Mollie did not hear him. At least, her ears were not conscious that they caught a distinct sound. Finally she became conscious of the presence of some one near her. She got quickly up out of her chair and leaned over the railing of the top deck.
At this moment the man, with his back toward her, struck a match. Mollie beheld the crouching figure. She could not tell who the man was. Was it Bill or her father come to steal her away? The old, dreadful fear swept over her, with enough of memory to make her realize what her capture would mean. The girl’s first instinct was to hide. She did not realize how poor a refuge the houseboat offered her. It seemed to her that, if she could only get into one of the cabin bedrooms and conceal herself in her berth, she might escape. Poor Mollie had no better idea to aid her. She came running down the outside steps and ran toward the cabin door.
The man rose quickly. He did not move toward Mollie. Outside the cabin kitchen was a big box filled with chips and bits of kindling, used to light the kitchen stove. The man gathered up a handful of these pieces of wood and ran back to his old position. He glanced at Mollie. But it was easy to see that she was trying to get away, not to hinder him in what he was doing. He picked up the oil can again. This time he poured the few remaining drops on a little pile of chips and lit another match. The tinder blazed up. The man fanned the tiny flames with the brim of a torn hat. The flare of light grew brighter; a great flame leapt up and then a snake-like curve of fire followed the oil-soaked wood.
When the man did not move toward Mollie she stopped in the cabin door. She was afraid of him. She was not like other girls. Ever since she had been able to know anything she had felt a curious, confused feeling in her head. She did not know who the man was on the deck of the boat. But she did know that he was trying to set their houseboat afire.
Mollie paid no further attention to the man. She did not scream at him, nor try to stop what he was doing. She rushed forward and began stamping on the pile of blazing sticks.
The man did not attempt to prevent her. He was watching the increasing length of flame spread over the deck. A second later he sprang up, ran across the deck, slipped over the side of “The Merry Maid,” dropped into his rowboat, and rowed swiftly out of sight.
Mollie flew for the big bucket of water, which they always kept in a certain spot. She flung the water on the flames, but water will not quench the flames made from oil. The rail began to crackle, the sparks to fly. The “Merry Maid” was afire, with only one, feeble girl to save it!
Mollie knew that there were steamer blankets in the bedrooms of the cabin. She often had one to cover her when she took her afternoon rest. Remember, Mollie had had little education, but she had been brought up to work and to do practical tasks. It was but the work of a moment to drag out two blankets and spread them over the flames. The fire died down for a moment; then it crept through the fringe of the rugs, and a choking smell of burning wool showed that the blankets also were beginning to burn. But the brave girl had no intention of giving up the fight.