Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
And in that moment Alix came in. She had said good-night half an hour before; she was in her wrapper, and her hair fell over one shoulder in a rumpled braid. Cherry, sick with fright, faced her in a sort of horror, unable to realize, at the moment, that there was nothing betraying in her attitude or Peter's, and nothing in her sister's unsuspicious soul to give significance to what she saw in any case. Peter, more quickly recovering self-control, went toward his wife.
Alix saw neither clearly, her eyes were full of tears, and she had a paper in her hand.
"Pete!" she said. "Cherry! Look at this! Look at this!"
She held the paper out to them, but it was rather at her that they looked, as all three gathered near the hearth again.
"I happened to finish my novel," Alix said, "and I reached for Dad's old Bible--it's been there on the shelf near my bed ever since I was married, and I've even read it, too! But look what was in it--there all this time!"
"What is it?" Cherry asked, as Peter, in a sudden and violent revulsion of feeling, took the paper and bent toward the lamp to read it.
"By George!" he said, suddenly, his eyes still running over the half-sheet. "By George, this is wonderful!"
"It's Uncle Vincent's receipt to Dad for that three thousand that is making all the trouble!" Alix exulted to the still bewildered Cherry. "It's been there all this time--and Cherry," she added, in a voice rich with love and memory, "that's what he meant by saying it was in Matthew, don't you remember? Doesn't it mean that, Pete? Isn't it perfectly clear?"
"It means only about fifty thousand for you and Cherry," Peter answered. "Yes sir, by George--it's perfectly clear! He paid it back--every cent of it, and got his receipt! H'm--this puts rather a crimp in Little's plans--I'll see him to-morrow. This calls off his suit--"
"Really, Pete!" Alix asked, with dancing eyes. "And it means that you can keep the old house, Cerise," she exclaimed, triumphantly, "and we can be together part of the year anyway! Oh, come on, everybody, and sit down, and let's talk and talk about it! Let me see it again--'in recognition of all claims against the patent extinguisher aforementioned'--sit down, Pete, it's only ten o'clock! Let's talk. Aren't you simply wild with joy, Cherry?"
But she told Peter later that she had been surprised at Cherry's quietness; Cherry had looked pale and abstracted, and had not seemed half enthusiastic enough.
"Though very probably," mused Alix, "it brought back Dad's death, and saddened her in that way, and more than that, I know she is worried all the time about feeling as she does toward Martin, and perhaps he'll feel that she ought to put this into some horrible mining scheme! Cherry is not mercenary, I'll say that for her."
"What will you do with all yours?" Peter asked.
"I wish we three could go about the world together," Alix answered. "I'd love to see Japan and India--I'd like to see burning-ghats on the sacred Gunga!" she added, cheerfully. "But I don't know--money doesn't buy you much!" she yawned. "Perhaps I'll go to some Old Ladies' Home, and give each of the old girls one hundred dollars a quarter--wouldn't they have fun, buying scarfs and wool and caps?"
"Their families would immediately remove them, for the revenue," Peter suggested. He was grinning at her; he felt suddenly the wholesomeness and safety of her absurdity and originality. He liked the characteristic earnestness with which, in the very act of snapping off her bedroom light, before going out to the sleeping-porch, she widened her eyes at him, and frowned in concentrated thought.
"Then I'll give them fifty dollars a quarter!" she decided. "Just enough to buy them some little things, you know, brass tea- kettles, flannel underwear, whatever they wanted! Presents--they must always want to be making Christmas presents." And she yawned again. "Shut your door, Pete, if you read," she said. "The light shines against the trees, and it's right in my eyes!" But ten minutes later he heard her call through the door, "Or I could give it on condition that they stayed in the home and didn't let their families get it!" and grinned again over his book.
After that there was silence, and gradually the little sounds of the summer night made themselves heard again. Alix's light was out. Cherry came, trailing her thin wrapper, to the porch bed opposite her sister's bed and slipped into it with only a brief good-night. But Peter read on deep into the first hours of the morning.
Kow Yu, flinging the striped blue tablecloth over the porch table the next day at the noon hour, and clinking knives and forks, was questioned by his master.
"You go catchem 'nother plate, Kow!" Peter said.
"Missy no come!" Kow answered, unruffled. "Him say no can come!"
"Cherry!" Peter shouted. "Did Alix say she wasn't coming to lunch?"
"N-n-not to me!" Cherry answered from the garden. She came up to the porch, with her hands full of short-stemmed roses.
"Him go flend house," Kow elucidated. "Fiend heap sick!"
"Mrs. Garvin?" Cherry questioned. "Did she stay at Mrs. Garvin's for lunch? Perhaps it's the Garvin baby," she added to Peter. "She said she was going to stop in!"
"I'll find out!" Peter was conscious that everything was beginning to tremble and thrill again, as he went to the telephone. "Why, yes," he said, coming back to the porch, "the baby arrived just before she got there, and they were all upset. She's in her glory, of course. Says that she'll be home to supper, even if she goes back!"
"Oh!" Cherry said, in a small voice. She sat down at the table, and shook out her napkin. Peter sat down, too, and, as usual, served. Kow came and went, and a silence deepened and spread and grew more and more terrible every instant.
It was a Sunday, foggy and overcast, but not cold. The vines about the porch were covered with tiny beads of moisture; among the bushes in the garden little scarfs and veils of fog were caught, and from far across the ridge the droning warning of the fog horn penetrated, at regular, brief intervals.
"Cherry," Peter said, suddenly, when the silent meal was almost over, "will you talk about it?"
"Talk--?" she faltered. Her voice thickened and stopped. "Oh, I would rather not!" she whispered, with a frightened glance about.
"Listen, Cherry!" he said, following her to the wide porch rail, and standing behind her as she sat down upon it. "I'm sorry! I'm just as sorry as I can be. But I can't help it, Cherry. And I would like--I do think it would be wiser, just to--to look the matter squarely in the face, and--and perhaps discuss it for a few minutes, and then end it."
She gave him a fleeting glance over her shoulder, but she did not go away. Peter sat down behind her on the rail, and she turned to face him, although her troubled eyes were still averted.
"Cherry," he said then, "I'm as surprised as you are--I can't tell you when it--it all happened! But it--" Peter folded his arms across his chest, and with a grimly squared jaw looked off into the misty distance--"it is there," he finished.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Cherry whispered, on a breath of utter distress. "I'm so sorry! Oh, Peter, we never should have let it happen--our caring for each other!--we never should have allowed ourselves to think--to dream--of such a thing! Oh, Peter, I'm so sick about it," Cherry added, incoherently, with filling eyes. "I'm just sick about it! I know--I know that Alix would never have permitted herself to--I know she wouldn't!"
He was close to her, and now he laid his hand over hers.
"I care--" he said, quite involuntarily, "I have always cared for you! I know it's madness--I know it's too late--but I love every hair of your beautiful head! Cherry--Cherry--!"
They had both gotten to their feet, and now she essayed to pass him, her face white, her cheeks blazing. He stopped her, and held her close in his arms, and after a few seconds he felt her resisting muscles relax, and they kissed each other.
For a full dizzy minute they clung together, arms locked, hearts beating madly and close, and lips meeting again and again. Breathless, Cherry wrenched herself free, and turned to drop into a chair, and breathless, Peter stood looking down upon her. About them was the silence of the dripping garden; all the sounds of the world came muffled and dull through the thick mist.
Then Peter knelt down beside her chair, and gathered her hands together in his own, and she rested her forehead on his, and spent and silent, leaned against his shoulder. And so they remained, not speaking, for a long while. Kow clinked dishes somewhere in a faraway kitchen, and the fog-horn boomed and was still-boomed and was still. But here on the porch there was no sound.
"Cherry, tell me that you care for me a little?" Peter said after awhile, and he felt as if he met a new Cherry, among all the strange new Cherries that the past bewildering week had shown him, when she answered passionately:
"Oh, Peter--Peter--if I did not!"
He tightened his fingers about her own, but did not answer, and it was presently Cherry who broke the brooding, misty silence again.
"What shall we do?" she asked, in a small, tired voice.
Peter abruptly got to his feet, took a chair three feet away, and with a quick gesture of his hand and toss of his head, flung back his hair.
"There is only one thing to do, of course!" he said, decidedly, in a voice almost unrecognizably grim. "We mustn't see each other--we mustn't see each other! Now--now I must think how best to manage that!"
Her eyes, heavy with pain, were raised to meet his, and she saw his mouth weaken with a sudden misgiving, and she saw him try to steady it, and look down.
"I can--I shall tell Alix that this new business needs me in town for two or three nights," he said, forcing himself to quiet speech, but with one fine hand propping his forehead as if it ached. "I'll stay at the club."
"And as soon as I can go," Cherry added, feverishly, "I shall join Martin. I suppose Alix would think it was perfectly idiotic for me to go now, just when the whole thing can be closed up so quickly, and Martin, too--" her voice trailed away vaguely. She fell silent, her eyes absent and full of pain. Suddenly they widened, as if some pang had suddenly shaken her into consciousness again. "Well, I'll go back," she began again, bravely, "I'll leave you power--what do they call it?--power to act for me. I can do that, can't I? I'll wire Martin to-morrow--this is Sunday, and I'll go on Wednesday!" And as she looked off across the green spaces of fog-wreathed hills and valleys, they seemed to turn suddenly glaring and ugly to her, and she felt a great weariness and heartsickness with life.
Peter sprang over the porch rail, and vanished, walking with swift energy up the trail that led toward the mountain. Cherry knew that he would walk himself tired; she longed to walk, too, to plunge on and on through the foggy depths of the hills, striding, stumbling, getting breathless and weary in body, while somehow--somehow!-- this confusion and exhaustion cleared away from mind and soul. And yet beyond the horror and shame and regret she felt something was thrilling, exulting, and singing for joy.
For the rest of that day she lived in a sort of daze of emotion, sometimes she seemed to be living two lives, side by side. In the one was her old happy relationship with Alix, and even with Peter, the old joking and talking, and gathering for meals, the old hours in the garden or beside the fire, and in the other was the confused and troubled and ecstatic consciousness of the new relationship between Peter and herself, the knowledge that he did not merely admire her, did not merely feel for her an unusual affection, but that he was consumed by a burning adoration of her slightest motion, the turn of her wrist, the smile she gave Kow at breakfast time, the motion she made when she stooped to tie her shoe, or raised her arm to break an apple from the low, dusty branches. The glory of being so loved enveloped her like a great shining garment, and her cheeks glowed softly rosy, and there was a new and liquid softness, a sort of shining glitter, in her blue eyes.
Peter was quiet that evening, and was gone the next morning when the sisters came out to breakfast. His absence was a real relief to Cherry, who felt curiously tired and spent after a wakeful night, and looked pale. Alix, busy with a new venture in duck raising, noticed nothing, and Cherry could lie idly in the hammock all morning, sometimes frowning, and shutting her eyes at some sudden thought, otherwise smiling and dreaming vaguely, and always hearing Peter's voice, in words so charged with new magic that the mere recollection of them almost suffocated her with emotion.
He had left a message to the effect that he would not be at home that night, and at four o'clock telephoned confirming the message. Alix chanced to answer the telephone, and Cherry, who was in her room, heard Peter's name, and stood still, listening with a shock of disappointment. She did not want him to come home, she was hardly conscious of any desire or dread; her only thought was that he was there--now--at the telephone, and in a moment Alix would have hung up the receiver, and she, Cherry, would not have spoken to him, would not have heard his voice!
But at eight o'clock that evening, when she and Alix were sitting on the porch, when the last ebbing pink of the sunset had faded, and great spiders had ventured forth into the dusk and the dews, there was a sudden hail at the gate, and Cherry knew that it was he! A flood of utter, irrational happiness rose in her heart; she had been racked with hunger for the sound of that voice; she had been restless and unsatisfied, almost feverish with longing and doubt; now peace came again, and content.
He came up to them, his glance resolutely averted from Cherry, explaining that he was lonesome, assuring them that everything went well, and making them laugh with an account of Justin Little's reception of the new turn of affairs. Alix asked a hundred questions; laughed and rejoiced.
"To-morrow let's go down and see the old house," suggested Alix, "I guess it's in pretty bad shape, for we couldn't rent it. At least Pete and I didn't think it was worth while to do all the plastering and painting they wanted! But we'll do it now, Cherry; we'll fix it all up, and then every summer, and perhaps some winters--at least if Mart isn't too far away--you can live there. Did you see Anne, Peter?" she asked, suddenly.
"No, just Justin. He seemed absolutely dumbfounded," Peter said. "He looked at the paper, read it, laughed, and said--in that little nervous, smiling way of his--that he felt it to be by no means conclusive--"
"I can hear him!" giggled Alix.
"And I guess both you girls will have to come in in a day or two," Peter continued.
"Cherry's going in to the dentist to-morrow," said Alix.
"Oh, so I am!" Cherry said, in a rather strained voice.
She did not look at Peter, nor did he at her, but they felt each other's thoughts like a spoken word.
"Had you forgotten?" Alix asked. "I may go with you," she added, carelessly.
"Oh, do come!" Cherry said, eagerly. "I--I hate so going alone!"
"I've not a thing in the world to do in town, but I'll browse along those old book stores in Third Street," Alix mused.
But in the morning she had changed her mind. She was a trifle late to breakfast, and Cherry and Peter had a chance minute or two alone.
"Cherry," he said then, "I'm going to lunch at the St. Francis. Will you meet me there?"
"No, I can't!" Cherry whispered, unhappily.
"Well, I'll be there," Peter said, in a dull, steady voice. They did not look at each other as Cherry began, with trembling white ringers, to strip the black fine skin from a fig.
A moment later Alix joined them. She had come in from her ducks, and ate but a hasty and indifferent breakfast so that she might the sooner begin to prepare their meal. The ducks had been regaled of late on the minced remains of all the family meals, Alix spending an additional half-hour at the table while she cut fruit- rinds, cold biscuits, and vegetables into small pieces, for her gluttonous pensioners.
"Wait for the ten o'clock train, Pete, and go in with Cherry!" said Alix, holding a small piece of omelet close to the nose of the importunate Buck. "Go on, be a sport!--don't you dare," she added, to the dog, who rolled restless and entreating eyes, banged his tail on the floor, and allowed a faint, disconsolate whimper to escape him. "I don't think I'll go in," she explained, "for I have about a week's work here to do. Those Italian boys are coming up to thin the lettuce, and Kow is going to put up the peaches, and if you both are gone I can have a regular orgy of housekeeping--really, I'd rather. Here, take it--the dear old Buckboy--well, did he get so mad he couldn't see out of his eyes!" she added, affectionately, to Buck, as the omelet disappeared with one snap of his jaws. She folded his two fringed ears into his eyes, and laid her face against his shining head. "Well, this isn't feeding the ducks!" she finished, jumping up. "Come see them, Pietro, they're too darling!"
"They're extremely dirty and messy," Peter complained, following with Cherry nevertheless, to see her scatter her chopped food carelessly on the surface of the little pond, the struggling bodies of the ducklings, and the bobbing downy heads alike. With quacking and wriggling and dabbling, the meal was eaten, and Alix, scraping the bowls for last fragments, and blinking in a flood of sunlight, laughed exultantly at the exhibition.
Peter left them there, without one word or look for Cherry, who went back to the house with her sister in a most agitated and wretched state of mind. She had the telephone in her hand, to cancel the engagement with her dentist, when Alix suddenly consented to accompany her into town; "and at lunch-time we'll take a chance on the St. Francis, Sis," Alix said, innocently, "for Peter almost always lunches there!"
Feeling that the question was settled, yet restless and unsatisfied still, Cherry dressed for town; they climbed into the car; Alix's firm hands, in yellow chamois gloves, sparched at the wheel; the die was cast.
Yet at the station another change of plan occurred, for as Alix brought the car to the platform Anne came toward them from the arriving train, a gloved and demure and smiling Anne, anxious, she explained, to talk over this newest development, and "whether it proved to be of any value or not," to try to find out what Uncle Lee had really wanted for them all, and then agree to do that in a friendly manner, out of court. Alix turned from the wheel, to face Cherry in the back seat, and Anne leaned on the door of the tonneau.
"My first feeling, when Frenny told me," said Anne, chatting pleasantly in the shade, "was one of such relief! For I hadn't wanted all that money one bit," she confessed, gaily. "I only wanted to do what was fair. Only two or three nights ago I said to Frenny that it really belonged to us all, and last night we talked and talked about it, and the result was that I said that I must see the girls--we three are the only ones concerned, after all, and"--Anne's old half-merry and half-pouting manner was unchanged- -"what we decide is what really matters!" she finished.
"Why, there is no question that it's Daddy's handwriting," Cherry said, with what, for her, was sharpness, "and it seems to me--it seems to me Anne--" she added, hesitatingly.
"That you have a nerve!" Alix finished, not with any particular venom. "That document throws the case out of court," she said, flatly. "Peter is confident of that!"
Anne's pale face flushed a trifle, and her eyes narrowed.
"Yes, but it doesn't throw the will out of court," she said quickly.
"You proposed to break the Will!" Alix reminded her, getting angry.
"I know I did, but it might be valid, after all, and under that Will I inherit only a fifth less than you and Cherry!" Anne answered, also with feeling. "That's just what I came over to talk about," she added, still smiling. "Isn't it better," and all friendliness and appeal were in her voice, "isn't it better to do it all in a kindly manner, than to fight about it? Why, we can easily settle it among ourselves," she assured them, sensibly.
Alix shrugged, and looked down at the wheel of her car with a doubtful shake of her head. Cherry, now standing beside it on the platform, was flushed and uncomfortable. There was an awkward pause.
"Board?" shouted a trainman, with a rising inflection. The sisters looked at each other in a panic of haste.
"I can't leave this car here." Alix exclaimed. "I've got to park her and lock her and everything! Run get on board, Cherry, I don't have to go in anyway--you've got a date!"
Cherry's heart leaped, sank coldly, and leaped again, as with a swift nod of parting she hurried for her train. The other two women watched her with forced interest as she climbed on board, and as the train slipped noiselessly out of sight. It curved among the redwoods, and was gone before either spoke again. Then, as her eyes met Anne's friendly, questioning smile, Alix said awkwardly:
"I think the only thing to do is for you and Justin to take this up with Peter, Anne. I mean--I mean that you were the ones who proposed to bring it into court in the first place, and--and I don't understand much about it!"
"Alix, don't let's talk in a cold, hard, legal way," Anne pleaded. She had gotten into the back seat, and was leaning on the front seat in an informal sort of way. "Let's just try to get each other's point of view!" she suggested. "The idea is that Uncle Lee wanted all his girls to inherit alike--"
"That idea didn't seem to impress you much a week ago!" Alix said, glad to feel herself getting angry.
"My dear, I was going to divide it to the last penny!" Anne assured her, widening her eyes.
Alix was silent, but the silence shouted her unbelief.
"Truly, I was," Anne went on. "This--this discovery only complicates matters. Why, the last thing in the world that dear Uncle Lee would wish would be to have us drag the family name into a law-suit--"
"You and Justin began it!" Alix reminded her, goaded into reluctant speech.
"I beg your pardon!" It was a favourite phrase of Anne's. "But it was Peter who said he would fight!"
"Well, because you made the claim!" Alix, hating herself for being betrayed into argument, said hotly. "But I won't talk about it, Anne," she added, firmly, "and as far as coming to any agreement with me is concerned, you might just as well have gone back on the train with Cherry. I hate to talk this way--but we all think you acted very--well, very meanly!" Alix finished rather flatly.
"Perhaps it's just as well to understand each other!" Anne said, with hot cheeks. They exchanged a few more sentences, wasted words and angry ones, and then Anne walked over to a seat in the shade, to wait for another train, and Alix, with her heart beating hard and her colour high, drove at mad speed back to the mountain cabin.
"I didn't ask her to lunch--I don't care!" Alix said to herself, in agitation. "She and Justin know they're beaten--they're just trying to patch it up before it's too late--I don't care--I won't have her think she can get away with any such scheme--!"
And so muttering and scolding, Alix got back to her dog and her barnyard, and soothed herself with great hosing and cleaning of the duck-pond, and much skimming and tasting of Kow's preserves. After all, she had grudged this perfect summer day to the city, and she was always happiest here, in the solitude of the high mountain.