“And this would be?” Richard asked, slowly.
“Well—I haven’t thought about it!” she answered, slowly. “My people—my sister and her husband—would say so! I—I would have said so of some other woman!”
“This would not be an ordinary marriage; you would be entirely your own mistress,” Richard said, with quiet significance. “It would be a marriage only in the eyes of the world. You—have a higher tribunal!”
“My own, you mean?” she asked, thoughtfully.
“Your own. You would know exactly why this marriage was not in violation of any code of yours! The world might not acquit you, but you would know in your own heart.”
“I see,” she said. “I—I must have time to think about it!”
“As long as you like!” She had risen, and now he rose, too, and went with her to the library door, and opened it for her. “When you decide, come and tell me,” he said, bowing.
She turned to give him a parting smile, with a desperate wish to tell him half the honour and joy she would feel in taking his name, in sharing his responsibilities, but the pleasantly impersonal nod he gave her chilled the words unspoken. Harriet fled to her room, and to the porch beyond it, and flinging herself into a basket chair, covered her face with her two hands, and for half an hour rocked to and fro audibly gasping, half-laughing, half-crying, almost beside herself with amazement and excitement.
To be Mrs. Richard Carter—to be Mrs. Richard Carter—to be mistress of Crownlands, to command the cars and the maids, to enter the opera box and the big shops—recognized, envied, triumphant—ah, it was a prospect brilliant enough to dazzle a far more fortunate woman than Harriet Field! To sign “Harriet Carter,” to enter his office with assurance, to say at the telephone, “Mrs. Carter, if you please—!”
“My chance,” whispered Harriet, pressing her cold finger tips to her hot cheeks again, “my chance at last—and I can’t take it! No, I can’t take it—I don’t care what his world does or thinks—my world doesn’t permit it! My father would never have spoken to me again—Linda wouldn’t! No—I can’t. Not a divorced man, not a man with a living wife! I’ve been a fool—I’ve been wrong, plenty of times, but I’ve never committed myself to folly and wrong!”
She stared blindly ahead of her. After awhile she spoke again, half-aloud:
“Oh, but why does it have to be this way! If I could go to him, tell him what he means to me, if we were poor—if we could take a little place next to Linda—never see Nina or his mother or Ward or Roy again—Oh, what Heaven! How I should love it, planning for things together, as Linda and Fred did, having him come home to me every night!
“But it isn’t that way,” Harriet suddenly recalled herself sensibly, “and it is folly even to think about it! He is a rich man, and a married man, and that ends it. That ends it.”
A great desolation swept her spirit. She fell from bitter musing to weakening. The law permitted it, after all. Plenty of good women had shown her the way. The family needed her; she might do good here. And above all, she loved him. Again the dream triumphed, and she was Mrs. Carter, young, beautiful, and radiant, taking her place beside him. How she would watch him, how she would guard him, what a life she would build for him!