Read CHAPTER III of The Harbor of Doubt , free online book, by Frank Williams, on ReadCentral.com.

THE TEST

The man behind him climbed to the ridge-pole and Code began the descent, necessarily slow and careful because the ladders were loaded with men passing buckets. When he reached the ground he started for home on the run.

Opposite Boughton’s general store was another shop that made a specialty of fishermen’s “oilers,” boots, and overalls. Two houses to the westward of that was the old Schofield place, a low, white house surrounded by a rickety fence and covered with ivy.

Once he reached the middle of the road Code saw that he had been mistaken in the location of the fire, for his mother’s place was intact. The flame was coming, however, from the house next but one Bijonah Tanner’s place.

A crowd was gathering in the yard that was overgrown with dusty wire-grass, and the squire was pushing his way through to take charge. Code knew that only two days before Captain Bijonah and his wife had sailed in the Rosan to St. John’s for lumber, leaving Nellie alone in charge of the three small Tanners. He wondered where they all were now.

He found his mother on the edge of the crowd that was helping to save the furniture, and learned that Nellie and young Burns had already arrived and were doing what they could.

From the first it was apparent that the place was doomed, for although there were plenty of men eager to form a bucket brigade, the supply of water was limited, and most of the buckets were at the larger fire.

But the squire was working wonders, and enlisted Code to help him.

In fifteen minutes the whole roof and attic were ablaze, and the men turned their attention to wetting down the near walls of the houses on each side. All the valuables and most of the simple furniture had been saved.

At the earliest moment Schofield escaped from the squire and sought out Nellie. He found her, hysterical, surrounded by a group of women, and hovered over by Nat Burns. With each hand she held a child close to her.

“Bige! Where is little Bige?” she was crying as Code came up. “Tom and Mary are here, but I’ve lost Bige. Oh, Nat! Where is Bige?”

“Bless me if I know,” stammered Burns weakly. “Last I saw of him he was under that cherry-tree where you told him to stay until you got the others. It wa’n’t more’n five minutes ago I seen him there. He must be around somewheres. I’ll look.”

Without another word he hurried off in a frantic search, looking to left and right, behind every bush, and among the crowd, bellowing the boy’s name at the top of his voice.

Code walked up to the frantic girl and went straight to the point.

“Hello, Nellie!” he said. “Where do you cal’late little Bige might be? I hear you’ve lost him.”

“Yes, I have, Code. I stood him under that cherry-tree and told him not to move. When I got back he was gone. He was seven, and just old enough to run around by himself and investigate things. Oh, I’m so afraid he’s gone ”

“Listen!” Code’s sharp, masterful tone put a sudden end to her sobbing. “Was there anything in the house he valued much?” Suddenly she drew in her breath sharply.

“Yes, yes,” she cried, “his mechanical train. He asked me if I had got it and I said I had. He must have gone over to the furniture and found it hadn’t been brought down. Oh, Code, Code ”

“What’s the matter, Nellie?”

It was Nat Burns’s hard voice as he elbowed roughly past Code and bent solicitously over the girl. He had heard her last words and the pleading in them, and his brow was dark with question and anger.

“Did you find him, Nat?” queried Nellie in an agony of suspense.

“No, I don’t know where the little beggar can be,” he replied; “I’ve ” The girl screamed and fainted.

“What’s the matter here?” shouted Burns. “What’s the matter with her?”

“The boy went back into the house for his toy engine and hasn’t come out again,” said Code, facing the other and regarding him with a level eye.

There was a dramatic pause. After Nat’s proprietary interest in Nellie and her affairs it was distinctly his place to make the next move. Everybody felt it, and Code, subconsciously realizing this, said nothing.

It required another moment for the situation to become clear to Burns. Then, when he realized what alternatives he faced, he gradually grew pale beneath his deep tan and looked defiantly from one to another of the group about him.

“Rot!” he cried suddenly. “The boy can’t have gone back. It wasn’t five minutes ago I saw him under the cherry-tree. I haven’t looked in this direction. Wait! I’ll be back in a minute!” And again he was off in his frantic search, his voice rising above the roar of the fire.

Code waited no longer.

Snatching up a blanket from the ground, he raced toward the burning house.

The lower floor was still almost intact, but the upper floor and the roof were practically consumed. The danger lay not in entering the house, but in remaining in it, for although the roof had fallen in, yet the second floor had not burned through and was in momentary danger of collapse.

The spectators did not know what was in Code Schofield’s mind until he had burst into the danger zone. Then, with the blanket wound about his arm and shielding his face he plunged toward the open doorway. It was as though he stood suddenly before the open door of a vast furnace.

The blast of heat seemed an impenetrable force, and he struggled against it with all his strength.

One more look, a mighty effort, and he was in the temporary shelter of the doorway. He drew a long breath and plunged forward.

He knew the plan of the Tanner house as he knew his own, and he remembered that in the rear was a room where the children played. The hall ran straight back to the door of this room; but there was no egress from the rear except through the kitchen, which adjoined the play-room.

The heat that beat down upon his head made him dizzy, and he could not see for the smoke that filled the hall. Instinctively he went down on his hands and knees, discarding the blanket, and crawled toward the rear.

He had scarcely reached the closed door of the play-room when, with a thunderous roar, the ceilings at the front of the house fell in, cutting off any escape in that quarter. He knew that at any moment the rest of the ceilings would collapse.

Half-strangled with the increasing smoke, he staggered to his feet and lunged against the door, forcing it open. The dim light from the one square-paned window showed a small form huddled on the floor, the mouth open, and a tiny locomotive gripped in one hand.

A rush of smoke and flame followed the violent opening of the door, and Code felt himself growing giddy. A swift glance behind showed a wall of fire where the hall had once been, and for the first time he realized the seriousness of the task he had taken upon himself. But there was no fear. Rather there came a sense of gladness that a fighter feels when the battle has at last come to close grips.

He swept the small form of Bige up into his arms and leaped to the window that was built low in the wall and without weights. To raise it and manipulate the catch was out of the question. With all his strength he swung his foot against the pane squarely in the middle. Panes and frame splintered outward, leaving the casement intact except for a few jagged edges of glass.

Then, suddenly, as he dropped the boy to the ground outside, there came a blast of fire on the back draft created by the opening. Singed and strangling, with a last desperate effort he threw himself outward and fell on his shoulders beside little Bige.

Men who had heard the crash of glass when the window went out rushed forward and dragged man and boy to safety.

A quarter of an hour later, his head and neck bandaged with sweet-oil, Code made his way weakly to where Nellie sat among her belongings cradling in her arms the boy whom the doctor had just brought back to consciousness.

“He’s all right, is he?” asked Schofield.

She smiled up at him through her tears.

“Yes, the doctor says it was just too much smoke. Oh, Code, how can I thank you for this? And you are hurt! Is it bad? Can’t I do anything?”

She struggled to her feet, solicitude written on her face, for the moment even forgetting little Bige, who had begun to howl.

“No,” said Schofield, “you can’t do anything. It isn’t much. I’m only glad I succeeded. Don’t think anything about it.”

“Father and mother will never forget this, and I’m sure will do what they can to make it right with you.”

He looked at her as though she had struck him. Never in his life had she used that tone. Before the mute query of his eyes she turned her head away.

“What do you mean by that?” he faltered, hardly knowing what he said.

“Nothing, Code, only only ” She could not finish.

“What has happened, Nellie?” he began, and then halted, his gaze riveted upon her hand. A single diamond glittered from the dirt and grime that soiled her finger.

“That?” he gasped, stunned by a feeling of misery and helplessness.

“Nat and I are engaged,” she said in a low voice without answering his question. “Just since last night.”

There was nothing more to be said. The banal wishes for happiness would not rise to his lips. He looked at her intently for a moment, saw her eyes again drop, and walked away. He was suddenly tired and wanted to go home and rest. The reaction of his nervous and physical strain had set in.

The hundred yards to his own gateway was a triumphal procession, but he scarcely realized it. Somehow he answered the acclamations that were heaped upon him. He smiled, but he did not know how.

At the gate some one was waiting for him. At first he thought it was his mother, but he suddenly saw that it was Elsa Mallaby. He told himself that she must have come down to the village to watch the fire, and wondered why she was in that particular place.

“Code,” she cried, her face flushed with glad pride, “you were splendid! That was the bravest thing I ever heard of in my life. I knew you would do it!”

He smiled mechanically, thanked her, and passed on while she gazed after him, hurt and struck silent by the cold misery in his face.

“I wonder,” she said to herself slowly, “whether something besides what I told him has happened to him to-night?”