Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Cherry, Peter saw at once, was different in every way. Cherry was full of softness, of ready response to any appeal, of sympathy and comprehension. She had been misunderstood, unhappy, neglected; she had developed through suffering a certain timidity that was almost a shrinking, a certain shy clinging to what was kind and good.
Her happiness here was an hourly delight to both Alix and himself. She seemed to flower softly; every day of the simple forest life brought her new interest, new energy, new bloom. She and Alix washed their hair again, dammed the creek again, tramped and sang duets again. Sometimes they cooked, often they went into the old senseless spasms of laughter at nothing, or almost nothing.
One evening, when in the sitting room there was no other light than that of the fire that a damp July evening made pleasant, about a week after her arrival, Cherry spoke for the first time of Martin. She had had a long letter from him that day, ten pages written in a flowing hand on ten pages of the lined paper of a cheap hotel, with a little cut of the building standing boldly against a mackerel sky at the top of each page. He was well, he had some of his dinners at the hotel, but lived at home; he had been playing a little poker and was luckier than ever. He was looking into a proposition in Durango, Mexico, and would let her know how it panned out. The letter ended with the phrases: "Have a good time, Babe, and write me. Send me a line when you can. I have been running some with Joe King, but I am not strong for that crowd." It was signed: "Aff'tly, Mart."
Peter had been playing the piano lazily when the letter was tossed to Cherry by Alix, who usually drove into the village every morning after breakfast for marketing and the mail. He had seen Cherry glance through it, seen the little distasteful movement of the muscles about her nose, and seen her put it carelessly under a candlestick on the mantel for later consideration. At luncheon she had referred to it, and now it evidently had caused her to be thoughtful and a little troubled. An open book was in her lap; she and Alix had gone through the farce of saying that they would read without speaking until Peter had finished some business telephoning; now he had joined them, but still she did not read and seemed disinclined for talk.
"Mart may go to Mexico!" she said, presently, with a sigh.
"To stay?" Peter asked, quickly.
"As much as he stays anywhere!" she answered, drily.
"H'm! Does that mean you?" Alix asked.
"I suppose that's the plan," Cherry said, lifelessly.
"It's a rotten country," Peter offered, thoughtfully. "At least I should think it would be," he added, more moderately, "to select for a permanent home."
"I always say that a place where the natives are black, or yellow, isn't fit for white people, or the natives would be white!" Alix explained, brightly.
"All mining towns are horrible!" Cherry said with gloomy fervor. "They're raw, crude, coarse places, and the people in them are just as bad!"
Peter had a moment of pity for her, so young, so helpless, so tied.
"Perhaps he won't want you until he is sure of staying!" he offered.
"Oh, Mart always thinks the last thing is the permanent thing!" his wife answered, wearily. "He says he'll want me to join him about the middle of August."
"Oh, help!" Alix said, disgustedly.
Cherry was silent a few minutes, and Peter smoked with his eyes on the fire. Alix glanced from one to the other, sighed, and glanced down at her magazine.
"If----" Cherry said presently, "If I get my money I'll have enough to live on, won't I, Peter?"
"You'll have about forty thousand dollars--yes, at five per cent, you could live on that. Especially if you lived here in the valley," Peter answered, after some thought.
"Then I want you to know," Cherry went on quietly, with sudden scarlet in her cheeks, "that I'm going to tell Martin I think we have tried it long enough!" Peter looked gravely at her, soberly nodded, and resumed his study of the fire. But Alix spoke in brisk protest.
"Tried it! You mean tried marriage! But one doesn't try marriage! It's a fact. It's like the colour of your eyes."
"As a matter of fact, it isn't anything of the kind," Cherry said, mildly.
"Lloyd has given you cause, eh?" Peter took his pipe out of his mouth long enough to ask, briefly.
"Not--not in the way you mean--" she answered, glad to be discussing the topic.
"H'm," Peter muttered. It was almost as if he were disappointed.
"But, Peter," Cherry went on hesitatingly, appealingly, "it is no more a marriage than if we both had--had done everything and anything! He doesn't--oh, love!" Cherry interrupted herself scornfully on the word. "Of course he doesn't love me," she said. "But it isn't only that, it's that we differ in every way about everything! His friends, his ideas, his feelings about things--I can't tell you how we jar and jar on each other! No," said Cherry, beginning to cry a little, "he hasn't been unfaithful; I almost wish he had--"
"Cherry!" Alix protested, with affectionate reproach.
"Alix," the little sister pleaded, eagerly, "you don't know what it is--you don't know what it is! Always meeting people I don't like, always living in places I hate, always feeling that my own self is being smothered and lost and shrunk, always listening to Mart complaining and criticizing people---"
"Don't appeal to Alix!" Peter said. "She doesn't care what she does or where she lives. She fraternized with every old maid school teacher on the steamer, and a booze-fiend, and a woman whose husband was a native of Borneo; and she would pick out the filthiest lairs in Honolulu and ask me if it wouldn't be fun to live there!"
They all laughed; then Peter added, seriously:
"I'll go this far, Cherry. Lloyd married you too young."
"Oh, far too young!" she agreed, quickly. "The thing I--I can't think of," she said, "is how young I was--only a little girl. I knew nothing; I wasn't ready to be anybody's wife!"
Something in the poignant sorrow of her tone went straight to their hearts, and for the first time Peter had an idea of the real suffering she had borne. Alix's mouth was rather firmly shut, her eyes a little narrowed, her face rather sad, as she looked into the fire.
"If I had a child, even, or if Martin needed me," Cherry said, "then it might be different! But I'm only a burden to him----"
"His letter doesn't sound as if he thought of you as a burden," Alix suggested, mildly.
"Ah, well, the minute I leave him he has a different tone," Cherry explained, and Peter said, with a glance almost of surprise at his wife:
"It's an awfully difficult position for a woman of any pride, dear!"
Alix, kneeling to adjust the fire, as she was constantly tempted to do, met his look, and laid a soot-streaked hand on his knee.
"Pete, dearest, of course it is! But--" and Alix looked doubtfully from one to the other--"but divorce is a hateful thing!" she added, shaking her head, "it--it never seems to me justifiable!"
"Divorce is an institution," Peter said. "You may not like it any more than you like prisons or mad-houses; it has its uses."
"People get divorces every day!" Cherry added. "Isn't divorce better than living along in marriage--without love?"
"Oh, love!" Alix said, scornfully. "Love is just another name for passion and selfishness and laziness, half the time!"
"You can say that, because yours is one of the happy marriages," Cherry said. "It might be very different--if Peter weren't Peter!"
As she said his name she sent him her trusting smile, her blue eyes shone with affection, and the exquisite curve of her mouth deepened. Peter smiled back, and looked away in a little confusion.
"I can't imagine the circumstances under which I shouldn't love you and Peter!" Alix summarized it, triumphantly.
"And Martin?" Peter asked.
"Ah, well, I didn't marry Martin!" his wife reminded him quickly. "I didn't promise to love and honour Martin in sickness and health, for richer for poorer, for better for worse--by George!" Alix interrupted herself, in her boyish way, "those are terrific words, you know. And a promise is a promise!"
"And even for infidelity, you don't believe people ought to separate?" Cherry asked.
"Nonsense!" Peter said.
"But you said--that Martin never--"
"No, I'm not speaking of Martin now!"
"Well, wouldn't that come under 'worser'?" Alix asked.
"But, my child," Peter expostulated kindly, "my dear benighted wife--there is such a thing as a soul--a mind--a personality! To be tied to a--well, to a coarsening influence day after day is living death! It is worse than any bodily discomfort--"
"I don't see it!" Alix persisted. "I think there's a lot of nonsense talked about the fammy oncompreezy--but it seems to me that if you have a home and meals and books and friends and the country to walk in, you--"
"Oh, Heavens, Alix, you don't know what you're talking about!" Cherry interrupted her, impatiently. "Let Peter here go off with some chorus girl, and see how long you--"
"It's all very well in books," Alix interrupted her sister in turn. "But in real life I don't believe a woman ever bothers to think whether her husband ever murmurs her name in dreams or not. I know I take Peter as much for granted as I do Tamalpais; if he ever leaped from the track, and stole or got drunk or wandered off after some petticoat, I'd fix him! I'd be furious, but I don't see myself leaving him."
Peter's brief shout of laughter rang out.
"The awful thing about that female is that it is true," he told Cherry. "If I ever stray from the path of virtue, she'll scare me to death."
"Sometimes I think your marriage is as--as queer as my own," Cherry said, looking from one to the other.
Nothing more was said for several days upon the subject of a possible divorce. The weather continued perfect, and the little house-party on the mountaintop was complete in itself. Cherry often went into the village with Alix, to be sure; once they all went to a charity affair at Blithedale; sometimes a few women drove up the winding road in the afternoon, and there were ginger- ale and cookies on the porch; but most of the time the two sisters were alone, with Peter joining them in the afternoons.
One afternoon Peter crossed the porch, tired and hot, and found everything apparently deserted. He dropped into a chair, and was still breathless from the rapid climb up-hill, when stray notes from the piano reached his ears; a chord, a carefully played bit of bass; then a chord again. Then slowly, but with dainty accuracy and even feeling, Cherry began to play a strange little study of Schumann. Peter knew that it was Cherry, because Alix's touch was always firm and sure; more than that, he himself had played this same bit no longer ago than last night, and he remembered now that Cherry had asked him just what it was.
He experienced a sudden and pleasing emotion; he did not stop to analyze it. But he had been ruffled in spirit a moment before; Alix had known he was to come on this train, and had not met him with the car, and while he really did not mind the walk up, he disliked the feeling that they had entirely forgotten him.
The car was gone from its usual stand under a live oak, but everybody had not forgotten him nevertheless. Cherry was deliberately recalling the mood and moment that also recalled him. And as the notes came slowly, but precisely, from the cool, darkened living room, with its fragrant masses of sweet peas and fluted Martha Washington geraniums, Peter felt contented and serene. He looked up at the rise of Tamalpais, only half a tone darker than the pale blue sky to-day; he looked off at the range toward the ocean, where shimmers of heat were quivering upward; and then he settled himself back luxuriously in his great wicker chair and shut his eyes. Still the plaintive air came, as caressing as a touch.
Presently there was silence; then Cherry tried another little study, and finished it, and the hot summer stillness reigned again. The valley swam under a haze of pure heat; a buzzard hung motionless over the cabin, and the dry air was sweet with resinous scent of pines and manzanita and even of tarweed.
With a sense that he had been dozing, if only for a few minutes, Peter opened his eyes. Framed in the cabin doorway, poised like a butterfly against the dark background of the room, stood Cherry. He knew that she had been standing so for some time, for a full minute, perhaps more.
She was looking straight at him; one hand was hanging at her side, the other laid over her heart, as if she had involuntarily put it there when she saw him. Her corn-coloured hair was a little loosened; she was not smiling. She wore something limp and transparent, of white, he thought, or pale, pale blue, like the sky, with faint stripes making her figure look more slender even than it was.
They looked at each other in a silence that grew more and more awkward by great plunges. Peter had time to wish that he had kept his eyes shut, to wish that he had smiled when he first saw her-- he could not have forced himself to smile now--to wonder how they were ever to speak--where they were rushing--rushing--rushing-- before she turned noiselessly and vanished into the dim room.
Peter lay there, and his heart pounded. For a few minutes his senses whirled so madly that he felt suffocated. He dared not sit up, he dared not stir; from head to foot thrilling waves of surprise, and even a little of terror, went over him.
Never in his life had he experienced this sort of feeling before. He knew that he hated it, even while his whole spirit sang and soared in the new ecstasy. A moment ago he had been a tired man, fretted because his wife forgot to meet him; now there was something new in the world. And rapidly all the world became only a background, only a setting, for this extraordinary sensation. He sat up, after awhile, looked at the familiar porch, with the potted flowers, and Alix's boxes, where bachelor's-buttons, marguerites, and geraniums had been alternated to make a touch of patriotic colour on July Fourth. The hills beyond still swam in the hot sunlight, the mountain rose into the blue, but the light that changes all life lay over them for Peter.
He said to himself that it was awkward--he did not know how he could enter that door and talk to Cherry. And yet he knew that that meeting of Cherry, that the common exchange of words and glances, that the daily trifling encounters with Cherry were all poignantly significant now. Or if he did not fully sense all this yet he felt thrilled to the soul with the knowledge that she was there, back in the shadowy house somewhere, with the pale striped gown and the disordered corn-coloured hair, and that somehow they must meet, somehow they must talk together.
He felt no impulse toward hurry. He might sit on this porch another hour, might saunter off toward the creek. It mattered nothing; the hour was steadily approaching when she must reappear.
Alix drove in, full of animated apologies. She managed the car far better than he, and no thought of an accident had troubled him. But she explained that she had been to get eggs for a setting hen, and Antone had stopped her and told her that the new calf had been prematurely born, out on the hills, and had "been gone for die," and so she had driven over to Juanita, and gotten the calf.
And there the calf was, two days old, and as pretty as only a baby deer or a baby Jersey can be, roped by his woodeny little legs, and laid stiffly in the tonneau, with utter terror in his liquid dark eyes.
"Die, nothing!" Alix said, emphatically, as she tenderly lifted the calf out of the car. "I'm going to take him up to the barn; you run tell Kow that Missy wants warm milk. Then you come on, Pete--and tell me what you think!"
"Here--" Peter said, authoritatively, shouting the message, and taking the calf from her arms; they were laughing as they entered the dry, hot darkness of the stable. Alix's riding horse put a Roman nose reproachfully over the bitten barrier of his box-stall.
"We've got company for you, Creep-mouse!" Peter, panting from his heavy burden, announced. "Poor little feller!" he said to the calf.
"He's all right." Alix, rustling straw, said, confidently. "You know he must be a twin," she said to Peter, "for that brute of a mother of his was contentedly wandering up to the ridge, where the breeze is, and she certainly had another little calf cavorting about her--oh, thanks, Cherry! Here's the milk, Peter. See if the poor little beast will suck your fingers!"
Peter took the brimming blue bowl from Cherry's fingers. She had come like a shadow into the barn, her eyes were on the tipped surface of the milk. She lowered it carefully into his hold, and he felt the cool softness of her yielding fingers; he did not meet her eyes, partly because he gave her face only one glance. They all knelt about the calf, who after a few feeble struggles to escape altogether resigned himself, and lay looking at them with terrified eyes.
"He's too weak to stand on his legs, perhaps I should have had the mother brought in," Alix said, anxiously. "But he's a beautiful little thing, the prettiest she's ever had, except that he's so thin! Isn't he cute, Cherry?"
"He's--darling!" Cherry's voice, with its young cadences always ready to escape from the riper tones of womanhood, echoed oddly under the low, shingled roof of the barn. And again life seemed full of surprise and thrill to Peter. He wanted to say something to her; could think of nothing, and so was unusually silent throughout the ceremonies of getting the calf to suck Alix's fingers, getting him tied in a manner that should hold him without danger of strangulation, and bedding him comfortably on sacks and straw. Cherry was silent, too, but Alix talked briskly, and the necessity for constant effort and movement filled all possible gaps.
The evening was warm, one of the two or three warm evenings that marked the height of summer even in the high valley. While the three sat on the wide, unroofed porch, loitering over their coffee, a great, yellow-red moon rose slowly over the hill, and floated silently above them. Presently its light flooded the landscape, and strange and romantic vistas appeared between the redwoods aisles, and the tops of the forest trees far below them showed in a brilliant gray light, soft and furry. The whole world seemed to be lifted and swimming in vaporous brightness. There was not a breath of air in the garden; roses and wallflowers stood erect in a sort of luminous enchantment. Moonlight sank through the low twisted branches of the near-by oaks and fell tangled with black and lacy shade through the porch rose vine.
Alix sat on the porch rail, every line of crisp skirt and braided head revealed as if by daylight, but Cherry's pale striped gown was only a glimmer in the deepest shade of the vine. Peter, smoking, sat where he could not but see her; they had hardly looked at each other directly since the long, strange look of this afternoon; they had exchanged hardly a word.
A black cat crept across the grass, her body dragging stealthily on crouched legs, boldly silhouetted in the moonshine, invisible in the shade. Alix defeated her hunting plans by flinging a well- aimed pebble into the shrubbery ahead of her. The cat, dissembling, lay down in the dry grass, cleaned a paw, and coquetted with her tail.
"Town to-morrow, Pete?" Alix said, after a silence during which she had locked her arms behind her head, stared straight above her at the path the moon was making through faint stars, and yawned. "I've got to go in to a meeting of the hospital board."
"I didn't know you were on it," Cherry said.
"Peter's mother was, and hence I am," Alix said, virtuously. Cherry felt an old little prick of jealousy. Alix was strangely indifferent to the position she held.
"I go in to have luncheon with Mary" Cherry said. "I wish we could all lunch together!"
"I'll blow you girls to a meal at Frank's--" Peter began, and interrupted himself, "Oh, but you can't, Cherry!"
"And our meeting is at twelve; we'll have lunch at the hospital," Alix added. "Wouldn't you think we'd have enough of each other, we three?" she said, amusedly, beginning, in the reprehensible manner of girlhood, to roll the black scarf that had been knotted about her rolled bluejacket's collar, and to remove the pins from her hair. "But I hate to be in town and not see you both! Good-night, beloveds. I'm dead. Don't sit out here mooning with Pete all night, Cerise!"
Peter said to himself that now Cherry would go, too, but as the screen door banged lightly after Alix, and the dull glimmer of Cherry's striped gown did not move in the soft shadow, a sudden reluctance and distaste seized him. He had been subconsciously aware of her all afternoon; he had known a delicious warmth and stir at his heart that he had not analyzed, if indeed it could be analyzed. Now suddenly he did not want the beauty and bloom and charm of that feeling touched. His heart began to beat heavily again, and he knew that he must stop the unavailing game now.
But he had not reckoned on Cherry. She twisted in her chair, and he heard a child's long, happy sigh.
"Oh, so am I tired, too!" she breathed, reluctantly. "I hate to leave it--but I've been almost asleep for half an hour! You can have all the moonlight there is, Peter." Her white figure fluttered toward the door. "Good-night!" she said, drooping her little head to choke a yawn. A moment later he heard her laughing with Alix.
"You fool--you fool--you fool!" Peter said to himself, and he felt an emotion like shame, a little real compunction that he could so utterly misread her innocence. He felt it not only wrong in him, but somehow staining and hurtful to her.