Chapter XVI
 

It was no pleasant prospect of a reunion at the club, or an evening with his old friends, that had taken Barry Valentine so suddenly to San Francisco, but a letter from his wife--or, rather, from his wife's mother, for Hetty herself never wrote--which had stirred a vague distrust and discomfort in his mind. Mrs. Scott, his mother- in-law, was a worldly, shrewd little person, but good-hearted, and as easily moved or stirred as a child. This was one of her characteristic letters, disconnected, ill-spelled, and scrawled upon scented lavender paper. She wrote that she and Hetty were sick of San Francisco, and they wanted Barry's permission to sell the Mission Street flats that afforded them a living, and go away once and for all. Het, her mother wrote, had had a fine offer for the houses; Barry's signature only was needed to close the deal.

All this might be true; it sounded reasonable enough; but, somehow, Barry fancied that it was not true, or at least that it was only partly so. What did Hetty want the money for, he wondered. Why should her mother reiterate so many times that if Barry for any possible reason disapproved, he was not to give the matter another thought; they most especially wanted only his simple yes or no. Why this consideration? Hetty had always been persistent enough about the things she wanted before. "I know you would consent if you could see how our hearts are set on this," wrote Mrs. Scott, "but if you say 'no,' that ends it."

"Sure, I'll sell," Barry said, putting the letter in his pocket. But it came persistently between him and his work. What mischief was Hetty in, he wondered. Had some get-rich-quick shark got hold of her; it was extremely likely. He could not shake the thought of her from his mind, her voice, her pretty, sullen little face, rose again and haunted him. What a child she had been, and what a boy he was, and how mistaken the whole bitter experience!

Walking home late at night, the memory of old days rode him like a hateful nightmare. He saw the little untidy flat they had had in New York; the white winter outside, and a deeper chill within; little Billy coughing and restless; Hetty practising her scales, and he, Barry, trying to write at one end of the dining-room table. He remembered how disappointment and restless ambition had blotted out her fresh, babyish beauty; how thin and sharp her voice had grown as the months went on.

Barry tried to read, but the book became mere printed words. He went softly into Billy's room, and sat down by the tumbled bed and the small warm sleeper. Billy, even asleep, snuggled his hand appreciatively into his father's, and brought its little fellow to lie there too, and pushed his head up against Barry's arm.

And there the father sat motionless, while the clock outside in the hall struck two, and three, and four. This was Hetty's baby, and where was Hetty? Alone with her little fretful mother, moving from boarding-house to boarding-house. Pretty no longer, buoyed up by the hope of an operatic career no longer, pinched--as they must be pinched--in money matters.

The thought came to him suddenly that he must see her; and though he fought it as unwelcome and distasteful, it grew rapidly into a conviction. He must see her again, must have a long talk with her, must ascertain that nothing he could do for the woman who had been his wife was left undone. He was no longer the exacting, unsuccessful boy she had left so unceremoniously; he was a man now, standing on his own feet, and with a recognized position in the community. The little fretful baby was a well-brushed young person who attended kindergarten and Sunday School. A new era of respectability and prosperity had set in. Hetty, his newly awakened sense of justice and his newly aroused ambition told him, must somehow share it. Not that there could ever be a complete reconciliation between them, but there could be good-will, there could be a readjustment and a friendlier understanding.

The thought of Sidney came suddenly upon his idle musings with a shock that made his heart sick. Gracious, beautiful, and fresh, although she was older than Hetty, how far she was removed from this sordid story of his, this darker side of his life! Perhaps months from now, his troubled thoughts ran on, he would tell her of his visit to Hetty. For he had determined to visit her.

Just at dawn he left the house and went out of his own gate. His face was pale, his eyes deeply ringed and his head ached furiously, but it was with a sort of content that he took his seat in the early train for San Francisco. He sank into a reverie, head propped on hand, that lasted until his journey was almost over; but once in the city, his old dread of seeing his wife came over him again, and it was only after a leisurely luncheon at the club that Barry took a Turk Street car to the dingy region where Hetty lived.

The row of dirty bay-windowed houses on either side of the street, and the dust and papers blowing about in the hot afternoon wind, somehow reminded him forcibly of old days and ways. With a sinking heart he went up one of the flights of wooden steps and asked at the door for Mrs. Valentine. A Japanese boy in his shirt-sleeves ushered him into a front room. This was evidently the "parlor"; hot sunlight streamed through the bay windows; there was an upright piano against the closed folding doors, and a graphophone on a dusty cherry table; wind whined at the window-casing; one or two big flies buzzed against the glass.

After a while Mrs. Smiley, the widow who conducted this little boarding-house, who was a cousin of Hetty and whom Barry had known years ago, came in. She was a tall, angular blonde, cheerlessly resigned to a cheerless existence. With her came a keen-faced, freckled boy of fourteen or fifteen, with his finger still marking a place in the book he had been reading aloud.

Hetty and her mother were out, it appeared. Mrs. Smiley didn't think they would be back to dinner; in fact, she reiterated nervously, she was sure they wouldn't. She was extremely and maddeningly non- committal. No, she didn't know why they wanted to sell the Mission Street flats. She had warned them it was a silly thing to bother Barry about it. No, she didn't know when he could see them tomorrow; she guessed, almost any time.

Barry went away full of uneasy suspicions, and more than ever convinced that something was wrong. He went back again the next morning, but nobody but the Japanese boy appeared to be at home. But a visit in the late afternoon was more successful, for he found Mrs. Smiley and the tall son again.

"Hetty is here, isn't she?" he burst out suddenly, in the middle of a meaningless conversation. Mrs. Smiley turned pale and tried to laugh.

"Where else would she be?" she demanded, and she went back to her interrupted dissertation upon the unpleasantness of several specified boarders then under her roof.

"It is funny," Barry mused. "What did she say when she went out?"

"Why--" Mrs. Smiley began uncomfortably, "But, my gracious, I wish you would ask Aunt Ide, Barry!" she interrupted herself uncomfortably. "She'll tell you. She's the one to ask." Aunt Ide was Mrs. Scott.

"Tell me what?" he persisted. "You tell me, Lulu; that's a dear."

"Auntie 'll tell you," she repeated, adding suddenly, to the boy, "Russy, wasn't Aunt Ide in her room when you went up? You run up and see."

"Nome," said Russell positively; but nevertheless he went.

"Nice kid, Lulu," said Barry in his idle way, "but he looks thin."

"He's the finest little feller God ever sent a woman," the mother answered with sudden passionate pride. Color leaped to her sallow cheeks. "But this house is no place for him to be cooped up reading all day," she went on in a worried tone, after a moment, "and I can't let him run with the boys around here; it's a regular gang. I don't know what I am going to do with him. 'Tisn't as if he had a father."

"He wouldn't like to come up to me, and get broken on the Mail?" Barry queried in his interested way. "He'd get lots of fresh air, and he could sleep at my house. I'll keep an eye on him, if you say so."

"Go on the newspaper! I think he'd go crazy with joy," his mother said. Tears came into her faded eyes. "Barry, you're real good- hearted to offer it," she said gratefully. "Of all things in the world, that's the one Russ wants to do. But won't he be in your way?"

"He'll fit right in," Barry said. "Pack him up and send him along. If he doesn't like it, I guess his mother'll let him come home."

"Like it!" she echoed. Then in a lower tone she added, "You don't know what a load you're taking off my mind, Barry." She paused, colored again, and, to his surprise, continued rapidly, with a quick glance at the door, "Barry, I never did a thing like this before in my life, and I can't do it now. You know how much I owe Aunt Ide: she took me in, and did for me just as she did for Het, when I was a baby; she made my wedding dress, and she came right to me when Gus died, but I can't let you go back to Santa Paloma not knowing."

"Not knowing what?" Barry said, close upon the mystery at last.

"You know what Aunt Ide is," Mrs. Smiley said pleadingly. "There's not a mite of harm in her, but she just--You know she'd been signing Hetty's checks for a long time, Barry--" "Go on," Barry said, as she paused distressedly.

"And she just went on--" Mrs. Smiley continued simply.

"Went on what?" Barry demanded.

"After Het--went. Barry," the woman interrupted herself, "I oughtn't be the one to tell you, but don't you see--Don't you see Het's--"

"Dead," Barry heard his own voice say heavily. The cheap little room seemed to be closing in about him, he gripped the back of the chair by which he was standing. Mrs. Smiley began to cry quietly. They stood so for a long time.

After a while he sat down, and she told him about it, with that faithfulness to inessential detail that marks her class. Barry listened like a man in a dream. Mrs. Smiley begged him to stay to dinner to see "Aunt Ide," but he refused, and in the gritty dusk he found himself walking down the street, alone in silence at last. He took a car to the ocean beach, and far into the night sat on the rocks watching the dark play of the rolling Pacific, and listening to the steady rush and fall of the water.

The next day he saw his wife's mother, and at the sight of her frightened, fat little face, and the sound of the high voice he knew so well, the last shred of his anger and disgust vanished, and he could only pity her. He remembered how welcome she had made him to the little cottage in Plumas, those long years ago; how she had laughed at his youthful appreciation of her Sunday fried chicken and cherry pie, and the honest tears she had shed when he went, with the dimpled Hetty beside him, to tell her her daughter was won. She was Billy's grandmother, after all, and she had at least seen that Hetty was protected all through her misguided little career from the breath of scandal, and that Hetty's last days were made comfortable and serene. He assured her gruffly that it was "all right," and she presently brightened, and told him through tears that he was a "king," when it was finally arranged that she should go on drawing the rents of the Mission Street property for the rest of her life. She and Mrs. Smiley persuaded him to dine with them, and he thought it quite characteristic of "Aunt Ide" to make a little occasion of it, and take them to a certain favored little French restaurant for the meal. But Mrs. Smiley was tremulous with gratitude and relief, Russell's face was radiant, his adoring eyes all for Barry, and Barry, always willing to accept a situation gracefully, really enjoyed his dinner.

He stayed in San Francisco another day and went to Hetty's grave, high up in the Piedmont Hills, and took a long lonely tramp above the college town afterward. Early the next morning he started for home, fresh from a bath and a good breakfast, and feeling now, for the first time, that he was free, and that it was good to be free-- free to work and to plan his life, and free, his innermost consciousness exulted to realize, to go to her some day, the Lady of his Heart's Desire, and take her, with all the fragrance and beauty that were part of her, into his arms. And oh, the happy years ahead; he seemed to feel the sweetness of spring winds blowing across them, and the glow of winter fires making them bright! What of her fabulous wealth, after all, if he could support her as she chose to live, a simple country gentle-woman, in a little country town?

Barry stared out at the morning fields and hills, where fog and sunshine were holding their daily battle, and his heart sang within him.

Fog held the field at Santa Paloma when he reached it, the station building dripped somberly. Main Street was but a line of vague shapes in the mist. No grown person was in sight, but Barry was not ten feet from the train before a screaming horde of small boys was upon him, with shouted news in which he recognized the one word, over and over: "Fire!"

It took him a few minutes to get the sense of what they said. He stared at them dully. But when he first repeated it to himself aloud, it seemed already old news; he felt as if he had known it for a very long time: "The Mail office caught fire yesterday, and the whole thing is burned to the ground."

"Caught fire yesterday, and the whole thing is burned to the ground: yes, of course," Barry said. He was not conscious of starting for the scene, he was simply there. A fringe of idle watchers, obscured in the fog, stood about the sunken ruins of what had been the Mail building. Barry joined them.

He did not answer when a dozen sympathetic murmurs addressed him, because he was not conscious of hearing a single voice. He stood silently, looking down at the twisted great knots of metal that had been the new presses, the great wave of soaked and half-burned newspapers that had been the last issue of the Mail. The fire had been twenty-four hours ago, but the ruins were still smoking. Lengths of charred woodwork, giving forth a sickening odor, dripped water still; here and there brave little spurts of flame still sucked noisily. A twisted typewriter stood erect in steaming ashes; a lunch-basket, with a red, fringed napkin in it, had somehow escaped with only a wetting. Barry noticed that the walls of the German bakery next door were badly singed, that one show-window was cracked across, and that the frosted wedding-cake inside stood in a pool of dirty water.

He was presently aware that someone was telling him that nobody was to blame. Details were volunteered, and he listened quietly, like a dispassionate onlooker. "Hits you pretty hard, Barry," sympathetic voices said.

"Ruins me," he answered briefly.

And it dawned upon him sickly and certainly that it was true. He was ruined now. All his hopes had been rooted here, in what was now this mass of wet ashes steaming up into the fog. Here had been his chance for a livelihood, and a name; his chance to stand before the community for what was good, and strong, and helpful. He had been proud because his editorials were beginning to be quoted here and there; he had been keenly ambitious for Sidney's plans, her hopes for Old Paloma. How vain it all was now, and how preposterous it seemed that only an hour ago he had let his thoughts of the future include her--always so far above him, and now so infinitely removed!

She would be sympathetic, he knew; she would be all kindness and generosity. And perhaps, six months ago, he would have accepted more generosity from her; but Barry had found himself now, and he knew that she had done for him all he would let her do.

He smiled suddenly and grimly as he remembered another bridge, just burned behind him. If he had not promised Hetty's mother that her income should go on uninterruptedly, he might have pulled something out of this wreckage, after all. For a moment he speculated: he could sell the Mission Street property now; he might even revive the Mail, after a while--

But no, what was promised was promised, after all, and poor little Mrs. Scott must be left to what peace and pleasure the certainty of an income gave her. And he must begin again, somehow, somewhere, burdened with a debt, burdened with a heartache, burdened with--His heart turned with sudden warmth to the thought of Billy; Billy at least, staunch little partner of so many dark days, and bright, should not be counted a burden.

Even as he thought of his son, a small warm hand slid into his with a reassuring pressure, and lie looked down to see the little figure beside him. Moment after moment went by, timid shafts of gold sunshine were beginning to conquer the mist now, and still father and son stood silent, hand in hand.