John Dough and the Cherub/Chapter 1
Over the door appeared a weather-worn sign that read: "Jules Grogrande, Baker." In one of the windows, painted upon a sheet of cardboard, was another sign: "Home-made Bread by the Best Modern Machinery." There was a third sign in the window beyond the doorway, and this was marked upon a bit of wrapping-paper, and said: "Fresh Gingerbread Every Day." When you opened the door, the top of it struck a brass bell suspended from the ceiling and made it tinkle merrily. Hearing the sound, Madame Leontine Grogrande would come from her little room back of the shop and stand behind the counter and ask you what you would like to purchase. Madame Leontine--or Madame Tina, as the children called her--was quite short and quite fat; and she had a round, pleasant face that was good to look upon. She moved somewhat slowly, for the rheumatism troubled her more or less; but no one minded if Madame was a bit slow in tying up her parcels. For surely no cakes or buns in all the town were so delicious or fresh as those she sold, and she had a way of giving the biggest cakes to the smallest girls and boys who came into her shop, that proved she was fond of children and had a generous heart. People loved to come to the Grogrande Bakery. When one opened the door an exquisite fragrance of newly baked bread and cakes greeted the nostrils; and, if you were not hungry when you entered, you were sure to become so when you examined and smelled the delicious pies and doughnuts and gingerbread and buns with which the shelves and show-cases were stocked. There were trays of French candies, too; and because all the goods were fresh and wholesome the bakery was well patronized and did a thriving business. The reason no one saw Monsieur Jules in the shop was because his time was always occupied in the bakery in the rear--a long, low room filled with ovens and tables covered with pots and pans and dishes (which the skillful baker used for mixing and stirring) and long shelves bearing sugars and spices and baking-powders and sweet-smelling extracts that made his wares taste so sweet and agreeable. The bake-room was three times as big as the shop; but Monsieur Jules needed all the space in the preparation of the great variety of goods required by his patrons, and he prided himself on the fact that his edibles were fresh-made each day. In order to have the bread and rolls ready at breakfast time he was obliged to get up at three o'clock every morning, and so he went to bed about sundown. On a certain forenoon the door of the shop opened so abruptly that the little brass bell made a furious jingling. An Arab dashed into the room, stopped short, looked around with a bewildered air, and then rushed away again and banged the door after him. Madame looked surprised, but said nothing. She recognized the Arab to be a certain Ali Dubh, living in the neighborhood, who was accustomed to purchase a loaf from her every morning. Perhaps he had forgotten his money, Madame thought. When the afternoon was half over he entered again, running as if fiends were at his heels. In the center of the room he paused, slapped his forehead despairingly with both palms, and said in a wailing voice: "They're after me!" Next moment he dashed away at full speed, even forgetting to close the door; so Madame came from behind the counter and did it herself. She delayed a moment to gaze at the figure of Ali Dubh racing up the street. Then he turned the corner of an alley and disappeared from view. Things did not startle Madame easily; but the Arab's queer behavior aroused in her a mild curiosity, and while she stood looking through the glass of the door, and wondering what had excited the man, she saw two strange forms glide past her shop with a stealthy motion and proceed in the same direction Ali Dubh had taken. They were also Arabs, without a doubt; for although their forms were muffled in long cloaks, the turbans they wore and the glint of their dark, beady eyes proclaimed them children of the desert. When they came to the alley where Ali Dubh had disappeared, the two strangers were joined by a third, who crept up to them with the sly, cat-like tread Madame had noted, and seemed to confer with them. Afterward one turned to the east, a second continued up the street, and the third stole into the alley. "Yes," thought Madame, "they are after Ali Dubh, sure enough. But if they move so slowly they are not likely to catch the poor fellow at all." Now, Madame knew very little of her queer customer; for although he made a daily visit to the bakery for a loaf and a few cakes, he was of a gloomy disposition, and never stopped for a chat or a bit of gossip. It was his custom to silently make his simple purchases and then steal softly away. Therefore his excited actions upon this eventful day were really remarkable, and the good lady was puzzled how to explain them. She sat late in the shop that evening, burning a dingy oil lamp that swung in the center of the room. For her rheumatism was more painful than usual, and she dreaded to go to bed and waken Monsieur Jules with her moanings. The good man was slumbering peacefully upstairs--she could hear his lusty snores even where she sat--and it was a shame to disturb him when he must rise so early. So she sat in her little room at the end of the counter, trying to knit by the light of a flickering candle, and rocking back and forth in her chair with a monotonous motion. Suddenly the little bell tinkled and a gust of air entered the shop, sending the mingled odors of baked stuff whirling and scurrying about the room in a most fragrant manner. Then the door closed, and Madame laid down her knitting and turned to greet the new-comer. To her astonishment, it proved to be Ali Dubh. His brown cheeks were flushed, and his glittering black eyes roamed swiftly over the shop before they turned full upon the Madame's calm face. "Good!" he exclaimed, "you are alone." "It is too late for trade. I am going to bed presently," said Madame. "I am in great trouble, and you must help me," returned the Arab, hastily. "Lock your door and come with me into your little room, so that no one can see us through the street windows." Madame hesitated. The request was unusual, and she knew nothing of the Arab's history. But she reflected that if the man attempted robbery or other mischief she could summon Monsieur Jules with a cry. Also, her interest had been aroused by Ali Dubh's queer behavior during the day. While she thought the matter over the Arab himself locked the street door and hurried into the little room, where Madame composedly joined him a moment later. "How can I help you?" she asked, picking up her knitting again. "Listen!" said the Arab. "I must tell you all. You must know the truth!" He put his hand in a pocket of his loose robe and drew out a small flask. It was no bigger than two fingers and was made of pure gold, upon which strange characters had been richly engraved. "This," said the Arab, in a low, impressive voice, "is the Great Elixir!" "What does that mean?" asked Madame, glancing at the flask doubtfully. "The Great Elixir? Ah, it is the Essence of Vitality, the Water of Life--the Greatest Thing in all the World!" "I don't understand," said Madame. "Not understand? Why, a drop of the priceless liquid which this Golden Flask contains, if placed upon your tongue, would send new life coursing through your veins. It would give you power, strength, vitality greater than youth itself! You could do anything--accomplish wonders--perform miracles--if you but tasted this precious liquid!" "How odd!" exclaimed Madame, beginning to feel bewildered. And then she asked: "Where did you get it?" "Ah! that is the story. That is what you must know," answered Ali Dubh. "It is centuries old, the Great Elixir. There is no more of it in all the world. The contents of this flask came into the keeping of the Ancestor of the Chief of my Tribe--whom we call a Sheik--and has been handed down from father to son as an heirloom more priceless than diamonds. The Chief of my Tribe, its last owner, carried the flask always hidden in his breast. But one day, when he and I were hunting together, a mad camel trampled the Sheik to his death, and with his last breath he gave the Great Elixir into my keeping. The Sheik had no son, and the flask was really mine. But many other Arab Sheiks longed for the treasure and sought to gain it. So I escaped and wandered over the world. I came here, thinking I was safe from pursuit. But they have followed me!" "All the way from Arabia?" asked Madame. "Yes. To-day I saw them. They know my lodgings. They are secretly hidden near, and before morning I know they plot to kill me and secure the Great Elixir. But for a time I have escaped them. I came here unseen. You must help me. You must take charge of the Great Elixir and keep it safely for me." "Nonsense!" cried Madame, becoming aroused at last. "Do not say that, I beg of you," exclaimed the eager Arab. "You are honest--I know you are! And they will never suspect you of having the Golden Flask." "Perhaps not," said Madame, "and then, again, they may. My business is to tend the shop, and I am not going to get myself killed by a lot of desperate foreigners just to oblige you, Monsieur Ali Dubh! Take your Great Elixir to some one else. I don't want it." For a minute the Arab seemed in despair. Then his face suddenly brightened. "You suffer from rheumatism, do you not?" he asked. "Yes, it's pretty bad to-night," she replied. "Then I will cure it! I will cure your pains forever if you will keep my precious Elixir in secret until I come to reclaim it." Madame hesitated, for just then she had a very bad twinge indeed. "You think you can cure my pains?" she asked. "I know it!" declared the Arab. He put his hand in a pocket and drew out another flask--a mate to the one containing the Great Elixir; only this was made of solid silver instead of gold. "This flask," said Ali Dubh, "contains a positive cure for rheumatism. It will not fail. It never has failed. Take it and use it to make yourself well. Five drops in a bowl of water are enough. Bathe well the limbs that ache, and all pain will be gone forever. Accept it, gracious Madame, and keep for me the other flask in safe hiding until my enemies have gone away." Madame was a practical woman, and it seemed an easy thing to do as the Arab desired. If she could get relief from those dreadful pains it would be well worth while to undertake a little trouble and responsibility by caring for Ali Dubh's other and more precious flask. "Very well," said she. "I agree." The Arab's face flushed with joy. "Good," he cried; "I am saved! Guard well my precious flask--the one of gold. Show it to no one--not even to your good husband. Remember that diamonds and rubies could not buy the Great Elixir--the marvelous Essence of Vitality. As for the silver flask, I give it to you freely. Its contents will cure all your ailments. And now, good night, and may Allah bless you!" Swiftly he stole from the room, unlocked the street door and vanished into the darkness. And Madame sat looking thoughtfully at the flasks.