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- The Rose in the Ring - 6/73 -
"You must keep very quiet and do what we tell you to do," she said to the boy, who nodded his head eagerly. "You will be safe here. A circus is the safest harbor in all the world for the thief and the lawbreaker. Why should it not be so for one who is innocent?"
"Let me tell you all about it, madam," began David Jenison, the hunted. She stopped him.
"Not now. There is no time for that. We will take you on faith and we will help you. My boy, I knew in the beginning that you were of gentle birth--I saw it in your face, in the way you held yourself. But that you should be one of the Jenisons of Virginia--why, Grinaldi, the Jenisons are the bluest--But, there, we'll talk of that another time, too. Sam!" She called to a ring attendant who stood near the entrance. The burly, rough-looking young man came up at once, respectful to a degree.
"Go out in front and tell Mr. Braddock to hurry back here as soon as he is through with the tickets!" The man slid out between the flapping walls. "Now, Grinaldi, you must make it your business to tell every one who this boy is, and what must be done for him. Don't be alarmed, David Jenison," she said with a smile. He had opened his lips to protest. "There isn't a soul in all this company, from feed-boy to proprietor, who will betray you to the officers of the law. We stand together--the innocent and the guilty. If you are vouched for by Joey Grinaldi and--me, or by any other in our little universe, that is the end of it. Even the basest ruffian in the canvas gang, even the vilest of the hostlers, will stand by you through thick and thin. And there are real murderers among them, too. You must have faith in us."
"I have faith in YOU" he said simply. Then, true Virginian that he was, this tired, harassed boy bent low and lifted her hand to his gallant lips. "I will give my life up for you any day, madam. It is yours."
"Spoken like a gentleman," said the clown, his eyes twinkling.
A couple of horses came clattering into the tent from the ring. At the entrance they were seized by waiting attendants; one of the mysteries that had always puzzled the boy was solved. He had wondered where the plunging steeds raced to after their whirlwind exit from the ring. A moment later, a swarm of men came rushing in with hoops, balloons and banners and hurdle-poles, followed by the "Greatest Living Bareback Rider of the Globe, the One and Only Mellburg." After him came a tired ringmaster, lanky and not half so proud as he looked to be in his spike-tailed coat.
Some one in the big tent was making an announcement in stentorian tones.
"It's time for me to go in," said the clown. "My song comes now. Just you go along with Casey 'ere, into the dressing-room. He'll get you something dry to wear out of my box. Don't forget one thing: we're all as thick as thieves 'ere, whether we're honest men or not. You'll find every man, woman and child wot appears in the ring to be absolutely square and honest. They've got to be. The bad men are not the performers. You'd find that out if you was with 'em a bit. I don't mind tellin' of it to you, as a consolation, that there is two real murderers among the canvasmen and a dozen or more pussons which are wanted for desp'rit things. Nobody peaches on 'em, mind you, and that's the way it goes. We've just _got_ to stand together. Hi! Hi!"
He was off with a rush. A few minutes later he was heard singing his lay in the ring, the then popular and familiar ditty, "Whoa, Emma!" with a crude but vociferous chorus of male voices to "join in the refrain." Casey, without further instructions, and asking no questions, led the youth into the men's section. Here all was confusion. A dozen men were stripping themselves of one set of tights to don another, for in those days the ordinary acrobat did many turns in the process of earning his daily bread.
By the time Grinaldi returned, young Jenison was completely arrayed in an extra costume of the clown's, a creation in red and white stripes, much too baggy in all directions, but dry as toast. The owner of the costume put his hands to his sides and roared with laughter.
"Casey, you serpent," he gasped, "I didn't mean that kind of a suit. I meant my Sunday togs--the ones I go to church in, when I goes. Which I doesn't. 'Ere, boys, step right up and listen to an announcement." The crowd gave attention. "This 'ere chap is wanted. There's a big reward for 'im. You've all seen the posters. He's the Jenison boy. Well, he ain't guilty. Get the notion? We Ve got to 'elp 'im out of the country. Mum's the word, lads. Say!" He stood back to inspect his charge. "If you're going to wear them togs, you've got to 'ave your face done over to match."
Whereupon he began to apply grease and bismuth to the countenance of the amazed young patrician. The others looked on and laughed good- naturedly. To his surprise, no one seemed to mind the fact that he was a fugitive and an alleged slayer. They had stared at him curiously for a moment; two or three of them exchanged whispers, that was all.
In a twinkling he was transformed into a real scaramouch. A conical hat adorned the knit skullpiece that covered his black hair.
"Don't peep in the lookin'-glass," said Signor Anaconda, now in the pale blue tights of a "ground and lofty" tumbler. "You'll keel over again, plumb dead."
The flap at the entrance was jerked aside and a tall, black-mustached man peered in upon the group.
"Where's the kid?" he demanded sharply. "My wife said he was with you, Joey. Say, I don't like this business. They're out in front now, looking for him. Two of 'em. Have you let him get away?"
David, peering from behind the real clown, experienced an instantaneous feeling of aversion for Braddock, the proprietor. Even as he quailed beneath the new peril that asserted itself in no vague manner, he found himself wondering how this man could have come to be the husband of his lovely benefactress.
"He's here, Tom," announced Grinaldi, shoving the boy forward.
"What's he doing in that costume?" demanded the owner, dropping the flap and staring hard at the boy.
"His clothes were wet. Besides, if they come botherin' around back 'ere, Tom, they won't be so likely to reckernise him in these--"
"Say, do you suppose I'm going to get into a muss with these people by hiding a murderer?" snapped Braddock. "Bring him out here. Come along, bub."
"You're getting blamed virtuous all of a sudden, Braddock," said the clown angrily. "'Ow about these dogs you are protectin' all the time? What's more, this 'ere kid's innocent."
"There's five hundred dollars reward for this fellow," said Braddock, jamming his hands into his coat pockets. "That doesn't sound like he's innocent, does it? Besides, the officers are plumb certain he's hanging around this show some place. I'm not going to be pestered with constables and detectives from here to Indiana, let me tell you that. It's bad business, monkeying with stray boys, ever since the Charley Ross kidnapping job last year. So you lummixes have decided to protect him, have you? Why, the whole pack of you ought to be in jail for even thinkin' of it. Come out here, boy!"
Without a word, the boy shook himself free of Grinaldi's protecting grasp, and stepped forward.
"I'm not willing to see these men get into trouble," he said steadily, addressing the boss. "Give me time to change my clothes again, and then you can call in the officers."
"Don't be a fool," exclaimed the clown. A murmur of protest arose from the others.
"Thomas!" A woman's voice was calling from the other side of the low canvas partition.
"That's my wife," growled Braddock. "I suppose she'll be beggin' for you, too. What do you want?" The question was roared through the canvas.
"Come here, please. I must speak with you."
"Change your clothes, boy," he said, after a moment of indecision. "See that he don't get away, you fellows. If he gives you the slip, I'll have blood, and don't you forget it."
The man had been drinking. His eyes were bloodshot and unsteady. His face was bloated from the effects of long and continued use of alcohol. Once on a time he had been a dashing, boldly handsome fellow; there could be no doubt of that; the sort of youth that any romantic girl might have fallen in love with. He was tall and straight and powerful, despite the evidences of dissipation that his face presented. A wonderfully vital constitution had protected his body from the ravages of self-indulgence; the constitution of a great, splendid human animal, in whom not the faintest sign of a once attractive personality remained. There was no refinement there, no mark of good breeding; all of the mirage-like glamour that may have bewildered and deceived _her_, long years ago, was gone. What she had evidently mistaken for the nobility of true manhood, in her innocence and folly, was no more than the arrogance of splendid health. This man had been beautiful in his day, and frankly pleasing. That was long before the thing that was in his blood, and in the blood of his fathers, perhaps, had claimed dominion: the mysterious thing which inevitably registers the curse of the base-born, so that no man may be deceived. Blood always tells, but usually it tells too late.
But of the Braddocks and their hateful history, more anon. Let us look at this man as he now is, just as we have looked, perhaps too casually, at the woman who called him husband.
A heavy black mustache, lightly touched with gray, shaded a coarse, rather sinister mouth, from the corner of which protruded an unlighted but thoroughly-chewed cigar. His hair and eyebrows were thick and black. Thin red lines formed a network in his cheeks, telling of the habits that had put them there; on his forehead there was a perpetual scowl, a line slashed between the eyes as if laid there by a knife. The features were not irregular, but they were of the strength that denotes cultivated weaknesses. His chin was square and strong, heavily stubbled with a two days' growth of beard. Eyes that were black and sullen, stood well out in their sockets; the lids were red and thick, and there were narrow pouches below them; the whites were bloodshot and indefinite. He was flashily dressed in the mode of the day, typical of his calling. A silk hat tilted rakishly over his brow. His
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