Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Linda, who had been Mrs. Frederick Davenport for some seventeen years, had lived for the last ten in a quiet New Jersey village. The house for which she and her husband paid the staggering rent of forty dollars a month had proved to be in a region toward which the expected tide of fashion did not turn, but it remained a quiet and eminently respectable neighbourhood, remained almost unchanged, in fact, and Linda was satisfied.
When Harriet had chaperoned Nina and Amy to the Friday afternoon matinee, and had duly deposited Amy afterward in the Hawkes mansion, and had escorted Nina to her grandmother's apartment, she was free to direct Hansen to drive her to the Jersey tube, and to spend a hot, uncomfortable hour in a stream of homegoing commuters, on the way to Linda's house. She was unexpected, but that made no difference; the Davenports had little company, and they were always ready to welcome the beloved sister and aunt.
Linda's home was a shingled brown eight-room house, built in the first years of the century, and consequently showing the simplicity and spaciousness that were unknown in the architecture of the eighties. It was exactly like a thousand other houses here in the Oranges, and like a million in the Union. There was a porch, with a half-glass door covered by a wire netting door, and a rusty mail box; there was a square entrance hall with a side window and an angled stairway; there was a kitchen back of the hall, and a square parlour with a green-tiled mantel to the left; a square dining room back of the parlour, with a window at the back and another at the side. The side window gave upon the neighbouring house, a duplicate of this house, forty feet away, and the back window commanded an oblong backyard in which clotheslines and bean poles and a dog house, and a small vegetable garden protected by collapsing chicken wire, and various pails and buckets appertaining to the kitchen, all had place.
But up the slope of meadow beyond this yard were the woods, and the Davenport children had always considered these woods as a part of their legitimate domain, combining thus, as their mother said, "the advantages of the country with all the conveniences of the city." What the conveniences of the city were Harriet was unable to decide, but to Linda's practical mind electric light, adequate plumbing, and a gas stove were all extremely important.
A chipped cement path led to Linda's steps; there was no front fence. It was considered vaguely elegant, in the neighbourhood, to let the fifty-foot plots run together, as boundless estates might unite. So that the old prim charm of pickets and protected gardens, and protected babies playing in them, had long ago vanished from country homes, and although the lawns here were all well tended, there was a certain bareness and indefiniteness about the aspect that partly accounted for the little curl of distaste that touched Harriet's mouth when she thought of Linda's home.
She mounted the three cement steps from the sidewalk level, and the four shabby and peeling wooden ones that rose to the porch. On this hot summer afternoon the front door was open, and Harriet stepped into the odorous gloom of the hall, and let the screen door bang lightly behind her. There was a confused murmur of voices and the clinking of plates in the dining room, but these ceased instantly, and a hush ensued.
Immediately, in the open archway into the parlour, a girl of fifteen appeared, a pretty girl with blue eyes and brown hair, a shabby but fresh little shirtwaist belted by a shabby but clean white skirt, and a napkin dangling from her hand.
She made a round O of her mouth, and then gave a shout of pleasure.
"Oh, Mother--it's Aunt Harriet! Oh, you darling--!"
Harriet, laughing as she put down her bag and divested herself of her hat and wraps, went from the child's wild embrace into the arms of Linda herself, a tall, broadly built, pleasant-faced woman with none of Harriet's own unusual beauty, but with a family resemblance to her younger sister nevertheless.
"Well, you sweet good child!" she said, warmly. "Fred--here's Harriet! Well, my dear, isn't it fortunate that we were late! We'd hardly commenced!"
The remaining members of the family now streamed forth: Fred Davenport, a thin, rather gray man of fifty, with an intelligent face, a worried forehead, and kindly eyes; Julia, a blonde beauty of twelve; Nammy, a fat, sweet boy of five, with a bib on; and Pip, a serious ten-year-old, with black hair and faded blue overalls, and strong little brown hands scrupulously scrubbed to the wrist-bones, where dirt and grime commenced again unabated. Josephine, the oldest child, continued to dance about the visitor delightedly, but the little thoughtful Julia disappeared, and when presently they all went out to resume the interrupted meal, a place had been set freshly for Harriet, and a clean plate was waiting for her.
"Now, I don't know whether to take this out and heat it up for you, or whether it's still hot," said Linda, beaming from her place at the head of the table.
"I'll do it!" said Julia, half launched from her chair.
"Oh, Mother, it's plenty hot enough!" Josephine contended, good naturedly. Harriet protested against the reheating plan. It seemed to her the middle of the afternoon, with the blazing, merciless sunlight streaming across the backyards. She had forgotten that Linda had dinner at half-past six.
"Iced tea! Oh, don't you love it? I could die drinking it!" Julia said, drawing the beverage from off the ice in her glass with Epicurean delight.
"You very probably will!" her father said. The children laughed hilariously. Linda put Harriet's plate before her, and Harriet attacked codfish cakes and boiled potatoes and stewed tomatoes with pieces of pulpy bread in them, with what appetite she could command. The stewed blueberries that followed were ice-cold, and she enjoyed them as much as the others did.
The talk ranged wholesomely from family to national affairs. Fred was a newspaper man, one of the submerged many, underpaid, overworked, unheard, yet vaguely gratified through all the long years by the feeling that his groove was not quite the groove of the office, the teller's desk, or the travelling salesman's "beat." Here in the little suburban town his opinion gained some little weight from the fact that he had been ten years with a New York evening paper. Fred held vaguely with labour parties, with socialists and single-taxers; his sister-in-law had a somewhat caustic feeling that if Fred had ever given Linda a really capable maid, his opinions might have been more endurable, to her, Harriet, at least. Linda had had maids, Polack and Swedish girls, and Irish country girls hardly intelligible in speech. But now she had no maid, she preferred the economy and independence of doing her own housework.
They sat on into absolute darkness, finishing the last teaspoonful of blueberry preserve, and the last crumby cooky. Mrs. Davenport was interested in everything her sister had to say; knew the Carters, and even some of their closest friends, by name, and asked all sorts of questions about them. Josephine, after a half- hearted offer to help with the dishes, departed for a rehearsal of "Robin Hood," which was to be given by the women of the church as their annual entertainment. While she was upstairs, little Nammy was sent up to bed, but when it was absolutely necessary to have lights, and the group at the table naturally adjourned, little Julia and Pip gallantly did their share of the work.
Harriet knew that work by heart; no amount of absence could ever make her unfamiliar with any detail of it. The clearing of the table, the shaking of the crumpled tablecloth, the setting of the breakfast table, the hot glare of electric light in the cluttered and odorous kitchen, the scraping of congealed plates, the spreading of her damp tea towel on the rack by the sink, the selection of a dry towel.
Linda, she reflected, had had seventeen years--had had something nearer twenty-five years of it. For Linda had been only Josephine's age when their mother died, and Professor Field's daughters had assumed the management of his little home. Linda might have been anything, thought her sister, as the older woman rinsed and soaped cheerfully, in the insufferable heat of the kitchen, but she had always had cooking and dishes to do. She said that she liked them.
Julia was Harriet's favourite among the children. Pip had been a baby, entirely absorbing his mother, in those terrible days nine years ago, but Julia had been a delicious, confidential two-year- old, with a warm soft hand, and a flushed little friendly face under tumbling curls. Harriet had bathed her, dressed her, fed her, and taken her for silent walks. And on many a moonlit night the unconscious little body had been held tight in Harriet's arms, and the unconscious little face wet with passionate tears.
Julia had never known this, but Harriet never forgot it, and she looked at Julia lovingly, as the small, sturdy girl in her shabby little school-frock went to and fro busily.
"And now we can talk!" Linda said at last, when the kitchen was dark and hot and orderly, and the children gone upstairs to bed in hot darkness, and she and Harriet had taken the seats on the small, hot porch. "This is a terrible night--nine o'clock--and they are hardly settled off yet!"
Nine o'clock. They would still be at dinner at Crownlands, and the river breeze would be blowing the thin curtains of Harriet's French windows straight into the cool, fresh room. She would be out on the porch, now, looking at the river lights, her book forgotten in her lap. At the head of the table Richard Carter would be sitting, in his cool and immaculate white, and at the foot, sparkling and beautiful, with her fresh bare arms and her firm bare shoulders, her exquisitely modelled hair and her bright eyes, Isabelle. And beside her, to-night, Royal Blondin, musical, poetical, playing the game with all his consummate art, scoring with every glance and word--
Fred was at the piano. It was a poor piano, and he was a poor player who smoked his old pipe while he painstakingly fingered Mendelssohn's "Songs Without Words" or the score of "The Geisha." But Linda loved him.
"He will putter away there, perfectly content, for an hour," she told Harriet. "And at ten you'll see him starting to get Josephine. They're great chums--she thinks there's no one in the world like Daddy!"
"How are things at the office?" Harriet asked.
"Oh, just about the same! Old Frank Judson died, you know, and of course Fred expected the A. P. desk. But Allen had a nephew, just out of Yale, it seems, and you can imagine how poor old Fred felt when they put him in. However, I said he wouldn't last, and he didn't last! So Fred has that desk now, and of course he is tremendously pleased."
"More money in it?" Harriet asked, practically.
"Well, there will be. Allen hasn't said anything about it, but Fred is sure he will. But since Fred's mother died, we've felt very much easier. It was an expense, and it was a responsibility, too," said Linda, with her plain, fine, unselfish face only vaguely visible to Harriet in the starlight. "And we were about six months clearing up the final expenses. But now, with only ourselves and the children, it makes me feel positively selfish! I did tell Mrs. Underhill that I would try to sew regularly for the Belgians, and there's the Red Cross, I always manage that. But--I know you'll be as glad as I am, Harriet, we are really saving, at last."
"Well, you told me so last Christmas," Harriet said, sympathetically, "when you and Fred took the Liberty Bonds--"
"Yes, that. But I mean really, for our home, now. And--but don't mention this, Harriet, for we are in perfect dread that someone else will have the same idea--you know that old place we've been watching for years? Well, Mr. Adams told David Davenport that he believed that it could be had for seven or eight thousand dollars, and perhaps only one thousand or fifteen hundred paid down."
Harriet remembered the place perfectly, a shabby, fine old house on a corner, with trees and an old stable, a plot perhaps one hundred feet wide, a street flanked by new wooden houses and young trees. Linda and Fred had wanted this house since the Sunday walk, wheeling Pip in the perambulator, when they had first seen it.
"We could do wonders with that house!" said Linda, enthusiastically. "Not all at once. But it has electric light in, that we know, and one bath--"
Harriet's thoughts had wandered.
"Lovely. He always comes to us for Sunday dinner," Linda said. "And he always asks for you!" she added, with some significance. David Davenport, Fred's somewhat heavy and plodding brother, a successful Brooklyn dentist, had never made any secret of his feeling for the beautiful Harriet. "David is a dear," his sister- in-law said, "the most comfortable person to have about! And he is doing remarkably well. He is going to make some woman very happy, Harriet. He and Fred both have that--well, that domestic quality that wears pretty well! We've promised to give the children a picnic on the ocean a week from Sunday, and you'd be perfectly touched to see how David is planning for it. We're to spend Saturday night with him--"
"I like David!" Harriet said, in answer to some faint indication of reproach in her sister's tone. But immediately afterward she added, in a lower voice: "Ward Carter has had Royal Blondin at the house this week!"
Linda's rocker stopped as if by shock. There was an electric silence. When she spoke again it was with awe and incredulity and something like terror in her tone.
"Royal Blondin! He's in England!"
"He was," Harriet said, drily. "He's been in New York for two years now."
"Harriet! Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't know, Sis. He came to tea last week--stepped up and held out his hand--I hadn't even seen him since that night in your Watertown house--"
"I know--I remember!" she said in a whisper. And she added fervently, "I hoped he was dead!"
"So did I!" Harriet said, simply.
There was another moment of silence. Then Linda said:
"Well, what about it? What did he say--what did you say?"
"Nothing very significant; what was there to say?" Harriet answered. "Our meeting was entirely accidental. He had no idea of finding me; was as surprised as I was." She stopped abruptly, musing on some unpalatable thought. "You wouldn't know him, Linda. He is a perfect freak," she said, presently, "talks about Karma and Nirvana and I don't know what all! Whether he's a Theosophist or a Brahmin I don't know--"
"For Heaven's sake!" Mrs. Davenport commented, in healthy surprise and contempt.
"New thought, and poetry, and the occult, and Tagore and the Russian novelists, and the Russian music," Harriet said, "he lectures about them and he has been extremely successful! He wears pongee coats and red ties, and has his hair long, and--well, you never saw women act so about anything or anybody!"
"Royal Blondin!" Linda exclaimed, aghast. "Perhaps their making fools of themselves will make it not worth his while to bother you," she speculated, hopefully.
"He's having dinner with the Carters to-night," Harriet said. To this Linda could only ejaculate again an amazed:
"Royal Blondin!" And as Harriet merely nodded, in the gloom, she added, vigorously, "Why, he hadn't a penny! He was always an idiot--he didn't have enough to eat ten years ago!"
"Well, he has enough to eat now! Ward told me that he gets three hundred dollars for his drawing-room talks--his 'interpretive musings', he called them. And he has a book of poetry out, and he reviews poetry for some magazine--"
"Well, that--" Mrs. Davenport was still dazed with astonishment and indignation. "That really--" she began, and stopped, shaking her head. "Tell me everything you said!" she commanded.
"I will!" Harriet's voice fell flatly. "I came home to talk it over with you." But it was fully five minutes later that she began the inevitable confidences. "We talked--Roy and I--" she said, briefly. "He doesn't belong in my life, now, any more than I do in his! We simply agreed to a sort of mutual minding of our own business--"
"Thank God!" Mrs. Davenport said, fervently. "He--he doesn't want to--he doesn't still feel--he won't worry you, then?" she asked somewhat diffidently. Harriet's laugh had an unpleasant edge.
"He is after bigger game than I am, now!" she said.
"The brute!" her sister commented in a whisper. "It--it is all right, then?" she asked, a little timidly.
"All right!" Harriet echoed, bitterly. "I haven't drawn a happy breath since I saw him! All that time came up again, as fresh as if it were yesterday--except that I have climbed a little way, Linda; I was happy--I was busy and useful--and I had--I had my self-respect!"
And suddenly the bright head was in Linda's lap, and she was sobbing bitterly. Linda, with a great ache in her heart, circled her arms, mother-fashion, as she had circled them a hundred times, about her little sister.