THE WORKS OF KATHLEEN NORRIS
HARRIET AND THE PIPER
DANIEL WEBB NYE
DEAR MAKER OF BOOKS AND FRIENDS
HARRIET AND THE PIPER
Richard Carter had called the place "Crownlands," not to please himself, or even his wife. But it was to his mother's newly born family pride that the idea of being the Carters of Crownlands made its appeal. The estate, when he bought it, had belonged to a Carter, and the tradition was that two hundred years before it had been a grant of the first George to the first of the name in America. Madame Carter, as the old lady liked to be called, immediately adopted the unknown owner into a vague cousinship, spoke of him as "a kinsman of ours," and proceeded to tell old friends that Crownlands had always been "in the family."
It was a home hardly deserving of the pretentious name, although it was beautiful enough, and spacious enough, for notice, even among the magnificent neighbours that surrounded it. It was of creamy brick, colonial in design, and set in splendid lawns and great trees on the bank of the blue Hudson. White driveways circled it, great stables and garages across a curve of green meadows had their own invisible domain, and on the shining highway there was a full mile of high brick fence, a marching line of great maples and sycamores, and a demure lodge beside the mighty iron gates.
Much of this was as Richard Carter had found it five years ago, but about the house, inside and out, his wife had made changes, had lent the place something of her own individuality and charm. It was Isabelle Carter who had visualized the window-boxes and the awnings, the walks where emerald grass spouted between the bricks, the terrace with its fat balustrade and shallow marble steps descending to the river. Great stone jars, spilling the brilliant scarlet of geraniums, flanked the steps, and the shadows of the mighty trees fell clear and sharp across the marble. And on a soft June afternoon, sitting in the silence and the fragrance with boats plying up and down the river, and birds twittering and flashing at the brim of the fountain, one might have dreamed one's self in some forgotten Italian garden rather than a short two hours' trip away from the busiest and most congested city of the world.
On one of the wide benches that were placed here and there on the descending terraces, in the late hours of an exquisite summer afternoon, a man and a woman were sitting. They had strolled slowly from the tennis court, where half-a-dozen young persons were violently exercising themselves in the sunshine, with the vague intention of reaching the tea table, on the upper level. But here, in the clear shade, Isabelle Carter had suddenly seated herself, and Anthony Pope, her cavalier, had thrown himself on the steps at her feet.
She was a woman worthy of the exquisite setting, and in her richly coloured gown, against the clear cream of the marble, the new green of the trees and lawns, and the brilliant hues of the flowers, she might well have turned an older head than that of the boy beside her. Brunette, with smooth cheeks deeply touched with rose, black eyes, and a warmly crimson mouth that could be at once provocative and relentless, she glowed like a flower herself in the sweet and enervating heat of the summer's first warm day. She wore a filmy gown of a dull cream colour, with daring great poppies in pink and black and gold embroidered over it; her lacy black hat, shadowing her clear forehead and smoke-black hair, was covered with the soft pink flowers. She was the tiniest of women, and the little foot, that, in its transparent silk stocking and buckled slipper, was close to Anthony's hand, was like a child's.
The man was twice her size, and as dark as she, earnest, eager, and to-day with a troubled expression clouding his face. It was to banish that look, if she might, that Isabelle had deliberately stopped him here.
She had been behaving badly toward him, and in her rather irresponsible and shallow way she was sorry for it. Isabelle was a famous flirt, her husband knew it, everyone knew it. There was always some man paying desperate court to her, and always half-a- dozen other men who were eager to be in his place. Now it was a painter, now a singer, now one of the men of her husband's business world. They sent her orchids and sweets, and odd bits of jewellery, and curious fans and laces, and pictures and brasses, and quaint pieces of china. They sent her tremendously significant letters, just the eloquent word or two, the little oddity of date or signature or paper that was to impress her with an individuality, or with the depth of a passion. Isabelle lived for this, went from one adventure to another with the naive confidence of a woman whose husband smiles upon her playing, and whose position is impregnable.
But this boy, this Anthony, was different. In the first place he was young, he was but twenty-six. In the second place he was, or had been, her own son's closest friend. Ward Carter was twenty- two, and his mother nineteen years older.
Yes, she was forty-one, although neither she nor her mirror admitted it readily. Anthony, she thought, must realize it. He must realize that his feeling for her was unthinkable, not to say absurd. It had taken her by surprise, this last conquest. She had known the boy only a few weeks. Ward had brought him home for a visit, at Easter, but Isabelle, besides admiring his unusual beauty and identifying him with the Pope fortune, had paid him small attention. She had been absorbed then in the wretched conclusion of the Foster affair. Derrick Foster had been distressing and annoying her unmercifully. After the warm and delightful friendship of several months, after luncheons and teas, opera and concerts in the greatest harmony, Derrick Foster had had the daring, the impudence, to imply—to insinuate—
Well, Isabelle had gotten rid of him, although she could not yet think of him without scarlet colour in her cheeks. And it had been on a particularly trying afternoon, when the unshed tears of anger and hurt pride had been making her fine eyes heavier and more mysterious than usual, that this nice boy, this handsome friend of Ward, had gone riding with her, and had shown such charming sympathy for her dark mood. They had had tea at the Country Club, and Tony, as she had begun at once to call him, had been wonderfully amusing and soothing. Isabelle, when they came back to the house, had turned impulsively in the hall, had laid her small hand, in its dashing gauntlet, upon his big shoulder.
"You've carried me over an ugly bog, Little Boy!" she had said. "I like you—such a lot!"
That was six weeks ago, but in those short six weeks the little boy that she had patronized had entirely upset her preconceived ideas of him. He was young, and he was absurd, but he did not know it, and Isabelle began to feel the difficulty of keeping the whole world from discovering it before he did. He made no secret of his passion. He came straight to her in any company; he never looked at anybody else. The young girls to whom she introduced him bored him, he was rude to them. To her own daughter Nina, seventeen years old, his attitude was almost paternal; he ignored Ward as if their friendship had never been. Toward Richard Carter, who was pleasantly hospitable toward the lad, he showed an icy and trembling politeness.
Isabelle saw now that she had made a mistake. She should have killed this affair at the very beginning. Tony was not like the older men, willing to play the game with just a little scorching of fingers. Appearances meant nothing to Tony, and she had let the play go too far now to convince him that she did not return something of his feeling.
Indeed, to her own amazement, his fire kindled fire in return. When he was not at Crownlands she could laugh at him, even though her thoughts were full of him. But when he was there, life to her was more radiant, more full, more glowing with colour and fragrance. The books he touched, the chair he had at breakfast, his young, lithe body in its golfing knickerbockers, or his sleek black head above the dull black of evening wear, haunted her oddly. He troubled her, but she had neither quite the power nor quite the desire to banish him.
She looked down at him now, content to be alone with her and at her feet, and a hundred mixed emotions stirred her. His feeling for her was not only pitiable and absurd in him, but it was rapidly reaching the point when it would make her absurd and pitiable, too. Nina, instinctively scenting the affair, had already expressed herself as "hating that idiot"; Ward had scowled, of late, at the mere mention of Tony's name. Even her husband, the patient Richard, seeing the youth ensconce himself firmly beside her in the limousine, had had aside his mild comment: "Is this young man a fixture in our family, dear?"
"You should be playing tennis, Tony," said Isabelle.
"Tennis!" He laughed; there was a slight movement of his broad shoulders.
"I think Miss Betty Allen was a little disappointed," the woman pursued. A look of distaste crossed Anthony's face.
"Please—CHERIE!" he begged.
There was a silence brimming with sweetness and colour. Tony laid his hand against her knee, groped until her own warm, smooth fingers were in his own.
"Does Mr. Carter play golf to-morrow?" he asked, presently.
"I suppose so!"
"And you—what do you do?"
"Oh, I have a full day! People to lunch, friends of Madame Carter- "
The boy laughed triumphantly.
"I knew you'd say that!" he said. "Now, I'll tell YOU about to- morrow. You and I are going to slip away, at about one o'clock, and go off in the gray car. We'll go up to—well, somewhere, and we'll have our lunch under the trees. I'll have Hansen pack us something at the club. We'll be back at about four, for the tea callers, and they may have you until I come back for dinner. After dinner we'll walk on the terrace—as we did two wonderful, wonderful nights ago, and perhaps—" His voice had fallen to a rich and tender note, his eyes were rapt. "Perhaps," he said, "just before we go in, at the end of the terrace, you'll look up at the stars again—"
"Tony!" Isabelle interrupted, her face brilliant with colour. "My dear boy—my dear boy, listen to me—"
"Well?" he asked, looking up, as she paused.
"My dear," she said, with difficulty, "think where this is going to end."
He jerked his head impatiently.
"Oh, if you are going to begin THAT again!"
"My dear, I have to begin that again! In all reason—in all REASON——"
"Isabelle, what in God's name has reason to do with it!" He knelt before her, and caught her hands, and Isabelle had a terrified fear that Ward, or Nina, or any one else, might start up or down the terrace steps and see him. "The instant you realize what you and I are to each other, my darling," he said, "you begin to talk of reason. Love isn't reason, Cherie. It's the divinest unreason in the world! Cherie, there's never been another woman for me; there never will be! It's nothing to me that there are obstacles— I love them—I glory in them! I can't live without you; I don't want to! You're frightened now, you don't know how we can manage it. But I'll find the way. The only thing that matters is that you must belong to me—you SHALL belong to me—as I to you in every fibre of my being—"
"Tony—for Heaven's sake—!" Isabelle was in an agony. Somebody was approaching. He had gotten to his feet, and was gloomily staring at the river, when Nina Carter, followed by a great white Russian hound, came flying down the steps.
"Mother—" Nina, a tall, overgrown girl, with spectacles on her straight nose, and straight, light-brown hair in thick braids, stopped short and gave her mother's companion a look of withering distaste. "Mother," she began again, "aren't you coming up for tea? Granny's there, and the others, from tennis, and Mrs. Bellamy telephoned that she's bringing some people over, and there's nobody there but Granny and me!"
Nina was like her New England father, conscientious, serious, gravely condemnatory of the lax and the unconventional.
"Ask Betty Allen to pour," said Mrs. Carter, regaining her composure rapidly, and assuming the air of hostess at once.
"Betty went home for a tub," Nina explained. "She's coming back. But, Mother," she added, with a faintly reproachful and whining intonation, "really, you ought to be there—"
Mrs. Carter knew this as well as Nina. But she found the child extremely trying in this puritanical mood. Granting that this affair with Tony did her, Isabelle, small credit, at least it was not for Nina to sit in judgment. Rebellious, Isabelle fondled the loving nose of the hound with a small, brown, jewelled hand, and glanced dubiously at Tony's uncompromising back.
"Trot back, Nina love," said she to her daughter, cheerfully, "and ask Miss Harriet to come out and pour. I'll be there directly. We'll come right up. Run along!"
To Nina, in this ignominious dismissal, there was sweet. She adored "Miss Harriet," the Miss Field who had been her governess and her mother's secretary for the three happiest years of Nina's somewhat sealed young life. It would be "fun" to have Miss Field pour. Nina leaped obediently up the steps, with a flopping of thick braids and the scrape of sturdy shoes, and the sweet summer world was in silence again.
Isabelle sat on, stroking the hound, her soul filled with perplexity. The shadows were lengthening, the shafts of sunlight more bold and clear. The hound, surprised at the silence, whined faintly.
"I wish it might have been Nina!" Isabelle said. Anthony's eloquent back gave her sudden understanding of his fury. She got up, and went noiselessly toward him, and she felt a shudder shake him as she slipped her hand into his arm. "Ah, please, Tony," she pleaded, "what can I do?"
"Nothing!" he answered, suddenly pliant. "Nothing, of course." And he turned to her a boyish face stern with pain. "Of course you can do nothing, Cherie. I'm not such a—such a FOOL—"his voice broke angrily—"that I can't see that! Come on, we'll go up and have tea—with the Bellamys. And I—I'll be going to-night. I'll say good-bye to you now—and perhaps you'll be good enough to make my good-byes to the others—"
The youthfulness of it did not rob it of real dignity. Isabelle, wretchedly mounting the steps beside him, felt her heart contract with real pain. He would go away—it would all be over and forgotten in a few weeks—and yet, how she longed to comfort him, to make him happy again!
She looked obliquely at his set face, and what she saw there made her feel ashamed.
On the bright level of the upper terrace tea was merrily in progress. In the streaming afternoon light the scene was strikingly cheerful and pretty: the wide wicker chairs with their gay cretonne cushions, the over-shadowing green trees in heavy leaf, the women's many-coloured gowns and the men's cool whites and grays. On the broad white balustrade Isabelle's great peacock was standing, with his tail fanned to its amazing breadth; two maids, in their crisp black and white, were coming and going with silver and china on their trays.
Miss Field had duly come down to preside, and all was well. Isabelle, as she dropped into a chair, gave a sigh of relief; everyone was amused and absorbed and happy. Everyone, that is, except the magnificent and sharp-eyed old lady who sat, regally throned, near her, and favoured her immediately with a dissatisfied look. Old Madame Carter had her own good reasons for being angry, and she never spared any one available from a participation in her mood.
She was remarkably handsome, even at seventy-five; with a crown of puffed white hair, gold-rimmed eyeglasses, and an erect and finely preserved figure. Her silk gown flowed over her knees, and formed a rich fold about her shining slippers; a wide lace scarf was about her shoulders, and she wore an old-fashioned watchchain of heavy braided gold, and a great many handsome pins and rings. Her voice was theatrically deep and clear, and her manner vigorous and impressive.
"Well, my dear, your friends were naturally wondering what important matter kept their hostess away from her guests," she began. Isabelle had not been her daughter-in-law for more than twenty years for nothing. She shrugged and smiled carelessly, with an indifferent glance at the group. Ward's friends, the tennis- players, and old Doctor and Mrs. Potter and their niece, from next door. Nobody here of any especial importance!
"Harriet is managing very nicely," Isabelle said, contentedly, as Tony, with a sombre face and averted eyes, brought her her tea.
"So Ward seems to think," observed Ward's grandmother with acidity. Isabelle laughed indifferently. Her son, slender and tall, and with something of her own eagerness and fire in his sunburned young face, was beside Miss Field, who talked to him in a quiet aside while she busied herself with cups and spoons.
"Perfectly safe there!" Isabelle said.
"I should hope so!" old Madame Carter remarked, pointedly. "At least if there's any of OUR blood in his veins—but of course he's all Slocum. They used to say of my Aunt Georgina that she never married because the only man she ever loved was beneath her socially—"
Isabelle knew all about Aunt Georgina, and she looked wearily away. Tony, sighing elaborately, drew upon himself the old lady's fire.
"Why don't you go over and join the young people, Mr. Pope?" she asked, pleasantly. "Isabelle and I can manage very well without a cavalier. You're tired, Isabelle—I can always tell it. Be glad that you're too young to know what that means, Mr. Pope. Go over there—there's a chair next to Nina. What shall we suspect him of, Isabelle—a quarrel with pretty Miss Allen?—if he avoids the young people, and looks like such a thunder-cloud."
Isabelle sighed patiently.
"The Bellamys are coming in for awhile," she observed, with deliberate irrelevance, "and I hope they'll bring their Swami—or whatever he is, with them. He must be a queer creature."
"He's not a Swami, he's an artist," Tony said, drawn into a casual conversation much against his will. "Blondin—I've met him. He has a studio up on Fifty-ninth Street—goes in for poetry and musical interpretations and I don't know what else. Now I believe it's Indian philosophies—I can't bear him, he makes me sick!"
He relapsed into gloomy silence, and Isabelle put into her laugh something affectionate and soothing.
"He evidently lives by his wits," she suggested, "which is something you have never had to do!"
Tony scowled again. It was part of his charm for her that he was the spoiled darling of fortune. Handsome and young, and with no family ties to restrain him, he had recently come into his own enormous fortune. Isabelle knew that his New York apartment was fit for a prince, that his man servant was perfection, that he had his own pet affectations in the matter of monogrammed linen, Italian stationery, and specially designed speed cars. His manner with servants, his ready check book, his easy French, and his unruffled self-confidence in any imaginable contingency, coupled with his youth, had strong attraction for a woman conscious of the financial restrictions of her own early years and the limitations of her public school education.
"Why don't you go to the club and dress now, and come back and dine with us?" she said, in an undertone.
"Do you want me?" he asked, sulkily.
"I'm ASKING you!"
For answer he stood up, and smiled wistfully down upon her, with a hesitancy she knew well how to interpret in his eyes. She should not have asked him to dinner; he should not accept her invitation. Yet he had been longing so thirstily for just that permission, and she had been yearning so to give it! Happiness came back into both their hearts as he turned to go, and she gave him just a quick touch of a warm little hand in farewell. At such a moment, when her mood of heroism gave way to melting, Isabelle had a desperate sort of hope that one more concession would not alter the inevitable parting, whenever it came. This time—and this time— and this time—must positively be the last.
Other guests had come in, and Miss Field was extremely busy, and Ward, helping her officially, was busy, too. She had indeed offered her place to Isabelle, but Isabelle, spurred by her mother-in-law's criticism, would not have disturbed her secretary for any consideration now.
"No, no—stay where you are, my dear!" she had said. And Miss Field remained.
"Fun to have you down here!" said Ward, in her ear.
Harriet Field had an aside with a maid regarding hot water. Then she gave Ward an indulgent, an older-sisterly glance. He was in years almost twenty-two, but at twenty-seven the young woman felt him ages her junior. Ward was broad and fair, his light brown hair was somewhat tumbled about from the tennis; his fine, strong young throat showed brown where the loose collar turned back. Even in his flat tennis shoes he stood a clear two inches above Miss Field, although she was not a small woman by any means. He was a joyous, irresponsible boy, and he and his mother's secretary had always been good friends since the day, four years ago now, when the silent, somewhat grave Harriet Field had first made her appearance in the family. Ward was so much a child in those days that Harriet used to go with him to pick out suits and shirts, and to buy matinee seats for him and his school friends, and they laughed now to remember his favourite and invariable luncheon order of potato salad and French pastries. Nina had had a nurse then, and Harriet practised French with both the boy and girl, but now the nurse was gone, and Ward could buy his own clothes, and Nina went to a finishing school. So Miss Field had made herself useful in new ways; she was quite indispensable now. The young people loved her; Richard Carter occasionally said to his wife, "Very clever—very pretty girl!" which was perhaps as close as he ever got to any domestic matter, and Isabelle confided to her almost all her duties and cares. She patronized Harriet prettily, and told her that she was too pretty to be getting up to the thirties without a fiance, but Harriet only smiled her inscrutable smile, and made no confidences on the subject of admirers. Nina, insatiably curious, had gathered no more than that Miss Harriet's father had been a college professor of languages, and that her only relative was a married sister, much older, who had four children, and lived in New Jersey.
She was a master of the art of keeping silent, this young woman, and but for her beauty she might have been as inconspicuous as she sincerely tried to be. But her simple gowns and her plainly massed hair only served to emphasize the extraordinary distinction of her appearance, and her utmost effort to obliterate herself could not quite keep her from notice. Men raised their eyebrows, with a significant puckering of the lips, when she slipped quietly through the halls; and women narrowed their eyes, and looked questioningly at one another. Isabelle, who was far too securely throned to be jealous of any one, sometimes told her that she would make a fortune on the stage, but old Mrs. Carter, who for reasons perfectly comprehensible in an old lady who had once been handsome herself, detested Harriet, and said to her daughter-in- law that in her opinion there was something queer about the girl.
There was nothing queer in her aspect to-day, at all events, as she demurely performed her duties at the tea table. To the occasional pleasant and surprised "Hello, Miss Field!" she returned a composed and unsmiling nod of greeting; for the rest, she poured and sweetened, and conferred with the maids, in a manner entirely businesslike.
She was of that always-arresting type that combines a warm dusky skin with blue eyes and fair hair. The eyes, in her case, were a soft smoky blue, set in thick and inky black lashes, and the hair was brassy gold, banded carelessly but trimly about her rather broad forehead. Her mouth was wide, deep crimson, thin-lipped; it had humorous possibilities all its own, and Nina and Ward thought her never so fascinating as when she developed them; it was a mouth of secrets and of mystery, of character, a mouth that had known the trembling of pain and grief, perhaps, but a firm mouth now, and a beautiful one.
And in the broad forehead and the cheek-bones, just a shade high, and the clearly pencilled brows and the clean modelling of the straight young chin, there was a certain openness and firmness, a fortuitous blending of form and proportion that would have made the head a perfect model for a coin, a wonderful study in pastels. Looking at her, an artist would have fancied her a bold and charming and boyish-looking little girl, fifteen years ago, with that Greek chin and that tawny mane; would have seen her sexless and splendid in her early teens, with a flat breast and an untamed eye. And a romancer might have wondered what paths had led her, in the superb realization of her beautiful womanhood, at twenty- seven, to this subordinate position in the home of a self-made rich man, and this conventional tea table on a terrace over the Hudson. The smoky blue eyes to-day were full of an idle content; the rounded breast rose and fell quietly under the plain checked gown with its transparent frills at wrists and throat. Harriet may have had her moments of rebellion, but this was not one of them. She had been here for four years; she had held more difficult and less well-paid positions for the four years before that; she had known fatigue and ingratitude, and snubs and injustices, as every business woman, especially in secretarial work, must know them, and she had no quarrel with this particular occasion. Indeed, Nina's open adoration, Ward's pointed attentions, and Isabelle's graciousness were making her feel particularly cheerful, and more than offset the old lady's disapproval, which was always more stimulating than otherwise to Harriet.
"Nearly half-past five, Nina," she said, presently. "Go and change and brush, that's a darling! You look rather tumbled."
Nina, reaching for a marron, obediently wandered away, and immediately the empty chair beside Harriet was taken by a newcomer, Richard Carter himself, the owner of all this smiling estate, who had come up from the little launch at the landing, had changed hastily into white flannels, Harriet saw at a glance, and had unexpectedly joined them for tea. His usual programme was to go off immediately for golf, and to make his first appearance in the family at dinner-time, but perhaps it had been unusually tiring in the city to-day—he looked pale and tired, and as if some of the grime of the sun-baked streets clung about him still.
"Tea, Mr. Carter?" Harriet ventured.
He was watching his wife with a sort of idle interest. She had to repeat her invitation.
"If you please, Miss Field! Tea sounded right, somehow, to me to- day. It's been a terrible day!"
"I can imagine it!" Harriet's voice was pleasantly commonplace. But the moment had its thrill for her. This lean, tall, tired man, with his abstract manner, his perfunctory courtesies, his nervous, clever hands, loomed in oddly heroic proportions in Harriet's life. His face was keen and somewhat lined under a smooth crest of slightly graying hair; he smiled very rarely, but there was a certain kindliness in his gray eyes, when Nina or Ward or his wife turned to him, that Harriet liked. He came and went quietly, absorbed in his business, getting in and out of his cars with a murmur to his chauffeur, disappearing with his golf sticks, presiding almost silently over his own animated dinner table. He was always well groomed, well dressed without being in the least conspicuous; always more or less tired when she saw him. In the evenings he smoked, listened to music, went early to bed. But he never failed to visit his mother, or pay her some little definite attention when she was with them; and when Madame Carter was in her New York apartment he called on her nearly every day.
For Harriet he had hardly a dozen words a year. He merely smiled kindly when she thanked him for the Christmas gift that bore his untouched card; if she went to her sister for a day or two, he gave her only a nod of greeting when she came back. Sometimes he thanked her for a small favour, briefly and indifferently; now and then asked with sharp interest about Nina's teeth or his mother's headache.
But Harriet had known other types of men, and for his very silences, for his indifference, for his loyalty to his own women, she had begun to admire him long ago. She had not been born in this atmosphere of pleasure and ease and riches; she was not entirely unfitted to judge a man. There was not much to awaken respect in the men she met at Crownlands, still less in the women. She liked Ward for his artless boyishness; forgave Anthony Pope much because he was straight and clean and self-respecting; but there were plenty of other men, spoiled and selfish, weak and stupid; men who amused and flattered Isabelle Carter perhaps, but among whom her husband loomed a very giant. Harriet had watched Richard Carter with a keenness of which she was hardly conscious herself, ready to detect the flaw, the weakness in his character, but she never found it, and after awhile she became his silent champion, his secret ally in all domestic matters, quick to see that his mail and his telephone messages were sacred, that his meals never were late, and that any small request, such as the use of the study for some unexpected conference, or the speedy sending of a telegram, was promptly granted.
Isabelle was always breezily civil to her husband; he had long ago vanished as completely from among the vital elements of her life as if he were dead, perhaps more than if he were dead. She thought—if she thought about him at all—that he never saw her little affairs; she supposed him perfectly satisfied with his home and children and club and business, and incidentally with his beautiful figurehead of a wife. They had quarrelled distressingly, several years ago, when he had bored her with references to her "duty," and her influence over Nina, and her obligations to her true self. But that had all stopped long since, and now Isabelle was free to sleep late, to dress at leisure, to make what engagements she pleased, to see the persons who interested her. Richard never interfered; never was there a more perfectly discreet and generous husband. Half the women Isabelle knew were attempting to live exactly as she did, to cultivate "suitors," and drift about in an atmosphere of new gowns and adulation and orchids and softly lighted drawing rooms, and incessant playing with fire; it was the accepted thing, in Isabelle's circle, and that she was more successful in it than other women was not at all to her discredit.
Even Harriet, who was in her secrets, who saw maid and masseuse and hair-dresser in desperate defence of Isabelle's beauty every morning, who knew just what scenes there were over gowns and cosmetics, and the tilt of hats—even Harriet admired her.
"Why not?" said Harriet sometimes to her sister, when she went to visit Linda, and the subject of the beautiful Mrs. Carter was under discussion. "She has a boy and a girl, her house runs perfectly, her husband adores her—"
"Oh, he CAN'T adore her, Harriet!" Linda would protest. "No man could adore that sort of—of shallowness, and selfishness, and vanity—"
"Well, I assure you he does! I think that sort of thing keeps a man admiring a woman," the younger sister would maintain, airily. "He sees her looking like a picture all the time, he sees other men crazy about her—"
"Too much money!" Linda usually summarized, disapprovingly. But this was always fuel to Harriet's flame.
"Too much money? You CAN'T have too much money! I've seen both sides-don't ever say that to me! There's nothing in this WORLD but money, right down at the bottom. If you haven't any, you can't live, and the more you have the more decently and prettily—yes, and generously, too—you can live! Look at Madame Carter, she was doing her own work when she was my age—not that she ever mentions that, now! Can you tell me that she isn't a thousand times happier now, with her maids and her car and her dresses? And money did it- -and if you and Fred had two thousand, or twenty thousand, a month, instead of two hundred, do you mean to tell me your lives wouldn't be fuller, and richer, and happier? You shake your head, Linda, but that's just to make me furious, for you know it's true! I admire Mrs. Carter, and I assure you that if ever I do marry— which as you know I won't—you may be very sure that money is the first thing I shall think about!"
It was their only ground for real dissension. Harriet usually was ready to laugh and forget it almost instantly; but Linda, who was deeply spiritual, never ceased to pray that all the dangers of life at Crownlands would pass safely over the little sister's beloved head, and that some real man, "like Fred," would win Harriet's turbulent and restless heart, after all.
Madame Carter, gathering her draperies about her, was one of the first to leave the terrace. Dressing for dinner was a slow and serious business for her. She gave Harriet a cold, appraising glance as she passed her; Richard Carter had risen to escort his mother, but she delayed him for a moment.
"Miss Nina gone in, Miss Field?"
Harriet, whose manner with all old persons was the essence of scrupulous formality, rose at once to her feet.
"Nina has gone to change her dress, Madame Carter."
"She took it upon herself to ask you to help us out this afternoon?" the old lady added, with the sort of gracious cruelty of which she was mistress. Richard Carter gave his daughter's companion a look that asked indulgence. Harriet coloured brightly, fixing her eyes upon his mother.
"Nina brought me a message from her mother, Madame Carter."
"Miss Nina did?" Madame Carter amended the title as if absently. "Mrs. Carter," she added, with a glance toward the near-by group in whose centre they could see the cream-coloured gown with its pink poppies, "told me that she was surprised to see that you had- -had stepped into the breach so nicely—" Her son's reproachful glance had the effect of interrupting her, and she turned to him. "Well, I am saying that it was very nice of Miss Field, Richard," she protested. "I am sure there is no harm in my saying that, my dear!"
Harriet said nothing, and resumed her seat as the old lady rustled slowly away. Her heart was hot with fury, and she was only partly soothed by hearing Richard Carter's murmur of reproach: "How can you be so perverse, Mother—"
"Of all the detestable, horrible, maddening—" Harriet thought, splashing hot water and clattering tea-cups. "Who's coming?" she added aloud in an undertone to Ward, as one more motor swept about the carriage drive.
"What is it, Beautiful?" Ward laughed. Harriet's glorious eyes widened into smiling warning. His open and boyish admiration was a sort of joke between them. Yet in this second, as he craned his neck to get a glimpse of the approaching guests, a sudden thought was born in her. Honour had compelled her to a generous policy with Ward. She had held his admiration firmly in check, she had maintained a big-sister attitude that was as wholesome for herself as for him.
But here, she thought with sudden satisfaction, might be her answer to his grandmother's snubs, might be the realization of her own ambition, after all. Ward was but four years her junior, and Ward would be Richard Carter's heir.
No, that was nonsense, of course. And yet she played with the thought amusedly, enjoying the vision of the old lady's anger and confusion, and of the world's amazement at the masterly move of the quiet secretary. Richard would be generous, thought Harriet idly, Isabelle philosophical and indifferent, but how old Madame Carter would writhe!
"It's the Bellamys and their crowd," said Ward, watching the approach of newcomers. "Look at that man with them, that fellow with the hair—that's Blondin! That's the man I was telling you about the other night, the man whose name I couldn't remember!"
Harriet did not know whether she said it or screamed it. She lost all consciousness of her surroundings and her neighbours for a few terrible seconds; her mouth was dry, her throat constricted, and a hideous weakness ran like nausea through her entire body. The brilliant terrace swam in a mass of mingled colours before her eyes; the casual, happy chatter about her was brassy and unintelligible. The hand with which she touched the sugar tongs was icy cold, a pain split her forehead, and she felt suddenly tired and broken. She sat perfectly still, like a trembling little mouse in a trap, the colour drained from her face, her breast rising and falling as if she had been running.
Ward had gone across to greet the Bellamys; Harriet fixed her eyes with a sort of fascination upon the man to whom she presently saw him talking. Almost everyone else in the group was looking at him, too; Royal Blondin was used to it; one of his favourite affectations was an apparent unconsciousness of being observed.
He talked to everyone, to children, to great persons and small, with the same air of intense concentration with which he was now honouring Ward. Well over six feet in height, he had dropped his leonine head, with its thick locks of dark hair, a little on one side; his mobile, thin lips were set, and his piercing eyes searched the boy's face with a sort of passionate attention.
His figure was one to challenge attention anywhere. He wore a loosely cut suit of pongee silk, the collar of the shirt flowing open, and a blue scarf knotted at the throat. On one of his long dark hands there was a blazing sapphire ring, and about his wide- brimmed Panama hat the folded silk was of the same colour. Harriet could catch the intonations of his voice, a deep and musical voice, which turned the trifles they were discussing into matters of sudden import and beauty.
Introductions were in order, everyone wanted to meet the Bellamys' friend, and Harriet saw that it pleased him, for some inscrutable reason, to continue his ridiculous conversation with the flattered Ward, and to accept names and greetings absently, in an aside, as it were, smiling perfunctorily and briefly at the eager girls and women, and returning immediately to his concerned and passionate undertones with the boy.
Isabelle fluttered forward, to fare a little more fortunately. Ward dropped into the background now, and his beautiful little mother stood in a full sunset flood of light, with her small hand in that of the lion, and the cream and black hat, with its pink roses, close to the drooping, reverential head.
It was Isabelle who brought him to the tea table. Harriet had felt, with a sure premonition of disaster, that it must be. She might not escape, there was nothing for it but courage, now. Her breath was behaving badly, and the muscles contracted in her throat, but she managed a smile.
"And this is Miss Field, Mr. Blondin," said Isabella. "She will give you some tea!"
"Miss Field," said Royal Blondin, and his dark hand came across the tea-cups. Harriet, as his thin mouth twitched with just the hint of a smile, looked straight into his eyes, and she knew he was as frightened as she. But from neither was there a visible sign of consternation. "No tea," the man said, making of the decision a splendid and significant renunciation. "Nothing— nothing!"
"He only eats about once a month, and then it's dates and hay and camel's milk and carrots!" Ward was beginning. Royal Blondin gave him a look, deeply amused and affectionate.
"Not quite so bad, Laddie!" he protested, mildly.
"We might manage the dates," Isabelle smiled. Harriet had not spoken because she was quite unable to command her voice. But she gained it now to say in an undertone:
"I think I shall have to go in, Mrs. Carter. I promised Nina some help with her Spanish. I wonder—"
"You speak Spanish, Miss Field?" said Royal Blondin, in Spanish.
This was an invitation to Ward to burst into involved sentences in the tongue; Royal Blondin turned to him seriously. The rest of the company might be bored or not, as they pleased, but he was only interested in testing the boy's accent and vocabulary. As a matter of fact, everyone laughed and listened, perfectly appreciating Ward's mad ventures and the other man's liquid and easy assistance. A few seconds later Harriet Field slipped from her place, crossed the terrace with her heart beating sick and fast with fright, and made her escape.
She ran up the awninged steps that led to the square great hall, and ascertained with relief that it was empty. On all sides wide doorways gave her perspectives: the drawing rooms, in their brilliant summer covers; the porches, with wicker tables and chairs; the music room; the breakfast room all cheerful green and white; the library, in cool north shadow; and the dining room, long and dark and dignified, where maids were already moving noiselessly about the business of dinner. Here in the hall was the pleasant shade and coolness, the subtle drifting scent of early summer flowers, space, and the simplicity of dark polished floors and sombre rugs. The whole house seemed empty, lovely, silent, after the confusion of the terrace and the heat of the summer day.
Harriet mounted the stairs, threaded the familiar, pleasant hallways above. She and Nina had a luxurious suite on the second floor, shut off from the rest of the house by a single door, and rather remotely placed in a wing that commanded a superb view of the river. There were guest rooms on this floor, Richard Carter's room and his wife's beautiful rooms, and there was an upstairs sitting room. But Madame Carter and her grandson and his friends had their rooms on the third floor, the old lady demanding a quiet and isolation that her daughter-in-law's proximity did not favour.
Nina, half-dressed, was sprawling luxuriously on her bed when Harriet came in. The three rooms of their suite were joined by doors almost always open; they were small rooms, but to both the young women they had always seemed entirely satisfactory. Just now they were in shade, but outside the windows the blue river glittered, and the fresh, heavy foliage of the trees moved softly, and inside was every charm of furnishing, of brilliant flowered draperies, and of exquisite order. There was a business-like heap of mail on Harriet's big desk; there were flowers everywhere; fan- tailed Japanese gold fish moved languidly about in a tall bowl of clear glass, and Nina's emerald-green parrot walked upon his gaily painted perch, and muttered in a significant and chuckling undertone. Glass doors were open upon a square porch, and the sweet afternoon air stirred the crisp, transparent curtains.
Harriet shut the door, and leaned against it, and the world spun about her. What now? What now? What now? hammered her heart. Nina tossed aside her magazine, and regarded her with affectionate reproach.
"You ran upstairs!" she said. "I'm lying on your bed because Maude had the laundry all over mine. Are you going to lie down?"
"No, my dear!" said Harriet, in an odd, breathy whisper.
"You DID run upstairs!" murmured Nina. She sat up, and put her bare feet on the floor, groping for slippers, and yawned, with a red face. "What time is it?"
"It's—" Harriet shook back the ruffle at her wrist, twisted her arm slightly, and looked blindly down.
"Well?" said Nina, when she dropped her hand. But Harriet, smiling at her blankly, had to look again.
"Six, dear—almost. Brush your hair, and get into something, and we'll have half an hour before dinner comes up. I must be downstairs for awhile to-night, I want to see just how the new cook sends dinner in Your mother wasn't at all satisfied with luncheon yesterday. I don't know why this comes to me," she added, busy with her mail in the little sitting room. "Something your father ordered through the club. I'll send that to Mr. Fox. Here's the bill for your two hats—Miss Nina Carter, by Miss Field."
"What was the blue one?" asked Nina in the doorway, from a cloud of hair.
"The-blue-one," Harriet said, absently, "was forty-five dollars. Not bad for a smart little English hat with a little curled cock feather on it, was it? It's quite the nicest you've ever had, I think." What now?—What now? hammered her heart.
"Granny paid three times that for that brown hat last winter," observed Nina.
"I know she did, and it was absolutely an unsuitable hat, and your mother wouldn't let you wear it," Harriet said, mildly. "You are a type, my dear. You must dress for that type."
Nina looked pleased. She was at an age when all girls are vain. Few people noticed the appearance of the young heiress of Richard Carter, except perhaps with kindly pity, but it was part of Miss Field's duty to make the best of it, and Nina was grateful.
"I'll wear it to Francesca's tea!" she said, of the blue hat. The social bow of a young neighbour, a little older than Nina, was to be made in a few days' time, at a garden party, and Nina was absorbed in the exciting prospect of assisting formally.
"No, it's not full dress," Harriet told her. "You'll have to wear the white mull, and the white hat, and look very girly-girly."
"My eye-glasses make me look like a school-teacher playing baby," Nina said, gloomily. Harriet laughed, dazed, but not ungrateful to find that she could laugh and speak at all.
"He's come back!" she said in her heart. "My darling child, you aren't going to wear your glasses!" she assured Nina, aloud. "Not if you have to have a dog and a cane! Not if you fall into the fountain!"
"I shall be scared stiff!" Nina grumbled, coming out with her Spanish books. Harriet, distracted for a moment, came to lean over her shoulder, and the terror of half an hour ago began to flood her soul and mind again. She went out to the porch, and looked down into the clear shade of the early twilight, under the trees. The terrace was deserted; every sign of the tea-party had vanished, not a crumb marred the order of the grass-grown bricks. The chairs held formal attitudes, the table was empty. All the motor-cars were gone from the drive. She turned back into the room, breathing more easily.
At half-past seven she came up from a little diplomatic adjusting in the service end of the house, to peep at Nina, who was reading in bed, and to go on to Isabelle's room. If Mrs. Carter was alone, she liked to see Harriet then, to be sure of any last message, or to discuss any domestic plan.
Harriet found her, exquisite in twinkling black spangles, before her mirror. Isabelle's hair was dressed in dark and shining waves and scallops, netted invisibly, set with brilliant pins. There was not an inch of her whole beautiful little person that would not have survived a critical inspection. Her skin, her white throat, her arms and hands and fingernails, her waist and ankles and her pretty feet, were all absolute perfection. The illusion that veiled her slender arms stood at crisp angles; the silk stockings showed a warm skin tint through their thinness; her lower eyelids had been skillfully darkened, her cheeks delicately rouged, and her lips touched with carmine; her brows had been clipped and trained and pencilled, her lashes brushed with liquid dye, and what fragrant powders and perfumes could add, had been added in generous measure. She wore diamonds on her fingers, in her ears, and about her throat, and her gown was held at her full smooth breast by a platinum bar that bore a double line of magnificent stones. Harriet always thought her handsome; to-night she had to admit that her employer was truly beautiful.
Mrs. Carter was in a pleasant mood; she had a good disposition, and there was nothing in her life now to ruffle it. She liked her bright, luxurious dressing room, and the progress of her toilette was soothing and restful. Her maid had been busy with her for nearly two hours. The air was warm and fragrant, the prospect of dinner, with its eagerly attendant Tony, rather stirred her, and the mirror had everything delightful to say. Like all women of forty, Isabelle liked the night, tempered lights and becoming settings, and the dignity of formal entertaining. Last but not least, she had a new toy to-night, a great black fan of uncurled wild ostrich plumes whose tumbled beauty she waved about her slowly as Harriet came in, watching the effect in the mirror with intense satisfaction.
"Oh, pretty—pretty!" Harriet said, seeing it.
"Isn't it ducky? Anthony Pope just sent it to me—the dear boy. I don't know where he picks things up, or how he knows what's right." Mrs. Carter half-closed the fan, and laid it against her bare shoulder, and looked at it with tipped head and half-closed eyes.
"Did you see What's-His-Name?" she asked.
Harriet understood the allusion to the new chef.
"I've just been down there," she said. "Everything seems to be all right, and looks delicious!"
"That's nice of you, Harriet," Isabelle said. The kitchen was not strictly Harriet's responsibility, but Mrs. Carter had been making changes there of late, and the girl's interest and interference were invaluable. She laid down the fan, and pushed a silver case toward her secretary, at the same time helping herself to a cigarette. But Harriet shook her head.
"You're very clever, you know," Isabelle smiled, through a cloud of pale smoke. "You're always in character, Harriet!"
Harriet smiled her inscrutable smile; there was just the suggestion of a shrug. She had her own cigarette-case, and not infrequently used it in Isabelle's presence. But at this hour, when Richard or Ward or Nina, or even Madame Carter, might come in, she felt any familiarity unsuitable. Isabelle, the least affected of women, for all her spoiling and vanity, perfectly appreciated this, and liked Harriet for it.
"You amuse me," said Isabelle, making a long arm to brush away the ash from her cigarette, "playing your part so discreetly. Your neat little old-maidy silks—"
"Is it old-maidy?" Harriet asked, mildly, glancing down at the severe blue cross-barred gown she wore, and straightening a transparent cuff.
"Not on you!" Isabella assured her. But her thoughts never left herself long, and presently she discontentedly introduced her favourite topic: "I could have been a business woman," she announced, thoughtfully, "my father wouldn't hear of it, of course. We had no money!"
"We had no money, and no father," Harriet observed. "So I had no choice. At eighteen I had to make my own way."
"At eighteen I jumped into marriage," the older woman said, still with a reminiscent resentment in her tone. "Mr. Carter had his mother to support, of course. We thought we were pretty reckless to pay sixty dollars rent. He was only twenty, he was getting what was supposed to be an enormous salary then. Heavens—it seems thousands of years ago!"
Harriet, who had imagination, could see it. The little brilliant wife, insisting upon the fashionable apartment, worrying over the extravagances of the one maid. The man eager only to push on, to more money, more responsibility, wider fields, to make to-day's extravagance to-morrow's reasonable expenditure.
Isabelle picked up the fan again, and gave her brilliant presentment in the mirror a complacent glance.
"Is Mr. Pope's apartment attractive?" Harriet, who knew where her thoughts were, asked idly. The older woman heard her perfectly, but she affected indifference.
"Is—I didn't hear you. Oh—Mr. Pope's apartment. My dear, it is perfection—absolutely. I have never seen anything so beautiful, and so beautifully managed. And all by that boy. He has two coloured women and the man—just a perfect menage. And they adore him. Absolutely!" She mused happily, her lips twitching with some amusing memory. Then she became businesslike. "Harriet, do you go to the city this week?"
"Nina and the girls are to see Ruth St. Denis on Friday," Harriet said. "I thought Madame Carter would take them, but now she says no. But if Nina stays with her grandmother overnight, I thought I would like to see my sister; she hasn't been very well. That can wait, of course. Miss Jay's tea-party is to-morrow; that's Thursday—"
"And that reminds me that Louise Jay telephoned to-day, and asked me if you would take charge of the tea table," Isabelle said, with a shrewd glance.
"At Mrs. Jay's house?" Harriet asked, after a second.
"Yes, at Francesca's tea-party!"
Harriet hesitated, and the colour crept into her smooth cheeks.
"I wonder why she asked that?"
"Because, in the first place, no one will drink tea," Isabelle who was watching her intently said promptly. "In the second, Morgan won't be there, because she says it's a kiddies' tea. I can't be there, and presumably Mrs. Jay wants to depend on someone."
"One wonders," mused Harriet, in a most unpromising tone, "whether one is asked as a maid, or a guest?"
"In this case, as a mother," Isabelle was inspired to answer. "Personally, I should very much like it for Nina's sake. But you suit yourself!"
The tone denied the words; Harriet knew what she was expected to do. She knew that Isabelle would tell Mrs. Jay, in a day or two, that she had simply mentioned it to Miss Field, and Miss Field had been free to act exactly as she pleased. She knew that faintly annoyed expression on Isabelle's face.
"I'll be delighted to help!" she said, lifelessly. "A lot of women and children," she reflected, "and nobody drinking tea anyway, this weather!"
"I say, Mater," Ward said from the doorway, with what he fondly believed to be an English accent, "I'm no end peckish, what what? Say, Mother," he added, becoming suddenly serious, "what do you think of Blondin? Isn't he a corker? Say, listen, are you going to ask him to dinner? Do we have to have the whole Bellamy tribe if we ask him, Miss Harriet?"
"DON'T spill things and fuss with things, Ward," his mother protested plaintively, protecting her bottles and jars from his big hands as he sat down. "Yes, dear, we'll have him. I like him because he was so enthusiastic about you. He's really quite a person."
"Person—you bet he is!" Ward said. "Gosh, he knows everything. You ought to get him started about—oh, I don't know, philosophy, and the way we all are forever getting things we don't want, and music—he can beat the box, believe me! He gave talks at the Pomeroys' last year—"
Nina, trailing in in a blue wrapper, sat herself upon a chair, wrapped her garments about her, and entered interestedly into the conversation.
"'The Ethics of the Everyday'," she contributed. "I remember it because Adelaide Pomeroy and I used to be in the pantry, eating the tea things. And he talked at our school about Tagore."
"I remember those talks at Lizzie Pomeroy's," Isabelle said, thoughtfully. "I wish I had gone! I suppose he's got a book out. Will you see if you can get me anything he's written when you're in town, Harriet? If we're going to have him here—"
She glanced at herself in the glass, where a more primitive woman, in a jungle, would have commenced a slow, solitary dance and song. If the hint of a scornful smile touched the secretary's beautiful mouth, she suppressed it. She had a little notebook in her pocket, and in it she duly entered the name of Royal Blondin.
"Too much rouge on this side, Mother," said Ward. Mrs. Carter picked up a hand-mirror, and studied herself carefully. When she had powdered and rubbed one cheek, she thoughtfully rouged her lips again, pouting them artfully, while Harriet and the children chattered. Nina was full of excited anticipation. Francesca's tea to-morrow, and the box-party on Friday, and a new gown for each- Nina fancied herself already a popular and lovely debutante. Harriet imagined that she saw something of a brother's pity in Ward's eyes as he watched her. Ward himself looked his best in his evening black, and several years older than he really was.
"We're a handsome couple, Miss Harriet," said Ward, with a glance toward the door of solid mirror that chanced to reflect them both. "Aren't we, Mother?"
"You're an idiot!" said Nina, scornfully. Harriet laughed maternally, but in spite of herself her idle dream of the afternoon returned for a second, and she wondered just how that faintly supercilious smile of Isabelle's would be affected if she had her own right, here in this family group, a Carter of the Carters, daughter of the house. And thinking this, her smoky blue eyes met Ward's, and perhaps there was something in them that he had not seen there before. At all events, she was ashamed to see him colour suddenly, and become a little incoherent, and to have him turn to her his full attention, with a sort of boyish clumsiness that was touching in its way. Imaginary or not, the trifling episode troubled her, and as Madame Carter came majestically in and the little clock on the dresser pointed to the hour, she said her good-nights, and carried Nina off again.
Richard Carter's wife and mother differed in no particular more strikingly than in their attitude toward the toilet artifices they both employed so lavishly. The old lady's beauty was even more than Isabelle's assisted by art, for her snowy-white hair was a wig, her teeth not her own, and her eyebrows quite openly manufactured without one single natural hair to build upon. But it pleased her generation to regard these facts as sacred, and to assume that the secrets of the boudoir were unsuspected. Even Nina never saw so much as a powder puff in her grandmother's dressing room, and any compliment upon her hair or complexion Madame Carter received with gracious dignity.
She looked at Ward's departing back, now, and remarked with pointed reproof:
"My son has never seen his mother even in the act of brushing her hair! There are reserves—there are niceties—"
"Where did you have it brushed—down at the shop?" Isabelle asked, laughing. Madame Carter never failed to be staggered by her daughter-in-law's irreverence, yet she never could quite resist the criticisms that courted it.
"For the last few years, I admit," she conceded with a somewhat shaken dignity, "I admit that I have had recourse to what they call 'puffs'—you know what I mean? Made of my own hair, of course—"
"Made of your own imagination!" Isabelle amended, in her own heart. But she only gave the old lady a somewhat disquieting smile as she picked up the tumbled black fan and led the way down to dinner.
Nina was duly dressed for the tea-party the next day, and went to show herself to her mother while Harriet dressed. The young girl really did look her best in the filmy white with its severely plain ruffles, and with a wide white hat on her thick, smoothly dressed hair. Miss Field, too, although she was very pale to-day, looked "simply gorgeous," as Isabelle expressed it, when she saw them off in the car, although Harriet's gown was not new, and the little flowered hat she had crushed down upon her splendid hair had been Isabelle's own a season ago. Harriet was in no holiday mood; she felt herself in a false position; this was to be one of the times when she paid high for all the beauty and luxury of her life.
"... so then when she came to me," Nina was recounting the reception of some celebrity at school, "of course I was awfully shy; you know me!" She was suddenly diverted. "But I'm not as shy as I used to be, am I, Miss Harriet?" she asked, confidingly.
"Not nearly!" Harriet made herself say, encouragingly.
"Well, then," Nina resumed, "when she came to me I don't know what I said—I just said something or other—I can't for the life of me remember what it was! Probably I just said that I had seen her in her last three plays or something like that, anyway—anyway, she said to Miss King that she had noticed me, and she said, 'It's an aristocratic face!' Amy Hawkes told me, for a trade last. The girls were wild—they were all so crazy to have her notice them, you know, and I thought—I thought of course she'd speak of Lucia or Ethel Benedict or one of those prettier girls; although," said Nina, with her little air of conscientiousness, "Ethel didn't look a bit pretty that day. Sometimes she does; sometimes she looks perfectly lovely! But that day she looked sort of colourless. 'Aristocratic'!" Nina laughed softly. "Well, I'd rather look aristocratic than be the prettiest girl in the world, wouldn't you?"
Harriet glanced at her with something like pity. This was Nina in her before-the-party mood. Her confidence and complacency would all begin to ooze away from her, presently, and the words that came so readily to Harriet would refuse to flow at all to any one else. She would come home saying that she hated parties because people were all so shallow and uninteresting, and that she couldn't help what her friends said of her, she just wouldn't descend to that sort of nonsense.
"Here we are!" Harriet rather drily interrupted the flood. Nina gave a startled glance at the lawns and gardens of the Jay mansion already dotted with awnings and chairs, and sprinkled with the bright gowns of the first arrivals. They were early, and their hostess, a handsome, heavily built woman with corsets like armourplate under her exquisite gown, and a blonde bang covering her forehead, came forward with her daughter to meet them. Francesca was as slight as a willow, with a demurely drooped little head and a honeyed little self-possessed manner.
"Very decent of you, Miss Field!" breathed Mrs. Jay, in a voice like that of a horn. "You girls run along now—people will be comin' at any minute. I'm going to take Miss Field to the table. Three hundred people comin'," she confided as Harriet followed her across the lawn, and to the rather quiet corner of the awninged porch where the tea table stood, "and Mist' Jay just sent me a message that he won't be here until six. My older daughter, Morgan, is stayin' with the Tom Underbills—you know their place— lovely people—Well, now, I'll leave you here, and you just ask for anything you need—"
The matron melted away; Harriet looked after her broad, retreating back indifferently. Everyone knew Mrs. Jay, a harmless, generous, good-natured and hospitable target for much secret criticism and laughter. The odd thing was, old Mrs. Carter had sometimes pointed out to the dutifully listening Harriet, that the woman really came of an excellent family, so that her little affectations, her fondness for the phrases "my older daughter, Morgan," and "lovely people, loads of money, you know them?" were honest enough, in their way. She would have loaned Harriet any amount of money, the girl reflected, smouldering, she would have shown her genuine friendship and generosity in a crisis. But she would not introduce people to Harriet this afternoon, and in a day or two she would send Harriet a bit of lace, or a dainty waist, as a delicate reminder that the courtesy had been a business one, after all.
The afternoon was the perfection of summer beauty, and after a few moments' solitude Harriet began to feel its spell. She put her cups and spoons in order, and chatted with a hovering maid. Some elderly persons came out and sat near, and were grateful for the quiet and the tea. From the reception line, on the lawn, came such a brainless confusion of jabbering and chattering as might well appall the old and nervous.
And presently the sun came out for Harriet in the arrival of a tall, swiftly moving, dark-eyed woman some ten years older than she was herself: Mary Putnam, one of the real friends the girl had gained in the last four years. Young Mrs. Putnam, Harriet used to think, with a little natural jealousy under her admiration, had everything. She was not pretty, but hers was a distinguished appearance and a lovely face; she had the self-possessed manner of a woman whose whole life has been given to the social arts; she had a clever, kindly, silent husband who adored her; her home, her garden, her clubs and her charities, and finally she had her nursery, where Billy and Betty were rioting through an ideal childhood.
"Harriet—you dear child!" said the rich and pleased voice, as Mary's fine hand crossed the tea table for a welcoming touch. "But how nice to find you here! I'm trying to get some tea for Mr. Putnam's aunt and mother, but, my dear—it's getting very thick out there!"
"I can imagine it!" Harriet glanced toward the lawn.
"I've been wanting to see you," Mrs. Putnam said in an undertone. "But suppose I carry them a tray first? Harriet, you are prettier than ever. I love the green stripes! I've just been trying to think how long it is since I've seen you."
"Not since the day you lunched with Mrs. Carter, and that was almost two weeks ago!" Harriet's hands were busy with cups and plates; now she nodded to a maid. "Mayn't Inga carry this to your mother, Mrs. Putnam?" she asked. "And couldn't you stay here and have some tea yourself?"
Mrs. Putnam immediately settled herself in the neighbouring chair.
"I'm chaperoning little Lettice Graham for a week," she began, in the delightful voice upon which Harriet had modelled her own. "But Lettice is trying her little arts upon Ward Carter. Dear boy, that!"
"Ward? He IS a dear!" Harriet said, innocently.
"No blushing?" Mary Putnam asked, with a smiling look. The colour came into Harriet's lovely face, and the smoky blue eyes widened innocently.
"Blushing—for WARD?" she asked.
Mrs. Putnam stirred her tea thoughtfully.
"I didn't know," she said. "You're young, and you know him well, and you're—well, you have appearance, as it were!"
"Ward is twenty-two," she observed.
"I shall be twenty-seven in August."
"Well, that's not serious," the older woman decided, mildly. "The point is, he's a man. Ward has fine stuff in him," she added, "and also, I think, he is beginning to care. It would be an engagement that would please the Carters, I imagine."
The word engagement brought a filmy vision before Harriet's eyes, born of the fragrance and sunshine of the summer. She saw a ring, laughter and congratulations, dinner parties and receptions, shopping in glittering Fifth Avenue.
"Perhaps it would," she said, with a hint of surprise in her tone. "They are really very simple, and always good to me! But old Madame Carter," she laughed, "would go out of her mind!"
"A boy in Ward's position may do much worse than marry a lovely and sensible woman," Mrs. Putnam said. "Well, it just occurred to me. It is your affair, of course. But looking back one sees how much just the—well, the lack of a tiny push has meant in one's life!"
"And this is the push?" Harriet said, her heart full of the confusion and happiness that this unusual mood of confidence and affection on Mary Putnam's part had brought her.
"Perhaps!" The smooth, cool hand touched hers for a second before Mrs. Putnam went upon her gracious way. Harriet hardly heard the bustle and confusion about her for a few minutes. She sat musing, with her splendid eyes fixed upon some point invisible to the joyous group about her.
To Nina, meanwhile, had come the most extraordinary hour of her life. It had begun with the familiar and puzzling humiliations, but where it was to end the fluttered heart of the seventeen-year- old hardly dared to think.
She had sauntered to a green bench, under great maples, with Lettice Graham and Harry Troutt and Anna Poett. And Joshua Brevoort had come for Anna, and they had sauntered away, with that mysterious ease with which other girls seemed to manage young men. And then Harry and Lettice had in some manner communicated with each other, for Lettice had jumped up suddenly, saying, "Nina, will you excuse us? We'll be back directly," and they had wandered off in the direction of the river, giggling as they went. Nina had smiled gallantly in farewell, but her feelings were deeply hurt. She hated to sit on here, visibly alone, and yet there was small object in going back to the absorbed groups nearer the house.
Then came the miracle. For as she uncomfortably waited, Ward's friend, the queer man with the black eyes and thick hair, suddenly took the seat beside her. Nina's heart gave a plunge, for if she was ill at ease with "kids" like Harry and Joshua, how much less could she manage a conversation with the lion of the hour! But Royal Blondin needed no help from Nina.
"You're little Miss Carter, aren't you?" he said. "We were introduced, back there, but there were too many young men around you then for me to get a word in! However, I was watching you—I wonder if you know why I've been watching you all afternoon?"
Nina cleared her throat, and gave one fleeting upward glance at the dark and earnest eyes.
"I'm sure I don't know why any one should watch me!" she tried to say. But everything after the first three words was lost in the ruffles of the white gown.
"I'll tell you why. I watched you because, from the moment I saw you, I said to myself, 'if that little girl isn't utterly wretched and out of her element, among all these shallow chatterers and gigglers, I'm mistaken!' I saw the lads gather about you, and I had my little laugh—you must forgive me!—at the quiet little way you evaded them all. Nice boys, all of them! But not worth YOUR while!"
Nina murmured a confidence.
"What did you say?" Blondin said. "But come," he added, frankly, "you're not afraid of me, are you? My dear little girl, I'm old enough to be your father! Look up—I want to see those eyes. That's better. Now, that's more friendly. Tell me what you said?"
"I said—that Mother expected me to—to like them."
"To—? Oh, to like the boys. Mother expects it? Of course she does! And some day she'll expect to dress you in white, and bid us all to come and dance at the wedding! But in the meantime, Mother mustn't blame someone who has just a LITTLE more discernment than- -well, young Brevoort, for example, for seeing that her tame dove is really a wild little sea-gull starving for the sea. Now, look here, Miss Nina, you hate all this society nonsense, don't you?"
"Loathe it!" Nina stammered, with a little excited laugh.
"Loathe it? Of course you do! Of course you do! And you don't want to fall in love with one of these lads for a year or two, anyway?"
"Oh, my, no!" Nina felt the expression inadequate, but her breath had been taken away. The man had turned about a little, his eyes were all for her, and his arm, laid carelessly along the back of the green bench, almost touched the white ruffles. They were in full sight of the house, too, and if Lettice or Anna came back, they would see Nina in deep and lasting conversation with the man that all the older women were so mad about—
"You don't. But—what?" He bent his dark head.
"I said, 'But I don't know how you knew it'!" Nina repeated, looking down in her overwhelming self-consciousness, but with a smile of utter happiness and excitement.
A second later she looked up in some alarm. He was silent—she had somehow said the awkward thing again I Nina's heart fluttered nervously.
But what she saw reassured her. Royal Blondin had squared himself about, and had folded his arms, and was staring darkly into space.
"How I knew it!" he said in a half-whisper, as if to himself, after a full half-minute of silence that thrilled Nina to the soul. "Child, I don't know! Some day you and I will read books together—wonderful books! And then perhaps we will begin to understand the cosmic secret—why your soul reaches out to mine— why I not only want to know you better, but why it is my solemn obligation to take the exquisite thing your coming into my life may mean to us both! You're only a child," he went on, in a lighter tone, "and I can read those big eyes of yours, and can see that I'm frightening you! Well, this much remains. You and I have somehow found each other in all this wilderness of lies and affectations, and we're going to be friends, aren't we?"
"I—hope we are!" Nina said, clearing her throat, with a bashful laugh.
"You know we are!" Royal Blondin amended. And in a musing tone he added: "I'm afraid I was a little bitter a few hours ago. And then I saw you, just an honest, brave, bewildered little girl, wondering why the deuce they all make such a fuss about nothing— clothes and bridge parties and dinners—"
"They never SAY anything worth while!" Nina said, with daring. There was exquisite homage in the dropped, listening head, the eyes that smiled so close to her own. "But if I tell Mother that, she thinks I'm crazy!" she added, lapsing into the school vernacular against a desperate effort to sustain the conversation at his level.
"Because you're a little natural rebel," interpreted the man, smilingly. "And that's the price we pay for it!"
"I'm afraid I've always been a rebel, then!" confessed Nina.
"Yes, those eyes of yours say that," Blondin conceded, sadly. "And it doesn't make for happiness, Little Girl!" he warned her.
Nina narrowed her eyes, and stared into the green garden. She was not wearing her glasses to-day, and hers were fine eyes, albeit a trifle prominent, and with a somewhat strained expression.
"Oh, I know that!" she said. "Mother and Father," she confided, with the merciless calm of seventeen, "they'd like me to be exactly like all the other girls, flirting and dressing, and rushing about all day and all night! But oh—how I hate it! Oh, I like the girls and boys—truly I do, and I am popular with them all, I know that! But 'CASES'!" said Nina with scorn.
"Dear Heaven!" Royal said, under his breath. "No—no—no—that's not for you!" he murmured. "And yet—" and he turned upon her a look that Nina was to remember with a thrill in the waking hours of the summer night—"and yet, is it kindness to wake you up, child?" he mused. "Is it right to show you the full beauty of that questing soul of yours?"
It was said as if to himself, as if he thought aloud. But Nina answered it.
"I often think," she said, mirthfully, "that if people knew what I was thinking, they'd go crazy! 'Oh, isn't the floor lovely—isn't the music divine! Are you going to the club to-morrow? What are you going to wear?'"
It was not a very brilliant imitation of a society girl's tone and manner, but Royal Blondin seemed deeply impressed by it.
"Look here!" he said. "You're a little actress!"
"No. I'm not!" Nina laughed. "But I can always imitate anything or anybody," she admitted. "It makes the girls perfectly wild sometimes! But Ward's different," she resumed, going back to the more serious topic. "I envy Ward! He is just as different from me as black and white. Now Ward likes everyone—and everyone likes him. He just drifts along, perfectly content to be popular, and to have a good time, and to do the regular thing, and of course he knows NOTHING of moods—!"
"Bless the lad!" Blondin said, paternally.
"Oh, I manage to keep the appearance of doing exactly what the others do," Nina hastened to say, "and I laugh and flirt just as if that was the only thing in life! If people want to think I am a butterfly, why, let them think so! My friend Miss Hawkes says that I have two natures—but I don't know about that!"
She looked up at him to find his eyes fixed steadily upon her, and flushed happily, with a fast-beating heart.
"With one of those natures I have nothing to do," Royal said. "But the other I claim as my friend. Come, how about it? Are we going to be friends? I am old enough to be your father, you know; you may tell Mother that it is perfectly safe. When the right young man comes to claim you, why, I'll resign my little friend with all the good will in the world. But meanwhile, am I going to pick you out some books, am I going to have some talks as wonderful as this one now and then? No—not as wonderful, for of course this sort of thing doesn't come twice in a lifetime! Will you give me your hand on it—and your eyes? Good girl! And now I'll take you back to be scolded for running away from your own friends for so long. I'm dining with Mother to-morrow. Shall I see you?"
"Oh, yes—if Mother lets me come down!" fluttered Nina. "But, no— we're to be at Granny's!" she remembered.
"Soon, then!" He left her in the circling group, but all the world saw him kiss her hand. Nina wandered about in a daze of pleasure and satisfaction for another half-hour, paying attentions to Mother's poky friends with a sparkle and charm that amazed them. Presently Ward and the demure Amy Hawkes found her; the car was waiting. Miss Field, Ward said, was no longer at the tea table; she had left a message to the effect that she was walking home and would be there as soon as they were.
He asked Amy and Nina, whose irrepressible gossip and giggling met with only silence and scowls from his superior altitude, if they knew why Miss Harriet had decided to walk. They stared at each other innocently, on the brink of fresh laughter. No; they hadn't the least idea.
Royal Blondin went straight from Nina to the tea table, which was almost deserted now. Harriet saw him coming, and she knew what hour had come. She stood up as he reached her, and they measured each other narrowly, with unsmiling eyes.
There was reason for her paleness to-day, and for the faint violet shadows about her beautiful eyes. Harriet had lain awake deep into the night, tossing and feverish. She had gotten up more than once, for a drink of water, for a look from her balcony at the solemn summer stars. And among all the troubled images and memories that had trooped and circled in sick confusion through her brain, the figure of this smiling, handsome man had predominated.
She had always thought that he must come back; for years the fear had haunted her at every street crossing, at every ring of Linda's doorbell. At first it had been but a shivering apprehension of his claims, an anticipation of what he might expect or want from her. Then came a saner time, when she told herself that she was an independent human being as well as he, that she might meet his argument with argument, and his threat with threat.
But for the past year or two her lessening thoughts of him had taken new form. Harriet had hoped that when they met again she might be in a position to punish Royal Blondin, to look down at him from heights that even his audacity might not scale.
That time, she told herself in the fever of the night, had not yet come. Her pitiful achievements, her beauty, her French and Spanish, her sober book reading, and her little affectations of fine linen and careful speech, all seemed to crumple to nothing. She seemed again to be the furious, helpless, seventeen-year-old Harriet of the Watertown days, her armour ineffectual against that suave and self-confident presence.
"Oh, how I hate him!" whispered the dry lips in the silence of the night. And looking up at the wheeling grave procession of powdery jewels against the velvet of the sky, Harriet had mused on escape, on a disappearance as complete as her flight years ago had proved to be.
She had forced herself to unbind the wrappings, to look at the old wound. She had gone in spirit to that old, shabby parlour to which Linda and Fred had carried Josephine's crib late every night, and where sheet music had cascaded from the upright piano. She saw, with the young husband and wife, a fiery, tumblehead girl of fifteen or sixteen, who helped with her sister's cooking and housework, who adored the baby, who planned a future on the stage, or as a great painter, or as a great writer—the means mattered not so that the end was fame and wealth and happiness for Harriet.
Fred had brought Royal Blondin in to supper one night, and Royal had laughed with the others at the spirited little waitress who delivered herself of tremendous decisions while she came and went with plates, and forgot to take off her checked blue apron when she finally slipped into her place.
The man had been a derelict then, as now. But he was nine years older than Harriet Field. He had had the same delightful voice, the same penetrating eyes. He had brought poetry, music, art, into the sordid little parlour of the Watertown apartment; he had helped Harriet to tame and house those soaring ambitions. Seated on Linda's stiff little fringed sofa, they had drunk deep of Keats and Shelley and Browning, and Harriet's eyes had widened at what Royal called "world ethics." To live—that was the gift of the gods! Not to be afraid—not to be bound!
Reaching this point in her recollections, the girl recalled herself with a start. She was safe in luxurious Crownlands, it had all been years ago. But again the abyss seemed to yawn at her feet. She felt again those kisses that had waked the little-girl heart into passionate womanhood; she shut her eyes and pressed her hand tight against them. So young—so happy—so confident!— plunging headlong into that searing blackness.
And now Royal Blondin was back again, and she was not ready for him. She could not score now. But he could hurt her irreparably if he would. Isabelle was an indifferent mother, and an incorrigible flirt, but at the first word, at the first hint—ah, there would be no arguing, no weighing of the old blame and responsibility! If there was the faintest cloud of doubt, that would be enough! Better the driest and fussiest old Frenchwoman for Nina, the dullest and least responsive of Englishwomen. But by all means settle accounts at once with Miss Field, and pay her railway fare, and wish her well.
Harriet had shaken back her mane of hair, had hammered furious fists together up on the dark balcony. It wasn't fair—it wasn't fair—just now, when she was so secure and happy! She had flung her arms across the railing, and buried her hot face on them, and had wept desperate and angry tears into the silken and golden tangle that shone dully in the starlight.
The stars were paling, and the garden stirred with the first languid breath of the hot day to come, when she suddenly rose and bound up the loosened hair, and went in. Harriet was not yet twenty-seven, and every fibre of her being cried out for sleep. Cold water on the tear-stained face, and the childish prayer she never forgot, and she had crept gratefully into the soft covers, and had had perhaps four hours of such rest as only comes to youth.
So that the morning brought courage. Her heart was heavy and fearful, but she knew that Royal would seek her, and she hoped much for the talk that they were to have now. She did not refuse him her hand when he came to the tea table, or her eyes, and there was friendliness, or the semblance of it, in the voice with which she said his name. That he was waiting, perhaps as fearfully as she, for his cue, was evidenced by the quick relief with which he echoed the old familiarity.
"Harriet! I find you again. I've been waiting all this time to find you! I'd heard Ward speak of 'Miss Field', of course! But it never meant you, to me. I've been thinking of you all night."
"I've been thinking, too," she said, simply.
"It's after six," Blondin said with a glance about. "We can't talk here. Can you get away? Can we go somewhere?"
Without another word she deserted her seat, pinned on her hat, and picked up her gloves.
"There's a very quiet back road straight to Crownlands," she said, considering. "We might walk."
"Anything!" he assented, briefly.
Guided by Harriet, who was familiar with the place, they slipped through the hallway, and out a side door, crossing the lane that led down to the garage, and striking into a splendid old quiet roadway barred now by the shadows of elms and sycamores and maples, and filled with soft green lights from the thick arch of new leaves. They had no sooner gained the silence and solitude it afforded them than the man began deliberately:
"Harriet, I've not thought of anything else since I came upon you yesterday, after all these years. I want you to tell me that you— you aren't angry with me."