Chapter XXVII. The Straight and Narrow
 

This served exactly the purpose Linda had intended. It dislodged the mouse nest and dropped it three feet below her level, but it did something else upon which Linda had no time to count. It emptied every pocket in the coat and sent the contents scattering down the rough declivity.

"Oh my gracious!" gasped Linda. "Look what I have done! Katy, come help me quickly; I have to gather up this stuff; but it's no use; I'll have to take it to Peter and tell him. I couldn't put these things back in the pockets where his hand will reach for them, because I don't know which came from inside and which came from out."

Linda sprang down and began hastily gathering up everything she could see that had fallen from the coat pockets. She had almost finished when her fingers chanced upon a very soiled, befigured piece of paper whose impressed folds showed that it had been carried for some time in an inner pocket. As her fingers touched this paper her eyes narrowed, her breath came in a gasp. She looked at it a second, irresolute, then she glanced over the top of the declivity in the direction Peter had taken. He was standing in front of the building, discussing some matter with the contractor. He had not yet gone to the spring. Shielded by the embankment with shaking fingers Linda opened the paper barely enough to see that it was Marian's lost sheet of plans; but it was not as Marian had lost it. It was scored deeply here and there with heavy lines suggestive of alterations, and the margin was fairly covered with fine figuring. Linda did not know Peter Morrison's writing or figures. His articles had been typewritten and she had never seen his handwriting. She sat down suddenly on account of weakened knees, and gazed unseeingly down the length of Lilac Valley, her heart sick, her brain tormented. Suddenly she turned and studied the house.

"Before the Lord!" she gasped. "I thought there was something mighty familiar even about the skeleton of you! Oh, Peter, Peter, where did you get this, and how could you do it?"

For a while a mist blurred her eyes. She reached for the coat and started to replace the things she had gathered up, then she shut her lips tight.

"Best time to pull a tooth," she said tersely to a terra cotta red manzanita bush, "is when it aches."

When Peter returned from the spring he was faced by a trembling girl, colorless and trying hard to keep her voice steady. She held out the coat to him with one hand, the package of papers with the other, the folded drawing conspicuous on the top. With these she gestured toward the declivity.

"Mouse nest in your pocket, Peter," she said thickly. "Reversed the coat to shake it out, and spilled your stuff."

Then she waited for Peter to be confounded. But Peter was not in the faintest degree troubled about either the coat or the papers. What did trouble him was the face and the blazing eyes of the girl concerning whom he would not admit, even to himself, his exact state of feeling.

"The mouse did not get on you, Linda?" he asked anxiously.

Linda shook her head. Suddenly she lost her self-control.

"Oh, Peter," she wailed, "how could you do it?"

Peter's lean frame tensed suddenly.

"I don't understand, Linda," he said quietly. "Exactly what have I done?"

Linda thrust the coat and the papers toward him accusingly and stood there wordless but with visible pain in her dark eyes. peter smiled at her reassuringly.

"That's not my coat, you know. If there is anything distressing about it, don't lay it to me."

"Oh, Peter!" cried Linda, "tell the truth about it. Don't try any evasions. I am so sick of them."

A rather queer light sprang into Peter's eyes. He leaned forward suddenly and caught the coat from Linda's fingers.

"Well, if you need an alibi concerning this coat," he said, "I think I can furnish it speedily."

As he talked he whirled the garment around and shot his long arms into the sleeves. Shaking it into place on his shoulders, he slowly turned in front of Linda and the surprised Katy. The sleeves came halfway to his wrists and the shoulders slid down over his upper arms. He made such a quaint and ridiculous figure that Katy burst out laughing. She was very well trained, but she knew Linda was deeply distressed.

"Wake up, lambie!" she cried sharply. "That coat ain't belonging to Mr. Pater Morrison. That gairment is the property of that bug-catchin' architect of his."

Peter shook off the coat and handed it back to Linda.

"Am I acquitted?" he asked lightly; but his surprised eyes were searching her from braid to toe.

Linda turned from him swiftly. She thrust the packet into a side pocket and started to the garage with the coat. As she passed inside she slipped down her hand, slid the sheet of plans from the other papers, and slipped it into the front of her blouse. She hung the coat back where she had found it, then suddenly sat down on the side of Peter Morrison's couch, white and shaken. Peter thought he heard a peculiar gasp and when he strayed past the door, casually glancing inward, he saw what he saw, and it brought him to his knees beside Linda with all speed.

"Linda-girl," he implored, "what in this world has happened?"

Linda struggled to control her voice; but at last she buried her face in her hands and frankly emitted a sound that she herself would have described as "howling." Peter knelt back in wonder.

"Of all the things I ever thought about you, Linda," he said, "the one thing I never did think was that you were hysterical."

If there was one word in Linda's vocabulary more opprobrious than "nerves," which could be applied to a woman, it was "hysterics." The great specialist had admitted nerves; hysterics had no standing with him. Linda herself had no more use for a hysterical woman than she had for a Gila monster. She straightened suddenly, and in removing her hands from her face she laid one on each of Peter's shoulders.

"Oh, Peter," she wailed, "I am not a hysterical idiot, but I couldn't have stood it if that coat had been yours. Peter, I just couldn't have borne it!"

Peter held himself rigidly in the fear that he might disturb the hands that were gripping him.

"I see I have the job of educating these damned field mice as to where they may build with impunity," he said soberly.

But Linda was not to be diverted. She looked straight and deep into his eyes.

"Peter," she said affirmatively, "you don't know a thing about that coat, do you?"

"I do not," said Peter promptly.

"You never saw what was in its pockets, did you?"

"Not to my knowledge," answered Peter. "What was in the pockets, Linda?"

Linda thought swiftly. Peter adored his dream house. If she told him that the plans for it had been stolen by his architect, the house would be ruined for Peter. Anyone could see from the candor of his gaze and the lines that God and experience had graven on his face that Peter was without guile. Suddenly Linda shot her hands past Peter's shoulders and brought them together on the back of his neck. She drew his face against hers and cried: "Oh Peter, I would have been killed if that coat had been yours. I tell you I couldn't have endured it, Peter. I am just tickled to death!"

One instant she hugged him tight. If her lips did not brush his cheek, Peter deluded himself. Then she sprang up and ran from the garage. Later he took the coat from its nail, the papers from its pockets, and carefully looked them over. There was nothing among them that would give him the slightest clue to Linda's conduct. He looked again, penetratingly, searchingly, for he must learn from them a reason; and no reason was apparent. With the coat in one hand and the papers in the other he stepped outside.

"Linda," he said, "won't you show me? Won't you tell me? What is there about this to upset you?"

Linda closed her lips and shook her head. Once more Peter sought in her face, in her attitude the information he craved.

"Needn't tell me," he said, "that a girl who will face the desert and the mountains and the canyons and the sea is upset by a mouse."

"Well, you should have seen Katy sitting in the midst of our supper with her feet rigidly extended before her!" cried the girl, struggling to regain her composure. "Put back that coat and come to your supper. It's time for you to be fed now. The last workman has gone and we'll barely have time to finish nicely and show Katy your dream house before it's time to go."

Peter came and sat in the place Linda indicated. His mind was whirling. There was something he did not understand, but in her own time, in her own way, a girl of Linda's poise and self-possession would tell him what had occurred that could be responsible for the very peculiar things she had done. In some way she had experienced a shock too great for her usual self-possession. The hands with which she fished pickled onions from the bottle were still unsteady, and the corroboration Peter needed for his thoughts could be found in the dazed way in which Katy watched Linda as she hovered over her in serving her. But that was not the time. By and by the time would come. The thing to do was to trust Linda and await its coming. So Peter called on all the reserve wit and wisdom he had at command. He jested, told stories, and to Linda's satisfaction and Katy's delight, he ate his supper like a hungry man, frankly enjoying it, and when the meal was finished Peter took Katy over the house, explaining to her as much detail as was possible at that stage of its construction, while Linda followed with mute lips and rebellion surging in her heart. When leaving time came, while Katy packed the Bear Cat, Linda wandered across toward the spring, and Peter, feeling that possibly she might wish to speak with him, followed her. When he overtook her she looked at him straightly, her eyes showing the hurt her heart felt.

"Peter," she said, "that first night you had dinner with us, was Henry Anderson out of your presence one minute from the time you came into the house until you left it?"

Peter stopped and studied the ground at his feet intently. Finally he said conclusively: "I would go on oath, Linda, that he was not. We were all together in the living room, all together in the dining room. We left together at night and John was with us."

"I see," said Linda. "Well, then, when you came back the next morning after Eileen, before you started on your trip, to hunt a location, was he with you all the time?"

Again Peter took his time to answer.

"We came to your house with Gilman," he said. "John started to the front door to tell Miss Eileen that we were ready. I followed him. Anderson said he would look at the scenery. He must have made a circuit of the house, because when we came out ready to start, a very few minutes later, he was coming down the other side of the house."

"Ah," said Linda comprehendingly.

"Linda," said Peter quietly, "it is very obvious that something has worried you extremely. Am I in any way connected with it?"

Linda shook her head.

"Is there anything I can do?"

The negative was repeated. Then she looked at him.

"No, Peter," she said quietly, "I confess I have had a shock, but it is in no way connected with you and there is nothing you can do about it but forget my foolishness. But I am glad--Peter, you will never know how glad I am--that you haven't anything to do with it."

Then in the friendliest fashion imaginable she reached him her hand and led the way back to the Bear Cat, their tightly gripped hands swinging between them. As Peter closed the door he looked down on Linda.

"Young woman," he said, "since this country has as yet no nerve specialist to take the place of your distinguished father, if you have any waves to wave to me tonight, kindly do it before you start or after you reach the highway. If you take your hands off that steering wheel as you round the boulders and strike that declivity as I have seen you do heretofore, I won't guarantee that I shall not require a specialist myself."

Linda started to laugh, then she saw Peter's eyes and something in them stopped her suddenly.

"I did not realize that I was taking any risk," she said. "I won't do it again. I will say good-bye to you right here and now so I needn't look back."

So she shook hands with Peter and drove away. Peter slowly followed down the rough driveway, worn hard by the wheels of delivery trucks, and stood upon the highest point of the rocky turn, looking after the small gray car as it slid down the steep declivity. And he wondered if there could have been telepathy in the longing with which he watched it go, for at the level roadway that followed between the cultivated land out to the highway Linda stopped the car, stood up in it, and turning, looked back straight to the spot upon which Peter stood. She waved both hands to him, and then gracefully and beautifully, with outstretched, fluttering fingers she made him the sign of birds flying home. And with the whimsy in his soul uppermost, Peter reflected, as he turned back for a microscopic examination of Henry Anderson's coat and the contents of its pockets, that there was one bird above all others which made him think of Linda; but he could not at the moment feather Katherine O'Donovan. And then he further reflected as he climbed the hill that if it had to be done the best he could do would be a bantam hen contemplating domesticity.

Linda looked the garage over very carefully when she put away the Bear Cat. When she closed the garage doors she was particular about the locks. As she came through the kitchen she said to Katy, busy with the lunch box:

"Belovedest, have there been any strange Japs poking around here lately?"

She nearly collapsed when Katy answered promptly:

"A dale too many of the square-headed haythens. I am pestered to death with them. They used to come jist to water the lawn but now they want to crane the rugs; they want to do the wash. They are willing to crane house. They want to get into the garage; they insist on washing the car. If they can't wash it they jist want to see if it nades washin'."

Linda stood amazed.

"And how long has this been going on, Katy?" she finally asked.

"Well, I have had two good months of it," said Katy; "that is, it started two months ago. The past month has been workin' up and the last ten days it seemed to me they was a Jap on the back steps oftener than they was a stray cat, and I ain't no truck with ayther of them. They give me jist about the same falin'. Between the two I would trust the cat a dale further with my bird than I would the Jap."

"Have you ever unlocked the garage for them, Katy?" asked Linda.

"No," said Katy. "I only go there when I nade something about me work."

"Well, Katy," said Linda, "let me tell you this: the next time you go there for anything take a good look for Japs before you open the door. Get what you want and get out as quickly as possible and be sure, Katy, desperately sure, that you lock the door securely when you leave."

Katy set her hands on her hips, flared her elbows, and lifted her chin.

"What's any of them little haythen been coin' to scare ye, missy?" she demanded belligerently. "Don't you think I'm afraid of them! Comes any of them around me and I'll take my mopstick over the heads of them."

"And you'll break a perfectly good mopstick and not hurt the Jap when you do it," said Linda. "There's an undercurrent of something deep and subtle going on in this country right now, Katy. When Japan sends college professors to work in our kitchens and relatives of her greatest statesmen to serve our tables, you can depend on it she is not doing it for the money that is paid them. If California does not wake up very shortly and very thoroughly she is going to pay an awful price for the luxury she is experiencing while she pampers herself with the service of the Japanese, just as the South has pampered herself for generations with the service of the Negroes. When the Negroes learn what there is to know, then the day of retribution will be at hand. And this is not croaking, Katy. It is the truest gospel that was ever preached. Keep your eyes wide open for Japs. Keep your doors locked, and if you see one prowling around the garage and don't know what he is after, go to the telephone and call the police."

Linda climbed the stairs to her workroom, plumped down at the table, set her chin in her palms, and lost herself in thought. For half an hour she sat immovable, staring at her caricature of Eileen through narrowed lids. Then she opened the typewriter, inserted a sheet and wrote:

MY DEAR Mr. SNOW:

I am writing as the most intimate woman friend of Marian Thorne. As such, I have spent much thought trying to figure out exactly the reason for the decision in your recent architectural competition; why a man should think of such a number of very personal, intimate touches that, from familiarity with them, I know that Miss Thorne had incorporated in her plans, and why his winning house should be her winning house, merely reversed.

Today I have found the answer, which I am forwarding to you, knowing that you will understand exactly what should be done. Enclosed you will find one of the first rough s};etches Marian made of her plans. In some mysterious manner it was lost on a night when your prize-winning architect had dinner at our house where Miss Thorne was also a guest. Before retiring she showed to me and explained the plans with which she hoped to win your competition. In the morning I packed her suitcase and handed it to the porter of her train. When she arrived at San Francisco she found that the enclosed sheet was missing.

This afternoon tidying a garage in which Mr. Peter Morrison, the author, is living while Henry Anderson completes a residence he is building for him near my home, I reversed a coat belonging to Henry Anderson to dislodge from its pocket the nest of a field mouse. In so doing I emptied all the pockets, and in gathering up their contents I found this lost sheet from Marian's plans.

I think nothing more need be said on my part save that I understood the winning plan was to become the property of Nicholson and Snow. Without waiting to see whether these plans would win or not, Henry Anderson has them three fourths of the way materialized in Mr. Morrison's residence in Lilac Valley which is a northwestern suburb of Los Angeles.

You probably have heard Marian speak of me, and from her you may obtain any information you might care to have concerning my responsibility.

I am mailing the sketch to you rather than to Marian because I feel that you are the party most deeply interested in a business way, and I hope, too, that you will be interested in protecting my very dear friend from the disagreeable parts of this very disagreeable situation.

Very truly yours,

LINDA STRONG.