Chapter XX
 

For a few seconds Alix felt ill, dazed, and shocked almost beyond enduring. She sat immovable, her eyes fixed, her body held rigid, as a body might be in the second before it fell after a bullet had cleanly pierced the heart.

Then she put her hand to her throat, and looked with a sort of terror at the silent figure of Cherry. Nobody must know--that was Alix's first clear thought. She was breathing hard, her breast rising and falling painfully, and the blood in her temples began to pound; her mouth was dry.

With a blind instinct for solitude she went quickly and silently from the sleeping porch, and into the warm sitting room. The lamps were all extinguished, but the fire was still burning, low and pink, where the hearts of the logs had fallen apart to show the flame.

For a few minutes Alix stood, with one foot on the chain that linked the old brass fire dogs, her elbow on the mantel, and her cheek resting against her arm.

"No," she whispered, almost audibly, "no--it can't be that! It can't be Cherry and Peter--Oh, my God! Oh, my God, it has been that, all the time, that, all the time--and I never knew it--I never dreamed it!"

The end of a log blazed up with a sudden bright flame, and in the light it cast about the quiet room Alix glanced nervously behind her. Silence and shadow held the place; the bedroom doors were shut. The fugitive red warmth picked out the backs of books--Alix knew them all, had browsed over those shabby rows during a hundred winter nights--touched the green shaded lamps, and the roses that were dropping their petals from the crystal bowl, and the polished legs of the old mahogany table.

Nothing moved, nothing stirred. Everything in the little mountain cabin was at rest except the woman who stood, with aching heart and feverish mind, resting her arm on the level of the low mantel, and staring with desolate eyes into the fading heart of the fire.

"It's Peter and Cherry! They have come to care for each other-- they have come to care for each other," she said to herself, her thoughts rushing and tumbling in mad confusion as she tested and tried the new fear. "It must be so. But it can't be so!" Alix interrupted herself in terror, "for what shall we do--what shall we do! Cherry in love with Peter. But Peter is my husband--he is my husband--" And in a spasm of pain she shut her eyes, and flung her head as if suffocating. The beating of her heart frightened her. "I shall be sick if I go on this way!" she reminded herself. "And then they will know. They mustn't know. But Peter--" she whispered suddenly. "Peter, who has always been so good to me--so generous to me--and it was Cherry all the time! While we were up here, reading and talking, and--" her lips trembled, "--and cooking," she told herself, "he was thinking of Cherry--he was always thinking of Cherry! Even those years ago, when we used to tease him about the lady with the crinolines and ringlets, it was she. But why didn't he ask her instead of me?" wondered Alix, and with an aching head, and a frowning brow, she began to piece it all together.

The terrible truth rose triumphant from all her memories. Sometimes for a second hope would flood her with almost painful joy, but inevitably the truth shut down upon her again, and hope died, and she realized afresh that sorrow, stronger than before, was waiting to seize upon her again.

Sorrow and fear and pain, these wrestled with her spirit, that spirit that had never known them before. She had grieved for her father a few years ago; she would always miss him and need him-- perhaps never more than to-night. But that was natural loss, softened by everything that love and loyalty and faith could give her, and this was a living anguish, which wrung and twisted her heart more terribly with every instant of its realization.

"Well--I can't stand it in here!" Alix said, suddenly. The walls, the peaceful room, seemed to smother and stifle her. She crossed to the door, and opened it, and slipped noiselessly out into the night, catching a coat from the rack as she passed.

The night was wrapped in an ocean fog, there was no moon and no stars, but the air was soft and warm. The garden was so black that Alix, familiar with every inch of it as she was, groped her way confusedly between the wet bushes and shrubs. Roses drenched her with fog and dew, a wall-flower springing erect as she passed by sent a wave of velvety perfume into her face.

When she gained the woods she made better progress, for under the great shafts of the redwoods there was little growth, and the ground was unencumbered and almost as smooth as a floor. With no goal in view, Alix climbed upward, walking rapidly, breathing hard, and frequently speaking aloud, as some poignant thought smote her, or standing still, too sick with pain, under an unexpected rush of emotion, to move.

Sometimes some small woodland animal scrambled noisily through the dry brush, in escape, and now and then an owl, perhaps a mile away, broke the silence with a mournful and muffled cry. Tiny squeaks and sleepy chirps from birds and chipmunks recognized the disturbance of a stranger's passage through the wood, and once the ugly snarling of wild-cats, always alert in the night, sounded suddenly near, and then died as suddenly away.

Of these things Alix heard nothing. In a trance of feverish dread she went on and on, trying to escape from the conviction that grew momentarily more and more clear.

"He would have told me about it--why didn't I let him!" ran Alix's thoughts. "I thought of some older woman, I don't know why-- anyway, I didn't care so much then. But I care now! Peter, I care now! I can't give you up, even to Cherry. It is nonsense to talk of giving him up," Alix told herself, sitting down in the inky dark, on a log against which her wild walk had suddenly brought her, "for we are all married people, and we all love each other. But oh, I am so sorry! I am so sorry, Peter," she whispered, as if she were speaking to him. "You couldn't help it, I know that. She is so pretty and so sweet, Cherry--and she turns to you as if you were her big brother!"

She sat motionless, her hands clasped, and raised so that her cheek was pressed against them. For awhile she seemed to have no thoughts; she was merely vaguely aware that the hands she had plunged into the pockets of one of Peter's old coats were scented with tobacco now, and so reminded her of him. She pressed them hard against her face, as if to ease the pain of her forehead.

But the thoughts, exactly like a pain, began to creep back. With choking bitterness it was upon her again, and she got to her feet and went on.

"What am I thinking about--it's absurd! Can't people like each other, in this world, just because they happen to be married! Peter would be the first to laugh at me. And is it fair to Cherry even to think that she would--

"Oh, but it's true!" the honester impulse interrupted, mercilessly. "It is true. Whether it's right or wrong, or sensible or absurd, they do love each other; that's what has changed them both."

And she began to remember a hundred--a thousand--trifles, that made it all hideously clear. Words, glances, moods subtler than either, came back to her. Cherry's confusion of late, when the question of her return to Martin was raised, her indifference to her inheritance, her restless talk during one hour of immediate departure, and during the next of an apparently termless visit; all these were significant now.

"I am desperately unhappy!" Cherry had said. And immediately after that, Alix recalled wretchedly, had come a brief and apparently aimless talk about Alix's rights, and her eagerness to share them with her sister.

Cherry had been in misery, of course. Alix knew her too well not to know with what suffering she would admit that the one desire of her heart was for something to which Alix had the higher, if not the stronger, claim.

"Poor Cherry!" the older sister said aloud, standing still for a moment, and pressing both hands over her hot eyes. "Poor little old Cherry--life hasn't been very kind to her! She and Peter must be so sorry and ashamed about this! And Dad would be so sorry; of all things he wanted most that Cherry should be happy! Perhaps," thought Alix, "he realized that she was that sort of a nature, she must love and be loved, or she cannot live! But why did he let her marry Martin, and why wasn't he here to keep me from marrying Peter? What a mess--mess--mess we've made of it all!"

As she used the term, she realized that Cherry had used it, too, this same evening, and fresh conviction was added to the great weight of conviction in her heart.

"She was thinking of that," Alix told herself, "and it has been in Peter's mind all these weeks. Oh, Peter--Peter--Peter!" she moaned, writhing as the cry escaped her. "Why couldn't it have been me, why couldn't it have been me! Why couldn't you have loved me that way? I know I am not so pretty as Cherry," Alix went on, resuming her restless walk, "and I know that those things don't seem to mean as much to me as to most women! But, Peter," she said softly, aloud, "no wife ever loved a man more than I love you, my dear!" She remembered some of his half-laughing, half-fretful reproaches, when he had told her that she loved him much as she loved Buck, and that, in these respects, she was no more than a healthy child. "I may be a child," said Alix, feeling that a dry flame was consuming her heart, "but a child can love! My dear--my dear--

"I wish I could cry," she said suddenly, finding herself sitting on a log where low oaks met the forest and the open meadows, and where they had often paused in mountain climbs to look far across the panorama of hills and valley below. "But now we must face this thing sensibly. What is to be done? They must not know that I know, and in some way we must get out of this tangle. Even if Peter were free, Cherry would not be free," she decided, "and so the only thing to do is to help them, until it dies away."

No suspicion of the truth stabbed her, although she remembered Martin and his strange tale of a message and wondered about it a little in her thoughts. To whom had Cherry been sending that telegram if not to Peter? And if to Peter, why had she not simply telephoned? Because she had known that Peter was not in his office, because she had been going to meet him somewhere. But where? Well, at the boat. Martin had heard her tell the boy that he must catch that boat.

Alix did not guess the truth. But she guessed enough to make her feel frightened and sick. She could not suppose that Cherry and Peter had planned to go away on that boat together, because at most her thoughts would have grasped the idea of one or two days' absence only, and they had given her no warning of that. But until this instant the thought of the passionate desire that enveloped them had not reached her; she had imagined Cherry's feeling for Peter to be something only a little stronger than her own.

Now she thought of Cherry's beauty, her fragrance and softness, the shine in her blue eyes and the light on her corn-coloured hair, and knew that life for them all, of late, had been mined with frightful danger.

"Cherry would be disgraced, and Martin--Martin would kill her, if he found her out! ... Oh, my little sister! She would be town talk; she is so reckless, she would do anything--she would be a public scandal, and the papers would have her pictures--Dad's little yellow-headed Charity! Oh, Dad," she said, looking up into the dark, "tell me what to do! I need you so! Won't you somehow tell me what to do!"

Silence and darkness. But even in the gloom Alix could tell that fog was lifting, and a sudden sweep of breeze, like a tired breath, went over the tops of the redwoods.

Steadily came the change. The darkness, by imperceptible degrees, lifted. The world grew gray as if with moonshine, trees and bushes began to stand out dimly from the mass of shadows. On the road below her Alix heard a wagon rattle, the mud-spattered wagon from the Portuguese dairy upon the ridge; and past her, leaving a dark wake of brushed dewdrops on the pearled grass, a cottontail fled silently.

She noted with surprise that she could see the grass now, although it had been invisible a few moments ago. She could see it, and presently its brownness showed, and the rich, solid green of the oaks lifted from the dull twilight that had enveloped the world.

"Light!" Alix whispered, awestruck And a few moments later she added, "Dawn!"

It was dawn indeed that was creeping into the valley, and as it brightened and deepened and warmed momentarily, Alix felt some of the peace and glory of it swelling in her tired heart. The sky grew pale, grew white, gradually turned to blue, and the little clouds drifting across it vanished, lost in a swimming vapour of pink and pearl.

Suddenly a first shaft of sunlight struck across the mountain ridge, and lay bright on the hilltop opposite, the fog that still clung to the peak of the mountain was steadily ascending into the brilliant air, dew sparkled, and the hoary, lichened limbs of the sprawling oaks glistened in the light. The sun came up, and Alix felt the blessed warmth against her chilled and cramped shoulders, and stretched her arms out to welcome the flood of brightness and new courage after the darkness and doubts of the night.

She was still sitting on the log, dreamily watching the expanding beauty of the new day, when there was a crashing in the underbrush behind her, and wild with joy, and with twigs and dried brown grasses on his wet coat, Buck came bounding out of the forest, and leaped upon her.

"Bucky!" she faltered, as he stood beside her, his quick tongue flashing ecstatically, close to her face, every splendid muscle of his body wriggling with eager affection. "Did you miss me, old fellow? Did you come to find me?"

She had not cried during the long vigil of the night, when a storm had raged in her heart, and had left her weak and sick with dread. But there was peace now, and Alix locked her arms about the dog's shoulders, and laid her face against his satiny head, and cried.