Chapter IX
 

In January, however, he came home one noon to find her hatted and wrapped to go.

"Oh, Mart--it's Daddy!" she said. "He's ill--I've got to see him! He's awfully ill."

"Telegram?" asked Martin, not particularly pleased, but not unsympathetic either.

For answer she gave him the yellow paper that was wet with her tears. "Dad ill," he read. "Don't worry. Come if you can. Alix."

"I'll bet it's a put-up job between you and Alix--" Martin said in indulgent suspicion.

Her indignant glance sobered him; he hastily arranged money matters, and that night she got off the train in the dark wetness of the valley, and was met by a rush of cool and fragrant air. It was too late to see the mountain, lights were twinkling everywhere in the dark trees. Cherry got a driver, rattled and jerked up to the house in a surrey, and jumped out, her heart almost suffocating her.

Alix came flying to the door, the old lamplight and the odour of wood smoke poured through. There was no need for words; they burst into tears and clung together.

An hour later Cherry, feeling as if she was not the same woman who waked in Red Creek this same morning, and got Martin's eggs and coffee ready, crept into her father's room. Alix had warned her to be quiet, but at the sight of the majestic old gray head, and the fine old hands clasped together on the sheet, her self-control forsook her entirely and she fell to her knees and began to cry again.

The nurse looked at her disapprovingly, but after all it made little difference. Doctor Strickland roused only once again, and that was many hours later. Cherry and Alix were still keeping their vigil; Cherry, worn out, had been dozing; the nurse was resting on a couch in the next room.

Suddenly both daughters were wide awake at the sound of the hoarse yet familiar voice. Alix fell on her knees and caught the cold and wandering hand.

"What is it, darling?" The old, half-joking maternal manner was all in earnest now.

"Peter?" he said, thickly.

"Peter's in China, dear. You remember that Peter was to go around the world? You remember that, Dad?"

"In the 'Travels with a Donkey,'" he said, rationally.

The girls looked at each other dubiously.

"We all read that together," Alix encouraged him.

"No--" he said, musingly. They thought he slept again, but he presently added, "Somewhere in Matthew--no, in Mark--Mark is the human one--Mark was as human as his Master--"

"Shall I read you from Mark?" Alix asked, as his voice sank again. A shabby old Bible always stood at her father's bedside; she reached for it, and making a desperate effort to steady her voice, began to read. The place was marked by an old letter, and opened at the chapter he seemed to desire, for as she read he seemed to be drinking in the words. Once they heard him whisper "Wonderful!" Cherry got up on the bed, and took the splendid dying head in her arms, the murky winter dawn crept in, and the lamp burned sickly in the daylight. Hong could be heard stirring. Alix closed the book and extinguished the lamp. Cherry did not move.

"Charity!" the old man said, presently, in a simple, childish tone. Later, with bursts of tears, in all the utter desolation of the days that followed, Cherry loved to remember that his last utterance was her name. But Alix knew, though she never said it, that it was to another Charity he spoke.

Subdued, looking younger and thinner in their new black, the sisters came downstairs, ten days later, for a business talk. Peter had been named as one executor, but Peter was far away, and it was a pleasant family friend, a kindly old surgeon of Doctor Strickland's own age, or near it, and the lawyer, George Sewall, the other executor, who told them about their affairs. Anne, as co-heiress, was present at this talk, with Justin sitting close beside her. Martin, too, who had come down for the funeral, was there.

Cherry was white, headachy, indifferent; she seemed stunned by her loss; but Alix's extraordinary vitality had already asserted itself, and she set herself earnestly to understand their somewhat complicated affairs.

The house went to the daughters; there were books and portraits for Anne, a box or two in storage for Anne, and Anne was mentioned in the only will as equally inheriting with Alexandra and Charity. For some legal reason that the lawyer and Doctor Younger made clear, Anne could not fully inherit, but her share would be only a trifle less than her cousins'.

Things had reached this point when Justin Little calmly and confidently claimed that Anne's share was to be based upon an old loan of Anne's father to his brother, a loan of three thousand dollars to float Lee Strickland's invention, with the understanding that Vincent Strickland be subsequently entitled to one third of the returns. As the patent had been sold for nearly one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, one third of it, with accumulative interest for ten years, of which no payment had ever been made Anne, was a large proportion of the entire estate, and the development of this claim, in Justin Little's assured, woodeny voice, caused everyone except the indifferent Cherry to look grave.

The estate was not worth one hundred and fifty thousand dollars now, by any means; it had been reduced to little more than two thirds of that sum, and Anne's bright concern that everyone should be satisfied with what was right, and her ingenuous pleasure in Justin's cleverness in thinking of this possibility, were met with noticeable coldness.

If Anne was wrong, and the paper she held in her hand worthless, each girl would inherit a comfortable little fortune, but if Anne was right, Cherry and Alix would have only a few thousand dollars apiece, and the old home.

The business talk was over before any of them realized the enormity of Anne's contention, and Anne and Justin had departed. But both the old doctor and the lawyer agreed with Martin that it looked as if Anne was right, and when the family was alone again, and had had the time to digest the matter, they felt as if a thunderbolt had fallen across their lives.

"That Anne could do it!" Alix said, over and over. Cherry seemed dazed, spoke not at all, and Martin had said little.

"People will do anything for money!" he observed once drily. He had met Justin sternly. "I'm not thinking of my wife's share--I didn't marry her for her money; never knew she had any! But I'm thinking of Alix."

"Yes--we must think of darling Alix!" Anne had said, nervously eager that there should be no quarrel. "If Uncle Lee intended me to have all this money, then I suppose I must take it, but I shan't be happy unless things are arranged so that Alix shall be comfortable!"

"B-but the worst of it is, Alix!" Cherry stammered, suddenly, on the day before she and Martin were to return to Red Creek, "I--I counted on having enough--enough to live my own life! Alix, I can't--I can't go back!"

"Why, my darling--" Alix exclaimed, as Cherry began to cry in her arms. "My darling, is it as bad as all that!"

"Oh, Alix," whispered the little sister, trembling, "I can't bear it. You don't know how I feel. You and Dad were always here; now that's all gone--you're going to rent the house and try to teach singing--and I've nothing to look forward to--I've nobody!"

"Listen, dear," Alix soothed her. "If they advise it, and especially if Peter advises it when he gets back, we'll fight Anne. And then if we win our fight, I'll always keep the valley house open. And if we don't, why I'm going to visit you and Martin every year, and perhaps I'll have a little apartment some day--I don't intend to board always--"

But she was crying, too. Everything seemed changed, cold and strange; she had suspected that Cherry's was not a successful marriage; she knew it now, and to resign the adored little sister to the unsympathetic atmosphere of Red Creek, and to miss all the old life and the old associations, made her heart ache.

"There's--there's nothing special, Cherry?" she asked after a while.

"With Martin? Oh, no," Cherry answered, her eyes dried, and her packing going on composedly, although her voice trembled now and then. "No, it's just that I get bad moods," she said, bravely. "I was pretty young to marry at all, I guess."

"Martin loves you," Alix suggested timidly.

"He takes me for granted," Cherry said, after a pause. "There doesn't seem to be anything alive in the feeling between us," she added, slowly. "If he says something to me, I make an effort to get his point of view before I answer. If I tell him some plan of mine, I can see that he thinks it sounds crazy! I don't seem very domestic--that's all. I--I try. Really, I do! But--" and Cherry seemed to brace herself in soul and body--"but that's marriage. I'll try again!"

She gave Alix a long kiss in parting, the next day, and clung to her.

"You're the dearest sister a girl ever had, Alix. You're all I have, now!"

"I'll write you about the case, and wire you if you're needed, and see you soon!" Alix said, cheerfully. Then she turned and went back into the empty house, keeping back her tears until the sound of the surrey had quite died away.