Chapter III. The House of Dreams
 

In less than an hour, Linda was in the kitchen, dressed in an old green skirt and an orange blouse. Katy pinned one of her aprons on the girl and told her that her first job was to set the table.

"And Miss Eileen has given most particular orders that I use the very best of everything. Lay the table for four, and you are to be extremely careful in serving not to spill the soup."

Linda stood very quietly for a second, her heavy black brows drawn together in deep thought.

"When did Eileen issue these instructions?" she inquired.

"Not five minutes ago," said Katy. "She just left me kitchen and I'll say I never saw her lookin' such a perfect picture. That new dress of hers is the most becoming one she has ever had."

Almost unconsciously, Linda's hand reached to the front of her well-worn blouse, and she glanced downward at her skirt and shoes.

"Um-hm," she said meditatively, "another new dress for Eileen, which means that I will get nothing until next month's allowance comes in, if I do then. The table set for four, which, interpreted, signifies that she has asked Marian in such a way that Marian won't come. And the caution as to care with the soup means that I am to serve my father's table like a paid waitress. Katy, I have run for over three years on Eileen's schedule, but this past year I am beginning to use my brains and I am reaching the place of self-assertion. That programme won't do, Katy. It's got to be completely revised. You just watch me and see how I follow those instructions."

Then Linda marched out of the kitchen door and started across the lawn in the direction of a big brown house dimly outlined through widely spreading branches of ancient live oaks, palm, and bamboo thickets. She entered the house without knocking and in the hall uttered a low penetrating whistle. It was instantly answered from upstairs. Linda began climbing, and met Marian at the top.

"Why, Marian," she cried, "I had no idea you were so far along. The house is actually empty."

"Practically everything went yesterday," answered Marian. "Those things of Father's and Mother's and my own that I wish to keep I have put in storage, and the remainder went to James's Auction Rooms. The house is sold, and I am leaving in the morning."

"Then that explains," questioned Linda, "why you refused Eileen's invitation to dinner tonight?"

"On the contrary," answered Marian, "an invitation to dinner tonight would be particularly and peculiarly acceptable to me, since the kitchen is barren as the remainder of the house, and I was intending to slip over when your room was lighted to ask if I might spend the night with you."

Linda suddenly gathered her friend in her arms and held her tight.

"Well, thank heaven that you felt sufficiently sure of me to come to me when you needed me. Of course you shall spend the night with me; and I must have been mistaken in thinking Eileen had been here. She probably will come any minute. There are guests for the night. John is bringing that writer friend of his. Of course you know about him. It's Peter Morrison."

Marian nodded her head. "Of course! John has always talked of him. He had some extremely clever articles in The Post lately."

"Well, he is one," said Linda, "and an architect who is touring with him is two; they are looking for a location to build a house for the writer. You can see that it would be a particularly attractive feather in our cap if he would endorse our valley sufficiently to home in it. So Eileen has invited them to sample our brand of entertainment, and in the morning no doubt she will be delighted to accompany them and show them all the beautiful spots not yet preempted."

"Oh, heavens," cried Marian, "I'm glad I never showed her my spot!"

"Well, if you are particular about wanting a certain place I sincerely hope you did not," said Linda.

"I am sure I never did," answered Marian. "I so love one spot that I have been most secretive about it. I am certain I never went further than to say there was a place on which I would love to build for myself the house of my dreams. I have just about finished getting that home on paper, and I truly have high hopes that I may stand at least a fair chance of winning with it the prize Nicholson and Snow are offering. That is one of the reasons why I am hurrying on my way to San Francisco much sooner than I had expected to go. I haven't a suitable dinner dress because my trunks have gone, but among such old friends it won't matter. I have one fussy blouse in my bag, and I'll be over as soon as I can see to closing up the house and dressing."

Linda hurried home, and going to the dining room, she laid the table for six in a deft and artistic manner. She filled a basket with beautiful flowers of her own growing for a centerpiece, and carefully followed Eileen's instruction to use the best of everything. When she had finished she went to the kitchen.

"Katy," she said, "take a look at my handiwork."

"It's just lovely," said Katy heartily.

"I quite agree with you," answered Linda, "and now in pursuance of a recently arrived at decision, I have resigned, vamoosed, quit, dead stopped being waitress for Eileen. I was seventeen my last birthday. Hereafter when there are guests I sit at my father's table, and you will have to do the best you can with serving, Katy."

"And it's just exactly right ye are," said Katy. "I'll do my best, and if that's not good enough, Miss Eileen knows what she can do."

"Now listen to you," laughed Linda. "Katy, you couldn't be driven to leave me, by anything on this earth that Eileen could do; you know you couldn't."

Katy chuckled quietly. "Sure, I wouldn't be leaving ye, lambie," she said. "We'll get everything ready, and I can serve I six as nicely as anyone. But you're not forgetting that Miss Eileen said most explicit to lay the table for four?'

"I am not forgetting," said Linda. "For Eileen's sake I am I sorry to say that her ship is on the shoals. She is not going to have clear sailing with little sister Linda any longer. This is the year of woman's rights, you know, Katy, and I am beginning to realize that my rights have been badly infringed upon for lo these many years. If Eileen chooses to make a scene before guests, that is strictly up to Eileen. Now what is it you want me to do?"

Katy directed and Linda worked swiftly. Soon they heard a motor stop, and laughing voices told them that the guests had arrived.

"Now I wonder," said Linda, "whether Marian is here yet."

At that minute Marian appeared at the kitchen door.

"Linda," she said breathlessly, "I am feeling queer about this. Eileen hasn't been over."

"Oh, that's all right," said Linda casually. "The folks have come, and she was only waiting to make them a bit at home before she ran after you."

Marian hesitated.

"She was not allowing me much time to dress."

"That's 'cause she knew you did not need it," retorted Linda. "The more you fuss up, the less handsome you are, and you never owned anything in your life so becoming as that old red blouse. So farewell, Katy, we're due to burst into high society tonight. We're going to help Eileen vamp a lawyer, and an author, and an architect, one apiece. Which do you prefer, Marian?"

"I'll take the architect," said Marian. "We should have something in common since I am going to be a great architect myself one of these days."

"Why, that is too bad," said Linda. "I'll have to rearrange the table if you insist, because I took him, and left you the author, and it was for love of you I did it. I truly wanted him myself, all the time."

They stopped in the dining room and Marian praised Linda's work in laying the table; and then, together they entered the living room.

At the moment of their entrance, Eileen was talking animatedly about the beauties of the valley as a location for a happy home. When she saw the two girls she paused, the color swiftly faded from her face, and Linda, who was watching to see what would happen, noticed the effort she made at self-control, but she was very sure that their guests did not.

It never occurred to Linda that anyone would consider good looks in connection with her overgrown, rawboned frame and lean face, but she was accustomed to seeing people admire Marian, for Marian was a perfectly modeled woman with peach bloom cheeks, deep, dark eyes, her face framed in a waving mass of hair whose whiteness dated from the day that the brakes of her car failed and she plunged down the mountain with her father beside her, and her mother and Doctor and Mrs. Strong in the back seat. Ten days afterward Marian's head of beautiful dark hair was muslin white. Now it framed a face of youth and beauty with peculiar pathos. "Striking" was perhaps the one adjective which would best describe her.

John Gilman came hastily to greet them. Linda, after a swift glance at Eileen, turned astonished eyes on their guests. For one second she looked at the elder of them, then at the younger. There was no recognition in her eyes, and there was a decided negative in a swift movement of her head. Both men understood that she did not wish them to mention that they ever had seen her previously. For an instant there was a strained situation. Eileen was white with anger. John Gilman was looking straight at Marian, and in his soul he must have wondered if he had been wise in neglecting her for Eileen. Peter Morrison and his architect, Henry Anderson, had two things to think about. One was the stunning beauty of Marian Thorne as she paused in the doorway, the light misting her white hair and deepening the tints of her red waist The other was why the young girl facing them had forbidden them to reveal that two hours before they had seen her in the canyon. Katy, the efficient life-saver of the Strong family, announced dinner, and Linda drew back the curtains and led the way to the dining room, saying when they had arrived: "I didn't have time in my hour's notice to make elaborate place cards as I should have liked to do, so these little pen sketches will have to serve."

To cover his embarrassment and to satisfy his legal mind, John Gilman turned to Linda, asking: "Why 'an hour'? I told Eileen a week ago I was expecting the boys today."

"But that does not prove that Eileen mentioned it to me," answered Linda quietly; "so you must find your places from the cards I could prepare in a hurry."

This same preparation of cards at the round table placed Eileen between the architect and the author, Marian between the author and John Gilman, and Linda between Gilman and the architect, which added one more tiny gale to the storm of fury that was raging in the breast of white-faced Eileen. The situation was so strained that without fully understanding it, Marian, who was several years older than either of the Strong sisters, knew that although she was tired to the point of exhaustion she should muster what reserve force she could to the end of making the dinner party particularly attractive, because she was deeply interested i n drawing to the valley every suitable home seeker it was possible to locate there. It was the unwritten law of the valley that whenever a home seeker passed through, every soul who belonged exerted the strongest influence to prove that the stars hung lower and shone bigger and in bluer heavens than anywhere else on earth; that nowhere could be found air to equal the energizing salt breezes from the sea, snow chilled, perfumed with almond and orange; that the sun shone brighter more days in the year, and the soil produced a greater variety of vegetables and fruits than any other spot of the same size on God's wonderful footstool. This could be done with unanimity and enthusiasm by every resident of Lilac Valley for the very simple reason that it was the truth. The valley stood with its steep sides raying blue from myriad wild lilacs; olives and oranges sloped down to the flat floor, where cultivated ranches and gardens were so screened by eucalyptus and pepper trees, palm and live oak, myriads of roses of every color and variety, and gaudy plants gathered there from the entire girth of the tropical world, that to the traveler on the highway trees and flowers predominated. The greatest treasure of the valley was the enthusiastic stream of icy mountain water that wandered through the near-by canyon and followed the length of the valley on its singing, chuckling way to the ocean. All the residents of Lilac Valley had to do to entrance strangers with the location was to show any one of a dozen vantage points, and let visitors test for themselves the quality of the sunshine and air, and study the picture made by the broad stretch of intensively cultivated valley, walled on either side by mountains whose highest peaks were often cloud-draped and for ever shifting their delicate pastel shades from gray to blue, from lavender to purple, from tawny yellow to sepia, under the play of the sun and clouds.

They had not been seated three minutes before Linda realized from her knowledge of Eileen that the shock had been too great, if such a thing might be said of so resourceful a creature as Eileen. Evidently she was going to sulk in the hope that this would prove that any party was a failure at which she did not exert herself to be gracious. It had not been in Linda's heart to do more than sit quietly in the place belonging by right to her, but when she realized what was going to happen, she sent Marian one swift appealing glance, and then desperately plunged into conversation to cover Eileen's defection.

"I have been told," she said, addressing the author, "that you are looking for a home in California. Is this true, or is it merely that every good Californian hopes this will happen when any distinguished Easterner comes our way?"

"I can scarcely answer you," said Peter Morrison, "because my ideas on the subject are still slightly nebulous, but I am only too willing to see them become concrete."

"You have struck exactly the right place," said Linda. "We have concrete by the wagon load in this valley and we are perfectly willing to donate the amount required to materialize your ideas. Do you dream of a whole ranch or only a nest?"

"Well, the fact is," answered Peter Morrison with a most attractive drawl in his slow speech, "the fact is the dimensions of my dream must fit my purse. Ever since I finished college I have been in newspaper work and I have lived in an apartment in New York except while I was abroad. When I came back my paper sent me to San Francisco and from there I motored down to see for myself if the wonderful things that are written about Los Angeles County are true."

"That is not much of a compliment to us," said Linda slowly. "How do you think we would dare write them if they were not true?"

This caused such a laugh that everyone felt much easier. Marian turned her dark eyes toward Peter Morrison.

"Linda and I are busy people," she said. "We waste little time in indirections, so I hope it's not out of the way for me to ask straightforwardly if you are truly in earnest, about wanting a home in Lilac Valley?"

"Then I'll have to answer you," said Peter, "that I have an attractive part of the 'makin's' and I am in deadly earnest about wanting a home somewhere. I am sick in my soul of narrow apartments and wheels and the rush and roar of the city. There was a time when I ate and drank it. It was the very breath of life to me. I charged on Broadway like a caterpillar tank charging in battle; but it is very remarkable how quickly one changes in this world. I have had some success in my work, and the higher I go, the better work I feel I can do in a quiet place and among less enervating surroundings. John and I were in college together, roommates, and no doubt he has told you that we graduated with the same class. He has found his location here and I would particularly enjoy having a home near him. They tell me there are well-trained servants to look after a house and care for a bachelor, so I truly feel that if I can find a location I would like, and if Henry can plan me a house, and I can stretch my purse to cover the investment, that there is a very large possibility that somewhere within twenty miles of Los Angeles I may find the home of my dreams."

"One would almost expect," said Marian, "that a writer would say something more original. This valley is filled with people who came here saying precisely what you have said; and the lure of the land won them and here they are, shameless boosters of California."

"Why shameless?" inquired Henry Anderson.

"Because California so verifies the wildest statement that can be made concerning her that one may go the limit of imagination without shame," laughed Marian. "I try in all my dealings to stick to the straight and narrow path."

"Oh, kid, don't stick to the straight and narrow," broke in Linda, "there's no scenery."

Eileen laid down her fork and stared in white-lipped amazement at the two girls, but she was utterly incapable of forgetting herself and her neatly arranged plans to have the three cultivated and attractive young men all to herself for the evening. She realized too, from the satisfaction betrayed in the glances these men were exchanging among each other, the ease with which they sat, and the gusto with which they ate the food Katy was deftly serving them, that something was happening which never had happened at the Strong table since she had presided as its head, her sole endeavor having been to flatter her guests or to extract flattery for herself from them.

"That is what makes this valley so adorable," said Marian when at last she could make herself heard. "It is neither straight nor narrow. The wing of a white sea swallow never swept a lovelier curve on the breast of the ocean than the line of this valley. My mother was the dearest little woman, and she used to say that this valley was outlined by a gracious gesture from the hand of God in the dawn of Creation."

Peter Morrison deliberately turned in his chair, his eyes intent on Marian's earnest face.

"You almost make me want to say, in the language of an old hymn I used to hear my mother sing, 'Here will I set up my rest.' With such a name as Lilac Valley and with such a thought in the heart concerning it, I scarcely feel that there is any use in looking further. How about it, Henry? Doesn't it sound conclusive to you?"

"It certainly does," answered Henry Anderson, "and from what I could see as we drove in, it looks as well as it sounds."

Peter Morrison turned to his friend.

"Gilman," he said, "you're a lawyer; you should know the things I'd like to. Are there desirable homesites still to be found in the valley, and does the inflation of land at the present minute put it out of my reach?"

"Well, that is on a par with the average question asked a lawyer," answered Gilman, "but part of it I can answer definitely and at once. I think every acre of land suitable for garden or field cultivation is taken. I doubt if there is much of the orchard land higher up remaining and what there is would command a rather stiff price; but if you would be content with some small plateau at the base of a mountain where you could set any sort of a house and have--say two or three acres, mostly of sage and boulders and greasewood and yucca around it "

"Why in this world are you talking about stones and sage and greasewood?" cried Linda. "Next thing they'll be asking about mountain lions and rattlesnakes."

"I beg your pardon," said Gilman, "I fear none of us has remembered to present Miss Linda as a coming naturalist. She got her start from her father, who was one of the greatest nerve specialists the world ever has known. She knows every inch of the mountains, the canyons and the desert. She always says that she cut her teeth on a chunk of adobe, while her father hunted the nests of trap-door spiders out in Sunland. What should 1 have said when describing a suitable homesite for Peter, Linda?"

"You should have assumed that immediately, Peter,"--Linda lifted her eyes to Morrison's face with a sparkle of gay challenge, and by way of apology interjected--"I am only a kid, you know, so I may call John's friend Peter--you should have assumed that sage and greasewood would simply have vanished from any home location chosen by Peter, leaving it all lacy blue with lilac, and misty white with lemonade bush, and lovely gold with monkey flower, and purple with lupin, and painted blood red with broad strokes of Indian paint brush, and beautifully lighted with feathery flames from Our Lord's Candles, and perfumy as altar incense with wild almond."

"Oh, my soul," said Peter Morrison. "Good people, I have located. I have come to stay. I would like three acres but I could exist with two; an acre would seem an estate to me, and my ideas of a house, Henry, are shriveling. I did have a dream of something that must have been precious near a home. There might have been an evanescent hint of flitting draperies and inexperienced feet in it, but for the sake of living and working in such a location as Miss Linda describes, I would gladly cut my residence to a workroom and a sleeping room and kitchen."

"Won't do," said Linda. "A house is not a house in California without a furnace and a bathroom. We are cold as blue blazes here when the sun goes down and the salty fog creeps up from the sea, and the icy mist rolls down from the mountains to chill our bones; and when it has not rained for six months at a stretch, your own private swimming pool is a comfort. This to add verisimilitude to what everyone else in Lilac Valley is going to tell you."

"I hadn't thought I would need a fire," said Peter, "and I was depending on the ocean for my bathtub. I am particularly fond of a salt rub."

So far, Eileen had not deigned to enter the conversation. It was all so human, so far from her ideas of entertaining that the disapproval on her lips was not sufficiently veiled to be invisible, and

John Gilman, glancing in her direction, realized that he was having the best time he had ever had in the Strong household since the passing of his friends, Doctor and Mrs. Strong, vaguely wondered why. And it occurred to him that Linda and Marian were dominating the party. He said the most irritating thing possible in the circumstances: "I am afraid you are not feeling well this evening, Eileen."

Eileen laughed shortly.

"The one perfect thing about me," she said with closely cut precision, "is my health. I haven't the faintest notion what it means to be ill. I am merely waiting for the conversation to take a I turn where I can join in it intelligently."

"Why, bless the child!" exclaimed Linda. "Can't you talk intelligently about a suitable location for a home? On what subject is a woman supposed to be intelligent if she is not at her best on the theme of home. If you really are not interested you had better begin to polish up, because it appeals to me that the world goes just so far in one direction, and then it whirls to the right-about and goes equally as far in the opposite direction. If Daddy were living I think he would say we have reached the limit with apartment house homes minus fireplaces, with restaurant dining minus a blessing, with jazz music minus melody, with jazz dancing minus grace, with national progress minus cradles."

"Linda!" cried Eileen indignantly.

"Good gracious!" cried Linda. "Do I get the shillalah for that? Weren't all of us rocked in cradles? I think that the pendulum has swung far and it is time to swing back to where one man and one woman choose any little spot on God's footstool, build a nest and plan their lives in accord with personal desire and inclination instead of aping their neighbors."

"Bravo!" cried Henry Anderson. "Miss Linda, if you see any suitable spot, and you think I would serve for a bug-catcher, won't you please stake the location?"

"Well, I don't know about that," said Linda. "Would it be the old case of 'I furnish the bread and you furnish the water'?"

"No," said Peter Morrison, "it would not. Henry is doing mighty well. I guarantee that he would furnish a cow that would produce real cream."

"How joyous!" said Linda. "I feel quite competent to manage the bread question. We'll call that settled then. When I next cast an appraising eye over my beloved valley, I shan't select the choicest spot in it for Peter Morrison to write a book in; and I want to warn you people when you go hunting to keep a mile away from Marian's plot. She has had her location staked from childhood and has worked on her dream house until she has it all ready to put the ice in the chest and scratch the match for the living room fire-logs. The one thing she won't ever tell is where her location is, but wherever it is, Peter Morrison, don't you dare take it."

"I wouldn't for the world," said Peter Morrison gravely. "If Miss Thorne will tell me even on which side of the valley her location lies, I will agree to stay on the other side."

"Well there is one thing you can depend upon," said the irrepressible Linda before Marian had time to speak. "It is sure to be on the sunny side. Every living soul in California is looking for a place in the sun."

"Then I will make a note of it," said Peter Morrison. "But isn't there enough sun in all this lovely valley that I may have a place in it too?"

"You go straight ahead and select any location you like," said Marian. "I give you the freedom of the valley. There's not one chance in ten thousand that you would find or see anything attractive about the one secluded spot I have always hoped I might some day own. '

"This is not fooling, then?" asked Peter Morrison. "You truly have a place selected where you would like to live?"

"She truly has the spot selected and she truly has the house on paper and it truly is a house of dreams," said Linda. "I dream about it myself. When she builds it and lives in it awhile and finds out all the things that are wrong with it, then I am going to build one like it, only I shall eliminate all the mistakes she has made."

"I have often wondered," said Henry Anderson, "if such a thing ever happened as that people built a house and lived in it, say ten years, and did not find one single thing about it that they would change if they had it to build over again. I never have heard of such a case. Have any of you?"

"I am sure no one has," said John Gilman meditatively, "and it's a queer thing. I can't see why people don't plan a house the way they want it before they build."

Marian turned to him--the same Marian he had fallen in love with when they were children.

"Mightn't it be," she asked, "that it is due to changing conditions caused by the rapid development of science and invention? If one had built the most perfect house possible five years ago and learned today that infinitely superior lighting and heating l and living facilities could be installed at much less expense and far greater convenience, don't you think that one would want to change? Isn't life a series of changes? Mustn't one be changing constantly to keep abreast of one's day and age?"

"Why, surely," answered Gilman, "and no doubt therein lies at least part of the answer to Anderson's question."

"And then," added Marian, "things happen in families. Sometimes more babies than they expect come to newly married people and they require more room."

"My goodness, yes!" broke in Linda. "Just look at Sylvia Townsend--twins to begin with."

"Linda!" breathed Eileen, aghast.

"So glad you like my name, dear," murmured Linda sweetly.

"And then," continued Marian, "changes come to other people as they have to me. I can't say that I had any fault to find with either the comforts or the conveniences of Hawthorne House until Daddy and Mother were swept from it at one cruel sweep; and after that it was nothing to me but a haunted house, and I don't feel that I can be blamed for wanting to leave it. I will be glad to know that there are people living in it who won't see a big strong figure meditatively smoking before the fireplace and a gray dove of a woman sitting on the arm of his chair. I will be glad, if Fate is kind to me and people like my houses, to come back to the valley when I can afford to and build myself a home that has no past--a place, in fact, where I can furnish my own ghost, and if I meet myself on the stairs then I won't be shocked by me.

"I don't think there is a soul in the valley who blames you for selling your home and going, Marian," said Linda soberly. "I think it would be foolish if you did not."

The return to the living room brought no change. Eileen pouted while Linda and Marian thoroughly enjoyed themselves and gave the guests a most entertaining evening. So disgruntled was Eileen, when the young men had gone, that she immediately went to her room, leaving Linda and Marian to close the house and make their own arrangements for the night. Whereupon Linda deliberately led Marian to the carefully dusted and flower-garnished guest room and installed her with every comfort and convenience that the house afforded. Then bringing her brushes from her own room, she and Marian made themselves comfortable, visiting far into the night.

"I wonder," said Linda. "if Peter Morrison will go to a real estate man in the morning and look over the locations remaining in Lilac Valley."

"Yes, I think he will," said Marian conclusively.

"It seems to me," said Linda, "that we did a whole lot of talking about homes tonight; which reminds me, Marian, in packing have you put in your plans? Have you got your last draft with you?"

"No," answered Marian, "it's in one of the cases. I haven't anything but two or three pencil sketches from which I drew the final plans as I now think I'll submit them for the contest. Wouldn't it be a tall feather in my cap, Linda, if by any chance l I should win that prize?"

"It would be more than a feather," said Linda. "It would be a whole cap, and a coat to wear with it, and a dress to match the coat, and slippers to match the dress, and so forth just like 'The House That Jack Built.' Have you those sketches, Marian?"

Opening her case, Marian slid from underneath the garments folded in it, several sheets on which were roughly penciled sketches of the exterior of a house--on the reverse, the upstairs and downstairs floor plans; and sitting down, she explained these to Linda. Then she left them lying on a table, waiting to be returned to her case before she replaced her clothes in the morning. Both girls were fast asleep when a mischievous wind slipped down the valley, and lightly lifting the top sheet, carried it through the window, across the garden, and dropped it at the foot of a honey-dripping loquat.

Because they had talked until late in the night of Marian's plans and prospects in the city, of Peter Morrison's proposed residence in the valley, of how lonely Linda would be without Marian, of everything concerning their lives except the change in Eileen and John Gilman, the two girls slept until late in the morning, so that there were but a few minutes remaining in which Marian might dress, have a hasty breakfast and make her train. In helping her, it fell to Linda to pack Marian's case. She put the drawings she found on the table in the bottom, the clothing and brushes on top of them, and closing the case, carried it herself until she delivered it into the porter's hands as Marian boarded her train.