Chapter XVII. A Rock and a Flame
 

The first time Linda entered the kitchen after her interview with Gilman, Katy asked in deep concern, "Now what ye been doing, lambie?"

"Doing the baby act, Katy," confessed Linda. "Disgracing myself. Losing my temper. I wish I could bring myself to the place where I would think half a dozen times before I do a thing once."

"Now look here," said Katy, beginning to bristle, "ain't it the truth that ye have thought for four years before ye did this thing once?"

"Quite so," said Linda. "But since I am the daughter of the finest gentleman I ever knew, I should not do hasty, regrettable things. On the living-room table I found a note sweeter than honey, and it contained a cheque for me that wouldn't pay Eileen's bills for lunches, candy, and theaters for a month; so in undue heat I reduced it to bits and decorated the rug before her door. But before that, Katy, I led my guardian into the room, and showed him everything. I meant to tell him that, since he had neglected me for four years, he could see that I had justice now, but when I'd personally conducted him from Eileen's room to mine, and when I took a good look at him there was something on his face, Katy, that I couldn't endure. So I told him to leave it to me; that I would tell Eileen myself what I had done, and so I will. But I am sorry I did it, Katy; I am awfully sorry. You always told me to keep my temper and I lost it completely. From now on I certainly will try to behave myself more like a woman than a spoiled child. Now give me a dust cloth and brushes. I am almost through with my job in the library and I want to finish, because I shall be forced to use the money from the books to pay for my skylight and fireplace."

Linda went to the library and began work, efficiently, carefully, yet with a precise rapidity habitual to her. Down the long line of heavy technical books, she came to the end of the shelf. Three books from the end she noticed a difference in the wall behind the shelf. Hastily removing the other two volumes, she disclosed a small locked door having a scrap of paper protruding from the edge which she pulled out and upon which she read:

In the event of my passing, should anyone move these books and find this door, these lines are to inform him that it is to remain untouched. The key to it is in my safety-deposit vault at the Consolidated Bank. The Bank will open the door and attend to the contents of the box at the proper time.

Linda fixed the paper back exactly as she had found it. She stood looking at the door a long time, then she carefully wiped it, the wall around it, and the shelf. Going to another shelf, she picked out the books that had been written by her father and, beginning at the end of the shelf, she ranged them in a row until they completely covered the opening. Then she finished filling the shelf with other books that she meant to keep, but her brain was working, milling over and over the question of what that little compartment contained and when it was to be opened and whether John Gilman knew about it, and whether the Consolidated Bank would remember the day specified, and whether it would mean anything important to her.

She carried the dusters back to Katy, and going to her room, concentrated resolutely upon her work; but she Was unable to do anything constructive. Her routine lessons she could prepare, but she could not even sketch a wild rose accurately. Finally she laid down her pencil, washed her brushes, put away her material, and locking her door, slipped the key into her pocket. Going down to the garage she climbed into the Bear Cat and headed straight for Peter Morrison. She drove into his location and blew the horn. Peter stepped from the garage, and seeing her, started in her direction. Linda sprang down and hurried toward him. He looked at her intently as she approached and formed his own conclusions.

"Sort of restless," said Linda. "Couldn't evolve a single new idea with which to enliven the gay annals of English literature and Greek history. A personal history seems infinitely more insistent and unusual. I ran away from my lessons, and my work, and came to you, Peter, because I had a feeling that there was something you could give me, and I thought you would."

Peter smiled a slow curious smile.

"I like your line of thought, Linda," he said quietly. "It greatly appeals to me. Any time an ancient and patriarchal literary man named Peter Morrison can serve as a rock upon which a young thing can rest, why he'll be glad to be that rock."

"What were you doing?" asked Linda abruptly.

"Come and see," said Peter.

He led the way to the garage. His worktable and the cement floor around it were littered with sheets of closely typed paper.

"I'll have to assemble them first," said Peter, getting down on his knees and beginning to pick them up.

Linda sat on a packing case and watched him. Already she felt comforted. Of course Peter was a rock, of course anyone could trust him, and of course if the tempest of life beat upon her too strongly she could always fly to Peter.

"May I?" she inquired, stretching her hand in the direction of a sheet.

"Sure," said Peter.

"What is it?" inquired Linda lightly. "The bridge or the road or the playroom?"

"Gad!" he said slowly. "Don't talk about me being a rock! Rocks are stolid, stodgy unresponsive things. I thought I was struggling with one of the biggest political problems of the day from an economic and psychological standpoint. If I'd had sense enough to realize that it was a bridge I was building, I might have done the thing with some imagination and subtlety. If you want a rock and you say I am a rock, a rock I'll be, Linda. But I know what you are, and what you will be to me when we really become the kind of friends we are destined to be."

"I wonder now," said Linda, "if you are going to say that I could be any such lovely thing on the landscape as a bridge."

"No," said Peter slowly, "nothing so prosaic. Bridges are common in this world. You are going to be something uncommon. History records the experiences of but one man who has seen a flame in the open. I am a second Moses and you are going to be my burning bush. I intended to read this article to you."

Peter massed the sheets, straightened them on the desk, and deliberately ripped them across several times. Linda sprang to her feet and stretched out her hands.

"Why, Peter!" she cried in a shocked voice. "That is perfectly inexcusable. There are hours and hours of work on that, and I have not a doubt but that it was good work."

"Simple case of mechanism," said Peter, reducing the bits to smaller size and dropping them into the empty nail keg that served as his wastebasket. "A lifeless thing without a soul, mere clockwork. I have got the idea now. I am to build a bridge and make a road. Every way I look I can see a golden-flame tongue of inspiration burning. I'll rewrite that thing and animate it. Take me for a ride, Linda."

Linda rose and walked to the Bear Cat. Peter climbed in and sat beside her. Linda laid her hands on the steering wheel and started the car. She ran it down to the highway and chose a level road leading straight down the valley through cultivated country. In all the world there was nothing to equal the panorama that she spread before Peter that evening. She drove the Bear Cat past orchards, hundreds of acres of orchards of waxen green leaves and waxen white bloom of orange, grapefruit, and lemon. She took him where seas of pink outlined peach orchards, and other seas the more delicate tint of the apricots. She glided down avenues lined with palm and eucalyptus, pepper and olive, and through unbroken rows, extending for miles, of roses, long stretches of white, again a stretch of pink, then salmon, yellow, and red. Nowhere in all the world are there to be found so many acres of orchard bloom and so many miles of tree-lined, rose-decorated roadway as in southern California. She sent the little car through the evening until she felt that it was time to go home, and when at last she stopped where they had started, she realized that neither she nor Peter had spoken one word. As he stepped from the car she leaned toward him and reached out her hand.

"Thank you for the fireplace, Peter," she said.

Peter took the hand she extended and held it one minute in both his own. Then very gently he straightened it out in the palm of one of his hands and with the other hand turned back the fingers and laid his lips to the heart of it.

"Thank you, Linda, for the flame," he said, and turning abruptly, he went toward his workroom.

Stopping for a bite to eat in the kitchen, Linda went back to her room. She sat down at the table and picking up her pencil, began to work, and found that she could work. Every stroke came true and strong. Every idea seemed original and unusual. Quite as late as a light ever had shone in her window, it shone that night, the last thing she did being to write another anonymous letter to Marian, and when she reread it Linda realized that it was an appealing letter. She thought it certainly would comfort Marian and surely would make her feel that someone worth while was interested in her and in her work. She loved some of the whimsical little touches she had put into it, and she wondered if she had made it so much like Peter Morrison that it would be suggestive of him to Marian. She knew that she had no right to do that and had no such intention. She merely wanted a model to copy from and Peter seemed the most appealing model at hand.

After school the next day Linda reported that she had finished going through the books and was ready to have them taken. Then, after a few minutes of deep thought, she made her way to the Consolidated Bank. At the window of the paying teller she explained that she wished to see the person connected with the bank who had charge of the safety-deposit boxes and who looked after the accounts pertaining to the estate of Alexander Strong. The teller recognized the name. He immediately became deferential.

"I'll take you to the office of the president," he said. "He and Doctor Strong were very warm friends. You can explain to him what it is you want to know."

Before she realized what was happening, Linda found herself in an office that was all mahogany and marble. At a huge desk stacked with papers sat a man, considerably older than her father. Linda remembered to have seen him frequently in their home, in her father's car, and she recalled one fishing expedition to the Tulare Lake region where he had been a member of her father's party.

"Of course you have forgotten me, Mr. Worthington," she said as she approached his desk. "I have grown such a tall person during the past four years."

The white-haired financier rose and stretched out his hand.

"You exact replica of Alexander Strong," he said laughingly, "I couldn't forget you any more than I could forget your father. That fine fishing trip where you proved such a grand little scout is bright in my memory as one of my happiest vacations. Sit down and tell me what I can do for you."

Linda sat down and told him that she was dissatisfied with the manner in which her father's estate was being administered.

He listened very carefully to all she had to say, then he pressed a button and gave a few words of instruction to the clerk who answered it. When several ledgers and account books were laid before him, with practiced hand he turned to what he wanted. The records were not complicated. They covered a period of four years. They showed exactly what monies had been paid into the bank for the estate. They showed what royalties had been paid on the books. Linda sat beside him and watched his pencil running up and down columns, setting down a list of items, and making everything plain. Paid cheques for household expenses I and drygoods bills were all recorded and deducted. With narrow, alert eyes, Linda was watching, and her brain was keenly alive. As she realized the discrepancy between the annual revenue from the estate and the totaling of the expenses, she had an inspiration. Something she never before had thought of occurred to her. She looked the banker in the eye and said very quietly: "And now, since she is my sister and I am going to be of age very shortly and these things must all be gone into and opened up, would it be out of place for me to ask you this afternoon to let me have a glimpse at the private account of Miss Eileen Strong?"

The banker drew a deep breath and looked at Linda keenly.

"That would not be customary," he said slowly.

"No?" said Linda. "But since Father and Mother went out at the same time and there was no will and the property would be legally divided equally between us upon my coming of age, would my sister be entitled to a private account?"

"Had she any sources of obtaining money outside the estate?"

"No," said Linda. "At least none that I know of. Mother had I some relatives in San Francisco who were very wealthy people, but they never came to see us and we never went there. I know nothing about them. I never had any money from them and I am quite sure Eileen never had."

Linda sat very quietly a minute and then she looked at the banker.

"Mr. Worthington," she said, "the situation is slightly peculiar. My guardian, John Gilman, is engaged to marry my sister Eileen. She is a beautiful girl, as you no doubt recall, and he is very much in love with her. Undoubtedly she has been able, at least recently, to manage affairs very much in her own way. She is more than four years my senior, and has always had charge of the household accounts and the handling of the bank accounts. Since there is such a wide discrepancy between the returns from the property and the expenses that these books show, I am forced .o the conclusion that there must be upon your books, or the books of some other bank in the city, a private account in Eileen's name or in the name of the Strong estate."

"That I can very easily ascertain," said Mr. Worthington, reaching again toward the button on his desk. A few minutes later the report came that there was a private account in the name of Miss Eileen Strong. Again Linda was deeply thoughtful.

"Is there anything I can do," she inquired, "to prevent that account from being changed or drawn out previous to my coming of age?"

Then Mr. Worthington grew thoughtful.

"Yes," he said at last. "If you are dissatisfied, if you feel that you have reason to believe that money rightfully belonging to you is being diverted to other channels, you have the right to issue an injunction against the bank, ordering it not to pay out any further money on any account nor to honor any cheques drawn by Miss Strong until the settlement of the estate. Ask your guardian to execute and deliver such an injunction, or merely ask him, as your guardian and the administrator of the estate, to give the bank a written order to that effect."

"But because he is engaged to Eileen, I told him I would not bring him into this matter," said Linda. "I told him that I would do what I wanted done, myself."

"Well, how long is it until this coming birthday of yours?" inquired Mr. Worthington.

"Less than two weeks," answered Linda.

For a time the financier sat in deep thought, then he looked at Linda. It was a keen, searching look. It went to the depths of her eyes; it included her face and hair; it included the folds of her dress, the cut of her shoe, and rested attentively on the slender hands lying quietly in her lap.

"I see the circumstances very clearly," he said. "I sympathize with your position. Having known your father and being well acquainted with your guardian, would you be satisfied if I should take the responsibility of issuing to the clerks an order not to allow anything to be drawn from the private account until the settlement of the estate?"

"Perfectly satisfied," said Linda.

"It might be," said Mr. Worthington, "managing matters i that way, that no one outside of ourselves need ever know of il Should your sister not draw on the private account in the mean time, she would be free to draw household cheques on the monthly income and if in the settlement of the estate she turns in this private account or accounts, she need never know of the restriction concerning this fund."

"Thank you very much," said Linda. "That will fix everything finely."

On her way to the street car, Linda's brain whirled.

"It's not conceivable," she said, "that Eileen should be enriching herself at my expense. I can't imagine her being dishonest in money affairs, and yet I can recall scarcely a circumstance in life in which Eileen has ever hesitated to be dishonest when a lie served her purpose better than the truth. Anyway, matters are safe now."

The next day the books were taken and a cheque for their value was waiting for Linda when she reached home. She cashed this cheque and went straight to Peter Morrison for his estimate of the expenses for the skylight and fireplace. When she asked for the bill Peter hesitated.

"You wouldn't accept this little addition to your study as a gift from Henry and me?" he asked lightly. "It would be a great pleasure to us if you would."

"I could accept stones that Henry Anderson had gathered from the mountains and canyons, and I could accept a verse carved on stone, and be delighted with the gift; but I couldn't accept hours of day labor at the present price of labor, so you will have to give me the bill, Peter."

Peter did not have the bill, but he had memoranda, and when Linda paid him she reflected that the current talk concerning the inflated price of labor was greatly exaggerated.

For two evenings as Linda returned from school and went to her room she glanced down the hall and smiled at the decoration remaining on Eileen's rug. The third evening it was gone, so

that she knew Eileen was either in her room or had been there. She did not meet her sister until dinnertime. She was prepared to watch Eileen, to study her closely. She was not prepared to admire her, but in her heart she almost did that very thing. Eileen had practiced subterfuges so long, she was so accomplished, that it would have taken an expert to distinguish reality from subterfuge. She entered the dining room humming a gay tune. She was carefully dressed and appealingly beautiful. She blew a kiss to Linda and waved gaily to Katy.

"I was rather afraid," she said lightly, "that I might find you two in mourning when I got back. I never stayed so long before, did I? Seemed as if every friend I had made special demand on my time all at once. Hope you haven't been dull without me."

"Oh, no," said Linda quietly. "Being away at school all day, of course I wouldn't know whether you were at home or not, and I have grown so accustomed to spending my evenings alone that I don't rely on you for entertainment at any time."

"In other words," said Eileen, "it doesn't make any difference to you where I am."

"Not so far as enjoying your company is concerned," said Linda. "Otherwise, of course it makes a difference. I hope you had a happy time."

"Oh, I always have a happy time," answered Eileen lightly. "I certainly have the best friends."

"That's your good fortune," answered Linda.

At the close of the meal Linda sat waiting. Eileen gave Katy instructions to have things ready for a midnight lunch for her and John Gilman and then, humming her tune again, she left the dining room and went upstairs. Linda stood looking after her.

"Now or never," she said at last. "I have no business to let her meet John until I have recovered my self-respect. But the Lord help me to do the thing decently !"

So she followed Eileen up the stairway. She tapped at the door, and without waiting to hear whether she was invited or not, opened it and stepped inside. Eileen was sitting before the window, a big box of candy beside her, a magazine in her fingers.

Evidently she intended to keep her temper in case the coming interview threatened to become painful.

"I was half expecting you," she said, "you silly hothead. I found the cheque I wrote you when I got home this afternoon. That was a foolish thing to do. Why did you tear it up? If it were too large or if it were not enough why didn't you use it and ask for another? Because I had to be away that was merely to leave you something to go on until I got back."

Then Linda did the most disconcerting thing possible. In her effort at self-control she went too far. She merely folded her hands in her lap and sat looking straight at Eileen without saying one word. It did not show much on the surface, but Eileen really had a conscience, she really had a soul; Linda's eyes, resting rather speculatively on her, were honest eyes, and Eileen knew what she knew. She flushed and fidgeted, and at last she broke out impatiently: "Oh, for goodness' sake, Linda, don't play 'Patience-on-a-monument.' Speak up and say what it is that you want. If that cheque was not big enough, what will satisfy you?"

"Come to think of it," said Linda quietly, "I can get along with what I have for the short time until the legal settlement of our interests is due. You needn't bother any more about a cheque."

Eileen was surprised and her face showed it; and she was also relieved. That too her face showed.

"I always knew," she said lightly, "that I had a little sister with a remarkably level head and good common sense. I am glad that you recognize the awful inflation of prices during the war period, and how I have had to skimp and scheme and save in order to make ends meet and to keep us going on Papa's meager income."

All Linda's good resolutions vanished. She was under strong nervous tension. It irritated her to have Eileen constantly referring to their monetary affairs as if they were practically paupers, as if their father's life had been a financial failure, as if he had not been able to realize from achievements recognized around the world a comfortable living for two women.

"Oh, good Lord!" she said shortly. "Bluff the rest of the world like a professional, Eileen, but why try it with me? You're right about my having common sense. I'll admit that I am using it now. I will be of age in a few days, and then we'll take John Gilman and go to the Consolidated Bank, and if it suits your convenience to be absent for four or five days at that period, I'll take John Gilman and we'll go together."

Eileen was amazed. The receding color in her cheeks left the rouge on them a ghastly, garish thing.

"Well, I won't do anything of the sort," she said hotly, "and neither will John Gilman."

"Unfortunately for you," answered Linda, "John Gilman is my guardian, not yours. He'll be forced to do what the law says he must, and what common decency tells him he must, no matter what his personal feelings are; and I might as well tell you that your absence has done you no good. You'd far better have come home, as you agreed to, and gone over the books and made me a decent allowance, because in your absence John came here to ask me where you were, and I know that he was anxious."

"He came here!" cried Eileen.

"Why, yes," said Linda. "Was it anything unusual? Hasn't he been coming here ever since I can remember? Evidently you didn't keep him as well posted this time as you usually do. He came here and asked for me."

"And I suppose," said Eileen, an ugly red beginning to rush into her white cheeks, "that you took pains to make things uncomfortable for me."

"I am very much afraid," said Linda, "that you are right. You have made things uncomfortable for me ever since I can remember, for I can't remember the time when you were not finding fault with me, putting me in the wrong and getting me criticized and punished if you possibly could. It was a fair understanding that you should be here, and you were not, and I was seeing red about it; and just as John came in I found your note in tile living room and read it aloud.';

"Oh, well, there was nothing in that," said Eileen in a relieved tone.

"Nothing in the wording of it, no," said Linda, "but there was everything in the intention back of it. Because you did not live up to your tacit agreement, and because I had been on high tension for two or three days, I lost my temper completely. I brought John Gilman up here and showed him the suite of rooms in which you have done for yourself, for four years. I gave him rather a thorough inventory of your dressing table and drawers, and then I opened the closet door and called his attention to the number and the quality of the garments hanging there. The box underneath them I thought was a shoe box, but it didn't prove to be exactly that; and for that I want to tell you, as I have already told John, I am sorry. I wouldn't have done that if I had known what I was doing."

"Is that all?" inquired Eileen, making a desperate effort at self-control.

"Not quite," said Linda. "When I finished with your room, I took him back and showed him mine in even greater detail than I showed him yours. I thought the contrast would be more enlightening than anything either one of us could say."

"And I suppose you realize," said Eileen bitterly, "that you lost me John Gilman when you did it."

"I?" said Linda. "I lost you John Gilman when I did it? But I didn't do it. You did it. You have been busy for four years doing it. If you hadn't done it, it wouldn't have been there for me to show him. I can't see that this is profitable. Certainly it's the most distressing thing that ever has occurred for me. But I didn't feel that I could let you meet John Gilman tonight without telling you what he knows. If you have any way to square your conscience and cleanse your soul before you meet him, you had better do it, for he's a mighty fine man and if you lose him you will have lost the best chance that is likely ever to come to you."

Linda sat studying Eileen. She saw the gallant effort she was making to keep her self-possession, to think with her accustomed rapidity, to strike upon some scheme whereby she could square herself. She rose and started toward the door.

"What you'll say to John I haven't the faintest notion," she said. "I told him very little. I just showed him."

Then she went out and closed the door after her. At the foot of the stairs she met Katy admitting Gilman. Without any preliminaries she said: "I repeat, John, that I'm sorry for what happened the other day. I have just come from Eileen. She will be down as soon as Katy tells her you're here, no doubt. I have done what I told you I would. She knows what I showed you so you needn't employ any subterfuges. You can be frank and honest with each other."

"I wish to God we could," said John Gilman.

Linda went to her work. She decided that she would gauge what happened by the length of time John stayed. If he remained only a few minutes it would indicate that there had been a rupture. If he stayed as long as he usually did, the chances were that Eileen's wit had triumphed as usual.

At twelve o'clock Linda laid her pencils in the box, washed the brushes, and went down the back stairs to the ice chest for a glass of milk. The living room was still lighted and Linda thought Eileen's laugh quite as gay as she ever had heard it. Linda closed her lips very tight and slowly climbed the stairs. When she entered her room she walked up to the mirror and stared at herself in the glass for a long time, and then of herself she asked this question:

"Well, how do you suppose she did it?"