HotFreeBooks.com
The Rose in the Ring
by George Barr McCutcheon
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Three times during the long, dark hours before dawn the chariot was stalled in the mud of the mountain road; as many times it was moved by the united efforts of five or six teams and the combined blasphemy of a dozen drivers. Through all of this, David slept as if drugged. Daybreak came; the ghostly wagon train slipped from darkness into the misty light of a new "day." Cocks were crowing afar and near, and birds were chirping in the bushes at the roadside. Out of the sombre, crinkling night rolled the red, and white, and golden juggernauts, gradually taking shape in the gray dawn, crawling with sardonic indifference past toll-gate and farmhouse, creaking and groaning and snapping in weird, uncanny chorus.

Early risers were up to see the "circus" pass. It was something of an epoch in the lives of those who dwelt afar from the madding crowd.

The elephant, the cages of wild beasts, the horses, the towering chariots, the amazing pole wagons—all slipped down the road and over the hill, strange, unusual objects that came but once a year and seemed to leave the countryside smaller and more narrow than it had been before.

Hunched-up drivers, sleepily handling a half-dozen reins, looked neither to right nor left, but swore mechanically for the benefit of the tired horses, and without compunction in the presence of roadside spectators, male or female. Wet, sour, unfriendly minions were they, but they sent up no lamentations; their lives may have been hard and unpromising, but lightly in their hearts swam the blissful conviction that they were superior to the envious yokels who gaped at them from fence corners and barnyards since the first dreary streak of dawn crept into the skies. A shadowy, ungainly, mysterious caravan of secrets, cherished but unblest, it straggled through the dawn, resolute in its promise of splendor at midday. Wild beasts were abroad in the land, and mighty serpents, too; but they slept and were scorned by the men who slumbered above or below them.

The country people looked on and wondered, and shuddered at the thought of the terrific creatures at their very door-yards. Then they hitched up their teams and flocked to town in the wake of the peril, there to marvel and delight in the very things that had awed them in their own province. And all through the land people locked their doors and put away their treasures. The circus had come to town!

It was eight o'clock before David was routed from his strange bed by the boss canvasman. They were in a new town. He rubbed his eyes as he stood beside the wagon wheel and looked upon the amazing scene before him. Dozens of huge wagons were spread over the show-grounds; a multitude of men and horses swarmed in and about them; curious crowds of early risers stood afar off and gazed. The rhythmic pounding of iron stakes, driven down by four precise sledge-men came to his ears from all sides; the jangling of trace-chains; the creaking of wagons and the whine of pulleys. Here, there, everywhere were signs of a mighty activity, systematic in its every phase. Men toiled and swore and were cursed with the regularity of a single well-balanced mind. Already the horse tent and the cook tent were up. A blacksmith shop was clanging out its busy greetings.

For a moment David forgot his own predicament. He stared in utter bewilderment, vastly interested in the great transformation. Under his very eyes a city of white was about to spring into existence.

Some one touched his shoulder, not ungently. He started in sudden alarm. A rough-looking fellow in a soiled red undershirt was standing at his elbow.

"The boss says you'd better come to the cook-top and get somethin' to eat, young feller." That was all. He jerked his head in the direction of the long, low tent in the corner of the lot and started off. David followed, sharply conscious of a revived hunger.

A score of men were seated at the long tables, gulping hot coffee and bolting their food. From the kitchen beyond came the crackling of fats, the odor of frying things and the aroma of strong coffee. The clatter of tin pans and cups, the rattle of pewter knives and forks and the commands of hungry men to the surly lads who served them assailed the refined ears of the young Virginian as he stopped irresolutely at the mouth of the tent.

"Set down here, kid," said his escort, pointing to a place on the plank, stepping over it himself to take his seat at the board. If the stranger expected a greeting or comment on his appearance among these men, he was happily disappointed. They looked at him with sullen, indifferent eyes and went on bolting the breakfast. Some of them were half naked; all of them were dirty and reeking with perspiration. There was no effort at general conversation. David had the feeling that they hated each other and were ready to hurl things at the slightest provocation, such as the passing of the time of day.

A half-grown boy placed a huge tin cup full of steaming coffee on to the table and said in a husky, consumptive voice: "'Ere's your slop, kid."

Another boy jammed a panful of bacon and corn-bread across his shoulder and advised him to hurry up and "grab it, you."

David ate in shocked silence. The man at his left laughed at his genteel use of the knife and fork and the dainty handling of the bacon. Sugar and cream were not served. He was hungry. The coarse but well-cooked food pleased his palate more than he could have believed. He ate his fill of the "chuck," as his neighbor called it. Then he was hurried back to the wagon in which he had slept. It was empty now, cavernous and reeking with the odor of damp canvas lately removed.

"Git in there, kid," said his guide briskly. "You gotta keep under cover fer a spell. Stay in there 'tel Joey Grinaldi says the word. Them's Braddock's orders."

David hesitated a moment. "Where is Mrs. Braddock?" he asked.

"Train ain't in yet. You don't suppose the highlights travel this away, do you? Well, nix, I should say not. Say, are you goin' to learn the business? If you are, I got some fishworm oil that's jest the thing to limber up yer joints. In two weeks, if you rub this oil of mine all over you reg'lar, you c'n bend double three ways." It was an old game. David stared but shook his head.

"I'm not going to be a performer," he said, with a wry smile at the thought of "fishworm oil."

"Well, that bein' the case, have you got any chewin' about yer clothes?"

"Chewing?" murmured David.

"Fine cut er plug, I don't care."

"I don't chew tobacco," said David stiffly.

"Oh," said the man in amaze. "A reg'lar little Robert Reed, eh? Well, hop inside there. I gotta shut the door. Don't you cry if it's dark, kid."

David crawled into the chariot and the door was closed after him. A thin stream of daylight came down through the narrow slit beneath the driver's seat. For a while he sat with his back against the wall, pondering the situation. Then, almost without warning, sleep returned to claim his senses. He slipped over on his side, mechanically stretched out his legs and forgot his doubts and troubles.

He was aroused by the jostling and bouncing of the huge, empty wagon. With a start of alarm he leaped to his feet, striking his head against the roof of his abiding place, and hurried to the end of the wagon to peer out through the slit. Bands were playing, whips were cracking and children were shrieking joyously. It was a long time before he grasped the situation. The "Grand free street parade" was in progress; he was riding, like a caged beast, through the principal streets of the town!

From the security of his position he could look out upon the throng that lined the sidewalks, without danger of being seen in return. After the first great wave of mortification and shame, he was able to consider his situation to be quite as amusing as it was fortunate. He found himself laughing at the country people and their scarcely more sophisticated city brethren with something of the worldly scorn that dominated the "profession." Even the horses that drew the "Gorgeous chariots of gold" eyed the gaping crowds with profound pity. There is nothing in all this world so incredibly haughty as a circus, from tent-peg to proprietor. Perhaps you who read this have felt your own insignificance while gazing at an imperial tent-peg that happened to lie in your path as you wandered about the grounds; or you have certainly felt mean and lowly in the presence of a program-peddler, and positively servile in contact with a boss canvasman. It is in the air; and the very air is the property of the circus.

In time the twenty wagons, with their double and quadruple teams, attended fore and aft by cavaliers and court-ladies, papier mache grotesques, trick mules and "calico ponies," came once more to the grounds, still pursued by the excited crowd. Far ahead of the parade a loud-voiced "barker" rode, warning all people to look out for their horses: "The elephant is coming!" Just to show their utter lack of poise, at least fifty farm nags, in super-equine terror, leaped out of their harness and into their own vehicles when "Goliath," the decrepit old elephant, shuffled by, too tired to lift his proboscis, thus exemplifying the vast distinction between themselves and the circus horses which only noticed Goliath when he got in the way.

David had a long wait in the dark, stuffy chariot. Finally the door was opened and Braddock looked in. Directly behind the proprietor was the dirty sidewall of a tent. David blinked afresh in the light of day,—although, alas, the sun was not shining.

"Hello," said Braddock shortly. His cigar bobbed up and down with the movement of his lips. "Come out. You can duck under the canvas right here. Lift it up, Bill."

The boy slid from the chariot to the ground and made haste to pass under the wall which had been raised by a canvasman. Braddock followed him into the huge tent. A small army of men were erecting the seats for the afternoon performance. David realized that he was in the "main top."

A stocky, bow-legged man, his hands in his pockets and a short briar pipe in his lips, advanced to meet them.

"Well, 'ow are you?" asked this merry-eyed stranger, his face going into a hundred wrinkles by way of friendly greeting. "Oh, I say, David, don't you know your old pal and playmate? Hi, there! 'Ere we are!"

David stared in astonishment. It was Grinaldi, the clown, without his make-up or his wig! Never was there such a change in human face.

They clasped hands, David laughing outright in the ecstasy of relief at finding this whilom friend.

"Keep shady, you," said Braddock, finding no pleasure in the boy's change of manner. "Those pinchers came over on the train with us. And say, we might just as well settle what's to be done about you. I've thought it over seriously. I'm taking a risk in havin' you around, understand that. But if you want a job with the show, I'll give you one. Tell you what I'll do: I'll give you two and a half a week and your board. That's good pay for a beginner. You to do clown work and— "

"But I can't be a clown—" began David.

"Well, what do you want?" roared Braddock, apparently aghast. "Do you expect to ride around in carriages and live on goose liver? Say, where do you think you are? In society? Well, you can get that out of your head, lemme tell you that, you—"

"'Ere, 'ere, Brad," put in Joey sharply, noting the look in the boy's pale face. "Don't talk like that. 'E's not used to that sort o' gaff. Let me talk it over with 'im."

"Well, the offer don't stand long. He either takes it or he don't. If he don't, out he goes. Say, you, where's all that money you had last night? I'm not going to have anybody carryin' a wad around like that and gettin' it nabbed and then settin' up a roar against the show, gettin' us pulled or something worse. I insist on taking care of that stuff, for my own protection, just so long as you stay with this show."

David looked helplessly to Joey Noakes for succor.

"I'll talk that over with 'im, too, Brad," announced the clown briefly.

"And let me add something else," resumed Braddock, with an unnecessary oath. "I'm not going to have you hangin' around my wife and daughter if you do stay with us. Remember one thing: you're a cheap clown, and you've got to know your place. My daughter's a decent girl. She's got good blood in her, understand that. Damn' fine blood. I'm not going to have her associatin' with a—"

"'Old on, Brad!" interrupted the old clown, glaring at him. "Cheese it, will you? I won't stand for it. You got five 'undred from this boy and you ought to treat 'im decent. He's got just as good blood in 'im as Christie's got—and better, blow me, because it's probably good on both sides—which is more than you can say for her, poor girl. Thank God, she don't show that she's got your blood in 'er veins."

"Here! Do you mean to insinuate that she's not mine?" gasped Braddock, suddenly a-tremble. Much as he trusted to the virtue of his wife, he was never able to comprehend the miracle that gave him Christine for a daughter. There was no trace of him to be seen in her.

"You know better than that," said the clown coldly.

"Well," said Braddock, nervously shifting his cigar and lowering his gaze. If he had intended to say more, he changed his mind and walked off toward the center of the tent where men were throwing up a circular bank about the ring.

"He's a drunken dog," said the clown, glaring after him. "She's the finest woman in the world. And to think of 'er bein' the wife of that bounder."

David had been thinking of it and puzzling his tired brain for hours.

"How did she happen to marry—"

"No time for that now," said Grinaldi briskly. "Mebby I'll tell you about her some other time, not now. You'd better keep away from her and Christine for a couple of days. Brad will forget it in no time, 'specially if he thinks he can scrape some more o' that money out of you. Oh, he's a slick one. He's got 'is eye on that wad. Now, let's get down to business. I advise you to stick to the show for awhile—at least until we're a good ways off. Take up 'is offer. It ain't bad. You can 'ave chuck with me and Ruby. I'll look out for that. You just do wot I tell you, and you'll be a clown. Not a real one, but good enough to earn two and a 'arf. I'm not doin' this for you, my boy, because I think I need an assistant. Joey Grinaldi has been a fav'rit clown in two hemispheres for forty years. Some day I'll show you the medals I got in London and Paris and—but never mind now. You start right in this afternoon, doin' just wot I tells you. You'll be all right and them blokes as is 'untin' for you won't be able to twig you from sole leather. Wot say?"

"I'll do just as you say," said David simply.

"Good! Now come over 'ere by the band section and I'll tell how we'll work it out. Of course, we'll improve it every day. All you needs is confidence. We 'ave dinner at twelve-thirty in the performer's end of the cook-tent. It's all right there. I'll fetch yours into the dressin'-tent for you, so's you won't be seen. There's my daughter over there. Ain't she a stunner? Say, she's a gal as is a gal. Best trapeze worker in the business, if I do say it myself. And 'er mother was the best columbine that ever appeared in a Drury Lane pantomime, poor lass." He abruptly passed his hand across his eyes.

"The columbine?" said David, his eyes beaming. "I remember the columbine and the harlequin and the pantaloon in Drury Lane one boxing week when I was in London with my grandfather. Was a columbine really your wife?"

"She was," said Joey proudly. "But," he added hastily, "it ain't likely you saw her. She died when Ruby was born."

That afternoon David appeared in the ring, once more clad in the striped suit and besmeared with bismuth. He was even more frightened than at his first appearance, when he was driven by another fear. Ruby Noakes, black-eyed and dashing, winked at him saucily from her perch on the high trapeze, having caught his eye. When she slid down the stout lacing and wafted kisses to the multitude, he was near enough to catch her merry undertone:

"You have no idea how funny you are," she said, passing him by with a skip.

"There's your friend, the detective," remarked Joey, later on, jerking his head in the direction of the animal tent. Sure enough, Blake was standing at the end of the tier of seats, talking with Thomas Braddock. "But he doesn't reckernize you, David, so don't turn any paler than you are already."

The new clown, wretchedly unsuited to his new occupation, managed to get through the performance without mishap. He followed instructions blindly but faithfully, barking his shins twice and tripping over an equestrian banner once with almost direful results. The audience laughed with glee, and Grinaldi congratulated him on the hit he was making.

"Hit?" moaned David, rubbing his elbow in earnest. "Good heaven! Was that a hit?"

"My boy, they'd laugh if you were to break your neck," said the clown gravely.

Christine Braddock came on for her turn early in the program. David was told that her mother, who persistently though vainly opposed a ring career for her loved one, compromised with Braddock on the condition that she was to appear early in the performance.

"Brad was a circus rider in his younger days, before he took to drink," explained Joey, as he and David sat together at the edge of the ring while Briggs, the ringmaster, announced the approach of "the world-famed child marvel, Little Starbright, and Monseer Dupont, in the great-est eques-trian feats evah attempted by mor-tal crea-tuah!"

"When Christie was a wee bit of a thing he took 'er into the ring with 'im. She sat on 'is shoulder and the crowd thought it wonnerful. Arter that he took 'er in reg'lar. Mrs. Braddock almos' lost 'er mind, but Brad coaxed 'er into seein' it 'is way. It was before he took to drinking steady. That gal 'as no more business being a circus rider than nothink. But you can't make Brad see it that way now. He says she's got to earn 'er bread and keep, and that she's no better than wot 'er father is. If circus riding is good enough for 'im, it's good enough for 'is offspring, says he. Her mother just had to give in to 'im. Well, when she was about ten, Brad took to drinking. That was before he bought old Van Slye out. One day he fell off the 'oss with 'er and broke 'is arm. Fort'nitly, the younker wasn't 'urt. So, then he had sense enough to listen to 'is wife. He quit riding 'isself, but he put big Tom Sacks into the act in 'is place. Tom is the present Mons. Dupont—a fine feller and as steady as can be. He's powerful strong and a fairish sort of rider—but nothink like wot Brad used to be in his best day. Christine's getting a bit biggish for 'im to 'andle; I daresay this is the last season for their double act. But for four seasons she's been doing amazing fine work with old Tom. She seems to like it, and she's as daring as the very old Nick. Don't know wot fear is, I might say. She's so fairy-like and so purty that the crowds just naterally love 'er to death. She's going to be a wonnerful 'ansome woman, David, that gal is, take it from me. 'Ere she is!"

"She's like a rose," said David, following the slim, scarlet creature with his eyes.

"And a rose she is, my heartie," said Joey. "When I was a lad at 'ome, there was a chap named Thackeray writing wonderful clever tales. I remembers one of them particular. It was called 'The Rose and the Ring.' I never see Christine in them togs without thinking of the name of that book—The Rose and the Ring, d' ye get my idea? Mr. Thackeray was a well-known writer when I was a boy. That was thirty year ago. I daresay he's dead and forgotten now."

David smiled. "He'll never die, Mr. Noakes. He's more alive now than ever. 'The Rose and the Ring.' Why not 'The Rose in the Ring'?"

"Hi! Hi!" cried Joey approvingly, "Right you are."

During the entire act of Little Starbright and Monsieur Dupont David gazed entranced. He followed Grinaldi, but his eyes were not always leveled against the spotted back of his mentor; they were for the lithe, graceful figure in scarlet riding atop of the sturdy Tom Sacks, sometimes standing upright on his shoulders, again leaning far out from his thigh, or even more daringly dancing on his broad back while he squatted on the pad. First on one foot, then the other, then clear of his back with both of them twinkling in merry time to the quickstep of the band, her dark hair fluttering from beneath the saucy cap, her hands waving and her eyes sparkling. Kisses went wafting to every section of the tent, and with them smiles such as David had never seen before.

He was standing near when she leaped from the horse's back and skipped to the center of the ring to blow her final kisses to the multitude. It occurred to him all at once that he was staring at this wonderfully graceful, fairy-like little creature with the eyes of a delighted spectator and not as a clown. He guiltily looked for a reprimand from Grinaldi. To his surprise and disappointment she passed him by without a sign of recognition, slipping her tiny feet into the ground shoes and shuffling off to the dressing-tent with the stride peculiar to ring performers. For a moment he felt as if she had struck him in the face, so quick was his pride to resent the slight.

"This ain't a parlor, my lad," said Joey, shrewdly analyzing the feelings of his protege. "You mustn't expect the ladies to stop and chat with you in the ring. It ain't reg'lar. She didn't mean nothink—nothink at all, bless 'er 'eart."

When the performance was over, David was whisked into the men's section of the dressing-tent and told to stay there until further orders. He changed his clothes and "washed up," listening meanwhile to the congratulations and the good-natured chaffing of the performers who were there with him. Despite their ribald scoffing, he knew they were his friends: there was something about these careless, inconsequent knights of the sawdust ring, in spangles or out, that warmed the cockles of his sore, despairing heart.

He came before long to laugh with them and to take their jibes as they were meant—good-naturedly. Joey Grinaldi beamed with congratulation. He laid himself out to make the going easy for his "gentleman pardner," appreciating the vast distinction that lay between these men and the kind David had known all of his life. And David saw that he was trying to make it easy for him. His heart swelled with a strange gratitude; he unbent suddenly and met the rough kindnesses more than half way. They were not the kind of men he was used to,—they were not gentlemen; but they stood ready to be his friends, and something told him that they would ring true to the very end if he met them half way.

They had their own undeviating regard for what they called honor: honor meant loyalty and fairness, nothing more. Simple, genial, unpolished braggarts were they, but their word was as good or better than a gentleman's bond. David was soon to fall under the spell of this bland comradeship: he was to see these men in a light so bright that it blinded him to their vulgarities, their quaint blasphemy and their prodigious lack of veracity as applied to personal achievements. He was to find in them a splendid chivalry, almost unbelievable at first: their regard for the women in the troupe was in the nature of a revelation to him, who came from the land of gallantry itself.

"Say, kid," said Signor Anaconda, "the human snake," suddenly adopting a serious mien,—which did not become him,—"you gotta change your name. What'll we call him, fellers? Now, le' 's give him a reg'lar story-book name. Prince Something-or-other. What say to—"

"That's all settled," said old Joey, his eyes full of soap and water and squeezed so tightly together that they looked like wrinkles. "Christine Braddock named 'im this morning. I forgot to tell you, David. Your name is Snipe—Jack Snipe."

David flushed. "Why did she call me that?" he asked.

"Because you were lonesome, and there is nothink so lonesome as a jack-snipe. Leastwise, that's wot she says. She asked me if I'd ever seen a jack-snipe on a wet, dreary day, a-standing on a sandbar, all alone like and forlorn. She said she always felt so sorry for the poor little cuss—no, she didn't say cuss either. What was it she said, Casey? You was there."

"She said 'thing,'" said Casey briefly.

"Right, my lad. Thing it was. Well, wot she says goes in this 'ere aggergation, so from now on you are just Jack Snipe." He lowered his voice. "There won't nobody call you David or Jenison after this, my boy. It's too dangerous."

David was thoughtful. "Do you mean to say," he said, after a pause, "that every person in this show knows who I really am?"

"You bet your life they do," said Casey.

"And what I am wanted for?"

"Certain. Wot's that got to do with it?"

"Do they think I'm—I'm guilty?"

"Well, I reckon most of 'em do," said the contortionist blandly. "But," he added in some haste, "they don't give a dang for a little thing like that."

"But," said David fiercely, "I don't want them to think I am guilty. I can't bear to think that every one is looking upon me as a criminal. Why—why, what must the ladies of the—of the show think of me? I—I— "

Joey Grinaldi put his hand on the young fellow's shoulder: "They don't think you done it, Jack—not one of 'em. I heard 'em speaking of you last night as if you was a reg'lar angel. For the fust time since I've knowed all of them women, they are all agreed on one thing: they all agree that you are the sweetest kid they've ever seen and that you never done anything naughty in your life. Come on, now. Mrs. Braddock wants to see you a minute."

David's heart leaped. He followed the old clown into the open tent, his eyes bright with the eagerness to look once more upon the strange, lovely friend of the night before,—his true guardian angel.

She was standing near the entrance to the main tent, talking with half a dozen of the women performers, all of whom were in street attire. As soon as she saw him she smiled and motioned for him to join the group. He was not slow to obey the summons. To the amazement of the interested group the young Virginian lifted her hand to his lips. Mrs. Braddock flushed warmly, an exquisite smile of appreciation leaping to her rather sombre eyes.

"You must let me introduce you to these ladies," she said, after a few low words of greeting. "This is Jack Snipe, our new clown," she said, naming for his benefit the riders, the ropewalker, the snake-charmer and the boneless wonder. David was profoundly polite, almost old- fashioned in his acknowledgment of the introduction. The women were suddenly conscious of a new-found glory in themselves. The "boneless wonder" talked of his elegance for weeks, and always without resorting to slang.

"Where is Miss Christine?" asked David, turning to Mrs. Braddock with a shy smile.

She did not answer at once. When she did, it was with palpable uneasiness. "My daughter usually takes her sleep at this time, Dav— Jack."

David's cheek slowly turned red. He remembered what Braddock had said to him.

"You are all very good to me," he murmured, for want of anything better to say. His sensitive heart was thumping quickly, driven by humiliation. She looked steadily into his eyes without speaking and then walked away from the group, directing him to follow. They sat down upon the tumbler's pad, just where they had been seated the night before.

"My husband is hard sometimes, David," she said gently. "It will last for a few days, that is all. We must not aggravate him now. In a little while he will forget that he has—has said certain things. Then, I hope that you and Christine will be good friends. I—I want her to know you well, David. I want her to be with—with some one who is different from the people here. You understand, don't you?"

"Yes," said David, suddenly enlightened. "I know what you mean. I shall be very happy, too."

"Ah, how gently you did that," she cried, a wistful gleam in her dark eyes. "How the blood tells its story! Yes, David, I want her to know you; I want her to—to be with her own kind." Her face flamed with sudden fervor; he was struck by the almost pathetic eagerness that leaped into her eyes, transfiguring them. "I have tried so hard to give her something of what I had myself, David, when I was a girl. Everything depends on the next year or two. She is thinking for herself now. It is the turning-point. You must know, David, you must see that she is not like the others here."

"She is like you," he said, very simply.

The blood surged once more to her cheeks; her lips parted with the quick breath of joy and gratitude. She thanked him very gently, very gravely. No word was uttered against the man who was Christine's father.

"I prayed last night, David, that you might stay with the show until the end of this season. I am determined that it shall be her last, no matter what it may cost both of us."

"Cost both of us," thought he, and at once knew what she meant. The cost, if necessary, would be the husband and father.

Then she told him, in hurried sentences, that she had watched him in the ring, and that her daughter had come back to her with glowing reports of his composure and cleverness. David's pride, at least, was appeased. She had looked at him, after all, and was interested.

He was struck by the sudden, curious change that came over Mrs. Braddock's face. She was looking past him toward the entrance to the circus tent. All the color, all the eagerness left her face in a flash; the warmth died out in her big brown eyes and in its stead appeared a look of positive dread and uneasiness—it might have been repugnance. Her lips grew tense, and he could see that she started ever so slightly, as if in surprise.

He glanced over his shoulder. Thomas Braddock was approaching, his face red with anger and drink. At his side walked a tall, exceedingly well-dressed stranger, who carried his silk hat in his hand and was smiling blandly upon the proprietor's wife.

"Oh, that man again!" he heard her say between her stiff lips. There was a world of loathing in the half-whispered sentence, which was so low that it barely reached his ears. He looked up quickly, and saw her face go darkly red again—the red of humiliation, he could have sworn.

"Go!" she said to David, quietly but firmly.

He turned away, vaguely conscious that the newcomer was more to be feared than Thomas Braddock himself. Instinctively the boy experienced a singular, instantaneous aversion to this immaculate intruder.

"Get out!" he heard Braddock roar after him as he paused at the partition to look once more at the stranger.

The man was bowing low before the straight, motionless figure of Mary Braddock. Her chin was high in the air, and David could almost have sworn that he saw her nostrils dilate.

From a place beyond the flap in the partition he surveyed this disturbing visitor.



CHAPTER V

SOMETHING ABOUT THE BRADDOCKS

He was not long in supplying a reason for the sudden antipathy he felt toward this man whom he had never seen before.

A somewhat prolonged study from the security of the dressing-room had the effect of settling the aversion more firmly in his mind. In the first place, the man's face was a peculiarly evil one. His dark eyes were set quite close together under a bulging forehead. His eyebrows were straw-colored, and so thin that they were almost invisible. A broad, flat nose, with spreading nostrils, not unlike that of an Ethiopian, gave to the upper part of his face a sheep-like expression. His lower lip, thick and blue and loose, protruded with flabby insistence beyond its mate, which was short and straight. The chin receded, but was of surprising length and breadth. His ears sat very low on his head and were ludicrously small. Above them rose a massive dome, covered with thick, well-brushed hair of a yellowish hue, parted exactly in the middle. His cheeks were white and flaccid, and there was a fullness in front of the jaw-point that suggested approaching bagginess. He smiled with his lips closed, and broadly at that. The picture was even less alluring than when his face was in repose. In the subdued, gray light of the tent his complexion was singularly colorless; David thought of a very sick man he had once seen.

But this man was apparently in the best of health. He was spare, and his sloping shoulders did not suggest breadth or strength; yet there was that about him which made for force and virility. His hands were long and slim and very white. A huge diamond glittered on one of the fingers of the left hand; another quite as large adorned the bosom of his shirt. It required no clever mind to see that he was not an out- of-doors man. One would say, guessing, that he was thirty six or eight years of age. As a matter of fact, he was fifty-five.

David noticed that he never allowed his gaze to leave the face of Mary Braddock, except to occasionally traverse her figure from crown to foot. The boy's dislike grew to actual resentment. He experienced a fierce desire to rush out and strike the man across the eyes.

He could not hear what they were talking about. Broddock, tipsy as usual, was urging something on her in low, insistent tones. His manner was that of one who espouses a forlorn hope; he argued with the insinuating, doubting earnestness so characteristic of the man who knows that he is operating against his own best interests in the face of one who fully understands the weakness that impels him. Mrs. Braddock stood before him, cold, passive, unconvinced. Her greeting for the newcomer had been most unfriendly. She deliberately turned her back on him, after the first short "good afternoon." As for the stranger, he did not take part in the conversation. He stood close to her elbow, the trace of a smile on his lips.

Suddenly her tense body relaxed. Her chin dropped forward and she nodded her head dejectedly. Braddock's next remark, uttered with considerable gusto, came to David's ears.

"Good!" he said, biting his cigar with approving energy. "We can talk it over there. I think you will see it my way, Mary. You'll see if I'm not right! Come on, Bob. This is no place to talk."

She preceded them without another word, an air of utter weariness characterizing her movements. The stranger smiled his bland, hateful smile. When Braddock, in genial relief, essayed to take his arm, the tall man coldly withdrew himself from the contact, displaying a far from mild aversion to the advances of the tipsy showman. Braddock dropped back, like a cowed dog, permitting the other to pass through the sidewall ahead of him, a step or two behind the unhappy Mary Braddock on whose back his steady gaze was leveled with unswerving intentness.

David hurried to a rent in the canvas and peered out into the sunlight of the waning day. The stranger had come up beside Mrs. Braddock, talking to her as they crossed the lot in the direction of the street. She apparently paid no heed to his remarks. Braddock made no effort to keep up with them, but loafed behind, simulating interest in the most conveniently propinquitous of his possessions, with now and then a furtive glance at the couple a half-dozen paces ahead.

David was sorely puzzled and distressed. He knew that something was going cruelly wrong with his friend and supporter, but what it was he could not even venture a guess, knowing so little about the people and conditions attached to his new world.

"So, he's 'ere again, is he?"

He whirled quickly to find Grinaldi peering over his shoulder, his erstwhile merry face as black as a thunder cloud.

"Who is he?" demanded David.

The clown did not answer at once. His eyes were glittering. It was not until the trio passed from view beyond a "snack-stand" that he sighed mightily and jammed his hands into his coat pockets, still clenched. Even then, he stared long at David before replying.

"That man?" he said harshly. "That's Colonel Bob Grand."

"What has he got to do with the show, Mr. Noakes?"

"Call me Joey. Everybody does, my lad." He looked around cautiously. No one was near them. Nevertheless, he lowered his voice. "That's just wot all of us would like to know ourselves, Jacky. He's a race-horse man and a gambler. Oh, don't you get it into your 'ead that he follows the show in them capacities. Not he. He's too big a guy for that. No, sirree. He pinches the dollars by the thousands, that chap does. No ten-dollar rube games for 'im. But I'll tell you all about 'im at supper. There's Ruby waiting for us at the door. I'm 'aving supper brought over 'ere for us three and Casey. He's a nice chap, Casey is. Brad says you are not to go to the cook-top until we're out of the woods." Before starting off to join his daughter, Grinaldi looked again through the hole in the canvas, muttering a dejected oath.

Ruby Noakes, very pretty and quite demure in a simple frock of brown, without the prevailing bustle and paniers, was directing the contortionist in his efforts to construct a table out of three "blue seats" and a couple of property trunks, or "keesters," as they were called.

"I insist on having a table that I can put my legs under," she said when he argued that the trunks alone would make an "elegant" table. "We can sit on the boxes. Here, dad, you and Jack get the boxes up. The boys will be here with supper in a minute or two. Oh, I say, isn't it going to be fun? Just like a supper party in Delmonico's—only I've never been to one there. Goodness, how I'd love to eat at Delmonico's!"

"You wouldn't like it a bit, Ruby," announced Casey. "You got to understand French to eat what they have there. If you can't understand French, you're sure to eat something that won't agree with you, not bein' able to tell soup from pickled pigs' feet."

"How do you know? You've never been there."

Casey gave her a cool stare. "I haven't, eh? My dear, I'd have you to know that I've et there a hundred times."

Her eyes popped wide open.

"Of course," he explained, "I allus had to wake up and find I'd been dreamin'. But, by ginger, them was great dreams. I allus had 'em after my wife's cousin had been up to our shack of a Sunday to get a good square meal. He was a waiter at Delmonico's. He was allus tellin' what gorgeous things he had to eat at Del's, and then, blow me, I'd dream about 'em the livelong night."

Presently the food came in from the cook-tent. The four sat down, David beside the girl, who generously took him in hand at this unusual banquet. In the menagerie tent beyond wild beasts were growling and roaring and snarling a weird interlude for the benefit of the banqueters, sounds so strange and menacing that David looked often with uneasy interest in the direction from which they came.

"I like this, don't you, dad? I wish we could have a runaway boy with us every night or so." She gave David a warm, enveloping smile.

But Joey was not listening to the idle chatter of his daughter. He ate in silence, his brow corrugated with the intensity of his thoughts.

"Say, Casey, 'ave you seen 'im?" he asked at last, interrupting a tale that Ruby was telling for David's especial benefit.

"I like that!" she exclaimed indignantly.

"Seen who?" from Casey, also ignoring her.

"Grand."

"Is that skunk here again?"

"Big as life, dang 'is bloody 'eart. He's bothering 'er, too. Makes love to 'er right afore 'er 'us-band's eyes. It's—it's out-rage- ious"

Miss Noakes forgot her story and her resentment. She leaned forward, her black eyes fairly snapping, her fingers clenched. David recalled the muscular bare arms he had seen during the trapeze act, and wondered how so slight a person as she now seemed to be could be so powerfully developed.

"I knew something awful was going to happen," she said. "I saw a cross-eyed man in the blues to-day. It never fails."

Circus people, from the beginning of history, have been superstitious. Not one, but all of them, carry charms, amulets or lucky pieces, and they recognize more signs than the sailors themselves.

"Some of these fine days I'm going to paste that guy on the nose," said the contortionist heatedly.

"You'll get a bullet in your gizzard if you do," said the clown gloomily. "He carries a gun, and he'll use it, too. And if he didn't, Tom Braddock would beat you to jelly for insulting 'is best friend."

"Do you mean that Mrs. Braddock is in love with that man?" demanded David, his heart sinking.

The three of them glared at him—positively glared.

"Nobody said that, sir," said old Joey angrily. "She despises 'im. I said as 'ow he was in love with 'er. There's a big difference in that, my friend."

"I knew she wasn't that kind of a woman," cried David joyously.

"What do you know about women?" demanded Casey

"I'll tell you about 'im and 'er and all of them," said Joey, looking about to see that they were quite alone in their corner. "You can tell by looking at 'er, Jacky, that she ain't no common pusson. She's quality, as you Virginians would say. And for that matter, so is Colonel Grand, after a fashion. That is to say, he comes of a very good old New Orleans family. He spoilt it all by being a colonel in the Union army during the war. He wasn't for the North because he was patriotic, but because he knowed the North would win and he saw 'is chance to get rich. He's just a nateral-born gambler. Of course, he ain't been back to New Orleans since the war. I understand 'is own brothers intend to shoot 'im if he does go back. He went to Washington to live, and he made a pile of money promoting carpet-bagging schemes through the south. He's got a big gambling-house in Baltimore at present, and an interest in one in New York, besides 'aving a string o' race-horses.

"Well, Tom Braddock comes from Baltimore. His father was a hoss trainer and trader there for a good many years afore he died—w'ich was about two years ago. I've 'eard it said by them as knows, that he sometimes traded hosses in the dead of night and forgot to leave one in exchange for the one he took away. However that may be, he never got caught at it and so died an honest man. It seems that he borrowed one of Colonel Grand's riding hosses to go after a doctor one night, some years ago, and didn't return it for nearly eighteen months. He wouldn't 'ave returned it then if the Colonel 'adn't seen 'im riding it in Van Slye's street parade out in a little Indiana town during county fair week. I was with the show at the time, w'ich was afore old Van Slye sold out to Tom Braddock. Well, Tom and Mrs. Braddock begged so 'ard for the old scamp that the Colonel not only let 'im off but took 'im back to Baltimore to train hosses for him. That was about five seasons ago, and it was the first time any of us ever laid eyes on the Colonel.

"Tom Braddock and 'is wife lived in Baltimore in the winter time, where she kept little Christine in school from November to March. The rest of the year she teaches 'er 'erself. I might say that Christine is a specially well-edicated child and well brought up. You can see that for yourself. Tom wanted 'er to learn 'ow to sing and dance so's she could be earning money all winter, but 'er mother said nix to that, very proper like. In course o' time, Tom's father worked it so's Tom could practice 'is bareback acts at Colonel Grand's stables. He was the best rider in the country at that time. The Colonel got 'im to drinking and gambling. That was the beginning. The poor cuss 'adn't been such a bad lot up to that time. Him and Mary had always got on fairly well until he got to drinking. It wasn't long afore the Colonel took a notion to Tom's wife. He 'as a wife of 'is own, but that didn't stop 'im. He just went plumb crazy about Mary Braddock, who was the purtiest, loveliest woman he'd ever seen—or any of us, for that matter. I'll never forget how nice she's allus been to my gal 'ere, and to every gal in the show, for that matter. She's an angel if there ever was one. Don't interrupt, Casey. I've said it. You keep still, too, Ruby—and don't sniffle like that, either.

"I won't go into the 'istory of 'ow the Colonel tried to get 'er away from Tom. I daresay that's the very thing that makes 'er stick to Tom so loyal-like in spite of wot he is now. Just principle, that's all. Well, for more 'n two year the Colonel 'as been pestering 'er almost to death, and she 'as to stand it because he's got such a terrible 'old on 'er 'usband. You see, the Colonel lent Tom a good bit of money when he bought old Van Slye out season afore last. I will say this for Tom, he paid 'im back dollar for dollar. We 'ad a good season and he got the show cheap. Tom give up riding because he was tight all the time, nearly killing Christine once or twice. Every once in awhile, come so the Colonel would turn up and travel with the show for a week or so, inducing Tom to play poker and drink. Tom allus lost and then the Colonel'd stake 'im for a month or so to run the show on. This 'as gone on for two years, Tom getting wuss all the time and the Colonel more persistent. Tom 'as lost all sense of honor and decency. He knows the Colonel is trying to get 'is wife away from 'im, and he ain't got spunk enough left to object to it. He don't even try to protect 'er from the old villain. They say Grand 'as promised 'er a fine 'ome in Washington and will edicate Christine abroad, besides offering enough diamonds to fill a 'at. But she just despises 'im more and more every week. He'll never get 'er—no sirree! Why, she just couldn't do it! 'T ain't in 'er!

"Early this season he lent Tom five or six thousand, and Tom can't pay it back, I know, business 'as been so bad. He's come on this time, I daresay, to bulldoze 'em into 'is way of thinking. He's wonderful persistent. Like as not he'll help Tom out some more afore he leaves, just to draw the web closer. He'll stay a few days, 'anging around 'er like a vulture, paying no attention to 'er rebukes, and then he'll go off to return another day. He's wrecked Tom Braddock, just as a stepping-stone. Some day he'll be through with Tom for good and all, and you'll see what 'appens to Thomas."

Grinaldi's voice was hoarse with emotion; his brow was damp with perspiration. Casey was the only one who ate; he ate sullenly.

"What beasts!" cried David, his fine nature in revolt.

"Brad 'as got to this point in 'is love for drink and cards," said Joey. "He'll sacrifice anything for whiskey. He's got to have it. We've all talked to 'im. No good. I—I don't like to say it, Dav— Jacky, but he's slapped 'is wife more 'n once when she's tried to plead with—"

David sprang to his feet, his face quivering with rage and horror.

"I'll kill him!" he cried shrilly. "If the rest of you are afraid to stand up for her, I will show you how a Virginia gentleman acts in such matters. I'll—"

"My boy," said Joey, very much gratified by his protege's attitude. "I like to hear you talk that way. But don't you go 'round gabbing about killing people. A word to the wise, my lad. You see wot I mean?"

David turned perfectly livid and then sank back to his seat with a groan of despair.

"You mean that my—that I've got a bad name already?"

"So far as the law is concerned, yes," said Joey gently. "You see, you are David Jenison and—well, it's a fine old name, my 'eartie, but these ain't very gallant days. It's too soon after the war, I take it."

The boy looked from one to the other, his eyes dark with the pain of understanding.

"But," he said bravely, "he must not be allowed to strike her. Why doesn't she leave him? Why not get a divorce? No woman should live with a man who strikes her. God doesn't intend that to be. He—"

"God put us all into the world and he'll take us all out of it," said the clown, philosophizing. "That's about all we ought to expect 'im to do. I don't think God 'as anything to do with matrimony. He says, 'you takes your choice and you trusts to luck, not to me. If it turns out all right,' says he, 'you can thank me, but if it goes wrong, don't blame me.' So there you are. It strikes me that God don't intend a good many things, but they 'appen just the same. As for 'er getting a divorce, she's too proud. She made 'er bed, as the feller says, and she's going to lie in it as long as there's room. She made 'er bed sixteen years ago, she did, against 'er father's wishes, and she ain't the kind to go back and say it's too 'ard for 'er to sleep in and she'd like to come 'ome and sleep in one of 'is for a change. No sirree, my lad."

"How did she come to marry such a beast as Braddock?"

"Well, that's another story. I 'ope, Casey, I'm not boring you."

"I wasn't gaping," said Casey testily. "I was coolin' my mouth. Try that coffee yourself if you don't think it's hot."

"I wish she would leave him," said Ruby, more to herself than to the others.

"She's got some of 'er own money in the show—all of it, I daresay. Money 'er grandmother left 'er a couple of years ago. Brad promised he'd buy 'er share in a year or two and let 'er put the money away for Christine. But he'll never do it, not 'im. You see, Da—Jacky, it all 'appened this way. She was going to a young ladies' boarding-school up in Connecticut w'en she fust saw Tom Braddock. Her father lived in New York City and he was a very wealthy guy. She was 'is only child and 'er mother was dead. The old man, whose name was Portman,—Albert Portman, the banker,—was considering a second venture into matrimony at the time. Mary was eighteen and she didn't want a stepmother. She raised such a row that he sent 'er off to school so as he could do 'is courting in peace and plenty. She was a wayward gal,—leastwise she says so 'erself—and very impetuous-like. One day a circus comes to the town where she was attending school. The young ladies were took to the afternoon performance by the—er—school-ma'ams. They all perceeded to fall in love at first sight with a 'andsome young equestrian. He was very good-looking, I can tell you that, and he 'ad a fine figger. As clean a looking young chap as ever you see. Well do I remember Tommy Braddock in them days. He was twenty-two and he rode like a A-rab. Well, wot should 'appen but 'is hoss, a green one, must bolt suddenlike, scairt by one of the balloons that 'it 'im on the nose. Brad fell off as the brute leaped out of the ring, terrified by the shouts of the ring-men. The hoss started right for the seats where the school misses was setting. Up jumps Brad and sails after 'im. The hoss got tangled in some ropes and stumbled, just as he was about to leap into the place where Mary Portman sat. Brad grabs 'im by the bit and jerks 'im around, but in the plunging that followed, the hoss fell over on 'im, breaking 'is leg—I mean Brad's. Of course, there was a great stew about it. He was took to a 'ospital and the papers was full of 'ow he saved the life of the rich Miss Portman. Well, she used to go to see 'im a lot. When he got so's he could 'obble around, she took 'im out driving and so on. He was a fair-spoken chap in them days and he 'ad a good face. So she fell desperit in love with 'im. He was an 'ero. She told 'er father she was going to marry 'im. As the old gentleman was about to be married 'imself, he 'ated to share the prominence with 'er. So he said he'd disown 'er if she even thought of marrying a low-down circus rider. That was enough for Mary. She up and run off with Tom and got married to 'im in a jiffy, beating 'er father to the altar by about two weeks.

"As soon as Tom was able to ride again, they joined the show. Her father disowned 'er, as he said he would. He said he'd 'ave the butler shut the door in 'er face if she ever come to the 'ouse. They went up to ask for forgiveness, and the butler did shut the door in 'er face. So she turned 'er back on 'er father's 'ome and went to the little one Tom made for 'er in Baltimore. She never even wrote to 'er father after that, and she won't ever go back, no matter wot 'appens. Not even if he sends for and forgives 'er, I believe. She's stood it this long, she'll stick it out. Mr. Portman got married right enough and I understand he's 'ad a 'ell of a time of it ever since. Married a reg'lar tartar, thank God.

"Well, in a year Christine came. After a couple of years they went to England and the Continent, where Brad rode for several seasons very successful. When Christine was seven, he insisted that she should work with 'im in the ring. He 'ad 'is way. They made a sensation with Van Slye's show and stuck to 'im for six years straight, allus drawing good pay. Mary went with them everywhere, never missing a performance, allus scairt to death on account of the gal. I think nearly all of the last five years of her life 'ave been spent in wishing that Tom would fall off and break 'is own neck, but he couldn't do it very well without breakin' the kid's, too, so she didn't know wot to do. Then he got to drinking so 'ard that he did fall off, 'urting 'imself purty bad. After that he give it up, buying a share in Van Slye's show, and letting Christine do 'er work with Tom Sacks. Mrs. Braddock would give anything she's got in the world if she could get Christine out of the business and settled down in their own 'ome in Baltimore. Just to show you wot drink does for Brad, he pays Christine a good salary every week for riding and then insists on taking it back so's he can put it in the savings bank for 'er. He spends every penny of it for drink and he—"

"Sh!" came in a warning hiss from Ruby Noakes, whose quick, black eyes had caught sight of a figure approaching from the big top. "Mrs. Braddock is coming, dad. My, how white she is."

The proprietor's wife moved slowly, even listlessly. Something vital had gone out of her face, it seemed to David, who knew her only as a strong, courageous defender. A wan smile crept into her tired eyes as she carne up to them and asked if she might sit down at their board. The hand she laid caressingly on Ruby's shoulder shook as if with ague.

"Jerk up a keester for Mrs. Braddock, Casey," cried old Joey with alacrity. The contortionist found a small trunk and placed it between Ruby Noakes and David. Mrs. Braddock thanked him and sat down.

"Have you had your supper, Mrs. Braddock?" asked Ruby.

"I am not hungry," said the other quietly. "A cup of coffee, though, if you have enough for me without robbing yourselves. You work so hard, you know, my dears, while I am utterly without an occupation. I don't need much, do I?"

"You need a snifter of brandy," announced Joey conclusively. He went off to get it.

Ruby rinsed her own tin-cup and poured out some hot coffee. Casey called up a boy and sent off to the performer's cook top for a pitcher of soup, some corned beef and potatoes, ignoring her protests.

"And how is the new clown faring?" she asked, turning to the silent David with a smile.

"Very well, thank you," he replied. "I have been very hungry, you know. I have never known food to taste so good."

"The hotels in these towns are atrocious. I can't eat the food," she explained listlessly.

Joey handed her a drink from his flask. She swallowed it obediently but with evident distaste. There was a long, somewhat painful silence.

"I think it's started to sprinkle again," ventured the contortionist, looking at the top with uneasy eyes.

"Yes," she said appreciatively, "it means another wretched night for us." She toyed with the tin-cup with nervous fingers for a moment and then turned to the expectant Grinaldi. "We have been obliged to borrow more money, Joey."

"So?" he said, nodding his head dumbly.

"Five thousand dollars. I—I signed the note with Tom. Oh, if we could only have a spell of good weather!" It was an actual wail of despair.

"It's bound to come," said the clown. "It can't rain allus, Mrs. Braddock."

Again there was silence. The three performers were absolutely dumb in the presence of her unspoken misery.

"Would my money be of any service to you?" asked David at last, timidly.

"You dear boy, no!" she cried warmly. "You do not understand. This is our affair, David. You are very, very good, but—" She checked the words resolutely. "We can lift the notes handily if the weather helps us just a little bit."

"I don't like that man," announced the boy, his dark eyes gleaming.

The others coughed uncomfortably. Mrs. Braddock hesitated for a second, and then laid her hand on his.

"He is a very bad man, David," was all that she said. He would have blurted out an additional expression of hatred had she not lifted her finger imperatively. "You must not say indiscreet things, my friend." It was a warning and he understood.

"Come on, Jacky," put in Grinaldi hastily. "I've got to rehearse you a bit. You've got to learn 'ow to tumble and you've got to—"

"Just a moment, Joey," said Mrs. Braddock nervously. "David, I can't keep your money for you. Do you object to Mr. Noakes taking it for awhile? Until we can get to a town where you can deposit it in a bank. It isn't safe with me. I—"

"It is safe with you," he cried eagerly.

"No! If anything were to happen to me you would never see it again." He was struck by the increased pallor of her face. "It's quite safe with Joey."

He waited a moment before replying. "I know that, Mrs. Braddock. You may give it to him. But—but I want you to know that if you ever need any of it, or all of it—for yourself or Christine, you are more than welcome to it."

Her eyes were flooded. "Thank you, David," she said softly. Then she quickly withdrew the flat purse from the bosom of her dress and handed it to Joey, not without a cautious look in all directions.

The clown put it in his inside coat pocket without a word.

"You must deposit it in a bank at N—," she went on hurriedly. "All but an amount sufficient to help you if you are obliged to suddenly fly from arrest. You understand. Joey will attend to it for you. You may depend on him and Casey to stand by you. In a few days we will be in Ohio. The danger will be small after that, Dav—I mean, Jack Snipe. I—I have worried about this money ever since—well, ever since last night. You must not have it about you, nor is it safe with me. It is too large a sum to be placed in jeopardy. Perhaps, my boy, it is your entire fortune, who knows. The Jenison estate seems lost to you, cruelly enough. I am so very sorry."

"I only want to think that none of you believe I committed the crime I am accused of," said David simply. "The money isn't anything."

"We are not accusers," she said gravely.

"Where is Brad?" demanded Grinaldi, his patience and diplomacy exhausted.

"He is up in Colonel Grand's room at the hotel," she answered, as if that explained everything.

"Talking business, I suppose," he said sarcastically.

"Yes, they are settling certain details." She spoke in such a way that Joey looked up in alarm.

"You don't mean to say you are—you are going to—"

"No, not that, my friend," she said, quite calmly.

"I didn't think so," said Joey fervently.

Mrs. Braddock arose abruptly.

"I must go to Christine. Will you come, Ruby?"

Ruby followed her out of the tent, exchanging a quick glance with her father as she left the improvised table.

"Come on, Jacky," said Joey. "Strip them clothes off and get to work. You've got a lot to learn. Ta, ta, Casey. Don't stay out in the rain. You'll melt your bones, if you've got any."

David, somewhat depressed and very thoughtful, got into a portion of his clown's dress under the direction of his instructor, who was unusually cross and taciturn.

As they started for the deserted ring, Joey took the boy's arm and said, with a diffidence that was almost pathetic:

"Jacky, I—I want you to be nice to my gal. She's never 'ad no chance to associate with a real toff. It ain't 'er fault, poor gal; it's the life we leads. These 'ere circus people are as good as gold, Jacky; I'm not complaining about that. But they ain't just exactly wot I want my gal to grow up like. Not but wot she's growed up already so far as size is concerned. But she's not quite eighteen. She's been in the show business since she was two. Her mother and 'er grandmother afore 'er, too. But the business ain't wot it used to be. I want 'er to get out of it. I don't want 'er marrying some wuthless 'Kinker' or even a decent 'Joy.' Mrs. Braddock 'as done worlds for 'er, mind you, but it's the men she's associated with that I objects to. They're—they're too much like me. That's wot I mean, Jacky. Would you mind just conversing with 'er friendly like from time to time? Just give 'er a touch of wot a real gentleman is, sir. It ain't asking too much of you, is it, Dav—Jacky? I ain't ashamed to ask it of you, and I—I kind of hoped you wouldn't be ashamed to 'elp tone 'er up a bit, in a way. She's more like 'er mother than she is like me. And 'er mother was as fine a columbine as ever lived, she was that refined and steadfast."

David gave his promise, strangely touched by this second appeal to the birthright that placed him, though helpless and dependent, on a plane so far above that of his present associates that even the most scornful of them felt the distinction. He recalled the profane respectfulness of the boss canvasman earlier in the day—a condition which would have astonished that worthy beyond description if he had had the least idea that he was respectful.



CHAPTER VI

DAVID JENISON'S STORY

David's first week with the show was a trying one. In the first place, he was kept so carefully under cover, literally as well as figuratively, that he seldom saw the light of day except at dawn or through the space between sidewall and top. At night he rode over rough, muddy roads in the tableau wagon, stiff and sore from the violent exercise of the day,—for he was training in earnest to become a clown. He was learning the clown's songs, and singing with the chorus in such pieces as "I'll never Kiss my Love again behind the Kitchen Door," "Paddle your own Canoe," and others in Joey's repertory.

Throughout the forlorn, disquieting days he stayed close to the dressing-tent, always in dread of the moment when Blake or some other minion of the law would clap him on the shoulder and end the agony of suspense. Blake, as a matter of fact, more than once came near to finding his quarry. Twice, at least, David was smuggled out of sight just in time to avoid an encounter with his stubborn pursuer.

At last, after five days, Blake gave it up and turned back to Virginia, hastened somewhat by the cleverly exploited newspaper strategy of George Simms, the show's press agent. Simms managed it so that a press dispatch came out of Richmond in which it was said on excellent authority that the boy had been seen in the neighborhood of his old home within the week, and that posses were now engaged in a neighborhood hunt for him. Blake was fooled by it.

After it became definitely known to Simms that Blake was back in Richmond with his assistant, David was permitted to emerge gradually from his seclusion. The first thing he did was to go with Joey Grinaldi to a savings bank where, under the name of John Snipe, he deposited two thousand dollars, retaining five hundred for emergencies. Part of this he turned over to the clown, part to Ruby and the rest to the trusty contortionist. Twice during the week Braddock bullied him into giving up twenty-five dollars to "fix it" with town officials. At least once a day he was importuned to deliver the "leather" into the safe keeping of the proprietor, who solemnly promised that it would be returned. Moreover, in drunken magnanimity, he guaranteed to pay three per cent interest while the money was in his ticket-wagon safe, sealed and inviolate if needs be. On the subtle advice of Joey Noakes David did not tell Braddock that he had deposited the money; it would have been like the "boss" to fly into a rage and deliver him up to the authorities.

Braddock drank hard during the days following the departure of Colonel Grand, who stayed with the show no longer than twenty-four hours—an unusually brief visit, according to Joey.

The rainy weather continued and business got worse and worse. There was an air of downright gloom about the circus. Men, women and children were in the "dumps," a most unnatural condition to exist among these whilom, light-hearted adventurers. When they lifted up their heads, it was to deliver continuous anathemas to the leaden skies; when they allowed them to droop, it was to curse the soggy earth.

The new clown saw but little of Mrs. Braddock and Christine. Braddock's failure to extract money from him made that worthy so disagreeable that his wife and daughter were in mortal terror of his threats to turn the boy adrift if he caught them "coddling" him.

David's close associates were the Noakeses, the contortionist and two or three rather engaging acrobats. As for the women of the company, he had but little to do with them, except in the most perfunctory way. He was always polite, gallant and agreeable, and they made much over him when the opportunity presented itself. They were warm-hearted and demonstrative, sometimes to such an exaggerated degree that he was embarrassed. He was some time in getting accustomed to their effusive friendliness; it dawned on him at last that they were not graceless, flippant creatures, but big-hearted, honest women, in whom tradition had planted the value of virtue. He was not long in forming an unqualified respect for them; it was not necessary for Joey Grinaldi to tell him over and over again that they were good women.

If Christine saw him while she was in the ring, David was never able to determine the fact for himself. He tried to catch her eye a hundred times a day; he looked for a single smile that he might have claimed for his own. Once he caught her in his arms when she stumbled after leaping from the horse at the end of her act. It was very gracefully done on his part. She whispered "Thank you," but did not smile, and therein he was exalted. There was no day in which he failed to perform some simple act of gallantry for her and Mrs. Braddock, always with an unobtrusive modesty that pleased them. Sometimes he left spring flowers for them; on other occasions he bought sweetmeats and pastry in the towns and smuggled them into their hands, not without a conscious glow of embarrassment and guilt. He was ever ready to seize upon the slightest excuse to be of service to them, despite the fact that they resolutely held aloof from him. The entire company of performers understood the situation and cultivated a rather malicious delight in abetting his clandestine courtesies.

It was no other than the queen of equestrians, Mademoiselle Denise (in reality an Irish woman with three children who attended school and a husband who never had attended one, although he was an exceptionally brilliant man when it came to head balancing)—it was Denise who, one rainy evening, brought Christine and David together between performances in a most satisfying manner by taking the former to visit a fortune-teller whose home was quite a distance from the show lot, first having sent David there on a perfectly plausible pretext. The young people met on the sidewalk in front of the house bearing the number Mademoiselle Denise had given to David. To say that he was surprised at seeing Christine under the same umbrella with the older woman would be putting it very tamely; to add that both of them were shy and uneasy is certainly superfluous. Moreover, when I say that David was obliged to inform Mademoiselle Denise that she had given him the wrong number; that a hod-carrier instead of a sorceress dwelt within,—when I say this, you may have an idea that there was no fortune-teller in the beginning. And then, when the head-balancing husband suddenly appeared and walked off with Denise, leaving the embarrassed youngsters to follow at any pace they chose, you may be quite certain that there was a conspiracy afoot.

Christine walked demurely beside David, under a rigid umbrella. They were seven blocks from the circus lot; it was quite dark and drizzly. For the first two blocks they had nothing to say to each other, except to venture the information that it was raining. In the second block, a very lonely stretch indeed, David, whose eyes had not left the backs of the wily couple ahead, regained his composure and with it his natural gallantry.

"Perhaps you had better take my arm, Miss—Miss Christine," he said stiffly.

She took it, rather awkwardly perhaps but very resolutely.

"I thought I heard something in the bushes back there," she said in extenuation.

"It was the wind," he vouchsafed, but his thoughts went at once to Blake. Involuntarily he looked over his shoulder and quickened his pace. She felt his arm stiffen.

"I'm quite sure it was a cow," she said.

"Are you afraid of cows?"

"Dreadfully."

"And you're not afraid of elephants or camels?"

"Oh, dear, no; they're tame." She seemed in doubt as to the wisdom of expressing aloud the thoughts that troubled her. Twice she peered up into the face of her companion. Then she resolutely delivered herself. "I do hope father won't see us, David."

"You poor girl," he cried gently. "I'm sorry if this gets you into trouble. Denise didn't tell me. She—"

"Oh, Denise did it on purpose," she said, quite glibly. "I suppose she thinks we're going to fall in love with each other."

David was grateful to the darkness. It hid his blush of confusion.

"But that's perfectly silly," went on the soft voice at his elbow. "I just want to be your friend, David. My mother adores you. So do I, but in just the same way that she does. I—I couldn't think of being so ridiculous as to fall in love with you."

He resented this. "I don't see why you say that," he said, rather stiffly. "But," very hastily, "I'm not asking you to do it. Please don't misunderstand me. I—"

"Mother and I are so sorry for you, David," she went on earnestly. "We—we don't believe a word of—of—well, you know." She was suddenly distressed.

"How do you know that I'm not guilty?" he cried bitterly. "You have only my word for it. Of course, I'd deny it. Anybody would, even if he was as guilty as sin. I—I might have done it, for all you know."

"Oh, don't—don't talk like that, David!"

"Nearly every one with the show thinks I did it. It doesn't matter to them, either. They like me just as well. It's—it's as if I were a friendless, homeless dog. They're tender-hearted. They'd do as much for the dog, every time. I like them for it. I'll not forget everybody's kindness to me and—and their indifference."

"Indifference, David?"

"Yes. That's the word. It doesn't make any difference what I am, they just say it's all right and—and—that's all."

She caught the intensely bitter note in his voice. Christine was young, but she had fine perceptions. Her lip trembled.

"Nobody thinks you did it," she cried in a vehement undertone. "Even father—" She stopped abruptly, a quick catch of compunction in her breath.

"If he thinks I'm innocent, why is he so set on keeping me from talking to you or your mother?" he demanded quickly, a sudden fire entering his brain. "That doesn't look as if he thinks I'm all right, does it? I'm—I'm not a low-down person. If I was, I could see a reason. But I'm a gentleman. Every man in my family has been a gentleman since—oh, you'll think I'm boasting. I didn't mean to say this to you. It sounds snobbish. No, Christine, your father thinks I'm guilty."

"He does not!" she whispered. "I know he doesn't. I've heard him argue with mother about you. He has told her that he does not believe that you killed your grandfather. I've heard him say it, David. He—he is only thinking of—must I say it? Of the disgrace to us if you should be caught and it came out we were your friends. That's it. He's thinking of us, David. It is so foolish of him. We both have told him so. But—but you don't know my father." There was a world of meaning in that declaration—and it was not disrespectful, either.

David was discreetly silent. He was quelling the rage that always rose in his heart when he thought of Thomas Braddock's attitude, not only toward him but toward his wife.

"I wish he wouldn't look at it in that way, David," she resumed plaintively. "We—we would be so happy if you could be with us,—that is, more than you are." She was stammering, but not from embarrassment. It was in the fear of saying something that might touch his sensitive pride.

"I—I love your mother," he cried intensely. "She's the best woman I've ever known—except my own mother. She's better than my aunts— yes, she is! Better than all of them. I could die for her."

She clutched his arm tightly but said nothing. The words could not break through the sobs that were in her throat. Neither spoke for a matter of a hundred feet or more. Then he said to her, rather drearily:

"Did you read what the papers said about the—the murder, and about me?"

"No. Mother will not let me read the things about crime. But," she said quickly, "she has told me all about it since you came."

"They made me out to be a vicious degenerate and an ingrate," he said. "Oh, it was horrible,—the things they said about me. Just as if they knew I was guilty. But, Christine, I am going to make them take it all back. I'm going to make them apologize some day, see if I don't." The fierce agony in his voice moved her greatly.

"Oh, if I could help you!" she cried tremulously.

He apparently did not hear the eager words.

"It all looked so black against me," he went on, looking straight ahead unseeingly. "Perhaps I shouldn't blame them. I have thought it all out, lots of times, Christine, and I've tried to put myself in their place. Sometimes I think that if I were not myself I should certainly believe myself guilty. It did point to me, every bit of it, Christine. And I am as innocent as a little baby. If—if they catch me they'll hang me!"

"No, no!" she shuddered.

"Doesn't it look to you as if I really had done it?" he demanded. "Tell the truth, Christine. From what you have heard, wouldn't you say it looked as if I were guilty?"

She hesitated, frightened, distressed. "The papers did not tell the truth, David," she said loyally.

"They hunted for me with bloodhounds," he went on vaguely. "If they had caught me then, I would have been strung up and shot to pieces. You see," turning to her with a gentle note in his voice, "my grandfather was very much beloved. He was the very finest man in all the state. I have sworn to avenge his death. I swear it every night— every night, Christine. First, I'm going to clear myself of the—the hideous thing. And then!" There was a world of promise in those two words.

"You have said that there is a man who can clear you," she ventured. "Who is he, David? Where is he to be found? Why doesn't he step forward and clear you?"

"I—I don't know where he is. In New York, I think. He—he was sent out of the country by—by some one. Do you want to hear my side, Christine?"

"Do you—care to speak of it, David?"

"Yes. You will understand. You are good. I want you to tell your mother, too." He slackened his pace. Both forgot that the hour for the "tournament" was drawing perilously near. "I lived with my grandfather, Colonel Jenison. My father was killed at Shiloh. My mother died when I was nine years old. I had one uncle, my father's younger brother. He was an officer in the Southern army, just as my father was. He gave my grandfather trouble all of his life. They say it was his wild habits that drove my grandmother to her grave. I knew him but slightly. When the war was two years old, he was court- martialed for treason to the cause. The story was that he had been caught trying to sell some plans to the enemy. He was sentenced to be shot. It was very clear against him, my mother told me on one of the rare occasions when his name was mentioned. But he escaped during a sudden, overwhelming attack by the Yanks. They never caught him. My grandfather, who had been a colonel in the war with Mexico and had lost an arm, disowned him as a son. He disinherited him, leaving everything to my father. When my father was killed I became the heir to Jenison Hall and all that went with it,—a vast estate.

"A year ago my uncle Frank turned up. He came to Richmond with proof that cleared him of the charge of treason in the minds of his old comrades. Three men on their deathbeds had signed affidavits, showing that they were guilty of the very thing of which he was accused, he being an innocent dupe in the transaction. I don't know just how it all came about, but he was exonerated completely. With this to back him up, he came to the Hall to plead for my grandfather's forgiveness. He came many times, and finally it seems that grandfather believed his story. Uncle Frank took up his residence at the Hall. I hated him from the beginning. He was a wicked man and always had been. I don't believe what the affidavits said.

"Well, he soon learned that I was to be the heir. Everybody knew it. I was at the University. Grandfather had sent me there. It was my second year, for I had gone in very young. When I went home for the Christmas holidays, Uncle Frank was practically running the place. Grandfather didn't really trust him, I'm sure of that. They had a couple of violent scenes New Year's week up in the library. It was something about money. Grandfather told me a little about it, but not much. He said Uncle Frank wanted him to change his will, claiming it was not fair to him, who had been so wrongfully accused. My grandfather told me that he would never change it. He might leave a certain amount in trust for Uncle Frank, but Jenison Hall was not to go to any Jenison whose name had ever been blackened.

"One day I went up to Richmond to spend the night with some college friends. My uncle Frank was already there, on business he said. Well, I found out what his business was—accidentally, of course. He was there to see a nigger lawyer! Think of that, Christine. A Jenison having dealings with a nigger lawyer. This lawyer had once been a slave on the Jenison place, a yellow boy whose name was Isaac—Isaac Perry. When the war broke out he went with my uncle as his body- servant. He was a smart, thieving fellow,—always too smart to be caught, but always under suspicion. My grandfather had given him some schooling because Isaac's father was his body-servant and he would have done anything for old Abraham. After the war Isaac was made a lawyer, 'way down in South Carolina. The judges were darkies, they say. Later on he went to Richmond and did some business for the darkies there, besides conducting a barber shop.

"Well, I happened to go into his shop the evening I reached Richmond. He was shaving Uncle Frank. They did not observe me as I sat back along the wall. I heard him tell Uncle Frank he would surely come to the hotel that night to see him. Uncle Frank said it was important and asked him to be sure and bring the papers. He left the shop without seeing me, and Isaac had forgotten me, I reckon. I wondered what business he and my uncle could have to discuss. That night I made it a point to be at the hotel. I saw Uncle Frank standing out in front. When Isaac came up he took him off down the street. I heard him say to Isaac that the hotel was not a good place for a nigger to be seen, except as a servant, even if he did come as a lawyer. So they went back to the barber shop, which was closed. Isaac opened the doors and they went in. The blinds were shut. I waited until Uncle Frank came out, an hour later. He said to Isaac, who came no farther than the door, that he would be up again in about ten days to see how he was 'getting on with it.' Isaac said he'd have it fixed up 'so slick that it would fool the old man hisself.'

"When I went back to Jenison Hall I tried to tell grandfather about all this, but I didn't do it. I couldn't bear the thought of carrying tales. I went back to school, but I couldn't get the thing out of my head."

Christine interrupted him, intense almost to breathlessness.

"They—they were fixing up a new will!" she whispered, vastly excited.

He smiled wanly. "I wish I could prove that. About three weeks ago I had a message from Uncle Frank, saying that grandfather was quite ill. I was to come home. When I got to the Hall grandfather was much better, and seemed annoyed because my uncle had brought me home unnecessarily. That very night he was murdered."

"Oh!" she whispered.

"He was shot by some one who fired through the parlor window. It happened at half-past eleven o'clock, a most unusual time for grandfather to be about. He was fully dressed when they found him a few minutes after the shooting. A heavy charge of buckshot had struck him in the breast. I—I can't tell you any more about that. It was too horrible."

"I know, I know! Poor David!"

"I was studying in my room up to a short time before the shot was fired. The house was very still. Uncle Frank was downstairs with granddaddy. I couldn't imagine what kept them up so long, talking. Finally I heard Uncle Frank go upstairs to his room. Grandfather was pacing the parlor floor; I could hear the stumping. Finally he came out in the hall and called to me. I hurried downstairs. He was very much agitated. 'David,' he said, 'do you remember a darky we used to have named Isaac?' I was startled. 'Well, he has become a lawyer up in Richmond. He has done very well, and I want you to know what I have done for him. You are to own this place some day—soon, I fear. I have signed a paper to-night, deeding over to Isaac the little five-acre patch on the creek where he was born and where his father and grandfather were born. He saw your uncle Frank in Richmond recently and asked him if it would be possible for him to buy the ground. He wants to put up a building to be known as the Old Negroes' Home. I have thought it over. I did not sell it to him, David. I gave it to him. It is all quite regular and legal. The paper is in that drawer there. You are taking the law course at the university. I want you to look over the agreement to-night or to-morrow morning, before it is taken over to the county seat. It is just as well that you, who are to be the next master of Jenison Hall, should understand all that there is in it.'

"'Has Isaac Perry been here?' I asked, for I was strangely troubled. 'He has,' said granddaddy, 'he brought the document over this evening. Isaac seems likely to make something of himself, after all.' 'I will read it in the morning,' I said, and then I told him that I was glad that he had given the ground. 'Your uncle Frank advised me to tell you of it to-night,' said he.

"I went upstairs to my work, leaving him below. Soon afterwards I went down again to get the paper, feeling that I might as well read it before going to bed. He was reading in the back parlor. I got the envelope out of the drawer in the front room and went back upstairs without disturbing him. A minute afterwards I heard the shot. My own gun was standing in the corner. I grabbed it up and crawled through a window on to the gallery, running down the back steps. As I reached the bottom I saw a man climbing over the fence to the right. Not dreaming that a tragedy had occurred, I rushed after him. He easily got away in the darkness. Then I returned to the house. As I came near I saw Isaac Perry—unmistakably Isaac Perry—at the corner. He turned and ran the instant he saw me. When he crossed in front of the lighted parlor windows I distinctly saw that he did not carry a gun. The man I chased had one. Just then a great cry came from the parlor. I rushed up to the window to look within. One of the panes of glass had been broken.

"My grandfather was lying on the floor. Two of the servants were standing near, looking at him as if paralyzed. There was blood on his white shirt front. Oh! I can't tell you how it—"

He could not continue for a full minute or more. The girl was scarcely breathing.

"I just stood there and stared, the gun in my hand. Suddenly some one leaped upon me from behind. It was my uncle Frank and he was out of breath, very much excited. 'You little devil!' he yelled two or three times. Then he called for help. Servants came running from all directions. I didn't know what he meant. Soon I was to learn."

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse