"Peter," she asked him, childishly, looking straight into his eyes, "why didn't we tell Alix about that?"
Peter tried to laugh and felt himself begin to tremble again.
"About what?" he stammered.
"About our having been three hours at lunch last week?"
"Why—I don't know!" Peter said, smiling nervously.
She was silent, and they parted without any further reference to meeting for lunch. But every time he was summoned to the telephone Peter felt a thrill of expectation, and at noon his office swam suddenly before his eyes when the lovely voice was really addressing him. She was at the ferry, Cherry said; she had finished shopping, and was going home.
"That's fine!" Peter said, quite as he would have said it a month ago. But he was shaking as he went back to his work.
That night, when Alix had gone to bed, he entered the sitting room suddenly to find Cherry hunting for a book. She had dropped on one knee, the better to reach a low shelf, and was wholly absorbed in the volume she had chanced to open.
When she heard the door open she turned, and immediately became very pale. She did not speak as Peter came to stand beside her.
"Cherry—" he said in a whisper, his face close to hers. Neither spoke again for awhile. Cherry was breathing hard, Peter was conscious only of a wild whirling of brain and senses.
They remained so, their eyes fixed, their breath coming as if they had been running, for endless seconds.
"You remember the question you asked me this morning?" Peter said. "Do you remember? Do you remember?"
Cherry, her cold fingers still holding the place in the book she had been reading, went blindly to the fireplace.
"What?" she said, in the merest breath. "What?"
"Because," Peter said, following her, a sort of heady madness making him only conscious of that need to hear from her own lips that she knew, "because I didn't answer that question honestly!"
It mattered not what he said, or what he was trying to express; both were enveloped in the flame of their new relationship; surprise and terror were eclipsing even the strange joy of their discovery.
"I must go home—I must go back to Mart to-morrow!" Cherry said, in a whispered undertone, as if half to herself. "I must go home to Mart to-morrow! I—let's not—let's not talk!" she broke off in quick interruption, as he would have spoken. "Let's—I'd rather not! I—where IS my book? What was I doing? Peter—Peter—"
"Just a minute!" Peter protested, thickly. "Cherry—I want to speak to you—will you wait a minute?"
She was halfway to the door; now she paused, and looked back at him with frightened eyes. Peter did not speak at once; there was a moment of absolute silence.
And in that moment Alix came in. She had said good-night half an hour before; she was in her wrapper, and her hair fell over one shoulder in a rumpled braid. Cherry, sick with fright, faced her in a sort of horror, unable to realize, at the moment, that there was nothing betraying in her attitude or Peter's, and nothing in her sister's unsuspicious soul to give significance to what she saw in any case. Peter, more quickly recovering self-control, went toward his wife.
Alix saw neither clearly, her eyes were full of tears, and she had a paper in her hand.
"Pete!" she said. "Cherry! Look at this! Look at this!"
She held the paper out to them, but it was rather at her that they looked, as all three gathered near the hearth again.
"I happened to finish my novel," Alix said, "and I reached for Dad's old Bible—it's been there on the shelf near my bed ever since I was married, and I've even read it, too! But look what was in it—there all this time!"
"What is it?" Cherry asked, as Peter, in a sudden and violent revulsion of feeling, took the paper and bent toward the lamp to read it.
"By George!" he said, suddenly, his eyes still running over the half-sheet. "By George, this is wonderful!"
"It's Uncle Vincent's receipt to Dad for that three thousand that is making all the trouble!" Alix exulted to the still bewildered Cherry. "It's been there all this time—and Cherry," she added, in a voice rich with love and memory, "THAT'S what he meant by saying it was in Matthew, don't you remember? Doesn't it mean that, Pete? Isn't it perfectly clear?"
"It means only about fifty thousand for you and Cherry," Peter answered. "Yes sir, by George—it's perfectly clear! He paid it back—every cent of it, and got his receipt! H'm—this puts rather a crimp in Little's plans—I'll see him to-morrow. This calls off his suit—"
"REALLY, Pete!" Alix asked, with dancing eyes. "And it means that you can keep the old house, Cerise," she exclaimed, triumphantly, "and we can be together part of the year anyway! Oh, come on, everybody, and sit down, and let's talk and talk about it! Let me see it again—'in recognition of all claims against the patent extinguisher aforementioned'—sit down, Pete, it's only ten o'clock! Let's talk. Aren't you simply WILD with joy, Cherry?"
But she told Peter later that she had been surprised at Cherry's quietness; Cherry had looked pale and abstracted, and had not seemed half enthusiastic enough.
"Though very probably," mused Alix, "it brought back Dad's death, and saddened her in that way, and more than that, I know she is worried all the time about feeling as she does toward Martin, and perhaps he'll feel that she ought to put this into some horrible mining scheme! Cherry is not mercenary, I'll say that for her."
"What will you do with all yours?" Peter asked.
"I wish we three could go about the world together," Alix answered. "I'd love to see Japan and India—I'd like to see burning-ghats on the sacred Gunga!" she added, cheerfully. "But I don't know—money doesn't buy you much!" she yawned. "Perhaps I'll go to some Old Ladies' Home, and give each of the old girls one hundred dollars a quarter—wouldn't they have fun, buying scarfs and wool and caps?"
"Their families would immediately remove them, for the revenue," Peter suggested. He was grinning at her; he felt suddenly the wholesomeness and safety of her absurdity and originality. He liked the characteristic earnestness with which, in the very act of snapping off her bedroom light, before going out to the sleeping-porch, she widened her eyes at him, and frowned in concentrated thought.
"Then I'll give them fifty dollars a quarter!" she decided. "Just enough to buy them some little things, you know, brass tea- kettles, flannel underwear, whatever they wanted! Presents—they must always want to be making Christmas presents." And she yawned again. "Shut your door, Pete, if you read," she said. "The light shines against the trees, and it's right in my eyes!" But ten minutes later he heard her call through the door, "Or I could give it on condition that they stayed in the home and didn't let their families get it!" and grinned again over his book.
After that there was silence, and gradually the little sounds of the summer night made themselves heard again. Alix's light was out. Cherry came, trailing her thin wrapper, to the porch bed opposite her sister's bed and slipped into it with only a brief good-night. But Peter read on deep into the first hours of the morning.
Kow Yu, flinging the striped blue tablecloth over the porch table the next day at the noon hour, and clinking knives and forks, was questioned by his master.
"You go catchem 'nother plate, Kow!" Peter said.
"Missy no come!" Kow answered, unruffled. "Him say no can come!"
"Cherry!" Peter shouted. "Did Alix say she wasn't coming to lunch?"
"N-n-not to me!" Cherry answered from the garden. She came up to the porch, with her hands full of short-stemmed roses.
"Him go flend house," Kow elucidated. "Fiend heap sick!"
"Mrs. Garvin?" Cherry questioned. "Did she stay at Mrs. Garvin's for lunch? Perhaps it's the Garvin baby," she added to Peter. "She said she was going to stop in!"
"I'll find out!" Peter was conscious that everything was beginning to tremble and thrill again, as he went to the telephone. "Why, yes," he said, coming back to the porch, "the baby arrived just before she got there, and they were all upset. She's in her glory, of course. Says that she'll be home to supper, even if she goes back!"
"Oh!" Cherry said, in a small voice. She sat down at the table, and shook out her napkin. Peter sat down, too, and, as usual, served. Kow came and went, and a silence deepened and spread and grew more and more terrible every instant.
It was a Sunday, foggy and overcast, but not cold. The vines about the porch were covered with tiny beads of moisture; among the bushes in the garden little scarfs and veils of fog were caught, and from far across the ridge the droning warning of the fog horn penetrated, at regular, brief intervals.
"Cherry," Peter said, suddenly, when the silent meal was almost over, "will you talk about it?"
"Talk—?" she faltered. Her voice thickened and stopped. "Oh, I would rather not!" she whispered, with a frightened glance about.
"Listen, Cherry!" he said, following her to the wide porch rail, and standing behind her as she sat down upon it. "I'm sorry! I'm just as sorry as I can be. But I can't help it, Cherry. And I would like—I do think it would be wiser, just to—to look the matter squarely in the face, and—and perhaps discuss it for a few minutes, and then END it."
She gave him a fleeting glance over her shoulder, but she did not go away. Peter sat down behind her on the rail, and she turned to face him, although her troubled eyes were still averted.
"Cherry," he said then, "I'm as surprised as you are—I can't tell you when it—it all happened! But it—" Peter folded his arms across his chest, and with a grimly squared jaw looked off into the misty distance—"it is there," he finished.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Cherry whispered, on a breath of utter distress. "I'm so sorry! Oh, Peter, we never should have let it happen—our caring for each other!—we never should have allowed ourselves to think—to dream—of such a thing! Oh, Peter, I'm so sick about it," Cherry added, incoherently, with filling eyes. "I'm just sick about it! I know—I know that Alix would never have permitted herself to—I know she wouldn't!"
He was close to her, and now he laid his hand over hers.
"I care—" he said, quite involuntarily, "I have always cared for you! I know it's madness—I know it's too late—but I love every hair of your beautiful head! Cherry—Cherry—!"
They had both gotten to their feet, and now she essayed to pass him, her face white, her cheeks blazing. He stopped her, and held her close in his arms, and after a few seconds he felt her resisting muscles relax, and they kissed each other.
For a full dizzy minute they clung together, arms locked, hearts beating madly and close, and lips meeting again and again. Breathless, Cherry wrenched herself free, and turned to drop into a chair, and breathless, Peter stood looking down upon her. About them was the silence of the dripping garden; all the sounds of the world came muffled and dull through the thick mist.
Then Peter knelt down beside her chair, and gathered her hands together in his own, and she rested her forehead on his, and spent and silent, leaned against his shoulder. And so they remained, not speaking, for a long while. Kow clinked dishes somewhere in a faraway kitchen, and the fog-horn boomed and was still-boomed and was still. But here on the porch there was no sound.
"Cherry, tell me that you care for me a little?" Peter said after awhile, and he felt as if he met a new Cherry, among all the strange new Cherries that the past bewildering week had shown him, when she answered passionately:
"Oh, Peter—Peter—if I did not!"
He tightened his fingers about her own, but did not answer, and it was presently Cherry who broke the brooding, misty silence again.
"What shall we do?" she asked, in a small, tired voice.
Peter abruptly got to his feet, took a chair three feet away, and with a quick gesture of his hand and toss of his head, flung back his hair.
"There is only one thing to do, of course!" he said, decidedly, in a voice almost unrecognizably grim. "We mustn't see each other—we mustn't see each other! Now—now I must think how best to manage that!"
Her eyes, heavy with pain, were raised to meet his, and she saw his mouth weaken with a sudden misgiving, and she saw him try to steady it, and look down.
"I can—I shall tell Alix that this new business needs me in town for two or three nights," he said, forcing himself to quiet speech, but with one fine hand propping his forehead as if it ached. "I'll stay at the club."
"And as soon as I can go," Cherry added, feverishly, "I shall join Martin. I suppose Alix would think it was perfectly idiotic for me to go now, just when the whole thing can be closed up so quickly, and Martin, too—" her voice trailed away vaguely. She fell silent, her eyes absent and full of pain. Suddenly they widened, as if some pang had suddenly shaken her into consciousness again. "Well, I'll go back," she began again, bravely, "I'll leave you power—what do they call it?—power to act for me. I can do that, can't I? I'll wire Martin to-morrow—this is Sunday, and I'll go on Wednesday!" And as she looked off across the green spaces of fog-wreathed hills and valleys, they seemed to turn suddenly glaring and ugly to her, and she felt a great weariness and heartsickness with life.
Peter sprang over the porch rail, and vanished, walking with swift energy up the trail that led toward the mountain. Cherry knew that he would walk himself tired; she longed to walk, too, to plunge on and on through the foggy depths of the hills, striding, stumbling, getting breathless and weary in body, while somehow—somehow!— this confusion and exhaustion cleared away from mind and soul. And yet beyond the horror and shame and regret she felt something was thrilling, exulting, and singing for joy.
For the rest of that day she lived in a sort of daze of emotion, sometimes she seemed to be living two lives, side by side. In the one was her old happy relationship with Alix, and even with Peter, the old joking and talking, and gathering for meals, the old hours in the garden or beside the fire, and in the other was the confused and troubled and ecstatic consciousness of the new relationship between Peter and herself, the knowledge that he did not merely admire her, did not merely feel for her an unusual affection, but that he was consumed by a burning adoration of her slightest motion, the turn of her wrist, the smile she gave Kow at breakfast time, the motion she made when she stooped to tie her shoe, or raised her arm to break an apple from the low, dusty branches. The glory of being so loved enveloped her like a great shining garment, and her cheeks glowed softly rosy, and there was a new and liquid softness, a sort of shining glitter, in her blue eyes.
Peter was quiet that evening, and was gone the next morning when the sisters came out to breakfast. His absence was a real relief to Cherry, who felt curiously tired and spent after a wakeful night, and looked pale. Alix, busy with a new venture in duck raising, noticed nothing, and Cherry could lie idly in the hammock all morning, sometimes frowning, and shutting her eyes at some sudden thought, otherwise smiling and dreaming vaguely, and always hearing Peter's voice, in words so charged with new magic that the mere recollection of them almost suffocated her with emotion.
He had left a message to the effect that he would not be at home that night, and at four o'clock telephoned confirming the message. Alix chanced to answer the telephone, and Cherry, who was in her room, heard Peter's name, and stood still, listening with a shock of disappointment. She did not want him to come home, she was hardly conscious of any desire or dread; her only thought was that he was there—now—at the telephone, and in a moment Alix would have hung up the receiver, and she, Cherry, would not have spoken to him, would not have heard his voice!
But at eight o'clock that evening, when she and Alix were sitting on the porch, when the last ebbing pink of the sunset had faded, and great spiders had ventured forth into the dusk and the dews, there was a sudden hail at the gate, and Cherry knew that it was he! A flood of utter, irrational happiness rose in her heart; she had been racked with hunger for the sound of that voice; she had been restless and unsatisfied, almost feverish with longing and doubt; now peace came again, and content.
He came up to them, his glance resolutely averted from Cherry, explaining that he was lonesome, assuring them that everything went well, and making them laugh with an account of Justin Little's reception of the new turn of affairs. Alix asked a hundred questions; laughed and rejoiced.
"To-morrow let's go down and see the old house," suggested Alix, "I guess it's in pretty bad shape, for we couldn't rent it. At least Pete and I didn't think it was worth while to do all the plastering and painting they wanted! But we'll do it now, Cherry; we'll fix it all up, and then every summer, and perhaps some winters—at least if Mart isn't too far away—you can live there. Did you see Anne, Peter?" she asked, suddenly.
"No, just Justin. He seemed absolutely dumbfounded," Peter said. "He looked at the paper, read it, laughed, and said—in that little nervous, smiling way of his—that he felt it to be by no means conclusive—"
"I can hear him!" giggled Alix.
"And I guess both you girls will have to come in in a day or two," Peter continued.
"Cherry's going in to the dentist to-morrow," said Alix.
"Oh, so I am!" Cherry said, in a rather strained voice.
She did not look at Peter, nor did he at her, but they felt each other's thoughts like a spoken word.
"Had you forgotten?" Alix asked. "I may go with you," she added, carelessly.
"Oh, do come!" Cherry said, eagerly. "I—I hate so going alone!"
"I've not a thing in the world to do in town, but I'll browse along those old book stores in Third Street," Alix mused.
But in the morning she had changed her mind. She was a trifle late to breakfast, and Cherry and Peter had a chance minute or two alone.
"Cherry," he said then, "I'm going to lunch at the St. Francis. Will you meet me there?"
"No, I can't!" Cherry whispered, unhappily.
"Well, I'll be there," Peter said, in a dull, steady voice. They did not look at each other as Cherry began, with trembling white ringers, to strip the black fine skin from a fig.
A moment later Alix joined them. She had come in from her ducks, and ate but a hasty and indifferent breakfast so that she might the sooner begin to prepare their meal. The ducks had been regaled of late on the minced remains of all the family meals, Alix spending an additional half-hour at the table while she cut fruit- rinds, cold biscuits, and vegetables into small pieces, for her gluttonous pensioners.
"Wait for the ten o'clock train, Pete, and go in with Cherry!" said Alix, holding a small piece of omelet close to the nose of the importunate Buck. "Go on, be a sport!—DON'T YOU DARE," she added, to the dog, who rolled restless and entreating eyes, banged his tail on the floor, and allowed a faint, disconsolate whimper to escape him. "I don't think I'll go in," she explained, "for I have about a week's work here to do. Those Italian boys are coming up to thin the lettuce, and Kow is going to put up the peaches, and if you both are gone I can have a regular orgy of housekeeping—really, I'd rather. Here, take it—the dear old Buckboy—well, did he get so mad he couldn't see out of his eyes!" she added, affectionately, to Buck, as the omelet disappeared with one snap of his jaws. She folded his two fringed ears into his eyes, and laid her face against his shining head. "Well, this isn't feeding the ducks!" she finished, jumping up. "Come see them, Pietro, they're too darling!"
"They're extremely dirty and messy," Peter complained, following with Cherry nevertheless, to see her scatter her chopped food carelessly on the surface of the little pond, the struggling bodies of the ducklings, and the bobbing downy heads alike. With quacking and wriggling and dabbling, the meal was eaten, and Alix, scraping the bowls for last fragments, and blinking in a flood of sunlight, laughed exultantly at the exhibition.
Peter left them there, without one word or look for Cherry, who went back to the house with her sister in a most agitated and wretched state of mind. She had the telephone in her hand, to cancel the engagement with her dentist, when Alix suddenly consented to accompany her into town; "and at lunch-time we'll take a chance on the St. Francis, Sis," Alix said, innocently, "for Peter almost always lunches there!"
Feeling that the question was settled, yet restless and unsatisfied still, Cherry dressed for town; they climbed into the car; Alix's firm hands, in yellow chamois gloves, sparched at the wheel; the die was cast.
Yet at the station another change of plan occurred, for as Alix brought the car to the platform Anne came toward them from the arriving train, a gloved and demure and smiling Anne, anxious, she explained, to talk over this newest development, and "whether it proved to be of any value or not," to try to find out what Uncle Lee had really WANTED for them all, and then agree to do that in a friendly manner, out of court. Alix turned from the wheel, to face Cherry in the back seat, and Anne leaned on the door of the tonneau.
"My first feeling, when Frenny told me," said Anne, chatting pleasantly in the shade, "was one of such RELIEF! For I hadn't wanted all that money one bit," she confessed, gaily. "I only wanted to do what was FAIR. Only two or three nights ago I said to Frenny that it really belonged to us all, and last night we talked and talked about it, and the result was that I said that I must see the girls—we three are the only ones concerned, after all, and"—Anne's old half-merry and half-pouting manner was unchanged- -"what we decide is what really matters!" she finished.
"Why, there is no question that it's Daddy's handwriting," Cherry said, with what, for her, was sharpness, "and it seems to me—it seems to me Anne—" she added, hesitatingly.
"That you have a nerve!" Alix finished, not with any particular venom. "That document throws the case out of court," she said, flatly. "Peter is confident of that!"
Anne's pale face flushed a trifle, and her eyes narrowed.
"Yes, but it doesn't throw the WILL out of court," she said quickly.
"You proposed to break the Will!" Alix reminded her, getting angry.
"I know I did, but it might be valid, after all, and under that Will I inherit only a fifth less than you and Cherry!" Anne answered, also with feeling. "That's just what I came over to talk about," she added, still smiling. "Isn't it better," and all friendliness and appeal were in her voice, "isn't it better to do it all in a kindly manner, than to fight about it? Why, we can easily settle it among ourselves," she assured them, sensibly.
Alix shrugged, and looked down at the wheel of her car with a doubtful shake of her head. Cherry, now standing beside it on the platform, was flushed and uncomfortable. There was an awkward pause.
"Board?" shouted a trainman, with a rising inflection. The sisters looked at each other in a panic of haste.
"I can't leave this car here." Alix exclaimed. "I've got to park her and lock her and everything! Run get on board, Cherry, I don't have to go in anyway—you've got a date!"
Cherry's heart leaped, sank coldly, and leaped again, as with a swift nod of parting she hurried for her train. The other two women watched her with forced interest as she climbed on board, and as the train slipped noiselessly out of sight. It curved among the redwoods, and was gone before either spoke again. Then, as her eyes met Anne's friendly, questioning smile, Alix said awkwardly:
"I think the only thing to do is for you and Justin to take this up with Peter, Anne. I mean—I mean that you were the ones who proposed to bring it into court in the first place, and—and I don't understand much about it!"
"Alix, don't let's talk in a cold, hard, legal way," Anne pleaded. She had gotten into the back seat, and was leaning on the front seat in an informal sort of way. "Let's just try to get each other's point of view!" she suggested. "The idea is that Uncle Lee wanted all his girls to inherit alike—"
"That idea didn't seem to impress you much a week ago!" Alix said, glad to feel herself getting angry.
"My dear, I was going to divide it to the last PENNY!" Anne assured her, widening her eyes.
Alix was silent, but the silence shouted her unbelief.
"Truly, I was," Anne went on. "This—this discovery only complicates matters. Why, the last thing in the world that dear Uncle Lee would wish would be to have us drag the family name into a law-suit—"
"You and Justin began it!" Alix reminded her, goaded into reluctant speech.
"I beg your pardon!" It was a favourite phrase of Anne's. "But it was Peter who said he would fight!"
"Well, because you made the claim!" Alix, hating herself for being betrayed into argument, said hotly. "But I won't talk about it, Anne," she added, firmly, "and as far as coming to any agreement with me is concerned, you might just as well have gone back on the train with Cherry. I hate to talk this way—but we all think you acted very—well, very meanly!" Alix finished rather flatly.
"Perhaps it's just as well to understand each other!" Anne said, with hot cheeks. They exchanged a few more sentences, wasted words and angry ones, and then Anne walked over to a seat in the shade, to wait for another train, and Alix, with her heart beating hard and her colour high, drove at mad speed back to the mountain cabin.
"I didn't ask her to lunch—I don't care!" Alix said to herself, in agitation. "She and Justin know they're beaten—they're just trying to patch it up before it's too late—I don't care—I won't have her think she can get away with any such scheme—!"
And so muttering and scolding, Alix got back to her dog and her barnyard, and soothed herself with great hosing and cleaning of the duck-pond, and much skimming and tasting of Kow's preserves. After all, she had grudged this perfect summer day to the city, and she was always happiest here, in the solitude of the high mountain.
Meanwhile, Cherry, in the sick flutter of spirits that had become familiar to her of late, kept her dentist appointment, and at noon looked at a flushed and lovely vision of herself in the dentist's mirror.
"Doctor has given me red lips!" said Cherry, trembling, and trying to smile to the nurse in attendance.
"I guess the good Lord gave you your looks," Miss Maloney said generously. "You're the youngest-looking—to be married!" she added. "I said to my sister last week, 'That lady has been married nearly six years!' 'What!' she said, 'That little girl of eighteen—!'"
"Why—why don't you come and have lunch with me, at the 'Pheasant'?" Cherry said, suddenly, pushing up the golden hair under her hat.
"I'd love it," Miss Maloney said, appreciatively, "but Doctor has a one o'clock appointment after this one, and I shan't get a bite until nearly three. I've got crackers here—"
Cherry went out into the blazing street; it was one of the hot noontides of the year. At two o'clock a wild wind would spring up, and send papers and dust flying, but just now the heat was dry and clear and still.
She was carrying a parasol, and she opened it now and walked slowly toward Geary Street. She could go and have a cup of tea and a salad at the Pheasant—she could go to the Pheasant—
But she made not the slightest effort to go there. Beyond saying the words, she had no intention of doing so. She could not even frame in her thoughts the utter blankness of the feeling that swept over her at missing an opportunity to see Peter. She turned and went slowly up past the big shop windows that reflected the burning Plaza, and so came to the cool, great doorway of the St. Francis. Inside was tempered light and much noiseless coming and going, meeting and parting. Chinese boys in plum colour and pale blue went about with dustpans gathering fallen cigar and cigarette ashes; a pleasant traffic in magazines and cigarettes and candy and flowers was incessant, back in the dim wide passageways.
Cherry drifted into the big, deep-carpeted waiting-room; there were other women there, sunk into the big leather chairs, watching the doors, and glancing at the clock. The high windows gave directly upon Powell Street, where cable-cars were grating to and fro, and where motor-horns honked, but all noises were filtered here to a sort of monotone, and the effect of the room was of silence. When a man came hastily in the door one woman rose, there was a significant smile, a murmured greeting, before the two vanished.
In a luxurious chair Cherry waited. Peter certainly would not come in until half-past twelve, perhaps not then. Long before that time she might decide to go away; meanwhile, this was a pleasant and restful place to be. It was cool in here, and the murmuring and waiting women left in the air the delicate scents of perfumes and of the flowers they wore.
Suddenly, with a spring of her heart against her ribs, she saw Peter's dark head with its touches of iron gray. Groomed and brushed scrupulously as always, with the little limp, yet as always dignified and erect, he came to stand before her, and she stood up, and their hands met. Flushed and a little confused, she followed him to an inconspicuous table in a corner of the dining room. Then the dreamlike unreality and beauty of their hours together began again. Cherry felt adjusted, untrammelled, at ease; she felt that all the uncomfortable sensations of the past two hours were absurd, forgotten.
"Did you expect me to meet you?" she smiled. For answer he looked at her thoughtfully a minute before his own face lighted with a bright smile.
"I don't think I thought of your not being there," he confessed. "I was simply moving all morning toward the instant of meeting. I had a mental picture of you, always before my eyes, and when you stood up there, it was just my picture come real!"
"If THIS is real!" she said, musingly. "Sometimes my thoughts get so—so mixed," she added, "that I feel as if Alix and the valley— and Martin especially—were all a dream, and this the true thing."
"I know how you feel!" Peter answered. He watched her, almost with anxiety, for a moment, then turned his attention to the bill of fare. But Cherry was not hungry, and she paid small attention to the order, or to the food when it came.
Presently they were talking again, in that hunger for self- analysis that is a part of new love. They thrilled at every word, Cherry raising her eyes, shining with eagerness, to his, or Peter watching the little down-dropped face in an agony of adoration. An hour passed, two hours, after awhile they were walking, still with that strange sense of oneness and of solitude, and still as easily as if they had been floating, to the ferry.
Alix met them in Mill Valley with vivid accounts of the day; she had been pondering the brief talk with Anne, and was anxious to have Peter's view of it. Peter was of the opinion that Anne's conduct indicated very clearly that she and Justin realized that their case was lost.
"Then you're fixed for life, Cherry," was Alix's first remark. "Oh, say!" she added, in a burst. "Let's go down to the old house to-morrow, will you? Let's see what it needs, and how much would have to be done to make it fit to live in!"
Cherry flushed, staring steadily at her sister, and Peter, too, was confused, but Alix saw nothing. The next day she carried her point, and took them with her down to the old house. It had stood empty since her marriage, for winter storms had gone hard with it, and the small rent it would have brought them through the summer months was not enough to warrant the expense of putting it in order. It looked neglected and shabby; it was almost buried in the dry over-growth of the untended garden. There was a drift of colourless leaves on the porch, the steps were deep in the dropped needles of the redwoods, the paths were quite lost to sight under a fine wash of winter mud, and the roses and lilacs were grown woody and wild.
Alix was suddenly silent, and Cherry was pale and fighting tears, as they crossed the porch, and fitted the key in the door. Inside the house the air was close and stale, odorous of dry pine walls and of unaired rooms. Peter flung up a window, the girls walked aimlessly about, through the familiar yet shockingly strange chairs and table that were all coated thickly with dust. Somehow this dust gave Cherry a desolate sensation, it covered everything alike: the spectacle case and the newspaper that still lay on her father's desk; the cups and glasses that remained, face downward at the sink, from some last meal. Her hands and Alix's were speedily coated with it, too; they felt sad and unnatural here, in the house where they had spent so many years.
"It needs everything!" Alix said, after a first quick tour of inspection, eyeing a great weather streak on the raw plaster of the dining-room wall. "It needs air, cleaning, straightening, flowers—-Gosh, how it does need people!"
"I—I can't bear it!" Cherry said softly, in a sick undertone.
Alix, who was rapidly recovering her equilibrium, sprang upstairs without hearing her, but Cherry did not follow. She went to the open front doorway and stood there, leaning against the sill, and gazing sadly out at the shabby, tangled garden that had sheltered all the safety and joy and innocence of her little girl days.
"Peter," she said, as he came to stand beside her, "I'm so unhappy!"
"I'm sorry!" he said, simply.
"I can't—I can't ever be here!" Cherry half-whispered. "At least I can't until some day—years from now—years from now!—when you and I have forgotten—-"
"I never shall forget," he said. And after awhile he added, "Shall you?"
"No," she whispered, her eyes brimming until the dry and dusty green of the garden swam before her.
"Cherry, will you end it?" he asked her, huskily.
She gave him a startled look.
"End it?" she faltered.
"Will you—do you think you are brave enough to give everything else up for me?" he asked.
"Peter!" said Cherry, hardly above a breath.
"Will you go away with me?" Peter went on, feverishly. "That's the only way, now. That's the only way—now. Will you go away?"
"Go away!" Cherry's face was ashen as she moved her tragic and beautiful eyes to his. "Go away where?"
"Anywhere!" Peter answered, confusedly. "Anywhere!" He did not meet her look, his own went furtively about the garden. Immediately he seemed to regain self-control. "I'm talking like a fool!" he said, quickly. "I don't know what I'm saying half the time! I'm sorry—I'm sorry, Cherry. Don't mind me. Say that you'll forgive me for what I said!"
He had taken her hands, and they were looking distressedly and soberly at each other when an unexpected noise made them step quickly apart. Cherry's heart beat madly with terror, and Peter flushed deeply.
It was Martin Lloyd's aunt, Mrs. North, their old neighbour, who came about the corner of the house, and approached them smilingly. How much had she seen? Cherry asked herself, in a panic. What were they doing?—what were they saying as she appeared?—how much had their attitude betrayed them?
Mrs. North was the same loud-laughing, cheerful woman as of old. She had moved to Portland to be near Martin's mother, some years before, and was delighted with the chance that had brought her back to the valley on the very day that brought the Strickland girls back to the old house.
She kissed Cherry, and was full of queries for Martin.
"Durango? Belle told me something about his going there," she said. "Isn't he the wandering Ayrab? And ain't you the good- natured little wife to follow him about everywhere? How long you been here, Cherry?"
"I've been with Alix and Peter for—for several weeks," Cherry said, uneasily. Her eyes met Peter's, and he conveyed reassurance to her with a look.
"When you going back, dear?" Mrs. North asked, with so shrewd a glance from Cherry's exquisite rosy face to Peter's that he felt a fresh pang of suspicion. She HAD seen something—-
"Why, I've been rather—rather kept here by the—the law-suit, haven't I, Peter?" Cherry explained. "But I expect to go as soon as it's all settled! Here's Alix," she said, gladly, as Alix came downstairs with an old kodak album in her hands.
"Look, Cherry—I'd forgotten this!" Alix said, in deep amusement, holding out the book. But she immediately put it aside to greet the old friend.
"I'll bet you three are having real good times!" Mrs. North said, with a curious look from one to the other.
"You know what I hope," Alix told her, "is that Cherry and Martin will always keep the old place open now. They could get a Chinese boy for very little to keep it in order, and then, you see, with all Martin's moving about, she'd always have headquarters here. And I don't believe Cherry'll ever love another place as she does the valley—will you, Sis?" Alix ended, eagerly. Cherry met the arm her sister linked around her, half-way, and gave her a troubled smile.
And yet a few moments later, when some quest took Peter suddenly from the group, she watched the shabby corduroy suit, the laced high boots, and the black head touched with gray, disappear in the direction of the kitchen with a tearing pain at her heart, and the words the other women were saying hummed without meaning in her ears.
"When you three girls got started, you all went off together!" Mrs. North commented. "I used to say I thought you girls never would marry—you never seemed to take much interest in the men!"
"I never thought we'd marry!" Alix agreed, pleasantly. "Did you, Kirschwasser?"
"I don't think I ever thought about it—much," Cherry said, rousing herself from a musing mood.
"According to age," Alix pursued, in one of her absurdly argumentative moments, "Anne should have married Peter, Cherry, Justin, and I, Martin. But the truth is, we didn't seem to give the matter sufficient thought!"
"Girls never do; it isn't expected!" Mrs. North said, with her indulgent laugh, as they followed Peter into the empty kitchen which smelled of dry woods and drains. Dust was thick on Hong's range, and one of his old white aprons was flung limply across a chair. Cherry's eyes were thoughtful, filled with a look of pain. It was true; girls didn't think anything about it, it wasn't expected of them. And yet, in these very rooms, her father had urged her to consider; consideration simply wasn't in that feather-brained little head of hers in those days. Words seemed to have no meaning, or were transmuted into different meanings by Martin Lloyd's voice. Her father had asked her to wait, wait until she was nineteen! Nineteen had seemed old then. She had felt that at nineteen she would have merely delayed the great joy of life for nothing; at nineteen she would be only so much older, so much more desperately bent upon this marriage.
And Peter was there then, was coming and going, advising and teasing her—so near, so accessible, loving her even then, had she but known it! That engagement might as easily—and how much more wisely!—have been with Peter; the presents, the gowns, the wedding would have been the same, to her childish egotism; the rest how different! The rest would have been light instead of darkness, joy instead of pain, dignity and development and increasing content instead of all the months of restless criticism and doubt and disillusionment. The very scene here, with Mrs. North and Alix, might easily have been, with Cherry as the wife of Peter, Cherry as her sister's hostess, in the mountain cabin—
At the thought her heart suffocated her. She stood dazedly looking out of the old kitchen window, and her senses swam in a sudden spasm of pain.
And Alix? Well, Alix might have been Mrs. Lloyd. Martin had told her more than once that he had "a crush on Alix, right off the bat!" And Alix had liked him, too—any girl would like any man under the same circumstances of age and environment. Alix would have made Martin a better wife; she would have loved the mining towns, the muddy railroad stations, and the odd women. She would have had her dogs, perhaps a child or two now. Anyway, ran Cherry's thoughts, she would have had the old home now, and that, to Alix, would have meant a very triumph of joy. She would have come to stay with Peter and Cherry while it was put in order; she would have revelled in cows and ducks and dogs here.
"Cherry, child, come and lend us a hand!" Peter said. They were trying to push aside the ice-box that blocked the unlocked kitchen door. Cherry went to them at once; the little word "child" danced in her heart all day, and warmed it when she was lying wakeful and restless deep into the summer night.
"You and I must go away!" said Peter. "I can't stand it. I love you. I love you so dearly, Cherry. I can't think of anything else any more. It's like a fever—it's like a sickness. I'm never happy, any more, unless my arms are about you. Will you let me take you somewhere, where we can be happy together?"
Cherry turned her confident, childish face toward him; her lashes glittered, but she smiled.
"I love you, Peter!" she said. And the words, sounding softly through the silence of the garden, died away on the warm night air like music.
It was night, the third night of the harvest moon. Through the branches of the oak tree under which they were sitting blots of silver were falling; between them the shadows were inky black. The grass was a sheen of pearly light, the little cabin was like an enchanted dwelling, wreathed with flowers, and steeped in moonshine. Toward the ocean, over the moon-flooded ridge, a great fold of creamy fog was silently pushing, and Cherry had a scarf of creamy lace caught about her shoulders. Her coil of corn-coloured hair was loosened; she and Peter had been moving geranium slips all afternoon, and at supper-time, when a telephone message from Alix had advised them that she was obliged to stay in town to dine with an exacting old family friend, they had parted only to bathe and change, before sitting down for dinner in the sunset beauty of the porch.
It had been a memorable meal, an hour always to have its place in their hearts. In the two weeks since the day at the old house they had not chanced to be often alone, and to-night, for the first time, Cherry admitted that she could fight no longer. A few days before she had again gone to the dentist, and again had waited for Peter at the great hotel. But on this occasion he had not known of her engagement in town, and had lunched elsewhere, so that Cherry had waited, growing weary, headachy, and heartsick as the slow moments went their way. Peter, happening to telephone to Alix, at about two o'clock, had learned that Cherry was in the city, and hanging up the receiver, had sat wrapped in agitated thought for a few minutes before rushing to the hotel on the desperate hazard of finding her there.
The sight of the little patient figure, the irradiation of her face, as they met, the ecstasy of delight with which their hands were joined, and the flood of joy in their hearts, as he took her to tea, was illuminating to them both. Cherry had spent two long hours waiting only for the sight of that eager, limping, straight- shouldered form, and Peter had experienced enough anguish as he sped to find her to tear the last deception away.
To-night they talked as lovers, his arm about the soft little clinging figure, her small, firm fingers tight in his own. He had squared about on the great log that was their seat so that his ardent eyes were closer to her; the world held nothing but themselves. It was eight o'clock.
"So this is the thing that was waiting for us all these years, Cherry, ever since the time you and Alix used to dam my brook and climb my oak trees!"
"I never dreamed of it!" Cherry said, with wonder in her tone.
"If we had dreamed of it—" Peter began, and stopped.
"Ah, if we had, it would all be different," Cherry said, with a look of pain. "That's the one thing I can't bear to think of!"
"What is?" he asked, watching the lovely face that was only dimly visible in the moonlight.
"Oh, that it all might have been so simple—so easy and right!" the girl answered. "That we might have been so happy instead of so sad—"
"It makes you sad, dear?"
"Peter, how could it make me anything else? Why, what can come of it?" Cherry asked, sorrowfully. "I cannot stay on here, now. I cannot—" She freed herself from his arms, and walked away from him restlessly through the moonshine, twisting her arms above her head. "I cannot go back to Martin!" he heard her whisper, in an agony. "I can't leave you—I can't leave you!"
"Shall we go away?" Peter asked, simply, when she stopped at the great stone that Alix, for the view it commanded, had christened Sunrise Rock. Cherry dropped down upon it, facing away from him across the soft green luminous light of the valley.
"Go where?" she asked.
"Go anywhere!" he answered. "We have money enough; we can leave Alix rich—she will still have her cabin and her dogs and the life she loves. But there are other tiny places, Cherry; there are little cabins in Hawaii, there are Canadian villages—Cherry, there are thousands of places in the south of France where we might live for years and never be questioned, and never be annoyed."
"France!" she whispered, and the downcast face he was watching so eagerly was thoughtful. "How could we go," she breathed. "You first, and then I? To meet somewhere?"
"We would have to go together," he decided, swiftly. "Everyone must know, dear; you realize that?"
Wide-eyed, she was staring at him as if spellbound by some new hope; now she shrugged her shoulders in careless disdain.
"That isn't of any consequence!"
"You don't feel it so!" He sat down beside her, and again they locked hands.
"Not that part," she answered, simply. "I mind—Alix," she added, thoughtfully.
"Yes, I mind Alix!" he admitted.
"But the injury is done to Alix now," Cherry said, slowly. "Now it is too late to go back! You and I couldn't—we couldn't deceive Alix here, Peter," Cherry added, and as she turned to him he saw her thin white blouse move suddenly with the quick rising of her heart. "That—that would be too horrible! But I could take this love of ours away, leave everything else behind, simply—simply recognize," stammered Cherry, her lips beginning to tremble, "that it is bigger than ourselves, that we can't help it, Peter. I'd fight it if I could," she added, piteously, "I'd go away if I didn't know that no power on earth could keep me from coming back!"
She buried her head on his shoulder, and he put his arm about her, and there was utter silence over the great brooding mountain, and in the valley brimming with soft moonshine, and in the garden.
"I believe that even Alix will understand," Peter said after awhile. "She loves you and me better than any one else in the world; she is not only everything that is generous, but she isn't selfish, she is the busiest and the most sensible person I ever knew. I know—of course I know it's rotten," he broke off in sudden despair, "but what I'm trying to say is that Alix, of all people I know, is the one that will make the least fuss about it— "
Cherry was staring raptly before her; now she grasped his hand and said breathlessly:
"Oh, Peter, are we talking about it? Are we talking about our going away, and belonging to each other?"
"What else?" he said, quick tears in his eyes.
"Oh, but I've been so unhappy, I've been so starved!" she whispered. "I thought I wanted people—cities—I thought I wanted to go on the stage. But it was only you that I wanted. Oh, Peter, what a life it will be! The littlest cottage, the simplest life, and perhaps a beach or woods to walk in—and always talking, reading, always together. I never want to come back; I never want to see any one; I never want anything but that."
"France it must be, I think," he said, "for then we can go about— no one will know us—-"
"But we will meet people we know in the trains, going," Cherry said, suddenly. "I know what I am doing," she added, "but that would be so hard, to have them identify us, perhaps come up to us, whisper and point!"
"But why not go by sea?" he mused, "why not to Japan and through India, and so on to France?"
"No!" she said quickly. "On a long sea-trip someone would surely know us—isn't there some way we can get away, disappear as if we had never been?"
"Cherry!" he said, kneeling before her in the wet grass. "You know what it means!"
"It means you!" she answered, after a silence. She had laid her hands softly about his neck, and her shining eyes were close to his.
"And you trust me?" he whispered. "You know that when I am free and you are free—"
She put her fingers over his mouth.
"Peter! Haven't I known you ever since I was little enough to sit in your lap and have you read 'Lady Jane' to me? It's so beautiful—it's so wonderful—to love this way," she said, in her innocent, little-girl voice, "that it seems to me the only thing in the world! I'd come to you, Peter, if it meant shame and death and horror. It doesn't mean that, it only means a man and a woman settling down somewhere in the south of France, a big quiet man who limps a little, and a little yellow-headed woman in blue smocks and silly-looking hats—"
"It means life, of course!" he interrupted her. "The hour that makes you mine, Cherry, will be the exquisite hour of my whole life!"
They were silent for a while, and below them the white moonlight deepened and brightened and swam like an enchantment.
"If you will face it," Peter said, presently, "I will give every instant of my life to you!"
"I know you will," she said, dreamily.
"There will be no coming back, Cherry."
"Oh, I know that!"
"There can't ever be—there mustn't be—you've thought of that?" he said, uncertainly. In the curious, unreal light that flooded the world, he saw her turn, and caught the gleam of her surprised eyes.
"You mean children—a child?" she said, surprisedly. "Why not, Peter?" she added, tightening her fingers, "what could be more wonderful than that we should have a child? Can you imagine a happier environment for a child than that little sunshiny, woodsy beach cottage; can't you see the little figure—the two or three little figures!—scampering ahead of us through the country roads, or around the fire? Oh, I can," said Cherry, her extraordinary voice rich and sweet with longing, "I can! That would be motherhood, Peter, that wouldn't be like having a baby whose father one didn't—one COULDN'T love, marriage or no marriage!"
And as he watched, amazed at the change that love had brought to quiet, little inarticulate Cherry, she added, earnestly:
"I've been thinking how BITTER it was, Peter, to have the greatest thing in life come to us this way, but just lately—just this last hour it's come to me that it is right—it's best!—to have it so. We give all the world up, and we get only each other, and yet how little it seems to give, and how much to get! Why, every hour of it, every minute will hold more joy than we've ever known! I couldn't," she said, suddenly grave, "I couldn't take you from any one who loved you as I do; I couldn't hurt any one, to be happy. But Alix will forgive us; you'll see she will!"
"Alix—I know her!—will only be sorry for me," Cherry mused. "She'll only think me mad to disgrace the good name of Strickland; she'll think we're both crazy. Perhaps she'll plunge into the orphanage work, or perhaps she'll go on here, gardening, playing with Buck, raising ducks—she says herself that she has never known what love means—says it really meaning it, yet as if the whole subject was a joke—a weakness!"
"I believe she will forgive us, for she is the most generous woman in the world," Peter said, slowly. "Anyway—we can't stop now! We can't stop now! It will take me only a few days now to close everything up, to arrange matters so that she shall have plenty of money, and so that I can carry on the affairs of my mother's estate at long range. Spencer will attend to the rents, mail me quarterly checks; the whole thing is simple. And I will let you know—"
"It all seems so unreal!" Cherry said, with her heart beginning to hammer with excitement. "It doesn't seem as if it was you and me, Peter. I shall not need a trunk; I shall buy new things—it will be a new life—-" "There is the steamer line that goes to Los Angeles," Peter mused. "Yes—I believe that is the solution," he added, with a brightening face. "Nobody you know goes there on it; it leaves daily at eleven, and gets into Los Angeles the following morning. From there—-"
"I don't know ANYBODY there!" Cherry said, eagerly.
"You wouldn't see anybody anyway. From there we can get a drawing- room to New Orleans; that's only a day and a half more; and we can keep to ourselves if by any unlucky chance there should be any one we know on the train—"
"Which isn't likely!"
"Which isn't likely! Then at New Orleans we go either to the Zone, or to South America, or to any one of the thousand places—New York, if we like, by water. By that time we will be lost as completely as if we had dropped into the sea. I'll see about reservations—the thing is, you're too pretty to go quite unnoticed!" he added, ruefully.
He saw a smile flicker on her face in the moonlight, but when she spoke, it was with almost tearful gravity:
"You arrange it, Peter, and somehow I'll go. I'll write Alix—I'll tell her that where she's sane, I'm mad, and where she's strong, I'm weak! And we'll weather it, dear, and we'll find ourselves somewhere, alone, with all the golden, beautiful future before us. But, Peter, until this part of it's over we mustn't be alone again—you mustn't kiss me again! Will you promise me?"
As stirred as she was, he gathered her little fingers together, and kissed them.
"I'll promise anything!"
"I'll make it up to you," Cherry said, with a sort of feverish weariness. "I'm all confused and frightened now; I only want it somehow—somehow, to be over! I want you to take me away somewhere," she whispered, with the hands he was clasping resting on his breast, and her flowerlike face raised to his, "take me somewhere, and take care of me! I only want you!"
"Cherry, my darling—my dearest!" Peter said. "I will take care of you. Only trust me for a few days more, and we will be away from it all. And now you put it all out of your mind, and run in and go to bed. You're exhausted, and if Alix gets the eight o'clock train she will be here in a few minutes. I'll wander down the road a little way, and meet the car if she drives it up."
"Good-night!" she breathed, and he saw the white gown flicker against the soft light on the lawn, and saw the black shadow creeping by it, before she mounted the porch steps, and was gone.
Swept along by a passionate excitement that seemed actually to consume her, Cherry lived through the next three days. Alix noticed her mood, and asked her more than once what caused it. Cherry would press a hot cheek to hers, smile with eyes full of pain, and flutter away. She was well, she was quite all right, only she—she was afraid Martin would summon her soon—and she didn't want to go to him—!
Alix was puzzled, watching her sister with anxious eyes. The cleaning and refurnishing of the old home was proceeding rapidly, and Alix feared that the constant memory of the old times would be too much for Cherry. She tried to induce her to rest, to spend this morning or that afternoon in the hammock, but Cherry gently but irresistibly refused. Her one hope was to be busy, to tire her brain and body before night.
Suspecting something gravely amiss, Alix tried to win her confidence regarding Martin. But briefly, quickly, and with a sort of affectionate and apologetic impatience, Cherry refused to discuss him.
"I shall not go back to him!" she said, breathing hard, and with the air of being more absorbed in what she was doing than what she was saying. She and Alix were dusting the books in their father's old library, and arranging them on the shelves, on a quiet September morning.
"But, Cherry, dear, you were saying yesterday that you dreaded his sending for you!" Alix said, in a troubled surprise.
"Yes, I know I was!" Cherry admitted, quickly.
"But did you mean that you are really going to leave him?" the older sister questioned. And as Cherry was silent she repeated: "Are you going to leave him, dear?"
"I don't know what I'm going to do!" Cherry half sobbed.
"But, dearest—dearest, you're only twenty-four; don't you think you might feel better about it as time goes on?" Alix urged. "Now that the money is all yours, Cherry, and you can have this nice home to come to now and then, isn't it different?"
Cherry, an old volume in her hand, was looking at her steadily.
"You don't understand, Sis!" she said.
"I understand that you don't love Martin," Alix said, perplexed. "But can't people who don't love each other live together in peace?" she added, with a half smile.
"N-n-not as man and wife!" Cherry stammered.
Alix sat back on her heels, in the ungraceful fashion of her girlhood, and shrugged her shoulders.
"Think of the people who are worrying themselves sick over bills, or sick wives, or children to bring up!" she suggested, hopefully. "My Lord, if you have enough money, and food, and are young, and well—!"
"Yes, but, Alix," Cherry argued, eagerly, "I'm NOT well when I'm unhappy. My heart is like lead all the time; I can't seem to breathe! People—isn't it possible that people are different about that?" she asked, timidly.
"I suppose they are!" Alix conceded, thoughtfully. "Anyway, look at all the fusses in history," she added, carelessly, "of GRANDE PASSIONS, and murders, and elopements, and the fate of nations— resting on just the fact that a man and woman hated each other too much, or loved each other too much! There must be something in it that I don't understand. But what I DO understand," she added, after a moment, when Cherry, choked with emotion, was silent, "is that Dad would die of grief if he knew you were unhappy, that your life was all broken up in disappointment and bitterness!"
"But is that my fault!" Cherry exclaimed, with sudden tears.
Alix, after watching her for a troubled minute, went to her, and put her arm about her. "Don't cry, Cherry!" she pleaded, sorrowfully.
Cherry, regaining self-control, resumed her work silently, with an occasional, sudden sigh. Alix, clapping the heavy covers of a leatherbound volume in Buck's inquisitive nose, presently laughed gaily as he sneezed and pawed.
She had opened the subject with reluctance; now she realized that they had again reached a blank wall.
Three days after their talk in the moonlit garden Peter found chance to speak alone to Cherry.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"Quite!" she said, raising blue eyes to his.
"What about your suitcase?"
"I took it into San Francisco yesterday; Alix went in early, and I followed at noon. It's checked in the ferry building, waiting."
"It's to-morrow then, Cherry!" he said.
"To-morrow!" He saw the colour ebb from her face as she echoed him. This was already late afternoon; perhaps her thoughts raced ahead to to-morrow afternoon at this time when they two would be leaning on the rail of the little steamer, gazing out over the smooth, boundless blue of the Pacific, and alone in the world.
"To-morrow you will be mine!" he said.
"That's all I think of," she answered. And now the colour came up in a splendid wave of flame, and the face that she turned toward his was radiant with proud surrender.
He told her the number of the dock; they discussed trains.
"We sail at eleven," said Peter, "but I shall be there shortly after ten. I'll have the baggage on board, everything ready; you only have to cross the gangplank. You have your baggage check; give it to me."
They were waiting in the car while Alix marketed; Cherry opened her purse and gave him the punched cardboard.
"I'll tell Alix that I have a last dentist appointment at half- past ten," she said. "If she goes in with me, we'll go to the very door. But she says she can't come in to-morrow, anyway. I'll write her to-night, and drop the letter on the way to the boat."
"Better wait until we are in Los Angeles," he said, pondering. "I'm writing, too, of course. I'm simply saying that it is one of the big things that come into people's lives and that one can't combat. Perhaps some day—but I can't look forward; I can't tell what the future holds. I only know that we belong to each other, and that life might as well be ended as love!"
"To-morrow, then!" was Cherry's only answer. "I'm glad it's so soon."
"Good-bye!" said Cherry, leaning over the side of the car to kiss her sister. Alix received the kiss, smiled, and stretched in the sun.
"Heavenly day to waste in the city!" said Alix.
"I know!" Cherry said, nervously. She had been so strangely nervous and distracted in manner all morning that Alix had more than once asked her if there was anything wrong. Now she questioned her again.
"You mustn't mind me!" Cherry said, with a laugh. "I'm desperately unhappy," she said, her eyes watering. "And sometimes I think of desperate remedies, that's all."
"I'd do anything in the world to help you, Cerise!" Alix said, sympathetically.
"I know you would, Sis! I believe," Cherry said, trembling, "that there's nothing you wouldn't give me!"
"That's easily said," Alix answered, carelessly, "for I don't get fond of things, as you do! My dear, I'd go off with Martin to Mexico in a minute. I mean it! I don't care a whoop where I live, if only people are happy. I'd work my hands to the bone for you— as a matter of fact, I do work 'em to the bone," she added, laughing, as she looked at the hands that were stained and rough from gardening.
"How about Buck?" Cherry said, as the dog leaped to his place on the front seat, and licked his mistress's ear.
Alix embraced him lovingly.
"Well—if he wanted to go with you!" she conceded, unwillingly. "But he wouldn't!" she added, quickly. Cherry, going to the train, gave her an April smile, and as she took her seat and the train drew on its way, it seemed to her suddenly that she might indeed meet Peter, but it would only be to tell him that what they had planned was impossible.
But on the deck of the Sausalito steamer, dreaming in the sunshine of the soft, lazy autumn day, her heart turned sick with longing once more. Alix was forgotten, everything was forgotten except Peter. His voice, his tall figure, erect, yet moving with the little limp she knew so well, came to her thoughts. She thought of herself on the other steamer, only an hour from now, safe in his care, Martin forgotten, and all the perplexities and disappointments of the old life forgotten, in the flood of new security and joy. Los Angeles—New Orleans—France—it mattered not where they wandered, they might well lose the world, and the world them, from to-day on.
"So that is to be my life—one of the blamed and ignored women?" Cherry mused, leaning on the rail, and watching the plunge of the receding water. "Like the heroines of half the books—only it always seemed so bold and so frightful in books! But to me it just seems the most natural thing in all the world. I love Peter, and he loves me, and the earth is big enough to hide us, and that's all there is to it. Anyway, right or wrong, I can't help it," she finished, rejoicing to find herself suddenly serene and confident, as the boat made the slip, and the passengers streamed downstairs and so across the ferry place and into the city.
It was twenty minutes past ten, a warm, sweet morning, with great hurrying back and forth at the ferry, women climbing to the open seats of the cable-cars, pinning on their violets or roses as they climbed. In the air was the pleasant mingling of the scents of roasting coffee, salt bay-water, and softening tar in the paving, that is native only to San Francisco. Cars clanged about the circle, hummed their way up into the long vista of Market Street, disturbing great flights of gulls that were picking dropped oats from the very feet of feeding horses.
Cherry sped through it all, beside herself now with excitement and strain, only anxious to have the great hands of the clock drop more speedily from minute to minute, and so round out the terrible hour that joined the old life to the new. She was hurrying blindly toward the docks of the Los Angeles Line, absorbed in her one whirling thought, when somebody touched her arm, and a voice, terrifyingly unexpected and yet familiar, addressed her, and a hand was laid on her arm.
In utter confusion she looked up. It was Martin who had stopped her.
For a few dreadful seconds a sort of vertigo seized Cherry and she was unable to collect her thoughts or to speak even the most casual words of greeting. She had been so full of her extraordinary errand that she was bewildered and sick at its interruption, her heart thundered, her throat was choked, and her knees shook beneath her. Where was she—what was known—how much had she betrayed—Her thoughts jumbled together in a tangle of horrified questioning.
Gasping, trying to smile, she looked up at him, while the ferry place whirled about her, and pulses drummed in her ears. She had automatically given him her hand; now he kissed her.
"Hello, Cherry, where you going?" for the third time.
"I came into town to shop," she faltered.
"You what?" She had not really been intelligible, and she felt it, with a pang of fright. He must not suspect—the steamer was there, only a short block away; Peter might pass them; a chance word might be fatal—he must not suspect—
"I'm shopping!" she said distinctly, with dry lips. And she managed to smile.
"Well," Martin said, smiling in turn, "surprised to see me?"
"Oh, Martin—" said her fluttered voice. Even in the utter panic of heart and soul she knew that for safety's sake she must find his vanity.
"I'm going to tell you something that will surprise you," he said. "I'm through with the Red Creek people!"
"Martin!" Cherry enunciated, almost voicelessly.
"You remember I wrote you that they fired Mason, and that I was doing his work and mine, too?"
"I—I remember!" Cherry, seized by deadly nausea and chill, looked from a flower vendor to a newsboy, looked at the cars, the people- -she must not faint. She must not faint.
"Well—but where are you going? Home?"
"I was going to the dentist a minute, but it's not important." They had turned and were walking across to the ferry. She knew that there was no way in which she might escape him. "What did you say?" she said.
"I asked you when the next boat left for Mill Valley?"
"We can—go—find out." Cherry's thoughts were spinning. She must warn Peter somehow. It was twenty minutes of eleven by the ferry clock. Twenty minutes of eleven. In twenty minutes the boat would sail. She thought desperately of the women's waiting-room upstairs; she might plead the necessity of telephoning from it. But it had but one door, and Martin would wait at that door. The glow of meeting had already faded from his face, but he was loitering by her side, quite as a matter of course.
Suddenly she realized that her only hope of warning Peter was to send a messenger. But if Martin should chance to connect her neighbourhood with the boat, when he met her, and her sending of a message to Peter here—
"I think there's a boat at eleven something," she said, collectedly. "Suppose you go and find out?"
She glanced toward the entrance of the Sausalito waiting-room, a hundred yards away, and a mad hope leaped in her heart. If he turned his back on her—
"What are you going to do?" he asked, somewhat surprised.
"I ought to telephone Alix!" Her despair lent her wit. If he went to the ticket office, and she into a telephone booth, she might escape him yet! While he dawdled here, minutes were flying, and Peter was watching every car and every passer-by, torn with the same agony that was tearing her. "If you'll go find out the exact time and get tickets," she said, "I'll telephone Alix."
"Tickets?" he echoed, with all Martin's old, maddening slowness. "Haven't you got a return ticket?"
"I have mileage!" she blundered.
"Oh, then I'll use your mileage!" Martin said. "Telephone," he added, nodding toward a row of booths, "no hurry; we've got piles of time!"
She remembered that he liked a masculine assumption of easiness where all trains, tickets, railroad connections, and transit business of any sort were concerned. He liked to loiter elaborately while other people were running, liked to pull out his big watch and assure her that they had all the time in the world. She tried to call a number, left the booth, paid a staring girl, and rejoined him.
"Busy!" she reported.
"I was just thinking," Martin said, "that we might stay in town and go to the Orpheum; how about it? Do we have to have Peter and Alix?"
Cherry flushed, angered again, in the well-remembered way, under all her fright and stir. Her voice had its old bored note.
"Well, Martin, I've been their guest for two months!"
"I'd just as soon have them!" Martin conceded, indifferently.
But the diverted thought had helped Cherry, irritation had nerved her, and the reminder of Martin's old, trying stupidities had lessened her fear of him.
"I've got to send a telegram-for Alix," she said.
"What about?" he asked, less curious than ill-bred.
"Good-bye to some people who are sailing!" Cherry answered, calmly. "Only don't mention it to Alix, because I promised it would go earlier!" she added.
"I saw the office back here," he told her. They went to it together, and he was within five feet of her while she scribbled her note.
"Martin met me. Nothing wrong. We are returning to Mill Valley. C. L." She glanced at her husband; he was standing in the doorway of the little office, smoking. Quickly she addressed the envelope. "DON'T READ THAT NAME OUT LOUD," she said, softly but very slowly and distinctly, to the girl at the desk. She put a gold piece down on the note. "Keep the change, and for God's sake get that to the Harvard, sailing from Dock 67, before eleven!" she said.
The girl, who had been pencilling a large "10:46" on the envelope, looked up in surprise; but rose immediately to the occasion. Cherry's beauty, her agonized eyes and voice, were enough to awaken her sense of the dramatic. A sharp rap of the clerk's pencil summoned a boy.
"George, there's a dollar in that for you if you deliver it before eleven to the Harvard!" said she. The boy seized it, stuck it in his hat, and fled.
"And now for the boat!" Cherry said, rejoining Martin, and speaking in almost her natural voice. They went back to the Sausalito ferry entrance again, and this time telephoned Alix in real earnest, and presently found themselves on the upper deck of the boat, bound for the valley.
Until now, and in occasional rushes of terror still, she had been absorbed in the hideous necessity of deceiving, of covering her own traces, of anticipating and closing possible avenues of betrayal. But now Cherry began to breathe more easily, and to feel rising about her, like a tide, the half-forgotten consciousness of her relationship with this man in the boldly-checked suit who was sitting beside her. She had thought to escape the necessity of telling him that she was not willing to return to him; she had been wrapped in dreams so great and so wonderful that the thought of his anger and resentment had been as nothing to her. But she had all that to face now.
She had it to face immediately, too. She knew that every hour of postponement would cost her fresh humiliations and difficulties. He did not love her, but he was quietly taking her for granted again, and until she could summon courage to speak to him with utter frankness and finality, he would of course claim his position as her husband.
The thought threw her into a nervous agitation almost as frightful as that of meeting him had been, and again she felt the dizzy faintness and sickness of that moment.
The trip from San Francisco to Sausalito occupies exactly half an hour; after that there was a train trip of twenty minutes. Cherry knew that what was done must be done in that time. In Mill Valley Alix would meet them, perhaps willing to take any cue that Cherry gave her, as to their relationship, but of course anxious to have that relationship as pleasant and normal and friendly as possible.
Her head was still rocking from the shock of the experiences of the last hour and the last fortnight. Even had she met Peter it might have been to yield with a sort of collapse to mental and physical exhaustion. But to be forced to make a fresh effort now, one of the crucial and fearful struggles of a lifetime, to present her case to Martin now, and force him to her viewpoint, was almost impossible.
Yet Cherry knew that it must be done, and as the boat slipped smoothly past the island that roughly marked the halfway point, she gathered all her forces for the trial.
Martin was meanwhile energetically presenting to her the arguments that had convinced him that he must give up the Mexico position. She vaguely appreciated that someone named Murry was a traitor, and that the "whole bunch" were "rubes," but her mind was busy with its own problem all the while, and the one distinct impression she had from Martin was the appalling one that he did not dream that she had decided to sever their union completely and finally.
"Well, how's the valley? Bore you to death?" he interrupted the flow of his own topic to ask carelessly.
"Oh, no, Martin!" she quivered. "I—I love it there! I always loved it!"
"Alix is a fine girl—she's a nice girl," Martin conceded. "But I can't go Peter! He may be all right, all that lah-di-dah and Omar Khayyam and Browning stuff may be all right, but I don't get it!" And he yawned contentedly in the sunshine.
After a few seconds he gave Cherry an oblique glance, expecting her resentment. But she was thinking too deeply even to have heard him. Her mind was working as desperately as a caged animal, her thoughts circling frantically, trying windows, walls, and doors in the prison in which she found herself, mad for escape.
She blamed herself bitterly now for allowing him, in the surprise and fear she felt, in the shock of their unexpected meeting, to arrange this domestic and apparently reconciled return to the valley house. Had she known beforehand that they were to meet she would have steeled herself to suggest to him coldly that they lunch somewhere, and talk. She could imagine now the quiet significance with which she would have stressed the phrase, "Martin, I want to talk to you."
Better still, she would have anticipated that meeting with a letter that would have warned him that his position as a husband was changed. But it was too late now! Too late for anything but a bald and brave and cruel half-hour that should, at any cost, sunder them.
Quick upon the thought came another: what should she and Peter plan now? For to suppose that their lives were to be guided back into the old hateful channel by this mere mischance was preposterous. Within a few days their interrupted trip must be resumed, perhaps to-morrow—perhaps this very night they would manage it successfully. Alix was unsuspicious, Martin utterly unconcerned, and perhaps it would be even easier to do now, than when Alix must at once communicate with Martin, and perhaps bring him away from his work, to adjust life to the new conditions.
But meanwhile, until she could see Peter alone, there was Martin to deal with, Martin who was leaning forward, vaingloriously reciting to her long speeches he had made to this superior or that.
"Martin," she said, impetuously interrupting him, "I've got to talk to you! I've meant to write it—so many times, I've had it in my mind ever since I left Red Creek!"
"Shoot!" Martin said, with his favourite look of indulgent amusement.
But she knew the little twitch to his lips that was neither indulgent nor amused.
"There are marriages that without any fault on either side are a mistake," Cherry began, "any contributory fault, I mean—"
"Talk United States!" Martin growled, smiling, but on guard.
"Well, I think our marriage was one of those!" Cherry said.
"What have you got to kick about?" Martin asked, after a pause.
"I'm not kicking!" Cherry answered, with quick resentment. "But I wish I had words to make you realize how I feel about it!"
Martin looked gloomily up at her, and shrugged.
"This is a sweet welcome from your wife!" he observed. But as she regarded him with troubled and earnest eyes, perhaps her half- forgotten beauty made an unexpected appeal to him, for he turned toward her and eyed her with a large tolerance. "What's the matter, Cherry?" he asked. "It doesn't seem to me that you've got much to kick about. Haven't I always taken pretty good care of you? Didn't I take the house and move the things in; didn't I leave you a whole month, while I ate at that rotten boarding- house, when your father died; haven't I let you have—how long is it?—seven weeks, by George, with your sister?"
It poured out too readily to be unpremeditated; Cherry recognized the tones of his old arraigning voice. He had brooded over his grievances. He felt himself ill-treated.
"Now you come in for this money," he began. But she interrupted him hotly:
"Martin, you know that is not true!"
"Isn't it true that the instant you can take care of yourself you begin to talk about not being happy, and so on!" he asked, without any particular feeling. "You bet you do! Why, I never cared anything about that money, you never heard me speak of it. I always felt that by the time the lawyers and the heirs and the witnesses got through, there wouldn't be much left of it, anyway!"
Too rich in her new position of the woman beloved by Peter to quarrel with Martin in the old unhappy fashion, Cherry laid an appealing hand on his arm.
"I'm sorry to meet you with this sort of thing," she said, simply, "I blame myself now for not writing you just how I've come to feel about it! But I just want it SAID before we meet Alix—"
"Have what said?" he asked, surlily.
"Have it understood," she pursued, patiently, "that we must make some arrangement for the future—things can't be as they were!"
"You've had it all your way ever since we were married," he began. "Now you blame me—"
"I DON'T blame you, Martin!"
"Well, what do you want a divorce for, then?"
"I don't even say anything about a divorce," Cherry said, fighting for time only. "But I can't go back!" she added, with a sudden force and conviction that reached him at last.
"Why can't you?"
"Because you don't love me, Martin, and—you know it!—I don't love you!"
"Well, but you can't expect the way we felt when we got married to last forever," he said, clumsily. "Do you suppose other men and women talk this way when the—the novelty has worn off?"
"I don't know how they talk. I only know how I feel!" Cherry said, chilled by the old generalization.
Martin, who had stretched his legs to their length, crossed them at the ankles, and shoved his hands deep into his pockets, staring at the racing blue water with sombre eyes.
"What do you want?" he asked, heavily. "I want to live my own life!" Cherry answered, after a silence during which her tortured spirit seemed to coin the hackneyed phrase.
"That stuff!" Martin sneered, under his breath. "Well, all right, I don't care, get your divorce!" he agreed, carelessly. "But I'll have something to say about that, too," he warned her. "You can drag the whole thing up before the courts if you want to—only remember, if you don't like it much, YOU DID IT. It never occurred to me even to think of such a thing! I've done my share in this business; you never asked me for anything I could give you that you didn't get; you've never been tied down to housework like other women; you're not raising a family of kids—go ahead, tell every shop-girl in San Francisco all about it, in the papers, and see how much sympathy you get!"
"Oh, you BEAST!" Cherry said, between her teeth, furious tears in her eyes. The water swam in a blur of blue before her as they rose to go downstairs at Sausalito. The boat had made the slip, and the few passengers, at this quiet noontime, were drifting off.
Martin glanced at her with impatience. Her tears never failed to anger him.
"Don't cry, for God's sake!" he said, nervously glancing about for possible onlookers. "What do you want me to do? For the Lord's sake don't make a scene until you and I have a chance to talk this over quietly—"
Cherry's thoughts were with Peter. In her soul she felt as if his arm was about her, as if she were pouring out to him the whole troubled story, sure that he would rescue and console her. She had wiped her eyes, and somewhat recovered calm, but she trusted herself only to shrug her shoulder as she preceded Mart to the train.
There was time for not another word, for Alix suddenly took possession of them. She had had time to bring the car all the six miles to Sausalito, and meant to drive them direct to the valley from there.
She greeted Martin affectionately, although even while she did so her eyes went with a quick, worried look to Cherry. They had been quarrelling, of course—it was too bad, Alix thought, but her own course was clear. Until she could take her cue from them, she must treat them both with cheerful unconsciousness of the storm. She invited Martin to share the driver's seat with her, pushing the resentful Buck into the tonneau with Cherry.
Alix, in the months that she had not seen him, had had time to develop a certain generous sympathy for Martin, but as she took the car swiftly through the warm, sweet summer day, she began to realize afresh just how serious Cherry's problem was. It was not merely that Martin chewed a toothpick as he talked to her, and took out a pen-knife to trim a finger-nail; it was not that he was somewhat vain, stupid, and opinionated, for the minor social deficiencies might have been remedied in a larger nature by an affectionate word, and there were times, Alix felt, when the best of men are insistent upon perverse and perverted views, and unashamed or unconscious of their limitations. Martin had coarsened in the six years since they had first known him. There had been something unspoiled, vigorous, and fresh about him then that was gone now. Alix sensed that his associates in the mining towns in which he had lived had been men and women of a low type. The defiling influence had left its mark. Missing entertainment in his home, he had sought it elsewhere.
But besides these things Martin had a certain complacency, an assurance that would have been inexcusable even in great genius, a mental arrogance that nothing in his life in the least degree warranted. He made no slight effort to adapt himself to the atmosphere in which he found his wife and her sister, interested himself for not one moment in their concerns, put out no feelers toward the mood that might have made him an agreeable addition to their group. He conceded nothing; he was Martin Lloyd, mining engineer, philosopher, man of the world, and it was for them to listen to him, admire him, and praise and tease and flatter him in all he did. Humility and shyness were never a part of Martin's nature, but to-day he was galled by his talk with Cherry, and less inclined even than usual to abase himself.
"Does Peter let you drive the car on these mountain roads?" he demanded of Alix.
"Oh, yes, indeed. I love to run the car!" she said, with a swift, smiling glance.
"Well, you want to keep your eyes on the road," he warned her. "There's nothing worries me like having a lady at the wheel," he went on, good-naturedly, "that's the time I say my prayers!"
"Plenty of women running cars now, Martin!" Alix said, cheerfully, wishing that Martin didn't always and infallibly nettle her.
"But it's no business for a woman," he assured her, in a suddenly serious and confidential undertone. "No business for them! They haven't the strength, in the first place, and they haven't—well, they're too nervous, in the second. Mouse cross the road," said Martin, sucking in deep breaths as he lighted a cigar, "and—whee! Over she goes into a ditch. No," he said, kindly, "I'm a great friend of all the ladies, but I think they make a mistake when they think they're men."
"Only one accident in ten is with a woman driver," Alix argued.
"That may be true, too," Martin conceded, largely. She knew that he was drawing his words merely to cover any impression of being caught unprepared. "That may be true, too. But don't you believe that half the cases of women's accidents get into the courts," he added, knowingly. "You bet your life they don't! You bet your sweet life they don't. Oh, no—pretty girl smiles at the policeman—" He smoked a few seconds in triumphant silence. "Why, you knew that, didn't you?" he asked, in kindly patronage.
"I suppose so!" Alix said, briefly, after swallowing a more spirited answer with a gulp.
"Oh, sure!" Martin agreed, in great content.
They reached the valley, and Martin was magnanimous about the delayed lunch. Anything would do for him, he said, he was taking a couple of days' holiday, and everything went. Kow was chopping wood after lunch, and he sauntered out to the block with suggestions; Alix, laying a fire for the evening, simply because she liked to do that sort of work, was favoured with directions. Finally Martin pushed her aside.
"Here, let me do that," he said. "You'd have a fine fire here, at that rate!"
Later he went down to the old house with them, to spend there an hour that was trying to both women. It was almost in order now; Cherry had pleased her simple fancy in the matter of hangings and papering, and the effect was fresh and good. The kitchen smelled cleanly of white paint, and the other rooms wore almost their old, hospitable aspect.
"Girls going to rent this?" Martin asked.
"Unless you and Cherry come live here," Alix said, boldly. He smiled tolerantly.
"Why should we?"
"Well, why shouldn't you?"
"No, not loafing. But you could transfer your work to San Francisco, couldn't you?" Martin smiled a deep, wise, long- enduring smile.
"Oh, you'd get me a job, I suppose?" he asked. "I love the way you women try to run things," he added, "but I guess I'll paddle my own canoe for awhile longer!"
"There is no earthly reason why you shouldn't live here," Alix said, pleasantly.
"There is no earthly reason why we should!" Martin returned. He was annoyed by a suspicion that Alix and Cherry had arranged between them to make this plan the alternative to a divorce. "To tell you the honest truth, I don't like Mill Valley!"
Alix tasted despair. Small hope of preserving this particular relationship. He was, as Cherry had said, "impossible."
"Well, we must try to make you like Mill Valley better!" she said, with resolute good-nature. "Of course, it means a lot to Cherry and to me to be near each other!"
"That may be true, too," Martin agreed, taking the front seat again for the drive home. He told Cherry later that he liked Alix, and Alix was interested enough in keeping him happy to deliberately play upon his easily touched self-confidence. She humoured him, laughed at his jokes, asked him the questions that he was able to answer, and loved to answer.
She was surprised at Cherry's passivity and silence, but Cherry was wrapped in a sick and nervous dream, unable either to interpret the present or face the future with any courage. Before luncheon he had followed her into her room, and had put his arm about her. But she had quietly shaken him off, with the nervous murmur: "Please—no, don't kiss me, Martin!"
Stung, Martin had immediately dropped his arm, had shrugged his shoulders indifferently, and laughed scornfully. Now he remarked to Alix, with some bravado:
"You girls still sleeping out?"
"Oh, always—we all do!" Alix had answered, readily. "Peter has an extra bunk on his porch, Cherry and I have my porch. But you can be out or in, as you choose!"
Martin ventured an answer that made Cherry's eyes glint angrily, and brought a quick, embarrassed flush to Alix's face. Alix did not enjoy a certain type of joking, and she did not concede Martin even the ghost of a smile. He immediately sobered, and remarked that he himself liked to be indoors at night. His suitcase was accordingly taken into the pleasant little wood-smelling room next to Peter's, where the autumn sunlight, scented with the dry sweetness of mountain shrubs, was streaming.
He began to play solitaire, on the porch table, at five, and Kow had to disturb him to set it for dinner at seven. Alix was watering the garden, Cherry was dressing. It was an exquisite hour of long shadows and brilliant lights; bees from Alix's hives went to and fro, and the air was full and fragrant, as if a golden powder had been scattered through it.
Kow had put a tureen of soup on the table, and Alix had returned with damp, clean hands and trimly brushed hair, for supper, when Peter came up through the garden. Cherry had rambled off in the direction of the barn a few moments before, but Martin had followed her and brought her back, remarking that she had had no idea of the time, and was idly watching Antone milking. She slipped into her place after they were all eating, and hardly raised her eyes throughout the meal. If Alix addressed her she fluttered the white lids as if it were an absolute agony to look up; to Peter she did not speak at all. But to Martin she sent an occasional answer, and when the conversation lagged, as it was apt to do in this company, she nervously filled it with random remarks infinitely less reassuring than silence.
"How long do we stay here?" Martin cautiously asked his wife, when after dinner, Peter could be heard in the kitchen, interrogating Kow, and when the drip and splash of Alix's hose was sounding steadily from the other end of the garden.
"Stay here?" she echoed, at a loss.
"Yes," he answered, decidedly. "I can stand a little of it, but I don't think much of this sort of life! I thought maybe we could all go into town for dinner and the theatre to-morrow or Saturday. But on Monday we'll have to beat it."
"Monday!" Cherry's heart bounded.
"My idea was, you to come up with me," Martin continued, "we'll see the folks in Portland—"
"Martin, isn't it a mistake to go on pretending—" she began bitterly. But Peter's voice, in the drawing room, interrupted her. "I'll let you know—we'll talk about it!" she had time to say, hurriedly, before he came out to them. He flung himself into a chair. Martin at once opened a general conversation, in which Alix, still diligently watering, was presently near enough to take part.
The evening dragged. Alix had suggested bridge, but Martin did not play bridge. So she presently scattered anagrams over the table, reminding Peter of some of their battles with word-making in the long winter nights, and they had a half-hearted game, in which Martin showed no interest at all, and Peter deliberately missed chances to score.
Alix glanced furtively at her wrist-watch; it was twenty minutes of ten. As Martin flung himself into a chair beside the fire, and lighted one of his strong cigars, she went to the piano, and began to ramble through various songs, hoping that somebody would start to sing, or suggest a favourite, or in some way help to lighten the dreadful heaviness of the atmosphere.
Cherry and Peter, left at the table, did not speak to each other; Peter leaned back in his chair, with a cigarette; Cherry dreamily pushed to and fro the little wooden block letters.
But presently her heart gave a great plunge, and although she did not alter her different attitude, or raise her eyes, her white hand moved with directed impulse, and Peter's casual glance fell upon the word "Alone."
When he laid his finished cigarette in the tray, it was to finger the letters himself, in turn, and Cherry realized with a great thrill of relief that he was answering her. Carelessly, and obliterating one word before he began another, he formed the question: "My office to-morrow?"
"Martin always with me," Cherry spelled back. She did not glance at Peter, but at Martin, who was watching the fire, and at Alix, whose back was toward the room.
"Come on, have another game!" Peter asked, generally, while he spelled quickly: "Will arrange sailing first possible day."
Alix, humming along with her song, said: "Wait a few minutes!" and Martin glanced up to say, "No, I'm no good at that thing!"
Then Cherry and Peter were unobserved again, and she spelled "Mart goes Monday. Plans to take me."
Peter had reached for a magazine; he whirled through the pages, and yawned. Then he began to play with the anagrams again.
"Can you get away without him?" he spelled.
"How?" Cherry instantly asked. And as Peter's hands went on building a little bridge of wooden letters, she went on: "Alix to train, Martin with me to city, impossible."
"Give him the slip," Peter spelled. And after a pause he added, "Life or death."
"Difficult to evade," Cherry spelled, wiping the words away one by one.
"Must wait—" Peter began. Alix, ending her song on a crash of chords, came to the table, interrupting him. Cherry was now lazily reading a magazine; Peter had built a little pen of tiny blocks.
"I'll go you!" Alix said, with spirit. But the game was rather a languid one, nevertheless, and when it was over they gathered yawning about the mantel, ready to disperse for the night.
"And to-morrow night we dine in town and go to the Orpheum?" Alix asked, for the plan had been suggested at dinner-time.
"I'll blow you girls to any show you like," Martin offered. He took out his big watch—Cherry remembered just how smoothly this watch always seemed to slip in and out of his pocket—and smiled at them. "Ten o'clock," he grinned. "I'll set up awhile longer, and have a look at the evening papers."
"Well—" Peter conceded. Cherry was shocked by the sudden chill and sternness of his face. Immediately, remarking that he was tired, he went to his room. Cherry, with only a general good- night, also disappeared, to find Alix arranging beds and pillows on their sleeping porch.
"Oh, Alix—I'm so worried—I'm so sick with worry!" Cherry whispered. Alix, sitting still in the circle of light thrown from the reading lamp light, over her bed, nodded, with a stricken face. "He won't listen to me," said Cherry. "He won't hear of a divorce!"
"I know!" Alix said, distressedly.
"But what shall I do—I can't go with him!" Cherry protested.
Alix was silent.
"What shall I do?" Cherry pleaded again.
"Why, I don't see what else you CAN do, but go with him!" Alix said, in a troubled voice. "I should think that no man would want his wife, knowing that she didn't want to be with him! And I should think that to leave you here, with enough money to live on, and your own old home, would suit him better than to drag you—" She sighed. "But if it doesn't," she finished, "of course it doesn't alter your obligation, in a way. You ARE his wife. 'For better or worse, for richer or poorer, till death—-'"