THE WORKS OF KATHLEEN NORRIS
FRANCES ROSE BENET
Dear mother of my mother's child, to you The tribute brings not praise from me alone, Still clings some grace of hers to what I do, And the gift comes in her name, as my own.
Cherry Strickland came in the door of the Strickland house, and shut it behind her, and stood so, with her hands behind her on the knob, and her slender body leaning forward, and her breath rising and falling on deep, ecstatic breaths. It was May in California, she was just eighteen, and for twenty-one minutes she had been engaged to be married.
She hardly knew why, after that last farewell to Martin, she had run so swiftly up the path, and why she had flashed into the house, and closed the door with such noiseless haste. There was nothing to run for! But it was as if she feared that the joy within her might escape into the moonlight night that was so perfumed with lilacs and the scent of wet woods. In this new happiness of hers a fear was already mingled, a sweet fear, truly, and a delicious fear, but she had never feared anything before in her life. She was afraid now that it was all too wonderful to be true, that she would awaken in the morning to find it only a dream, that she would somehow fall short of Martin's ideal— somehow fail him—somehow turn all this magic of moonshine and kisses into ashes and heartbreak.
She was a miser with her treasure, already; she wanted to fly with it, and to hide it away, and to test its reality in secret, alone. She had come running in from the wonderland down by the gate, just for this, just to prove to herself that it would not vanish in the commonplaceness of the shabby hall, would not disappear before the everyday contact of everyday things.
There was moonlight here, too, falling in clear squares on the stairway landing, white and mysterious and bewitching, but on the other side of the hall was wholesome, cheerful lamplight creeping in a warm streak under the sitting-room door.
Dad was in the sitting room, with the girls. The doctor's house was full of girls. Anne, his niece, was twenty-four; Alix, Cherry's sister, three years younger—how staid and unmarried and undesired they seemed to-night to panting and glowing and glorified eighteen! Anne, with Alix's erratic help, kept house for her uncle, and was supposed to keep a sharp eye on Cherry, too. But she hadn't been sharp enough to keep Martin Lloyd from asking her to marry him, exulted Cherry, as she stood breathless and laughing in the dark hallway.
Cherry had never had any other home than this shabby brown bungalow, and she knew every inch of the hall, even without light to see it. She knew the faded rugs, and the study door that swallowed up her father every day, and the table where Alix had put a great bowl of buttercups, and the glass-paned door at the back through which the doctor's girls had looked out at many a frosty morning, and red sunset, and sun-steeped summer afternoon. But even the old hall had seemed transformed to-night, lighted with a beauty quite new, scented with an immortal sweetness.
Hong came out of the dining room; the varnished buttercups twinkled in a sudden flood of light. He had come to put a folded tablecloth into the old wardrobe that did for a sideboard, under the stairs. Cherry, descending to earth, smiled at him, and crossed the hall to the sitting-room door.
An older woman might have gone upstairs, to dream alone of her new joy, but Cherry thought that it would be "fun" to join the family, and "act as if nothing had happened!" She was only a child, after all.
Consciously or unconsciously, they had all tried to keep her a child, these three who looked up to smile at her as she came in. One of them, rosy, gray-headed, magnificent at sixty, was her father, whose favourite she knew she was. He held out his hand to her without closing the book that was in the other hand, and drew her to the wide arm of his chair, where she settled herself with her soft young body resting against him, her slim ankles crossed, and her cheek dropped against his thick silver hair.
Alix was reading, and dreamily scratching her ankle as she read; she was a tall, awkward girl, younger far at twenty-one than Cherry was at eighteen, pretty in a gipsyish way, untidy as to hair, with round black eyes, high, thin cheek-bones marked with scarlet, and a wide, humorous mouth that was somehow droll in its expression even when she was angry or serious. She was rarely angry; she was unexacting, good-humoured, preferring animals to people, and unconventional in speech and manner. Her father and Anne sometimes discussed her anxiously; they confessed that they were rather fearful for Alix. For Cherry, neither one had ever had a disquieting thought.
Anne, smiling demurely over her white sewing, was a small, prettily-made little woman, with silky hair trimly braided, and a rather pale, small face with charming and regular features. She was not considered exactly pretty; perhaps the contrast with Cherry's unusual beauty was rather hard on both the older girls; but she was so perfectly capable in her little groove, so busy, contented, and necessary in the doctor's household, that it was rather a habit with all their friends to praise Anne. Anne had "admirers," too, Cherry reflected, looking at her to-night, but neither she nor Alix had ever been engaged—engaged—engaged!
"Aren't you home early?" said Doctor Strickland, rubbing his cheek against his youngest daughter's cheek in sleepy content. He was never quite happy unless all three girls were in his sight, but for this girl he had always felt an especial protecting fondness. It seemed only yesterday that Cherry, a rosy-cheeked sturdy little girl in a checked gingham apron, had been trotting off to school; to him it was yesterday that she had been a squarely-built baby, digging in the garden paths, and sniffing at the border pinks. He had followed her exquisite childhood with more than a father's usual devotion, perhaps because she really had been an exceptionally endearing child, perhaps because she had been given him, a tiny crying thing in a blanket, to fill the great gap her mother's going had left in his heart. He had sympathized with her microscopic cut fingers, he had smiled into her glowing, damp little face when she stuttered to him long tales of bad doggies and big 'ticks; he had brought her "jacks" and paper-dolls and hair ribbons; he loved the diminutive femininity of the creature; she was all a woman, even at three. Alix he proudly called his "boy"; Alix used hair ribbons to tie up her dogs, and demanded hip boots and an air rifle and got them, too, and used them, but when he took Alix in his arms she was apt to bump his nose violently with her hard young head, to break his glasses, or at best to wriggle herself free. Little Cherry, however, was 'fraid of dogs, she told her father, and of guns, and she would curl up in his arms for happy half-hours, with her gold curls sprayed against his shoulder, and her soft little hand tucked into his own.
"Mr. Lloyd had to take the nine o'clock train," Cherry answered her father dreamily, "and he and Peter walked home with me!" She did not add that Peter had left them at his own turning, a quarter of a mile away.
"I thought he wasn't going to be at Mrs. North's for dinner," Anne observed quietly, in the silence. She had been informally asked to the Norths' for dinner that evening herself, and had declined for no other reason than that attractive Martin Lloyd was presumably not to be there.
"He wasn't," Cherry said. "He thought he had to go to town at six. I just stopped in to give them Dad's message, and they teased me to stay. You knew where I was, didn't you—Dad?" she murmured.
"Mrs. North telephoned about six, and said you were there, but she didn't say that Mr. Lloyd was," Anne said, with a faint hint of discontent in her tone.
Alix fixed her bright, mischievous eyes upon the two, and suspended her reading for a moment. Alix's attitude toward the opposite sex was one of calm contempt, outwardly. But she had made rather an exception of Martin Lloyd, and had recently had a conversation with him on the subject of sensible, platonic friendships between men and women. At the mention of his name she looked up, remembering this talk with a little thrill.
His name had thrilled Anne, too, although she betrayed no sign of it as she sat quietly matching silks. In fact, all three of the girls were quite ready to fall in love with young Lloyd, if two of them had not actually done so.
He was a newcomer in the little town, a tall, presentable fellow, ready with laughter, ready with words, and always more than ready for flirtation. He admitted that he liked to flirt; his gay daring had quite carried Anne's citadel, and had even gained Alix's grudging response. Cherry had not been at home when Martin first appeared in Mill Valley, and the older girls had written her, visiting friends in Napa, that she must come and meet the new man.
Martin was a mining engineer: he had been employed in a Nevada mine, but was visiting his cousin in the valley now before going to a new position in June. In its informal fashion, Mill Valley had entertained him; he had tramped to the big forest five miles away with the Stricklands, and there had been a picnic to the mountain-top, everybody making the hard climb except Peter Joyce, who was a trifle lame, and perhaps a little lazy as well, and who usually rode an old horse, with the lunch in saddle-bags at each side. Alix formulated her theories of platonic friendships on these walks; Anne dreamed a foolish, happy dream. Girls did marry, men did take wives to themselves, dreamed Anne; it would be unspeakably sweet, but it would be no miracle!
And Anne, always busy and happy and helpful, was more so than ever, unpacking the delicious lunch, capably arranging for everybody's comfort and pleasure, looking up with innocent surprise when Martin bent over her as she fussed and rearranged baskets.
"I thought YOU were gathering wood!"
"Did you, indeed? Let the other fellows do that. I shan't be here forever, and I'm privileged."
"Would you like me to give you something else to do?"
"No, ma'am, I'm quite happy, thank you!"
Not much in the words to remember, truly, but the tone and the look went straight to Anne's close-guarded heart. Every time she looked up at the mountain, rearing its dark crest above the little valley, they had come back to her.
That was all several weeks ago, now. It was just after that mountain picnic that Cherry had come home; on a Sunday, as it chanced, that was her eighteenth birthday, and on which Martin and his aunt were coming to dinner. Alix had marked the occasion by wearing a loose velvet gown in which she fancied herself; Anne had conscientiously decorated the table, had seen to it that there was ice-cream, and chicken, and all the accessories that make a Sunday dinner in the country a national institution. Cherry had done nothing helpful.
On the contrary, she had disgraced herself and infuriated Hong by deciding to make fudge the last minute. Hong had finally relegated her to the laundry, and it was from this limbo that Martin, laughing joyously, extricated her, when, sticky and repentant, she had called for help. It was Martin who untied the checked brown apron, disentangling from the strings the silky gold tendrils that were blowing over Cherry's white neck, and Martin who opened the door for her sugary fingers, and Martin who watched the flying little figure out of sight with a prolonged "Whew-w-w!" of utter astonishment. The child was a beauty.
But if she was beautiful when flushed and cross and sticky, there was no word for her when she presently came demurely downstairs, her exquisite little red mouth still pouting, her bright head still drooping sulkily, but her wonderful eyes glinting mischief, and the dark, tumbled apron replaced by thin white ruffles that began at Cherry's shoulders and ended above her ankles. Soft, firm round chin, straight little nose, blue eyes ringed with babyish shadows; Martin found them all adorable, as was every inch of the slender, beautifully made little body, the brown warm hand, the clear, childish forehead, the square little foot in a shining slipper.
Her eighteenth birthday! He learned that she had just put up her hair, indeed, after dinner, her father made her tumble it down in a golden mop again. "Can't lose my last girl, you know," he said to Mrs. North, Martin's aunt, seriously. Martin had been shown her birthday gifts: books and a silver belt buckle and a gold pen and stationery and handkerchiefs. A day or two later she had had another gift; had opened the tiny Shreve box with a sudden hammering at her heart, with a presage of delight. She had found a silver-topped candy jar, and the card of Mr. John Martin Lloyd, and under the name, in tiny letters, the words "O fudge!" The girls laughed over this nonsense appreciatively, but there was more than laughter in Cherry's heart.
From that moment the world was changed. Her father, her sister, her cousin had second place, now. Cherry had put out her innocent little hand, and had opened the gate, and had passed through it into the world. That hour was the beginning, and it had led her surely, steadily, to the other hour to-night when she had been kissed, and had kissed in return.
Nobody dreamed it, she told herself with innocent exultation, looking at Alix, sunk into her chair ungracefully, and at Anne, peacefully sewing. They thought of her as a child—she, who was engaged to be married!
"So—we walk home with young men?" mused the doctor, smiling. "Look here, girls, this little Miss Muffet will be cutting you both out with that young man, if you're not careful!"
Alix, deep in her story, did not hear him, but Anne smiled faintly, and faintly frowned as she shook her head. She considered Cherry sufficiently precocious without Uncle Lee's ill-considered tolerance. Anne had often told him that Cherry was the "pink-and- white type" that would attract "boys" soon enough without any encouragement from him. But he persisted in regarding her as nothing more than a captivating baby!
He would have had them always children, this tender, simple, innocent Doctor Strickland. He was in many ways a child himself. He had never made money in his profession; he and his wife and the two tiny girls had had a hard enough struggle sometimes. Anne and her own father had joined the family eight years ago, in the same year that the Strickland Patent Fire Extinguisher, over which the doctor had been puttering for years, had been sold. It did not sell, as his neighbours believed, for a million dollars, but for perhaps one tenth of that sum. It was enough, and more than enough, whatever it was. After Anne's father died it meant that the doctor could live on in the brown house under the redwoods, with his girls, reading, fussing with a new invention, walking, consulting with Anne, laughing at Alix, and spoiling his youngest- born.
The house was shingled, low, framed in wide porches, smelling within and without of the sweet woods about it. Here the Stricklands weathered the cold, damp winters, when the trees dripped and the creeks swelled, and here they watched the first emerald of spring breaking through the loam of a thousand autumns; here they hunted for iris and wild lilac in April, and hung Japanese lanterns through the long, warm summers. It was a perfect life for the old man; it was only lately that he begun uneasily to suspect that they would some day want something more, that they would some day tire of empty forest and blowing mountain ridge, and go away from the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais, and into the world.
Anne, now—was she beginning to fancy this young Lloyd? Doctor Strickland was surprised with the fervour with which he repudiated the thought. Anne had been admired, she must go to her own home some day. But her uncle hoped that it would be a neighbouring home; this young engineer, who had drifted already into a dozen different and distant places, was not the man for staid little Anne. He was twenty-eight years old, but it was not the discrepancy in years that mattered. The doctor had himself been twelve years older than his wife. No, it was something less tangible—
"What did you want to see Mr. Lloyd about to-morrow, Dad?" Cherry interrupted his thoughts to ask.
"The rose vine!" her father reminded her.
"You'll never get that back on the roof!" Alix looked up to assure him discouragingly. "I told you, when you were pruning it," she added vivaciously, "that you were cutting too deep. No—you knew it all! Now the first wind brings it down all over the place, and you get exactly what you deserve!"
Her tone was less harsh than her words; indeed, it was the tone he loved from her, that of a devoted but long-suffering mother. She came to Cherry's hassock, and dropped on it, and rested her untidy head against his knee.
"Anne aided and abetted me!" said the doctor meekly.
"To the extent of handing you your shears!" Anne said promptly.
"No, but really you know, Dad, you were a pig-headed little creature to do that!" Alix said musically. "You might just as well cut it down at the roots and plant another double banksia."
"I rather thought that Lloyd might have some idea of a tackle—or a derrick or something—" submitted her father vaguely.
"Well, if anybody can—" Anne conceded, laughing. "What did he say about coming over, Cherry?"
But Cherry had not been listening, and the conversation was reviewed for her benefit. She remarked, between two rending yawns, that Mr. Lloyd was coming over to-morrow at ten o'clock, and Peter, too—
"Peter won't be much good!" Alix commented. Cherry looked at her reproachfully.
"You're awfully mean to Peter, lately!" she protested. Her father gave her a shrewd look, with his good-night kiss, and immediately afterward both the younger girls dragged their way up to bed.
Alix and Cherry shared a bare, woody-smelling room tucked away under brown eaves. The walls were of raw pine, the latticed windows, in bungalow fashion, opened into the fragrant darkness of the night. The beds were really bunks, and above her bunk each girl had an extra berth, for occasional guests. There was scant prettiness in the room, and yet it was full of purity and charm. The girls sat upon their beds while they were undressing, and plunged upon their knees on the bare pine floor and rested their elbows upon the faded patchwork quilts while they said their prayers. Mill Valley was so healthful a little mountain village that among her two thousand residents there was only one doctor, the old man who sat by the fire downstairs, and he had formally retired from general practice. The girls, like all their neighbours, were hardy, bred to cold baths, long walks, simple hours, and simple food. In the soft Western climate they left their bedroom windows open the year round; they liked to wake to winter damp and fog, and go downstairs with blue finger-tips and chattering teeth, to warm themselves with breakfast and the fire.
So Alix said nothing when Cherry went to the window to-night, and knelt at it, looking out into the redwoods, and breathing the piney air. In the silence of the little room the girls could hear a swollen creek rushing; rich, loamy odours drifted in from the forest that had been soaked with long April rains. Cherry saw a streak of light under the door of Hong's cabin, a hundred yards away; there was no moon, it was blackness unbroken under the trees. The season was late, but the girls felt with a rush of delight that summer was with them at last; the air was soft and warm, and there was a general sense of being freed from the winter's wetness and heaviness.
Alix rolled herself in a gray army blanket, and was asleep in some sixty seconds. But Cherry felt that she was floating in seas of new joy and utter delight, and that she would never be sleepy again.
Downstairs Anne and the doctor sat staidly on, the man dreaming with a knotted forehead, the girl sewing. Presently she ran a needle through her fine white work with seven tiny stitches, folded it, and put her thimble into a case that hung from her orderly workbag with a long ribbon.
"Wait a minute, Anne," said the doctor, as she straightened herself to rise. "This young Lloyd, now—what do YOU think of him?"
She widened demure blue eyes.
"Should you be sorry if I—liked him, Uncle Lee?" she smiled.
The old man rumpled his silver hair restlessly.
"No-o," he said, a little ruefully. "I suppose it'll be some man some day, my dear. I've been thinking—even little Cherry seems to be growing up!"
Anne, who modelled her deportment somewhat upon the conduct of Esther in "Bleak House," came to the hassock at his knee, and sat there, looking up at him with bright affection and respect.
"Cherry's only a child," she assured him, "and Alix will not be ready to give her heart to any man for years to come! But I'm twenty-four, Uncle. And sometimes I feel ready to—to try my own wings!"
He smiled at her absently; he was thinking of her mother, an articulate, academic, resolute woman, of whom he had never been fond.
"That's the way the wind blows, eh?" he asked kindly.
Anne widened her pretty eyes.
"Well—you see how much he's here! You see the flowers and books and notes. I'm not the sort of girl to wear my heart on my sleeve," Anne, who was fond of small conservational tags, assured him merrily. "But there must be some fire where there's so much smoke!" she ended.
"You're not sure, my dear?" he asked, after some thought.
"Oh, no!" she answered. "It's just a fancy that persists in coming and going. You know, Uncle Lee," Anne pursued, confidentially, "I've always had rather a high ideal of marriage. I've always said that the man I would marry must be a big man—oh, I don't mean only physically! I mean morally, mentally—a man among men!"
"And you think young Lloyd—answers that description, eh?"
"I think he does, Uncle Lee," she answered seriously. And immediately afterward she got to her feet, saying brightly, "Well! we mustn't take this too gravely—yet. It was only that I wanted to be open and above-board with you, Uncle, from the beginning. That's the only honest way."
"That's wise and right!" her uncle answered, in the kindly, absent tone he had used to them as children, a tone he was apt to use to Anne when she was in her highest mood, and one she rather resented.
"Cherry, now—" he asked, detaining her for a moment. "She—you don't think that perhaps Peter admires her?"
"PETER!" Anne echoed amazedly, and stood thinking.
Peter was more than thirty years old, thin, scholarly, something of a solitary, the sweet, dreamy, affectionate neighbour who had shared the girls' lives for the past ten years. Cherry had bullied Peter since her babyhood, ruined his piano with sticky fingers, trampled his rose-beds, coaxed him into asking her father to let her sit up for dinner. For some reason she could not, or would not, define, Anne liked the idea of Cherry and Peter falling in love—
"Somehow one doesn't think of Peter as marrying any one—" she said slowly, still trying to grasp the thought. "He's so—self- sufficient," she added, shaking her head. "You—you WOULDN'T like that, Uncle?"
"Peter is a dear fellow," the doctor mused. "But Cherry—why, she's barely eighteen! He—" The old man hesitated, began again: "I suppose there's no reason why Peter shouldn't kiss her, in a— brotherly sort of way?" he submitted doubtfully.
"Did he kiss her?" Anne exclaimed.
"I don't know that he did," Cherry's father said hastily.
"But what made you think he did?" the girl persisted.
"Just a fancy," he assured her. "Just an old father's fear that she is growing up too fast!"
"Because we all, and you especially, spoil her," Anne reminded him, smiling. "Peter," she added thoughtfully, "has kissed us all, now and then!" She stooped for a dutiful good-night kiss, and was gone. And as she went, lightly and swiftly across the hall, up the stairway with her shoulders erect, and methodically and prettily moved about her brushing and folding and disrobing, she saw herself engaged to be married, saw herself veiled and mystical in white, on her Uncle's arm, heard the old neighbours and friends saying that little Anne Strickland had gone to her own home, and had won the love of a fine man.
Downstairs, the doctor sat on, thinking, and his face was grave. He was thinking of little Cherry's goodnight kiss, half an hour ago. She had rested against his arm, and he had held her there, but what had been the thoughts behind the blue eyes so near his own? Perhaps Anne was right—perhaps Anne was right. But he realized with a great rush of fear that some man had kissed Cherry to-night, had held her against a tobacco-scented coat, and that the girl was a woman, and an awakened woman at that. Cherry— kissed a man! Her father's heart winced away from the thought.
Young Lloyd and Peter had walked home with her. But if Anne was right in her maidenly suspicions of Lloyd's intentions, then it must have been Peter who surprised little Cherry with a sudden embrace. Lloyd had been hurrying for a train, too; the case looked clear for Peter.
And as he came to his conclusions, a certain relief crept into the old man's heart. Peter was an odd fellow; he was ten years too old for the child. But Peter was a lover of books and gardens and woods and music, after all, and Peter's father and this old man musing by the fire had been "Lee" and "Paul" to each other since boyhood. Peter might give Cherry a kiss as innocently as a brother; in any case, Peter would wait for her, would be all consideration and tenderness when he did win her.
"But I think perhaps she might go down to the San Jose school for half a term," her father reflected. "Six months there did wonders for Alix. No use precipitating things—the next few years are pretty important for all the girls. We mustn't let her fancy that the first man who turns her head with compliments is the right partner for life! Alix, now—somehow she wasn't like Cherry, at eighteen."
He smiled at a sudden memory of Alix, who was chicken-farming at that age, and generally unpleasantly redolent of incubators, chopped feed, and mire. He seemed to remember Alix shouting that if Peter Joyce was going to LIVE in their house, she would move somewhere else! Cherry was different.
Cherry, he reflected fearfully, was as pretty as her mother had been at eighteen, with the same rounded chin and apricot cheeks, and the same shadowed innocent blue eyes with a film of corn- coloured hair blown across them. She had the strange, the indefinable quality that without words, almost without glances, draws youth toward youth, draws admiration and passion, draws life and all its pain. Her father for the first time to-night formulated in his heart the thought that she might be happily married—
Married—nonsense! Why, what did she know of life, of submission and courage and sacrifice? At the first strain, at the first real test, she would want to run home to her Daddy again, to "stop playing"—! It would be years, many years, before the snowy frills, and the pale gold head, and the firm, brown little hand would be ready for that!
Not many hours after he went slowly up to bed morning began to creep into the little valley. The redwoods turned gray, and then dark green, the fog stirred, and a first shaft of bright sunlight struck across a shoulder of the hills, and pierced the shadows about the brown bungalow. Alix, at her early bath, heard quail calling, and looked out to see the last of the fog vanishing at eight o'clock, and to get a wet rush of fragrance from the Persian lilac, blooming this year for the first time. At half-past eight she came out into the garden, to find her father somewhat ruefully studying the tumbled ruins of the yellow banksia rose. The garden was still wet, but warming fast; she picked a plume of dark and perfumed heliotrope, and began to fasten it in his coat lapel while she kissed him.
"We'll never get that back on the roof, my dear boy," Alix said maternally.
Her father pursed his lips, shook his head doubtfully. The rose, a short, week ago, had been spreading fan-like branches well toward the ridge-pole, a story and a half above their heads. But the great wind of yestereve that had ended the spring and brought in the summer had dragged it from its place and flung it, a jumble of emerald leaves and sweet clusters of creamy blossoms, across the path and the steps of the porch. Alix looked up at the outward curve of the reversed branches, bent almost to the splitting point in the unfamiliar direction, and whistled. She tentatively tugged at a loose spray, and stood biting her thumb.
"Why it should have kept its place for fifteen years and then suddenly flopped, is a mystery to me!" she observed resentfully.
"Well, the truth is," her father confessed, "you were quite right last night. When I pruned it, a week ago, I may have undermined it."
"You never will listen to reason!" his daughter remarked absently, her attention distracted by the setter puppy who came clumsily gambolling toward her. "Hello, old Bumpydoodles!" she added, with rich affection, kissing the dog's silky head, and burying both hands in his feathered collar. "Hello, old Buck!"
"Alexandra, for heaven's sake stop handling that brute!" said Peter Joyce disgustedly, coming up the path. "I dare say you've not had your breakfast, either. Go wash your hands! 'Morning, Doctor!"
Father and daughter turned to smile upon him, a tall, lean man, with a young face and a finely groomed head, and with touches of premature silver at his temples. He was very much at home here, had been their closest friend for many years.
He was a bachelor, just entering his thirties, a fastidious, critical, exacting man by reputation, but showing his best side to the Stricklands. They had a vague idea that he was rich, according to their modest standard, but he apparently had no extravagant tastes, and lived as quietly, or more quietly, than they did. He had a brown cabin, up on the mountain, where two or three Portuguese boys and an old, fat Chinese cook managed his affairs, and he sometimes spoke of friends at the club, or brought two or three men home with him for a visit. But for the most part he liked solitude, books, music, dogs, and his fireside. The old doctor's one social enjoyment was in visiting Peter, and the younger man went to no other place so steadily as he came to the old house under the redwoods.
The girls accepted him unquestioningly, sometimes resenting his frank criticism, sometimes grateful for the entertaining he delighted to do for them, but most often ignoring him, as if he had been an uncle whose place and standing in the domestic circle was unquestioned, but who did not really enter into their young plans and lives. He was whimsically, good-naturedly disapproving of Alexandra, and he frankly did not like Anne, but he had always been especially indulgent to Cherry, and had taken the subject of Cherry's schooling and development very seriously. And Cherry treated him, in return, as if she had been his demure and mischievous and affectionate daughter.
"'Morning, Peter!" said Doctor Strickland now, smiling at him. "Have you had yours?"
"My house," said Mr. Joyce fastidiously, "is a well-managed place."
"Of course," Alix said, panting from her welcome to the dog, and laughing at the newcomer without resentment, "of course it is, for the President Emeritus of the Maiden Ladies' Guild is running it!"
"Don't be insulting," Peter answered, in the same mood. "Say," he added, pursing his lips to whistle, as he looked at the rose tree, "did Tuesday's wind do that?"
"Tuesday's wind and Dad," Alix answered. "Will it go back, Peter?"
"I—I don't know!" he mused, walking slowly about the wreck. "If we had a lever down here, and some fellow on the roof with a rope, maybe."
"Mr. Lloyd is coming over!" Alix announced. Peter nodded absently, but the mention of Martin Lloyd reminded him that they had all dined at his house on the very evening when the mysterious gale had commenced, and with interest he asked:
"Cherry catch cold coming home Tuesday night?"
"No; she squeezed in between Dad and me, and was as warm as toast!" Alix answered casually. "How'd you like Mr. Lloyd?" she added.
"Nice fellow!" Peter answered. Alix grinned. She had before this accused Peter of violent partisanship with his own sex. He criticized women severely; the Strickland girls had often been angry and resentful at his comments upon the insincerity, extravagance, and ignorance of their own sex, but with Peter, all men were worthy of respect, until otherwise proved.
"He's awfully nice," Alix agreed.
"Who is he?" Peter asked curiously. "Where are his people and all that?"
"His people live in Portland," the girl answered. "He's a mining engineer, and he's waiting now to be called to El Nido; he's to be at a mine there. He's lots of fun—when you know him, really!"
"Talking of the new Prince Charming, of course," Anne said, joining them, and linking an arm in her Uncle's and in Alix's arm. "Don't bring that puppy in, Alix, please! Breakfast, Uncle Lee. Come and have another cup of coffee, Peter!"
"Prince Charming, eh?" Peter echoed thoughtfully, as they all turned toward a delicious drift of the odour of bacon and coffee, and crossed the porch to the dining room. "I was going down for the mail, but now I'll have to stay and see this rose matter through! Thanks, Anne, but I'll watch you."
"Afraid of getting fatter?" Alix speculated, shaking out her napkin. "You ARE fatter," she added, with a calm conviction.
"Do you always say the thing that will give the most offence?" Peter asked, annoyed. "Where's Cherry?" he added, glancing about.
Cherry answered the question herself by trailing in in a Japanese wrapper, and beginning to drink her coffee with bare, slender arms resting on the table. Nobody protested, the adored youngest was usually given her way. Alix's indifference to the niceties of her toilet had been seriously combated, years ago, but Cherry was so young, and so pretty in any dress or undress, that it was impossible to regard her little lapses with any gravity. Moreover, the family realized perfectly that Alix would have clipped her thick hair, and taken to bloomers or knickerbockers outright, at the slightest encouragement, and would gladly have breakfasted in a wrapper, or in her petticoats, or while about the woods with her dogs, whereas nobody could know Cherry and not know that every weakness of which the feminine heart is capable, for frills and toilet waters, creams and laces, was dormant under the childish negligence.
"I heard you all laughing, under the window and it—woke—me—up!" Cherry said dreamily.
"It seems to me," Anne, who had been eying her uneasily, said lightly, "that someone I know is getting pretty old to come downstairs in that rig when strangers are here!"
"It seems to me this is just as decent as lots of things—bathing suits, for instance!" Cherry returned instantly, gathering the robe about her, and giving Anne a resentful glance over her blue cup.
"Peter, are you a stranger?" Alix said. "If Peter's a stranger," she added animatedly, "what is an intimate friend? Peter walks through this house at all hours; you can't wash your hair or do a little ironing without having Peter under your feet; he borrows money from me; he bullies Hong about wasting butter—"
"Also you borrow money from me, my child, don't forget that," Peter interrupted serenely, peeling an apple. "I don't come to see YOU, Alix."
"I have a rope somewhere—" the doctor ruminated. "Where did I put that long rope—what did I have it for, in the first place—"
"You had it to guy the apple tree," Alix reminded him. "Don't you remember you got a regular ship's cable to tie that tree, and it never worked? The tree that died after all—"
"Ah, yes!" said her father, his attentive face brightening. "Ah, yes! Now WHERE is that rope?" But even as Alix observed that she had seen it somewhere, and advanced a tentative guess as to the cellar, his eyes fell upon Cherry, and went from Cherry's absorbed face—for she was dreaming over her breakfast—to Peter, and he wondered if Peter HAD kissed her.
"Come on, let's get at it!" Alix exclaimed with relish. She loved a struggle of any description, had prepared for this one with sleeves rolled to the elbows, and had put on heavy shoes and her briefest skirt. "Come on, Sweetums," she added, to the dog, who had somehow wormed his way into the dining room, and was beating the floor with an obsequious tail. She caught his forepaws, and he whipped his beautiful tail between his legs, and looked about with agonized eyes while she dragged him through a clumsy dance. "He's the darlingest pup we ever had!" Alix stated to Cherry, who was departing for the upper regions and a complete costume.
"He needs a bath," Anne observed coldly, and Peter's abrupt shout of laughter made Alix flush angrily.
"Bring your cigarette out here, Peter," the old doctor said, crossing the garden to look in the abandoned greenhouse for his rope. "We're in no hurry," he said. "We may as well wait until Lloyd comes along; the fellow's arms are like flails. You—-" the old man opened a reluctant door, peered into a glassed space filled with muddy shelves and empty flower-pots and spiderwebs. "It's not here," he stated. Then he began again, "You brought Cherry home last night?" he asked.
"As a matter of fact, I didn't," Peter answered, in his quick, precise tones. "I came with Lloyd and Cherry as far as the bridge, then I cut up the hill. Why?" he added sharply. "What's up?"
"Nothing's up," Doctor Strickland said slowly. "But I think that Lloyd admires—or is beginning to admire—her," he said.
"Who—Cherry!" Peter exclaimed, with distaste and incredulity in his tone.
"You don't think so?" the doctor, looking at him wistfully, asked eagerly.
"Why, certainly not!" Peter said quickly. "Certainly not," he added, frowning, with his eyes narrowed, and his look fixed upon the vista of woodland.
"I had a fancy that he might have been putting notions into her head," her father said, anxious to be reassured.
"But—great Scott!" Peter said, his face very red, "she's much younger than Anne and Alix—"
"It doesn't always go by that," the doctor suggested.
"No, I know it doesn't," Peter answered in his quick, annoyed fashion.
"I should be sorry," Cherry's father admitted.
"Sorry!" Peter echoed impatiently. "But it's quite out of the question, of course! It's quite out of the question. You mustn't— we mustn't—let ourselves get scared about the first man that looks at her. She—she wouldn't consider him for an instant," he suddenly decided in great satisfaction. "You mustn't forget that she has something to do with it! Very fastidious, Cherry. She's not like other girls!"
"That's true—that's true!" Doctor Strickland agreed, in great relief. They turned back toward the garden, in time to meet Alix and several dogs streaming across the clearing. Over the girl's shoulder was coiled the great rope; she leaped various logs and small bushes as she came, and the dogs barked madly and leaped with her. Breathless, she stumbled and fell into her father's arms, and both men had the same thought, one that made them smile upon her tomboyishness indulgently: "If this is twenty-one— eighteen is three long years younger and less responsible!"
Immediately they gathered by the fallen rose vine, all talking and disputing at once. Alix and the dogs added only noise to the confusion; the men debated, measured, and doubted; Anne, busy with household duties, came and went smilingly. About them stretched the forest, wrapped in the summer morning stillness that is really compounded of a thousand happy sounds. There was no fog now; warm spokes of sunshine fell brightly into the dim, glowing heart of the woods; bees and birds murmured on short journeys; aromatic sweetness drifted on the air.
They had known a thousand such mornings, the doctor and his girls, still, exquisite, happy, dedicated to some absurd undertaking. They had built chicken pens, they had dammed or cleared the creek, they had felled bay-trees, and lopped the lower branches of the redwoods, they had built roaring bonfires, or painted the porch floor, and many times they had roasted chops or potatoes at the brick oven, and feasted royally in the open forest.
A light rope was tied; an experimental tug broke it like a string, tumbling Alix violently in a sitting position, and precipitating her father into a loamy bed. Anne, who was bargaining with a Chinese fruit vendor frankly interested in their undertaking, had called that she would help them in a second, when behind Alix, who was still sitting on the ground, another voice offered help.
A young man had come into the doctor's garden; work was stopped for a few minutes while they welcomed Martin Lloyd.
He was tall and fair, broad, but with not an ounce of extra weight, with brown eyes always laughing, and a ready friendliness always in evidence. He was dressed becomingly to-day, in a brown army shirt open at the throat, and shabby golf trousers that met his thick woollen stockings at the knee. Anne's heart gave a throb of approval as she studied him; Alix flushed furiously, scowled a certain boyish approval; Cherry had not come down.
"Can you help us?" The doctor echoed his question doubtfully. "I don't know that it can be done!" he admitted.
"This shameless old man has just confessed that he gouged the heart out of the poor tree a week ago," Alix said, getting to her feet. "That's the first use he put his birthday knife to! And Anne stood here and abetted him, as far as I can find out!"
"How you garble things, Alix!" Anne said, giving her hand to Martin. "I came out here to find my uncle busily pruning and chopping the dead underwood away, but I had no more to do with it than you had!"
"What's that you're eating—an apricot?" Martin said to Anne, in his laughing way. "I was going to say that if it was a peach, you are a cannibal!"
"Oh, help!" Alix ejaculated, with a look of elaborate scorn.
"No, but where were you last night?" Martin added in a lower tone when he and Anne could speak unnoticed. The happy colour flooded her face.
"I have to take care of my family SOMETIMES!" she reminded him demurely. "Wasn't Cherry a good substitute?"
"Cherry's adorable!" he agreed heartily.
"Isn't she sweet?" Anne asked enthusiastically. "She's only a little girl, really, but she's a little girl who is going to have a lot of attention some day!" she added, in her most matronly manner.
Martin did not answer, but turning briskly toward the doctor, he devoted himself to the business in hand. Peter had climbed on an inverted barrel, to inspect and advise. Alix dashed upstairs for nails and hammer; the doctor whittled pegs; Martin measured the comparative strength of ropes and branches with a judicial eye and hand. Anne flitted about, suggesting, commenting, her pretty little head tipped to one side.
They were all deep in the first united tug, each person placed carefully by the doctor, and guys for the rope driven at intervals decided by Martin, when there was an interruption for Cherry's arrival on the scene. With characteristic coquetry she did not approach, as the others had, by means of the front porch and the garden path, but crept from the study window into a veritable tunnel of green bloom, and came crawling down it, as sweet and fragrant, as lovely and as fresh, as the roses themselves. She wore a scant pink gingham that had been a dozen times to the tub, and was faded and small; it might have been a regal mantle and diadem without any further enhancing her extraordinary beauty. Her bright head was hidden by a blue sunbonnet, assumed, she explained later, because the thorns tangled her hair; but as, laughing and smothered with roses, she crept into view, the sunbonnet slipped back, and the lovely, flushed little face, with tendrils of gold straying across the white forehead, and mischief gleaming in the blue, blue eyes was framed only in loosened pale gold hair.
Years afterward Alix remembered her so, as Martin Lloyd helped her to spring free of the branches, and she stood laughing at their surprise and still clinging to his hand. "The day we raised the rose tree" had a place of its own in Alix's memory, as a time of carefree fun and content, a time of perfume and sunshine—perhaps the last time of its kind that any one of them was to know.
Cherry looked at Martin daringly as she joined the labourers; her whole being was thrilling to the excitement of his glance; she was hardly conscious of what she was doing or saying. Under her father's direction she tied ropes, presently was placed with her arms clasped tightly about a great sheaf of vines, ready for the united tug. Martin came close to her, in the general confusion.
"How's my little sweetheart this morning?"
Cherry looked up, her throat contracted, she looked down again, unable to speak. She had been waiting for his first word; now that it had come it seemed so far richer and sweeter than her wildest dream.
"How can I see you a minute?" Martin murmured, snapping his big knife shut.
"I have to walk down for the mail—" stammered Cherry, conscious only of Martin and herself.
Both Peter and her father were watching her with an uneasiness and suspicion that had sprung into being full-blown. Both men were asking themselves what they knew of this strange young man who was suddenly a part of their intimate little world.
He was simply a man; not unusual in any apparent way. He was ready with his words, fairly good-looking, clean and muscular, his evident lack of polish in languages and letters atoned for by his quick wit, and by a certain boyish artlessness and ingenuousness. He represented himself as about to receive an excellent salary at the mine at El Nido, two thousand a year, but also admitted cheerfully that he was always "broke." He had distinguished himself at college, but had left it after only two years, upon being offered a promising position. There was nothing especially to admire in him, nothing especially to blame; under other circumstances Peter and the doctor might have pronounced him as one of the least interesting of human specimens. The beauty of childhood and adolescence were gone, the ripeness given by years and suffering was wanting; Martin Lloyd was just, as he himself laughingly remarked, "one of the fellers."
Peter had secretly criticized him because he used the words "'phone" and "photo" and "'Frisco," but in justice he had to admit to himself that there was no particular significance to the criticism. He also, in his secret heart, had a vague, dissatisfied feeling that Lloyd was a man who held women, as a class, rather in disrespect, and had probably had his experiences with them, but there was no way of expressing, much less governing, his conduct toward Martin by so purely speculative a prejudice. The young man had dined at his house a few nights ago, had shown an admiration, if not an appreciation, for music, had talked with sufficient intelligence about political matters, mining, and—what else? photography, and pullman cars, and the latest wreck off Bolinas— just the random conversation that was apt to trail through a country dinner. He had told a Chinese joke well, and essayed an Irish joke not so successfully. Peter, somewhat appalled, in the sunny garden, struggling with the banksia, decided that this was not much to know of a person who might have the audacity to fall in love with an exquisite and innocent Cherry. After all, she would not be a little girl forever, some man would want to take that little corn-coloured head and that delicious little pink-clad person away with him some day, to be his wife—
And suddenly Peter was torn by a stab of pure pain, and he stood puzzled and sick, in the garden bed, wondering what was happening to him.
"Listen—want a drink?" Alix asked, coming out with a tin dipper that spilled a glittering sheet of water down on the thirsty nasturtiums. "Rest a few minutes, Peter. Dad wanted a pole, and Mr. Lloyd has gone up into the woods to cut one."
"And where's Cherry?" Peter asked, drinking deep.
"She went along—just up in the woods here!" Alix answered. "Dad had to answer the telephone, but they're going to yell if they need help! WELL!" and Alix, panting, sat down on a log, "are we going to do it?"
"We ought to go up and help Lloyd," Peter decreed. "Which way did he go?"
"I don't know, darling!" Alix answered, leaning back, crossing her ankles, and yawning. "But they'll be back before you could get there. They've been gone five minutes!"
Only five minutes, but they were enough to take Cherry and her lover out of sight of the house, enough to have him put his arm about her, and to have her raise her lips confidently, and yet shyly, again to his. They kissed each other deeply, again and again. The girl was a little confused and even a little uneasy as he continued the tight grip on his arm about her, and her upward look found his eyes close to her own.
Their talk was incoherent. Cherry was still playing, coquetting and smiling, her words few, and Martin, having her so near, could only repeat the endearing phrases that attempted to express to her his love and fervour.
"You darling! Do you know how I love you? You darling—you little exquisite beauty! Do you love me—do you love me?" Martin murmured, and Cherry answered breathlessly:
"You know I do—but you know I do!"
Presently he selected the sapling redwood, and brought it down with two blows of his axe. The girl seated herself beside him, helped him strip the trunk, their hands constantly touching, the man once or twice delaying her for one more snatched and laughing kiss.
"But, Martin, you've been engaged before?" Cherry asked.
"Never—on my honour! But yes, I was once, too, years ago. I want to tell you about that—"
He told her, her grave face bent over the redwood boughs she was tearing. She nodded, flushed, paled. He had met this girl at his mother's, do you see? And she was a cute little thing, don't you know? Her name was Dorothy King, and when he went back to college she had promised to write, do you see? But she hadn't written for weeks, and then she had written to say that she was engaged to another man, a man named—named—he had forgotten the name. But she had married him all right—-
And Cherry looked up, laughing almost reproachfully. How could he ever forget her married name! Cherry said that she suspected that Martin hadn't really cared, and he said no, but he had wanted to tell her about it all the same, because knowing her had made him want really to be honest—and to be good—
Tears stood in his eyes, and she forgave him his admiration for Dorothy King, and said that she knew he was good. And Martin said that he was going to make her the happiest wife a man ever had.
Dragging the stripped tree, they ran down the sharp hill to the house just as Anne came out to announce luncheon. Peter was wandering off in the woods nearby, but came at Alix's shrill yell of summons, and looked relieved when he saw Cherry and Martin not even talking to each other. They had been gone only ten minutes.
Anne, who did not like Peter, had decided not to ask him to stay, but Peter had calmly taken his usual place, and had annoyed Anne with his familiar questioning of Hong as to the amount of butter needed in batter bread. It was a happy meal for everyone, and after it they had attacked the rose bush again, with aching muscles now, and in the first real summer heat. It was three o'clock before, with a great crackling, and the scream of a twisted branch, and a general panting and heaving on the part of the workers, at last the feathery mass had risen a foot—two feet- -into the air, had stood tottering like a wall of bloom, and finally, with a downward rush, had settled to its old place on the roof. Hong was pressed into service now, and with Martin, was on the roof, grappling with a rope, shouting directions. A shower of tiny blossoms and torn leaves covered the steps of the office- porch, the garden beds were trampled deep, the seven labourers breathless and exhausted. But the rose vine was in place! Alix shouted congratulations to Martin as he busily roped and tied the recaptured masses in their old position. Anne had vanished for sandwiches; Peter was being scientifically bandaged by the doctor. Cherry stood looking up at the roof; she did little talking; she watched Martin during every second he spent there.
Her small heart was bursting with excitement. He had found easy opportunities to talk to her a dozen times under cover of the general noise. He had said wonderful and thrilling things.
"How is my own girl? Sweetheart, you're the sweetest rose of them all! Cherry, do you suppose they can see from our faces how happy we are?" Little sentences that meant nothing when other lips spoke them, but that his voice made immortal.
Looking up at him, she thought of the glorious days ahead. How they would all wonder and exclaim; yes, and how the girls would envy her! Little Cherry, just eighteen, going to be married, and married to a man that Alix or Anne would have been only too glad to win! A real man, from the outside world, a man of twenty-eight, ten years older than she was. And how the letters and presents and gowns and plans would begin to flutter through the bungalow—she would be married in cafe-au-lait rajah cloth, as Miss Pinckney in San Francisco was; she would be Mrs. Lloyd! She could chaperone Alix and Anne—
There was a rending, slipping noise on the roof, a scream from Martin, and shouts from the doctor and Peter. With a great sliding and rushing of the refractory sprays, and with a horrifying stumbling and falling, down came Martin, caught in a great rope of the creeper, almost at her feet.
A time of great running and calling ensued. Cherry dropped on her knees beside him, and had his head on her arm for a moment; then her father took her place, and Alix, with an astonished look at the younger girl's wet eyes, drew her sister away. Immediately afterward Martin sat up, looked bewilderedly about from one face to another, looked at his scratched wrist and said "Gee!" in a thoughtful tone. Anne, coming out with sandwiches, joined in the general laugh.
"You scared Cherry out of ten years' growth!" Alix reproached Martin.
"I—I thought he might have hurt himself!" Cherry said, in the softest of little-girl voices, and with her shy little head hanging. Anne decided that it was becoming her clear duty to talk to Cherry.
"My dear," she said, later that same afternoon, when by chance she was alone with her little cousin, "don't you think perhaps it would be a little more dignified to treat Mr. Lloyd with more formality? He likes you, dear, of course. But a man wants to respect as well as like a pretty girl, and I am afraid—Uncle has noticed it!" she interrupted herself quickly, as Cherry tossed her head scornfully. "He spoke of it last night, and Alix tells me that you are calling Mr. Lloyd 'Martin!' Now, dearie, Martin Lloyd is fully ten years—-"
"Then Alix is a tattle-tale!" Cherry said childishly.
"I don't know about that," Anne said gently, although perhaps it would have been more generous in her to add that Alix had made the comment gleefully, and almost admiringly. "But that isn't important. The point is that you are only a young girl—"
"I wish you would all mind your own royal business for about five seconds!" Cherry said, rudely and impatiently. She was in her own room, rummaging on the upper shelf of the closet for a certain hat. She secured the hat now, and ran unceremoniously away from her admonitor, to join Alix, Peter, and Martin for the daily ceremony of walking into the village for the mail.
Anne followed her downstairs sedately, perhaps a little dashed presently to discover that this dignified proceeding had lost her the walk. They were all gone. The house was very still, early summer sweetness was drifting through wide-opened windows and doors; the long day was slowly declining. In the woods close to the door a really summery hum of insect life was stirring. Hong, in dull minor gutturals, jabbered somewhere in the far distance to a friend. Anne peeped into the deserted living room, softened through all its pleasant shabbiness into real beauty by the shafts of sunset red that came in through the casement windows; and was deliberating between various becoming occupations—for Martin might walk back with the girls—when her uncle called her.
He was sitting in the little room that was still called his office, but that was really his study now, and the late afternoon light, through the replaced rose vine, streamed in on the shabby books and the green lampshade and the cluttered desk.
"Anne—you weren't there when that young chap tumbled. But I've been worrying about it a little. There's no question—there's no question that she—that Cherry—called him by his name. 'Martin,' she called him."
Anne had crossed to the shadowy doorway; she stood still.
"It can't be!" protested the doctor, uneasily. "Did Alix say anything to you about it?"
"She said that," Anne admitted, drily.
"You've not noticed anything between him and Cherry?" pursued the doctor. "A girl might call a man by his name, I suppose—"
"I don't think there has been anything to notice," Anne stated, in a level tone.
"You don't?" the doctor echoed, in relief, peering at her. She could meet his look with a smile, but in her heart were the same thoughts that Cherry had been innocently indulging, under the rose vine an hour ago, and the dream that had been Heaven to Cherry was Purgatory to Anne. Cherry married, Cherry receiving cups and presents and gowns, Cherry, Mrs. Lloyd, with a plain gold ring on her young, childish hand, Cherry able to patronize and chaperone Alix and Anne—! "I half fancied that it might be you, Anne," her uncle added, "although I know what a sensible little head you have!" "I'm afraid I'm a trifle exacting where men are concerned!" Anne said, understanding perfectly that her pride was being shielded, but hurt to the heart, nevertheless.
"Well, it must be stopped, if it has begun," decided her uncle. "I can't permit it—I'd forgotten how the little witch grows!"
"He isn't as eligible for Cherry as for me, then?" Anne asked lightly. But her smile disarmed the unsuspicious old man, and he answered honestly:
"You're quite different, Anne. You were older at eighteen than she'll be at twenty-four; you could hold your own—you could, in a way, make your own life! She—why, she's only an innocent little girl; she's got dolls in the attic; we were teasing her about turning up her hair last week!"
Again Anne was silent. It occurred to her to laugh at the absurdity of these quick suspicions, but they had already seized upon her with the curious tenacity of truth; already she had accepted the fact that what yesterday would have been the unbelievable maximum of humiliation and hurt was true to-day, and less than the whole bitter truth!
She was not in love with Martin Lloyd; she was not as susceptible as the much younger Cherry, and she had not had his urging to help her to a quick surrender. But for the first time in her life she had seen an absolutely suitable man, a man whose work, position, looks, name, and character fitted her rather exacting standard, and for the first time she had let herself think confidently of being wooed and won. It was all so right, so dignified, so fitting. She had been the light of her uncle's eyes, and the little capable keeper of his house for years; she had been reminding her own friends of this frequently during the past year or two; now she was ready to step into a nest of her own.
Standing there in the doorway, she tasted the last bitter dregs of the dream. It was all over. Anne was at the age that sets twenty- five years as the definite boundary of spinsterhood. She would be twenty-five in August.
Alix came in from her walk glowing, and full of a great discovery.
"Dad," she said eagerly, taking her place at the supper table, "what do you think! I'll bet you a dollar that man is falling in love with our Cherry!"
Anne, at the head of the table, looked pained, but there was genuine apprehension in the doctor's face.
"Where is your sister?" he asked.
"Down there by the gate," Alix answered. "They're gazing soulfully into each other's eyes, and all that! Peter went home. But CHERRY- -with a beau! Isn't that the ultimate extension of the limit! I'm crazy about it—I think it's great. An engineer, Dad, and Mrs. North's nephew, and he has a fine job in a mine somewhere," she summarized enthusiastically, "you couldn't ask anything better than that, could you? Could you, Dad? I love weddings! This'll be the third I've been to!"
"All this seems to have come up very suddenly," the doctor said, dazedly, rumpling his gray hair with a fine old hand. "I don't imagine your sister is taking it as seriously as you and Anne seem inclined to—-"
"Oh, does Anne think so!" Alix exclaimed.
"I think Cherry is one of the fortunate girls destined to drift along the surface of life," Anne said, "and to accept wifehood quite simply. I only wish I were that type—"
"Oh, Nancy, what rot you talk every time you remember you had a year at college!" Alix said, lightly. "Can't you let the poor kid fall in love without yapping about types and biology and the cosmic urge—-"
"Really, Alix, you use extraordinary language!" Anne remonstrated, glancing at her uncle with outraged dignity. "And I am not aware that I spoke of biology or the cosmic urge!" But her tone was not as impersonal as her words, and she was flushed and even agitated. "Shan't we begin, Uncle Lee?" she asked, patiently. "If Cherry is just down at the gate there, she'll only be another minute—"
She was interrupted by Cherry herself. The girl came to the porch door, and as she hesitated there a minute, with her smiling eyes seeking her father's face, they saw that by one firm, small hand she drew her lover beside her. Martin Lloyd's smiling face showed above hers in the lamplight.
"Dad!" said Cherry, with a childish breath. "Dad! I've brought Martin to supper!"
The three at the table did not move for perhaps twenty slow seconds. Doctor Strickland, who had pushed back his chair, and whose hands were resting on the table before him, stared at them steadily. Anne, with a quick little hiss of surprise, smiled faintly. Alix, the unstilted, widened her eyes, and opened her mouth in unaffected astonishment. For there was no mistaking Cherry's tone.
"Doctor," said Martin, coming in, "this little girl of yours and I have something to tell you!" The old man looked at him sharply, almost sternly, looked about at the girls' faces, and was silent. But he tightened his arm about Cherry, who had fluttered to the arm of his chair.
"Are you surprised, Daddy?" Cherry laughed, with all a child's innocent exultation. The next instant Anne and Martin were shaking hands, and Alix had enveloped Cherry in an enthusiastic embrace.
"Surprised!" exclaimed Alix. "Why, aren't you surprised yourself!"
Her sister flushed exquisitely, and Martin laughed.
"We're just about knocked silly!" he confessed, and all the girls laughed joyously.
There followed a delighted confusion of talk, when each in turn remembered what she had noticed, what she had suspected, and what her first emotion had been at this moment or that. Meanwhile a place was made for Martin, and biscuits and omelette and honey and tea were put into brisk circulation. Cherry left her place beside her father, with a final kiss, and took her own chair, all dimples, flushes, smiles, and shy confidence.
"And what are your plans?" Anne asked maternally, as she poured tea.
Her uncle, who had been silent during the excitement, mildly interposed:
"I think we needn't go too fast, young people! You've only known each other a few weeks, after all; you must be pretty sure of yourselves before taking anything like a decisive step. Plenty of time—plenty of time. Mr. Lloyd can go back to his mine, and Cherry will wait for him—"
Cherry's wild-rose face coloured, and her whole body drooped.
"But I can be getting ready, and I can tell people, Dad?" she pleaded.
"We'll see," her father promised her, soothingly. He had promised her thus vaguely when, as an imperative baby years ago, she had wanted the impossible. But she was not a baby now.
"Ah, now—that won't do!" she pouted.
"You must give me a little time to get used to the idea of losing my baby, pretty," her father said. "I confess that this thing seems to have come upon me rather unexpectedly. Mr. Lloyd here and I must have some talks about his plans—"
"I know exactly how you feel, Doctor," Martin said, sensibly and sympathetically. "I realize that I should have come to you first, and asked to pay my respects to your daughter—laugh, why don't you?" he added to Alix, from whom an abrupt and startling laugh had indeed escaped in good-natured scorn.
"Nobody does that any more!" the girl said, in self-defence. "It sounded so old-fashioned!"
"Perhaps nobody does it any more, but I should have done it," Martin said briskly and seriously. "Except that it all came over me with such a rush. A week ago Cherry was only a most attractive child, to me. I'd spoken to my aunt about her and had said that I envied the man that was some day to win her, and that was all! Then the time came for me to get back to work—and I found I couldn't go! I couldn't leave her. However, I expect to be back here some time in the fall, and I thought to myself that I'd see her then, and perhaps, THEN—And then came last night, when I began to say good-byes, and—it happened! I know that you all hardly know me, and I know that Cherry is pretty young to settle down, but I think I can satisfy you, Doctor, that you give her into safe hands, and I believe she'll never regret trusting me!"
He had gotten to his feet as he spoke, and was holding the back of his chair, looking anxiously and eagerly into the old man's eyes. His tone, in spite of his effort to keep it light, had taken on a depth and gravity quite new to his hearers, and as Cherry, sitting next him, and fired through all her girlish being by his eloquence, turned to lay a small, warm hand on his own, the tears came to his eyes.
"Well—" said the doctor, touched himself, and in his gentlest tone, "well! It had to come, perhaps, I can't promise her to you very soon, Mr. Lloyd. But if you both are willing to wait, and if time proves this to be the real feeling, I don't believe you'll find me hard on you!"
"That's all I ask, sir!" Martin said, resuming his seat and his dinner. And for the rest of the meal harmony and gaiety reigned.
Alix shot an occasional glance at Anne, who was flushed, but as usual busy and charming over the tea cups. Alix knew that Anne was inwardly writhing; indeed she felt a sort of emotional shock herself. Yesterday the mere talk of a lover for any one of them was delightfully thrilling and vague—to-night Cherry was actually engaged! The older girls' romantic speculations were flat enough now; Cherry had the actual thing.
There was no jealousy in Alix's heart, as there definitely was in Anne's, of the man. But Alix felt envious of the superior experience—why, he would kiss Cherry! No man had ever kissed Alix. Cherry would be the admired and envied girl among all the girls; married at eighteen, it was so beautifully flattering and satisfying to be married young!
She looked at her father's face, a troubled face to-night. He was watching the lovers regretfully; he did not disguise it. Their quick plans, the readiness with which they solved the tremendous problems to come, the light-heartedness with which they were hurrying toward the future—had he and the older Charity been like that, twenty-five years ago, when they had had supper at her mother's house, and told the great news? He remembered himself, an eager, enthusiastic lover—had he really given better promise then than this handsome young fellow was giving to-night? He tried to remember the older Charity's mother; what she had said, what expression her face had worn, and it seemed to him that he could dimly recall reluctance and pain and gravity in that long-ago look.
After dinner Cherry and Martin, in all the ecstatic first delight of recognized love, went out to the wide front porch, where there were wicker chairs, under the rose vines. Alix alone laughed at them as they went. Anne, with a storm in her heart, played noisily on the piano, and the doctor, after giving the doorway where Cherry had disappeared a wistful look, restlessly took to his armchair and his book, in such desolation of spirit as he had not known since the dark day of her mother's death.
The next day Alix and the engaged pair walked up to invite Peter to a tennis foursome on the old Blithedale court. It was a Saturday, and as he usually dined with them, or asked them to dine with him on Saturday, they were not surprised to find him busy with a charcoal burner, under the trees, compounding a marvellous dish of chicken, tomatoes, cream, and mushrooms, or to have his first words a caution not to tip things over if they wanted any dinner. His Chinese cook was hovering about, but Peter himself was chef.
"Stop your messing one second!" Alix said, catching him by the arm. And as he straightened up she added, with a little awkward laugh, "Congratulate these creatures—they—they're going to be married! Why don't you congratulate them!"
Peter gave one long look at Martin and Cherry, who stood laughing, but a little confused and self-conscious, too, in the grassy path. With a shock like death in his heart, he realized that it was all over. Their protection of her, their suspicions, had come too late. Blind child that she was, she was committed to this fascinating and mysterious adventure.
His face grew dark with a sudden rush of blood. "Peter hates to have any one else know a thing before he does!" Alix explained this later. But he went to them quickly, and shook hands with Martin, and was presently reproaching Cherry for her secretiveness in his old, or almost his old, way.
"Of course nobody's to know—Dad insisted on that!" said Cherry's soft, proud little voice.
"Did you suspect yesterday, Peter?" Alix asked, tasting the sauce, and bunching her fingers immediately afterward to send a rapturous kiss into the air as an indication of its deliciousness. "Yesterday when they went off after the tree, I mean?"
"I had my own suspicions!" he returned, and Cherry—his little, gay, lovely Cherry!—laughed happily. He arranged that they were to play the tennis here on his own courts, and later dine with him, but under his hospitality and under the golden beauty of the day it was all pain—pain—pain. It was agony to see her with him, beginning to taste the rapture of love given and returned; it was agony to have the conversation return always to Martin and Cherry, to the first love affair. When they wandered away to the brook, and stood talking, the girl's head dropped, her cheek flushed, but her face raised quickly now and then for a flashing look, Peter felt that he could have killed this newcomer, this thief, this usurper of the place that he himself might have filled.
"Dad's always said he disapproved of long engagements," Alix commented, amusedly, "but you ought to hear him now! This thing— he won't even call it an engagement—it's an understanding, or a preference—is to be a profound secret, and Cherry's to be twenty- one before any one else but ourselves knows—"
"Your father is quite right!" Peter said sharply, in his most elderly manner. They were resting after the first set, and Cherry and Martin, in the opposite court, were out of hearing.
"When your hair gets tossed back that way," Alix observed innocently, "lots more gray shows! I think you're turning gray pretty young, Peter, aren't you? Are you forty yet? You're not forty, are you?"
"I'm thirty-six," Peter answered briefly. "My father was gray at twenty-seven!" he added, after a pause.
"I have a gray hair," Alix started. "People talk about the first gray hair—"
Peter did not hear her. There was beginning of a little hope in his heart. Girls did not always fulfill their first engagements, did not often do so, in fact. The thing was a secret; it might well come to nothing, after all.
That was the beginning, and after it, although it was arranged between them all that nothing should be changed, and that nobody but themselves should share the secret, somehow life seemed different. Two or three days after the momentous day of the raising of the rose tree, Martin Lloyd went to his mine at El Nido, and the interrupted current of life in the brown bungalow supposedly found its old groove.
But nothing was the same. The doctor, in the first place, was more silent and thoughtful than the girls had ever seen him before. Anne and Alix knew that he was not happy about Cherry's plans, if the younger girl did not. He sighed, sat silently looking off from his book in the summer evenings, fell into deep musing even at his meals. With Alix only he talked of the engagement, and she knew from his comments, his doubtful manner, that he felt it to be a mistake. The ten years' difference between Cherry and Martin distressed him; he spoke of it again and again. In June he sent Cherry to a long-planned house-party at Menlo Park, but the girl came back after the third day. "I didn't have any fun," she confessed, "I had to tell Olive, about me and Martin, I mean. The boys there were all KIDS!"
Cherry was changed, too, and not only in the expected and natural ways, Alix thought. She had always had a generous share of the family devotion, but she entirely eclipsed the others now. Her daily letter from Martin, her new prospects, not only increased her importance in the other girls' eyes, but innocently inflated her own self-confidence. She received a diamond ring, and although at her father's request she did not show it for a few weeks, eventually it slipped mysteriously from the little chamois bag on her neck, and duly appeared on her left hand. She had promised to keep the engagement "or understanding, or preference," a profound secret, but this was impossible. First one intimate friend and then another was allowed to gasp and exclaim over the news. The time came when Anne decided that it was not "decent" not to let Martin's aunt know of it, when all these other people knew. Finally came a dinner to the Norths', when Cherry's health was drunk, and then the engagement presents began to come in.
"But it's July now," Cherry said, innocently, "and I think we were pretty smart to keep it a secret so long! Don't you, Dad? And we've been engaged three months, now, so that it looks as if waiting wasn't going to change our minds, doesn't it?"
He could not chill her gay confidence; he had always spoiled her. Her father only looked tenderly into the blue eyes, and tightened his big arm protectingly about the slender young shoulders. But he was deeply depressed. There seemed nothing to say. Cherry was of age; she was sure of herself. She was truly in love with this presentable young man. Doctor Strickland felt that he did not know Martin—the man to whom he gave his lovely daughter he would have hoped to know intimately for years. There was nothing to be said against young Lloyd. It was only—mused the doctor, aghast—only what was being done in the world every day. But he was staggered by the bright readiness with which all of them—Cherry, Martin, the other girls—accepted the stupendous fact that Cherry was to be married.
She was quite frankly and delightedly discussing trousseau now, too entirely absorbed in her own happiness to see that the other girls had lives to live as well as she. Did Anne mind if she divided her share of the silver from theirs; did Alix think she would ever want any of Mother's lace?
"I got my cards yesterday," she said one day, "I was passing the shop, and I thought I might as well! The woman looked at me so queerly; she said: 'Mrs. John Martin Lloyd. Are these for your mother?' 'No,' I said, 'they're for me!' I wish you could have seen her look. Martin says in to-day's letter that he thinks people will say I'm his daughter, and Alix—he says that you are to come up to visit us, and we're going to find you a fine husband! Won't it be funny to think of your visiting ME! Oh, and Anne—did you see what Mrs. Fairfax sent me? A great big glorious fur coat! She said I would need it up there, and I guess I will! It's not new, you know; she says it isn't the real present, but it can be cut down and it will look like new."
And so on and on. The other girls listened, sympathized, and rejoiced, but it was not always easy. They could not get Cherry to be interested in any of their plans for week-end house-parties, climbs, or picnics; indeed, even to themselves their own lives seemed a trifle dull by contrast.
Anne, as usual, took her part in the summer activities of the village; she and Alix put on their white gowns and wide hats, and duly descended to strawberry fetes and church fairs and concerts, and duly laughed disarmingly when old friends expressed their pleasant suspicions of Cherry.
But Alix voiced their feelings one summer afternoon when she was sauntering into the village at her cousin's side, and began for the first time a faint criticism of Martin.
"What makes Dad mad," Alix opined, "is that Martin had it all arranged before he asked him! Took advantage of Dad, in a way. I don't think he would have felt so if they both were kids, but after all, Martin's twenty-eight—" Her voice fell. "Anne," she began, hesitatingly, "sometimes when Mrs. North says so gaily that Martin was a TERROR in college, and kept his whole family worrying, I feel sort of sorry for Cherry! She doesn't know as much of life as we do," twenty-one-year-old Alix finished soberly.
"I know!" Anne said quickly, perhaps a little glad to find a point where Cherry needed sympathy.
"I have a feeling that Dad thinks," Alix pursued, "that it was just because it was Cherry's first beau-I mean that Cherry waked up suddenly, don't you know? It was as if she said to herself, 'Why, I'm a woman! I can get kissed and get married and all the rest of it!'—I'm expressing this beautifully," stumbled Mix.
"I often wonder Uncle Lee doesn't forbid it!" Anne said. She had never had even a flitting thought of such a thing before, but she spoke now as if the engagement had had her heartiest disapproval from the first.
"Oh, no—why should he!" Alix remonstrated. "Martin may be the best man in the world for her. I confess," the girl added frankly, "I can't stand his aunt. I always used to like Mrs. North, too. But lately, when she's begun to tell Cherry that he is extravagant, and she must save his money for him, and that he's often been in love before, but this time she's sure it is the real thing, and that Martin has his father's delicate stomach—-"
Anne laughed out, in a merry fashion not usual with her of late.
"Oh, Alix, she DIDN'T!"
"Oh, yes, she did! And it makes me sort of sick. What does Cherry care about anybody's delicate stomach!" Alix fell silent, broke out again abruptly: "Anne—do you suppose she'll have a baby?"
Anne flushed. She considered this remark rather indelicate, and yet she liked Alix's recognition of her superior knowledge of the subject.
"I think it very likely!" she answered calmly, after a moment's hesitation. Her first impulse had been to answer, "I think it very unlikely!"
"She doesn't know anything about babies!" Alix said, somewhat worried.
"I don't, either!" Anne confessed with honesty, her brow troubled. "I've read things, here and there. I know SOMETHING, of course. But I don't know much!"
"We've all read Dickens—and the Classic Myths, and things," Alix submitted. "And of course she went with us the day Dad took us to Faust! Is that about all there is to it, Nance?"
"Just—about, I guess!" Anne answered briefly. Both girls' faces were red. They had rarely touched upon these and kindred subjects in their talks with each other; they had never discussed them with any one else. Anne liked to fancy herself rather worldly wise; Alix had an independent brain and tongue. But in their household there was no older woman to illumine their confused guessing with an occasional word now and then, even if an unusually wholesome out-of-door life had not distracted their attention from the problems raised in books, and their isolation had not protected them from the careless talk of other girls of their ages.
August brought Martin, and more changes. He was delighted with his work in the El Nido mine, the "Emmy Younger," and everything he had to say about it was amusing and interesting. It was still in a rather chaotic condition, he reported, but the "stuff" was there, and he anticipated a busy winter. He was to have a cottage, a pretty crude affair, in a few weeks, right at the mine.
"How does that listen to you?" he asked Cherry. Cherry was sitting beside him, at the dinner table, on the first night of his arrival. She was thrilling still to the memory of his greeting kiss, its fresh odour of shaving soap and witch hazel, and the clean touch of his smooth-shaven cheek. She gave her father a demure and interrogative glance. Martin, following it, immediately sobered.
"Just what is your position there?" the doctor asked, pleasantly.
"A little bit of everything now," Martin answered, readily and respectfully. "Later, of course, I shall have my own special work. At present I'm doing some of the assaying, and have charge of the sluice-gang. They want me to make myself generally useful, make suggestions, take hold in every way!"
"That's the way to get on," the older man said, approvingly. Cherry looked admiringly, with all her heart in her eyes, at her husband-to-be; the other girls were impressed, too. Martin brought a new element, something masculine and modern, to their quiet dinner table. Dad and Peter were men, to be sure, but they were different. They were only a little more dear and amusing and real than the men in Dickens' novels, long familiar and beloved in the household. But Martin made the girls feel suddenly in touch with real life.
He had kissed Alix and Anne, upon arriving, and they liked it. Both the older girls, in fact, were so impressed with the brilliancy of Cherry's prospects, with the extraordinary distinction she possessed in having a promised husband, with whom to walk about the woods and to talk of the future, that they could forgive Cherry for being wrapped in a sort of dream. Her new name, her new state, her new clothes, and home and position filled her thoughts, and theirs. Martin had not been with them more than a few hours before the engagement was openly discussed, and there were constant references to Cherry's marriage.
It was a cool evening, and after dinner they all gathered about the fire; Martin and Cherry murmuring together in the ingle seat, and the others only occasionally drawing them into the general conversation. Peter and the Norths had come in for coffee, Mrs. North giving Cherry a maternal kiss as she greeted her. Alix thought that she had never seen her sister look so pretty; Cherry was wearing a new dress, of golden-brown corduroy velvet, with a deep collar and cuffs of old embroidery that had belonged to her mother. Her silk stockings were brown, and her russet slippers finished with square silver buckles. But it was at the lovely face that Alix looked, the earnest, honest blue eyes, the peach-bloom of the young cheeks, and the drooping crown of shining hair.
Somehow, a few days later, wedding plans were in the air, and they were all taking it for granted that Cherry and Martin were to be married almost immediately; in October, in fact. The doctor at first persisted that the event must wait until April, but Martin's reasonable impatience, and Cherry's plaintive "But why, Daddy?" were too much for him. Why, indeed? Cherry's mother had been married at eighteen, when that mother's husband was more than ten years older than Martin Lloyd was now.
"Would ye let it go on, Peter, eh?" the doctor asked, somewhat embarrassed, one evening when he and Peter were walking from the train in the late September twilight.
"Lord, don't ask me!" Peter said, gruffly. "I think she's too young to marry any one—but the mischief's done now! You can't lock a girl in her room, and she's the sort of girl that wouldn't be convinced by that sort of argument if you did!"
"I think I'll talk to her," her father decided. "Anything is better than having her make a mistake. I think she'll listen to me!" And a day or two later he called her into the study. It was a quiet autumn morning, foggy yet warm, with a dewy, woody sweetness in the air.
"Before we decide this thing finally," the doctor said, smiling into her bright face, "before Martin writes his people that it's settled, I want to ask you to do something. It's something you won't like to do, my little girl. I want ye to wait a while—wait a year!"
It was said. He watched the brightness fade from her glowing face, she lowered her eyes, the line of her mouth grew firm.
"Wait until you're twenty, dear. That's young enough. I've been planning a full winter for you girls; I wanted to take a house in town, entertain a little, look up a few friends! You trust me, Cherry. I only ask you to take a little time—to be sure, dear!"
Silence. She shrugged faintly, blinked the downcast eyes as if tears stung them.
"I know you don't like Martin, Dad!" she said, tremulously.
"No, no, my darling—you mustn't say that!" he said, in distress. "I like him very much—I think he's a thoroughly fine fellow! I could wish—just with an old father's selfishness—that he was a neighbour, that he didn't plan to take you away entirely. That's natural, before I give him the thing I hold most precious in the world. And that's just it, Cherry. Wait a year or two, and perhaps it will be possible to establish him here near us. You'll have a little money, dear, and Martin says himself that he would much prefer office work to this constant changing. Marriage is a great change, anyway. Everything is different; your point of view, your very personality changes with it. You'll be lonely, my dear. You'll miss your sister and Anne, and all the old friends. There are cases where it must be so, of course. But in your case—"
He stopped, discouraged. She was sitting opposite him at the shabby writing table, her elbows resting upon it, her full lips pouting with disappointment. Perhaps the one phrase of her new plans that pleased Cherry most was that she was to be carried entirely away from the familiar atmosphere in which she would always be "little Cherry," and subject to suggestions and criticisms. Now she began slowly to shake her head.
"Can't take your old father's word for it?" Doctor Strickland asked.
"It isn't that, Dad!" she protested eagerly and affectionately. "I'll wait—I have waited! I'll wait until Christmas, or April, if you say so! But it won't make any difference, nothing will. I love him and he loves me, and we always will.
"You don't know," Cherry went on, with suddenly watering eyes, "you don't KNOW what this summer of separation has meant to us both! If we must wait longer, why, we will of course, but it will mean that I'll never have a happy instant! It will mean that I am just living along somehow—oh, I won't cry!" she interrupted, smiling with wet lashes, "I'll try to bear it decently! But sometimes I feel as if I COULDN'T bear it—"
A rush of tears choked her. She groped for a handkerchief, and felt, as she had felt so many times, her father's handkerchief pressed into her hand. The doctor sighed. There was nothing more to be said.
So he gave Cherry a wedding check that made her dance with joy, and there was no more seriousness. There were gowns, dinners, theatre-parties, and presents; every day brought its new surprise and new delight to Cherry. She had her cream-coloured rajah silk, but her sister and cousin persuaded her to be married in white, and it was their hands that dressed the first bride when the great day came, and fastened over her corn-coloured hair her mother's lace veil.
It was a day of soft sweetness, not too brightly summery, but warm and still under the trees. Until ten o'clock the mountain and the tops of the redwoods were tangled in scarfs of white fog, then the mellow sunlight pierced it with sudden spectacular brightening and lifting.
The little brown house was full of flowers and laughter and coming and going. Anne and Alix, flushed and excited in their bridesmaids' gowns, were nervous and tired. They had made lists and addressed envelopes, had decorated the house, had talked to milliners and florists and caterers and dressmakers, had packed and repacked Cherry's trunk and boxes. Cherry was tired and excited, too, but had no realization of it; she was carried along upon a roseate cloud of happiness and excitement.
Martin's mother and stepfather had come down from Portland, and were friendly, and pleased with everything.
"His mother," Alix told Peter, "is the sort of handsome person who keeps a boarding-house and marries a rich, adoring old Klondike man."
"Is that what she did?" Peter whispered, amused.
"She's only sixteen years older than Martin is!" Alix confided further. "She kissed Cherry and said, 'You're just a baby doll, that's what you are!' And he calls me 'Ma'am,' and Cherry 'Sister!' They've got two little children, a boy and a girl. Dad likes them both."
"Well, that's good!" Peter approved. "Does Cherry?"
"Oh, anything that belongs to Martin is perfect!" Alix answered, in indulgent scorn, as she abruptly departed to see to some detail concerning the carriages, the music, or the breakfast. She and Anne were in a constant state of worry during the morning; their plans for seating two score of persons were changed twenty times; they conspired in agitated whispers behind doors and in the pantry.
But the first wedding went well. At twelve o'clock Charity Strickland became Charity Lloyd, and was kissed and toasted and congratulated until her lovely little face was burning with colour, and her blue eyes were bewildered with fatigue. She stood in the drawing-room doorway, her bouquet with its trailing ribbons in her gloved hands, and as each one of all the old friends and neighbours made some little pre-arranged speech of an amusing or emotional nature, she met it with a receptive word or smile, hardly conscious of what she did or said. Sometimes she freed her feet from the folds of her lacy train, and sometimes gave Martin a glance backward and upward over her shoulder, once asking him to hold her flowers with a smile that several guests afterward remarked showed that those two couldn't see anything in the world but each other.
At two o'clock there were good-byes. Cherry had changed the wedding satin for the cream-coloured rajah silk then, and wore the extravagant hat. It would be many years before she would spend twenty-five dollars for a hat again, and never again would she see bronzed cocks feathers against bronzed straw without remembering the clean little wood-smelling bedroom and the hour in which she had pinned her wedding hat over her fair hair, and had gone, demure and radiant and confident, to meet her husband in the old hallway.
She was confusedly kissed, passed from hand to hand, was conscious with a sort of strange aching at her heart that she was not only far from saying the usual heart-broken things in farewell, but was actually far from feeling them. She laughed at Alix's last nonsense, promised to write—wouldn't say good-bye—would see them all soon—was coming, Martin—and so a last kiss for darling Dad, and good-bye and so many thanks and thanks to them all!
She was gone. With her the uncertain autumn sunshine vanished, and a shadow fell on the forest. The mountain, above the valley, was blotted out with fog. The brown house seemed dark and empty when the last guests had loitered away, and the last caterer had gathered up his possessions and had gone. Hong was prosaically making mutton broth for dinner; pyramids of sandwiches and little cakes stood on the sideboard.
Up in Cherry's room there was a litter of tissue papers, and pins and powder were strewn on the bureau. The bed was mashed and disordered by the weight of guests' hats and wraps that had lain there. A heap of cards, still attached to ribbons and wires, were gathered on the book-shelf, to be sent after Cherry and remind her of the donours of gifts and flowers.
Across the lower bed that had been Cherry's a pale blue Japanese wrapper had been flung. The girls had seen her wear it a hundred times; she had slipped into it to change her gown a few hours ago. Anne, excited and tired, picked it up, stared vaguely at it for a few minutes, and then knelt down beside the bed, and began to cry. Alix, the muscles about her mouth twitching, stood watching her.
"Funerals are gay compared to the way a wedding feels!" Alix said finally. "I've eaten so much candy and wedding-cake and olives and marrons, and whipped cream and crab salad that my skin feels like the barrel of a musical box! I'm going to take a walk! Come on, Nancy."
"No, I don't want to!" Anne said, wiping her eyes, and sitting back on her heels, with a long sigh and sniff. "I've got too much to do!"
Alix descended to find her father and Peter discussing fly- fishing, on the porch steps. The doctor had changed his unwonted wedding finery for his shabby old smoking jacket, but Peter still looked unnaturally well dressed. Alix stepped down to sit between them, and her father's arm went about her. She snuggled against him in an unusual mood of tenderness and quiet.
"Be nice to me!" she said, whimsically. "I'm lonely!"
"H'm!" her father said, significantly, tightening his arm. Peter moved up on the other side and locked his own arm in her free one. And so they sat, silent, depressed, their shoulders touching, their sombre eyes fixed upon the shadowy depths of the forest into which an October fog was softly and noiselessly creeping.
Meanwhile, the hot train sped on, and the drab autumn country flew by the windows, and still the bride sat wrapped in her dream, smiling, musing, rousing herself to notice the scenery. The lap of the cream-coloured gown held magazines and a box of candy, and in the rack above her head were the new camera and the new umbrella and the new suitcase.
When Martin asked her if she liked to be a married woman, travelling with her husband, she smiled and said that it seemed "funny." For the most part she was silent, pleased and interested, but not quite her usual unconcerned self. She and Alix, taking this trip, would have been chattering like magpies. She and Martin had their dinner in the train, and then she did brighten, trying to pierce with her eyes the darkness outside, and getting only a lovely reflected face under bronzed cocks feathers, instead. After dinner they had a long, murmured talk; she began to droop sleepily now, although even this long day had not paled her cheeks or visibly tired her.
At ten they stumbled out, cramped and over-heated, and smitten on tired foreheads with a rush of icy mountain air.
"Is this the pl-l-ace?" yawned Cherry, clinging to his arm.
"This is the place, Baby Girl, El Nido, and not much of a place!" her husband told her. "That's the Hotel McKinley, over there where the lights are! We stay there to-night, and drive out to the mine to-morrow. I'll manage the bags, but don't you stumble!"
She was wide-awake now, looking alertly about her at the dark streets of the little town. Mud squelched beneath their feet, planks tilted. Beside Martin Cherry entered the bright, cheerful lobby of a cheap hotel where men were smoking and spitting. She was beside him at the desk, and saw him write on the register, "J. M. Lloyd and wife." The clerk pushed a key across the counter; Martin guided her to a rattling elevator.
She had a fleeting thought of home; of Dad reading before the fire, of the little brown room upstairs, with Alix, slender in her thin nightgown, yawning over her prayers. A rush of reluctance—of strangeness—of something like terror smote her. She fought the homesickness down resolutely; everything would seem brighter to- morrow, when the morning and the sunshine came again.
There was a brown and red carpet in the oblong of the room, and a brown bureau, and a wide iron bed with a limp spread, and a peeling brown washstand with a pitcher and basin. The boy lighted a flare of electric lights which made the chocolate and gold wallpaper look like one pattern in the light and another in the shadow. A man laughed in the adjoining room; the voice seemed very near.
Cherry had never been in a hotel of this sort before; she learned later that El Nido was extremely proud of it, with its rattling elevator and its dining room on the "American Plan." It seemed to her cheap and horrible; she did not want to stay in this room, and Martin, tipping the boy and asking for ice-water, seemed somehow a part of this new strangeness and crudeness. She began to be afraid that he would think she was silly, presently, if she said her prayers as usual.
In the morning Martin hired a phaeton, and they drove out to the mine. It had rained in the night, and there were pools of water on the soft dirt road, but the sky was high and blue, and the air tingled with sweetness and freshness after the shower. Cherry had had a good breakfast, and was wearing a new gown; they stopped another phaeton on the long, pleasant drive and Martin said to the fat man in it:
"Mr. Bates, I want to make you acquainted with my wife!"
"Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Lloyd!" said the fat man, pleasantly. Martin told Cherry, when they passed him, that that was the superintendent of the mine, and seemed pleased at the encounter. And Cherry smiled up at the blue sky, and felt the warmth and silence of the day saturate her whole being. Presently Martin put his arm about her, and the bay horse dawdled along at his own sweet will, while Martin's deep voice told his wife over and over again how adorable and beautiful she was, and how he loved her.