Chapter XVI
 

"You and I must go away!" said Peter. "I can't stand it. I love you. I love you so dearly, Cherry. I can't think of anything else any more. It's like a fever--it's like a sickness. I'm never happy, any more, unless my arms are about you. Will you let me take you somewhere, where we can be happy together?"

Cherry turned her confident, childish face toward him; her lashes glittered, but she smiled.

"I love you, Peter!" she said. And the words, sounding softly through the silence of the garden, died away on the warm night air like music.

It was night, the third night of the harvest moon. Through the branches of the oak tree under which they were sitting blots of silver were falling; between them the shadows were inky black. The grass was a sheen of pearly light, the little cabin was like an enchanted dwelling, wreathed with flowers, and steeped in moonshine. Toward the ocean, over the moon-flooded ridge, a great fold of creamy fog was silently pushing, and Cherry had a scarf of creamy lace caught about her shoulders. Her coil of corn-coloured hair was loosened; she and Peter had been moving geranium slips all afternoon, and at supper-time, when a telephone message from Alix had advised them that she was obliged to stay in town to dine with an exacting old family friend, they had parted only to bathe and change, before sitting down for dinner in the sunset beauty of the porch.

It had been a memorable meal, an hour always to have its place in their hearts. In the two weeks since the day at the old house they had not chanced to be often alone, and to-night, for the first time, Cherry admitted that she could fight no longer. A few days before she had again gone to the dentist, and again had waited for Peter at the great hotel. But on this occasion he had not known of her engagement in town, and had lunched elsewhere, so that Cherry had waited, growing weary, headachy, and heartsick as the slow moments went their way. Peter, happening to telephone to Alix, at about two o'clock, had learned that Cherry was in the city, and hanging up the receiver, had sat wrapped in agitated thought for a few minutes before rushing to the hotel on the desperate hazard of finding her there.

The sight of the little patient figure, the irradiation of her face, as they met, the ecstasy of delight with which their hands were joined, and the flood of joy in their hearts, as he took her to tea, was illuminating to them both. Cherry had spent two long hours waiting only for the sight of that eager, limping, straight- shouldered form, and Peter had experienced enough anguish as he sped to find her to tear the last deception away.

To-night they talked as lovers, his arm about the soft little clinging figure, her small, firm fingers tight in his own. He had squared about on the great log that was their seat so that his ardent eyes were closer to her; the world held nothing but themselves. It was eight o'clock.

"So this is the thing that was waiting for us all these years, Cherry, ever since the time you and Alix used to dam my brook and climb my oak trees!"

"I never dreamed of it!" Cherry said, with wonder in her tone.

"If we had dreamed of it--" Peter began, and stopped.

"Ah, if we had, it would all be different," Cherry said, with a look of pain. "That's the one thing I can't bear to think of!"

"What is?" he asked, watching the lovely face that was only dimly visible in the moonlight.

"Oh, that it all might have been so simple--so easy and right!" the girl answered. "That we might have been so happy instead of so sad--"

"It makes you sad, dear?"

"Peter, how could it make me anything else? Why, what can come of it?" Cherry asked, sorrowfully. "I cannot stay on here, now. I cannot--" She freed herself from his arms, and walked away from him restlessly through the moonshine, twisting her arms above her head. "I cannot go back to Martin!" he heard her whisper, in an agony. "I can't leave you--I can't leave you!"

"Shall we go away?" Peter asked, simply, when she stopped at the great stone that Alix, for the view it commanded, had christened Sunrise Rock. Cherry dropped down upon it, facing away from him across the soft green luminous light of the valley.

"Go where?" she asked.

"Go anywhere!" he answered. "We have money enough; we can leave Alix rich--she will still have her cabin and her dogs and the life she loves. But there are other tiny places, Cherry; there are little cabins in Hawaii, there are Canadian villages--Cherry, there are thousands of places in the south of France where we might live for years and never be questioned, and never be annoyed."

"France!" she whispered, and the downcast face he was watching so eagerly was thoughtful. "How could we go," she breathed. "You first, and then I? To meet somewhere?"

"We would have to go together," he decided, swiftly. "Everyone must know, dear; you realize that?"

Wide-eyed, she was staring at him as if spellbound by some new hope; now she shrugged her shoulders in careless disdain.

"That isn't of any consequence!"

"You don't feel it so!" He sat down beside her, and again they locked hands.

"Not that part," she answered, simply. "I mind--Alix," she added, thoughtfully.

"Yes, I mind Alix!" he admitted.

"But the injury is done to Alix now," Cherry said, slowly. "Now it is too late to go back! You and I couldn't--we couldn't deceive Alix here, Peter," Cherry added, and as she turned to him he saw her thin white blouse move suddenly with the quick rising of her heart. "That--that would be too horrible! But I could take this love of ours away, leave everything else behind, simply--simply recognize," stammered Cherry, her lips beginning to tremble, "that it is bigger than ourselves, that we can't help it, Peter. I'd fight it if I could," she added, piteously, "I'd go away if I didn't know that no power on earth could keep me from coming back!"

She buried her head on his shoulder, and he put his arm about her, and there was utter silence over the great brooding mountain, and in the valley brimming with soft moonshine, and in the garden.

"I believe that even Alix will understand," Peter said after awhile. "She loves you and me better than any one else in the world; she is not only everything that is generous, but she isn't selfish, she is the busiest and the most sensible person I ever knew. I know--of course I know it's rotten," he broke off in sudden despair, "but what I'm trying to say is that Alix, of all people I know, is the one that will make the least fuss about it-- "

Cherry was staring raptly before her; now she grasped his hand and said breathlessly:

"Oh, Peter, are we talking about it? Are we talking about our going away, and belonging to each other?"

"What else?" he said, quick tears in his eyes.

"Oh, but I've been so unhappy, I've been so starved!" she whispered. "I thought I wanted people--cities--I thought I wanted to go on the stage. But it was only you that I wanted. Oh, Peter, what a life it will be! The littlest cottage, the simplest life, and perhaps a beach or woods to walk in--and always talking, reading, always together. I never want to come back; I never want to see any one; I never want anything but that."

"France it must be, I think," he said, "for then we can go about-- no one will know us---"

"But we will meet people we know in the trains, going," Cherry said, suddenly. "I know what I am doing," she added, "but that would be so hard, to have them identify us, perhaps come up to us, whisper and point!"

"But why not go by sea?" he mused, "why not to Japan and through India, and so on to France?"

"No!" she said quickly. "On a long sea-trip someone would surely know us--isn't there some way we can get away, disappear as if we had never been?"

"Cherry!" he said, kneeling before her in the wet grass. "You know what it means!"

"It means you!" she answered, after a silence. She had laid her hands softly about his neck, and her shining eyes were close to his.

"And you trust me?" he whispered. "You know that when I am free and you are free--"

She put her fingers over his mouth.

"Peter! Haven't I known you ever since I was little enough to sit in your lap and have you read 'Lady Jane' to me? It's so beautiful--it's so wonderful--to love this way," she said, in her innocent, little-girl voice, "that it seems to me the only thing in the world! I'd come to you, Peter, if it meant shame and death and horror. It doesn't mean that, it only means a man and a woman settling down somewhere in the south of France, a big quiet man who limps a little, and a little yellow-headed woman in blue smocks and silly-looking hats--"

"It means life, of course!" he interrupted her. "The hour that makes you mine, Cherry, will be the exquisite hour of my whole life!"

They were silent for a while, and below them the white moonlight deepened and brightened and swam like an enchantment.

"If you will face it," Peter said, presently, "I will give every instant of my life to you!"

"I know you will," she said, dreamily.

"There will be no coming back, Cherry."

"Oh, I know that!"

"There can't ever be--there mustn't be--you've thought of that?" he said, uncertainly. In the curious, unreal light that flooded the world, he saw her turn, and caught the gleam of her surprised eyes.

"You mean children--a child?" she said, surprisedly. "Why not, Peter?" she added, tightening her fingers, "what could be more wonderful than that we should have a child? Can you imagine a happier environment for a child than that little sunshiny, woodsy beach cottage; can't you see the little figure--the two or three little figures!--scampering ahead of us through the country roads, or around the fire? Oh, I can," said Cherry, her extraordinary voice rich and sweet with longing, "I can! That would be motherhood, Peter, that wouldn't be like having a baby whose father one didn't--one couldn't love, marriage or no marriage!"

And as he watched, amazed at the change that love had brought to quiet, little inarticulate Cherry, she added, earnestly:

"I've been thinking how bitter it was, Peter, to have the greatest thing in life come to us this way, but just lately--just this last hour it's come to me that it is right--it's best!--to have it so. We give all the world up, and we get only each other, and yet how little it seems to give, and how much to get! Why, every hour of it, every minute will hold more joy than we've ever known! I couldn't," she said, suddenly grave, "I couldn't take you from any one who loved you as I do; I couldn't hurt any one, to be happy. But Alix will forgive us; you'll see she will!"

"Alix--I know her!--will only be sorry for me," Cherry mused. "She'll only think me mad to disgrace the good name of Strickland; she'll think we're both crazy. Perhaps she'll plunge into the orphanage work, or perhaps she'll go on here, gardening, playing with Buck, raising ducks--she says herself that she has never known what love means--says it really meaning it, yet as if the whole subject was a joke--a weakness!"

"I believe she will forgive us, for she is the most generous woman in the world," Peter said, slowly. "Anyway--we can't stop now! We can't stop now! It will take me only a few days now to close everything up, to arrange matters so that she shall have plenty of money, and so that I can carry on the affairs of my mother's estate at long range. Spencer will attend to the rents, mail me quarterly checks; the whole thing is simple. And I will let you know--"

"It all seems so unreal!" Cherry said, with her heart beginning to hammer with excitement. "It doesn't seem as if it was you and me, Peter. I shall not need a trunk; I shall buy new things--it will be a new life---" "There is the steamer line that goes to Los Angeles," Peter mused. "Yes--I believe that is the solution," he added, with a brightening face. "Nobody you know goes there on it; it leaves daily at eleven, and gets into Los Angeles the following morning. From there---"

"I don't know anybody there!" Cherry said, eagerly.

"You wouldn't see anybody anyway. From there we can get a drawing- room to New Orleans; that's only a day and a half more; and we can keep to ourselves if by any unlucky chance there should be any one we know on the train--"

"Which isn't likely!"

"Which isn't likely! Then at New Orleans we go either to the Zone, or to South America, or to any one of the thousand places--New York, if we like, by water. By that time we will be lost as completely as if we had dropped into the sea. I'll see about reservations--the thing is, you're too pretty to go quite unnoticed!" he added, ruefully.

He saw a smile flicker on her face in the moonlight, but when she spoke, it was with almost tearful gravity:

"You arrange it, Peter, and somehow I'll go. I'll write Alix--I'll tell her that where she's sane, I'm mad, and where she's strong, I'm weak! And we'll weather it, dear, and we'll find ourselves somewhere, alone, with all the golden, beautiful future before us. But, Peter, until this part of it's over we mustn't be alone again--you mustn't kiss me again! Will you promise me?"

As stirred as she was, he gathered her little fingers together, and kissed them.

"I'll promise anything!"

"I'll make it up to you," Cherry said, with a sort of feverish weariness. "I'm all confused and frightened now; I only want it somehow--somehow, to be over! I want you to take me away somewhere," she whispered, with the hands he was clasping resting on his breast, and her flowerlike face raised to his, "take me somewhere, and take care of me! I only want you!"

"Cherry, my darling--my dearest!" Peter said. "I will take care of you. Only trust me for a few days more, and we will be away from it all. And now you put it all out of your mind, and run in and go to bed. You're exhausted, and if Alix gets the eight o'clock train she will be here in a few minutes. I'll wander down the road a little way, and meet the car if she drives it up."

"Good-night!" she breathed, and he saw the white gown flicker against the soft light on the lawn, and saw the black shadow creeping by it, before she mounted the porch steps, and was gone.