Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Harriet slept in the room with Julia and Josephine that night, or rather tossed and lay wakeful there. The light of a street lamp came squarely in on the white ceiling, and although the hall door was open, there was no breath of air moving anywhere. The children slept in attitudes of youthful abandonment; Harriet heard Fred and Linda murmuring steadily, and could imagine of what they spoke; little Nammy awakened, and there was an interval of maternal comforting, and then silence.
At about two o'clock the wind streamed mercifully in, hot and thick, but prophetic of rain, and Harriet, wandering about to make windows fast, encountered Linda, on the same errand. When the worst of the crackling and flashing was over, the girl glanced at her watch again. Three o'clock, but she could sleep now. She sank deeply into dreams, not to stir until Linda's alarm clock, hastily smothered, thrilled at seven, and the small girls rose with cheerful noise, to let streams of hot sunshine upon her face.
Her head ached; she brushed Julia's hair as a sort of bribe for turning the small girl out of the bathroom, and was in the tub when Pip hammered on the door for his turn. Linda was in a whirl of blue smoke in the kitchen; Fred shouted a request for a little more hot water; Josephine set the table with languid grace, entertaining her aunt with a description of "Robin Hood."
Her face beaming with satisfaction, Linda assembled her brood. There were cocoa and coffee and muffins and omelette and Fred's little bottle of cream, and his paper, and there was, as always, Linda's spontaneous grace before meat: "I wonder if we're thankful enough, when we think of those poor people in Poland and Belgium!"
Immediately after breakfast the two small girls attacked their Saturday morning's work with a philosophic vigour that rather touched their aunt. This morning Linda would leave the whole lower floor to their ministrations while she thoroughly cleaned the floor above. Josephine must bake cake or cookies, all the dishwashing and dusting and sweeping must be done before Mother came down at twelve to put finishing touches on the lunch. Fred had hurried away after his hasty meal; the boys were turned out into the backyard, which Pip was expected to rake while he watched his small brother.
Harriet's heart ached deeply for them all as she watched the Jersey marshes from the car window a few hours later. The poor little pretty girls, gallantly soaking their small hands in dishwater and lye, eager over the church production of "Robin Hood" and a picnic with Uncle David at Asbury! Josephine was to be a stenographer when she finished High School, and little Julia had expressed an angelic ambition to teach a kindergarten class some day. Nina, at their ages, had had her pony, her finishing school, her little silk stockings, and her monogrammed ivory toilet set, her trip to England and France and Italy with her mother and brother and grandmother.
Suppose that she, Harriet, was right in suspecting that Ward's feeling was more than the passing gallantry of a light-hearted boy? She bit her lip, narrowed her idle gaze on the meadows that flew by the car window. It would be a nine-days' wonder, his marriage at twenty-two with his mother's secretary, more than four years his senior. But after that? After that there would be nothing to say or do. Young Mr. and Mrs. Ward Carter would establish themselves comfortably, and the elder Carters would visit them; Isabelle absorbed as usual in her own mysterious thoughts, and Richard Carter--
Harriet's thoughts, none too comfortable up to this point, stopped here, and she flushed. It was impossible to see Richard Carter, as she saw him every day, in the role of husband, father, son, and employer, without holding him in hearty respect. She liked him thoroughly; she knew him to be the simplest, the most genuine and honest, of them all. He had none of his wife's airy selfishness, none of his mother's cold pride. Nina was far more of a snob than her father, and Ward--well, Ward was only a sweet, spoiled, generous boy, at twenty-two. But Harriet always saw behind Richard Carter, the years that had made him, the patient, straightforward, hard-working clerk who had been sober, and true, and intelligent enough to lift himself out of the common rut long before the golden secret that lay at the heart of the Carter Asbestos Company had flashed upon him. Money had not spoiled Richard; he still held wealth in respect, while Ward ordered his racing car, and Nina yawned over twelve-dollar school shoes.
No; she would not enjoy telling Richard that she was to marry his son. Those keen eyes would read her through and through, and while her father-in-law might love her, and see her beauty and charm with all the rest of the world, Harriet knew that she must begin an actual campaign for his esteem on her wedding day. The prospect had an unexpected piquancy. She had little fear of its outcome. She would make Ward Carter a wife for whom his father must come to feel genuine gratitude and devotion. Every fibre of her being would be strained to make the Carter marriage a success. She knew what persons to cultivate, and what elements to weed out of their lives. There would be children, there would be hospitality and music and a garden. And Ward should seriously settle down to his business, whatever it might be, and show himself a worthy son of his clever father.
Isabelle, simply because of her supreme indifference to whatever did not affect her own personal affairs, would be easy to handle. Her son's marriage might pique her, momentarily, but less, on the whole, than the discovery that she had gained eight pounds, or that new wrinkles had appeared about her eyes. She would very probably choose the position of championing Harriet, if only to infuriate the old lady. Madame Carter would of course be frantic, but Ward's wife need have no fear of her. And Nina--
"I would very soon put a stop to that Blondin affair!" thought Harriet at this point. But a sharp little wedge of fear entered her heart at the same second. It would not do to anger Royal, that end of the tangle must be handled very carefully. Whatever influence she might have with Nina must be used with discretion.
"After all, Nina must live her own life, as I have to live mine!" she thought. And her mind drifted to the happier thought of what a brilliant marriage on her part would mean to the little girls who were so busily cleaning an eight-room house in a little Jersey suburb. Josephine and Julia should come to visit her, they should have little frocks that would befit the pretty nieces of Mrs. Ward Carter; they should have a taste of polo games and country clubs, and in a winter or two Josephine's first formal dance should be given in Aunt Harriet's house.
"Why not--why not?" Harriet asked herself, as she reached Madame Carter's pretentious apartment house, and was whisked upstairs. She was to meet Nina here, and she glanced about for the big limousine at the curb, as an indication that the old lady might be ready to accompany them back to Crownlands. But there was no car in sight. The maid's first statement was that Miss Carter had gone home with her brother, and when Madame Carter came magnificently into the room, Harriet could see from the nature of her head-dress that she did not intend to assume a hat for some hours. When Mrs. Carter meant to go out, her maid pinned and pressed and veiled her hat immovably, while dressing her, as a fixture, with the puffs and braids and curls of white hair.
"Well, our bird has flown!" said the old lady. Harriet could see that she was pleased about something.
"Gone home with Ward?" Harriet asked. Madame Carter never shook hands with her; there was conscious superiority in the little omission. She sank into a chair, and Harriet sat down.
"Ward and his friend, this Mr. Blondin," Madame Carter said. "A very interesting--a most unusual man. A very good family, too-- excellent old family. Yes. Nina assured us that she had to wait and go home with her Daddy, but that--" Madame Carter gave
Harriet a deeply significant smile--"but that didn't seem to please Somebody very much!" she added. "So I told Nina I thought Granny would be able to make it all right with Daddy, and off the young people went."
She rocked, with a benignly triumphant expression, and a complacent rustle of silken skirts. Harriet, beneath an automatic smile, hid a troubled heart. Royal was losing no time, Ward his innocent instrument, and this fatuous old lady of course playing his game for him! Madame Carter had always spoiled Nina in something a trifle more defined and malicious than the usual grandmotherly fashion. She had indulged the child in chocolates when the doctor's prohibition of sweets was being scrupulously enforced by Isabelle and Harriet; she had permitted late hours and unsuitable plays when Nina visited her; she had encouraged her granddaughter in a thousand little snobberies and affectations. And she had taken a mischievous pleasure in thwarting Harriet whenever possible, emphasizing the difference in her position and Nina's, humiliating the companion whenever it was possible, in ways that were far less subtle than Madame Carter imagined them to be.
Harriet saw now that she was pleased and flattered by an older man's apparent admiration of Nina; and that she would further the girl's first definite affair in every way that lay in her power. It was maddening; it was exasperating beyond words. An honest warning would have merely flattered her with its implication of her importance; ah, no, Isabelle and Harriet might try to hold the child back--but Granny knew girl nature better than either of them!
"Well, then, I must follow them home," Harriet said, pleasantly. "You don't come back to-night?"
To this Madame Carter very pointedly made no answer; her plans were not Miss Field's business. She rocked on placidly, in her ornate, pleasant room, at whose curtained and undercurtained and overdraped windows the summer sunshine was battling to enter. It was a large room, but seemed small because the rugs were two and three deep on the floor, and there was so much rich, dark furniture, so many lamps and jars and pictures and boxes and frames, handsome but heterogeneous treasures that must always remain in exactly the same positions. The several tables were angled carefully, their draperies lay precisely placed, year after year; Harriet knew that all the ten rooms were just the same, and that the old lady liked to walk slowly through them, and note the lace over satin, the glint of ranked wineglasses, the gleam of polished silver, the clocks and candlesticks. There were certain ornate ashtrays for Richard and Ward, there was a magnificent piano player, for which his grandmother bought the boy a dozen rolls a month, selecting them with splendid indifference on one of her regal expeditions downtown, and there was a massive Victrola, which had once delighted Nina for hours at a time.
"The child is growing up!" the old lady said, smiling at some thought. "Well, we must look for love affairs now!"
Harriet felt that there was small profit in following this line of conversation. She glanced at her twisted wrist.
"I think I will make that two o'clock train, Madame Carter, unless there is some errand I might do for you?" she said respectfully.
This courtesy, from a beautiful young woman to an old one, always antagonized Madame Carter. Harriet knew that she was casting about for some honeyed and venomous farewell, when the muffled thrill of the bell came to them, and the footsteps of Ella were heard. Immediately afterward Richard Carter came quickly in.
He met Harriet at the door.
"How are you, Miss Field? Tell Nina to hurry; I've got about five minutes!" he said, pleasantly.
"Don't keep Miss Field; she is making her train!" said his mother, coming forward under full sail, and laying both hands about his. "I'll explain about Nina. Come here--you have time to sit down with your mother, I hope!"
Richard Carter gave his mother the peculiarly warm smile that was especially her own.
"Went on with Ward, eh?" he said, in his hearty voice. "That's all right, then. Oh, Miss Field!" he called, after Harriet's discreetly retreating back, "the car's downstairs. Wait for me there; I'll run you home in half the time the train takes. I'm playing in the tennis finals, Mother--"
Harriet, turning for just a nod and smile, heard no more. His voice dropped to a filial undertone, and he sank into a low chair, with his hands still clasping the old lady's hand. But as she entered the lift, the girl said to herself, with a passionate sort of gratitude: "Oh, I like you! You're the only genuine and unselfish and kind-hearted one in the whole crowd!"
She went down to the street, and saw the small car waiting. He was driving himself to-day. With a great sense of comfort and relaxation Harriet got into it, and was comfortably established, and tucked in snugly, when Richard came down. He smiled at seeing her, got into his own seat; the machine slipped smoothly into motion, the hot and sordid streets began to glide by.
"Ever think how illuminating it would be, Miss Field, if we kept a list of the things that are worrying us sick, and read 'em over a few weeks later?"
"I suppose so!" the girl said, a little surprised, and yet with fervour. "We'd have a fresh bunch then, and be worrying away just as hard!"
The spontaneous response in her tone made Richard Carter laugh.
"I've had something on my mind for two months," he said, "to-day I ran into the fellow I thought was going to make the trouble--we had lunch together, and everything was settled up as calm as a June day! I feel ten years younger than I did at this time yesterday! What made me think of it was that I had it on my mind that you and Nina and the bags would be a crowd in this car when I came out to my mother's a few minutes ago. I was figuring on sending the bags on to-morrow, and so on and so on--"
"It's often that way," Harriet smiled. "Only money trouble really seems to have a solid, tangible form," she added, thoughtfully.
"Combined with some other," he surprised her by answering quickly, as if he were quite at home with his subject. "If there isn't sickness--or drink--"
"Oh, you can't say that, Mr. Carter!" Harriet was at home here, too. "Everybody who is respectable and hard working and sober doesn't get rich---"
"No, not rich!" He was really interested. "But our contention isn't that riches are the only happiness, is it?" he countered.
"No, but I say that money trouble is a very real thing," she answered, quickly.
"There is a golden mean, Miss Field, between being rich and being poor!" he reminded her.
"I suppose I am rather bitter," Harriet said, enjoying this confidence more than she could stop to realize, "because I have just been to see my sister in New Jersey. She has four children, pretty well grown now, and her husband is really a good man, and a steady man, too--he is a sort of Jack-of-all-trades on a Brooklyn newspaper. I suppose Fred is paid sixty dollars a week, and they save on that! But--"
"She's unhappy, eh?" asked the man, with a sidewise glance.
"Linda?" Harriet laughed ruefully. "No, she's not! She's too happy," she said, with a little laugh that apologized for the sentiment. "She washes and cooks and plans all day and all night! I'm the one who worries. It makes me sad to have her work so hard for so little--"
She sensed his lack of sympathy, and stopped short, in a little vague surprise. There was a brief silence while he took the car skillfully through a somewhat congested side street, then they were leaving the hot city behind, and the fresh breath of the river was in their faces. Harriet, in self-defence, sketched the Davenport home for him in a dozen sentences.
"You might tell your brother-in-law, from me," Richard Carter said, presently, "that there isn't much that money will buy him!"
Harriet flushed. She had had perhaps a dozen brief conversations with Richard Carter before to-day, but they had never touched so personal a note before.
"I sounded mercenary!" she said, a little uncomfortably. "But I didn't mean to be. I suppose it is because I see so many things that money would do for my sister; I'd love so to have the children beautifully dressed and well educated. Little Pip, raking the yard to-day!--when he ought to be in some wonderful Montessori school!"
"Oh, nonsense!" the man said, heartily. "Lord--Lord, I remember Saturday morning, in a little Ohio town, and raking up the leaves, too! That won't hurt them. I wish--I've often wished, that Nina's life ran a little more in that direction," said her father, frankly. "It's hard not to spoil 'em when you have the chance! Girls--well, perhaps it isn't so bad for girls. But I look at Ward, now, and I wonder what on earth is going to keep that boy straight. This Tony Pope, for instance--it's too much, you know! They don't know the value of money, and they don't know the value of life!"
"Ward is too sweet to be spoiled," Harriet ventured, somewhat timidly.
"You like the boy?" his father asked.
"I? Ward?" She was taken unawares, and flushed brightly. "Indeed I do!"
"I'm glad you do," Richard Carter said, in quiet satisfaction. "I've imagined sometimes that you have a good influence on him-- he's impressionable." He fell into silence, and for some time there was no further speech between them. Harriet was content to enjoy this restful interval between the hurry and crowding of Linda's house and the currents and cross-currents that she must encounter at Crownlands. She watched the green country go by, the trees silent and heavy with their rich foliage, the villages blazing with the last June roses. It was oppressively hot, yesterday's storm had not much relieved the air, but Harriet was conscious of a lazy feeling that it did not so much matter now, the weather was no longer of importance. A mere accident had made it natural for Richard Carter to drive her home, and yet she was pleasantly thrilled by the circumstance.
They flew by the great gates of the country club, and turned in past Crownlands lodge, and Harriet got out, at the steps, and turned her happy, flushed face toward the man to thank him. A little spraying film of golden hair had loosened under her hat; her cheeks had a summer burn over their warm olive; her eyes shone very blue. Whatever she saw in his face as he smiled and nodded at her pleased her, for she went upstairs saying again to herself, "Oh, you're real----you're honest--I like you!"
It was delightful to get back into the familiar atmosphere, to catch the fragrance of flowers in the orderly gloom downstairs, to take off her hat and her hot, dusty clothing, and have a leisurely hot bath; to put on fresh and fragrant summer wear, and to go down-stairs presently, rejoicing in being young and comfortable, and tremendously interested in life. A maid stopped to question her; there were letters to open; she felt herself instantly a part of the establishment again, and at home here. The significance of Richard Carter's parting look, its honest admiration and friendliness, augmented by her own glance at a chance mirror on her way upstairs, stayed with her pleasantly.
At one end of the terrace there was an awning whose shade fell upon the brick flooring and the jars of bloom; and this afternoon it also shaded Isabelle, in a basket chair, and the big hound, and Tony Pope. Harriet cast them a passing glance, and wondered a little in her heart. The boy was handsome, and fascinating, and rich, but it was just a little unusual to have Isabelle so openly interested in any one. There were no other callers this afternoon; Nina had driven to the golf club with her father, and might be expected to remain there for tea, if any entertainment offered, or to return home when Hansen brought the car back.
The thought of Nina brought Royal Blondin again to Harriet's mind, and she was conscious of a little internal wincing. But that risk must be faced simply, as one of the unpalatable possibilities of life. That Royal would take some step against which she must, in honour bound, protest; that Nina should engage herself to him, and Nina's parents consent; that no fortuitous circumstance should play into Harriet's hands, and that she should be obliged to antagonize him openly. was unthinkable on this peaceful, golden afternoon. The canvas was too big, the cast of characters too large, there must be some shifting of scene, some change in plot, before anything so momentous occurred.
Yet the danger, faint though it might be, was already influencing her. She was committed to a certain amount of diplomatic silence now; her position here had subtly changed since the hour that brought Royal Blondin back into her life a few days ago. Linda's concern, and her own agony of apprehension when she first saw him, had shown her just how frail was her hold upon this pleasant and smooth existence, and in self-defence she had begun for the first time to think of making it more definite. If she was to have all the terrors of maintaining a dangerous position, at least she might be sure of its sweets.
Undefined and vague, all this was still somewhere in the background of her thoughts as she returned to Crownlands, and when she met Ward Carter, wrestling with the engine of his own rather disreputable racing car, out in one of the clean, gravelled spaces near the garage. His coat was off, his fresh, pleasant face streaked with oil and earth, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow.
Harriet, who had wandered out idly, felt a little quickening of her pulses as she saw him. There was no mistaking the pleasure in his eyes as she came close.
"Spark plugs?" she asked, with the sympathy of one to whom the peculiarities of the car were familiar.
"She's fixed now; I've just cleaned 'em," Ward announced, flinging away his cigarette, and straightening his back. "She'll go like a bird, now. When did you get back?"
"Your father drove me home, like the angel he is. You came with Nina?"
"Nina and Blondin. Then I drove him on to the Evans's. But she began to act queer on the way home," said Ward, fondly, of the car. "Say--get in and try her, will you?" he asked, eagerly.
"If you could wipe your face---" Harriet murmured, offering a handkerchief. He declined it, but snatched out his own, and distributed the dirt on his face somewhat more evenly. "Come on-- come on, be a sport!" he said. But perhaps he was as much surprised as delighted when she very simply stepped into the low front seat. There was a friendly nearness of her fresh white ruffles, and a thrilling fragrance and sweetness and youngness about her this afternoon that was new. Miss Field always, in Ward's simple vocabulary, had been a "corker." But now he gave her more than one sidewise glance as they went dipping smoothly up and down through the green lanes, and said to himself, "Gosh--when she crinkles those blue eyes of hers, and her mouth sort of twitches as if she wanted to laugh, she is a beauty--that's what she is!"
And dressing for dinner, some time later, he found himself stopping short, once or twice, with his tie dangling in his hand, or his brushes aimlessly suspended, while he calculated the chances of encountering her again--in the pantry, in one of the hallways, in the side garden, where she often went, at about twilight, with a book.
About a week later they met for a few moments in this very side garden. It was early evening, and twilight and moonlight were mingled over the silent roses, and the trimmed turf, and the low brick walls. The birds had long gone to bed, and the first dews were bringing out a thousand delicious odours of summer-time. Harriet's white gown and white shoes made her a soft glimmering in the tender darkness; Ward was in informal dinner clothes, with the shine of dampness still on his sleek hair, and the pleasant freshness of his scarcely finished toilet still about him.
They came straight toward each other, and stood very close together, and he took both of Harriet's hands.
"Now, what is it--what is it?" the man said, quickly. "I've been waiting long enough. I can't stand it any longer! I can't go away to-morrow, perhaps for two weeks, and not know!" "Ward," the girl faltered, lifting an exquisite face that wore, even in the faint moonshine, a troubled and intense expression, "can't we let it all wait until you get back?"
"I'll keep my mouth shut, nobody suspects us, if that's what you mean!" he answered, impatiently. "But--why, Harriet," and his arm went about her shoulders, and he bent his face over hers, "Harriet, why not let me go happy?" he pleaded.
"You'll see a dozen younger girls at the Bellamys' camp," Harriet reasoned, "girls with whom it would be infinitely more suitable--"
"Please!" he interrupted, patiently. And almost touching her warm, smooth cheek with his own, and coming so close that to raise her beautiful eyes was to find his only a few inches away, he added, fervently, "You love me and I love you--isn't that all that matters?"
Did she love him? Harriet hoped, when she reviewed it all in the restless, tossing hours of the night, that she had thought, in that moment, that she did. It was wonderful to feel that strong eager arm about her, there was a sweet and heady intoxication in his passion, even if it did not awaken an answering passion in return. Under all her reasoning and counter-reasoning in the night there crept the knowledge that she had known that this was coming, had known that only a few days of encouraging friendliness, only a few appealing glances from uplifted blue eyes, and a few casual touches of a smooth brown hand must bring this hour upon her. And back of this hour, and of a man's joy in winning the woman he loved, she had seen the hazy future of prosperity and beauty and ease, the gowns and cars and homes, the position of young Mrs. Ward Carter.
But she told herself that all that was forgotten in that magic five minutes of moonlight and fragrance and beauty in the rose garden; she told herself that she really did love him--who could help loving Ward?--and that she would save him far better than he could save himself, from everything that was not loving and helpful and good, in the years to come.
She had let him turn her face up, in the strengthening moonlight, and kiss her hungrily upon the lips, and she had sent him in to his dinner half-wild with the joy of knowing himself beloved. Harriet had gone in, too, shaken and half-frightened, and with his last whispered prophecy ringing in her ears:
"Wait a year--rot! I'll go to the Bellamys', because I promised to, but the day I come back, and that's two weeks from to-day, we'll tell everyone, and this time next year you will have been my wife for six months!"