"Am I 'It' with you, Linda?" he asked soberly.
"Sure you are," said Linda. "You're the best friend I have."
"Will you write to me when I go to college this fall?"
"Why, you couldn't keep me from it," said Linda. "I'll have so many things to tell you. And when your first vacation comes we'll make it a hummer."
"I know Dad won't let me come home for my holidays except for the midsummer ones," said Donald soberly. "It would take most of the time there would be of the short holidays to travel back and forth."
"You will have to go very carefully about getting a start," said Linda, "and you should be careful to find the right kind of friends at the very start. Christmas and Thanksgiving boxes can always be sent on time to reach you. It won't be so long for you as for us; and by the time you have Oka Sayye beaten to ravelings you will have such a 'perfect habit' that you will start right in with the beating idea. That should keep you fairly busy, because most of the men you come up against will be beaters themselves."
"Yes, I know," said Donald. "Are you going to start me to college with the idea that I have to keep up this beating habit? If I were to be one of fifty or a hundred, wouldn't that be good enough?"
"Why, sure," said Linda, "if you will be satisfied with having me like fifty or a hundred as well as I do you."
"Oh, damn!" said Donald angrily. "Do I have to keep up this top-crust business all my days?"
Linda looked at him with a queer smile on her lips.
"Not unless you want to, Donald," she said quietly; "not unless you think you would rather."
Donald scraped a fish vigorously. Linda sat watching him. Presently the tense lines around his eyes vanished. A faint red crept up his neck and settled on his left cheek bone. A confused grin slowly widened his naturally wide mouth.
"Then it's me for the top crust," he said conclusively.
"Then it's me for you," answered Linda in equally as matter-of-fact tones; and rising, she gathered up the fish and carried them to Katy while Donald knelt beside the chilly stream and scoured his face and hands, after which Linda whipped away the scales with an improvised brush of willow twigs.
It was such a wonderful day; it was such an unusual and delicious feast. Plump brook trout, fresh from icy water, delicately broiled over searing wood coals, are the finest of food. Through the meal to the point where Donald lay on his back at the far curve of the canyon wall, nibbling a piece of cactus candy, everything had been perfect. Nine months would be a long time to be gone, but Linda would wait for him, and she would write to him.
He raised his head on his elbow and called across to her: "Say, Linda, how often will you write to me?"
Linda answered promptly: "Every Saturday night. Saturday is our day. I'll tell you what has happened all the week. I'll tell you specially what a darned unprofitable day Saturday is when you're three thousand miles away."
Bending over the canyon fireplace, her face red with heat and exertion, Katherine O'Donovan caught up her poker and beat up the fire until the ashes flew.
"Easy, Katy, easy," cautioned Linda. "We may want to bury those coals and resurrect them to warm up what is left for supper."
"We'll do no such thing," said Katy promptly. "What remains goes to feed the fish. Next time it's hungry ye are, we're goin' to hit it straight to Lilac Valley and fill ourselves with God's own bread and beefsteak and paraties. Don't ye think we're goin' to be atin' these haythen messes twice in one day."
To herself she was saying: "The sooner I get you home to Pater Morrison, missy, the better I'll be satisfied."
Once she stood erect, her hands at her belt, her elbows widespread, and with narrowed eyes watched the youngsters. Her lips were closed so tightly they wrinkled curiously as she turned back to the fireplace.
"Nayther one of them fool kids has come to yet," she said to herself, "and a mighty good thing it is that they haven't."
Linda was looking speculatively at Donald as he lay stretched on the Indian blanket at the base of the cliff. And then, because she was for ever busy with Nature, her eyes strayed above him up the side of the cliff, noting the vegetation, the scarred rocks, the sheer beauty of the canyon wall until they reached the top. Then, for no reason at all, she sat looking steadily at a huge boulder overhanging the edge of the cliff, and she was wondering how many ages it had hung there and how many more it would hang, poised almost in air, when a tiny pebble at its base loosened and came rattling and bounding down the canyon face. Every nerve in Linda tensed. She opened her mouth, but not a sound came. For a breathless second she was paralyzed. Then she shrieked wildly: "Donald, Donald, roll under the ledge! Quick, quick!"
She turned to Katy.
"Back, Katy, back!" she screamed. "That boulder is loose; it's coming down!"
For months Donald Whiting had obeyed Linda implicitly and instantly. He had moved with almost invisible speed at her warning many times before. Sometimes it had been a venomous snake, sometimes a yucca bayonet, sometimes poison vines, again unsafe footing—in each case instant obedience had been the rule. He did hot "question why" at her warning; he instantly did as he was told. He, too, had noticed the falling pebble. With all the agility of which he was capable he rolled under the narrow projecting ledge above him. Katherine O'Donovan was a good soldier also. She whirled and ran to the roadway. She had barely reached it when, with a grinding crash, down came the huge boulder, carrying bushes, smaller rocks, sand, and debris with it. On account of its weight it fell straight, struck heavily, and buried itself in the earth exactly on the spot upon which Donald had been lying. Linda raised terrified eyes to the top of the wall. For one instant a dark object peered over it and then drew back. Without thought for herself Linda rushed to the boulder, and kneeling, tried to see back of it.
"Donald!" she cried, "Donald, are you all right?"
"Guess I am, unless it hit one foot pretty hard. Feels fast."
"Can you get out?" she cried, beginning to tear with her hands at the stone and the bushes where she thought his head would be.
"I'm fast; but I'm all right," he panted. "Why the devil did that thing hang there for ages, and then come down on me today?"
"Yes, why did it?" gasped Linda. "Donald, I must leave you a minute. I've got to know if I saw a head peer over just as that stone came down."
"Be careful what you do!" he cried after her.
Linda sprang to her feet and rushed to the car. She caught out the field classes and threw the strap over her head as she raced to the far side of the fireplace where the walls were not so sheer. Katherine O'Donovan promptly seized the axe, caught its carrying strap lying beside it, thrust the handle through, swung it over her own head, dropped it between her shoulders, and ripping off her dress skirt she started up the cliff after Linda. Linda was climbing so swiftly and so absorbedly that she reached the top before she heard a sound behind her. Then she turned with a white face, and her mouth dropped open as she saw Katy three fourths of the way up the cliff. For one second she was again stiff with terror, then, feeling she could do nothing, she stepped back out of sight and waited a second until Katy's red head and redder face appeared over the edge. Realizing that her authority was of no avail, that Katy would follow her no matter where she went or what she did, and with no time to argue, Linda simply called to her encouragingly: "Follow where I go; take your time; hang tight, old dear, it's dangerous!"
She started around the side of the mountain, heading almost straight upward, traveling as swiftly and as noiselessly as possible. Over big boulders, on precarious footing, clinging to bushes, they made their way until they reached a place that seemed to be sheer above them; certainly it was for hundreds of feet below On a point of rock screened by overhanging bushes Linda paused until Katy overtook her.
"We are about stalled," she panted. "Find a good footing and stay where you are. I'm going to climb out on these bushes and see if I can get a view of the mountain side."
Advancing a few yards, Linda braced herself, drew around her glasses, and began searching the side of the mountain opposite her and below as far as she could range with the glasses. At last she gave up.
"Must have gone the other way," she said to Katy. "I'll crawl back to you. We'll go after help and get Donald out. There will be time enough to examine the cliff afterward; but I am just as sure now as I will be when it is examined that that stone was purposely loosened to a degree where a slight push would drop it. As Donald says, there's no reason why it should hang there for centuries and fall on him today. Shut your eyes, old dear, and back up. We must go to Donald. I rather think it's on one of his feet from what he said. Let me take one more good look."
At that minute from high on the mountain above them a shower of sand and pebbles came rattling down. Linda gave Katy one terrified look.
"My God!" she panted. "He's coming down right above us!"
Just how Linda recrossed the bushes and reached Katy she did not know. She motioned for her to make her way back as they had come. Katy planted her feet squarely upon the rock. Her lower jaw shot out; her eyes were aflame. She stood perfectly still with the exception of motioning Linda to crowd back under the bushes, and again Linda realized that she had no authority; as she had done from childhood when Katy was in earnest, Linda obeyed her. She had barely reached the overhanging bushes, crouched under them, and straightened herself, when a small avalanche came showering down, and a minute later a pair of feet were level with her head. Then screened by the bushes, she could have reached out and touched Oka Sayye. As his feet found a solid resting place on the ledge on which Linda and Katy stood, and while he was still clinging to the bushes, Katherine O'Donovan advanced upon him. He had felt that his feet were firm, let go his hold, and turned, when he faced the infuriated Irishwoman. She had pulled the strap from around her neck, slipped the axe from it, and with a strong thrust she planted the head of it against Oka Sayye's chest so hard that she almost fell forward. The Jap plunged backward among the bushes, the roots of which had supported Linda while she used the glasses. Then he fell, sliding among them, snatching wildly. Linda gripped the overhanging growth behind which she had been screened, and leaned forward.
"He has a hold; he is coming back up, Katy!" she cried.
Katy took another step forward. She looked over the cliff down an appalling depth of hundreds of feet. Deliberately she raised the axe, circled it round her head and brought it down upon that particular branch to which Oka Sayye was clinging. She cut it through, and the axe rang upon the stone wall behind it. As she swayed forward Linda reached out, gripped Katy and pulled her back.
"Get him?" she asked tersely, as if she were speaking of a rat or a rattlesnake.
Katy sank back limply against the wall. Linda slowly turned her around, and as she faced the rock, "Squeeze tight against it shut your eyes, and keep a stiff upper lip," she cautioned. "I'm going to work around you; I want to be ahead of you."
She squeezed past Katy, secured the axe and hung it round her own neck. She cautioned Katy to keep her eyes shut and follow where she led her, then they started on their way back. Linda did not attempt to descend the sheer wall by which they had climbed, but making a detour she went lower, and in a very short time they were back in the kitchen. Linda rushed to the boulder and knelt again, but she could get no response to her questions. Evidently Donald's foot was caught and he was unconscious from the pain. Squeezing as close as she could, she thrust her arm under the ledge until she could feel his head. Then she went to the other side, and there she could see that his right foot was pinned under the rock. She looked at Katy reassuringly, then she took off the axe and handed it to her.
"He's alive," she said. "Can't kill a healthy youngster to have a crushed foot. You stand guard until I take the Bear Cat and bring help. It's not far to where I can find people."
At full speed Linda put the Cat through the stream and out of the canyon until she reached cultivated land, where she found a man who would gather other men and start to the rescue. She ran on until she found a house with a telephone. There she called Judge Whiting, telling him to bring an ambulance and a surgeon, giving him explicit directions as to where to come, and assuring him that Donald could not possibly be seriously hurt. She found time to urge, also, that before starting he set in motion any precautions he had taken for Donald's protection. She told him where she thought what remained of Oka Sayye could be found. And then, as naturally and as methodically as she had done all the rest, she called Peter Morrison and told him that she was in trouble and where he could find her.
And because Peter had many miles less distance to travel than the others she had summoned, he arrived first. He found Linda and Katy had burrowed under the stone until they had made an opening into which the broken foot might sink so that the pain of the pressure would be relieved. Before the rock, with picks and shovels, half a dozen sympathetic farmers from ranches and cultivated land at the mouth of the canyon were digging furiously to make an opening undermining the boulder so that it could be easily tipped forward. Donald was conscious and they had been passing water to him and encouraging him with the report that his father and a good surgeon would be there very soon. Katherine O'Donovan had crouched at one side of the boulder, supporting the hurt foot. She was breathing heavily and her usually red face was a ghastly green. Linda had helped her to resume the skirt of her dress. At the other side of the rock the girl was reaching to where she could touch Donald's head or reassuringly grip the hand that he could extend to her. Peter seized Linda's axe and began hewing at the earth and rock in order to help in the speedy removal of the huge boulder. Soon Judge Whiting, accompanied by Doctor Fleming, the city's greatest surgeon, came caring into the canyon and stopped on the roadway when he saw the party. The Judge sprang from the car, leaped the stream, and started toward them. In an effort to free his son before his arrival, all the men braced themselves against the face of the cliff and pushed with their combined strength. The boulder dropped forward into the trench they had dug for it enough to allow Peter to crowd his body between it and the cliff and lift Donald's head and shoulders. Linda instantly ran around the boulder, pushed her way in, and carefully lifting Donald's feet, she managed to work the lithe slenderness of her body through the opening, so that they carried Donald out and laid him down in the open. He was considerably dazed and shaken, cruelly hurt, but proved himself a game youngster of the right mettle. He raised himself to a sitting posture, managing a rather stiff-lipped smile for his father and Linda. The surgeon instantly began cutting to reach the hurt foot, while Peter Morrison supported the boy's head and shoulders on one side, his father on the other.
An exclamation of dismay broke from the surgeon's lips. He looked at Judge Whiting and nodded slightly. The men immediately picked up Donald and carried him to the ambulance. Katherine O'Donovan sat down suddenly and buried her face in the skirt of her dress. Linda laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
"Don't, Katy," she said. "Keep up your nerve; you're all right, old dear. Donald's fine. That doesn't mean anything except that his foot is broken, so he won't be able, and it won't be necessary for him, to endure the pain of setting it in a cast without an anesthetic; and Doctor Fleming can work much better where he has every convenience. It's all right."
The surgeon climbed into the ambulance and they started on an emergency run to the hospital. As the car turned and swept down the canyon, for no reason that she could have explained, Linda began to shake until her teeth clicked. Peter Morrison sprang back across the brook, and running to her side, he put his arm around her and with one hand he pressed her head against his shoulder, covering her face.
"Steady, Linda," he said quietly, "steady. You know that he is all right. It will only be a question of a short confinement."
Linda made a brave effort to control herself. She leaned against Peter and held out both her hands.
"I'm all right," she chattered. "Give me a minute."
Judge Whiting came to them.
"I am getting away immediately," he said. "I must reach Louise and Mother before they get word of this. Doctor Fleming will take care of Donald all right. What happened, Linda? Can you tell me?"
Linda opened her lips and tried to speak, but she was too breathless, too full of excitement, to be coherent. To her amazement Katherine O'Donovan scrambled to her feet, lifted her head and faced the Judge. She pointed to the fireplace.
"I was right there, busy with me cookie' utensils," she said, "Miss Linda was a-sittin, on that exact spot, they jist havin finished atin' some of her haythen messes; and the lad was lyin, square where the boulder struck, on the Indian blanket, atin' a pace of cactus candy. And jist one pebble came rattlin' down, but Miss Linda happened to be lookin', and she scramed to the b'y to be rollin' under where ye found him; so he gave a flop or two, and it's well that he took his orders without waitin' to ask the raison for them, for if he had, at the prisint minute he would be about as thick as a shate of writing paper. The thing dropped clear and straight and drove itself into the earth and stone below it, as ye see."
Katherine O'Donovan paused.
"Yes," said the Judge. "Anything else?"
"Miss Linda got to him and she made sure he had brathin' space and he wasn't hurt bad, and then she told him he had got to stand it, because, sittin' where she did, she faced the cliff and she thought she had seen someone. She took the telescope and started climbin', and I took the axe and I started climbin' after her."
Katy broke down and emitted a weird Irish howl. Linda instantly braced herself, threw her arms around Katy, and drew her head to her shoulder. She looked at Judge Whiting and began to talk.
"I can show you where she followed me, straight up the face of the canyon, almost," she said. "And she never had tried to climb a canyon side for a yard, either, but she came up and over after me, like a cat. And up there on a small ledge Oka Sayye came down directly above us. I couldn't be mistaken. I saw him plainly. I know him by sight as well as I do any of you. We heard the stones coming down before him, and we knew someone was going to be on us who was desperate enough to kill. When he touched our level and turned to follow the ledge we were on, I pushed him over."
Katy shook off Linda's protecting arm and straightened suddenly.
"Why, ye domned little fool, ye!" she screamed. "Ye never told a lie before in all your days! Judge Whiting, I had the axe round me neck by the climbin' strap, and I got it in me fingers when we heard the crature comin', and against his chist I set it, and I gave him a shove that sint him over. Like a cat he was a-clingin' and climbin', and when I saw him comin' up on us with that awful face of his, I jist swung the axe like I do when I'm rejoocin' a pace of eucalyptus to fireplace size, and whack! I took the branch supportin' him, and a dome' good axe I spoiled din' it."
Katy folded her arms, lifted her chin higher than it ever had been before, and glared defiance at the Judge.
"Now go on," she said, "and decide what ye'll do to me for it."
The Judge reached over and took both Katherine O'Donovan's hands in a firm grip.
"You brave woman!" he said. "If it lay in my power, I would give you the Carnegie Medal. In any event I will see that you have a good bungalow with plenty of shamrock on each side of your front path, and a fair income to keep you comfortable when the rheumatic days are upon you."
"I am no over-feeder," said Katy proudly. "I'm daily exercisin' me muscles enough to kape them young. The rheumatism I'll not have. And nayther will I have the house nor the income. I've saved me money; I've an income of me own."
"And as for the bungalow," interrupted Linda, "Katherine, as I have mentioned frequently before is my father, and my mother, and my whole family, and her front door is mine."
"Sure," said Katy proudly. "When these two fine people before you set up their hearthstone, a-swapin' it I'll be, and carin' for their youngsters; but, Judge, I would like a bit of the shamrock. Ye might be sendin' me a start of that, if it would plase Your Honor."
Judge Whiting looked intently at Katherine O'Donovan. And then, as if they had been on the witness stand, he looked searchingly at Linda. But Linda was too perturbed, too accustomed to Katy's extravagant nonsense even to notice the purport of what she had said. Then the Judge turned his attention to Peter Morrison and realized that at least one of the parties to Katherine's proposed hearthstone had understood and heartily endorsed her proposal.
"I will have to be going. The boy and his mother will need me," he said. "I will see all of you later."
Then he sprang across the brook and sent his car roaring down the canyon after the ambulance.
Once more Katy sank to the ground. Linda looked at her as she buried her face and began to wail.
"Peter," she said quietly, "hunt our belongings and pack them in the Bear Cat the best you can. Excuse us for a few minutes. We must act this out of our systems."
Gravely she sat down beside Katy, laid her head on her shoulder, and began to cry very nearly as energetically as Katy herself. And that was the one thing which was most effective in restoring Katy's nerves. Tears were such an unaccustomed thing with Linda that Katy controlled herself speedily so that she might be better able to serve the girl. In a few minutes Katy had reduced her emotions to a dry sniffle. She lifted her head, groped for her pocket, and being unable to find it for the very good reason that she was sitting upon it, she used her gingham hem as a handkerchief. Once she had risen to the physical effort of wiping her eyes, she regained calmness rapidly. The last time she applied the hem she looked at Peter, but addressed the Almighty in resigned tones: "There, Lord, I guess that will do."
In a few minutes she was searching the kitchen, making sure that no knives, spoons, or cooking utensils were lost. Missing her support, Linda sat erect and endeavored to follow Katy's example. Her eyes met Peter's and when she saw that his shoulders were shaking, a dry, hysterical laugh possessed her.
"Yes, Katy," she panted, "that WILL do, and remember the tears we are shedding are over Donald's broken foot, and because this may interfere with his work, though I don't think it will for long."
"When I cry," said Katy tersely, "I cry because I feel like it. I wasn't wapin' over the snake that'd plan a death like that for anyone"—Katy waved toward the boulder—"and nayther was I wastin' me tears over the fut of a kid bein' jommed up a trifle."
"Well, then, Katy," asked Linda tremulously, "why were you crying?"
"Well, there's times," said Katy judicially, "when me spirits tell me I would be the better for lettin' off a wee bit of stame, and one of them times havin' arrived, I jist bowed me head to it, as is in accordance with the makings of me. Far be it from me to be flyin' in the face of Providence and sayin' I won't, when all me interior disposhion says to me: 'Ye will!'"
"And now, Linda," said Peter, "can you tell us why you were crying?"
"Why, I think," said Linda, "that Katy has explained sufficiently for both of us. It was merely time for us to howl after such fearful nerve strain, so we howled."
"Well, that's all right," said Peter. "Now I'll tell you something. If you had gone away in that ambulance to an anesthetic and an operation, no wildcat that ever indulged in a hunger hunt through this canyon could have put up a howl equal to the one that I would have sent up."
"Peter," said Linda, "there is nothing funny about this; it's no tame for jest. But do men have nerves? Would you really?"
"Of course I would," said Peter.
"No, you wouldn't," contradicted Linda. "You just say that because you want to comfort us for having broken down, instead of trying to tease us as most men would."
"He would, too!" said Katy, starting to the Bear Cat with a load of utensils. "Now come on; let's go home and be gettin' craned up and ready for what's goin' to happen to us. Will they be jailin' us, belike, Miss Linda?"
Linda looked at Peter questioningly.
"No," he said quietly. "It is very probable that the matter never will be mentioned to you again, unless Judge Whiting gets hold of some clue that he wishes to use as an argument against matured Japs being admitted in the same high-school classes with our clean, decent, young Americans. They stopped that in the grades several years ago, I am told."
Before they could start back to Lilac Valley a car stopped in the canyon and a couple of men introducing themselves as having come from Judge Whiting interviewed Katy and Linda exhaustively. Then Linda pointed out to them an easier but much longer route by which they might reach the top of the canyon to examine the spot from which the boulder had fallen. She showed them where she and Katy had ascended, and told them where they would be likely to find Oka Sayye.
When it came to a question of really starting, Linda looked with appealing eyes at Peter.
"Peter," she said, "could we fix it any way so you could drive Katy and me home? For the first time since I have begun driving this spring I don't feel equal to keeping the road."
"Of course," said Peter. "I'll take your car to the nearest farmhouse and leave it, then I'll take you and Katy in my car."
Late that evening Judge Whiting came to Lilac Valley with his wife and daughter to tell Linda that the top of the cliff gave every evidence of the stone having been loosened previously, so that a slight impetus would send it crashing down at the time when Donald lay in his accustomed place directly in the line of its fall. His detectives had found the location of the encounter and they had gone to the bottom of the cliff, a thousand feet below, but they had not been able to find any trace of Oka Sayye. Somewhere in waiting there had been confederates who had removed what remained of him. On the way home Mrs. Whiting said to her husband: "Judge, are you very sure that what the cook said to you this afternoon about Miss Strong and Mr. Morrison is true?"
"I am only sure of its truth so far as he is concerned," replied the Judge. "What he thought about Linda was evident. I am very sorry. She is a mighty fine girl and I think Donald is very much interested in her."
"Yes, I think so, too," said Donald's mother. "Interested; but he has not even a case of first love. He is interested for the same reason you would be or I would be, because she is intellectually so stimulating. And you have to take into consideration the fact that in two or three years more she will be ready for marriage and a home of her own, and Donald will still be in school with his worldly experience and his business education not yet begun. The best thing that can happen to Donald is just to let his infatuation for her die a natural death, with the quiet assistance of his family."
The Judge's face reddened slightly.
"Well, I would like mighty well to have her in the family," he said. "She's a corking fine girl. She would make a fine mother of fine men. I haven't a doubt but that with the power of his personality and the power of his pen and the lure of propinquity, Peter Morrison will win her, but I hate it. It's the best chance the boy ever will have."
And then Louise spoke up softly.
"Donald hasn't any chance, Dad," she said quietly, "and he never did have. I have met Peter Morrison myself and I would be only too glad if I thought he was devoted to me. I'll grant that Linda Strong is a fine girl, but when she wakes up to the worth of Peter Morrison and to a realization of what other women would be glad to be to him, she will merely reach out and lay possessive hands upon what already belongs to her."
It was a curious thing that such occurrences as the death of Oka Sayye and the injury to Donald could take place and no one know about them. Yet the papers were silent on the subject and so were the courts. Linda and Katy were fully protected. The confederates of Oka Sayye for reasons of their own preferred to keep very quiet.
By Monday Donald, with his foot in a plaster cast, was on a side veranda of his home with a table beside him strewn with books and papers. An agreement had been made that his professors should call and hear his recitations for a few days until by the aid of a crutch and a cane he could resume his place in school. Linda went to visit him exactly as she would have gone to see Marian in like circumstances. She succeeded in making all of the Whiting family her very devoted friends.
One evening, after he had been hobbling about for over a week, Linda and Peter called to spend the evening, and a very gay and enjoyable evening it was. And yet when it was over and they had gone away together Donald appeared worried and deeply thoughtful. When his mother came to his room to see if the foot was unduly painful or there was anything she could do to make him more comfortable, he looked at her belligerently.
"Mother," he said, "I don't like Peter Morrison being so much with my girl."
Mrs. Whiting stood very still. She thought very fast. Should she postpone it or should she let the boy take all of his hurts together? Her heart ached for him and yet she felt that she knew what life had in store for him concerning Linda. So she sat on the edge of the bed and began to talk quietly, plainly, reasonably. She tried to explain nature and human nature and what she thought the laws of probability were in the case. Donald lay silent. He said nothing until she had finished all she had to say, and then he announced triumphantly: "You're all wrong. That is what would happen if Linda were a girl like any of the other girls in her class, or like Louise. But she has promised that she would write to me every Saturday night and she has said that she thinks more of me than of any of the other boys."
"Donald dear," said Mrs. Whiting, "you're not 'in love' with Linda yourself, and neither is she with you. By the time you are ready to marry and settle down in life, Linda in all probability will be married and be the mother of two or three babies."
"Yes, like fun she will," said Donald roughly.
"Have you asked her whether she loves you?" inquired Mrs. Whiting.
"Oh, that 'love' business," said Donald, "it makes me tired! Linda and I never did any mushing around. We had things of some importance to talk about and to do."
A bit of pain in Mrs. Whiting's heart eased. It was difficult to keep her lips quiet and even.
"You haven't asked her to marry you, then?" she said soberly. "Oh good Lord," cried Donald, "'marry!' How could I marry anyone when I haven't even graduated from high school and with college and all that to come?"
"That is what I have been trying to tell you," said his mother evenly. "I don't believe you have been thinking about marriage and I am absolutely certain that Linda has not, but she is going to be made to think about it long before you will be in such financial position that you dare. That is the reason I am suggesting that you think about these things seriously and question yourself as to whether you would be doing the fair thing by Linda if you tried to tie her up in an arrangement that would ask her to wait six or eight years yet before you would be ready."
"Well, I can get around faster than that," said Donald belligerently.
"Of course you can," agreed his mother. "I made that estimate fully a year too long. But even in seven years Linda could do an awful lot of waiting; and there are some very wonderful girls that will be coming up six or seven years from now here at home. You know that hereafter all the girls in the world are going to be very much more Linda's kind of girls than they have been heretofore. The girls who have lived through the war and who have been intimate with its sorrow and its suffering and its terrible results to humanity, are not going to be such heedless, thoughtless, not nearly such selfish, girls as the world has known in the decade just past. And there is going to be more outdoor life, more nature study. There are going to be stronger bodies, better food, better-cared-for young people; and every year educational advantages are going to be greater. If you can bring yourself to think about giving up the idea of there ever existing any extremely personal thing between you and Linda, I am very sure I could guarantee to introduce you to a girl who would be quite her counterpart, and undoubtedly we could meet one who would be handsomer."
Donald punched his pillow viciously.
"That's nice talk," he said, "and it may be true talk. But in the first place I wish that Peter Morrison would let my girl alone, and in the second place I don't care if there are a thousand just as nice girls or even better-looking girls than Linda, though any girl would be going some if she were nicer and better looking than Linda. But I am telling you that when my foot gets better I am going to Lilac Valley and tell him where to head in, and I'll punch his head if he doesn't do it promptly."
"Of course you will," said his mother reassuringly; "and I'll go with you and we'll see to it that he attends strictly to his own affairs."
Donald burst out laughing, exactly as his mother in her heart had hoped that he would.
"Yes, I've got a hand-painted picture of myself starting to Lilac Valley to fight a man who is butting in with my girl, and taking my mother along to help me beat him up," he said.
Mrs. Whiting put her arms around her boy, kissed him tenderly, and smoothed his hair, and then turned out the lights and slipped from the room. But in the clear moonlight as she closed the door she could see that a boyish grin was twisting his lips, and she went down to tell the Judge that he need not worry. If his boy were irreparably hurt anywhere, it was in his foot.
CHAPTER XXXII. How the Wasp Built Her Nest
The following weeks were very happy for Linda. When the cast was removed from Donald's foot and it was found that a year or two of care would put him even on the athletic fields and the dancing floor again, she was greatly relieved.
She lacked words in which to express her joy that Marian was rapidly coming into happiness. She was so very busy with her school work, with doing all she could to help Donald with his, with her "Jane Meredith" articles, with hunting and working out material for her book, that she never had many minutes at a time for introspection. When she did have a few she sometimes pondered deeply as to whether Marian had been altogether sincere in the last letter she had written her in their correspondence, but she was so delighted in the outcome that if she did at times have the same doubt in a fleeting form that had not been in the least fleeting with Peter Morrison, she dismissed it as rapidly as possible. When things were so very good as they were at that time, why try to improve them?
One evening as she came from school, thinking that she would take Katy for a short run in the Bear Cat before dinner, she noticed a red head prominent in the front yard as she neared home. When she turned in at the front walk and crossed the lawn she would have been willing to wager quite a sum that Katy had been crying.
"Why, old dear," said Linda, putting her arms around her, "if anything has gone wrong with you I will certainly take to the warpath, instanter. I can't even imagine what could be troubling you." Linda lowered her voice. "Nothing has come up about Oka Sayye?"
Katy shook her head.
"I thought not," said Linda. "Judge Whiting promised me that what use he made of that should be man's business and exploited wholly for the sake of California and her people. He said we shouldn't be involved. I haven't been worried about it even, although I am willing to go upon the stand and tell the whole story if it will be any help toward putting right what is at present a great wrong to California."
"Yes, so would I," said Katy. "I'm not worryin' meself about the little baste any more than I would if it had been a mad dog foaming up that cliff at ye."
"Then what is it?" asked Linda. "Tell me this minute."
"I dunno what in the world you're going to think," said Katy "I dunno what in the world you're going to do."
Her face was so distressed that Linda's nimble brain flew to a conclusion. She tightened her arm across Katy's shoulder.
"By Jove, Katy!" she said breathlessly. "Is Eileen in the house?"
"Has she been to see John and made things right with him?"
Katy nodded again.
"He's in there with her waitin' for ye," she said.
It was a stunned Linda who slowly dropped her arm, stood erect, and lifted her head very high. She thought intently.
"You don't mean to tell me," she said, "that you have been CRYING over her?"
Katy held out both hands.
"Linda," she said, "she always was such a pretty thing, and her ma didn't raise her to have the sense of a peewee. If your pa had been let take her outdoors and grow her in the sun and the air, she would have been bigger and broader, an' there would have been the truth of God's sunshine an' the glory of His rain about her. Ye know, Linda, that she didn't ever have a common decent chance. It was curls that couldn't be shook out and a nose that dassen't be sunburned and shoes that mustn't be scuffed and a dress that shouldn't be mussed, from the day she was born. Ye couldn't jist honest say she had ever had a FAIR chance, now could ye?"
"No," said Linda conclusively, "no, Katherine O'Donovan, you could not. But what are we up against? Does she want to come back? Does she want to stay here again?"
"I think she would like to," said Katy. "You go in and see her for yourself, lambie, before ye come to any decision."
"You don't mean," said Linda in a marveling tone, "that she has been homesick, that she has come back to us because she would like to be with us again?"
"You go and see her for yourself; and if you don't say she is the worst beat out and the tiredest mortal that ye have ever seen you'll be surprisin' me. My God, Linda, they ain't nothin' in bein' rich if it can do to a girl what has been done to Eileen!"
"Oh, well," said Linda impatiently, "don't condemn all money because Eileen has not found happiness with it. The trouble has been that Eileen's only chance to be rich came to her through the wrong kind of people."
"Well, will ye jist tell me, then," said Katy, "how it happened that Eileen's ma was a sister to that great beef of a man, which same is hard on self-rayspectin' beef; pork would come nearer."
"Yes," said Linda, "I'll tell you. Eileen's mother had a big streak of the same coarseness and the same vulgarity in HER nature, or she could not have reared Eileen as she did. She probably had been sent to school and had better advantages than the boy through a designing mother of her own. Her first husband must have been a man who greatly refined and educated her. We can't ever get away from the fact that Daddy believed in her and loved her."
"Yes," said Katy, "but he was a fooled man. She wasn't what we thought she was. Many's the time I've stood injustice about the accounts and household management because I wouldn't be wakin' him up to what he was bound to for life."
"That doesn't help us," said Linda. "I must go in and face them."
She handed her books to Katy, and went into the living room She concentrated on John Gilman first, and a wee qualm of disgust crept through her soul when she saw that after weeks of suffering he was once more ready to devote himself to Eileen. Linda marveled at the power a woman could hold over a man that would force him to compromise with his intellect, his education and environment. Then she turned her attention to Eileen, and the shock she received was informing. She studied her an instant incredulously, then she went to her and held out her hand.
"How do you do?" she said as cordially as was possible to her. "This is unexpected."
Her mind was working rapidly, yet she could not recall ever having seen a woman quite so beautiful as Eileen. She was very certain that the color on her cheeks was ebbing and rising with excitement; it was no longer so deep as to be stationary. She was very certain that her eyes had not been darkened as to lids or waxed as to lashes. Her hair was beautifully dressed in sweeping waves with scarcely any artificial work upon it. Her dress was extremely tasteful and very expensive. There was no simper on her lips, nothing superficial. She was only a tired, homesick girl. As Linda looked at her she understood why Katy had cried over her. She felt tears beginning to rise in her own heart. She put both arms protectingly around Eileen.
"Why, you poor little thing," she said wonderingly, "was it so damn' bad as all that?"
Eileen stood straight. She held herself rigidly. She merely nodded. Then after a second she said: "Worse than anything you could imagine, Linda. Being rich with people who have grown rich by accident is a dreadful experience."
"So I have always imagined," said Linda. And then in her usual downright way she asked: "Why did you come, Eileen? Is there anything you wanted of me?"
Eileen hesitated. It was not in Linda's heart to be mean.
"Homesick, little sister?" she asked lightly "Do you want to come here while you're getting ready to make a home for John? Is that it?"
Then Eileen swayed forward suddenly, buried her face in Linda's breast, and for the first time in her life Linda saw and heard her cry, not from selfishness, not from anger, not from greed, but as an ordinary human being cries when the heart is so full that nature relieves itself with tears. Linda closed her arms around her and smiled over her head at John Gilman.
"Finish all of it before you stop," she advised. "It's all right. You come straight home. You didn't leave me any word, and I didn't know what to do with your things, but I couldn't feel that you would want to give up such beautiful things that you had so enjoyed. We had planned for Marian to spend her summer vacation here so I put her things in your suite and I had moved mine into the guest room, but I have had my room done over and the guest room things are in there, and every scrap of yours is carefully put away. If that will do, you are perfectly welcome to it."
Eileen wiped her eyes.
"Anything," she sobbed. "I'd rather have Katy's room than be shamed and humiliated and hurt any further. Linda, I would almost like you to know my Aunt Callie, because you will never understand about her if you don't. Her favorite pastime was to tell everyone we met how much the things I wore cost her."
Linda released Eileen with a slight shake.
"Cheer up!" she said. "We'll all have a gorgeous time together. I haven't the slightest ambition to know more than that about your Aunt Callie. If my brain really had been acting properly I would never have dismantled your room. I would have known that you could not endure her, and that you would come home just as you should. It's all right, John, make yourself comfortable. I don't know what Katy has for dinner but she can always find enough for an extra couple. Come Eileen, I'll help you to settle. Where is your luggage?"
"I brought back, Linda, just what I have on," said Eileen. "I will begin again where I left off. I realize that I am not entitled to anything further from the Strong estate, but Uncle was so unhappy and John says it's all right—really I am the only blood heir to all they have; I might as well take a comfortable allowance from it. I am to go to see them a few days of every month. I can endure that when I know I have John and you to come back to."
When Eileen had been installed in Linda's old room Linda went down to the kitchen, shut the door behind her, and leaning against it, laid her hand over her mouth to suppress a low laugh.
"Katy," she said, "I've been and gone and done it; I have put the perfect lady in my old room. That will be a test of her sincerity—even dainty and pretty as it is since it's been done over. If she is sincere enough to spend the summer getting ready to marry John Gilman—why that is all right, old girl. We can stand it, can't we?"
"Yes," said Katy, "it's one of them infernal nuisances but we can stand it. I'm thinkin', from the looks of John Gilman and his manner of spakin', that it ain't goin' to be but a very short time that he'll be waitin'."
"Katy," said Linda, "isn't this the most entertaining world? Doesn't it produce the most lightning-like changes, and don't the most unexpected things happen? Sort of dazes me. I had planned to take a little run with you and the Cat. Since we are having—no, I mustn't say guests—since John and Eileen have come home, I'll have to give up that plan until after dinner, and then we'll go and take counsel with our souls and see if we can figure out how we are going to solve this equation; and if you don t know what an equation is, old dear heart, it's me with a war-club and you with a shillalah and Eileen between us, and be 'damned' to us if we can't make an average, ordinary, decent human being out of her. Pin an apron on her in the morning, Katy, and hand her a dust cloth and tell her to industrialize. We will help her with her trousseau, but she SHALL help us with the work."
"Ye know, lambie," whispered Katy suddenly, "this is a burnin' shame. The one thing I DIDN'T think about is that book of yours. What about it?"
"I scarcely know," said Linda; "it's difficult to say. Of course we can't carry out the plans we had made to work here, exactly as we had intended, with Eileen in the house preparing to be married. But she tells me that her uncle has made her a generous allowance, so probably it's environment and love she is needing much more than help. It is barely possible, Katy, that after I have watched her a few days, if I decide she is in genuine, sincere, heart-whole earnest, I might introduce her and John to my friend, 'Jane.' It is probable that if I did, Eileen would not expect me to help her, and at the same time she wouldn't feel that I was acting indifferently because I did not. We'll wait awhile, Katy, and see whether we skid before we put on the chains."
"What about Marian?" inquired Katy.
"I don't know," said Linda thoughtfully. "If Marian is big enough to come here and spend the summer under the same roof with Eileen and John Gilman, and have a really restful, enjoyable time out of it, she is bigger than I am. Come up to the garret; I think Eileen has brought no more with her than she took away. We'll bring her trunk down, put it in her room and lay the keys on top. Don't begin by treating her as a visitor; treat her as if she were truly my sister. Tell her what you want and how you want it, exactly as you tell me and as I tell you. If you see even a suspicion of any of the former objectionable tendencies popping up, let's check them quick and hard, Katy."
For a week Linda watched Eileen closely. At the end of that time she was sincere in her conviction that Eileen had been severely chastened. When she came in contact with Peter Morrison or any other man they met she was not immediately artificial. She had learned to be as natural with men as with other women. There were no pretty postures, no softened vocal modulations, no childish nonsense on subjects upon which the average child of these days displays the knowledge of the past-generation grandmother. When they visited Peter Morrison's house it was easy to see that Eileen was interested, more interested than any of them ever before had seen her in any subject outside of clothing and jewels. Her conduct in the Strong home had been irreproachable. She had cared for her own room, quietly undertaken the duties of dusting and arranging the rooms and cutting and bringing in flowers. She had gone to the kitchen and wiped dishes and asked to be taught how to cook things of which John was particularly fond. She had been reasonable in the amount of time she had spent on her shopping, and had repeatedly gone to Linda and shown interest in her concerns. The result was that Linda at once displayed the same interest in anything pertaining to Eileen.
One afternoon Linda came home unusually early. She called for Eileen, told her to tie on her sunshade and be ready for a short ride. Almost immediately she brought around the Bear Cat and when they were seated side by side headed it toward the canyon. She stopped at the usual resting place, and together she and Eileen walked down the light-dappled road bed. She pointed out things to Eileen, telling her what they were, to what uses they could be put, while at the same time narrowly watching her. To her amazement she found that Eileen was interested, that she was noticing things for herself, asking what they were. She wanted to know the names of the singing birds. When a big bird trailed a waving shadow in front of her Linda explained how she might distinguish an eagle from a hawk, a hawk from a vulture, a sea bird from those of the land. When they reached the bridge Linda climbed down the embankment to gather cress. She was moved to protest when Eileen followed and without saying a word began to assist her, but she restrained herself, for it suddenly occurred to her that it would be an excellent thing for Eileen to think more of what she was doing and why she was doing it than about whether she would wet her feet or muddy her fingers. So the protest became an explanation that it was rather late for cress: the leaves toughened when it bloomed and were too peppery. The only way it could be used agreeably was to work along the edges and select the small tender shoots that had not yet matured to the flowering point. When they had an armload they went back to the car, and without any explanation Linda drove into Los Angeles and stopped at the residence of Judge Whiting, not telling Eileen where she was.
"Friends of mine," said Linda lightly as she stepped from the car. "Fond of cress salad with their dinner. They prepare it after the Jane Meredith recipe to which you called my attention, in Everybody's Home last winter. Come along with me."
Eileen stepped from the car and followed. Linda led the way round the sidewalk to where her quick ear had located voices on the side lawn. She stopped at the kitchen door, handed in the cress, exchanged a few laughing words with the cook, and then presented herself at the door of the summerhouse. Inside, his books and papers spread over a worktable, sat Donald Whiting. One side of him his mother was busy darning his socks; on the other his sister Louise was working with embroidery silk and small squares of gaily colored linen. Linda entered with exactly the same self-possession that characterized her at home. She shook hands with Mrs. Whiting, Mary Louise, and Donald, and then she said quietly: "Eileen and I were gathering cress and we stopped to leave you some for your dinner." With this explanation she introduced Eileen to Mrs. Whiting. Mary Louise immediately sprang up and recalled their meeting at Riverside. Donald remembered a meeting he did not mention. It was only a few minutes until Linda was seated beside Donald, interesting herself in his lessons. Eileen begged to be shown the pretty handkerchiefs that Mary Louise was making. An hour later Linda refused an invitation to dinner because Katy would be expecting them. When she arose to go, Eileen was carrying a small square of blue-green linen. Carefully pinned to it was a patch of white with a spray of delicate flowers outlined upon it, and a skein of pink silk thread. She had been initiated into the thrillingly absorbing feminine accomplishment of making sport handkerchiefs. When they left Eileen was included naturally, casually, spontaneously, in their invitation to Linda to run in any time she would. Mary Louise had said she would ride out with Donald in few days and see how the handkerchiefs were coming on, and more instruction and different stitches and patterns were necessary, she would love to teach them. So Linda realized that Mary Louise had been told about the trousseau. She knew, even lacking as she was in feminine sophistication, that there were two open roads to the heart of a woman. One is a wedding and the other is a baby. The lure of either is irresistible.
As the Bear Cat glided back to Lilac Valley, Eileen sat silent. For ten years she had coveted the entree to the Whiting home perhaps more than any other in the city. Merely by being simple and natural, by living her life as life presented itself each day, Linda with no effort whatever had made possible to Eileen the thing she so deeply craved. Eileen was learning a new lesson each day—some days many of them—but none was more amazing more simple, or struck deeper into her awakened consciousness. As she gazed with far-seeing eye on the blue walls of the valley Eileen was taking a mental inventory of her former self. One by one she was arraigning all the old tricks she had used in her trade of getting on in the world. One by one she was discarding them in favor of honesty, unaffectedness, and wholesome enjoyment.
Because of these things Linda came home the next afternoon and left a bundle on Eileen's bed before she made her way to her own room to busy herself with a head piece for Peter's latest article. She had taken down the wasp picture and while she had not destroyed it she had turned the key of a very substantial lock upon it. She was hard at work when she heard steps on the stairs. When Eileen entered, Linda smiled quizzically and then broke into an unaffected ejaculation.
"Ripping!" she cried. "Why, Eileen, you're perfectly topping."
Eileen's face flamed with delight. She was a challenging little figure. None of them was accustomed to her when she represented anything more substantial than curls and ruffles.
Linda reached for the telephone, called Gilman, and asked him if he could go to the beach for supper that evening. He immediately replied that he would. Then she called Peter Morrison and asked him the same question and when Peter answered affirmatively she told him to bring his car. Then she hastily put on her own field clothes and ran to the kitchen to fill the lunch box. To Katy's delight Linda told her there would be room for her and that she needed her.
It was evening and the sun was moving slowly toward the horizon when they stopped the cars and went down on the white sands of Santa Monica Bay. Eileen had been complimented until she was in a glow of delight. She did not notice that in piling things out of the car for their beach supper Linda had handed her a shovel and the blackened iron legs of a broiler. Everyone was loaded promiscuously as they took up their march down to as near the water's edge as the sands were dry. Peter and John gathered driftwood. Linda improvised two cooking places, one behind a rock for herself, the other under the little outdoor stove for Katy. Eileen was instructed as to how to set up the beach table, spread the blankets beside it, and place the food upon it. While Katy made coffee and toasted biscuit Linda was busy introducing her party to brigand beefsteak upon four long steel skewers. The day had been warm. The light salt breeze from the sea was like a benediction. Friendly gulls gathered on the white sands around them. Cunning little sea chickens worked in accord with the tide: when the waves advanced they rose above them on wing; when they retreated they scampered over the wet sand, hunting any small particles of food that might have been carried in. Out over the water big brown pelicans went slowly fanning homeward; and white sea swallows drew wonderful pictures on the blue night sky with the tips of their wings. For a few minutes at the reddest point of its setting the sun painted a marvelous picture in a bank of white clouds. These piled up like a great rosy castle, and down the sky roadway before it came a long procession of armored knights, red in the sun glow and riding huge red horses. Then the colors mixed and faded and a long red bridge for a short time spanned the water, ending at their feet. The gulls hunted the last scrap thrown them and went home. The swallows sought their high cliffs. The insidiously alluring perfume of sand verbena rose like altar incense around them. Gilman spread a blanket, piled the beach fire higher, and sitting beside Eileen, he drew her head to his shoulder and put his arm around her. Possibly he could have been happier in a careless way if he had never suffered. It is very probable that the poignant depth of exquisite happiness he felt in that hour never would have come to him had he not lost Eileen and found her again so much more worth loving. Linda wandered down the beach until she reached the lighthouse rocks. She climbed on a high one and sat watching the sea as it sprayed just below. Peter Morrison followed her.
"May I come up?" he asked.
"Surely," said Linda, "this belongs to the Lord; it isn't mine."
So Peter climbed up and sat beside her.
"How did the landscape appeal to you when you left the campfire?" inquired Linda.
"I should think the night cry might very well be Eight o'clock and all's well," answered Peter.
"'God's in his heaven, all's right with the world?'" Linda put it in the form of a question.
"It seems to be for John and Eileen," said Peter.
"It is for a number of people," said Linda. "I had a letter from Marian today. I had written her to ask if she would come to us for the summer, in spite of the change in our plans; but Mr. Snow has made some plans of his own. He is a very astute individual. He wanted Marian to marry him at once and she would not, so he took her for a short visit to see his daughter at her grandmother's home in the northern part of the state. Marian fell deeply in love with his little girl, and of course those people found Marian charming, just as right-minded people would find her. When she saw how the little girl missed her father and how difficult it was for him to leave her, and when she saw how she would be loved and appreciated in that fine family, she changed her mind. Peter, we are going to be invited to San Francisco to see them married very shortly. Are you glad or sorry?"
"I am very glad," said Peter heartily. "I make no concealment of my admiration for Miss Thorne but I am very glad indeed that it is not her head that is to complete the decoration when you start the iris marching down my creek banks."
"Well, that's all right," said Linda. "Of course you should have something to say about whose head finished that picture. I can't contract to do more than set the iris. The thing about this I dread is that Marian and Eugene are going to live in San Francisco, and I did so want her to make her home in Lilac Valley."
"That's too bad," said Peter sympathetically. "I know how you appreciate her, how deeply you love her. Do you think the valley will ever be right for you without her, Linda?"
"It will have to be," said Linda. "I've had to go on without Father, you know. If greater happiness seems to be in store for Marian in San Francisco, all I can do is to efface myself and say 'Amen.' When the world is all right for Marian, it is about as near all right as it can be for me. And did you ever see much more sincerely and clearly contented people than John and Eileen are at the present minute?"
Peter looked at Linda whimsically. He lowered his voice as if a sea urchin might hear and tattle.
"What did you do about the wasp, Linda?" he whispered.
"I delicately erased the stinger, fluffed up a ruffle, and put the sketch under lock and key. I should have started a fire with it, but couldn't quite bring myself to let it go, yet."
"Is she going to hold out?" asked Peter.
"She'll hold out or get her neck wrung," said Linda. "I truly think she has been redeemed. She has been born again. She has a new heart and a new soul and a new impulse and a right conception of life. Why, Peter, she has even got a new body. Her face is not the same."
"She is much handsomer," said Peter.
"Isn't she?" cried Linda enthusiastically. "And doesn't having a soul and doesn't thinking about essential things make the most remarkable difference in her? It is worth going through a fiery furnace to come out new like that. I called her Abednego the other day, but she didn't know what I meant."
Then they sat silent and watched the sea for a long time. By and by the night air grew chill. Peter slipped from the rock and went up the beach and came back with an Indian blanket. He put it very carefully around Linda's shoulders, and when he went to resume his seat beside her he found one of her arms stretching it with a blanket corner for him. So he sat down beside her and drew the corner over his shoulder; and because his right arm was very much in his way, and it would have been very disagreeable if Linda had slipped from the rock and fallen into the cold, salt, unsympathetic Pacific at nine o'clock at night—merely to dispose of the arm comfortably and to ensure her security, Peter put it around Linda and drew her up beside him very close. Linda did not seem to notice. She sat quietly looking at the Pacific and thinking her own thoughts. When the fog became damp and chill, she said they must be going, and so they went back to their cars and drove home through the sheer wonder of the moonlight, through the perfume of the orange orchards, hearing the night song of the mockingbirds.
CHAPTER XXXIII. The Lady of the Iris
A few days later Linda and Peter went to San Francisco and helped celebrate the marriage of Marian and Eugene Snow. They left Marian in a home carefully designed to insure every comfort and convenience she ever had planned, furnished in accordance with her desires. Both Linda and Peter were charmed with little Deborah Snow; she was a beautiful and an appealing child.
"It seems to me," said Linda, on the train going home, "that Marian will get more out of life, she will love deeper, she will work harder, she will climb higher in her profession than she would have done if she had married John. It is difficult sometimes, when things are happening, to realize that they are for the best, but I really believe this thing has been for the level best. I think Marian is going to be a bigger woman in San Francisco than she ever would have been in Lilac Valley. With that thought I must reconcile myself."
"And what about John?" asked Peter. "Is he going to be a bigger man with Eileen than he would have been with Marian?"
"No," said Linda, "he is not. He didn't do right and he'll have penalty to pay. Eileen is developing into a lovable and truly beautiful woman, but she has not the intellect, nor the education, nor the impulse to stimulate a man's mental processes and make him outdo himself the way Marian will. John will probably never know it, but he will have to do his own stimulating; he will have to vision life for himself. He will have to find his high hill and climb it with Eileen riding securely on his shoulders. It isn't really the pleasantest thing in the world, it isn't truly the thing I wanted to do this summer—helping them out—but it has seemed to be the work at hand, the thing Daddy probably would have wanted me to do, so it's up to me to do all I can for them, just as I did all I could for Donald. One thing I shall always be delighted about. With my own ears I heard the pronouncement: Donald had the Jap beaten; he was at the head of his class before Oka Sayye was eliminated. The Jap knew it. His only chance lay in getting rid of his rival. Donald can take the excellent record he has made in this race to start on this fall when he commences another battle against some other man's brain for top honors in his college."
"Will he start with the idea that he wants to be an honor man?"
Linda laughed outright.
"I think," she said, "his idea was that if he were one of fifty or one hundred leading men it would be sufficient, but I insisted that if he wanted to be first with me, he would have to be first in his school work."
"I see," said Peter. "Linda, have you definitely decided that when you come to your home-making hour, Donald is the man with whom you want to spend the remainder of your life?"
"Oh, good gracious!" said Linda. "Who's talking about 'homes' and 'spending the remainder of lives'? Donald and I are school friends, and we are good companions. You're as bad as Eileen. She's always trying to suggest things that nobody else ever thought of, and now Katy's beginning it too."
"Sapheads, all!" said Peter. "Well, allow me to congratulate you on having given Donald his spurs. I think it's a very fine thing for him to start to college with the honor idea in his head. What about your Saturday excursions?"
"They have died an unnatural death," said Linda. "Don and I fought for them, but the Judge and Mrs. Whiting and Mary Louise were terrified for fear a bone might slip in Don's foot, or some revengeful friend or relative of Oka Sayye lie in wait for us. They won't hear of our going any more. I go every Saturday and take Donald for a very careful drive over a smooth road with the Bear Cat cursing our rate of speed all the way. All the fun's spoiled for all three of us."
"Think I would be any good as a substitute when it comes to field work?" inquired Peter casually. "I have looked at your desert garden so much I would know a Cotyledon if I saw it. I believe I could learn."
"You wouldn't have time to bother," objected Linda. "You're a man, with a man's business to transact in the world. You have to hustle and earn money to pay for the bridge and changing the brook."
"But I had money to pay for the brook and the bridge before I agreed to them," said Peter.
"Well, then," said Linda, "you should begin to hunt old mahogany and rugs."
"I hadn't intended to," said Peter; "if they are to be old, I won't have to do more than to ship them. In storage in Virginia there are some very wonderful old mahogany and rosewood and rugs and bric-a-brac enough to furnish the house I am building. The stuff belonged to a little old aunt of mine who left it to me in her will, and it was with those things in mind that I began my house. The plans and finishing will fit that furniture beautifully."
"Why, you lucky individual!" said Linda. "Nowhere in the world is there more beautiful furniture than in some of those old homes in Virginia. There are old Flemish and Dutch and British and Italian pieces that came into this country on early sailing vessels for the aristocrats. You don't mean that kind of stuff, do you, Peter?"
"That is precisely the kind of stuff I do mean," answered Peter.
"Why Peter, if you have furniture like that," cried Linda, "then all you need is Mary Louise."
"Linda," said Peter soberly, "you are trespassing on delicate ground again. You selected one wife for me and your plan didn't work. When that furniture arrives and is installed I'll set about inducing the lady of my dreams to come and occupy my dream house, in my own way. I never did give you that job. It was merely assumed on your part."
"So it was," said Linda. "But you know I could set that iris and run that brook with more enthusiasm if I knew the lady who was to walk beside it."
"You do," said Peter. "You know her better than anyone else, even better than I. Put that in your mental pipe and smoke it!"
"Saints preserve us!" cried Linda. "I believe the man is planning to take Katy away from me."
"Not FROM you," said Peter, "WITH you."
"Let me know about it before you do it," said Linda with a careless laugh.
"That's what I'm doing right now," said Peter.
"And I'm going to school," said Linda.
"Of course," said Peter, "but that won't last forever."
Linda entered enthusiastically upon the triple task of getting Donald in a proper frame of mind to start to college with the ambition to do good work, of marrying off Eileen and John Gilman, and of giving her best brain and heart to Jane Meredith. When the time came, Donald was ready to enter college comfortable and happy, willing to wait and see what life had in store for him as he lived it.
When she was sure of Eileen past any reasonable doubt Linda took her and John to her workroom one evening and showed them her book contract and the material she had ready, and gave them the best idea she could of what yet remained to be done. She was not prepared for their wholehearted praise, for their delight and appreciation.
Alone, they took counsel as to how they could best help her, and decided that to be married at once and take a long trip abroad would be the best way. That would leave Linda to work in quiet and with no interruption to distract her attention. They could make their home arrangements when they returned.
When they had gone Linda worked persistently, but her book was not completed and the publishers were hurrying her when the fall term of school opened. By the time the final chapter with its exquisite illustration had been sent in, the first ones were coming back in proof, and with the proof came the materialized form of Linda's design for her cover, and there was no Marian to consult about it. Linda worked until she was confused. Then she piled the material in the Bear Cat and headed up Lilac Valley. As she came around the curve and turned from the public road she saw that for the first time she might cross her bridge; it was waiting for her. She heard the rejoicing of the water as it fell from stone to stone where it dipped under the road, and as she swung across the bridge she saw that she might drive over the completed road which had been finished in her weeks of absence. The windows told another story. Peter's furniture had come and he had been placing it without telling her. She found the front door standing wide open, so she walked in. With her bundle on her arm she made her way to Peter's workroom. When he looked up and saw her standing in his door he sprang to his feet and came to meet her.
"Peter," she said, "I've taken on more work than I can possibly finish on time, and I'm the lonesomest person in California today."
"I doubt that," said Peter gravely. "If you are any lonesomer than I am you must prove it."
"I have proved it," said Linda quietly. "If you had been as lonesome as I am you would have come to me. As it is, I have come to you."
"I see," said Peter rather breathlessly. "What have you there, Linda? Why did you come?"
"I came for two reasons," said Linda. "I want to ask you about this stuff. Several times this summer you have heard talk about Jane Meredith and the Everybody's Home articles. Ever read any of them, Peter?"
"Yes," said Peter, "I read all of them. Interested in home stuff these days myself."
"Well," said Linda, dumping her armload before Peter, "there's the proof and there's the illustration and there's the cover design for a book to be made from that stuff. Peter, make your best boy and say 'pleased to meet you' to Jane Meredith."
Peter secured both of Linda's hands and held them. First he looked at her, then he looked at the material she had piled down in front of him.
"Never again," said Peter in a small voice, "will I credit myself with any deep discernment, any keen penetration. How I could have read that matter and looked at those pictures and not seen you in and through and over them is a thing I can't imagine. It's great, Linda, absolutely great! Of course I will help you any way in the world I can. And what else was it you wanted? You said two things."
"Oh, the other doesn't amount to much," said Linda. "I only wanted the comfort of knowing whether, as soon as I graduate, I may take Katy and come home, Peter."
From previous experience with Linda, Peter had learned that a girl reared by men is not as other women. He had supposed the other thing concerning which she had wanted to appeal to him was on par with her desire for sympathy and help concerning her book. At her question, with her eyes frankly meeting his, Peter for an instant felt lightheaded. He almost dodged, he was so sweepingly taken unawares. Linda was waiting and his brain was not working. He tried to smile, but he knew she would not recognize as natural the expression of that whirling moment. She saw his hesitation.
"Of course, if you don't want us, Peter—"
Peter found his voice promptly. Only his God knew how much he wanted Linda, but there were conditions that a man of Peter's soul-fiber could not endure. More than life he wanted her, but he did not want her asleep. He did not want to risk her awakening to a spoiled life and disappointed hopes.
"But you remember that I told you coming home from San Francisco that you knew the Lady of my Iris better than anyone else, and that I was planning to take Katy, not from you, but with you."
"Of course I remember," said Linda. "That is why when Marian and Eileen and Donald and all my world went past and left me standing desolate, and my work piled up until I couldn't see my way, I just started right out to ask you if you would help me with the proof. Of course I knew you would be glad to do that and I thought if you really meant in your heart that I was the one to complete your iris procession, it would be a comfort to me during the hard work and the lonesome days to have it put in two-syllable English. Marian said that was the only real way—"
"And Marian is eminently correct. You will have to give me an ordinary lifetime, Linda, in which to try to make you understand exactly what this means to me. Perhaps I'll even have to invent new words in which to express myself."
"Oh, that's all right," said Linda. "It means a lot to me too. I can't tell you how much I think of you. That first day, as soon as I put down the Cotyledon safely and tucked in my blouse, I would have put my hand in yours and started around the world, if you had asked me to. I have the very highest esteem for you, Peter."
"Esteem, yes," said Peter slowly. "But Linda-girl, isn't the sort of alliance I am asking you to enter with me usually based on something a good bit stronger than 'esteem'?"
"Yes, I think it is," said Linda. "But you needn't worry. I only wanted the comfort of knowing that I was not utterly alone again, save for Katy. I'll stick to my book and to my fight for Senior honors all right."
Peter was blinking his eyes and fighting to breathe evenly. When he could speak he said as smoothly as possible: "Of course, Linda. I'll do your proof for you and you may put all your time on class honors. It merely occurred to me to wonder whether you realized the full and ultimate significance of what we are saying; exactly what it means to me and to you."
"Possibly not, Peter," said Linda, smiling on him with utter confidence. "Everyone says I am my father's daughter, and Father didn't live to coach me on being your iris decoration, as a woman would; but, Peter, when the time comes, I have every confidence in your ability to teach me what you would like me to know yourself. Don't you agree with me, Peter?"
Making an effort to control himself Peter gathered up the material Linda had brought and taking her arm he said casually: "I thoroughly agree with you, dear. You are sanely and health fully and beautifully right. Now let's go and take Katy into our confidence, and then you shall show me your ideas before I begin work on your proof. And after this, instead of you coming to me I shall always come to you whenever you can spare a minute for me."
Linda nodded acquiescence.
"Of course! That would be best," she said. "Peter, you are so satisfyingly satisfactory."