Down in the soft glow of light came Harriet, smiling as she slipped her left arm about Nina, and gave the free hand to Nina’s father. She was apparently cool and unself-conscious; inwardly she felt feverish, frightened and excited and happy, all at once. Richard was in evening dress, too; he looked his best; his dark hair brushed to a shining crest, and his gray eyes full of pleasure.
“Well, Miss Field—!” he said, a little breathlessly. “Well! Your vacation hasn’t done you any harm!”
“We had to make an occasion of our coming home!” Harriet said, with a nervous laugh, trying not to see the admiration in his eyes.
“I must say I like the gown,” Richard said, simply. It was impossible not to speak of it, and of her; they were all staring at her.
“You look wonderful!” Nina said.
“Why, you saw this gown at Nassau,” Harriet protested.
“Louise—or whoever she was of Prussia, or whatever you call it, turned in the family vault when you walked down those stairs!” Ward said. “Oo-oo—caught you under the mistletoe—oo-oo, you would!” he added, with an effort to envelop her in his embrace.
“Ward, behave yourself!” Harriet said, evading him, and walking toward the dining room with his grandmother, who came downstairs in her turn, and joined them. “No pain in the knee?” Richard heard her say, solicitously.
“Not a bit!” the old lady said, eagerly. “Why, my dear,” she added, grandly, “there’s no rheumatism in our family! Not a bit! It was just that fall I had, ten years ago, that settled there, that was all! Immediately after that fall—–”
Harriet had heard of the fall before. She had heard of it one hundred times. But she listened attentively. She had an aside for Bottomley, she drew Nina into the conversation, she was most at ease with Ward, teasing him, drawing him out.
Richard Carter watched her, the incarnation of young and beautiful womanhood. Clever he knew her to be, capable and conscientious, but to-night she was in a new role. He liked to see her there at the other end of the table; he realized that she was the centre of things, here in his house, and that he had missed her.
After dinner it chanced that Bottomley called her to the telephone, and that a moment later she passed the call on to Richard.
“It’s Mr. Gardiner, Mr. Carter. He didn’t know that you were here, but he would rather speak to you,” Harriet said. Richard went to the telephone, and as she moved to make room for him, and gave him the receiver, he had a sudden breath of the sweetness and freshness of her, of hair and young firm skin, of the rustling satin gown, and the little handkerchief that she dropped, and that he picked up for her. He smiled as he gave it, and flushed inexplicably, and his first few words to the bewildered Gardiner were a little shaken and breathless. But Richard was quite himself again an hour or two later, when he sent for Miss Field, and she came into the library.