Chapter XVII
 

Swept along by a passionate excitement that seemed actually to consume her, Cherry lived through the next three days. Alix noticed her mood, and asked her more than once what caused it. Cherry would press a hot cheek to hers, smile with eyes full of pain, and flutter away. She was well, she was quite all right, only she--she was afraid Martin would summon her soon--and she didn't want to go to him--!

Alix was puzzled, watching her sister with anxious eyes. The cleaning and refurnishing of the old home was proceeding rapidly, and Alix feared that the constant memory of the old times would be too much for Cherry. She tried to induce her to rest, to spend this morning or that afternoon in the hammock, but Cherry gently but irresistibly refused. Her one hope was to be busy, to tire her brain and body before night.

Suspecting something gravely amiss, Alix tried to win her confidence regarding Martin. But briefly, quickly, and with a sort of affectionate and apologetic impatience, Cherry refused to discuss him.

"I shall not go back to him!" she said, breathing hard, and with the air of being more absorbed in what she was doing than what she was saying. She and Alix were dusting the books in their father's old library, and arranging them on the shelves, on a quiet September morning.

"But, Cherry, dear, you were saying yesterday that you dreaded his sending for you!" Alix said, in a troubled surprise.

"Yes, I know I was!" Cherry admitted, quickly.

"But did you mean that you are really going to leave him?" the older sister questioned. And as Cherry was silent she repeated: "Are you going to leave him, dear?"

"I don't know what I'm going to do!" Cherry half sobbed.

"But, dearest--dearest, you're only twenty-four; don't you think you might feel better about it as time goes on?" Alix urged. "Now that the money is all yours, Cherry, and you can have this nice home to come to now and then, isn't it different?"

Cherry, an old volume in her hand, was looking at her steadily.

"You don't understand, Sis!" she said.

"I understand that you don't love Martin," Alix said, perplexed. "But can't people who don't love each other live together in peace?" she added, with a half smile.

"N-n-not as man and wife!" Cherry stammered.

Alix sat back on her heels, in the ungraceful fashion of her girlhood, and shrugged her shoulders.

"Think of the people who are worrying themselves sick over bills, or sick wives, or children to bring up!" she suggested, hopefully. "My Lord, if you have enough money, and food, and are young, and well--!"

"Yes, but, Alix," Cherry argued, eagerly, "I'm not well when I'm unhappy. My heart is like lead all the time; I can't seem to breathe! People--isn't it possible that people are different about that?" she asked, timidly.

"I suppose they are!" Alix conceded, thoughtfully. "Anyway, look at all the fusses in history," she added, carelessly, "of grande passions, and murders, and elopements, and the fate of nations-- resting on just the fact that a man and woman hated each other too much, or loved each other too much! There must be something in it that I don't understand. But what I do understand," she added, after a moment, when Cherry, choked with emotion, was silent, "is that Dad would die of grief if he knew you were unhappy, that your life was all broken up in disappointment and bitterness!"

"But is that my fault!" Cherry exclaimed, with sudden tears.

Alix, after watching her for a troubled minute, went to her, and put her arm about her. "Don't cry, Cherry!" she pleaded, sorrowfully.

Cherry, regaining self-control, resumed her work silently, with an occasional, sudden sigh. Alix, clapping the heavy covers of a leatherbound volume in Buck's inquisitive nose, presently laughed gaily as he sneezed and pawed.

She had opened the subject with reluctance; now she realized that they had again reached a blank wall.

Three days after their talk in the moonlit garden Peter found chance to speak alone to Cherry.

"Are you ready?" he asked.

"Quite!" she said, raising blue eyes to his.

"What about your suitcase?"

"I took it into San Francisco yesterday; Alix went in early, and I followed at noon. It's checked in the ferry building, waiting."

"It's to-morrow then, Cherry!" he said.

"To-morrow!" He saw the colour ebb from her face as she echoed him. This was already late afternoon; perhaps her thoughts raced ahead to to-morrow afternoon at this time when they two would be leaning on the rail of the little steamer, gazing out over the smooth, boundless blue of the Pacific, and alone in the world.

"To-morrow you will be mine!" he said.

"That's all I think of," she answered. And now the colour came up in a splendid wave of flame, and the face that she turned toward his was radiant with proud surrender.

He told her the number of the dock; they discussed trains.

"We sail at eleven," said Peter, "but I shall be there shortly after ten. I'll have the baggage on board, everything ready; you only have to cross the gangplank. You have your baggage check; give it to me."

They were waiting in the car while Alix marketed; Cherry opened her purse and gave him the punched cardboard.

"I'll tell Alix that I have a last dentist appointment at half- past ten," she said. "If she goes in with me, we'll go to the very door. But she says she can't come in to-morrow, anyway. I'll write her to-night, and drop the letter on the way to the boat."

"Better wait until we are in Los Angeles," he said, pondering. "I'm writing, too, of course. I'm simply saying that it is one of the big things that come into people's lives and that one can't combat. Perhaps some day--but I can't look forward; I can't tell what the future holds. I only know that we belong to each other, and that life might as well be ended as love!"

"To-morrow, then!" was Cherry's only answer. "I'm glad it's so soon."

"Good-bye!" said Cherry, leaning over the side of the car to kiss her sister. Alix received the kiss, smiled, and stretched in the sun.

"Heavenly day to waste in the city!" said Alix.

"I know!" Cherry said, nervously. She had been so strangely nervous and distracted in manner all morning that Alix had more than once asked her if there was anything wrong. Now she questioned her again.

"You mustn't mind me!" Cherry said, with a laugh. "I'm desperately unhappy," she said, her eyes watering. "And sometimes I think of desperate remedies, that's all."

"I'd do anything in the world to help you, Cerise!" Alix said, sympathetically.

"I know you would, Sis! I believe," Cherry said, trembling, "that there's nothing you wouldn't give me!"

"That's easily said," Alix answered, carelessly, "for I don't get fond of things, as you do! My dear, I'd go off with Martin to Mexico in a minute. I mean it! I don't care a whoop where I live, if only people are happy. I'd work my hands to the bone for you-- as a matter of fact, I do work 'em to the bone," she added, laughing, as she looked at the hands that were stained and rough from gardening.

"How about Buck?" Cherry said, as the dog leaped to his place on the front seat, and licked his mistress's ear.

Alix embraced him lovingly.

"Well--if he wanted to go with you!" she conceded, unwillingly. "But he wouldn't!" she added, quickly. Cherry, going to the train, gave her an April smile, and as she took her seat and the train drew on its way, it seemed to her suddenly that she might indeed meet Peter, but it would only be to tell him that what they had planned was impossible.

But on the deck of the Sausalito steamer, dreaming in the sunshine of the soft, lazy autumn day, her heart turned sick with longing once more. Alix was forgotten, everything was forgotten except Peter. His voice, his tall figure, erect, yet moving with the little limp she knew so well, came to her thoughts. She thought of herself on the other steamer, only an hour from now, safe in his care, Martin forgotten, and all the perplexities and disappointments of the old life forgotten, in the flood of new security and joy. Los Angeles--New Orleans--France--it mattered not where they wandered, they might well lose the world, and the world them, from to-day on.

"So that is to be my life--one of the blamed and ignored women?" Cherry mused, leaning on the rail, and watching the plunge of the receding water. "Like the heroines of half the books--only it always seemed so bold and so frightful in books! But to me it just seems the most natural thing in all the world. I love Peter, and he loves me, and the earth is big enough to hide us, and that's all there is to it. Anyway, right or wrong, I can't help it," she finished, rejoicing to find herself suddenly serene and confident, as the boat made the slip, and the passengers streamed downstairs and so across the ferry place and into the city.

It was twenty minutes past ten, a warm, sweet morning, with great hurrying back and forth at the ferry, women climbing to the open seats of the cable-cars, pinning on their violets or roses as they climbed. In the air was the pleasant mingling of the scents of roasting coffee, salt bay-water, and softening tar in the paving, that is native only to San Francisco. Cars clanged about the circle, hummed their way up into the long vista of Market Street, disturbing great flights of gulls that were picking dropped oats from the very feet of feeding horses.

Cherry sped through it all, beside herself now with excitement and strain, only anxious to have the great hands of the clock drop more speedily from minute to minute, and so round out the terrible hour that joined the old life to the new. She was hurrying blindly toward the docks of the Los Angeles Line, absorbed in her one whirling thought, when somebody touched her arm, and a voice, terrifyingly unexpected and yet familiar, addressed her, and a hand was laid on her arm.

In utter confusion she looked up. It was Martin who had stopped her.