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- The Rose in the Ring - 3/73 -
He had learned that they were making for S---- and it was easy to see that their progress was slow and grueling. His feet were light, his legs strong; peril gave wings to his courage. Something told him that he must beat them by many miles into the town of S----. Once, when he was much younger, he had gone to S---- with his grandfather to see the soldiers encamped there. He remembered the railroad. It was imperative that he should reach the railway as far in advance of his pursuers as legs and a stout heart could carry him.
A wide _detour_ through the sombre forest brought him to the road once more, fully a mile below his pursuers. He forgot his hunger and his fatigue. For miles he ran with the fleetness of a scared thing, guided by the crude sign-boards which pointed the way and told the distance to S----. Night fell, but he ran on, stumbling and faint with dread, tears rolling down his thin cheeks, sobs in his throat. Darkness hid the sign-boards from view; he reeled from one side of the narrow, Stygian lane to the other, sustaining many falls and bruises, but always coming to his feet with the unflagging determination to fight his way onward.
Half-dazed, gasping for breath and ready to drop in his tracks, he came at last to the open valley. Far ahead and below were the lights of a town--he could only hope that it was S----. Tortured by the vast oppressiveness of the solitude which lay behind him, peopled by a thousand ghosts whose persistent footsteps had haunted him through every mile of his flight, he cried aloud as he stumbled down the rain- washed hill,--cried with the terror of one who sees collapse after human valor has been done to death.
He was never to know how he came, in the course of an hour, to the outskirts of the town. His mind, distracted by the terror of pursuit, refused to record the physical exertions of that last bitter hour; his body labored mechanically, without cognizance of the strain put upon it. He had traversed fifteen miles of the blackest of forests and by way of the most tortuous of roads. A subconscious triumph now inspired him, born of the certainty that he had left his enemies far behind. It was this oddly jubilant spur that drove him safely, almost instinctively, into the heart of S----. The music of a band both attracted and bewildered him. It was some time before he could grasp the fact that a circus was holding forth in the lower end of the town. The subtle cunning that had become part of his nature within the past forty-eight hours forbade an incautious approach to the circus grounds. There, of all places, he might expect to encounter peril. To his bewildered mind every man who breathed of life was a sleuth sent forth to lay hold of him.
He gave the circus--loved thing of tenderer days--a wide berth, finding his way to the railway station by outlying streets. His first thought was to board an outbound train, to secrete himself in one of the freight cars. The sudden, overpowering pangs of hunger drove this plan from his mind, combined with the discovery that no train would pass through the town before midnight. Disheartened, sick with despair, he slunk off through the railway yards, taking a roundabout way to the circus grounds.
There was money in his purse,--plenty of it; but he was afraid to enter an eating-house, or to even approach the "snack-stand" on the edge of the circus lot. For a long time he stood afar off in the darkness, his legs trembling, his mouth twitching, his eyes bent with pathetic intentness upon the single pie and hot sandwich stand that remained near the sideshow tent, presided over by a kind-faced, sleepy old man in spectacles.
A huge placard tacked to the board fence back of this stand attracted his attention. Impelled by a strange curiosity, he ventured into the circle of light, knowing full well, before he was near enough to distinguish more than the bold word "Reward," that this sinister bill had to do with him and no other.
Held by the same mysterious power that a serpent exercises in charming its victim, the lad stared at the face of this ominous thing that proclaimed him a fugitive for whom five hundred dollars would be paid, dead or alive.
Stricken to the soul, he read and re-read the black words, unable, for a long time, to tear himself away from the spot. A quick alarm seized him. He slunk back into the shadows, his hunger forgotten. For many minutes he stood in the grisly darkness, staring at the white patch on the fence. Curses rose to his lips--lips that had never known an oath before; prayers and pleadings were forgotten in that bitter arraignment of fate.
Then came the sudden revival of youthful spirits, carrying with them the reckless bravado that all boys possess to the verge of folly. The band was playing, the show had begun. In his mind's eye he could see the "_grand entree._" A fierce desire to brave detection and boldly enter the charmed pavilion took possession of him. First, he would buy of the pieman's wares; then he would calmly present himself before the ticket wagon window, after which--But he got no farther in his dream of audacity. The placard on the fence seemed to smite him in the face. He drew farther back into the darkness, shuddering. With his arms clasped tightly across his chest, shivering in the chill that had returned triumphant, he dragged himself wearily away from the place of temptation.
Circling the dressing-tent, he came upon men at work. They were drawing stakes with the old-fashioned chains. For a while he dully watched them. They passed on. He crept from his place of hiding and, attracted by the lights as a moth is drawn by the candle, made his way to the sheltered spot at the joining of the tents.
After a few moments of restless vigil an overpowering sense of lassitude fell upon him. His eyes closed in abrupt surrender to exhaustion. The rhythmic beat of the quickstep leaped off into great distances; the champing and snorting of horses in the dressing-tent died away as if by magic; the subdued voices of the men and women who waited their turn to bound into the merry ring faded into indistinguishable whispers; the crack of the ring master's whip and the responsive yelp of the clown trailed off into silence. His head fell back, his body relaxed, and he slipped off into sweet unconsciousness.
A man in motley garb, with a face of scarlet and white, sitting on a blue half-barrel near the flap which indicated the entrance to the men's section of the dressing-tent, caught sight of an arm and hand lying limp under the edge of the canvas. He stared hard for a moment and then, attracted by the slim, unfamiliar member, arose and advanced to the spot. As he stood there, looking down at the hand, a woman and a young girl approached.
"Drunk," observed the clown, with a grimace.
They stopped beside him, looking down. The woman spoke. "How long and fine the fingers are. A boy's hand, not a man's. See who is there, Joey, do."
And so it was that the fugitive was taken.
The clown lifted the sidewall and bent over the form of the lad, peering into the white, mud-streaked face.
"He's not drunk," he said quickly.
"He looks ill, poor fellow. How wet he is,--and _so_ muddy. Is he asleep? It isn't--it isn't something else?" She drew back in sudden dread.
"He's alive, right enough. I say, Mrs. Braddock, there's something queer about this. He can't belong in this 'ere town, else he wouldn't be sleepin' 'ere in the mud. He's plain pegged out, ma'am. Like enough 'e's some poor fool as wants to join the circus. Run away from 'ome, I daresay. We've 'ad lots of 'em follow us up lately, you know. Only this 'un looks different. Shall I call Peterson? He'll wake 'im up right enough and conwince 'im that the show business is a good thing to stay out of while he can."
"Don't call Peterson. He is a brute. Rouse him yourself, and tell him to come inside the tent. Poor boy, he's half drowned. Come, dearie," to the girl, "go into the dressing-room. You must not see--"
"He is so white and ill-looking, mother," said the girl, in pitying tones, her gaze fastened upon the face of the sleeper. The mother drew the child aside, an arm about her shoulder. Together they watched the clown's efforts to arouse the boy.
"He may be another Artful Dick, my child," ventured the mother. "Your father says the pickpockets are uncommonly numerous this spring."
"I'm sure he isn't a thief--I'm sure of it," said the girl eagerly.
She was a pretty, brown-haired creature, whose large, serious eyes seemed unnaturally dark and brilliant against the vivid coloring of her cheeks and forehead. The blacks, whites and carmines of the make- up box had beautified her for the ring but not for closer observation. One who understood the secrets of the "make-up" could have told at a glance that underneath the thick layer of powder and paint there was a soft, white skin; even the rough, careless application of harmless cosmetics could not, in any sense, deceive one as to the delicacy of her features. The mouth, red with the carmine grease, was gentle, even tremulous; her nose, though streaked with a thin, white line, was straight and pure patrician in its modeling, with fine, quivering nostrils, now gently distended by sharp exercise in the ring; her ears were small, her throat round and slim; right proudly her head rode the firm, white neck; the warm, brown hair swept down in caresses for the bare shoulders.
A long, red Shaker cloak enveloped the slim, straight body. Dainty golden slippers, protected by the ungainly ground shoes of the circus performer, peeped from beneath the hem of the robe. A small, visorless cap of red velvet fitted snugly over the crown of her head.
Now the lips were parted and the eyes narrowed by interest in the stranger who slept against their walls.
The mother was still a young woman; a pretty one, despite the careworn expression in her eyes and the tired lines in her face. She was dressed in the ordinary garments of the street, in no way suggestive of the circus. There was an unmistakable air of gentle breeding about her, patient under the strain of adverse circumstances, but strong and resolute in the power to meet them without flinching. This woman, you could see at a glance, was not born to the circus and its hardships; she came of another world. Tall and slender and proud she was, endowed with the poise of a thorough gentlewoman. Hers was a fine, brilliant face, crowned by dark hair that grew low and waved about her temples. Deep, tender brown eyes met yours steadily and with unwavering candor. There was strength and loyalty and purity in their depths. No hardness, no callousness, no guile, no rancor there: only the clear, sweet eyes of a woman whose soul is white. There was an infinite pity in them now.
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