Chapter XIX
 

The evening dragged. Alix had suggested bridge, but Martin did not play bridge. So she presently scattered anagrams over the table, reminding Peter of some of their battles with word-making in the long winter nights, and they had a half-hearted game, in which Martin showed no interest at all, and Peter deliberately missed chances to score.

Alix glanced furtively at her wrist-watch; it was twenty minutes of ten. As Martin flung himself into a chair beside the fire, and lighted one of his strong cigars, she went to the piano, and began to ramble through various songs, hoping that somebody would start to sing, or suggest a favourite, or in some way help to lighten the dreadful heaviness of the atmosphere.

Cherry and Peter, left at the table, did not speak to each other; Peter leaned back in his chair, with a cigarette; Cherry dreamily pushed to and fro the little wooden block letters.

But presently her heart gave a great plunge, and although she did not alter her different attitude, or raise her eyes, her white hand moved with directed impulse, and Peter's casual glance fell upon the word "Alone."

When he laid his finished cigarette in the tray, it was to finger the letters himself, in turn, and Cherry realized with a great thrill of relief that he was answering her. Carelessly, and obliterating one word before he began another, he formed the question: "My office to-morrow?"

"Martin always with me," Cherry spelled back. She did not glance at Peter, but at Martin, who was watching the fire, and at Alix, whose back was toward the room.

"Come on, have another game!" Peter asked, generally, while he spelled quickly: "Will arrange sailing first possible day."

Alix, humming along with her song, said: "Wait a few minutes!" and Martin glanced up to say, "No, I'm no good at that thing!"

Then Cherry and Peter were unobserved again, and she spelled "Mart goes Monday. Plans to take me."

Peter had reached for a magazine; he whirled through the pages, and yawned. Then he began to play with the anagrams again.

"Can you get away without him?" he spelled.

"How?" Cherry instantly asked. And as Peter's hands went on building a little bridge of wooden letters, she went on: "Alix to train, Martin with me to city, impossible."

"Give him the slip," Peter spelled. And after a pause he added, "Life or death."

"Difficult to evade," Cherry spelled, wiping the words away one by one.

"Must wait--" Peter began. Alix, ending her song on a crash of chords, came to the table, interrupting him. Cherry was now lazily reading a magazine; Peter had built a little pen of tiny blocks.

"I'll go you!" Alix said, with spirit. But the game was rather a languid one, nevertheless, and when it was over they gathered yawning about the mantel, ready to disperse for the night.

"And to-morrow night we dine in town and go to the Orpheum?" Alix asked, for the plan had been suggested at dinner-time.

"I'll blow you girls to any show you like," Martin offered. He took out his big watch--Cherry remembered just how smoothly this watch always seemed to slip in and out of his pocket--and smiled at them. "Ten o'clock," he grinned. "I'll set up awhile longer, and have a look at the evening papers."

"Well--" Peter conceded. Cherry was shocked by the sudden chill and sternness of his face. Immediately, remarking that he was tired, he went to his room. Cherry, with only a general good- night, also disappeared, to find Alix arranging beds and pillows on their sleeping porch.

"Oh, Alix--I'm so worried--I'm so sick with worry!" Cherry whispered. Alix, sitting still in the circle of light thrown from the reading lamp light, over her bed, nodded, with a stricken face. "He won't listen to me," said Cherry. "He won't hear of a divorce!"

"I know!" Alix said, distressedly.

"But what shall I do--I can't go with him!" Cherry protested.

Alix was silent.

"What shall I do?" Cherry pleaded again.

"Why, I don't see what else you can do, but go with him!" Alix said, in a troubled voice. "I should think that no man would want his wife, knowing that she didn't want to be with him! And I should think that to leave you here, with enough money to live on, and your own old home, would suit him better than to drag you--" She sighed. "But if it doesn't," she finished, "of course it doesn't alter your obligation, in a way. You are his wife. 'For better or worse, for richer or poorer, till death---'"

It was said so kindly, with Alix's simple and embarrassed fashion of giving advice, that poor Cherry could not resent it. She could only bow her head desolately upon her knees, as she sat, child- fashion, in her bed, and cry.

"A nice mess I've made of my life!" she sobbed. "I've made a nice mess of it! I wish--oh, my God, how I wish I was dead!"

"My own life has been so darned easy," Alix mused, in a cautious undertone, sitting, fully dressed, on the side of her own bed, and studying her sister with pitying eyes. "I've often wondered if I could buck up and get through with it if some of that sort of thing had come to me! I don't know, of course, but it seems to me that I'd say: 'Who loses his life shall gain it!' and I'd stand anything--people and places I hated, loneliness and poverty--the whole bag of tricks! I think I would. I mean I'd read the Bible and Shakespere, and enjoy my meals, and have a garden--" Her voice sank. "I know it's terribly hard for you, Cherry!" she ended, suddenly pitiful.

Cherry had stopped crying, dried her eyes, and had reached resolutely for the book that was waiting on the little shelf above the porch bed.

"You're bigger than I am," she said, quietly. "Or else I'm so made that I suffer more! I wish I could face the music. But I can't do anything. Of course, just--just loathing some things about a man isn't valid cause for divorce, I know that. But I'd rather live with a man that drank, and stole, and beat me--I'd rather he should disgrace me before the whole world, and drag me to prison with him, than to feel as I feel! I would, Alix. I tell you--" Her voice was rising, but suddenly she interrupted herself, and spoke in a lifeless and apologetic tone: "I'm sorry," she said. "One knows of unhappy marriages, everywhere, without quite fancying just what a horrible tragedy an unhappy marriage is! Don't mind me, Alix. The Mill Valley Zeus will have an item in it this week that Mr. and Mrs. Martin Lloyd have gone to visit relatives in Portland, Oregon, and nobody'll know but what we're the happiest couple in the world--and perhaps we are!"

Alix laughed uncomfortably. She was conscious, as she went out to speak to Kow about breakfast, and to give a final glance at fires and lights, that this was one of the times when girls needed a wise mother, or a father, who could decide, blame, and advise.

Coming back from the kitchen, with a pitcher of hot water, she saw Martin, in a welter of evening papers, staring at the last pink ashes of the wood fire. Upon seeing her he got up, and with a cautious glance toward the bedroom doors he said:

"Look here a minute! Can they hear us?" Alix set down her pitcher of water, and came to stand beside him.

"Hear us--Peter and Cherry? No, Cherry's out on our porch, and Peter's porch is even farther away. Why?"

"Take a look, will you?" he said. "I want to speak to you!"

Alix, mystified, duly went to glance at Cherry, reading now in a little funnel of yellow light, and then crossed to enter Peter's room. His porch was dark, but she could see the outline of the tall figure lying across the bed.

"Asleep?" she asked.

"Nope!" he answered.

"Well, don't go to sleep without pulling a rug over you!" she commanded. "Good-night, Pete!"

"Good-night, old girl!" Something in the tone touched her, with a vague hint of unhappiness, but she did not stop to analyze it. She went back through his room, and through the little passage, and rejoined Martin. The freedom of Peter's apartment Alix had always taken as naturally as she did the freedom of her father's.

"Can't hear us, eh?" Martin asked, when again she stood beside him.

"Positively not!" she answered.

"Look here," he said, abruptly. "What brought me up here is this. Who's making love to Cherry?"

Indignant, and with rising colour, she stared at him.

"Who--what!"

"She's having a nice little quiet flirtation with somebody," Martin said, with a significant and warning smile. "Who is it?"

"I don't know who's been talking to you about Cherry, Martin," Alix said, sharply, "but you know you can't repeat that sort of rotten scandal to me!"

"I don't mean any harm--I don't mean any harm!" he assured her, with a quick attempt to quiet the storm he had raised. "Don't get mad--don't get mad! But I happen to know that there's some attraction that's keeping Cherry here, and I came up to look over the ground for myself, do you see?"

His look, which was almost a leer, seemed to imply that Alix was in the secret, a party to Cherry's foolishness, and did imply very distinctly that Martin felt himself to be more than a match for all their cunning. The woman was silent, looking straight into his eyes.

"Come on, now, put me on!" he said.

Alix made an effort at self-control.

"Martin, you're mistaken!" she said, quietly. "You have no right to listen to any one who tells you such things, and if it wasn't that you're Cherry's husband, I wouldn't listen to you! But you'll have to take my word for it that it's a lie. We three have lived up here without seeing any one-any one! Cherry has hardly spoken to a man, except Peter and Antone and Kow, since she came!"

"Who's this George Sewall?" he asked, shrewdly. "The lawyer! Oh, heavens, Martin! Why, George was a beau of mine; he's a widower of fifty, and has just announced his engagement to the trained nurse that took care of his boy!"

"H'm!" Martin commented.

"If any one mentioned Cherry's name in connection with George," Alix said, firmly, "that was a perfectly malicious slander--"

"Sewall's wasn't mentioned!" Martin said, hastily.

"Whose name was mentioned, then?" Alix pursued, hotly.

"Well, nobody's name was mentioned." Martin took a great many creased and rubbed papers from his vest pockets, and shifted them over. Finally, with a fat, deliberate hand he selected one, and put the others away.

"This is from my mother," he said. "My aunt, Mrs. North--"

"We saw her here, a week or two ago!" Alix said as he paused.

"Well, she was in Portland, and saw the folks," said Martin. "And my mother writes me this--" And after a few seconds of searching, he read from the letter: "Bessie North saw Cherry and Mrs. Joyce in Mill Valley, and if I was you I would not let Cherry stay away too long. A wife's place is with her husband, especially when she is as pretty as Cherry, and if Bessie is right, somebody else thinks she is pretty, too, and you know it doesn't take much to start people talking. It isn't like she had a couple of children to keep her busy. Why don't you bring her up here and leave her with Papa and me while you look over the Mexican proposition?"

"That's all of that," said Martin, folding the letter. He eyed Alix keenly. "Well, what do you think?" he asked, triumphantly.

"I think that's a mean, wicked thing to say!" she said, indignantly. "No, Martin," she said, silencing him, as he would have interrupted her, "I know she is beautiful and young, and I know--because she's told me--that you and she feel that your marriage is a mistake, but if you think--"

"Oh, she said that, did she?"

"Don't use that tone!" Alix commanded him quickly. "She didn't blame you or herself, except in that she didn't listen to my father, who thought she was too young to marry any one! But if you want to lose her, Martin," Alix said, with heat, "just let her suspect all this petty suspicion and scandal! Cherry's proud--"

"Now, look here," he said, with his air of assurance, "I'm proud, too. And if I don't choose to stand before the world as a divorced man--"

"Nobody's talking of divorce!" Alix hushed him. "But no woman would stand having other women spy and suspect--"

"How about this Sewall!" he muttered. "By George, she had something on her mind when she met me to-day. She was fussed, all right, and it wasn't all the surprise of seeing me, either. First she wanted to telephone you--then she fussed over your message--"

"Cherry gets fluttered very easily!" Alix reminded him.

"Well, she was fussed all right this morning. She said not to mention it to Alix, because she had promised that it should go on time. I thought maybe she meant that you wanted her to go herself; no, she said, a note would do--"

"I don't know what you're talking about!" Alix said, puzzled.

"Your note!" Martin explained.

"What note! I didn't write any note. Cherry telephoned--"

"No," he said, patiently and perfunctorily, "you wanted--Cherry-- to-say--good-bye--to--those--people--who--were--sailing! That was all. She wrote it; it got there in time, I guess. Anyway, I heard the girl say to rush it to the boat!"

"Oh!" Alix said. "Oh--" she added. Her tone betrayed nothing, but she was thoroughly at sea. "Did I ask Cherry to say good-bye to any one?" she asked herself, going back to the beginning of the long day. Instinct warned her that nothing would be gained by sharing her perplexity with Martin. "I give you my word that she hasn't been five minutes alone with any one but Peter and me!" she said, frankly, looking into Martin's eyes. "Now, are you satisfied?"

"Sure, I'm satisfied!" he answered. "She didn't go into town to lunch with any one?" he asked.

"No!" Alix said, scornfully. "She always lunches with us! You don't deserve her, to talk so about her, Martin!" she said.

"Well, I'm not anybody's fool, you know!" he assured her. "All right, I'll take your say-so for it. He yawned, "Trouble with Cherry is, she hasn't enough to do!" he finished, sapiently.

"I'm a poor person with whom to discuss Cherry!" Alix hinted, with an unsmiling nod for good-night.

And she looked at Cherry's corn-coloured head, ten minutes later, with a thrill of maternal protectiveness. Cherry was evidently asleep, buried deep under the blue army blankets. But Alix did not get to sleep that night.

She did not even undress. For it was while sitting on the side of her bed, ready to begin the process, that through her excited and indignant and whirling thoughts the first suspicion shot like a touch of flame.

"How dares Martin--how dares he!" her thoughts had run. And then suddenly she had said: "Why, she has seen no one but Peter--she has seen no one but Peter!

"I'll tell Peter all this when Martin has gone," Alix decided. "He'll be furious--he adores Cherry--he'll be furious--he thinks that there is no one like Cherry--"

The words she had said came back to her, and she said them again, half-aloud, with a look of pain and almost of fear suddenly coming into her eyes.

"Peter adores Cherry--"

And then she knew. Even while the sick suspicion formed itself, vague and menacing and horrible, in her heart, she knew the truth of it. And though for hours she was to weigh it and measure it, to remember and question and compare all the days and hours that she and Peter and Cherry had been together; from the moment the thought was born she knew that it was to be with her as an accepted fact for all time to come.