Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
So winter passed at the mine, and at the brown house under the shoulder of Tamalpais. Alix still kept her bedroom windows open, but the rain tore in, and Anne protested at the ensuing stains on the pantry ceiling. Creeks rushed swollen and yellow; fog smothered the mountain peak; the forest floor oozed moisture. Spring came reluctantly; muddy boots cluttered the doctor's hearth, for he and Alix and Peter tramped for miles through the woods and over the hills, bringing home trillium and pungent wild currant blossoms, and filling the house with blooms.
Cherry's wedding, once satisfactorily over, was a cause of great satisfaction to her sister and cousin. They had stepped back duly, to give her the centre of the stage; they had admired and congratulated, had helped her in all hearty generosity. They had listened to her praises of Martin and his of her, and had given her more than her share of the household treasures of silver spoons and yellowed old lace.
And now that she was gone they enjoyed their own lives again, and cast over hers the glamour that novelty and distance never fail to give. Cherry, married and keeping house and managing affairs, was an object of romantic interest. The girls surmised that Cherry must be making friends; that everyone must admire her; that Martin would be rich some day, without doubt. When her letters came, there was always animated chatter about the fire.
Cherry wrote regularly, now and then assuring them that she was the same old Cherry. She described her tiny house right at the mine, looking down at the rough scaffoldings that covered the mouth of the tunnels, and the long sheds of the plant, and the bare big building that was the men's boarding-house. Martin's associates brought her trout and ducks, she wrote; she and Martin had driven three hundred miles in the superintendent's car; she was preparing for a card party.
"Think of little old Cherry going off on week-end trips with three men!" Alix would say proudly. "Think of Cherry giving a card party!" Anne perhaps would make no comment, but she often felt a pang of envy. Cherry seemed to have everything.
Alix was working hard with her music this winter, aided and abetted by Peter, who was tireless in bringing her songs and taking her to concerts. Suddenly, without warning, there was a newcomer in the circle, a sleek-headed brown-haired little man known as Justin Little.
He had been introduced at some party to Anne and Alix; he called; he was presently taking Anne to a lecture. Anne now began to laugh at him and say that he was "too ridiculous," but she did not allow any one else to say so. On the contrary, she told Alix at various times that his mother had been one of the old Maryland Percies, and his great-grandfather was mentioned in a book by Sir Walter Scott, and that one had to respect the man, even if one didn't choose to marry him.
"Marry him!" Alix had echoed in simple amazement. Marry him--what was all this sudden change in the household when a man could no sooner appear than some girl began to talk of marriage? Alix had always rather fancied the idea that all girls had an opportunity of capriciously choosing from a dozen eligible swains, but Cherry had quickly anchored herself to the first strange man that appeared, and here was Anne dimpling and looking demure over a small, neat youth just out of law school. Certainly the little person of Justin Little was a strange harbour for all Anne's vague dreams of a conquering hero. Stupefied, Alix watched the affair progress.
"I don't imagine it's serious!" her father said on an April walk. Peter, tramping beside them, was interested but silent.
"My dear father," the girl protested, "have you listened to them? They've been contending for weeks that they were just remarkably good friends--that's why she calls him Frenny!"
"Ah--I see!" the doctor said mildly, as Peter's wild laugh burst forth.
"But now," Alix pursued, "she's told him that as she cannot be what he wishes, they had better not meet!"
"Poor Anne!" the old doctor commented.
"Poor nothing! She's having the time of her life," her cousin said unfeelingly. "She told me to-day that she was afraid that she had checked one of the most brilliant careers at the bar."
"I had no idea of all this!" the doctor confessed, amazed. "I've seen the young man--noticed him about. Well--well--well! Anne, too."
"You and me next, little sweetums," suggested Peter, dropping down beside the doctor, who had seated himself, panting, upon a log.
Alix, the dog's silky head under her hand, was resting against the prop formed by a great tree trunk behind her shoulders, and looking down at the two men. She grinned.
"Nothingstirring, Puddeny-woodeny!" she answered, blandly.
The old man looked from Peter's smiling, indifferent face to his daughter's unembarrassed smile; shook his head in puzzled fashion, and returned to his pocket the big handkerchief with which he had been wiping his forehead.
"There ye are!" he said, shrugging. "Cherry goes gaily off with a man she's only known for a few weeks; Anne dresses up this new fellow with goodness knows what qualities; and you and Alix here, neighbours all your lives, laugh as if marriage was all a joke!"
"Our marriage would be, darling," Alix assured him. "But, Dad, if you would like me to marry Peter, by George, I will!" she added, dutifully. "Peter, consider yourself betrothed! Bucky," she said to the dog, "dat's oo new Daddy!"
Neither man paid her the slightest attention. Peter scraped a lump of dried mud from the calf of his high boots, and the doctor musingly looked back along the rough trail they had climbed.
"I'd have felt safer--I'd feel very safe to have one of my girls in your care, Peter," the older man said at last, thoughtfully. "I hate to see them scatter. Well!"
He sighed, smiled, and got to his feet. "That's not in our hands," he said, cheerfully.
Alix, without moving, sent her glance from his face to Peter's, and their eyes met. Only a few words, spoken half in earnest, on a spring morning tramp, and yet they had their place, in her memory and Peter's, and were to return to them after a time, and influence them more seriously than either the man, or the grinning girl, or the old man himself ever dreamed.
The glance lasted only a second, then Alix, who had been carefully removing burrs from the soft tangle of the dog's tasselled ears, took the trail again with great, boyish springs of her bloomered legs.
"Father," said she, "am I to understand that you disapprove of my choice?"
"I hope," her father answered, seriously, "that when you do marry you will get a man half as good as Peter!"
"Thank you!" Peter said, gravely, more as a rebuke to the incorrigible Alix than because he was giving the conversation much attention.
Alix had time for no comment, for at this moment she placed her foot upon an unsubstantial root and slid down upon the two men with such an unpremeditated rush of heavy boots, wet loam, loosened rocks, and cascading earth, that the footing of them all was threatened, and it was only after much shouting, staggering, balancing, and clutching that they resumed their climb. Peter was then nursing a wrist that had been wrenched in the confusion, looking away from it only to give the loudly singing Alix an occasional resentful glance.
"You could omit some of those cries!" he presently observed.
"I thought you liked 'The Lotos Flower'?" Alix called back.
"I just proved that I do," Peter said neatly, and the doctor, and Alix herself, laughed joyously.
In June came the blissful hour in which Anne, all blushes and smiles, could come to her uncle with a dutiful message from the respectfully adoring Justin. Their friendship, said Anne, had ripened into something deeper.
"Justin wants to have a frank talk with you, Uncle," Anne said, "and of course I'm not to go until you are sure you can spare me, and unless you feel that you can trust him utterly!"
"And remember that you aren't losing a daughter, but gaining a son--Oh, help!" Alix added. Anne gave her a reproachful glance, but found it impossible to be angry with her. She was too genuinely delighted with her cousin's happiness and too helpful with all the new plans. Anne's engagement cups were ranged on the table where Cherry's had stood, and where Cherry had talked of a coffee-coloured rajah silk Anne discussed the merits of a "smart but handsome blue tailormade."
The wedding was to be in September, not quite a year after Cherry's wedding. Alix wrote her sister pages about it, always ending with the emphatic declaration that Cherry must come down for the wedding.
Cherry read of it with a strange pang. Somehow it robbed her own marriage of flavour and charm to have Anne so quickly following in her footsteps. She was homesick. She dreamed continually of the cool, high valley, the scented aisles of the deep forest, the mountain rearing its rough summit to the pale blue of summer skies.
June passed; July passed; it was hot at the "Emmy Younger." August came in on a furnace breath; Cherry felt headachy, languid, and half sick all the time. She hated housekeeping in this weather; hated the smells of dry tin sink and wooden floor, of milk bottles and lard tins. Martin had said that he could not possibly get away, even for the week of Anne's wedding, but Cherry began to wonder if he would let her go alone.
"If he doesn't, I shall be sick!" she fretted to herself, in a certain burning noontime, toward the middle of August. Blazing heat had been pouring over the mine since six o'clock; there seemed to have been no night. Martin, who had been playing poker the night before, was sleeping late this morning. He was proud of the little wife who so generously spared him for an occasional game, and always allowed him to sleep far into the following morning. Other wives at the mine were not so amiable where poker was concerned. But Martin, coming home at three o'clock, dazed with close air and cigar smoke, had awakened his wife to tell her that he would be "dead" in the morning, and Cherry had accordingly crept about her own dressing noiselessly, had darkened the bedroom, and eaten her own breakfast without the clatter of a dish, putting the coffee aside to be reheated for him when he awakened. Now she was sitting by the window, panting in the noon heat, and looking down upon a dazzle of dust and ugliness and smothering hotness. She was thinking, as it chanced, of the big forest at home, and of a certain day--just one of their happy days!--only a year ago, when she had lain for a dreamy hour on the soft forest floor, staring up idly through the laced fanlike branches, and she thought of her father, with his mild voice and ready smile; and some emotion, almost like fear, came over her. For the first time she asked herself, in honest bewilderment, why she had married.
The heat deepened and strengthened and increased as the burning day wore on. Martin waked up, hot and headachy, and having further distressed himself with strong coffee and eggs, departed into the dusty, motionless furnace of out-of-doors. The far brown hills shimmered and swam, the "Emmy Younger" looked its barest, its ugliest, its least attractive self. Cherry moved slowly about the kitchen; her head ached; it was a day of sickening odours. The ice man had failed them again, the soup had soured, and after she had thrown it away Cherry felt as if the grease and the smell of it still clung to her fingers.
There was a shadow in the doorway; she looked up surprised. For a minute the tall figure in striped linen and the smiling face under the flowery hat seemed those of a stranger. Then Cherry cried out, and laughed, and in another instant was crying in Alix's arms.
Alix cried, too, but it was with a great rush of pity and tenderness for Cherry. Alix had not young love and novelty to soften the outlines of the "Emmy Younger," and she felt, as she frankly wrote later, to her father, "at last convinced that there is a hell!" The heat and bareness and ugliness of the mine might have been overlooked, but this poor little house of Cherry's, this wood stove draining white ashes, this tin sink with its pump, and the bathroom with neither faucets nor drain, almost bewildered Alix with their discomfort.
Even more bewildering was the change in Cherry. There was a certain hardening that impressed Alix at once. There was a weary sort of patience, a disillusioned concession to the drabness of married life. Alix, after meeting some of the other wives at the mine--there were but five or six--saw that Cherry had been affected by them. There was general sighing over the housework, a mild conviction that men were all selfish and unreasonable. "And I must say," Alix's first letter to her father admitted, "that the men here are all dogs, except the ones that are under dogs!"
But she allowed the younger sister to see nothing of this. Indeed, Cherry so brightened under the stimulus of Alix's companionship that Martin told her that she was more like her old self than she had been for months. Joyously she divided her responsibilities with Alix, explaining the difficulties of marketing and housekeeping, and joyously Alix assumed them. Her vitality infected the whole household, and, indeed, the mine as well. She flirted, cooked, entertained, talked incessantly; she bullied Martin and laughed at him, and it did him good.
Perhaps, thought Alix, rather appalled at Cherry's attitude, Cherry had been too young for wifehood. Sometimes she spoiled and humoured Martin, and sometimes quarrelled with him childishly, scolding and fretting for her own way, and angry with conditions over which neither he nor she had any control. Alix was surprised to see the old pout, and hear the old phrase of Cherry's indulged girlhood: "I don't think this is any fun!"
"Anne isn't one half as clever or as pretty as Cherry, but she'll make a better wife!" was Alix's conclusion. She gave them spirited accounts of Anne's affair. "He's a nice little academic fellow," she said of Justin Little. "If he had a flatiron in each hand he'd probably weigh close to a hundred pounds! He's a--well, a sort of damp-looking youth, if you know what I mean! I always want to take a crash towel and dry him off!"
"Fancy Anne with a shrimp like that!" Cherry said, with a proud look at her own man's fine height.
"Anne was delicious!" Alix further revealed. "They used to take dignified walks on Sundays. I used to tease her, and she'd get so mad she'd ask Dad to ask me to be more refined. She said that Mr. Little was a most unusual man, and it was belittling to his dignity to have me suppose that a man and a woman couldn't have an intellectual friendship. This in May, my dear, and after the thing was settled and Anne had cried, and written notes, and Justin had gone to Dad and asked where he could buy a second-hand revolver--"
"Oh, Alexandra Strickland, you're making up!" Cherry went back naturally to the old nursery phrase.
"Honestly--cross my heart!" Alix assured her. "That's the way they managed it; they solemnly discussed it and worked it out on paper, and Justin's mother called on Anne--she's an awful old girl, too, she looks like a totem pole--and Anne called on his aunts, and then he asked Dad, 'as Anne's male relative,' he said, and it was all settled. And then--then Anne became the mushiest thing I ever saw! And not only mushy, Cherry, but proudly and openly mushy. She'd catch Justin's hand up, at the table, and say 'Frenny--'"
"'Frenny?'" echoed Cherry, who had laughed until actual tears stood in her eyes.
"That's short for 'friend,' do you see? Because of this platonic intellectual friendship that started everything, you know. She'd catch up his hand and say, 'Frenny, show Uncle what an aristocratic hand you've got.' My dear, she'll keep me awake nights repeating things he's said to her: 'He's so wonderful, Alix. He's the simplest and at the same time the cleverest man I ever knew.'"
"He sounds awful to me," Cherry said.
"He's not, really. Only it seems that he belongs to the oldest family in America, or something, and is the only descendent--"
"Money?" Cherry asked, interestedly.
"No, I don't think money, exactly. At least I know he is getting a hundred a month in his uncle's law office, and Dad thinks they ought to wait until they have a little more. She'll have something, you know," Alix added, after a moment's thought.
"Your cousin?" Martin asked, taking his pipe out of his mouth.
"Well, her father went into the fire-extinguisher thing with Dad," Alix elucidated, "and evidently she and Justin have had deep, soulful thoughts about it. Anyway, the other day she said--you know her way, Cherry--'Tell me, Uncle, frankly and honestly, may Justin and I draw out my share for that little home that is going to mean so much to us--'"
"I can hear her!" giggled Cherry.
"Dad immediately said that she could, of course," Alix went on. "He's going to look the whole thing up. He was adorable about it. He said, 'It will do more than build you a little home, my dear!'"
"We'll get a slice of that some time," Cherry said, thoughtfully, glancing at her husband. "I don't mean when Dad dies either," she added, in quick affection. "I mean that he might build us a little home some day in Mill Valley."
"Gee, how he'd love it!" Alix said, enthusiastically.
"I married Cherry for her money," Martin confessed.
"As a matter of fact," Cherry contradicted him, vivaciously, animated even by the thought of a change and a home, "we have never even spoken of it before, have we, Mart?"
"I never heard of it before," he admitted, smiling, as he knocked the ashes from his pipe. "If I leave the 'Emmy Younger' in October, and go into the Red Creek proposition, I shall be making a good deal myself. But it's pleasant to know that Cherry will come in for a nest-egg some day!"
"Mart doesn't care a scrap for money!" Cherry said to her sister, in the old loyal way. Since Alix's arrival she had somehow liked Martin better. Perhaps Alix brought to her sister with a whiff of the old atmosphere, the old content, the old pride, and the old point-of-view. Presently the visitor boldly suggested that they should both go home together for the wedding, and Martin, to Cherry's amazement, agreed good-naturedly.
"But, Mart, how'll you get along?" his wife asked, anxiously. She had fumed and fussed and puttered and toiled over the care of these four rooms for so long that it seemed unbelievable that her place might be vacated even for a day.
"Oh, I'll get along fine!" he answered, indifferently. Cherry, with a great sigh of relief and delight, abandoned the whole problem; milk bottles, fire wood, groceries, dust, and laundry slipped from her mind as if they had never been. On the last day of August, in the cream-coloured silk and the expensive hat again, yet looking, Alix thought, strangely unlike the bride that had been Cherry, she and her sister happily departed for cooler regions. Martin took them to the train, kissed his sister-in-law gaily, and then his wife affectionately,
"Be a good little girl, Babe," he said, "and write me!"
"Oh, I will--I will!" Cherry looked after him smilingly from the car window. "He really is an old dear!" she told Alix.