Sisters by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Martin's work was in the Contra Costa Valley, and he and Cherry had a small house in Red Creek, the only town of any size near the mine. Red Creek was in a fruit-farming and dairy region and looked its prettiest on the spring evening when Cherry saw it first. The locusts were in leaf and ready to bloom, and the first fruit blossoms were scattered in snowy whiteness up and down the valley.
Her little house was a cottage with a porch running across the front where windows looked out from the sitting room and the front bedroom. Back of these rooms were a dark little bathroom that connected the front bedroom with another smaller bedroom, a little dining room and a kitchen. Almost all the houses in Red Creek were duplicates, except in minor particulars, of this house, but this particular specimen was older than some of the others and showed signs of hard usage. The kitchen floor was chipped and stained, and the bathroom basin was plugged with putty; there were odd bottles partly full of shoe polish and ink and vinegar, here and there; and on the shelves of the triangular closet in the dining room were cut and folded pieces of spotted white paper.
Martin, man-fashion, had merely camped in kitchen and bedroom while awaiting his wife; but Cherry buttoned on her crisp little apron on the first morning after her arrival, and attacked the accumulated dishes in the sink, and the scattered shirts and collars bravely. It was a cold, raw morning, and she went to and fro briskly, burning rubbish in the airtight stove in the sitting room, and keeping a good wood fire going in the kitchen, and feeling housewifely and efficient as she did so.
After a lunch for which she was praised and applauded in something of the old honeymoon way, she walked to market, passing blocks of other little houses like her own, with bare dooryards where nipped chrysanthemums dangled on poles, and where play wagons, puddles of water, and picking chickens alternated regularly. Other marketing women looked at Cherry with the quickly averted look that is only given to beauty; but the men in the shops wrote down the new name and address with especial zeal and amiability. She remembered the old necessities, bacon and lard and sugar and matches; she recovered the kitchen clock from its wrapping of newspaper, and wound it, and set it on the sink shelf; she was busy with a hundred improvements and cares, and was almost too tired, when Martin came home to dinner, to sit up and share it with him.
It was warm in the dining room and Cherry yawned over her dessert, and rose stiff and aching to return to the kitchen with plates and silver, glasses and food, to shake the tablecloth, to pile and wash and wipe and put away the china, to brush the floor and the stove, and do the last wiping and wringing, and to turn out the gas, and go in to her chair beside the airtight stove.
Martin handed her half his paper and Cherry took it, realizing with cheerful indifference that there was a streak of soot on one cuff, and that her hands were affected by grease and hot water. She read jokes and recipes and answers to correspondents, and small editorial fillers as to the number of nutmegs consumed in China yearly, and the name and circumstances of the oldest living man in England. A new novel was in her bedroom, but she was too comfortable and too tired to go get it, and at ten she rose yawning and stumbling, and went to bed. Breakfast must be on the table at half-past seven, for Martin left for the mine at eight, and she had had a hard day.
For a few weeks the novelty lasted and Cherry was enthusiastic about everything. She looked out across her dishpan at green fields and the beginning of the farms; she saw the lilacs burst into fragrant plumes on the bare branches of her dooryard trees; spring flushed the whole world with loveliness, and she was young, and healthy, and too busy to be homesick.
Martin left the house at eight and was usually at home at five. He would sometimes come into her kitchen while she finished dinner, and tell her about the day, and then suggested that they go to the "pictures" at night. But although Cherry and Alix often had coaxed their father into this dissipation in Mill Valley, it was different there, she found. That was a small colony of city people, the theatre was small, and the films carefully selected. One sat with one's neighbours and friends. But here in Red Creek the theatre was a draughty barn, and the farm workers, big men odorous of warm, acid perspiration, pushed in laughing and noisy; the films were of a different character, too, and advertised by frightful coloured posters at the doors. Martin himself did not like them; indeed, he and Cherry found little to like in either the people or the town.
It was a typical railroad town of California. It was flat, dusty, all its buildings of wood. There were some two thousand souls in Red Creek; two or three stores, a bakery from which the crude odour of baking bread burst every night; saloons, warehouses, a smithy, a butcher shop open only two days a week, a Chinese laundry from which opium-tainted steam issued all day and all night; cattle sheds, pepper trees, wheat barns, and a hotel of raw pine, with a narrow bedroom represented by every one of the forty narrow windows in its upper stories, and a lower floor decorated with spittoons. Back of the crowded main street was another street, beside which Main Street's muddy ugliness was beautiful. Here was another saloon, and rooms above it, and several disreputable cottages about which Cherry sometimes saw odd-looking women.
Not everyone in Red Creek was poor, by any means. It was a district bursting with prosperity; all summer long wheat and fruit and butter and beef poured through it out into the world. Down the road a mile or two, and back toward the far hills, were comfortable ranches where trees planted fifty years before had grown to mammoth proportions, and where the women of the family cultivated gardens. Every family had pigs and cattle and fine horses, and mud-spattered motor cars were familiar sights in Red Creek's streets.
Cherry used to wonder why anybody who could live elsewhere lived here. When some of the ranch girls told her that they always did their shopping in San Francisco, she marvelled that they could reconcile themselves to come home.
The days went on and on, each bringing its round of dishes, beds, sweeping, marketing, folding and unfolding tablecloths, going back and forth between kitchen and dining room. Martin's breakfast was either promptly served and well cooked, in which case Martin was silently satisfied, or it was late and a failure, when he was very articulately disgusted; in either case Cherry was left to clear and wash and plan for another meal in four hours more. She soaked fruit, beat up cake, chopped boxes into kindlings, heated a kettle of water and another kettle of water, dragged sheets from the bed only to replace them, filled dishes with food only to find them empty and ready to wash again.
"I get sick of it!" she told Martin.
"Well, Lord!" he exclaimed. "Don't you think everybody does? Don't I get sick of my work? You ought to have the responsibility of it all for a while!"
His tone was humorously reproving rather than unkind. But such a speech would fill Cherry's eyes with tears, and cause her to go about the house all morning with a heavy heart.
She would find herself looking thoughtfully at Martin in these days, studying him as if he were an utter stranger. It bewildered her to feel that he actually was no more than that, after two years of marriage. She not only did not know him, but she had a baffled sense that the very nearness of their union prevented her from seeing him fairly. She knew that she did him injustice in her thoughts.
It must be injustice, decided Cherry. For Martin seemed to her less clever, less just, less intelligent, and less generous than the average man of her acquaintance. And yet he did not seem to impress other people in the way he impressed her.
He was extraordinarily healthy, and had small sympathy for illness, weakness, for the unfortunate, and the complaining. He was scrupulously clean, and Cherry added that to his credit, although the necessity of seeing that Martin's bath, Martin's shaving water, and Martin's clean linen were ready complicated her duties somewhat. He was not interested in the affairs of the day; politics, reforms, world movements generally found him indifferent, but he would occasionally favour his wife with a sudden opinion as to China or intensive farming or Lloyd's shipping. She knew when he did this that he was quoting. He whistled over his dressing, read the paper at breakfast, and was gone. At noon he rushed in, always late, devoured his lunch appreciatively, and was gone again. At night he was usually tired, inclined to quarrel about small matters, inclined to disapprove of the new positions of the bedroom furniture, or the way Cherry's hair was dressed.
He loved to play poker and was hospitable to a certain extent. He would whistle and joke over the preparations for a rarebit after a game, and would willingly walk five blocks for beer if Cherry had forgotten to get it. On Sunday he liked to see her prettily gowned; now and then they motored with his friends from the mine; more often walked, ate a hearty chicken dinner, and went to a cold supper in the neighbourhood, with "Five Hundred" to follow. At ten their hostess would flutter into her kitchen; there would be lemonade and beer and rich layer cake. Then the men would begin to match poker hands, and the women to discuss babies in low tones.
Cherry never saw her husband so animated or so interested as when men he had known before chanced to drift into town, mining men from Nevada or from El Nido, or men he had known in college. They would discuss personalities, would shout over recollected good times, would slap each other on the back and laugh tirelessly.
She thought him an extremely difficult man to live with, and was angered when her hints to this effect led him to remark that she was the "limit." They had a serious quarrel one day, when he told her that she was the most selfish and spoiled woman he had ever known. He called her attention to the other women of the town, busy, contented women, sending children off to school, settling babies down for naps in sunny dooryards, cooking and laughing and hurrying to and fro.
"Yes, and look at them!" Cherry said with ready tears. "Shabby, thin, tired all the time!"
"The trouble with you is," Martin said, departing, "you've been told that you're pretty and sweet all your life--and you're spoiled! You are pretty, yes--" he added, more mildly. "But, by George, you sulk so much, and you crab so much, that I'm darned if I see it any more! All I see is trouble!"
With this he left her. Left her to a burst of angry tears, at first, when she dropped her lovely little head on the blue gingham of her apron sleeve and cried bitterly.
The kettle began to sing on the stove, a bee came in and wandered about the hot kitchen; the grocer knocked, and Cherry let the big lout of a boy stare at her red eyes uncaring.
Then she went swiftly into the bedroom and began to pack and change. She'd show Martin Lloyd--she'd show Martin Lloyd! She was going straight to Dad--she'd take the--take the--
She frowned. She had missed the nine o'clock train; she must wait for the train at half-past two. Wait where? Well, she could only wait here. Very well, she would wait here. She would not get Martin any lunch, and when he raged she would explain.
She finished her packing and put the house in order. Then, in unaccustomed mid-morning leisure, she sank into a deep rocker, and began to read. Quiet and shade and order reigned in the little house. Outside in the shaded street the children went shouting home again; a fishman's horn sounded.
Steps came bounding up to Cherry's door; her heart began to beat; a knock sounded. She got to her feet, puzzled; Martin did not knock.
It was Joe Robinson, his closest friend at the mine. His handsome, big-featured face was full of concern.
"Say, listen, Mrs. Lloyd; Mart can't get home to dinner," said Joe. "He don't feel extra well--he was in the engine room and he kinder--he kinder--"
"Fainted?" Cherry asked, sharply, turning a little pale.
"Well, kinder. Lawson made him lay down," Joe said. "And he's coming home when the wagon comes down, at three o'clock. He says to tell you he's fine!"
"Oh, thank you, Joe!" Cherry said. She shut the door, feeling weak and frightened. She flew to unpack her bag, hung up her hat and coat, darkened the bedroom and turned down the bed; waited anxiously for Mart's return. Mrs. Turner came in with the baby, a gentle, tired woman, with a face always radiant with joy. Mrs. Turner had seven children, and had once told Cherry that she had never slept a night through since the first year of her marriage. She never changed a baby's gown or rolled a batch of cookies without a deep and genuine love for the task; she could not unbutton the twisted collar from a son's small neck without drawing his freckled cheek to her hungry lips for a kiss, or ask one of her black-headed, bright-eyed daughters to hang up a dish towel without adding: "You're a darling help to your mother!"
The Turners lived next door to the Lloyds, in a shabby two-story house, and though Cherry and her neighbour spoke a different language, they had grown fond of each other. Cherry had sometimes timidly touched upon the matter that was always troubling her, with the older woman. But Mrs. Turner had little to say regarding her feeling for the lean, silent, somewhat unsuccessful man who was the head of her crowded household. She seemed to take it for granted that he would sometimes be unreasonable.
"Papa gets so mad if anything gets burned!" she would say, with her gentle laugh. And once she added the information that her husband's mother had been a wonderful manager. "Men are that way!" was her comment upon the difficulties of other wives. But once, when there was a wedding near by, Cherry, with others in the church, saw the tears in Mrs. Turner's eyes as she watched the bride. "Poor little innocent thing!" she had whispered with a tremulous smile.
She was deeply concerned over the news from Martin, and when Cherry had met his limp form at the front door, and had whisked him into a cool bed, and put chopped ice on the aching forehead, and gotten him, grateful and penitent, off to sleep, her neighbour came over again to whisper in the kitchen.
"He's all right," Cherry smiled. "He was so glad to get to bed, and so appreciative!" she added in a motherly tone.
"You look as if you hadn't a thing in the world to do!" the older housekeeper commented, glancing about the neat, quiet kitchen.
"I believe I like sick nursing!" Cherry smiled back.
For a day or two Martin stayed in bed and Cherry spoiled and petted him, and was praised and thanked for every step she took. After that they took a little trip into the mountains near by, and Cherry sent Alix postcards that made her sister feel almost a pang of envy.
But then the routine began again, and the fearful heat of midsummer came, too. Red Creek baked in a smother of dusty heat, the trees in the dry orchards, beside the dry roads, dropped circles of hot shadow on the clodded, rough earth. Farms dozed under shimmering lines of dazzling air, and in the village, from ten o'clock until the afternoon began to wane, there was no stir. Flies buzzed and settled on screen doors, the creek shrunk away between crumbling rocky banks, the butcher closed his shop, and milk soured in the bottles.
The Turners, and some other families, always camped together in the mountains during this season, and they were off when school closed, in an enviable state of ecstasy and anticipation. Cherry had planned to join them, but an experimental week-end was enough. The camp was in the cool woods, truly, but it was disorderly, swarming with children, the tents were small and hot, the whole settlement laughed and rioted and surged to and fro in a manner utterly foreign to her. She returned, to tell Martin that it was "horribly common," and weather the rest of the summer in Red Creek.
"Mrs. Turner is the only woman that I can stand," said Cherry, "and she was always cooking, in an awful cooking shed, masses and masses of macaroni and stewed plums and biscuits--and all of them laughing and saying, 'Girlie, I guess you've got a hollow leg!' Dearie, I couldn't eat any more without busting!' And sitting round that plank table--"
Martin shouted with laughter at her, but he sympathized. He had never cared particularly for the Turners; was perfectly willing to keep the friendship within bounds.
He sympathized as little with another friendship she made, some months later, with the wife of a young engineer who had recently come to the mine. Pauline Runyon was a few years older than her husband, a handsome, thin, intense woman, who did everything in an entirely individual way. She took one of the new little bungalows that were being erected in Red Creek "Park," and furnished it richly and inappropriately, and established a tea table and a samovar beside the open fireplace. Cherry began to like better than anything else in the world the hours she spent with Pauline. She would have liked to go every day, and every day argued and debated the propriety of doing so, in her heart.
Not since the days of her engagement to Martin, and then only on a few occasions, had she felt the thrill that she experienced now, when Pauline, with her dark eyes and her frilly parasol, wandered in the kitchen door, to sit laughing and talking for a few minutes, or when she herself dressed and crossed the village, and went up past the packing plant and the storage barns to the two small cement gate posts and the length of rusty chain that marked the entrance to Red Creek "Park." Then there would be tea, poetry, talk, and the flattery that Pauline quite deliberately applied to Cherry, and the flattery that Cherry all unconsciously lavished on her friend in return.
Pauline read Browning, Francis Thompson, and Pater, and introduced Cherry to new worlds of thought. She talked to Cherry of New York, which she loved, and of the men and women she had met there. She sometimes sighed and pushed the bright hair back from Cherry's young and innocent and discontented little face, and said, tenderly, "On the stage, my dear--anywhere, everywhere, you would be a furore!"
And thinking, in the quiet evenings--for Martin's work kept him later and later at the mine--Cherry came to see that her marriage had been a great mistake. She had not been ready for marriage. She would sit on the back steps, as the evenings grew cooler, and watch the exquisite twilight fade, and the sorrow and beauty of life would wring her heart.
Darkness came, the Turner children shrieked, laughed, clattered dishes, and were silent. Cherry would sit on, her arms wrapped in her apron, her eyes staring into the young night. In the darkness she could only see the great shadows that were the Adams' windmill, and the old Brown barn, and the Cutters' house down the back road. The dry earth seemed awake at night, stretching itself, under brown sods, for a great breath of relief in the merciful coolness. Cherry could smell grapes, and smell the pleasant wetness of the dust where the late watering cart had passed by, after sunset. The roads were too hot for watering all day long, and this sweet, wet odour only came with the night.
A dream of ease and adoration and beauty came to her. She did not visualize any special place, any special gown or hour or person. But she saw her beauty fittingly environed; she saw cool rooms, darkened against this blazing midsummer glare; heard ice clinking against glass; the footsteps of attentive maids; the sound of cultivated voices, of music and laughter. She had had these dreams before, but they were becoming habitual now. She was so tired--so sick--so bored with her real life; it was becoming increasingly harder and harder for her to live with Martin; to endure and to struggle against the pricks. She was always in a suppressed state of wanting to break out, to shout at him brazenly, "I don't care if your coffee is weak! I like it weak! I don't care if you don't like my hat--I do! Stop talking about yourself!"
Various little mannerisms of his began seriously to annoy her; a rather grave symptom, had Cherry but known it. He danced his big fingers on the handle of the sugar spoon at breakfast, sifting the sugar over his cereal; she had to turn her eyes resolutely away from the sight. He blew his nose, folded his handkerchief, and then brushed his nose with it firmly left and right; she hated the little performance that was never altered. He had a certain mental slowness, would blink at her politely and patiently when she flashed plans or hopes at him: "I don't follow you, my dear!" This made her frantic.
She was twenty, undisciplined and exacting. She had no reserves within herself to which she could turn. Bad things were hopelessly bad with Cherry, her despairs were the dark and tearful despairs of girlhood, prematurely transferred to graver matters.
Martin was quite right in some of his contentions; girl-like, she was spasmodic and unsystematic in her housekeeping; she had times of being discontented and selfish. She hated economy and the need for careful managing.
In October Alix chanced to write her a long and unusually gossipy letter. Alix had a new gown of black grenadine, and she had sung at an afternoon tea, and had evidently succeeded in her first venture. Also they had had a mountain climb and enclosed were snapshots Peter had taken on the trip.
Cherry picked up the little kodak prints; there were four or five of them. She studied them with a pang at her heart. Alix in a loose rough coat, with her hair blowing in the wind, and the peaked crest of Tamalpais behind her--Alix busy with lunch boxes-- Alix standing on the old bridge down by the mill, A wave of homesickness swept over the younger sister; life tasted bitter. She hated Alix, hated Peter, above all she hated herself. She wanted to be there, in Mill Valley, free to play and to dream again--
A day or two later she told Martin kindly and steadily that she thought it had all "been a mistake." She told him that she thought the only dignified thing to do was to part. She liked him, she would always wish him well, but since the love had gone out of their relationship, surely it was only honest to end it.
"What's the matter?" Martin demanded.
"Nothing special," Cherry assured him, her eyes suddenly watering. "Only I'm tired of it all. I'm tired of pretending. I can't argue about it. But I know it's the wise thing to do."
"You acted this same way before," Martin suggested, after looking back at his paper for a few seconds.
"I did not!" Cherry said, indignantly. "That is not true."
"You'd go back to your father, I suppose?" Martin said, yawning.
"Until I could get into something," Cherry replied with dignity. A vague thought of the stage flitted through her mind.
"Oh!" Martin said, politely. "And I suppose you think your father would agree to this delightful arrangement?" he asked.
"I know he would!" Cherry answered, eagerly.
"All right--you write and ask him!" Martin agreed, good-naturedly. Cherry was surprised at his attitude, but grateful more than surprised.
"Not cross, Mart?" she asked.
"Not the least in the world!" he answered, lightly.
"Because I truly believe that we'd both be happier--" the woman said, hesitatingly. Martin did not answer.
The next day she sat down to write her father. The house was still. Red Creek was awakening in the heavenly October coolness, children chattered on the way to school, the morning and evening were crisp and sharp.
Cherry stared out at a field of stubble bathed in soft sunshine. The hills to-day were only a shade deeper than the pale sky. Along the road back of the house a lumber wagon rattled, the thin bay horses galloping joyously in harness. Pink and white cosmos, pallid on clouds of frail, bushy green, were banked in the shade of the woodshed.
She meditated, with a troubled brow. Her letter was unexpectedly hard to compose. She could not take a bright and simple tone, asking her father to rejoice in her home-coming. Somehow the matter persisted in growing heavy, and the words twisted themselves about into ugly and selfish sounds. Cherry was young, but even to her youth the phrases, the "misunderstood" and the "uncongenial," the "friendly parting before any bitterness creeps in," and the "free to decide our lives in some happier and wiser way," rang false. Pauline had been divorced, a few years ago, and the only thing Cherry disliked in her friend was her cold and resentful references to her first husband.
No, she couldn't be a divorced woman. It was all spoiled, the innocent past and the future; there was no way out! She gave up the attempt at a letter, and began to annoy Martin with talk of a visit home again.
"You were there six months ago!" Martin reminded her.
"Eight months ago, Mart."
"What you want to go for?"
"Oh, just--just--" Cherry's irrepressible tears angered herself almost as much as they did Martin. "I think they'd like me to!" she faltered.
"Go if you want to!" he said, but she knew she could not go on that word.
"That's it," she said at last to herself, in one of her solitary hours. "I'm married, and this is marriage. For the rest of my life it'll be Mart and I--Mart and I--in everything! For richer for poorer, for better for worse-that's marriage. He doesn't beat me, and we have enough money, and perhaps there are a lot of other women worse off than I am. But it's--it's funny."