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lapped the weather-boards as though the scarlet demon were licking his lips in joy of his feast.
Either the woman was partially suffocated by the smoke and heat, or was deprived of her senses by terror ; for, although the means of escape were at hand, she appeared to be unable to make any effort to extricate herself from her perilous position. With voices almost breaking in our throats, we warned, coaxed, implored, and even commanded her to come down—but all to no purpose. In the end, with a wild and startled look in her dark eyes, as though she had seen Death and strove to shut its approach from her sight, she covered her face with her garments and sank in a heap to the floor.
Certainly not more than fifty seconds elapsed between the time the ladder was placed in position and when she shrank thus from the flames.
"Look here, mates," said Dick quietly: "I'm going up."
As he stooped to break off a branch of tea-tree to shade his face from the blast of heat, a lithe figure sprang out of the darkness and dashed past him. Before any one could stretch out a hand to stay him, Rawy was half-way up the ladder. In safety he reached the window and climbed within. The Duchess, who appeared to awaken to some sense of hope and volition at the approach of the boy, raised her hand to her forehead as if she were dazed, and, stumbling to her feet with uncertain steps, allowed herself to be half pushed, half assisted out upon the rounds.
In palpitating excitement we watched the descent. Twenty times it seemed as if she must fall. There was an appalling stillness while it lasted-and it seemed to last a year ; but when she swooned away into the rescuing arms of several black and blood-red figures, and was instantly dragged out of danger, a hoarse cheer rose high above the hideous din of the roaring flames and crackling timbers.
The next second an explosion occurred-due, probably, to a small keg of blasting-powder, for the hotel was used as a temporary depository of all kinds of diggers' requisites—and the side of the house flapped over like a trick-house in a harlequinade.
Then there flashed to my brain the quick thought that, precious as every instant was, Rawy had waited until the Duchess was safe before overburdening the frail ladder with his own weight. My hands opened and shut convulsively, something took me by the throat, and everything ran together in a great blur of no particular form or colour.
Gradually the black became grey, and then it came—the slow wintry dawn. It looked upon a heap of smouldering embers, with here and there a blackened stud or rafter ; and a knot of men and women, whose faces looked unfamiliar to each other, standing about a crushed form, scorched and begrimed beyond recognition. A mournful picture, set in a sombre frame of lowering rain-clouds.
As we stood about the poor boy, with bared heads and livid faces, exchanging hurried and fearsome whispers, the solemn hush was broken by a manifestation of bad taste to which it was positively painful to listen.
“Behold,” said the Rev. Mr. Stevens, who, with almost everybody on the diggings, had hurried to the scene of the fire, “the sinner above all that dwelt in the tents of Tinker's Creek laid low !” He paused a moment, interrupted by the withdrawal of several sobbing women whose hearts were shocked beyond endurance by the words of unholy mockery. “In this,” he continued, nowise abashed, “I see plainly a Fatherly guidance, and I lift up my voice in much thankfulness to the Lord for His dealings with the sinner. He hath stretched forth his hand and chastened the backslider. Blessed be His name !"
There was a stir on the outskirts of the crowd, and the next second the Duchess, recovered from her swoon, thrust her way into the centre.
"What is it?" she cried hoarsely, almost desperately, her hands twisting each other as though she were in pain. “Speak, can't you, some one ! ”
"What is it?” said the evangelical Stevens, swelling out his little stomach and posing himself for a very fine effect : It is the wages of sin-death.”
The words hardly had left his lips when the doctor, springing up from the side of the prostrate form, shouted, in fierce mimicry : “Wages of sin be damned! It's a woman!”
“A woman!” stammered Mr. Stevens, his stomach seeming to collapse like an emptying bladder.
“Yes, a woman,” said the Duchess, with a sudden softness in her voice which we had never heard: "a woman who for months has cheerfully suffered cold, wet, toil, shame, and discomfort-for in no other way but a man's attire could she dare to approach the horrid life I have led—to try to save her sister from an existence worse than death. And,” continued the contrite, half catching her breath, her eyes turned upward to Heaven, her right hand lifted as if calling upon her Maker to witness her vow, may God strike me dead if she has not brought me back to Him at last !”
She spoke, not only with her lips, but with her whole soul; and there was in her words, at once blasphemous and devout, the strong rush of outbursting truth,and an awful lull followed.
She hung her head for a moment; then, uttering a moan of the heart's anguish, such as I wish never again to hear, she stumbled falteringly towards her sister, her face buried in her hands, and, sinking to the ground at her side, rocked herself as though the agony were almost greater than she could bear.
Sick at heart, I turned away. My eyes chanced to fall upon Richard Duff. He was looking at his clenched hand as I had seen him look at it that night in the mill; but now his face was very white, his brow was furrowed, and his lips were tightly set. Slowly he walked to the store, carefully measured his distance, and then drove the offending hand with all his great strength against the side of the house. The blow smashed in the weather-board and laid bare every knucklebone.
But, when he rejoined the group, there was no trace of pain in his face : rather did the expression he wore betoken relief.
“Is there no hope, Doctor ?” murmured the Duchess, in a low and broken voice, between her sobs.
The answer came from her sister.
“Why don't you keep the ladder steady? It won't keep steady." After a deathlike silence she continued, a curious light and life coming into her face and her voice : “There, keep it like that! It's steady now. Look! There are angels walking up and down it. I can hear the rustle of their wings. Oh, do keep it like that! It seems to stretch right up to heaven!”
And the ladder being like that, she climbed it.