?
He had her trapped, and she saw it. If she was to have her safety, as all this talk implied, then she must give him the same tacit assurance. To threaten his standing was to wreck her own.
"Don't make a tragedy of it," Royal, watching her narrowly, interrupted her thoughts to say lightly. "The girl will marry where she pleases. She makes her own choice. If I can make the right impression on her and convince her father and mother that I am fit for her, why, it isn't your affair!"
"Isn't it?" Harriet whispered the question, as if to herself. Her eyes looked beyond him darkly; the girl was young and innocent, greedy for flattery, eager to live. What chance had little Nina Carter against charm like his--experience like his? Harriet wondered if she could look dispassionately on while Nina dimpled and flushed over her love affair, while gowns were made and presents unpacked. Could she help to pin a veil over that stupid little head; could she wave good-bye to Royal Blondin and his girl wife; could she picture the room where Nina's ignorance that night must face his sophistication, his passion, his coarseness?
They had come to the particular lane that led to Crownlands now, and she stood still by the ivy-covered brick wall, her face dark and sober with thought in the soft, clear twilight.
"There won't be any kidnapping or chloroform about it!" Royal reminded her.
"No--I know!" she answered, with a swift glance of pain. "But--"
But what? The alternative was Linda's house, at twenty-seven instead of seventeen, and with the vague cloud over her even more definite than before. Harriet winced. Nina, whispered her mind, was far less ignorant than Harriet had been at her age.
"Life--the truths of life," Royal said, as if he read her thought, "may not be to everyone what they--might be--might have been--to you!" The colour rushed to her face.
"Please, Roy--!" she said, suffocated.
"I may never be asked to the house after to-morrow night," said Blondin, after a pause, realizing that he was gaining ground. "She won't be here to-morrow night. This may be the beginning and end of it. All I ask is that if I am made welcome here, on my own merits, you won't interfere! The mere fact that you're living here doesn't mean that you have the moral responsibility of the family on your shoulders, does it? Does it?"
"No-o," Harriet admitted, in a troubled tone.
"Of course not! You live your life, and I mine. Is there anything wrong about that?"
He looked down with quiet triumph at the exquisite face, never more beautiful than in this soft light, against the setting of maples and brick wall.
"You know you would never look at that girl except for her money, Roy!" she burst out.
"Nor would any one else!" he amended, suavely.
Harriet gave a distressed laugh.
"Come! You and I never saw each other until this week," Blondin urged. "That's the whole story."
Before she answered, the girl looked beyond him at the splendid stables and lawns of Crownlands. One of the great cars was in the garage doorway, its lamps winking like eyes in the dusk. An old gardener was utilizing the last of the daylight, his back bent over a green box border. Beyond, lights showed in the side windows of the great house. Harriet could see pinkish colour up at her own porch; Nina was at home, or Rosa was turning down the beds and making everything orderly for the night. She had a swift vision of the great hallways, the flowers, the silent, unobtrusive service; of Ward and his friends racketing upstairs; the old lady majestically descending; of Isabelle at her mirror. Richard Carter would come quietly down, groomed and keen-eyed; he would glance at his mail, perhaps saunter out to the wide porch for a chat with his mother before dinner was announced.
It had never lost its charm for her, her castle of dreams; she had longed to be part of just such a household all her life! Now she actually was part of it, and--if what Mary Putnam had hinted was true, if her own fleeting suspicion only a few evenings ago was true; then she might some day really belong to Crownlands, in good earnest!
After all, Nina was bound for some sort of indiscretion; nobody could save her that! Even if there was any probability that Royal could carry out his plan.
Harriet made her choice.
"Very well," she said, briefly. "I understand you. I turn in here. Good-night!"
"Just a second!" he said, detaining her. "You won't hurt me with any of them, Ward or the girl, or the father?"
The girl's lips curled with distaste.
"No," she said, tonelessly.
"The look implies that you despise me!" Royal said, smiling.
"Oh, not you!" she said, in a tone of self-contempt. And in another second she was gone. He saw the slender figure, in its green gown, disappear at a turning of the ivied wall. She paused for no backward glance of farewell. But Royal Blondin was satisfied.