Chapter XVII
 

The mischief was done; no use to stand there by the smoking ruins of what had been his one real hope for himself and his life. After a while Barry roused himself. There seemed to be nothing to do at the moment, no more to be said. He and Billy walked up River Street to their own gate, but when they reached it, Barry, obeying an irresistible impulse, merely left his coat and suit-case there, and went on through the Hall gateway, and up to the house.

The sun was coming out bravely now, and already he felt its warmth in the garden. Everywhere the fog was rising, was fading against the green of the trees. He followed a delicious odor of wood smoke and the sound of voices, to the barnyard, and here found the lady of the house, with her inevitable accompaniment of interested children. Sidney was managing an immense brush fire with a long pole; her gingham skirt pinned back trimly over a striped petticoat, her cheeks flushed, her hair riotous under a gipsy hat.

At Barry's first word she dropped her pole, her whole face grew radiant, and she came toward him holding out both her hands.

"Barry!" she said eagerly, her eyes trying to read his face, "how glad I am you've come! We didn't know how to reach you. You've heard, of course--! You've seen--?"

"The poor old Mail? Yes, I'm just from there," he said soberly. "Can we talk?"

"As long as you like," she answered briskly. And after some directions to the children, she led him to the little garden seat below the side porch, and they sat down. "Barry, you look tired," she said then. "Do you know, I don't know where you've been all these days, or what you went for? Was it to San Francisco?"

"San Francisco, yes," he assented, "I didn't dream I'd be there so long." He rubbed his forehead with a weary hand. "I'll tell you all about it presently," he said. "I had a letter from my wife's mother that worried me, and I started off at half-cock, I got worrying--but of course I should have written you--"

"Don't bother about that now, if it distresses you," she said quickly and sympathetically. "Any time will do for that. I--I knew it was something serious," she went on, relief in her voice, "or you wouldn't have simply disappeared that way! I--I said so. Barry, are you hungry?"

He tried to laugh at the maternal attitude that was never long absent in her, but the tears came into his eyes instead. After all the strain and sleeplessness and despondency, it was too poignantly sweet to find her so simply cheering and trustful, in her gipsy dress, with the brightening sunlight and the sweet old garden about her. Barry could have dropped on his knees to bury his face in her skirts, and feel the motherly hands on his hair, but instead he admitted honestly to hunger and fatigue.

Sidney vanished at once, and presently came back followed by her black cook, both carrying a breakfast that Barry was to enjoy at once under the rose vines. Sidney poured his coffee, and sat contentedly nibbling toast while he fell upon the cold chicken and blackberries.

"Now," said her heartening voice, "we'll talk! What is to be done first about the Mail?"

"No insurance, you know," he began at once. "We never did carry any in the old days and I suppose that's why I didn't. So that makes it a dead loss. Worse than that--for I wasn't clear yet, you know. The safe they carried out; so the books are all right, I suppose, although they say we had better not open it for a few days. Then I can settle everything up as far as possible. And after that--well, I've been thinking that perhaps Barker, of the San Francisco Telegram might give me a start of some sort--" He rumpled his hair with a desperate gesture. "The thing's come on me like such a thunderbolt that I really haven't thought it out!" he ended apologetically.

"The thing's come on you like such a thunderbolt," she echoed cheerfully, "that you aren't taking it like yourself at all! The question, is if we work like Trojans from now on, can we get an issue of the Mail out tomorrow?"

"Get an issue out tomorrow!" he repeated, staring at her.

"Certainly. I would have done what I could about it," said Sidney briskly, "but not knowing where you were, or when you were coming back, my hands were absolutely tied. Now, Barry, listen!" she broke off, not reassured by his expression, "and don't jump at the conclusion that it's impossible. What would it mean?"

"To get an issue of the Mail out tomorrow? Why, great Scott, Sid, you don't seem to realize that there's not a stick left standing!"

"I do realize. I was there until the fire was out," she said calmly. And for a few minutes they talked of the fire. Then she said abruptly: "Would Ferguson let you use the old Star Press for a few weeks, do you think?"

"I don't see why he should," Barry said perversely.

"I don't see why he shouldn't. I'll tell you something you don't know. Night before last, Barry, while I was down in the office, old Ferguson himself came in, and poked about, and asked various questions. Finally he asked me what I thought the chances were of your wanting to buy out the Star. What do you think at that?"

"He's sick of it, is he?" Barry said, with kindling eyes. "Well, we've seen that coming, haven't we? I will be darned!" He shook his head regretfully. "That would have been a big thing for the Mail" he said, "but it's all up now!"

"Not necessarily," the lady undauntedly rejoined. "I've been thinking, Barry," she went on, "if you reordered the presses, they'd give you plenty of time to pay for them, wouldn't they? Might even take something off the price, under the circumstances?"

"I suppose they might." He made an impatient gesture. "But that's just one--"

"One item, I know. But it's the main item. Then you could rent the office and loft over the old station, couldn't you? And move the old Star press in there this afternoon."

"This afternoon," said Barry calmly.

"Well, we don't gain anything by waiting. You can write a manly and affecting editorial,"--her always irrepressible laughter broke out, "full of allusions to the phoenix, you know! And my regular Saturday column is all done, and Miss Porter can send in something, and there's any amount of stuff about the Folsom lawsuit. And Young, Mason and Company ought to take at least a page to advertise their premium day to-morrow. I'll come down as soon as you've moved--"

Barry reached for his hat.

"The thing can't be done," he announced firmly, "but, by George, Sid, you would give a field mouse courage! And what a grandstand play, if we could put it through! There's not a second to be lost, though. But look here," and with sudden gravity he took both her hands, "it'll take some more money, you know."

"I have some more money," she answered serenely.

"Well, I'll get some!" he declared emphatically. "It won't be so much, either, once we get started. And so old Ferguson wanted to sell, did he?"

"He did. And we'll buy the Star yet." They were on the path now. "Telephone me when you can," she said, "and don't lose a minute now! Good luck!"

And Barry's great stride had taken him half-way down River Street, his hands in his pockets, his mind awhirl with plans, before it occurred to him that he had not told her the news of Hetty, after all.