It was a strange scene. The waggon was close to the circus, formed indeed part of it — the poor woman was lying on the low shelf, called the bed, of the travelling caravan; two or three of the wives of the men attached to the exhibition were round her, endeavouring by their exertions to relieve momentarily increasing pain, and helping her to bear it patiently by their sympathy.
“He ought to have been here half an hour ago,” said one of the women. “Jim started for him on the piebald two hours since?”
“Did he take the piebald ?” said another. “Why I thought he was in the Italian Lovers.”
“ No, he wouldn’t run with the spotted mare, so they’ve put the blind grey with her, and took the piebald in the quadrille for Dick Gravel to take bottom couple with.”
The explanation seemed satisfactory, for silence ensued. Presently a roar of such laughter as is only heard in a circus at a country village, – fresh, genuine, hearty, – shook the sides of the frail vehicle.
“What’s that?” said the apparently dying woman.
“Only your Bill’s Quaker story,” said one.
“O, then he’ll soon be here, won’t he?” said she.
“Yes, he’s only got three more points, and then he’ll come: he don’t go in in the Sylph scene.” Three fainter peals of laughter told that the three points had hit, but not as well as the Quaker Story; and then he came in.
“Well,” said he, “how is she now?” in a voice whose anxiety contrasted most strangely with his tawdry dress, that of tumbling clown at a travelling circus. “How is she now?”
“I’m better, Bill,” said the woman. “Can you stop a little?”
“Yes; I don’t go in next, it’s Chapman’s turn;” and so saying, the man seated himself by the side of the woman.
She was still young, and, as far as the dim light hung from the roof would enable a judgment to be formed, good-looking; the cork-grimed eyebrows, cracked lips, and dry cheeks, told that she too had appeared before the public for its amusement; indeed the traces of rouge were still on parts of the face, and told too truly that she had lain there but a short time, only since the last evening’s performance: indeed, when, during one of her jumps through the hoop, a man’s putting on his hat startled the horse, and so caused a false step, which brought her heavily to the ground.
The experienced ring-master saw she could scarcely stand, and handed her out, kissing her hand in the usual style, and few, if any, of the spectators knew that when rapturously applauding the most unparalleled feat, the leap from the horse’s back through the hoop to the ground, their applause was unheard by their intended object. She had fainted immediately on reaching the dressing-room, and was at once carried to the moving chamber where she now lay.
But to return. She took his hand in hers, saying:
“Bill, I don’t think I shall go round any more.”
“Don’t say so, lass, it’ll be all right when the doctor comes.”
“No, Bill; I feel better, but something tells me I’ve put on the togs for the last time.”
“No, lass, no!” was all the utterance he could find. “Don’t say so!”
After a pause, she said:
“Bill, you recollect that London chap with the French name, that came down to the Doncaster races?”
“O, yes, I know,” said the man, half angrily, as if wishing to avoid the subject.
“Well, you know you said that time that you thought there was something between me and him.”
“Well, I know it,” said the man, “but don’t think of that now ; | don’t trouble about that now.”
“But I must, Bill. I think I’m dying, Bill, dear, and I should like you to think of me when I’m gone, as I am truly, Bill.”
The man made no answer.
“Bill,” said the woman, with increasing vehemence of manner, “do you believe I’d tell you a lie now?”
No answer still.
“Bill! Do you think I’d tell you a lie now?” said she, as though her life depended on his answer.
“No, no, lass,” said he at last, “I don’t think you’d tell a lie any time—but now—” and he
“Where’s Jenny?” interrupted the woman. “Here,” said one of the youngest women, standing up, so that she might be seen. “What do you want?”
“Jenny, you’ll find the key of the green trunk in the china mug with ‘Nelly’ on it. I wish you’d look in the box, and get me my old Bible out.”
The girl found the key, and asked where the box was.
“O dear, I forgot, it’s under me,” said the woman.
“There, never mind,” said he, “I don’t want any fuss about it.”
“O, Bill, dear, I wish you’d lift me up a little, and pull it out. You can put the broken chair under to keep me up then.”
“No, never mind,” said he, “it’ll pain you so.”
“O, Bill, dear, I don’t mind, I wish you would.”
He did it at last; and, after some trouble and a few suppressed groans, the box was pulled out to the middle of the floor, opened, and there, wrapped up in paper and neatly hid, was the Bible; the paper greasy, from contact with disused headdresses, garlands, bands, and other small accessories of the dress of the Queen of the Arena. They gave it to the woman, who soon asked, “Where’s Mary?”
“O, she is here now,” said one of the women; and a girl about five came running in: she had only been performing the part of a little fairy in the just-finished scene; her wand was still in her hand, and the gauze wings on her shoulders; she took them off, laid down the silvered stick, and came to the bed.
“Mary, dear, are you there?”
“Yes, mother, I’m just done, and the people clapped so when Julia took me on her shoulder.”
“Put her on the box, she can’t see her,” suggested some one: it was pushed to where the child stood, and then the mother said:
“Mary, I’m going away.”
“O, mother, where to?”
“But before I go, I want you to see me and father friends again.”
The child stared with wonder; but the woman, not heeding her, continued:
“Bill, dear, have you got the paper off the Bible? Well, open it at the New Testament.”
“Here one of you women find it. Jenny, will you?” said the man.
Jenny did it, and gave it back.
“Now, Bill, raise me up a little.”
“O, never mind,” said he, “I know you’ll get hurt.”
She only looked a repetition of her request; and then taking the open book from his hands, said:
“Bill, dear, you know you said there was something wrong between that London chap and me. I told you at the time there was not, and you didn’t believe me, though you didn’t say so; and you don’t believe it now,” she said, with increased energy. “Now, Bill, hear me swear that, as I believe I’m a dying woman, there was nothing between us, and this child’s your own, as much as Mary, there, is.” She kissed the book, and said: ” Do you believe me now?”
“Yes, yes,” said the man, “I do, I do!” as though some spell over him had broken. “I do, Nell, I do! O, Nell! what a fool I’ve been, and what a coward not to believe it before! O, Nell forgive me, forgive me, I’ve done you wrong!”
The woman raised herself by a great effort, to reach his hand, and kissing it, said:
“I do, Bill. I knew you’d do me justice some day.”
“O, Nell, it’s not too late — not too late! You’ll get better, and we’ll be as happy as we were before this.”
The woman only drew his head to her, and kissed him; while he, roused, kissed her again and again.
“You do believe me, don’t you, dear?”
“O, forgive me, Nell! O, forgive me!” were the only words he could find in the rush of his newly found trust.
“Bill’s wanted,” shouted some one at the door. “Old Whip’s called you three times.”
“Here’s the white, Bill,” said Jenny, “you want touching;” and she brought it, and stood with the lamp while he painted out the traces of tears on his cheeks in front of a broken looking glass.
“The red will do, Bill; go on, or you’ll have him in here, and she won’t like that.”
Bill went out, and the doctor arrived a few minutes afterwards. He was a short, stout, good humoured-looking man, with a brisk way of speaking, that at once secured obedience.
“Now, then,” said he, “what’s amiss? I could make nothing of that fellow you sent after me. Ah!” said he, altering his tone as his eyes, growing used to the light, took in the woman’s face on the bed. “What do they call you?” turning to the youngest of the assembled women.
“Will you stop. All the rest go.”
The women grumblingly obeyed, and he stooped down to examine his patient.
“When did this happen, Jenny?”
“Last night, sir.”
“Why didn’t you send before?”
“We did send to one here in the village, but he wouldn’t come, because she belonged to the circus. He sent her this,” handing him a paper.
“Umph ! ‘The World and its Amusements on the Broad Way.’ Just like that sanctimonious Jennings. Sends the woman a tract, and lets her suffer all day long.”
“Doctor,” said the sick woman, “how long can I live.”
“Live, woman! why, you’re good for another forty years yet.”
“No, doctor, I’m not — I feel I’m not long for this world.”
“Oh! all nonsense!” said he, “you’ll soon get over this.”
And with like comforting assurances he sought to raise her from her depressed condition. In about ten minutes he went to the door and said,
“Come in here, one of you, while I go to the gig.”
He soon came back, and the woman remained with him. In a little while the Clown came up to the group of women outside the door, and leaning in all attitudes against the sides and steps of the waggon.
“Well, has he come?”
“Yes, he has been in this quarter of an hour.”
“What does he say?”
“Oh! she’ll do,” he says, didn’t he” said one of them, turning to another for confirmation.
He soon left, and his voice was heard shouting some old witticism of the ring as though there were no such things as sick wives and doctors in the world. In a few minutes more he came again quite out of breath from a last somersault, the approbation of which was still heard. Seeing the door partially open he entered, and his face looked joyous, as the wail of a child greeted him.
“Which is it? A boy?”
“Yes,” said Jenny.
The answer was unheard by him, for there — stretched out in death — lay the mother. Contrary to the doctor’s expectation the accident and premature delivery had caused her death.
Yes! There she lay; the hollow sunken eyes — made unnaturally bright by the traces of rouge upon her cheeks — the jaw fallen. Death was evidently there and he saw it. She with whom he had hoped to share all the cares and joys of life; now that the only difference they had ever had was removed. She was dead! The man seemed stunned. A strange pair they looked ;— he in the motley and paint of his calling; she — dead!
“Bear up, Bill,” said Jenny, approaching him with the child; “it’s a boy, Bill; and she wanted it to be called after you.”
The man seemed not to hear, but, walking up to the bed, and taking one of the dead hands in his, kissed it gently, as though afraid of waking her; and then, as though his loss had just been realised, muttered, “Dead! dead!” and lay down, his face close to hers, kissing the fast cooling lips with frantic earnestness. “Dead — dead — dead!” still came between his choking sobs. To him the women, moving to and fro in offices about the child, were not: to him, useless was the doctor’s farewell. “Dead—dead —dead!” and the heaving chest and bursting eyeballs found relief in tears.
“There, don’t take on so, Bill!” said one, trying to raise him ; “don’t take on so hard, Bill!”
She might as well have spoken to the box on which he half sat, half leaned, as he hung over his dead wife. They then tried to get to close the staring eyes; but a look which appalled them shook their nerves too much to allow of a second trial. A noise outside now attracted them to the door.
“What’s the matter, now?”
“Matter, enough!” said a harsh, grating voice. “Here’s Chapman so drunk he can’t go in, and Bill’s skulking because his wife’s sick; there never was a fellow in the ring worse treated than I am.”
“She is dead, Whips,” said one, pointing with her thumb back to the waggon.
“Dead!” said he.
“Yes; and he’s there, too.”
“Well, if that ain’t too bad,” said he: “here’s the last scene before the quadrille, and no clown — it’ll ruin the circus. The second night, too; her last night’s jump has filled the place — there ain’t standing room — and they’ve been calling for her all the evening. Dead,” said he again, as though his loss were caused by her neglect. “Who’d have thought it? What’s to be done?”
“Can’t you make Chapman do?”
“No, he’s a fool any time to Bill, and now he’s drunk he’s no use at all. What’s to be done? I don’t know.”
Here he was obliged to leave, for the uproar in the circus was deafening. “Clown! Clown!” was the only cry they would make. In vain did Whips drive the horses faster and faster, till the ”Corsican Brothers” were nearly in a horizontal position with their speed; nothing would appease the now excited people.
Whips came out again. “Where’s Bill?” said he.
“Here, Bill,” said Jenny, “Whips wants you.”
“Who wants me?” said the man.
“Here, Bill, I do,” said the voice at the door.
Jenny gave the child to one of the women, took him by the arm, and led him to the door.
“Bill,” said Whips, “here’s Chapman as drunk as a beast, and the people crying out for you like mad. Can’t you go?”
“Go!” said he, pointing to the body. “How can I go? No, I can’t go.”
“Well, Bill, you must; it’s only the second night, here’s the queen away and no clown.”
“Well, there’s only the Indian warrior to go in,” said Bill.
“Well, I know that, but what’s the good of him without somebody to give him his things? What’s the good of my giving him his club and bow, or the paddle either? No, Bill, you must go: it won’t do to send in any one else now, they’d pull the place down.”
Here another and louder cry reached them.
“There now,” said Whips, “that’s it; there’s the ‘Corsican Brothers’ has been agoing round this quarter of an hour, till they’re sick of it, and the grey’ll be so lame to-morrow she won’t stir a peg. It’s no use, Bill, you must go.”
“I can’t, Whips ; it’ll be no use if I do.”
“O, yes, you will; you must go, or I’ll have to throw up the agreement, and you know you’ve overdrawed your money this last two weeks.”
“Well, I know it,” said the man, evidently irresolute now at this threat.
“Well, then, go in if it’s only five minutes. Here, take a drink of this, it will give you heart.”
The man took the proffered flask, and drank deeply.
“Well,” said Whips, “you’ll go, Bill, won’t you?”
“O, yes, I’ll go,” said the man, “go on.”
They left the waggon, and the repeated rounds of applause showed that the public was satisfied. The clown was never more witty, never more agile.
Somersault after somersault, leap after leap was taken with a recklessness that nothing could equal; again and again the encores of the elite, and the bravos of the vulgar, spurred his exertions. At last it ended, and the quadrille came on. The clown left the ring, with the plaudits ringing in his ears, and came to the waggon to find—Alas! What?
At the conclusion of the quadrille those in the waggon heard a cry. “What is it?” said the man, now in his old position, close to the body, with her hand locked in his, and his eyes fixed on her face. “What’s that?”
“They’re calling for her,” said Jenny, pointing to the form in the bed.
There was a lull, and then a long thunder of clapping hands and stamping feet, rose and died away.
“What’s that last?” asked the woman, holding the child, of a person entering.
“O! they called for the queen, and old Whips made a speech, and said she was rather unwell, and could not appear, but would most likely be better to-morrow, when she would again perform her celebrated feat of leaping through the hoop to the ground.”
“Well, my dears,” said the doctor, at the supper-table to his children, “How did you like it?”
“O! we didn’t see the queen, father.”
“No, not at all; the man in the ring said she was not well, but would be there to-morrow, and the clown was so good, father, in the scene with the savage.”
“Was he, my dear. Do you know why you didn’t see the queen?”
“Well, then, I’ll tell you. Because she was dead. That clown was her husband, I left him kissing her dead lips, and I daresay he is there now. It’s a strange world this! Such a sight as that I never saw before, and hope never to see again.”
A. S. H.