Chapter XXX. Peter's Release
 

Eugene Snow returned to San Francisco enthusiastic about Linda, while he would scarcely have known how to express his appreciation of Katherine O'Donovan. He had been served a delicious dinner, deftly and quietly, such food as men particularly like; but there had been no subservience. If Katherine O'Donovan had been waiting on her own table, serving her own friends she could not have managed with more pride. It was very evident that she loved service, that she loved the girl to whom she gave constant attention. He understood exactly what there was in her heart and why she felt as she did when he saw Linda and Peter together and heard their manner of speaking to each other, and made mental note of the many points of interest which seemed to exist between them. He returned to San Francisco with a good deal of a "See-the-conquering-hero-comes" mental attitude. He went directly to his office, pausing on the way for a box of candy and a bunch of Parma violets. His first act on reaching the office was to send for Miss Thorne. Marian came almost immediately, a worried look in her eyes. She sat in the big, cushioned chair that was offered her, and smiled faintly when the box was laid on her lap, topped with the violets. She looked at Eugene Snow with an "I-wish-you-wouldn't" expression on her face; but he smiled at her reassuringly.

"Nothing," he said. "Picked them up on the way from the station. I made a hasty trip to that precious Lilac Valley of yours, and I must say it pales your representation. It is a wonderfully lovely spot."

Marian settled back in the chair. She picked up the violets and ran an experienced finger around the stems until she found the pin with which she fastened them at her waist. Then as they occupied themselves making selections from the candy box he looked smilingly at Marian. Her eyes noted the change in him. He was neither disappointed nor sad. Something had happened in Lilac Valley that had changed his perspective. Womanlike, she began probing.

"Glad you liked my valley," she said. "We are told that blue is a wonderful aura to surround a person, and it's equally wonderful when it surrounds a whole valley. With the blue sky and the blue walls and a few true-blue friends I have there, it's naturally a very dear spot to me."

"Yes," said Mr. Snow, "I can see that it is. I ran down on a business matter. I have been deeply puzzled and much perturbed over this prize contest. We have run these affairs once a year, sometimes oftener, for a long time, so I couldn't understand the peculiar thing about the similarity of the winning plans and your work this year. I have been holding up the prize money, because I did not feel that you were saying exactly what was in your heart, and I couldn't be altogether satisfied that everything was right. I went to Lilac Valley because I had a letter from your friend, Miss Linda Strong. There was an enclosure in it."

He drew from his pocket the folded sheet and handed it to Marian. Her eyes were surprised, incredulous, as she opened the missing sheet from her plans, saw the extraneous lines drawn upon it and the minute figuring with which the margin was covered.

"Linda found it at last!" she cried. "Where in this world did she get it, and whose work is this on it?"

"She got it," said Eugene Snow, "when she undertook to clean Peter Morrison's workroom on an evening when she and her cook were having supper with him. She turned a coat belonging to his architect that hung with some of his clothing in Peter Morrison's garage. She was shaking the nest of a field mouse from one of the side pockets. Naturally this emptied all the pockets, and in gathering up their contents she came across that plan, which she recognized. She thought it was right to take it and very wisely felt that it was man's business, so she sent it to me with her explanations. I went to Lilac Valley because I wanted to judge for myself exactly what kind of young person she was. I wanted to see her environment. I wanted to see the house that she felt sure was being built from these plans. I wanted to satisfy myself of the stability of what I had to work on before I mentioned the matter to you or Henry Anderson."

Marian sat holding the plan, listening absorbedly to what he was saying.

"It's an ugly business," he said, "so ugly that there is no question whatever but that it can be settled very quietly and without any annoyance to you. I shall have to take the matter up with the board, but I have the details so worked out that I shall have no difficulty in arranging matters as I think best. There is no question whatever, Marian, but Anderson found that sketch on the west side of the Strong residence. When you left your plans lying on a table before a window in the Strong guestroom the night before you came to San Francisco you did not know that the santana which raged through the valley a day or two previously had stripped a screen from the window before which you left them. In opening your door to establish a draft before you went to bed you started one that carried your top drawing through the window. Waiting for Miss Strong the next morning, in making a circuit of the grounds Anderson found it and appropriated it to most excellent advantage. Miss Linda tells me that your study of architecture was discussed at the dinner table that night. He could not have helped realizing that any sheet of plans he found there must have been yours. If he could acquit his conscience of taking them and using them, he would still have to explain why he was ready to accept the first prize and the conditions imposed when he already had a house fairly well under construction from the plans he submitted in the contest. The rule is unbreakable that the plans must be original, must be unused, must be our sole property, if they take the prize."

Marian was leaning forward, her eyes wide with interest, her breast agitated. She nodded in acquiescence. Eugene Snow reached across and helped himself to another piece of candy from the box on her knee. He looked at her speculatively and spoke quietly as if the matter were of no great importance.

"Would it be agreeable, Marian, if the prize committee should annOunce that there were reasons as to why they were not satisfied, that they have decided to return all plans and call off the present contest, opening another in a few months in which interested parties may again submit their drawings? I will undertake swiftly and comprehensively to eliminate Henry Anderson from California. I would be willing to venture quite a sum that when I finish with the youngster he will see the beauty of going straight hereafter and the desirability of a change of atmosphere. He's a youngster. I hate to make the matter public, not only on account of involving you and your friends in such disagreeable business, but I am sorry for him. I would like to deal with him like the proverbial 'Dutch uncle,' then I would like to send him away to make a new start with the assurance that I am keeping close watch on him. Would you be satisfied if I handled the matter quietly and in my own way? Could you wait a few weeks for justice?"

Marian drew a deep breath.

"Of course," she said, "it would be wonderful if you could do that. But what about Peter Morrison? How much did he know concerning the plans, and what does he know about this?"

"Nothing," said Mr. Snow. "That most unusual young friend of yours made me see the light very clearly concerning Peter Morrison. There is no necessity for him ever to know that the 'dream house,' as Miss Linda calls it, that he is building for his dream woman has any disagreeable history attached to it. He so loves the spot that he is living on it to watch that house in minutest detail. Miss Linda was fairly eloquent in the plea she made on his behalf. He strikes me as a very unusual person, and she appealed to me in the same way. There must be some scientific explanation concerning her that I don't just get, but I can see that she is most unusual When I watched them together and heard them talk of their plans for the house and the grounds and discussing illustrations that she is making for articles that he is writing, I saw how deep and wholesome was the friendship existing between them. I even heard that wonderful serving woman, whom they so familiarly speak of as 'Katy,' chiding Peter Morrison for allowing Linda to take her typewriter to him and do her own work with a pen. And because Miss Linda seems so greathearted and loving with her friends, I was rather glad to hear his explanation that they were merely changing machines for the time being for a very particular reason of their own."

"Do you mean," asked Marian, "that you think there is anything more than casual friendship between Linda and Peter Morrison?"

"Not on her part," answered Eugene Snow. "Anybody can see that she is a child deeply engrossed in all sorts of affairs uncommon for a girl of her age and position. Her nice perceptions, her wonderful loyalty to her friends, her loving thought for them, are manifest in everything she says or does. If she ever makes any mistakes they will be from the head, not from the heart. But for the other end of the equation I could speak authoritatively. Katy pointed out to me the fact that if I would watch Peter Morrison in Miss Linda's presence, I should see that he adored her. I did watch, and I did see that very thing. When I taxed him about building a dream house for a dream woman, his eyes crossed a plateau, leaped a brook, and started up the side of a mountain. They did not rest until they had found Linda."

Marian sat so still that it seemed as if she were not even breathing. In view of what Katy had said, and his few words with Peter Morrison, Eugene Snow had felt justified in giving Marian a hint as to what was going on in Lilac Valley. Exactly what he had done he had no means of knowing. If he had known and had talked intentionally he could not have made clearer to Marian the thing which for months had puzzled her. She was aware that Eugene Snow was talking, that he was describing the dinner he had been served, the wonderful wild-flower garden that he had seen, how skillfully Linda drove the Bear Cat. She heard these things and dimly comprehended them but underneath, her brain was seizing upon one fact after another. They had exchanged typewriters. The poor, foolish little kid had known how her health was wracked, how she was suffering, how her pride would not let her stoop to Eileen's subterfuges and wage war with her implements for a man she did not want if her manner of living her everyday life did not appeal to him. Linda had known how lonely and heart hungry and disappointed she had gone away, and loyally she had tried to create an interest in life for her; and she had succeeded entirely too well. And then in a panic she must have gone to Peter Morrison and explained the situation; and Peter must have agreed to take over the correspondence. One by one things that had puzzled her about the letters and about the whole affair began to grow clear. She even saw how Linda, having friendly association with no man save Peter, would naturally use him for a model. The trouble was that, with her gift of penetration and insight and her facility with her pen, she had overdone the matter. She had not imitated Peter; she had been Peter. Marian arose suddenly.

She went home, locked the door, and one after another she read the letters that had piqued, amused, comforted, and finally intrigued her. They were brilliant letters, charming, appealing letters, and yet, with knowledge concerning them, Marian wondered how she could have failed to appreciate in the beginning that they were from Linda.

"It goes to prove," she said at last, "how hungry the human heart is for love and sympathy. And that poor kid, what she must have suffered when she went to Peter for help! And if, as Mr. Snow thinks, he cares for her, how he must have suffered before he agreed to help her, as no doubt he did. What I have to do is to find some way out of the situation that will relieve Linda's anxiety and at least partially save my face. I shall have to take a few days to work it out. Luckily I haven't answered my last letter. When I find out what I really want to say then I will be very careful how I say it. I don't just exactly relish having my letters turned over to Peter Morrison, but possibly I can think of some way--I must think of some way--to make them feel that I have not been any more credulous than they."

While she thought, both Linda and Peter were doing much thinking on the same subject. Linda's heart was full of gratitude to Peter for helping her out of her very disagreeable situation. Peter had not yet opened the packet of letters lying on his table He had a sickening distaste for the whole transaction. He had thought that he would wait until he received the first letter he was to answer. If it gave him sufficient foundation in itself for the answer, he would not be forced to search further. He had smoked many pipes on this decision. After the visit of Mr. Snow, Peter had seen a great light and had decided, from the mood and the attitude of that gentleman after his interview with Katy, that he very likely would be equal to any complication that might arise when he reached San Francisco. Mulling over the situation one day Peter said reflectively to the spring which was very busy talking to him: "I am morally certain that this matter has resolved itself into a situation that closely resembles the bootblack's apple: 'they ain't goin' to be any core.' I am reasonably certain that I never shall have a letter to answer. In a few days probably I shall be able to turn back that packet to Linda without having opened it."

To make up for the perturbation which had resulted in failure in class and two weeks of work that represented her worst appearances in high-school history, Linda, her mind freed from the worry over Marian's plans, and her heart calmer over the fiasco in trying to comfort her, devoted herself absorbingly to her lessons and to the next magazine article that she must finish. She had decided that it was time to write on the subject of Indian confections. Her first spare minute she and Katy must busy themselves working out the most delicious cactus candy possible. Then they could try the mesquite candy. No doubt she could evolve a delicious gum from the mesquite and the incense plant. She knew she could from the willow milkweed; and under the head of "sweets" an appetizing jelly from manzanita. There were delightful drinks too, from the manzanita and the chia. And better than either, the lemonade berry would serve this purpose. She had not experimented to an authoritative extent with the desert pickles. And among drinks she might use the tea made from blue-eyed grass, brewed by the Indians for feverish conditions; and there was a whole world of interest to open up in differing seeds and berries, parched or boiled for food. And there were the seeds that were ground for mush, like the thistle sage, and the mock orange which was food and soap also, and the wild sunflowers that were parched for meal, and above all, the acorns. She could see that her problem was not going to be one of difficulty in securing sufficient material for her book; it would be how to find time to gather all these things, and put them through the various processes and combinations necessary to make edible dishes from I them. It would mean a long summer of interesting and absorbing I work for her and for Katy. Much of it could not be done until the I summer was far advanced and the seeds and the berries were I ripe. She could rely on Donald to help her search for the material. l With only herself and Katy in the family they could give much of their time to the work.

"Where Katy will rebel," said Linda to herself, "is when it comes to gathering sufficient seeds and parching them to make these meal and mush dishes. She will call it 'fiddlin' business.' She shall be propitiated with a new dress and a beautiful bonnet, and she shall go with me frequently to the fields. The old dear loves to ride. First thing I do I'll call at the bank again and have our affairs properly straightened and settled there in the light of the letter Daddy left me. Then I shall have money to get all the furniture and the rugs and things we truly need. I'll repaint the kitchen and get Katy some new cooking utensils to gladden her soul. And Saturday I must make my trip with Donald account for something worth while on the book."

All these plans were feasible. What Linda had to do was to accomplish them, and this she proceeded to do in a swift and businesslike manner. She soon reached the place where the whole house with the exception of Eileen's suite had been gone over, freshened and refurnished to her liking. The guest-room furniture had been moved to her rejuvenated room. On the strength of her I returns from the book she had disposed of her furniture and was finding much girlish delight in occupying a beautiful room, daintily decorated, comfortably furnished with pieces of her own selection. As she and Katy stood looking over their work when everything was ready for her first night of occupancy Katy had said to her:

"It's jist right and proper, lambie; it's jist the way it ought to be; and now say the word and let me clean out Eileen's suate and get it ready for Miss Marian, so if she would drop down unexpected she would find we was good as our word."

"All right," said Linda.

"And what am I to do with the stuff?" inquired Katy.

"Katy, my dear," said Linda with a dry laugh, "you'll think I am foolish, but I have the queerest feeling concerning those things. I can't feel that Eileen has done with them; I can't feel that she will never want them again; I can't feel that they should go to some second-hand basement. Pack all of her clothing that you can manage in her trunk and put it in the garret, and what the trunk won't hold pack in a tight box and put that in the garret also. She hasn't written me a line; she has sent me no address; I don't know what to do; but, as I have said before, I am going to save the things at least a year and see whether some day Eileen won't think of something she wants to do with them. Clean the rooms and I will order Marian's things sent."

According to these arrangements it was only a few days until Linda wrote Marian that her room was ready for her and that any time she desired to come and take possession she could test the lovingness of the welcome that awaited her by becoming intimately acquainted with it. Marian answered the letter immediately. She said that she was planning to come very soon to test that welcome. She longed for the quiet of the valley, for its cool, clean, wild air. She was very tired; she needed rest. She thought she would love the new home they were offering her. Then came two amazing paragraphs.

The other day Dana and I went into one of the big cafes in the city to treat ourselves to a taste of the entertainment with which the people of wealth regale themselves. We had wandered in laughingly jesting about what we should order, and ran into Eileen in the company of her aunt and uncle and a very flashy and loudly dressed young man, evidently a new suitor of Eileen's. I don't think Eileen wanted to introduce us, and yet she acted like a person ravenous for news of her home and friends. She did introduce us, and immediately her ponderous uncle took possession of us. It seems that the man is a brother of Eileen's mother. Linda, he is big and gross, he is everything that a man of nice perceptions would not be, but he does love Eileen. He is trying conscientiously to please her. His wife is the kind of person who would marry that kind of man and think everything he said and did was right. And the suitor, my dear, was the kind of man who could endure that kind of people. Eileen was almost, if not quite, the loveliest thing I ever have seen. She was plain; she was simple; but it was the costly simplicity of extravagance. Ye gods! But she had pearls of the size she had always wanted. She tried with all her might to be herself, but she knows me well enough to know what I would think and what I would write to you concerning the conditions under which I met her. We were simply forced to lunch with them. We could only nibble at the too rich, too highly seasoned food set before us. And I noticed that Eileen nibbled also. She is not going to grow fat and waddle and redden her nose, but, my dear, back deep in her eyes and in the curve of her lips and in the tone of her voice there were such disappointment and discontent as I never have seen in any woman. She could not suppress them; she could not conceal them. There was nothing on earth she could do but sit quietly and endure. They delivered us at our respective offices, leaving both of us dates on which to visit them, but neither of us intends to call on them. Eileen's face was a tragedy when her uncle insisted on making the arrangements. I can at least spare her that.

And now, my dear, life is growing so full and my time is so taken with my work at the office and with my widening friendships with Dana and her friends and with Mr. Snow, that I really feel I have not time to go farther with our anonymous correspondence. It is all I can do to find time to write you letters such as the one I am writing I have done my best to play up to what you expected of me and I think I have succeeded in fooling you quite as much as you have felt that you were fooling me. But, Linda dear, I want you always to know that I appreciate the spirit in which you began this thing. I know why you did it and I shall always love you a trifle more for your thought of me and your effort to tide over the very dark days you knew I would be facing in San Francisco. I think, dear friend of mine, that I have had my share of dark days. I think there is very beautiful sunlight ahead for me. And by and by I hope to come into happiness that maybe is even more than my share. I am coming to see you soon and then I will tell you all about it.

There was more of the letter, but at that point Linda made one headlong rush for the Bear Cat. She took the curve on two wheels and almost ran into the mountain face behind the garage before she could slow down. Then she set the Cat screaming wildly for Peter. As he came up to the car she leaned toward him, shaking with excitement.

"Peter," she cried, "have you opened that packet of letters yet?"

"No," said Peter, "I have not."

"Then give them to me quickly, Peter," said Linda.

Peter rushed into the garage and brought out the packet. Linda caught it in both hands and dropped it in her lap.

"Well, thank God," she said devoutly. "And, Peter, the joke's on me. Marian knew I was writing those letters all the time and she just pretended that she cared for them to make the game interesting for me. And when she had so many friends and so much to do, she hadn't time for them any longer; then she pretended that she was getting awfully in earnest in order to stop me, and she did stop me all right."

Linda's face was a small panorama of conflicting emotions as she appealed to Peter.

"Peter," she said in a quivering voice, "you can testify that she stopped me properly, can't you, Peter?"

Peter tried to smile. He was older than Linda, and he was thinking swiftly, intently.

"Yes, kid," he said with utmost corroboration, "yes, kid, she stopped you, but I can't see that it was necessary literally to scare the life out of you till she had you at the point where you were thinking of taking off from a mountain or into the sea. Did you really mean that, Linda?"

Linda relaxed suddenly. She sank back into the deeply padded seat of the Bear Cat. A look of fright and entreaty swept into her dark eyes.

"Yes, Peter, I did mean it," she said with finality. "I couldn't have lived if I had hurt Marian irreparably. She has been hurt so much already. And, Peter, it was awfully nice of you to wait about reading these letters. Even if she only did it for a joke, I think Marian would rather that you had not read them. Now I'll go back home and begin to work in earnest on the head piece of 'How to Grow Good Citizens.' And I quite agree with you, Peter, that the oath of allegiance, citizenship, and the title to a piece of real estate are the prime requisites. People have no business comma to our country to earn money that they intend to carry away to invest in the development and the strengthening of some other country that may some day be our worst enemy. I have not found out yet how to say it in a four-by-twelve-inch strip, but by the time I have read the article aloud to my skylight along about ten tonight I'll get an inspiration; I am sure I shall."

"Of course you will," said Peter; "but don't worry about it, dear; don't lose sleep. Take things slower. Give time for a little more flesh to grow on your bones. And don't forget that while you're helping Donald to keep at the head of his classes it's your first job to keep at the head of your own."

"Thank you," said Linda. "How is the dream coming?"

"Beautifully," said Peter. "One of these days you're going to come rushing around the boulders and down the side of the building to find all this debris cleared away and the place for a lawn leveled. I am fighting down every possible avenue of expertise on the building in the effort to save money to make the brook run and the road wind where you have indicated that you want them to follow you."

Linda looked at Peter while a queer, reflective light gathered in her eyes. At last she said soberly: "Well, I don't know, Peter, that you should make them so very personal to me as all that."

"Why not?" asked Peter casually. "Since there is no one else, why not?"

Linda released the clutch and started the car. She backed in front of the garage and turned. She was still thinking deeply as she stopped. Once again she extended a hand to Peter.

"Thank you a thousand times for not reading these letters, Peter," she said. "I can't express how awfully fine I think it is of you. And if it's all right with you, perhaps there's not any real reason why you should not run that brook and drive that road the way I think they should go. Somebody is going to design them. Why shouldn't I, if it pleases you to have me?"

"It pleases me very greatly," said Peter--"more than anything else I can think of in all the world at this minute."

And then he did a thing that he had done once or twice before. He bent back Linda's fingers and left another kiss in the palm of her hand, and then he closed her fingers very tightly over it.