Chapter XXVI. A Mouse Nest
 

LINDA DEAREST:

I am delighted that you had such a wonderful birthday. I would take a shot in air that anything you don't understand about it you might with reasonable safety charge to Katherine O'Donovan. I think it was great of her to have a suitable and a becoming dress waiting for you and a congenial man like Peter Morrison to dine with you. He appealed to me as being a rare character, highly original, and, I should think, to those who know him well he must be entertaining and lovable in the extreme. I never shall be worried about you so long as I know that he is taking care of you.

I should not be surprised if some day I meet Eileen somewhere, because Dana and I are going about more than you would believe possible. I heartily join with you in wishing her every good that life can bring her. I don't want to be pessimistic, but I can't help feeling, Linda, that she is taking a poor way to win the best, and I gravely doubt whether she finds it in the spending of unlimited quantities of the money of a coarse man who stumbled upon his riches accidentally, as has many a man of California and Colorado.

I intended, when I sat down to write, the very first thing I said, to thank you for your wonderful invitation, seconded so loyally and cordially by Katy, to make my home with you until the time comes-- if it ever does come--when I shall have a home of my own again. And just as simply and wholeheartedly as you made the offer, I accept it. I am enclosing the address and the receipt for my furniture in storage, and a few lines ordering it delivered at your house and the bill sent to me. I only kept a few heirlooms and things of Mother's and Father's that are very precious to me. Whenever Eileen takes her things you can order mine in and let me know, and I'll take a day or two off and run down for a short visit.

Mentioning Eileen makes me think of John. I think of him more frequently than I intend or wish that I did, but I feel my ninth life is now permanently extinguished concerning him. I thought I detected in your letter, Linda dear, a hint of fear that he might come back to me and that I might welcome him. If you have any such feeling in your heart, abandon it, child, because, while I try not to talk about myself, I do want to say that I rejoice in a family inheritance of legitimate pride. I couldn't give the finest loyalty and comradeship I had to give to a man, have it returned disdainfully, and then furbish up the pieces and present it over again. If I can patch those same pieces and so polish and refine them that I can make them, in the old phrase, "as good as new," possibly in time-

But, Linda, one thing is certain as the hills of morning. Never in my life will any man make any headway with me again with vague suggestions and innuendoes and hints. If ever any man wants to be anything in my life, he will speak plainly and say what he wants and thinks and hopes and intends and feels in not more than two-syllable English. I learned my lesson about the futility of building your house of dreams on a foundation of sand. Next time I erect a dream house, it is going to have a proper foundation of solid granite. And that may seem a queer thing for me to say when you know that I am getting the joy in my life, that I do not hesitate to admit I am, from letters written by a man whose name I don't know. It may be that I don't know the man, but I certainly am very well acquainted with him, and in some way he seems to me to be taking on more definite form. I should not be surprised if I were to recognize him the first time I met him face to face.

Linda looked through the skylight and cried out to the stars: "Good heavens! Have I copied Peter too closely?"

She sat thinking a minute and then she decided she had not.

And in this connection you will want to know how I am progressing in my friendship with the junior partner, and what kind of motorist I am making. I am still driving twice a week, and lately on Sundays in a larger car, taking Dana and a newspaper friend of hers along. I think I have driven every hazard that this part of California affords except the mountains; Mr. Snow is still merciful about them.

Linda dear, I know what you're dying to know. You want to know whether Mr. Snow is in the same depths of mourning as when our acquaintance first began. This, my dear child, is very reprehensible of you. Young girls with braids down their backs--and by the way, Linda, you did not tell me what happened "after the ball was over." Did you go to school the next morning with braids down your back, or wearing your coronet? Because on that depends what I have to say to you now; if you went with braids, you're still my little girl chum, the cleanest, finest kid I have ever known; but if you wore your coronet, then you're a woman and my equal and my dearest friend, far dearer than Dana even; and I tell you this, Linda, because I want you always to understand that you come first.

I have tried and tried to visualize you, and can't satisfy my mind as to whether the braids are up or down. Going on the assumption that they are up, and that life may in the near future begin to hold some interesting experiences for you, I will tell you this, beloved child: I don't think Mr. Snow is mourning quite so deeply as he was. I have not been asked, the last four or five trips we have been on, to carry an armload of exquisite flowers to the shrine of a departed love. I have been privileged to take them home and arrange them in my room and Dana's. And I haven't heard so much talk about loneliness, and I haven't seen such tired, sad eyes. It seems to me that a familiar pair of shoulders are squaring up to the world again, and a very kind pair of eyes are brighter with interest. I don't know how you feel about this; I don't know how I feel about it myself. I am sure that Eugene Snow is a man who, in the years to come, would line up beside your father and mine, and I like him immensely. It is merely a case of not liking him less, but of liking my unknown man more. I couldn't quite commit the sacrilege, Linda dear, of sending you a sample of the letters I am receiving, but they are too fanciful and charming for any words of mine to describe adequately. I don't know who this man is, or what he has to offer, or whether he intends to offer anything, but it is a ridiculous fact, Linda, that I would rather sit with him in a chimney corner of field boulders, on a pine floor, with a palm roof and an Ocotillo candle, than to glow in the parchment-shielded electric light of the halls of a rich man. In a recent letter, Linda, there was a reference to a woman who wore "a diadem of crystallized light." It was a beautiful thing and I could not help taking it personally. It was his way of telling me that he knew me, and knew my tragedy; and, as I said before, I am beginning to feel that I have him rather definitely located; and I can understand the fine strain in him that prompted his anonymity, and his reasons for it. Of course I am not sufficiently confident yet to say anything definite, but my heart is beginning to say things that I sincerely hope my lips never will be forced to deny.

Linda laid down the letter, folded her hands across it, and once more looked at the stars.

"Good gracious!" she said. "I am tincturing those letters with too much Peter. I'll have to tone down a bit. Next thing I know she will be losing her chance with that wonderful Snow man for a dream. In my efforts to comfort her I must have gone too far. It is all right to write a gushy love letter and stuff it full of Peter's whimsical nonsense, but, in the language of the poet, how am I going to 'deliver the goods'? Of course that talk about Louise Whiting was all well enough. Equally, of course, I outlined and planted the brook and designed the bridge for Marian, whether she knows it or Peter knows it, or not. If they don't know it, it's about time they were finding it out. I think it's my job to visit Peter more frequently and see if I can't invent some way to make him see the light. I will give Katy a hint in the morning. Tomorrow evening I'll go up and have supper with him and see if he has another article in the stewpan. I like this work with Peter. I like having him make me dream dreams and see pictures. I like the punch and the virility he puts into my drawings. It's all right reproducing monkey flowers and lilies for pastime, but for serious business, for real life work, I would rather do Peter's brainstorming, heart-thrilling pictures than my merely pretty ones. On the subject of Peter, I must remember in the morning to take those old books he gave me to Donald. I believe that from one of them he is going to get the very material he needs to down the Jap in philosophy. And they are not text books which proves that Peter must have been digging into the subject and hunted them up in some second-hand store, or even sent away an order for them."

In the hall the next morning Linda stopped Donald and gave him the books. In the early stages of their friendship she had looked at him under half-closed lids and waited to see whether he intended stopping to say a word with her when they passed each other or came down the halls together. She knew that their acquaintance would be noted and commented upon, and she knew how ready the other girls would be to say that she was bold and forward, so she was careful to let Donald make the advances, until he had called to her so often, and had dug flowers and left his friends waiting at her door while he delivered them, that she felt free to address him as she chose. He had shown any interested person in the high school that he was her friend, that he was speaking to her exactly as he did to girls he had known from childhood. He was very popular among the boys and girls of his class and the whole school. His friendship, coming at the time of Linda's rebellion on the subject of clothes, had developed a tendency to bring her other friendships. Boys who never had known she was in existence followed Donald's example in stopping her to say a word now and then. Girls who had politely ignored her now found things to say; and several invitations she had not had leisure to accept had been sent to her for afternoon and evening entertainments among the young people. Linda had laid out for herself something of a task in deciding to be the mental leader of her class. There were good brains in plenty among the other pupils. It was only by work, concentration, and purpose, only by having a mind keenly alert, by independent investigation and introducing new points of view that she could hold her prestige. Up to the receipt of her letter containing the offer to publish her book she had been able rigorously to exclude from her mind the personality and the undertakings of Jane Meredith. She was Linda Strong in the high school and for an hour or two at her studies. She was Jane Meredith over the desert, through the canyons, beside the sea, in her Multiflores kitchen or in Katherine O'Donovan's. But this book offer opened a new train of thought, a new series of plans. She could see her way-- thanks to her father she had the material in her mind and the art in her finger tips-- to materialize what she felt would be even more attractive in book form than anything her editor had been able to visualize from her material. She knew herself, she knew her territory so minutely. Frequently she smiled when she read statements in her botanies as to where plants and vegetables could be found. She knew the high home of the rare and precious snow plant. She knew the northern limit of the strawberry cactus. She knew where the white sea swallow nested. She knew where the Monarch butterfly went on his winter migration. She knew where the trap-door spider, with cunning past the cunning of any other architect of Nature, built his small, round, silken-lined tower and hinged his trap door so cleverly that only he could open it from the outside. She had even sat immovable and watched him erect his house, and she would have given much to see him weave its silver lining.

Linda was fast coming to the place where she felt herself to be one in an interested group of fellow workers. She no longer gave a thought to what kind of shoes she wore. Other girls were beginning to wear the same kind. The legislatures of half a dozen states were passing laws regulating the height of heel which might be worn within their boundaries. Manufacturers were promising for the coming season that suitable shoes would be built for street wear and mountain climbing, for the sands of the sea and the sands of the desert, and the sheer face of canyons. The extremely long, dirt-sweeping skirts were coming up; the extremely short, immodest skirts were coming down. A sane and sensible wave seemed to be sweeping the whole country. Under the impetus of Donald Whiting's struggles to lead his classes and those of other pupils to lead theirs a higher grade of scholarship was beginning to be developed throughout the high school. Pupils were thinking less of what they wore and how much amusement they could crowd in, and more about making grades that would pass them with credit from year to year. The horrors of the war and the disorders following it had begun to impress upon the young brains growing into maturity the idea that soon it would be their task to take over the problems that were now vexing the world's greatest statesmen and its wisest and most courageous women. A tendency was manifesting itself among young people to equip themselves to take a worthy part in the struggles yet to come. Classmates who had looked with toleration upon Linda's common-sense shoes and plain dresses because she was her father's daughter, now looked upon her with respect and appreciation because she started so many interesting subjects for discussion, because she was so rapidly developing into a creature well worth looking at. Always she would be unusual because of her extreme height, her narrow eyes, her vivid coloring. But a greater maturity, a fuller figure, had come to be a part of the vision with which one looked at Linda. In these days no one saw her as she was. Even her schoolmates had fallen into the habit of seeing her as she would be in the years to come.

Thus far she had been able to keep her identities apart without any difficulty; but the book proposition was so unexpected, it was such a big thing to result from her modest beginning, that Linda realized that she must proceed very carefully, she must concentrate with all her might, else her school work would begin to suffer in favor of the book. Recently so many things had arisen to distract her attention. Many days she had not been able to keep Eileen's face off her geometry papers; and again she saw Gilman's, anxious and pain-filled. Sometimes she found herself lifting her eyes from tasks upon which she was concentrating with all her might, and with no previous thought whatever she was searching for Donald Whiting, and when she saw him, coming into muscular and healthful manhood, she returned to her work with more strength, deeper vision, a quiet, assured feeling around her heart. Sometimes, over the edge of Literature and Ancient History, Peter Morrison looked down at her with gravely questioning eyes and dancing imps twisting his mouth muscles, and Linda paused a second to figure upon what had become an old problem with her. Why did her wild-flower garden make Peter Morrison think of a graveyard? What was buried there besides the feet of her rare flowers? She had not as yet found the answer.

This day her thoughts were on Peter frequently because she intended to see him that night. She was going to share with him a supper of baked ham and beans and bread and butter and pickled onions and little nut cakes, still warm from Katy's oven. She was going to take Katy with her in order that she might see Peter Morrison's location and the house for his dream lady, growing at the foot of the mountain like a gay orchid homing on a forest tree. To Linda it was almost a miracle, the rapidity with which a house could be erected in California. In a few weeks' time she had seen a big cellar scooped out of the plateau, had seen it lined and rising to foundation height above the surface in solid concrete, faced outside with cracked boulders. She had seen a framework erected, a rooftree set, and joists and rafters and beams swinging into place. Fretworks of lead and iron pipe were running everywhere, and wires for electricity. Soon shingles and flooring would be going into place, and Peter said that when he had finished acrobatic performances on beams and girders and really stepped out on solid floors where he might tread without fear of breaking any of his legs, he would perform a Peacock Dance all by himself.

"Peter, you sound like a centipede," said Linda.

"Dear child," said Peter, "when I enter my front door and get to the back on two-inch footing, I positively feel that I have numerous legs, and I ache almost as badly in the fear that I shall break the two I have, as I should if they were really broken."

And then he added a few words on a subject of which he had not before spoken to Linda.

"It was like that in France. When we really got into the heat of things and the work was actually being done, we were not afraid: we were too busy; we were 'supermen.' The time when we were all legs and arms and head, and all of them were being blown away wholesale was when the shells whined over while we had a rest hour and were trying to sleep, or in the cold, dim dawn when we stumbled out stiff, hungry, and sleepy. It's not the real thing when it's really occurring that gets one. It's the devils of imagination tormenting the soul. There is only one thing in this world can happen to me that is really going to be as bad as the things I dream."

Linda looked down Lilac Valley, her eyes absently focusing on Katy busily setting supper on a store box in front of the garage. Then she looked at Peter.

"Mind telling?" she inquired lightly.

Peter looked at her speculatively.

"And would a man be telling his heart's best secret to a kid like you?" he asked.

"Now, I call that downright mean," said Linda. "Haven't you noticed that my braids are up? Don't you see a maturity and a dignity and a general matronliness apparent all over me today?"

"Matronliness" was too much for Peter. You could have heard his laugh far down the blue valley.

"That's good!" he cried.

"It is," agreed Linda. "It means that my braids are up to stay, so hereafter I'm a real woman."

She lingered over the word an instant, glancing whimsically at Peter, a trace of a smile on her lips, then she made her way down a slant declivity and presently returned with an entire flower plant, new to Peter and of unusual beauty.

"And because I am a woman I shall set my seal upon you," she said.

In the buttonhole of his light linen coat she placed a flower of satin face of purest gold, the five petals rounded, but sharply tipped, a heavy mass of silk stamens, pollen dusted in the heart. She pushed back the left side of his coat and taking one of the rough, hairy leaves of the plant she located it over Peter's heart, her slim, deft fingers patting down the leaf and flattening it out until it lay pasted smooth and tight. As she worked, she smiled at him challengingly. Peter knew he was experiencing a ceremony of some kind, the significance of which he must learn. It was the first time Linda had voluntarily touched him. He breathed lightly and held steady, lest he startle her.

"Lovely enough," he said, "to have come from the hills of the stars. Don't make me wait, Linda; help me to the interpretation."

"Buena Mujer," suggested Linda.

"Good woman," translated Peter.

Linda nodded, running a finger down the leaf over his heart.

"Because she sticks close to you," she explained. Then startled by the look in Peter's eyes, she cried in swift change: "Now we are all going to work for a minute. Katy's spreading the lunch. You take this pail and go to the spring for water and I shall tidy your quarters for you."

With the eye of experience Linda glanced over the garage deciding that she must ask for clean sheets for the cot and that the Salvation Army would like the heap of papers. Studying the writing table she heard a faint sound that untrained ears would have missed.

"Ah, ha, Ma wood mouse," said Linda, "nibbling Peter's dr, goods are you?"

Her cry a minute later answered the question. She came from the garage upon Katherine O'Donovan rushing to meet her, holding a man's coat at the length of her far-reaching arm.

"I wish you'd look at that pocket. I don't know how long this coat has been hanging there, but there is a nest of field mice in it," she said.

Katy promptly retreated to the improvised dining table, seated herself upon an end of it, and raised both feet straight into the air.

"Small help I'll be getting from you," said Linda laughingly.

She went to the edge of the declivity that cut back to the garage and with a quick movement reversed the coat catching it by the skirts and shaking it vigorously.