Chapter XIX. The Official Bug-Catcher
 

Not a mile below the exit from Peter's grounds, Linda perceived a heavily laden person toiling down the roadway before her and when she ran her car abreast and stopped it, Henry Anderson looked up at her with joyful face.

"Sorry I can't uncover, fair lady," he said, "but you see I am very much otherwise engaged."

What Linda saw was a tired, disheveled man standing in the roadway beside her car, under each arm a boulder the size of her head, one almost jet-black, shot through with lines of white and flying figures of white crossing between these bands that almost reminded one of winged dancers. The other was a combination stone made up of matrix thickly imbedded with pebbles of brown, green, pink, and dull blue.

"For pity's sake!" said Linda. "Where are you going and why are you personally demonstrating a new method of transporting rock?"

"I am on my way down Lilac Valley to the residence of a friend of mine," said Henry Anderson. "I heard her say the other day that she saved every peculiarly marked boulder she could find to preserve coolness and moisture in her fern bed."

Linda leaned over and opened the car door.

"All well and good," she said; "but why in the cause of reason didn't you leave them at Peter's and bring them down in his car?"

Henry Anderson laid the stones in the bottom of the car, stepped in and closed the door behind him. He drew a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his perspiring face and soiled hands.

"I had two sufficient personal reasons," he said. "One was that the car at our place is Peter Morrison's car, not mine; and the other was that it's none of anybody's business but my own if I choose to 'say it' with stones."

Linda started the car, being liberal with gas--so liberal that it was only a few minutes till Henry Anderson protested.

"This isn't the speedway," he said. "What's your hurry?"

"Two reasons seem to be all that are allowed for things at the present minute," answered Linda. "One of mine is that you can't drive this beast slow, and the other is that my workroom is piled high with things I should be doing. I have two sketches I must complete while I am in the mood, and I have had a great big letter from my friend, Marian Thorne, today that I want to answer before I go to bed tonight."

"In other words," said Henry Anderson bluntly, "you want me to understand that when I have reached your place and dumped these stones I can beat it; you have no further use for me."

"You said that," retorted Linda.

"And who ever heard of such a thing," said Henry, "as a young woman sending away a person of my numerous charms and attractions in order to work, or to write a letter to another woman?"

"But you're not taking into consideration," said Linda, "that I must work, and I scarcely know you, while I have known Marian ever since I was four years old and she is my best friend."

"Well, she has no advantage over me" said Henry instantly, "because I have known you quite as long as Peter Morrison has at least, and I'm your official bug-catcher."

"I had almost forgotten about the bugs," said Linda.

"Well, don't for a minute think I am going to give you an opportunity to forget," said Henry Anderson.

He reached across and laid his hand over Linda's on the steering gear. Linda said nothing, neither did she move. She merely added more gas and put the Bear Cat forward at a dizzy whirl. Henry laughed.

"That's all right, my beauty," he said. "Don't you think for a minute that I can't ride as fast as you can drive."

A dull red mottled Linda's cheeks. As quickly as it could be done she brought the Bear Cat to a full stop. Then she turned and looked at Henry Anderson. The expression in her eyes was disconcerting even to that cheeky young individual--he had not borne her gaze a second until he removed his hand.

"Thanks," said Linda in a dry drawl. "And you will add to my obligation if in the future you will remember not to deal in assumptions. I am not your 'beauty,' and I'm not anyone's beauty; while the only thing in this world that I am interested in at present is to get the best education I can and at the same time carry on work that I love to do. I have a year to finish my course in the high school and when I finish I will only have a good beginning for whatever I decide to study next."

"That's nothing," said the irrepressible Henry. "It will take me two years to catch a sufficient number of gold bugs to be really serious, but there wouldn't be any harm in having a mutual understanding and something definite to work for, and then we might be able, you know, to cut out some of that year of high- school grinding. If the plans I have submitted in the Nicholson and Snow contest should just happen to be the prize winners, that would put matters in such a shape for young Henry that he could devote himself to crickets and tumble-bugs at once."

"Don't you think," said Linda quietly, "that you would better forget that silly jesting and concentrate the best of your brains on improving your plans for Peter Morrison's house?"

"Why, surely I will if that's what you command me to do," said Henry, purposely misunderstanding her.

"You haven't mentioned before," said Linda, "that you had submitted plans in that San Francisco contest."

"All done and gone," said Henry Anderson lightly. "I had an inspiration one day and I saw a way to improve a house with comforts and conveniences I never had thought of before. I was enthusiastic over the production when I got it on paper and figured it. It's exactly the house that I am going to build for Peter, and when I've cut my eye teeth on it I am going to correct everything possible and build it in perfection for you."

"Look here," said Linda soberly, "I'm not accustomed to this sort of talk. I don't care for it. If you want to preserve even the semblance of friendship with me you must stop it, and get to impersonal matters and stay there."

"All right," he agreed instantly, "but if you don't like my line of talk, you're the first girl I ever met that didn't."

"You have my sympathy," said Linda gravely. "You have been extremely unfortunate."

Then she started the Bear Cat, and again running at undue speed she reached her wild-flower garden. Henry Anderson placed the stones as she directed and waited for an invitation to come in, but the invitation was not given. Linda thanked him for the stones. She told him that in combination with a few remaining from the mantel they would make all she would require, and excusing herself she drove to the garage. When she came in she found the irrepressible Henry sitting on the back steps explaining to Katy the strenuous time he had had finding and carrying down the stones they had brought. Katy had a plate of refreshments ready to hand him when Linda laughingly passed them and went to her room.

When she had finished her letter to Marian she took a sheet of drawing paper, and in her most attractive lettering sketched in the heading, "A Palate Teaser," which was a direct quotation from Katy. Below she wrote:

You will find Tunas in the cacti thickets of any desert, but if you are so fortunate as to be able to reach specimens which were brought from Mexico and set as hedges around the gardens of the old missions, you will find there the material for this salad in its most luscious form. Naturally it can be made from either Opuntia Fiscus-Indica or Opuntia Tuna, but a combination of these two gives the salad an exquisite appearance and a tiny touch more delicious flavor, because Tuna, which is red, has to my taste a trifle richer and fuller flavor than Indica, which is yellow. Both fruits taste more like the best well-ripened watermelon than any other I recall.

Bring down the Tunas with a fishing rod or a long pole with a nail in the end. With anything save your fingers roll them in the sand or in tufts of grass to remove the spines. Slice off either end, score the skin down one side, press lightly, and a lush globule of pale gold or rosy red fruit larger than a hen's egg lies before you. With a sharp knife, beginning with a layer of red and ending with one of yellow, slice the fruits thinly, stopping to shake out the seeds as you work. In case you live in San Diego County or farther south, where it is possible to secure the scarlet berries of the Strawberry Cactus-- it is the Mammillaria Goodridgei species that you should use--a beautiful decoration for finishing your salad can be made from the red strawberries of these. If you live too far north to find these, you may send your salad to the table beautifully decorated by cutting fancy figures from the red Tuna, or by slicing it lengthwise into oblong pieces and weaving them into a decoration over the yellow background.

For your dressing use the juice of a lemon mixed with that of an orange, sweetened to taste, into which you work, a drop at a time, four tablespoons of the best Palermo olive oil. If the salad is large more oil and more juice should be used.

To get the full deliciousness of this salad, the fruit must have been on ice, and the dressing made in a bowl imbedded in cracked ice, so that when ready to blend both are ice-cold, and must be served immediately.

Gigantic specimens of fruit-bearing Cacti can be found all over the Sunland Desert near to the city, but they are not possessed of the full flavor of the cultivated old mission growths, so that it is well worth your while to make a trip to the nearest of these for the fruit with which to prepare this salad. And if, as you gather it, you should see a vision of a white head, a thin, ascetic, old face, a lean figure trailing a brown robe, slender white hands clasping a heavy cross; if you should hear the music of worship ascending from the throats of Benedictine fathers leading a clamoring choir of the blended voices of Spaniard, Mexican, and Indian, combining with the music of the bells and the songs of the mocking birds, nest making among the Tunas, it will be good for your soul in the line of purging it from selfishness, since in this day we are not asked to give all of life to the service of others, only a reasonable part of it.

Linda read this over, working in changes here and there, then she picked up her pencil and across the top of her sheet indicated an open sky with scarcely a hint of cloud. Across the bottom she outlined a bit of Sunland Desert she well remembered, in the foreground a bed of flat-leaved nopal, flowering red and yellow, the dark red prickly pears, edible, being a near relative of the fruits she had used in her salad. After giving the prickly pear the place of honor to the left, in higher growth she worked in the slender, cylindrical, jointed stems of the Cholla, shading the flowers a paler, greenish yellow. On the right, balancing the Cholla, she drew the oval, cylindrical columns of the hedgehog cactus, and the color touch of the big magenta flowers blended exquisitely with the color she already had used. At the left, the length of her page, she drew a gigantic specimen of Opuntia Tuna, covered with flowers, and well-developed specimens of the pears whose coloring ran into the shades of the hedgehog cactus.

She was putting away her working materials when she heard steps and voices on the stairs, so she knew that Eileen and John Gilman were coming. She did not in the least want them, yet she could think of no excuse for refusing them admission that would not seem ungracious. She hurried to the wall, snatched down the paintings for Peter Morrison, and looked around to see how she could dispose of them. She ended by laying one of them in a large drawer which she pushed shut and locked. The other she placed inside a case in the wall which formerly had been used for billiard cues. At their second tap she opened the door. Eileen was not at her best. There was a worried look across her eyes, a restlessness visible in her movements, but Gilman was radiant.

"What do you think, Linda?" he cried. "Eileen has just named the day!"

"I did no such thing," broke in Eileen.

"Your pardon, fair lady, you did not," said Gilman. "That was merely a figure of speech. I meant named the month. She has definitely promised in October, and I may begin to hunt a location and plan a home for us. I want the congratulations of my dear friend and my dearer sister."

Linda held out her hand and smiled as bravely as she could.

"I am very glad you are so pleased, John," she said quietly, "and I hope that you will be as happy as you deserve to be."

"Now exactly what do you mean by that?" he asked.

"Oh, Linda prides herself on being deep and subtle and conveying hidden meanings," said Eileen. "She means what a thousand people will tell you in the coming months: merely that they hope you will be happy."

"Of course," Linda hastened to corroborate, wishing if possible to avoid any unpleasantness.

"You certainly have an attractive workroom here," said John, "much as I hate to see it spoiled for billiards."

"It's too bad," said Linda, "that I have spoiled it for you for billiards. I have also spoiled the outside appearance of the house for Eileen."

"Oh, I don't know," said John. "I looked at it carefully the other day as I came up, and I thought your changes enhanced the value of the property."

"I am surely glad to hear that," said Linda. "Take a look through my skylight and my new window. Imagine you see the rugs I am going to have and a few more pieces of furniture when I can afford them; and let me particularly point out the fireplace that Henry Anderson and your friend Peter designed and had built for me. Doesn't it add a soul and a heart to my study?"

John Gilman walked over and looked at the fireplace critically. He read the lines aloud, then he turned to Eileen.

"Why, that is perfectly beautiful," he said. "Let's duplicate it in our home."

"You bungler!" scoffed Eileen.

"I think you're right," said Gilman reflectively, "exactly right. Of course I would have no business copying Linda's special fireplace where the same people would see it frequently; and if I had stopped to think a second, I might have known that you would prefer tiling to field stone."

"Linda seems very busy tonight," said Eileen. "Perhaps we are bothering her."

"Yes," said John, "we'll go at once. I had to run up to tell our good news; and I wanted to tell you too, Linda dear, that I think both of us misjudged Eileen the other day. You know, Linda, you have always dressed according to your father's ideas, which were so much simpler and plainer than the manner in which your mother dressed Eileen, that she merely thought that you wished to continue in his way. She had no objection to your having any kind of clothes you chose, if only you had confided in her, and explained to her what you wanted."

Linda stood beside her table, one lean hand holding down the letter she had been writing. She stood very still, but she was powerless to raise her eyes to the face of either John or Eileen. Above everything she did not wish to go any further in revealing Eileen to John Gilman. If he knew what he knew and if he felt satisfied, after what he had seen, with any explanation that Eileen could trump up to offer, Linda had no desire to carry the matter further. She had been ashamed of what she already had done. She had felt angry and dissatisfied with herself, so she stood before them downcast and silent.

"And it certainly was a great joke on both of us," said John jovially, "what we thought about that box of cigarettes, you know. They were a prize given by a bridge club at an 'Ambassador' benefit for the Good Samaritan Hospital. Eileen, the little card shark she is, won it, and she was keeping it hidden away there to use as a gift for my birthday. Since we disclosed her plans prematurely, she gave it to me at once, and I'm having a great time treating all my friends."

At that instant Linda experienced a revulsion. Previously she had not been able to raise her eyes. Now it would have been quite impossible to avoid looking straight into Eileen's face. But Eileen had no intention of meeting anyone's gaze at that minute. She was fidgeting with a sheet of drawing paper.

"Careful you don't bend that," cautioned Linda. Then she looked at John Gilman. He believed what he was saying; he was happy again. Linda evolved the best smile she could.

"How stupid of us not to have guessed!" she said.

Closing the door behind them, Linda leaned against it and looked up through the skylight at the creep blue of the night, the low-hung stars. How long she stood there she did not know. Presently she went to her chair, picked up her pencil, and slowly began to draw. At first she scarcely realized what she was doing, then she became absorbed in her work. Then she reached for her color box and brushes, and shortly afterward tacked against the wall an extremely clever drawing of a greatly enlarged wasp. Skillfully she had sketched a face that was recognizable round the big insect eyes. She had surmounted the face by a fluff of bejewelled yellow curls, encased the hind legs upon which the creature stood upright in pink velvet Turkish trousers and put tiny gold shoes on the feet. She greatly exaggerated the wings into long trails and made them of green gauze with ruffled edges. All the remainder of the legs she had transformed into so many braceleted arms, each holding a tiny fan, or a necklace, a jewel box, or a handkerchief of lace. She stood before this sketch, studying it for a few minutes, then she walked over to the table and came back with a big black pencil. Steadying her hand with a mahl stick rested against the wall, with one short sharp stroke she drew a needle-pointed stinger, so screened by the delicate wings that it could not be seen unless you scrutinized the picture minutely. After that, with careful, interested hands she brought out Peter Morrison's drawings and replaced them on the wall to dry.