As the words passed his lips the clerk joined us, and at the same moment there was another and a last grating turn of the key in the lock.
"The Lord have mercy on his soul!" said the old man. "He is doomed and dead. He has hampered the lock."
I rushed to the door. The one absorbing purpose that had filled all my thoughts, that had controlled all my actions, for weeks and weeks past, vanished in an instant from my mind. All remembrance of the heartless injury the man's crimes had inflicted--of the love, the innocence, the happiness he had pitilessly laid waste-- of the oath I had sworn in my own heart to summon him to the terrible reckoning that he deserved--passed from my memory like a dream. I remembered nothing but the horror of his situation. I felt nothing but the natural human impulse to save him from a frightful death.
"Try the other door!" I shouted. "Try the door into the church! The lock's hampered. You're a dead man if you waste another moment on it."
There had been no renewed cry for help when the key was turned for the last time. There was no sound now of any kind, to give token that he was still alive. I heard nothing but the quickening crackle of the flames, and the sharp snap of the glass in the skylight above.
I looked round at my two companions. The servant had risen to his feet--he had taken the lantern, and was holding it up vacantly at the door. Terror seemed to have struck him with downright idiocy-- he waited at my heels, he followed me about when I moved like a dog. The clerk sat crouched up on one of the tombstones, shivering, and moaning to himself. The one moment in which I looked at them was enough to show me that they were both helpless.
Hardly knowing what I did, acting desperately on the first impulse that occurred to me, I seized the servant and pushed him against the vestry wall. "Stoop!" I said, "and hold by the stones. I am going to climb over you to the roof--I am going to break the skylight, and give him some air!"
The man trembled from head to foot, but he held firm. I got on his back, with my cudgel in my mouth, seized the parapet with both hands, and was instantly on the roof. In the frantic hurry and agitation of the moment, it never struck me that I might let out the flame instead of letting in the air. I struck at the skylight, and battered in the cracked, loosened glass at a blow. The fire leaped out like a wild beast from its lair. If the wind had not chanced, in the position I occupied, to set it away from me, my exertions might have ended then and there. I crouched on the roof as the smoke poured out above me with the flame. The gleams and flashes of the light showed me the servant's face staring up vacantly under the wall--the clerk risen to his feet on the tombstone, wringing his hands in despair--and the scanty population of the village, haggard men and terrified women, clustered beyond in the churchyard--all appearing and disappearing, in the red of the dreadful glare, in the black of the choking smoke. And the man beneath my feet!--the man, suffocating, burning, dying so near us all, so utterly beyond our reach!
The thought half maddened me. I lowered myself from the roof, by my hands, and dropped to the ground.
"The key of the church!" I shouted to the clerk. "We must try it that way--we may save him yet if we can burst open the inner door."
"No, no, no!" cried the old man. "No hope! the church key and the vestry key are on the same ring--both inside there! Oh, sir, he's past saving--he's dust and ashes by this time!"
"They'll see the fire from the town," said a voice from among the men behind me. "There's a ingine in the town. They'll save the church."
I called to that man--HE had his wits about him--I called to him to come and speak to me. It would be a quarter of an hour at least before the town engine could reach us. The horror of remaining inactive all that time was more than I could face. In defiance of my own reason I persuaded myself that the doomed and lost wretch in the vestry might still be lying senseless on the floor, might not be dead yet. If we broke open the door, might we save him? I knew the strength of the heavy lock--I knew the thickness of the nailed oak--I knew the hopelessness of assailing the one and the other by ordinary means. But surely there were beams still left in the dismantled cottages near the church? What if we got one, and used it as a battering-ram against the door?
The thought leaped through me like the fire leaping out of the shattered skylight. I appealed to the man who had spoken first of the fire-engine in the town. "Have you got your pickaxes handy?" Yes, they had. "And a hatchet, and a saw, and a bit of rope?" Yes! yes! yes! I ran down among the villagers, with the lantern in my hand. "Five shillings apiece to every man who helps me!" They started into life at the words. That ravenous second hunger of poverty--the hunger for money--roused them into tumult and activity in a moment. "Two of you for more lanterns, if you have them! Two of you for the pickaxes and the tools! The rest after me to find the beam!" They cheered--with shrill starveling voices they cheered. The women and the children fled back on either side. We rushed in a body down the churchyard path to the first empty cottage. Not a man was left behind but the clerk--the poor old clerk standing on the flat tombstone sobbing and wailing over the church. The servant was still at my heels--his white, helpless, panic-stricken face was close over my shoulder as we pushed into the cottage. There were rafters from the torn-down floor above, lying loose on the ground--but they were too light. A beam ran across over our heads, but not out of reach of our arms and our pickaxes--a beam fast at each end in the ruined wall, with ceiling and flooring all ripped away, and a great gap in the roof above, open to the sky. We attacked the beam at both ends at once. God! how it held--how the brick and mortar of the wall resisted us! We struck, and tugged, and tore. The beam gave at one end--it came down with a lump of brickwork after it. There was a scream from the women all huddled in the doorway to look at us--a shout from the men--two of them down but not hurt. Another tug all together--and the beam was loose at both ends. We raised it, and gave the word to clear the doorway. Now for the work! now for the rush at the door! There is the fire streaming into the sky, streaming brighter than ever to light us! Steady along the churchyard path--steady with the beam for a rush at the door. One, two, three--and off. Out rings the cheering again, irrepressibly. We have shaken it already, the hinges must give if the lock won't. Another run with the beam! One, two, three--and off. It's loose! the stealthy fire darts at us through the crevice all round it. Another, and a last rush! The door falls in with a crash. A great hush of awe, a stillness of breathless expectation, possesses every living soul of us. We look for the body. The scorching heat on our faces drives us back: we see nothing--above, below, all through the room, we see nothing but a sheet of living fire.