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Sisters
by Kathleen Norris
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"It is possible he may weather it, of course," the older man said, doubtfully. "He is coming out of that first stupor, and we may be able to tell better in a short time. The fact that he is living at all indicates a tremendous vitality."

Thoughtfully and gravely they exchanged technical phrases. Cherry's Chinese boy brought in a tray, and both the other men ate and drank. Peter nodded a negative without a change of expression, but presently he roused himself to replenish the fire. The clock ticked and ticked in the stillness.

Cherry came to the door to say "Doctor!" on a burst of tears. The physicians departed at once to the study, and Peter was immediately summoned to assist them in handling the big frame of the patient. Martin was thoroughly conscious now; his face chalk white. Cherry, agonized, knelt beside the bed, her frightened eyes moving from face to face.

There was a brief consultation, then Cherry and Peter were banished.

"Don't worry, dear," said one of the nurses, coming out of the sick-room. "It's just that Doctor Henry thinks he would be more comfortable if we could get the arm and leg set! You see, now that he's conscious and is running just a little temperature—"

"Much fever?" Cherry asked, sharply.

"Oh, nothing at all, dear!" the nurse hastened to say. "The only thing is, that setting the arm and leg will ease the pain and save his strength." She bustled off for basins, bandages, and hot water. In the silence Martin's groans occasionally broke.

Cherry, her eyes on the study door, stood biting her fingers in frenzy. When from the sound of Martin's voice she realized that he was being hurt, she looked at Peter in agony.

"Oh, why do they do that—why do they do that? Torturing him for nothing!" he heard her whisper. "Go in and—go in and do something!" she urged, incoherently.

But the sounds had stopped, and there was a blessed interval of silence. The clock on the mantel sounded eight in swift, silvery strokes, and presently a sympathetic nurse came silently in with a tray holding two cups of hot soup. Cherry shut her eyes and shook her head.

"Please, Cherry—you need it!" Peter pleaded, carrying her a smoking cup. She protested again with a gesture, looked wearily into his eyes, and drank the soup docilely, like a child.

"You, too, Peter!" she said, suddenly rousing herself. Peter gulped down his own cupful, waved away the sandwiches that were on the tray, and took the chair opposite the one in which Cherry was sitting.

The clock presently struck the half-hour, but neither spoke. Cherry's pallor, her air of fatigue and bewilderment, and the familiar setting of the old environment made her seem a child again. Peter watched her with a confused sense that the whole frightful day had been a dream. Once she looked up and met his eyes.

"He can't live," she said in a whisper.

"Perhaps not," Peter answered very low. Cherry returned to her sombre musing.

"We didn't see this end to it, did we?" she said with a pitiful smile after a long while.

"Oh, no—NO!" Peter said, shutting his eyes, and with a faint, negative movement of his head.

"We wouldn't have had this happen—" Cherry began. Her lips trembled, her whole face wrinkled, and she put her hand across her eyes and pressed it there with a gesture of forlornness and sorrow that wrenched Peter's heart. Her tears began to fall fast.

"Poor Cherry—if I could spare you all this!" he said, knotting his fingers and feeling for the first time the prick of bitter tears against his eyelids.

"Oh, there is nothing you can do," she said faintly and wearily after a while. And she whispered, as if to herself, "Nothing— nothing—nothing!"

Then there was silence again. The lamps burned softly; the fire sucked and flickered; a chilling air, full of autumn sadness, began to creep from the corners of the room. Peter's eyes moved over the backs of the old books, Dickens and Thackeray and the "Household Book of Verse," moved to the faded photograph of Cherry's mother on the mantel, a beautiful woman in the big sleeves of the late nineties.

The doctors came back; there was a little stir and rearrangement as they seated themselves.

"Any change?" Cherry asked, cautiously.

"No change." Both men shook their heads.

"Any—any hope?" she faltered.

The physicians exchanged glances. No word was spoken, but the look in their faces, the faint narrowing of eyes and compressing of lips, gave her her answer.



CHAPTER XXIII

It was all strange and bewildering, thought Peter. It was not like anything he had ever connected in his thoughts with Alix, yet it was all for her.

The day was warm and still, and the little church was packed with flowers, and packed with people. Women were crying, and men were crying, too, rather to his dazed surprise. The organ was straining through the warm, fragrant air, and the old clergyman, whose venerable, leonine head, in its crown of snowy hair, Peter could see clearly, spoke in a voice that was thickened with tears. Strangers, or almost strangers, had been touching Peter's hand respectfully, timidly, had been praising Alix. She had been "good" to this one, "good" to that one, they told him; she had always been so "interested," and so "happy."

Her coffin was buried in flowers, many of them the plain flowers she loved, the gillies and stock and verbena, and even the sweet, sober wall-flowers that were somehow like herself. But it was the roses that scented the whole world for Alix to-day, and fresh creamy buds had been placed between the waxen fingers. And still that radiant look of triumphant love lingered on her quiet face, and still the faint ghost of a smile touched the once kindly and merry mouth.

They said good-bye to her at the church, the villagers and old friends who had loved her, and Peter and two or three men alone followed her down along the winding road that led to the old cemetery. Cherry was hanging over the bedside of her husband, who still miraculously lingered through hours of pain, but as Peter, responsive to a touch on his arm, crossed the church porch to blindly enter the waiting motor-car, he saw, erect and grave, on the front seat, in his decent holiday black, and with his felt hat held in his hands, Kow, claiming his right to stand beside the grave of the mistress he had loved and served so faithfully. The sight of him, in his clumsy black, instead of the usual crisp white, and with a sad and tear-stained face shook Peter strangely, but he did not show a sign of pain.

The twisted low branches of oak trees threw shadows on the grave when they finally reached it, and sheep were cropping the watered grass of the graveyard. It was silent and peaceful here, on the very top of the world, not a sound intruded, and nothing stirred but the shadow of a flying bird, and the slowly moving, rounded woolly backs of the sheep.

The soft autumn sky, the drift of snowy clouds across the blue, the clear shadows on brown grass under the oaks, all these were familiar. But Peter still looked dazedly at his black cuff and at the turned earth next to the doctor's headstone, telling himself again that this was for Alix. How often he had seen her sitting there, with her bright face sobered and sweet, as she talked lovingly, eagerly, of her father! They had often come here, Peter the more willingly because she was so sensible and happy about it; she would pack lunch, button herself into one of the crisp blue ginghams, chatter on the road in her usual fashion. And if, for a few moments, the train of memory fired by the sight of the old doctor's grave became too poignant, and tears came, she always scolded herself with that mixture of childish and maternal impatience that was so characteristic of her, and that Peter had seen her use to this very father years ago!

He remembered her, a tall, awkward girl, with a volume of Dickens slipping from her lap as she sat on a hassock by the fire, teasing her father, scolding and reproaching him. Blazing red on high cheek-bones, untidy black hair, quick tongue and ready laugh; that was the Alix of the old days, when he had criticized and patronized her, and told her that she should be more like Anne and little Cherry!

He remembered being delegated, one day, to take her into town to the dentist, and that upon discovering that the dentist was not in his office, he had taken her to the circus instead. She had been about thirteen, and had eaten too many peanuts, he thought, and had lost a petticoat in full sight of the grand-stand. But how grateful and happy she had been!

"Dear little old blue petticoat!" he said. "Dear little old madcap Alix—!"

There was silence, the silence of inanition, about him. He came to himself with a start. He was up on the hills, in the cemetery— this was Alix's grave, newly covered with wilting masses of flowers, and he was keeping everybody waiting. He murmured an apology; the waiting men were all kindness and sympathy.

He got back into the motor-car; Kow got in; the man who drove them quickly toward the valley talked easily and steadily to Peter, attempting to interest him in the affairs of some water company in San Francisco. When they got to the valley a city train was arriving, and Peter saw people looking at him furtively and sorrowfully. He remembered the many, many times Alix had waited for him at the trains; he glanced toward the big madrone under which she always parked her car. She was usually deep in a book as he crossed from the train, but she would fling it into the back seat, and make room for him beside her. The dog would bound into the tonneau, Alix would hand her husband his mail, the car would start with a great plunge toward the mountain—toward the cool garden high up on the ridge—

"She never had an accident, Fred," he said, simply.

"Alix?" The other man nodded gravely, but there was a worried look in his eyes. He did not like Peter's quiet tone. "It may be that her steering-gear broke," he said. "I don't believe it was her fault. Never will! No, it was just one of those things—" He emptied his lungs with a great breath of nervousness and sympathy. "Now, we want you to-night—" he began, pleadingly.

"No—no—no!" Peter said, quickly. "I had better go to her sister. Poor Lloyd is dying, and she is on the verge of a collapse. The nurse said this morning that they could not get her to undress or to leave the room. Poor girl—poor Cherry! I had better go there, Fred. She will need me!"

"No chance for him?" the driving man asked, turning his car.

"No—it's only a matter of time!"

"She came in for the old doctor's money, didn't she?"

"Yes—all of it, now. And my wife had some property—some I had given her; that will go to the sister now. She will be well fixed," Peter said, in a dull tone. "That would have pleased Alix."

"She's a beautiful woman, and young still," said the other man, after awhile. Peter did not hear him.

Cherry looked small and pathetic in her fresh black, and her face was marked by secret incessant weeping. But the nurses and doctors could not say enough for her self-control; she was always composed, always quietly helpful and calm when they saw her, and she was always busy. From early morning, when she slipped into the sick-room, to stand looking at the unconscious Martin with a troubled, intent expression that the nurses came to know well, until night, she moved untiringly about the quiet, shaded house. She supervised the Chinese boy, saw that the nurses had their hours for rest and exercise, telephoned, dusted, and arranged the rooms, saw callers sweetly and patiently, filled vases with flowers.

Every day she had several vigils in the sick-room, and every day at least one long talk with the doctors. Peter would find her deep in letters and documents, or find her—who had loved to be idle, a few weeks ago—busily sewing. Sometimes she gave him a long list of things to do for her in the village and the city, and every day she wrote notes—Cherry, who had always hated to write notes!—to thank the friends who had sent in flowers, soups, and jellies, and custards for the patient. Every afternoon and evening had its callers; she and Peter were rarely alone.

Martin was utterly unconscious of the life that flowed on about him; sometimes he seemed to recognize Cherry, and would stare with painful intentness into her face, but after a few seconds his gaze would wander to the strange nurses, and the room that he had never known, and with a puzzled sigh he would close his eyes again, and drift back into his own strange world of pain, fever, and unconsciousness.

Almost every day there was the sudden summons and panic in the old house, Peter going toward the sick-room with a thick beating at his heart, Cherry entering, white-faced and with terrified eyes, doctors and nurses gathering noiselessly near for the last scene in the drama of Martin's suffering. But the release did not come.

There would be murmuring among the doctors and nurses; the pulse was gaining, not losing; the apparently fatal, final symptoms were proving neither fatal nor final. The tension would relax; a doctor would go, a nurse slip from the room; Cherry, looking anxiously from one face to another, would breathe more easily. It was inevitable, she knew that now—but it was not to be this minute, it was not to be this hour!

"My dear—my dear!" Peter said to her, one day, when spent and shaken she came stumbling from Martin's bedside, and stood dazedly looking from the window into the soaking October forest, like a person stunned from a blow. "My poor little Cherry! If I could spare you this!"

"Nobody can spare me now!" she whispered. And very simply and quietly she added, "If I have been a fool—if I have been a selfish, wicked girl, all my life, I am punished!" She was clinging to the unpainted wood that framed the window, her hand above her head, and her face resting against her arm. "I am punished!" she added.

"Cherry!" he protested, heartsick to see her so.

"Was it wrong for us to love each other, Peter?" she asked, in a low tone. "I suppose it was! I suppose it was! But it never seemed as if—" she shut her eyes and shivered—"as if—THIS—would come of it!" she whispered.

"This!" he echoed, aghast.

"Oh, I think this is punishment," Cherry continued, in the same lifeless, weary tone.

There was a silence. The rain dripped and dripped from the redwoods, the room in which they stood was in twilight, even at noon. Peter could think of nothing to say.

About two weeks after the accident there was a change in the tone of the physicians who had been giving almost all their time to Martin's case. There was no visible change in Martin, but that fact in itself was so surprising that it was construed into a definite hope that he would live.

Not as he had lived, they warned his wife. It would be but a restricted life; tied to his couch, or permitted, at best, to move about within a small boundary on crutches.

"Martin!" his wife exclaimed piteously, when this was first discussed. "He has always been so strong—so independent! He would rather—he would infinitely rather be dead!" But her mind was busy grasping the possibilities, too. "He won't suffer too much?" she asked, fearfully.

They hastened to assure her that the chance of his even partial recovery was still slight, but that in case of his convalescence Martin need not necessarily suffer.

Another day or two went by, in the silent, rainwrapped house under the trees; days of quiet footsteps, and whispering, and the lisping of wood fires. Then Martin suddenly was conscious, knew his wife, languidly smiled at her, thanked the doctors for occasional ease from pain.

"Peter—I'm sorry. It's terrible for you—terrible!" he said, in his new, hoarse, gentle voice, when he first saw Peter. They marvelled among themselves that he knew that Alix was gone. But to Cherry, in one of the long hours that she spent, sitting beside him, and holding his big, weak, strangely white hand, he explained, one day. "I knew she was killed," he said, out of a silence. "I thought we both were!"

"How did she ever happen to do it?" Cherry said. "She was always so sure of herself—even when she drove fast!"

"I don't know," he answered. "It was all like a flash, of course! I never watched her drive—I had such confidence in her!"

His interest dropped; she saw that the tide of pain was slowly rising again, glanced at the clock. It was two; he might not have relief until four. In his own eyes she saw reflected the apprehension of her own.

"You might ask Peter to play some of that—that rambly stuff he was playing yesterday?" he suggested. Cherry, only too happy to have him want anything, to have him helped by anything, flew to find Peter. Busy with one of the trays that were really beginning to interest and please the invalid now, she told herself that the house was a different place, now that one nurse was gone, the doctors coming only for brief calls, and the dear, familiar sound of the old piano echoing throughout the rooms.

Martin came from the fiery furnace changed in soul and body. It was a thin, gentle, strangely patient man who was propped in bed for his Thanksgiving dinner, and whose pain-worn face turned with an appreciative smile to the decorations and the gifts that made his room cheerful. His thick beard had grown; for weeks they had not dared disturb him to cut it, and as he recovered, Cherry found it so becoming that she had persuaded him to let it remain. He wore a blue-and-gray wrapper that was his wife's gift; the sling was gone, but his hands were oddly thin and white.

The big room, once the study, and still shaded by the old banksia rose, had been turned into as luxurious a bedroom as Cherry could make it. The signs of extreme illness gradually were banished, and all sorts of invalid comforts took their place; daylight and lamplight were alike tempered for Martin; there were pillows, screens; there was a noiseless deep chair always waiting for Cherry at his side. As his unconscious and feverish times lessened, and he was able feebly to request this small delicacy or that, Cherry rejoiced to gratify him; her voice had something of its old content as she would say: "He loved the oysters, Peter!" or "Doctor said he might have wine jelly!"

The heavy cloud lightened slowly but steadily; Martin had a long talk, dreaded by Cherry from the first hours of the accident, with his physicians. He bore the ultimatum with unexpected fortitude.

"Let me get this straight," he said, slowly. "The arm is O. K. and the leg, but the back—"

Cherry, kneeling beside him, her hands on his, drew a wincing breath. Martin reassured her with an indulgent nod.

"I've known it right along!" he told her. He looked at the doctors. "It's no go?"

"I don't see why I should deceive you, my dear boy," said the younger doctor, who had grown very fond of him. "You can still beat me at bridge, you know, you can read and write, and come to the table, after awhile; you have your devoted wife to keep finding new things for you to do! Next summer now—a chair out in the garden—"

Cherry was fearfully watching her husband's face.

"We'll all do what we can to make it easy, Mart!" she whispered, in tears.

He looked at her with a whimsical smile.

"Mind very much taking care of a helpless man all your life?" he asked, with a hint of his old confident manner.

"Oh, Mart, I mind only for you!" she said. Peter, standing behind the doctors, slipped from the room unnoticed.

Late that evening, when Martin was asleep, Cherry came noiselessly from the sick-room, to find Peter alone in the dimly lighted sitting room. The fire had burned low, and he was sitting before it, sunk into his chair, and leaning forward, fingers loosely locked, and sombre eyes fixed on the dull pink glow of the logs. He looked tired, Cherry thought, and was so buried in thought that she at first attempted to go quietly through the room without rousing him. But he glanced at her, feeling rather than hearing her presence, and called her.

"Come over here, will you, Cherry? I want to speak to you."

Something in his voice fluttered her for a second; she had not heard the echo of the old mood for a long time. She came, with an inquiring and yet not wholly unconscious look, to the fireside, and he stood up to greet her.

"Tired?" he asked, in an unnatural voice.

"I—I was just going to bed," she answered, hesitatingly. But she sat down, nevertheless; sank comfortably into the chair opposite his own, and stretched her little feet, crossed at the ankle, before her, as if she were indeed tired. "I don't know what should make me—always—so weary!" she said, smiling. "I don't do a thing, really, all day!"

Utterly relaxed, her small figure in its plain black gown, with the childish white she always wore at collar and wrist, looked like the figure of a child. Her golden hair shone with a dull gleam in the dim light; there was a glint of firelight in her dropped lashes.

"Perhaps it's the nervous strain," Peter suggested. "Of course, you would feel that." There was a silence in which neither moved. Cherry did not even raise her eyelids, and Peter, standing with one arm on the mantel, looked down at her steadily. "Cherry," he said, suddenly, "are you and I going to talk to each other like that?"

A flood of colour rose in Cherry's pale face, and she gave him one appealing glance.

"I don't—I don't think I know what you mean, Peter!"

"Oh, yes; you do!" he said. He knelt down beside her chair, and gathered her cold hands into one of his own. "What are you and I going to do?" he asked.

She looked at him in terror.

"But all that is changed!" she said, quickly, fearfully.

"Why is it changed?" he countered. "I love you—I have always loved you, since the days long ago, in this very house! I can't stop it now. And you love me, Cherry!"

"Yes, I shall always love you," she answered, agitatedly, after a pause in which she looked at him with troubled eyes. "I shall always love you, and always dream of the time when we—we thought we might belong to each other, Peter. But—but—you must see that we cannot—cannot think of all that now," she added with difficulty. "I couldn't fail Martin now, when he needs me so!"

"He needs you now," Peter conceded, "and I don't ask you to do anything that must distress him now. But in a few months, when his mother comes down for a visit, what then?"

Cherry's exquisite eyes were fixed on his.

"Well, what then?" she whispered.

"Then you must tell them honestly that you care for me," he said.

Cherry was trembling violently.

"But how could I!" she protested. "Tell him that I am going away, deserting him when he most needs me!"

Peter had grown very pale.

"But—" he stammered, his face close to hers—"but you cannot mean that this is the end?"

She moved her lips as if she was about to speak; looked at him blankly. Then suddenly tears came, and she wrenched her hands free from his, and laid her arms about his neck. Her wet cheek was pressed to his own, and he put his arms tightly about the little shaken figure.

"Peter!" she whispered, desolately. And after a time, when the violence of her sobs was lessened, and she was breathing more quietly, she said again: "Peter!"

He took out his handkerchief, and dried her eyes, and she remained, resting against him like a spent bird, her blue eyes fixed mournfully on the fire, her hands, which had slipped to his breast, gathered in his own, and her bright head on his shoulder.

"We can never dream that dream again," she said.

"We shall dream it again," he corrected her.

Cherry did not answer for a long while. Then she gently disengaged herself from his arms, and sat erect. Her tears were ended now, and her voice firmer and surer.

"No; never again!" she told him. "I've been thinking about it, all these days, and I've come to see what is right, as I never did before. Alix never knew about us, Peter—and that's been the one thing for which I could be thankful in all this time! But Alix had only one hope for me, and that was that somehow Martin and I would come to be—well, to be nearer to each other, and that somehow he and I would make a success of our marriage, would spare—well, let's say the family name, from all the disgrace and publicity of a divorce—"

"And you feel that this has drawn you and Martin nearer together?" Peter asked, in a simple, expressionless voice, as she paused.

"Well—he needs me now."

"But, Cherry, my child—" Peter expostulated. "You cannot sacrifice all your life to the fancy that no one else can take your place with him—"

"That," she said, steadily, "is just what I must do!"

Peter looked at her for a few seconds without speaking. "You don't love him," he said.

"No," she admitted, gravely. "I don't love him—not in the way you mean."

"He is nothing to you," Peter argued. "As a matter of fact, it never was what a marriage should be. It was always—always—a mistake."

"Yes," she conceded, sadly, "it was always a mistake!"

"Then there is nothing to bind you to him!" Peter added.

"No—and there isn't Alix to distress now!" she agreed, thoughtfully. "And yet," she went on, suddenly, "I do this more for Alix than for any one!"

Peter looked at her in silence, looked back at the last flicker of the fire.

"You will change your mind after awhile!" he said.

Cherry rose from the chair, and stood with dropped head and troubled eyes, looking down at the flame.

"No, I shall never change my mind!" she said, in a low tone that was still strangely firm and final for her. "I have thought about it, about the sacrifices I shall have to make, and about what my life will be as the years go on! And I know that I never will change. This is as much my life as it would be my life if you and I were alone in that little French village somewhere. There would be no going back then, no thinking of what might have been; there is no going back now. This is my life, that's all! For five or ten or twenty or thirty years I shall always be where Martin is, caring for him, amusing him, making a life for him." And Cherry raised her glorious blue eyes in which there was a pure and an uplifted look that Peter had never seen there before. "It is what Dad and Alix would have wished," she finished, solemnly, "and I do it for them!"

Peter did not answer; and after a moment she went quietly and quickly from the room, with the new air of quiet responsibility that she had worn ever since the accident.



CHAPTER XXIV

Peter saw, with a sort of stupefaction, that life was satisfying her now as life had never satisfied restless, exacting little Cherry before. Not that she knew it; she was absolutely unconscious of the truth, and he realized that she would have been genuinely shocked by it. But there was a busy energy about her now, an absorbed and contented concentration upon the duties of the day, a cheerfulness, a philosophy, that were new.

There had been touched by all this terrible time unexpected deeps of maternal tenderness in childish little Cherry; there had been unsuspected qualities of domesticity and sacrifice. A new Cherry had been born, a Cherry always beautiful, always resourceful, always admired. Busy with Martin's trays, out in the garden searching for shy violets, conferring with the Chinese boy, pouring tea for afternoon callers, Cherry was newly adequate and newly happy.

She spent much of her free time by her husband's side, amusing him as skillfully as a mother. What was she doing? Why, she was simply basting fresh cuffs into her afternoon gown. He was getting so popular that she had to be ready for callers every day. Would he like her to keep George Sewall for dinner, then they could play dominoes again? Would he like the table with the picture puzzle? He would like just to talk? Very well; they would talk.

Martin's day was so filled and divided with small pleasures that it was apt to amaze him by passing too quickly. He had special breakfasts, he had his paper, his hair was brushed and his bed remade a dozen times a day. Cherry shared her mail, which was always heavy now, with him; she flitted into the sick-room every few minutes with small messages or gifts. With her bare, bright head, her busy white hands, her voice all motherly amusement and sympathy and sweetness, she had never seemed so much a wife. She had the pleasantest laugh in the world, and she often laughed. The sick-room was kept with exquisite simplicity, with such freshness, bareness, and order as made it a place of delight. One day Cherry brought home a great Vikory bowl of silvery glass, and a dozen drifting goldfish, and Martin never tired of watching them idly while he listened to her reading.

"Cherry," Peter said, on a wet January day, when he came upon her in the dining room, contentedly arranging a fragrant mass of wet violets, "I think Martin's out of the woods now. I believe I'll be moving along!"

"Oh, but we want you always, Peter!" she said, innocently regretful.

The ghost of a pained smile flitted across his face.

"Thank you," he said, gently. "But I think I will go," he added, mildly. She made no further protest.

"But where?" she asked, sympathetically.

"I don't know. I shall take Buck—start off" toward the big mountains. I'll write you now and then, of course! I'm going home, first!"

"Of course!" she answered. "But you won't stay in that lonely cabin all alone," she added, almost timidly.

"No, I shan't be there long!" he assured her, briefly. "Everything's finished up now. I'm leaving Kow in charge, of course. I'll be back one of these days!"

"Just now," Cherry mused, sadly, "perhaps it is best—for you—to get away! Now that Martin is so much better," she added, in a little burst. "I do feel so sorry for you, Peter! I know how you feel. I shall miss her always, of course," said Cherry, "but I have him."

"I try not to think of her," Peter said, flinging up his head.

"When you do," Cherry said, earnestly, giving him more of her attention than had been usual, of late, "Here is something to think, Peter. It's this: we have so much to be thankful for, because she never—knew! It was madness," Cherry went on, eagerly, "sheer madness—that is clear now. I don't try to explain it, because it's all been washed away by the frightful thing that happened. I'm different now; you're different—I don't know how we ever thought we could—

"But I forget all that," she went on, after a moment of shamed thought. "I don't let myself think of it any more! I was unhappy, I was overwrought; there's no explanation for what I felt and said but that! And, Peter, you know that if I was false in thought to Martin, he had been unkind to me, and he had—" she paused, interrupted herself. "But men are different, I suppose," she mused. There was a silence during which she looked at him anxiously, but the expression on his face did not alter, and he did not speak.

"And what I think we ought to be thankful for," she resumed, "is that Alix would rather—she would rather have it this way. She told me that she would be heartbroken if there had been any actual separation between me and Martin, and how much worse that would have been—what we planned, I mean. She was spared that, and we were spared—I see it now—what would have ruined both our lives. We were brought to our senses, and the awakening only came a little sooner than it would have come anyway!"

Peter had walked to the window, and was looking out at the shabby winter trees that were dripping rain, and at the beaten garden, where the drenched chrysanthemums had been bowed to the soaked earth. A wet wind swished through the low, fanlike branches of the redwoods; the creek was rushing high and noisily.

"Here, in Dad's home," Cherry said, coming to stand beside him, "I see how wicked and how mad I was. In another twenty-four hours it would have been too late—you don't know how often I wake up in the night and shiver, thinking that! And as it is, I am here in the dear old house; and Martin—well, you can see that even Martin's life is going to be far happier than it ever was! Yesterday Mrs. Porter spoke to me about getting him a player-piano when he is stronger, you know. Doctor Young comes in to play cribbage with him—it's amazing how the day fills itself! It's such a joy to me," she added, with the radiant look she often wore when her husband's comfort was under consideration, "to feel that we need never worry about the money end of things—there's enough for what we need forever!"

"You must never worry about money," he told her. "And if ever you need it—if it is a question of a long trip, or of more operations—if there is any chance—"

"I shall remember that I have a big brother!" she said.

The room was scented by the sweet, damp flowers, and by the good odour of lazily burning logs; yet to Peter there was chill and desolateness in the air. Cherry took up the glass bowl in both careful hands, and went away in the direction of the study, but he stood at the window for a long time staring dully out at the battered chrysanthemums and the swishing branches, and the steadily falling rain.



CHAPTER XXV

A few days later, on a day of uncertain sunshine and showers, Peter left them. Martin was the sorrier of the two to see him go, for it seemed to Martin that the tragedy had united Cherry and himself in a peculiar manner, had rounded and secured their relationship, and had made for them a new life that had no place for Peter. With a sort of affectionate pity for the older man he would have been glad to have him stay longer, to play the old piano, work in the old garden, and share their talks of Alix and of all the old days. But to Cherry Peter's going was a relief; it burned one more bridge behind her. It confirmed her in the path she had chosen; it was to her spirit like the cap that marks the accepted student nurse, or like the black coif that replaces the postulant's white veil of probation.

He had been in the downstairs bedroom, talking with Martin, for perhaps an hour; he had drawn them a rough sketch of the little addition to the house that Cherry meant some day to build next to the study, and he and Martin had been discussing the details. Cherry had left them there, and was sweeping the wet, dun-coloured leaves from the old porch, in a pale shaft of sunshine, and thinking that there must be a wide railing here next summer for Martin's books, and a gay awning to be drawn or furled as Martin fancied, when a sudden step in the doorway behind her made her look up.

Peter had come out of the house, with Buck curving beside him. He wore his old corduroy clothes and his shabby cap, but there was something in his aspect that made her ask:

"Not going?"

"Yes, I'm going now!" he said.

She rested her broom against the thick trunk of the old banksia, and rubbed her two hands together, and came to the top of the steps to say good-bye. And standing there, under the rose tree, she linked her arm about it, looking up through the branches, where the shabby foliage of last year lingered.

"How fast it's grown since that terrific pruning we gave it all that long time ago!" she said.

"Little more than six years ago, Cherry!" he reminded her.

"Only six years—" She was obviously amazed.

"It doesn't seem possible that all this has happened in six years!" she exclaimed. "Those were wonderful old days, with Anne and Alix scolding you, and Dad here, looking out for us all," she mused, tenderly. "We'll never be so happy again."

He did not answer. He had her hand now for farewells, and perhaps, with the thought of those short six years had come also the thought that this slender figure in the housewifely blue linen, this exquisite little head, so trim and demure despite all its rebel tendrils of gold, this lovely face, still the face of a child, with a child's trusting, uplifted eyes, might have been his. The old home might have been their home, and perhaps—who knows, there might have been a new Cherry and a new Peter beginning to look eagerly out at life through the screen of the old rose vine.

Too late now. A single instant of those lost years might have bought him all this, but there was no going back. He put his arm about her, and kissed her forehead, and said: "God bless you, Cherry!"

"God bless you, dear!" she answered, gravely. She watched the tall figure, with its little limp, and with the dog leaping and circling about it in ecstasy, until the redwoods closed around, him. Then she took up the broom again, and slowly and thoughtfully crossed the old porch, and shut the door.

Peter, walking with long strides, and with a furrowed brow and absent eyes, crossed the village, and climbed once more the old trail that led up to the cabin. His great boots made simple work of the muddy roads, his hands were thrust deep into the pockets of his shabby old coat, and his cap pulled low. The rain had stopped, but every branch that hung down over his path, or stretched an arm to stop him, was charged with water; the creeks were swollen and yellow, and raced along between crumbling banks with a fresh rushing sound that mingled with the creaking of wet boughs and the wild spring chant of the wind high up in the tops of the redwoods.

Coming out of the forest, on the ridge, where the dim road ran under the scattered oaks, he saw the last of the battle of the dying storm raging over the valley below. Great masses of cloud were in travail; when the sun was hidden, the world was wrapped in shade and chill; when it burst forth, every wet tree and spear glistened and twinkled in the flood of warmth and light, the dried brown grass sparkled with jewels, and the great roadside rain pools flashed back the azure of the sky. The mountain was partly obscured by rapidly shifting masses of mist; the air was pungent and seemed to hum with a thousand tiny, electric voices.

Already there was new grass showing a timid film of emerald under the brown growth of last year. While Peter climbed, the good earth giving soddenly under his feet, and grasses tangling in the clasps of his walking shoes, the sunlight conquered, the sky cleared, and the last of the storm drifted and spread and vanished in a bath of dazzling blue. Birds began to circle in brief flights; cloud shadows fell clear-cut on the west, dark flank of the mountain; and in the saturated marshy spots, where a scummy green growth already was spread over the crystal pools of the little hillside springs, frogs were exultant.

The roof of the little cabin and the outbuildings smoked up into the pure warm air; the Jersey, placidly awaiting her hour, looked at him with soft, great eyes; and Alix's chickens picked and squawked on the steaming mound near the stable. Kow was hanging out the blue glass-towels, everything—everything was as he had found it a hundred, a thousand, happy times!

Peter spoke to the Chinese and went into the cabin. It was dusted, orderly, complete; he and Alix might have left it yesterday. Kow had seen him coming, he thought, and had had time to light the fire, which was blazing freshly up to the chimney's great throat. He sat down, staring at the flames.

Buck pushed open the swinging door between the pantry and the sitting room, and came in, a question in his bright eyes, his great plumy tail beating the floor as he lay down at Peter's side. Presently the dog laid his nose on Peter's knee and poured forth a faint sound that was not quite a whine, not quite a sigh, and rose restlessly, and went to the closed door of Alix's room, and pawed it, his eager nose to the threshold.

"Not here, old fellow!" Peter said, stroking the silky head under his hand.

He had not been in this room since the day of her death. It struck him as strangely changed, strangely and heartrendingly familiar. The windows were closed, as Alix had never had them closed, winter or summer, rain or sunshine. Her books stood in their old order, her student's Shakespere, and some of her girlhood's books, "Little Women," and "Uncle Max." In the closet, which exhaled a damp and woody smell, were one or two of the boyish-looking hats he had so often seen her crush carelessly over her dark hair, and the big belted coat that was as plain as his own, and the big boots she wore when she tramped about the poultry yard, still spattered with pale, dry mud. Her father's worn little Bible lay on the table, and beside it another book "Duck Raising for the Market," with the marks of muddy and mealy hands still lingering on its cover.

Suddenly, evoked by these silent witnesses to her busy and happy life, the whole woman seemed to stand beside Peter, the tall, eager, vital woman who had been at home here, who had ruled the cabin with a splendid and vital personality. He seemed to feel her near him again, to see the interested eyes, the high cheek-bones touched with scarlet, the wisp of hair that would fall across her face sometimes when she was deep in baking, or preserving, or poultry-farming, and that she would brush away with the back of an impatient hand, only to have it slip loose again.

One of her kitchen aprons, caught in the current of air from the opened door, blew about on its hook. He remembered her, on many a wintry day, buttoned into just such a crisp apron, radiantly busy and brisk in her kitchen, stirring and chopping, moving constantly between stove and table. With strong hands still showing traces of flour she would come to sit beside him at the piano, to play a duet with her characteristic dash and finish, only to jump up in sudden compunction, with an exclamation: "Oh, my ducks—I'd forgotten them! Oh, the poor little wretches!"

And she would be gone, leaving a streak of wet, fresh air through the warm house from the open door, and he would perhaps glance from a window to see her, roughly coated and booted, ploughing about her duck yard, delving into barrels of grain, turning on faucets, wielding a stubby old broom.

She loved her life, he mused, with a bitter heartache, as he stood here in her empty room. Sometimes he had marvelled at the complete and unquestioning joy she had brought to it. Books, puzzles, music, and fires sufficed her in the few hours that she ever spent in her own drawing room. For the rest she had the kitchen and the farmyard, and the world out of doors, the oaks and the grass, the great stretches of dim forest, the muddy trails, the blowing airs on the crest of the ridge that made her shout and stagger in their wild onslaught. Peter reminded himself that never in their years together had he heard her complain about anything, or seem to feel bored or at a loss.

"We've always thought of Cherry as the child!" he thought. "But it was she, Alix, who was the real child. She never grew up. She never entered into the time of moods and self-analysis and jealousies and desires! She would have played and picnicked all her life——"

His heart pressed like a dull pain in his chest. Dully, quietly, he went out to the fire again, and dully and quietly moved through the day. Her books and music might stand as they were, her potted ferns and her scattered small possessions—the sewing-basket that she always handled with a boy's awkwardness, and the camera she used so well—should keep their places. But he went to her desk, thinking in this long, solitary evening, to destroy various papers that she might wish destroyed before the cabin was deserted. And here he found her letter.

He found it only after he had somewhat explored the different small drawers and pigeonholes of the desk, drawers and pigeonholes which were, to his surprise, all in astonishing order for Alix. Everything was marked, tied, pocketed; her accounts were balanced, and if she had anywhere left private papers, they were at least nowhere to be found.

Seeing in all this a dread confirmation of his first suspicion of her death, Peter nevertheless experienced a shock when he found her letter. It had been placed in an empty drawer, face up, and was sealed, and addressed simply with his name.

He sat holding it in his hand, and moments passed before he could open it.

So it had been true, then, the fear that he had tried all these weeks to crush? He had been weighing, measuring, remembering, until his very soul was sick with the uncertainty. His mind had been a confused web of memories, of this casual word and that look, of what she had possibly heard, had probably seen, had suspected—known—

Now he would know. He tore open the envelope, and the dozen written lines were before his eyes. The letter was dated, a most unusual thing for Alix to do, and "Saturday, one o'clock" was written under the date. It was the day of her death.

He read:

PETER DEAR, Don't feel too badly if I find a stupid way out. I've been thinking for several days about it. You've done so much for me, and after you, of course there's no one but Cherry. She could be free now, he couldn't prevent it. When I saw your face a few minutes ago I knew we couldn't fight it. Remember, this is our secret. And always remember that I want you to be happy because I love you so!

It was unsigned.

Peter sat staring at it for awhile without moving, without the stir of a changing expression on his face. Then he folded it up, and put it in the pocket of his coat, and went out to the backyard, where Kow was feeding the chickens. The wet, dark day was ending brilliantly in a wash of red sunset light that sent long shadows from the young fruit trees, and touched every twig with a dull glow.

"Kow," Peter said, after an effort to speak that was unsuccessful. The Chinese boy looked at him solicitously; for Peter's face was ashen, and about his mouth were drawn lines. "Kow," he said, "I go now!"

"Go now other house?" Kow nodded, glancing down toward the valley.

But Peter jerked his head instead toward the bare ridge.

"No, I go now—not come back!" he said, briefly. "To-night—maybe Bolinas—to-morrow, Inverness. I don't know. By and by the big mountains, Kow—by and by I forget!"

Tears glittered in the Chinese boy's eyes, but he smiled with a great air of cheer.

"I keep house!" he promised.

The dog came fawning and springing from the stables, and Peter whistled to him.

"Come on, Buck! We're going now!"

He opened the farmyard gate where her hand had so often rested, crossed the muddy corral, opened another gate, and struck off across the darkening world toward the ridge. The last sunlight lingered on crest and treetop, tangled itself redly in the uppermost branches of a few tall redwoods, and was gone. Twilight- -a long twilight that had in it some hint of spring—lay softly over the valley; the mountain loomed high in the clear shadow.

Gaining the top of the first ridge, he paused and looked back. Lights were beginning to prick forth in the brown houses of the valley, buried in their trees. The busy little mountain train, descending, puffed forth smoke and steam. Far away, the silver ribbons of the canals wound through the marsh, and beyond the bay, the Oakland shore lay like a chain of gems in the pale twilight.

Peter looked at the cabin, the little brown house that he had built almost fifteen years ago. He remembered that it was in the beginning a sort of experiment; his mother and he were too much alone in their big city house, and she had suggested, with rare wisdom, that as he did not care for society, and as his travels always meant great loneliness For her, he should have a little eyrie of his own, to which he might retreat whenever the fancy touched him.

She liked Del Monte and Tahoe, herself, but she had come to Mill Valley now and then in the days of his first wild delight in its freedom and beauty, silk-gowned and white-gloved and very much disliking dust. She had sent him plants, roses, and fruit trees, and she had told him one day that he had a neighbour in the valley who was an old friend of hers, a Doctor Strickland, a widower, with children.

He remembered sauntering up the opposite canyon to duly call upon this inventor-physician one day, and his delight upon finding a well-read, music-loving, philosophic, erratic man, who had at once recognized a kindred spirit, and who had made the younger man warmly welcome.

Presently, on the first call, an enchanting little girl In a shabby smock had come in, a little girl all dimples, demureness, and untouched babyish beauty. She had said that "Anne wath mad wiv her, and that Alix—" she managed to lisp the name, "wath up in the madrone!"

A somewhat older child, named Alix, a freckled, leggy little person with enormous front teeth, had proved the claim by falling out of the madrone, and had received no sympathy for a bump, but a—to him—rather surprising censure. He had yet to realize that nothing ever hurt Alix, but that she always ruined her clothes, and frequently hurt other persons and other things. He found her a spirited, enthusiastic little person, extremely articulate, and quite unselfconscious, and she had entertained him with an excited account of a sex feud that was being pushed with some violence at her school, and had used expressions that rather shocked Peter. A quiet third girl—a niece, he gathered—had joined the group, a girl with braids and clean hands, who elucidated:

"Alix and I don't like our teacher!"

"She's a sneak and a skunk," Alix had frankly contributed. Cherry, now quietly established in her father's lap, had smiled with mischievous enjoyment; nobody else, to Peter's surprise, had paid this extraordinary remark the slightest attention. He remembered that he had fancied only the smallest of these children, and had been glad when they all went out of the room.

But after that Alix used often to amuse him, and he always felt more at home with her than with the other two. She had only been a gawky and thin fifteen or sixteen when she began to assert herself in his kitchen, dictate to Kow, and waste good butter and eggs on experiments. He had secretly rather admired her quick tongue and her daring, he liked her to ride his horses, and was amazed at the speed with which she grasped the controlling principles of the motor-car. He had seen her move plants, treat sick chickens, sew up the gashed head of a horse with her own fingers, while Cherry, lovely, round-eyed, immaculate in white ruffles, watched her with fear and admiration.

Looking down at the cabin, the years slipped past him like a flying film, and it was the present again, and Alix—Alix was gone.

He roused himself, spoke to the dog, and they went on their way again. Mud squelched beneath Peter's boots in the roadway; the dog sprang lightly from clump to clump of dried grass. But when they left the road, and cut straight across the rise of the hillside, the ground was firmer, and the two figures moved swiftly through the dark night. The early stars came out, and showed them, silhouetted against the sky above Alix's beloved Tamalpais, the man's erect form with its slight limp, the dog following faithfully, his plumy tail and feathered ruff showing a dull lustre in the starlight.

Cherry, with her violet eyes and corn-coloured hair, Cherry, with her little hands gathered in his, and her heart beating against his heart, and Alix, his chum, his companion, his comrade on so many night walks under the stars—he had lost them both. But it was Alix who was closest to his thoughts to-night, Alix, the thought of whom was gradually gripping his heart and soul with a new pain.

Alix was his own; Cherry had never been his own. It was for him to comfort Cherry, it had always been his mission to comfort Cherry, since the days of her broken dolls and cut fingers. But Alix was his own comforter, and Alix might have been laughing and stumbling and chattering beside him here, in the dark, wet woods, full of a child's happy satisfaction in the moment and confidence in the morrow.

"Alix, my wife!" he said softly, aloud. "I loved Cherry—always. But you were mine—you were mine. We belonged to each other—for better and for worse—and I have let you go!"

He went on and on and on. They were plunging down hill now, under the trees. He would see a light after awhile, and sleep for a few hours, and have a hunter's breakfast, and be gone again. And he knew that for weeks—for months—perhaps for years, he would wander so, through the great mountains, with their snow and their forests, over the seas, in strange cities and stranger solitudes. Always alone, always moving, always remembering. That would be his life. And some day—some day perhaps he would come back to the valley she had loved—

But even now he recoiled in distaste from that hour. To see the familiar faces, to come up to the cabin again, to touch the music and the books—

Worse, to find Cherry a little older, happy and busy in her life of sacrifice, not needing him, not very much wanting the reminder of the old tragic times—

An owl cried in the woods; the mournful sound floated and drifted away into utter silence. Some small animal, meeting the death its brief life had evaded a hundred times, screamed shrilly, and was silent. Great branches, stirred by the night wind, moved high above his head, and when there was utter silence, Peter could hear the steady, soft rush of the ocean, dulled here to the sound of gigantic, quiet breathing.

Suddenly she seemed again to be beside him. He seemed to see the dark, animated face, the slender, tall girl wrapped in her big, rough coat. He seemed to hear her vibrating voice, with that new, tender note in it that he had noticed when she last spoke to him.

"I'll go home ahead of you, Peter, and wait for you there!"

Tears suddenly flooded his eyes, and he put his hand over them, and pressed it there, standing still, while the wave of tender and poignant and exquisite memories broke over him.

"We'll go on, Buck," he whispered, looking up through the trees at a strip of dark sky spangled with cold stars. "We'll go on. She's— she's waiting for us somewhere, old fellow!"



THE END

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