And here the heat of them almost overwhelmed her. The shrieks of the frantic throng at the main door of the theatre died away. She heard the shouted commands of the police and firemen—then the swish of water from the first pipe brought to play upon the flames. But they were all outside.
There was nobody near to help Nan Sherwood. She might easily have escaped by herself; but to leave this helpless girl whom Linda Riggs had abandoned—
Nan could not do that. She seized Pearl Graves by the shoulders and strove to drag her out of that row of seats and into the next. Although the main aide was now clear, she dared not try that way. Fire was raining down from the balcony into the back of the house.
Pearl was a larger and heavier girl than Nan. Strong as the latter was, and well developed from her athletic training, the older girl would have been a heavy charge for Nan at best. Now, with the smoke half smothering her, and Pearl a dead weight in her arms, Nan could scarcely drag her burden to the opening in the row of seats.
She struggled to it, however, and got the girl through the first row of chairs, tearing Pearl’s dress sadly in the effort and scratching her own ungloved hands. Nan was crying, too, as she struggled on; she was both frightened and unnerved.
But she stuck to her self-imposed task. She could hear no voices near her now. Nothing but the crackling of the flames and the crash of axes as the firemen wrecked the partition back of the balcony to get at the seat of the fire.
There was nobody to help Nan with her burden. A curtain of smoke shut off the firemen and policemen in the front of the house from the auditorium itself. The smoke grew thicker back there where the young girl struggled to reach the side exit.
Walter Mason and her other friends had escaped. Nan was glad of that. She did not even question why none of them came back to help her.
Nan did not know that the moment they appeared in the side alley, leading back to the rear of the theatre, a policeman with more zeal than good sense hustled them away from the door and would not let even Walter return when he found that Nan and Pearl were not with the party.
“Ye can’t go back in there, me laddy-buck,” declared the officer. “Is it crazy ye are? Phat’s in that the-a-tre will have to stay there, if it can’t git out be itself. Orders is ter let nobody inside.”
“But something’s happened to Nan!” cried Walter. “She and that other girl are perhaps overcome with the smoke. They’ll smother!”
“Be still, I tell yez,” commanded the officer, putting the boy back with one hand. “Orders is orders. Ye can’t go back.”
The situation quite overpowered Walter. He could not break through to help Nan and Pearl. His own sister was crying to him and begging him to come out of danger. Bess was screaming for Nan. Linda stood by, shaking with terror and cold. She doubtless realized that she had been the cause of the catastrophe.