Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
A most opportune lull followed, when Harriet Field had time to collect her thoughts, and get a true perspective upon the events of the past week. On the morning after Ward's departure for the Bellamys' camp she had come downstairs feeling that guilt was written in her face, and that the whole household must suspect her engagement to the son and heir.
But on the contrary, nobody had time to pay her the least attention. Nina was leaving for a visit to Amy Hawkes, at the extremely dull and entirely safe Hawkes mansion, where four unmarried daughters constituted a chaperonage beyond all criticism. Isabelle Carter was giving and attending the usual luncheons and dinners, her husband absorbed in an especially important business deal that kept him alternate nights in the city. The house was quiet, the domestic machinery running smoothly, the weather hot, sulphurous, and enervating.
A letter from Ward brought Harriet's colour suddenly to her cheeks, on the third morning, but there was no one but Rosa to notice her confusion. Ward wrote with characteristic boyishness. They were having a corking time, there was nobody there as sweet as his girl was, and he hoped that she missed him a little bit. He was thinking about her every minute, and how beautiful she was that last night on the terrace, and he couldn't believe his luck, or understand what she saw in him.
There were seven sheets to the letter; each one heavily engraved with the name of the camp, "Sans Souci," and the telephone, post- office, telegraph, and rail directions charmingly represented by tiny emblems at the top of the letter-head. Harriet smiled over the dashing sentences; it was an honest letter. She felt a thrill of genuine affection for the writer; he would never grow up to her, but she would make him an ideal wife none-the-less. She went about his father's home, in these days, with a secret happiness swelling in her heart. It would not be long now before the secretary and companion must take a changed position here. It was not the least of her satisfactions that Ward wrote her that Royal was at the camp, planning a trip to the Orient. But before he went he talked of giving a studio tea for Nina. "I think he is slightly mashed on the kid," wrote Ward, simply.
With Royal in China, Nina safely recovering from her June fever, and Harriet affianced to Ward, the summer promised serenely enough. Harriet answered the letter in her happiest vein. Her reply was but two conservative pages; but she said more in the double sheet of fine English handwriting than Ward had said in three times as much space. A charming letter is one of the fruits of loneliness and reading; Harriet was sure of her touch. His father, his mother, and Nina each had an epigrammatic line or two, and for his grandmother Harriet dared a little wit, and smiled to imagine his shout of appreciative laughter.
She dined as usual alone, that evening, and was surprised, at about eight o'clock, to receive the demure notification from Rosa that Mrs. Carter would like to see her. Harriet glanced at a mirror; her brassy hair was as smoothly moulded as its tendency to curve and ring ever permitted, and she wore a thin old transparent white gown that looked at least comparatively cool on this insufferably hot evening. With hardly an instant's delay she went downstairs.
On the terrace outside the drawing-room windows they were at a card table: Richard, looking tired and hot in rumpled white, Isabelle exquisite in silver lace, and young Anthony Pope. Near by, Madame Carter majestically fingered some illustrated magazines.
It appeared that they wanted bridge; it was too hot to eat, too hot to dance at the club, too hot--said Isabelle pathetically--to live! Harriet had supposed her dining alone with her infatuated admirer, but it appeared that Richard had driven his mother out from the city in time to join them for salad and coffee, and that this angle of the terrace, where the river breeze occasionally stirred, was the only spot in the world that was approximately comfortable.
Obligingly, Harriet took her place, cut for the deal. But her eyes had not fallen upon the group before she sensed that something was wrong, and she had a moment's flutter of the heart for fear that someone suspected her, that she was under surveillance. Had Royal- -had Ward--
She turned a card, took the deal, found Anthony Pope her partner, and entered into the game with spirit. Richard's first words to her were reassuring; if there was constraint here, she was not involved in it.
"No trump--says little Miss Field. Well, that doesn't seem to frighten me. Two spades."
"I think we might try three diamonds, Miss Field," Anthony said, gravely and pleasantly, and Harriet felt herself acquitted of any apprehension in that direction as well. It only remained for Isabelle to show friendliness.
"Du hast diamonten and perlen, you two. I can see that! You're down, Harriet!" Mrs. Carter said, thoughtfully. Harriet began thoroughly to enjoy herself! If they were all furious, at least it was not with her. She speculated, as she gathered in her tricks. Was it conceivable that Richard did not enjoy the discovery of the tete-a-tete dinner? But Isabelle had often been equally indiscreet, and he had never seemed to resent it before. Harriet knew that Isabelle was ill at ease; she suspected that Tony was furious. The old lady was obviously quivering with baffled interest and curiosity.
In the little pool of light over the card table the air seemed to grow hotter and hotter; there was suffocation in the velvet darkness. A distant rumble of thunder broke heavily on the silence, the sky glimmered with shaking light, and the great leaves of the sycamores turned languidly in a hot breeze. Harriet, the only interested player, was unfortunate with Tony, unfortunate with Isabelle. After three rubbers the game ended suddenly; Richard said he had some letters to write, and was keeping Fox waiting in the library; Anthony scribbled a check, said brief and unfriendly good-nights; Isabelle merely raised passionate dark eyes to his. She was languidly gathering in her spoils when the lights of his car flashed yellow on the drive and he was gone. Harriet, who had lost more than twenty dollars, gave a rueful laugh. The old lady watched everyone in expectant silence.
But when Richard spoke it was only to Harriet, and then in an undertone almost fatherly:
"You lose no money when we ask you to oblige us by playing, my dear. I won't permit that! Twenty dollars and forty cents, was it? Consider it paid."
"Oh, but truly--" she was beginning to protest. The grave look in his eyes, the authoritative nod, interrupted her, and with a pleasant little sensation of protection and of friendliness she had to concede the point. Immediately afterward he said good-night to his mother and wife, and went in to his study. Madame Carter followed him in, and went upstairs, but Isabelle sat on moodily shuffling and reshuffling the cards, in the bright soft light of the terrace lamps.
"Wait a minute, Harriet," she said, briefly, and Harriet obediently loitered. But Isabelle seemed to have nothing to say. Her eyes were on the cards, her beautiful breast, exposed in the low-cut silver gown, rose and fell stormily, and Harriet saw that she was biting her full under lip, as if anger seethed strong within her. In the gleam of the lamps her dark hair took the shine of lacquer; there were jewelled combs in it to-night, and the jewels winked lazily.
Bottomley, the butler, came out, and began discreetly to adjust chairs and to supervise the carrying away of ashtrays and coffee- cups.
"Come upstairs to my room; I want to speak to you!" Isabelle said, suddenly. Harriet followed her upstairs, and they entered the beautiful boudoir together. Here Isabelle dropped into a chair, sitting sidewise, with one bare arm locked across its rococo back, and stared dully ahead of her, a queen of tragedy. Her silver scarf fluttered free, and the toe of a spangled slipper beat with an angry, steady throb on the floor.
Germaine came forward, evidently more accustomed to this mood than Harriet was. Like a flash the high-heeled shoes, the silver gown, and the brocaded stays were whisked away, and a cool, loose silk robe enveloped Isabelle, and she took a deep, cretonned chair by the window. The lights were lowered, Isabelle nodded Harriet to the opposite chair. Then at last she spoke.
"Can that creature hear?"
Harriet, thrilled, glanced toward the dressing room, and shook her head.
"I ask you," said Isabelle, with a great breath of anger restrained, "I ask you if any woman in the world could stand it!"
"I knew something was wrong," Harriet murmured, as the other made a dramatic pause.
"Wrong!" Isabelle echoed, scornfully. "You saw the way Mr. Carter acted. You saw him make me ridiculous--make a fool of me! The boy will never come to the house again."
"Oh, I don't think that!" Harriet said, in honesty.
"Mr. Carter stalked in upon us, at dinner--" his wife said, broodingly. She fell into thought, and suddenly burst out, "Harriet, my heart aches for that boy! My God--my God--what have I done to him!"
She rested her white full arms on the dressing table, and covered her face with her hands. Harriet saw the frail silk of the dressing gown stir with her sudden dry sobbing.
"My God--if I could cry!" Isabelle said, turning. And Harriet realized, with a shock, that she was not acting. "Mr. Carter only sees what I see," she added, "that it must stop. But I am afraid it will kill him. He isn't like other men. He--" She opened a drawer, fumbled therein. "Read that!" she said.
Harriet took the sheet of paper, pressed it open.
"'My heart,'" she read, in Tony Pope's handwriting. "'I will go away from you if I must. But it will be further than India, Isabelle, further than Rio or Alaska. While we two live, I must see you sometimes. Perhaps outside the world there is a place big enough for me to forget you!'"
"Now--!" said Isabelle, rising and beginning restlessly to walk the floor. "Now, what shall I do? Send him away to his death, or risk Mr. Carter's insulting him again, as he did to-night! Anthony Pope means it, Harriet--I know him well enough for that. His whole life is one thought of me. The flowers, the books, the notes--he only wakes in the morning to hope for, to plan, a meeting, and the days when we don't meet are lost days. You don't know how I've been worrying about it," said Isabelle, passionately, "I'm sick with worry!"
She fell silent. Germaine appeared with a tray, and began to loosen and brush the dark hair, and Isabelle went automatically to the business of creaming and rubbing, still shaken, but every minute more mistress of herself. With the thick, dark switch gone, Harriet was almost shocked by the change in the severely exposed forehead and face. Isabelle looked fully her age now, more than her age. But the younger woman knew that however honest her desire to disenchant her young lover, no woman ever risks his seeing her thus. Isabelle might weep, and pray, and suggest supreme sacrifice, but it would be the corseted and perfumed and beautiful Isabelle from whom Tony parted, whom Tony must renounce.
"Well!" said the mistress, sombre-eyed still, and with a still heaving breast. "There was something else, Harriet--Gently, please, Germaine, my head aches frightfully. Oh, Harriet, will you see what this Blondin man wants with Nina? She tells me he suggested some sort of summer party in his roof garden; I don't know quite what it is. But her heart is set on it. They seem to understand each other--I always felt that when Nina's affairs did begin, she would pick out freaks like this! But," Nina's mother sighed, resignedly, "that's all right. He's interesting, and everyone's after him, and if it pleases her--! And will you go to the Hawkes' for her in the morning? Hansen is going at--I don't know what time, in the big car. Don't--" Germaine had gone to the bathroom for a hot towel, and Isabelle dropped her voice, almost affectionately--"don't worry about this little scene, Harriet. It will be quite all right!"
"Oh, surely!" The companion's voice was light and cheerful; she went upstairs only pleasantly excited and thrilled. And at the breakfast table next morning Harriet could show the head of the house the same bright assurance. She was young. Life was like a fascinating play. Richard had come downstairs early, and they had their coffee alone.
"Nina?" asked her father.
"She comes back to-day," Harriet said. "Mrs. Carter is going to have her masseuse, so she won't be down. She asked you to remember that you are dining at the Jays' to-morrow. There's to be tennis at about four."
"Finals," he said, nodding. "Jim Kelsoe and one of the Irvins--"
"Judson Irwin," the girl supplied.
"Was it?" Richard Carter went out to his car apparently well pleased with himself and his life. Harriet started for the Hawkes' with a philosophic reflection or two as to the ephemeral quality of married quarrels.
She brought Nina back at noon, a garrulous and complacent Nina, who could pity the elder Hawkes as girls who "never had admirers." When they reached the driveway of Crownlands, Harriet recognized the car that was already there, and said to herself that Anthony Pope would join them for luncheon. But just as she and Nina were about to enter the cool, wide, dark doorway, Anthony himself passed them. He was almost running, and apparently did not see them. He ran down the shallow steps and sprang into his car, which scattered a spray of gravel as he jerked it madly about, and was gone before she and Nina had ended their look of surprise. Harriet detected a magnificent astonishment in Bottomley's mild elderly glance as well; she went slowly upstairs, with a dim foreboding far back in her heart.
In Nina's room were three flowers from Royal Blondin. Nina said hastily, and in rapture: "Water lilies!" but a ten-year-old memory told Harriet that they were lotus blooms. Another girl had had lotus blooms years ago; Harriet wondered if Royal always sent them to the women he admired, or rather, to the one whose favour was, for the moment, to his advantage.
Nina had no such thoughts. Radiantly and amazedly she turned to Harriet.
"Oh, Miss Harriet, look! They're from Mr. Blondin! Oh, I do think that is terribly nice of him. The idea! The idea! We were speaking of a poem called 'The Lotus Flower'. Did you ever? I think that is terribly decent of him, don't you? Shan't I write him? Would you? Hadn't I better write him right now? Will you help me? I do think that is terribly decent of him, don't you?"
And so on indefinitely. Harriet felt rather sorry for the gauche little creature who flung aside her hat and wrap, and sat biting her gold pen-handle, and spoiling sheet after sheet of paper. But there was protection in Nina's absorption, too; she was far too happy to know or care that Harriet felt somewhat worried, or to make any comment when they went down to lunch to find that Isabelle begged to be excused. They lunched alone with the old lady.
At about three, when the important note was written, and Harriet and Nina were idling on the shady terrace, with the hound, the new magazines, and their books, Hansen brought one of the small closed cars to the side door. Five minutes later Isabelle, in a thin white coat, a veiled white hat, and with a gorgeous white-furred wrap over her arm, came out. Germaine was with her, carrying two shiny black suitcases. Isabelle, Harriet thought, looked superbly handsome, but Germaine had evidently been scolded, and had red eyes.
Isabelle came over to give her daughter a farewell kiss.
"Mrs. Webb has telephoned for me, ducky. Your father isn't coming home to-night, but have a happy time with Miss Harriet, and I'll be back in a day or two."
"I thought that you were dining to-morrow at the Jays'!" Harriet said. That she had not been mistaken did not occur to her until she saw the colour flood Isabelle's face.
"I forgot it. But I wonder if you will be sweet enough to telephone to-morrow morning, and say that I am obliging an old friend?" Isabelle said, smoothly. "I shall be with Mrs. Webb in Great Barrington, Harriet. She made it a personal favour, and I couldn't refuse! Good-bye, both of you. All right, Hansen!"
They swept away, leaving Harriet with a strange sense of nervousness and suspense. The summer air seemed charged with menace, and the silence that followed the noise of the car oddly ominous. She looked about nervously; Nina was drifting through Vanity Fair, the sun was warm, and the air sweet and still. But still her heart was beating madly, and she felt frightened and ill at ease.
Madame Carter was on the terrace when they came back at five from an idle trip to the club, reporting that her son had just returned unexpectedly from the city, and had gone in to change for golf.
Nothing alarming here, yet Harriet experienced a sick thrill of apprehension. Something abnormal seemed to be the matter with them all this afternoon!
"Did you call me, Mr. Carter?" She hardly knew her own voice, as he came down the three broad steps from the house. Her hands felt cold, and she was trembling.
"Do you happen to know where Hansen is, Miss Field?"
"Driving Mrs. Carter to the Webbs' at Great Barrington," the girl answered, readily. "Will young Burke do? Mrs. Webb telephoned, and Mrs. Carter left in a hurry. She did not expect you to-night. Hansen ought to be back at about seven, I should think--"
He was not listening to her; abruptly left her. When Harriet went into the house she saw nothing of him. But she knew he had not gone away for the usual golf, and was conscious still of that odd fluttering of mind and soul, that presage of ill. She made her usual little round, spoke briefly to a maid about some fallen daisy petals, consulted with the housekeeper as to the new cretonne covers. A man was to come and measure those covers this very afternoon--perhaps this was he, modestly waiting at the side door.
But no, this man briefly and simply asked to be shown to Mr. Carter, remarking that he was expected. He disappeared into the library; Harriet saw no more of him for an hour, when he silently appeared beside her, and asked to see the chauffeur Hansen as soon as he came.
Richard brought the strange man to the dinner table; but there was nothing in that to make the dinner so unnatural. To be sure Richard ate little, and spoke hardly at all; but this Mr. Williams was quite entertaining, and the old lady in good spirits. Nina, pleased at being downstairs, as she and Harriet usually were when her father and mother were not at home, or when there was no company, also contributed some shy remarks. But Harriet was beset with sudden fits of nervousness, and oppressed by a heavy sense of impending disaster. She said to herself that she wished heartily the weather would break and clear, she felt like "a witch."
At eight Hansen was back, presenting himself in his dusty road- coat; Mr. Carter immediately drew him with Williams into the library. Nina loitered up to bed, but the old lady and Harriet remained downstairs. They did not like, but they sometimes amused, each other. Suddenly came the summons: would Miss Field please step into the library?
Hansen was going out as she came in; Richard was at the big flat- topped desk, the man Williams standing somewhat in shadow. Harriet's heart leaped; they were going to ask her about Royal.
"Just a moment, Miss Field," Richard said. "Will you sit down?" And as Harriet, looking at him in frightened curiosity, did so, he began quietly: "We are in some trouble here, Miss Field. I hardly know how to tell you what we fear. Did you notice anything strange about--Mrs. Carter's--manner to-day?"
"I thought I did," Harriet admitted.
"Did you think of any reason for it?"
Harriet gave the stranger a glance that made him an eavesdropper.
"I fancied that it was connected with--with what distressed her last night, Mr. Carter."
"You may speak before Mr. Williams," Richard said. He looked down; was silent. "I asked him to help me," he added, slowly. "Was young Mr. Pope here to-day?"
"This morning, I don't know how long," Harriet said, with a great light, or darkness, breaking in upon her mind, "he was leaving when Nina and I came home."
Richard gravely considered this, and nodded his head.
"And immediately afterward Mrs. Carter went away?"
"Not immediately. Not until three."
"Do you know who took the telephone call from Mrs. Webb?" Richard said.
"No, because nobody did. No person named Webb called from Great Barrington, or anywhere else, to-day," said Williams, breaking in decidedly, his voice a contrast to Richard's hesitating tones. "As a matter of fact, Hansen didn't drive to Great Barrington. Two miles from your gate here, Mrs. Carter gave him other directions."
"What directions?" Harriet asked, antagonized by his manner, and feeling her cheeks get red. The man evidently had small respect for womanhood.
"He drove to New London," Richard supplied. "Pope's yacht is there."
His manner was very quiet, he spoke almost wearily, but Harriet felt as if a cannon had exploded in the study. She turned white, looked toward Williams, whose mouth was pursed in a silent whistle, looked back at Richard, who was making idle pencil marks on a tablet of paper.
"I've had New London on the wire," said Mr. Williams. "Mr. Pope had been getting ready for a cruise. The chances are that they have already weighed anchor."
"On the other hand," Richard said, glancing at his watch, "we have an excellent prospect of finding them there. I was not supposed to come home until to-morrow night. I found Mrs. Carter's message at five, twenty-four hours earlier than she expected me to. Williams may be mistaken, of course," he finished, with a glance at the detective.
"Not likely!" said Williams, with a modest shrug.
"However, even if he is right," Richard resumed, "the chances are that they are still there, and if they are, I will bring--my wife back with me to-night. Meanwhile, I leave the house in your care, Miss Field. I needn't tell you that my mother and Nina must be kept absolutely ignorant of what we suspect. You'll know what to tell them, in case I should be longer away. If our calculations are wrong, there's no telling where I may follow Mrs. Carter. I leave this end of things to you!"
The trust he placed in her, and something tired and patient in his tone, brought the tears to Harriet's eyes.
"I'm sorrier than I can say," she said, huskily.
"I know you are! It's--" Richard passed his hand over his forehead--"it's utter madness, of course. But, please God, we can keep it all hushed up. She has Germaine with her; Hansen I can trust. We're off now, Miss Field. I'll keep you informed if I can."
Harriet went back to the drawing room with her heart big with pride. He had mentioned Hansen and Germaine, but he knew that he could trust her! The event was sensational enough, was horrifying enough. But back of the excitement lay the joy of being needed and being trusted.
"Mr. Carter going away again?" said Madame Carter.
"Mr. Williams came up from the city to consult him about something," Harriet explained, smoothly. "They may have to go back."
"To-night!" ejaculated the old lady. And immediately she added, suspiciously, "What'd he want Hansen for?"
"Doctor and Mrs. Houghton," Bottomley announced, in his soothing undertone. Harriet could have embraced the uninteresting elderly couple who entered smilingly. They beamed that it was so hot--they were going up to the club; couldn't the Carters join them?
"Mrs. Carter went to visit a friend in Great Barrington," Madame Carter explained, "and my son has one of his clerks here, and may have to return to the office to-night. Too bad!"
"But how about another lesson in bridge, Doctor Houghton?" Harriet ventured. The old wife was instantly enthusiastic.
"Yes, now, Doctor! This is a splendid chance, for I know Madame Carter isn't too good a player to be patient."
"I don't want to bore this pretty girl to death!" protested the old man, gallantly. But Harriet had already signalled the attentive Bottomley, and when Richard Carter came to say good- night a few minutes later they were on the terrace, and hilarious over the beginner's mistakes. Even Madame Carter enjoyed this; she was a poor player, but she shone beside the Houghtons, and Harriet took care to consult her respectfully, and agree seriously as to bids and leads.
"Good-night, Mother!" said Richard, touching with his lips the cool old forehead, next to the white hair. "Wish I could play with you fellers and girls!"
"You!" said old Mrs. Houghton, archly. "You'd scare us to death!"
Richard went smiling to the car, hearing Harriet murmur as he went: "I think he has a two heart bid, don't you Madame Carter? You bid two hearts, Doctor ..."