“Shut that girl’s mouth!” exclaimed one man from the front. “Stop that screaming! There is no danger! The fire is confined to the box, and that is made of sheet iron. We’re all right. Don’t crowd!”
The panic had, however, spread too far.
The mob struggled and fought at the main doors. The police had been summoned; but they could not get into the building through the main entrance, and the side exits were toward the rear. Several people were knocked down and trampled on. A pungent odor of burning filled the theatre; the crackling of the flames grew louder and louder.
Walter had his hands full with Linda and Pearl, who had become likewise panic-stricken. Nan pushed Grace and Bess back toward the wall.
“Stand right where you are. We mustn’t get in that crowd. We’ll be killed,” advised she, holding little Inez close to her.
“Save me! save me, Walter!” wailed Linda.
“I wish somebody would take this girl out of the way!” growled Walter Mason in much disgust, and far from gallant.
“Don’t leave me!” shrieked Linda.
People began madly to climb over the seats—and over one another—to reach the side exits.
“How ever will we get out, Nan?” demanded Bess Harley, with keen faith in her chum.
“Keep still. Let us wait,” urged Nan.
But at that instant red and yellow flames burst from the box where the picture projecting machine was housed. These flames began to lick up the furnishings of the balcony like so much tinder. Sparks and dense smoke were thrown off and both settled upon the struggling people below.
“Oh, Walter! Walter! We shall be burned,” cried his sister.
The boy had never yet neglected his timid sister’s cry. He somewhat rudely pushed Linda away and reached across Nan and Inez to seize Grace’s hand.
“Pluck up your courage, Sis!” he cried, his voice rising cheerfully above the turmoil. “We’ll get out all right.”
“But how?” demanded Bess, in great anxiety. “Oh! see those sparks fly!”
“I see,” said Nan, trying to speak calmly.
“They’re falling right on those poor people—do, do look!” gasped Bess.
There was an open space between the young folks from the Mason house and the crowd that was wedged into the exit at the head of the main aisle. Upon this mob was pouring smoke and sparks. The flames ate up the bunting with which the balcony rail and pillars were decorated. The burning cloth floated down upon the heads of the excited people and threatened to set the dresses of some afire.
Pearl Graves had actually fainted in her seat. Linda lay across her cousin, sobbing and groaning. The rest of their party, whoever they were, had deserted the two girls.
“What under the sun shall we do, Nan?” whispered Walter, and Nan read the words on his lips rather than heard them; for the burning theatre was by this time a scene of pandemonium.