Chapter XV
 

Another day went by, and still there was no news from Barry. The early autumn weather was exquisite, and Sidney, with the additional work for the Mail that the editor's absence left for her, found herself very busy. But life seemed suddenly to taste flat and uninteresting to her. The sunlight was glaring, the afternoons dusty and windy, and under all the day's duties and pleasures--the meeting of neighbors, the children's confidences, her busy coming and going up and down the village streets--ran a sick undercurrent of disappointment and heartache. She went to the post-office twice, in that first long day, for the arriving mail, and Miss Potter, pleased at these glimpses of the lady from the Hall, chatted blithely as she pushed Italian letters, London letters, letters from Washington and New York, through the little wicket.

But there was not a line from Barry. On the second day Sidney began to think of sending him a note; it might be chanced to the Bohemian Club--

But no, she wouldn't do that. If he did not care enough to write her, she certainly wouldn't write him.

She began to realize how different Santa Paloma was without his big figure, his laughter, his joyous comment upon people and things. She had taken his comradeship for granted, taken it as just one more element of the old childish days regained, never thought of its rude interruption or ending.

Now she felt ashamed and sore, she had been playing with fire, she told herself severely; she had perhaps hurt him; she had certainly given herself needless heartache. No romantic girl of seventeen ever suffered a more unreasoning pang than did Sidney when she came upon Barry's shabby, tobacco-scented office coat, hanging behind his desk, or found in her own desk one of the careless notes he so frequently used to leave there at night for her to find in the morning.

However, in the curious way that things utterly unrelated sometimes play upon each other in this life, these days of bewilderment and chagrin bore certain good fruit. Sidney had for some weeks been planning an attack upon the sympathies of the Santa Paloma Women's Club, but had shrunk from beginning it, because life was running very smoothly and happily, and she was growing too genuinely fond of her new neighbors to risk jeopardizing their affection for her by a move she suspected would be unpopular.

But now she was unhappy, and, with the curious stoicism that is born of unhappiness, she plunged straight into the matter. On the third day after Barry's disappearance she appeared at the regular meeting of the club as Mrs. Carew's guest.

"I hope this means that you are coming to your senses, ye bad girl!" said Mrs. Apostleman, drawing her to the next chair with a fat imperative hand.

"Perhaps it does," Sidney answered, with a rather nervous smile. She sat attentive and appreciative, through the reading of a paper entitled "Some Glimpses of the Real Burns," and seemed immensely to enjoy the four songs--Burns's poems set to music--and the clever recitation of several selections from Burns that followed.

Then the chairman announced that Mrs. Burgoyne, "whom I'm sure we all know, although she isn't one of us yet (laughter), has asked permission to address the club at the conclusion of the regular program." There was a little applause, and Sidney, very rosy, walked rapidly forward, to stand just below the platform. She was nervous, obviously, and spoke hurriedly and in a rather unnatural voice.

"Your chairman and president," she began, with a little inclination toward each, "have given me permission to speak to you today for five minutes, because I want to ask the Santa Paloma Women's Club a favor--a great favor, in fact. I won't say how much I hope the club will decide to grant it, but just tell you what it is. It has to do with the factory girls across the river. I've become interested in some of them; partly I suppose because some friends of mine are working for just such girls, only under infinitely harder circumstances, in some of the eastern cities, I feel, we all feel, I know, that the atmosphere of Old Paloma is a dangerous one for girls. Every year certain ones among them 'go wrong,' as the expression is; and when a girl once does that, she is apt to go very wrong indeed before she stops. She doesn't care what she does, in fact, and her own people only make it harder, practically drive her away. Or even if she marries decently, and tries to live down all the past it comes up between her and her neighbors, between her and her children, perhaps, and embitters her whole life. And so finally she goes to join that terrible army of women that we others try to pretend we never see or hear of at all. These girls work hard all day, and their homes aren't the right sort of homes, with hot dirty rooms,--full of quarreling and crowding; and so they slip out at night and meet their friends in the dancehalls, and the moving- picture shows. And we--we can't blame them." Her voice had grown less diffident, and rang with sudden longing and appeal. "They want only what we all wanted a few years ago," she said. "They want good times, lights and music, and pretty gowns, something to look forward to in the long, hot afternoons--dances, theatricals, harmless meetings of all sorts. If we could give them safe clean fun--not patronizingly, and not too obviously instructive--they'd be willing to wait for it; they'd talk about it instead of more dangerous things; they'd give up dangerous things for it. They are very nice girls, some of them, and their friends are very nice fellows, for the most part, and they are--they are so very young.

"However, about the club--I am wondering if it could be borrowed for a temporary meeting-place for them, if we form a sort of club among them. I say temporary, because I hope we will build them a clubhouse of their own some day. But meantime there is only the Grand Opera House, which all the traveling theatrical companies rent; Hansen's Hall, which is over a saloon, so that won't do; and the Concert Hall, which costs twenty-five dollars a night. We would, of course, see that the club was cleaned after every meeting, and pay for the lights. I--I think that's about all," finished Sidney, feeling that she had put her case rather ineloquently, and coming to a full stop. She sat down, her eyes nowhere, her cheeks very red.

There was the silence of utter surprise in the room. After a pause, Mrs. White raised a gloved hand. Permission from the chair was given Mrs. White to speak.

"Your idea would be to give the Old Paloma girls a dance here, Mrs. Burgoyne?"

"Regular dances, yes," said Sidney, standing up. "To let them use the clubhouse, say, two nights a week. Reading, and singing, and sewing one night, perhaps, and a dance another. Or we could get good moving-picture films, or have a concert or play, and ask the mothers and fathers now and then; charades and Morris dances, something like that."

"Dancing and moving-pictures--oh, dear, dear!" said Mrs. White, with a whimsical smile and a shake of her head, and there was laughter.

"All those things take costuming, and that takes money," said the chairman, after a silence, rather hesitatingly.

"Money isn't the problem," Mrs. Burgoyne rejoined eagerly; "you'll find that they spend a good deal now, even for the wretched pleasures they have."

There was another silence. Then Mrs. White again gained permission to speak, and rose to do so.

"I think perhaps Mrs. Burgoyne, being a newcomer here, doesn't quite understand our feeling toward our little club," she said very pleasantly. "We built it," she went on, with a slight touch of emotion, "as a little refuge from everything jarring and unpleasant; we meant it to stand for something a little better and finer than the things of everyday life can possibly be. Perhaps we felt that there are already too many dances and too many moving-picture shows in the world; perhaps we felt that if we could forget those things for a little while--I don't mean," said Mrs. White smilingly reasonable, "that the reform of wayward girls isn't a splendid and ennobling thing; I believe heartily in the work institutions and schools are doing along those lines, but--" and with a pretty little gesture of helplessness she flung out her hands--"but we can't have a Hull House in every little town, you know, and I'm afraid we shouldn't find very many Jane Addamses if we did! Good girls don't need this sort of thing, and bad girls--well, unfortunately, the world has always had bad girls and always will have! We would merely turn our lovely clubhouse over to a lot of little romping hoydens."

"But--" began Mrs. Burgoyne eagerly.

"Just one moment," said the President, sweetly, and Mrs. Burgoyne sat down with blazing cheeks. "I only want to say that I think this is outside the purpose for which the club was formed," added Mrs. White. "If the club would care to vote on this, it seems to me that would be the wisest way of settling the matter; but perhaps we could hear from a few more members first?"

There was a little rustle of applause at this, and Sidney felt her heart give a sick plunge, and raged within herself because her own act had placed her at so great a disadvantage. In another moment, however, general attention was directed to a tall, plainly dressed, gentle woman, who rose and said rather shyly:

"Since you suggested our discussing this a little, Mrs. President, I would like to say that I like this idea very much myself. I've often felt that we weren't doing very much good, just uplifting ourselves, as it were, and I hope Mrs. Burgoyne will let me help her in any way I can, whether the club votes for or against this plan. I--I have four girls and boys of my own at home, as you know, and I find that even with plenty of music, and all the library books and company they want, it's hard enough to keep those children happy at night. And, ladies, there must be plenty of mothers over there in Old Paloma who worry about it as we do, and yet have no way of helping themselves. It seems to me we couldn't put our clubhouse to better use, or our time either, for that matter. I would vote decidedly 'yes' to such a plan. I've often felt that we--well, that we rather wasted some of our time here," she ended mildly.

"Thank you, Mrs. Moore," said Mrs. White politely.

"I hope it is part of your idea to let our own children have a part in the entertainments you propose," briskly added another woman, a clergyman's wife, rising immediately. "I think Doctor Babcock would thoroughly approve of the plan, and I am sure I do. Every little while," she went on smilingly, "my husband asks me what good the club is doing, and I never can answer--"

"Men's clubs do so much good!" said some loud, cheerful voice at the back of the hall, and there was laughter.

"A great many of them do good and have side issues, like this one, that are all for good," the clergyman's wife responded quickly, "and personally I would thank God to be able to save even ten--to save even one--of those Old Paloma girls from a life of shame and suffering. I wish we had begun before. Mrs. Burgoyne may propose to build them their own clubhouse entirely herself; but if not, I hope we can all help in that too, when the time comes."

"Thank you, Mrs. Babcock," said the President coldly. "What do you think, Miss Pratt?"

"Oh, Mrs. Carew, and Mrs. Brown, and I all feel as Mrs. Burgoyne does," admitted Anne Pratt innocently, a little fluttered.

It was Mrs. White's turn to color.

"I didn't know that the matter had been discussed," she said stiffly.

"Only generally; not in reference to the club," Mrs. Burgoyne supplied quickly.

"I myself will propose an affirmative vote," said Mrs. Apostleman's rich old voice. Mrs. Apostleman was entirely indifferent to parliamentary law, and was never in order. "How d'ye do it? The ayes rise, is that it?"

She pulled herself magnificently erect by the chair-back in front of her, and with clapping and laughter the entire club rose to its feet.

"This is entirely out of order," said Mrs. White, very rosy. Everyone sat down suddenly, and the chairman gave two emphatic raps of her gavel.

The President then asked permission to speak, and moved, with great dignity, that the matter be laid before the board of directors at the next meeting, and, if approved, submitted in due order to the vote of the club.

The motion was briskly seconded, and a few minutes later Sidney found herself freed from the babel of voices and walking home with nervous rapidity. "Well, that's over!" she said once or twice aloud. "Thank Heaven, it's over!"

"Is your head better, Mother?" said Joanna, who had been hanging on the Hall gate waiting for her mother, and who put an affectionate arm about her as they walked up the path. "You look better."

"Jo," said Mrs. Burgoyne seriously, "there's one sure cure for the blues in this world. I recommend it to you, for it's safer than cocaine, and just as sure. Go and do something you don't want to-- for somebody else."