Chapter XXIV
 

Peter saw, with a sort of stupefaction, that life was satisfying her now as life had never satisfied restless, exacting little Cherry before. Not that she knew it; she was absolutely unconscious of the truth, and he realized that she would have been genuinely shocked by it. But there was a busy energy about her now, an absorbed and contented concentration upon the duties of the day, a cheerfulness, a philosophy, that were new.

There had been touched by all this terrible time unexpected deeps of maternal tenderness in childish little Cherry; there had been unsuspected qualities of domesticity and sacrifice. A new Cherry had been born, a Cherry always beautiful, always resourceful, always admired. Busy with Martin's trays, out in the garden searching for shy violets, conferring with the Chinese boy, pouring tea for afternoon callers, Cherry was newly adequate and newly happy.

She spent much of her free time by her husband's side, amusing him as skillfully as a mother. What was she doing? Why, she was simply basting fresh cuffs into her afternoon gown. He was getting so popular that she had to be ready for callers every day. Would he like her to keep George Sewall for dinner, then they could play dominoes again? Would he like the table with the picture puzzle? He would like just to talk? Very well; they would talk.

Martin's day was so filled and divided with small pleasures that it was apt to amaze him by passing too quickly. He had special breakfasts, he had his paper, his hair was brushed and his bed remade a dozen times a day. Cherry shared her mail, which was always heavy now, with him; she flitted into the sick-room every few minutes with small messages or gifts. With her bare, bright head, her busy white hands, her voice all motherly amusement and sympathy and sweetness, she had never seemed so much a wife. She had the pleasantest laugh in the world, and she often laughed. The sick-room was kept with exquisite simplicity, with such freshness, bareness, and order as made it a place of delight. One day Cherry brought home a great Vikory bowl of silvery glass, and a dozen drifting goldfish, and Martin never tired of watching them idly while he listened to her reading.

"Cherry," Peter said, on a wet January day, when he came upon her in the dining room, contentedly arranging a fragrant mass of wet violets, "I think Martin's out of the woods now. I believe I'll be moving along!"

"Oh, but we want you always, Peter!" she said, innocently regretful.

The ghost of a pained smile flitted across his face.

"Thank you," he said, gently. "But I think I will go," he added, mildly. She made no further protest.

"But where?" she asked, sympathetically.

"I don't know. I shall take Buck--start off" toward the big mountains. I'll write you now and then, of course! I'm going home, first!"

"Of course!" she answered. "But you won't stay in that lonely cabin all alone," she added, almost timidly.

"No, I shan't be there long!" he assured her, briefly. "Everything's finished up now. I'm leaving Kow in charge, of course. I'll be back one of these days!"

"Just now," Cherry mused, sadly, "perhaps it is best--for you--to get away! Now that Martin is so much better," she added, in a little burst. "I do feel so sorry for you, Peter! I know how you feel. I shall miss her always, of course," said Cherry, "but I have him."

"I try not to think of her," Peter said, flinging up his head.

"When you do," Cherry said, earnestly, giving him more of her attention than had been usual, of late, "Here is something to think, Peter. It's this: we have so much to be thankful for, because she never--knew! It was madness," Cherry went on, eagerly, "sheer madness--that is clear now. I don't try to explain it, because it's all been washed away by the frightful thing that happened. I'm different now; you're different--I don't know how we ever thought we could--

"But I forget all that," she went on, after a moment of shamed thought. "I don't let myself think of it any more! I was unhappy, I was overwrought; there's no explanation for what I felt and said but that! And, Peter, you know that if I was false in thought to Martin, he had been unkind to me, and he had--" she paused, interrupted herself. "But men are different, I suppose," she mused. There was a silence during which she looked at him anxiously, but the expression on his face did not alter, and he did not speak.

"And what I think we ought to be thankful for," she resumed, "is that Alix would rather--she would rather have it this way. She told me that she would be heartbroken if there had been any actual separation between me and Martin, and how much worse that would have been--what we planned, I mean. She was spared that, and we were spared--I see it now--what would have ruined both our lives. We were brought to our senses, and the awakening only came a little sooner than it would have come anyway!"

Peter had walked to the window, and was looking out at the shabby winter trees that were dripping rain, and at the beaten garden, where the drenched chrysanthemums had been bowed to the soaked earth. A wet wind swished through the low, fanlike branches of the redwoods; the creek was rushing high and noisily.

"Here, in Dad's home," Cherry said, coming to stand beside him, "I see how wicked and how mad I was. In another twenty-four hours it would have been too late--you don't know how often I wake up in the night and shiver, thinking that! And as it is, I am here in the dear old house; and Martin--well, you can see that even Martin's life is going to be far happier than it ever was! Yesterday Mrs. Porter spoke to me about getting him a player-piano when he is stronger, you know. Doctor Young comes in to play cribbage with him--it's amazing how the day fills itself! It's such a joy to me," she added, with the radiant look she often wore when her husband's comfort was under consideration, "to feel that we need never worry about the money end of things--there's enough for what we need forever!"

"You must never worry about money," he told her. "And if ever you need it--if it is a question of a long trip, or of more operations--if there is any chance--"

"I shall remember that I have a big brother!" she said.

The room was scented by the sweet, damp flowers, and by the good odour of lazily burning logs; yet to Peter there was chill and desolateness in the air. Cherry took up the glass bowl in both careful hands, and went away in the direction of the study, but he stood at the window for a long time staring dully out at the battered chrysanthemums and the swishing branches, and the steadily falling rain.