Chapter VII
 

The last day of March and of Cherry's visit broke clear and blue, and with it spring seemed to have come on a rush of perfume and green beauty. Days had been soft and warm before; this day was hot, and flushed with colour and splendour. There were iris in the dewy grass under the oaks, but in the sunshine every trace of winter's damp had disappeared. Larks whirled up from the fields, and the bridal-wreath and syringa bushes were mounds of creamy bloom.

Alix and Cherry washed each other's hair in the old fashion, and came trailing down with towels and combs to the garden. The doctor joined them in the midst of their tossing and spreading, and sat smoking peacefully on the porch steps.

"Oh, heavens, how I love this sort of weather!" Alix exclaimed, flinging her brown mane backward, her tall figure slender in a faded kimono. She sat down crosswise on her chair, locked her arms about its back, dropped her face on them, and yawned luxuriously. "Dad and Peter," she went on, suddenly sitting erect, "will get all this nice clean hair full of cigar smoke to-night, so what's the use, anyway?"

"To-night's the night we go to Peter?" Cherry stated rather than asked. "Do you remember," she glanced at her father, who was reading his paper, "do you remember when Dad always used to scold us for being rude to Peter?"

"Well, I'd rather go to Peter's for dinner than anywhere else I ever go!" Alix remarked, dreamily. "Seriously, I mean it!" she repeated as Cherry looked at her in amused surprise. "In the first place, I love his bungalow--tiny as it is, it has the whole of a little canyon to itself, and the prettiest view in the valley, I think. And then I love the messy sitting room, with all the books and music, and I love the way Peter entertains. I wish," she added, simply, "that I liked Peter half as well as I do his house!"

"Peter's a dear!" Cherry contended.

"Oh, I know he is!" Alix said, quickly. "Peter's always been a dear, of course. But I mean in a special sense--" finished Alix with an entirely unembarrassed grin.

Cherry, through a glittering cloud of hair, looked at her steadily. Suddenly she gave an odd laugh.

"Do you know I never thought of Peter like that?" she said.

Alix nodded with a cautious look at her father who was out of hearing.

"No, nor I! We've always taken him rather for granted," she admitted. "Only I've been rather wishing, lately, that Peter wasn't such an unflattering, big-brotherish, every-day-neighbour sort of person."

Still Cherry regarded her steadily with an awakening look in her eyes.

"Why lately?" she asked.

"Because," said Alix, briskly and unromantically, "I think Peter would like me to--well, to stop taking him for granted!"

"But Peter's lame--" Cherry submitted, doubtfully.

"You can't call a shortness left from a broken leg lame!" Alix protested. "Peter isn't brawny, but he's never been ill. And he's not a child. He's thirty-seven. And I imagine he's awfully lonely. And then I imagine it would please Dad--" "Dad has always been ridiculously fond of him," Cherry said, thoughtfully. Peter-- possibly in love with Alix! She had never even suspected it. Peter's attitude toward them all had been more paternal than anything else. Cherry and her sister could not remember life without Peter, but he had always been Dad's friend, rather than theirs. He had rebuked them; he had patiently asked them not to chatter so; he had criticized their grammar and their clothes and their friends.

Peter and Alix. Well, there was something rather pleasant in the thought after all, if Alix didn't mind his ugliness and thinness. Cherry thought about it all day. She had had no thought of money a year or two ago; but she was more experienced now. And Peter was rich.

Ordinarily she would have said that she was not going to change for Peter's dinner; but this afternoon, without mentioning the fact, she quietly got into one of her prettiest dresses; a dress that had been made in the long-ago excitement of trousseau days. Peter as a rather autocratic and critical neighbour was one thing; as a possible brother-in-law he was another.

She came downstairs to find her father waiting, and they walked away through the woods together. Alix had already gone up to Peter's house to play tennis. They walked slowly through the lovely aisles of the trees, crossing a road or two, climbing steadily upward under great redwoods. The forest was thinning with oaks and madrone trees, and they found the sunlight again high on the crest of the ridge before a turn of the trail brought them in view of Peter's bungalow. It was a shabby little place, all porch and slope of rough brown roof, set in a wilderness of wild flowers and overlooking long descending slopes of hillside that stretched far away to the very bay and marshes at the ocean mouth.

To-night the spring sunshine streamed across it with broad shadows, the mountains' rough crest stood against a wide expanse of sunset sky. Cherry's skirt brushed the gold dust from masses and masses of buttercups. The tennis was over, but just over; Peter and Alix were sitting, still panting, on the rail of the wide, open porch, and shouted as the others came up.

"You missed doubles!" called Alix. "The grandest we ever did! Doubles with the Thompsons and three sets straight to us--six-two, six-two, and six-two again! They've gone. Oh, heavens, I never had such tennis. Oh, Peter, when you stood there at the net and just curved your hand like a cup"--Alix gave an enthusiastic imitation- -"and over she went, and game and set!"

Cherry, sinking white and frilly into a chair, smiled indulgently. The walk had given her a wild-rose colour, and even Alix was struck with her extraordinary beauty. Alix had wheeled about on the rail to face the porch, and Peter had gotten to his feet and was hospitably pushing basket chairs about. Now he gave Alix a critical look.

"You're disgracefully dirty!" he said, fraternally.

"I know it," she answered, calmly. "Have I time to tub?"

"All the time in the world!" he answered.

"Are any clothes of mine here?" further demanded Alix, rising lazily.

"Yes, there's a blouse. It's in the linen closet; ask Kow for it or get it yourself when you get your towels. You left it the day you changed here after we all climbed the mountain. I hope you people are going to get enough to eat," Peter added, flinging himself into a chair beside Cherry.

"He's been cooking it since breakfast!" Alix remarked, departing. Peter laughed guiltily, and Cherry, too. It was only an exaggeration of the simple truth. He loved to cook, and his meals were famous.

"It's very pleasant to me to have Alix so much at home here," Cherry said, when Alix was gone, and the doctor wandering happily about the garden. "I don't know what we'd do if any one ever usurped our places here!"

She had said it deliberately; the fascination of her recent discovery was too strong to resist. The man flushed suddenly. For a full minute he did not speak, and Cherry was surprised to find herself a little thrilled and even frightened by his silence.

"What put that into your head?" he asked, presently, smoking with his eyes fixed upon the valley far below.

"Just--being here," she answered. And as he glanced over his shoulder he met her smile.

"You've been here a thousand times without ever paying me a compliment!" he reminded her.

Cherry considered this, her brows drawn a trifle together.

"Perhaps," she offered, presently, "it's because there are so many changes, Peter; my marriage, Anne's--everything different! It just came to me that it is nice to have this always the same."

"Perhaps Alix will come up here and help keep it so some day," the man said, deliberately. Cherry's look of elaborate surprise and pleasure died before his serious glance. She was silent for a moment.

"Why don't you ask her?" she said in a low, thoughtful tone, trembling, eager to preserve his mood without a false note.

"I have," he answered simply. Cherry's heart jumped with a sudden unexpected emotion. What was it? Not pleasure, not all surprise-- surely there could be no jealousy mixed with her feeling for Peter's plans? But she was dazed with the rush of feeling; hurt in some fashion she could not stop to dissect now. Only this morning she had felt that Peter was not good enough for Alix; now, suddenly, he began to seem admirable and dear and unlike everybody else--

"And she said no?" she stammered in confusion.

"She said no. Or, at least, I intimated that I was a lonely old affectionate man with this and that to offer, and she intimated that that wasn't enough. It was all--" he laughed--"It was all extremely sketchy!"

"Peter, but what does she want?" There was actual sisterly indignation in Cherry's tone.

"Oh, Alix is quite right!" he answered, lightly. "I ought to have said--I ought to explain--that I had told her, only a few days previously, that I had always loved somebody else!"

"Oh-h-h!" Cherry was enlightened. She visualized an affair in the last years of the old century for Peter.

"Oh, and--and she didn't love you?" Cherry asked.

"The lady? She was unfortunately married before I had a chance to ask her," said Peter.

"Oh-h-h!" Cherry said again, impressed, "and you'll never get over it?" she asked, timidly. "Peter, I never knew that!" she added as he was silent. "Does--does Dad know?"

"Nobody knows but Alix, and she only knows the bare facts," he assured her.

"Oh!" Cherry could think of nothing to add to the sympathetic little monosyllable. Twilight was reaching even the hilltop, the canyons were rilling with violet shadows; the sweet, pungent odour of the first dew, falling on warm dust, crept across the garden.

"Finished with the shower!" shrieked Alix from the warm darkness inside the doorway. "Hurry up, Peter, something smells utterly grand!"

"That's the chicken thing!" Peter shouted back, springing up to disappear in the direction of the bathroom. Cherry sat on, silent, wrapped still in the new spell of the pleasant voice, the strangely appealing and yet masterful personality.

The dinner straggled as all Peter's dinners did; Alix mixed a salad-dressing; Peter himself flashed in and out of the tiny, hot kitchen a hundred times. Kow, in immaculate linen, came back and forth in leisurely table-setting. Suddenly everything was ready; the crisp, smoking-hot French loaf, the big, brown jar of bubbling and odorous chicken, the lettuce curled in its bowl, the long- necked bottles in their straw cases, and cheeses and crackers and olives and figs and tiny fish in oil and marrons in fluted paper that were a part of all Peter's dinners.

After dinner they watched the moon rise, until Alix drifted in to the piano and Peter followed her, and the others came in, too, to sit beside the fire. As usual it was midnight before any one thought of ending one of Peter's evenings.

And all through the pleasant, quiet hours, and when he bundled them up in his own big loose coats to drive them home, Cherry was thinking of him in this new light; Peter loving a woman, and denied. The knowledge seemed to fling a strange glamour about him; she saw new charm in him, or perhaps, as she told herself, she saw for the first time how charming he really was. His speech seemed actually the pleasanter for the stammer at which they had all laughed years ago; the slight limp lent its own touch of individuality, and the man's blunt criticisms of books and music, politics and people, were softened by his humour, his genuine humility, and his eager hospitality.

Next day she took occasion to mention Peter and his affairs to Alix. Alix turned fiery red, but laughed hardily.

"If he considers that an offer, he can consider it a refusal, I guess," she said, boyishly embarrassed. "I like him--I'm crazy about him. But I don't want any party in ringlets and crinolines to come floating from the dead past over my child's innocent cradle--"

"Alix, you're awful!" Cherry laughed. "You couldn't talk that way if you loved him!"

"What way?" Alix demanded.

"Oh, about his--well, his children!"

"I should think that would be just the proof that I do love him," Alix persisted idly in her musical, mischievous voice. "I certainly wouldn't want to talk of the children of a man I didn't- -"

"Oh, Alix, don't!" Cherry protested. "Anyway, you know better."

Alix laughed.

"I suppose I do. I suppose I ought to be a mass of blushes. The truth is, I like kids, and I don't like husbands--" Alix confessed, with engaging candour.

"You don't know anything about husbands!" Cherry laughed.

"I know lots of men I'd like to go off with for a few months," Alix pursued. "But then I'd like to come home again! I don't see why that isn't perfectly reasonable--"

"Well, it's not!" Cherry declared almost crossly. "That isn't marriage. You belong where your husband is, and you--you are always glad to be with him--"

"But suppose you get tired of him, like a job or a boarding-house, or any of your other friends?" Alix persisted idly.

"Well, you aren't supposed to!" Cherry said, feebly. Alix let her have the last word; it was only due to her superior experience, she thought crossly. But half an hour later, lying wakeful, and thinking that she would miss dear old Cherry to-morrow, she fancied she heard something like a sob from Cherry's bed, and her whole heart softened with sympathy for her sister.

They came downstairs together the next day in mid-afternoon, both hatted and wrapped for the trip, for Peter was to take Cherry as far as Sausalito in the car, and Martin by a fortunate chance was to meet them there at the ferryboat for San Francisco. Mill Valley was not more than an hour's ride from the ferry. Alix was to drive down and return with Peter. Cherry said good-bye to her father in the porch; she seemed more of a puzzled child than ever.

"I've had a wonderful visit, Dad--" she began bravely. Suddenly the tears came. She buried her face against her father's shabby old office coat and his arms went about her. Alix laughed awkwardly, and Peter shut his teeth. Anne, who had very properly come over to say good-bye to her cousin, got in the back seat of the car and Alix took the seat beside her.

"Take a picture of Peter and me with the suitcases!" she said. "We must look so domestic!"

"Get in here, Cherry," Peter said, opening the door of the seat beside his own. "Doctor, we'll be back in about an hour--"

"Without Cherry!" her father said with a rueful smile.

"Without Cherry!" Peter echoed, looking at her gravely.

It was then that Cherry saw in Peter's expression something that she did not forget for many, many months--never quite forgot. He wore a rough tramping costume to-day, a Sunday, and he was halfway up the porch steps, ready to carry bags to the waiting motor car. His eyes were fixed upon her with something so yearning, so loving, so troubled in their gaze that a thrill went through Cherry from head to foot. He instantly averted his look, turned to the car, fumbled with the gears; they were off. He was to drive them all the way to Sausalito; Alix commented joyously upon the beauty of the day.

Cherry, tied trimly into a hat that was all big daisies, was silent for a while. But when Alix and Anne commenced an interested conversation in the back seat, she suddenly said regretfully:

"Oh, I hate to go away this time! I mind it more even than the first time!"

Peter, edging smoothly about a wide blue puddle, nodded sympathetically, but did not answer.

"I envy Alix--" Cherry said in idle mischief. She knew that the subject was not a safe one, but was irresistibly impelled to pursue it.

"Alix?" said Peter, after a silence long enough to make her feel ashamed of herself.

"Yes. Her young man lives in Mill Valley, right near home!" elucidated Cherry.

"Am I Alix's young man?" he asked, amused.

"Well, aren't you?"

"I don't know. I've never been any one's young man," said Peter.

"Whoever the woman who treated you meanly is--I hate her!" Cherry began again. "Unless," she added, "unless she was very young, and you never told her!"

This time he did not answer at all, and they spun along in utter silence. But when they were nearing Sausalito, Cherry said almost timidly:

"I think perhaps it would make her happy--and proud, to know that you admired her, Peter. I don't know who she is, of course, but almost any woman would feel that. This visit, somehow, has made me feel as if you and I had really begun a new friendship on our own account, not just the old friendship. And I shall often think of that talk we had a week ago, and-think of you, too. N-n-next time you fall in love I hope you will be luckier!"

Silence. But he gave her his quick, friendly smile. Cherry dared not speak again.

"Last stop--all out!" Alix exclaimed. "You get tickets, Peter. Hurray, there's Martin!"

Unexpectedly Martin's big figure came toward them from the ferry gate. Some ore from the mine had to be assayed in San Francisco, and he had volunteered to make the trip so that he might meet his wife and bring her back with him to Red Creek. Time hanging on his hands in the city, he had crossed the bay for the pleasure of the return trip with Cherry. He met them beamingly. There was a little confusion of greeting and good-byes. Alix and Peter watched the others at the railing until the ferryboat turned. Martin smiled over Anne's head; Cherry, both little white-gloved hands on the rail, blue eyes and a glint of bright hair showing under the daisies on her hat, her small figure enveloped in a big loose coat, looked as if she would like to cry again.

"It must be fun to be married, and go off to strange places with your beau!" Alix decided. "I'm hungry, Peter; let's go over there and treat ourselves to fried oysters!"

"Let's go home," he said, unsympathetically. "I'm not hungry."

"Oh, very well!" Alix agreed, airily, jumping into the seat beside him. "Though what has given you a grouch I really am at a loss to imagine!" she added under her breath.

"I don't hear you!" shouted Peter, who was suddenly rushing the engine.

"You weren't intended to!" she shouted back. And until they were halfway home, and Alix laughed out in sudden shame and good-nature not another word was spoken. The bright weather had changed suddenly, and a wet spring cloud was spreading over the sky.

"Love me, Peter?" Alix asked, suddenly.

"Not always!" he answered, briefly and sincerely. Fog was creeping over the marshes, the air was full of damp chill. A memory of the coat-enveloped figure and the blue eyes that smiled wistfully under a daisied hat was wringing his heart.

"Listen," began Alix again. "Let's stop for Dad, it's going to pour. And let's go up to your house to eat?"

Silence.

"We can play duets all evening!" Alix added, temptingly.

"Little and Anne coming back?" Peter asked, unwillingly.

"No; they're dining with the Quelquechoses--those bright-faced, freckled cousins of his," Alix answered.

"I don't know that I've got anything up there to eat!" Peter said, gloomily.

"Ooo--say!" Alix said, brightening suddenly with her incorrigible childishness of expression. "Kow's got eggs and cream, hasn't he? I'll make that new thing I was telling you about--it's delicious. Oh, and an onion--" she broke off in concern.

"He has an onion," Peter admitted. "What dish?" he asked, interested in spite of himself, as Alix fell into a rapturous reverie.

"Well, you fry a chopped onion," Alix began, "and then you have a lot of hard-boiled eggs--" In another moment they were deep in culinary details.