Chapter XVIII. Spanish Iris
 

Just as Linda was most deeply absorbed with her own concerns there came a letter from Marian which Linda read and reread several times; for Marian wrote:

MY DEAREST PAL:

Life is so busy up San Francisco way that it makes Lilac Valley look in retrospection like a peaceful sunset preliminary to bed time.

But I want you to have the consolation and the comfort of knowing that I have found at least two friends that I hope will endure. One is a woman who has a room across the hall from mine in my apartment house. She is a newspaper woman and life is very full for her, but it is filled with such intensely interesting things that I almost regret having made my life work anything so prosaic as inanimate houses; but then it's my dream to enliven each house I plan with at least the spirit of home. This woman--her name is Dana Meade--enlivens every hour of her working day with something concerning the welfare of humanity. She is a beautiful woman in her soul, so extremely beautiful that I can't at this minute write you a detailed description of her hair and her eyes and her complexion, because this nice, big, friendly light that radiates from her so lights her up and transfigures her that everyone says how beautiful she is, and yet I have a vague recollection that her nose is what you would call a "beak," and I am afraid her cheek bones are too high for good proportion, and I know that her hair is not always so carefully dressed as it should be, but what is the difference when the hair is crowned with a halo? I can't swear to any of these things; they're sketchy impressions. The only thing I am absolutely sure about is the inner light that shines to an unbelievable degree. I wish she had more time and I wish I had more time and that she and I might become such friends as you and I are. I can't tell you, dear, how much I think of you. It seems to me that you're running a sort of undercurrent in my thoughts all day long.

You will hardly credit it, Linda, but a few days ago I drove a car through the thickest traffic, up a steep hill, and round a curve. I did it, but practically collapsed when it was over. The why of it was this: I think I told you before that in the offices of Nicholson and Snow there is a man who is an understanding person. He is the junior partner and his name is Eugene Snow. I happened to arrive at his desk the day I came for my instructions and to make my plans for entering their contest. He was very kind to me and went out of his way to smooth out the rough places. Ever since, he makes a point of coming to me and talking a few minutes when I am at the office or when he passes me on my way to the drafting rooms where I take my lessons. The day I mention I had worked late and hard the night before. I had done the last possible thing to the plans for my dream house. At the last minute, getting it all on paper, working at the specifications, at which you know I am wobbly, was nervous business; and when I came from the desk after having turned in my plans, perhaps I showed fatigue. Anyway, he said to me that his car was below. He said also that he was a lonely person, having lost his wife two years ago, and not being able very frequently to see his little daughter who is in the care of her grandmother, there were times when he was hungry for the companionship he had lost. He asked me if I would go with him for a drive and I told him that I would. I am rather stunned yet over what happened. The runabout he led me to was greatly like yours, and, Linda, he stopped at a florist's and came out with an armload of bloom--exquisite lavender and pale pink and faint yellow and waxen white--the most enticing armload of spring. For one minute I truly experienced a thrill. I thought he was going to give that mass of flowers to me, but he did not. He merely laid it across my lap and said: "Edith adored the flowers from bulbs. I never see such bloom that my heart does not ache with a keen, angry ache to think that she should be taken from the world, and the beauty that she so loved, so early and so ruthlessly. We'll take her these as I would take them to her were she living."

So, Linda dear, I sat there and looked at color and drank in fragrance, and we whirled through the city and away to a cemetery on a beautiful hill, and filled a vase inside the gates of a mausoleum with these appealing flowers. Then we sat down, and a man with a hurt heart told me about his hurt, and what an effort he was making to get through the world as the woman he loved would have had him; and before I knew what I was doing, Linda, I told him the tellable part of my own hurts. I even lifted my turban and bowed my white head before him. This hurt--it was one of the inexorable things that come to people in this world--I could talk about. That deeper hurt, which has put a scar that never will be effaced on my soul, of course I could not tell him about. But when we went back to the car he said to me that he would help me to get back into the sunlight. He said the first thing I must do to regain self-confidence was to begin driving again. I told him I could not, but he said I must, and made me take the driver's seat of a car I had never seen and take the steering wheel of a make of machine I had never driven, and tackle two or three serious problems for a driver. I did it all right, Linda, because I couldn't allow myself to fail the kind of a man Mr. Snow is, when he was truly trying to help me, but in the depths of my heart I am afraid I am a coward forever, for there is a ghastly illness takes possession of me as I write these details to you. But anyway, put a red mark on your calendar beside the date on which you get this letter, and joyfully say to yourself that Marian has found two real, sympathetic friends.

In a week or ten days I shall know about the contest. If 1: win, as I really have a sneaking hope that I shall, since I have condensed the best of two dozen houses into one and exhausted my imagination on my dream home, I will surely telegraph, and you can make it a day of jubilee. If I fail, I will try to find out where my dream was not true and what can be done to make it materialize properly; but between us, Linda girl, I am going to be dreadfully disappointed. I could use the material value that prize represents. I could start my life work which I hope to do in Lilac Valley on the prestige and the background that it would give me. I don't know, Linda, whether you ever learned to pray or not, but I have, and it's a thing that helps when the black shadow comes, when you reach the land of "benefits forgot and friends remembered not."

And this reminds me that I should not write to my very dearest friend who has her own problems and make her heart sad with mine; so to the joyful news of my two friends add a third, Linda, for I am going to tell you a secret because it will make you happy. Since I have been in San Francisco some man, who for a reason of his own does not tell me his name, has been writing me extremely attractive letters. I have had several of them and I can't tell you, Linda, what they mean to me or how they help me. There is a touch of whimsy about them. I can't as yet connect them with anybody I ever met, but to me they are taking the place of a little lunch on the bread of life. They are such real, such vivid, such alive letters from such a real person that I have been doing the very foolish and romantic thing of answering them as my heart dictates and signing my own name to them, which on the surface looks unwise when the man in the case keeps his identity in the background; but since he knows me and knows my name it seems useless to do anything else: and answer these letters I shall and must; because every one of them is to me a strong light thrown on John Gilman. Every time one of these letters comes to me I have the feeling that I would like to reach out through space and pick up the man who is writing them and dangle him before Eileen and say to her: "Take him. I dare you to take him." And my confidence, Linda, is positively supreme that she could not do it.

You know, between us, Linda, we regarded Eileen as a rare creature, a kind of exotic thing, made to be kept in a glass house with tempered air and warmed water; but as I go about the city and at times amuse myself at concerts and theaters, I am rather dazed to tell you, honey, that the world is chock full of Eileens. On the streets, in the stores, everywhere I go, sometimes half a dozen times in a day I say to myself: "There goes Eileen." I haven't a doubt that Eileen has a heart, if it has not become so calloused that nobody could ever reach it, and I suspect she has a soul, but the more I see of her kind the more I feel that John Gilman may have to breast rather black water before he finds them.

With dearest love, be sure to remember me to Katherine O'Donovan. Hug her tight and give her my unqualified love. Don't let her forget me.

As ever,

MARIAN.

This was the letter that Linda read once, then she read it again and then she read it a third time, and after that she lost count and reread it whenever she was not busy doing something else, for it was a letter that was the next thing to laying hands upon Marian. The part of the letter concerning the unknown man who was writing Marian, Linda pondered over deeply.

"That is the best thing I ever did in my life," she said in self- commendation. "It's doing more than I hoped it would. It's giving Marian something to think about. It's giving her an interest in life. It's distracting her attention. Without saying a word about John Gilman it is making her see for herself the weak spots in him through the very subtle method of calling her attention to the strength that may lie in another man. For once in your life, Linda, you have done something strictly worth while. The thing for you to do is to keep it up, and in order to keep it up, to make each letter fresh and original, you will have to do a good deal of sticking around Peter Morrison's location and absorbing rather thoroughly the things he says. Peter doesn't know he is writing those letters but he is in them till it's a wonder Marian does not hear him drawl and see the imps twisting his lips as she reads them. Before I write another single one I'll go see Peter. Maybe he will have that article written. I'll take a pencil, and as he reads I'll jot down the salient points and then I'll come home and work out a head and tail piece for him to send in with it, and in that way I'll ease my soul about the skylight and the fireplace."

So Linda took pad and pencils, raided Katy for everything she could find that was temptingly edible, climbed into the Bear Cat, and went to see Peter as frankly as she would have crossed the lawn to visit Marian. He was not in the garage when she stopped her car before it, but the workmen told her that he had strolled up the mountain and that probably he would return soon. Learning that he had been gone but a short time Linda set the Bear Cat squalling at the top of its voice. Then she took possession of the garage, and clearing Peter's worktable spread upon it the food she had brought, and then started out to find some flowers for decorations. When Peter came upon the scene he found Linda, flushed and brilliant eyed, holding before him a big bouquet of alder bloom, the last of the lilacs she had found in a cool, shaded place, pink filaree, blue lupin, and white mahogany panicles. "Peter," she cried. "you can't guess what I have been doing!"

Peter glanced at the flowers.

"Isn't it obvious?" he inquired.

"No, it isn't," said Linda, "because I am capable of two processes at once. The work of my hands is visible; with it I am going to decorate your table. You won't have to go down to the restaurant for your supper tonight because I have brought my supper up to share with you, and after we finish, you're going to read me your article as you have rewritten it. I am going to decorate it and we are going to make a hit with it that will be at least a start on the road to greater fame. What you see is material. You can pick it up, smell it, admire it and eat it. But what I have truly been doing is setting Spanish iris for yards down one side of the bed of your stream. When I left it was a foot and a half high Peter, and every blue that the sky ever knew in its loveliest moments, and a yellow that is the concentrated essence of the best gold from the heart of California. Oh, Peter, there is enchantment in the way I set it. There are irregular deep beds, and there are straggly places where there are only one or two in a ragged streak, and then it runs along the edge in a fringy rim, and then it stretches out in a marshy place that is going to have some other wild things, arrowheads, and orchids, and maybe a bunch of paint brush on a high, dry spot near by. I wish you could see it!"

Peter looked at Linda reflectively and then he told her that he could see it. He fold her that he adored it, that he was crazy about her straggly continuity and her fringy border, but there was not one word of truth in what he said, because what he saw was a slender thing, willowy, graceful; roughened wavy black hair hanging half her length in heavy braids, dark eyes and bright cheeks, a vivid red line of mouth, and a bright brown line of freckles bridging a prominent and aristocratic nose. What he was seeing was a soul, a young thing, a thing he coveted with every nerve and fiber of his being. And while he glibly humored her in her vision of decorating his brook, in his own consciousness he was saying to himself: "Is there any reason why I should not try for her?"

And then he answered himself. "There is no reason in your life. There is nothing ugly that could offend her or hurt her. The reason, the real reason, probably lies in the fact that if she were thinking of caring for anyone it would be for that attractive young schoolmate she brought up here for me to exercise my wits upon. It is very likely that she regards me in the light of a grandfatherly person to whom she can come with her joys or her problems, as frankly as she has now."

So Peter asked if the irises crossed the brook and ran down both sides. Linda sat on a packing case and concentrated on the iris, and finally she announced that they did. She informed him that his place was going to bc natural, that Nature evolved things in her own way. She did not grow irises down one side of a brook and arrowheads down the other. They waded across and flew across and visited back and forth, riding the water or the wind or the down of a bee or the tail of a cow. As she served the supper she had brought she very gravely informed him that there would be iris on both sides of his brook, and cress and miners' lettuce under the bridge; and she knew exactly where the wild clematis grew that would whiten his embankment after his workmen had extracted the last root of poison oak.

"It may not scorch you, Peter," she said gravely, "but you must look out for the Missus and the little things. I haven't definitely decided on her yet, but she looks a good deal like Mary Louise Whiting to mc. I saw her the other day. She came to school after Donald. I liked her looks so well that I said to myself: 'Everybody talks about how fine she is. I shouldn't wonder if I had better save her for Peter'; but if I decide to, you should act that poison stuff out, because it's sure as shooting to attack any one with the soft, delicate skin that goes with a golden head."

"Oh, let's leave it in," said Peter, "and dispense with the golden head. By the time you get that stream planted as you're planning, I'll have become so accustomed to a dark head bobbing up and down beside it that I won't take kindly to a sorrel top." "That is positively sacrilegious," said Linda, lifting her hands to her rough black hair. "Never in my life saw anything lovelier than the rich gold on Louise Whiting's bare head as she bent to release her brakes and start her car. A black head looks like a cinder bed beside it; and only think what a sunburst it will be when Mary Louise kneels down beside the iris."

When they had finished their supper Linda gathered up the remnants and put them in the car, then she laid a notebook and pencil on the table.

"Now I want to hear that article," she said. "I knew you would do it over the minute I was gone, and I knew you would keep it to read to me before you sent it."

"Hm," said Peter. "Is it second sight or psychoanalysis or telepathy, or what?"

"Mostly 'what'," laughed Linda. "I merely knew. The workmen are gone and everything is quiet now, Peter. Begin. I am crazy to get the particular angle from which you 'make the world safe for democracy.' John used to call our attention to your articles during the war. He said we had not sent another man to France who could write as humanely and as interestingly as you did. I wish I had kept those articles; because I didn't get anything from them to compare with what I can get since I have a slight acquaintance with the procession that marches around your mouth. Peter, you will have to watch that mouth of yours. It's an awfully betraying feature. So long as it's occupied with politics and the fads and the foibles and the sins and the foolishness and the extravagances of humanity, it's all very well. But if you ever get in trouble or if ever your heart hurts, or you get mad enough to kill somebody, that mouth of yours is going to be a most awfully revealing feature, Peter. You will have hard work to settle it down into hard-and-fast noncommittal lines."

Peter looked at the girl steadily.

"Have you specialized on my mouth?" he asked.

"Huh-umph!" said Linda, shaking her head vigorously. When I specialize I use a pin and a microscope and go right to the root of matters as I was taught. This is superficial. I am extemporizing now."

"Well, if this is extemporizing," said Peter, "God help my soul if you ever go at me with a pin and a microscope."

"Oh, but I won't!" cried Linda. "It wouldn't be kind to pin your friends on a setting board and use a microscope on them. You might see things that were strictly private. You might see things they wouldn't want you to see. They might not be your friends any more if you did that. When I make a friend I just take him on trust like I did Donald. You're my friend, aren't you, Peter?"

"Yes, Linda," said Peter soberly. "Put me to any test you can think of if you want proof."

"But I don't believe in proving friends, either," said Linda. "I believe in nurturing them. I would set a friend in my garden and water his feet and turn the sunshine on him and tell him to stay there and grow. I might fertilize him, I might prune him, and I might use insecticide on him. I might spray him with rather stringent solutions, but I give you my word I would not test him. If he flourished under my care I would know it, and if he did not I would know it, and that would be all I would want to know. I have watched Daddy search for the seat of nervous disorders, and sometimes he had to probe very deep to find what developed nerves unduly but he didn't ever do any picking and raveling and fringing at the soul of a human being merely for the sake of finding out what it was made of; and everyone says I am like him."

"I wish I might have known him," said Peter.

"Don't I wish it!" said Linda. "Now then, Peter, go ahead. Read your article."

Peter opened a packing case, picked out a sheaf of papers, and sitting opposite Linda, began to read. He was dumbfounded to find that he, a man who had read and talked extemporaneously before great bodies of learned men, should have cold feet and shaking hands and a hammering heart because he was trying to read an article on America for Americans before a high-school Junior. But presently, as the theme engrossed him, he forgot the vision of Linda interesting herself in his homemaking, and saw instead a vision of his country threatened on one side by the red menace of the Bolshevik, on the other by the yellow menace of the Jap, and yet on another by the treachery of the Mexican and the slowly uprising might of the black man, and presently he was thundering his best-considered arguments at Linda until she imperceptibly drew back from him on the packing case, and with parted lips and wide eyes she listened in utter absorption. She gazed at a transformed Peter with aroused eyes and a white light of patriotism on his forehead, and a conception even keener than anything that the war had brought her young soul was burning in her heart of what a man means when he tries to express his feeling concerning the land of his birth. Presently, without realizing what she was doing, she reached for her pad and pencils and rapidly began sketching a stretch of peaceful countryside over which a coming storm of gigantic proportions was gathering. Fired by Peter's article, the touch of genius in Linda's soul became creative and she fashioned huge storm clouds wind driven, that floated in such a manner as to bring the merest suggestion of menacing faces, black faces, yellow faces, brown faces, and under the flash of lightning, just at the obscuring of the sun, a huge, evil, leering red face. She swept a stroke across her sheet and below this she began again, sketching the same stretch of country she had pictured above, strolling in cultivated fields, dotting it with white cities, connecting it with smooth roadways, sweeping the sky with giant planes. At one side, winging in from the glow of morning, she drew in the strong-winged flight of a flock of sea swallows, peacefully homing toward the far-distant ocean. She was utterly unaware when Peter stopped reading. Absorbed, she bent over her work. When she had finished she looked up.

"Now I'll take this home," she said. "I can't do well on color with pencils. You hold that article till I have time to put this on water-color paper and touch it up a bit here and there, and I believe it will be worthy of starting and closing your article."

She pushed the sketches toward him.

"You little wonder!" said Peter softly.

"Yes, 'little' is good," scoffed Linda, rising to very nearly his height and reaching for the lunch basket. " 'Little' is good, Peter. If I could do what I like to myself I would get in some kind of a press and squash down about seven inches."

"Oh, Lord!" said Peter. "Forget it. What's the difference what the inches of your body are so long as your brain has a stature worthy of mention?"

"Good-bye!" said Linda. "On the strength of that I'll jazz that sketch all up, bluey and red-purple and jade-green. I 11 make it as glorious as a Catalina sunset."

As she swung the car around the sharp curve at the boulders she looked back and laughingly waved her hand at Peter, and Peter experienced a wild desire to shriek lest she lose control of the car and plunge down the steep incline. A second later, when he saw her securely on the road below, he smiled to himself.

"Proves one thing," he said conclusively. "She is over the horrors. She is driving unconsciously. Thank God she knew that curve so well she could look the other way and drive it mentally.