Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Immediately they gathered by the fallen rose vine, all talking and disputing at once. Alix and the dogs added only noise to the confusion; the men debated, measured, and doubted; Anne, busy with household duties, came and went smilingly. About them stretched the forest, wrapped in the summer morning stillness that is really compounded of a thousand happy sounds. There was no fog now; warm spokes of sunshine fell brightly into the dim, glowing heart of the woods; bees and birds murmured on short journeys; aromatic sweetness drifted on the air.
They had known a thousand such mornings, the doctor and his girls, still, exquisite, happy, dedicated to some absurd undertaking. They had built chicken pens, they had dammed or cleared the creek, they had felled bay-trees, and lopped the lower branches of the redwoods, they had built roaring bonfires, or painted the porch floor, and many times they had roasted chops or potatoes at the brick oven, and feasted royally in the open forest.
A light rope was tied; an experimental tug broke it like a string, tumbling Alix violently in a sitting position, and precipitating her father into a loamy bed. Anne, who was bargaining with a Chinese fruit vendor frankly interested in their undertaking, had called that she would help them in a second, when behind Alix, who was still sitting on the ground, another voice offered help.
A young man had come into the doctor's garden; work was stopped for a few minutes while they welcomed Martin Lloyd.
He was tall and fair, broad, but with not an ounce of extra weight, with brown eyes always laughing, and a ready friendliness always in evidence. He was dressed becomingly to-day, in a brown army shirt open at the throat, and shabby golf trousers that met his thick woollen stockings at the knee. Anne's heart gave a throb of approval as she studied him; Alix flushed furiously, scowled a certain boyish approval; Cherry had not come down.
"Can you help us?" The doctor echoed his question doubtfully. "I don't know that it can be done!" he admitted.
"This shameless old man has just confessed that he gouged the heart out of the poor tree a week ago," Alix said, getting to her feet. "That's the first use he put his birthday knife to! And Anne stood here and abetted him, as far as I can find out!"
"How you garble things, Alix!" Anne said, giving her hand to Martin. "I came out here to find my uncle busily pruning and chopping the dead underwood away, but I had no more to do with it than you had!"
"What's that you're eating--an apricot?" Martin said to Anne, in his laughing way. "I was going to say that if it was a peach, you are a cannibal!"
"Oh, help!" Alix ejaculated, with a look of elaborate scorn.
"No, but where were you last night?" Martin added in a lower tone when he and Anne could speak unnoticed. The happy colour flooded her face.
"I have to take care of my family sometimes!" she reminded him demurely. "Wasn't Cherry a good substitute?"
"Cherry's adorable!" he agreed heartily.
"Isn't she sweet?" Anne asked enthusiastically. "She's only a little girl, really, but she's a little girl who is going to have a lot of attention some day!" she added, in her most matronly manner.
Martin did not answer, but turning briskly toward the doctor, he devoted himself to the business in hand. Peter had climbed on an inverted barrel, to inspect and advise. Alix dashed upstairs for nails and hammer; the doctor whittled pegs; Martin measured the comparative strength of ropes and branches with a judicial eye and hand. Anne flitted about, suggesting, commenting, her pretty little head tipped to one side.
They were all deep in the first united tug, each person placed carefully by the doctor, and guys for the rope driven at intervals decided by Martin, when there was an interruption for Cherry's arrival on the scene. With characteristic coquetry she did not approach, as the others had, by means of the front porch and the garden path, but crept from the study window into a veritable tunnel of green bloom, and came crawling down it, as sweet and fragrant, as lovely and as fresh, as the roses themselves. She wore a scant pink gingham that had been a dozen times to the tub, and was faded and small; it might have been a regal mantle and diadem without any further enhancing her extraordinary beauty. Her bright head was hidden by a blue sunbonnet, assumed, she explained later, because the thorns tangled her hair; but as, laughing and smothered with roses, she crept into view, the sunbonnet slipped back, and the lovely, flushed little face, with tendrils of gold straying across the white forehead, and mischief gleaming in the blue, blue eyes was framed only in loosened pale gold hair.
Years afterward Alix remembered her so, as Martin Lloyd helped her to spring free of the branches, and she stood laughing at their surprise and still clinging to his hand. "The day we raised the rose tree" had a place of its own in Alix's memory, as a time of carefree fun and content, a time of perfume and sunshine--perhaps the last time of its kind that any one of them was to know.
Cherry looked at Martin daringly as she joined the labourers; her whole being was thrilling to the excitement of his glance; she was hardly conscious of what she was doing or saying. Under her father's direction she tied ropes, presently was placed with her arms clasped tightly about a great sheaf of vines, ready for the united tug. Martin came close to her, in the general confusion.
"How's my little sweetheart this morning?"
Cherry looked up, her throat contracted, she looked down again, unable to speak. She had been waiting for his first word; now that it had come it seemed so far richer and sweeter than her wildest dream.
"How can I see you a minute?" Martin murmured, snapping his big knife shut.
"I have to walk down for the mail--" stammered Cherry, conscious only of Martin and herself.
Both Peter and her father were watching her with an uneasiness and suspicion that had sprung into being full-blown. Both men were asking themselves what they knew of this strange young man who was suddenly a part of their intimate little world.
He was simply a man; not unusual in any apparent way. He was ready with his words, fairly good-looking, clean and muscular, his evident lack of polish in languages and letters atoned for by his quick wit, and by a certain boyish artlessness and ingenuousness. He represented himself as about to receive an excellent salary at the mine at El Nido, two thousand a year, but also admitted cheerfully that he was always "broke." He had distinguished himself at college, but had left it after only two years, upon being offered a promising position. There was nothing especially to admire in him, nothing especially to blame; under other circumstances Peter and the doctor might have pronounced him as one of the least interesting of human specimens. The beauty of childhood and adolescence were gone, the ripeness given by years and suffering was wanting; Martin Lloyd was just, as he himself laughingly remarked, "one of the fellers."
Peter had secretly criticized him because he used the words "'phone" and "photo" and "'Frisco," but in justice he had to admit to himself that there was no particular significance to the criticism. He also, in his secret heart, had a vague, dissatisfied feeling that Lloyd was a man who held women, as a class, rather in disrespect, and had probably had his experiences with them, but there was no way of expressing, much less governing, his conduct toward Martin by so purely speculative a prejudice. The young man had dined at his house a few nights ago, had shown an admiration, if not an appreciation, for music, had talked with sufficient intelligence about political matters, mining, and--what else? photography, and pullman cars, and the latest wreck off Bolinas-- just the random conversation that was apt to trail through a country dinner. He had told a Chinese joke well, and essayed an Irish joke not so successfully. Peter, somewhat appalled, in the sunny garden, struggling with the banksia, decided that this was not much to know of a person who might have the audacity to fall in love with an exquisite and innocent Cherry. After all, she would not be a little girl forever, some man would want to take that little corn-coloured head and that delicious little pink-clad person away with him some day, to be his wife--
And suddenly Peter was torn by a stab of pure pain, and he stood puzzled and sick, in the garden bed, wondering what was happening to him.
"Listen--want a drink?" Alix asked, coming out with a tin dipper that spilled a glittering sheet of water down on the thirsty nasturtiums. "Rest a few minutes, Peter. Dad wanted a pole, and Mr. Lloyd has gone up into the woods to cut one."
"And where's Cherry?" Peter asked, drinking deep.
"She went along--just up in the woods here!" Alix answered. "Dad had to answer the telephone, but they're going to yell if they need help! Well!" and Alix, panting, sat down on a log, "are we going to do it?"
"We ought to go up and help Lloyd," Peter decreed. "Which way did he go?"
"I don't know, darling!" Alix answered, leaning back, crossing her ankles, and yawning. "But they'll be back before you could get there. They've been gone five minutes!"
Only five minutes, but they were enough to take Cherry and her lover out of sight of the house, enough to have him put his arm about her, and to have her raise her lips confidently, and yet shyly, again to his. They kissed each other deeply, again and again. The girl was a little confused and even a little uneasy as he continued the tight grip on his arm about her, and her upward look found his eyes close to her own.
Their talk was incoherent. Cherry was still playing, coquetting and smiling, her words few, and Martin, having her so near, could only repeat the endearing phrases that attempted to express to her his love and fervour.
"You darling! Do you know how I love you? You darling--you little exquisite beauty! Do you love me--do you love me?" Martin murmured, and Cherry answered breathlessly:
"You know I do--but you know I do!"
Presently he selected the sapling redwood, and brought it down with two blows of his axe. The girl seated herself beside him, helped him strip the trunk, their hands constantly touching, the man once or twice delaying her for one more snatched and laughing kiss.
"But, Martin, you've been engaged before?" Cherry asked.
"Never--on my honour! But yes, I was once, too, years ago. I want to tell you about that--"
He told her, her grave face bent over the redwood boughs she was tearing. She nodded, flushed, paled. He had met this girl at his mother's, do you see? And she was a cute little thing, don't you know? Her name was Dorothy King, and when he went back to college she had promised to write, do you see? But she hadn't written for weeks, and then she had written to say that she was engaged to another man, a man named--named--he had forgotten the name. But she had married him all right---
And Cherry looked up, laughing almost reproachfully. How could he ever forget her married name! Cherry said that she suspected that Martin hadn't really cared, and he said no, but he had wanted to tell her about it all the same, because knowing her had made him want really to be honest--and to be good--
Tears stood in his eyes, and she forgave him his admiration for Dorothy King, and said that she knew he was good. And Martin said that he was going to make her the happiest wife a man ever had.
Dragging the stripped tree, they ran down the sharp hill to the house just as Anne came out to announce luncheon. Peter was wandering off in the woods nearby, but came at Alix's shrill yell of summons, and looked relieved when he saw Cherry and Martin not even talking to each other. They had been gone only ten minutes.
Anne, who did not like Peter, had decided not to ask him to stay, but Peter had calmly taken his usual place, and had annoyed Anne with his familiar questioning of Hong as to the amount of butter needed in batter bread. It was a happy meal for everyone, and after it they had attacked the rose bush again, with aching muscles now, and in the first real summer heat. It was three o'clock before, with a great crackling, and the scream of a twisted branch, and a general panting and heaving on the part of the workers, at last the feathery mass had risen a foot--two feet- -into the air, had stood tottering like a wall of bloom, and finally, with a downward rush, had settled to its old place on the roof. Hong was pressed into service now, and with Martin, was on the roof, grappling with a rope, shouting directions. A shower of tiny blossoms and torn leaves covered the steps of the office- porch, the garden beds were trampled deep, the seven labourers breathless and exhausted. But the rose vine was in place! Alix shouted congratulations to Martin as he busily roped and tied the recaptured masses in their old position. Anne had vanished for sandwiches; Peter was being scientifically bandaged by the doctor. Cherry stood looking up at the roof; she did little talking; she watched Martin during every second he spent there.
Her small heart was bursting with excitement. He had found easy opportunities to talk to her a dozen times under cover of the general noise. He had said wonderful and thrilling things.
"How is my own girl? Sweetheart, you're the sweetest rose of them all! Cherry, do you suppose they can see from our faces how happy we are?" Little sentences that meant nothing when other lips spoke them, but that his voice made immortal.
Looking up at him, she thought of the glorious days ahead. How they would all wonder and exclaim; yes, and how the girls would envy her! Little Cherry, just eighteen, going to be married, and married to a man that Alix or Anne would have been only too glad to win! A real man, from the outside world, a man of twenty-eight, ten years older than she was. And how the letters and presents and gowns and plans would begin to flutter through the bungalow--she would be married in cafe-au-lait rajah cloth, as Miss Pinckney in San Francisco was; she would be Mrs. Lloyd! She could chaperone Alix and Anne--
There was a rending, slipping noise on the roof, a scream from Martin, and shouts from the doctor and Peter. With a great sliding and rushing of the refractory sprays, and with a horrifying stumbling and falling, down came Martin, caught in a great rope of the creeper, almost at her feet.
A time of great running and calling ensued. Cherry dropped on her knees beside him, and had his head on her arm for a moment; then her father took her place, and Alix, with an astonished look at the younger girl's wet eyes, drew her sister away. Immediately afterward Martin sat up, looked bewilderedly about from one face to another, looked at his scratched wrist and said "Gee!" in a thoughtful tone. Anne, coming out with sandwiches, joined in the general laugh.
"You scared Cherry out of ten years' growth!" Alix reproached Martin.
"I--I thought he might have hurt himself!" Cherry said, in the softest of little-girl voices, and with her shy little head hanging. Anne decided that it was becoming her clear duty to talk to Cherry.
"My dear," she said, later that same afternoon, when by chance she was alone with her little cousin, "don't you think perhaps it would be a little more dignified to treat Mr. Lloyd with more formality? He likes you, dear, of course. But a man wants to respect as well as like a pretty girl, and I am afraid--Uncle has noticed it!" she interrupted herself quickly, as Cherry tossed her head scornfully. "He spoke of it last night, and Alix tells me that you are calling Mr. Lloyd 'Martin!' Now, dearie, Martin Lloyd is fully ten years---"
"Then Alix is a tattle-tale!" Cherry said childishly.
"I don't know about that," Anne said gently, although perhaps it would have been more generous in her to add that Alix had made the comment gleefully, and almost admiringly. "But that isn't important. The point is that you are only a young girl--"
"I wish you would all mind your own royal business for about five seconds!" Cherry said, rudely and impatiently. She was in her own room, rummaging on the upper shelf of the closet for a certain hat. She secured the hat now, and ran unceremoniously away from her admonitor, to join Alix, Peter, and Martin for the daily ceremony of walking into the village for the mail.
Anne followed her downstairs sedately, perhaps a little dashed presently to discover that this dignified proceeding had lost her the walk. They were all gone. The house was very still, early summer sweetness was drifting through wide-opened windows and doors; the long day was slowly declining. In the woods close to the door a really summery hum of insect life was stirring. Hong, in dull minor gutturals, jabbered somewhere in the far distance to a friend. Anne peeped into the deserted living room, softened through all its pleasant shabbiness into real beauty by the shafts of sunset red that came in through the casement windows; and was deliberating between various becoming occupations--for Martin might walk back with the girls--when her uncle called her.
He was sitting in the little room that was still called his office, but that was really his study now, and the late afternoon light, through the replaced rose vine, streamed in on the shabby books and the green lampshade and the cluttered desk.
"Anne--you weren't there when that young chap tumbled. But I've been worrying about it a little. There's no question--there's no question that she--that Cherry--called him by his name. 'Martin,' she called him."
Anne had crossed to the shadowy doorway; she stood still.
"It can't be!" protested the doctor, uneasily. "Did Alix say anything to you about it?"
"She said that," Anne admitted, drily.
"You've not noticed anything between him and Cherry?" pursued the doctor. "A girl might call a man by his name, I suppose--"
"I don't think there has been anything to notice," Anne stated, in a level tone.
"You don't?" the doctor echoed, in relief, peering at her. She could meet his look with a smile, but in her heart were the same thoughts that Cherry had been innocently indulging, under the rose vine an hour ago, and the dream that had been Heaven to Cherry was Purgatory to Anne. Cherry married, Cherry receiving cups and presents and gowns, Cherry, Mrs. Lloyd, with a plain gold ring on her young, childish hand, Cherry able to patronize and chaperone Alix and Anne--! "I half fancied that it might be you, Anne," her uncle added, "although I know what a sensible little head you have!" "I'm afraid I'm a trifle exacting where men are concerned!" Anne said, understanding perfectly that her pride was being shielded, but hurt to the heart, nevertheless.
"Well, it must be stopped, if it has begun," decided her uncle. "I can't permit it--I'd forgotten how the little witch grows!"
"He isn't as eligible for Cherry as for me, then?" Anne asked lightly. But her smile disarmed the unsuspicious old man, and he answered honestly:
"You're quite different, Anne. You were older at eighteen than she'll be at twenty-four; you could hold your own--you could, in a way, make your own life! She--why, she's only an innocent little girl; she's got dolls in the attic; we were teasing her about turning up her hair last week!"
Again Anne was silent. It occurred to her to laugh at the absurdity of these quick suspicions, but they had already seized upon her with the curious tenacity of truth; already she had accepted the fact that what yesterday would have been the unbelievable maximum of humiliation and hurt was true to-day, and less than the whole bitter truth!
She was not in love with Martin Lloyd; she was not as susceptible as the much younger Cherry, and she had not had his urging to help her to a quick surrender. But for the first time in her life she had seen an absolutely suitable man, a man whose work, position, looks, name, and character fitted her rather exacting standard, and for the first time she had let herself think confidently of being wooed and won. It was all so right, so dignified, so fitting. She had been the light of her uncle's eyes, and the little capable keeper of his house for years; she had been reminding her own friends of this frequently during the past year or two; now she was ready to step into a nest of her own.
Standing there in the doorway, she tasted the last bitter dregs of the dream. It was all over. Anne was at the age that sets twenty- five years as the definite boundary of spinsterhood. She would be twenty-five in August.
Alix came in from her walk glowing, and full of a great discovery.
"Dad," she said eagerly, taking her place at the supper table, "what do you think! I'll bet you a dollar that man is falling in love with our Cherry!"
Anne, at the head of the table, looked pained, but there was genuine apprehension in the doctor's face.
"Where is your sister?" he asked.
"Down there by the gate," Alix answered. "They're gazing soulfully into each other's eyes, and all that! Peter went home. But Cherry- -with a beau! Isn't that the ultimate extension of the limit! I'm crazy about it--I think it's great. An engineer, Dad, and Mrs. North's nephew, and he has a fine job in a mine somewhere," she summarized enthusiastically, "you couldn't ask anything better than that, could you? Could you, Dad? I love weddings! This'll be the third I've been to!"
"All this seems to have come up very suddenly," the doctor said, dazedly, rumpling his gray hair with a fine old hand. "I don't imagine your sister is taking it as seriously as you and Anne seem inclined to---"
"Oh, does Anne think so!" Alix exclaimed.
"I think Cherry is one of the fortunate girls destined to drift along the surface of life," Anne said, "and to accept wifehood quite simply. I only wish I were that type--"
"Oh, Nancy, what rot you talk every time you remember you had a year at college!" Alix said, lightly. "Can't you let the poor kid fall in love without yapping about types and biology and the cosmic urge---"
"Really, Alix, you use extraordinary language!" Anne remonstrated, glancing at her uncle with outraged dignity. "And I am not aware that I spoke of biology or the cosmic urge!" But her tone was not as impersonal as her words, and she was flushed and even agitated. "Shan't we begin, Uncle Lee?" she asked, patiently. "If Cherry is just down at the gate there, she'll only be another minute--"
She was interrupted by Cherry herself. The girl came to the porch door, and as she hesitated there a minute, with her smiling eyes seeking her father's face, they saw that by one firm, small hand she drew her lover beside her. Martin Lloyd's smiling face showed above hers in the lamplight.
"Dad!" said Cherry, with a childish breath. "Dad! I've brought Martin to supper!"