Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Again Harriet fled through the quiet house as if pursued by furies, and again reached her room with white cheeks and a fast- beating heart. Nina was not there. She crossed to the window, and stood there with her hands clasped on her chest, and her breath coming and going stormily.
"Oh, he's clever!" she whispered, half aloud. "He's clever! He never made a threat. He never made a threat of any kind! He knew that he had me--he knew that he had me just where he wanted me!" And looking down toward the lane, invisible now behind the trees and stables, in the gathering dusk, she added scornfully, "You're clever, Roy. I wonder if there's anything you wouldn't do, if it made for your own comfort or brought you in money!
"But, at all events," summarized Harriet, quieting a little under the soothing influence of solitude and safety, "I'm out of it! He won't touch me. And what he does here, in making his way with this family, doesn't concern me! Nina is old enough to decide for herself--I had my own living to make at her age, and no father to write me checks for my birthdays, and no Uncle Edward to die and leave me a hundred and fifty thousand dollars!"
She mused about the little fortune, left most unexpectedly five years before to Nina and Ward by an uncle of their mother. Edward Potter had been a bachelor, had been young when an accident flung him out of life, and made his niece's children, the twelve-year- old Nina, and Ward at sixteen, his heirs. The expectation had been that he would marry, that sons and daughters of his own would disinherit the young Carters. But his affianced wife had married someone else, after awhile, and the fortune had gone on accumulating for Ward and for the girl whose eighteenth birthday was only a few months off now. Harriet wondered if Royal Blondin knew about it. Of course he knew about it! Harriet had seen a check for one million dollars exhibited, under glass, among the wedding gifts of one twenty-year-old girl a few months ago. She did not suppose that Richard Carter would do that for his daughter, even if he could. But he would probably double Uncle Edward's legacy, and the bride would begin her new life with a fortune that was no contemptible fraction of a million.
"And I am worrying about my responsibility to poor, dear little Nina!" the girl said to herself, with a rather mirthless laugh, as Nina herself came into the room.
Nina had been experiencing what were among the pleasantest hours of her life. A school friend, Amy Hawkes, had come back with her from Francesca Jay's tea, and the two had been prettily invited by Isabelle to join the family downstairs at dinner. Coming at this particular moment, it had seemed to Nina that she was emerging from the chrysalis indeed.
But more than that. Amy, who was romance personified, under a plain and demure exterior, had observed Nina's long conversation with Royal Blondin, and had found an arch allusion to it so well received by Nina that she had followed up that line of conversation, almost without variation, ever since. By this time the girls had confided to each other, over a box of chocolates in the deep chairs of the morning room, everything of a sentimental nature that had ever happened to them in their lives, and much that had not. Amy was convinced that Mr. Blondin was just desperately in earnest, and that, for the sake of other aspirants, Nina ought not to trifle with him, and Nina, with blazing cheeks and tumbled hair, was assuming rapidly the airs of a sad coquette.
Amy was to sleep with Nina, and Harriet realized, as she superintended their fluttered dressing, that she, Harriet, would be obliged to go to their door five times, between eleven and one o'clock that night, and tell them that they must stop talking. With the grave manner that always impressed young girls, and with a somewhat serious face, she was busying herself with their frills and ribbons, when from the bathroom, where Amy was drawing on silk stockings, and Nina had her toothbrush in her mouth, she was electrified by a chance scrap of their conversation.
"If I do mention it to Mother," said Nina, rather thickly, "she will only scold me! A man of his age--she'd be furious!"
"And don't you think you deserve to be scolded?" said Amy, in a delightfully rebuking undertone. "My dear--he must be in the thirties!"
"No, I don't, Amy!" Nina protested, in a tone of great honesty and innocence. "I can't help being like that. If I don't like a man, why, I have nothing to say to him! If I do, why--his age--nothing- -matters!"
She hesitated, and laughed a little laugh of pure pleasure.
"You flirt!" Amy said.
"Truly, honestly--" Nina was beginning, when both girls were smitten into panicky silence by the sound of the slipper Harriet deliberately dropped on the floor. Nina noiselessly bent her stocky young body far forward, to look through the crack of the bathroom door. Harriet went on quietly spreading the youthful dinner dresses on Nina's bed, snapped up a dressing-table light, went on into her own room. But she had been taken far more by surprise herself, if they had only known it, than had Amy and Nina. Could Royal possibly have been the subject of their confidences? Could he have made such progress in a single afternoon? Knowing Royal, and knowing Nina, she was obliged to confess it possible.
While she stood pondering, in her own beautiful room, there was a modest knock at the door, and Rosa came in with a box. She smiled, and put it on Harriet's desk.
"For me?" the girl said, smiling in answer, and with some surprise. Rosa nodded, and went her way, and Harriet went to the box. It was not large, a florist's box of dark green cardboard; Harriet untied the raffia string, and investigated the mass of silky tissue paper. Inside was an orchid.
She took it out, a delicate cluster of flaky blossoms, poised carelessly, like little white hearts, on the limp stem. She opened the accompanying envelope, and found Ward's card. On the back he had written,
"Just a little worried because he's afraid you're cross at him!"
Harriet stood perfectly still, the orchid in one hand, the card crushed in the other. Ward Carter had sent orchids, no doubt, to other girls. But Harriet Field had never had an orchid before from a man.
She put the card into her little desk, and the orchid into a slender crystal vase. Then she went back to advise Amy and Nina as to gold beads and the arrangement of hair. But a little later, when she was in the big housekeeper's pantry, where several maids were busy with last-minute manipulations of olives and ice and grapefruit, Ward came out and found her, soberly busy in her old checked silk.
"Why didn't you wear it?"
"Wear it--you bad, extravagant child! I'll wear it to town to- morrow."
"No; but--" he sank his tone to one of enjoyable confidences--"but were you mad at me?"
"Mad at you? But why should I have been?" Harriet demanded.
"Oh, I don't know! You looked so glum at breakfast."
"Well, you had nothing to do with it!" she assured him, in her big-sisterly voice. "And it was the first orchid I ever had, and I loved you for it!"
It was said in just the comradely, half-amused voice with which she had addressed Ward a hundred times in the past year, but perhaps the boy had changed. At all events, it was with something like pain and impatience in his tone that he said gruffly:
"Yes, you do! You like me about as much as you like Nina, or Granny!"
"I like you--sh! just a little better than I do Granny!" Harriet confided. "Don't spoil your dinner with olives, Ward! Don't muss that--there's a dear! Dinner's announced, by the way. It's quarter past eight."
"I'm going!" he grumbled, discontentedly.
"At any rate, I love the orchid!" Harriet said, soothingly. He was laughing too, as he disappeared, but something in his face was vaguely troubling to her none-the-less, and she remembered it now and then with a little compunction during her quiet evening of reading. She was tired to-night, excited from the talk with Blondin that afternoon, and by the general confusion and noise of the household. Ward--Nina--Royal--their names flitted through her thoughts even when she tried to read; at such a time as this she felt as if the life at Crownlands was like the current of a river that moved too swiftly, or more appropriately perhaps, like some powerful motor-car whose smooth, swift passage gave its occupants small chance to investigate the country through which they fled. Well, she would see Linda on Saturday, and have Sunday with her and the children, and that meant always a complete change and a shifted viewpoint, even when, as frequently happened, Linda took the older-sisterly privilege of scolding.