Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Cherry Strickland came in the door of the Strickland house, and shut it behind her, and stood so, with her hands behind her on the knob, and her slender body leaning forward, and her breath rising and falling on deep, ecstatic breaths. It was May in California, she was just eighteen, and for twenty-one minutes she had been engaged to be married.
She hardly knew why, after that last farewell to Martin, she had run so swiftly up the path, and why she had flashed into the house, and closed the door with such noiseless haste. There was nothing to run for! But it was as if she feared that the joy within her might escape into the moonlight night that was so perfumed with lilacs and the scent of wet woods. In this new happiness of hers a fear was already mingled, a sweet fear, truly, and a delicious fear, but she had never feared anything before in her life. She was afraid now that it was all too wonderful to be true, that she would awaken in the morning to find it only a dream, that she would somehow fall short of Martin's ideal-- somehow fail him--somehow turn all this magic of moonshine and kisses into ashes and heartbreak.
She was a miser with her treasure, already; she wanted to fly with it, and to hide it away, and to test its reality in secret, alone. She had come running in from the wonderland down by the gate, just for this, just to prove to herself that it would not vanish in the commonplaceness of the shabby hall, would not disappear before the everyday contact of everyday things.
There was moonlight here, too, falling in clear squares on the stairway landing, white and mysterious and bewitching, but on the other side of the hall was wholesome, cheerful lamplight creeping in a warm streak under the sitting-room door.
Dad was in the sitting room, with the girls. The doctor's house was full of girls. Anne, his niece, was twenty-four; Alix, Cherry's sister, three years younger--how staid and unmarried and undesired they seemed to-night to panting and glowing and glorified eighteen! Anne, with Alix's erratic help, kept house for her uncle, and was supposed to keep a sharp eye on Cherry, too. But she hadn't been sharp enough to keep Martin Lloyd from asking her to marry him, exulted Cherry, as she stood breathless and laughing in the dark hallway.
Cherry had never had any other home than this shabby brown bungalow, and she knew every inch of the hall, even without light to see it. She knew the faded rugs, and the study door that swallowed up her father every day, and the table where Alix had put a great bowl of buttercups, and the glass-paned door at the back through which the doctor's girls had looked out at many a frosty morning, and red sunset, and sun-steeped summer afternoon. But even the old hall had seemed transformed to-night, lighted with a beauty quite new, scented with an immortal sweetness.
Hong came out of the dining room; the varnished buttercups twinkled in a sudden flood of light. He had come to put a folded tablecloth into the old wardrobe that did for a sideboard, under the stairs. Cherry, descending to earth, smiled at him, and crossed the hall to the sitting-room door.
An older woman might have gone upstairs, to dream alone of her new joy, but Cherry thought that it would be "fun" to join the family, and "act as if nothing had happened!" She was only a child, after all.
Consciously or unconsciously, they had all tried to keep her a child, these three who looked up to smile at her as she came in. One of them, rosy, gray-headed, magnificent at sixty, was her father, whose favourite she knew she was. He held out his hand to her without closing the book that was in the other hand, and drew her to the wide arm of his chair, where she settled herself with her soft young body resting against him, her slim ankles crossed, and her cheek dropped against his thick silver hair.
Alix was reading, and dreamily scratching her ankle as she read; she was a tall, awkward girl, younger far at twenty-one than Cherry was at eighteen, pretty in a gipsyish way, untidy as to hair, with round black eyes, high, thin cheek-bones marked with scarlet, and a wide, humorous mouth that was somehow droll in its expression even when she was angry or serious. She was rarely angry; she was unexacting, good-humoured, preferring animals to people, and unconventional in speech and manner. Her father and Anne sometimes discussed her anxiously; they confessed that they were rather fearful for Alix. For Cherry, neither one had ever had a disquieting thought.
Anne, smiling demurely over her white sewing, was a small, prettily-made little woman, with silky hair trimly braided, and a rather pale, small face with charming and regular features. She was not considered exactly pretty; perhaps the contrast with Cherry's unusual beauty was rather hard on both the older girls; but she was so perfectly capable in her little groove, so busy, contented, and necessary in the doctor's household, that it was rather a habit with all their friends to praise Anne. Anne had "admirers," too, Cherry reflected, looking at her to-night, but neither she nor Alix had ever been engaged--engaged--engaged!
"Aren't you home early?" said Doctor Strickland, rubbing his cheek against his youngest daughter's cheek in sleepy content. He was never quite happy unless all three girls were in his sight, but for this girl he had always felt an especial protecting fondness. It seemed only yesterday that Cherry, a rosy-cheeked sturdy little girl in a checked gingham apron, had been trotting off to school; to him it was yesterday that she had been a squarely-built baby, digging in the garden paths, and sniffing at the border pinks. He had followed her exquisite childhood with more than a father's usual devotion, perhaps because she really had been an exceptionally endearing child, perhaps because she had been given him, a tiny crying thing in a blanket, to fill the great gap her mother's going had left in his heart. He had sympathized with her microscopic cut fingers, he had smiled into her glowing, damp little face when she stuttered to him long tales of bad doggies and big 'ticks; he had brought her "jacks" and paper-dolls and hair ribbons; he loved the diminutive femininity of the creature; she was all a woman, even at three. Alix he proudly called his "boy"; Alix used hair ribbons to tie up her dogs, and demanded hip boots and an air rifle and got them, too, and used them, but when he took Alix in his arms she was apt to bump his nose violently with her hard young head, to break his glasses, or at best to wriggle herself free. Little Cherry, however, was 'fraid of dogs, she told her father, and of guns, and she would curl up in his arms for happy half-hours, with her gold curls sprayed against his shoulder, and her soft little hand tucked into his own.
"Mr. Lloyd had to take the nine o'clock train," Cherry answered her father dreamily, "and he and Peter walked home with me!" She did not add that Peter had left them at his own turning, a quarter of a mile away.
"I thought he wasn't going to be at Mrs. North's for dinner," Anne observed quietly, in the silence. She had been informally asked to the Norths' for dinner that evening herself, and had declined for no other reason than that attractive Martin Lloyd was presumably not to be there.
"He wasn't," Cherry said. "He thought he had to go to town at six. I just stopped in to give them Dad's message, and they teased me to stay. You knew where I was, didn't you--Dad?" she murmured.
"Mrs. North telephoned about six, and said you were there, but she didn't say that Mr. Lloyd was," Anne said, with a faint hint of discontent in her tone.
Alix fixed her bright, mischievous eyes upon the two, and suspended her reading for a moment. Alix's attitude toward the opposite sex was one of calm contempt, outwardly. But she had made rather an exception of Martin Lloyd, and had recently had a conversation with him on the subject of sensible, platonic friendships between men and women. At the mention of his name she looked up, remembering this talk with a little thrill.
His name had thrilled Anne, too, although she betrayed no sign of it as she sat quietly matching silks. In fact, all three of the girls were quite ready to fall in love with young Lloyd, if two of them had not actually done so.
He was a newcomer in the little town, a tall, presentable fellow, ready with laughter, ready with words, and always more than ready for flirtation. He admitted that he liked to flirt; his gay daring had quite carried Anne's citadel, and had even gained Alix's grudging response. Cherry had not been at home when Martin first appeared in Mill Valley, and the older girls had written her, visiting friends in Napa, that she must come and meet the new man.
Martin was a mining engineer: he had been employed in a Nevada mine, but was visiting his cousin in the valley now before going to a new position in June. In its informal fashion, Mill Valley had entertained him; he had tramped to the big forest five miles away with the Stricklands, and there had been a picnic to the mountain-top, everybody making the hard climb except Peter Joyce, who was a trifle lame, and perhaps a little lazy as well, and who usually rode an old horse, with the lunch in saddle-bags at each side. Alix formulated her theories of platonic friendships on these walks; Anne dreamed a foolish, happy dream. Girls did marry, men did take wives to themselves, dreamed Anne; it would be unspeakably sweet, but it would be no miracle!
And Anne, always busy and happy and helpful, was more so than ever, unpacking the delicious lunch, capably arranging for everybody's comfort and pleasure, looking up with innocent surprise when Martin bent over her as she fussed and rearranged baskets.
"I thought you were gathering wood!"
"Did you, indeed? Let the other fellows do that. I shan't be here forever, and I'm privileged."
"Would you like me to give you something else to do?"
"No, ma'am, I'm quite happy, thank you!"
Not much in the words to remember, truly, but the tone and the look went straight to Anne's close-guarded heart. Every time she looked up at the mountain, rearing its dark crest above the little valley, they had come back to her.
That was all several weeks ago, now. It was just after that mountain picnic that Cherry had come home; on a Sunday, as it chanced, that was her eighteenth birthday, and on which Martin and his aunt were coming to dinner. Alix had marked the occasion by wearing a loose velvet gown in which she fancied herself; Anne had conscientiously decorated the table, had seen to it that there was ice-cream, and chicken, and all the accessories that make a Sunday dinner in the country a national institution. Cherry had done nothing helpful.
On the contrary, she had disgraced herself and infuriated Hong by deciding to make fudge the last minute. Hong had finally relegated her to the laundry, and it was from this limbo that Martin, laughing joyously, extricated her, when, sticky and repentant, she had called for help. It was Martin who untied the checked brown apron, disentangling from the strings the silky gold tendrils that were blowing over Cherry's white neck, and Martin who opened the door for her sugary fingers, and Martin who watched the flying little figure out of sight with a prolonged "Whew-w-w!" of utter astonishment. The child was a beauty.
But if she was beautiful when flushed and cross and sticky, there was no word for her when she presently came demurely downstairs, her exquisite little red mouth still pouting, her bright head still drooping sulkily, but her wonderful eyes glinting mischief, and the dark, tumbled apron replaced by thin white ruffles that began at Cherry's shoulders and ended above her ankles. Soft, firm round chin, straight little nose, blue eyes ringed with babyish shadows; Martin found them all adorable, as was every inch of the slender, beautifully made little body, the brown warm hand, the clear, childish forehead, the square little foot in a shining slipper.
Her eighteenth birthday! He learned that she had just put up her hair, indeed, after dinner, her father made her tumble it down in a golden mop again. "Can't lose my last girl, you know," he said to Mrs. North, Martin's aunt, seriously. Martin had been shown her birthday gifts: books and a silver belt buckle and a gold pen and stationery and handkerchiefs. A day or two later she had had another gift; had opened the tiny Shreve box with a sudden hammering at her heart, with a presage of delight. She had found a silver-topped candy jar, and the card of Mr. John Martin Lloyd, and under the name, in tiny letters, the words "O fudge!" The girls laughed over this nonsense appreciatively, but there was more than laughter in Cherry's heart.
From that moment the world was changed. Her father, her sister, her cousin had second place, now. Cherry had put out her innocent little hand, and had opened the gate, and had passed through it into the world. That hour was the beginning, and it had led her surely, steadily, to the other hour to-night when she had been kissed, and had kissed in return.
Nobody dreamed it, she told herself with innocent exultation, looking at Alix, sunk into her chair ungracefully, and at Anne, peacefully sewing. They thought of her as a child--she, who was engaged to be married!
"So--we walk home with young men?" mused the doctor, smiling. "Look here, girls, this little Miss Muffet will be cutting you both out with that young man, if you're not careful!"
Alix, deep in her story, did not hear him, but Anne smiled faintly, and faintly frowned as she shook her head. She considered Cherry sufficiently precocious without Uncle Lee's ill-considered tolerance. Anne had often told him that Cherry was the "pink-and- white type" that would attract "boys" soon enough without any encouragement from him. But he persisted in regarding her as nothing more than a captivating baby!
He would have had them always children, this tender, simple, innocent Doctor Strickland. He was in many ways a child himself. He had never made money in his profession; he and his wife and the two tiny girls had had a hard enough struggle sometimes. Anne and her own father had joined the family eight years ago, in the same year that the Strickland Patent Fire Extinguisher, over which the doctor had been puttering for years, had been sold. It did not sell, as his neighbours believed, for a million dollars, but for perhaps one tenth of that sum. It was enough, and more than enough, whatever it was. After Anne's father died it meant that the doctor could live on in the brown house under the redwoods, with his girls, reading, fussing with a new invention, walking, consulting with Anne, laughing at Alix, and spoiling his youngest- born.
The house was shingled, low, framed in wide porches, smelling within and without of the sweet woods about it. Here the Stricklands weathered the cold, damp winters, when the trees dripped and the creeks swelled, and here they watched the first emerald of spring breaking through the loam of a thousand autumns; here they hunted for iris and wild lilac in April, and hung Japanese lanterns through the long, warm summers. It was a perfect life for the old man; it was only lately that he begun uneasily to suspect that they would some day want something more, that they would some day tire of empty forest and blowing mountain ridge, and go away from the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais, and into the world.
Anne, now--was she beginning to fancy this young Lloyd? Doctor Strickland was surprised with the fervour with which he repudiated the thought. Anne had been admired, she must go to her own home some day. But her uncle hoped that it would be a neighbouring home; this young engineer, who had drifted already into a dozen different and distant places, was not the man for staid little Anne. He was twenty-eight years old, but it was not the discrepancy in years that mattered. The doctor had himself been twelve years older than his wife. No, it was something less tangible--
"What did you want to see Mr. Lloyd about to-morrow, Dad?" Cherry interrupted his thoughts to ask.
"The rose vine!" her father reminded her.
"You'll never get that back on the roof!" Alix looked up to assure him discouragingly. "I told you, when you were pruning it," she added vivaciously, "that you were cutting too deep. No--you knew it all! Now the first wind brings it down all over the place, and you get exactly what you deserve!"
Her tone was less harsh than her words; indeed, it was the tone he loved from her, that of a devoted but long-suffering mother. She came to Cherry's hassock, and dropped on it, and rested her untidy head against his knee.
"Anne aided and abetted me!" said the doctor meekly.
"To the extent of handing you your shears!" Anne said promptly.
"No, but really you know, Dad, you were a pig-headed little creature to do that!" Alix said musically. "You might just as well cut it down at the roots and plant another double banksia."
"I rather thought that Lloyd might have some idea of a tackle--or a derrick or something--" submitted her father vaguely.
"Well, if anybody can--" Anne conceded, laughing. "What did he say about coming over, Cherry?"
But Cherry had not been listening, and the conversation was reviewed for her benefit. She remarked, between two rending yawns, that Mr. Lloyd was coming over to-morrow at ten o'clock, and Peter, too--
"Peter won't be much good!" Alix commented. Cherry looked at her reproachfully.
"You're awfully mean to Peter, lately!" she protested. Her father gave her a shrewd look, with his good-night kiss, and immediately afterward both the younger girls dragged their way up to bed.
Alix and Cherry shared a bare, woody-smelling room tucked away under brown eaves. The walls were of raw pine, the latticed windows, in bungalow fashion, opened into the fragrant darkness of the night. The beds were really bunks, and above her bunk each girl had an extra berth, for occasional guests. There was scant prettiness in the room, and yet it was full of purity and charm. The girls sat upon their beds while they were undressing, and plunged upon their knees on the bare pine floor and rested their elbows upon the faded patchwork quilts while they said their prayers. Mill Valley was so healthful a little mountain village that among her two thousand residents there was only one doctor, the old man who sat by the fire downstairs, and he had formally retired from general practice. The girls, like all their neighbours, were hardy, bred to cold baths, long walks, simple hours, and simple food. In the soft Western climate they left their bedroom windows open the year round; they liked to wake to winter damp and fog, and go downstairs with blue finger-tips and chattering teeth, to warm themselves with breakfast and the fire.
So Alix said nothing when Cherry went to the window to-night, and knelt at it, looking out into the redwoods, and breathing the piney air. In the silence of the little room the girls could hear a swollen creek rushing; rich, loamy odours drifted in from the forest that had been soaked with long April rains. Cherry saw a streak of light under the door of Hong's cabin, a hundred yards away; there was no moon, it was blackness unbroken under the trees. The season was late, but the girls felt with a rush of delight that summer was with them at last; the air was soft and warm, and there was a general sense of being freed from the winter's wetness and heaviness.
Alix rolled herself in a gray army blanket, and was asleep in some sixty seconds. But Cherry felt that she was floating in seas of new joy and utter delight, and that she would never be sleepy again.
Downstairs Anne and the doctor sat staidly on, the man dreaming with a knotted forehead, the girl sewing. Presently she ran a needle through her fine white work with seven tiny stitches, folded it, and put her thimble into a case that hung from her orderly workbag with a long ribbon.
"Wait a minute, Anne," said the doctor, as she straightened herself to rise. "This young Lloyd, now--what do you think of him?"
She widened demure blue eyes.
"Should you be sorry if I--liked him, Uncle Lee?" she smiled.
The old man rumpled his silver hair restlessly.
"No-o," he said, a little ruefully. "I suppose it'll be some man some day, my dear. I've been thinking--even little Cherry seems to be growing up!"
Anne, who modelled her deportment somewhat upon the conduct of Esther in "Bleak House," came to the hassock at his knee, and sat there, looking up at him with bright affection and respect.
"Cherry's only a child," she assured him, "and Alix will not be ready to give her heart to any man for years to come! But I'm twenty-four, Uncle. And sometimes I feel ready to--to try my own wings!"
He smiled at her absently; he was thinking of her mother, an articulate, academic, resolute woman, of whom he had never been fond.
"That's the way the wind blows, eh?" he asked kindly.
Anne widened her pretty eyes.
"Well--you see how much he's here! You see the flowers and books and notes. I'm not the sort of girl to wear my heart on my sleeve," Anne, who was fond of small conservational tags, assured him merrily. "But there must be some fire where there's so much smoke!" she ended.
"You're not sure, my dear?" he asked, after some thought.
"Oh, no!" she answered. "It's just a fancy that persists in coming and going. You know, Uncle Lee," Anne pursued, confidentially, "I've always had rather a high ideal of marriage. I've always said that the man I would marry must be a big man--oh, I don't mean only physically! I mean morally, mentally--a man among men!"
"And you think young Lloyd--answers that description, eh?"
"I think he does, Uncle Lee," she answered seriously. And immediately afterward she got to her feet, saying brightly, "Well! we mustn't take this too gravely--yet. It was only that I wanted to be open and above-board with you, Uncle, from the beginning. That's the only honest way."
"That's wise and right!" her uncle answered, in the kindly, absent tone he had used to them as children, a tone he was apt to use to Anne when she was in her highest mood, and one she rather resented.
"Cherry, now--" he asked, detaining her for a moment. "She--you don't think that perhaps Peter admires her?"
"Peter!" Anne echoed amazedly, and stood thinking.
Peter was more than thirty years old, thin, scholarly, something of a solitary, the sweet, dreamy, affectionate neighbour who had shared the girls' lives for the past ten years. Cherry had bullied Peter since her babyhood, ruined his piano with sticky fingers, trampled his rose-beds, coaxed him into asking her father to let her sit up for dinner. For some reason she could not, or would not, define, Anne liked the idea of Cherry and Peter falling in love--
"Somehow one doesn't think of Peter as marrying any one--" she said slowly, still trying to grasp the thought. "He's so--self- sufficient," she added, shaking her head. "You--you wouldn't like that, Uncle?"
"Peter is a dear fellow," the doctor mused. "But Cherry--why, she's barely eighteen! He--" The old man hesitated, began again: "I suppose there's no reason why Peter shouldn't kiss her, in a-- brotherly sort of way?" he submitted doubtfully.
"Did he kiss her?" Anne exclaimed.
"I don't know that he did," Cherry's father said hastily.
"But what made you think he did?" the girl persisted.
"Just a fancy," he assured her. "Just an old father's fear that she is growing up too fast!"
"Because we all, and you especially, spoil her," Anne reminded him, smiling. "Peter," she added thoughtfully, "has kissed us all, now and then!" She stooped for a dutiful good-night kiss, and was gone. And as she went, lightly and swiftly across the hall, up the stairway with her shoulders erect, and methodically and prettily moved about her brushing and folding and disrobing, she saw herself engaged to be married, saw herself veiled and mystical in white, on her Uncle's arm, heard the old neighbours and friends saying that little Anne Strickland had gone to her own home, and had won the love of a fine man.
Downstairs, the doctor sat on, thinking, and his face was grave. He was thinking of little Cherry's goodnight kiss, half an hour ago. She had rested against his arm, and he had held her there, but what had been the thoughts behind the blue eyes so near his own? Perhaps Anne was right--perhaps Anne was right. But he realized with a great rush of fear that some man had kissed Cherry to-night, had held her against a tobacco-scented coat, and that the girl was a woman, and an awakened woman at that. Cherry-- kissed a man! Her father's heart winced away from the thought.
Young Lloyd and Peter had walked home with her. But if Anne was right in her maidenly suspicions of Lloyd's intentions, then it must have been Peter who surprised little Cherry with a sudden embrace. Lloyd had been hurrying for a train, too; the case looked clear for Peter.
And as he came to his conclusions, a certain relief crept into the old man's heart. Peter was an odd fellow; he was ten years too old for the child. But Peter was a lover of books and gardens and woods and music, after all, and Peter's father and this old man musing by the fire had been "Lee" and "Paul" to each other since boyhood. Peter might give Cherry a kiss as innocently as a brother; in any case, Peter would wait for her, would be all consideration and tenderness when he did win her.
"But I think perhaps she might go down to the San Jose school for half a term," her father reflected. "Six months there did wonders for Alix. No use precipitating things--the next few years are pretty important for all the girls. We mustn't let her fancy that the first man who turns her head with compliments is the right partner for life! Alix, now--somehow she wasn't like Cherry, at eighteen."
He smiled at a sudden memory of Alix, who was chicken-farming at that age, and generally unpleasantly redolent of incubators, chopped feed, and mire. He seemed to remember Alix shouting that if Peter Joyce was going to live in their house, she would move somewhere else! Cherry was different.
Cherry, he reflected fearfully, was as pretty as her mother had been at eighteen, with the same rounded chin and apricot cheeks, and the same shadowed innocent blue eyes with a film of corn- coloured hair blown across them. She had the strange, the indefinable quality that without words, almost without glances, draws youth toward youth, draws admiration and passion, draws life and all its pain. Her father for the first time to-night formulated in his heart the thought that she might be happily married--
Married--nonsense! Why, what did she know of life, of submission and courage and sacrifice? At the first strain, at the first real test, she would want to run home to her Daddy again, to "stop playing"--! It would be years, many years, before the snowy frills, and the pale gold head, and the firm, brown little hand would be ready for that!
Not many hours after he went slowly up to bed morning began to creep into the little valley. The redwoods turned gray, and then dark green, the fog stirred, and a first shaft of bright sunlight struck across a shoulder of the hills, and pierced the shadows about the brown bungalow. Alix, at her early bath, heard quail calling, and looked out to see the last of the fog vanishing at eight o'clock, and to get a wet rush of fragrance from the Persian lilac, blooming this year for the first time. At half-past eight she came out into the garden, to find her father somewhat ruefully studying the tumbled ruins of the yellow banksia rose. The garden was still wet, but warming fast; she picked a plume of dark and perfumed heliotrope, and began to fasten it in his coat lapel while she kissed him.
"We'll never get that back on the roof, my dear boy," Alix said maternally.
Her father pursed his lips, shook his head doubtfully. The rose, a short, week ago, had been spreading fan-like branches well toward the ridge-pole, a story and a half above their heads. But the great wind of yestereve that had ended the spring and brought in the summer had dragged it from its place and flung it, a jumble of emerald leaves and sweet clusters of creamy blossoms, across the path and the steps of the porch. Alix looked up at the outward curve of the reversed branches, bent almost to the splitting point in the unfamiliar direction, and whistled. She tentatively tugged at a loose spray, and stood biting her thumb.
"Why it should have kept its place for fifteen years and then suddenly flopped, is a mystery to me!" she observed resentfully.
"Well, the truth is," her father confessed, "you were quite right last night. When I pruned it, a week ago, I may have undermined it."
"You never will listen to reason!" his daughter remarked absently, her attention distracted by the setter puppy who came clumsily gambolling toward her. "Hello, old Bumpydoodles!" she added, with rich affection, kissing the dog's silky head, and burying both hands in his feathered collar. "Hello, old Buck!"
"Alexandra, for heaven's sake stop handling that brute!" said Peter Joyce disgustedly, coming up the path. "I dare say you've not had your breakfast, either. Go wash your hands! 'Morning, Doctor!"
Father and daughter turned to smile upon him, a tall, lean man, with a young face and a finely groomed head, and with touches of premature silver at his temples. He was very much at home here, had been their closest friend for many years.
He was a bachelor, just entering his thirties, a fastidious, critical, exacting man by reputation, but showing his best side to the Stricklands. They had a vague idea that he was rich, according to their modest standard, but he apparently had no extravagant tastes, and lived as quietly, or more quietly, than they did. He had a brown cabin, up on the mountain, where two or three Portuguese boys and an old, fat Chinese cook managed his affairs, and he sometimes spoke of friends at the club, or brought two or three men home with him for a visit. But for the most part he liked solitude, books, music, dogs, and his fireside. The old doctor's one social enjoyment was in visiting Peter, and the younger man went to no other place so steadily as he came to the old house under the redwoods.
The girls accepted him unquestioningly, sometimes resenting his frank criticism, sometimes grateful for the entertaining he delighted to do for them, but most often ignoring him, as if he had been an uncle whose place and standing in the domestic circle was unquestioned, but who did not really enter into their young plans and lives. He was whimsically, good-naturedly disapproving of Alexandra, and he frankly did not like Anne, but he had always been especially indulgent to Cherry, and had taken the subject of Cherry's schooling and development very seriously. And Cherry treated him, in return, as if she had been his demure and mischievous and affectionate daughter.
"'Morning, Peter!" said Doctor Strickland now, smiling at him. "Have you had yours?"
"My house," said Mr. Joyce fastidiously, "is a well-managed place."
"Of course," Alix said, panting from her welcome to the dog, and laughing at the newcomer without resentment, "of course it is, for the President Emeritus of the Maiden Ladies' Guild is running it!"
"Don't be insulting," Peter answered, in the same mood. "Say," he added, pursing his lips to whistle, as he looked at the rose tree, "did Tuesday's wind do that?"
"Tuesday's wind and Dad," Alix answered. "Will it go back, Peter?"
"I--I don't know!" he mused, walking slowly about the wreck. "If we had a lever down here, and some fellow on the roof with a rope, maybe."
"Mr. Lloyd is coming over!" Alix announced. Peter nodded absently, but the mention of Martin Lloyd reminded him that they had all dined at his house on the very evening when the mysterious gale had commenced, and with interest he asked:
"Cherry catch cold coming home Tuesday night?"
"No; she squeezed in between Dad and me, and was as warm as toast!" Alix answered casually. "How'd you like Mr. Lloyd?" she added.
"Nice fellow!" Peter answered. Alix grinned. She had before this accused Peter of violent partisanship with his own sex. He criticized women severely; the Strickland girls had often been angry and resentful at his comments upon the insincerity, extravagance, and ignorance of their own sex, but with Peter, all men were worthy of respect, until otherwise proved.
"He's awfully nice," Alix agreed.
"Who is he?" Peter asked curiously. "Where are his people and all that?"
"His people live in Portland," the girl answered. "He's a mining engineer, and he's waiting now to be called to El Nido; he's to be at a mine there. He's lots of fun--when you know him, really!"
"Talking of the new Prince Charming, of course," Anne said, joining them, and linking an arm in her Uncle's and in Alix's arm. "Don't bring that puppy in, Alix, please! Breakfast, Uncle Lee. Come and have another cup of coffee, Peter!"
"Prince Charming, eh?" Peter echoed thoughtfully, as they all turned toward a delicious drift of the odour of bacon and coffee, and crossed the porch to the dining room. "I was going down for the mail, but now I'll have to stay and see this rose matter through! Thanks, Anne, but I'll watch you."
"Afraid of getting fatter?" Alix speculated, shaking out her napkin. "You are fatter," she added, with a calm conviction.
"Do you always say the thing that will give the most offence?" Peter asked, annoyed. "Where's Cherry?" he added, glancing about.
Cherry answered the question herself by trailing in in a Japanese wrapper, and beginning to drink her coffee with bare, slender arms resting on the table. Nobody protested, the adored youngest was usually given her way. Alix's indifference to the niceties of her toilet had been seriously combated, years ago, but Cherry was so young, and so pretty in any dress or undress, that it was impossible to regard her little lapses with any gravity. Moreover, the family realized perfectly that Alix would have clipped her thick hair, and taken to bloomers or knickerbockers outright, at the slightest encouragement, and would gladly have breakfasted in a wrapper, or in her petticoats, or while about the woods with her dogs, whereas nobody could know Cherry and not know that every weakness of which the feminine heart is capable, for frills and toilet waters, creams and laces, was dormant under the childish negligence.
"I heard you all laughing, under the window and it--woke--me--up!" Cherry said dreamily.
"It seems to me," Anne, who had been eying her uneasily, said lightly, "that someone I know is getting pretty old to come downstairs in that rig when strangers are here!"
"It seems to me this is just as decent as lots of things--bathing suits, for instance!" Cherry returned instantly, gathering the robe about her, and giving Anne a resentful glance over her blue cup.
"Peter, are you a stranger?" Alix said. "If Peter's a stranger," she added animatedly, "what is an intimate friend? Peter walks through this house at all hours; you can't wash your hair or do a little ironing without having Peter under your feet; he borrows money from me; he bullies Hong about wasting butter--"
"Also you borrow money from me, my child, don't forget that," Peter interrupted serenely, peeling an apple. "I don't come to see you, Alix."
"I have a rope somewhere--" the doctor ruminated. "Where did I put that long rope--what did I have it for, in the first place--"
"You had it to guy the apple tree," Alix reminded him. "Don't you remember you got a regular ship's cable to tie that tree, and it never worked? The tree that died after all--"
"Ah, yes!" said her father, his attentive face brightening. "Ah, yes! Now where is that rope?" But even as Alix observed that she had seen it somewhere, and advanced a tentative guess as to the cellar, his eyes fell upon Cherry, and went from Cherry's absorbed face--for she was dreaming over her breakfast--to Peter, and he wondered if Peter had kissed her.
"Come on, let's get at it!" Alix exclaimed with relish. She loved a struggle of any description, had prepared for this one with sleeves rolled to the elbows, and had put on heavy shoes and her briefest skirt. "Come on, Sweetums," she added, to the dog, who had somehow wormed his way into the dining room, and was beating the floor with an obsequious tail. She caught his forepaws, and he whipped his beautiful tail between his legs, and looked about with agonized eyes while she dragged him through a clumsy dance. "He's the darlingest pup we ever had!" Alix stated to Cherry, who was departing for the upper regions and a complete costume.
"He needs a bath," Anne observed coldly, and Peter's abrupt shout of laughter made Alix flush angrily.
"Bring your cigarette out here, Peter," the old doctor said, crossing the garden to look in the abandoned greenhouse for his rope. "We're in no hurry," he said. "We may as well wait until Lloyd comes along; the fellow's arms are like flails. You---" the old man opened a reluctant door, peered into a glassed space filled with muddy shelves and empty flower-pots and spiderwebs. "It's not here," he stated. Then he began again, "You brought Cherry home last night?" he asked.
"As a matter of fact, I didn't," Peter answered, in his quick, precise tones. "I came with Lloyd and Cherry as far as the bridge, then I cut up the hill. Why?" he added sharply. "What's up?"
"Nothing's up," Doctor Strickland said slowly. "But I think that Lloyd admires--or is beginning to admire--her," he said.
"Who--Cherry!" Peter exclaimed, with distaste and incredulity in his tone.
"You don't think so?" the doctor, looking at him wistfully, asked eagerly.
"Why, certainly not!" Peter said quickly. "Certainly not," he added, frowning, with his eyes narrowed, and his look fixed upon the vista of woodland.
"I had a fancy that he might have been putting notions into her head," her father said, anxious to be reassured.
"But--great Scott!" Peter said, his face very red, "she's much younger than Anne and Alix--"
"It doesn't always go by that," the doctor suggested.
"No, I know it doesn't," Peter answered in his quick, annoyed fashion.
"I should be sorry," Cherry's father admitted.
"Sorry!" Peter echoed impatiently. "But it's quite out of the question, of course! It's quite out of the question. You mustn't-- we mustn't--let ourselves get scared about the first man that looks at her. She--she wouldn't consider him for an instant," he suddenly decided in great satisfaction. "You mustn't forget that she has something to do with it! Very fastidious, Cherry. She's not like other girls!"
"That's true--that's true!" Doctor Strickland agreed, in great relief. They turned back toward the garden, in time to meet Alix and several dogs streaming across the clearing. Over the girl's shoulder was coiled the great rope; she leaped various logs and small bushes as she came, and the dogs barked madly and leaped with her. Breathless, she stumbled and fell into her father's arms, and both men had the same thought, one that made them smile upon her tomboyishness indulgently: "If this is twenty-one-- eighteen is three long years younger and less responsible!"