A moment later when a tall man came up the path and dropped on the top porch step with an air of being entirely at home, Mrs. Carew was still dreaming, half-awake and half-asleep.
"Hello, Jeanette!" said the newcomer. "What's new with thee, coz?"
"Don't smoke there, Barry, and get things mussy!" said Mrs. Carew in return, smiling to soften the command, and to show Barry Valentine that he was welcome.
Barry was usually welcome everywhere, although not at all approved in many cases, and criticised even by the people who liked him best. He was a sort of fourth cousin of Mrs. Carew, who sometimes felt herself called to the difficult task of defending him because of the distant kinship. He was very handsome, lean, and dark, with a sleepy smile and with eyes that all children loved; and he was clever, or, at least, everyone believed him to be so; and he had charm--a charm of sheer sweetness, for he never seemed to be particularly anxious to please. Barry was very gallant, in an impersonal sort of way: he took a keen, elder-brotherly sort of interest in every pretty girl in the village, and liked to discuss their own love affairs with them, with a seriousness quite paternal. He never singled any girl out for particular attention, or escorted one unless asked, but he was flatteringly attentive to all the middle-aged people of his acquaintance and his big helpful hand was always ready for stumbling old women on the church steps, or tearful waifs in the street--he always had time to listen to other people's troubles. Barry-- everyone admitted--had his points. But after all--
After all, he was lazy, and shiftless, and unambitious: he was content to be assistant editor of the Mail; content to be bullied and belittled by old Rogers; content to go on his own idle, sunny way, playing with his small, chubby son, foraging the woods with a dozen small boys at his heels, working patiently over a broken gopher-trap or a rusty shotgun, for some small admirer. Worst of all, Barry had been intemperate, years ago, and there were people who believed that his occasional visits to San Francisco, now, were merely excuses for revels with his old newspaper friends there.
And yet, he had been such a brilliant, such a fiery and ambitious boy! All Santa Paloma had taken pride in the fact that Barry Valentine, only twenty, had been offered the editorship of the one newspaper of Plumas, a little town some twelve miles away, and had prophesied a triumphant progress for him, to the newspapers of San Francisco, of Chicago, of New York! But Barry had not been long in Plumas when he suddenly married Miss Hetty Scott of that town, and in the twelve years that had passed since then the golden dreams for his future had vanished one by one, until to-day found him with no one to believe in him--not even himself.
Hetty Scott was but seventeen when Barry met her, and already the winner in two village contests for beauty and popularity. After their marriage she and Barry went to San Francisco, and shrewd, little, beautiful Hetty found herself more admired than ever, and began to talk of the stage. After that, Santa Paloma heard only occasional rumors: Barry had a position on a New York paper, and Hetty was studying in a dramatic school; there was a baby; there were financial troubles, and Barry was drinking again; then Hetty was dead, and Barry, fearing the severe eastern winters for the delicate baby, was coming back to Santa Paloma. So back they came, and there had been no indication since, that the restless, ambitious Barry of years ago was not dead forever.
"No smoking?" said Barry now, good-naturedly. "That's so; you've got some sort of 'High Jinks' on for to-night, haven't you? I brought up those hinges for your mixing table, Jen," he went on, "but any time will do. I suppose the kitchen is right on the fault, as it were."
"The kitchen does look earthquakey," admitted Mrs. Carew with a laugh, "but the girls would be glad to have the extra table; so go right ahead. I'll take you out in a second. I have been on the go," she added wearily, "since seven this morning: my feet are like balls of fire. You don't know what the details are. Why, just tying up the prizes takes a good hour!"
"Anything go wrong?" asked the man sympathetically.
"Oh, no; nothing particular. But you know how a house has to look! Even the bathrooms, and our room, and the spare room--the children do get things so mussed. It all sounds so simple; but it takes such a time."
"Well, Annie--doesn't she do these things?"
"Oh, ordinarily she does! But she was sweeping all morning, we moved things about so last night, and there was china, and glasses to get down, and the porches--"
"But, Jeanette," said Barry Valentine patiently, "don't you keep this house clean enough ordinarily without these orgies of cleaning the minute anybody comes in? I never knew such a house for women to open windows, and tie up curtains, and put towels over their hair, and run around with buckets of cold suds. Why this extra fuss?"
"Well, it's not all cleaning," said Mrs. Carew, a little annoyed. "It's largely supper; and I'm not giving anything like the suppers Mrs. White and Mrs. Adams give."
"Why don't they eat at home?" said Mr. Valentine hospitably. "What do they come for anyway? To see the house or each other's clothes, or to eat? Women are funny at a card party," he went on, always ready to expand an argument comfortably. "It takes them an hour to settle down and see how everyone else looks, and whether there happens to be a streak of dust under the piano; and then when the game is just well started, a maid is nudging you in the elbow to take a plate of hot chicken, and another, on the other side, is holding out sandwiches, and all the women are running to look at the prizes. Now when men play cards--
"Oh, Barry, don't get started!" his cousin impatiently implored. "I'm too tired to listen. Come out and fix the table."
"Wish I could really help you," said Barry, as they crossed the hall; and as a further attempt to soothe her ruffled feelings, he added amiably, "The place looks fine. The buttercups came up, didn't they?"
"Beautifully! You were a dear to get them," said Mrs. Carew, quite mollified.
Welcomed openly by all four maids, Barry was soon contentedly busy with screws and molding-board, in a corner of the sunny kitchen. He and Mrs. Binney immediately entered upon a spirited discussion of equal suffrage, to the intense amusement of the others, who kept him supplied with sandwiches, cake and various other dainties. The little piece of work was presently finished to the entire satisfaction of everyone, and Barry had pocketed his tools, and was ready to go, when Mrs. Carew returned to the kitchen wide-eyed with news.
"Barry," said she, closing the door behind her, "George is here!"
"Well, George has a right here," said Barry, as the lady cast a cautious glance over her shoulder.
"But listen," his cousin said excitedly; "he thinks he has sold the Holly house!"
"Gee whiz!" said Barry simply.
"To a Mrs. Burgoyne," rushed on Mrs. Carew. "She's out there with George on the porch now; a widow, with two children, and she looks so sweet. She knows the Hollys. Oh, Barry, if she only takes it; such a dandy commission for George! He's terribly excited himself. I can tell by the calm, bored way she's talking about it."
"Who is she? Where'd she come from?" demanded Barry.
"From New York. Her father died last year, in Washington, I think she said, and she wants to live quietly somewhere with the children. Barry, will you be an angel?"
"Eventually, I hope to," said Mr. Valentine, grinning, but she did not hear him.
"Could you, would you, take her over the place this afternoon, Barry? She seems sure she wants it, and George feels he must get back to the office to see Tilden. You know he's going to sign for a whole floor of the Pratt Building to-day. George can't keep Tilden waiting, and it won't be a bit hard for you, Barry. George says to promise her anything. She just wants to see about bathrooms, and so on. Will you, Barry?"
"Sure I will," said the obliging Barry. And when Mrs. Carew asked him if he would like to go upstairs and brush up a little, he accepted the delicate reflection upon the state of his hair and hands, and said "sure" again.