Chapter XXVIII. Putting It Up to Peter
 

When Peter Morrison finally gave up looking in the pockets of Henry Anderson's coat for enlightenment concerning Linda's conduct, it was with his mind settled on one point. There was nothing in the coat now that could possibly have startled the girl or annoyed her. Whatever had been there that caused her extremely peculiar conduct she had carried away with her. Peter had settled convictions concerning Linda. From the first instant he had looked into her clear young eyes as she stood in Multiflores Canyon triumphantly holding aloft the Cotyledon in one hand and with the other struggling to induce the skirt of her blouse to resume its proper location beneath the band of her trousers, he had felt that her heart and her mind were as clear and cool and businesslike as the energetic mountain stream hurrying past her. Above all others, "straight" was the one adjective he probably would have applied to her. Whatever she had taken from Henry's pockets was something that concerned her. If she took anything, she had a right to take it; of that Peter was unalterably certain. He remembered that a few days before she practically had admitted to him that Anderson had annoyed her, and a slow anger began to surge up in Peter's carefully regulated heart. His thoughts were extremely busy, but the thing he thought most frequently and most forcefully was that he would thoroughly enjoy taking Henry Anderson by the scruff of the neck, leading him to the sheerest part of his own particular share of the mountain, and exhaustively booting him down it.

"It takes these youngsters to rush in and raise the devil where there's no necessity for anything to happen if just a modicum of common sense had been used," growled Peter.

He mulled over the problem for several days, and then he decided he should see Linda, and with his first look into her straight-forward eyes, from the tones of her voice and the carriage of her head he would know whether the annoyance persisted. About the customary time for her to return from school Peter started on foot down the short cut between his home and the Strong residence. He was following a footpath rounding the base of the mountain, crossing and recrossing the enthusiastic mountain stream as it speeded toward the valley, when a flash of color on the farther side of the brook attracted him. He stopped, then hastily sprang across the water, climbed a few yards, and, after skirting a heavy clump of bushes, looked at Linda sitting beside them--a most astonishing Linda, appearing small and humble, very much tucked away, unrestrained tears rolling down her cheeks, a wet handkerchief wadded in one hand, a packet of letters in her lap. A long instant they studied each other.

"Am I intruding?" inquired Peter at last.

Linda shook her head vigorously and gulped down a sob.

"No, Peter," she sobbed, "I had come this far on my way to you when my courage gave out."

Peter rearranged the immediate landscape and seated himself beside Linda.

"Now stop distressing yourself," he said authoritatively. "You youngsters do take life so seriously. The only thing that could have happened to you worth your shedding a tear over can't possibly have happened; so stop this waste of good material. Tears are very precious things, Linda. They ought to be the most unusual things in life. Now tell me something. Were you coming to me about that matter that worried you the other evening?"

Linda shook her head.

"No," she said, "I have turned that matter over where it belongs. I have nothing further to do with it. I'll confess to you I took a paper from among those that fell from Henry Anderson's pocket. It was not his. He had no right to have it. He couldn't possibly have come by it honorably or without knowing what it was. I took the liberty to put it where it belongs, or at least where it seemed to me that it belongs. That is all over."

"Then something else has happened?" asked Peter. "Something connected with the package of letters in your lap?"

Linda nodded vigorously.

"Peter, I have done something perfectly awful," she confessed. "I never in this world meant to do it. I wouldn't have done it for anything. I have got myself into the dreadfullest mess, and I don't know how to get out. When I couldn't stand it another minute I started right to you, Peter, just like I'd have started to my father if I'd had him to go to."

"I see," said Peter, deeply interested in the toe of his shoe. "You depended on my age and worldly experience and my unconcealed devotion to your interests, which is exactly what you should do, my dear. Now tell me. Dry your eyes and tell me, and whatever it is I'll fix it all right and happily for you. I'll swear to do it if you want me to."

Then Linda raised her eyes to his face.

"Oh, Peter, you dear!" she cried. "Peter, I'll just kneel and kiss your hands if you can fix this for me."

Peter set his jaws and continued his meditations on shoe leather.

"Make it snappy!" he said tersely. "The sooner your troubles are out of your system the better you'll feel. Whose letters are those, and why are you crying over them?"

"Oh, Peter," quavered Linda, "you know how I love Marian. You have seen her and I have told you over and over."

"Yes," said Peter soothingly, "I know."

"I have told you how, after years of devotion to Marian, John Gilman let Eileen make a perfect rag of him and tie him into any kind of knot she chose. Peter, when Marian left here she had lost everything on earth but a little dab of money. She had lost a father who was fine enough to be my father's best friend. She had lost a mother who was fine enough to rear Marian to what she is. She had lost them in a horrible way that left her room for a million fancies and regrets: 'if I had done this,' or 'if I had done that,' or 'if I had taken another road.' And when she went away she knew definitely she had lost the first and only love of her heart; and I knew, because she was so sensitive and so fine, I knew, better than anybody living, how she could be hurt; and I thought if I could fix some scheme that would entertain her and take her mind off herself and make her feel appreciated only for a little while--I knew in all reason, Peter, when she got out in the world where men would see her and see how beautiful and fine she is, there would be somebody who would want her quickly. All the time I have thought that when she came back, you would want her. Peter, I fibbed when I said I was setting your brook for Louise Whiting. I was not. I don't know Louise Whiting. She is nothing to me. I was setting it for you and Marian. It was a white head I saw among the iris marching down your creek bank, not a gold one, Peter."

Peter licked his dry lips and found it impossible to look at Linda.

"Straight ahead with it," he said gravely. "What did you do?"

"Oh, I have done the awfullest thing," wailed Linda, "the most unforgivable thing!"

She reached across and laid hold of the hand next her, and realizing that she needed it for strength and support, Peter gave it into her keeping.

"Yes?" he questioned. "Get on with it, Linda. What was it you did?"

"I had a typewriter: I could. I began writing her letters, the kind of letters that I thought would interest her and make her feel loved and appreciated."

"You didn't sign my name to them, did you, Linda?" asked Peter in a dry, breathless voice.

"No, Peter," said Linda, "I did not do that, I did worse. Oh, I did a whole lot worse!"

"I don't understand," said Peter hoarsely.

"I wanted to make them fine. I wanted to make them brilliant.

I wanted to make them interesting. And of course I could not do it by myself. I am nothing but a copycat. I just quoted a lot of things I had heard you say; and I did worse than that, Peter. I watched the little whimsy lines around your mouth and I tried to interpret the perfectly lovely things they would make you say to a woman if you loved her and were building a dream house for her. And oh, Peter, it's too ghastly; I don't believe I can tell you."

"This is pretty serious business, Linda," said Peter gravely. "Having gone this far you are in honor bound to finish. It would not be fair to leave me with half a truth. What is the result of this impersonation?"

"Oh, Peter," sobbed Linda, breaking down again, "you're going to hate me; I know you're going to hate me and Marian's going to hate me; and I didn't mean a thing but the kindest thing in all the world."

"Don't talk like that, Linda," said Peter. "If your friend is all you say she is, she is bound to understand. And as for me, I am not very likely to misjudge you. But be quick about it. What did you do, Linda?"

"Why, I just wrote these letters that I am telling you about," said Linda, "and I said the things that I thought would comfort her and entertain her and help with her work; and these are the answers that she wrote me, and I don't think I realized till last night that she was truly attributing them to any one man, truly believing in them. Oh, Peter, I wasn't asleep a minute all last night, and for the first time I failed in my lessons today."

"And what is the culmination, Linda?" urged Peter.

"She liked the letters, Peter. They meant all I intended them to and they must have meant something I never could have imagined. And in San Francisco one of the firm where she studies --a very fine man she says he is, Peter; I can see that in every way he would be quite right for her; and I had a letter from her last night, and, Peter, he had asked her to marry him, to have a lifelong chance at work she's crazy about. He had offered her a beautiful home with everything that great wealth and culture and< good taste could afford. He had offered her the mothering of his little daughter; and she refused him, Peter, refused him because she is in love, with all the love there is left in her disappointed, hurt heart, with the personality that these letters represent to her; and that personality is yours, Peter. I stole it from you. I copied it into those letters. I'm not straight. I'm not fair. I wasn't honest with her. I wasn't honest with you. I'll just have to take off front the top of the highest mountain or sink in the deepest place in the sea, Peter. I thought I was straight. I thought I was honorable I have made Donald believe that I was. If I have to tell him the truth about this he won't want to wear my flower any more. I shall know all the things that Marian has suffered, and a thousand times worse, because she was not to blame; she had nothing with which to reproach herself."

Peter put an arm across Linda's shoulders and drew her up to him. For a long, bitter moment he thought deeply, and then he said hoarsely: "Now calm down, Linda. You're making an extremely high mountain out of an extremely shallow gopher hole. You haven't done anything irreparable. I see the whole situation. You are sure your friend has finally refused this offer she has had on account of these letters you have written?"

Suddenly Linda relaxed. She leaned her warm young body against Peter. She laid her tired head on his shoulder. She slipped the top letter of the packet in her lap from under its band, opened it, and held it before him. Peter read it very deliberately, then he nodded in acquiescence.

"It's all too evident," he said quietly, "that you have taught her that there is a man in this world more to her liking than John Gilman ever has been. When it came to materializing the man, Linda, what was your idea? Were you proposing to deliver me?"

"I thought it would be suitable and you would be perfectly happy," sobbed Linda, "and that way I could have both of you."

"And Donald also?" asked Peter lightly.

"Donald of course," assented Linda.

And then she lifted her tear-spilling, wonderful eyes, wide open, to Peter's, and demanded: "But, oh Peter, I am so miserable I am

almost dead. I have said you were a rock, and you are a rock. peter, can you get me out of this?"

"Sure," said Peter grimly. "Merely a case of living up to your blue china, even if it happens to be in the form of hieroglyphics instead of baked pottery. Give me the letters, Linda. Give me a few days to study them. Exchange typewriters with me so I can have the same machine. Give me some of the paper on which you have been writing and the address you have been using, and I'll guarantee to get you out of this in some way that will leave you Donald, and your friendship with Marian quite as good as new."

At that juncture Peter might have been kissed, but his neck was very stiff and his head was very high and his eyes were on a far-distant hilltop from which at that minute he could not seem to gather any particular help.

"Would it be your idea," he said, "that by reading these letters I could gain sufficient knowledge of what has passed to go on with this?"

"Of course you could," said Linda.

Peter reached in his side pocket and pulled out a clean handkerchief. He shook it from its folds and dried her eyes. Then he took her by her shoulders and set her up straight.

"Now stop this nerve strain and this foolishness," he said tersely. "You have done a very wonderful thing for me. It is barely possible that Marian Thorne is not my dream woman, but we can't always have our dreams in this world, and if I could not have mine, truly and candidly, Linda, so far as I have lived my life, I would rather have Marian Thorne than any other woman I have ever met."

Linda clapped her hands in delight.

"Oh, goody goody, Peter!" she cried. "How joyous! Can it be possible that my bungling is coming out right for Marian and right for you?"

"And right for you, Linda?" inquired Peter lightly.

"Sure, right for me," said Linda eagerly. "Of course it's right for me when it's right for you and Marian. And since it's not my secret alone I don't think it would be quite honorable to tell Donald about it. What hurts Marian's heart or heals it is none of his business. He doesn't even know her."

"All right then, Linda," said Peter, rising, "give me the letters and bring me the machine and the paper. Give me the joyous details and tell me when I am expected to send in my first letter in propria persona?',

"Oh, Peter," cried Linda, beaming on him, "oh, Peter, you are a rock! I do put my trust in you."

"Then God help me," said Peter, "for whatever happens, your trust in me shall not be betrayed, Linda."