Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
When Cherry came out to breakfast, a few hours later, she found Alix already at the porch table. Alix looked pale, but fresh and trim; she had evidently just tubbed, and she wore one of the plain, wide-striped ginghams that were extremely becoming to her rather boyish type.
She looked up, and nodded at Cherry composedly. Cherry always kissed her sister in the morning, but she did not to-day. She felt troubled and ashamed, and instinctively avoided the little caress.
"No men?" she asked, sharing her grapefruit with her mail.
"Peter had to go to San Rafael with Mr. Thomas in his car, to do something about the case," Alix explained. "I drove them down, and at the last minute Martin decided to go. So I marketed, and got the mail, and came back, and the understanding is that we are to meet them at the St. Francis for dinner, at six, and go to the Orpheum."
"Is it almost ten?" Cherry said sleepily, gazing in surprise at the clock that was visible through the open door. "I'm terribly ashamed! And when did you get up, and silently make your bed, and hang up your things?"
"Oh, early!" Alix answered, noncommittally. "I had a bath, and this is my second breakfast!"
Cherry, who was reading a letter, did not hear her. Now she made some inarticulate sound that made Alix look at her in quick concern.
"Cherry, what is it?" she exclaimed.
For answer Cherry tossed her the letter, written on a thick sheet of lavender paper, which diffused a strong odour of scent.
"Read that!" she said, briefly. And with a desperate air she dropped her head on the table, and knotted her hands high above it.
Fearfully, Alix picked up the perfumed sheet, and read, in a coarse and sprawling, yet unmistakably feminine handwriting, the following words:
DEAR MRS. LLOYD: Perhaps you would not feel so pleased with yourself if you knew the real reason why your husband left Red Creek? It was because of a quarrel he had with Hatty Woods.
If you don't believe it you had better ask him about some of the parties he had with Joe King's crowd, and where they were on the night of August 28th, and if he knows anybody named Hatty Woods, and see what he says. Ask him if he ever heard of Bopps' Hotel and when he was in Sacramento last. If he denies it, you can show him this letter.
There was no signature.
Alix, who had read it first with a bewildered and suspicious look, read it again, and flushed deeply at the sordid shame of it. She laid it down, and looked in stunned conviction at her sister.
Cherry, who was breathing hard, raised her head, rested her chin on her hands, elbows on the table, and stared at Alix defiantly.
"There!" she said, almost with triumph. "There! Now, is that so easy? Now, am I to just smile and agree and say 'Certainly, Martin,' 'Of course, Martin dear!' Now you see--now you see! Now, am I to bear that," she rushed on, her words suddenly violent. "And go on with him--as his wife--when a common woman like that--"
"Cherry, dear!" Alix said, distressedly.
"Ah, well, you can't realize it; nobody but the woman to whom it happens can!" Cherry interrupted her, covering her face with her hands. "But let him say what he pleases now," she added, passionately, "let him do what he pleases--I'll follow my own course from to-day on!"
Alix, watching her fearfully, was amazed at the change in her. Cherry's eyes were blazing, her cheeks pale. Her voice was dry and feverish, and there was a sort of frenzy in her manner that Alix had never seen before. To bring sunny little Cherry to this--to change the radiant, innocent child that had been Cherry into this bitter and disillusioned woman--Alix felt as if the whole world were going mad, and as if life would never be sane and serene again for any one of them.
"Cherry, do you believe it?" she asked.
Cherry, roused from a moment of brooding silence, shrugged her shoulders impatiently.
"Oh, of course I believe it!" she answered.
"But, darling, we don't even know who wrote it. We have only this woman's word for it--"
"Oh, look at it--look at it, Alix!" Cherry burst forth. "Do decent men have letters like that sent to their wives? Is it probable that a good man would do anything to rouse some busybody woman to write such a letter about him?"
"Well, but who is she, and what do you suppose she wrote it for?" Alix wondered.
"Oh, I don't know. She got mad at him, perhaps. Or perhaps she is a champion of this Woods woman. They had some quarrel--how do I know? But you can see that she is mad, and this is the way she gets even!"
"Cherry, at least do Martin the justice to ask him about it!" Alix pleaded, really frightened now.
Her sister seemed not to hear her. She stopped her angry pacing, and sat down at the table, and the misery in her beautiful eyes made Alix's heart sink.
"And that," Cherry said in a whisper, "is my husband!"
She paused, staring down at the table, one hand supporting her forehead, the other wandering idly among the breakfast things. Her look was sombre and far away. Alix, standing, watched her distressedly, through a long minute of silence.
"Well!" Cherry said lifelessly, looking up at her sister with dulled eyes. "What now? It's still 'for better or worse,' I suppose?"
Alix sat down, and for a moment covered her face with a tight- pressed hand. When she took it away, there was new serenity and resolution in her tired face.
"No," she said, with a great sigh, "I think perhaps you're right! He hasn't--he should have no claim on you now!"
"Alix," Cherry demanded, "would you forgive him?"
"Perhaps I wouldn't," Alix said, after thought.
"Perhaps you wouldn't!" Cherry echoed, incredulously.
"Well, I'm not very good," Alix said, hesitatingly. "But a vow is a vow, you know. If it was limited, then my--my fulfillment of it would be limited, I suppose. Of course," she added, honestly, "I'm talking for myself only!"
"And you would quietly forgive and forget!" demanded the little sister, in bitter scorn.
"I say I hope I would!" Alix corrected her. "Even if this is true"--she added, with a glance at the lavender letter--"still, I suppose the rule of forgiving seventy times seven times--"
Cherry interrupted her with a burst of bitter and rebellious weeping.
"Oh, my God, what shall I do!" she sobbed, with her bright head dropped on her arm. Alix saw Kow come to the door, look at them speculatively, and disappear, and thought in her shaken soul that things in a household were demoralized indeed when pretense before the servants was no longer maintained.
"Don't cry, Cherry, Cherry!" she said, her own tears brimming over. She came to kneel beside her sister, and they locked their arms about each other, and their wet cheeks touched. "Don't cry, dear!" she said, tenderly. "It'll all come straight, somehow, and we'll wonder why we took it so hard!"
"The thing that breaks--my--heart!" sobbed Cherry, clinging tight, "is that it is all my fault!"
"Oh, no; it's not, Cherry. You were too young. And it's only one of so many thousands of unhappy marriages!" Alix argued, soothingly. "Now listen to me, Sis," she began briskly, as soon as Cherry had somewhat regained her composure. "We'll ascertain about this letter; that's only fair. If Martin denies it--"
"Of course he'll deny it!" Cherry interrupted, from the bitter knowledge she had of him.
Alix again felt daunted for a second by the sheer ugliness and sordidness of the matter, but she returned to the charge bravely.
"Suppose we get Peter to ask him," she suggested suddenly. "Peter has a wonderful way of getting the truth out of people! Poor Cherry, the very mention of his name makes her wince," Alix thought, watching her sister sorrowfully. "If Martin can convince Peter that it is not true, then that makes all the difference in the world," she added, aloud. "Then you tell Martin frankly that you have the old house ready to live in, and you want to live there. He--"
"He'll never agree to that!" Cherry said, shaking her head. "But if this is true?" she asked, again indicating the letter.
"Then tell him that unless he agrees absolutely to a separation," Alix said, "that you will get a divorce!"
"And live here, alone, under that sort of a cloud?" Cherry said, with watering eyes. "Oh, well!" she said, rising, and going toward the door. "It's horrible--horrible--horrible--whatever I do! What is your idea--that we should dine, and go to the Orpheum tonight as if nothing had happened, and let all this wait until you can ask Peter to cross-examine Martin?"
"I wonder if Martin would tell me?" Alix mused.
"He'd tell you sooner than Peter!" Cherry prophesied.
"Why couldn't I pretend that I opened that letter by mistake," Alix said, thoughtfully, "and frighten him into admitting it, if it's true!"
"You could," Cherry admitted, lifelessly. "But you may be sure it is true enough!" she added.
"Then leave it to me!" Alix said. "And don't feel too sad, Cherry. You're young, and life may take a turn that changes everything for you. You always have Peter--Peter and me, back of you!"
"Alix, you're the best sister a girl ever had!" Cherry said, passionately, putting her hand on Alix's shoulder. "I wish I were as big as you are! And he's made me so wretched," whispered Cherry, with trembling lips, "that sometimes I've been sick of life! But I will investigate this letter, and if it's not true, I'll try again, Alix! I'll go away with him, if he wants me to, or I'll live here--and study French--and go to lectures with you--"
"You darling!" Alix said, with an aching heart. And they smiled through tears as they kissed each other.
That night it was simply managed that Martin should be next to Alix, in the loge at the theatre, and she began to question him seriously at once. All through the strange, unnatural day that followed her night of vigil she had been planning what she should say to him, but she and Cherry had not spoken of the subject again. Cherry had dressed herself with her usual dainty care, and now, with the violets Alix had given her spraying in a great purple bunch at her breast, and her blue eyes ringed and thoughtful under her soft little feathered hat, she was so arrestingly lovely that Alix was well aware of the admiring glances from all sides to which she was so superbly indifferent.
"Martin," Alix began, "I read a letter intended for Cherry this morning. I--I open all the mail!"
She had to repeat it twice before he realized that there was something behind her earnest and significant tone. Then she saw him stop twisting his program, and veer about toward her. She murmured a question.
"Do I what?" he asked, in an undertone instantly lowered.
"Do you know a girl named Hatty Woods?" Alix repeated, cautiously.
All hope died when she saw his face. He shot her a quick, suspicious look, and his big mouth trembled with a scornful and contemptuous smile and he looked away indifferently. Then he faced her, on guard.
"What about her?" he asked, almost inaudibly.
"Somebody wrote this letter about her," Alix stated, quietly.
"Who wrote you about her? What'd she say?" he demanded quickly.
"Just--I'll let you see it," she said. "I don't know who wrote it- -it wasn't signed. Do you--do you know her? Do you know Hatty Woods?"
Martin smiled again, a superior yet ugly smile. It was the look of a man approached in his own realm, threatened in his infallible fastness.
"The less you have to do with girls like Hatty, the better!" he told her. "You've got plenty to do without mixing up with her!"
"She said--" Alix began. "The letter said--"
"Oh, sure, I know what she'd say!" Martin conceded, furious at Alix's interference, trembling with anger and resentment, and only anxious to close the conversation. "I know all about her and her kind. I think I know who wrote that letter, too. I guess Joe King's wife knows something about it. They're all alike! You give it to me to-morrow and I'll manage it. There won't be any more!"
"Martin," Alix whispered, gravely, "if you have given Cherry any cause--" Her voice fell, and there was a silence.
"There are a great many things in life that you don't understand, my dear sister-in-law," Martin said reluctantly, nettled, but still maintaining his air of lofty superiority, "a man's life is not a woman's--isn't intended to be! If this woman says she has anything on me--"
"She said that you went to a place called Bopps' Hotel in Sacramento--" Alix began, but he interrupted her.
"Oh, she did, did she?" he said, furiously, yet always in a cautious undertone. "Well, now, I'll tell you something! She's going to have a nice time proving that, and you can tell your sister--if this is a frame-up, that I'll fight Hatty Woods and fifty Hatty Woods! I--"
"Martin--for Heaven's sake!" Alix warned him, as she pressed her violets against her face.
"Well," he said, surlily, "now you know how I feel about it!"
"Martin," Alix pleaded, feeling that her last hope was sinking away from her, "can you deny her story?"
He was silent, while a beaming young Jewess in an outrageous gown took an encore for her song and dance. Then he turned again toward Alix with the smile she had learned to hate.
"You get Cherry to deny that she's never lost a chance to beat it away from home ever since she was married," he said. "You get her to deny that she has said over and over again that she never wanted children, that her marriage was a mistake! You ask her to show you the letters I've written her, asking her to come back, and then I'll show you the answers I got!"
"Mart," Alix said, sharply, "there's no use in your taking that tone with me! I'm simply sick over the whole affair. I would do anything in the world--I would put my hand in the fire to straighten it out!"
She paused, arrested by some sudden thought.
"I tell you I would put my hand in the fire to help," she said again, in quieter tones. "But taking that attitude will do no good! If this poor girl, this Hatty--"
"I tell you to leave Hatty out of it!" Martin said. "The best thing you can do is to let the whole thing alone!"
But she saw that he was both nervous and apprehensive, and she knew that the inference she and Cherry had drawn from the letter was a true one.
"Does Cherry know anything of this?" Martin presently muttered.
"Do you want her to?" Alix asked, pointedly.
He shrugged his shoulders with a great assumption of indifference.
"If she wants to have it all dragged to light, why, she can go ahead!" he remarked, carelessly. "I've left Red Creek, and--as I tell you!--that woman will never write another letter, for I know the way to shut her up, and I intend to do it. But if you and Cherry want the whole thing aired in public, why, go ahead! I'm not stopping you!"
"At least I think you ought to let Cherry lead her own life after this!" Alix countered with spirit.
"Live in your old house, eh?" he asked, resentfully, as he flipped the pages of his program with a big thumb and stared at it with unseeing eyes. "What does she want to live there for?"
"The fact remains that she does," Alix persisted.
"Yes, and have just as good a time as if she never had been married at all!" he said.
Alix was beginning the denial that she had given him so confidently last night, but she interrupted herself, and stopped short. The conviction rushed upon her in an overwhelming wave that she had no right to repeat that denial now that the last dreadful twenty-four hours had changed the whole situation, and that she herself had better reason to suspect Cherry than either Martin or his gossiping aunt. She sat sick and silent, unable to speak again, thinking only that it was Peter that Mrs. Lloyd had seen with Cherry that day, and that there must have been something in their attitude that revealed their secret even to her first casual look.
The vaudeville show whirled and crashed and rattled on its way. Martin applauded heartily but involuntarily; Alix applauded mechanically. Their conversation was closed.
Meanwhile, Cherry and Peter had their first opportunity to speak to each other alone. It occurred to neither of them that it was strange to find this chance in the rustling darkness of the big vaudeville house, with several thousand of persons pressing all about them. To both the thirst for speech was a burning necessity, and it was with an almost dizzy sense of relief that Cherry turned to him with her first words.
"Peter, I don't dare say much! Can you hear me?"
"Perfectly!" he answered, looking at his folded program.
"Peter, I've been thinking--about our plan, I mean! Martin plans to go on Monday. But something has happened since I saw you this morning, something that makes a difference! I had a letter, a letter from some woman connecting his name with another woman, a Hatty Woods--she's notorious in Red Creek--and this Joe King crowd that he went with--I don't know who wrote the letter, or why she wrote," she said, hastily, as Peter interpolated a question. "And I don't care! I haven't spoken to Martin about it. But I've been thinking about it all day. And of course it makes a difference to us--to you and me. As far as Martin goes, I am free now; what is justice to Martin, and kindness to Martin, will never count with me any more!"
Peter wasted no words. His face was thoughtful.
"He goes Monday," he said. "We can go Sunday."
"Does the boat sail Sunday?"
"I am sure of it. This is Thursday night. Your suitcase I checked again yesterday. Was it only yesterday?"
"We would have been on the train to-night, Cherry, flying toward New Orleans!"
Her small hand gripped his in the darkness.
"If we only were!" he heard her breathe.
He turned to her, so exquisite in her distress. Her breast was rising and falling quickly.
"Patience, sweetheart!" he said. "Patience for only a few days more! To-morrow I'll make the arrangements. Sunday is only two days off."
"Sunday will be day after day after to-morrow," she said whimsically.
"Is Sunday the best day?" he questioned, thoughtfully.
"Oh, much the best!" Cherry said, her whole face glowing suddenly. "You see, it's already arranged that I come in to the Olivers' Saturday night, and help them get ready for their tea on Sunday. Alix is to stay in the valley, and play the organ Sunday morning, and come in with Martin at ten."
"I suppose I'll have to come when they do!" he mused.
"But isn't there that breakfast at the club on Sunday?" Cherry asked.
"Porter's breakfast--yes. But I'm not going to that," Peter said, stupidly.
"Couldn't you say that you were?" she supplied, simply.
"Yes, by George!" he agreed, brightening. "That fixes me! But now how about you?"
"Why, I am at the Olivers'!" she reminded him. "All I have to do is walk out of the house at ten!"
Their eyes met in a wild rush of triumph and hope.
"This time we shall do it!" Peter said. "Your suitcase I'll have. You have money?"
"Martin thinks you go with him Monday, eh?"
"I hardly know what he thinks!" she answered, with a fluttered air. "I've hardly known what I was doing or saying! He was to go to-morrow, you know. But I told him that I wanted to get the whole house in perfect order, in case Alix should ever find a tenant. We've worked like beavers there!"
"I know you have!" He smiled down at her, Peter's kind and radiant smile. "After day after day after to-morrow," he said, "I shall see to it that you never work too hard again!"
"Oh, Peter--you'll never be sorry?" she whispered.
"Sorry! My dearest child, when you give your beauty and your youth to a man almost twice your age, who has loved you all your life-- do you think there is much chance of it?"
"Why shouldn't it be one of the happy--marriages?" said Cherry after a silence.
"It will," he answered, confidently. "My dearest girl, I know something of life and its disappointments and disillusionments! And I tell you that I know that every hour you and I have together is going to be more wonderful than the hour before! I tell you that as the weeks become months, and the months become years, and the beauty and miracle of it go on and on, we will think that what we feel for each other now is only the shadow--the dream!"
"But the beginning will be wonderful enough!" Cherry mused. "You and I, breakfasting together, walking together, talking together, always just we two! But, Peter," she said, suddenly, "one of us might die!"
"Ah, that," he conceded, soberly, "that! It's all I'm afraid of, now!"
"I am terribly afraid of it!" said Cherry, beginning to tremble. "If you should die now, before Sunday! I never thought of it before--"
"You mustn't think of it now, and I won't!" he said, quickly. "Why, we have only two days to wait--!"
"Only two!" she echoed, nervously. "I promised him to-night that I would write to his mother about our coming--"
"You talk as if you meant to go with Martin!" he said, smiling.
"I know I do, sometimes, and that's one of the things that worries me!" she answered, quickly. "So many things have happened, and I get so confused, thinking," she went on, "that I am all mixed most of the time! I arrange one thing as if I were going to do what Martin thinks I am--go with him to Portland, I mean--at another time I'll get into long talks with Alix of what divorces would mean, and all the time I am straining toward you--and escape from it all! It worries and frightens and puzzles me so," she confided, raising her lovely eyes to him, "that I am almost afraid to speak at all for fear of betraying myself!"
"Don't speak at all then!" he answered, smiling whimsically.
"Shall I just let him think I am quietly going away with him on Monday?" she asked, after a silence in which she was deeply thinking.
"Does he know you had that letter?" Peter said.
"No; Alix is going to speak to him about it." Cherry outlined the talk that she and her sister had had at breakfast.
"Then I shouldn't bring up the question at all," Peter decided, quickly. "It would only mean an ugly and unnecessary scene. If you were going to be here, it would be very different. Even then you might have to face a terrible publicity and unpleasantness. But as it is, it's much wiser to let him continue to think that you don't know anything about it, and to let Alix think that you are ignoring the whole thing!"
"Until Sunday!" she whispered.
"Until Sunday." Peter glanced at Martin and Alix, who were talking together absorbedly, in low tones. "My little sweetheart, I'll make all this misery up to you!" he whispered. Her little hand was locked in his for the rest of the evening.
The vaudeville performance ended, and they went out into the cool night, decided against a supper, found the car where Alix had parked it in a quiet side street, and made their way to the ferry, and so home under the dark low arch of a starless and moonless sky. Cherry shared the driver's seat with her sister to-night; they spoke occasionally on the long drive; everybody was weary and silent. Alix, racing between Sausalito's low hills and the dark, odorous marshes, wondered if in the packed theatre any other four hearts had borne the burden that these four were bearing.
The car flew on its way; the men, in the back seat, occasionally exchanged brief, indifferent remarks. Cherry, staring straight ahead of her, neither moved nor spoke, and Alix, at the wheel, watching the road and the lights keenly, and listening to the complicated breathing of the machinery, resumed again the endless chain of thought. Peter--Cherry--Martin--Dad--the few people with whom her life concerned wheeled in unceasing confusion through her brain, and always it was herself, Alix, who would have died for them, who must somehow find the solution.
Morning came, a crystal autumn morning, and life went on. Peter and Martin went away before Cherry came out to the porch, to find her breakfast waiting, and Alix, in striped blue linen, cutting food for the ducks. The peaceful day went by, and if there was any change at the cabin it was a change for the better. Alix, who had been silent and troubled for a little while, was more serene now, as usual concerned for the comfort of her household, and as usual busy all day long with her poultry and pigeons, her bee-keeping, stable, and dogs. Peter was his courteous, gentle, interested self, more like the old Peter, who had always been occupied with his music and his books, than like the passionately metamorphosed Peter who had been so changed by love for Cherry. Martin, satisfied with the general respects and consideration with which he found himself surrounded, accepted life placidly enough; perhaps he had been disturbed by the advent of the letter, perhaps he was willing to let the question of an adjustment between Cherry and himself rest. If she had been innocently indiscreet, he had also yielded to temptation, not so innocently, and although Martin was not a man to consider the question of morals between the sexes as evenly balanced, still he had winced very uncomfortably under Alix's cross-examination, and was not anxious to reopen the subject. "Let by-gones be by-gones!" Martin said to himself, contentedly, as he ate, slept, and smoked his endless cigars, chatted with Peter, followed Alix about the farmyard, and expressed an occasional opinion that was considerately received by the others. It amused him to help get the house ready for a tenant, and from the fact that Cherry talked no more of living there, and made no comment upon his frequent reference to their departure on Monday, he deduced that she had come to her senses.
Cherry, too, was less unhappy than she had been. By avoiding Peter, by refraining even in words and looks from the companionship for which she so hungered by devoting herself to Alix, she managed to hold her feelings tightly in leash. It cost her dear, for sometimes the thought of what she was about to do swept her with a feeling of agony and faintness hard to conceal, and the need for perpetual watchfulness was exhausting to body and spirit. But even though Alix found that the knowledge of the secret they shared without ever mentioning stood between them like a screen, the sisters, busy about the house, had wonderful hours together.
Saturday came, a perfect day that filled the little valley to the brim with golden sunshine. The mountain swam in a pale haze of gray-blue, the sky was soft, unclouded, faintly azure. In the forest about the old Strickland house not a breath of air stirred. Alix, driving alone to the mountain cabin, stared in the morning freshness at the blue overhead and said aloud, "Oh, what a day of gold!"
The dog, sitting beside her on the front seat, flapped his tail in answer to her voice, and she laughed at him. But the laugh was quickly followed by a sharp sigh.
"Saturday," she mused, "and Martin expects Cherry to go with him on Monday! Expects her to go back with him to a life of misery for her, existence with a man she hates! Oh, Cherry--my little sister!--there can be no happiness for you there! And Peter! Peter is left behind to me, who cannot comfort him, or still the ache that is tearing his heart! My two loved ones, and what can I do to help them!"
Driving slowly, on the noiseless pine-needles, she looked up at the great, brown shafts of the trees through which the roadway wound like a shelf. Streaks of sunlight filtered through them; the September air was soft and sweet. The forest was like an old friend to Alix, and the time she spent in it was always her quietest time. The tempered light, the air scented with piney sweetness, the delicate summer humming of tiny forest voices, the brief snap of twigs, and the rustling of tiny bodies in the underbrush, these made the world in which she was most at home.
"Oh, why can't we always be like children, just happy to be free!" she mused, as she left the forest and came in sight of the cabin. "How happy we used to be, playing in these woods and going home tired and hungry to Dad and supper! Buck," she said aloud, "a dog is happier than a man, and perhaps"--and Alix smiled her whimsical smile, as the car moved under the last oaks and was brought to a standstill close to the house--"perhaps a tree is the happiest of all!"
She had come up to the cabin to do the usual last little daily fussing among the ducks and chickens and to bring Peter, if Peter had not gone into town, back with her to Cherry's house. They had all dined in the old Strickland house the night before, and because of a sudden rainfall had decided to spend the night there, too. The Chinese boy who had been helping the sisters with their housecleaning had been persuaded to cook the dinner and get breakfast, and the evening about the old fireplace had been almost too poignantly sweet. Martin, who had been mixing cocktails, liked the role of host, and to the other three every inch of the house was full of happy memories, softened and saddened by all that had happened since the old days, by all that they knew and felt now, and accompanied by the softly dripping rain on the roof and eaves as by a plaintive obbligato.
But suddenly, at about ten o'clock, Peter had surprised them all by getting to his feet. He was going up to the cabin, he said-- must go, in fact.
"In all the rain!" they had protested.
"In all the rain," he answered, shaking himself into his coat; he liked rain. He would rather walk, please, he told Alix, when she offered to drive him up in the car. Bewildered and a little apprehensive, she let him go. To Cherry, who seemed to feel suddenly sad and uneasy, Alix laughed about it, but she was secretly worried herself, and immediately after breakfast the next morning decided to run up to the cabin in the car and assure herself that everything was right there.
Cherry, who had not slept and who was pale, had come out to the car, her distracted manner increasing Alix's sense that something was gravely amiss. The sisters had loitered at the car a moment in the exquisite morning freshness.
"Remember the day the rose vine came down and you crawled through it?" Alix had asked, looking back at the house.
"Oh, don't!" Cherry had protested faintly.
"Why not?" her sister had asked, tenderly reproachful.
"Oh, because it makes me so sad to think how happy we were!" Cherry had answered, making an effort to speak lightly. "It's such a glorious morning," she had added, "I wish I were going to drive up with you."
"Why don't you?" Alix had said, eagerly.
"Oh--too much to do here!" Cherry had answered, vaguely. She had looked at her sister as if she would like to speak, smiled uncertainly, and had gone back to the house. Alix had started on her trip with a heavy heart, but the half-hour's run soothed her in spite of herself, and now she reached the cabin in a much more cheerful mood.
Peter was nowhere about, and as she plunged into the work of house and farmyard she supposed, without giving the matter a conscious thought, that he had gone to the city.
"Mis' Peter not go train," Kow announced, presently.
All Alix's vague suspicions awakened.
"Not go train?" she asked, with a premonitory pang.
Kow made a large gesture, as indicating affairs disorganized.
"Him no go to bed," he further stated.
Alix stopped the busy chopping that she was carrying on at the end of the kitchen table, and looked at the Chinese boy fearfully.
"Mr. Peter not go to bed?" she echoed with a sick heart.
"No sleep!" Kow announced, positively. And pleased with her tense interest, he added, "Boss come late. He walkin' on porch."
"He came in late and walked on the porch!" Alix echoed in a low tone, as if to herself. "And you say he didn't sleep, Kow?"
"Bed all same daytime," the boy said. And with the artless laugh of his race he added, "I go sleep."
"You slept, of course," Alix answered, absently. "Where Mr. Peter go now?" she asked. "He have some coffee?"
"No eat," the boy answered. He indicated the direction of the creek, and after a while Alix, with an icy heart, went to the bridge and the pool where Peter had first found Cherry only a few weeks ago.
He was standing, staring vaguely at the low and lisping stream, and Alix felt a great pang of pity when she saw him. He came to her smiling, but as Cherry had smiled, with a wan and ghastly face.
"Peter, you're not well?" Alix said. "I think--I am a little upset," he answered. They walked back to the house together. Alix ordered him to take a hot bath, and made him drink some coffee, when, refreshed and grateful, he came out to the porch half an hour later. They shared the little meal that was her luncheon and his breakfast.
"And now we've got to go down and get the others, for they're coming up here for dinner," Alix said. "Do you--do you feel up to tennis?" she asked, anxiously.
"Sure I do!" Peter answered with an effort.
"Don't have to, you know," she assured him, feeling a great desolation sweep her.
"Oh, I'd like it. It's a wonderful day," he answered, politely.
He followed her to the car and got in the front seat beside her.
"You're awfully good to me," he said, briefly, when they were going down the long grade.
Alix did not answer immediately, and he thought that she had not heard. She ran the big machine through the valley, where the dry, glaring heat of the day burned mercilessly, stopped at the post- office, and still in silence began the climb toward the old house. The roads were all narrow here, but she could have followed them in the dark, he knew, and he understood that it was not her driving that made her face so thoughtful and kept her eyes from meeting his.
On one side of the shelf-like mountain road rose the sharp hillside, clothed in close-packed, straight-rising redwoods; on the other the ground fell away so precipitously to the tiny thread of creek below that they looked down upon the water through the top branches of the trees. Years ago, when he had first entrusted her with the car, Peter had been somewhat concerned for Alix's safely, but now he was secretly proud of her sureness of touch and of the generosity and self-confidence that prompted her to give the inner right of way to every lumbering express van or surrey that she met, and risk the more dangerous passing herself.
"You say I'm good to you, Pete," she surprised him by saying suddenly. "I hope I am. For you've been very good to me, my dear. There's only one thing in life now that I haven't got, and want. And that, you can't, unfortunately, get for me."
He had flushed darkly, and he spoke with a little effort.
"I'd like to try!"
She ignored the invitation for a few minutes, and for an instant of panic he thought he saw her lip tremble. But when she turned to him, it was with her usual smile.
"It's only that I would like to have you--and--and Martin--and Cherry, as happy as I am!" she said, quickly. And a second later the mood was gone as she turned the car in at the home gate and exclaimed, "There's Cherry now!"
There was Cherry; Peter's heart gave a leap at the sight of her. Just a woman's slender figure, half obscured by blowing lines of fresh, dry linen, just white arms, where the snowy frill of her gown fell back, and blue eyes under bright, loose, corn-coloured hair, but Peter could see nothing else in all the world.
"Martin's somewhere about," Cherry said, as Peter joined her, and Alix stopped the car within conversational range. "I was passing these, and I thought I'd help the boy get his clothes in."
"Here, let me do that," Peter exclaimed. Alix remarking that she would turn the car so that she might later start on the grade, disappeared, and the two were alone with their arms full of the stiff and fragrant cleanness of the linen in the sweetness of the afternoon.
"Just--just fold them roughly," stammered Cherry, hardly conscious of what she was saying, "and put them in the basket--"
Peter did not hear the words. But he heard the wonderful voice; he saw the red sweetness of the mouth, saw the quick glances of the averted eyes, the white neck with its film of gold hair blowing across it.
He murmured something inarticulate in reply, trying to control the great wave of happiness and emotion that rose over him. They were together again, after what a night--and what a day!--and that was all that mattered. They spoke confusedly, in brief monosyllables, and were silent, their hands touching on the line, their eyes meeting only furtively and briefly.
"Can you walk up to the cabin with me?" Peter asked. "I want so much to speak to you. Everything's all arranged for tomorrow. I've got tickets and reservations. Your suitcase is checked in the Oakland ferry waiting-room. All you have to think of is yourself. Now, in case of missing the boat again--which isn't conceivable, but we must be ready for anything!--I shall go straight to the club. You must telephone me there. Just go off to-night quietly, get as much sleep as you can, and keep your wits about you."
"Tell me our plans again," Cherry faltered.
"It's perfectly simple," he said, giving her anxious face a concerned glance. "You are going to the Olivers'. I go in, in the morning, presumably for the Porter breakfast, but really to get your suitcase and my own and get to the boat. I shall be there at half-past ten. You get there well before eleven--you won't see me. But go straight on board, and ask for Mrs. Joyce's cabin. Wait for me there!"
"But--but suppose you don't come!"
"I'll be there before you. It is better for us not to meet upstairs. But to be sure, I'll telephone you at Minna Oliver's at about nine o'clock tomorrow morning. I'll just tell you that I'm on my way and that everything is all right! Have you your heavy coat?"
"I will have," she answered. "I've not got much in the suitcase," she added with an enchanting flush.
"You shall buy more in New Orleans on Tuesday," he promised her. "I've made no plans beyond that."
"A hat?" Cherry asked, with uplifted, silky lashes giving a childish look to her blue eyes.
Peter, tightening his fingers on hers, gave a great, joyous laugh of utter surprise and adoration, as, leaning toward her, he caught her bashful murmur.
"You need that?" he whispered.
"Well--most" she answered, seriously.
"Do you realize," he asked, "that you are the most delicious child that ever lived?"
"No, I don't know that," she said, drooping her head, suddenly self-conscious.
"Do you realize that by this time tomorrow we shall be out at sea," he added, "leaning on the rail--watching the Pacific race by--and belonging to each other forever and ever?"
The picture flooded her face with happy colour. "It's tomorrow at last!" she said, wonderingly, as they walked slowly toward the house. "I thought it would never be. It's only a few hours more now."
"How will you feel when it's to-day?" he asked.
"Oh, Peter, I shall be so glad when it's all over, and when the letters are written, and when we've been together for a year," she answered, fervently. "I know it will be all as we have planned, but--but if it were over!"
They had reached the side door now, and were mounting the three steps together.
"Be patient until tomorrow," he whispered.
"Oh," she said softly, "I shan't breathe until tomorrow."
Leaning across her to push back the light screen door, he found himself face to face with Alix. In the dark entryway Peter and Cherry had not seen her, had not heard her move. Peter cursed his carelessness; he could not remember, in the utter confusion of the moment, just what he and Cherry had said, but if it was of a betraying nature, they had betrayed themselves. One chance in a hundred that she had not heard!
Yet, if she was acting, she was acting superbly. Cherry had turned scarlet and had given him an open glance of consternation, but Alix did not seem to see it. She addressed Peter, but when he found himself physically unable to answer, she continued the conversation with no apparent consciousness of his stumbling effort to appear natural.
"There you are! Are we going to have any tennis? It's after two o'clock now."
"Two seventeen," Martin said, following her out of the house and slipping his big watch back into his pocket. They all gathered in one of the reclaimed garden paths, assuming a deep interest in the time.
"I had no idea it was so late," Peter said.
"I knew it was getting on," Cherry added, utterly at random.
"Go in and tell the boy we won't be back until tomorrow," Martin suggested to his wife. "Unless you told him, Alix?" he added, turning toward her.
"I beg your pardon?" Her face was very pale, and she started as if from deep thought as she spoke.
"You could all come down here to sleep," Cherry said, "and have breakfast here!"
"I have to go into town rather early tomorrow," Peter remarked. "Porter's giving a breakfast at the Bohemian Club."
"Why not walk up to the cabin?" Cherry suggested in a shaking voice.
"I have to take the car up. You three walk! Come on, anybody who wants to ride!" Alix said.
"They can walk," Martin said, getting into the front seat. "Me for the little old bus!"
Cherry came out of the house with her hat on, and Buck leaped before her into the back seat. Alix watched her as she stepped up on the running board, and saw the colour flicker in her beautiful face.
"I thought you were going to walk?" Peter said, nervously. He had sauntered up to them with an air of indifference.
"Shall I?" faltered Cherry. She looked at Alix, who had not yet climbed into the car and was pulling on her driving gloves. Alix, toward whose face the dog was making eager springs, did not appear interested, so Cherry turned to Martin. "Walk with us, Mart?" she said.
"Nix," Martin said, comfortably, not stirring.
"I'll be home before you, Pete, and wait for you," Alix said. She looked at him irresolutely, as if she would have added more, but evidently decided against it and spoke again only in reference to the dog. "Keep Buck with you, will you, Pete?" she said. "He's getting too lazy. No, sir!" she reproached the animal affectionately. "You shall not ride! Well, the dear old Bucky-boy, does he want to come along?"
And she knelt down and put her arms about the animal, and laid her brown cheek against his head.
"You old fool!" she said, shaking him gently to and fro. "You've got to stay with Peter. Old Buck--!" Suddenly she was on her feet and had sprung into her place.
"Hold him, Pete!" she said. "Goodbye, Sis dear! All right, Martin?"
The engine raced; the car slipped smoothly into gear and vanished. Peter and Cherry stood looking at each other.
"Give them a good start, or Buck will catch them," Peter said, his body swaying with the frantic jumping of the straining dog. But to himself he said, with a sense of shock: "Alix knows!"
Buck was off like a rocket when he finally set him free; his feathery tail disappeared between the columns of the redwoods. Without speaking, Cherry and Peter started after him.
"And now that we are alone together," Cherry said, after a few minutes, "there seems to be nothing to say! We've said it all."
"Nothing to say!" Peter echoed. "Alix knows," he said in his heart.
"Whatever we do, it all seems so--wrong!" Cherry said with watering eyes.
"Whatever we do is wrong," he agreed, soberly.
"But we go?" she said on a fluttering breath.
"We must go!" Peter answered. And again, like the ominous fall of a heavy bell-tongue, the words formed in his heart: "Alix knows. Alix knows."
He thought of the afternoon, only a few weeks ago, when Cherry's beauty had made so sudden and so irresistible an appeal to him, and of the innocent delight of their luncheons together, when she had first confided in him, and of the days of secret and intense joy that her mere nearness and the knowledge that he would see her had afforded him. It had all seemed so fresh, so natural, so entirely their own affair, until the tragic day of Martin's reappearance and the hour of agonized waiting at the boat for the Cherry who did not come. There had been no joyous self-confidence in that hour, none in the distressed hour at the Orpheum, and the hour just past, when Cherry's rarely displayed passion had wrenched from him his last vestige of doubt.
But this was the culminating unhappiness, that he should know, from Alix's brave and gentle and generous look as they parted, that Alix knew. He had, in the wild rush and hurry of his thoughts, no time now to analyze what their love must mean to her, but it hurt him to see on her happy face those lines of sternness and gravity, to see her bright and honest eyes shadowed with that new look of pain.
It was too late now to undo it; he and Cherry must carry their desperate plan to a conclusion now, must disappear--and forget. They had tried, all this last dreadful week, they had both tried, to extinguish the flames, and they had failed. But to Peter there was no comforting thought anywhere. Wrong would be done to Martin, to Alix, to Cherry--and more than even these, wrong to himself, to the ideal of himself that had been his for so many years, to the real Peter Joyce.
"If I had it all to do over again, I should not come here," Cherry began, breathlessly.
"Ah, if we had it all to do over again!" Looking back half a dozen years, how simple it all seemed! How uncomplicated life was, in those old days when the doctor and his girls had teased him, and consulted him, and made him one of themselves. "What a web, Cherry!" he said, sadly. "If Anne hadn't made her claim, you would not have been kept here all these weeks; if the financial question hadn't been raised, you must have stayed in Red Creek, simply because you couldn't well have done anything else."
"And if I had been with Martin, this horrible business of that girl's letter wouldn't have happened," she added, bravely. "Oh, yes--that's quite true!" she interrupted him, as he interpolated a bitter protest. "Mart has no particular principle about it, but he never would have got in with that crowd if I had been there. So that once more," she ended, sadly, "I can say that I have made a mess of things. Listen, that's Buck!" she interrupted herself, as the dog's loud and violent barking reached them from beyond a turn in the twisting road. "He didn't catch them, then."
The next instant a woman came up the road, running, and making a queer, whimpering noise that Cherry never forgot. She was a stranger to them, but she ran toward them, making the odd, gasping noise with much dry mouthing, and with wild eyes.
Horror was in her aspect, and horror was the emotion that the first glimpse of her awakened vaguely in their hearts, but as she saw them she suddenly found voice for so hideous a scream that Cherry's knees failed her, and Peter sprang forward with a shout.
He gripped the woman's arm, and her frantic eyes were turned to him.
"Oh, my God!" she cried in a hoarse, cawing voice. "My God! They're over the bank--they're over the bank!"
"Who?" Peter shouted, his heart turning to ashes.
"Oh, the car--the automobile!" the woman mouthed. "Oh, my God--I saw it go! I saw it fall! Oh, God, save them-oh, God, take them, don't let them suffer that way!"
They were all running now, running with desperate speed down the long road, about the curves, on and on toward the frantic noise of the dog's barking, and toward another noise, the sound of a human voice twisted and wild with agony.
The strange woman was crying out wildly; Cherry was sobbing a prayer. Peter, without knowing that he spoke at all, was repeating over and over again the words: "Not Alix-my God!--it cannot be-- she has never had an accident before-not Alix!"
A last curve, and they knew. Over one of the sharpest and ugliest of the descending precipices, crashing down through the saplings and underbrush and striking the trunks of a score of trees on its way, the heavy car had fallen like a boulder. And Peter saw that it was Alix's car, and with a great cry he sprang over the bank and, slipping and stumbling, followed its mad course down almost to the dry creek-bed in the canyon, and fell on his knees beside the huddled figure that, erect and strong, in its striped blue gingham, had been Alix only a few short minutes ago.
She had been flung clear of the car, and although almost every bone in her body was broken, by some miracle the face, except for a deep cut where the brown hair met the tanned forehead, was untouched. And as he caught her in his arms and bent over her with the bitterness of death stopping his own heart, a soft, thick braid loosened and fell like the touch of her hand upon his own, and it seemed to him that in the tranquil face and in the very look of the closed and fast-shadowing eyelids he caught a glimpse of Alix's old smile.
Peter forgot everything else in the world. He held her close to him and put his face against her face, and perhaps she had never so truly been his own as in this moment of their parting, when the quiet autumn woodland, shot with long shafts from the sinking sun, rang with his bitter cry:
"No, Alix--not dead! My wife--my wife!"
There were other men and women gathering fast now, and the whole little valley was beginning to ring with the tragedy. After a while some sympathetic man touched Peter on the arm to say that Mrs. Lloyd had fainted, and that if he would please tell them what to do about the other man--he was not yet dead--
Peter roused himself, and with help from half a dozen hands on all sides he carried Alix up to the road and laid her upon a motor robe that some kindly spectator had spread in the deep dust. All about he heard the quick, horrified breathing and muttering of the shocked and sympathetic neighbours who had gathered, but to him there was a brassy light in the world and a hideous taste of inky bitterness in the very air he breathed, and he recognized nobody.
Presently he was conscious that a small, slight woman with disorderly fair hair and with her face streaked with dust and tears was standing beside him, and looking down at her, he saw that it was Cherry.
"Yes, Cherry?" he said, moistening his dry lips.
"Peter," she said, "they say Martin's living--he was screaming--" She grew deathly pale, and faintness swept over her, but she mastered it. "He was caught by that tree," she said. "And he is living. Will you tell them--tell one of these men--that if he will help me, we can drive him home. If you'll tell him that, then I'll get a doctor--"
"Yes, I will," Peter said, not stirring. His eyes had the look of a sleep-walker; he nodded slowly and gravely at her, like a very old man. "You--" he said to a man who had stopped his car near by and who was pressing sympathetically close. "Will you--?"
"If you'll sit in the back seat, dear, and just rest his poor head," a woman said to Cherry. Peter saw that they were lifting Martin's big, senseless form in tender hands and carrying it through the little group. There was a shudder as Martin moaned deeply. Peter went and sat on the low bank by Alix again, and lifted one of her limp hands, and held it. Ah, if in God's mercy and goodness she might moan, he thought, that one slight ray of hope would flood all the world with light for him again! But she did not stir.
"Gone?" said Cherry's heartrending voice, a mere whisper, beside him.
He turned upon her lifeless eyes.
"Gone," he echoed.
"Oh, Alix--my darling! My own big sister!"
Cherry sobbed, falling to her knees and passionately kissing the peaceful face. "Oh, Alix, dearest!"
The women about broke into tears. Peter pressed his hand close against his aching eyeballs, wishing that he might cry.
"She drove here," he heard a man's voice saying in the silence, "and she must have lost control of her car for a minute. Then--do you see?--the wheel slipped on the bank. Once it got this far, no power in God's earth--"
"No power in God's earth!" another man's voice said in solemn confirmation.
"Peter," Cherry said, "will you come to me as soon as you can? I shall need you."
"As soon as I can," he answered, absently.
The car drove away, and he heard Martin moan again as it moved.
"Joyce," said a man's kind voice close beside him. He recognized the voice rather than the distressed face of an old friend and neighbour. "Joyce, my dear fellow," he urged, affectionately, "tell us what we may do, and we'll see to it. Pull yourself together, my dear old chap. Now, shall I telephone for an--an ambulance? You must help us just a little here, and then we'll spare you everything else."
"Thank you, Fred," Peter answered after a moment, during which he looked seriously and studiously at his friend, as if ascertaining through unseen mists and barriers the identity of the speaker. "Thank you," he said. "Will you help me take--my wife--home?"
"You wish it that way?" the other man said, anxiously.
"Please," Peter answered, simply. And instantly there was moving and clearing in the crowd, a murmuring of whispered directions.
After a while they were at the mountain cabin, and Kow, with tears running down his yellow face, was helping them. Then Peter and his friend were walking up over the familiar trails, he hardly knew where, in the late twilight, and then they went into the old living room, and Alix was lying there, splendid, sweet, untouched, with her brave, brown forehead shadowed softly by her brown hair, and her lashes resting upon her cheeks, and her fingers clasped about the stems of three great, creamy roses.
There were other flowers all about, and there were women in the room. White draperies fell with sweeping lines from the merciful veiling of the crushed figure, and Alix might have been only asleep, and dreaming some heroic dream that lent that secret pride and joy to her mouth and filled those closed eyes with a triumph they had never known in life.
Peter stood and looked down at her, and the men and women drew back. But although the muscles of his mouth twitched, he did not weep. He looked long at her, while an utter silence filled the room, and while twilight deepened into dark over the cabin and over the mountain above it.
Something cold touched his hand, and he heard the dog whimper. Without turning his head or moving his eyes from Alix's face, he pressed his fingers on the silky head; his breast rose on one agonized breath, but he controlled it. Buck was as still as his master, sensing, in unfailing dog-fashion, that something was wrong.
"So that was your way out, Alix?" Peter said in the depth of his soul. "That was your solution for us all? You would go out of life, away from the sunshine and the trees and the hills that you loved, so that Cherry and I should be saved? I was blind not to see it. I have been blind from the very beginning."
Silence. The room was filling with shadows. On the mantel was a deep bowl of roses that he remembered watching her cut--was it yesterday or centuries ago?
"I was wrong," he said. "But I think you would be sorry to have me face--what I am facing now. You were always so forgiving, Alix; you would be the first to be sorry."
He put his hand over the tigerish pain that was beginning to reach his heart. His throat felt thick and choked, and still he did not cry.
"An hour ago," he said, "if it had been that the least thought of what this meant to you might have reached me an hour ago, it would not have been too late. Alix, one look into your eyes an hour ago might have saved us all! Fred," Peter said aloud, with a bitter groan, clinching tight the hands of the old friend who had crept in to stand beside him "Fred, she was here, in all her health and joy and strength only today. And now--"
"I know--old man--" the other man muttered. He looked anxiously at Peter's terrible face. In the silence the dog whimpered faintly. But when Peter, after an endless five minutes, turned away, it was to speak to his friend in an almost normal voice.
"I must go down and see Cherry, Fred. She took her husband to the old house; they were living there."
"Helen will stay here," the man assured him, quickly. "I'll drive you down and come back here. We thought perhaps a few of us could come here to-morrow afternoon, Peter," he added timidly, with his reddened eyes filling again, "and talk of her a little, and pray for her a little, and then take her to--to rest beside the old doctor--"
"I hadn't thought about that," Peter answered, still with the air of finding it hard to link words to thought. "But that is the way she would like it. Thank you--and thank Helen for me--"
"Oh, Peter, to do anything--" the woman faltered. "She came to us, you know, when the baby was so ill--day after day--my own sister couldn't have been more to us!"
"Did she?" Peter asked, staring at the speaker steadily. "That was like her."
He went out of the house and got into a waiting car, and they drove down the mountain. Alix had driven him over this road day before yesterday--yesterday--no, it was today, he remembered.
"Thank God I don't feel it yet as I shall feel it, Thompson!" he said, quietly. The man who was driving gave him an anxious glance.
"You must take each day as it comes," he answered, simply.
Peter nodded, folded his arms across his chest, and stared into the early dark. There was no other way to go than past the very spot where the horror had occurred, but Thompson told his wife later that poor Joyce had not seemed to know it when they passed it. Nor did he give any evidence of emotion when they reached the old Strickland house and entered the old hallway where Cherry had come flying in, a few short years ago, with Martin's first kiss upon her lips.
Two doctors, summoned from San Francisco, were here, and two nurses. Martin had been laid upon a hastily moved bed in the old study, to be spared the narrow stairs. The room was metamorphosed, the whole house moved about it as about a pivot, and there was no thought but for the man who lay, sometimes moaning and sometimes ominously still, waiting for death.
"He cannot live!" whispered Cherry, ghastly of face, and with the utter chaos of her soul and brain expressed by her tumbled frock and the carelessly pushed back and knotted masses of her hair. "His arm is broken, Peter, and his leg crushed--they don't dare touch him! And the surgeon says the spine, too--and you see his head! Oh, God! it is so terrible," she said in agony, through shut teeth, knotting her hands together, "it is too terrible that he is breathing now, that life is there now, and that they cannot hold it!"
She led Peter into the sitting room, where the doctors were waiting. The nurses came and went; the lamps had been lighted. Both the physicians rose as Peter came in, and he knew that they had been told that this was the man whose wife had been killed that day. Their manner expressed the sympathy they did not voice. Peter sat down with them.
"Is there any hope?" he asked, when Cherry had gone away on one of the restless, unnecessary journeys with which she was filling the endless hours. One man shook his head, and in the silence they heard Martin groan.
"It is possible he may weather it, of course," the older man said, doubtfully. "He is coming out of that first stupor, and we may be able to tell better in a short time. The fact that he is living at all indicates a tremendous vitality."
Thoughtfully and gravely they exchanged technical phrases. Cherry's Chinese boy brought in a tray, and both the other men ate and drank. Peter nodded a negative without a change of expression, but presently he roused himself to replenish the fire. The clock ticked and ticked in the stillness.
Cherry came to the door to say "Doctor!" on a burst of tears. The physicians departed at once to the study, and Peter was immediately summoned to assist them in handling the big frame of the patient. Martin was thoroughly conscious now; his face chalk white. Cherry, agonized, knelt beside the bed, her frightened eyes moving from face to face.
There was a brief consultation, then Cherry and Peter were banished.
"Don't worry, dear," said one of the nurses, coming out of the sick-room. "It's just that Doctor Henry thinks he would be more comfortable if we could get the arm and leg set! You see, now that he's conscious and is running just a little temperature--"
"Much fever?" Cherry asked, sharply.
"Oh, nothing at all, dear!" the nurse hastened to say. "The only thing is, that setting the arm and leg will ease the pain and save his strength." She bustled off for basins, bandages, and hot water. In the silence Martin's groans occasionally broke.
Cherry, her eyes on the study door, stood biting her fingers in frenzy. When from the sound of Martin's voice she realized that he was being hurt, she looked at Peter in agony.
"Oh, why do they do that--why do they do that? Torturing him for nothing!" he heard her whisper. "Go in and--go in and do something!" she urged, incoherently.
But the sounds had stopped, and there was a blessed interval of silence. The clock on the mantel sounded eight in swift, silvery strokes, and presently a sympathetic nurse came silently in with a tray holding two cups of hot soup. Cherry shut her eyes and shook her head.
"Please, Cherry--you need it!" Peter pleaded, carrying her a smoking cup. She protested again with a gesture, looked wearily into his eyes, and drank the soup docilely, like a child.
"You, too, Peter!" she said, suddenly rousing herself. Peter gulped down his own cupful, waved away the sandwiches that were on the tray, and took the chair opposite the one in which Cherry was sitting.
The clock presently struck the half-hour, but neither spoke. Cherry's pallor, her air of fatigue and bewilderment, and the familiar setting of the old environment made her seem a child again. Peter watched her with a confused sense that the whole frightful day had been a dream. Once she looked up and met his eyes.
"He can't live," she said in a whisper.
"Perhaps not," Peter answered very low. Cherry returned to her sombre musing.
"We didn't see this end to it, did we?" she said with a pitiful smile after a long while.
"Oh, no--no!" Peter said, shutting his eyes, and with a faint, negative movement of his head.
"We wouldn't have had this happen--" Cherry began. Her lips trembled, her whole face wrinkled, and she put her hand across her eyes and pressed it there with a gesture of forlornness and sorrow that wrenched Peter's heart. Her tears began to fall fast.
"Poor Cherry--if I could spare you all this!" he said, knotting his fingers and feeling for the first time the prick of bitter tears against his eyelids.
"Oh, there is nothing you can do," she said faintly and wearily after a while. And she whispered, as if to herself, "Nothing-- nothing--nothing!"
Then there was silence again. The lamps burned softly; the fire sucked and flickered; a chilling air, full of autumn sadness, began to creep from the corners of the room. Peter's eyes moved over the backs of the old books, Dickens and Thackeray and the "Household Book of Verse," moved to the faded photograph of Cherry's mother on the mantel, a beautiful woman in the big sleeves of the late nineties.
The doctors came back; there was a little stir and rearrangement as they seated themselves.
"Any change?" Cherry asked, cautiously.
"No change." Both men shook their heads.
"Any--any hope?" she faltered.
The physicians exchanged glances. No word was spoken, but the look in their faces, the faint narrowing of eyes and compressing of lips, gave her her answer.