Chapter XIII
 

Again Peter reckoned without Cherry. It was only the next day, when he was entering the Palace court for his lunch, that he experienced a sudden and violent emotion. His thoughts were, at the moment, far from Cherry, and he had fancied himself in a hurry. But every other feeling but excitement was obliterated at the sight of a slender, girlishly made woman, in a pongee gown, and a limp brown hat covered with poppies, waiting in the lounge.

Peter went toward her, and the colour rushed into Cherry's face. Half a dozen women had been furtively studying her, and one of them now said to a man, "Yes, she really is--extraordinarily pretty." But Cherry and Peter saw and heard them not. It was the first time they had accidentally encountered each other, and it had a special place of its own in the history of their lives.

The surprise of it kept them laughing, hands clasped, for a minute; then Cherry said:

"I was to lunch here with Mary Cameron. But she's full twenty minutes late!"

"Lunch with me," Peter substituted, promptly.

"She'll probably be along--" Cherry said, vaguely, looking at a clock. "You hate her, don't you?" she added, looking up from under the poppies at Peter.

"I don't like her," he admitted, with a boy's grimace.

"Then suppose we don't lunch here?" Cherry suggested, innocently. Peter laughed joyously, and tucking her little gloved hand under his arm, led her away. They went to Solari's, and had a window table, and nodded, as they discussed their lunch, at half a dozen friends who chanced to be lunching there, too. But it was a thrilling adventure, none the less, and after the other tables were empty, and when the long room was still, they talked on, trifling with cheese and crackers, Peter watching her as he smoked, Cherry's head bent over her plate.

She had said that she wanted to tell him "all about it," and Peter, with quick knowledge that she meant the unhappiness of her marriage, nodded a grave permission.

"I've made a failure of it!" Cherry said, sadly. "I know I ought to struggle on, but I can't. Just a few days of it, just a few weeks of it make me--make me a different woman! I get nervous, I get hysterical, I don't sleep! I have no individuality, Peter, I have no personality! As for my dignity--my privacy--"

Her face was scarlet, and for a moment she stopped speaking.

"Just tell me an alternative!" she said, after awhile. "It can't be that there is no other life for me than going back. Peter, I'm only twenty-four!"

"I know you are," he said, with a brief nod.

"Why, everyone has some alternative," Cherry pleaded. "It can't be that marriage is the only--the only irrevocable thing! If you had a partner that you couldn't go on with, you could come to some agreement! You could make a sacrifice, but somehow you could end the association! Peter," she said, earnestly, "when I think of marketing again--six chops and soup-meat and butter and baking powder--I feel sick! When I think of unpacking the things I've washed and dusted for five years--the glass berry bowl that somebody gave us, and the eleven silver tea-spoons--I can't bear it!"

"You don't love him!" Peter said.

"I don't hate him," she answered quickly. "Indeed I don't. And it isn't just the place and the life, Peter! I could be happy in two rooms--somewhere--anywhere--But not--with him. Oh, Peter, if I hadn't done it--if I hadn't done it!" And Cherry knotted her fingers together, and her voice thickened and stopped.

Her beauty, as she pushed her plate aside and leaned toward him, was so startling that Peter, a lighted match half-raised to a fresh cigarette, put the match down aimlessly, and looked thoughtfully at the cigarette, and laid that down, too, without the faintest consciousness of what he was doing. The day was warm, and there was a little dampness on her white forehead, where the gold hair clung to the brim of the drooping hat. Her marvellous blue eyes were ringed with soft violet shadows, as if a sooty finger had set them under the dark brown arch of the brows. The soft curve of her chin, the babyish shortness of her upper lip, and the crimson sweetness of the little earnest mouth had never seemed more lovely than they were to-day. She was youth incarnate, palpitating, flushed, unspoiled.

For a moment she looked down at the table, and the colour flooded her face, then she looked him straight in the eyes and smiled. "Well! Perhaps it will all work out right, Peter," she said, with the childish, questioning look that so wrung his heart. She immediately gathered her possessions together to go, but when they stepped into sunshiny Geary Street it was three o'clock, and Peter suggested that they walk down to the boat.

To them both the hour was memorable, and the street and park and the tops of tall buildings, flooded with the sunlight of a summer afternoon, were Paradise. Cherry only knew that she felt strangely thrilled and yet at peace; Peter's heart was bursting with love of the world, love of this romantic city, with its flower market blazing in the sun, and with the ferry clock tower standing high above the vista of Market Street. He seemed floating rather than walking, and when, at crossings, he could help Cherry for a few steps, felicity swelled in his soul almost like pain.

They met Alix on the boat, but she did not ask any embarrassing questions; she sat between them on the upper deck, blinking contentedly at the blue satin bay, her eyes following the wheeling gulls or the passage of ships, her mind evidently concerned only with the idle pleasantness of the moment. And always, for Peter, there was the same joyous sense of something new--something significant--something ecstatic in life.

From that hour he was never quite at ease in Cherry's company, and avoided being alone with her even for an instant, although her presence always caused him the new and tingling delight. He read her honest blue eyes truly, and knew that although, like himself, she was conscious of the new sweetness and brightness of life, she had never entertained for an instant the flitting thought that it was Peter's feeling for her that made it so. She thought perhaps that it was the old childish happiness that she had known in the valley, the freedom and leisure and irresponsibility of the old days.

One day she made Alix and Peter laugh by reciting for them long passages from "Paolo and Francesca." They were walking, and had stopped to rest and get breath on a steep climb. Cherry's tender voice, half-amusedly and half-seriously repeating the passionate lines, lingered in Peter's mind like a sort of faint incense for hours.

"It's lovely," said Cherry in the garden that night, when he spoke to her about it, "but it's not Shakespere, of course," she surprised him by adding. Cherry had developed, he thought, she had cared nothing for Shakespere years ago. Immediately she began the immortal phrases:

 'Tis but the name that is mine enemy,
  Thou art thyself, though, not a Montague ...
  ... And for that name which is no part of thee
  Take all myself!

Peter's heart began to thump again. They were alone in the garden; it was dark to-night, warm and starry.

"Now that you and I are brother and sister," Cherry said, after a silence, "tell me--it went across my mind once, and then I didn't think of it for years. But tell me, was it me with whom you were-- you fancied you were in love, all those years ago?"

She looked innocently up at him in the gloom, and laughed. Peter did not speak for a few seconds.

"Yes, it was always you!" he said then, briefly.

Cherry laughed again, a little amused and exultant laugh. But immediately she stopped laughing, and said, vexedly:

"I was a fool to ask you that! I don't know why I did. Just sheer egotism--and I hate women who dwell on their own foolish old love affairs, too!"

Peter, as ashamed as she of the moment's weakness, laughed, too.

"You could hardly call it that!" he objected, mildly.

"You could hardly call it anything!" she agreed, in relief. "Does Alix know?" she asked, quickly.

"There wasn't much to tell," he reminded her, as they went back to the house through the ranks of wet wallflowers and roses.

"Nothing!" she said again, quickly.

And when they entered the house he was strangely disturbed to see a look of something like shame, something confused and embarrassed on her usually frank little face, and to realize that she was conscientiously avoiding his eyes. After she and Alix had gone to bed he got down the little red volume that was marked "Romeo and Juliet," and found the score of lines that she had quoted, and marvelled that the same words could seem on the printed page so bare, and sound so rich and full in Cherry's voice out under the stars.

The next day she talked in a troubled, uncertain way of going back to Red Creek and he knew why. But Alix was so aghast at the idea, and Peter, who was closing Doctor Strickland's estate, was so careful to depart early in the mornings, and return only late at night, that the little alarm, if it was that, died away. Martin's plans were uncertain, and Cherry might be needed as a witness in the Will Case, if Anne's claims were proved unjustified, so that neither Peter nor Cherry could find a logical argument with which to combat Alix's protests against any change.

The next time that Cherry went into town, Alix did not go, and Peter, sitting on the deck of the early boat with her, asked her again to have luncheon with him. Immediately a cloud fell on her face, and he saw her breast rise quickly.

"Peter," she asked him, childishly, looking straight into his eyes, "why didn't we tell Alix about that?"

Peter tried to laugh and felt himself begin to tremble again.

"About what?" he stammered.

"About our having been three hours at lunch last week?"

"Why--I don't know!" Peter said, smiling nervously.

She was silent, and they parted without any further reference to meeting for lunch. But every time he was summoned to the telephone Peter felt a thrill of expectation, and at noon his office swam suddenly before his eyes when the lovely voice was really addressing him. She was at the ferry, Cherry said; she had finished shopping, and was going home.

"That's fine!" Peter said, quite as he would have said it a month ago. But he was shaking as he went back to his work.

That night, when Alix had gone to bed, he entered the sitting room suddenly to find Cherry hunting for a book. She had dropped on one knee, the better to reach a low shelf, and was wholly absorbed in the volume she had chanced to open.

When she heard the door open she turned, and immediately became very pale. She did not speak as Peter came to stand beside her.

"Cherry--" he said in a whisper, his face close to hers. Neither spoke again for awhile. Cherry was breathing hard, Peter was conscious only of a wild whirling of brain and senses.

They remained so, their eyes fixed, their breath coming as if they had been running, for endless seconds.

"You remember the question you asked me this morning?" Peter said. "Do you remember? Do you remember?"

Cherry, her cold fingers still holding the place in the book she had been reading, went blindly to the fireplace.

"What?" she said, in the merest breath. "What?"

"Because," Peter said, following her, a sort of heady madness making him only conscious of that need to hear from her own lips that she knew, "because I didn't answer that question honestly!"

It mattered not what he said, or what he was trying to express; both were enveloped in the flame of their new relationship; surprise and terror were eclipsing even the strange joy of their discovery.

"I must go home--I must go back to Mart to-morrow!" Cherry said, in a whispered undertone, as if half to herself. "I must go home to Mart to-morrow! I--let's not--let's not talk!" she broke off in quick interruption, as he would have spoken. "Let's--I'd rather not! I--where is my book? What was I doing? Peter--Peter--"

"Just a minute!" Peter protested, thickly. "Cherry--I want to speak to you--will you wait a minute?"

She was halfway to the door; now she paused, and looked back at him with frightened eyes. Peter did not speak at once; there was a moment of absolute silence.