Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
A few days later, on a day of uncertain sunshine and showers, Peter left them. Martin was the sorrier of the two to see him go, for it seemed to Martin that the tragedy had united Cherry and himself in a peculiar manner, had rounded and secured their relationship, and had made for them a new life that had no place for Peter. With a sort of affectionate pity for the older man he would have been glad to have him stay longer, to play the old piano, work in the old garden, and share their talks of Alix and of all the old days. But to Cherry Peter's going was a relief; it burned one more bridge behind her. It confirmed her in the path she had chosen; it was to her spirit like the cap that marks the accepted student nurse, or like the black coif that replaces the postulant's white veil of probation.
He had been in the downstairs bedroom, talking with Martin, for perhaps an hour; he had drawn them a rough sketch of the little addition to the house that Cherry meant some day to build next to the study, and he and Martin had been discussing the details. Cherry had left them there, and was sweeping the wet, dun-coloured leaves from the old porch, in a pale shaft of sunshine, and thinking that there must be a wide railing here next summer for Martin's books, and a gay awning to be drawn or furled as Martin fancied, when a sudden step in the doorway behind her made her look up.
Peter had come out of the house, with Buck curving beside him. He wore his old corduroy clothes and his shabby cap, but there was something in his aspect that made her ask:
"Yes, I'm going now!" he said.
She rested her broom against the thick trunk of the old banksia, and rubbed her two hands together, and came to the top of the steps to say good-bye. And standing there, under the rose tree, she linked her arm about it, looking up through the branches, where the shabby foliage of last year lingered.
"How fast it's grown since that terrific pruning we gave it all that long time ago!" she said.
"Little more than six years ago, Cherry!" he reminded her.
"Only six years--" She was obviously amazed.
"It doesn't seem possible that all this has happened in six years!" she exclaimed. "Those were wonderful old days, with Anne and Alix scolding you, and Dad here, looking out for us all," she mused, tenderly. "We'll never be so happy again."
He did not answer. He had her hand now for farewells, and perhaps, with the thought of those short six years had come also the thought that this slender figure in the housewifely blue linen, this exquisite little head, so trim and demure despite all its rebel tendrils of gold, this lovely face, still the face of a child, with a child's trusting, uplifted eyes, might have been his. The old home might have been their home, and perhaps--who knows, there might have been a new Cherry and a new Peter beginning to look eagerly out at life through the screen of the old rose vine.
Too late now. A single instant of those lost years might have bought him all this, but there was no going back. He put his arm about her, and kissed her forehead, and said: "God bless you, Cherry!"
"God bless you, dear!" she answered, gravely. She watched the tall figure, with its little limp, and with the dog leaping and circling about it in ecstasy, until the redwoods closed around, him. Then she took up the broom again, and slowly and thoughtfully crossed the old porch, and shut the door.
Peter, walking with long strides, and with a furrowed brow and absent eyes, crossed the village, and climbed once more the old trail that led up to the cabin. His great boots made simple work of the muddy roads, his hands were thrust deep into the pockets of his shabby old coat, and his cap pulled low. The rain had stopped, but every branch that hung down over his path, or stretched an arm to stop him, was charged with water; the creeks were swollen and yellow, and raced along between crumbling banks with a fresh rushing sound that mingled with the creaking of wet boughs and the wild spring chant of the wind high up in the tops of the redwoods.
Coming out of the forest, on the ridge, where the dim road ran under the scattered oaks, he saw the last of the battle of the dying storm raging over the valley below. Great masses of cloud were in travail; when the sun was hidden, the world was wrapped in shade and chill; when it burst forth, every wet tree and spear glistened and twinkled in the flood of warmth and light, the dried brown grass sparkled with jewels, and the great roadside rain pools flashed back the azure of the sky. The mountain was partly obscured by rapidly shifting masses of mist; the air was pungent and seemed to hum with a thousand tiny, electric voices.
Already there was new grass showing a timid film of emerald under the brown growth of last year. While Peter climbed, the good earth giving soddenly under his feet, and grasses tangling in the clasps of his walking shoes, the sunlight conquered, the sky cleared, and the last of the storm drifted and spread and vanished in a bath of dazzling blue. Birds began to circle in brief flights; cloud shadows fell clear-cut on the west, dark flank of the mountain; and in the saturated marshy spots, where a scummy green growth already was spread over the crystal pools of the little hillside springs, frogs were exultant.
The roof of the little cabin and the outbuildings smoked up into the pure warm air; the Jersey, placidly awaiting her hour, looked at him with soft, great eyes; and Alix's chickens picked and squawked on the steaming mound near the stable. Kow was hanging out the blue glass-towels, everything--everything was as he had found it a hundred, a thousand, happy times!
Peter spoke to the Chinese and went into the cabin. It was dusted, orderly, complete; he and Alix might have left it yesterday. Kow had seen him coming, he thought, and had had time to light the fire, which was blazing freshly up to the chimney's great throat. He sat down, staring at the flames.
Buck pushed open the swinging door between the pantry and the sitting room, and came in, a question in his bright eyes, his great plumy tail beating the floor as he lay down at Peter's side. Presently the dog laid his nose on Peter's knee and poured forth a faint sound that was not quite a whine, not quite a sigh, and rose restlessly, and went to the closed door of Alix's room, and pawed it, his eager nose to the threshold.
"Not here, old fellow!" Peter said, stroking the silky head under his hand.
He had not been in this room since the day of her death. It struck him as strangely changed, strangely and heartrendingly familiar. The windows were closed, as Alix had never had them closed, winter or summer, rain or sunshine. Her books stood in their old order, her student's Shakespere, and some of her girlhood's books, "Little Women," and "Uncle Max." In the closet, which exhaled a damp and woody smell, were one or two of the boyish-looking hats he had so often seen her crush carelessly over her dark hair, and the big belted coat that was as plain as his own, and the big boots she wore when she tramped about the poultry yard, still spattered with pale, dry mud. Her father's worn little Bible lay on the table, and beside it another book "Duck Raising for the Market," with the marks of muddy and mealy hands still lingering on its cover.
Suddenly, evoked by these silent witnesses to her busy and happy life, the whole woman seemed to stand beside Peter, the tall, eager, vital woman who had been at home here, who had ruled the cabin with a splendid and vital personality. He seemed to feel her near him again, to see the interested eyes, the high cheek-bones touched with scarlet, the wisp of hair that would fall across her face sometimes when she was deep in baking, or preserving, or poultry-farming, and that she would brush away with the back of an impatient hand, only to have it slip loose again.
One of her kitchen aprons, caught in the current of air from the opened door, blew about on its hook. He remembered her, on many a wintry day, buttoned into just such a crisp apron, radiantly busy and brisk in her kitchen, stirring and chopping, moving constantly between stove and table. With strong hands still showing traces of flour she would come to sit beside him at the piano, to play a duet with her characteristic dash and finish, only to jump up in sudden compunction, with an exclamation: "Oh, my ducks--I'd forgotten them! Oh, the poor little wretches!"
And she would be gone, leaving a streak of wet, fresh air through the warm house from the open door, and he would perhaps glance from a window to see her, roughly coated and booted, ploughing about her duck yard, delving into barrels of grain, turning on faucets, wielding a stubby old broom.
She loved her life, he mused, with a bitter heartache, as he stood here in her empty room. Sometimes he had marvelled at the complete and unquestioning joy she had brought to it. Books, puzzles, music, and fires sufficed her in the few hours that she ever spent in her own drawing room. For the rest she had the kitchen and the farmyard, and the world out of doors, the oaks and the grass, the great stretches of dim forest, the muddy trails, the blowing airs on the crest of the ridge that made her shout and stagger in their wild onslaught. Peter reminded himself that never in their years together had he heard her complain about anything, or seem to feel bored or at a loss.
"We've always thought of Cherry as the child!" he thought. "But it was she, Alix, who was the real child. She never grew up. She never entered into the time of moods and self-analysis and jealousies and desires! She would have played and picnicked all her life----"
His heart pressed like a dull pain in his chest. Dully, quietly, he went out to the fire again, and dully and quietly moved through the day. Her books and music might stand as they were, her potted ferns and her scattered small possessions--the sewing-basket that she always handled with a boy's awkwardness, and the camera she used so well--should keep their places. But he went to her desk, thinking in this long, solitary evening, to destroy various papers that she might wish destroyed before the cabin was deserted. And here he found her letter.
He found it only after he had somewhat explored the different small drawers and pigeonholes of the desk, drawers and pigeonholes which were, to his surprise, all in astonishing order for Alix. Everything was marked, tied, pocketed; her accounts were balanced, and if she had anywhere left private papers, they were at least nowhere to be found.
Seeing in all this a dread confirmation of his first suspicion of her death, Peter nevertheless experienced a shock when he found her letter. It had been placed in an empty drawer, face up, and was sealed, and addressed simply with his name.
He sat holding it in his hand, and moments passed before he could open it.
So it had been true, then, the fear that he had tried all these weeks to crush? He had been weighing, measuring, remembering, until his very soul was sick with the uncertainty. His mind had been a confused web of memories, of this casual word and that look, of what she had possibly heard, had probably seen, had suspected--known--
Now he would know. He tore open the envelope, and the dozen written lines were before his eyes. The letter was dated, a most unusual thing for Alix to do, and "Saturday, one o'clock" was written under the date. It was the day of her death.
PETER DEAR, Don't feel too badly if I find a stupid way out. I've been thinking for several days about it. You've done so much for me, and after you, of course there's no one but Cherry. She could be free now, he couldn't prevent it. When I saw your face a few minutes ago I knew we couldn't fight it. Remember, this is our secret. And always remember that I want you to be happy because I love you so!
It was unsigned.
Peter sat staring at it for awhile without moving, without the stir of a changing expression on his face. Then he folded it up, and put it in the pocket of his coat, and went out to the backyard, where Kow was feeding the chickens. The wet, dark day was ending brilliantly in a wash of red sunset light that sent long shadows from the young fruit trees, and touched every twig with a dull glow.
"Kow," Peter said, after an effort to speak that was unsuccessful. The Chinese boy looked at him solicitously; for Peter's face was ashen, and about his mouth were drawn lines. "Kow," he said, "I go now!"
"Go now other house?" Kow nodded, glancing down toward the valley.
But Peter jerked his head instead toward the bare ridge.
"No, I go now--not come back!" he said, briefly. "To-night--maybe Bolinas--to-morrow, Inverness. I don't know. By and by the big mountains, Kow--by and by I forget!"
Tears glittered in the Chinese boy's eyes, but he smiled with a great air of cheer.
"I keep house!" he promised.
The dog came fawning and springing from the stables, and Peter whistled to him.
"Come on, Buck! We're going now!"
He opened the farmyard gate where her hand had so often rested, crossed the muddy corral, opened another gate, and struck off across the darkening world toward the ridge. The last sunlight lingered on crest and treetop, tangled itself redly in the uppermost branches of a few tall redwoods, and was gone. Twilight- -a long twilight that had in it some hint of spring--lay softly over the valley; the mountain loomed high in the clear shadow.
Gaining the top of the first ridge, he paused and looked back. Lights were beginning to prick forth in the brown houses of the valley, buried in their trees. The busy little mountain train, descending, puffed forth smoke and steam. Far away, the silver ribbons of the canals wound through the marsh, and beyond the bay, the Oakland shore lay like a chain of gems in the pale twilight.
Peter looked at the cabin, the little brown house that he had built almost fifteen years ago. He remembered that it was in the beginning a sort of experiment; his mother and he were too much alone in their big city house, and she had suggested, with rare wisdom, that as he did not care for society, and as his travels always meant great loneliness For her, he should have a little eyrie of his own, to which he might retreat whenever the fancy touched him.
She liked Del Monte and Tahoe, herself, but she had come to Mill Valley now and then in the days of his first wild delight in its freedom and beauty, silk-gowned and white-gloved and very much disliking dust. She had sent him plants, roses, and fruit trees, and she had told him one day that he had a neighbour in the valley who was an old friend of hers, a Doctor Strickland, a widower, with children.
He remembered sauntering up the opposite canyon to duly call upon this inventor-physician one day, and his delight upon finding a well-read, music-loving, philosophic, erratic man, who had at once recognized a kindred spirit, and who had made the younger man warmly welcome.
Presently, on the first call, an enchanting little girl In a shabby smock had come in, a little girl all dimples, demureness, and untouched babyish beauty. She had said that "Anne wath mad wiv her, and that Alix--" she managed to lisp the name, "wath up in the madrone!"
A somewhat older child, named Alix, a freckled, leggy little person with enormous front teeth, had proved the claim by falling out of the madrone, and had received no sympathy for a bump, but a--to him--rather surprising censure. He had yet to realize that nothing ever hurt Alix, but that she always ruined her clothes, and frequently hurt other persons and other things. He found her a spirited, enthusiastic little person, extremely articulate, and quite unselfconscious, and she had entertained him with an excited account of a sex feud that was being pushed with some violence at her school, and had used expressions that rather shocked Peter. A quiet third girl--a niece, he gathered--had joined the group, a girl with braids and clean hands, who elucidated:
"Alix and I don't like our teacher!"
"She's a sneak and a skunk," Alix had frankly contributed. Cherry, now quietly established in her father's lap, had smiled with mischievous enjoyment; nobody else, to Peter's surprise, had paid this extraordinary remark the slightest attention. He remembered that he had fancied only the smallest of these children, and had been glad when they all went out of the room.
But after that Alix used often to amuse him, and he always felt more at home with her than with the other two. She had only been a gawky and thin fifteen or sixteen when she began to assert herself in his kitchen, dictate to Kow, and waste good butter and eggs on experiments. He had secretly rather admired her quick tongue and her daring, he liked her to ride his horses, and was amazed at the speed with which she grasped the controlling principles of the motor-car. He had seen her move plants, treat sick chickens, sew up the gashed head of a horse with her own fingers, while Cherry, lovely, round-eyed, immaculate in white ruffles, watched her with fear and admiration.
Looking down at the cabin, the years slipped past him like a flying film, and it was the present again, and Alix--Alix was gone.
He roused himself, spoke to the dog, and they went on their way again. Mud squelched beneath Peter's boots in the roadway; the dog sprang lightly from clump to clump of dried grass. But when they left the road, and cut straight across the rise of the hillside, the ground was firmer, and the two figures moved swiftly through the dark night. The early stars came out, and showed them, silhouetted against the sky above Alix's beloved Tamalpais, the man's erect form with its slight limp, the dog following faithfully, his plumy tail and feathered ruff showing a dull lustre in the starlight.
Cherry, with her violet eyes and corn-coloured hair, Cherry, with her little hands gathered in his, and her heart beating against his heart, and Alix, his chum, his companion, his comrade on so many night walks under the stars--he had lost them both. But it was Alix who was closest to his thoughts to-night, Alix, the thought of whom was gradually gripping his heart and soul with a new pain.
Alix was his own; Cherry had never been his own. It was for him to comfort Cherry, it had always been his mission to comfort Cherry, since the days of her broken dolls and cut fingers. But Alix was his own comforter, and Alix might have been laughing and stumbling and chattering beside him here, in the dark, wet woods, full of a child's happy satisfaction in the moment and confidence in the morrow.
"Alix, my wife!" he said softly, aloud. "I loved Cherry--always. But you were mine--you were mine. We belonged to each other--for better and for worse--and I have let you go!"
He went on and on and on. They were plunging down hill now, under the trees. He would see a light after awhile, and sleep for a few hours, and have a hunter's breakfast, and be gone again. And he knew that for weeks--for months--perhaps for years, he would wander so, through the great mountains, with their snow and their forests, over the seas, in strange cities and stranger solitudes. Always alone, always moving, always remembering. That would be his life. And some day--some day perhaps he would come back to the valley she had loved--
But even now he recoiled in distaste from that hour. To see the familiar faces, to come up to the cabin again, to touch the music and the books--
Worse, to find Cherry a little older, happy and busy in her life of sacrifice, not needing him, not very much wanting the reminder of the old tragic times--
An owl cried in the woods; the mournful sound floated and drifted away into utter silence. Some small animal, meeting the death its brief life had evaded a hundred times, screamed shrilly, and was silent. Great branches, stirred by the night wind, moved high above his head, and when there was utter silence, Peter could hear the steady, soft rush of the ocean, dulled here to the sound of gigantic, quiet breathing.
Suddenly she seemed again to be beside him. He seemed to see the dark, animated face, the slender, tall girl wrapped in her big, rough coat. He seemed to hear her vibrating voice, with that new, tender note in it that he had noticed when she last spoke to him.
"I'll go home ahead of you, Peter, and wait for you there!"
Tears suddenly flooded his eyes, and he put his hand over them, and pressed it there, standing still, while the wave of tender and poignant and exquisite memories broke over him.
"We'll go on, Buck," he whispered, looking up through the trees at a strip of dark sky spangled with cold stars. "We'll go on. She's-- she's waiting for us somewhere, old fellow!"