THE ROSE IN THE RING
By GEORGE BARR McCUTCHEON
WITH FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS IN COLOR BY A. I. KELLER
I THE FUGITIVE
II IN THE DRESSING TENT
III DAVID ENTERS THE SAWDUST RING
IV A STRANGER APPEARS ON THE SCENE
V SOMETHING ABOUT THE BRADDOCKS
VI DAVID JENISON'S STORY
VII THE BROTHERS CRONK
VIII AN INVITATION TO SUPPER
IX A THIEF IN THE NIGHT
X LOVE WINGS A TIMID DART
XI ARTFUL DICK GOES VISITING
XII IN WHICH MANY THINGS HAPPEN
XIII THE SALE
I THE DAUGHTER OF COLONEL GRAND
II THE STRANGER AT THE HALL
III THE MAN WHO SERVED HIS TIME
IV THE DELIVERY OF A TELEGRAM
V THE LOVE THAT WAS STAUNCH
VII TOM BRADDOCK'S PROMISE
VIII COLONEL GRAND AND THE CLONKS
IX IN THE LITTLE TRIANGULAR "SQUARE"
X THE BLACK HEADLINES
His audience was fairly hanging on his words.. Frontispiece
"It is my money!" cried David
Her lips parted in amazement, tremulously struggling into a smile of wonder and unbelief.
"This is the one, great, solitary hour in your life."
The gaunt man led the way. At his heels, doggedly, came the two short ones, fagged, yet uncomplaining; all of them drenched to the skin by the chill rain that swirled through the Gap, down into the night- ridden valley below. Sky was never so black. Days of incessant storm had left it impenetrably overcast.
These men trudged—or stumbled—along the slippery road which skirted the mountain's base. Soggy, unseen farm lands and gardens to their left, Stygian forests above and to their right. Ahead, the far-distant will-o-the-wisp flicker of many lights, blinking in the foggy shroud. Three or four miles lay between the sullen travelers and the town that cradled itself in the lower end of the valley.
Night had stolen early upon the dour spring day. The tall man who led carried a rickety, ill-smelling lantern that sent its feeble rays no farther ahead than a dozen paces; it served best to reveal the face of the huge silver watch which frequently was drawn from its owner's coat pocket.
Eight o'clock,—no more,—and yet it seemed to these men that they had plowed forever through the blackness of this evil night, through a hundred villainous shadows by unpointed paths. Mile after mile, they had traversed almost impassable roads, unwavering persistence in command of their strength, heavy stoicism their burden. Few were the words that had passed between them during all those weary miles. An occasional oath, muffled but impressive, fell from the lips of one or the other of those who followed close behind the silent, imperturbable leader. The tall man was as silent as the unspeakable night itself.
It was impossible to distinguish the faces of these dogged night- farers. The collars of their coats were turned up, their throats were muffled, and the broad rims of their rain-soaked hats were far down over the eyes. There was that about them which suggested the unresented pressure of firearms inside the dry breast-pockets of long coats.
This was an evening in the spring of 1875, and these men were forging their way along a treacherous mountain road in Southwestern Virginia. A word in passing may explain the exigency which forced the travelers to the present undertaking. The washing away of a bridge ten miles farther down the valley had put an end to all thought of progress by rail, for the night, at least. Rigid necessity compelled them to proceed in the face of the direst hardships. Their mission was one which could not be stayed so long as they possessed legs and stout hearts. Checked by the misfortune at the bridge, there was nothing left for them but to make the best of the situation: they set forth on foot across the mountain, following the short but more arduous route from the lower to the upper valley. Since three o'clock in the afternoon they had been struggling along their way, at times by narrow wagon roads, not infrequently by trails and foot paths that made for economy in distance.
The tall man strode onward with never decreasing strength and confidence; his companions, on the contrary, were faint and sore and scowling. They were not to the mountains born; they came from the gentle lowlands by the sea,—from broad plantations and pleasant byways, from the tidewater country. He was the leader on this ugly night, and yet they were the masters; they followed, but he led at their bidding. They had known him for less than six hours, and yet they put their lives in his hands; another sunrise would doubtless see him pass out of their thoughts forever. He served the purpose of a single night. They did not know his name—nor he theirs, for that matter; they took him on faith and for what he was worth—five dollars.
"Are those the lights of the town?" panted one of the masters, a throb of hope in his breast. The tall man paused; the others came up beside him. He stretched a long arm in the direction of the twinkling lights, far ahead.
"Yas, 'r," was all that he said.
"How far?" demanded the other laboriously.
"'Bout fo'h mile."
"Road get any better?"
"Can we make it by nine, think?"
"We'd better be moving along. It's half-past seven now."
Once more they set forward, descending the slope into the less hazardous road that wound its way into the town of S——, then, as now, a thriving place in the uplands. The ending of a deadly war not more than ten years prior to the opening of this tale had left this part of fair Virginia gasping for breath, yet too proud to cry for help. Virginia, the richest and fairest and proudest of all the seceding states, was but now finding her first moments of real hope and relief. Her fortunes had gone for the cause; her hopes had sunk with it.
Both were now rising together from the slough into which they had been driven by the ruthless Juggernaut of Conquest. The panic of '73 meant little to the people of this fair commonwealth; they had so little then to lose, and they had lost so much. The town of S—-, toward which these weary travelers turned their steps, was stretching out its hands to clasp Opportunity and Prosperity as those fickle commodities rebounded from the vain-glorious North; the smile was creeping back into the haggard face of the Southland; the dollars were jingling now because they were no longer lonely. The bitterness of life was not so bitter; an ancient sweetness was providing the leaven. The Northern brother was relaxing; he was even washing the blood from his hands and extending them to raise the sister he had ravished. There was forgiveness in the heart of fair Virginia—but not yet the desire to forget. The South was coming into its own once more—not the old South, but a new one that realized.
Intermittent strains of music came dancing up into the hills from the heart of S—. The wayfarers looked at each other in the darkness and listened in wonder to these sounds that rose above the swish of the restless rain.
"It's a band," murmured one of the two behind.
"Yas, 'r; a circus band," vouchsafed the guide, a sudden eagerness in his voice. "Van Slye's Great and Only Mammoth Shows—"
"A circus?" interrupted one of the men gruffly. "Then the whole town is full of strangers. That's bad for us, Blake."
"I don't see why. He's more than likely to be where the excitement's highest, ain't he? He's not too old for that. We'll find him in that circus tent, Tom, if he's in the town at all."
"First circus they've had in S—— in a dawg's age," ventured the guide, with the irrelevancy of an excited boy. "Rice's was there once, I can't remember jest when, an' they was some talk of Barnum las' yeah, they say, but he done pass us by. He's got a Holy Beheemoth that sweats blood this yeah, they say. Doggone, I'd like to see one." The guide had not ventured so much as this, all told, in the six hours of their acquaintanceship.
"Well, let's be moving on. I'm wet clear through," shivered Blake.
Silence fell upon them once more. No word was spoken after that, except in relation to an oath of exasperation; they swung forward into the lower road, their sullen eyes set on the lights ahead. Heavy feet, dragging like hundredweights, carried them over the last weary mile. Into the outskirts of the little town they slunk. The streets were deserted, muddy, and lighted but meagerly from widely separated oil lamps set at the tops of as many unstable posts.
Some distance ahead there was a vast glow of light, lifting itself above the housetops and pressing against the black dome that hung low over the earth. The rollicking quickstep of a circus band came dancing over the night to meet the footsore men. There were no pedestrians to keep them company. The inhabitants of S—— were inside the tents beyond, or loitering near the sidewalls with singular disregard for the drizzling rain that sifted down upon their unmindful backs or blew softly into the faces of the few who enjoyed the luxury of "umberells." Despite the apparent solitude that kept pace with them down the narrow street,—little more than a country lane, on the verge of graduating into a thoroughfare,—the three travelers were keenly alert; their squinting, eager eyes searched the shadows beside and before them; their feet no longer dragged through the slippery, glistening bed of the road; every movement, every glance signified extreme caution.
Slowly they approached the vacant lots beyond the business section of the town, known year in and year out to the youth of S—— as "the show grounds." Now they began to encounter straggling, envious atoms of the populace, wanderers who could not produce the admission fee and who were not permitted by the rough canvasmen to venture inside the charmed circle laid down by the "guy-ropes." At the corner of the tented common stood the "ticket wagon," the muddy plaza in front of it torn by the footprints of many human beings and lighted by a great gasoline lamp swung from a pole hard by. Beyond was the main entrance of the animal tent, presided over by uniformed ticket takers. Here and there, in the gloomy background, stood the canvas and pole wagons, shining in their wetness against the feeble light that oozed through the opening between the sidewall and the edge of the flapping main top, or glistening with sudden brightness in response to the passing lantern or torch in the hand of a rubber-coated minion who "belonged to the circus,"—a vast honor, no matter how lowly his position may have been. Costume and baggage wagons, their white and gold glory swallowed up in the maw of the night, stood backed up against the dressing-tent off to the right. The horse tent beyond was even now being lowered by shadowy, mystic figures who swore and shouted to each other across spaces wide and spaces small without regulating the voice to either effort. Horses, with their clanking trace-chains, in twos and fours, slipped in and out of the shadows, drawing great vehicles which rumbled and jarred with the noise peculiar to circus wagons: tired, underfed horses that paid little heed to the curses or the blows of the men who handled them, so accustomed were they to the proddings of life.
And inside the big tent the band played merrily, as only a circus band can play, jangling an accompaniment to the laughter and the shouts of the delighted multitude sitting in the blue-boarded tiers about the single ring with its earthen circumference, its sawdust carpet and its dripping lights.
The smell of the thing! Who has ever forgotten it? The smell of the sawdust, the smell of the gleaming lights, the smell of animals and the smell of the canvas top! The smell of the damp handbills, the programs and the bags of roasted peanuts! Incense! Never-to-be- forgotten incense of our beautiful days!
Warm and dry and bright under the spreading top with its two "center poles" and its row of "quarters"; cold, dreary and sordid outside in the real world where man and beast worked while others seemed to play.
Groups of canvasmen now began to tear down the animal tent—the "menagerie," as it has always been known to the man who pays admission. An hour later, when the big show is over, the spectators will stream forth, even as their own blue seats begin to clatter to earth behind them, and they will blink with amazement to find themselves in the open air, instead of in the menagerie tent. As if by magic it has disappeared, and with it the sideshow and its banners, the Punch and Judy show, the horse tent, the cook tent, the blacksmith shop. Where once stood a dripping white city, now stretches a barren, ugly waste of unhallowed, unfamiliar ground, flanked by the solitary temple of tinsel and sawdust which they have just left behind, and which even now is being desolated by scowling men in overalls. The crowd oozes forth, to find itself completely lost in the night, all points of the compass at odds, no man knowing east from west or north from south in the strange surroundings. The "lot" they have known so well and crossed so often has been transformed into a trackless wilderness, through which strange objects rumble and creak, over which queer, ghastly lights play for the benefit of grumbling men from another world.
Blake and his companion, standing apart from the lank, wide-eyed guide, were conversing in low tones.
"We'd better make the circuit of the tents," said Blake, evidently the leader. "You go to the right and I'll take the other way round. We'll meet here. Keep your eye peeled. He may be hiding under the wagons where it's dry. Look out for these circus toughs. They're a nasty crowd."
Then he turned to the guide.
"We won't need you any longer," he said. "This is as far as we go. Here is your pay. If I were you, I'd buy a ticket and go inside."
"Yas, 'r," said the smileless guide, accepting the greenback with no word of thanks. A brief "good night" to his employers, and the lean mountaineer strolled over to the ticket wagon. He purchased a ticket and hurried into the tent. We do not see him again. He has served his purpose.
His late employers made off on their circuit of the tents, sharp-eyed but casual, doing nothing that might lead the circus men to suspect that they were searching for one among them. In the good old days of the road circus there were thieves as well as giants; if a man was not a thief himself, he at least had a friend who was. There was honor among them.
A scant hour before the three men came to the "showgrounds" their quarry arrived there. That Blake and his companion were man-hunters goes without saying, but that the person for whom they searched should be a hungry, wan-faced, terrified boy of eighteen seems hardly in keeping with the relentless nature of the chase.
The ring performance in the main tent had been in progress for fifteen or twenty minutes when the fugitive, exhausted, drenched and shivering, crept into the protected nook which marks the junction of the circus and dressing tops. Here it was comparatively dry; the wind did not send its thin mist into this canvas cranny. Not so dark as he may have desired, if one were to judge by the expression in his feverish eyes as he peered back at the darkness out of which he had slunk, but so cramped in shadow that only the eye of a ferret could have distinguished the figure huddled there. Chilled to the bone, wet through and through, this white-faced lad, with drooping lip and quickened breath, crouched there and waited for the heavy footstep and the brutal command of the canvasman who was to drive him forth into the darkness once more.
He had watched his chance to creep into this coveted spot. When the men were called to work at the horse tent he found his chance. It looked warm in this corner; a pleasant light on the inside of the two tents glowed against the damp sidewalls: here and there it glimmered invitingly under the bottom of the canvas. He knew that his tenancy must end in an hour or two: the big top would be leveled to the ground, rolled up and spirited away into the stretches that lay between this city and the next one, twenty miles away. But an hour or two in this friendly corner, close to the glare of the circus lights, almost in touch with the joyous, bespangled world of his ambitions, even though he was a hated and hunted creature, was better than the sopping roadside or the fields.
He knew that he was being hounded and that those who sought him were close behind. Once in the forest, far back in the hills, he had heard them, he had seen them. Off in other parts of the country men were looking for him. In the cities throughout Virginia and the adjoining states there were placards describing him ere this, and rewards were mentioned.
Resting in the bushes above the trail, late in the afternoon, he had seen Blake and his men. They had stopped to rest, and he could hear their conversation plainly. With all the wiliness of a hunted thing, he had slipped off into the forest, terrified to find that his pursuers were so close upon him.
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.
The clown had shaken the boy into partial wakefulness. He was sitting up, leaning forward on his hands, his eyes blinking in the contest between sleep and amazement.
"Get up," said Grinaldi, the clown, shaking him by the shoulder. "What are you doing here, boy?"
The lad came quickly to his feet and would have rushed away into the darkness behind him had it not been for the restraining grip on his arm. He felt himself being dragged into the stuffy, mysterious vestibule of the tent, into plain view of a half-dozen vividly attired persons, almost under the feet of stolid, gayly caparisoned horses wearing the great back-pads.
And this creature who led him there—this grotesque object with the chalky face and coal-black eyebrows that ran up in tall triangles to meet a still chalkier pate—this figure with the red and black crescents on his cheeks and the baggy, spotted suit of red and white and blue and the conical hat—who and what was he?
He was not dreaming—he was in the dressing-tent of the circus, enveloped by the dull, magic atmosphere that comes in the smoke of burning oils,—an atmosphere that is never to be found outside the low walls of a dressing-tent. He experienced a sudden feeling of suffocation. The whole world seemed to have closed in upon him; a drab sky almost touched his head; the horizon seemed to have rushed up to within ten feet of where he stood.
His bewildered gaze took in the horses, the boxes, the trunks, the ring paraphernalia, the "properties," the discarded uniforms of attendants—cast in apparent confusion here, there and everywhere. Somehow, as he stared, this conglomerate mass of unfamiliar things seemed to creep away into the black shadows he had not perceived before; the drab dome of the tent began to swirl above his head, like a merry-go-round; the lights danced and then went out.
Grinaldi, the clown, caught him in his arms as he slipped forward in a dead faint.
IN THE DRESSING-TENT
When he regained consciousness, he was lying on a thick, dusty mattress, his head pillowed on a bundle of cloth that smelled of cotton and dyestuffs. Faces emerged from the gloom around him. Some one was holding a torch over his strange couch. That odd face in bismuth and lampblack was bending over him.
"He's come 'round, Mrs. Braddock," he heard this creature say, in a far-off voice. "Only a faint, nothing more. Poor lad, he looks ill and hungry."
Then other figures, all gaudy and bright and glittering, crowded into his vision. He tried to raise himself to his elbow, a fierce wave of embarrassment rushing over him. Some one supported him from behind. As he came to a sitting position, he turned his head to thank this person. It was with difficulty that he repressed a cry of alarm. The being who braced him with friendly arms was a glittering, shiny thing of green, with a human face that leered upon him.
Observing the youth's bewilderment and uncertainty, Grinaldi laughed.
"He's not a boa-constrictor, lad. He's the boneless wonder. He's as gentle as a spring lamb, and not hardly as tough. Signer Anaconda, the Human Snake, that's what he's called on the bills. Ed Casey is his real name."
"Aw, cheese it, Joey," growled the amiable Signer. "Say, young feller, what's ailing you? Where'd you come from?"
The stranger in this curious world managed to turn his body so that his legs hung over the side of the vaulter's mattress; he faced his audience, a sudden wariness in his eyes. Before venturing a word of explanation, he allowed his gaze to sweep the entire group. They mistook his deliberateness for stupefaction.
He saw perhaps a dozen people in the group before him. The colors of the rainbow were represented in the staring, curious company. There were men in tights and women in tights—in pink and red and green and blue—some of them still panting and breathless after their perilous work in the ring. He took them all in at a glance, but his eyes rested at last on the one figure that seemed out-of-place in this motley crowd: the tall, graceful figure of the woman in street clothes. He looked long at the sweet, gentle, unpainted face of this woman, and drew his first deep breath of relief and hope when she smiled. She moved quickly through the crowd of acrobats and riders, followed close behind by the slim, wide-eyed girl in the long red cloak. An instant later she was sitting beside him on the mattress, smiling with friendly encouragement as she laid her hand upon his arm. The girl stood at her knee. For the first time the fugitive noticed the face of this slender girl—no, it was the eyes alone that he saw, for the face was grossly covered with pigments.
"What has happened?" asked the tall woman gently. "Have you—have you run away from home, my boy?"
"How long have I been here?" There was a suggestion of alarm in the abrupt question.
His voice, querulous through excitement, was quite strong and musical. The tone and his manner of addressing the questioner proved beyond contradiction that he was no ordinary tramp, or show-follower, such as they were in the habit of seeing in their travels. A dozen fine old Virginia gentlemen, perhaps, one after another, had lived and died before him; down that precious line of blood had come the strain that makes for the finished thoroughbred—the real Virginia aristocrat. Six words, spoken with the mild drawl of the cultured Southerner, were sufficient to prove his title. No amount of mud or tatters or physical distress could take away the inborn charm of blood. No haggardness or pain could detract from the fine, clean movement of the lips, or sully the deep intelligence of the eyes.
His audience at once found a new interest in him. He was not what they had expected him to be; this boy was no scatter-brained country lout, with the dream of the circus at the back of his folly.
He, of course, could not have known that during the ten minutes in which he lay unconscious on the huge pad a score of these curious, sympathetic strollers, partially or wholly dressed, had come out to gaze upon him, each delivering a characteristic opinion as to his purpose, but all of them roughly compassionate. Without exception, they looked upon him as one of the show-sick youths who, in those days, as now, succumb too readily to the lure of sawdust and spangles. More than one scoffing jest was uttered over his unconscious head.
Now they realized that he was not what they had thought him to be. A deeper tragedy than this seemed to be stamped in his wan face.
"You fainted ten minutes ago. Are you feeling better now? Give him some brandy, one of you. We will put you on your feet again in a few minutes, and then you may get on to the hotel. How wet you are! You must have come far."
He watched her face all the time she was speaking. No sign of trust or confidence came into his own as the result of her kindliness. Instead, the wariness grew.
"Only across the mountain," he said succinctly. A half smile, quizzical and almost grotesque by reason of the mud on his chin, came to his lips. "I've been out in the rain, ma'am," he vouchsafed. "I should say you had," said the contortionist. "You're soppin' wet. By gum, I'll bet the green runs in these tights of mine, too." The wet body had drenched them thoroughly.
Whereupon the newcomer undertook to support himself, not without a word of thanks to the acrobat. Once more he surveyed the mystic circle of figures. He had never been so close to men and women in tights before. Somehow they were not so alluring as when viewed from the blue seats of the circus tent. The fluffy, abbreviated tarletan skirts of two women bareback riders who stood not more than two yards away seemed tawdry and flimsy at close range; the pink fleshings of the world's greatest somersault artist looked rumpled and fuzzy; the zouave costume of the lady rope-walker lost its satiny sheen through propinquity; the clown was dusty and greasy and stuffy. An illusion was being shattered in the flash of an eye.
"I must be moving along," he said, in quick return to apprehension. "Thank you for looking out for me. It was very kind of—" He swayed as he tried to arise. The genial contortionist caught him.
"He's hungry!" cried one of the bareback queens. He made a heroic effort to pull himself together. The innate modesty of a gentleman reproved him even as things went hazy: he was conscious that he was staring at the surprisingly large kneecaps of the speaker. He was vaguely troubled because they were dirty.
A flask of brandy was pressed to his lips. He gasped, caught his breath, and, as the tears came to his eyes, smiled apologetically.
"It's pretty strong," he choked out.
"Puts snap and ginger into you," said the clown, standing back to watch the effect of his ministrations. "It strikes me you're not a common tramp. Wot were you doing 'angin' round this tent, son? Don't you know you might 'ave got clubbed to death by one of the canvasmen out there? They're never 'appy unless they're kickin' some poor rube over the guy-ropes. You wasn't trying to peep into the dressing-tent, was you?"
A hot flush mounted to the boy's forehead. He arose unsteadily.
"No," he said quickly. "I was trying to find a dry spot. I was tired out. Let me go now, please. I'm all right." He started toward a flap in the tent wall.
"Better not go that-a-way," said the clown. "You'll go plump into the ring. Wait a minute. Are you 'ungry?"
"No," said the boy, but they knew he was not speaking the truth. The girl in the long red cloak, she of the wonderful eyes, stood before him.
"Please wait, won't you?" she said, half timidly, half imperatively. "I will get something for you to eat. It's—it's right over there in my corner. The cook always brings my father's supper here after the 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 clown.
"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 waistcoat was a loud brocade, his necktie a single black band, knotted once. There was a great paste diamond in his soiled shirt-front. A long checked coat, with tails and sidepockets, trousers of the same material, completed his ordinary makeup. Tonight, on account of the rain, he wore high gum boots outside of the trouser-legs.
You could hardly have mistaken his calling in those days, unless you might have suspected him of being a gambler. In which you would not have been wrong.
The line between his eyes seemed to deepen as he turned from the group to join his wife in the "green room" of the tent. As the flap dropped behind him, Grinaldi turned to the boy, who had started to unlace the striped overshirt.
"Wait a minute," he said quickly. "Mebbe we can fix it with 'im. She'll put in a plea for you and so will Little Starbright,—that's what 'is daughter is called on the bills—if she gets a chance. Stay right 'ere, youngster. I've got to go in for my girl's act now. I wish you could see my girl. She's the queen of the air, and don't you forget it. Ain't she, boys?"
There was a combined—apparently customary—chorus of approval.
Outside, Braddock was glowering upon his wife, who faced him resolutely. There never had been a time when she was afraid of this man; even though he had mistreated her shamefully, he had never found the courage to exercise his physical supremacy. As so often is the case—almost invariably, it may be affirmed—with men of his type and origin, Braddock recognized and respected the qualities that put her so far above him. Not that he admitted them, even to himself: that would have been fatal to his own sense of justice. He merely felt them; he could not evade the conditions for the reason that he was powerless to analyze the force which produced them. He only knew that somehow he merited the scorn in which she held him. There were times when he hated her for the very beauty of her character. Then he cursed her in bleak, despairing rage, more against himself than against her; but never without afterward cringing in morbid contemplation of the shudder it brought to her sensitive face.
If any one had been so bold as to accuse him of not loving her, he would have been crushed to earth by the brute that was in him. On the other hand, if he were timorously charged with loving her, it would have been like him to call the venturesome one a liar—and mean it, too, in his heart.
"But five hundred is five hundred," he was repeating doggedly in opposition to her argument in behalf of the boy. "You don't know whether he's guilty or not, Mary. So what's the use of all this gabble? It makes me sick. Business is bad. We need every dollar we can scrape up. I won't be a party to—"
"You harbor pickpockets and thieves and—yes, murderers, I'm told, Tom. It is a shameful fact that more sneak thieves follow this show and share with its owner than any other concern in the business. Oh, I know all about it! Don't try to deny it. They pay a regular tribute to you for privileges and protection. Artful Dick Cronk gave you half of the hundred he filched from the old man at Charlottesville last week. I—"
"Here, here!" he said in an angry whisper. "Don't talk so damned loud. Next thing you'll be telling that sort of stuff to the girl. That'd be a nice thing for her to think, wouldn't it? Say, don't you ever let me hear of you breathin' a word of that kind to her. I'd—I'd beat your brains out. Understand?"
"Oh, I'm not likely to tell her what kind of a man her father is," said his wife bitterly. "Take care, Tom, that she doesn't find it out for herself. Be quiet! She is coming."
The girl, cleansed of her paint and powder, her lithe body clad in a prim, navy blue frock, the skirt of which came below the tops of her high-laced boots, approached hastily from the women's section. She was tying the strings of her quaint poke-bonnet under her chin, and her eyes were gleaming with excitement.
"Where is that boy?" she asked, looking about in some anxiety. "Father, you should see him. He is so different from the boys who follow—"
"We were just talking about him," interrupted her father shortly. "He's wanted by the police, so you see he ain't so different from the rest after all. He's a—"
"Don't, Tom," cried his wife.
"—a murderer," completed Braddock, rolling his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.
The girl stared at him for a moment, dumbly, uncomprehendingly. Her lips parted and her eyes grew very wide.
"Oh, father," she cried, in low, hushed tones. Then she turned to her mother, almost imploringly. "Is—is it true, mother?"
"Well, see here," broke in Braddock angrily. "Don't you believe me? Haven't I said so?"
"He is the Jenison boy we were talking about last night, dearie," said Mrs. Braddock. "I don't believe he committed that horrid crime. I can't believe it."
"I am sure he didn't—I am sure he didn't," cried the girl impulsively. "He is a gentleman, father. He couldn't—"
Braddock took instant offense. He hated to hear any one spoken of as a gentleman.
"What's that got to do with it?" he demanded. "Gentleman, eh? You two seem to think that these pretty gentlemen can't do anything wrong. Why, they're rottener than nine-tenths of the blokes that follow this show—every mother's son of 'em. I'm sick of having this gentleman business thrown up to me. That's all you two talk about. I suppose you think you're better than the company you live with. Let me tell you this, you're show people and nothin' more. I don't give a damn who your people are; you're my wife and my daughter, and that's all there is to it. I won't stand this sort of—"
"Tom, you must keep still," said his wife firmly. He was intoxicated; she knew better than to argue with him, or to agree with him. "All this has nothing to do with the boy. We must give him a chance, the same as —you understand?"
He glared at her warningly.
"I don't protect thieves and murderers," he said quickly.
Then he whirled about and snatched aside the flap, calling to the group of acrobats.
"Come out here, you! Step lively. I want to ask a few questions. Where the dev—Say, haven't you got out of that suit yet? Why, you little scuttle, I'll rip it off your back if you're not out of it in two minutes. Hold on! Come out here first."
As Jenison walked past him the proprietor gave him a violent cuff on the side of the head. The boy, weak and faint, reeled away and would have fallen but for the tent pole which he managed to clutch. His face was convulsed by sudden rage. Even while his head swam, he pulled himself together for a leap at the man who had struck the wanton, unexpected blow.
Braddock was huge enough and strong enough to crush the infuriated lad, but drink had made him a coward at heart. He stooped over and picked up an iron-ringed stake from the ground.
With a little cry of terror his daughter, recovering from her sudden stupefaction, sprang forward and frantically clutched the man's arm. Her mother was no less active in putting herself in front of the boy, staying him with resolute hands. The performers who had followed David from the room leaped in with clenched fists, glaring hatefully at their employer. Others, in remote parts of the enclosure, hurried up, aroused from drowsy meditation by the sharp excitement.
"Don't, father!" cried the girl in the agony of dread.
"Damn him, he may have a gun," exclaimed Braddock. "He's used one before."
"Why did you strike me?" cried David hoarsely, his lips twitching, his eyes glowing like coals.
"Aw, none o' that, now, none o' that," snarled Braddock, taking a step forward.
"Why did you strike me?" repeated the boy dully.
"Calm yourself, my boy," Mrs. Braddock kept repeating insistently, without raising her voice, always low, tense, impelling.
The tears sprang to his eyes—tears of rage and helplessness. With a sob he turned away and leaned his head against the pole.
"Poor boy," she whispered.
"Don't you call me a brute, Casey," roared Braddock, turning upon the contortionist in a fury. Casey had not uttered a word, but Braddock instinctively anticipated the charge. The contortionist was afraid of him. He drew back with a scared look in his eyes.
Mrs. Braddock was speaking quietly, compassionately to the suffering boy. "We must be careful," she said, "not to oppose him too strongly. Those men are out in front. He will turn you over to them if you resort to violence. Calm yourself, do. There is still the chance that he may change his mind. He is not really heartless. It is only his way."
"Why did he strike me?" again fell from the lips of the fugitive.
At this moment Grinaldi came hurrying in from the ring. He took in the situation at a glance. Behind him, peering over his shoulder, was a black-haired young woman in pink tights and spangled trunks.
David was afterward to know this handsome, black-haired girl as Ruby Noakes, the daughter of Grinaldi, otherwise Joey Noakes, and known to the gaping world as Mademoiselle Roxane, the Flying Queen of the Air.
DAVID ENTERS THE SAWDUST RING
Braddock saw at once that the old clown was against him. With an ugly imprecation he directed one of the attendants to go to the main entrance with instructions to bring Mr. Blake and his friend back to the dressing-tent.
"We'll see who's running this show," he declared, taking a fresh grip on the stake, and rolling the dangling cigar over and over between his teeth.
"Hold on, Camp," said Grinaldi, checking the attendant with a gesture. "See 'ere, Tom," he went on earnestly, "wot's the reason you won't give this one an even chance with the others?"
Stand aside, Christie," Braddock said to his trembling daughter. "Don't get in the way. Oh, I'm not going to smash the cub, so don't worry. Here! Come away from him, I say. Both of you. I won't stand for any petting of a rascal like him. Well, I'll tell you, Joey Noakes," he went on, turning to the clown, "I don't mind saying I need the money. This kid's going to be caught by somebody before long, and the man that does it gets five hundred. It might as well be me. Business is business, and just now business is bad. You people all know what this infernal weather has done for us. We haven't had a paying day since we opened, and here it is the middle of May—nearly six weeks, that's what it is. There's a lousy three hundred dollars in the big top to-night and half as much this afternoon. I tell you if these rains keep up I'll have to close. It takes more than five hundred dollars a day to run this show. I owe back salaries—all of you have got something coming to you. Five hundred dollars velvet, that's what this boy means to me—not for myself, mind you, but for the treasury. That's why I'm going to turn him over, if you want to know."
"But he ain't guilty," said Grinaldi sharply.
"How do you know?" snarled Braddock. "Go and do what I told you," to the wavering attendant. Mrs. Braddock and Christine were standing beside the dejected boy, the former looking steadily at the face of her husband, whose bloodshot eyes would not meet her gaze. Christine's eyes were wide with the bewildered stare of an intelligence that has suddenly been aroused to new aspects: she was having a glimpse of a side to her father's character that had never been revealed to her before.
She put forth a hand and drew Ruby Noakes close beside her, pressing her hand tightly in actual alarm. The Noakes girl's arm went around the slender figure, but she continued to stare curiously at the face of the stranger in their midst. She was half a head taller than Christine, and at least three years her senior.
"We ought to have a new clown to help out dad, Mr. Braddock," ventured Miss Noakes coolly.
Braddock stared at her. He was not in the habit of accepting feminine advice.
"What's that?" he barked.
"Keep still, Ruby," cautioned her father nervously. Ruby's lips parted quickly, and then, thinking better of it, she closed them.
David's face took on a queer, uncertain expression while Braddock was advancing his dire need of money as an excuse for turning him over. The proprietor resumed his bitter harangue against the weather, prophesying bankruptcy and sheriff's sales. The boy's face began to clear. An eager, excited gleam came into his eyes. He looked about him as if searching for some sign of corroboration in the faces of the performers. A certain evidence of dejection had crept into more than one countenance. It began to dawn on him that the man was more or less sincere in his argument; even the words of others, in conflict with his purpose, served to convince him that the money was needed, very seriously needed.
"If he's innocent, he can prove it," argued Braddock stubbornly. "The county pays the five hundred. It's nothing out of his pocket. Why the devil shouldn't I get it?"
David had opened his lips two or three times to utter the words that surged up from his anxious, despairing heart. A sense of guilt and shame had checked them on each occasion. Whatever it was that he felt impelled to say, his honest pride rebelled against the impulse.
Now he lifted his head resolutely, and addressed the proprietor, whose stand appeared to be immovable.
"I will pay you the five hundred dollars," said David clearly.
Every eye was turned upon him, every tongue was stilled. The tumblers who had started for the ring stopped in their tracks to gaze in open- mouthed wonder at the straight, grotesque figure that faced Braddock.
The proprietor blinked unbelievingly. Then he gave vent to a short, derisive laugh.
"You will, will you?"
David felt a hot wave of blood rush to his head. His offer had met with the rebuke it deserved!
"I thought that if it was only the money, I could let you have it. I didn't mean to try to buy you off," he explained hastily.
"Are you in earnest?" demanded Braddock, depositing the stake on the ground, a curious glitter swimming across his eyes.
"About the money?"
"Certainly. Where are you going to get it?"
"I've got it with me," said David, feeling at his side. A look of dismay spread over his face. It was quickly dispelled by the recollection that his own clothes were lying in the men's dressing- room. "It's in my vest."
No one thought to oppose him as he passed hastily under the flap. He was back in a moment, carrying his rain-soaked waistcoat. With nervous fingers he drew a heavy pin from the mouth of the inside pocket, and extracted a long leather purse therefrom. It was tied up with a heavy piece of string.
"Do you mean to tell me that you've got five hundred dollars in there?" demanded Braddock incredulously.
David felt without seeing the look that went through the crowd. He knew, by some strange mental process, that they were condemning him, that they were drawing away from him. He was bewildered. Then suddenly he understood. It came like a blow. Something rushed up into his throat and choked him.
They took this money to be the profits of murder! The spoils of a dreadful sin!
Speechless, he turned to Mrs. Braddock. There was no mistaking the look of pain and distress in her dark eyes. There were doubt and wonder there, too. It seemed to him that she shrank back a step; although, as a matter of fact, she remained as motionless as a statue. Christine was glowing upon him in grateful amazement, unutterable relief in her gaze. To her, it meant only that he was rich and could save himself. It did not occur to her that he had come by the riches dishonestly, nor was she at once conscious of a feeling that her father would do wrong to accept the tribute. It was not until later that she felt the shock of revulsion.
"It is my money!" cried David, speaking to Mrs. Braddock. "Every cent of it! I—I know what you are thinking. You think I stole it." His eyes were flashing and his chin was held high now. "I'll kill any one who says I steal. I'd sooner commit murder a thousand times than to steal."
"How did you—come by all that money?" asked Mrs. Braddock, more than half convinced by his fervor.
"That's what I'd like to know," added her husband. "Here! Lemme take that pocket-book."
David jerked his hand loose and abruptly thrust the purse into the hand of the astonished Mrs. Braddock.
"Look at it," he cried passionately. "Open the purse. It's still in the sealed envelope, just as my father left it when he went off to the war the second time—after he was wounded. He left it with my mother for me. No one has ever opened the package. It was in my mother's trunk until she died. She wouldn't put it in a bank. My uncle Frank never knew that she had it; he doesn't know that I have it now. But it is mine. My father gave it to me when I was six years old. See what it says on the envelope. It's his own writing. 'For my son David. To be used in the acquiring of an education if I should fall in this dear, beloved cause, which now seems lost. God defend us all!' See! 'Arthur Brodalbin Jenison.' My father's signature. Here is the seal of his ring. It is my money."
Even Thomas Braddock was swayed, convinced by the eloquence of that fierce appeal. He stared at the boy, his lips apart, his cigar hanging limply from one corner of his mouth.
"By thunder!" he murmured, frankly surprised in himself. "I believe the tale, hang me if I don't!"
But David was waiting only for the verdict of the woman. Mrs. Braddock had not glanced at the envelope that she now clutched in her tense fingers; her eyes were only for the eager, chalk-colored face of the boy. Tears welled up in her warm eyes as he paused for breath.
"I believe you, too—yes, yes, my boy, we all believe you," she cried, putting out her hand to him. He snatched it up and kissed it.
At that instant the ringmaster, white with rage, dashed in from the big tent.
"Say, what's the matter with you loafers?"
The crowd of tumblers jumped out of the trance as if shot.
"The show's been held up for ten minutes! Get in there all of you!" Here followed a violent explosion of appropriate profanity. "The audience is gettin' wild. They'll be wantin' their money back unless the performance goes on purty blamed—"
Braddock reached the man's side in three steps. He delivered a resounding slap on the ringmaster's cheek, almost knocking him down. The tall hat went spinning away on the ground. Tears of pain and terror flew to the fellow's eyes. He began to blubber.
"Don't you swear in the presence of my wife and daughter,—you!" snarled Braddock, his own blasphemy ten times as venomous as the other's.
"I—I beg your pardon, Mrs. Braddock," stammered the ringmaster in great haste. If the gaping, respectful hundreds could see the despot of the ring now!
Braddock's daughter uttered a low moan of horror and amazement. Her heart swelled with pity for the poor wretch who dared not to defend himself. Ruby Noakes felt the quiver that ran through the girl's body. She promptly led her away from the spot.
"Come with me while I change," she said quickly.
Together they passed into the women's dressing-room. Christine's look of mute surprise and shame rested on David's face as the flap dropped behind her.
A minute later, the humiliated ringmaster, Briggs by name, was cracking his whip in the middle of the ring, mighty lord of all he surveyed, although, to his chagrin, there was no clown present to receive the attention. In those good old days the circus carried but one clown. He was the most overworked man in the ring, but he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was the solitary idol of thousands.
Grinaldi did not accompany the tumblers to the ring. The lone elephant that graced the show and the horses had been led out for the "lofty somersault men" to vault over after the run down the "spring board"; that part of the dressing-tent in which Braddock stood was now clear of humanity, except for his wife, the clown and David Jenison.
"Well, he knows I don't permit swearing in front of my daughter," said Braddock, resenting the unspoken scorn in his wife's face. "Let's see that envelope," he added roughly.
She held the coveted package behind her back, shaking her head resolutely.
"How do I know there's five hundred in it?" he demanded.
"There's more than that," said David nervously.
"How do you know? It's never been opened."
Mrs. Braddock glanced at the writing on the face of the staunch, yellow envelope. She started violently. In plain figures, in one corner, she saw: "$3,000." She realized, with a flash of shame, that it would be fatal to the boy's interests if her husband should come to know of the actual value of the package. She opened her lips to utter a word of caution to David, but he was too eager and too quick for her.
"There's three thousand dollars in it," he said.
Braddock started. For the first time he removed the chewed cigar from his lips, all the while fixedly regarding the youth with narrowing eyes. He was thinking fast and hard. Three thousand dollars!
"You are not to break this seal, David Jenison," said Mrs. Braddock firmly, her face very white. "Take it and go. It is your money, not ours."
"Hold on there," objected her husband. His befuddled brain was solving a certain problem to his own eminent satisfaction. "These officers have got to be convinced that you are not with this show. I can't afford to lie to 'em. There's only one way out of it. I can hire you under another name and you can travel with us till we get out of this part of the country. Five hundred is the reward. If I get it from you, most of it can be paid back in wages. If I turn you over to them and take their coin, I'd be doing the best thing for myself, but I'm willing to run the risk of—"
"Thomas Braddock, you are not to take this boy's money," cried his wife. "It would be infamous!"
"Now, you keep out of this," he growled, fearful for his plans. "It's one or the other, Mary. Either he antes up or they do."
"I will not allow it!"
David broke in, with a rare show of dignity. "I said I would pay it, Mrs. Braddock. I can't break my word. If Mr. Braddock will send them away, I will pay the amount they offer."
"Give him the envelope, Mary," commanded Braddock.
She looked about her as if seeking means of escape with the precious package. Then, with a deep sigh, and a look of unutterable scorn for the man, she handed the envelope to David.
He broke the seal.
"Maybe it's Confederate money," said Braddock, a sudden chill in his heart. But it was not Confederate money. There was exposed to view a neat package of United States treasury notes of large denomination, brand-new and uncrumpled, just as they had come from the treasury department.
Without hesitation, young Jenison counted off five hundred dollars. Mrs. Braddock closed her eyes in pain as he laid the notes in her husband's hand. Grinaldi turned away, suppressing the bitter imprecation that rose to his lips.
"I'll tell those scoundrels that you haven't been near the show." He did not count the money. He had counted it with greedy eyes as David told off the bills in his nervous, clumsy fingers. "Now, you lay low. Stick close to me. Don't let anybody see much of you till we're over in Ohio. I'll guarantee to get you off safe. Don't you worry. Just lay low. I'll find work for you to do. We're headed for Indiana and Illinois. They'll never get you out there. By thunder! I've got an idea, Joey, that girl of yours is right. You do need a bit of help. We'll make a clown of him. We'll have two clowns. How is that, Mary?"
She did not reply. He looked away hastily.
"I couldn't be a clown," began David in consternation.
"Sure you can," interrupted the boss. "It's as easy as fallin' off a log. Joey can tell you all the tricks. He's the best in the world, Joey Grinaldi is. That's what I've got him for. We've got the best show in the world, too. Barnum ain't in the same class with us. Forepaugh and Van Amberg? They are second rate aggre—But, say, I'd better go out and steer those fellows away." He started off, but stopped suddenly as if struck by a serious doubt.
"Perhaps you'd better let me take the rest of that money and put it in the safe in the ticket-wagon," he said encouragingly. "It's likely to be nipped by some of these crooks that follow the show. 'T ain't safe with you, let me tell you that."
"No!" cried his wife, her voice shrill with decision.
Braddock did not insist. He was too wise for that.
"Well, if it's stolen, don't blame me," he said. "Remember, I told you so. I don't give a damn personally. It's your money, kid."
"I reckon I'll keep it," said David, suddenly acute. He began wrapping the string around the broken package, which he had kept sacredly inviolate for so long. "I'll stay with the show and do anything I can, if you'll only help me to get away. I—I don't want to be taken back there. Some day, I expect to go back, but not right now. I'm not afraid. But I can't go back until I've found the man that knows."
"There is a man who—knows?" murmured Mrs. Braddock.
"Yes. I must find him. He—he doesn't want to be found. That's why it is going to be so hard. But I will find him!" His eyes were flashing, his teeth were set.
"So much the better," said Braddock. "You can throw 'em off the track for awhile, then take your money and go to New York. You'll find him there, all right. They all go there."
"He is a nigger," said David.
"Umph!" grunted Braddock. "That's bad. You mustn't expect any jury in Virginia to believe a nigger in these days."
"Oh, yes, they will. They'll have to," declared David firmly.
"Say," said the proprietor, his voice sinking to tones of caution. He addressed the three of them. "Better keep this quiet about the five hundred. It won't help any of us if it gets out that you've been bribing me, boy. I'll just say that I refused to take the wad. That will go, too. Don't let anybody know. Understand, Mary?" He looked at her with lowering eyes.
"I will not tell Christine, Tom," she said evenly, meeting the look with a gaze so steady that he bristled for a moment, but gave way before it. He felt the scorn and laughed shortly in his attempt to convince himself, at least, that he did not deserve it.
"And just to show you that I'm honest in this business," he went on hurriedly, "I'm going to begin by paying you the fifty I still owe on your salary, Joey. That's the kind of a man I am. I do what I say I'll do. Here's your fifty, Joey."
"Not that kind of money for me, thank you," said Grinaldi, with a scowl that brought his painted eyebrows together. He turned on his heel and hurried into the dressing-room, unable to restrain the words that would have cut the heart of the man's wife to shreds.
An attendant came in from the circus tent just as Christine Braddock emerged from the dressing-room alone. David was stuffing the purse inside the loose shirt that he wore. The girl hurried to her mother's side.
"Are they going to—to take him?" she whispered fearfully.
David saw the sweet, clean lips tremble. Her eyes were wide and dry with trouble. Somehow his heart swelled with a strange new emotion: he could not have ascribed it to joy, or to self-pity, or to gratitude. It was something new and pleasant and warm; a glow, a light, an uplifting. This sweet, wonderfully pretty girl was his friend! She believed in him.
"No, dear," replied Mrs. Braddock, lowering her eyes in sudden humiliation.
The attendant was speaking. "Mr. Braddock, that feller out at the door has got tired waitin'. He says he's comin' back yere to see you. What'll I say to 'im? He's got a warrant an' he's got some of the town marshal's men with 'im now."
"I'll go out and see him right away. The boy ain't with this show."
With a slow, meaning look at his wife, he turned to follow the man. Over his shoulder he called to David:
"Go in there with Joey. He'll tell you where to hide if you have to. Be quick about it."
He was gone. The tumblers began to pour in from the main tent.
Christine clutched her mother's arm in the agony of desperation.
"Did—did he take the money from—him?" she demanded tremulously.
Mrs. Braddock looked at David, an abject appeal in her eyes. He smiled blandly and lied nobly, like a true Virginia gentleman.
"No, Miss Braddock. Instead of that, he has hired me to go with the show."
"Oh, I am so glad," she cried. "I knew he would not take your money."
David swallowed hard; and then, fearing to speak again or to meet her radiant eyes, he hastened after Grinaldi.
A moment later he was in the center of an excited, whispering group of performers, in various conditions of attire, but singularly alike in their state of mind. They were softly but impressively consigning Thomas Braddock to the most remote corner in purgatory. They plied David with questions. He reported the impatience of the officers, and Braddock's decision to protect him for the time being.
"I saw them chaps out there, standin' by the menagerie doors," said the contortionist. "Spotted 'em right away, I did."
A bareback rider looked in. His horse already had started for the ring.
"Lay low!" he whispered. "One of the boys says they won't be put off by Brad. They're going to search the tent with the town marshal."
Grinaldi, who had been deep in thought, suddenly slapped his knee and uttered a cackle of satisfaction.
"I've got it! We'll pull the wool over their eyes, by Jinks! Follow me, boy, and do just wot I tells you. I'm—I'm going to take you into the ring with me. By Jupiter, they won't think of looking for you there."
Attended by a chorus of approval, he shoved the stupefied David out before him and hustled him across the space that lay between them and the main top, all the while whispering eager instructions in his ear.
"You just follow behind me, keeping step all the time—about three steps behind me. Don't look to right or left. Keep your eyes on the middle of my back. Nobody knows you, so don't go into a funk, my lad. It's life or death for you, mebby. I'll get a word to Briggs, the ringmaster. He'll help you out, too. Just follow me around the ring, three steps behind. Stop when I stop, walk when I do. Look silly, that's all. I'll think of something else to tell you to do after we're out there. And we'll stay out there till the show's over."
Trembling in every joint, David paused at the entrance. Mrs. Braddock came running up from behind.
"I've just heard," she whispered. "Do as Joey tells you. Don't be afraid."
"I'll try," chattered David, pathetic figure of Momus.
"Wait," she whispered, as much to Joey Grinaldi as to the novice. "David, will you trust me to take care of your money until to-morrow?"
Without a word he slipped his hand into his shirt front and produced the flat purse. He handed it to her.
"Good!" exclaimed Joey Grinaldi.
The next instant David Jenison, aristocrat, was trudging dizzily toward the sawdust ring, his heart beating like mad, his knees trembling.
Thomas Braddock, detaining the officers on the opposite side of the ring, saw the strange figure and for a moment was near to losing his composure. Then he grasped the situation and exulted. He boldly escorted Blake and the town authorities to the dressing-tent, where he assisted in the search and the questioning.
Before the expiration of half an hour's time every man, woman and child connected with Van Slye's Great and Only Mammoth Shows knew that David Jenison, the murderer, was among them and that he was to be protected. The word went slyly, by whisper, from car to ear, down to the lowliest canvasman. It spread to the throng of crooks, pickpockets and fakirs that followed the show; it reached to the freaks in the sideshow. And not one among them all would have betrayed him by sign or deed. They stuck together like leeches, these good and bad nomads, and they asked few questions. And so it was that David Jenison made his first appearance as a clown in the sawdust ring.
A STKANGER APPEAES ON THE SCENE
An hour after the conclusion of the performance David was on the road once more; not, as before, afoot and weary, but safely ensconced in one of the huge, lumbering "tableau" wagons used for the transportation of canvas and perishable properties. The boss canvasman, not the hardened brute that he appeared to be, had stored him away in the damp interior of the ponderous wagon, first providing him with dry blankets on which he could sleep with some security and no comfort. There was little space between his mountainous, shifting bed and the roof of the van; and there would have been no air had not the driver of the four-horse team obligingly opened a narrow window beneath the seat on which he rode.
With considerable caution the fugitive had been smuggled into the van, under the very noses of his pursuers, so to speak. Somewhat dazed and half sick with anxiety, he obeyed every instruction of his friend the clown.
Blake and his men had watched the tearing down of the tent, the loading of the entire concern and its subsequent departure down the night-shrouded country pike. That Blake was not fully satisfied with the story told to him by Thomas Braddock, and somewhat doubtfully supported by his own investigations, is proved by the fact that he decided to follow the show until he was positively assured that his quarry was not being shielded by the circus people. With no little astuteness he and his companion resolved that they could accomplish nothing by working openly: their only chance lay in the ability to keep the circus people from knowing that they were following them. In this they counted without their hosts. At no time during the next three days were their movements unknown to the clever band of rascals who followed the show for evil purposes, and who, with perfect integrity, kept the proprietor advised of every step taken and of every disguise affected. Blake was not the first nor the last confident officer of the law to more than meet his match in the effort to outwit an old-time road circus. He was butting his head against a stone wall. Consummate rascality on one hand, unwavering loyalty on the other: he had but little chance against the combination. The lowliest peanut-vender was laughing in his sleeve at the sleuth; and the lowliest peanut-vender kept the vigil as resolutely as any one else.
Despite his uncomfortable position and the natural thrills of excitement and peril, David was sound asleep before the wagon was fairly under way. Complete exhaustion surmounted all other conditions. He was vaguely conscious of the sombre rumbling of the huge wagon and of the regular clicking of the wheel-hubs, so characteristic of the circus caravan and so dear to the heart of every boy. His bones ached, his stomach was crying out for food, and his body was chilled; but none of these could withstand the assault of slumber. He would have slept if Blake's hand had been on his shoulder.
Out into the country rolled the big wagon, at two o'clock in the morning, following as closely as possible the flickering rear lantern of the vehicle ahead. The rain had ceased falling, but there was a mist in the air, blown from the trees that lined the road. Those of the circus men who were compelled to ride outside the wagons were clothed in their rubber coats; their more fortunate companions slept under cover on the pole wagons, on top of the seat wagons, or in stretchers swung beneath the property wagons or cages. Others, still more fortunate, slept in property or trunk vans, or in the band chariots. The leading performers and officials, including all of the women, traveled by train. The gamblers, pickpockets and fakirs got along as best they could from town to town by stealing passage on the freight trains. Times there were, however, when the entire aggregation traveled with the caravan. On such occasions the luckless roustabout gave up his precarious bedroom to the "ladies" and sat all night in dubious solitude atop of his lodging house. These emergencies were infrequent: they arose only when railroad facilities were not to be had, or—alas! when the exchequer was depleted.
On this murky night the performers remained over in S—, to take an early train for the next stand. The railroad show was then an untried experiment. Barnum and Coup and others were planning the great innovation, but there was a grave question as to its practicability. Later on Coup made the venture, transporting his show by rail. Such men as Yankee Robinson, Cole and even P. T. Barnum traveled by wagon road until that brave attempt was made. The railroad was soon to solve the "bad roads" problem for all of them. Short jumps would no longer be necessary; profitable cities could be substituted for the small towns that every circus had to make on account of the distances and the laborious mode of transportation. Still, if you were to chat awhile with an old-time showman, you would soon discover that the "road circus" of early days was the real one, and that the scientifically handled concern of to-day is as utterly devoid of the true flavor as the night is without sunshine.