Chapter XXIII
 

It was all strange and bewildering, thought Peter. It was not like anything he had ever connected in his thoughts with Alix, yet it was all for her.

The day was warm and still, and the little church was packed with flowers, and packed with people. Women were crying, and men were crying, too, rather to his dazed surprise. The organ was straining through the warm, fragrant air, and the old clergyman, whose venerable, leonine head, in its crown of snowy hair, Peter could see clearly, spoke in a voice that was thickened with tears. Strangers, or almost strangers, had been touching Peter's hand respectfully, timidly, had been praising Alix. She had been "good" to this one, "good" to that one, they told him; she had always been so "interested," and so "happy."

Her coffin was buried in flowers, many of them the plain flowers she loved, the gillies and stock and verbena, and even the sweet, sober wall-flowers that were somehow like herself. But it was the roses that scented the whole world for Alix to-day, and fresh creamy buds had been placed between the waxen fingers. And still that radiant look of triumphant love lingered on her quiet face, and still the faint ghost of a smile touched the once kindly and merry mouth.

They said good-bye to her at the church, the villagers and old friends who had loved her, and Peter and two or three men alone followed her down along the winding road that led to the old cemetery. Cherry was hanging over the bedside of her husband, who still miraculously lingered through hours of pain, but as Peter, responsive to a touch on his arm, crossed the church porch to blindly enter the waiting motor-car, he saw, erect and grave, on the front seat, in his decent holiday black, and with his felt hat held in his hands, Kow, claiming his right to stand beside the grave of the mistress he had loved and served so faithfully. The sight of him, in his clumsy black, instead of the usual crisp white, and with a sad and tear-stained face shook Peter strangely, but he did not show a sign of pain.

The twisted low branches of oak trees threw shadows on the grave when they finally reached it, and sheep were cropping the watered grass of the graveyard. It was silent and peaceful here, on the very top of the world, not a sound intruded, and nothing stirred but the shadow of a flying bird, and the slowly moving, rounded woolly backs of the sheep.

The soft autumn sky, the drift of snowy clouds across the blue, the clear shadows on brown grass under the oaks, all these were familiar. But Peter still looked dazedly at his black cuff and at the turned earth next to the doctor's headstone, telling himself again that this was for Alix. How often he had seen her sitting there, with her bright face sobered and sweet, as she talked lovingly, eagerly, of her father! They had often come here, Peter the more willingly because she was so sensible and happy about it; she would pack lunch, button herself into one of the crisp blue ginghams, chatter on the road in her usual fashion. And if, for a few moments, the train of memory fired by the sight of the old doctor's grave became too poignant, and tears came, she always scolded herself with that mixture of childish and maternal impatience that was so characteristic of her, and that Peter had seen her use to this very father years ago!

He remembered her, a tall, awkward girl, with a volume of Dickens slipping from her lap as she sat on a hassock by the fire, teasing her father, scolding and reproaching him. Blazing red on high cheek-bones, untidy black hair, quick tongue and ready laugh; that was the Alix of the old days, when he had criticized and patronized her, and told her that she should be more like Anne and little Cherry!

He remembered being delegated, one day, to take her into town to the dentist, and that upon discovering that the dentist was not in his office, he had taken her to the circus instead. She had been about thirteen, and had eaten too many peanuts, he thought, and had lost a petticoat in full sight of the grand-stand. But how grateful and happy she had been!

"Dear little old blue petticoat!" he said. "Dear little old madcap Alix--!"

There was silence, the silence of inanition, about him. He came to himself with a start. He was up on the hills, in the cemetery-- this was Alix's grave, newly covered with wilting masses of flowers, and he was keeping everybody waiting. He murmured an apology; the waiting men were all kindness and sympathy.

He got back into the motor-car; Kow got in; the man who drove them quickly toward the valley talked easily and steadily to Peter, attempting to interest him in the affairs of some water company in San Francisco. When they got to the valley a city train was arriving, and Peter saw people looking at him furtively and sorrowfully. He remembered the many, many times Alix had waited for him at the trains; he glanced toward the big madrone under which she always parked her car. She was usually deep in a book as he crossed from the train, but she would fling it into the back seat, and make room for him beside her. The dog would bound into the tonneau, Alix would hand her husband his mail, the car would start with a great plunge toward the mountain--toward the cool garden high up on the ridge--

"She never had an accident, Fred," he said, simply.

"Alix?" The other man nodded gravely, but there was a worried look in his eyes. He did not like Peter's quiet tone. "It may be that her steering-gear broke," he said. "I don't believe it was her fault. Never will! No, it was just one of those things--" He emptied his lungs with a great breath of nervousness and sympathy. "Now, we want you to-night--" he began, pleadingly.

"No--no--no!" Peter said, quickly. "I had better go to her sister. Poor Lloyd is dying, and she is on the verge of a collapse. The nurse said this morning that they could not get her to undress or to leave the room. Poor girl--poor Cherry! I had better go there, Fred. She will need me!"

"No chance for him?" the driving man asked, turning his car.

"No--it's only a matter of time!"

"She came in for the old doctor's money, didn't she?"

"Yes--all of it, now. And my wife had some property--some I had given her; that will go to the sister now. She will be well fixed," Peter said, in a dull tone. "That would have pleased Alix."

"She's a beautiful woman, and young still," said the other man, after awhile. Peter did not hear him.

Cherry looked small and pathetic in her fresh black, and her face was marked by secret incessant weeping. But the nurses and doctors could not say enough for her self-control; she was always composed, always quietly helpful and calm when they saw her, and she was always busy. From early morning, when she slipped into the sick-room, to stand looking at the unconscious Martin with a troubled, intent expression that the nurses came to know well, until night, she moved untiringly about the quiet, shaded house. She supervised the Chinese boy, saw that the nurses had their hours for rest and exercise, telephoned, dusted, and arranged the rooms, saw callers sweetly and patiently, filled vases with flowers.

Every day she had several vigils in the sick-room, and every day at least one long talk with the doctors. Peter would find her deep in letters and documents, or find her--who had loved to be idle, a few weeks ago--busily sewing. Sometimes she gave him a long list of things to do for her in the village and the city, and every day she wrote notes--Cherry, who had always hated to write notes!--to thank the friends who had sent in flowers, soups, and jellies, and custards for the patient. Every afternoon and evening had its callers; she and Peter were rarely alone.

Martin was utterly unconscious of the life that flowed on about him; sometimes he seemed to recognize Cherry, and would stare with painful intentness into her face, but after a few seconds his gaze would wander to the strange nurses, and the room that he had never known, and with a puzzled sigh he would close his eyes again, and drift back into his own strange world of pain, fever, and unconsciousness.

Almost every day there was the sudden summons and panic in the old house, Peter going toward the sick-room with a thick beating at his heart, Cherry entering, white-faced and with terrified eyes, doctors and nurses gathering noiselessly near for the last scene in the drama of Martin's suffering. But the release did not come.

There would be murmuring among the doctors and nurses; the pulse was gaining, not losing; the apparently fatal, final symptoms were proving neither fatal nor final. The tension would relax; a doctor would go, a nurse slip from the room; Cherry, looking anxiously from one face to another, would breathe more easily. It was inevitable, she knew that now--but it was not to be this minute, it was not to be this hour!

"My dear--my dear!" Peter said to her, one day, when spent and shaken she came stumbling from Martin's bedside, and stood dazedly looking from the window into the soaking October forest, like a person stunned from a blow. "My poor little Cherry! If I could spare you this!"

"Nobody can spare me now!" she whispered. And very simply and quietly she added, "If I have been a fool--if I have been a selfish, wicked girl, all my life, I am punished!" She was clinging to the unpainted wood that framed the window, her hand above her head, and her face resting against her arm. "I am punished!" she added.

"Cherry!" he protested, heartsick to see her so.

"Was it wrong for us to love each other, Peter?" she asked, in a low tone. "I suppose it was! I suppose it was! But it never seemed as if--" she shut her eyes and shivered--"as if--this--would come of it!" she whispered.

"This!" he echoed, aghast.

"Oh, I think this is punishment," Cherry continued, in the same lifeless, weary tone.

There was a silence. The rain dripped and dripped from the redwoods, the room in which they stood was in twilight, even at noon. Peter could think of nothing to say.

About two weeks after the accident there was a change in the tone of the physicians who had been giving almost all their time to Martin's case. There was no visible change in Martin, but that fact in itself was so surprising that it was construed into a definite hope that he would live.

Not as he had lived, they warned his wife. It would be but a restricted life; tied to his couch, or permitted, at best, to move about within a small boundary on crutches.

"Martin!" his wife exclaimed piteously, when this was first discussed. "He has always been so strong--so independent! He would rather--he would infinitely rather be dead!" But her mind was busy grasping the possibilities, too. "He won't suffer too much?" she asked, fearfully.

They hastened to assure her that the chance of his even partial recovery was still slight, but that in case of his convalescence Martin need not necessarily suffer.

Another day or two went by, in the silent, rainwrapped house under the trees; days of quiet footsteps, and whispering, and the lisping of wood fires. Then Martin suddenly was conscious, knew his wife, languidly smiled at her, thanked the doctors for occasional ease from pain.

"Peter--I'm sorry. It's terrible for you--terrible!" he said, in his new, hoarse, gentle voice, when he first saw Peter. They marvelled among themselves that he knew that Alix was gone. But to Cherry, in one of the long hours that she spent, sitting beside him, and holding his big, weak, strangely white hand, he explained, one day. "I knew she was killed," he said, out of a silence. "I thought we both were!"

"How did she ever happen to do it?" Cherry said. "She was always so sure of herself--even when she drove fast!"

"I don't know," he answered. "It was all like a flash, of course! I never watched her drive--I had such confidence in her!"

His interest dropped; she saw that the tide of pain was slowly rising again, glanced at the clock. It was two; he might not have relief until four. In his own eyes she saw reflected the apprehension of her own.

"You might ask Peter to play some of that--that rambly stuff he was playing yesterday?" he suggested. Cherry, only too happy to have him want anything, to have him helped by anything, flew to find Peter. Busy with one of the trays that were really beginning to interest and please the invalid now, she told herself that the house was a different place, now that one nurse was gone, the doctors coming only for brief calls, and the dear, familiar sound of the old piano echoing throughout the rooms.

Martin came from the fiery furnace changed in soul and body. It was a thin, gentle, strangely patient man who was propped in bed for his Thanksgiving dinner, and whose pain-worn face turned with an appreciative smile to the decorations and the gifts that made his room cheerful. His thick beard had grown; for weeks they had not dared disturb him to cut it, and as he recovered, Cherry found it so becoming that she had persuaded him to let it remain. He wore a blue-and-gray wrapper that was his wife's gift; the sling was gone, but his hands were oddly thin and white.

The big room, once the study, and still shaded by the old banksia rose, had been turned into as luxurious a bedroom as Cherry could make it. The signs of extreme illness gradually were banished, and all sorts of invalid comforts took their place; daylight and lamplight were alike tempered for Martin; there were pillows, screens; there was a noiseless deep chair always waiting for Cherry at his side. As his unconscious and feverish times lessened, and he was able feebly to request this small delicacy or that, Cherry rejoiced to gratify him; her voice had something of its old content as she would say: "He loved the oysters, Peter!" or "Doctor said he might have wine jelly!"

The heavy cloud lightened slowly but steadily; Martin had a long talk, dreaded by Cherry from the first hours of the accident, with his physicians. He bore the ultimatum with unexpected fortitude.

"Let me get this straight," he said, slowly. "The arm is O. K. and the leg, but the back--"

Cherry, kneeling beside him, her hands on his, drew a wincing breath. Martin reassured her with an indulgent nod.

"I've known it right along!" he told her. He looked at the doctors. "It's no go?"

"I don't see why I should deceive you, my dear boy," said the younger doctor, who had grown very fond of him. "You can still beat me at bridge, you know, you can read and write, and come to the table, after awhile; you have your devoted wife to keep finding new things for you to do! Next summer now--a chair out in the garden--"

Cherry was fearfully watching her husband's face.

"We'll all do what we can to make it easy, Mart!" she whispered, in tears.

He looked at her with a whimsical smile.

"Mind very much taking care of a helpless man all your life?" he asked, with a hint of his old confident manner.

"Oh, Mart, I mind only for you!" she said. Peter, standing behind the doctors, slipped from the room unnoticed.

Late that evening, when Martin was asleep, Cherry came noiselessly from the sick-room, to find Peter alone in the dimly lighted sitting room. The fire had burned low, and he was sitting before it, sunk into his chair, and leaning forward, fingers loosely locked, and sombre eyes fixed on the dull pink glow of the logs. He looked tired, Cherry thought, and was so buried in thought that she at first attempted to go quietly through the room without rousing him. But he glanced at her, feeling rather than hearing her presence, and called her.

"Come over here, will you, Cherry? I want to speak to you."

Something in his voice fluttered her for a second; she had not heard the echo of the old mood for a long time. She came, with an inquiring and yet not wholly unconscious look, to the fireside, and he stood up to greet her.

"Tired?" he asked, in an unnatural voice.

"I--I was just going to bed," she answered, hesitatingly. But she sat down, nevertheless; sank comfortably into the chair opposite his own, and stretched her little feet, crossed at the ankle, before her, as if she were indeed tired. "I don't know what should make me--always--so weary!" she said, smiling. "I don't do a thing, really, all day!"

Utterly relaxed, her small figure in its plain black gown, with the childish white she always wore at collar and wrist, looked like the figure of a child. Her golden hair shone with a dull gleam in the dim light; there was a glint of firelight in her dropped lashes.

"Perhaps it's the nervous strain," Peter suggested. "Of course, you would feel that." There was a silence in which neither moved. Cherry did not even raise her eyelids, and Peter, standing with one arm on the mantel, looked down at her steadily. "Cherry," he said, suddenly, "are you and I going to talk to each other like that?"

A flood of colour rose in Cherry's pale face, and she gave him one appealing glance.

"I don't--I don't think I know what you mean, Peter!"

"Oh, yes; you do!" he said. He knelt down beside her chair, and gathered her cold hands into one of his own. "What are you and I going to do?" he asked.

She looked at him in terror.

"But all that is changed!" she said, quickly, fearfully.

"Why is it changed?" he countered. "I love you--I have always loved you, since the days long ago, in this very house! I can't stop it now. And you love me, Cherry!"

"Yes, I shall always love you," she answered, agitatedly, after a pause in which she looked at him with troubled eyes. "I shall always love you, and always dream of the time when we--we thought we might belong to each other, Peter. But--but--you must see that we cannot--cannot think of all that now," she added with difficulty. "I couldn't fail Martin now, when he needs me so!"

"He needs you now," Peter conceded, "and I don't ask you to do anything that must distress him now. But in a few months, when his mother comes down for a visit, what then?"

Cherry's exquisite eyes were fixed on his.

"Well, what then?" she whispered.

"Then you must tell them honestly that you care for me," he said.

Cherry was trembling violently.

"But how could I!" she protested. "Tell him that I am going away, deserting him when he most needs me!"

Peter had grown very pale.

"But--" he stammered, his face close to hers--"but you cannot mean that this is the end?"

She moved her lips as if she was about to speak; looked at him blankly. Then suddenly tears came, and she wrenched her hands free from his, and laid her arms about his neck. Her wet cheek was pressed to his own, and he put his arms tightly about the little shaken figure.

"Peter!" she whispered, desolately. And after a time, when the violence of her sobs was lessened, and she was breathing more quietly, she said again: "Peter!"

He took out his handkerchief, and dried her eyes, and she remained, resting against him like a spent bird, her blue eyes fixed mournfully on the fire, her hands, which had slipped to his breast, gathered in his own, and her bright head on his shoulder.

"We can never dream that dream again," she said.

"We shall dream it again," he corrected her.

Cherry did not answer for a long while. Then she gently disengaged herself from his arms, and sat erect. Her tears were ended now, and her voice firmer and surer.

"No; never again!" she told him. "I've been thinking about it, all these days, and I've come to see what is right, as I never did before. Alix never knew about us, Peter--and that's been the one thing for which I could be thankful in all this time! But Alix had only one hope for me, and that was that somehow Martin and I would come to be--well, to be nearer to each other, and that somehow he and I would make a success of our marriage, would spare--well, let's say the family name, from all the disgrace and publicity of a divorce--"

"And you feel that this has drawn you and Martin nearer together?" Peter asked, in a simple, expressionless voice, as she paused.

"Well--he needs me now."

"But, Cherry, my child--" Peter expostulated. "You cannot sacrifice all your life to the fancy that no one else can take your place with him--"

"That," she said, steadily, "is just what I must do!"

Peter looked at her for a few seconds without speaking. "You don't love him," he said.

"No," she admitted, gravely. "I don't love him--not in the way you mean."

"He is nothing to you," Peter argued. "As a matter of fact, it never was what a marriage should be. It was always--always--a mistake."

"Yes," she conceded, sadly, "it was always a mistake!"

"Then there is nothing to bind you to him!" Peter added.

"No--and there isn't Alix to distress now!" she agreed, thoughtfully. "And yet," she went on, suddenly, "I do this more for Alix than for any one!"

Peter looked at her in silence, looked back at the last flicker of the fire.

"You will change your mind after awhile!" he said.

Cherry rose from the chair, and stood with dropped head and troubled eyes, looking down at the flame.

"No, I shall never change my mind!" she said, in a low tone that was still strangely firm and final for her. "I have thought about it, about the sacrifices I shall have to make, and about what my life will be as the years go on! And I know that I never will change. This is as much my life as it would be my life if you and I were alone in that little French village somewhere. There would be no going back then, no thinking of what might have been; there is no going back now. This is my life, that's all! For five or ten or twenty or thirty years I shall always be where Martin is, caring for him, amusing him, making a life for him." And Cherry raised her glorious blue eyes in which there was a pure and an uplifted look that Peter had never seen there before. "It is what Dad and Alix would have wished," she finished, solemnly, "and I do it for them!"

Peter did not answer; and after a moment she went quietly and quickly from the room, with the new air of quiet responsibility that she had worn ever since the accident.