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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Rose In The Ring - Book 2 - Chapter 10. The Black Headlines
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The Rose In The Ring - Book 2 - Chapter 10. The Black Headlines Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :2651

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The Rose In The Ring - Book 2 - Chapter 10. The Black Headlines

BOOK II CHAPTER X. THE BLACK HEADLINES

Christine had been mistress of Jenison Hall for three days when the expected and anxiously looked-for letter came from her mother.

A sensation of dread, of uncertainty, had been present during those three wonderful days, lurking behind the happiness that filled the foreground so completely. She could not divest herself of the vague, insistent fear that disaster hung over the head of the mother she idolized. David, supremely happy, used every device that his brain and a loving heart could present to set her mind at rest, to drive away the unvoiced anxiety that revealed itself only in the occasional mirror of her telltale eyes.

When no word came on the morning of the third day, she timidly suggested that they run up to New York for a short visit. He laughed at her and playfully accused her of being tired of him, of being homesick. Nevertheless, he was troubled. He had seen the newspaper accounts of the murder of Colonel Grand, and he had been horrified, immeasurably shocked, to find that Dick Cronk was the self-confessed assassin.

There was no mention of Braddock's name in the dispatches, yet he could not banish the fear that ultimately the man would be implicated.

Dick Cronk's story of the crime, as presented by the newspapers, was clear and unwavering. He said that he had shot the man in the heat of a quarrel over money matters. The newspapers professed to be unable to secure a statement of any kind from the brother, Ernest Cronk, who was in jail as an accomplice, despite the vigorous protests of the principal figure in the case. The newspapers went into the history of the Cronk boys, from childhood up, devoting considerable space to the excellent reputation of the cripple and the unsavory record of the noted pickpocket. In summing up the case, there seemed to be no question of the innocence of the cripple, although it was stated that the district attorney intended to put him on trial for complicity in the crime. The men, held without bail, were to be given a hearing in the trial court at an early day.

Letters from Joey Noakes and Ruby to the Jenisons set forth the details of a visit to the Tombs on the day following the murder. Both were constrained to remark that, in the view of Dick's confession, it would go very hard with him; they could see no chance of escape for him. Joey, however, urged David to contribute something toward engaging the services of a clever lawyer who at least might save him from the gallows. He stated that Ernie, after stubbornly maintaining his own innocence, refused to pay out money for an attorney, preferring to let the state provide counsel for him, under the law. There was no mention of Braddock in either letter, for obvious reasons.

Then the letter came from Mary Braddock. It was addressed to Christine. The mother's heart cried out in the opening pages. David, at least, could read between the lines. There were the tenderest protestations of love and the most confident of prophecies, uttered with a buoyancy of spirit that convinced and delighted the girl, who had been so hungry for reassuring words. A new radiance enveloped her. But he saw beyond the wistful, carefully considered sentences. He saw the shadow of Thomas Braddock at the elbow of the woman as she wrote.

Near the bottom of the second page she abruptly took up the subject which was, after all, uppermost in the minds of these anxious young people.

"Your father," she began, "has changed his mind about going to the mines in the Southwest. I saw him after that dreadful thing had happened at Broadso's. He was afraid I might think he had a hand in it, so he came at once to reassure me. Of course, he was not implicated in any way. It will please you, Christine, to know that my father had a long talk with him on the day following the murder, and that he was more than merely impressed by the change in him. He firmly believes that your father means to lead an honorable, upright life. I, too, believe that he can work out his own redemption. Perhaps David will bear me out in this. He saw him, and he noted the wonderful change. Time, however, will tell. I ought not to be too rash with my prophecies.

"He loves you. He wants to reclaim your love and respect. That is all he has to live for, I firmly believe. For this reason, if for no other, I am confident he will make a brave, a wonderful effort. What he needs most of all is encouragement, sympathy, the promise of ultimate reward. If he realizes that the time may yet come when he can stand before you without shame on his own part, and be received without shame on your part and David's, I am sure it will mean everything to him in the struggle he is to make in the next three or four years.

"He is now on his way to your grandfather's ranch in Montana, of which he will assume the management next fall. The present manager is most unsatisfactory to my father. He recognizes Tom's great ability in handling men; his training in the school of hardship and adversity has given him all the requisites necessary to the conducting of a large ranch. You remember the name of the post-office where the mail for the ranch is always sent. I implore you to write to him often. It will mean so much to him, and, in the end, so much to you and yours. He insists that you are to make no effort to see him. You can well understand how he feels about it. Let _him come to you in his own good time. That is best, I am sure. I strongly advise you to respect his wishes in this connection.

"As for my own plans, I am going to the ranch with him. He needs me."

That was all she had to say of herself or her plans.

In the next sentence she spoke of Dick Cronk:

"I suppose you have read of that unhappy boy's arrest. Joey is trying to raise means with which to employ capable counsel for him. I have sent him a check for a thousand dollars, with the understanding that my name is not to be mentioned as a donor. Your father says he cannot conceive of Dick committing a murder. Nor can I. I have a strange feeling that he did not do it, but, of course, that is silly in the face of all that has come out. I am sorry for Dick. If David can find it convenient to befriend him in any way, I am sure he will not hesitate to help that poor, unfortunate boy who once did him an unusual service.

"We are leaving at 5.30 for Chicago...."

The weeks passed rapidly for the blissful young Jenisons. The letters from the far West were full of promise. Even the skeptical David was compelled to admit to himself that the silver lining was discernible against the black cloud that Mary Braddock had so deliberately set herself under.

With his fair young wife he journeyed to New York toward the end of their first month of married life. It had not required the advice or suggestion of others to rouse in him a sense of duty. He owed more to Dick Cronk than he could have hoped to repay under the most favorable of circumstances: now it seemed utterly impossible to lift the obligation. His first act was to send a large check to Joey Noakes. This was followed by numerous encouraging letters to Dick Cronk, in each of which he openly pledged himself to do all in his power to help him in his great trouble.

Dick's replies were characteristic. They were full of quaint, sarcastic references to his plight, glib comments on the close proximity of the scaffold, and bitter lamentations over the detention of his brother Ernie, whose misery and unhappiness seemed to weigh more heavily with him than his own dire predicament.

On his arrival in town David went at once to the office of the great criminal lawyer who had been engaged to defend the Cronks. There he was met by Joey Noakes, Casey (no longer a contortionist but the owner of a well-established plumbing business descended from his father) and young Ben Thompson, the newspaper man who was soon to become Ruby's husband. The man of law was brutally frank in his discussion of the case. He had gone into it very thoroughly with the two prisoners. In his mind there was no doubt as to the outcome of the trial. The men had elected to be tried jointly. Richard Cronk did not have the ghost of a hope to escape the extreme penalty; Ernest would be discharged. There did not seem to be the remotest chance of saving Dick from the gallows.

The testimony of the two prisoners would have but little weight with a jury, and there were no extenuating circumstances behind which he could go in support of his plea for leniency. The prisoners had revealed to him their motive in visiting Broadso's place, going quite fully into the details of the interview which ended in the shooting. David's surprise and horror on learning these hitherto unmentioned facts can well be imagined.

"Personally," said the lawyer, "I am inclined to the opinion that Dick Cronk tells the truth when he says Grand drew a revolver on him and that he shot in self-defense. If we can make the jury see it in that light there may be some chance for him. That is the defense I shall offer, in any event. The state, however, is in a position to make light of the plea, and with tremendous effect. It is just as plausible a theory that Grand himself drew in self-defense. The fact that Cronk fired and Grand did not will go far toward substantiating that theory in the minds of intelligent jurors. It is not at all likely that Grand, who knew the character of his visitors, could be forestalled in a shooting affair, especially if he had been the first to draw. Gentlemen, I shall do my best, but I must say to you that it is a hopeless fight. Young Cronk is perfectly indifferent as to his own fate. He seems only anxious to have his brother acquitted of complicity in the actual crime. Ernie Cronk says that he saw a revolver in Grand's hand, but, you see, he is so vitally interested that it is doubtful if his testimony will be credited. It is very black for Dick Cronk. You may as well understand the situation. We have one chance in a thousand of getting him off with a life sentence, one in a million of securing an acquittal."

The next day David and Joey went to the Tombs to see the two men. Dick came down to the visitor's cage, but Ernie stubbornly refused to see the callers.

"He's in a terrible way, David," said Dick, in explanation of his brother's attitude toward them. "You see, I'm an old hand at the business, and I advised him to talk with no one except the lawyer. It's bad policy, gabbing with everybody that comes along. Keep a close tongue in your head, that's my motto. Ernie's followin' my advice right up to the limit. He's so cussed stingy with his conversation that he won't talk to himself. I don't believe he has said fifty words out loud in the past two weeks. It's getting to be quite a joke among the other guys in here. I never knew any one to be so careful as he is. But, as I said before, he's in a bad way. It's telling on him, poor kid. He can't see anything but the rope for both of us. And then, Davy, my boy, he's got a particular reason for not seeing you. I guess you know what it is. He's a terrible proud feller, Ernie is. Not a bit like me in that respect. Now I'm willing to thank you for putting up the coin for us, and all that, and I do thank you; but Ernie--well, he's a curious kid. He can't bear to--well, you understand."

"Dick," began David as soon as the complacent rogue gave him the opportunity to break in, "I want you to tell Joey and me just how it happened. We are your best friends--"

The prisoner held up his hand, palm outward, shaking his head slowly as he spoke. "I'd be a poor example for Ernie if I blabbed after tellin' him to keep his trap shut. Excuse _me_, Davy. My lawyer is the only one I talk to about the case. As he's your lawyer just as much as he is mine, and more so, I guess, I don't mind if you chat with him. He can tell you all he wants to. But not me. Nix, kid. Not even to you and old Joey here, the greatest close-mouth in the business. Why, I saw Joey last winter in that pantomime out West, and he never said a word from the time the curtain went up till it went down. Talk about your tight-lipped guys! Say, he's the king of them all. He's the only actor I ever saw that wasn't kickin' for more words to conquer. These gabby actors just give me a--"

"For heaven's sake, Dick, be serious!" cried David impatiently. "You _must talk to us openly, frankly about--"

"I'm sorry, David," interrupted Dick, his face grave in an instant. "I can't talk about it. I'd sooner not. You see, I've got to consider Ernie. He's absolutely innocent. If I got to spoutin' around, I might say something that could be twisted so's it would hurt him. So, if you don't mind, I'll talk about the weather. How is it down in old Virginia? How's old Jeff? And how is the cook-lady at Jenison Hall? Say, I wish you'd mention me to her. I'm the ghost that took her pies and cold chicken, you remember."

It was useless for them to continue. He smilingly but stubbornly refused to be moved by their eloquence. To all of their subtly-worded entreaties he gave but the one, oft-repeated response:

"I guess you'd better discuss that with Mr. Prull, the lawyer."

They gave it up, but not until the time allotted to them as visitors was nearly over.

"Mr. Prull has all the facts. Let him do the worrying," quoth Dick, the philosopher. "Ernie will get off, dead sure. As for yours truly, I made my bed, so I guess I'll have to sleep in it. Joey, I'll have the laugh on you. You always said I was a crazy freak when I told you where I was going to end. Just you remember that, will you, when you read about me doing the groundless dance one of these fine days. My old man did it before me. He was seventeen minutes strangling, they say. Almost a record-breaking performance. To tell you the truth, Joey, I'd be downright disappointed if I should happen to cash in natural-like. It would be an awful jolt to my faith in Fate."

"For the love of 'eaven, Dick, don't go on like that," groaned Joey. A cold perspiration was standing on his forehead. "You ought to 'ave some regard for my feelings."

Dick laughed merrily. "There you go! Always thinkin' of yourself. I've always heard that Englishmen haven't got any feelings."

"Well, they 'ave," was Joey's retort.

"Say, David, what's the latest news from Brad?" He listened with great interest to David's brief recital. "Good for Brad!" he exclaimed. "I always said he'd come out clean if he had a chance. I say, Mrs. Brad's a brick. She'll bring him around, see if she don't. He ain't a natural crook, Brad ain't. He's got a conscience and he can't get away from that. No man's a real crook who has a conscience. I've got my own definition of the word 'conscience': a mental funeral with only one mourner. Say, kid, I guess I saved your father-in-law's neck when I plugged old Grand--"

"Dick, don't breathe that, I implore you," cried David. "He had promised Mrs. Braddock that he'd go away. It can do no good to drag him into all this."

"Well," said Dick reflectively, "I guess you'd better ask Mr. Prull about that. He knows all the facts."

"I beg your pardon, Dick. I'm sorry I spoke so quickly."

"It's all right, kid. No harm done. Don't worry. There won't be anything said about Brad's _original intentions. I hope Christine--I should say Mrs. Jenison--is well. I know she must be happy."

"She is both, Dick. She is very deeply interested in your case."

"I hope you won't let her send me roses and sweet violets, kid. That's an awful gag they're workin' now. There's a fellow down the line here that cut his wife's head nearly off in two places--on both sides of the neck--and he's getting pink roses and lilies of the valley by the cab-load."

"Christine is sending books and fruit, and three times a week you are to have a dinner fit for a--"

The sudden fierce glare in the prisoner's eyes caused David to stop in amazement.

"Look here," demanded Dick savagely, "ain't poor Ernie to have any o' these things? Is he to set by and see me eat--what?"

"You are to be treated alike, of course," cried David quickly. Dick's face cleared. He looked down in evident embarrassment.

"Excuse me, kid. I--I always get riled when I think of him getting the worst of anything. I'm sure we'll both be terrible grateful to Chris-- to Mrs. Jenison. She's an angel,--as of course you know, kid. Sending me books, eh? Tell her I like Dickens, will you? And, say, there's _one book she needn't go to the trouble of sendin' me."

"You mean the--the Bible?"

"Yes."

"Dick, you don't really mean that. You--"

"I've already got one," said the prisoner simply. His eyes fell with curious inconsistency. They saw his chin and lower lip quiver ever so slightly. He scraped the floor with his foot a time or two, and his fingers tightened on the bars. "It's a little one my mother gave me when I was a kid. I've always kept it. Funny little old Bible, with print so small you can't hardly read it, 'specially that place where all them guys with the jay names were being begot. They seem to run together a good deal--I mean the names. I guess they must have run together considerable themselves, if accounts are true. Yes, my ma gave it to me for being a good boy once."

His eyes were wet when he looked up at David's face again. His smile seemed more twisted than usual.

"Where is it now, Dick?" asked Jenison, a lump coming into his throat. Joey was plainly, almost offensively amazed.

"Why,--why, Ernie's got it. He didn't have anything else to read, so he took it a couple of weeks ago. I--I guess I'll ask him for it some day soon. Oh, yes, there _is something I want to speak to you about, Joey. A couple o' years ago I took out a life insurance policy in favor of Ernie, and also an accident policy. I couldn't keep up the accident one, but the other's paid up to next January. Maybe I won't have to pay on it again. It's for five thousand. I want you to see that he gets the money if--if I--well, you know. The policy is in the safe over at old Isaac's pawnshop,--you know the place. I'll write and ask him to come down and see me, and I'll tell him to give you the paper, if you don't mind, Joey."

"Sure, Dick. I'll take charge of it. You're very good to Ernie, and thoughtful, lad."

"Well, I guess I ought to be," remarked Dick dryly.

David from the first had been more or less certain that Dick was not the one who shot Grand. He could not drive the ugly conviction from his mind. It occurred to him at this juncture to put his theory to the test, hoping to catch Dick off his guard.

"The police are now saying that you did not do the shooting, Dick." He watched the other's face narrowly.

There was not so much as a flicker of alarm.

"They don't think the old boy committed suicide, do they?" asked Dick, with a chuckle of scorn for the obtuseness of the police.

"No. They're working on some new evidence, that's all."

"It's grand to have a reputation like mine," grinned the amiable rogue. "They won't even believe me when they catch me red-handed. Once a liar, always a liar. That's their idea, eh? If I was to turn around and say I didn't do it, I suppose they'd believe me? Well, nix! I guess not!"

David and Joey left almost immediately after this, promising to visit him from time to time, and to do all in their power to aid Mr. Prull.

"Well, so long," said Dick at parting. "Say, Joey, will you remember me to Ruby? I wish her all the luck in the world."

The summer months wore away and toward the middle of October the case of the State _vs_. Cronk and Cronk came up. There was little or no public interest in the hearing. Two sets of friends, rather small circles very widely apart, were deeply interested, and that was all. The Jenisons and their friends formed one contingent, while the other was made up from that shifting, stealthy element of humanity known as the "under-world."--pickpockets, cracksmen and ne'er-do-wells who had been the associates of Dick Cronk in one way or another, off and on, for years.

The plea of self-defense was ably presented by a great lawyer, but it was shattered by the State quite as easily as he had anticipated. He made an eloquent, impassioned appeal for clemency. The jury was out not more than an hour. Their verdict was an acquittal for Ernest Cronk, a conviction for murder in the first degree against Richard, with the recommendation that he be hanged by the neck until dead.

Following the conviction came the application for a new trial, which was not granted. The record in the case was so clear of error and the proof so conclusive that Mr. Prull declined to carry the matter to the higher courts, realizing the hopelessness of such a proceeding. Then began the systematic, earnest effort to induce the governor to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. He declined to interfere.

Dick Cronk was doomed.

At eleven o'clock on the morning of a bitterly cold Friday in January a grim, sullen group of men, evil-faced fellows whose eyes were heavy with dread, and whose lips hung limp with dejection, crowded around the stove in a squalid, ill-smelling basement room. They spoke but seldom; their voices were rarely raised above the hoarse half-whisper of anxiety known only to men who wait in patience for a thing of horror to come to pass, an inevitable, remorseless thing from which there is no escape.

They shivered as they crouched close to the red-hot stove, notwithstanding the almost unbearable heat of the foul, windowless room in which they were gathered. Their faces were pallid, their eyes bloodshot, their flesh a-quiver.

Occasionally one or another of them would go to the door to listen for sounds in the black passage beyond. He would resume his seat without a word to his fellows, each of whom looked up with stark, questioning eyes. Then they would fall to staring at the walls again, or at the floor, their chins in their hands. At their feet lay the newspapers, eagerly read and discarded by each and every member of this little group. There was a "noon extra," fresh from a ten o'clock press. It had been the last to fall into their hands.

They tried to smoke, but the water of mortal terror filled their mouths. The smell of dead, dank tobacco pervaded the room.

In a far corner, huddled against the wall, there was a shivering, silent figure, a Pariah even among these under-world outcasts. He sat apart from the others, denied a place in the circle, despised and abhorred by the men he once had scorned because they were the devil- may-care companions and emulators of his brother. His beady black eyes never shifted from the low, padlocked door in the opposite end of the room. He, too, was waiting for the dread news from the upper world. His breathing was sharply audible, as of one drugged by sleep; his body had not moved an inch in an hour or more, so fierce was the suspense that held him rigid. From time to time he swallowed, although his mouth was dry and empty; there was a rattling sound accompanying the act that suggested the hoarse croak of a frog. Always his gaze was on the door, never wavering, unblinkng, fascinated by the horror that was creeping down to him as surely as the sun crept up to the apex of the day.

Noon! Twelve o'clock, midday! The hour they were dreading!

One of the shivering thieves beside the stove drew forth from a ragged pocket the plutocratic timepiece of a millionaire victim. The way his eyes narrowed as he looked at its face told the silent observers that it was twelve o'clock and after. Unconsciously every figure stiffened, every jaw was set, every nostril spread with the intake of air. Every mind's eye in that fear-sick group leaped afar and drew a picture of the thing that was happening--then! At that very instant it was happening!

"Oh!" groaned some one, half aloud.

"It's after twelve," muttered another thickly.

"The jig's up wid Dick, kids. Blacky ought to be here wid de extry. Wot's a keepin' him?" said the first speaker, glaring over his shoulder in the direction of the door.

"Twelve sharp, that's wot it says," shuddered a small, pinched thief. "He's a-swingin' now."

Suddenly a wild, appalling shriek arose from the corner behind them. As one man, they whirled. Their gaze fell upon the cringing figure over there, now groveling on the floor in the agony of a terror that severed all the restraining bonds that had held his tongue so long.

They shrank back as their minds began to grasp the words he was shrieking in his madness.

He was sobbing out the thing that each man there had suspected from the first!

For many minutes they listened to his ravings, stupefied, aghast. Then a stealthy glance swept round the circle as if inspired by one central intelligence. It crept out of the corners of rattish eyes, reading as it ran the sinister circle, and hurried back to its intense, malevolent business of transfixing the quarry in the corner.

A hand reached down and grasped the leg of a short, heavy stool. Another went lower and clutched a long, murderous bar of iron that served as a poker. Savage eyes went in quest of deadly things, and purposeful hands obeyed the common impulse.

Then they advanced....

Later, the stealthy, shivering group stole forth from the room and down the black hallway that led to the street. The last man out cast a terrified glance at the still, shapeless object in the corner as he closed the door behind him and fled after his fellows. When they came from the passage into the full light of day, each skulker looked at his hands and found that they shook as if with a mighty ague.

Even as they blinked their eyes in the glaring sunlight, an excited young man came rushing toward them from the opposite side of the street. They paused irresolute. The newcomer was white, excited--yes, jubilant. In his hand he carried a newspaper, the heavy black headlines standing out in bold relief.

"He's got a reprieve!" he was shouting eagerly. "Look 'ere! See wot it says."

Fascinated, they slunk back into the dark passage, to listen in stupefaction while the joyous Blacky repeated the astounding news from the prison.

"Mr. Jenison and his wife done it," cried Blacky, his eyes gleaming. "It says so here. They went to the gov'nor this morning and put it up to him in a way that made him grant a reprieve for thirty days, so's Mr. Jenison can get the real facts before him. That means a pardon sure, kids. Say, Jenison's all right! He's the kind of a friend to have, he is. He never quit on Dick. Say, where's Ernie? We'd better put him wise."

"It won't make any difference to Ernie now," said one of the rogues, wiping his wet brow with his hand.

Blacky fell away with a great look of dread in his eyes. He understood.

"We'd better duck out o' this," he muttered vaguely. "It says here that the cops are going to question Ernie. They're out huntin' for him by this time, kids."

"They know he was here wid us, and they'll find him sure," cried one shifty-eyed fellow. "Me to the woods."

"Hold on. Spike," interposed another grimly. "We got to stand together on this. We got to stick by Dick, now he has a chance. We got to stay here and tell 'em what Ernie said to us in there. It's the only way. We'll do time for it, but what's the dif? Dick was doin' more for Ernie. We're sure to get off light, when it all comes out."

They drew back into the passage and waited for the police to come.

An hour went by, and not one faltered. There came at last to their ears the sound of heavy footsteps on the narrow stairway. Spike heaved a deep sigh and said to his comrades:

"We've seen the last of Dick, kids. This Mr. Jenison will take care of him from now on. He'll have a good chance to be honest, lucky dog, just as he's always wanted to be."

The fellow with the plutocratic watch took it from his pocket and gazed at it with the eyes of one who is contemplating a great sacrifice.

"Jenison's all right, God bless him. I'm going to see that he gets his watch back, too. I was a dog to have pinched it in the first place."


(THE END)
George Barr McCutcheon's Novel: Rose in the Ring

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