Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
But when at the end of the long day they reached the valley, and when her father came innocently into the garden and stood staring vaguely at her for a moment--for her visit, and the day of Alix's return had been kept a secret--her first act was to burst into tears. She clung to the fatherly shoulder as if she were a storm- beaten bird safely home again, and although she immediately laughed at herself, and told the sympathetically watching Peter and Alix that she didn't know what was the matter with her, it was only to interrupt the words with fresh tears.
Tears of joy, she told them, laughing at the moisture in her father's eyes. Hanging on his arm, she went back into the old sitting room again, under the banksia rose; went up the brown stairway to the old, clean, woody-smelling bedroom. Her hat and wraps went into the closet; she danced and exclaimed and exulted over every familiar detail.
She and Alix ran downstairs before supper, and into the garden, and Cherry drew deep, refreshing breaths of the cool air and laughed over every bush and flower. Peter came out to join them, her father came down, and she kissed him again; she could not be close enough to him. She had a special joyous word for Hong; she laughed and teased and questioned Anne, when Anne and Justin came back from an afternoon concert in the city, with an interest and enthusiasm most gratifying to both.
After dinner she had her old place on the arm of her father's porch chair; Alix, with Buck's smooth head in her lap, sat on the porch step beside Peter, and the lovers murmured from the darkness of the hammock under the shadow of the rose vine. It was happy talk in the sweet evening coolness; everybody seemed harmonious and in sympathy to-night. Alix asked Peter's advice regarding her White Minorcas and respectfully promised to act upon it, and Cherry showed him a new side, an affectionate, little sisterly deference and confidence quite different from her old childish sulkiness and pretty caprice.
"Bedtime!" said her father presently, and she laughed in sheer pleasure.
"Daddy--that sounds so nice again!"
"But you do look fagged and pale, little girl," he told her. "You're to stay in bed in the morning."
"Oh, I'll be down!" she assured him. But she did not come down in the morning, none the less. She was tired in soul and body, and glad to let them spoil her again, glad to rest and sleep in the heavenly peace and quiet of the old home.
Midsummer heat was upon the little valley, but here under the redwoods there was always coolness; delicious odours of warm sap and loamy sweetness drifted into Cherry's darkened room; the morning was fresh and foggy, and the night before she had smiled drowsily to stir from first sleep and find her father bending over her, drawing up an extra blanket in the old way. All night long she slept deeply and sweetly, as she had slept through all the nights of childhood; it was ten o'clock when Alix came smiling in with a breakfast tray. Presently she carried it away, and Cherry, with a deep sigh from the fullness of her content, turned on her side and drowsed again.
Waking, after a while, she locked her hands under her head, and lay listening happily to the old and familiar sounds of home. She heard Hong bargaining in his own minor chatter with a fruit vendor, and Alix and her father chuckling over some small confidence in the porch. She heard the subdued clink of dishes, the squawk of a surprised chicken, and the girls' murmuring voices.
It was Saturday, Cherry remembered, when Peter's voice suddenly sounded above the others and was hastily hushed for her sake; Peter was always there at three o'clock on Saturdays. There was another voice, too, pleasant and crisp and even a trifle fastidious; that must be Justin.
Late in the afternoon, rested, fresh, and her old sweet self in the white ruffles, she came down to join them. They had settled themselves under the redwoods, Anne and Justin, Peter and Alix and Buck, the dog, all jumped up to greet her. Cherry very quietly subsided into a wicker chair, listened rather than talked, moved her lovely eyes affectionately from one to another.
Peter hardly moved his eyes from her, although he did not often address her directly; Justin was quite obviously overcome by the unexpected beauty of Anne's cousin; Anne herself, with an undefined pang, admitted in her soul that Cherry was prettier than ever; and even Alix was affected. With the lovely background of the forest, the shade of her thin wide hat lightly shadowing her face, with the dew of her long sleep and recent bath enhancing the childish purity of her skin, and with her blue eyes full of content, Cherry was a picture of exquisite youth and grace and charm. It was not the less winning because she seemed genuinely unconscious of it to-day; perhaps before the girls and Anne's precise little fledgling lawyer no self-conscious thought of conquest had entered her head.
The dog had gone to her knee and laid his bronze mane against the white ruffles, and while she listened and smiled, she idly fondled and petted him with her childish, ringed hand.
"And the next experience is to be at Red Creek?" Justin asked, delighted with this addition to the family circle and beaming about upon everyone.
"Mr. Lloyd is there now," Cherry smiled. "Do you know Red Creek?-- I'll have to call you Justin, since you're going to be my cousin so soon," she interrupted herself to say shyly.
"No--I--er--I--er--don't!" Justin stammered.
Anne said vivaciously:
"Of course you're to call him Justin! And he's to call you Cherry, too--those are my orders, Frenny, and don't you dare disobey!"
"But did you get onto the artful and engaging smile Justin gave Cherry?" Alix giggled later to Peter. She and Peter were in the pantry, deep in the manufacture of a certain sort of canape. "Why, he was all in a heap over her!" continued Alix elegantly, as she sampled a small piece of smeared toast with a severe and wrinkled brow. "Try a little mustard in it," she suggested, adding confidentially, "You know Cherry is really too pretty for any use! The rest of us can diet for complexion or diet for figures, and this hat will be becoming or that dress will always look well--but Cherry, why, she just knocks us all galley-west! What's the use of struggling and brushing your hair and worrying about your clothes, when a girl like Cherry will come along and sit down and have everybody staring!"
"She is, of course, quite extraordinary!" Peter conceded as he punched two small holes in the top of a tin of olive oil. The oil welled up through the holes and he wiped his fingers on a corner of Alix's apron.
"It's just the difference," Alix said, "between being nice looking, which half the women in the word are, and being a beauty. I remember that when Cherry was only about ten I used to look at her and think that there was something rather--well, rather arresting about her face. It was such an aristocratic little face. I remember her in those old bluejacket blouses--"
"Yes, I do, too!" Peter said quickly, straightening up from restoring the vinegar demijohn to an obscure position in a lower cupboard. "Well--These have to go in the oven now; I'll take them out. Aren't you going to change for dinner? It's after six now!"
"Since you ask me, I'll see what frock Deshabille has laid out!" Alix yawned, disappearing in the direction of the sitting room, where he found her a few minutes later absorbed in a book.
The evening was cooler, with sudden wind and a promise of storm. They grouped themselves about a fire in the old way; Anne and Justin sitting close together on the settle, as Martin and Cherry had done a year ago. Cherry sat next her father with her hand linked in his; neither hand moved for a long, long time. Alix, sitting on the floor, with her lean cheeks painted by the fire, played with the dog and rallied Peter about some love affair, the details of which made him laugh vexedly in spite of himself. Cherry watched them, a little puzzled at the familiarity of Peter beside this fire; had he been so entirely one of the family a year ago? She could almost envy him, feeling herself removed by so long and strange a twelvemonth.
"Be that as it may, my dear," said Alix, "the fact remains that you taught this Fenton woman to drive your car, didn't you? And you told her that she was the best woman driver you ever knew, a better driver even than Miss Strickland; didn't you?"
"I did not," Peter said, unmovedly smoking and watching the fire.
"Why, Peter, you did! She said you did!"
"Well, then, she said what is not true!"
"She distinctly told me," Alix remarked, "that dear Mr. Joyce had said that she was the best woman driver he ever saw."
"Well, I may have said something like that," Peter growled, flushing. Alix laughed exultingly. "I tell you I loathe her!" he added.
"Daddy, we have a lovely home!" Cherry said softly, her eyes moving from the shabby books and the shabby rugs to Alix's piano shining in the gloom of the far corner. It was all homelike and pleasant, and somehow the atmosphere was newly inspiring to her; she had felt that the talk at dinner, the old eager controversy about books and singers and politics and science, was--well, not brilliant, perhaps, but worth while. She was beginning to think Peter extremely clever and only Alix's quick tongue a match for him, and to feel that her father knew every book and had seen every worthwhile play in the world.
Martin, whose deep dissatisfaction with conditions at the "Emmy Younger Mine" Cherry well knew, had entered into a correspondence some months before relative to a position at another mine that seemed better to him, and instead of coming down for a day or two at the time of Anne's wedding, as Cherry had hoped he might, wrote her that the authorities at the Red Creek plant had "jumped at him," and that he was closing up all his affairs at the "Emmy Younger" and had arranged to ship all their household effects direct to the new home. He knew nothing of Red Creek, except that it was a small inland town in the San Joachim region, but Cherry's delight at the thought of any alternative for the "Emmy Younger" was a revelation to Alix. Martin told his wife generously that he hoped she would stay with her father until the move was accomplished, and Cherry, with a clear conscience, established herself in her old room. She wrote constantly to her husband and often spoke appreciatively of Mart's kindness.
Anne's marriage took place in mid-September. It was a much more formal and elaborate affair than Cherry's had been, because, as Anne explained, "Frenny's people have been so generous about giving him up, you know. After all, he's the last of the Littles; all the others are Folsoms and Randalls. And I want them to realize that he is marrying a gentlewoman!"
The older Littles and all the Folsoms and Randalls came to the wedding, self-respecting, thrifty people who were, for the most part, as Alix summarized it, "buying little homes on the installment plan in desirable residential districts of Oakland and Berkeley." There were bright-faced school teachers, in dark plaid silk waists, and young matrons in carefully planned colour schemes of brown and gray; and they all told Alix and Cherry about the family, the members who were daughters of the Revolution, and the members who belonged to the Society of the Daughters of Officers of the Civil War.
Cherry and Alix went upstairs after the ceremony as Alix and Anne had done a year ago, but there was deep relief and amusement in their mood to-day, and it was with real pleasure in the closer intimacy that the little group gathered about the fire that night.
After that life went on serenely, and it was only occasionally that the girls were reminded that Cherry was a married woman with a husband expecting her shortly to return to him. When she and Alix took part in the village fairs and bazaars, Alix was still a little thrilled to see their names in print, "Miss Strickland and her sister Mrs. Lloyd, who is visiting her," but to Cherry all the romance seemed to have vanished from her new estate. November passed, and Christmas came, and there was some talk of Martin's joining them for Christmas. But he did not come; he was extremely busy at the new mine and comfortable in a village boarding-house.
It was in early March that Alix spoke to her father about it; spoke in her casual and vague fashion, but gave him food for serious thought, nevertheless.
"Dad," said Alix suddenly at the lunch table one day when Cherry happened to be shopping in the city, "were you and Mother ever separated when you were married?"
"No--" the doctor, remembering, shook his head. "Your mother never was happy away from her home!"
"Not even to visit her own family?" persisted Alix.
"Not ever," he answered. "We always planned a long visit in the East--but she never would go without me. She went to your Uncle Vincent's house in Palo Alto once, but she came home the next day- -didn't feel comfortable away from home!"
"How long do you suppose Martin will let us have Cherry?" Alix asked.
Her father looked quickly at her and a troubled expression crossed his face.
"The circumstances seem to make it wise to keep her here until he is sure that this new position is the right one!" he said.
"If I know anything about Martin," Alix said, "no position is ever going to be the right one for him. I mean," she added as her father gave her an alarmed look, "I simply mean that he is that sort of man. And it seems to me--odd, the way he and Cherry take their marriage! Now when she got here, five months--six months ago," Alix went on as her father watched her in close and distressed attention, "Cherry was always talking about going back to Mart--every time he sent her money she would say that she ought to keep it for a sudden summons. But she doesn't do that now. You've been giving her her own allowance right along, and she has settled down just as she was. A day or two ago Martin sent her twenty dollars and she has gone into town to spend it to-day--"
She hesitated, shrugged her shoulders.
"You think she ought to go back?" her father asked.
"No, I don't think so!" Alix answered, eagerly. "I don't think anything about it. But--but is that marriage? Is that really for better or for worse? I mean," she interrupted herself hastily, "as time goes on it will get harder and harder for her; there will seem to be less and less reason for going! Mrs. Brown was talking to me about it yesterday, and she asked in that catty, smiling way she has--"
"Trust the women to gossip!" the doctor said, impatiently.
"Well, nobody minds their gossip!" his daughter assured him. "And for my part I think it's a shame that a girl can't come back home as simply as that, if she wants to!" she added, boldly.
"Don't talk nonsense!" her father said, mildly. "You think," he added, reluctantly, "that it wasn't a good thing for her, eh?"
"Well--" Alix began. "She doesn't seem like other married women," she said, doubtfully. "And the only thing is, will she ever want to go back, if she isn't rather--rather coerced. Martin is odd, you know; he has a kind of stolid, stupid pride. He wrote her weeks ago and asked her to come, and she wrote back that if he would find her a cottage, she would; she couldn't go to his boarding-house, she hated boarding! Martin answered that he would, some day, and she said to me, 'Oh, now he's cross!' Now, mind you," Alix broke off vehemently, "I'd change the entire institution of marriage, if it was me! I'd end all this--"
"Well, we won't go into that!" her father interrupted her, hastily, for Alix had aired these views before and he was not in sympathy with them. "And I guess you're right: the child is a woman now, with a woman's responsibilities," he added. "And her place is with her husband. They'll have to solve life together, to learn together. I'll speak to Cherry!"
Alix, watching him walk away, thought that she had never seen Dad look old before. She saw the shadow on his kind face all the rest of that day.
It was only the next morning when he opened the question with Cherry.
It was a brilliant morning, with spring already in the air. Cherry, on the porch steps, was reading a letter from Martin. Her father sat down beside her. She had on one of her old gowns, and bathed in soft sunlight, looked eighteen again. Emerald grass was already filming the ground about the house; from under the deep rich brown of the forest flooring spring had thrust a million tiny spears of green. The redwoods wore plushy plumes of blue new foliage, and a wild lilac at the edge of the clearing drifted like pale smoke against the dark woods. Everywhere life was soaking and bursting after heavy rains; the very posts of the garden fence were sprouting little feathery tips. The air was sweet and pungent and damp and fresh, the sky high and blue, and across the granite face of Tamalpais a last scarf of mist was floating.
"Well, what has Martin to say?" asked the doctor.
"Oh, he doesn't like it much!" Cherry said, making a little face. "He describes the village as perfectly hopeless. He's moved into the little house in E Street, and gotten two stoves up."
"And when does he want his girl?" her father pursued.
"He doesn't say," Cherry answered, innocently. "I think he is really happier to have me here, where he knows I am well off!" she said. "I know I am," she ended after a moment's thought.
Her father was conscious of a pang; he had not even formed the thought in his own mind that Cherry was unhappy. He was as trusting and as innocent as his daughters in many ways; he shrank from the unwelcome facts of life. His own childhood had been hard and disciplinary, and at Cherry's age he had been concerned only with realities, with the need of food and clothes and shelter. That a life could be spoiled simply by contact with an unsympathetic personality was incomprehensible to him. The child, he told himself, had a good husband, a home and health, and undeveloped resources within herself. It was puzzling and painful to him to realize that there was needed something more--and that that something was lacking. He felt a sudden anger at Martin; why wasn't Martin managing this affair!
"Mart doesn't mention any time!" he mused.
"Thanks to you!" Cherry said, dimpling mischievously. "He wrote quite firmly, just before Christmas," she added, "but I told him that Dad had been such an angel and liked so much to have me here- -" And Cherry's smile was full of childish triumph.
"My dear," her father said, spurred to sudden courage by a realization that the matter might easily become serious, "you mustn't abuse his generosity. Suppose you write that you'll join him--this is March--suppose you say the first of April?"
Cherry flushed and looked down. Her lips trembled. There was a moment of unhappy silence.
"Very well, Dad," she said in a low voice. A second later she had jumped to her feet and vanished in the house. Her father roamed the woods in wretched misgivings, coming in at lunch time to find her in her place, smiling, but traces of tears about her lovely eyes.
Nothing more was said for a day or two, and then Cherry read aloud to the family an affectionate letter in which Martin said that everything would be ready for her whenever she came now.