Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Cherry had a flat now in Red Creek "Park." It differed from an apartment because it had no elevator, no janitor, no steam heat. These things were neither known nor needed in the crude mining town; the flat building itself was considered a rather questionable innovation. It was a wooden building, three stories high, with bay windows. There were empty lots each side of it, but the sidewalls were on property boundaries, and had windows only where the building jutted in, and there was a small gate, and a narrow cement walk pressing tightly on one side. Cherry had watched this building going up, and had thought it everything desirable. She liked the clean kitchen, all fresh white woodwork, tiles, and nickelplate, and she liked the big closets and the gas- log. She had worried herself almost sick with fear that she would not get this wonderful place, and finally paid twenty-five dollars for the first month's rent with a fast-beating heart. She had the centre floor.
From her windows she looked down at the "Park." All the other buildings were wooden bungalows, in many places the sidewalks were wooden, too, and the centre of the street was deep black dust in summer and churned black mud in the winter. The little houses gushed electric light, which was cheap; the street itself was unlighted.
But after the excitement of moving in died away, she hated the place. She had enough money to hire a maid now, and she had a succession of slatternly, independent young women in her kitchen, but she found her freedom strangely flat. She detested the women of Red Creek. Cherry went to market, to buy prunes and lard and apples and matches again, but this took little time, and otherwise she had nothing to do.
Now and then a play, straight from "a triumphant year on Broadway" came to town for one night; then Martin took his wife, and they bowed to half the men and women in the house, lamenting as they streamed out into the sharp night air that Red Creek did not see more such productions.
The effect of these plays was to make Cherry long vaguely for the stage; she really did not enjoy them for themselves. But they helped her to visualize Eastern cities, lighted streets, restaurants full of lights and music, beautiful women fitly gowned. After one of these performances she would not leave her flat for several days, but would sit dreaming over the thought of herself in the heroine's role.
One day she had a letter from Alix; it gave her a heartache, she hardly knew why. She began to dream of her own home, of the warm, sweet little valley whose breezes were like wine, of Tamalpais wreathed in fog, and of the ridges where buttercups and poppies powdered a child's shoes with gold and silver dust. Alix had been ill, and she and Peter had been away--a few brief weeks--to Honolulu and return. Cherry crushed the letter in her hand; she knew suddenly that she had always been jealous of Alix. Alix wrote gaily that she had asked Peter if he did not want to send Cherry a kiss, and he had said that his face was too dirty; he was moving geraniums. And for all that day, whenever Cherry thought of Peter, it was with his hands and even his face spattered with the dark earth of the mountain garden. The thought gave her a genuine thrill, and the next day she deliberately thought of him again, but the thrill was not so keen, and gradually she forgot him.
But the letter stayed in her thoughts, and she began to hunger for home. Nothing that Red Creek could offer shook her yearning for the remembered sweetness and beauty of the redwoods, and the great shade of the mountain. She wanted to spend a whole summer with Alix.
She was athirst for home, for old scenes and old friends and old emotions. She had only to hint to Alix to receive a love letter containing a fervent invitation. So it was settled. With a sort of feverish brevity Cherry completed her arrangements; Martin was to use his own judgment in the matter of boarding or keeping the flat. Some of their household goods were stored; Cherry told him that she would come down in September and manage all the details of settling afresh, but she knew that her secret hope was that she might never see Red Creek again. It was all quickly arranged; perhaps he was not sorry to have her go, although he kissed her good-bye affectionately, and wandered away from the station in a rather lonely frame of mind when she was gone.
A friend of his had asked him to dine that same evening, "with a couple of queens." Martin had realized long ago, as Cherry did, that their marriage was not an entirely successful one, but he still considered her the most beautiful woman he had ever known, and had never desired any other. But to-night he thought he would telephone King and perhaps dine with him--the girls might be amusing. Anyway, Cherry was happy and was having her own way, and he had three months in which to try having his own again.
Alix met her sister at the ferry in San Francisco on a soft May morning. She was an oddly developed Alix, trim and tall, prettily gowned and veiled, laughing and crying with joy at seeing Cherry again. Peter, she explained between kisses, had had to go to Los Angeles three days ago, had been expected home last night, and was not even aware yet that Cherry was definitely arriving.
"Of course he knew that you were coming, but not exactly when," Alix said, as she guided the newcomer along the familiar ferry place on to the big bay steamer for Mill Valley. Cherry drew back to exclaim, to marvel, to exult, at all the well-remembered sights and sounds and smells.
"Oh, Alix--Market Street!" she exclaimed. "And that smell of leather tanning, and that smell of bay water and of coffee! And look--that's a cable-car!"
"We'll come over to San Francisco soon, and you'll see the new hotels," Alix promised when they were seated on the upper deck, with the blue waters of the bay moving softly past them. Cherry's happy eyes followed a wheeling gull; she felt as if the world was suddenly sunshiny and simple and glorious again. "But now, I thought the best thing was to get you home," Alix went on, "and get you rested."
"Oh, Sis, that's what I want!" Cherry answered Her lip trembled, and tears came into her eyes. "You don't know how homesick I've been," she said, feeling it more and more every minute. "I feel as if I'd never really drawn a full breath since I went away!"
"I can't live in cities," Alix said, simply. "Peter has a house, you know, in the city," she added, nodding toward the hilly silhouette of San Francisco, as the boat ploughed steadily past it. "We were there one winter, and in a way it was pleasant. It was easier, too. But more than a year ago we came back to the valley, and I think it will be a long time before we want to leave it again!"
"I can't get used to the idea of you and Peter--married!" Cherry smiled.
"We're well used to it," Alix declared, smiling, too. But a little sigh stabbed through the smile a second later. Cherry's exquisite eyes grew sympathetic; she suspected from the letter Alix had written that there would be no nursery needed in the mountain cabin for awhile, and she knew that to baby-loving Alix this would be a bitter cross.
"Well, you see I've not seen you since the month Daddy died!" Cherry reminded her. They fell to talking of their father; drifted to Anne and Anne's limitations and complacencies. "And is it funny to you to be a rich man's wife?" Cherry pursued.
"Peter's not rich," Alix answered, laughing. "We have enough, and more than enough, and if I had ambitions about rugs and linen and furs, I could have them! But unfortunately neither one of us is interested in those things. I get a few new songs; Peter gets a few new books; we both get a catalogue and pick out plants, and that's about the extent of our dissipation! The things I want," Alix finished, "can't be bought for money!"
"I know!" Cherry said, a warm little hand quickly touching her sister's.
"But to have you here, Cherry dearest!" Alix said, joyfully, "and to think of what it means to us both! My dear, the walks and talks and fires and music and dinners--"
"And duets," Cherry said, with her old fresh laugh. "Don't forget 'tu canta rio sul tuo liuto!' and 'Oh, wert thou in the cauld, cauld blast!'"
"Oh, Cherry, how utterly delicious it is!" Alix said, gathering wraps and bags for the change from the boat to the train that would land them in twenty minutes at the little station in Mill Valley.
Sausalito, fragrant with acacia and rose blooms, rose steeply into the bright sunshine beyond the marshes skirting the bay glittering in light. Cherry's eager eyes missed nothing, and when they left the train at Mill Valley, and the mountain air enveloped them in a rush of its clear softness and purity, she was in ecstasies. She welcomed the waiting red setter as a beloved friend, and leaned from the shabby motor car, delighted at every landmark.
"Alix--the post office, and the blacksmith's, and how the hill has been built up, each side of the steps! And is that the Kelley's-- and the O'Shaughnessys'--but look at the size of the trees!"
They came to the woods, by the skeleton of the old Spanish mill, and she fell silent, and the blue eyes that penetrated the layers upon layers of soft greenness over her head brimmed with happy tears. The sweet breath of the forest fell like a cool hand upon her tired forehead; her heart began to dance in the old, irresponsible way.
Presently, straight ahead, and rising sharply over them, was the sun-bathed mountain, clear to-day, even soft and kindly in the flood of early summer sunshine. It was cool in the woods, even though warm light was pushing its way through the redwoods here and there, but when they emerged from the trees, and took the winding dirt road that rose to the hilltop, suddenly the day seemed hot. Alix, driving, threw off her coat, and Cherry felt the moisture prick her forehead.
She gave an exclamation of delight when they reached the cabin. It was a picture of peaceful beauty in the summer noon. There were still buttercups and poppies in the fields, and in the garden thousands of roses were growing riotously, flinging their long arms up against the slope of the low brown roof, and hanging in festoons from the low branches of the oaks. Beyond the house the mountain rose; from the porch Cherry could look down upon the familiar valley, and the rivers winding like strips of blue ribbon through the marshes, and the far bay, and San Francisco beyond.
Inside were shady rooms, bowls of flowers, plain little white curtains stirring in the summer breeze, peace and simplicity everywhere. Cherry smiled at the immaculately clad Chinese stirring something in a yellow bowl in a spotless kitchen whose windows showed manzanita and wild lilac and madrone trees; smiled at the big, smoked fireplace where sunlight fell straight on piled logs down the chimney's great mouth; smiled as she went to and fro on journeys of investigation. But the smile quivered into tears when she came to her own room, just such a room as little Charity Strickland had had, only a few years ago, with white hangings and unpainted wood, fresh air streaming through it, and redwoods outside.
"Oh, Alix--I never missed Dad before! But to have him out there, fussing at something under the trees--to have him call us--'Where are the girls--I want a girl!'"
"I know--" Alix's own eyes filled. She sat on Cherry's bed while the younger woman changed her dusty travelling clothes for a worn but beautiful linen gown, and they said that they would go soon to the little Sausalito cemetery and see that Dad's favourite heliotrope was flourishing.
The exquisite day went its peaceful course. Cherry was too tired for walking, except on a laughing garden-round, when Alix showed her every separate bush and tree with pride. For the most part she lay in a deep porch chair, drinking in the beauty and serenity of the June afternoon, breathing, above the sweet garden odours of lilac and verbena and mignonette, the piney fragrance of the forest. Alix, coming and going, watched her affectionately. The little languid arm in its transparent sleeve, the drooping, beautiful head, the slender, crossed ankles were always a picture.
"You are like a boat just reaching harbour," Alix said, sympathetically. "Sails furled, anchor down, just resting."
"I feel like one," Cherry answered, lifting lazy blue eyes. "A month of this will make me over!"
"A month!" the older sister echoed, indignantly, disappearing kitchenward on some errand. Presently the supper table was laid at Cherry's side, bees shot like bullets through the garden, birds settled for the night. Supper was ready; still there was no haste, no stir, no apparent effort.
Alix came to her own porch chair for the long twilight. She brought Cherry a fluffy shawl; they were almost silent, and as the last light faded from the hills, and the valleys were flooded with violet shadow, the mountain chill came down, and the stars and the valley lights began to prick the dark.
The sisters came in blinking, in the old way, and in the old way were amazed to see that the clock's hands stood at ten.
"And I meant you to go early to bed!" Alix exclaimed, but Cherry with her good-night kiss answered gratefully:
"Ah, but I feel that I am going to sleep to-night! I've not been sleeping well--"
"Haven't?" Alix asked, in quick concern.
Cherry stumbled into the airy, dark, sweet little bedroom, and somehow undressed and crept between the cool sheets of the bed that stood near Alix's on the wide sleeping porch. Her last thought was for the heavenly redwoods so close to her; she slept, indeed, for almost twelve unbroken hours.
She came wandering out to the porch at eleven o'clock, the old, smiling, apologetic Cherry, with her skin dewy from a bath, and her corn-coloured hair freshly brushed, and her linen gown as pink as the Perkins rose that was blooming over her head.
"Oh, Sis, I do feel so deliciously lazy and happy and rested and-- and everything!" said Cherry, as she settled herself at the porch table where service for one was spread. "Oh, Alix--apricots! You remember everything," she added, with a look all affectionate appreciation. Alix, panting from exertions in the garden, dropped, trowel in hand, upon the upper step, to watch her smilingly.
"Cherry, you're prettier than ever!" Alix said, eyeing the white hands so busy with blue china, and the bright head dappled with shade and sunshine coming through the green rose vine.
"Am I?" Cherry said, pleased. "I thought myself that I looked nice this morning," she added, innocently. "But it is really because the air of this place agrees with me, it makes my skin feel right and my eyes feel right; it makes me feel normal and smoothed out somehow!" And Cherry looked down at the green and glitter of the valley, looked up past solemn files of redwoods at the mountain, cameo-cut this morning against a cloudless sky, and sighed a great sigh of content that seemed to go from her heels to the crown of her head. "I have never been really well and really happy anywhere else!" she declared, out of deep peace and content.
"Oh, there's no place in the world like it!" Alix agreed, rubbing some dried mud from the back of her hand with the trowel. "Peter and I are always deciding to try New York, or to try San Francisco, or Southern California, but somehow we don't! If Martin continues to migrate every little while, I wish you could have a little house here. Then for part of the time at least we could be together."
"The old house," Cherry said, dreamily.
"Well, why not?" Alix echoed, eagerly. "It's in pretty bad shape, after being empty so long, but it would make darling home again! Would Martin object?"
The old spoiled Cherry, with the pretty petulant frown and shrug of years ago! "Martin knows what he could do," she drawled, naughtily.
"Martin would be here--some of the time?" Alix asked, a little anxiously.
Cherry filled her coffee cup a second time, gave Kow an appreciative smile as he put a hot French loaf before her, and said indifferently:
"Martin has a constitutional objection to whatever pleases me, and would find some objection to any plan that gave me pleasure!" Her tone was light, but there was a bitter twitch to her lips as she spoke.
"Oh, Cherry!" Alix said, distressed.
"However, I'm not going to talk about Martin!" the younger sister decreed, gaily. "I'm too utterly and absolutely happy!"
There was a worried little cloud on Alix's forehead, but it lightened steadily, as the happy morning wore on, and half an hour later, when she and Cherry were sailing a frog on a shingle, on the busy little stream that poured down the hill near the cabin, both were laughing like children again.
It was here that Peter found Cherry. Alix had met him at the house, given him a scrutinizing look with her quick kiss, questioned him about his trip, and reported all well with the house and garden.
"And now come down to the creek," she had said, mischievously. "The Bateses are here--"
"Not Alice Bates?" he had asked, quickly, and at her apologetic nod he added disgustedly: "Oh, thunder!"
"Oh, don't--she'll hear you!" said the beaming Alix, warningly. Peter's eyes, as he crossed the porch, were gloomy and he said "Thunder!" again under his breath.
They followed a rough little trail past stumps where nasturtiums and alyssum mingled with the underbrush, and were in the redwoods, and at the brookside. Peter saw a slender girl in pink pushing a plank about with a pole. She turned in surprise to face him.
"Cherry!" he said, and as Alix laughed delightedly, he gave his wife a glance, and said, "You liar!"
Cherry came up to him, and he took both her hands, and after a second of hesitation kissed her. She freed one hand to put it on his shoulder, and, standing so, she seriously returned his kiss. For a moment his arm encircled her waist; he had forgotten how blue her eyes were, with just a film of corn-coloured hair loosened above them, and what husky, exquisite, childish notes were in her voice.
"Cherry--this is the nicest thing that has happened for a long, long while!" he said.
"You and Alix are angels to let me come!" Cherry answered, as they turned, and with laughter and eager, interrupted talking went back to the house.
"And how do you think your big sister looks?"
"Oh, Alix is wonderful!" Cherry said. Indeed she had been looking at Alix with secret surprise and admiration since her arrival. Alix had always been different from Cherry, but in her own way she was amazing. Where Cherry had but one expensive waist, but one beautiful gown, but two or three elaborate sets of filmy lingerie, accumulated slowly and laundered by herself when she washed her silk stockings, Alix, like a child, changed her fresh, simple linen every day, jumped from one crisp tub suit to another, wore untrimmed straw hats that she bought in the village for fifty cents apiece. Alix apparently never considered the relation of her clothing to her own personality; she simply chose the simple colours and styles she liked, and aspired only to be always fresh and trim.
So with her house. She did not have one or two priceless tablecloths to be used on occasions with satin underlaid, and crystal and cut-glass; her china was all used every day, and her table linen cheap and plentiful and lavish. Meals were always simple and hearty and delicious; but Alix had not time for fancy touches; hated, as she frankly admitted, "all that stuffed celery and chopped nut and halved cherry business! If soup isn't good without whipped cream and sherry in it, it's pretty poor soup!"
Cherry had laughed at her, even years ago, for her point of view, but sometimes she had felt it to be almost an advantage. At all events, she had not been twenty-four hours in Alix's house without perceiving that her sister was singularly free and unruffled, unlike the women of her generation. Alix did not put all the time she saved to good use, although she puttered away in the garden, spent an hour or two each day at the piano, and was, as she confided to Cherry, writing a novel. But she was always gay and always fresh, and enjoyed every moment of the day.
Four years younger, yet Cherry felt older than she. Alix's nature was uncomplicated by any consciousness of self. Again like a child, she only wanted people to love each other and be happy, and that the sun should shine. She was equally content, whether she was helping Peter to pile wood, tramping in the deluging summer rains, or dreaming over a book through the long evenings, with her shabby slippers to the fire. An exquisite spring morning, with wet earth, rising mists, and shafts of pure, warm sunlight, made her sing like the forest birds all about her, but even on the coldest and blackest of winter nights, when the storm made the lamp-light fluctuate alarmingly, and trees creaked over the cabin, she would look up from the piano to say contentedly: "Well, I'd rather be here than anywhere else, anyway!"
Naturally, she was unsympathetic. If people were in pain, or cold, or hungry, Alix could sympathize. But for mental and spiritual troubles she had small sympathy.
"Almost everybody in the world could live as simply as we do!" she told Peter.
"It costs us about four thousand a year!" he said.
"Well, it needn't. We could buy fewer clothes, and keep only one cow, and let the cook go! We'd be just as happy."
"To some people," Peter had objected, doubtfully, more than once, "there are other things than clothes and food!"
"Well, various things."
"We have books, flowers, music, all out-of-doors," Alix protested, briskly.
"Sympathy, my dear--interpretation self-expression!"
"Tommyrot!" she had responded without animosity. He realized with surprise, not many months after their marriage, that she meant what she said. If she ate and slept and walked and read with her usual healthy relish, she needed nothing more. She was the least exacting of wives. If he was late for a meal, she smiled at him absently, or if, after they had entertained, he apologetically approached her with some reference to an unfortunate sentence or circumstances, she would meet him with a cheerful:
"Angel boy, I never heard you even, or if I did I don't remember it--even if I had heard it, it's true!"
She was one of the rare women who can take marriage calmly, as a matter of course; she had done so since the hour that made her his wife. At her illness she had rebelled; she hated nurses and their fuss, she said. She was perverse with doctors. In an unbelievably short time her magnificent constitution had responded; she was well again, at his side at the steamer rail, as eager for the sights and sounds and smells of Hawaii as if she had never heard of a sick room.
Her only sentiment was for the babies and small animals. She would cuddle rabbits or birds against her brown, lean cheek, and hug her setter enthusiastically. Peter suffered an agony of sympathy whenever she spoke of a child.
"I'd hate all the preliminary fussing, Pete--we both would! But oh, if the Lord would send me six or eight of them!"
Then and then only did the bright eyes and the confident voice soften, and then only was Alix no longer a flat, straight, splendid boy, but a woman indeed.