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- The Rose in the Ring - 5/73 -
show begins. He won't mind if I give it to you. He can get more. My father owns the show."
"No, no," he cried. "I can't take his supper. I am not hungry."
But she smiled and flew away, disappearing behind the flap at his left: a fluttering red fairy she might have been. He never forgot that first radiant, enveloping smile.
"It is all right, my boy," said the girl's mother, also smiling. "You _are_ hungry. We know what it is to be hungry--sometimes."
"That we do," said the contortionist, rubbing his narrow abdomen and drawing a lugubrious mouth.
"You must be quite frozen in those wet clothes," observed Mrs. Braddock pityingly.
"I can't stay here, ma'am," he said abruptly. The hunted look came back into his eyes.
"He's no regular bum," said the "strong man," in the background, addressing the pink-limbed "lady juggler."
"He's got a 'istory, that boy 'as," said the lady addressed, deeply interested. "Makes me think o' that boy Dickens wrote about. What was his name?"
"How should I know?" demanded the strong man. "You Britishers are always workin' off riddles about something somebody wrote."
"What is your name?" asked the gentle-voiced woman at the boy's side. "Where do you come from?"
He hesitated, still uncertain of his standing among these strange, apparently friendly people.
"I can't tell you my name," he said in a low voice. "I hoped you wouldn't ask me. I have no home now--not since--Oh, a long time ago, it seems. More than a week, I reckon, ma'am."
"You have been wandering about like this for a week?" she asked in surprise. He gulped.
"Yes, ma'am. Since the eleventh of May." He wanted to tell her that he had been hunted from county to county for over a week, but something held his tongue. He felt that she would understand and sympathize, but he was not so sure of the others.
Perhaps she suspected what was going on in that troubled brain, for she laid her hand gently upon his arm and said: "Never mind, then. When you are stronger, you may go. I am sure you are a good boy."
He thanked her with a look of mute gratitude. The girl with the long red cloak came tripping back with a tray. She placed it on his knees; then she whisked away the napkin which covered it. All he knew was that he smiled up into her eyes through his tears, and that the smell of warm food assailed his nostrils. As she straightened up, the neglected cloak slipped from her shoulders. She caught it on her arm, but did not attempt to replace it. He lowered his eyes, singularly abashed. A trim, clean figure in red tights stood before him, absolutely without fear or shame or in the least conscious of her attire.
He was in her world, that was all. In his, outside that canvas crucible and between performances, she would have died of mortification if, by chance, there had been one-tenth of the exposure. Here, she was as fully dressed and as modestly as she would be an hour later, clothed from head to foot in the conventional garments of her sex, rigidly observing the strictest laws of delicacy.
A trim, straight figure she was, just rounding into young womanhood; turning fifteen, in truth. Lithe and graceful, with the sinuous development of a perfectly healthy young girl who has gone through the expanding process without pausing at the awkward stage, due no doubt to her life and training. Firm, well-rounded hips; a small waist, full chest and perfect shoulders, straight, exquisitely modeled limbs and high, arched insteps: perfect in girlhood, with promise of the divine at the height of full womanhood.
The mother arose at once. She remembered that he was in their world.
"Come," she said to her daughter. They withdrew to the women's half of the dressing-tent, leaving him to devour his feast alone. Slowly the others, taking their cue, edged away. When next the clown approached him, fresh from a merry whirl in the ring, the tray was on the mattress at his side, every particle of food gone. The boy's face was in his hands, his elbows on his knees.
"Well, you _was_ 'ungry," said the kindly voice. The boy looked up, his eyelids heavy.
"I reckon I was almost asleep," he said. "I haven't slept much of late."
Suddenly it dawned on him that the clown was staring intently at his face. With quick understanding he shrank back, but did not withdraw his gaze from the eyes of the other.
"By jingo!" muttered the motley one. "You--you are the one they're 'unting for--all over the state. The reward bills! I remember now!"
The lad had risen. A look of abject misery and dread leaped in his eyes.
"Let me go!" he said, almost in a whisper, fiercely intense. "I'll get out. I haven't done any harm to you. Don't keep me here a minute--"
"Then you _are_ the Jenison boy!" in open-mouthed wonder. "Well, I'll be jiggered! Here! Don't bolt like that!"
"Let go of me!" cried the boy, striking at the hand that clutched his arm. "I won't let them catch me! Let me go!"
"Keep your shirt on, my son," said the clown coolly. "Nobody's going to 'urt you 'ere. Just you remember that. I am not going to give you up--leastwise, not just yet. So you murdered your grandfather, did you? Well, I wouldn't 'ave took you to be that kind--"
"I didn't do it! I didn't do it!" There was piteous appeal in his wide eyes. "I swear I didn't. They're trying to put it on me to save some one else. Oh, please, don't keep me here. They--they are--they must be here by this time, looking for me. Oh, if you knew how I've tried to dodge them. They had bloodhounds last Saturday. Oh!" He covered his face with his hands and shuddered as with a mighty chill.
Grinaldi eyed him speculatively.
"You say they're 'ere now? So close as that?" he demanded in a low voice.
"I passed them on the mountain. I tried to make the railroad ahead of them. There was a bridge down back there. There were two of them, officers from the county seat. They won't have any mercy if they find me. They'll take me back and I'll be hung. I can't prove anything--I can't escape." He had dropped helplessly to the edge of the mattress, and was staring hard at the sidewall beyond as if expecting his pursuers to burst in upon him at any moment.
"And you didn't do it?" the clown asked, something like awe in his voice.
"Before God, I did not. I--I loved my grandfather. I _couldn't_ have done it. Why, he was the only father I had--the only mother. He was everything to me. It was--" He caught himself up quickly in his wild declaration. "I know the man who did it. I heard them talking it over before it happened, but I didn't know what they were talking about." His eyes grew almost glassy with the horror that surged up from behind them.
"Then why don't you tell your story?" demanded the clown. "Let the other chap clear 'imself."
"They've got the evidence against me. Oh, you don't know! You can't know how it looked to the world. There's a man who says he saw me with a gun at my grandfather's window. He did see me there and I had a gun, but not to kill poor old granddaddy. No, no! I heard some one walking on the gallery--a thief, I thought. I crawled out of my window with my shotgun. I--but I oughtn't to tell you this. You must let me go. I'll never tell on you, I swear--"
"Wait a minute," interrupted the clown, laying his arm over the boy's shoulder. "We'll talk it over with Mrs. Braddock. She can tell by lookin' in your eyes whether you're good or bad. As far as I'm concerned, I don't believe you did it. Yes, yes, that's all right! Don't hug me, sonny. Here she is. She's the wife of the man wot owns the show."
Mrs. Braddock crossed over to them, smiling. It was not until she opened her lips to speak of the compliment his appetite had paid to the cook tent that she perceived the look in his eyes. Then she glanced at the serious face of the clown.
"This 'ere chap, ma'am," said Grinaldi, in low, level tones, "is David Jenison, the boy wanted for that murder near Richmond last week. You've seen the reward bills. His grandfather, you remember--"
She drew back; her eyes dilated, her lips stiff. "You are the Jenison boy?" she said slowly, even unbelievingly. "The one who killed his grandfa--" "But I didn't do it!" he almost wailed. "You--_you_ must believe me, ma'am. I didn't do it!" He stood before her, looking straight into her eyes.
"No, Mrs. Braddock," said Grinaldi, "he didn't do it." "How do you know, Grinaldi? How can you--" "Because he says another person did it," said Grinaldi calmly.
The woman turned to the boy once more. She seemed to be searching his soul with her intense gaze.
"No," she murmured, after a moment, breathing deeply, "I am sure you did _not_ commit murder. You poor, poor boy!"
He would have dropped to his knees before her, had not the clown checked him by means of a warning hiss.
"Brace up!" he said sharply. Then to Mrs. Bradock: "We've got to find a way to 'ide 'im. The officers are right on his 'eels."
She hesitated for a moment. Swift glances passed between her and the
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