Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
For a few dreadful seconds a sort of vertigo seized Cherry and she was unable to collect her thoughts or to speak even the most casual words of greeting. She had been so full of her extraordinary errand that she was bewildered and sick at its interruption, her heart thundered, her throat was choked, and her knees shook beneath her. Where was she--what was known--how much had she betrayed--Her thoughts jumbled together in a tangle of horrified questioning.
Gasping, trying to smile, she looked up at him, while the ferry place whirled about her, and pulses drummed in her ears. She had automatically given him her hand; now he kissed her.
"Hello, Cherry, where you going?" for the third time.
"I came into town to shop," she faltered.
"You what?" She had not really been intelligible, and she felt it, with a pang of fright. He must not suspect--the steamer was there, only a short block away; Peter might pass them; a chance word might be fatal--he must not suspect--
"I'm shopping!" she said distinctly, with dry lips. And she managed to smile.
"Well," Martin said, smiling in turn, "surprised to see me?"
"Oh, Martin--" said her fluttered voice. Even in the utter panic of heart and soul she knew that for safety's sake she must find his vanity.
"I'm going to tell you something that will surprise you," he said. "I'm through with the Red Creek people!"
"Martin!" Cherry enunciated, almost voicelessly.
"You remember I wrote you that they fired Mason, and that I was doing his work and mine, too?"
"I--I remember!" Cherry, seized by deadly nausea and chill, looked from a flower vendor to a newsboy, looked at the cars, the people- -she must not faint. She must not faint.
"Well--but where are you going? Home?"
"I was going to the dentist a minute, but it's not important." They had turned and were walking across to the ferry. She knew that there was no way in which she might escape him. "What did you say?" she said.
"I asked you when the next boat left for Mill Valley?"
"We can--go--find out." Cherry's thoughts were spinning. She must warn Peter somehow. It was twenty minutes of eleven by the ferry clock. Twenty minutes of eleven. In twenty minutes the boat would sail. She thought desperately of the women's waiting-room upstairs; she might plead the necessity of telephoning from it. But it had but one door, and Martin would wait at that door. The glow of meeting had already faded from his face, but he was loitering by her side, quite as a matter of course.
Suddenly she realized that her only hope of warning Peter was to send a messenger. But if Martin should chance to connect her neighbourhood with the boat, when he met her, and her sending of a message to Peter here--
"I think there's a boat at eleven something," she said, collectedly. "Suppose you go and find out?"
She glanced toward the entrance of the Sausalito waiting-room, a hundred yards away, and a mad hope leaped in her heart. If he turned his back on her--
"What are you going to do?" he asked, somewhat surprised.
"I ought to telephone Alix!" Her despair lent her wit. If he went to the ticket office, and she into a telephone booth, she might escape him yet! While he dawdled here, minutes were flying, and Peter was watching every car and every passer-by, torn with the same agony that was tearing her. "If you'll go find out the exact time and get tickets," she said, "I'll telephone Alix."
"Tickets?" he echoed, with all Martin's old, maddening slowness. "Haven't you got a return ticket?"
"I have mileage!" she blundered.
"Oh, then I'll use your mileage!" Martin said. "Telephone," he added, nodding toward a row of booths, "no hurry; we've got piles of time!"
She remembered that he liked a masculine assumption of easiness where all trains, tickets, railroad connections, and transit business of any sort were concerned. He liked to loiter elaborately while other people were running, liked to pull out his big watch and assure her that they had all the time in the world. She tried to call a number, left the booth, paid a staring girl, and rejoined him.
"Busy!" she reported.
"I was just thinking," Martin said, "that we might stay in town and go to the Orpheum; how about it? Do we have to have Peter and Alix?"
Cherry flushed, angered again, in the well-remembered way, under all her fright and stir. Her voice had its old bored note.
"Well, Martin, I've been their guest for two months!"
"I'd just as soon have them!" Martin conceded, indifferently.
But the diverted thought had helped Cherry, irritation had nerved her, and the reminder of Martin's old, trying stupidities had lessened her fear of him.
"I've got to send a telegram-for Alix," she said.
"What about?" he asked, less curious than ill-bred.
"Good-bye to some people who are sailing!" Cherry answered, calmly. "Only don't mention it to Alix, because I promised it would go earlier!" she added.
"I saw the office back here," he told her. They went to it together, and he was within five feet of her while she scribbled her note.
"Martin met me. Nothing wrong. We are returning to Mill Valley. C. L." She glanced at her husband; he was standing in the doorway of the little office, smoking. Quickly she addressed the envelope. "Don't read that name out loud," she said, softly but very slowly and distinctly, to the girl at the desk. She put a gold piece down on the note. "Keep the change, and for God's sake get that to the Harvard, sailing from Dock 67, before eleven!" she said.
The girl, who had been pencilling a large "10:46" on the envelope, looked up in surprise; but rose immediately to the occasion. Cherry's beauty, her agonized eyes and voice, were enough to awaken her sense of the dramatic. A sharp rap of the clerk's pencil summoned a boy.
"George, there's a dollar in that for you if you deliver it before eleven to the Harvard!" said she. The boy seized it, stuck it in his hat, and fled.
"And now for the boat!" Cherry said, rejoining Martin, and speaking in almost her natural voice. They went back to the Sausalito ferry entrance again, and this time telephoned Alix in real earnest, and presently found themselves on the upper deck of the boat, bound for the valley.
Until now, and in occasional rushes of terror still, she had been absorbed in the hideous necessity of deceiving, of covering her own traces, of anticipating and closing possible avenues of betrayal. But now Cherry began to breathe more easily, and to feel rising about her, like a tide, the half-forgotten consciousness of her relationship with this man in the boldly-checked suit who was sitting beside her. She had thought to escape the necessity of telling him that she was not willing to return to him; she had been wrapped in dreams so great and so wonderful that the thought of his anger and resentment had been as nothing to her. But she had all that to face now.
She had it to face immediately, too. She knew that every hour of postponement would cost her fresh humiliations and difficulties. He did not love her, but he was quietly taking her for granted again, and until she could summon courage to speak to him with utter frankness and finality, he would of course claim his position as her husband.
The thought threw her into a nervous agitation almost as frightful as that of meeting him had been, and again she felt the dizzy faintness and sickness of that moment.
The trip from San Francisco to Sausalito occupies exactly half an hour; after that there was a train trip of twenty minutes. Cherry knew that what was done must be done in that time. In Mill Valley Alix would meet them, perhaps willing to take any cue that Cherry gave her, as to their relationship, but of course anxious to have that relationship as pleasant and normal and friendly as possible.
Her head was still rocking from the shock of the experiences of the last hour and the last fortnight. Even had she met Peter it might have been to yield with a sort of collapse to mental and physical exhaustion. But to be forced to make a fresh effort now, one of the crucial and fearful struggles of a lifetime, to present her case to Martin now, and force him to her viewpoint, was almost impossible.
Yet Cherry knew that it must be done, and as the boat slipped smoothly past the island that roughly marked the halfway point, she gathered all her forces for the trial.
Martin was meanwhile energetically presenting to her the arguments that had convinced him that he must give up the Mexico position. She vaguely appreciated that someone named Murry was a traitor, and that the "whole bunch" were "rubes," but her mind was busy with its own problem all the while, and the one distinct impression she had from Martin was the appalling one that he did not dream that she had decided to sever their union completely and finally.
"Well, how's the valley? Bore you to death?" he interrupted the flow of his own topic to ask carelessly.
"Oh, no, Martin!" she quivered. "I--I love it there! I always loved it!"
"Alix is a fine girl--she's a nice girl," Martin conceded. "But I can't go Peter! He may be all right, all that lah-di-dah and Omar Khayyam and Browning stuff may be all right, but I don't get it!" And he yawned contentedly in the sunshine.
After a few seconds he gave Cherry an oblique glance, expecting her resentment. But she was thinking too deeply even to have heard him. Her mind was working as desperately as a caged animal, her thoughts circling frantically, trying windows, walls, and doors in the prison in which she found herself, mad for escape.
She blamed herself bitterly now for allowing him, in the surprise and fear she felt, in the shock of their unexpected meeting, to arrange this domestic and apparently reconciled return to the valley house. Had she known beforehand that they were to meet she would have steeled herself to suggest to him coldly that they lunch somewhere, and talk. She could imagine now the quiet significance with which she would have stressed the phrase, "Martin, I want to talk to you."
Better still, she would have anticipated that meeting with a letter that would have warned him that his position as a husband was changed. But it was too late now! Too late for anything but a bald and brave and cruel half-hour that should, at any cost, sunder them.
Quick upon the thought came another: what should she and Peter plan now? For to suppose that their lives were to be guided back into the old hateful channel by this mere mischance was preposterous. Within a few days their interrupted trip must be resumed, perhaps to-morrow--perhaps this very night they would manage it successfully. Alix was unsuspicious, Martin utterly unconcerned, and perhaps it would be even easier to do now, than when Alix must at once communicate with Martin, and perhaps bring him away from his work, to adjust life to the new conditions.
But meanwhile, until she could see Peter alone, there was Martin to deal with, Martin who was leaning forward, vaingloriously reciting to her long speeches he had made to this superior or that.
"Martin," she said, impetuously interrupting him, "I've got to talk to you! I've meant to write it--so many times, I've had it in my mind ever since I left Red Creek!"
"Shoot!" Martin said, with his favourite look of indulgent amusement.
But she knew the little twitch to his lips that was neither indulgent nor amused.
"There are marriages that without any fault on either side are a mistake," Cherry began, "any contributory fault, I mean--"
"Talk United States!" Martin growled, smiling, but on guard.
"Well, I think our marriage was one of those!" Cherry said.
"What have you got to kick about?" Martin asked, after a pause.
"I'm not kicking!" Cherry answered, with quick resentment. "But I wish I had words to make you realize how I feel about it!"
Martin looked gloomily up at her, and shrugged.
"This is a sweet welcome from your wife!" he observed. But as she regarded him with troubled and earnest eyes, perhaps her half- forgotten beauty made an unexpected appeal to him, for he turned toward her and eyed her with a large tolerance. "What's the matter, Cherry?" he asked. "It doesn't seem to me that you've got much to kick about. Haven't I always taken pretty good care of you? Didn't I take the house and move the things in; didn't I leave you a whole month, while I ate at that rotten boarding- house, when your father died; haven't I let you have--how long is it?--seven weeks, by George, with your sister?"
It poured out too readily to be unpremeditated; Cherry recognized the tones of his old arraigning voice. He had brooded over his grievances. He felt himself ill-treated.
"Now you come in for this money," he began. But she interrupted him hotly:
"Martin, you know that is not true!"
"Isn't it true that the instant you can take care of yourself you begin to talk about not being happy, and so on!" he asked, without any particular feeling. "You bet you do! Why, I never cared anything about that money, you never heard me speak of it. I always felt that by the time the lawyers and the heirs and the witnesses got through, there wouldn't be much left of it, anyway!"
Too rich in her new position of the woman beloved by Peter to quarrel with Martin in the old unhappy fashion, Cherry laid an appealing hand on his arm.
"I'm sorry to meet you with this sort of thing," she said, simply, "I blame myself now for not writing you just how I've come to feel about it! But I just want it said before we meet Alix--"
"Have what said?" he asked, surlily.
"Have it understood," she pursued, patiently, "that we must make some arrangement for the future--things can't be as they were!"
"You've had it all your way ever since we were married," he began. "Now you blame me--"
"I don't blame you, Martin!"
"Well, what do you want a divorce for, then?"
"I don't even say anything about a divorce," Cherry said, fighting for time only. "But I can't go back!" she added, with a sudden force and conviction that reached him at last.
"Why can't you?"
"Because you don't love me, Martin, and--you know it!--I don't love you!"
"Well, but you can't expect the way we felt when we got married to last forever," he said, clumsily. "Do you suppose other men and women talk this way when the--the novelty has worn off?"
"I don't know how they talk. I only know how I feel!" Cherry said, chilled by the old generalization.
Martin, who had stretched his legs to their length, crossed them at the ankles, and shoved his hands deep into his pockets, staring at the racing blue water with sombre eyes.
"What do you want?" he asked, heavily. "I want to live my own life!" Cherry answered, after a silence during which her tortured spirit seemed to coin the hackneyed phrase.
"That stuff!" Martin sneered, under his breath. "Well, all right, I don't care, get your divorce!" he agreed, carelessly. "But I'll have something to say about that, too," he warned her. "You can drag the whole thing up before the courts if you want to--only remember, if you don't like it much, you did it. It never occurred to me even to think of such a thing! I've done my share in this business; you never asked me for anything I could give you that you didn't get; you've never been tied down to housework like other women; you're not raising a family of kids--go ahead, tell every shop-girl in San Francisco all about it, in the papers, and see how much sympathy you get!"
"Oh, you beast!" Cherry said, between her teeth, furious tears in her eyes. The water swam in a blur of blue before her as they rose to go downstairs at Sausalito. The boat had made the slip, and the few passengers, at this quiet noontime, were drifting off.
Martin glanced at her with impatience. Her tears never failed to anger him.
"Don't cry, for God's sake!" he said, nervously glancing about for possible onlookers. "What do you want me to do? For the Lord's sake don't make a scene until you and I have a chance to talk this over quietly--"
Cherry's thoughts were with Peter. In her soul she felt as if his arm was about her, as if she were pouring out to him the whole troubled story, sure that he would rescue and console her. She had wiped her eyes, and somewhat recovered calm, but she trusted herself only to shrug her shoulder as she preceded Mart to the train.
There was time for not another word, for Alix suddenly took possession of them. She had had time to bring the car all the six miles to Sausalito, and meant to drive them direct to the valley from there.
She greeted Martin affectionately, although even while she did so her eyes went with a quick, worried look to Cherry. They had been quarrelling, of course--it was too bad, Alix thought, but her own course was clear. Until she could take her cue from them, she must treat them both with cheerful unconsciousness of the storm. She invited Martin to share the driver's seat with her, pushing the resentful Buck into the tonneau with Cherry.
Alix, in the months that she had not seen him, had had time to develop a certain generous sympathy for Martin, but as she took the car swiftly through the warm, sweet summer day, she began to realize afresh just how serious Cherry's problem was. It was not merely that Martin chewed a toothpick as he talked to her, and took out a pen-knife to trim a finger-nail; it was not that he was somewhat vain, stupid, and opinionated, for the minor social deficiencies might have been remedied in a larger nature by an affectionate word, and there were times, Alix felt, when the best of men are insistent upon perverse and perverted views, and unashamed or unconscious of their limitations. Martin had coarsened in the six years since they had first known him. There had been something unspoiled, vigorous, and fresh about him then that was gone now. Alix sensed that his associates in the mining towns in which he had lived had been men and women of a low type. The defiling influence had left its mark. Missing entertainment in his home, he had sought it elsewhere.
But besides these things Martin had a certain complacency, an assurance that would have been inexcusable even in great genius, a mental arrogance that nothing in his life in the least degree warranted. He made no slight effort to adapt himself to the atmosphere in which he found his wife and her sister, interested himself for not one moment in their concerns, put out no feelers toward the mood that might have made him an agreeable addition to their group. He conceded nothing; he was Martin Lloyd, mining engineer, philosopher, man of the world, and it was for them to listen to him, admire him, and praise and tease and flatter him in all he did. Humility and shyness were never a part of Martin's nature, but to-day he was galled by his talk with Cherry, and less inclined even than usual to abase himself.
"Does Peter let you drive the car on these mountain roads?" he demanded of Alix.
"Oh, yes, indeed. I love to run the car!" she said, with a swift, smiling glance.
"Well, you want to keep your eyes on the road," he warned her. "There's nothing worries me like having a lady at the wheel," he went on, good-naturedly, "that's the time I say my prayers!"
"Plenty of women running cars now, Martin!" Alix said, cheerfully, wishing that Martin didn't always and infallibly nettle her.
"But it's no business for a woman," he assured her, in a suddenly serious and confidential undertone. "No business for them! They haven't the strength, in the first place, and they haven't--well, they're too nervous, in the second. Mouse cross the road," said Martin, sucking in deep breaths as he lighted a cigar, "and--whee! Over she goes into a ditch. No," he said, kindly, "I'm a great friend of all the ladies, but I think they make a mistake when they think they're men."
"Only one accident in ten is with a woman driver," Alix argued.
"That may be true, too," Martin conceded, largely. She knew that he was drawing his words merely to cover any impression of being caught unprepared. "That may be true, too. But don't you believe that half the cases of women's accidents get into the courts," he added, knowingly. "You bet your life they don't! You bet your sweet life they don't. Oh, no--pretty girl smiles at the policeman--" He smoked a few seconds in triumphant silence. "Why, you knew that, didn't you?" he asked, in kindly patronage.
"I suppose so!" Alix said, briefly, after swallowing a more spirited answer with a gulp.
"Oh, sure!" Martin agreed, in great content.
They reached the valley, and Martin was magnanimous about the delayed lunch. Anything would do for him, he said, he was taking a couple of days' holiday, and everything went. Kow was chopping wood after lunch, and he sauntered out to the block with suggestions; Alix, laying a fire for the evening, simply because she liked to do that sort of work, was favoured with directions. Finally Martin pushed her aside.
"Here, let me do that," he said. "You'd have a fine fire here, at that rate!"
Later he went down to the old house with them, to spend there an hour that was trying to both women. It was almost in order now; Cherry had pleased her simple fancy in the matter of hangings and papering, and the effect was fresh and good. The kitchen smelled cleanly of white paint, and the other rooms wore almost their old, hospitable aspect.
"Girls going to rent this?" Martin asked.
"Unless you and Cherry come live here," Alix said, boldly. He smiled tolerantly.
"Why should we?"
"Well, why shouldn't you?"
"No, not loafing. But you could transfer your work to San Francisco, couldn't you?" Martin smiled a deep, wise, long- enduring smile.
"Oh, you'd get me a job, I suppose?" he asked. "I love the way you women try to run things," he added, "but I guess I'll paddle my own canoe for awhile longer!"
"There is no earthly reason why you shouldn't live here," Alix said, pleasantly.
"There is no earthly reason why we should!" Martin returned. He was annoyed by a suspicion that Alix and Cherry had arranged between them to make this plan the alternative to a divorce. "To tell you the honest truth, I don't like Mill Valley!"
Alix tasted despair. Small hope of preserving this particular relationship. He was, as Cherry had said, "impossible."
"Well, we must try to make you like Mill Valley better!" she said, with resolute good-nature. "Of course, it means a lot to Cherry and to me to be near each other!"
"That may be true, too," Martin agreed, taking the front seat again for the drive home. He told Cherry later that he liked Alix, and Alix was interested enough in keeping him happy to deliberately play upon his easily touched self-confidence. She humoured him, laughed at his jokes, asked him the questions that he was able to answer, and loved to answer.
She was surprised at Cherry's passivity and silence, but Cherry was wrapped in a sick and nervous dream, unable either to interpret the present or face the future with any courage. Before luncheon he had followed her into her room, and had put his arm about her. But she had quietly shaken him off, with the nervous murmur: "Please--no, don't kiss me, Martin!"
Stung, Martin had immediately dropped his arm, had shrugged his shoulders indifferently, and laughed scornfully. Now he remarked to Alix, with some bravado:
"You girls still sleeping out?"
"Oh, always--we all do!" Alix had answered, readily. "Peter has an extra bunk on his porch, Cherry and I have my porch. But you can be out or in, as you choose!"
Martin ventured an answer that made Cherry's eyes glint angrily, and brought a quick, embarrassed flush to Alix's face. Alix did not enjoy a certain type of joking, and she did not concede Martin even the ghost of a smile. He immediately sobered, and remarked that he himself liked to be indoors at night. His suitcase was accordingly taken into the pleasant little wood-smelling room next to Peter's, where the autumn sunlight, scented with the dry sweetness of mountain shrubs, was streaming.
He began to play solitaire, on the porch table, at five, and Kow had to disturb him to set it for dinner at seven. Alix was watering the garden, Cherry was dressing. It was an exquisite hour of long shadows and brilliant lights; bees from Alix's hives went to and fro, and the air was full and fragrant, as if a golden powder had been scattered through it.
Kow had put a tureen of soup on the table, and Alix had returned with damp, clean hands and trimly brushed hair, for supper, when Peter came up through the garden. Cherry had rambled off in the direction of the barn a few moments before, but Martin had followed her and brought her back, remarking that she had had no idea of the time, and was idly watching Antone milking. She slipped into her place after they were all eating, and hardly raised her eyes throughout the meal. If Alix addressed her she fluttered the white lids as if it were an absolute agony to look up; to Peter she did not speak at all. But to Martin she sent an occasional answer, and when the conversation lagged, as it was apt to do in this company, she nervously filled it with random remarks infinitely less reassuring than silence.
"How long do we stay here?" Martin cautiously asked his wife, when after dinner, Peter could be heard in the kitchen, interrogating Kow, and when the drip and splash of Alix's hose was sounding steadily from the other end of the garden.
"Stay here?" she echoed, at a loss.
"Yes," he answered, decidedly. "I can stand a little of it, but I don't think much of this sort of life! I thought maybe we could all go into town for dinner and the theatre to-morrow or Saturday. But on Monday we'll have to beat it."
"Monday!" Cherry's heart bounded.
"My idea was, you to come up with me," Martin continued, "we'll see the folks in Portland--"
"Martin, isn't it a mistake to go on pretending--" she began bitterly. But Peter's voice, in the drawing room, interrupted her. "I'll let you know--we'll talk about it!" she had time to say, hurriedly, before he came out to them. He flung himself into a chair. Martin at once opened a general conversation, in which Alix, still diligently watering, was presently near enough to take part.