Chapter Thirty-two




The last words were no more than a breath of utter agony. A second later Nancy turned, and ran. She did not hear the protest that followed her, nor realize that, as she had taken off her wide- brimmed hat for the card-game, she was bare-headed under the burning August sun. She choked back the scream that seemed her only possible utterance, and fought the deadly faintness that assailed her. Unhearing, unseeing, unthinking, she ran across the porch, and down the steps to the drive.

Here she paused, checkmated. For every one of the motor-sheds was empty, and not a car was in sight on the lawns or driveway, where usually a score of them stood. The green, clipped grass, and the blossoming shrubs, baking in the afternoon heat, were silent and deserted. The flame of geraniums, and the dazzle of the empty white courts, smote her eyes. She heard Mrs. Fielding's feet flying down the steps, and turned a bewildered, white face toward her.

"Elsie--there's not a car! What shall I do?"

"Listen, dear," said the new-comer, breathlessly, "Ruth is telephoning for a car--"

But Nancy's breath caught on a short, dry sob, and she shook her head.

"All the way to the village--it can't be here for half an hour! Oh, no, I can't wait--I can't wait--"

And quite without knowing what she did, or hoped to do, she began to run. The crunched gravel beneath her flying feet was hot, and the mile of road between her and Holly Court lay partly in the white sunlight, but she thought only of Priscilla--the happy, good, inexacting little baby, who had been put in her crib--with her "cacker"--and left there--and left there--

"My baby!" she said out loud, in a voice of agony. "You were having your nap--and mother a mile away!"

She passed the big stone gateway of the club, and the road-- endless it looked--lay before her. Nancy felt as helpless as one bound in a malignant dream. She could make no progress, her most frantic efforts seemed hardly more than standing still. A sharp pain sprang to her side, she pressed her hand over it. No use; she would only kill herself that way, she must get her breath.

Oh, why had she left her--even for a single second! So small, so gay, so helpless; how could any mother leave her. She had been so merry, in her high chair at breakfast, she had toddled off so dutifully with Agnes, when Nancy had left the doleful boys and the whimpering Anne, to go to the club. The little gold crown of hair- -the small buckskin slippers--Nancy could see them now. They were the real things, and it was only a terrible dream that she was running here through the merciless heat--

"Get in here, Mrs. Bradley!" said a voice. One of the Ingram boys had brought his roadster to a stop beside her. She turned upon him her tear-streaked face.

"Oh, Bob, tell me--what's happened?"

"I don't know," he said, in deep concern. "I just happened to go into the club, and Mrs. Biggerstaff sent me after you! I don't know--I guess it's not much of a fire!"

Nancy did not answer. She shut her lips tight, and turned her eyes toward the curve in the road. Even while they rushed toward it, a great mushroom of smoke rose and flattened itself against the deep blue summer sky, widening and sinking over the tops of the trees. Presently they could hear the confused shouts and groans that always surround such a scene, and the hiss of water.

A turn of the road; Holly Court at last. Her escort murmured something, but Nancy did not answer. She had only one sick glance for the scene before them; the fringe of watchers about the house, the village fire-company struggling and shouting over the pitifully inadequate hose, the shining singed timbers of Holly Court. A great funnel of heat swept up above the house, and the green under-leaves on the trees crackled and crisped. From the casement windows smoke trickled or puffed, the roof was falling, in sections, and at every crash and every uprush of sparks the crowd uttered a sympathetic gasp.

The motor, curving up on the lawn, passed the various other vehicles that obstructed the drive. As the mistress of the house arrived, and was recognized, there was a little pitiful stir in the crowd. Nancy remembered some of this long afterward, remembered seeing various household goods--the piano, and some rugs, and some loose books--carefully ranged at one side, remembered a glimpse of Pauline crying, and chattering French, and Pierre patting his wife's shoulder. She saw familiar faces, and unfamiliar faces, as in a dream.

But under her dream hammered the one agonized question: The children--the children--ah, where were they? Nancy stumbled from the car, asked a sharp question. The villager who heard it presented her a blank and yet not unkindly face. He didn't know, ma'am, he didn't know anything--he had just come.

She knew now that she was losing her reason, that she would never be sane again if anything--anything had happened--

The crowd parted as she ran forward. And she saw, with a lightning look that burned the picture on her brain for all her life, the boys blessed little figures--and Anne leaning on her father's knee, as he sat on an overturned bookcase--and against Bert's shoulder the little fat, soft brown hand, and the sunny crown of hair that were Priscilla's--



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