Chapter XXXIII. The Lady of the Iris
 

A few days later Linda and Peter went to San Francisco and helped celebrate the marriage of Marian and Eugene Snow. They left Marian in a home carefully designed to insure every comfort and convenience she ever had planned, furnished in accordance with her desires. Both Linda and Peter were charmed with little Deborah Snow; she was a beautiful and an appealing child.

"It seems to me," said Linda, on the train going home, "that Marian will get more out of life, she will love deeper, she will work harder, she will climb higher in her profession than she would have done if she had married John. It is difficult sometimes, when things are happening, to realize that they are for the best, but I really believe this thing has been for the level best. I think Marian is going to be a bigger woman in San Francisco than she ever would have been in Lilac Valley. With that thought I must reconcile myself."

"And what about John?" asked Peter. "Is he going to be a bigger man with Eileen than he would have been with Marian?"

"No," said Linda, "he is not. He didn't do right and he'll have penalty to pay. Eileen is developing into a lovable and truly beautiful woman, but she has not the intellect, nor the education, nor the impulse to stimulate a man's mental processes and make him outdo himself the way Marian will. John will probably never know it, but he will have to do his own stimulating; he will have to vision life for himself. He will have to find his high hill and climb it with Eileen riding securely on his shoulders. It isn't really the pleasantest thing in the world, it isn't truly the thing I wanted to do this summer--helping them out--but it has seemed to be the work at hand, the thing Daddy probably would have wanted me to do, so it's up to me to do all I can for them, just as I did all I could for Donald. One thing I shall always be delighted about. With my own ears I heard the pronouncement: Donald had the Jap beaten; he was at the head of his class before Oka Sayye was eliminated. The Jap knew it. His only chance lay in getting rid of his rival. Donald can take the excellent record he has made in this race to start on this fall when he commences another battle against some other man's brain for top honors in his college."

"Will he start with the idea that he wants to be an honor man?"

Linda laughed outright.

"I think," she said, "his idea was that if he were one of fifty or one hundred leading men it would be sufficient, but I insisted that if he wanted to be first with me, he would have to be first in his school work."

"I see," said Peter. "Linda, have you definitely decided that when you come to your home-making hour, Donald is the man with whom you want to spend the remainder of your life?"

"Oh, good gracious!" said Linda. "Who's talking about 'homes' and 'spending the remainder of lives'? Donald and I are school friends, and we are good companions. You're as bad as Eileen. She's always trying to suggest things that nobody else ever thought of, and now Katy's beginning it too."

"Sapheads, all!" said Peter. "Well, allow me to congratulate you on having given Donald his spurs. I think it's a very fine thing for him to start to college with the honor idea in his head. What about your Saturday excursions?"

"They have died an unnatural death," said Linda. "Don and I fought for them, but the Judge and Mrs. Whiting and Mary Louise were terrified for fear a bone might slip in Don's foot, or some revengeful friend or relative of Oka Sayye lie in wait for us. They won't hear of our going any more. I go every Saturday and take Donald for a very careful drive over a smooth road with the Bear Cat cursing our rate of speed all the way. All the fun's spoiled for all three of us."

"Think I would be any good as a substitute when it comes to field work?" inquired Peter casually. "I have looked at your desert garden so much I would know a Cotyledon if I saw it. I believe I could learn."

"You wouldn't have time to bother," objected Linda. "You're a man, with a man's business to transact in the world. You have to hustle and earn money to pay for the bridge and changing the brook."

"But I had money to pay for the brook and the bridge before I agreed to them," said Peter.

"Well, then," said Linda, "you should begin to hunt old mahogany and rugs."

"I hadn't intended to," said Peter; "if they are to be old, I won't have to do more than to ship them. In storage in Virginia there are some very wonderful old mahogany and rosewood and rugs and bric-a-brac enough to furnish the house I am building. The stuff belonged to a little old aunt of mine who left it to me in her will, and it was with those things in mind that I began my house. The plans and finishing will fit that furniture beautifully."

"Why, you lucky individual!" said Linda. "Nowhere in the world is there more beautiful furniture than in some of those old homes in Virginia. There are old Flemish and Dutch and British and Italian pieces that came into this country on early sailing vessels for the aristocrats. You don't mean that kind of stuff, do you, Peter?"

"That is precisely the kind of stuff I do mean," answered Peter.

"Why Peter, if you have furniture like that," cried Linda, "then all you need is Mary Louise."

"Linda," said Peter soberly, "you are trespassing on delicate ground again. You selected one wife for me and your plan didn't work. When that furniture arrives and is installed I'll set about inducing the lady of my dreams to come and occupy my dream house, in my own way. I never did give you that job. It was merely assumed on your part."

"So it was," said Linda. "But you know I could set that iris and run that brook with more enthusiasm if I knew the lady who was to walk beside it."

"You do," said Peter. "You know her better than anyone else, even better than I. Put that in your mental pipe and smoke it!"

"Saints preserve us!" cried Linda. "I believe the man is planning to take Katy away from me."

"Not from you," said Peter, "with you."

"Let me know about it before you do it," said Linda with a careless laugh.

"That's what I'm doing right now," said Peter.

"And I'm going to school," said Linda.

"Of course," said Peter, "but that won't last forever."

Linda entered enthusiastically upon the triple task of getting Donald in a proper frame of mind to start to college with the ambition to do good work, of marrying off Eileen and John Gilman, and of giving her best brain and heart to Jane Meredith. When the time came, Donald was ready to enter college comfortable and happy, willing to wait and see what life had in store for him as he lived it.

When she was sure of Eileen past any reasonable doubt Linda took her and John to her workroom one evening and showed them her book contract and the material she had ready, and gave them the best idea she could of what yet remained to be done. She was not prepared for their wholehearted praise, for their delight and appreciation.

Alone, they took counsel as to how they could best help her, and decided that to be married at once and take a long trip abroad would be the best way. That would leave Linda to work in quiet and with no interruption to distract her attention. They could make their home arrangements when they returned.

When they had gone Linda worked persistently, but her book was not completed and the publishers were hurrying her when the fall term of school opened. By the time the final chapter with its exquisite illustration had been sent in, the first ones were coming back in proof, and with the proof came the materialized form of Linda's design for her cover, and there was no Marian to consult about it. Linda worked until she was confused. Then she piled the material in the Bear Cat and headed up Lilac Valley. As she came around the curve and turned from the public road she saw that for the first time she might cross her bridge; it was waiting for her. She heard the rejoicing of the water as it fell from stone to stone where it dipped under the road, and as she swung across the bridge she saw that she might drive over the completed road which had been finished in her weeks of absence. The windows told another story. Peter's furniture had come and he had been placing it without telling her. She found the front door standing wide open, so she walked in. With her bundle on her arm she made her way to Peter's workroom. When he looked up and saw her standing in his door he sprang to his feet and came to meet her.

"Peter," she said, "I've taken on more work than I can possibly finish on time, and I'm the lonesomest person in California today."

"I doubt that," said Peter gravely. "If you are any lonesomer than I am you must prove it."

"I have proved it," said Linda quietly. "If you had been as lonesome as I am you would have come to me. As it is, I have come to you."

"I see," said Peter rather breathlessly. "What have you there, Linda? Why did you come?"

"I came for two reasons," said Linda. "I want to ask you about this stuff. Several times this summer you have heard talk about Jane Meredith and the Everybody's Home articles. Ever read any of them, Peter?"

"Yes," said Peter, "I read all of them. Interested in home stuff these days myself."

"Well," said Linda, dumping her armload before Peter, "there's the proof and there's the illustration and there's the cover design for a book to be made from that stuff. Peter, make your best boy and say 'pleased to meet you' to Jane Meredith."

Peter secured both of Linda's hands and held them. First he looked at her, then he looked at the material she had piled down in front of him.

"Never again," said Peter in a small voice, "will I credit myself with any deep discernment, any keen penetration. How I could have read that matter and looked at those pictures and not seen you in and through and over them is a thing I can't imagine. It's great, Linda, absolutely great! Of course I will help you any way in the world I can. And what else was it you wanted? You said two things."

"Oh, the other doesn't amount to much," said Linda. "I only wanted the comfort of knowing whether, as soon as I graduate, I may take Katy and come home, Peter."

From previous experience with Linda, Peter had learned that a girl reared by men is not as other women. He had supposed the other thing concerning which she had wanted to appeal to him was on par with her desire for sympathy and help concerning her book. At her question, with her eyes frankly meeting his, Peter for an instant felt lightheaded. He almost dodged, he was so sweepingly taken unawares. Linda was waiting and his brain was not working. He tried to smile, but he knew she would not recognize as natural the expression of that whirling moment. She saw his hesitation.

"Of course, if you don't want us, Peter--"

Peter found his voice promptly. Only his God knew how much he wanted Linda, but there were conditions that a man of Peter's soul-fiber could not endure. More than life he wanted her, but he did not want her asleep. He did not want to risk her awakening to a spoiled life and disappointed hopes.

"But you remember that I told you coming home from San Francisco that you knew the Lady of my Iris better than anyone else, and that I was planning to take Katy, not from you, but with you."

"Of course I remember," said Linda. "That is why when Marian and Eileen and Donald and all my world went past and left me standing desolate, and my work piled up until I couldn't see my way, I just started right out to ask you if you would help me with the proof. Of course I knew you would be glad to do that and I thought if you really meant in your heart that I was the one to complete your iris procession, it would be a comfort to me during the hard work and the lonesome days to have it put in two-syllable English. Marian said that was the only real way--"

"And Marian is eminently correct. You will have to give me an ordinary lifetime, Linda, in which to try to make you understand exactly what this means to me. Perhaps I'll even have to invent new words in which to express myself."

"Oh, that's all right," said Linda. "It means a lot to me too. I can't tell you how much I think of you. That first day, as soon as I put down the Cotyledon safely and tucked in my blouse, I would have put my hand in yours and started around the world, if you had asked me to. I have the very highest esteem for you, Peter."

"Esteem, yes," said Peter slowly. "But Linda-girl, isn't the sort of alliance I am asking you to enter with me usually based on something a good bit stronger than 'esteem'?"

"Yes, I think it is," said Linda. "But you needn't worry. I only wanted the comfort of knowing that I was not utterly alone again, save for Katy. I'll stick to my book and to my fight for Senior honors all right."

Peter was blinking his eyes and fighting to breathe evenly. When he could speak he said as smoothly as possible: "Of course, Linda. I'll do your proof for you and you may put all your time on class honors. It merely occurred to me to wonder whether you realized the full and ultimate significance of what we are saying; exactly what it means to me and to you."

"Possibly not, Peter," said Linda, smiling on him with utter confidence. "Everyone says I am my father's daughter, and Father didn't live to coach me on being your iris decoration, as a woman would; but, Peter, when the time comes, I have every confidence in your ability to teach me what you would like me to know yourself. Don't you agree with me, Peter?"

Making an effort to control himself Peter gathered up the material Linda had brought and taking her arm he said casually: "I thoroughly agree with you, dear. You are sanely and health fully and beautifully right. Now let's go and take Katy into our confidence, and then you shall show me your ideas before I begin work on your proof. And after this, instead of you coming to me I shall always come to you whenever you can spare a minute for me."

Linda nodded acquiescence.

"Of course! That would be best," she said. "Peter, you are so satisfyingly satisfactory."