Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Thompson Norris
That Isabelle's madness would run its full gamut did not occur to Harriet until the next day. Then, as the serene hours moved by, and there was no word and no sign from Richard, the possibilities began to suggest themselves. It seemed to her incredible that any woman would risk all that Isabelle had, for the sake of a fiery boy's first love, and yet, on the other hand, there was the memory of Isabelle's suffering two nights ago, and here were the amazing facts to prove it.
The girl went about in a dream, sometimes imagining the meeting of husband and wife, sometimes trying to fancy Isabelle with her lover. As was inevitable, the older woman seemed to lose something charming and intangible in this confession of definite weakness. To be adored by any man merely adds to her glory, but the instant she concedes him an inch, the Beauty throws down her halo, the whole affair becomes mundane and vulnerable. Harriet might have envied Isabelle once, now she saw her frail, forty, her woman's pride weakened by admitted passion, and was sorry for her. She had had all men at her feet, now she must feel herself fortunate if she could hold one.
And with Isabelle's shame came a wholesome sting of shame to Isabelle's companion. Harriet had seen nothing harmful in this affair a few days ago; it was the way of this world of theirs. But she felt within her now the awakening of something clean and stern; she found in her mind odd phrases and terms--"a married woman's duty," "her sense of honour," "owing it to her husband and children."
It was for few women to enjoy the popularity that Isabelle had known. But any woman might run away with a rich admirer. Harriet's admiration for the cleverness with which Isabelle conducted this pretty playing with fire disappeared, and in its place came the sharp conviction that old-fashioned women like Linda had some justification, after all; it was "dangerous," it did "lead to sin," it could indeed "happen once too often."
Harriet felt her own lapsing morality regaining its standard. Just now, when Nina most needed her mother, when Richard was struggling with difficult business conditions, when Ward was engaged--
She interrupted her thoughts here, and tried to make herself feel like a woman engaged to be married. Somehow the fact persisted in baffling her. There was an unreality about it that prevented her from tasting the full sweet. Engaged--to a rich man, and a rich man's son. Well, perhaps when Ward came back, it would seem more believable.
But Ward might come back to a changed home. Harriet fancied a quiet wedding, herself afterward as the true head of the disorganized family. She would be Nina's natural chaperon, then, her father-in-law's--for Richard would be that!--natural confidante. The prospect, and every hour of this warm and silent day seemed to make it more definite, brought the wild-rose colour to her face, and made her heart beat faster. It was certainly a life full and gratifying beyond her dreaming, and it was almost settled now! If Ward did not figure very prominently in this bright dream, she told herself that Ward should have no cause for grievance. He should always be first in everything; but if his wife enjoyed her position, her connections, her place in the family, surely there was no harm in that! There was but one stumbling block: Royal Blondin. Her heart stopped at him.
She had been standing at one of the hall windows, a window deep set in the brick wall, and commanding through elms and beeches the path to the tennis court. Down this path Nina and Francesca Jay had recently disappeared, with their rackets, for some practice. The sun was high, and the sky cloudless; under the trees there was a softly mottled pattern of light and shade. Outside the window the hound was lying, his nose on his paws, his eyes shut. Harriet remembered walking in such a summer wood, years and years ago, a little girl with yellow braids, holding tight to her mother's hand. They had sat down on the ground, and her mother and father had talked, and the little girl had lain on her back for what seemed hours, looking at the sky.
There seemed to be no time for idle walks and dreaming in the woods nowadays. Harriet had been four years at Crownlands, and had looked out at this wood a thousand times, but she had never lost herself in it, or lain staring up through branches there. She was always too busy: the business of eating, and of amusing the others, and of keeping the machinery moving, had always absorbed her. Personalities, microscopic buzzing of midges, had blotted out the beautiful arches and aisles; and if ever Harriet walked through the wood now, she was with chattering women; she was wondering if this one, or that one, or the other one, was hurt, or neglected, or piqued, was paired with the wrong person, or had really intended the meaning that might be read into a look or tone.
--Hands pressed her eyes tight, and she came back to the present moment with a start. Ward Carter was behind her. He laughed at her confusion, and they sat down on the window seat together. Yes, he was going back to the Bellamys', and so was Blondin, but they had both come in just for lunch and the drive. They had driven a hundred and twenty miles that morning, what? And they were going to drive back that afternoon, what-what? And how about eats, old dear?
Instantly he brought reassurance to her. Ward was such a dear! Of course she loved him.
"But you weren't a very good boy last night!" she said. Their hands were locked; but she had shaken a negative when he would have kissed her. Bottomley was everywhere at once.
"Rotten!" he confessed, easily. "I played poker, too. No man ought to do that when he's edged. Sorry--sorry--sorry. Bad, bad, bad little Edward! I lost two hundred to Bates, a curse upon him. But that was nothing; once, there, I was over twelve hundred in. Listen. When we're married it's all off. No smoking, drinking, gambling, wine, women, or song, what?"
"You may not know it, but you never spoke a truer word!" the girl said. His shout of laughter was pleasant to hear.
"Listen. Does the Mater know it? About us, I mean?"
"Oh, Ward--nobody knows it! Hush!" His mention of his mother brought back realization with a rush, and she added uncomfortably, "She's at Great Barrington."
"Oh, darn! I wanted to see her! She wrote me, and told me she loved me, and that she didn't think she had been a very good mother to me!" He laughed, youthfully, with a bewildered widening of his eyes. "I thought she was sick. Well, maybe we can stop there going back."
"Where did you leave Mr. Blondin?"
"He beat it down to the tennis court. Say, listen, is there a chance that he's stuck on Nina? It looks to me like what the watch comes in!"
Harriet glanced at her wrist before she answered him. Her heart was sick within her. Close upon her radiant dream had come this shadow, far more a shadow now, when her responsibility had infinitely increased, and when she had had proof of the love and respect in which they held her here.
"I don't think so!" she said, briefly. "I'll find Bottomley, and have lunch put ahead."
"You don't like him!" Ward said, watching her closely.
"I don't like him for Nina!" she amended.
The boy followed her while she gave her order. Then they went out into the blazing day together.
"Nina isn't going to have more than a scalp a day," said her brother, fraternally.
"Nina has a fortune!" the girl remarked, drily, opening her wide white parasol.
But Ward was rapidly squandering an equal amount, and it was not impressive to him.
"Lord, he could marry a girl with ten times that! Look here, you don't think a man like Blondin would consider that!" he protested.
"I would rather see Nina dead and buried!" The words burst from Harriet against her will, against her promise to Royal. There was no help for it, her essential honesty would have its way. "I make a splendid conspirator!" she said to herself, in grim self- contempt.
"Talk to him!" Ward, fortunately, was not inclined to take her too seriously. "You'll like him! Gosh, he certainly has a good effect on me," added the youth, modestly. "He doesn't drink, and he talks to me--you ought to hear him!--about character being fate, and all that! Say, listen, before we get out of the woods--?"
His sudden sense of her nearness and beauty belied the careless words. Harriet found his arms tight about her, her face tipped up to the young, handsome face that was stirred now with trembling excitement. The quick movement of his breast she could feel against her own, and the passion of his kisses almost frightened her; she was held, bound, half-lifted off her feet.
"Ward!" she gasped, freed at last, and with one hand to her disordered hair, while the other held him at arm's-length. "Dear! please!"
It was no use. Soul and senses were enveloped again, and close to her ear she heard his whisper: "I'm mad about you! Do you know that! I'm mad about you!"
"I think you are!" she stammered, breathless and laughing. "You mustn't do that! You mustn't do that! Why, we might be seen!"
Breathless, too, he flung back his hair, and stooped to pick up her parasol.
"Do you think I care!" he panted, indifferently. "I wouldn't care if the whole world saw!"
"Sh--sh!" By the magic only known to youth and womanhood Harriet had gathered herself into trimness and calm again. She took her parasol composedly. Her eyes told him the whole story. Nina and Royal Blondin were two hundred feet away, coming up from the tennis court.
The four met cheerfully; apparently all at ease. Nina was stammering and blushing a trifle more than usual, but Royal's presence would account for that. Ward burst into a stream of idiotic conversation; Harriet found herself sauntering ahead of the young Carters, discussing Sheringham fans with the dilletant.
"You fool--fool--fool!" she said to herself. What had they seen? What new twist to the situation would Nina's suspicions afford? Richard Carter trusted her; this was no time to tell him that she loved his son. Did she love Ward?--or with his keen and kindly eyes would Ward's father see exactly what she saw in the marriage? Caught kissing in the woods--like Rosa or Germaine; it was unthinkable! She, with her hard-won prestige of dignity and reserve, exposed to Nina's laughing insinuations, or, worse, Nina's prim disapproval. How she had weakened her position here! How she had risked--her heart contracted with pain--severing of her association with Crownlands.
Luncheon, under its veneer of gaiety and foolishness, offered fresh terrors. For old Madame Carter had come down, and it occurred to Harriet that if Nina had seen anything in the wood, she might naturally interest her grandmother with an account of it. Nina rarely had so interesting a topic of conversation. The old lady would go instantly to her son. And Richard--Harriet could imagine him, tired, harassed, heartsick over the recent inexplicable weakness of his wife, having to face another woman's treachery, having to listen to the demure announcement of the little secretary's engagement to his son.
Perhaps not treachery, exactly, thought Harriet, as the birds, and the asparagus, and the crisp little rolls went the rounds. She ate, hardly knowing what she tasted, and spoke with only a partial consciousness of what she said. No, not treachery exactly, especially if she went to Richard first with the news.
But break in upon his painful speculations with the blithe announcement? What must he think of such utter lack of consideration? He was experiencing the most overwhelming shock of all his life now; he must shortly be exposed to all the whirl of scandal: the silenced gossip, the averted eyes of his world, the weeklies with their muddy insinuations, the staring fact headlined above his breakfast bacon. This was her time to efface herself and the household, to help him to lift the load.
"I'm afraid I wasn't listening, Mr. Blondin?"
"Miss Nina and I want to know what day we may have our party?" Royal repeated.
"The studio party?"
"The roof-garden party. We're going to have it from half-past six to half-past seven only, because then it won't be too hot. We shall only ask the people we like! Gira Diable will come and dance for us, and Tilly will read something--"
"That's Unger Tillotson, the actor!" Nina interpolated, ecstatically.
"We're not sure that we'll let Francesca and Amy come," Blondin pursued. "Maybe we won't let them know anything about it! And everybody has to wear costumes, so that the picture won't be spoiled."
"He doesn't like Amy and Francesca," Nina confessed, with a guilty little laugh.
"Not at all. I like them very much." Blondin's languid, rich voice corrected her. Nina shrank sensitively. "I think they're very charming little schoolgirls. But I don't want them for my friends!"
At this Nina blossomed like the rose. Emotion choked her, and she looked down at her plate with a fluttering laugh. This was irrefutable; before Miss Harriet and Ward and Granny, too.
"That's what I meant!" she murmured, thickly.
"Why not have it at night, with lanterns?" Harriet said, quite involuntarily. And again a pang of self-contempt swept over her. It was hateful, it was incredible, but she was playing his game as calmly as if doubts and reluctance had never entered her heart.
"People won't go to the city, summer evenings," Royal explained, "but a great number are there in the afternoons. And then twilight, over the city, and the bridges lighting up--I assure you it's like fairyland!"
"I wonder if I am to be invited to this party?" said Madame Carter, royally. She had been watching this exchange of pleasantries with approval.
"You? You're the queen of the whole affair!" Royal assured her. "You don't have to costume unless you feel like it."
"Oh, Granny'll have the nicest there!" Nina predicted, gaily. Her grandmother bridled complacently, although shaking a magnificent head. Harriet knew that she would spend as much time upon her dress as the youngest and most beautiful woman who attended.
"Come," said Madame Carter, brightly, "you didn't think I was going to let you carry out this little plan without a chaperon!"
If there was a self-conscious second after this remark it was no more than a second. Harriet's quick colour rose, but before Nina's nervous little laugh had died away Blondin said easily:
"Ah, we'll surround the Little Duchess with chaperons; I'm not going to be a party to her losing her heart anywhere around my diggings!"
"From what I said at luncheon, I hope you didn't imagine that I thought there was anything--well, in questionable taste, in your coming to Nina's party!" said Madame Carter to Harriet an hour later, when the men had started on their long run back to camp, and she was about to go upstairs for her daily siesta.
"Not at all; I understood perfectly!" Harriet assumed an air of abstraction, of pleasant unconcern. Her red lips were firm, and closed firmly after the brief answer. The smoky blue eyes regarded Madame Carter with innocent expectancy. The girl was amazingly handsome, thought the old lady reluctantly.
"Of course, if Mrs. Carter can spare you, and considers it suitable, you will be there!" said Madame Carter, amiably, mounting the first stair.
"Surely!" Harriet said, with a murderous impulse. She watched the erect, splendid old figure ascending. What was there about this old lady that could put her, and indeed almost any one else who chanced to be marked by her dislike, into a helpless fury of anger? "If I were once safely married to Ward," the girl said to herself, "if--"
It was a tremendous "if," of course. There were a great many things now that might turn the scales one way or another. Richard's attitude was supremely important. He might feel that his son was taking a wise, a desirable step. He might feel that to have the boy settled was to lift just one care from the many that burdened his shoulders. On the other hand, was it more probable that this untimely announcement, with its accompanying merry- making and rejoicing, would utterly exasperate and antagonize him? Harriet fancied him asking, with weary politeness, just what their plans were? Did Ward propose to finish college? Had he formed any idea of the means by which he should earn his living? He had his uncle's legacy, of course, the larger part of it. Did the young people propose to begin with that?
Harriet perfectly understood Richard's attitude to the average son of the average wealthy family. She had heard his caustic comments upon them often enough. He had earned his own education; he showed for Isabelle's spoiling of her son the patience of helplessness. To make a man of Ward, in his father's estimation, would have meant a readjustment of their entire scheme of living and thinking. It was simpler, pleasanter, to sacrifice Ward to the general comfort, especially as he, Richard, was very busy, and as there was always a possibility that the women were right, and would make a man of him anyway. Harriet's keen eyes saw, if Isabelle's did not, that Ward had been steadily gaining in his father's good graces for the last year or two. His cheerful, casual manner masked no weakness, every muscle in the young, big body was hard from tennis and baseball. If there were sins of self-indulgence, natural to youth and money and charm, Ward never brought them home with him. Lately he had begun to talk of getting out of college at Christmas time, and "getting started." His father watched him, Harriet saw, almost wistfully. Was the lad really becoming a man, in a world of men?
"The probability is that he will favour our engagement," Harriet reflected. But this was no time to risk the chance of crossing him. She must wait. She must choose the lesser risk of Nina making mischief with old Madame Carter; the contingency was there, but it was a remote contingency.