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- The Rose in the Ring - 73/73 -
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."
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