Chapter Thirty-five

For two hours more the Bradleys sat as they were, and watched the swift ruin of their home. Nancy's hot face cooled by degrees, and she showed an occasional faint interest in the details of the calamity; this chair was saved, that was good; this clock was in ruins, no matter. She did not loosen her hold on Anne, and the little girl sat contentedly in her mother's lap, but the boys foraged, and shouted as they dashed to and fro. Over and over again she reassured them; it was too bad, of course, but Mother and Dad did not mind very much. She thanked the neighbours who brought chairs and pillows and odd plates, and piled them near her.

She and Bert were wrapped in a sort of stupor, after the events of the hot afternoon. Bert seemed to forget that a meal and a sleeping place must be provided for his tribe, and that his face was shockingly dirty, and he wore no coat. He found it delicious to have the placid Priscilla finish her interrupted nap in his arms, and enjoyed his sons' comments as they came and went. Neither husband nor wife spoke much of the fire, but a rather gay conversation was carried on and there was much philosophical laughter of the sort that such an occasion always breeds.

"I might know that you would save that statue, Jack," said Bert to one of the young Underhills. "We've been trying to break that for eleven years!"

"If that's the case," the youth said solemnly, and Nancy's old happy laugh rang out as he flung the plaster Psyche in a smother of white fragments against the chimney.

"I suppose it would be only decent for me to get started at something," she said, after a while. "It seems senseless to sit here and merely watch--"

"For pity's sake sit still if you can," old Mrs. Underbill said affectionately. "The fire company's going, and people are all leaving now, anyway. And we've got to go, too, but Joe will be over again later--to bring you back with us. Just try to keep calm, Nancy, and don't worry!"

Worry? Nancy knew that she had not been so free from actual worry for a long, long time. She remembered a dinner engagement with a pleasant reflection that it could not be kept. To-morrow, too, with its engagement to play cards and dine and dance, was now freed. And Monday--when she had promised to go to town and look for hats with Dorothy, and Tuesday, when those women were coming for lunch--it was all miraculously cancelled. A mere chance had loosed the bonds that neither her own desperate resolution nor Bert's could break. She was Nancy Bradley again, a wife and mother and housekeeper first, and everything else afterward.

What would they do now--where would they go? She did not care. She had been afraid of a hundred contingencies only this morning, fretted with tiny necessities, annoyed by inessential details. Now a real event had come along, and she could breathe again.

"I wonder what I've been afraid of, all this time?" mused Nancy. And she smiled over a sudden, mutinous thought. How many of the women she knew would be glad to have their houses burned down between luncheon and dinner on a summer Saturday? She turned to Bert. "Pierre and Pauline may now consider themselves as automatically dismissed," she said.

"They have already come to that conclusion," Bert said, with some relish. "I am to figure out what I owe them, and mail them a check. Some of their things they got out--most of them, I guess. I saw someone putting their trunk on a wagon, awhile back, and I imagine that we have parted forever."

"Hannah transfers herself this night to the Fielding menage" Nancy added after a while. "Which reduces our staff to Agnes. I never want to part with Agnes. You can't buy tears and loyalty like that; they're a gift from God, Where do we spend the night, by the way?"

Bert gazed at her calmly.

"I have not the faintest idea, my dear woman!" Then they laughed in the old fashion, together.

"But do look at the sunlight coming down through the trees, and the water beyond there," Nancy presently said. "Isn't it a lovely place--Holly Court? Really this is a wonderful garden."

"That's what I was thinking," Bert agreed. It had been many months, perhaps years, since the Bradleys had commented upon the sunlight, as it fell all summer long through the boughs of their own trees.

Gradually the crowd melted away, and the acrid odour of wet wood mingled with the smell of burning. And gradually that second odour gave way to the persuasive sweetness of the summer evening, the sharp, delicate fragrance that is loosed when the first dew falls, and the perfumes of reviving flowers. Holly Court still smoked sulkily, and here and there in its black ruins some special object flamed brightly: Nancy's linen chest and the pineapple bed went on burning when the other things were done. It was nearly sunset when the Bradleys walked slowly about the wreck, and laughed or bemoaned themselves as they recognized what was gone, or what was left.