Chapter X
 

Alexandra Strickland, coming down the stairway of the valley house on an April evening, glanced curiously at the door. Her eyes moved to the old clock, and a smile tugged involuntarily at the corners of her mouth. Only eight o'clock, but the day had been so long and so quiet that she had fancied that the hour was much later, and had wondered who knocked so late.

She crossed to the door and opened it to darkness and rain, and to a man in a raincoat, who whipped off a spattered cap and stood smiling in the light of the lamp she held. Instantly, with a sort of gasp of surprise and pleasure and some deeper emotion, she set down the lamp, and held out her hands gropingly and went into his arms. He laughed joyously as he kissed her, and for a minute they clung together.

"Peter!" she said. "You angel--when did you arrive and what are you doing, and tell me all about it!"

"But, Alix--you're thin!" Peter said, holding her at arm's length. "And--and--" He gently touched the black she wore, and fixed puzzled and troubled eyes upon her face. "Alix--" he asked, apprehensively.

For answer she tried to smile at him, but her lips trembled and her eyes brimmed. She had led the way into the old sitting room now, and Peter recognized, with a thrill of real feeling, the shabby rugs and books and pictures, and the square piano beside which he had watched Cherry's fat, childish hand on the scales so many times, and Alix scowling over her songs.

"You heard--about Dad?" Alix faltered now, turning to face him at the mantel.

"Your father!" Peter said, shocked.

"But hadn't you heard, Peter?"

"My dear--my dearest child, I'm just off the steamer. I got in at six o'clock. I'd been thinking of you all the time, and I suddenly decided to cross the bay and come straight on to the valley, before I even went to the club or got my mail! Tell me--your father--"

She had knelt before the cold hearth, and he knelt beside her, and they busied themselves with logs and kindling in the old way. A blaze crept up about the logs and Alix accepted Peter's handkerchief and wiped a streak of soot from her wrist, quite as if she was a child again, as she settled herself in her chair.

Peter took the doctor's chair, keeping his concerned and sympathetic eyes upon her.

"He was well one day," she said, simply, "and the next--the next, he didn't come downstairs, and Hong waited and waited--and about nine o'clock I went up--and he had fallen--he had fallen--"

She was in tears again and Peter put his hand out and covered hers and held it. Their chairs were touching, and as he leaned forward, their faces might almost have touched, too.

"He must have been going to call someone," said Alix, after a while, "they said he never suffered at all. This was January, the last day, and Cherry got here that same night. He knew us both toward morning. And that--that was all. Cherry was here for two weeks. Martin came and went--"

"Where is Cherry now?" Peter interrupted.

"Back at Red Creek." Alix wiped her eyes. "She hates it, but Martin had a good position there. Poor Cherry, it made her ill."

"Anne came?"

"Anne and Justin, of course." Peter could not understand Alix's expression. She fell silent, still holding his hand and looking at the fire.

He had not seen her for nearly six months; he had been all around the world; had found her gay, affectionate letters in London, in Athens, in Yokohama. But for three months now he had been away from the reach of mails, roughing it on a friend's hemp plantation in Borneo, and if she had written, the letter was as yet undelivered. He looked at her with a great rush of admiration and affection. She was not only a pretty and a clever woman; but, in her plain black, with this new aspect of gravity and dignity, and with new notes of pathos and appeal in her exquisite voice, he realized that she was an extremely charming woman.

More than that, she stood for home, for the dearly familiar and beloved things for which he had been so surprisingly homesick. His mountain cabin and the old house in San Francisco on Pacific Avenue; she belonged to his memories of them both; she was the only woman in the world that he knew well.

Before he said good-bye to her, he had asked her to marry him. He well remembered her look of bright and interested surprise.

"D'you mean to tell me you have forgotten your lady love of the hoop-skirts and ringlets?" she had demanded.

"She never wore ringlets and crinolines!" he had answered.

"Well, bustles and pleats, then?"

"No," Peter had told her, frankly. "I shall always love her, in a way. But she is married; she never thinks of me. And I like you so much, Alix; I like our music and cooking and tramps and reading-- together. Isn't that a pretty good basis for marriage?"

"No!" Alix had answered, decidedly. "Perhaps if I were madly in love with you I should say yes, and trust to little fingers to lead you gently, and so on--"

He remembered ending the conversation in one of his quick moods of irritation against her. If she couldn't take anybody or anything seriously--he had said.

Poor Alix--she was taking life seriously enough to-night, Peter thought, as he watched her.

"Tell me about Cherry," he said.

"Cherry is well, but just a little thin, and heart-broken now, of course. Martin never seems to stay at any one place very long, so I keep hoping--"

"Doesn't make good!" Peter said, shaking his head.

"Doesn't seem to! It's partly Cherry, I think," Alix said honestly. "She was too young, really. She never quite settles down, or takes life in earnest. But he's got a contract now for three years, and so she seems to be resigning herself, and she has a maid, I believe."

"She must love him," Peter submitted. Alix looked surprised.

"Why not?" she smiled. "I suppose when you've had ups and downs with a man, and been rich and poor, and sick and well, and have lived in half-a-dozen different places, you rather take him for granted!" she added.

"Oh, you think it works that way?" Peter asked, with a keen look.

"Well, don't you think so? Aren't lots of marriages like that?"

"You false alarm. You quitter!" he answered.

Alix laughed, a trifle guiltily. Also she flushed, with a great wave of splendid young colour that made her face look seventeen again. "Your father left you--something, Alix?" Peter asked presently, with some hesitation.

"That," she answered frankly, "is where Anne comes in!"

"Anne?"

"Anne and Justin came straight over," Alix went on, "and they were really lovely. And they asked me to come to them for a visit--but I couldn't very well; they live with his mother, you know, Amanda Price Little, who writes the letters to the Chronicle about educating children and all that. Doctor Younger and George Sewall were here every day; you and George were named as executors. I was so mixed up in policies and deeds and overdue taxes and interest and bonds--"

"Poor old Alix, if I had only been here to help you!" the man said. And for a moment they looked a little consciously at each other.

"Well, anyway," the girl resumed hastily, "when it came to reading the will, Anne and Justin sprung a mine under us! It seems that ten years ago, when the Strickland Patent Fire Extinguisher was put upon the market, my adorable father didn't have much money--he never did have, somehow. So Anne's father, my Uncle Vincent, went into it with him to the extent of about three thousand dollars--"

"Three thousand!" Peter, who had been leaning forward, earnestly attentive, echoed in relief.

"That was all. Dad had about three hundred. They had to have a laboratory and some expensive retorts and things, it seems. Dad did all the work, and put in his three hundred, and Uncle Vincent put in three thousand--and the funny thing is," Alix broke off to say, musingly, "Uncle Vincent was perfectly splendid about it; I myself remember him saying, 'Don't worry, Lee. I'm speculating on my own responsibility, not yours.'"

"Well?" Peter prompted, as she hesitated.

"Well. They had a written agreement then, giving Uncle Vincent a third interest in the patent, should it be sold or put on the market--"

"Ha!" Peter ejaculated, struck.

"Which, of course, was only a little while before Uncle Vincent died," Alix went on, with a grave nod. "The agreement lay in Dad's desk all these years--fancy how easily he might have burned it many's the time! But he didn't. George Sewall says that Anne is right."

"But wasn't Anne third heiress anyway, under his will? I know I've heard--"

"Certainly she was. But a third interest now, in a diminished estate that began at something less than one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, is quite different from a third of it ten years ago, plus compound interest," Alix said, bringing her clear brows together with a quizzical smile. "They've broken the will."

Peter, in the silence, whistled expressively.

"Gee--rusalem!" he exclaimed. "What does it come to?"

At this Alix looked very sober, gazed down at the fire, and shook her head.

"All he had!" she answered, briefly.

Peter was silent, looking at her in stupefaction.

"Almost, that is," Alix amended more cheerfully. "As it was--we should have had more than thirty thousand apiece. As it is, Anne gets it all, or if not quite all, nearly all."

"Gets!" he echoed, hotly. "How do you mean?"

"It seems to be perfectly just," the girl answered, rather lifelessly. But immediately she laughed. "Don't look so awful, Peter. In the first place, Cherry and I still have the house. In the second place, I am singing at St. Raphael's for five hundred a year, and singing other places now and then."

"Alix, aren't you corking!" he said, with his pleasantest smile.

"Am I?" she asked, smiling. But immediately the smile melted, and her lips shook. "Anyway, I'm glad you're home again, Peter!" she added.

"Home again," he answered, half-angrily. "I should hope I am--and high time, too! Has this--this money been turned over to Anne?"

"Not yet. Nobody gets anything until the estate is cleared--a year or more from now."

"And do you tell me that she will have the effrontery to take it?"

"Rather! She said to me, 'Isn't it wonderful that Justin saw it at once, and I never would have seen it!' She was quite sweet and merry over it--"

"Great Lord! Does she know that it's practically all your father had?"

Alix hesitated.

"Well, you see there had been mismanagement, Peter. Dad speculated, and lost some. And we were a pretty heavy expense for a good many years. I hated to expose the whole thing, and George-- he's been splendid--said that they probably had a perfectly valid claim, anyway. There are some things to be thankful for," Alix added, dashing the sudden tears from her eyes, "and one is that Dad never knew it!"

"I can't tell you how surprised I am at Anne," Peter said.

"Well, we all were!" Alix confessed. "But it's just Anne's odd little self-centred way," she added. "It was here, and she wanted it. She belongs heart and soul to the Little family now, and she is quite triumphant over being of so much help to Justin. They're to build a house in Berkeley. Anne has it all worked out!" Alix said, with amused distaste. "Well--I let Hong go, and as soon as I can rent this house, I'm going to New York."

"Why New York, my dear girl?"

"Because I believe I can make a living there, singing and teaching and generally struggling with life!" she answered, cheerfully. "Cherry gets most of the money--they are always somewhat in debt, and I imagine that the reason she is able to have a nice apartment and a maid now is because she knows it is coming--and I get the house, and enough money to keep me going--say, a year, in New York."

"Do you want to go, Alix?" he said, affectionately.

"Yes, I think I do," she answered. But her eyes watered. "I do--in a way," she added. "That is, I love my singing, and the thought of making a success is delightful to me. But of course it means that I give up everything else. I can't have home life, and--and the valley--for years, four or five anyway, I'll have to give all that up. And I'm twenty-seven, Peter. And I'd always rather hoped that my music was going to be a domestic variety--"She stopped, smiling, but he saw the pain in her eyes. "George Sewall most kindly asked me to mother his small son--" she resumed, casually. "But although he is the dearest--"

"Sewall did!" Peter exclaimed, rather struck. "Great Scott! his father is one of the richest men in San Francisco."

"I know it," Alix agreed. "And he is one of the nicest men," she added. "But of course he'll never really love any one but Ursula. And I felt--oh, I felt too tired and alone and depressed to enter upon congratulations and clothes and family dinners with the Sewalls," she ended, a little drearily. "I wanted--I wanted things in the old way--as they were--" she said, her voice thickening.

"I know--I know!" Peter said, sympathetically. And for a while there was silence in the little house, while the rain fell steadily upon the dark forest without, and soaked branches swished about eaves and windows. "Can you put me up to-night?" he asked, suddenly. He liked her frank pleasure.

"Rather! I think Cherry's room was made up fresh last Monday," she told him. "And to-morrow," she added, with a brightening face, "we'll walk up to your house, and see what six months of Kow's uninterrupted sway have done to it!"

"That's just what we'll do!" he agreed, enthusiastically. "And we'll have some music--"

She had risen, as if for good-nights, and was now beside the old square piano, where she had placed the lamp.

"I haven't touched it--since--" she said, sadly, sitting on the stool, and with her eyes still smiling on him, putting back the hinged cover. And a moment later her hands, with the assurance and ease of the adept, drifted into one of the songs of the old days.

"Do you remember the day we put the rose tree back, Peter?" she asked. "When Martin was almost a stranger? And do you remember the day Cherry and I fell into the Three Wells and you and Dad had to disappear while we dried our clothing on branches of trees? And do you remember the day we made biscuits, over by the ocean?"

"I remember all the days," he answered, deeply stirred.

"We didn't see all this, then," Alix mused, still playing softly. "Anne claiming everything for her husband, you and I here talking of Dad's death, and Cherry married--" She sighed.

"She's not happy?" he questioned quickly.

Alix shrugged, pursing her lips doubtfully.

"She's not unhappy," she told him, with a troubled smile. "It's just one of those marriages that don't ever get anywhere, and don't ever stop," she added. "Martin has faults, he's unreasonable, and he makes enemies. But those aren't the faults for which a woman can leave her husband. Oh, Peter," she added, laying a smooth warm hand on his, and looking straight into his eyes with her honest eyes, "don't go away again! Stay here in the valley for a week or two, and help me get everything worked out and thought out--I've been so much alone!"

"Dear old Alix!" he said, sitting down on the bench beside her and putting his arm about her. She dropped her head on his shoulder, and so they sat, very still, for a long minute. Alix's hand went to her own shoulder, and her fingers tightened on his, and she breathed deep, contented breaths, like a child.

"Somebody ought to wire Mrs. Grundy, collect," she said, after awhile.

"We will defy Mrs. Grundy, my dear," Peter said, kissing the top of a soft brown braid, "by trotting off hand in hand tomorrow and getting ourselves married. Why, Alix, he gave us his consent years ago--don't you remember?"

"He did wish it!" she said, and burst into tears.

"I seem to be doing things in a slightly irregular manner," she said to him the next day, when they had gotten breakfast together, and were basking in the sunlight of the upper deck of the ferryboat, on their way to the city. "I spend the night before my marriage alone--alone in a small country house hidden in the woods--with my betrothed, and propose to buy my trousseau immediately after the ceremony!"

"I feel like saying to you what the dear old French archbishop said to the small child," Peter smiled, marvelling a little nonetheless at her untouched serenity. "He was speaking to all the children in some institution, and came to this little one: 'Et tu etes negre? Ah, bien--bien, continuez--continuez!' It's what makes you yourself, Alix, doing everything just a little differently."

"Marrying you, far from seeming a radical or momentous thing to do," she assured him, "seems to me like getting back into key-- getting out of this bad dream of loneliness and change--securing something that I thought was lost!"

Her voice fell to a dreamy note, and she watched the gulls, wheeling in the sunshine, with thoughtful, smiling eyes. The man glanced at her once or twice, in the silence that followed, with something like hesitation, or compunction, in his look.

"Look here, Alix--let's talk. I want to ask you something. Or, rather, I want to tell you something--or, rather--"

"Continuez--continuez!" she said, laughing, as he hesitated.

"There's never been anything--anything to tell you--or your father, if he was here," Peter said, flushed and a trifle awkward, "I'm not that kind of a man. I was a crippled kid, as you know, all for books and music and walks and older people. But there has been that one thing--that one woman--"

Flushed, too, she was looking at him with bright, intelligent eyes.

"But I thought she never even knew--"

"No, she never did!"

Alix looked back at the gulls.

"Oh, well, then--" she said, indifferently.

"Alix, would you like to know about her?" Peter said bravely. "Her name--and everything?"

"Oh, no, please, I'd much rather not!" she intercepted him hastily, and after a pause she added, "Our marriage isn't the usual marriage, in that way. I mean I'm not jealous, and I'm not going to cry my eyes out because there was another woman--is another woman, who meant more to you, or might have! I'm going into it with my eyes wide open, Peter. I know you love me, and I love you, and we both like the same things, and that's enough."

Three weeks later he remembered the moment, and asked her again. They were in the valley house now, and a bitter storm was whirling over the mountain. Peter's little cabin rocked to the gale, but they were warm and comfortable beside the fire; the room was lamp- lighted, scented by Alix's sweet single violets, white and purple, spilling themselves from a glass bowl, and by Peter's pipe, and by the good scent of green bay burning. The Joyces had had a happy day, had climbed the hills under a lowering sky, had come home to dry clothes and to cooking, for Kow was away, and had finally shared an epicurean meal beside the fire.

Peter was wrapped in deep content; the companionship of this normal, pretty woman, her quick words and quick laugh, her music, her glancing, bright interest in anything and everything, was the richest experience of his life. She had said that she would change nothing in his home, but her clever white fingers had changed everything. There was order now, there was charming fussing and dusting, there were flowers in bowls, and books set straight, and there was just the different little angle to piano and desk and chairs and tables that made the cabin a home at last. She wanted bricks for a path; he had laughed at her fervent, "Do give me a whole carload of bricks for Christmas, Peter!" She wanted bulbs to pot. He had lazily suggested that they open the town house while carpenters and painters remade the cabin, but she had protested hotly, "Oh, do let's keep it just as it always was!"

Smiling, he gave her her way. She amused him day after day. He watched her, marvelling at the miracle that was woman. He heard her in the kitchen, interrogating the Chinese: "You show me picture your little boy!" He heard her inveigling Antone, the old Italian labourer, into confidences.

Tonight he watched her in great satisfaction; he liked to have her here in his home, one of the pretty Stricklands, Peter Joyce's wife. Nobody else was here, nobody else belonged here, they were masters of their own lives. She quite captivated him by her simplicity and frankness; she washed her masses of brown hair and shook it loose in the sunshine, and she came in wet more than once, and changed her shoes before the fire--just as she had years ago, when she was a madcap little girl running wild through the woods.

They had been talking of Cherry, as they often did. Alix's favourite topic was her little sister; she had almost a maternal pride and fondness where Cherry was concerned. Today she had been house-cleaning, and had brought some treasures downstairs. She had showed Peter Cherry's old exercise books: "Look, Peter, how she put faces in the naughts and turned the sevens into little sail- boats! And see the straggling letters--'Charity Strickland!' I've always hated to destroy them. She was such a lazy, cunning little scholar!"

Peter, smiling at the old books, had remembered her, a small, square Cherry, with a film of gold falling over a blazing cheek, and mutinous blue eyes. Ah--the wonderful eyes were wonderful even then--

The date gave him a moment's shock. Only eight--only seven years ago she had been a schoolgirl! Cherry was not yet twenty-three--

"I wish she had married a little differently," Alix said, thoughtfully. "Cherry isn't exacting. But she does like pretty gowns and pretty rooms, and to do things as other girls do!"

"You should have married the mining engineer," he told her. "Red Creek would have had no terrors for you!

"I should have loved it!" she agreed, carelessly.

A curious expression flashed into her face. She was smiling; but immediately the smile faded, and she looked back at the fire with puzzled eyes.

"If I loved a man, Peter, the place and the house and the money wouldn't matter much!" she answered after awhile, in a slightly strained voice.

"Perhaps," he suggested, still thinking of Cherry, "that's the trouble!"

She gave him a quick, almost frightened look.

"The--the trouble?" she stammered. And with a little ashamed laugh she added, "What trouble?"

For a long time he looked at her in silence, at first puzzled, gradually fitting meaning and interpretation to his words and her own. Presently their eyes met, and with her little gruff boyish laugh she came over to the low seat at his knee.

"You see that there is something just a little wrong, then?" she asked.

"Between you and me, Alix?" he questioned in return, his fine hand tight upon hers, and his affectionate, brotherly look searching her face.

"Well, don't you, Peter?" she countered.

"I hadn't noticed anything, my dear, except that you are making a lonely, solitary man a very happy one," he answered, with his grave smile.

"But that--" she contended, with scarlet cheeks, but bravely "-- that isn't marriage!"

"What ought marriage be?" he smiled, half humouring her, half concerned.

For answer she looked keenly, almost wistfully, into his face. He had noticed this look more than once of late.

"I don't know," she said softly, after awhile, with a little discouraged shrug of her shoulders. "I always thought that when a man and a woman liked each other--oh, thoroughly--liked the same things, had everything in common, that that was enough. And--for the woman I was a month ago, it would have been enough, Peter!" she added in a puzzled tone.

"You've changed then, Mrs. Joyce?"

"That's it," she agreed. "I'm not the same woman. I couldn't, as a girl, estimate what life was going to be as a wife."

"Perhaps no girl can," he suggested, interested now.

"Well, that's just what I'm thinking, Peter!" she smiled, a little ruefully. And again she gave him the look that was new, that was not all timid nor wistful nor appealing, yet somehow partook of all three. "You see, you feel that nothing can change you," she elucidated further, "and you are perfectly sure of yourself, from your old standpoint. And then the--well, the mental and spiritual and physical miracle of marriage does change you, and it is as if you had entered into a contract for a totally strange woman!"

She was so intent, so bright and earnest, as she turned a fire- flushed face to his, that he felt an odd moisture pricking his eyes.

"Alix," he said, affectionately, "where do I fail you?"

For a moment she was silent, her bright eyes fixed on his. Gradually the serious look on her face lightened, and her customary smile twitched at the corners of her mouth.

"I married you under a misapprehension," she said. "I thought you had about three hundred dollars a year! It appears that you have more than that every month--every week, for all I know--"

"You knew my mother had that old Pacific Avenue place!" he answered with concern. "I never for one second deceived--"

"Oh, you idiot!" Alix laughed. "I don't mind being rich at all, I like it. I don't want to live in the city, or join women's clubs, and all that, but I like having my own check-book--truly, I do! As for all the silver and portraits and rugs and things, why, we may like them some day."

He was not listening to her; there was a sorry look in his eyes.

"You know, Alix," he said, suddenly, "you've made life a different thing to me. I never had any woman near me before, and to hear your voice about the house, and your piano, and your laugh--why, it's wonderful to me. I've been alone here so many years, not knowing really how much of life I missed, and you've brought it all to me. Why, even to have Mrs. Florence at the post office ask me for 'Mrs. Joyce,' gives me a warm, happy sort of feeling! I--" he stroked the smooth hand under his own; there was real emotion in his voice, "I'd do a good deal to show you how grateful I am, old girl," he finished. "I wish you could tell me where I fail, and I'd move heaven and earth to please you!"

"The point is," Alix said, with her mischievous smile, as she twisted the heavy ring he wore, "do I fail you? I know I don't flush with delight when you give me a smile, and tremble with fear at your frown! I know that the smell of my hair doesn't make you turn pale, and the touch of my hand make you dizzy! There's no fury, fire, and madness--"

She laughed, and he laughed, too, a little reproachfully.

"You never will be serious for more than two minutes, Alexandra, my child!" he said.

Alix did not answer. She sat staring at the fire for another minute or two, and her eyes brightened childishly, had he but seen them. But she did not give another look at him. With a great fling of her arms she rested her head between two elbows for a second, tousled her hair, and yawned.

"I'm going to bed!" she announced. "I'm so glad I married a man who is accustomed to banking the fire and opening windows and putting out lamps every night. You," she had reached the door of their room now, and already the silky braids were freed, and tumbled about her shoulders, "you spoil me, Pete!" she said, between them. "Our marriage may be different, but it has its good points!"

"Sure you're happy?" he smiled.

The familiar little answer came confidently. He heard her humming as she undressed in a shaft of moonlight; she was never serious long.

One May day they were picnicking in the big forest. It was a day of spongy dampness underfoot, sweet and wild with breezes, blue of sky, and still cold in the shade, if it was heavenly warm in the sun. Alix, who was hot and panting from the scrambling and slipping downhill, hung on a bank, with her arm crooked about a sapling oak, for support, her hat slipped back and hanging childishly about her neck, and her already brief tramping skirt displaying an even unusual amount of sensibly booted leg. Below her Peter on the bank of the stream was gathering firewood. Shafts of sunlight filtered through the arches of the redwoods high above the creek, and fell here and there upon the busy currents of the water. Presently sunshine turned the flames of the brush fire to pink, a dense column of white smoke rose fragrantly between the dark-brown, furry trunks.

They had been talking doubtfully of the recent developments of what Justin and Anne Little called with relish the Strickland Will Case. Peter, who had for several weeks been investigating the matter, with a deepening conviction that it was a deuced awkward affair, had smiled a most pleasant smile as Alix enlarged upon the delight of giving the whole fortune, should they get it, to Cherry.

"For Cherry," she said, still hanging on her bank, "isn't like most married women. She hates self-denial and economy--Dad always made life too easy for us, you know. It wasn't even as if she had had my mother's example before her; she really knew nothing of domestic responsibility!"

"But what about you," Peter asked, smiling, "you seem to take kindly enough to matrimony!"

"My case is different," Alix said, unembarrassed, getting down to come stand beside him at the fire. "I married an old man for his money!"

"Do you know," he said, putting his arm about her, "I like you! You'll no sooner get hold of your money, if you do--than you'll want to turn it all over to Cherry! You're a devoted sister, do you know it?"

"I'm a devoted wife!" she answered, with an upward glance. But a second later her mood changed; she was off to try the experiment of crossing the stream upon the treacherous surface of a fallen tree. He watched her; her cautiously advancing foot, her hand tightly grasping an upright branch, her eyes flitting from the water below to the rough bridge before her. She was completely absorbed.

"You can't do it!" Peter called, annoyed at the senseless risk she took when she placed her foot tentatively upon the curved side of a log. "There's no foothold there!"

"Come save me!" she shrieked in the old way, with the old laugh of terror and delight. He jumped to her rescue, clearing the creek in a shallow place with two splashing bounds, and catching her before her laughing cry had fully died away in the silent arches of the forest.

"You maniac!" he scolded, as warm, tumbled, and penitent she half slipped and half yielded herself to his hold. "Come over here now, and sit down, and unpack the eats! I can't have my wife drowned before my eyes--"

The title brought a sudden flood of colour to her face; she meekly seated herself beside him on a great log, and he locked his arm about her.

They sat so long in the wet, sweet, sun-warmed forest, hands clasped, that nesting birds flew boldly about them, unafraid, and two wildcats, trotting softly in single file, green eyes blinking, passed within a few inches of them unseeing.

"This," said Peter, after awhile, "is pleasant."

He thought she did not answer, except by a faint tightening of her fingers. But deep down in her heart she said:

"This--is marriage."