MY DEAR Mr. SNOW:
I am writing as the most intimate woman friend of Marian Thorne. As such, I have spent much thought trying to figure out exactly the reason for the decision in your recent architectural competition; why a man should think of such a number of very personal, intimate touches that, from familiarity with them, I know that Miss Thorne had incorporated in her plans, and why his winning house should be her winning house, merely reversed.
Today I have found the answer, which I am forwarding to you, knowing that you will understand exactly what should be done. Enclosed you will find one of the first rough sketches Marian made of her plans. In some mysterious manner it was lost on a night when your prize-winning architect had dinner at our house where Miss Thorne was also a guest. Before retiring she showed to me and explained the plans with which she hoped to win your competition. In the morning I packed her suitcase and handed it to the porter of her train. When she arrived at San Francisco she found that the enclosed sheet was missing.
This afternoon tidying a garage in which Mr. Peter Morrison, the author, is living while Henry Anderson completes a residence he is building for him near my home, I reversed a coat belonging to Henry Anderson to dislodge from its pocket the nest of a field mouse. In so doing I emptied all the pockets, and in gathering up their contents I found this lost sheet from Marian's plans.
I think nothing more need be said on my part save that I understood the winning plan was to become the property of Nicholson and Snow. Without waiting to see whether these plans would win or not, Henry Anderson has them three fourths of the way materialized in Mr. Morrison's residence in Lilac Valley which is a northwestern suburb of Los Angeles.
You probably have heard Marian speak of me, and from her you may obtain any information you might care to have concerning my responsibility.
I am mailing the sketch to you rather than to Marian because I feel that you are the party most deeply interested in a business way, and I hope, too, that you will be interested in protecting my very dear friend from the disagreeable parts of this very disagreeable situation.
Very truly yours,
CHAPTER XXVIII. Putting It Up to Peter
When Peter Morrison finally gave up looking in the pockets of Henry Anderson's coat for enlightenment concerning Linda's conduct, it was with his mind settled on one point. There was nothing in the coat now that could possibly have startled the girl or annoyed her. Whatever had been there that caused her extremely peculiar conduct she had carried away with her. Peter had settled convictions concerning Linda. From the first instant he had looked into her clear young eyes as she stood in Multiflores Canyon triumphantly holding aloft the Cotyledon in one hand and with the other struggling to induce the skirt of her blouse to resume its proper location beneath the band of her trousers, he had felt that her heart and her mind were as clear and cool and businesslike as the energetic mountain stream hurrying past her. Above all others, "straight" was the one adjective he probably would have applied to her. Whatever she had taken from Henry's pockets was something that concerned her. If she took anything, she had a right to take it; of that Peter was unalterably certain. He remembered that a few days before she practically had admitted to him that Anderson had annoyed her, and a slow anger began to surge up in Peter's carefully regulated heart. His thoughts were extremely busy, but the thing he thought most frequently and most forcefully was that he would thoroughly enjoy taking Henry Anderson by the scruff of the neck, leading him to the sheerest part of his own particular share of the mountain, and exhaustively booting him down it.
"It takes these youngsters to rush in and raise the devil where there's no necessity for anything to happen if just a modicum of common sense had been used," growled Peter.
He mulled over the problem for several days, and then he decided he should see Linda, and with his first look into her straight-forward eyes, from the tones of her voice and the carriage of her head he would know whether the annoyance persisted. About the customary time for her to return from school Peter started on foot down the short cut between his home and the Strong residence. He was following a footpath rounding the base of the mountain, crossing and recrossing the enthusiastic mountain stream as it speeded toward the valley, when a flash of color on the farther side of the brook attracted him. He stopped, then hastily sprang across the water, climbed a few yards, and, after skirting a heavy clump of bushes, looked at Linda sitting beside them—a most astonishing Linda, appearing small and humble, very much tucked away, unrestrained tears rolling down her cheeks, a wet handkerchief wadded in one hand, a packet of letters in her lap. A long instant they studied each other.
"Am I intruding?" inquired Peter at last.
Linda shook her head vigorously and gulped down a sob.
"No, Peter," she sobbed, "I had come this far on my way to you when my courage gave out."
Peter rearranged the immediate landscape and seated himself beside Linda.
"Now stop distressing yourself," he said authoritatively. "You youngsters do take life so seriously. The only thing that could have happened to you worth your shedding a tear over can't possibly have happened; so stop this waste of good material. Tears are very precious things, Linda. They ought to be the most unusual things in life. Now tell me something. Were you coming to me about that matter that worried you the other evening?"
Linda shook her head.
"No," she said, "I have turned that matter over where it belongs. I have nothing further to do with it. I'll confess to you I took a paper from among those that fell from Henry Anderson's pocket. It was not his. He had no right to have it. He couldn't possibly have come by it honorably or without knowing what it was. I took the liberty to put it where it belongs, or at least where it seemed to me that it belongs. That is all over."
"Then something else has happened?" asked Peter. "Something connected with the package of letters in your lap?"
Linda nodded vigorously.
"Peter, I have done something perfectly awful," she confessed. "I never in this world meant to do it. I wouldn't have done it for anything. I have got myself into the dreadfullest mess, and I don't know how to get out. When I couldn't stand it another minute I started right to you, Peter, just like I'd have started to my father if I'd had him to go to."
"I see," said Peter, deeply interested in the toe of his shoe. "You depended on my age and worldly experience and my unconcealed devotion to your interests, which is exactly what you should do, my dear. Now tell me. Dry your eyes and tell me, and whatever it is I'll fix it all right and happily for you. I'll swear to do it if you want me to."
Then Linda raised her eyes to his face.
"Oh, Peter, you dear!" she cried. "Peter, I'll just kneel and kiss your hands if you can fix this for me."
Peter set his jaws and continued his meditations on shoe leather.
"Make it snappy!" he said tersely. "The sooner your troubles are out of your system the better you'll feel. Whose letters are those, and why are you crying over them?"
"Oh, Peter," quavered Linda, "you know how I love Marian. You have seen her and I have told you over and over."
"Yes," said Peter soothingly, "I know."
"I have told you how, after years of devotion to Marian, John Gilman let Eileen make a perfect rag of him and tie him into any kind of knot she chose. Peter, when Marian left here she had lost everything on earth but a little dab of money. She had lost a father who was fine enough to be my father's best friend. She had lost a mother who was fine enough to rear Marian to what she is. She had lost them in a horrible way that left her room for a million fancies and regrets: 'if I had done this,' or 'if I had done that,' or 'if I had taken another road.' And when she went away she knew definitely she had lost the first and only love of her heart; and I knew, because she was so sensitive and so fine, I knew, better than anybody living, how she COULD be hurt; and I thought if I could fix some scheme that would entertain her and take her mind off herself and make her feel appreciated only for a little while—I knew in all reason, Peter, when she got out in the world where men would see her and see how beautiful and fine she is, there would be somebody who would want her quickly. All the time I have thought that when she came back, YOU would want her. Peter, I fibbed when I said I was setting your brook for Louise Whiting. I was not. I don't know Louise Whiting. She is nothing to me. I was setting it for you and Marian. It was a WHITE head I saw among the iris marching down your creek bank, not a gold one, Peter."
Peter licked his dry lips and found it impossible to look at Linda.
"Straight ahead with it," he said gravely. "What did you do?"
"Oh, I have done the awfullest thing," wailed Linda, "the most unforgivable thing!"
She reached across and laid hold of the hand next her, and realizing that she needed it for strength and support, Peter gave it into her keeping.
"Yes?" he questioned. "Get on with it, Linda. What was it you did?"
"I had a typewriter: I could. I began writing her letters, the kind of letters that I thought would interest her and make her feel loved and appreciated."
"You didn't sign my name to them, did you, Linda?" asked Peter in a dry, breathless voice.
"No, Peter," said Linda, "I did not do that, I did worse. Oh, I did a whole lot worse!"
"I don't understand," said Peter hoarsely.
"I wanted to make them fine. I wanted to make them brilliant. I wanted to make them interesting. And of course I could not do it by myself. I am nothing but a copycat. I just quoted a lot of things I had heard you say; and I did worse than that, Peter. I watched the little whimsy lines around your mouth and I tried to interpret the perfectly lovely things they would make you say to a woman if you loved her and were building a dream house for her. And oh, Peter, it's too ghastly; I don't believe I can tell you."
"This is pretty serious business, Linda," said Peter gravely. "Having gone this far you are in honor bound to finish. It would not be fair to leave me with half a truth. What is the result of this impersonation?"
"Oh, Peter," sobbed Linda, breaking down again, "you're going to hate me; I know you're going to hate me and Marian's going to hate me; and I didn't mean a thing but the kindest thing in all the world."
"Don't talk like that, Linda," said Peter. "If your friend is all you say she is, she is bound to understand. And as for me, I am not very likely to misjudge you. But be quick about it. What did you do, Linda?"
"Why, I just wrote these letters that I am telling you about," said Linda, "and I said the things that I thought would comfort her and entertain her and help with her work; and these are the answers that she wrote me, and I don't think I realized till last night that she was truly attributing them to any one man, truly believing in them. Oh, Peter, I wasn't asleep a minute all last night, and for the first time I failed in my lessons today."
"And what is the culmination, Linda?" urged Peter.
"She liked the letters, Peter. They meant all I intended them to and they must have meant something I never could have imagined. And in San Francisco one of the firm where she studies—a very fine man she says he is, Peter; I can see that in every way he would be quite right for her; and I had a letter from her last night, and, Peter, he had asked her to marry him, to have a lifelong chance at work she's crazy about. He had offered her a beautiful home with everything that great wealth and culture and good taste could afford. He had offered her the mothering of his little daughter; and she refused him, Peter, refused him because she is in love, with all the love there is left in her disappointed, hurt heart, with the personality that these letters represent to her; and that personality is yours, Peter. I stole it from you. I copied it into those letters. I'm not straight. I'm not fair. I wasn't honest with her. I wasn't honest with you. I'll just have to take off front the top of the highest mountain or sink in the deepest place in the sea, Peter. I thought I was straight. I thought I was honorable I have made Donald believe that I was. If I have to tell him the truth about this he won't want to wear my flower any more. I shall know all the things that Marian has suffered, and a thousand times worse, because she was not to blame; she had nothing with which to reproach herself."
Peter put an arm across Linda's shoulders and drew her up to him. For a long, bitter moment he thought deeply, and then he said hoarsely: "Now calm down, Linda. You're making an extremely high mountain out of an extremely shallow gopher hole. You haven't done anything irreparable. I see the whole situation. You are sure your friend has finally refused this offer she has had on account of these letters you have written?"
Suddenly Linda relaxed. She leaned her warm young body against Peter. She laid her tired head on his shoulder. She slipped the top letter of the packet in her lap from under its band, opened it, and held it before him. Peter read it very deliberately, then he nodded in acquiescence.
"It's all too evident," he said quietly, "that you have taught her that there is a man in this world more to her liking than John Gilman ever has been. When it came to materializing the man, Linda, what was your idea? Were you proposing to deliver me?"
"I thought it would be suitable and you would be perfectly happy," sobbed Linda, "and that way I could have both of you."
"And Donald also?" asked Peter lightly.
"Donald of course," assented Linda.
And then she lifted her tear-spilling, wonderful eyes, wide open, to Peter's, and demanded: "But, oh Peter, I am so miserable I am almost dead. I have said you were a rock, and you are a rock. peter, can you get me out of this?"
"Sure," said Peter grimly. "Merely a case of living up to your blue china, even if it happens to be in the form of hieroglyphics instead of baked pottery. Give me the letters, Linda. Give me a few days to study them. Exchange typewriters with me so I can have the same machine. Give me some of the paper on which you have been writing and the address you have been using, and I'll guarantee to get you out of this in some way that will leave you Donald, and your friendship with Marian quite as good as new."
At that juncture Peter might have been kissed, but his neck was very stiff and his head was very high and his eyes were on a far-distant hilltop from which at that minute he could not seem to gather any particular help.
"Would it be your idea," he said, "that by reading these letters I could gain sufficient knowledge of what has passed to go on with this?"
"Of course you could," said Linda.
Peter reached in his side pocket and pulled out a clean handkerchief. He shook it from its folds and dried her eyes. Then he took her by her shoulders and set her up straight.
"Now stop this nerve strain and this foolishness," he said tersely. "You have done a very wonderful thing for me. It is barely possible that Marian Thorne is not my dream woman, but we can't always have our dreams in this world, and if I could not have mine, truly and candidly, Linda, so far as I have lived my life, I would rather have Marian Thorne than any other woman I have ever met."
Linda clapped her hands in delight.
"Oh, goody goody, Peter!" she cried. "How joyous! Can it be possible that my bungling is coming out right for Marian and right for you?"
"And right for you, Linda?" inquired Peter lightly.
"Sure, right for me," said Linda eagerly. "Of course it's right for me when it's right for you and Marian. And since it's not my secret alone I don't think it would be quite honorable to tell Donald about it. What hurts Marian's heart or heals it is none of his business. He doesn't even know her."
"All right then, Linda," said Peter, rising, "give me the letters and bring me the machine and the paper. Give me the joyous details and tell me when I am expected to send in my first letter in propria persona?"
"Oh, Peter," cried Linda, beaming on him, "oh, Peter, you are a rock! I do put my trust in you."
"Then God help me," said Peter, "for whatever happens, your trust in me shall not be betrayed, Linda."
CHAPTER XXIX. Katy Unburdens Her Mind
Possibly because she wished to eliminate herself from the offices of Nicholson and Snow for a few days, possibly because her finely attuned nature felt the call, Marian Thorne boarded a train that carried her to Los Angeles. She stepped from it at ten o'clock in the morning, and by the streetcar route made her way to Lilac Valley. When she arrived she realized that she could not see Linda before, possibly, three in the afternoon. She entered a restaurant, had a small lunch box packed, and leaving her dressing case, she set off down the valley toward the mountains. She had need of their strength, their quiet and their healing. To the one particular spot where she had found comfort in Lilac Valley her feet led her. By paths of her own, much overgrown for want of recent usage, she passed through the cultivated fields, left the roadway, and began to climb. When she reached the stream flowing down the rugged hillside, she stopped to rest for a while, and her mind was in a tumult. In one minute she was seeing the bitterly disappointed face of a lonely, sensitive man whose first wound had been reopened by the making of another possibly quite as deep; and at the next her heart was throbbing because Linda had succeeded in transferring the living Peter to paper.
The time had come when Marian felt that she would know the personality embodied in the letters she had been receiving; and in the past few days her mind had been fixing tenaciously upon Peter Morrison. And the feeling concerning which she had written Linda had taken possession of her. Wealth did not matter; position did not matter. Losing the love of a good man did not matter But the mind and the heart and the personality behind the letters she had been receiving did matter. She thought long and seriously When at last she arose she had arrived at the conclusion that she had done the right thing, no matter whether the wonderful letters she had received went on and offered her love or not, no matter about anything. She must merely live and do the best she could, until the writer of those letters chose to disclose himself and say what purpose he had in mind when he wrote them.
So Marian followed her own path beside the creek until she neared its head, which was a big, gushing icy spring at the foot of the mountain keeping watch over the small plateau that in her heart she had thought of as hers for years. As she neared the location strange sounds began to reach her, voices of men, clanging of hammers, the rip of saws. A look of deep consternation overspread her face. She listened an instant and then began to run. When she broke through the rank foliage flourishing from the waters of the spring and looked out on the plateau what she saw was Peter Morrison's house in the process of being floored and shingled. For a minute Marian was physically ill. Her heart hurt until her hand crept to her side in an effort to soothe it. Before she asked the question of a man coming to the spring with a pail in his hand, she knew the answer. It was Peter Morrison's house. Marian sprang across the brook, climbed to the temporary roadway, and walked down in front of the building. She stood looking at it intently. It was in a rough stage, but much disguise is needed to prevent a mother from knowing her own child. Marian's dark eyes began to widen and to blaze. She walked up to the front of the house and found that rough flooring had been laid so that she could go over the first floor. When she had done this she left the back door a deeply indignant woman.
"There is some connection," she told herself tersely, "between my lost sketch and this house, which is merely a left-to-right rehearsal of my plans; and it's the same plan with which Henry Anderson won the Nicholson and Snow prize money and the still more valuable honor of being the prize winner. What I want to know is how such a wrong may be righted, and what Peter Morrison has to do with it."
Stepping from the back door, Marian followed the well-worn pathway that led to the garage, looking right and left for Peter, and she was wondering what she would say to him if she met him. She was thinking that perhaps she had better return to San Francisco and talk the matter over with Mr. Snow before she said anything to anyone else; by this time she had reached the garage and stood in its wide-open door. She looked in at the cot, left just as someone had arisen from it, at the row of clothing hanging on a rough wooden rack at the back, at the piled boxes, at the big table, knocked together from rough lumber, in the center, scattered and piled with books and magazines; and then her eyes fixed intently on a packet lying on the table beside a typewriter and a stack of paper and envelopes. She walked over and picked up the packet. As she had known the instant she saw them, they were her letters. She stood an instant holding them in her hand, a dazed expression on her face. Mechanically she reached out and laid her hands on the closed typewriter to steady herself. Something about it appealed to her as familiar. She looked at it closely, then she lifted the cover and examined the machine. It was the same machine that had stood for years in Doctor Strong's library, a machine upon which she had typed business letters for her own father, and sometimes she had copied lectures and book manuscript on it for Doctor Strong. Until his house was completed and his belongings arrived, Peter undoubtedly had borrowed it. Suddenly a wild desire to escape swept over Marian. Her first thought was of her feelings. She was angry, and justly so. In her heart she had begun to feel that the letters she was receiving were from Peter Morrison. Here was the proof.
Could it be possible that in their one meeting Peter had decided that she was his dream woman, that in some way he had secured that rough sketch of her plans, and from them was preparing her dream house for her? The thought sped through her brain that he was something more than human to have secured those plans, to have found that secluded and choice location. For an instant she forgot the loss of the competition in trying to comprehend the wonder of finding her own particular house fitting her own particular location as naturally as one of its big boulders.
She tried to replace the package of letters exactly as she had found them. On tiptoe she slipped back to the door and looked searchingly down the road, around, and as far as possible through the house. Then she gathered her skirts, stepped from the garage, and began the process of effacing herself on the mountain side From clump to clump of the thickest bushes, crouching below the sage and greasewood, pausing to rest behind lilac and elder, without regard for her traveling suit or her beautifully shod feet, Marian fled from her location. When at last she felt that she was completely hidden and at least a mile from the spot, she dropped panting on a boulder, brushing the debris from her skirts, lifting trembling hands to straighten her hat, and ruefully contemplating her shoes. Then she tried to think in a calm, dispassionate, and reasonable manner, but she found it a most difficult process. Her mind was not well ordered, neither was it at her command. It whirled and shot off at unexpected tangents and danced as irresponsibly as a grasshopper from one place to another. The flying leaps it took ranged from San Francisco to Lilac Valley, from her location upon which Peter Morrison was building her house, to Linda. Even John Gilman obtruded himself once more. At one minute she was experiencing a raging indignation against Henry Anderson. How had he secured her plan? At another she was trying to figure dispassionately what connection Peter Morrison could have had with the building of his house upon her plan. Every time Peter came into the equation her heart arose in his defense. In some way his share in the proceeding was all right. He had cared for her and he had done what he thought would please her. Therefore she must be pleased, although forced to admit to herself that she would have been infinitely more pleased to have built her own house in her own way.
She was hungry to see Linda. She wanted Katherine O'Donovan to feed her and fuss over her and entertain her with her mellow Irish brogue; but if she went to them and disclosed her presence in the valley, Peter would know about it, and if he intended the building he was erecting as a wonderful surprise for her, then she must not spoil his joy. Plan in any way she could, Marian could see no course left to her other than to slip back to the station and return to San Francisco without meeting any of her friends. She hurriedly ate her lunch, again straightened her clothing, went to the restaurant for her traveling bag, and took the car for the station where she waited for a return train to San Francisco She bought a paper and tried to concentrate upon it in an effort to take her mind from her own problems so that, when she returned to them, she would be better able to think clearly, to reason justly, to act wisely. She was very glad when her train came and she was started on her way northward. At the first siding upon which it stopped to allow the passing of a south-bound limited, she was certain that as the cars flashed by, in one of them she saw Eugene Snow. She was so certain that when she reached the city she immediately called the office and asked for Mr. Snow only to be told that he had gone away for a day or two on business. After that Marian's thought was confused to the point of exasperation.
It would be difficult to explain precisely the state of mind in which Linda, upon arriving at her home that afternoon, received from Katy the information that a man named Snow had been waiting an hour for her in the living room. Linda's appearance was that of a person so astonished that Katy sidled up to her giving strong evidence of being ready to bristle.
"Ye know, lambie," she said with elaborate indifference, "ye aren't havin' to see anybody ye don't want to. If it's somebody intrudin' himself on ye, just say the word and I'll fire him; higher than Guilderoy's kite I'll be firin' him."
"No, I must see him, Katy," said Linda quietly. "And have something specially nice for dinner. Very likely I'll take him to see Peter Morrison's house and possibly I'll ask him and Peter to dinner. He is a San Francisco architect from the firm where Marian takes her lessons, and it's business about Peter's house. I was surprised, that's all."
Then Linda turned and laid a hand on each of Katy's hairy red arms.
"Katherine O'Donovan, old dear," she said, "if we do come back for dinner, concentrate on Mr. Snow and study him. Scrutinize, Katy! It's a bully word. Scrutinize closely. To add one more to our long lists of secrets, here's another. He's the man I told you about who has asked Marian to marry him, and Marian has refused him probably because she prefers somebody nearer home."
Then Linda felt the tensing of every muscle in Katy's body. She saw the lift of her head, the incredulous, resentful look in her eyes. There was frank hostility in her tone.
"Well, who is there nearer home that Marian knows?" she demanded belligerently.
"Well, now, who would there be?" retorted Linda.
"Ye ain't manin' John Gilman?" asked Katy.
"No," said Linda, "I am not meaning John Gilman. You should know Marian well enough to know that."
"Well, ye ought to know yourself well enough to know that they ain't anybody else around these diggin's that Marian Thorne's going to get," said Katy.
"I imagine Marian will get pretty much whom she wants," said Linda laughingly. "In your heart, Katy, you know that Marian need not have lost John Gilman if she had not deliberately let him go. If she had been willing to meet Eileen on her own ground and to play the game with her, it wouldn't have happened. Marian has more brains in a minute than Eileen has in a month."
When Linda drew back the portiere and stepped into the living room Eugene Snow rose to meet her. What either of them expected it might be difficult to explain. Knowing so little of each other, it is very possible that they had no visualizations. What Snow saw was what everyone saw who looked at Linda—a girl arrestingly unusual. With Linda lay the advantage by far, since she had Marian's letters for a background. What she saw was a tall man, slender, and about him there was to Linda a strong appeal. As she looked into his eyes, she could feel the double hurt that Fate had dealt him. She thought she could fathom the fineness in his nature that had led him to made home-building his chosen occupation. Instantly she liked him. With only one look deep into his eyes she was on his side. She stretched out both her hands and advanced.
"Now isn't this the finest thing of you?" she said. "I am so glad that you came. I'll tell you word for word what happened here."
"That will be fine," he said. "Which is your favorite chair?"
"You know," she said, "that is a joke. I am so unfamiliar with this room that I haven't any favorite chair. I'll have to take the nearest, like Thoreau selected his piece of chicken."
Then for a few minutes Linda talked frankly. She answered Eugene Snow's every question unhesitatingly and comprehensively. Together they ascended the stairs, and in the guest room she showed him the table at which she and Marian had studied the sketches of plans, and exactly where they had left them lying overnight.
"The one thing I can't be explicit about," said Linda, "is how many sheets were there in the morning. We had stayed awake so late talking, that we overslept. I packed Marian's bag while she dressed. I snatched up what there were without realizing whether there were two sheets or three, laid them in the flat bottom of the case, and folded her clothing on top of them."
"I see," said Mr. Snow comprehendingly. "Now let's experiment a little. Of course the window before that table was raised?"
"Yes, it was," said Linda, "but every window in the house is screened."
"And what about the door opening into the hall? Can you tell me whether it was closed or open?"
"It was open," said Linda. "We left it slightly ajar to create a draft; the night was warm."
"Is there anyone about the house," inquired Mr. Snow, "who could tell us certainly whether that window was screened that night?"
"Of course," said Linda. "Our housekeeper, Katherine O'Donovan, would know. When we go down we'll ask her."
On their return to the living room, for the first time in her life Linda rang for Katy. She hesitated an instant before she did it. It would be establishing a relationship that never before had existed between them. She always had gone to Katy as she would have, gone to her mother. She would have gone to her now, but she wanted Katy to make her appearance and give her information without the possibility of previous discussion. Katy answered the bell almost at once. Linda went to her side and reached her arm across her shoulders.
"Katy," she said, "this is Mr. Eugene Snow of San Francisco He is interested in finding out exactly what became of that lost plan of Marian's that we have looked for so carefully. Put on your thinking cap, old dear, and try to answer accurately any question that Mr. Snow may wish to ask you."
Katy looked expectantly at Eugene Snow.
"In the meantime," said Linda, "I'll be excused and go bring round the Bear Cat."
"I have only one question to ask you," said Mr. Snow. "Can you recall whether, for any reason, there was a screen out of the guest-room window directly in front of which the reading table was standing the night Miss Marian occupied the room before leaving for San Francisco?"
"Sure there was," answered Katy instantly in her richest, mellowest brogue.
She was taking the inventory she had been told to take. She was deciding, as instantly as Linda had done, that she liked this man. Years, appearance, everything about him appealed to Katy as being exactly right for Marian; and her cunning Irish mind was leaping and flying and tugging at the leash that thirty years of conventions had bound upon her.
"Sure," she repeated, "the wildest santana that ever roared over us just caught that screen and landed it slam against the side of the garage, and it set inside for three days till I could get a workman to go up the outside and put it back. It had been out two days before the night Marian was here."
"Did Miss Linda know about it?" asked Snow.
"Not that I know of," said Katy. "She is a schoolgirl, you know, off early in the morning, back and up to her room, the busiest youngster the valley knows; and coin' a dale of good she is, too. It was Miss Eileen that heard the screen ripped out and told me it was gone. She's the one who looked after the housekapin' and paid the bills. She knew all about it. If 'twould be helpin' Miss Marian any about findin' them plans we've ransacked the premises for, I couldn't see any reason why Miss Eileen wouldn't tell ye the same as I'm tellin' ye, and her housekapin' accounts and her cheque book would show she paid the carpenter, if it's legal business you're wantin'."
"Thank you, Katy," said Mr. Snow. "I hope nothing of that kind will occur. A great wrong has been perpetrated, but we must find some way to right it without involving such extremely nice young women in the annoyance of legal proceedings."
Katy folded her arms and raised her head. All her share of the blarney of Ireland began to roll from the mellow tip of her tongue.
"Now, the nice man ye are, to be seein' the beauty of them girls so quick," she said. "The good Lord airly in the mornin' of creation thought them out when He was jist fresh from rist, and the material was none shopworn. They ain't ladies like 'em anywhere else in the whole of California, and belave me, a many rale ladies have I seen in my time. Ye can jist make up your mind that Miss Linda is the broth of the earth. She is her father's own child and she is like him as two pase in the pod. And Marian growed beside her, and much of a hand I've had in her raisin' meself, and well I'm knowin' how fine she is and what a juel she'd be, set on any man's hearthstone. I'm wonderin'," said Katy challengingly, "if you're the Mr. Snow at whose place she is takin' her lessons, and if ye are, I'm wonderin' if ye ain't goin' to use the good judgment to set her, like the juel she would be, in the stone of your own hearth."
Eugene Snow looked at Katy intently. He was not accustomed to discussing his affairs with household helpers, but he could not look at Katy without there remaining in his vision the forte of Linda standing beside her, a reassuring arm stretched across her shoulders, the manner in which she had presented her and then left her that she might be free to answer as she chose with out her young mistress even knowing exactly what was asked of her. Such faith and trust and love were unusual.
"I might try to do that very thing," he said, "but, you know, a wonderful woman is an animated jewel. You can't manufacture a setting and put her in and tighten the clasps without her consent."
"Then why don't you get it?" said Katy casually.
Eugene Snow laughed ruefully.
"But suppose," he said, "that the particular jewel you're discussing prefers to select her own setting, and mine does not please her."
"Well, they's jist one thing," said Katy. Her heels left the floor involuntarily; she arose on her tiptoes; her shoulders came up, and her head lifted to a height it never had known before. "They's jist one thing," she said. "Aside from Miss Linda, who is my very own child that I have washed and I have combed and I have done for since she was a toddlin' four-year-old, they ain't no woman in this world I would go as far for as I would for Miss Marian; but I'm tellin' ye now, ye Mr. Eujane Snow, that they's one thing I don't lend no countenance to. I am sorry she has had the cold, cruel luck that she has, but I ain't sorry enough that I'm goin' to stand for her droppin' herself into the place where she doesn't belong. If the good Lord ain't give her the sense to see that you're jist the image of the man that would be jist exactly right for her, somebody had better be tellin' her so. Anyway, if Miss Linda is takin' ye up to the house that Mr. Pater Morrison is buildin' and the Pater man is there, I would advise ye to cast your most discernin' eye on that gintleman. Ye watch him jist one minute when he looks at the young missus and he thinks nobody ain't observing him, and ye'll see what ye'll see. If ye want Marian, ye jist go on and take her. I'm not carin' whether ye use a club or white vi'lets, but don't ye be lettin' Marian Thorne get no idea into her head that she is goin' to take Mr. Pater Morrison, because concernin' Pater I know what I know, and I ain't goin' to stand by and see things goin' wrong for want of spakin' up. Now if you're a wise man, ye don't nade nothing further said on the subject."
Eugene Snow thought intently for a few moments. His vision centered on Katherine O'Donovan's face.
"You're absolutely sure of this?" he said at last.
"Jist as sure as the sun's sure, and the mountains, and the seasons come and go," said Katy with finality. "Watch him and you'll see it stickin' out all over him. I have picked him for me boss, and it's jist adorin' that man crature I am."
"What about Miss Linda?" inquired Snow. "Is she adoring him?"
"She ain't nothing but a ganglin' school kid, adorin' the spade with which she can shoot around that Bear Cat of hers, and race the canyons, and the rely lovely things she can strike on paper with her pencil and light up with her joyous colors. Her day and her hour ain't come, and the Pater man's that fine he won't lay a finger on her to wake her up when she has a year yet of her schoolin' before her. But in the manetime it's my job to stand guard as I'm standin' right now. I'm tellin' ye frank and fair. Ye go on and take Marian Thorne because ye ought to have her. If she's got any idea in her head that she's goin' to have Pater Morrison, she'll have to get it out."
Eugene Snow held out his hand and started to the front door in answer to the growl of the Bear Cat. As he came down the steps and advanced to the car, Linda, with the quick eye that had been one of her special gifts as a birthright, noted a change in him. He seemed to have been keyed up and toned up. There was a different expression on his face. There was buoyancy in his step. There was a visible determination in his eye. He took the seat beside her and Linda started the car. She looked at him interrogatively.
"Can you connect a heavy wind with the date of the lost plan?" he inquired.
"There was a crack-a-jack a few days before," said Linda. "It blew over some trees in the lot next to us."
"Exactly," said Snow; "and it plucked a screen from your guest-room window. Katy thinks that the cheque to the carpenter and the cost of the repairs will be in your sister's account books."
"Um hm," nodded Linda. "Well, that simplifies matters, because Peter Morrison is going to tell you about a trip Henry Anderson made around our house the morning Marian left."
"I think that is about all we need to know," said Mr. Snow conclusively.
"I think so," said Linda, "but I want you to see Peter's house for yourself, since I understand that according to your contract the rights to reproduce these particular plans remained with you after you had paid prize money for them."
"Most certainly," said Mr. Snow. "We should have that much to show for our share of the transaction."
"It's a queer thing," said Linda. "You would have to know me a long time, and perhaps know under what conditions I have been reared in order to understand a feeling that I frequently have concerning people. I tobogganed down a sheer side of Multiflores Canyon one day without my path having been previously prepared, and I very nearly landed in the automobile that carried Henry Anderson and Peter Morrison on their first trip to Lilac Valley. I was much interested in preserving the integrity of my neck. I fervently hoped not to break more than a dozen of my legs and arms, and was forced to bring down intact the finest Cotyledon pulverulenta that Daddy or I had found in fourteen years of collecting in California. I am telling you all this that you may see why I might have been excused for not having been minutely observant of my surroundings when I landed. But what I did observe was a chilly, caterpillary sensation chasing up my spine the instant I met the eyes of Henry Anderson. In that instant I said to myself that I would not trust him, that I did not like him."
"And what about his companion?" asked Eugene Snow lightly. "Oh, Peter?" said Linda. There was a caress in her pronunciation of the name. "Why, Peter is a rock. The instant I deposited my Cotyledon in a safe place I would have put my hand in Peter Morrison's and started around the world if he had asked me to go. There is only one Peter. You will recognize that the instant you meet him."
"I am altogether willing to take your word for it," said Mr. Snow.
"And there is one thing about this disagreeable business," said Linda. "It was not Peter's coat that had the plan in it. He knew nothing about it. He has had his full service of stiff war work, and he has been knocking around big cities in newspaper work, and now he has come home to Lilac Valley to 'set up his rest,' as in the hymn book, you know. He built his garage first and he is living in it because he so loves this house of his that he has to be present to watch it grow in minute detail. Once on a time I saw a great wizard walking along the sidewalk, and he looked exactly like any man. He might have been you so far as anything different from other men in his appearance w as concerned."
Linda cut down the Bear Cat to its slowest speed.
"What is on my mind is this," she said. "I don't think Peter could quite afford the amount of ground he has bought, and the house he is building. I think possibly he is tying himself up in obligations. It may take him two or three years to come even on it; but it is a prepossession with him. Now can't you see that if we go to him and tell him this sordid, underhand, unmanly tale, how his fine nature is going to be hurt, how his big heart is going to be wrung, how his home-house that he is building with such eager watchfulness will be a weighty Old Man of the Sea clinging to his back? Do you think, Mr. Eugene Snow, that you're enough of a wizard to examine this house and to satisfy yourself as to whether it's an infringement of your plans or not, without letting Peter know the things about it that would spoil it for him?"
Eugene Snow reached across and closed a hand over the one of Linda's nearest him on the steering wheel.
"You very decent kid, you," he said appreciatively. "I certainly am enough of a wizard to save your Peter man any disillusionment concerning his dream house."
"Oh, but he is not my Peter man," said Linda. "We are only the best friends in the world. Really and truly, if you can keep a secret, he's Marian's."
"Is he?" asked Mr. Snow interestedly. And then he added very casually, in the most offhand manner—he said it more to an orange orchard through which they were passing than he said it to Linda—"I have very grave doubts about that. I think there must be some slight complication that will have to be cleared up."
Linda's heart gave a great jump of consternation.
"Indeed no," she said emphatically. "I don't think he has just told Marian yet, but I am very sure that he cares for her more than for any other woman, and I am equally sure she cares for him; and nothing could be more suitable."
"All right then," agreed Mr. Snow.
Linda put the Bear Cat at the mountain, crept around the road, skirted the boulders, and stopped halfway to the garage. And there, in a low tone, she indicated to Mr. Snow where they had lunched, when she found the plans, how she had brought out the coat, where she had emptied the mouse nest. Then she stepped from the car and hallooed for Peter. Peter came hurrying from the garage, and Eugene Snow was swift in his mental inventory. It coincided exactly with Linda's. He would have been willing to join hands with Peter and start around the world, quite convinced of the fairness of the outcome, with no greater acquaintance than one intent look at Peter, one grip of his sure hand. After that he began to act on Katy's hint, and in a very short time he had convinced himself that she was right. Maybe Peter tried to absorb himself in the plans he was going over, in the house he was proud to show the great architect; but it seemed to the man he was entertaining that his glance scarcely left Linda, that he was so preoccupied with where she went and what she did that he was like a juggler keeping two mental balls in the air at the same time.
It seemed to Peter a natural thing that, the architect being in the city on business, he should run out to call on Miss Thorne's dearest friend It seemed to him equally natural that Linda should bring him to see a house in which she was so kindly interesting herself. And just when Peter was most dexterous in his juggling, just when he was trying to explain the very wonderful step-saving' time-saving, rational kitchen arrangements and at the same time watch Linda on her course down to the spring, the architect halted him with a jerk. Eugene Snow stood very straight, his hands in his coat pockets, looking, Peter supposed, with interest at the arrangements of kitchen conveniences. His next terse sentence fairly staggered Peter. He looked him straight in the eye and inquired casually: "Chosen your dream woman to fit your house, Morrison?"
Peter was too surprised to conceal his feelings. His jaws snapped together; a belligerent look sprang into his eyes.
"I have had a good deal to do with houses," continued Mr. Snow. "They are my life work. I find that invariably they are built for a woman. Almost always they are built from her plans, and for her pleasure. It's a new house, a unique house, a wonderful house you're evolving here. It must be truly a wonderful woman you're dreaming about while you build it."
That was a nasty little trap. With his years and worldly experience Peter should not have fallen into it; but all men are children when they are sick, heart sick or body sick, and Peter was a very sick man at that minute. He had been addressed in such a frank and casual manner. His own brain shot off at queer tangents and led him constantly into unexpected places. The narrow side lane that opened up came into view so suddenly that Peter, with the innocence of a four-year-old, turned with military precision at the suggestion and looked over the premises for the exact location of Linda. Eugene Snow had seen for himself the thing that Katy had told him he would see if he looked for it. Suddenly he held out his hand.
"As man to man, Morrison, in this instance," he said in rather a hoarse, breathless voice, "don't you think it would be a good idea for you and me to assert our manhood, to manage our own affairs, to select our own wives if need be? If we really set ourselves to the job don't you believe we can work out our lives more to our liking than anyone else can plan for us? You get the idea, don't you, Morrison?"
Peter was facing the kitchen sink but he did not see it. His brain was whirling. He did see Snow's point of view. He did realize his position. But what Mr. Snow knew of his affairs he could only guess. The one thing Mr. Snow could not know was that Linda frankly admitted her prepossession for her school chum, Donald Whiting, but in any event if Peter could not have Linda he would much prefer occupying his dream house alone. So he caught at the straw held out to him with both hands.
"I get you," he said tersely. "It is not quite up to the mark of the manhood we like to think we possess to let our lives be engineered by a high school kid. Suppose we do just quietly and masterfully assert ourselves concerning our own affairs."
"Suppose we do," said Snow with finality.
Whereupon they shook hands with a grip that whitened their knuckles.
Then they went back to Lilac Valley and had their dinner together, and Linda and Peter escorted Eugene Snow to his train and started him on his return trip to San Francisco feeling very much better. Peter would not allow Linda to drive him home at night, so he left her after the Bear Cat had been safely placed in the garage. As she stood on the walk beside him, strongly outlined in the moonlight, Peter studied Linda whimsically. He said it half laughingly, but there was something to think about in what he said:
"I'm just picturing, Linda, what a nice old lady you will be by the time that high school kid of yours spends four years in college, one on the continent, and the Lord knows how many at mastering a profession."
Linda looked at him with widened eyes.
KATY UNBURDENS HER MIND
"Why, what are you talking about, Peter? Are you moonstruck?" she inquired solicitously. "Donald's only a friend, you know. I love him because he is the nicest companion; but there is nothing for you to be silly about."
Then Peter began to realize the truth. There wasn't anything for him to be concerned about. She had not the slightest notion what love meant, even as she announced that she loved Donald.
CHAPTER XXX. Peter's Release
Eugene Snow returned to San Francisco enthusiastic about Linda, while he would scarcely have known how to express his appreciation of Katherine O'Donovan. He had been served a delicious dinner, deftly and quietly, such food as men particularly like; but there had been no subservience. If Katherine O'Donovan had been waiting on her own table, serving her own friends she could not have managed with more pride. It was very evident that she loved service, that she loved the girl to whom she gave constant attention. He understood exactly what there was in her heart and why she felt as she did when he saw Linda and Peter together and heard their manner of speaking to each other, and made mental note of the many points of interest which seemed to exist between them. He returned to San Francisco with a good deal of a "See-the-conquering-hero-comes" mental attitude. He went directly to his office, pausing on the way for a box of candy and a bunch of Parma violets. His first act on reaching the office was to send for Miss Thorne. Marian came almost immediately, a worried look in her eyes. She sat in the big, cushioned chair that was offered her, and smiled faintly when the box was laid on her lap, topped with the violets. She looked at Eugene Snow with an "I-wish-you-wouldn't" expression on her face; but he smiled at her reassuringly.
"Nothing," he said. "Picked them up on the way from the station. I made a hasty trip to that precious Lilac Valley of yours, and I must say it pales your representation. It is a wonderfully lovely spot."
Marian settled back in the chair. She picked up the violets and ran an experienced finger around the stems until she found the pin with which she fastened them at her waist. Then as they occupied themselves making selections from the candy box he looked smilingly at Marian. Her eyes noted the change in him. He was neither disappointed nor sad. Something had happened in Lilac Valley that had changed his perspective. Womanlike, she began probing.
"Glad you liked my valley," she said. "We are told that blue is a wonderful aura to surround a person, and it's equally wonderful when it surrounds a whole valley. With the blue sky and the blue walls and a few true-blue friends I have there, it's naturally a very dear spot to me."
"Yes," said Mr. Snow, "I can see that it is. I ran down on a business matter. I have been deeply puzzled and much perturbed over this prize contest. We have run these affairs once a year, sometimes oftener, for a long time, so I couldn't understand the peculiar thing about the similarity of the winning plans and your work this year. I have been holding up the prize money, because I did not feel that you were saying exactly what was in your heart, and I couldn't be altogether satisfied that everything was right. I went to Lilac Valley because I had a letter from your friend, Miss Linda Strong. There was an enclosure in it."
He drew from his pocket the folded sheet and handed it to Marian. Her eyes were surprised, incredulous, as she opened the missing sheet from her plans, saw the extraneous lines drawn upon it and the minute figuring with which the margin was covered.
"Linda found it at last!" she cried. "Where in this world did she get it, and whose work is this on it?"
"She got it," said Eugene Snow, "when she undertook to clean Peter Morrison's workroom on an evening when she and her cook were having supper with him. She turned a coat belonging to his architect that hung with some of his clothing in Peter Morrison's garage. She was shaking the nest of a field mouse from one of the side pockets. Naturally this emptied all the pockets, and in gathering up their contents she came across that plan, which she recognized. She thought it was right to take it and very wisely felt that it was man's business, so she sent it to me with her explanations. I went to Lilac Valley because I wanted to judge for myself exactly what kind of young person she was. I wanted to see her environment. I wanted to see the house that she felt sure was being built from these plans. I wanted to satisfy myself of the stability of what I had to work on before I mentioned the matter to you or Henry Anderson."
Marian sat holding the plan, listening absorbedly to what he was saying.
"It's an ugly business," he said, "so ugly that there is no question whatever but that it can be settled very quietly and without any annoyance to you. I shall have to take the matter up with the board, but I have the details so worked out that I shall have no difficulty in arranging matters as I think best. There is no question whatever, Marian, but Anderson found that sketch on the west side of the Strong residence. When you left your plans lying on a table before a window in the Strong guestroom the night before you came to San Francisco you did not know that the santana which raged through the valley a day or two previously had stripped a screen from the window before which you left them. In opening your door to establish a draft before you went to bed you started one that carried your top drawing through the window. Waiting for Miss Strong the next morning, in making a circuit of the grounds Anderson found it and appropriated it to most excellent advantage. Miss Linda tells me that your study of architecture was discussed at the dinner table that night. He could not have helped realizing that any sheet of plans he found there must have been yours. If he could acquit his conscience of taking them and using them, he would still have to explain why he was ready to accept the first prize and the conditions imposed when he already had a house fairly well under construction from the plans he submitted in the contest. The rule is unbreakable that the plans must be original, must be unused, must be our sole property, if they take the prize."
Marian was leaning forward, her eyes wide with interest, her breast agitated. She nodded in acquiescence. Eugene Snow reached across and helped himself to another piece of candy from the box on her knee. He looked at her speculatively and spoke quietly as if the matter were of no great importance.
"Would it be agreeable, Marian, if the prize committee should announce that there were reasons as to why they were not satisfied, that they have decided to return all plans and call off the present contest, opening another in a few months in which interested parties may again submit their drawings? I will undertake swiftly and comprehensively to eliminate Henry Anderson from California. I would be willing to venture quite a sum that when I finish with the youngster he will see the beauty of going straight hereafter and the desirability of a change of atmosphere. He's a youngster. I hate to make the matter public, not only on account of involving you and your friends in such disagreeable business, but I am sorry for him. I would like to deal with him like the proverbial 'Dutch uncle,' then I would like to send him away to make a new start with the assurance that I am keeping close watch on him. Would you be satisfied if I handled the matter quietly and in my own way? Could you wait a few weeks for justice?"
Marian drew a deep breath.
"Of course," she said, "it would be wonderful if you could do that. But what about Peter Morrison? How much did he know concerning the plans, and what does he know about this?"
"Nothing," said Mr. Snow. "That most unusual young friend of yours made me see the light very clearly concerning Peter Morrison. There is no necessity for him ever to know that the 'dream house,' as Miss Linda calls it, that he is building for his dream woman has any disagreeable history attached to it. He so loves the spot that he is living on it to watch that house in minutest detail. Miss Linda was fairly eloquent in the plea she made on his behalf. He strikes me as a very unusual person, and she appealed to me in the same way. There must be some scientific explanation concerning her that I don't just get, but I can see that she is most unusual when I watched them together and heard them talk of their plans for the house and the grounds and discussing illustrations that she is making for articles that he is writing, I saw how deep and wholesome was the friendship existing between them. I even heard that wonderful serving woman, whom they so familiarly speak of as 'Katy,' chiding Peter Morrison for allowing Linda to take her typewriter to him and do her own work with a pen. And because Miss Linda seems so greathearted and loving with her friends, I was rather glad to hear his explanation that they were merely changing machines for the time being for a very particular reason of their own."
"Do you mean," asked Marian, "that you think there is anything more than casual friendship between Linda and Peter Morrison?"
"Not on her part," answered Eugene Snow. "Anybody can see that she is a child deeply engrossed in all sorts of affairs uncommon for a girl of her age and position. Her nice perceptions, her wonderful loyalty to her friends, her loving thought for them, are manifest in everything she says or does. If she ever makes any mistakes they will be from the head, not from the heart. But for the other end of the equation I could speak authoritatively. Katy pointed out to me the fact that if I would watch Peter Morrison in Miss Linda's presence, I should see that he adored her. I did watch, and I did see that very thing. When I taxed him about building a dream house for a dream woman, his eyes crossed a plateau, leaped a brook, and started up the side of a mountain. They did not rest until they had found Linda."
Marian sat so still that it seemed as if she were not even breathing. In view of what Katy had said, and his few words with Peter Morrison, Eugene Snow had felt justified in giving Marian a hint as to what was going on in Lilac Valley. Exactly what he had done he had no means of knowing. If he had known and had talked intentionally he could not have made clearer to Marian the thing which for months had puzzled her. She was aware that Eugene Snow was talking, that he was describing the dinner he had been served, the wonderful wild-flower garden that he had seen, how skillfully Linda drove the Bear Cat. She heard these things and dimly comprehended them but underneath, her brain was seizing upon one fact after another. They had exchanged typewriters. The poor, foolish little kid had known how her health was wracked, how she was suffering, how her pride would not let her stoop to Eileen's subterfuges and wage war with her implements for a man she did not want if her manner of living her everyday life did not appeal to him. Linda had known how lonely and heart hungry and disappointed she had gone away, and loyally she had tried to create an interest in life for her; and she had succeeded entirely too well. And then in a panic she must have gone to Peter Morrison and explained the situation; and Peter must have agreed to take over the correspondence. One by one things that had puzzled her about the letters and about the whole affair began to grow clear. She even saw how Linda, having friendly association with no man save Peter, would naturally use him for a model. The trouble was that, with her gift of penetration and insight and her facility with her pen, she had overdone the matter. She had not imitated Peter; she had BEEN Peter. Marian arose suddenly.
She went home, locked the door, and one after another she read the letters that had piqued, amused, comforted, and finally intrigued her. They were brilliant letters, charming, appealing letters, and yet, with knowledge concerning them, Marian wondered how she could have failed to appreciate in the beginning that they were from Linda.
"It goes to prove," she said at last, "how hungry the human heart is for love and sympathy. And that poor kid, what she must have suffered when she went to Peter for help! And if, as Mr. Snow thinks, he cares for her, how he must have suffered before he agreed to help her, as no doubt he did. What I have to do is to find some way out of the situation that will relieve Linda's anxiety and at least partially save my face. I shall have to take a few days to work it out. Luckily I haven't answered my last letter. When I find out what I really want to say then I will be very careful how I say it. I don't just exactly relish having my letters turned over to Peter Morrison, but possibly I can think of some way—I must think of some way—to make them feel that I have not been any more credulous than they."
While she thought, both Linda and Peter were doing much thinking on the same subject. Linda's heart was full of gratitude to Peter for helping her out of her very disagreeable situation. Peter had not yet opened the packet of letters lying on his table He had a sickening distaste for the whole transaction. He had thought that he would wait until he received the first letter he was to answer. If it gave him sufficient foundation in itself for the answer, he would not be forced to search further. He had smoked many pipes on this decision. After the visit of Mr. Snow, Peter had seen a great light and had decided, from the mood and the attitude of that gentleman after his interview with Katy, that he very likely would be equal to any complication that might arise when he reached San Francisco. Mulling over the situation one day Peter said reflectively to the spring which was very busy talking to him: "I am morally certain that this matter has resolved itself into a situation that closely resembles the bootblack's apple: 'they ain't goin' to be any core.' I am reasonably certain that I never shall have a letter to answer. In a few days probably I shall be able to turn back that packet to Linda without having opened it."
To make up for the perturbation which had resulted in failure in class and two weeks of work that represented her worst appearances in high-school history, Linda, her mind freed from the worry over Marian's plans, and her heart calmer over the fiasco in trying to comfort her, devoted herself absorbingly to her lessons and to the next magazine article that she must finish. She had decided that it was time to write on the subject of Indian confections. Her first spare minute she and Katy must busy themselves working out the most delicious cactus candy possible. Then they could try the mesquite candy. No doubt she could evolve a delicious gum from the mesquite and the incense plant. She knew she could from the willow milkweed; and under the head of "sweets" an appetizing jelly from manzanita. There were delightful drinks too, from the manzanita and the chia. And better than either, the lemonade berry would serve this purpose. She had not experimented to an authoritative extent with the desert pickles. And among drinks she might use the tea made from blue-eyed grass, brewed by the Indians for feverish conditions; and there was a whole world of interest to open up in differing seeds and berries, parched or boiled for food. And there were the seeds that were ground for mush, like the thistle sage, and the mock orange which was food and soap also, and the wild sunflowers that were parched for meal, and above all, the acorns. She could see that her problem was not going to be one of difficulty in securing sufficient material for her book; it would be how to find time to gather all these things, and put them through the various processes and combinations necessary to make edible dishes from I them. It would mean a long summer of interesting and absorbing I work for her and for Katy. Much of it could not be done until the I summer was far advanced and the seeds and the berries were I ripe. She could rely on Donald to help her search for the material. With only herself and Katy in the family they could give much of their time to the work.
"Where Katy will rebel," said Linda to herself, "is when it comes to gathering sufficient seeds and parching them to make these meal and mush dishes. She will call it 'fiddlin' business.' She shall be propitiated with a new dress and a beautiful bonnet, and she shall go with me frequently to the fields. The old dear loves to ride. First thing I do I'll call at the bank again and have our affairs properly straightened and settled there in the light of the letter Daddy left me. Then I shall have money to get all the furniture and the rugs and things we truly need. I'll repaint the kitchen and get Katy some new cooking utensils to gladden her soul. And Saturday I must make my trip with Donald account for something worth while on the book."
All these plans were feasible. What Linda had to do was to accomplish them, and this she proceeded to do in a swift and businesslike manner. She soon reached the place where the whole house with the exception of Eileen's suite had been gone over, freshened and refurnished to her liking. The guest-room furniture had been moved to her rejuvenated room. On the strength of her I returns from the book she had disposed of her furniture and was finding much girlish delight in occupying a beautiful room, daintily decorated, comfortably furnished with pieces of her own selection. As she and Katy stood looking over their work when everything was ready for her first night of occupancy Katy had said to her:
"It's jist right and proper, lambie; it's jist the way it ought to be; and now say the word and let me clean out Eileen's suate and get it ready for Miss Marian, so if she would drop down unexpected she would find we was good as our word."
"All right," said Linda.
"And what am I to do with the stuff?" inquired Katy.
"Katy, my dear," said Linda with a dry laugh, "you'll think I am foolish, but I have the queerest feeling concerning those things. I can't feel that Eileen has done with them; I can't feel that she will never want them again; I can't feel that they should go to some second-hand basement. Pack all of her clothing that you can manage in her trunk and put it in the garret, and what the trunk won't hold pack in a tight box and put that in the garret also. She hasn't written me a line; she has sent me no address; I don't know what to do; but, as I have said before, I am going to save the things at least a year and see whether some day Eileen won't think of something she wants to do with them. Clean the rooms and I will order Marian's things sent."
According to these arrangements it was only a few days until Linda wrote Marian that her room was ready for her and that any time she desired to come and take possession she could test the lovingness of the welcome that awaited her by becoming intimately acquainted with it. Marian answered the letter immediately. She said that she was planning to come very soon to test that welcome. She longed for the quiet of the valley, for its cool, clean, wild air. She was very tired; she needed rest. She thought she would love the new home they were offering her. Then came two amazing paragraphs.
The other day Dana and I went into one of the big cafes in the city to treat ourselves to a taste of the entertainment with which the people of wealth regale themselves. We had wandered in laughingly jesting about what we should order, and ran into Eileen in the company of her aunt and uncle and a very flashy and loudly dressed young man, evidently a new suitor of Eileen's. I don't think Eileen wanted to introduce us, and yet she acted like a person ravenous for news of her home and friends. She did introduce us, and immediately her ponderous uncle took possession of us. It seems that the man is a brother of Eileen's mother. Linda, he is big and gross, he is everything that a man of nice perceptions would not be, but he does love Eileen. He is trying conscientiously to please her. His wife is the kind of person who would marry that kind of man and think everything he said and did was right. And the suitor, my dear, was the kind of man who could endure that kind of people. Eileen was almost, if not quite, the loveliest thing I ever have seen. She was plain; she was simple; but it was the costly simplicity of extravagance. Ye gods! but she had pearls of the size she had always wanted. She tried with all her might to be herself, but she knows me well enough to know what I would think and what I would write to you concerning the conditions under which I met her. We were simply forced to lunch with them. We could only nibble at the too rich, too highly seasoned food set before us. And I noticed that Eileen nibbled also. She is not going to grow fat and waddle and redden her nose, but, my dear, back deep in her eyes and in the curve of her lips and in the tone of her voice there were such disappointment and discontent as I never have seen in any woman. She could not suppress them; she could not conceal them. There was nothing on earth she could do but sit quietly and endure. They delivered us at our respective offices, leaving both of us dates on which to visit them, but neither of us intends to call on them. Eileen's face was a tragedy when her uncle insisted on making the arrangements. I can at least spare her that.
And now, my dear, life is growing so full and my time is so taken with my work at the office and with my widening friendships with Dana and her friends and with Mr. Snow, that I really feel I have not time to go farther with our anonymous correspondence. It is all I can do to find time to write you letters such as the one I am writing I have done my best to play up to what you expected of me and I think I have succeeded in fooling you quite as much as you have felt that you were fooling me. But, Linda dear, I want you always to know that I appreciate the spirit in which you began this thing. I know why you did it and I shall always love you a trifle more for your thought of me and your effort to tide over the very dark days you knew I would be facing in San Francisco. I think, dear friend of mine, that I have had my share of dark days. I think there is very beautiful sunlight ahead for me. And by and by I hope to come into happiness that maybe is even more than my share. I am coming to see you soon and then I will tell you all about it.
There was more of the letter, but at that point Linda made one headlong rush for the Bear Cat. She took the curve on two wheels and almost ran into the mountain face behind the garage before she could slow down. Then she set the Cat screaming wildly for Peter. As he came up to the car she leaned toward him, shaking with excitement.
"Peter," she cried, "have you opened that packet of letters yet?"
"No," said Peter, "I have not."
"Then give them to me quickly, Peter," said Linda.
Peter rushed into the garage and brought out the packet. Linda caught it in both hands and dropped it in her lap.
"Well, thank God," she said devoutly. "And, Peter, the joke's on me. Marian knew I was writing those letters all the time and she just pretended that she cared for them to make the game interesting for me. And when she had so many friends and so much to do, she hadn't time for them any longer; then she pretended that she was getting awfully in earnest in order to stop me, and she did stop me all right."
Linda's face was a small panorama of conflicting emotions as she appealed to Peter.
"Peter," she said in a quivering voice, "you can testify that she stopped me properly, can't you, Peter?"
Peter tried to smile. He was older than Linda, and he was thinking swiftly, intently.
"Yes, kid," he said with utmost corroboration, "yes, kid, she stopped you, but I can't see that it was necessary literally to scare the life out of you till she had you at the point where you were thinking of taking off from a mountain or into the sea. Did you really mean that, Linda?"
Linda relaxed suddenly. She sank back into the deeply padded seat of the Bear Cat. A look of fright and entreaty swept into her dark eyes.
"Yes, Peter, I did mean it," she said with finality. "I couldn't have lived if I had hurt Marian irreparably. She has been hurt so much already. And, Peter, it was awfully nice of you to wait about reading these letters. Even if she only did it for a joke, I think Marian would rather that you had not read them. Now I'll go back home and begin to work in earnest on the head piece of 'How to Grow Good Citizens.' And I quite agree with you, Peter, that the oath of allegiance, citizenship, and the title to a piece of real estate are the prime requisites. People have no business comma to our country to earn money that they intend to carry away to invest in the development and the strengthening of some other country that may some day be our worst enemy. I have not found out yet how to say it in a four-by-twelve-inch strip, but by the time I have read the article aloud to my skylight along about ten tonight I'll get an inspiration; I am sure I shall."
"Of course you will," said Peter; "but don't worry about it, dear; don't lose sleep. Take things slower. Give time for a little more flesh to grow on your bones. And don't forget that while you're helping Donald to keep at the head of his classes it's your first job to keep at the head of your own."
"Thank you," said Linda. "How is the dream coming?"
"Beautifully," said Peter. "One of these days you're going to come rushing around the boulders and down the side of the building to find all this debris cleared away and the place for a lawn leveled. I am fighting down every possible avenue of expertise on the building in the effort to save money to make the brook run and the road wind where you have indicated that you want them to follow you."
Linda looked at Peter while a queer, reflective light gathered in her eyes. At last she said soberly: "Well, I don't know, Peter, that you should make them so very personal to me as all that."
"Why not?" asked Peter casually. "Since there is no one else, why not?"
Linda released the clutch and started the car. She backed in front of the garage and turned. She was still thinking deeply as she stopped. Once again she extended a hand to Peter.
"Thank you a thousand times for not reading these letters, Peter," she said. "I can't express how awfully fine I think it is of you. And if it's all right with you, perhaps there's not any real reason why you should not run that brook and drive that road the way I think they should go. Somebody is going to design them. Why shouldn't I, if it pleases you to have me?"
"It pleases me very greatly," said Peter—"more than anything else I can think of in all the world at this minute."
And then he did a thing that he had done once or twice before. He bent back Linda's fingers and left another kiss in the palm of her hand, and then he closed her fingers very tightly over it.
CHAPTER XXXI. The End of Donald's Contest
The middle of the week Linda had told Katy that she intended stocking up the Bear Cat for three and that she would take her along on the next Saturday's trip to her canyon kitchen. It was a day upon which she had planned to gather greens, vegetables, and roots, and prepare a dinner wholly from the wild. She was fairly sure exactly where in nature she would find the materials she wanted, but she knew that the search would be long and tiring. It would be jolly to have Katy to help her prepare the lunch. It would please Katy immensely to be taken; and the original things she said in her quaint Irish brogue greatly amused Donald. The arrangement had been understood among them for some time, so they all started on their journey filled with happy expectations. They closed the house and the garage carefully. Linda looked over the equipment of the Bear Cat minutely making sure that her field axe, saw, knives, and her field glasses were in place. Because more food than usual was to be prepared in the kitchen they took along a nest of cooking vessels and a broiler. They found Donald waiting before either of them were ready, and in great glee, with much laughing and many jests they rolled down the valley in the early morning. They drove to the kitchen, spread their blankets, set up their table, and arranged the small circular opening for their day's occupancy. While Katy and Linda were busy with these affairs Donald took the axe and collected a big heap of wood. Then they left Katy to burn the wood and have a deep bed of coals ready while they started out to collect from the canyon walls, the foot of the mountains, and the near-by desert the materials they would use for their dinner.
Just where the desert began to climb the mountain Linda had for a long time watched a big bed of amole. Donald used the shovel, she the hatchet, and soon they had brought to the surface such a quantity that Donald protested.
"But I have two uses for them today," explained Linda. "They must serve for potatoes and they have to furnish our meat."
"Oh, I get you," said Donald. "I have always been crazy to try that."
So he began to dig again enthusiastically.
"Now I'll tell you what I think we had better do," said Linda. "We will skirmish around this side of the mountain and find a very nice tender yucca shoot; and then we'll take these back to Katy and let her bury them in the ashes and keep up the fire while we forage for the remainder of our wild Indian feast."
Presently they found a yucca head that Linda said was exactly right, a delicate pink, thicker than her wrist and two feet in length. With this and the amole they ran back to Katy. She knew how to prepare the amole for roasting. Linda gave her a few words of instruction concerning the yucca. Then from the interior of the Bear Cat she drew a tightly rolled section of wire window screening. Just where a deep, wide pool narrowed at a rocky defile they sank the screening, jammed it well to the bottom, fastened it tight at the sides, and against the current side of it they threw leaves, grass, chunks of moss, any debris they could gather that would make a temporary dam. Then, standing on one side with her field knife, Linda began to slice the remainder of the amole very thin and to throw it over the surface of the pool. On the other, Donald pounded the big, juicy bulbs to pulp and scattered it broadcast over the water. Linda instructed Katy to sit on the bank with a long-handled landing net and whenever a trout arose, to snatch it out as speedily as possible, being careful not to take more than they would require.
Then the two youngsters, exhilarated with youth, with living, with the joy of friendship, with the lure of the valley, with the heady intoxication of the salt breeze and the gold of the sunshine, climbed into the Bear Cat and went rolling through the canyon and out to the valley on the far side. Here they gathered the tenderest heart shoots of the lupin until Linda said they had enough. Then to a particular spot that she knew on the desert they hurried for the enlarged stems of the desert trumpet which was to serve that day for an appetizer in the stead of pickles. Here, too, they filled a bucket from the heart of a big Bisnaga cactus as a basis for their drink. Among Katherine O'Donovan's cooking utensils there was a box of delicious cactus candy made from the preserved and sun-dried heart meat of this same fruit which was to serve as their confection. On the way back they stopped at the bridge and gathered cress for their salad. When they returned to Katy she had five fine trout lying in the shade, and with more experienced eyes and a more skillful hand Linda in a few minutes doubled this number. Then they tore out the dam, rinsed the screen and spread it over a rock to dry. While Donald scaled the fish Linda put the greens to cook, prepared the salad and set the table. Once, as he worked under her supervision, Linda said to Donald: "Now about bread, kid—there's not going to be any bread, because the Indians did not have it when they lived the way we are living today. When you reach the place where your left hand feels empty without a piece of bread in it, just butter up another amole and try it. It will serve the same purpose as bread, and be much better for the inner man."
"If you would let me skin these fish," said Donald, "I could do it much faster and make a better job of it."
"But you shouldn't skin them; you want the skin to hold the meat together when it begins to cook tender; and you should be able to peel it off and discard it if it burns or gets smoky in the cooking. It's a great concession to clean them as we do. The Indians cooked them in the altogether and ate the meat from the bones."
"Oh my tummy!" said Donald. "I always thought there was some dark secret about the Indians."
Linda sat on a rock opposite him and clasped her hands around her knees. She looked at him meditatively.
"Did you?" she asked. "Suppose you revise that opinion. Our North American Indians in their original state were as fine as any peoples that ever have been discovered the round of the globe. My grandfather came into intimate contact with them in the early days, and he said that their religion, embracing the idea of a great spirit to whom they were responsible for their deeds here, and a happy hunting ground to which they went as a reward for decent living, was as fine as any religion that ever has been practiced by people of any nation. Immorality was unknown among them. Family ties were formed and they were binding They loved their children and reared them carefully. They were hardy and healthful. Until the introduction of whiskey and what we are pleased to term civilized methods of living, very few of them died save from war or old age. They were free; they were happy. The moping, lazy, diseased creature that you find sleeping in the sun around the reservations is a product of our civilization. Nice commentary on civilization, isn't it?"
"For heaven's sake, Linda," said Donald, "don't start any big brainstorming trains of thought today! Grant me repose. I have overworked my brain for a few months past until I know only one thing for certain."
"All right then, me lad, this is the time for the big secret," said Linda. "I just happened to be in the assembly room on some business of my own last Thursday afternoon when my sessions were over, and I overheard your professor in trigonometry tell a marl I did not know, who seemed to be a friend visiting him, that the son of Judge Whiting was doing the finest work that ever had been done in any of the Los Angeles high schools, and that undoubtedly you were going to graduate with higher honors than any other boy ever had from that school."
Donald sat thinking this over. He absently lifted an elbow and wiped the tiny scales from his face with his shirt sleeve.
"Young woman," he said solemnly, "them things what you're saying, are they 'cross your heart, honest to goodness, so help you,' truth, or are they the fruit of a perfervid imagination?"
Linda shook her head vigorously.
"De but', kid," she said, "de gospel but'. You have the Jap going properly. He can't stop you now. You have fought your good fight, and you have practically won it. All you have to do is to carry on till the middle of June, and you're It."
"I wish Dad knew," said Donald in a low voice.
"The Judge does know," said Linda heartily. "It wasn't fifteen minutes after I heard that till I had him on the telephone repeating it as fast as I could repeat. Come to think of it, haven't you noticed a particularly cocky set of his head and the corksome lightness about his heels during the past few days?"
"By Jove, he has been happy about something!" said Donald. "And I noticed that Louise and the Mater were sort of cheery and making a specialty of the only son and brother."
"Sure, brother, sure," said Linda. "Hurry up and scrape those fish and let's scamper down the canyon merely for the joy of flying with wings on our feet. You're It, young man, just It!"
Donald was sitting on a boulder. On another in front of him he was operating on the trout. His hands were soiled; his hair was tousled; he was fairly well decorated with fine scales. He looked at Linda appealingly.