It was said so kindly, with Alix's simple and embarrassed fashion of giving advice, that poor Cherry could not resent it. She could only bow her head desolately upon her knees, as she sat, child- fashion, in her bed, and cry.
"A nice mess I've made of my life!" she sobbed. "I've made a nice mess of it! I wish—oh, my God, how I wish I was dead!"
"My own life has been so darned easy," Alix mused, in a cautious undertone, sitting, fully dressed, on the side of her own bed, and studying her sister with pitying eyes. "I've often wondered if I could buck up and get through with it if some of that sort of thing had come to me! I don't know, of course, but it seems to me that I'd say: 'Who loses his life shall gain it!' and I'd stand anything—people and places I hated, loneliness and poverty—the whole bag of tricks! I think I would. I mean I'd read the Bible and Shakespere, and enjoy my meals, and have a garden—" Her voice sank. "I know it's terribly hard for you, Cherry!" she ended, suddenly pitiful.
Cherry had stopped crying, dried her eyes, and had reached resolutely for the book that was waiting on the little shelf above the porch bed.
"You're bigger than I am," she said, quietly. "Or else I'm so made that I suffer more! I wish I could face the music. But I can't do anything. Of course, just—just loathing some things about a man isn't valid cause for divorce, I know that. But I'd rather live with a man that drank, and stole, and beat me—I'd rather he should disgrace me before the whole world, and drag me to prison with him, than to feel as I feel! I would, Alix. I tell you—" Her voice was rising, but suddenly she interrupted herself, and spoke in a lifeless and apologetic tone: "I'm sorry," she said. "One knows of unhappy marriages, everywhere, without quite fancying just what a horrible tragedy an unhappy marriage is! Don't mind me, Alix. The Mill Valley Zeus will have an item in it this week that Mr. and Mrs. Martin Lloyd have gone to visit relatives in Portland, Oregon, and nobody'll know but what we're the happiest couple in the world—and perhaps we are!"
Alix laughed uncomfortably. She was conscious, as she went out to speak to Kow about breakfast, and to give a final glance at fires and lights, that this was one of the times when girls needed a wise mother, or a father, who could decide, blame, and advise.
Coming back from the kitchen, with a pitcher of hot water, she saw Martin, in a welter of evening papers, staring at the last pink ashes of the wood fire. Upon seeing her he got up, and with a cautious glance toward the bedroom doors he said:
"Look here a minute! Can they hear us?" Alix set down her pitcher of water, and came to stand beside him.
"Hear us—Peter and Cherry? No, Cherry's out on our porch, and Peter's porch is even farther away. Why?"
"Take a look, will you?" he said. "I want to speak to you!"
Alix, mystified, duly went to glance at Cherry, reading now in a little funnel of yellow light, and then crossed to enter Peter's room. His porch was dark, but she could see the outline of the tall figure lying across the bed.
"Asleep?" she asked.
"Nope!" he answered.
"Well, don't go to sleep without pulling a rug over you!" she commanded. "Good-night, Pete!"
"Good-night, old girl!" Something in the tone touched her, with a vague hint of unhappiness, but she did not stop to analyze it. She went back through his room, and through the little passage, and rejoined Martin. The freedom of Peter's apartment Alix had always taken as naturally as she did the freedom of her father's.
"Can't hear us, eh?" Martin asked, when again she stood beside him.
"Positively not!" she answered.
"Look here," he said, abruptly. "What brought me up here is this. Who's making love to Cherry?"
Indignant, and with rising colour, she stared at him.
"She's having a nice little quiet flirtation with somebody," Martin said, with a significant and warning smile. "Who is it?"
"I don't know who's been talking to you about Cherry, Martin," Alix said, sharply, "but you know you can't repeat that sort of rotten scandal to me!"
"I don't mean any harm—I don't mean any harm!" he assured her, with a quick attempt to quiet the storm he had raised. "Don't get mad—don't get mad! But I happen to know that there's some attraction that's keeping Cherry here, and I came up to look over the ground for myself, do you see?"
His look, which was almost a leer, seemed to imply that Alix was in the secret, a party to Cherry's foolishness, and did imply very distinctly that Martin felt himself to be more than a match for all their cunning. The woman was silent, looking straight into his eyes.
"Come on, now, put me on!" he said.
Alix made an effort at self-control.
"Martin, you're mistaken!" she said, quietly. "You have no right to listen to any one who tells you such things, and if it wasn't that you're Cherry's husband, I wouldn't listen to you! But you'll have to take my word for it that it's a lie. We three have lived up here without seeing any one-ANY ONE! Cherry has hardly spoken to a man, except Peter and Antone and Kow, since she came!"
"Who's this George Sewall?" he asked, shrewdly. "The lawyer! Oh, heavens, Martin! Why, George was a beau of mine; he's a widower of fifty, and has just announced his engagement to the trained nurse that took care of his boy!"
"H'm!" Martin commented.
"If any one mentioned Cherry's name in connection with George," Alix said, firmly, "that was a perfectly malicious slander—"
"Sewall's wasn't mentioned!" Martin said, hastily.
"Whose name WAS mentioned, then?" Alix pursued, hotly.
"Well, nobody's name was mentioned." Martin took a great many creased and rubbed papers from his vest pockets, and shifted them over. Finally, with a fat, deliberate hand he selected one, and put the others away.
"This is from my mother," he said. "My aunt, Mrs. North—"
"We saw her here, a week or two ago!" Alix said as he paused.
"Well, she was in Portland, and saw the folks," said Martin. "And my mother writes me this—" And after a few seconds of searching, he read from the letter: "Bessie North saw Cherry and Mrs. Joyce in Mill Valley, and if I was you I would not let Cherry stay away too long. A wife's place is with her husband, especially when she is as pretty as Cherry, and if Bessie is right, somebody else thinks she is pretty, too, and you know it doesn't take much to start people talking. It isn't like she had a couple of children to keep her busy. Why don't you bring her up here and leave her with Papa and me while you look over the Mexican proposition?"
"That's all of that," said Martin, folding the letter. He eyed Alix keenly. "Well, what do you think?" he asked, triumphantly.
"I think that's a mean, wicked thing to say!" she said, indignantly. "No, Martin," she said, silencing him, as he would have interrupted her, "I know she is beautiful and young, and I know—because she's told me—that you and she feel that your marriage is a mistake, but if you think—"
"Oh, she said that, did she?"
"Don't use that tone!" Alix commanded him quickly. "She didn't blame you or herself, except in that she didn't listen to my father, who thought she was too young to marry any one! But if you want to lose her, Martin," Alix said, with heat, "just let her suspect all this petty suspicion and scandal! Cherry's proud—"
"Now, look here," he said, with his air of assurance, "I'm proud, too. And if I don't choose to stand before the world as a divorced man—"
"Nobody's talking of divorce!" Alix hushed him. "But no woman would stand having other women spy and suspect—"
"How about this Sewall!" he muttered. "By George, she had SOMETHING on her mind when she met me to-day. She was fussed, all right, and it wasn't all the surprise of seeing me, either. First she wanted to telephone you—then she fussed over your message—"
"Cherry gets fluttered very easily!" Alix reminded him.
"Well, she was fussed all right this morning. She said not to mention it to Alix, because she had promised that it should go on time. I thought maybe she meant that you wanted her to go herself; no, she said, a note would do—"
"I don't know what you're talking about!" Alix said, puzzled.
"Your note!" Martin explained.
"What note! I didn't write any note. Cherry telephoned—"
"No," he said, patiently and perfunctorily, "you wanted—Cherry— to-say—good-bye—to—those—people—who—were—sailing! That was all. She wrote it; it got there in time, I guess. Anyway, I heard the girl say to rush it to the boat!"
"Oh!" Alix said. "Oh—" she added. Her tone betrayed nothing, but she was thoroughly at sea. "Did I ask Cherry to say good-bye to any one?" she asked herself, going back to the beginning of the long day. Instinct warned her that nothing would be gained by sharing her perplexity with Martin. "I give you my word that she hasn't been five minutes alone with any one but Peter and me!" she said, frankly, looking into Martin's eyes. "Now, are you satisfied?"
"Sure, I'm satisfied!" he answered. "She didn't go into town to lunch with any one?" he asked.
"No!" Alix said, scornfully. "She always lunches with us! You don't deserve her, to talk so about her, Martin!" she said.
"Well, I'm not anybody's fool, you know!" he assured her. "All right, I'll take your say-so for it. He yawned, "Trouble with Cherry is, she hasn't enough to do!" he finished, sapiently.
"I'm a poor person with whom to discuss Cherry!" Alix hinted, with an unsmiling nod for good-night.
And she looked at Cherry's corn-coloured head, ten minutes later, with a thrill of maternal protectiveness. Cherry was evidently asleep, buried deep under the blue army blankets. But Alix did not get to sleep that night.
She did not even undress. For it was while sitting on the side of her bed, ready to begin the process, that through her excited and indignant and whirling thoughts the first suspicion shot like a touch of flame.
"How dares Martin—how dares he!" her thoughts had run. And then suddenly she had said: "Why, she has seen no one but Peter—she has seen no one but Peter!
"I'll tell Peter all this when Martin has gone," Alix decided. "He'll be furious—he adores Cherry—he'll be furious—he thinks that there is no one like Cherry—"
The words she had said came back to her, and she said them again, half-aloud, with a look of pain and almost of fear suddenly coming into her eyes.
"Peter adores Cherry—"
And then she knew. Even while the sick suspicion formed itself, vague and menacing and horrible, in her heart, she knew the truth of it. And though for hours she was to weigh it and measure it, to remember and question and compare all the days and hours that she and Peter and Cherry had been together; from the moment the thought was born she knew that it was to be with her as an accepted fact for all time to come.
For a few seconds Alix felt ill, dazed, and shocked almost beyond enduring. She sat immovable, her eyes fixed, her body held rigid, as a body might be in the second before it fell after a bullet had cleanly pierced the heart.
Then she put her hand to her throat, and looked with a sort of terror at the silent figure of Cherry. Nobody must know—that was Alix's first clear thought. She was breathing hard, her breast rising and falling painfully, and the blood in her temples began to pound; her mouth was dry.
With a blind instinct for solitude she went quickly and silently from the sleeping porch, and into the warm sitting room. The lamps were all extinguished, but the fire was still burning, low and pink, where the hearts of the logs had fallen apart to show the flame.
For a few minutes Alix stood, with one foot on the chain that linked the old brass fire dogs, her elbow on the mantel, and her cheek resting against her arm.
"No," she whispered, almost audibly, "no—it can't be that! It can't be Cherry and Peter—Oh, my God! Oh, my God, it has been that, all the time, THAT, all the time—and I never knew it—I never dreamed it!"
The end of a log blazed up with a sudden bright flame, and in the light it cast about the quiet room Alix glanced nervously behind her. Silence and shadow held the place; the bedroom doors were shut. The fugitive red warmth picked out the backs of books—Alix knew them all, had browsed over those shabby rows during a hundred winter nights—touched the green shaded lamps, and the roses that were dropping their petals from the crystal bowl, and the polished legs of the old mahogany table.
Nothing moved, nothing stirred. Everything in the little mountain cabin was at rest except the woman who stood, with aching heart and feverish mind, resting her arm on the level of the low mantel, and staring with desolate eyes into the fading heart of the fire.
"It's Peter and Cherry! They have come to care for each other— they have come to care for each other," she said to herself, her thoughts rushing and tumbling in mad confusion as she tested and tried the new fear. "It must be so. But it CAN'T be so!" Alix interrupted herself in terror, "for what shall we do—what shall we do! Cherry in love with Peter. But Peter is my husband—he is MY husband—" And in a spasm of pain she shut her eyes, and flung her head as if suffocating. The beating of her heart frightened her. "I shall be sick if I go on this way!" she reminded herself. "And then they will know. They mustn't know. But Peter—" she whispered suddenly. "Peter, who has always been so good to me—so generous to me—and it was Cherry all the time! While we were up here, reading and talking, and—" her lips trembled, "—and cooking," she told herself, "he was thinking of Cherry—he was always thinking of Cherry! Even those years ago, when we used to tease him about the lady with the crinolines and ringlets, it was she. But why didn't he ask her instead of me?" wondered Alix, and with an aching head, and a frowning brow, she began to piece it all together.
The terrible truth rose triumphant from all her memories. Sometimes for a second hope would flood her with almost painful joy, but inevitably the truth shut down upon her again, and hope died, and she realized afresh that sorrow, stronger than before, was waiting to seize upon her again.
Sorrow and fear and pain, these wrestled with her spirit, that spirit that had never known them before. She had grieved for her father a few years ago; she would always miss him and need him— perhaps never more than to-night. But that was natural loss, softened by everything that love and loyalty and faith could give her, and this was a living anguish, which wrung and twisted her heart more terribly with every instant of its realization.
"Well—I can't stand it in here!" Alix said, suddenly. The walls, the peaceful room, seemed to smother and stifle her. She crossed to the door, and opened it, and slipped noiselessly out into the night, catching a coat from the rack as she passed.
The night was wrapped in an ocean fog, there was no moon and no stars, but the air was soft and warm. The garden was so black that Alix, familiar with every inch of it as she was, groped her way confusedly between the wet bushes and shrubs. Roses drenched her with fog and dew, a wall-flower springing erect as she passed by sent a wave of velvety perfume into her face.
When she gained the woods she made better progress, for under the great shafts of the redwoods there was little growth, and the ground was unencumbered and almost as smooth as a floor. With no goal in view, Alix climbed upward, walking rapidly, breathing hard, and frequently speaking aloud, as some poignant thought smote her, or standing still, too sick with pain, under an unexpected rush of emotion, to move.
Sometimes some small woodland animal scrambled noisily through the dry brush, in escape, and now and then an owl, perhaps a mile away, broke the silence with a mournful and muffled cry. Tiny squeaks and sleepy chirps from birds and chipmunks recognized the disturbance of a stranger's passage through the wood, and once the ugly snarling of wild-cats, always alert in the night, sounded suddenly near, and then died as suddenly away.
Of these things Alix heard nothing. In a trance of feverish dread she went on and on, trying to escape from the conviction that grew momentarily more and more clear.
"He would have told me about it—why didn't I let him!" ran Alix's thoughts. "I thought of some older woman, I don't know why— anyway, I didn't care so much then. But I care now! Peter, I care now! I can't give you up, even to Cherry. It is nonsense to talk of giving him up," Alix told herself, sitting down in the inky dark, on a log against which her wild walk had suddenly brought her, "for we are all married people, and we all love each other. But oh, I am so sorry! I am so sorry, Peter," she whispered, as if she were speaking to him. "You couldn't help it, I know that. She is so pretty and so sweet, Cherry—and she turns to you as if you were her big brother!"
She sat motionless, her hands clasped, and raised so that her cheek was pressed against them. For awhile she seemed to have no thoughts; she was merely vaguely aware that the hands she had plunged into the pockets of one of Peter's old coats were scented with tobacco now, and so reminded her of him. She pressed them hard against her face, as if to ease the pain of her forehead.
But the thoughts, exactly like a pain, began to creep back. With choking bitterness it was upon her again, and she got to her feet and went on.
"What am I thinking about—it's absurd! Can't people like each other, in this world, just because they happen to be married! Peter would be the first to laugh at me. And is it fair to Cherry even to think that she would—
"Oh, but it's true!" the honester impulse interrupted, mercilessly. "It is true. Whether it's right or wrong, or sensible or absurd, they DO love each other; that's what has changed them both."
And she began to remember a hundred—a thousand—trifles, that made it all hideously clear. Words, glances, moods subtler than either, came back to her. Cherry's confusion of late, when the question of her return to Martin was raised, her indifference to her inheritance, her restless talk during one hour of immediate departure, and during the next of an apparently termless visit; all these were significant now.
"I am desperately unhappy!" Cherry had said. And immediately after that, Alix recalled wretchedly, had come a brief and apparently aimless talk about Alix's rights, and her eagerness to share them with her sister.
Cherry had been in misery, of course. Alix knew her too well not to know with what suffering she would admit that the one desire of her heart was for something to which Alix had the higher, if not the stronger, claim.
"Poor Cherry!" the older sister said aloud, standing still for a moment, and pressing both hands over her hot eyes. "Poor little old Cherry—life hasn't been very kind to her! She and Peter must be so sorry and ashamed about this! And Dad would be so sorry; of all things he wanted most that Cherry should be happy! Perhaps," thought Alix, "he realized that she was that sort of a nature, she must love and be loved, or she cannot live! But why did he let her marry Martin, and why wasn't he here to keep me from marrying Peter? What a mess—mess—mess we've made of it all!"
As she used the term, she realized that Cherry had used it, too, this same evening, and fresh conviction was added to the great weight of conviction in her heart.
"She was thinking of that," Alix told herself, "and it has been in Peter's mind all these weeks. Oh, Peter—Peter—Peter!" she moaned, writhing as the cry escaped her. "Why couldn't it have been me, why couldn't it have been me! Why couldn't you have loved me that way? I know I am not so pretty as Cherry," Alix went on, resuming her restless walk, "and I know that those things don't seem to mean as much to me as to most women! But, Peter," she said softly, aloud, "no wife ever loved a man more than I love you, my dear!" She remembered some of his half-laughing, half-fretful reproaches, when he had told her that she loved him much as she loved Buck, and that, in these respects, she was no more than a healthy child. "I may be a child," said Alix, feeling that a dry flame was consuming her heart, "but a child can love! My dear—my dear—
"I wish I could cry," she said suddenly, finding herself sitting on a log where low oaks met the forest and the open meadows, and where they had often paused in mountain climbs to look far across the panorama of hills and valley below. "But now we must face this thing sensibly. What is to be done? They must not know that I know, and in some way we must get out of this tangle. Even if Peter were free, Cherry would not be free," she decided, "and so the only thing to do is to help them, until it dies away."
No suspicion of the truth stabbed her, although she remembered Martin and his strange tale of a message and wondered about it a little in her thoughts. To whom had Cherry been sending that telegram if not to Peter? And if to Peter, why had she not simply telephoned? Because she had known that Peter was not in his office, because she had been going to meet him somewhere. But where? Well, at the boat. Martin had heard her tell the boy that he must catch that boat.
Alix did not guess the truth. But she guessed enough to make her feel frightened and sick. She could not suppose that Cherry and Peter had planned to go away on that boat together, because at most her thoughts would have grasped the idea of one or two days' absence only, and they had given her no warning of that. But until this instant the thought of the passionate desire that enveloped them had not reached her; she had imagined Cherry's feeling for Peter to be something only a little stronger than her own.
Now she thought of Cherry's beauty, her fragrance and softness, the shine in her blue eyes and the light on her corn-coloured hair, and knew that life for them all, of late, had been mined with frightful danger.
"Cherry would be disgraced, and Martin—Martin would kill her, if he found her out! ... Oh, my little sister! She would be town talk; she is so reckless, she would do anything—she would be a public scandal, and the papers would have her pictures—Dad's little yellow-headed Charity! Oh, Dad," she said, looking up into the dark, "tell me what to do! I need you so! Won't you somehow tell me what to do!"
Silence and darkness. But even in the gloom Alix could tell that fog was lifting, and a sudden sweep of breeze, like a tired breath, went over the tops of the redwoods.
Steadily came the change. The darkness, by imperceptible degrees, lifted. The world grew gray as if with moonshine, trees and bushes began to stand out dimly from the mass of shadows. On the road below her Alix heard a wagon rattle, the mud-spattered wagon from the Portuguese dairy upon the ridge; and past her, leaving a dark wake of brushed dewdrops on the pearled grass, a cottontail fled silently.
She noted with surprise that she could see the grass now, although it had been invisible a few moments ago. She could see it, and presently its brownness showed, and the rich, solid green of the oaks lifted from the dull twilight that had enveloped the world.
"Light!" Alix whispered, awestruck And a few moments later she added, "Dawn!"
It was dawn indeed that was creeping into the valley, and as it brightened and deepened and warmed momentarily, Alix felt some of the peace and glory of it swelling in her tired heart. The sky grew pale, grew white, gradually turned to blue, and the little clouds drifting across it vanished, lost in a swimming vapour of pink and pearl.
Suddenly a first shaft of sunlight struck across the mountain ridge, and lay bright on the hilltop opposite, the fog that still clung to the peak of the mountain was steadily ascending into the brilliant air, dew sparkled, and the hoary, lichened limbs of the sprawling oaks glistened in the light. The sun came up, and Alix felt the blessed warmth against her chilled and cramped shoulders, and stretched her arms out to welcome the flood of brightness and new courage after the darkness and doubts of the night.
She was still sitting on the log, dreamily watching the expanding beauty of the new day, when there was a crashing in the underbrush behind her, and wild with joy, and with twigs and dried brown grasses on his wet coat, Buck came bounding out of the forest, and leaped upon her.
"Bucky!" she faltered, as he stood beside her, his quick tongue flashing ecstatically, close to her face, every splendid muscle of his body wriggling with eager affection. "Did you miss me, old fellow? Did you come to find me?"
She had not cried during the long vigil of the night, when a storm had raged in her heart, and had left her weak and sick with dread. But there was peace now, and Alix locked her arms about the dog's shoulders, and laid her face against his satiny head, and cried.
When Cherry came out to breakfast, a few hours later, she found Alix already at the porch table. Alix looked pale, but fresh and trim; she had evidently just tubbed, and she wore one of the plain, wide-striped ginghams that were extremely becoming to her rather boyish type.
She looked up, and nodded at Cherry composedly. Cherry always kissed her sister in the morning, but she did not to-day. She felt troubled and ashamed, and instinctively avoided the little caress.
"No men?" she asked, sharing her grapefruit with her mail.
"Peter had to go to San Rafael with Mr. Thomas in his car, to do something about the case," Alix explained. "I drove them down, and at the last minute Martin decided to go. So I marketed, and got the mail, and came back, and the understanding is that we are to meet them at the St. Francis for dinner, at six, and go to the Orpheum."
"Is it almost ten?" Cherry said sleepily, gazing in surprise at the clock that was visible through the open door. "I'm terribly ashamed! And when did you get up, and silently make your bed, and hang up your things?"
"Oh, early!" Alix answered, noncommittally. "I had a bath, and this is my second breakfast!"
Cherry, who was reading a letter, did not hear her. Now she made some inarticulate sound that made Alix look at her in quick concern.
"Cherry, what is it?" she exclaimed.
For answer Cherry tossed her the letter, written on a thick sheet of lavender paper, which diffused a strong odour of scent.
"Read that!" she said, briefly. And with a desperate air she dropped her head on the table, and knotted her hands high above it.
Fearfully, Alix picked up the perfumed sheet, and read, in a coarse and sprawling, yet unmistakably feminine handwriting, the following words:
DEAR MRS. LLOYD: Perhaps you would not feel so pleased with yourself if you knew the real reason why your husband left Red Creek? It was because of a quarrel he had with Hatty Woods.
If you don't believe it you had better ask him about some of the parties he had with Joe King's crowd, and where they were on the night of August 28th, and if he knows anybody named Hatty Woods, and see what he says. Ask him if he ever heard of Bopps' Hotel and when he was in Sacramento last. If he denies it, you can show him this letter.
There was no signature.
Alix, who had read it first with a bewildered and suspicious look, read it again, and flushed deeply at the sordid shame of it. She laid it down, and looked in stunned conviction at her sister.
Cherry, who was breathing hard, raised her head, rested her chin on her hands, elbows on the table, and stared at Alix defiantly.
"There!" she said, almost with triumph. "There! Now, is that so easy? Now, am I to just smile and agree and say 'Certainly, Martin,' 'Of course, Martin dear!' Now you see—now you see! Now, am I to bear THAT," she rushed on, her words suddenly violent. "And go on with him—as his wife—when a common woman like that—"
"Cherry, dear!" Alix said, distressedly.
"Ah, well, you can't realize it; nobody but the woman to whom it happens can!" Cherry interrupted her, covering her face with her hands. "But let him say what he pleases now," she added, passionately, "let him do what he pleases—I'll follow my own course from to-day on!"
Alix, watching her fearfully, was amazed at the change in her. Cherry's eyes were blazing, her cheeks pale. Her voice was dry and feverish, and there was a sort of frenzy in her manner that Alix had never seen before. To bring sunny little Cherry to this—to change the radiant, innocent child that had been Cherry into this bitter and disillusioned woman—Alix felt as if the whole world were going mad, and as if life would never be sane and serene again for any one of them.
"Cherry, do you believe it?" she asked.
Cherry, roused from a moment of brooding silence, shrugged her shoulders impatiently.
"Oh, of course I believe it!" she answered.
"But, darling, we don't even know who wrote it. We have only this woman's word for it—"
"Oh, LOOK at it—LOOK at it, Alix!" Cherry burst forth. "Do DECENT men have letters like that sent to their wives? Is it probable that a good man would do anything to rouse some busybody woman to write such a letter about him?"
"Well, but who is she, and what do you suppose she wrote it for?" Alix wondered.
"Oh, I don't know. She got mad at him, perhaps. Or perhaps she is a champion of this Woods woman. They had some quarrel—how do I know? But you can see that she is mad, and this is the way she gets even!"
"Cherry, at least do Martin the justice to ask him about it!" Alix pleaded, really frightened now.
Her sister seemed not to hear her. She stopped her angry pacing, and sat down at the table, and the misery in her beautiful eyes made Alix's heart sink.
"And that," Cherry said in a whisper, "is my husband!"
She paused, staring down at the table, one hand supporting her forehead, the other wandering idly among the breakfast things. Her look was sombre and far away. Alix, standing, watched her distressedly, through a long minute of silence.
"Well!" Cherry said lifelessly, looking up at her sister with dulled eyes. "What now? It's still 'for better or worse,' I suppose?"
Alix sat down, and for a moment covered her face with a tight- pressed hand. When she took it away, there was new serenity and resolution in her tired face.
"No," she said, with a great sigh, "I think perhaps you're right! He hasn't—he should have no claim on you now!"
"Alix," Cherry demanded, "would you forgive him?"
"Perhaps I wouldn't," Alix said, after thought.
"PERHAPS you wouldn't!" Cherry echoed, incredulously.
"Well, I'm not very good," Alix said, hesitatingly. "But a vow is a vow, you know. If it was limited, then my—my fulfillment of it would be limited, I suppose. Of course," she added, honestly, "I'm talking for myself only!"
"And you would quietly forgive and forget!" demanded the little sister, in bitter scorn.
"I say I HOPE I would!" Alix corrected her. "Even if this IS true"—she added, with a glance at the lavender letter—"still, I suppose the rule of forgiving seventy times seven times—"
Cherry interrupted her with a burst of bitter and rebellious weeping.
"Oh, my God, what shall I do!" she sobbed, with her bright head dropped on her arm. Alix saw Kow come to the door, look at them speculatively, and disappear, and thought in her shaken soul that things in a household were demoralized indeed when pretense before the servants was no longer maintained.
"Don't cry, Cherry, Cherry!" she said, her own tears brimming over. She came to kneel beside her sister, and they locked their arms about each other, and their wet cheeks touched. "Don't cry, dear!" she said, tenderly. "It'll all come straight, somehow, and we'll wonder why we took it so hard!"
"The thing that breaks—my—heart!" sobbed Cherry, clinging tight, "is that it is all my fault!"
"Oh, no; it's not, Cherry. You were too young. And it's only one of so many thousands of unhappy marriages!" Alix argued, soothingly. "Now listen to me, Sis," she began briskly, as soon as Cherry had somewhat regained her composure. "We'll ascertain about this letter; that's only fair. If Martin denies it—"
"Of course he'll deny it!" Cherry interrupted, from the bitter knowledge she had of him.
Alix again felt daunted for a second by the sheer ugliness and sordidness of the matter, but she returned to the charge bravely.
"Suppose we get Peter to ask him," she suggested suddenly. "Peter has a wonderful way of getting the truth out of people! Poor Cherry, the very mention of his name makes her wince," Alix thought, watching her sister sorrowfully. "If Martin can convince Peter that it is not true, then that makes all the difference in the world," she added, aloud. "Then you tell Martin frankly that you have the old house ready to live in, and you want to live there. He—"
"He'll never agree to that!" Cherry said, shaking her head. "But if this is true?" she asked, again indicating the letter.
"Then tell him that unless he agrees absolutely to a separation," Alix said, "that you will get a divorce!"
"And live here, alone, under that sort of a cloud?" Cherry said, with watering eyes. "Oh, well!" she said, rising, and going toward the door. "It's horrible—horrible—horrible—whatever I do! What is your idea—that we should dine, and go to the Orpheum tonight as if nothing had happened, and let all this wait until you can ask Peter to cross-examine Martin?"
"I wonder if Martin would tell ME?" Alix mused.
"He'd tell you sooner than Peter!" Cherry prophesied.
"Why couldn't I pretend that I opened that letter by mistake," Alix said, thoughtfully, "and frighten him into admitting it, if it's true!"
"You could," Cherry admitted, lifelessly. "But you may be sure it is true enough!" she added.
"Then leave it to me!" Alix said. "And don't feel too sad, Cherry. You're young, and life may take a turn that changes everything for you. You always have Peter—Peter and me, back of you!"
"Alix, you're the best sister a girl ever had!" Cherry said, passionately, putting her hand on Alix's shoulder. "I wish I were as big as you are! And he's made me so wretched," whispered Cherry, with trembling lips, "that sometimes I've been sick of life! But I will investigate this letter, and if it's not true, I'll try again, Alix! I'll go away with him, if he wants me to, or I'll live here—and study French—and go to lectures with you—"
"You darling!" Alix said, with an aching heart. And they smiled through tears as they kissed each other.
That night it was simply managed that Martin should be next to Alix, in the loge at the theatre, and she began to question him seriously at once. All through the strange, unnatural day that followed her night of vigil she had been planning what she should say to him, but she and Cherry had not spoken of the subject again. Cherry had dressed herself with her usual dainty care, and now, with the violets Alix had given her spraying in a great purple bunch at her breast, and her blue eyes ringed and thoughtful under her soft little feathered hat, she was so arrestingly lovely that Alix was well aware of the admiring glances from all sides to which she was so superbly indifferent.
"Martin," Alix began, "I read a letter intended for Cherry this morning. I—I open all the mail!"
She had to repeat it twice before he realized that there was something behind her earnest and significant tone. Then she saw him stop twisting his program, and veer about toward her. She murmured a question.
"Do I what?" he asked, in an undertone instantly lowered.
"Do you know a girl named Hatty Woods?" Alix repeated, cautiously.
All hope died when she saw his face. He shot her a quick, suspicious look, and his big mouth trembled with a scornful and contemptuous smile and he looked away indifferently. Then he faced her, on guard.
"What about her?" he asked, almost inaudibly.
"Somebody wrote this letter about her," Alix stated, quietly.
"Who wrote you about her? What'd she say?" he demanded quickly.
"Just—I'll let you see it," she said. "I don't know who wrote it- -it wasn't signed. Do you—do you know her? Do you know Hatty Woods?"
Martin smiled again, a superior yet ugly smile. It was the look of a man approached in his own realm, threatened in his infallible fastness.
"The less you have to do with girls like Hatty, the better!" he told her. "You've got plenty to do without mixing up with her!"
"She said—" Alix began. "The letter said—"
"Oh, sure, I know what she'd say!" Martin conceded, furious at Alix's interference, trembling with anger and resentment, and only anxious to close the conversation. "I know all about her and her kind. I think I know who wrote that letter, too. I guess Joe King's wife knows something about it. They're all alike! You give it to me to-morrow and I'll manage it. There won't be any more!"
"Martin," Alix whispered, gravely, "if you have given Cherry any cause—" Her voice fell, and there was a silence.
"There are a great many things in life that you don't understand, my dear sister-in-law," Martin said reluctantly, nettled, but still maintaining his air of lofty superiority, "a man's life is not a woman's—isn't intended to be! If this woman says she has anything on me—"
"She said that you went to a place called Bopps' Hotel in Sacramento—" Alix began, but he interrupted her.
"Oh, she did, did she?" he said, furiously, yet always in a cautious undertone. "Well, now, I'll tell you something! She's going to have a nice time proving that, and you can tell your sister—if this is a frame-up, that I'll fight Hatty Woods and fifty Hatty Woods! I—"
"Martin—for Heaven's sake!" Alix warned him, as she pressed her violets against her face.
"Well," he said, surlily, "now you know how I feel about it!"
"Martin," Alix pleaded, feeling that her last hope was sinking away from her, "can you deny her story?"
He was silent, while a beaming young Jewess in an outrageous gown took an encore for her song and dance. Then he turned again toward Alix with the smile she had learned to hate.
"You get Cherry to deny that she's never lost a chance to beat it away from home ever since she was married," he said. "You get her to deny that she has said over and over again that she never wanted children, that her marriage was a mistake! You ask her to show you the letters I've written her, asking her to come back, and then I'll show you the answers I got!"
"Mart," Alix said, sharply, "there's no use in your taking that tone with me! I'm simply sick over the whole affair. I would do anything in the world—I would put my hand in the fire to straighten it out!"
She paused, arrested by some sudden thought.
"I tell you I would put my hand in the fire to help," she said again, in quieter tones. "But taking that attitude will do no good! If this poor girl, this Hatty—"
"I tell you to leave Hatty OUT of it!" Martin said. "The best thing you can do is to let the whole thing alone!"
But she saw that he was both nervous and apprehensive, and she knew that the inference she and Cherry had drawn from the letter was a true one.
"Does Cherry know anything of this?" Martin presently muttered.
"Do you want her to?" Alix asked, pointedly.
He shrugged his shoulders with a great assumption of indifference.
"If she wants to have it all dragged to light, why, she can go ahead!" he remarked, carelessly. "I've left Red Creek, and—as I tell you!—that woman will never write another letter, for I know the way to shut her up, and I intend to do it. But if you and Cherry want the whole thing aired in public, why, go ahead! I'm not stopping you!"
"At least I think you ought to let Cherry lead her own life after this!" Alix countered with spirit.
"Live in your old house, eh?" he asked, resentfully, as he flipped the pages of his program with a big thumb and stared at it with unseeing eyes. "What does she want to live there for?"
"The fact remains that she DOES," Alix persisted.
"Yes, and have just as good a time as if she never had been married at all!" he said.
Alix was beginning the denial that she had given him so confidently last night, but she interrupted herself, and stopped short. The conviction rushed upon her in an overwhelming wave that she had no right to repeat that denial now that the last dreadful twenty-four hours had changed the whole situation, and that she herself had better reason to suspect Cherry than either Martin or his gossiping aunt. She sat sick and silent, unable to speak again, thinking only that it was Peter that Mrs. Lloyd had seen with Cherry that day, and that there must have been something in their attitude that revealed their secret even to her first casual look.
The vaudeville show whirled and crashed and rattled on its way. Martin applauded heartily but involuntarily; Alix applauded mechanically. Their conversation was closed.
Meanwhile, Cherry and Peter had their first opportunity to speak to each other alone. It occurred to neither of them that it was strange to find this chance in the rustling darkness of the big vaudeville house, with several thousand of persons pressing all about them. To both the thirst for speech was a burning necessity, and it was with an almost dizzy sense of relief that Cherry turned to him with her first words.
"Peter, I don't dare say much! Can you hear me?"
"Perfectly!" he answered, looking at his folded program.
"Peter, I've been thinking—about our plan, I mean! Martin plans to go on Monday. But something has happened since I saw you this morning, something that makes a difference! I had a letter, a letter from some woman connecting his name with another woman, a Hatty Woods—she's notorious in Red Creek—and this Joe King crowd that he went with—I don't know who wrote the letter, or why she wrote," she said, hastily, as Peter interpolated a question. "And I don't care! I haven't spoken to Martin about it. But I've been thinking about it all day. And of course it makes a difference to us—to you and me. As far as Martin goes, I am free now; what is justice to Martin, and kindness to Martin, will never count with me any more!"
Peter wasted no words. His face was thoughtful.
"He goes Monday," he said. "We can go Sunday."
"Does the boat sail Sunday?"
"I am sure of it. This is Thursday night. Your suitcase I checked again yesterday. Was it only yesterday?"
"We would have been on the train to-night, Cherry, flying toward New Orleans!"
Her small hand gripped his in the darkness.
"If we only were!" he heard her breathe.
He turned to her, so exquisite in her distress. Her breast was rising and falling quickly.
"Patience, sweetheart!" he said. "Patience for only a few days more! To-morrow I'll make the arrangements. Sunday is only two days off."
"Sunday will be day after day after to-morrow," she said whimsically.
"Is Sunday the best day?" he questioned, thoughtfully.
"Oh, much the best!" Cherry said, her whole face glowing suddenly. "You see, it's already arranged that I come in to the Olivers' Saturday night, and help them get ready for their tea on Sunday. Alix is to stay in the valley, and play the organ Sunday morning, and come in with Martin at ten."
"I suppose I'll have to come when they do!" he mused.
"But isn't there that breakfast at the club on Sunday?" Cherry asked.
"Porter's breakfast—yes. But I'm not going to that," Peter said, stupidly.
"Couldn't you say that you were?" she supplied, simply.
"Yes, by George!" he agreed, brightening. "That fixes me! But now how about you?"
"Why, I am at the Olivers'!" she reminded him. "All I have to do is walk out of the house at ten!"
Their eyes met in a wild rush of triumph and hope.
"This time we shall do it!" Peter said. "Your suitcase I'll have. You have money?"
"Martin thinks you go with him Monday, eh?"
"I hardly know what he thinks!" she answered, with a fluttered air. "I've hardly known what I was doing or saying! He was to go to-morrow, you know. But I told him that I wanted to get the whole house in perfect order, in case Alix should ever find a tenant. We've worked like beavers there!"
"I know you have!" He smiled down at her, Peter's kind and radiant smile. "After day after day after to-morrow," he said, "I shall see to it that you never work too hard again!"
"Oh, Peter—you'll never be sorry?" she whispered.
"Sorry! My dearest child, when you give your beauty and your youth to a man almost twice your age, who has loved you all your life— do you think there is much chance of it?"
"Why SHOULDN'T it be one of the happy—marriages?" said Cherry after a silence.
"It will," he answered, confidently. "My dearest girl, I know something of life and its disappointments and disillusionments! And I tell you that I know that every hour you and I have together is going to be more wonderful than the hour before! I tell you that as the weeks become months, and the months become years, and the beauty and miracle of it go on and on, we will think that what we feel for each other now is only the shadow—the dream!"
"But the beginning will be wonderful enough!" Cherry mused. "You and I, breakfasting together, walking together, talking together, always just we two! But, Peter," she said, suddenly, "one of us might die!"
"Ah, THAT," he conceded, soberly, "that! It's all I'm afraid of, now!"
"I am terribly afraid of it!" said Cherry, beginning to tremble. "If you should die now, before Sunday! I never thought of it before—"
"You mustn't think of it now, and I won't!" he said, quickly. "Why, we have only two days to wait—!"
"Only two!" she echoed, nervously. "I promised him to-night that I would write to his mother about our coming—"
"You talk as if you meant to go with Martin!" he said, smiling.
"I know I do, sometimes, and that's one of the things that worries me!" she answered, quickly. "So many things have happened, and I get so confused, thinking," she went on, "that I am all mixed most of the time! I arrange one thing as if I were going to do what Martin thinks I am—go with him to Portland, I mean—at another time I'll get into long talks with Alix of what divorces would mean, and all the time I am straining toward you—and escape from it all! It worries and frightens and puzzles me so," she confided, raising her lovely eyes to him, "that I am almost afraid to speak at all for fear of betraying myself!"
"Don't speak at all then!" he answered, smiling whimsically.
"Shall I just let him think I am quietly going away with him on Monday?" she asked, after a silence in which she was deeply thinking.
"Does he know you had that letter?" Peter said.
"No; Alix is going to speak to him about it." Cherry outlined the talk that she and her sister had had at breakfast.
"Then I shouldn't bring up the question at all," Peter decided, quickly. "It would only mean an ugly and unnecessary scene. If you were going to be here, it would be very different. Even then you might have to face a terrible publicity and unpleasantness. But as it is, it's much wiser to let him continue to think that you don't know anything about it, and to let Alix think that you are ignoring the whole thing!"
"Until Sunday!" she whispered.
"Until Sunday." Peter glanced at Martin and Alix, who were talking together absorbedly, in low tones. "My little sweetheart, I'll make all this misery up to you!" he whispered. Her little hand was locked in his for the rest of the evening.
The vaudeville performance ended, and they went out into the cool night, decided against a supper, found the car where Alix had parked it in a quiet side street, and made their way to the ferry, and so home under the dark low arch of a starless and moonless sky. Cherry shared the driver's seat with her sister to-night; they spoke occasionally on the long drive; everybody was weary and silent. Alix, racing between Sausalito's low hills and the dark, odorous marshes, wondered if in the packed theatre any other four hearts had borne the burden that these four were bearing.
The car flew on its way; the men, in the back seat, occasionally exchanged brief, indifferent remarks. Cherry, staring straight ahead of her, neither moved nor spoke, and Alix, at the wheel, watching the road and the lights keenly, and listening to the complicated breathing of the machinery, resumed again the endless chain of thought. Peter—Cherry—Martin—Dad—the few people with whom her life concerned wheeled in unceasing confusion through her brain, and always it was herself, Alix, who would have died for them, who must somehow find the solution.
Morning came, a crystal autumn morning, and life went on. Peter and Martin went away before Cherry came out to the porch, to find her breakfast waiting, and Alix, in striped blue linen, cutting food for the ducks. The peaceful day went by, and if there was any change at the cabin it was a change for the better. Alix, who had been silent and troubled for a little while, was more serene now, as usual concerned for the comfort of her household, and as usual busy all day long with her poultry and pigeons, her bee-keeping, stable, and dogs. Peter was his courteous, gentle, interested self, more like the old Peter, who had always been occupied with his music and his books, than like the passionately metamorphosed Peter who had been so changed by love for Cherry. Martin, satisfied with the general respects and consideration with which he found himself surrounded, accepted life placidly enough; perhaps he had been disturbed by the advent of the letter, perhaps he was willing to let the question of an adjustment between Cherry and himself rest. If she had been innocently indiscreet, he had also yielded to temptation, not so innocently, and although Martin was not a man to consider the question of morals between the sexes as evenly balanced, still he had winced very uncomfortably under Alix's cross-examination, and was not anxious to reopen the subject. "Let by-gones be by-gones!" Martin said to himself, contentedly, as he ate, slept, and smoked his endless cigars, chatted with Peter, followed Alix about the farmyard, and expressed an occasional opinion that was considerately received by the others. It amused him to help get the house ready for a tenant, and from the fact that Cherry talked no more of living there, and made no comment upon his frequent reference to their departure on Monday, he deduced that she had come to her senses.
Cherry, too, was less unhappy than she had been. By avoiding Peter, by refraining even in words and looks from the companionship for which she so hungered by devoting herself to Alix, she managed to hold her feelings tightly in leash. It cost her dear, for sometimes the thought of what she was about to do swept her with a feeling of agony and faintness hard to conceal, and the need for perpetual watchfulness was exhausting to body and spirit. But even though Alix found that the knowledge of the secret they shared without ever mentioning stood between them like a screen, the sisters, busy about the house, had wonderful hours together.
Saturday came, a perfect day that filled the little valley to the brim with golden sunshine. The mountain swam in a pale haze of gray-blue, the sky was soft, unclouded, faintly azure. In the forest about the old Strickland house not a breath of air stirred. Alix, driving alone to the mountain cabin, stared in the morning freshness at the blue overhead and said aloud, "Oh, what a day of gold!"
The dog, sitting beside her on the front seat, flapped his tail in answer to her voice, and she laughed at him. But the laugh was quickly followed by a sharp sigh.
"Saturday," she mused, "and Martin expects Cherry to go with him on Monday! Expects her to go back with him to a life of misery for her, existence with a man she hates! Oh, Cherry—my little sister!—there can be no happiness for you there! And Peter! Peter is left behind to me, who cannot comfort him, or still the ache that is tearing his heart! My two loved ones, and what can I do to help them!"
Driving slowly, on the noiseless pine-needles, she looked up at the great, brown shafts of the trees through which the roadway wound like a shelf. Streaks of sunlight filtered through them; the September air was soft and sweet. The forest was like an old friend to Alix, and the time she spent in it was always her quietest time. The tempered light, the air scented with piney sweetness, the delicate summer humming of tiny forest voices, the brief snap of twigs, and the rustling of tiny bodies in the underbrush, these made the world in which she was most at home.
"Oh, why can't we always be like children, just happy to be free!" she mused, as she left the forest and came in sight of the cabin. "How happy we used to be, playing in these woods and going home tired and hungry to Dad and supper! Buck," she said aloud, "a dog is happier than a man, and perhaps"—and Alix smiled her whimsical smile, as the car moved under the last oaks and was brought to a standstill close to the house—"perhaps a tree is the happiest of all!"
She had come up to the cabin to do the usual last little daily fussing among the ducks and chickens and to bring Peter, if Peter had not gone into town, back with her to Cherry's house. They had all dined in the old Strickland house the night before, and because of a sudden rainfall had decided to spend the night there, too. The Chinese boy who had been helping the sisters with their housecleaning had been persuaded to cook the dinner and get breakfast, and the evening about the old fireplace had been almost too poignantly sweet. Martin, who had been mixing cocktails, liked the role of host, and to the other three every inch of the house was full of happy memories, softened and saddened by all that had happened since the old days, by all that they knew and felt now, and accompanied by the softly dripping rain on the roof and eaves as by a plaintive obbligato.
But suddenly, at about ten o'clock, Peter had surprised them all by getting to his feet. He was going up to the cabin, he said— must go, in fact.
"In all the rain!" they had protested.
"In all the rain," he answered, shaking himself into his coat; he liked rain. He would rather walk, please, he told Alix, when she offered to drive him up in the car. Bewildered and a little apprehensive, she let him go. To Cherry, who seemed to feel suddenly sad and uneasy, Alix laughed about it, but she was secretly worried herself, and immediately after breakfast the next morning decided to run up to the cabin in the car and assure herself that everything was right there.
Cherry, who had not slept and who was pale, had come out to the car, her distracted manner increasing Alix's sense that something was gravely amiss. The sisters had loitered at the car a moment in the exquisite morning freshness.
"Remember the day the rose vine came down and you crawled through it?" Alix had asked, looking back at the house.
"Oh, don't!" Cherry had protested faintly.
"Why not?" her sister had asked, tenderly reproachful.
"Oh, because it makes me so sad to think how happy we were!" Cherry had answered, making an effort to speak lightly. "It's such a glorious morning," she had added, "I wish I were going to drive up with you."
"Why don't you?" Alix had said, eagerly.
"Oh—too much to do here!" Cherry had answered, vaguely. She had looked at her sister as if she would like to speak, smiled uncertainly, and had gone back to the house. Alix had started on her trip with a heavy heart, but the half-hour's run soothed her in spite of herself, and now she reached the cabin in a much more cheerful mood.
Peter was nowhere about, and as she plunged into the work of house and farmyard she supposed, without giving the matter a conscious thought, that he had gone to the city.
"Mis' Peter not go train," Kow announced, presently.
All Alix's vague suspicions awakened.
"Not go train?" she asked, with a premonitory pang.
Kow made a large gesture, as indicating affairs disorganized.
"Him no go to bed," he further stated.
Alix stopped the busy chopping that she was carrying on at the end of the kitchen table, and looked at the Chinese boy fearfully.
"Mr. Peter not go to bed?" she echoed with a sick heart.
"No sleep!" Kow announced, positively. And pleased with her tense interest, he added, "Boss come late. He walkin' on porch."
"He came in late and walked on the porch!" Alix echoed in a low tone, as if to herself. "And you say he didn't sleep, Kow?"
"Bed all same daytime," the boy said. And with the artless laugh of his race he added, "I go sleep."
"You slept, of course," Alix answered, absently. "Where Mr. Peter go now?" she asked. "He have some coffee?"
"No eat," the boy answered. He indicated the direction of the creek, and after a while Alix, with an icy heart, went to the bridge and the pool where Peter had first found Cherry only a few weeks ago.
He was standing, staring vaguely at the low and lisping stream, and Alix felt a great pang of pity when she saw him. He came to her smiling, but as Cherry had smiled, with a wan and ghastly face.
"Peter, you're not well?" Alix said. "I think—I am a little upset," he answered. They walked back to the house together. Alix ordered him to take a hot bath, and made him drink some coffee, when, refreshed and grateful, he came out to the porch half an hour later. They shared the little meal that was her luncheon and his breakfast.
"And now we've got to go down and get the others, for they're coming up here for dinner," Alix said. "Do you—do you feel up to tennis?" she asked, anxiously.
"Sure I do!" Peter answered with an effort.
"Don't have to, you know," she assured him, feeling a great desolation sweep her.
"Oh, I'd like it. It's a wonderful day," he answered, politely.
He followed her to the car and got in the front seat beside her.
"You're awfully good to me," he said, briefly, when they were going down the long grade.
Alix did not answer immediately, and he thought that she had not heard. She ran the big machine through the valley, where the dry, glaring heat of the day burned mercilessly, stopped at the post- office, and still in silence began the climb toward the old house. The roads were all narrow here, but she could have followed them in the dark, he knew, and he understood that it was not her driving that made her face so thoughtful and kept her eyes from meeting his.
On one side of the shelf-like mountain road rose the sharp hillside, clothed in close-packed, straight-rising redwoods; on the other the ground fell away so precipitously to the tiny thread of creek below that they looked down upon the water through the top branches of the trees. Years ago, when he had first entrusted her with the car, Peter had been somewhat concerned for Alix's safely, but now he was secretly proud of her sureness of touch and of the generosity and self-confidence that prompted her to give the inner right of way to every lumbering express van or surrey that she met, and risk the more dangerous passing herself.
"You say I'm good to you, Pete," she surprised him by saying suddenly. "I hope I am. For you've been very good to me, my dear. There's only one thing in life now that I haven't got, and want. And that, you can't, unfortunately, get for me."
He had flushed darkly, and he spoke with a little effort.
"I'd like to try!"
She ignored the invitation for a few minutes, and for an instant of panic he thought he saw her lip tremble. But when she turned to him, it was with her usual smile.
"It's only that I would like to have you—and—and Martin—and Cherry, as happy as I am!" she said, quickly. And a second later the mood was gone as she turned the car in at the home gate and exclaimed, "There's Cherry now!"
There was Cherry; Peter's heart gave a leap at the sight of her. Just a woman's slender figure, half obscured by blowing lines of fresh, dry linen, just white arms, where the snowy frill of her gown fell back, and blue eyes under bright, loose, corn-coloured hair, but Peter could see nothing else in all the world.
"Martin's somewhere about," Cherry said, as Peter joined her, and Alix stopped the car within conversational range. "I was passing these, and I thought I'd help the boy get his clothes in."
"Here, let me do that," Peter exclaimed. Alix remarking that she would turn the car so that she might later start on the grade, disappeared, and the two were alone with their arms full of the stiff and fragrant cleanness of the linen in the sweetness of the afternoon.
"Just—just fold them roughly," stammered Cherry, hardly conscious of what she was saying, "and put them in the basket—"
Peter did not hear the words. But he heard the wonderful voice; he saw the red sweetness of the mouth, saw the quick glances of the averted eyes, the white neck with its film of gold hair blowing across it.
He murmured something inarticulate in reply, trying to control the great wave of happiness and emotion that rose over him. They were together again, after what a night—and what a day!—and that was all that mattered. They spoke confusedly, in brief monosyllables, and were silent, their hands touching on the line, their eyes meeting only furtively and briefly.
"Can you walk up to the cabin with me?" Peter asked. "I want so much to speak to you. Everything's all arranged for tomorrow. I've got tickets and reservations. Your suitcase is checked in the Oakland ferry waiting-room. All you have to think of is yourself. Now, in case of missing the boat again—which isn't conceivable, but we must be ready for anything!—I shall go straight to the club. You must telephone me there. Just go off to-night quietly, get as much sleep as you can, and keep your wits about you."
"Tell me our plans again," Cherry faltered.
"It's perfectly simple," he said, giving her anxious face a concerned glance. "You are going to the Olivers'. I go in, in the morning, presumably for the Porter breakfast, but really to get your suitcase and my own and get to the boat. I shall be there at half-past ten. You get there well before eleven—you won't see me. But go straight on board, and ask for Mrs. Joyce's cabin. Wait for me there!"
"But—but suppose you don't come!"
"I'll be there before you. It is better for us not to meet upstairs. But to be sure, I'll telephone you at Minna Oliver's at about nine o'clock tomorrow morning. I'll just tell you that I'm on my way and that everything is all right! Have you your heavy coat?"
"I will have," she answered. "I've not got much in the suitcase," she added with an enchanting flush.
"You shall buy more in New Orleans on Tuesday," he promised her. "I've made no plans beyond that."
"A hat?" Cherry asked, with uplifted, silky lashes giving a childish look to her blue eyes.
Peter, tightening his fingers on hers, gave a great, joyous laugh of utter surprise and adoration, as, leaning toward her, he caught her bashful murmur.
"You need that?" he whispered.
"Well—MOST" she answered, seriously.
"Do you realize," he asked, "that you are the most delicious child that ever lived?"
"No, I don't know that," she said, drooping her head, suddenly self-conscious.
"Do you realize that by this time tomorrow we shall be out at sea," he added, "leaning on the rail—watching the Pacific race by—and belonging to each other forever and ever?"
The picture flooded her face with happy colour. "It's tomorrow at last!" she said, wonderingly, as they walked slowly toward the house. "I thought it would never be. It's only a few hours more now."
"How will you feel when it's TO-DAY?" he asked.
"Oh, Peter, I shall be so glad when it's all over, and when the letters are written, and when we've been together for a year," she answered, fervently. "I know it will be all as we have planned, but—but if it were over!"
They had reached the side door now, and were mounting the three steps together.
"Be patient until tomorrow," he whispered.
"Oh," she said softly, "I shan't breathe until tomorrow."
Leaning across her to push back the light screen door, he found himself face to face with Alix. In the dark entryway Peter and Cherry had not seen her, had not heard her move. Peter cursed his carelessness; he could not remember, in the utter confusion of the moment, just what he and Cherry had said, but if it was of a betraying nature, they had betrayed themselves. One chance in a hundred that she had not heard!
Yet, if she was acting, she was acting superbly. Cherry had turned scarlet and had given him an open glance of consternation, but Alix did not seem to see it. She addressed Peter, but when he found himself physically unable to answer, she continued the conversation with no apparent consciousness of his stumbling effort to appear natural.
"There you are! Are we going to have any tennis? It's after two o'clock now."
"Two seventeen," Martin said, following her out of the house and slipping his big watch back into his pocket. They all gathered in one of the reclaimed garden paths, assuming a deep interest in the time.
"I had no idea it was so late," Peter said.
"I knew it was getting on," Cherry added, utterly at random.
"Go in and tell the boy we won't be back until tomorrow," Martin suggested to his wife. "Unless you told him, Alix?" he added, turning toward her.
"I beg your pardon?" Her face was very pale, and she started as if from deep thought as she spoke.
"You could all come down here to sleep," Cherry said, "and have breakfast here!"
"I have to go into town rather early tomorrow," Peter remarked. "Porter's giving a breakfast at the Bohemian Club."
"Why not walk up to the cabin?" Cherry suggested in a shaking voice.
"I have to take the car up. You three walk! Come on, anybody who wants to ride!" Alix said.
"They can walk," Martin said, getting into the front seat. "Me for the little old bus!"
Cherry came out of the house with her hat on, and Buck leaped before her into the back seat. Alix watched her as she stepped up on the running board, and saw the colour flicker in her beautiful face.
"I thought you were going to walk?" Peter said, nervously. He had sauntered up to them with an air of indifference.
"Shall I?" faltered Cherry. She looked at Alix, who had not yet climbed into the car and was pulling on her driving gloves. Alix, toward whose face the dog was making eager springs, did not appear interested, so Cherry turned to Martin. "Walk with us, Mart?" she said.
"Nix," Martin said, comfortably, not stirring.
"I'll be home before you, Pete, and wait for you," Alix said. She looked at him irresolutely, as if she would have added more, but evidently decided against it and spoke again only in reference to the dog. "Keep Buck with you, will you, Pete?" she said. "He's getting too lazy. No, sir!" she reproached the animal affectionately. "You shall not ride! Well, the dear old Bucky-boy, does he want to come along?"
And she knelt down and put her arms about the animal, and laid her brown cheek against his head.
"You old fool!" she said, shaking him gently to and fro. "You've got to stay with Peter. Old Buck—!" Suddenly she was on her feet and had sprung into her place.
"Hold him, Pete!" she said. "Goodbye, Sis dear! All right, Martin?"
The engine raced; the car slipped smoothly into gear and vanished. Peter and Cherry stood looking at each other.
"Give them a good start, or Buck will catch them," Peter said, his body swaying with the frantic jumping of the straining dog. But to himself he said, with a sense of shock: "Alix knows!"
Buck was off like a rocket when he finally set him free; his feathery tail disappeared between the columns of the redwoods. Without speaking, Cherry and Peter started after him.
"And now that we are alone together," Cherry said, after a few minutes, "there seems to be nothing to say! We've said it all."
"Nothing to say!" Peter echoed. "Alix knows," he said in his heart.
"Whatever we do, it all seems so—wrong!" Cherry said with watering eyes.
"Whatever we do is wrong," he agreed, soberly.
"But we go?" she said on a fluttering breath.
"We MUST go!" Peter answered. And again, like the ominous fall of a heavy bell-tongue, the words formed in his heart: "Alix knows. Alix knows."
He thought of the afternoon, only a few weeks ago, when Cherry's beauty had made so sudden and so irresistible an appeal to him, and of the innocent delight of their luncheons together, when she had first confided in him, and of the days of secret and intense joy that her mere nearness and the knowledge that he would see her had afforded him. It had all seemed so fresh, so natural, so entirely their own affair, until the tragic day of Martin's reappearance and the hour of agonized waiting at the boat for the Cherry who did not come. There had been no joyous self-confidence in that hour, none in the distressed hour at the Orpheum, and the hour just past, when Cherry's rarely displayed passion had wrenched from him his last vestige of doubt.
But this was the culminating unhappiness, that he should know, from Alix's brave and gentle and generous look as they parted, that Alix knew. He had, in the wild rush and hurry of his thoughts, no time now to analyze what their love must mean to her, but it hurt him to see on her happy face those lines of sternness and gravity, to see her bright and honest eyes shadowed with that new look of pain.
It was too late now to undo it; he and Cherry must carry their desperate plan to a conclusion now, must disappear—and forget. They had tried, all this last dreadful week, they had both tried, to extinguish the flames, and they had failed. But to Peter there was no comforting thought anywhere. Wrong would be done to Martin, to Alix, to Cherry—and more than even these, wrong to himself, to the ideal of himself that had been his for so many years, to the real Peter Joyce.
"If I had it all to do over again, I should not come here," Cherry began, breathlessly.
"Ah, if we had it all to do over again!" Looking back half a dozen years, how simple it all seemed! How uncomplicated life was, in those old days when the doctor and his girls had teased him, and consulted him, and made him one of themselves. "What a web, Cherry!" he said, sadly. "If Anne hadn't made her claim, you would not have been kept here all these weeks; if the financial question hadn't been raised, you must have stayed in Red Creek, simply because you couldn't well have done anything else."
"And if I had been with Martin, this horrible business of that girl's letter wouldn't have happened," she added, bravely. "Oh, yes—that's quite true!" she interrupted him, as he interpolated a bitter protest. "Mart has no particular principle about it, but he never would have got in with that crowd if I had been there. So that once more," she ended, sadly, "I can say that I have made a mess of things. Listen, that's Buck!" she interrupted herself, as the dog's loud and violent barking reached them from beyond a turn in the twisting road. "He didn't catch them, then."
The next instant a woman came up the road, running, and making a queer, whimpering noise that Cherry never forgot. She was a stranger to them, but she ran toward them, making the odd, gasping noise with much dry mouthing, and with wild eyes.
Horror was in her aspect, and horror was the emotion that the first glimpse of her awakened vaguely in their hearts, but as she saw them she suddenly found voice for so hideous a scream that Cherry's knees failed her, and Peter sprang forward with a shout.
He gripped the woman's arm, and her frantic eyes were turned to him.
"Oh, my God!" she cried in a hoarse, cawing voice. "My God! They're over the bank—they're over the bank!"
"Who?" Peter shouted, his heart turning to ashes.
"Oh, the car—the automobile!" the woman mouthed. "Oh, my God—I saw it go! I saw it fall! Oh, God, save them-oh, God, take them, don't let them suffer that way!"
They were all running now, running with desperate speed down the long road, about the curves, on and on toward the frantic noise of the dog's barking, and toward another noise, the sound of a human voice twisted and wild with agony.
The strange woman was crying out wildly; Cherry was sobbing a prayer. Peter, without knowing that he spoke at all, was repeating over and over again the words: "Not Alix-my God!—it cannot be— she has never had an accident before-not Alix!"
A last curve, and they knew. Over one of the sharpest and ugliest of the descending precipices, crashing down through the saplings and underbrush and striking the trunks of a score of trees on its way, the heavy car had fallen like a boulder. And Peter saw that it was Alix's car, and with a great cry he sprang over the bank and, slipping and stumbling, followed its mad course down almost to the dry creek-bed in the canyon, and fell on his knees beside the huddled figure that, erect and strong, in its striped blue gingham, had been Alix only a few short minutes ago.
She had been flung clear of the car, and although almost every bone in her body was broken, by some miracle the face, except for a deep cut where the brown hair met the tanned forehead, was untouched. And as he caught her in his arms and bent over her with the bitterness of death stopping his own heart, a soft, thick braid loosened and fell like the touch of her hand upon his own, and it seemed to him that in the tranquil face and in the very look of the closed and fast-shadowing eyelids he caught a glimpse of Alix's old smile.
Peter forgot everything else in the world. He held her close to him and put his face against her face, and perhaps she had never so truly been his own as in this moment of their parting, when the quiet autumn woodland, shot with long shafts from the sinking sun, rang with his bitter cry:
"No, Alix—not dead! My wife—my wife!"
There were other men and women gathering fast now, and the whole little valley was beginning to ring with the tragedy. After a while some sympathetic man touched Peter on the arm to say that Mrs. Lloyd had fainted, and that if he would please tell them what to do about the other man—he was not yet dead—
Peter roused himself, and with help from half a dozen hands on all sides he carried Alix up to the road and laid her upon a motor robe that some kindly spectator had spread in the deep dust. AH about he heard the quick, horrified breathing and muttering of the shocked and sympathetic neighbours who had gathered, but to him there was a brassy light in the world and a hideous taste of inky bitterness in the very air he breathed, and he recognized nobody.
Presently he was conscious that a small, slight woman with disorderly fair hair and with her face streaked with dust and tears was standing beside him, and looking down at her, he saw that it was Cherry.
"Yes, Cherry?" he said, moistening his dry lips.
"Peter," she said, "they say Martin's living—he was screaming—" She grew deathly pale, and faintness swept over her, but she mastered it. "He was caught by that tree," she said. "And he is living. Will you tell them—tell one of these men—that if he will help me, we can drive him home. If you'll tell him that, then I'll get a doctor—"
"Yes, I will," Peter said, not stirring. His eyes had the look of a sleep-walker; he nodded slowly and gravely at her, like a very old man. "You—" he said to a man who had stopped his car near by and who was pressing sympathetically close. "Will you—?"
"If you'll sit in the back seat, dear, and just rest his poor head," a woman said to Cherry. Peter saw that they were lifting Martin's big, senseless form in tender hands and carrying it through the little group. There was a shudder as Martin moaned deeply. Peter went and sat on the low bank by Alix again, and lifted one of her limp hands, and held it. Ah, if in God's mercy and goodness she might moan, he thought, that one slight ray of hope would flood all the world with light for him again! But she did not stir.
"Gone?" said Cherry's heartrending voice, a mere whisper, beside him.
He turned upon her lifeless eyes.
"Gone," he echoed.
"Oh, Alix—my darling! My own big sister!"
Cherry sobbed, falling to her knees and passionately kissing the peaceful face. "Oh, Alix, dearest!"
The women about broke into tears. Peter pressed his hand close against his aching eyeballs, wishing that he might cry.
"She drove here," he heard a man's voice saying in the silence, "and she must have lost control of her car for a minute. Then—do you see?—the wheel slipped on the bank. Once it got this far, no power in God's earth—"
"No power in God's earth!" another man's voice said in solemn confirmation.
"Peter," Cherry said, "will you come to me as soon as you can? I shall need you."
"As soon as I can," he answered, absently.
The car drove away, and he heard Martin moan again as it moved.
"Joyce," said a man's kind voice close beside him. He recognized the voice rather than the distressed face of an old friend and neighbour. "Joyce, my dear fellow," he urged, affectionately, "tell us what we may do, and we'll see to it. Pull yourself together, my dear old chap. Now, shall I telephone for an—an ambulance? You must help us just a little here, and then we'll spare you everything else."
"Thank you, Fred," Peter answered after a moment, during which he looked seriously and studiously at his friend, as if ascertaining through unseen mists and barriers the identity of the speaker. "Thank you," he said. "Will you help me take—my wife—home?"
"You wish it that way?" the other man said, anxiously.
"Please," Peter answered, simply. And instantly there was moving and clearing in the crowd, a murmuring of whispered directions.
After a while they were at the mountain cabin, and Kow, with tears running down his yellow face, was helping them. Then Peter and his friend were walking up over the familiar trails, he hardly knew where, in the late twilight, and then they went into the old living room, and Alix was lying there, splendid, sweet, untouched, with her brave, brown forehead shadowed softly by her brown hair, and her lashes resting upon her cheeks, and her fingers clasped about the stems of three great, creamy roses.
There were other flowers all about, and there were women in the room. White draperies fell with sweeping lines from the merciful veiling of the crushed figure, and Alix might have been only asleep, and dreaming some heroic dream that lent that secret pride and joy to her mouth and filled those closed eyes with a triumph they had never known in life.
Peter stood and looked down at her, and the men and women drew back. But although the muscles of his mouth twitched, he did not weep. He looked long at her, while an utter silence filled the room, and while twilight deepened into dark over the cabin and over the mountain above it.
Something cold touched his hand, and he heard the dog whimper. Without turning his head or moving his eyes from Alix's face, he pressed his fingers on the silky head; his breast rose on one agonized breath, but he controlled it. Buck was as still as his master, sensing, in unfailing dog-fashion, that something was wrong.
"So that was your way out, Alix?" Peter said in the depth of his soul. "That was your solution for us all? You would go out of life, away from the sunshine and the trees and the hills that you loved, so that Cherry and I should be saved? I was blind not to see it. I have been blind from the very beginning."
Silence. The room was filling with shadows. On the mantel was a deep bowl of roses that he remembered watching her cut—was it yesterday or centuries ago?
"I was wrong," he said. "But I think you would be sorry to have me face—what I am facing now. You were always so forgiving, Alix; you would be the first to be sorry."
He put his hand over the tigerish pain that was beginning to reach his heart. His throat felt thick and choked, and still he did not cry.
"An hour ago," he said, "if it had been that the least thought of what this meant to you might have reached me an hour ago, it would not have been too late. Alix, one look into your eyes an hour ago might have saved us all! Fred," Peter said aloud, with a bitter groan, clinching tight the hands of the old friend who had crept in to stand beside him "Fred, she was here, in all her health and joy and strength only today. And now—"
"I know—old man—" the other man muttered. He looked anxiously at Peter's terrible face. In the silence the dog whimpered faintly. But when Peter, after an endless five minutes, turned away, it was to speak to his friend in an almost normal voice.
"I must go down and see Cherry, Fred. She took her husband to the old house; they were living there."
"Helen will stay here," the man assured him, quickly. "I'll drive you down and come back here. We thought perhaps a few of us could come here to-morrow afternoon, Peter," he added timidly, with his reddened eyes filling again, "and talk of her a little, and pray for her a little, and then take her to—to rest beside the old doctor—"
"I hadn't thought about that," Peter answered, still with the air of finding it hard to link words to thought. "But that is the way she would like it. Thank you—and thank Helen for me—"
"Oh, Peter, to do anything—" the woman faltered. "She came to us, you know, when the baby was so ill—day after day—my own sister couldn't have been more to us!"
"Did she?" Peter asked, staring at the speaker steadily. "That was like her."
He went out of the house and got into a waiting car, and they drove down the mountain. Alix had driven him over this road day before yesterday—yesterday—no, it was today, he remembered.
"Thank God I don't feel it yet as I shall feel it, Thompson!" he said, quietly. The man who was driving gave him an anxious glance.
"You must take each day as it comes," he answered, simply.
Peter nodded, folded his arms across his chest, and stared into the early dark. There was no other way to go than past the very spot where the horror had occurred, but Thompson told his wife later that poor Joyce had not seemed to know it when they passed it. Nor did he give any evidence of emotion when they reached the old Strickland house and entered the old hallway where Cherry had come flying in, a few short years ago, with Martin's first kiss upon her lips.
Two doctors, summoned from San Francisco, were here, and two nurses. Martin had been laid upon a hastily moved bed in the old study, to be spared the narrow stairs. The room was metamorphosed, the whole house moved about it as about a pivot, and there was no thought but for the man who lay, sometimes moaning and sometimes ominously still, waiting for death.
"He cannot live!" whispered Cherry, ghastly of face, and with the utter chaos of her soul and brain expressed by her tumbled frock and the carelessly pushed back and knotted masses of her hair. "His arm is broken, Peter, and his leg crushed—they don't dare touch him! And the surgeon says the spine, too—and you see his head! Oh, God! it is so terrible," she said in agony, through shut teeth, knotting her hands together, "it is too terrible that he is breathing NOW, that life is there NOW, and that they cannot hold it!"
She led Peter into the sitting room, where the doctors were waiting. The nurses came and went; the lamps had been lighted. Both the physicians rose as Peter came in, and he knew that they had been told that this was the man whose wife had been killed that day. Their manner expressed the sympathy they did not voice. Peter sat down with them.
"Is there any hope?" he asked, when Cherry had gone away on one of the restless, unnecessary journeys with which she was filling the endless hours. One man shook his head, and in the silence they heard Martin groan.