He came to an abrupt stop, rigid with horror. His hand fell upon her shoulder, roughly, regardless of the physical pain it was sure to inflict.
"Mary, how can I be sure that you won't jump in after me? You act so queerly. I don't understand you. For Heaven's sake, go back! Don't do anything like that. I can't bear it—I can't bear the thought of you down there in the water, under the hulls, covered with—Ah!" He covered his eyes with his hand.
She listened for a tense moment to the labored breathing of the man. He had thought of her at last! An odd, mysterious smile flickered on her lips. With a sudden convulsive movement she drew the long shaker cloak closer about her shoulders.
"Tom, there is a little park over there, with benches. Let us sit down for a moment."
"You won't do it, Mary, will you?" he pleaded, now completely in the grip of that terrible dread.
"I am not as brave as you are, Tom," she said. He caught a new, vibrant note in her voice. He misconstrued it.
"I call it pretty brave to be able to go down and see a man jump into the river. Not many men could do it, let alone women. It's like seeing a man hung."
She led him, unresisting, to a bench in the corner of the dark little triangle that was called a "square." People were passing by, but no one had stopped there to rest, or to reflect, or to make love. They had the green little park all to themselves.
"Christine was married to-night," she said after they had been seated for a few minutes.
He remarked lifelessly: "Hurried it up on my account, eh? It's bad luck to postpone a wedding, even for a death in the family. Well, I'm glad. She's sure to be happy, God bless her!"
"Yes, she will be very happy."
"I suppose she—and you, too—had a notion that I'd turn up some day to spoil the whole business. So you got it over with, eh?"
"I wanted everything to be settled, that's all."
He was silent for a while, breathing heavily.
"Did she ask about me?"
"You told her I was going away—that I'd probably never see her again?"
"I told her you were gone."
"I suppose she was relieved."
"She cried because you were not there to see her married."
He was fully half a minute in grasping the full meaning of that wonderful sentence.
"Did she?" he asked, lifting his head suddenly. "Honest, Mary? You're not saying it just to—to make me feel—"
He stopped and waited for her to reply to his unuttered question. She shook her head.
"Then she does care a little for me. She hasn't lost all the feeling she used to have—"
"She cried because she was not given a chance to talk with you. She thought she could comfort you, could help you. That was why she cried, Tom."
He allowed his chin to rest in his hands, his elbows on his knees.
"I wonder if I could have—Oh, say, there's no use talking," he ended bitterly.
"What were you about to say, Tom?"
"Yes, you were. Tell me."
"Oh," he cried, with all the bitterness of a lost, hungry soul, "if I had only known! She could have comforted me. What a fool I was not to see her. I've been cursing myself all day. Now I know why I cursed. It was because I wanted to see her—" He struck himself a violent blow on the mouth, as if that were all that was needed to crush the great longing that was in his breast.
"Yes. Go on, Tom," she said quietly.
"I can't, Mary. I can't talk about it. I guess I'd better say good-by now. I'll lose my nerve if I get to thinking and talking. I don't want to think that I might still get some happiness out of life if—if I went after it right."
She put her cold hand on his big, clenched fist. He looked at her. The faint light from a near-by lamppost struck his face. It was heavy, leaden with despair and misery.
"Almost the last thing she said to me before she went away was this, Tom: 'Some day I shall go to him. He needs some one to love him. I am sure he is not so wicked as—' She got no farther than that. I stopped her."
"She said all—Mary, why did you stop her? Why didn't you want her to say it? Why did you begrudge me a little thing like that?" He was trembling violently. There was misery, not anger or resentment in his voice.
"Tom, are you ready to go to the river?"
He shrank away from her, shuddering, appalled.
"It's hard to die, after all. I—I ought not to have let you tell me all this. It's made it harder. I never thought of it before. Somehow, Mary, I—I think I might have turned out a better man if—if I'd known just how Christine felt." He got to his feet suddenly. "I said I'd do it. You want me to do it. Well, I will!"
She clung to his hand. He turned upon her with an oath on his lips. The light now struck her face. What he saw there caused him to catch his breath and to choke back the imprecation.
"I am convinced that you would do it, Tom, for her sake and mine. You would do it, not because you are weak, but because you are strong. I am satisfied now."
"Satisfied?" he murmured, wonder-struck.
She arose. "Tom, I am not going to say that I love you. You cannot expect that. There is a feeling within me, however, that may develop into something like the old love I once had for you, if you give it the right kind of encouragement—and care."
"What are you saying to me, Mary?" he cried hoarsely.
"You would have given up your life so that Christine might be happy. I am willing to do as much, Tom, toward the same end. I will give up the life I am leading. You want another chance, Tom. Well, you shall have it. I will go where you go, live where you live."
"Mary!" he gasped.
"Christine said you needed help. Well, I will try to give it to you. You have her love. You didn't quite kill that, as you did mine." She took his limp hand in hers and looked up into his eyes. "Perhaps, if both of us try hard, you and I together, Tom, we may be able to make her forget the ugliest part of her life."
"Together? I don't understand."
"I am still your wife," she said, a shrill note creeping into her voice despite the effort she made to be calm.
"You—you mean I won't have to go—to go to the river?" he cried, unable to think beyond that awful alternative.
"I never meant you to do that."
He suddenly took a long, deep breath and lifted his face, to stare about as if trying to convince himself that he was really there, alive and awake.
"I guess I don't quite get your meaning, Mary," he muttered, but his fingers were beginning to tighten on hers. "Of course, I understand you are still my wife, and—You don't mean you—you are going to take me back!"
"No. I am asking you to take me back."
He could not speak for a full minute or more.
"You'll give me another chance? That's what you mean—that's what you're really saying, isn't it?" He was fairly gasping out the words.
"Oh!" He turned and flung himself on the bench, bursting into tears. "I don't deserve it—I don't deserve it! It's too much to hope for." These and other sentences fell in broken disorder from his lips.
She did not speak, but sat down beside him, laying her hand on his shoulder. After a time, he grew quieter,—then almost deathly still. She shook him gently.
"Will you come home with me now, Tom?" she asked. She too had been crying softly.
He looked up. They were so close together that she could detect the humble, wistful look in his face. His lips moved, but the words did not come at once.
"Home with you?"
"Yes. We have our plans to discuss, Tom."
"To your father's house?" he persisted.
"Yes. He understands. I talked it all over with him this afternoon. It was hard to do, Tom,—it was very hard to hurt that poor old man all over again. But I had it to do, and he understands. He asked me to bring you back with me. I told him I would. He wants to talk with you in the morning."
"Mary," he began, fingering his hat in the extremity of an emotion that almost benumbed him, "I don't know whether you want to hear me say it, but I've never stopped caring for you. It isn't all Christine with me. I just want to tell you that."
"I understand, Tom," she said, still more gently.
"I can't take any help from your father," he managed to say after another long period of silence.
"He will offer nothing but his hand and his well-wishes."
"This is all so unexpected. I'm trying to get too many things through my head at once. Let me think for a minute or two."
She was silent, looking off into the gloomy little street below. A man was whistling gayly near by. From afar came the sound of rumbling street cars. She had not noticed these or any other sounds before. A policeman came up to the corner, stopped and looked at the huddled twain for a minute or two, and then moved off. The sight of that uniform created a sudden chill in her heart. Tom Braddock began speaking again, in low, steady tones in which there was not only a sort of bitter determination but something like defiance.
"What's more, Mary, I won't accept anything from you. Whatever you've got, put it aside for Christine or against the time when you may need it yourself. I'm not going to live off you. I'm not what I was back in those rotten days. I believe I'm going to be I happy again—I think life's going to be sweet to me after all. Half an hour ago I had but a few minutes to live, as I believed. I don't know just how to take this new grip on life. Maybe I'll be able some time to tell you all that I can't say now. I'm all befuddled. The main point is: I'm going to have a chance to be a man again, a real man; to be your husband and to make Christine forget she was ashamed of me. That's it. That's what I'm trying to say. So, you see, I can't afford to be ashamed of myself. Do you get what I mean?"
"You would be ashamed of yourself if you accepted money or help from me? Is that it?"
"Yes. I can work, Mary. I can support you, if you'll come with me. I know where to go. But you'd better think it over carefully. I can go alone, Mary dear,—I can go alone, if you feel you can't stand being with me."
She hesitated, weighing her words. "I have a plan, Tom, that I want to talk over with you. I'll tell you about it when we get home. I want to know what you think of it. Perhaps you will consider it a good one. It occurred to me this afternoon while I was making preparations to leave the city with you to-morrow."
"You—you had it all thought out before you—"
"I had it all thought out. In fact, Tom, I have the railroad tickets at home in my desk,—two tickets, one way."
"You are the most wonderful woman in all this world, Mary, I'd die for you a thousand times," he cried. It was almost a sob.
She smiled. "I wouldn't allow you to do it even once for me. Come! We will go back the way we came, only we will go in by the front door."
As they turned onto the sidewalk he cast a swift, involuntary glance, as of terror, in the direction of North River. She distinctly heard the quick intake of his breath and the involuntary chatter of his teeth.
"You will sleep in a good, clean bed to-night," she said, reading his thoughts.
He reached forth and touched her arm, timidly at first, as if he were afraid that ever so slight a sign of affection would be repulsed. Finding that she did not shrink or draw away, he ventured to draw her arm through his. His figure was still bent, but the slouching, furtive movement was gone. Mechanically she fell into his stride and they moved swiftly up the street. A clock in a house across the way banged out the hour. Far away, in the neighborhood of Broadway, a raucous- voiced newsboy was crying his "extra." They knew that he was shouting:
"All about the murder!" in that unintelligible jargon of the night.
"We will get it all in the morning papers," she said.
"I hope they don't try to connect me with it—Mary, I'm afraid of that! You'd better let me get out of town to-night."
She shook her head.
He walked with his eyes set straight ahead, trying to understand, trying to get control of his new emotions. Always there was the sharp, ugly little notion that she still despised him, that she was sacrificing herself that he might be drawn as far away as possible from the child she was so anxious to shield.
"I'm going to try my best to make you care for me again," he said, a vast hunger for sympathy and love taking possession of him.
"I hope you may, Tom," she said drearily.
"You're doing this for Christine," he said resentfully. "Just to get me away, so's I can't trouble her. That's it, isn't it? Tell the truth, Mary."
"I would not expect you to do anything for her sake if I were not willing to do a great deal myself," was her enigmatic rejoinder.
"Don't hate me, Mary," he burst out.
She pressed his arm. "I am giving you a chance," she reminded him. There was still a dreariness in her voice, but he did not detect it. He returned the pressure, half hopeful that the beginning already had been made.
Brooks let them in. He had been waiting up for them.
"Mr. Braddock will be here over the night, Brooks."
"Yes, Mrs. Braddock." He opened the door into the library for them, and then silently hastened upstairs.
"You must have been pretty sure of yourself," commented Braddock, in no little wonder. She threw off the shaker cloak.
"There is a cold supper for you in the dining-room, Tom—and a piece of a last-minute wedding cake. You must be hungry. While you are eating we will talk over my plan."
He went about it as if in a dream. For an hour they discussed her plan for the future. In the end he fell in with it.
"I'd be a dog if I didn't give in to you in a matter like this," he said. "You're doing everything for me."
"Our room is at the head of the stairs, the first door to the left, Tom," she said, rising. Her face was very pale; she looked old. "The bath adjoins it. If you don't mind I'll stay downstairs awhile. I have many papers to look over and some letters to write."
He went upstairs to the wide, high bed-chamber with its azure walls. For a long time he stood in the middle of the room, looking around in dull amazement and doubt. Was it really true that he was there, in the midst of all this elegance and comfort? He glanced at his big hands and started with shame. They were not very clean. The soiled cuffs of an ill-fitting "hickory" shirt came down over his wrists. Involuntarily he pushed them up. The greenish-gray of the coarse jeans garments he wore, clumsy and crumpled, was sadly out of harmony with the delicate, refined colors that surrounded him. It seemed to him all at once that he jarred on himself.
Suddenly his gaze fell upon a neatly folded suit of clothes lying across the foot of the bed. The garments were dark blue, with a thin stripe running through the cloth, and they were new. On the center table there was a straw hat. Shoes stood beside the chair at the head of the bed. An immaculate white shirt hung over the back of the chair, while on the seat were undergarments. He rubbed his eyes. Then he sat down on the chaise longue and stared, with growing comprehension. The coverlet on the bed was neatly turned down; a night-gown was there, clean and white. Beside it was another, soft and filmy.
Braddock put his hands to his face and sobbed dry, choking sobs that were not of anguish, but of bewilderment.
At last he pulled himself together and arose to make a tour of the room. On the dressing-table there were collars and neckties and cuffs. His own old-fashioned silver watch lay there before him, with its heavy gold chain attached. He remembered with a pang that he had given it to her for preservation long ago, because it had once belonged to his grandfather and he was sentimental about it.
He looked again at the clothes he wore, the clothes the state had placed on him when he left the penitentiary; he looked at his soiled hands; in the glass he caught a glimpse of his haggard, unshaven face and the dirt streaks that the tears had made. With a cry of disgust he began tearing off the hated garments.
She had done all this for him! She had known all along that he was to come home with her.
Half an hour later he came from the bath, scrubbed until his skin was red. He was clean! He was shaved! His hands were amazingly white.
Like a boy, he tried on the fresh, new, clean-smelling clothes. Even to the shoes the fit in all cases was perfect. She remembered everything—the size of his collars, the size of his shoes, the length of his sleeves: the measurements of Tom Braddock as she had known him when they were young together. He picked up the filmy night-dress and kissed it a dozen times. Then he looked at the other one. A grim smile touched his lips. How long had it been since he had slept in a thing like that? It seemed like centuries.
He sat down on the side of the bed and dropped his chin to his hands, suddenly a prey to widely varying thoughts, desires and emotions. For many minutes he drooped there, thinking, wondering, doubting.
Over in a corner stood a small new leather-bound trunk. He did not get up to look at it, or into it. He knew without looking.
"It's like a fairy story," he murmured over and over again. "I'll do anything in the world for her, as long as I live!"
Suddenly he started up. He would go down to her. He would renew his pledges, his promises. As he opened the door to pass out to the stairs he heard her moving in the hall below. She tried the front door. Then the lower light went out. He heard her mounting the stairs slowly. She was coming up to him!
When she got to a point where she could see the streak of light from the partially open door she came to a stop. A slight shudder went over her body. Her steps were slower after that, dragging, dejected, with one or two complete pauses. Braddock understood. He had been listening to that pitiful approach of the woman who was his wife. He could almost see the expression in her face.
A sudden wave of pity swept over him. He gently closed the door and locked it on the inside.
She came on and turned the knob, feebly, timorously.
"Good-night," he called out from the most distant corner of the room.
Fully ten seconds passed before she responded. He felt somehow that she held her breath during that time.
"Good-night," she cried, a vibrant note in her voice. He heard her as she went down the hall. She was running.
THE BLACK HEADLINES
Christine had been mistress of Jenison Hall for three days when the expected and anxiously looked-for letter came from her mother.
A sensation of dread, of uncertainty, had been present during those three wonderful days, lurking behind the happiness that filled the foreground so completely. She could not divest herself of the vague, insistent fear that disaster hung over the head of the mother she idolized. David, supremely happy, used every device that his brain and a loving heart could present to set her mind at rest, to drive away the unvoiced anxiety that revealed itself only in the occasional mirror of her telltale eyes.
When no word came on the morning of the third day, she timidly suggested that they run up to New York for a short visit. He laughed at her and playfully accused her of being tired of him, of being homesick. Nevertheless, he was troubled. He had seen the newspaper accounts of the murder of Colonel Grand, and he had been horrified, immeasurably shocked, to find that Dick Cronk was the self-confessed assassin.
There was no mention of Braddock's name in the dispatches, yet he could not banish the fear that ultimately the man would be implicated.
Dick Cronk's story of the crime, as presented by the newspapers, was clear and unwavering. He said that he had shot the man in the heat of a quarrel over money matters. The newspapers professed to be unable to secure a statement of any kind from the brother, Ernest Cronk, who was in jail as an accomplice, despite the vigorous protests of the principal figure in the case. The newspapers went into the history of the Cronk boys, from childhood up, devoting considerable space to the excellent reputation of the cripple and the unsavory record of the noted pickpocket. In summing up the case, there seemed to be no question of the innocence of the cripple, although it was stated that the district attorney intended to put him on trial for complicity in the crime. The men, held without bail, were to be given a hearing in the trial court at an early day.
Letters from Joey Noakes and Ruby to the Jenisons set forth the details of a visit to the Tombs on the day following the murder. Both were constrained to remark that, in the view of Dick's confession, it would go very hard with him; they could see no chance of escape for him. Joey, however, urged David to contribute something toward engaging the services of a clever lawyer who at least might save him from the gallows. He stated that Ernie, after stubbornly maintaining his own innocence, refused to pay out money for an attorney, preferring to let the state provide counsel for him, under the law. There was no mention of Braddock in either letter, for obvious reasons.
Then the letter came from Mary Braddock. It was addressed to Christine. The mother's heart cried out in the opening pages. David, at least, could read between the lines. There were the tenderest protestations of love and the most confident of prophecies, uttered with a buoyancy of spirit that convinced and delighted the girl, who had been so hungry for reassuring words. A new radiance enveloped her. But he saw beyond the wistful, carefully considered sentences. He saw the shadow of Thomas Braddock at the elbow of the woman as she wrote.
Near the bottom of the second page she abruptly took up the subject which was, after all, uppermost in the minds of these anxious young people.
"Your father," she began, "has changed his mind about going to the mines in the Southwest. I saw him after that dreadful thing had happened at Broadso's. He was afraid I might think he had a hand in it, so he came at once to reassure me. Of course, he was not implicated in any way. It will please you, Christine, to know that my father had a long talk with him on the day following the murder, and that he was more than merely impressed by the change in him. He firmly believes that your father means to lead an honorable, upright life. I, too, believe that he can work out his own redemption. Perhaps David will bear me out in this. He saw him, and he noted the wonderful change. Time, however, will tell. I ought not to be too rash with my prophecies.
"He loves you. He wants to reclaim your love and respect. That is all he has to live for, I firmly believe. For this reason, if for no other, I am confident he will make a brave, a wonderful effort. What he needs most of all is encouragement, sympathy, the promise of ultimate reward. If he realizes that the time may yet come when he can stand before you without shame on his own part, and be received without shame on your part and David's, I am sure it will mean everything to him in the struggle he is to make in the next three or four years.
"He is now on his way to your grandfather's ranch in Montana, of which he will assume the management next fall. The present manager is most unsatisfactory to my father. He recognizes Tom's great ability in handling men; his training in the school of hardship and adversity has given him all the requisites necessary to the conducting of a large ranch. You remember the name of the post-office where the mail for the ranch is always sent. I implore you to write to him often. It will mean so much to him, and, in the end, so much to you and yours. He insists that you are to make no effort to see him. You can well understand how he feels about it. Let him come to you in his own good time. That is best, I am sure. I strongly advise you to respect his wishes in this connection.
"As for my own plans, I am going to the ranch with him. He needs me."
That was all she had to say of herself or her plans.
In the next sentence she spoke of Dick Cronk:
"I suppose you have read of that unhappy boy's arrest. Joey is trying to raise means with which to employ capable counsel for him. I have sent him a check for a thousand dollars, with the understanding that my name is not to be mentioned as a donor. Your father says he cannot conceive of Dick committing a murder. Nor can I. I have a strange feeling that he did not do it, but, of course, that is silly in the face of all that has come out. I am sorry for Dick. If David can find it convenient to befriend him in any way, I am sure he will not hesitate to help that poor, unfortunate boy who once did him an unusual service.
"We are leaving at 5.30 for Chicago...."
The weeks passed rapidly for the blissful young Jenisons. The letters from the far West were full of promise. Even the skeptical David was compelled to admit to himself that the silver lining was discernible against the black cloud that Mary Braddock had so deliberately set herself under.
With his fair young wife he journeyed to New York toward the end of their first month of married life. It had not required the advice or suggestion of others to rouse in him a sense of duty. He owed more to Dick Cronk than he could have hoped to repay under the most favorable of circumstances: now it seemed utterly impossible to lift the obligation. His first act was to send a large check to Joey Noakes. This was followed by numerous encouraging letters to Dick Cronk, in each of which he openly pledged himself to do all in his power to help him in his great trouble.
Dick's replies were characteristic. They were full of quaint, sarcastic references to his plight, glib comments on the close proximity of the scaffold, and bitter lamentations over the detention of his brother Ernie, whose misery and unhappiness seemed to weigh more heavily with him than his own dire predicament.
On his arrival in town David went at once to the office of the great criminal lawyer who had been engaged to defend the Cronks. There he was met by Joey Noakes, Casey (no longer a contortionist but the owner of a well-established plumbing business descended from his father) and young Ben Thompson, the newspaper man who was soon to become Ruby's husband. The man of law was brutally frank in his discussion of the case. He had gone into it very thoroughly with the two prisoners. In his mind there was no doubt as to the outcome of the trial. The men had elected to be tried jointly. Richard Cronk did not have the ghost of a hope to escape the extreme penalty; Ernest would be discharged. There did not seem to be the remotest chance of saving Dick from the gallows.
The testimony of the two prisoners would have but little weight with a jury, and there were no extenuating circumstances behind which he could go in support of his plea for leniency. The prisoners had revealed to him their motive in visiting Broadso's place, going quite fully into the details of the interview which ended in the shooting. David's surprise and horror on learning these hitherto unmentioned facts can well be imagined.
"Personally," said the lawyer, "I am inclined to the opinion that Dick Cronk tells the truth when he says Grand drew a revolver on him and that he shot in self-defense. If we can make the jury see it in that light there may be some chance for him. That is the defense I shall offer, in any event. The state, however, is in a position to make light of the plea, and with tremendous effect. It is just as plausible a theory that Grand himself drew in self-defense. The fact that Cronk fired and Grand did not will go far toward substantiating that theory in the minds of intelligent jurors. It is not at all likely that Grand, who knew the character of his visitors, could be forestalled in a shooting affair, especially if he had been the first to draw. Gentlemen, I shall do my best, but I must say to you that it is a hopeless fight. Young Cronk is perfectly indifferent as to his own fate. He seems only anxious to have his brother acquitted of complicity in the actual crime. Ernie Cronk says that he saw a revolver in Grand's hand, but, you see, he is so vitally interested that it is doubtful if his testimony will be credited. It is very black for Dick Cronk. You may as well understand the situation. We have one chance in a thousand of getting him off with a life sentence, one in a million of securing an acquittal."
The next day David and Joey went to the Tombs to see the two men. Dick came down to the visitor's cage, but Ernie stubbornly refused to see the callers.
"He's in a terrible way, David," said Dick, in explanation of his brother's attitude toward them. "You see, I'm an old hand at the business, and I advised him to talk with no one except the lawyer. It's bad policy, gabbing with everybody that comes along. Keep a close tongue in your head, that's my motto. Ernie's followin' my advice right up to the limit. He's so cussed stingy with his conversation that he won't talk to himself. I don't believe he has said fifty words out loud in the past two weeks. It's getting to be quite a joke among the other guys in here. I never knew any one to be so careful as he is. But, as I said before, he's in a bad way. It's telling on him, poor kid. He can't see anything but the rope for both of us. And then, Davy, my boy, he's got a particular reason for not seeing you. I guess you know what it is. He's a terrible proud feller, Ernie is. Not a bit like me in that respect. Now I'm willing to thank you for putting up the coin for us, and all that, and I do thank you; but Ernie—well, he's a curious kid. He can't bear to—well, you understand."
"Dick," began David as soon as the complacent rogue gave him the opportunity to break in, "I want you to tell Joey and me just how it happened. We are your best friends—"
The prisoner held up his hand, palm outward, shaking his head slowly as he spoke. "I'd be a poor example for Ernie if I blabbed after tellin' him to keep his trap shut. Excuse me, Davy. My lawyer is the only one I talk to about the case. As he's your lawyer just as much as he is mine, and more so, I guess, I don't mind if you chat with him. He can tell you all he wants to. But not me. Nix, kid. Not even to you and old Joey here, the greatest close-mouth in the business. Why, I saw Joey last winter in that pantomime out West, and he never said a word from the time the curtain went up till it went down. Talk about your tight-lipped guys! Say, he's the king of them all. He's the only actor I ever saw that wasn't kickin' for more words to conquer. These gabby actors just give me a—"
"For heaven's sake, Dick, be serious!" cried David impatiently. "You must talk to us openly, frankly about—"
"I'm sorry, David," interrupted Dick, his face grave in an instant. "I can't talk about it. I'd sooner not. You see, I've got to consider Ernie. He's absolutely innocent. If I got to spoutin' around, I might say something that could be twisted so's it would hurt him. So, if you don't mind, I'll talk about the weather. How is it down in old Virginia? How's old Jeff? And how is the cook-lady at Jenison Hall? Say, I wish you'd mention me to her. I'm the ghost that took her pies and cold chicken, you remember."
It was useless for them to continue. He smilingly but stubbornly refused to be moved by their eloquence. To all of their subtly-worded entreaties he gave but the one, oft-repeated response:
"I guess you'd better discuss that with Mr. Prull, the lawyer."
They gave it up, but not until the time allotted to them as visitors was nearly over.
"Mr. Prull has all the facts. Let him do the worrying," quoth Dick, the philosopher. "Ernie will get off, dead sure. As for yours truly, I made my bed, so I guess I'll have to sleep in it. Joey, I'll have the laugh on you. You always said I was a crazy freak when I told you where I was going to end. Just you remember that, will you, when you read about me doing the groundless dance one of these fine days. My old man did it before me. He was seventeen minutes strangling, they say. Almost a record-breaking performance. To tell you the truth, Joey, I'd be downright disappointed if I should happen to cash in natural-like. It would be an awful jolt to my faith in Fate."
"For the love of 'eaven, Dick, don't go on like that," groaned Joey. A cold perspiration was standing on his forehead. "You ought to 'ave some regard for my feelings."
Dick laughed merrily. "There you go! Always thinkin' of yourself. I've always heard that Englishmen haven't got any feelings."
"Well, they 'ave," was Joey's retort.
"Say, David, what's the latest news from Brad?" He listened with great interest to David's brief recital. "Good for Brad!" he exclaimed. "I always said he'd come out clean if he had a chance. I say, Mrs. Brad's a brick. She'll bring him around, see if she don't. He ain't a natural crook, Brad ain't. He's got a conscience and he can't get away from that. No man's a real crook who has a conscience. I've got my own definition of the word 'conscience': a mental funeral with only one mourner. Say, kid, I guess I saved your father-in-law's neck when I plugged old Grand—"
"Dick, don't breathe that, I implore you," cried David. "He had promised Mrs. Braddock that he'd go away. It can do no good to drag him into all this."
"Well," said Dick reflectively, "I guess you'd better ask Mr. Prull about that. He knows all the facts."
"I beg your pardon, Dick. I'm sorry I spoke so quickly."
"It's all right, kid. No harm done. Don't worry. There won't be anything said about Brad's original intentions. I hope Christine—I should say Mrs. Jenison—is well. I know she must be happy."
"She is both, Dick. She is very deeply interested in your case."
"I hope you won't let her send me roses and sweet violets, kid. That's an awful gag they're workin' now. There's a fellow down the line here that cut his wife's head nearly off in two places—on both sides of the neck—and he's getting pink roses and lilies of the valley by the cab-load."
"Christine is sending books and fruit, and three times a week you are to have a dinner fit for a—"
The sudden fierce glare in the prisoner's eyes caused David to stop in amazement.
"Look here," demanded Dick savagely, "ain't poor Ernie to have any o' these things? Is he to set by and see me eat—what?"
"You are to be treated alike, of course," cried David quickly. Dick's face cleared. He looked down in evident embarrassment.
"Excuse me, kid. I—I always get riled when I think of him getting the worst of anything. I'm sure we'll both be terrible grateful to Chris— to Mrs. Jenison. She's an angel,—as of course you know, kid. Sending me books, eh? Tell her I like Dickens, will you? And, say, there's one book she needn't go to the trouble of sendin' me."
"You mean the—the Bible?"
"Dick, you don't really mean that. You—"
"I've already got one," said the prisoner simply. His eyes fell with curious inconsistency. They saw his chin and lower lip quiver ever so slightly. He scraped the floor with his foot a time or two, and his fingers tightened on the bars. "It's a little one my mother gave me when I was a kid. I've always kept it. Funny little old Bible, with print so small you can't hardly read it, 'specially that place where all them guys with the jay names were being begot. They seem to run together a good deal—I mean the names. I guess they must have run together considerable themselves, if accounts are true. Yes, my ma gave it to me for being a good boy once."
His eyes were wet when he looked up at David's face again. His smile seemed more twisted than usual.
"Where is it now, Dick?" asked Jenison, a lump coming into his throat. Joey was plainly, almost offensively amazed.
"Why,—why, Ernie's got it. He didn't have anything else to read, so he took it a couple of weeks ago. I—I guess I'll ask him for it some day soon. Oh, yes, there is something I want to speak to you about, Joey. A couple o' years ago I took out a life insurance policy in favor of Ernie, and also an accident policy. I couldn't keep up the accident one, but the other's paid up to next January. Maybe I won't have to pay on it again. It's for five thousand. I want you to see that he gets the money if—if I—well, you know. The policy is in the safe over at old Isaac's pawnshop,—you know the place. I'll write and ask him to come down and see me, and I'll tell him to give you the paper, if you don't mind, Joey."
"Sure, Dick. I'll take charge of it. You're very good to Ernie, and thoughtful, lad."
"Well, I guess I ought to be," remarked Dick dryly.
David from the first had been more or less certain that Dick was not the one who shot Grand. He could not drive the ugly conviction from his mind. It occurred to him at this juncture to put his theory to the test, hoping to catch Dick off his guard.
"The police are now saying that you did not do the shooting, Dick." He watched the other's face narrowly.
There was not so much as a flicker of alarm.
"They don't think the old boy committed suicide, do they?" asked Dick, with a chuckle of scorn for the obtuseness of the police.
"No. They're working on some new evidence, that's all."
"It's grand to have a reputation like mine," grinned the amiable rogue. "They won't even believe me when they catch me red-handed. Once a liar, always a liar. That's their idea, eh? If I was to turn around and say I didn't do it, I suppose they'd believe me? Well, nix! I guess not!"
David and Joey left almost immediately after this, promising to visit him from time to time, and to do all in their power to aid Mr. Prull.
"Well, so long," said Dick at parting. "Say, Joey, will you remember me to Ruby? I wish her all the luck in the world."
The summer months wore away and toward the middle of October the case of the State vs. Cronk and Cronk came up. There was little or no public interest in the hearing. Two sets of friends, rather small circles very widely apart, were deeply interested, and that was all. The Jenisons and their friends formed one contingent, while the other was made up from that shifting, stealthy element of humanity known as the "under-world."—pickpockets, cracksmen and ne'er-do-wells who had been the associates of Dick Cronk in one way or another, off and on, for years.
The plea of self-defense was ably presented by a great lawyer, but it was shattered by the State quite as easily as he had anticipated. He made an eloquent, impassioned appeal for clemency. The jury was out not more than an hour. Their verdict was an acquittal for Ernest Cronk, a conviction for murder in the first degree against Richard, with the recommendation that he be hanged by the neck until dead.
Following the conviction came the application for a new trial, which was not granted. The record in the case was so clear of error and the proof so conclusive that Mr. Prull declined to carry the matter to the higher courts, realizing the hopelessness of such a proceeding. Then began the systematic, earnest effort to induce the governor to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. He declined to interfere.
Dick Cronk was doomed.
At eleven o'clock on the morning of a bitterly cold Friday in January a grim, sullen group of men, evil-faced fellows whose eyes were heavy with dread, and whose lips hung limp with dejection, crowded around the stove in a squalid, ill-smelling basement room. They spoke but seldom; their voices were rarely raised above the hoarse half-whisper of anxiety known only to men who wait in patience for a thing of horror to come to pass, an inevitable, remorseless thing from which there is no escape.
They shivered as they crouched close to the red-hot stove, notwithstanding the almost unbearable heat of the foul, windowless room in which they were gathered. Their faces were pallid, their eyes bloodshot, their flesh a-quiver.
Occasionally one or another of them would go to the door to listen for sounds in the black passage beyond. He would resume his seat without a word to his fellows, each of whom looked up with stark, questioning eyes. Then they would fall to staring at the walls again, or at the floor, their chins in their hands. At their feet lay the newspapers, eagerly read and discarded by each and every member of this little group. There was a "noon extra," fresh from a ten o'clock press. It had been the last to fall into their hands.
They tried to smoke, but the water of mortal terror filled their mouths. The smell of dead, dank tobacco pervaded the room.
In a far corner, huddled against the wall, there was a shivering, silent figure, a Pariah even among these under-world outcasts. He sat apart from the others, denied a place in the circle, despised and abhorred by the men he once had scorned because they were the devil- may-care companions and emulators of his brother. His beady black eyes never shifted from the low, padlocked door in the opposite end of the room. He, too, was waiting for the dread news from the upper world. His breathing was sharply audible, as of one drugged by sleep; his body had not moved an inch in an hour or more, so fierce was the suspense that held him rigid. From time to time he swallowed, although his mouth was dry and empty; there was a rattling sound accompanying the act that suggested the hoarse croak of a frog. Always his gaze was on the door, never wavering, unblinkng, fascinated by the horror that was creeping down to him as surely as the sun crept up to the apex of the day.
Noon! Twelve o'clock, midday! The hour they were dreading!
One of the shivering thieves beside the stove drew forth from a ragged pocket the plutocratic timepiece of a millionaire victim. The way his eyes narrowed as he looked at its face told the silent observers that it was twelve o'clock and after. Unconsciously every figure stiffened, every jaw was set, every nostril spread with the intake of air. Every mind's eye in that fear-sick group leaped afar and drew a picture of the thing that was happening—then! At that very instant it was happening!
"Oh!" groaned some one, half aloud.
"It's after twelve," muttered another thickly.
"The jig's up wid Dick, kids. Blacky ought to be here wid de extry. Wot's a keepin' him?" said the first speaker, glaring over his shoulder in the direction of the door.
"Twelve sharp, that's wot it says," shuddered a small, pinched thief. "He's a-swingin' now."
Suddenly a wild, appalling shriek arose from the corner behind them. As one man, they whirled. Their gaze fell upon the cringing figure over there, now groveling on the floor in the agony of a terror that severed all the restraining bonds that had held his tongue so long.
They shrank back as their minds began to grasp the words he was shrieking in his madness.
He was sobbing out the thing that each man there had suspected from the first!
For many minutes they listened to his ravings, stupefied, aghast. Then a stealthy glance swept round the circle as if inspired by one central intelligence. It crept out of the corners of rattish eyes, reading as it ran the sinister circle, and hurried back to its intense, malevolent business of transfixing the quarry in the corner.
A hand reached down and grasped the leg of a short, heavy stool. Another went lower and clutched a long, murderous bar of iron that served as a poker. Savage eyes went in quest of deadly things, and purposeful hands obeyed the common impulse.
Then they advanced....
Later, the stealthy, shivering group stole forth from the room and down the black hallway that led to the street. The last man out cast a terrified glance at the still, shapeless object in the corner as he closed the door behind him and fled after his fellows. When they came from the passage into the full light of day, each skulker looked at his hands and found that they shook as if with a mighty ague.
Even as they blinked their eyes in the glaring sunlight, an excited young man came rushing toward them from the opposite side of the street. They paused irresolute. The newcomer was white, excited—yes, jubilant. In his hand he carried a newspaper, the heavy black headlines standing out in bold relief.
"He's got a reprieve!" he was shouting eagerly. "Look 'ere! See wot it says."
Fascinated, they slunk back into the dark passage, to listen in stupefaction while the joyous Blacky repeated the astounding news from the prison.
"Mr. Jenison and his wife done it," cried Blacky, his eyes gleaming. "It says so here. They went to the gov'nor this morning and put it up to him in a way that made him grant a reprieve for thirty days, so's Mr. Jenison can get the real facts before him. That means a pardon sure, kids. Say, Jenison's all right! He's the kind of a friend to have, he is. He never quit on Dick. Say, where's Ernie? We'd better put him wise."
"It won't make any difference to Ernie now," said one of the rogues, wiping his wet brow with his hand.
Blacky fell away with a great look of dread in his eyes. He understood.
"We'd better duck out o' this," he muttered vaguely. "It says here that the cops are going to question Ernie. They're out huntin' for him by this time, kids."
"They know he was here wid us, and they'll find him sure," cried one shifty-eyed fellow. "Me to the woods."
"Hold on. Spike," interposed another grimly. "We got to stand together on this. We got to stick by Dick, now he has a chance. We got to stay here and tell 'em what Ernie said to us in there. It's the only way. We'll do time for it, but what's the dif? Dick was doin' more for Ernie. We're sure to get off light, when it all comes out."
They drew back into the passage and waited for the police to come.
An hour went by, and not one faltered. There came at last to their ears the sound of heavy footsteps on the narrow stairway. Spike heaved a deep sigh and said to his comrades:
"We've seen the last of Dick, kids. This Mr. Jenison will take care of him from now on. He'll have a good chance to be honest, lucky dog, just as he's always wanted to be."
The fellow with the plutocratic watch took it from his pocket and gazed at it with the eyes of one who is contemplating a great sacrifice.
"Jenison's all right, God bless him. I'm going to see that he gets his watch back, too. I was a dog to have pinched it in the first place."