It was after midnight. Petersen, Manly, Collier, and Grigg had been playing euchre for the last five hours, and drinking Cody’s hand-made, chain-lightning whisky. They were heavy-eyed and heavy-headed, and did not seem to realize the significance of the shout for a few moments. Then they placed their cards carefully on the table, face downwards, and filed out, blundering along the passage to the hotel verandah.
A fierce red glow burned against the western sky, and far down amongst the black gum-trees a tongue of flame danced in the darkness.
Petersen, his tall form steadied against the verandah post, gazed for a moment, and the heaviness passed out of his eyes, succeeded by a keen interest, the flush in his handsome bearded face, induced by the heat of the room and the poisonous liquor he had drunk, died out, and his cheeks became ashen-grey in the dim light reflected from the bar window. Suddenly a cry burst from his lips:
“It is my house! Oh, God, my wife!”
He sprang off in the darkness, and rushed at full speed along the rough track leading down the hill in the direction of the fire, and his friends followed swiftly on his heels.
Petersen had only become even a moderately good customer to Cupid Cody, the preternaturally ugly landlord of the Wallaby Arms, and patentee and sole proprietor of the Gehenna brand of whisky, within the last three months; but of late he had been a very frequent visitor at the hotel, and had developed an appetite for Cupid’s noxious liquors and a fondness for euchre which Mr. Cody was not slow to encourage.
Bert was a native of the Pea Creek district, and after living a sober and industrious life to take suddenly to vitriolic whisky and combative euchre parties two years after marriage was to excite curiosity and comment. The comment was not complimentary to Mrs. Bert. His few scattered neighbours seemed to find a sneaking satisfaction in the belief that Petersen was not happy in his married life. This, they contended, was only in accord with the fitness of things. In the first place young Petersen had gone to town for his wife, an action that was considered extremely unneighbourly, and was accepted as a reflection upon the marriageable young maidens of Pea Creek and district. In the second place Mrs. Petersen had shown no disposition to “make up to” her neighbours’ wives and daughters, and consequently had the reputation of being “stuck up,” and that is a sin unpardonable amongst bush people, to whom sociability means so much.
Bert’s married life had not been the happiest. The girl he loved and the girl he married was quite unsuited to the life his wife was called upon to lead. She was a small, fair, town-bred girl, fond of gaiety and admiration, and used to little work and much amusement. He had won her in his best clothes, in the course of occasional trips to the city, and he took her to his home out in the silent bush, where the nearest neighbour was a quarter of a mile off, and then a big, plain, motherly person, with a great contempt for “Sunday clothes,” and few ideas above the dairy.
Lately Mary’s discontent had shown itself in petulant outbursts, in fits of the sulks, and a callous indifference to her husband’s feelings, She grew to despise Petersen in his coloured moleskins and heavy boots. Bert fought against it good-humouredly, striving to make her life pleasant, and to retain her affection, but latterly her temper had driven him almost to despair, and as he still loved her he preferred the savage delights of Cody’s bar parlour to the childish querulousness of the disappointed woman and her eternal twitching at his heartstrings.
Petersen’s house was quite two miles from the Wallaby Arms, and throughout the long race the fear that had sprung into the man’s soul never left him for a second. A conviction that his wife was in the burning house possessed him, and endowed him with extraordinary speed and strength.
He had left his wife at five o’clock in the afternoon, suffering from the headache that seemed to have become perpetual, and that filled his house with wailing, and called down upon his head tearful reproaches without reason and without end.
“What can I do?” he had asked, helplessly.
“At least you can go away,” she answered, with fierce petulance.
When Petersen reached his burning home two or three men were running about hopelessly with buckets of water, and two pale-faced women stood before the house, watching it burn, stupid with fear. To these Bert appealed:
“My wife! where is she?”
The women shook their heads dumbly, and one pointed a long, trembling hand towards the leaping flames.
“No, no, no!” the husband cried, and he called his wife’s name again and again, running wildly from place to place. The men had seen nothing of Mrs. Petersen—they believed she was in the house.
Distracted with fear and grief, Bert rushed once round the home, seeking amongst the saplings, crying his wife’s name in a voice pregnant with pain and apprehension, and then the watchers saw him stop at the front and survey the burning house for a moment. The fire had now seized upon every part of the building, and threw up great tongues of flame against the black sky. Only for a second he stood, and then they saw him dash at the door and drive it in with his shoulder, and presently he disappeared amidst the flames and smoke.
The people who had now collected about the burning house drew closer and gazed into the flames, speechless and pale with terror. The moments dragged by, and they waited, the great fear growing upon them as the walls trembled, and the long, spiral flames were flung higher and higher into the windless night. Still they waited, scarcely breathing. The suspense became intolerable. Men looked into each other’s eyes with fearful meaning, and dry tongues passed over drier lips. At length an overwrought woman shrieked aloud, and sank upon her knees, hiding her face in the folds of her dress. And then the roof was seen to rise upwards and outwards, the whole building vibrated, and, with a roaring and hissing of flames, collapsed into a glowing ruin, from which the sparks rose in clouds, and about which the flames ran and curled like great serpents.
The watchers knew now that Bert Petersen would never come forth again. The women sobbed, crouching on the ground. The men, white-faced and dumb, stood gazing stupidly into the fire, paralyzed by the sense of their impotence.
Not till Ragan, the mounted constable from Magpie, arrived did they find tongue, and as the tale was told Ragan’s face grew grey under its accustomed bronze.
“Was burned trying to rescue his wife, you say?” he murmured.
“It was a mad attempt,” said the now sobered Collier.
“’Twas,” continued the constable in a harsh voice; “for his wife wasn’t there.”
“She’s eloped with young Arthur Grey, the dude at the post-office, damn her. They cleared out from Magpie together on the up train!”