Chapter X
 

Barry had murmured something about "rush of work at the office" when he came in a few minutes late for Mrs. Burgoyne's dinner, but as the evening wore on, he seemed in no hurry to depart. Sidney was delighted to see him really in his element with the Von Praags, father and son, the awakened expression that was so becoming to him on his face, and his curiously complex arguments stirring the old man over and over again to laughter. She had been vexed at herself for feeling a little shyness when he first came in; the unfamiliar evening dress and the gravity of his handsome face had made him seem almost a stranger, but this wore off, and after the other guests had gone these four still sat laughing and talking like the best of old friends together.

When the Von Praags had gone upstairs, she walked with him to the porch, and they stood at the top of the steps for a moment, the rich scent of the climbing LaMarque and Banksia roses heavy about them, and the dark starry arch of the sky above. Sidney, a little tired, but pleased with her dinner and her guests, and ready for a breath of the sweet summer night before going upstairs, was confused by having her heart suddenly begin to thump again. She looked at Barry, his figure lost in the shadow, only his face dimly visible in the starlight, and some feeling, new, young, terrifying, and yet infinitely delicious, rushed over her. She might have been a girl of seventeen instead of a sober woman fifteen years older, with wifehood, and motherhood, and widowhood all behind her.

"A wonderful night!" said Barry, looking down at the dark mass of tree-tops that almost hid the town, and at the rising circle of shadows that was the hills.

"And a good place to be, Santa Paloma," Sidney added, contentedly. "It's my captured dream, my own home and garden!" With her head resting against one of the pillars of the porch, her eyes dreamily moving from the hills to the sky and over the quiet woods, she went on thoughtfully: "You know I never had a home, Barry; and when I visited here, I began to realize what I was missing. How I longed for Santa Paloma, the creek, and the woods, and my little sunny room after I went away! But even when I was eighteen, and we took a house in Washington, what could I do? I 'came out,' you know. I loved gowns and parties then, as I hope the girls will some day; but I knew all the while it wasn't living." She paused, but Barry did not speak. "And, then, before I was twenty, I was married," Sidney went on presently, "and we started off for St. Petersburg. And after that, for years and years, I posed for dressmakers; I went the round of jewelers, and milliners, and manicures; I wrote notes and paid calls. I let one strange woman come in every day and wash my hands for me, and another wash my hair, and a third dress me! I let men-- who were in the business simply to make money, and who knew how to do it!--tell me that my furs must be recut, or changed, and my jewels reset, and my wardrobe restocked and my furniture carried away and replaced. And in the cities we lived in it's horrifying to see how women slave, and toil, and worry to keep up. Half the women I knew were sick over debts and the necessity for more debts. I felt like saying, with Carlyle, 'Your chaos-ships must excuse me'; I'm going back to Santa Paloma, to wear my things as long as they are whole and comfortable, and do what I want to do with my spare time!"

"You missed your playtime," Barry said; "now you make the most of it."

"Oh, no!" she answered, giving him a glimpse of serious eyes in the half-dark, "playtime doesn't come back. But, at least, I know what I want to do, and it will be more fun than any play. One of the wisest men I ever knew set me thinking of these things. He's a sculptor, a great sculptor, and he lives in an olive garden in Italy, and eats what his peasants eat, and befriends them, and stands for their babies in baptism, and sits with them when they're dying. My father and I visited him about two years ago, and one day when he and I were taking a tramp, I suddenly burst out that I envied him. I wanted to live in an olive garden, too, and wear faded blue clothes, and eat grapes, and tramp about the hills. He said very simply that he had worked for twenty years to do it. 'You see, I'm a rich man,' he said, 'and it seems that one must be rich in this world before one dare be poor from choice. I couldn't do this if people didn't know that I could have an apartment in Paris, and servants, and motor-cars, and all the rest of it. It would hurt my daughters and distress my friends. There are hundreds and thousands of unhappy people in the world who can't afford to be poor, and if ever you get a chance, you try it. You'll never be rich again.' So I wrote him about a month ago that I had found my olive garden," finished Sidney contentedly, "and was enjoying it."

"Captain Burgoyne was older than you, Sid?" Barry questioned. "Wouldn't he have loved this sort of life?"

"Twenty years older, yes; but he wouldn't have lived here for one day!" she answered vivaciously. "He was a diplomat, a courtier to his finger-tips. He was born to the atmosphere of hothouse flowers, and salons, and delightful little drawing-room plots and gossip. He loved politics, and power, and women in full dress, and men with orders. Of course I was very new to it all, but he liked to spoil me, draw me out. If it hadn't been for his accident, I never would have grown up at all, I dare say. As it was, I was more like his mother. We went to Washington for the season, New York for the opera, England for autumn visits, Paris for the spring: I loved to make him happy, Barry, and he wasn't happy except when we were going, going, going. He was exceptionally popular; he had exceptional friends, and he couldn't go anywhere without me. My babies were with his mother--"

She paused, turning a white rose between her fingers. "And afterwards," she said presently, "there was Father. And Father never would spend two nights in the same place if he could help it,"

"I wasn't drawn back here as you were," said Barry thoughtfully, "I liked New York; I could have made good there if I'd had a chance. It made me sick to give it up, then; but lately I've been feeling differently. A newspaper's a pretty influential thing, wherever it is. I've been thinking about that clubhouse plan of yours; I wish to the Lord that we could do something for those poor kids over there. You're right. Those girls have rotten homes. The whole family gathers in the parlor right after dinner. Pa takes his shoes off, and props his socks up before the stove; Ma begins to hear a kid his spelling; and other kids start the graphophone, and Aggie is expected to ask her young man to walk right in. So after that she meets him in the street, and the girls begin to talk about Aggie."

"Oh, Barry, I'm so glad you're interested!" Standing a step above him, Sidney's ardent face was very close to his own. "Of course we can do it," she said.

"We!" he echoed almost bitterly. "You'll do it; you're the one--" He broke off with a short, embarrassed laugh. "I was going to cut that sort of thing out," he said gruffly, "but all roads lead to Rome, it seems. I can't talk to you five minutes without--and I've got to go. I said I'd look in at the office."

"You seem to be afraid to be friendly lately, Barry," said Mrs. Burgoyne in a hurt voice, flinging away the rose she had been holding, "but don't you think our friendship means something to me, too? I don't like you to talk as if I did all the giving and you all the taking. I don't know how the girls and I would get along without your advice and help here at the Hall. I think," her voice broke into a troubled laugh, "I think you forget that the quality of friendship is not strained."

"Sidney," he said with sudden resolution, turning to face her bravely, "I can't be just friends with you. You're so much the finest, so much the best--" He left the sentence unfinished, and began again: "You have a hundred men friends; you can't realize what you mean to me. You--but you know what you are, and I'm the editor of a mortgaged country paper, a man who has made a mess of things, who can't take care of his kid, or himself, on his job without help- -"

"Barry--" she began breathlessly, but he interrupted her.

"Listen to me," he said huskily, taking both her warm hands in his, "I want to tell you something. Say that I was weak enough to forget all that, your money and my poverty, your life and my life, everything that puts you as far above me as the moon and stars; say that I could do that--although I hope it's not true--even then--even then I'm not free, Sidney. There is Hetty, you know; there is Billy's mother--"

There was a silence. Sidney slowly freed her hands, laid one upon her heart as unconsciously as a hurt child, and the other upon his shoulder. Her troubled eyes searched his face.

"Barry," she said with a little effort, "have I been mistaken in thinking Billy's mother was dead?"

"Everyone thinks so," he answered with a quick rush of words that showed how great the relief of speech was. "Even up in Hetty's home town, Plumas, they think so. I wrote home that Hetty had left me, and they drew their own conclusions. It was natural enough; she was never strong. She was always restless and unhappy, wanted to go on the stage. She did go on the stage, you know; her mother advised it, and she--just left me. We were in New York, then; Bill was a little shaver; I was having a hard time with a new job. It was an awful time! After a few months I brought Bill back here--he wasn't very well--and then I found that everyone thought Hetty was dead. Then her mother wrote me, and said that Hetty had taken a stage-name, and begged me to let people go on thinking she was dead, and, more for the kid's sake than Hetty's, I let things stand. But Hetty's in California now; she and her mother live in San Francisco; she is still studying singing, I believe. She gets the rent from two flats I have there. But she never writes. And that," he finished grimly, "is the last chapter of my history."

Sidney still stood close to him, earnest, fragrant, lovely, in her white gown. And even above the troubled tumult of his thoughts Barry had time to think how honest, how unaffected she was, to stand so, making no attempt to disguise the confusion in her own mind. For a long time there was no sound but the vague stir of the night about them, the faint breath of some wandering breeze, the rustling flight of some small animal in the dark, the far-hushed, village sounds.

"Thank you, Barry," Sidney said at length. "I'm sorry. I am glad you told me. Good-night."

"Good-night," he said almost inaudibly. He ran down the steps and plunged into the dark avenue without a backward look. Sidney turned slowly, and slowly entered the dimly lighted hall, and shut the door.