Chapter XIV
 

More happy days followed; for Santa Paloma, after the Fourth of July, felt only friendliness for the new owner of the Hall, and Mrs. Burgoyne's informal teas on the river bank began to prove a powerful attraction, even rivaling the club in feminine favor. Sometimes the hostess enlisted all their sympathies for a newly arrived Old Paloma baby, and they tore lengths of flannel, and busily stitched at tiny garments, under the shade of the willow and pepper trees. Sometimes she had in her care one or more older babies whose busy mother was taking a day's rest, or whose father was perhaps ill, needing all the wife's care. Always there was something to read and discuss; an editorial in some eastern magazine that made them all indignant or enthusiastic, or a short story worth reading aloud. And almost always the children were within call, digging great holes in the pebbly shallows of the river, only to fill them up again, toiling over bridges and dams, climbing out to the perilous length of the branches that hung above the water. Little Mary Scott, released from the fear of an "op'ration," and facing all unconsciously a far longer journey than the dreaded one to a San Francisco hospital, had her own cushioned chair near the bank, where she could hear and see, and laugh at everything that went on, and revel in consolation and bandages when the inevitable accidents made them necessary. Mary had no cares now, no responsibility more serious than to be sure her feet didn't get cold, and to tell Mrs. Burgoyne the minute her head ached; there was to be nothing but rest and comfort and laughter for her in life now. "I don't know why we should pity her," little Mrs. Brown said thoughtfully, one day, as they watched her with the other children; "we can't ever hope to feel that any of our children are as safe as she is."

Mrs. Burgoyne's method of entertaining the children was simple. She always made them work as hard as possible. One day they begged her to let them build a "truly dam" that would really stop the Lobos in its placid course. She consulted gravely with George Carew: should they attempt it? George, after serious consideration, thought they should.

As a result, twenty children panted and toiled through a warm Saturday afternoon, George and the Adams boys shouting directions as they handled planks and stones; everybody wet, happy, and excited. Not the least glorious moment was when the dam was broken at five o'clock, just before refreshments were served.

"We'll do that better next Saturday," said George. But a week later they wanted to clean the barn and organize a club. Mrs. Burgoyne was sure they couldn't. All that space, she said, and those bins, and the little rooms, and all? Very well, then, they could try. Later they longed for a picnic supper in the woods, with an open fire, and potatoes, and singing. Their hostess was dubious: entreated them to consider the work involved, dragging stones for the fire, and carrying potatoes and bacon and jam and all the rest of it 'way up there'. This was at two o'clock, and at six she was formally asked to come up and inspect the cleared camping ground, and the fireplace with its broilers, and the mammoth stack of fuel prepared.

"I knew you'd do it!" said the lady delightedly. "Now we'll really have a fine supper!" And a memorable supper they had, and Indian stories, and singing, and they went home well after dusk, to end the day perfectly.

"They like this sort of thing much better than white dresses, and a professional entertainer, and dancing, and too much ice-cream," said Mrs. Burgoyne to Mrs. Adams.

"Of course they do," said Mrs. Adams, who had her own reasons for turning rather red and speaking somewhat faintly. "And it's much less work, and much less expense," she added.

"Now it is, when they can be out-of-doors," said Mrs. Burgoyne; "but in winter they do make awful work indoors. However, there is tramping for dry weather, and I mean to have a stove set up in the old billiard-room down-stairs and turn them all loose in there when it's wet. Theatricals, and pasting things, and singing, and now and then candy-making, is all fun. And one knows that they're safe, and piling up happy memories of their home."

"You make a sort of profession of motherhood," said Mrs. White dryly.

"It is my profession," said the hostess, with her happy laugh.

But her happiness had a sudden check in mid-August; Sidney found herself no more immune from heartache than any other woman, no more philosophical over a hurt. It was, she told herself, only a trifle, after all. She was absurd to let it cloud the bright day for her and keep her restless and wakeful at night. It was nothing. Only--

Only it was the first time that Barry had failed her. He was gone. Gone without a word of explanation to anyone, leaving his work at the Mail unfinished, leaving even Billy, his usual confidant, quite in the dark. Sidney had noticed for days a certain moodiness and unresponsiveness about him; had tried rather timidly to win him from it; had got up uneasily half a dozen times in the night just past to look across the garden to his house, and wonder why Barry's light burned on and on.

She had meant to send for him in the morning, but Billy, artlessly appearing when the waffles came on at breakfast, remarked that Dad was gone to San Francisco.

"To the city, Billy?" Sidney asked. "Didn't he say why?"

"He didn't even say goodbye," Billy replied cheerfully. "He just left a note for Hayashi. It said he didn't know how long he would be gone."

Sidney tried with small success to deceive herself into thinking that it was the mere mysteriousness of this that cut her. She presently went down to see Mrs. Carew, and was fretted because that lady would for some time discuss nothing but the successful treatment of insects on the rose-bushes.

"Barry seems to have disappeared," said Sidney finally, in a casual tone.

Mrs. Carew straightened up, forgot hellebore and tobacco juice for the moment.

"Did I tell you what Silva told me?" she asked.

"Silva?" echoed Sidney, at a loss.

"The milkman. He told me that when he came up at five o'clock this morning, Barry came out of the gate, and that he looked awfully. He said he was pale, and that his eyes looked badly, and that he hardly seemed to know what he was doing. And oh, my dear, I'm afraid that he's drinking again! I'm sure of it. It's two years now since he has done this. I think it's too bad. But you know he used to go down to town every little while for a regular time with those newspaper men. He doesn't like Santa Paloma, you know. He gets very bored here. He'll be back in a day or two, thoroughly ashamed of himself."

Sidney did not answer, because she could not. Resentment and loyalty, shame and heartache, kept her lips dumb. She walked to and fro in the garden, alone in the sweet early darkness, for an hour. Then she went indoors, and tried to amuse herself at the piano. Suddenly her face twisted, she laid her arm along the rack, and her face on her arm; but it was only for a moment; then she straightened up resolutely, piled the music, closed the piano, and went upstairs.

"But perhaps I'm not old enough yet for an olive garden," she told the stars from her window an hour later.