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The Rose in the Ring
George Barr McCutcheon
CHAPTER I. THE FUGITIVE
CHAPTER II. IN THE DRESSING-TENT
CHAPTER III. DAVID ENTERS THE SAWDUST RING
CHAPTER IV. A STRANGER APPEARS ON THE SCENE
CHAPTER V. SOMETHING ABOUT THE BRADDOCKS
CHAPTER VI. DAVID JENISON'S STORY
CHAPTER VII. THE BROTHERS CRONK
CHAPTER VIII. AN INVITATION TO SUPPER
CHAPTER IX. A THIEF IN THE NIGHT
CHAPTER X. LOVE WINGS A TIMID DART
CHAPTER XI. ARTFUL DICK GOES VISITING
CHAPTER XII. IN WHICH MANY THINGS HAPPEN
CHAPTER XIII. THE SALE
CHAPTER I. THE DAUGHTER OF COLONEL GRAND
CHAPTER II. THE STRANGER AT THE HALL
CHAPTER III. THE MAN WHO SERVED HIS TIME
CHAPTER IV. THE DELIVERY OF A TELEGRAM
CHAPTER V. THE LOVE THAT WAS STAUNCH
CHAPTER VI. DOOR-STEPS
CHAPTER VII. TOM BRADDOCK'S PROMISE
CHAPTER VIII. COLONEL GRAND AND THE CRONKS
CHAPTER IX. IN THE LITTLE TRIANGULAR "SQUARE"
CHAPTER X. THE BLACK HEADLINES
The gaunt man led the way. At his heels, doggedly, came the two short ones, fagged, yet uncomplaining; all of them drenched to the skin by the chill rain that swirled through the Gap, down into the night-ridden valley below. Sky was never so black. Days of incessant storm had left it impenetrably overcast.
These men trudged—or stumbled—along the slippery road which skirted the mountain's base. Soggy, unseen farm lands and gardens to their left, Stygian forests above and to their right. Ahead, the far-distant will-o-the-wisp flicker of many lights, blinking in the foggy shroud. Three or four miles lay between the sullen travelers and the town that cradled itself in the lower end of the valley.
Night had stolen early upon the dour spring day. The tall man who led carried a rickety, ill-smelling lantern that sent its feeble rays no farther ahead than a dozen paces; it served best to reveal the face of the huge silver watch which frequently was drawn from its owner's coat pocket.
Eight o'clock,—no more,—and yet it seemed to these men that they had plowed forever through the blackness of this evil night, through a hundred villainous shadows by unpointed paths. Mile after mile, they had traversed almost impassable roads, unwavering persistence in command of their strength, heavy stoicism their burden. Few were the words that had passed between them during all those weary miles. An occasional oath, muffled but impressive, fell from the lips of one or the other of those who followed close behind the silent, imperturbable leader. The tall man was as silent as the unspeakable night itself.
It was impossible to distinguish the faces of these dogged night-farers. The collars of their coats were turned up, their throats were muffled, and the broad rims of their rain-soaked hats were far down over the eyes. There was that about them which suggested the unresented pressure of firearms inside the dry breast-pockets of long coats.
This was an evening in the spring of 1875, and these men were forging their way along a treacherous mountain road in Southwestern Virginia. A word in passing may explain the exigency which forced the travelers to the present undertaking. The washing away of a bridge ten miles farther down the valley had put an end to all thought of progress by rail, for the night, at least. Rigid necessity compelled them to proceed in the face of the direst hardships. Their mission was one which could not be stayed so long as they possessed legs and stout hearts. Checked by the misfortune at the bridge, there was nothing left for them but to make the best of the situation: they set forth on foot across the mountain, following the short but more arduous route from the lower to the upper valley. Since three o'clock in the afternoon they had been struggling along their way, at times by narrow wagon roads, not infrequently by trails and foot paths that made for economy in distance.
The tall man strode onward with never decreasing strength and confidence; his companions, on the contrary, were faint and sore and scowling. They were not to the mountains born; they came from the gentle lowlands by the sea,—from broad plantations and pleasant byways, from the tidewater country. He was the leader on this ugly night, and yet they were the masters; they followed, but he led at their bidding. They had known him for less than six hours, and yet they put their lives in his hands; another sunrise would doubtless see him pass out of their thoughts forever. He served the purpose of a single night. They did not know his name—nor he theirs, for that matter; they took him on faith and for what he was worth—five dollars.
"Are those the lights of the town?" panted one of the masters, a throb of hope in his breast. The tall man paused; the others came up beside him. He stretched a long arm in the direction of the twinkling lights, far ahead.
"Yas, 'r," was all that he said.
"How far?" demanded the other laboriously.
"'Bout fo'h mile."
"Road get any better?"
"Can we make it by nine, think?"
"We'd better be moving along. It's half-past seven now."
Once more they set forward, descending the slope into the less hazardous road that wound its way into the town of S——, then, as now, a thriving place in the uplands. The ending of a deadly war not more than ten years prior to the opening of this tale had left this part of fair Virginia gasping for breath, yet too proud to cry for help. Virginia, the richest and fairest and proudest of all the seceding states, was but now finding her first moments of real hope and relief. Her fortunes had gone for the cause; her hopes had sunk with it.
Both were now rising together from the slough into which they had been driven by the ruthless Juggernaut of Conquest. The panic of '73 meant little to the people of this fair commonwealth; they had so little then to lose, and they had lost so much. The town of S—-, toward which these weary travelers turned their steps, was stretching out its hands to clasp Opportunity and Prosperity as those fickle commodities rebounded from the vain-glorious North; the smile was creeping back into the haggard face of the Southland; the dollars were jingling now because they were no longer lonely. The bitterness of life was not so bitter; an ancient sweetness was providing the leaven. The Northern brother was relaxing; he was even washing the blood from his hands and extending them to raise the sister he had ravished. There was forgiveness in the heart of fair Virginia—but not yet the desire to forget. The South was coming into its own once more—not the old South, but a new one that realized.
Intermittent strains of music came dancing up into the hills from the heart of S—. The wayfarers looked at each other in the darkness and listened in wonder to these sounds that rose above the swish of the restless rain.
"It's a band," murmured one of the two behind.
"Yas, 'r; a circus band," vouchsafed the guide, a sudden eagerness in his voice. "Van Slye's Great and Only Mammoth Shows—"
"A circus?" interrupted one of the men gruffly. "Then the whole town is full of strangers. That's bad for us, Blake."
"I don't see why. He's more than likely to be where the excitement's highest, ain't he? He's not too old for that. We'll find him in that circus tent, Tom, if he's in the town at all."
"First circus they've had in S—— in a dawg's age," ventured the guide, with the irrelevancy of an excited boy. "Rice's was there once, I can't remember jest when, an' they was some talk of Barnum las' yeah, they say, but he done pass us by. He's got a Holy Beheemoth that sweats blood this yeah, they say. Doggone, I'd like to see one." The guide had not ventured so much as this, all told, in the six hours of their acquaintanceship.
"Well, let's be moving on. I'm wet clear through," shivered Blake.
Silence fell upon them once more. No word was spoken after that, except in relation to an oath of exasperation; they swung forward into the lower road, their sullen eyes set on the lights ahead. Heavy feet, dragging like hundredweights, carried them over the last weary mile. Into the outskirts of the little town they slunk. The streets were deserted, muddy, and lighted but meagerly from widely separated oil lamps set at the tops of as many unstable posts.
Some distance ahead there was a vast glow of light, lifting itself above the housetops and pressing against the black dome that hung low over the earth. The rollicking quickstep of a circus band came dancing over the night to meet the footsore men. There were no pedestrians to keep them company. The inhabitants of S—— were inside the tents beyond, or loitering near the sidewalls with singular disregard for the drizzling rain that sifted down upon their unmindful backs or blew softly into the faces of the few who enjoyed the luxury of "umberells." Despite the apparent solitude that kept pace with them down the narrow street,—little more than a country lane, on the verge of graduating into a thoroughfare,—the three travelers were keenly alert; their squinting, eager eyes searched the shadows beside and before them; their feet no longer dragged through the slippery, glistening bed of the road; every movement, every glance signified extreme caution.
Slowly they approached the vacant lots beyond the business section of the town, known year in and year out to the youth of S—— as "the show grounds." Now they began to encounter straggling, envious atoms of the populace, wanderers who could not produce the admission fee and who were not permitted by the rough canvasmen to venture inside the charmed circle laid down by the "guy-ropes." At the corner of the tented common stood the "ticket wagon," the muddy plaza in front of it torn by the footprints of many human beings and lighted by a great gasoline lamp swung from a pole hard by. Beyond was the main entrance of the animal tent, presided over by uniformed ticket takers. Here and there, in the gloomy background, stood the canvas and pole wagons, shining in their wetness against the feeble light that oozed through the opening between the sidewall and the edge of the flapping main top, or glistening with sudden brightness in response to the passing lantern or torch in the hand of a rubber-coated minion who "belonged to the circus,"—a vast honor, no matter how lowly his position may have been. Costume and baggage wagons, their white and gold glory swallowed up in the maw of the night, stood backed up against the dressing-tent off to the right. The horse tent beyond was even now being lowered by shadowy, mystic figures who swore and shouted to each other across spaces wide and spaces small without regulating the voice to either effort. Horses, with their clanking trace-chains, in twos and fours, slipped in and out of the shadows, drawing great vehicles which rumbled and jarred with the noise peculiar to circus wagons: tired, underfed horses that paid little heed to the curses or the blows of the men who handled them, so accustomed were they to the proddings of life.
And inside the big tent the band played merrily, as only a circus band can play, jangling an accompaniment to the laughter and the shouts of the delighted multitude sitting in the blue-boarded tiers about the single ring with its earthen circumference, its sawdust carpet and its dripping lights.
The smell of the thing! Who has ever forgotten it? The smell of the sawdust, the smell of the gleaming lights, the smell of animals and the smell of the canvas top! The smell of the damp handbills, the programs and the bags of roasted peanuts! Incense! Never-to-be-forgotten incense of our beautiful days!
Warm and dry and bright under the spreading top with its two "center poles" and its row of "quarters"; cold, dreary and sordid outside in the real world where man and beast worked while others seemed to play.
Groups of canvasmen now began to tear down the animal tent—the "menagerie," as it has always been known to the man who pays admission. An hour later, when the big show is over, the spectators will stream forth, even as their own blue seats begin to clatter to earth behind them, and they will blink with amazement to find themselves in the open air, instead of in the menagerie tent. As if by magic it has disappeared, and with it the sideshow and its banners, the Punch and Judy show, the horse tent, the cook tent, the blacksmith shop. Where once stood a dripping white city, now stretches a barren, ugly waste of unhallowed, unfamiliar ground, flanked by the solitary temple of tinsel and sawdust which they have just left behind, and which even now is being desolated by scowling men in overalls. The crowd oozes forth, to find itself completely lost in the night, all points of the compass at odds, no man knowing east from west or north from south in the strange surroundings. The "lot" they have known so well and crossed so often has been transformed into a trackless wilderness, through which strange objects rumble and creak, over which queer, ghastly lights play for the benefit of grumbling men from another world.
Blake and his companion, standing apart from the lank, wide-eyed guide, were conversing in low tones.
"We'd better make the circuit of the tents," said Blake, evidently the leader. "You go to the right and I'll take the other way round. We'll meet here. Keep your eye peeled. He may be hiding under the wagons where it's dry. Look out for these circus toughs. They're a nasty crowd."
Then he turned to the guide.
"We won't need you any longer," he said. "This is as far as we go. Here is your pay. If I were you, I'd buy a ticket and go inside."
"Yas, 'r," said the smileless guide, accepting the greenback with no word of thanks. A brief "good night" to his employers, and the lean mountaineer strolled over to the ticket wagon. He purchased a ticket and hurried into the tent. We do not see him again. He has served his purpose.
His late employers made off on their circuit of the tents, sharp-eyed but casual, doing nothing that might lead the circus men to suspect that they were searching for one among them. In the good old days of the road circus there were thieves as well as giants; if a man was not a thief himself, he at least had a friend who was. There was honor among them.
A scant hour before the three men came to the "showgrounds" their quarry arrived there. That Blake and his companion were man-hunters goes without saying, but that the person for whom they searched should be a hungry, wan-faced, terrified boy of eighteen seems hardly in keeping with the relentless nature of the chase.
The ring performance in the main tent had been in progress for fifteen or twenty minutes when the fugitive, exhausted, drenched and shivering, crept into the protected nook which marks the junction of the circus and dressing tops. Here it was comparatively dry; the wind did not send its thin mist into this canvas cranny. Not so dark as he may have desired, if one were to judge by the expression in his feverish eyes as he peered back at the darkness out of which he had slunk, but so cramped in shadow that only the eye of a ferret could have distinguished the figure huddled there. Chilled to the bone, wet through and through, this white-faced lad, with drooping lip and quickened breath, crouched there and waited for the heavy footstep and the brutal command of the canvasman who was to drive him forth into the darkness once more.
He had watched his chance to creep into this coveted spot. When the men were called to work at the horse tent he found his chance. It looked warm in this corner; a pleasant light on the inside of the two tents glowed against the damp sidewalls: here and there it glimmered invitingly under the bottom of the canvas. He knew that his tenancy must end in an hour or two: the big top would be leveled to the ground, rolled up and spirited away into the stretches that lay between this city and the next one, twenty miles away. But an hour or two in this friendly corner, close to the glare of the circus lights, almost in touch with the joyous, bespangled world of his ambitions, even though he was a hated and hunted creature, was better than the sopping roadside or the fields.
He knew that he was being hounded and that those who sought him were close behind. Once in the forest, far back in the hills, he had heard them, he had seen them. Off in other parts of the country men were looking for him. In the cities throughout Virginia and the adjoining states there were placards describing him ere this, and rewards were mentioned.
Resting in the bushes above the trail, late in the afternoon, he had seen Blake and his men. They had stopped to rest, and he could hear their conversation plainly. With all the wiliness of a hunted thing, he had slipped off into the forest, terrified to find that his pursuers were so close upon him.
He had learned that they were making for S—— and it was easy to see that their progress was slow and grueling. His feet were light, his legs strong; peril gave wings to his courage. Something told him that he must beat them by many miles into the town of S——. Once, when he was much younger, he had gone to S—— with his grandfather to see the soldiers encamped there. He remembered the railroad. It was imperative that he should reach the railway as far in advance of his pursuers as legs and a stout heart could carry him.
A wide detour through the sombre forest brought him to the road once more, fully a mile below his pursuers. He forgot his hunger and his fatigue. For miles he ran with the fleetness of a scared thing, guided by the crude sign-boards which pointed the way and told the distance to S——. Night fell, but he ran on, stumbling and faint with dread, tears rolling down his thin cheeks, sobs in his throat. Darkness hid the sign-boards from view; he reeled from one side of the narrow, Stygian lane to the other, sustaining many falls and bruises, but always coming to his feet with the unflagging determination to fight his way onward.
Half-dazed, gasping for breath and ready to drop in his tracks, he came at last to the open valley. Far ahead and below were the lights of a town—he could only hope that it was S——. Tortured by the vast oppressiveness of the solitude which lay behind him, peopled by a thousand ghosts whose persistent footsteps had haunted him through every mile of his flight, he cried aloud as he stumbled down the rain-washed hill,—cried with the terror of one who sees collapse after human valor has been done to death.
He was never to know how he came, in the course of an hour, to the outskirts of the town. His mind, distracted by the terror of pursuit, refused to record the physical exertions of that last bitter hour; his body labored mechanically, without cognizance of the strain put upon it. He had traversed fifteen miles of the blackest of forests and by way of the most tortuous of roads. A subconscious triumph now inspired him, born of the certainty that he had left his enemies far behind. It was this oddly jubilant spur that drove him safely, almost instinctively, into the heart of S——. The music of a band both attracted and bewildered him. It was some time before he could grasp the fact that a circus was holding forth in the lower end of the town. The subtle cunning that had become part of his nature within the past forty-eight hours forbade an incautious approach to the circus grounds. There, of all places, he might expect to encounter peril. To his bewildered mind every man who breathed of life was a sleuth sent forth to lay hold of him.
He gave the circus—loved thing of tenderer days—a wide berth, finding his way to the railway station by outlying streets. His first thought was to board an outbound train, to secrete himself in one of the freight cars. The sudden, overpowering pangs of hunger drove this plan from his mind, combined with the discovery that no train would pass through the town before midnight. Disheartened, sick with despair, he slunk off through the railway yards, taking a roundabout way to the circus grounds.
There was money in his purse,—plenty of it; but he was afraid to enter an eating-house, or to even approach the "snack-stand" on the edge of the circus lot. For a long time he stood afar off in the darkness, his legs trembling, his mouth twitching, his eyes bent with pathetic intentness upon the single pie and hot sandwich stand that remained near the sideshow tent, presided over by a kind-faced, sleepy old man in spectacles.
A huge placard tacked to the board fence back of this stand attracted his attention. Impelled by a strange curiosity, he ventured into the circle of light, knowing full well, before he was near enough to distinguish more than the bold word "Reward," that this sinister bill had to do with him and no other.
Held by the same mysterious power that a serpent exercises in charming its victim, the lad stared at the face of this ominous thing that proclaimed him a fugitive for whom five hundred dollars would be paid, dead or alive.
Stricken to the soul, he read and re-read the black words, unable, for a long time, to tear himself away from the spot. A quick alarm seized him. He slunk back into the shadows, his hunger forgotten. For many minutes he stood in the grisly darkness, staring at the white patch on the fence. Curses rose to his lips—lips that had never known an oath before; prayers and pleadings were forgotten in that bitter arraignment of fate.
Then came the sudden revival of youthful spirits, carrying with them the reckless bravado that all boys possess to the verge of folly. The band was playing, the show had begun. In his mind's eye he could see the "grand entree." A fierce desire to brave detection and boldly enter the charmed pavilion took possession of him. First, he would buy of the pieman's wares; then he would calmly present himself before the ticket wagon window, after which—But he got no farther in his dream of audacity. The placard on the fence seemed to smite him in the face. He drew farther back into the darkness, shuddering. With his arms clasped tightly across his chest, shivering in the chill that had returned triumphant, he dragged himself wearily away from the place of temptation.
Circling the dressing-tent, he came upon men at work. They were drawing stakes with the old-fashioned chains. For a while he dully watched them. They passed on. He crept from his place of hiding and, attracted by the lights as a moth is drawn by the candle, made his way to the sheltered spot at the joining of the tents.
After a few moments of restless vigil an overpowering sense of lassitude fell upon him. His eyes closed in abrupt surrender to exhaustion. The rhythmic beat of the quickstep leaped off into great distances; the champing and snorting of horses in the dressing-tent died away as if by magic; the subdued voices of the men and women who waited their turn to bound into the merry ring faded into indistinguishable whispers; the crack of the ring master's whip and the responsive yelp of the clown trailed off into silence. His head fell back, his body relaxed, and he slipped off into sweet unconsciousness.
A man in motley garb, with a face of scarlet and white, sitting on a blue half-barrel near the flap which indicated the entrance to the men's section of the dressing-tent, caught sight of an arm and hand lying limp under the edge of the canvas. He stared hard for a moment and then, attracted by the slim, unfamiliar member, arose and advanced to the spot. As he stood there, looking down at the hand, a woman and a young girl approached.
"Drunk," observed the clown, with a grimace.
They stopped beside him, looking down. The woman spoke. "How long and fine the fingers are. A boy's hand, not a man's. See who is there, Joey, do."
And so it was that the fugitive was taken.
The clown lifted the sidewall and bent over the form of the lad, peering into the white, mud-streaked face.
"He's not drunk," he said quickly.
"He looks ill, poor fellow. How wet he is,—and so muddy. Is he asleep? It isn't—it isn't something else?" She drew back in sudden dread.
"He's alive, right enough. I say, Mrs. Braddock, there's something queer about this. He can't belong in this 'ere town, else he wouldn't be sleepin' 'ere in the mud. He's plain pegged out, ma'am. Like enough 'e's some poor fool as wants to join the circus. Run away from 'ome, I daresay. We've 'ad lots of 'em follow us up lately, you know. Only this 'un looks different. Shall I call Peterson? He'll wake 'im up right enough and conwince 'im that the show business is a good thing to stay out of while he can."
"Don't call Peterson. He is a brute. Rouse him yourself, and tell him to come inside the tent. Poor boy, he's half drowned. Come, dearie," to the girl, "go into the dressing-room. You must not see—"
"He is so white and ill-looking, mother," said the girl, in pitying tones, her gaze fastened upon the face of the sleeper. The mother drew the child aside, an arm about her shoulder. Together they watched the clown's efforts to arouse the boy.
"He may be another Artful Dick, my child," ventured the mother. "Your father says the pickpockets are uncommonly numerous this spring."
"I'm sure he isn't a thief—I'm sure of it," said the girl eagerly.
She was a pretty, brown-haired creature, whose large, serious eyes seemed unnaturally dark and brilliant against the vivid coloring of her cheeks and forehead. The blacks, whites and carmines of the make-up box had beautified her for the ring but not for closer observation. One who understood the secrets of the "make-up" could have told at a glance that underneath the thick layer of powder and paint there was a soft, white skin; even the rough, careless application of harmless cosmetics could not, in any sense, deceive one as to the delicacy of her features. The mouth, red with the carmine grease, was gentle, even tremulous; her nose, though streaked with a thin, white line, was straight and pure patrician in its modeling, with fine, quivering nostrils, now gently distended by sharp exercise in the ring; her ears were small, her throat round and slim; right proudly her head rode the firm, white neck; the warm, brown hair swept down in caresses for the bare shoulders.
A long, red Shaker cloak enveloped the slim, straight body. Dainty golden slippers, protected by the ungainly ground shoes of the circus performer, peeped from beneath the hem of the robe. A small, visorless cap of red velvet fitted snugly over the crown of her head.
Now the lips were parted and the eyes narrowed by interest in the stranger who slept against their walls.
The mother was still a young woman; a pretty one, despite the careworn expression in her eyes and the tired lines in her face. She was dressed in the ordinary garments of the street, in no way suggestive of the circus. There was an unmistakable air of gentle breeding about her, patient under the strain of adverse circumstances, but strong and resolute in the power to meet them without flinching. This woman, you could see at a glance, was not born to the circus and its hardships; she came of another world. Tall and slender and proud she was, endowed with the poise of a thorough gentlewoman. Hers was a fine, brilliant face, crowned by dark hair that grew low and waved about her temples. Deep, tender brown eyes met yours steadily and with unwavering candor. There was strength and loyalty and purity in their depths. No hardness, no callousness, no guile, no rancor there: only the clear, sweet eyes of a woman whose soul is white. There was an infinite pity in them now.
The clown had shaken the boy into partial wakefulness. He was sitting up, leaning forward on his hands, his eyes blinking in the contest between sleep and amazement.
"Get up," said Grinaldi, the clown, shaking him by the shoulder. "What are you doing here, boy?"
The lad came quickly to his feet and would have rushed away into the darkness behind him had it not been for the restraining grip on his arm. He felt himself being dragged into the stuffy, mysterious vestibule of the tent, into plain view of a half-dozen vividly attired persons, almost under the feet of stolid, gayly caparisoned horses wearing the great back-pads.
And this creature who led him there—this grotesque object with the chalky face and coal-black eyebrows that ran up in tall triangles to meet a still chalkier pate—this figure with the red and black crescents on his cheeks and the baggy, spotted suit of red and white and blue and the conical hat—who and what was he?
He was not dreaming—he was in the dressing-tent of the circus, enveloped by the dull, magic atmosphere that comes in the smoke of burning oils,—an atmosphere that is never to be found outside the low walls of a dressing-tent. He experienced a sudden feeling of suffocation. The whole world seemed to have closed in upon him; a drab sky almost touched his head; the horizon seemed to have rushed up to within ten feet of where he stood.
His bewildered gaze took in the horses, the boxes, the trunks, the ring paraphernalia, the "properties," the discarded uniforms of attendants—cast in apparent confusion here, there and everywhere. Somehow, as he stared, this conglomerate mass of unfamiliar things seemed to creep away into the black shadows he had not perceived before; the drab dome of the tent began to swirl above his head, like a merry-go-round; the lights danced and then went out.
Grinaldi, the clown, caught him in his arms as he slipped forward in a dead faint.
When he regained consciousness, he was lying on a thick, dusty mattress, his head pillowed on a bundle of cloth that smelled of cotton and dyestuffs. Faces emerged from the gloom around him. Some one was holding a torch over his strange couch. That odd face in bismuth and lampblack was bending over him.
"He's come 'round, Mrs. Braddock," he heard this creature say, in a far-off voice. "Only a faint, nothing more. Poor lad, he looks ill and hungry."
Then other figures, all gaudy and bright and glittering, crowded into his vision. He tried to raise himself to his elbow, a fierce wave of embarrassment rushing over him. Some one supported him from behind. As he came to a sitting position, he turned his head to thank this person. It was with difficulty that he repressed a cry of alarm. The being who braced him with friendly arms was a glittering, shiny thing of green, with a human face that leered upon him.
Observing the youth's bewilderment and uncertainty, Grinaldi laughed.
"He's not a boa-constrictor, lad. He's the boneless wonder. He's as gentle as a spring lamb, and not hardly as tough. Signer Anaconda, the Human Snake, that's what he's called on the bills. Ed Casey is his real name."
"Aw, cheese it, Joey," growled the amiable Signer. "Say, young feller, what's ailing you? Where'd you come from?"
The stranger in this curious world managed to turn his body so that his legs hung over the side of the vaulter's mattress; he faced his audience, a sudden wariness in his eyes. Before venturing a word of explanation, he allowed his gaze to sweep the entire group. They mistook his deliberateness for stupefaction.
He saw perhaps a dozen people in the group before him. The colors of the rainbow were represented in the staring, curious company. There were men in tights and women in tights—in pink and red and green and blue—some of them still panting and breathless after their perilous work in the ring. He took them all in at a glance, but his eyes rested at last on the one figure that seemed out-of-place in this motley crowd: the tall, graceful figure of the woman in street clothes. He looked long at the sweet, gentle, unpainted face of this woman, and drew his first deep breath of relief and hope when she smiled. She moved quickly through the crowd of acrobats and riders, followed close behind by the slim, wide-eyed girl in the long red cloak. An instant later she was sitting beside him on the mattress, smiling with friendly encouragement as she laid her hand upon his arm. The girl stood at her knee. For the first time the fugitive noticed the face of this slender girl—no, it was the eyes alone that he saw, for the face was grossly covered with pigments.
"What has happened?" asked the tall woman gently. "Have you—have you run away from home, my boy?"
"How long have I been here?" There was a suggestion of alarm in the abrupt question.
His voice, querulous through excitement, was quite strong and musical. The tone and his manner of addressing the questioner proved beyond contradiction that he was no ordinary tramp, or show-follower, such as they were in the habit of seeing in their travels. A dozen fine old Virginia gentlemen, perhaps, one after another, had lived and died before him; down that precious line of blood had come the strain that makes for the finished thoroughbred—the real Virginia aristocrat. Six words, spoken with the mild drawl of the cultured Southerner, were sufficient to prove his title. No amount of mud or tatters or physical distress could take away the inborn charm of blood. No haggardness or pain could detract from the fine, clean movement of the lips, or sully the deep intelligence of the eyes.
His audience at once found a new interest in him. He was not what they had expected him to be; this boy was no scatter-brained country lout, with the dream of the circus at the back of his folly.
He, of course, could not have known that during the ten minutes in which he lay unconscious on the huge pad a score of these curious, sympathetic strollers, partially or wholly dressed, had come out to gaze upon him, each delivering a characteristic opinion as to his purpose, but all of them roughly compassionate. Without exception, they looked upon him as one of the show-sick youths who, in those days, as now, succumb too readily to the lure of sawdust and spangles. More than one scoffing jest was uttered over his unconscious head.
Now they realized that he was not what they had thought him to be. A deeper tragedy than this seemed to be stamped in his wan face.
"You fainted ten minutes ago. Are you feeling better now? Give him some brandy, one of you. We will put you on your feet again in a few minutes, and then you may get on to the hotel. How wet you are! You must have come far."
He watched her face all the time she was speaking. No sign of trust or confidence came into his own as the result of her kindliness. Instead, the wariness grew.
"Only across the mountain," he said succinctly. A half smile, quizzical and almost grotesque by reason of the mud on his chin, came to his lips. "I've been out in the rain, ma'am," he vouchsafed. "I should say you had," said the contortionist. "You're soppin' wet. By gum, I'll bet the green runs in these tights of mine, too." The wet body had drenched them thoroughly.
Whereupon the newcomer undertook to support himself, not without a word of thanks to the acrobat. Once more he surveyed the mystic circle of figures. He had never been so close to men and women in tights before. Somehow they were not so alluring as when viewed from the blue seats of the circus tent. The fluffy, abbreviated tarletan skirts of two women bareback riders who stood not more than two yards away seemed tawdry and flimsy at close range; the pink fleshings of the world's greatest somersault artist looked rumpled and fuzzy; the zouave costume of the lady rope-walker lost its satiny sheen through propinquity; the clown was dusty and greasy and stuffy. An illusion was being shattered in the flash of an eye.
"I must be moving along," he said, in quick return to apprehension. "Thank you for looking out for me. It was very kind of—" He swayed as he tried to arise. The genial contortionist caught him.
"He's hungry!" cried one of the bareback queens. He made a heroic effort to pull himself together. The innate modesty of a gentleman reproved him even as things went hazy: he was conscious that he was staring at the surprisingly large kneecaps of the speaker. He was vaguely troubled because they were dirty.
A flask of brandy was pressed to his lips. He gasped, caught his breath, and, as the tears came to his eyes, smiled apologetically.
"It's pretty strong," he choked out.
"Puts snap and ginger into you," said the clown, standing back to watch the effect of his ministrations. "It strikes me you're not a common tramp. Wot were you doing 'angin' round this tent, son? Don't you know you might 'ave got clubbed to death by one of the canvasmen out there? They're never 'appy unless they're kickin' some poor rube over the guy-ropes. You wasn't trying to peep into the dressing-tent, was you?"
A hot flush mounted to the boy's forehead. He arose unsteadily.
"No," he said quickly. "I was trying to find a dry spot. I was tired out. Let me go now, please. I'm all right." He started toward a flap in the tent wall.
"Better not go that-a-way," said the clown. "You'll go plump into the ring. Wait a minute. Are you 'ungry?"
"No," said the boy, but they knew he was not speaking the truth. The girl in the long red cloak, she of the wonderful eyes, stood before him.
"Please wait, won't you?" she said, half timidly, half imperatively. "I will get something for you to eat. It's—it's right over there in my corner. The cook always brings my father's supper here after the show begins. He won't mind if I give it to you. He can get more. My father owns the show."
"No, no," he cried. "I can't take his supper. I am not hungry."
But she smiled and flew away, disappearing behind the flap at his left: a fluttering red fairy she might have been. He never forgot that first radiant, enveloping smile.
"It is all right, my boy," said the girl's mother, also smiling. "You are hungry. We know what it is to be hungry—sometimes."
"That we do," said the contortionist, rubbing his narrow abdomen and drawing a lugubrious mouth.
"You must be quite frozen in those wet clothes," observed Mrs. Braddock pityingly.
"I can't stay here, ma'am," he said abruptly. The hunted look came back into his eyes.
"He's no regular bum," said the "strong man," in the background, addressing the pink-limbed "lady juggler."
"He's got a 'istory, that boy 'as," said the lady addressed, deeply interested. "Makes me think o' that boy Dickens wrote about. What was his name?"
"How should I know?" demanded the strong man. "You Britishers are always workin' off riddles about something somebody wrote."
"What is your name?" asked the gentle-voiced woman at the boy's side. "Where do you come from?"
He hesitated, still uncertain of his standing among these strange, apparently friendly people.
"I can't tell you my name," he said in a low voice. "I hoped you wouldn't ask me. I have no home now—not since—Oh, a long time ago, it seems. More than a week, I reckon, ma'am."
"You have been wandering about like this for a week?" she asked in surprise. He gulped.
"Yes, ma'am. Since the eleventh of May." He wanted to tell her that he had been hunted from county to county for over a week, but something held his tongue. He felt that she would understand and sympathize, but he was not so sure of the others.
Perhaps she suspected what was going on in that troubled brain, for she laid her hand gently upon his arm and said: "Never mind, then. When you are stronger, you may go. I am sure you are a good boy."
He thanked her with a look of mute gratitude. The girl with the long red cloak came tripping back with a tray. She placed it on his knees; then she whisked away the napkin which covered it. All he knew was that he smiled up into her eyes through his tears, and that the smell of warm food assailed his nostrils. As she straightened up, the neglected cloak slipped from her shoulders. She caught it on her arm, but did not attempt to replace it. He lowered his eyes, singularly abashed. A trim, clean figure in red tights stood before him, absolutely without fear or shame or in the least conscious of her attire.
He was in her world, that was all. In his, outside that canvas crucible and between performances, she would have died of mortification if, by chance, there had been one-tenth of the exposure. Here, she was as fully dressed and as modestly as she would be an hour later, clothed from head to foot in the conventional garments of her sex, rigidly observing the strictest laws of delicacy.
A trim, straight figure she was, just rounding into young womanhood; turning fifteen, in truth. Lithe and graceful, with the sinuous development of a perfectly healthy young girl who has gone through the expanding process without pausing at the awkward stage, due no doubt to her life and training. Firm, well-rounded hips; a small waist, full chest and perfect shoulders, straight, exquisitely modeled limbs and high, arched insteps: perfect in girlhood, with promise of the divine at the height of full womanhood.
The mother arose at once. She remembered that he was in their world.
"Come," she said to her daughter. They withdrew to the women's half of the dressing-tent, leaving him to devour his feast alone. Slowly the others, taking their cue, edged away. When next the clown approached him, fresh from a merry whirl in the ring, the tray was on the mattress at his side, every particle of food gone. The boy's face was in his hands, his elbows on his knees.
"Well, you was 'ungry," said the kindly voice. The boy looked up, his eyelids heavy.
"I reckon I was almost asleep," he said. "I haven't slept much of late."
Suddenly it dawned on him that the clown was staring intently at his face. With quick understanding he shrank back, but did not withdraw his gaze from the eyes of the other.
"By jingo!" muttered the motley one. "You—you are the one they're 'unting for—all over the state. The reward bills! I remember now!"
The lad had risen. A look of abject misery and dread leaped in his eyes.
"Let me go!" he said, almost in a whisper, fiercely intense. "I'll get out. I haven't done any harm to you. Don't keep me here a minute—"
"Then you are the Jenison boy!" in open-mouthed wonder. "Well, I'll be jiggered! Here! Don't bolt like that!"
"Let go of me!" cried the boy, striking at the hand that clutched his arm. "I won't let them catch me! Let me go!"
"Keep your shirt on, my son," said the clown coolly. "Nobody's going to 'urt you 'ere. Just you remember that. I am not going to give you up—leastwise, not just yet. So you murdered your grandfather, did you? Well, I wouldn't 'ave took you to be that kind—"
"I didn't do it! I didn't do it!" There was piteous appeal in his wide eyes. "I swear I didn't. They're trying to put it on me to save some one else. Oh, please, don't keep me here. They—they are—they must be here by this time, looking for me. Oh, if you knew how I've tried to dodge them. They had bloodhounds last Saturday. Oh!" He covered his face with his hands and shuddered as with a mighty chill.
Grinaldi eyed him speculatively.
"You say they're 'ere now? So close as that?" he demanded in a low voice.
"I passed them on the mountain. I tried to make the railroad ahead of them. There was a bridge down back there. There were two of them, officers from the county seat. They won't have any mercy if they find me. They'll take me back and I'll be hung. I can't prove anything—I can't escape." He had dropped helplessly to the edge of the mattress, and was staring hard at the sidewall beyond as if expecting his pursuers to burst in upon him at any moment.
"And you didn't do it?" the clown asked, something like awe in his voice.
"Before God, I did not. I—I loved my grandfather. I couldn't have done it. Why, he was the only father I had—the only mother. He was everything to me. It was—" He caught himself up quickly in his wild declaration. "I know the man who did it. I heard them talking it over before it happened, but I didn't know what they were talking about." His eyes grew almost glassy with the horror that surged up from behind them.
"Then why don't you tell your story?" demanded the clown. "Let the other chap clear 'imself."
"They've got the evidence against me. Oh, you don't know! You can't know how it looked to the world. There's a man who says he saw me with a gun at my grandfather's window. He did see me there and I had a gun, but not to kill poor old granddaddy. No, no! I heard some one walking on the gallery—a thief, I thought. I crawled out of my window with my shotgun. I—but I oughtn't to tell you this. You must let me go. I'll never tell on you, I swear—"
"Wait a minute," interrupted the clown, laying his arm over the boy's shoulder. "We'll talk it over with Mrs. Braddock. She can tell by lookin' in your eyes whether you're good or bad. As far as I'm concerned, I don't believe you did it. Yes, yes, that's all right! Don't hug me, sonny. Here she is. She's the wife of the man wot owns the show."
Mrs. Braddock crossed over to them, smiling. It was not until she opened her lips to speak of the compliment his appetite had paid to the cook tent that she perceived the look in his eyes. Then she glanced at the serious face of the clown.
"This 'ere chap, ma'am," said Grinaldi, in low, level tones, "is David Jenison, the boy wanted for that murder near Richmond last week. You've seen the reward bills. His grandfather, you remember—"
She drew back; her eyes dilated, her lips stiff. "You are the Jenison boy?" she said slowly, even unbelievingly. "The one who killed his grandfa—" "But I didn't do it!" he almost wailed. "You—you must believe me, ma'am. I didn't do it!" He stood before her, looking straight into her eyes.
"No, Mrs. Braddock," said Grinaldi, "he didn't do it." "How do you know, Grinaldi? How can you—" "Because he says another person did it," said Grinaldi calmly.
The woman turned to the boy once more. She seemed to be searching his soul with her intense gaze.
"No," she murmured, after a moment, breathing deeply, "I am sure you did not commit murder. You poor, poor boy!"
He would have dropped to his knees before her, had not the clown checked him by means of a warning hiss.
"Brace up!" he said sharply. Then to Mrs. Bradock: "We've got to find a way to 'ide 'im. The officers are right on his 'eels."
She hesitated for a moment. Swift glances passed between her and the clown.
"You must keep very quiet and do what we tell you to do," she said to the boy, who nodded his head eagerly. "You will be safe here. A circus is the safest harbor in all the world for the thief and the lawbreaker. Why should it not be so for one who is innocent?"
"Let me tell you all about it, madam," began David Jenison, the hunted. She stopped him.
"Not now. There is no time for that. We will take you on faith and we will help you. My boy, I knew in the beginning that you were of gentle birth—I saw it in your face, in the way you held yourself. But that you should be one of the Jenisons of Virginia—why, Grinaldi, the Jenisons are the bluest—But, there, we'll talk of that another time, too. Sam!" She called to a ring attendant who stood near the entrance. The burly, rough-looking young man came up at once, respectful to a degree.
"Go out in front and tell Mr. Braddock to hurry back here as soon as he is through with the tickets!" The man slid out between the flapping walls. "Now, Grinaldi, you must make it your business to tell every one who this boy is, and what must be done for him. Don't be alarmed, David Jenison," she said with a smile. He had opened his lips to protest. "There isn't a soul in all this company, from feed-boy to proprietor, who will betray you to the officers of the law. We stand together—the innocent and the guilty. If you are vouched for by Joey Grinaldi and—me, or by any other in our little universe, that is the end of it. Even the basest ruffian in the canvas gang, even the vilest of the hostlers, will stand by you through thick and thin. And there are real murderers among them, too. You must have faith in us."
"I have faith in YOU" he said simply. Then, true Virginian that he was, this tired, harassed boy bent low and lifted her hand to his gallant lips. "I will give my life up for you any day, madam. It is yours."
"Spoken like a gentleman," said the clown, his eyes twinkling.
A couple of horses came clattering into the tent from the ring. At the entrance they were seized by waiting attendants; one of the mysteries that had always puzzled the boy was solved. He had wondered where the plunging steeds raced to after their whirlwind exit from the ring. A moment later, a swarm of men came rushing in with hoops, balloons and banners and hurdle-poles, followed by the "Greatest Living Bareback Rider of the Globe, the One and Only Mellburg." After him came a tired ringmaster, lanky and not half so proud as he looked to be in his spike-tailed coat.
Some one in the big tent was making an announcement in stentorian tones.
"It's time for me to go in," said the clown. "My song comes now. Just you go along with Casey 'ere, into the dressing-room. He'll get you something dry to wear out of my box. Don't forget one thing: we're all as thick as thieves 'ere, whether we're honest men or not. You'll find every man, woman and child wot appears in the ring to be absolutely square and honest. They've got to be. The bad men are not the performers. You'd find that out if you was with 'em a bit. I don't mind tellin' of it to you, as a consolation, that there is two real murderers among the canvasmen and a dozen or more pussons which are wanted for desp'rit things. Nobody peaches on 'em, mind you, and that's the way it goes. We've just got to stand together. Hi! Hi!"
He was off with a rush. A few minutes later he was heard singing his lay in the ring, the then popular and familiar ditty, "Whoa, Emma!" with a crude but vociferous chorus of male voices to "join in the refrain." Casey, without further instructions, and asking no questions, led the youth into the men's section. Here all was confusion. A dozen men were stripping themselves of one set of tights to don another, for in those days the ordinary acrobat did many turns in the process of earning his daily bread.
By the time Grinaldi returned, young Jenison was completely arrayed in an extra costume of the clown's, a creation in red and white stripes, much too baggy in all directions, but dry as toast. The owner of the costume put his hands to his sides and roared with laughter.
"Casey, you serpent," he gasped, "I didn't mean that kind of a suit. I meant my Sunday togs—the ones I go to church in, when I goes. Which I doesn't. 'Ere, boys, step right up and listen to an announcement." The crowd gave attention. "This 'ere chap is wanted. There's a big reward for 'im. You've all seen the posters. He's the Jenison boy. Well, he ain't guilty. Get the notion? We 've got to 'elp 'im out of the country. Mum's the word, lads. Say!" He stood back to inspect his charge. "If you're going to wear them togs, you've got to 'ave your face done over to match."
Whereupon he began to apply grease and bismuth to the countenance of the amazed young patrician. The others looked on and laughed good-naturedly. To his surprise, no one seemed to mind the fact that he was a fugitive and an alleged slayer. They had stared at him curiously for a moment; two or three of them exchanged whispers, that was all.
In a twinkling he was transformed into a real scaramouch. A conical hat adorned the knit skullpiece that covered his black hair.
"Don't peep in the lookin'-glass," said Signor Anaconda, now in the pale blue tights of a "ground and lofty" tumbler. "You'll keel over again, plumb dead."
The flap at the entrance was jerked aside and a tall, black-mustached man peered in upon the group.
"Where's the kid?" he demanded sharply. "My wife said he was with you, Joey. Say, I don't like this business. They're out in front now, looking for him. Two of 'em. Have you let him get away?"
David, peering from behind the real clown, experienced an instantaneous feeling of aversion for Braddock, the proprietor. Even as he quailed beneath the new peril that asserted itself in no vague manner, he found himself wondering how this man could have come to be the husband of his lovely benefactress.
"He's here, Tom," announced Grinaldi, shoving the boy forward.
"What's he doing in that costume?" demanded the owner, dropping the flap and staring hard at the boy.
"His clothes were wet. Besides, if they come botherin' around back 'ere, Tom, they won't be so likely to reckernise him in these—"
"Say, do you suppose I'm going to get into a muss with these people by hiding a murderer?" snapped Braddock. "Bring him out here. Come along, bub."
"You're getting blamed virtuous all of a sudden, Braddock," said the clown angrily. "'Ow about these dogs you are protectin' all the time? What's more, this 'ere kid's innocent."
"There's five hundred dollars reward for this fellow," said Braddock, jamming his hands into his coat pockets. "That doesn't sound like he's innocent, does it? Besides, the officers are plumb certain he's hanging around this show some place. I'm not going to be pestered with constables and detectives from here to Indiana, let me tell you that. It's bad business, monkeying with stray boys, ever since the Charley Ross kidnapping job last year. So you lummixes have decided to protect him, have you? Why, the whole pack of you ought to be in jail for even thinkin' of it. Come out here, boy!"
Without a word, the boy shook himself free of Grinaldi's protecting grasp, and stepped forward.
"I'm not willing to see these men get into trouble," he said steadily, addressing the boss. "Give me time to change my clothes again, and then you can call in the officers."
"Don't be a fool," exclaimed the clown. A murmur of protest arose from the others.
"Thomas!" A woman's voice was calling from the other side of the low canvas partition.
"That's my wife," growled Braddock. "I suppose she'll be beggin' for you, too. What do you want?" The question was roared through the canvas.
"Come here, please. I must speak with you."
"Change your clothes, boy," he said, after a moment of indecision. "See that he don't get away, you fellows. If he gives you the slip, I'll have blood, and don't you forget it."
The man had been drinking. His eyes were bloodshot and unsteady. His face was bloated from the effects of long and continued use of alcohol. Once on a time he had been a dashing, boldly handsome fellow; there could be no doubt of that; the sort of youth that any romantic girl might have fallen in love with. He was tall and straight and powerful, despite the evidences of dissipation that his face presented. A wonderfully vital constitution had protected his body from the ravages of self-indulgence; the constitution of a great, splendid human animal, in whom not the faintest sign of a once attractive personality remained. There was no refinement there, no mark of good breeding; all of the mirage-like glamour that may have bewildered and deceived her, long years ago, was gone. What she had evidently mistaken for the nobility of true manhood, in her innocence and folly, was no more than the arrogance of splendid health. This man had been beautiful in his day, and frankly pleasing. That was long before the thing that was in his blood, and in the blood of his fathers, perhaps, had claimed dominion: the mysterious thing which inevitably registers the curse of the base-born, so that no man may be deceived. Blood always tells, but usually it tells too late.
But of the Braddocks and their hateful history, more anon. Let us look at this man as he now is, just as we have looked, perhaps too casually, at the woman who called him husband.
A heavy black mustache, lightly touched with gray, shaded a coarse, rather sinister mouth, from the corner of which protruded an unlighted but thoroughly-chewed cigar. His hair and eyebrows were thick and black. Thin red lines formed a network in his cheeks, telling of the habits that had put them there; on his forehead there was a perpetual scowl, a line slashed between the eyes as if laid there by a knife. The features were not irregular, but they were of the strength that denotes cultivated weaknesses. His chin was square and strong, heavily stubbled with a two days' growth of beard. Eyes that were black and sullen, stood well out in their sockets; the lids were red and thick, and there were narrow pouches below them; the whites were bloodshot and indefinite. He was flashily dressed in the mode of the day, typical of his calling. A silk hat tilted rakishly over his brow. His waistcoat was a loud brocade, his necktie a single black band, knotted once. There was a great paste diamond in his soiled shirt-front. A long checked coat, with tails and sidepockets, trousers of the same material, completed his ordinary makeup. Tonight, on account of the rain, he wore high gum boots outside of the trouser-legs.