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- The Rose in the Ring - 4/73 -
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
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