Chapter Thirty-three

Blinded with an exquisite rush of tears, somehow Nancy reached them, and fell on her knees at her husband's side, and caught her baby to her heart. Three hundred persons heard the sobbing cry she gave, and the flames flung off stars and arrows for more than one pair of sympathetic eyes. But she neither knew nor cared. She knew only that Bert's arms and the boys' arms were about her, and that Anne's thin little cheek was against her hair, and that her hungry lips were devouring the baby's sweet, bewildered face. She was crying as if there could be no end to her tears, crying happily and trying to laugh as she cried, and as she let the waves of relief and joy sweep over her in a reviving flood.

Bert was in his shirt sleeves, and Priscilla still had on only the short embroidered petticoat that she wore while she slept; her small feet were bare. The boys were grimed with ashes and soot, and Anne was pale and speechless with fright. But they were all together, father, mother, and children, and that was all that mattered in the world--all that would ever count, for Nancy, again.

"Don't cry, dearest!" said Bert, the tears streaming down his own blackened face. "She's all right, dear! We're all here, safe and sound, we're all right!"

But Nancy cried on, her arms strained about them all, her wet face against her husband's, and his arm tight across her shoulder.

"Oh, Bert--I ran so! And I didn't know--I didn't know what to be afraid of--what to think! And I ran so--!"

"You poor girl--you shouldn't have done it. But dearest, we're all right now. What a scare you got--and my God, what a scare I got! But I got to her, Nance--don't look so, dear. I was in plenty of time, and even if I hadn't been, Agnes would have got her out. She ran all the way from Ingrams' and she was only a few minutes after me! It's all right now, Nance."

Nancy dried her eyes, swaying back on her knees to face him.

"I was playing cards--Bert, if anything had happened I think I should never have been sane again--"

"I was on the court, you know," Bert said. "Underhill's kid came up, on his bicycle. He shouted at me, and I ran, and jumped into the car, Rose following. I met Agnes, running back to the house, with the children--I called out 'Where's Priscilla?' and she shouted back--she shouted back:' Oh, Mr. Bradley--oh, Mr. Bradley- -'" And overcome by the hideous recollection, Bert choked, and began to unbutton and button the top of his daughter's little petticoat.

"We were all out walkin'," Ned volunteered eagerly. "And Joe Underbill went by on his bike. And he yelled at us, 'You'd better go home, your house is on fire!' and Anne began to cry, didn't you, Anne? So Agnes said a prayer, right out loud, didn't she, Junior? And then Dad and Mr. Rose went by us in the car on a run-- we were way up by Ingrams'--and then Anne and Agnes cried, and I guess we all cried some--"

"And mother, lissun," Junior added. "They didn't get the baby out until after they got out the piano! They got the piano out before they got Priscilla! Because Pauline ran over to Wallaces', and Hannah was walking into the village for the mail, and when Dad got here and yelled to the men, they said they hadn't seen any baby-- they thought the house was empty--"

Nancy turned deathly pale, her eyes reaching Bert's, her lips moving without a sound.

"I tried the front stairway, but it was--well, I couldn't," Bert said. "I kept thinking that she must have been got out, by somebody--but I knew it was only a question of minutes--if she wasn't! All the time I kept saying 'You're a fool--they couldn't have forgotten her--!' and Rose kept yelling that she must be somewhere, with someone, but I didn't--somehow I didn't dare let the few minutes we had go by without making sure! So I ran round to the side, and got in that window, and unlocked that door; Hannah must have locked it. I ran upstairs--she was just waking up. She was sitting up in her crib, rubbing her eyes, and a little bit scared and puzzled--smoke was in there, then--but she held out her little arms to me--I was in time, thank God--I thought we'd never get here--but we were in time!"

And again overcome by the memory of that moment, he brushed his brimming eyes against Priscilla's bright little head, and his voice failed.

"But Baby couldn't have burned--Baby couldn't have burned, could she, Mother?" Anne asked, bursting suddenly into bitter crying. Her anxious look had been going from one face to another, and now she was half frantic with fright.

Nancy sat down on a box, and lifted her elder daughter into her lap.

"No, my precious, Daddy was in time," she said, in her old firm motherly voice, with her comforting arms about the small and tearful girl. "Daddy and Mother were both rushing home as fast as they could come, that's what mothers and fathers are for. And now we're all safe and sound together, and you mustn't cry any more!"

"But our house is burned down!" said Junior dolefully. "And you're crying, Mother!" he added accusingly.

Nancy smiled as she dried her eyes, and dried Anne's, and the children laughed shakily as she exhibited the sooty handkerchief.

"Mother's crying for joy and gratitude and relief, Junior!" she said. "Why,' and her reassuring voice was a tonic to the children, "Why, what do Dad and I care about an old house!" she said cheerfully. "We'd rather have ten houses burn down than have one of you children sick, even for a day!"

"Don't you care?" exulted Anne between two violent kisses, her lips close to her mother's, her thin arms tight about her mother's neck.

"We care about you, and the boys, and the baby, Anne," said Bert, "but that's all. Why, I sort of think I'm glad to see that house burn down! It used to worry Mother and me a good deal, and now it won't worry us any more! How about that, Mother?"

And his reddened eyes, in his soot--and perspiration-streaked face, met Nancy's with the old smile of fun and courage, and her eyes met his. Something the children missed passed between them; hours of conciliatory talk could not have accomplished what that look did, years of tears and regret would not so thoroughly have washed away the accumulated burden of heartache and resentment and misunderstanding.