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Half a hundred motley fools came trooping into the sawdust arena, their voices raised in song and shout.
Mud clown, character clown, harlequin, fat boy, jester, funny rustic, vied with each other in mirth-provoking antics so aptly described by the circus press agent as a "merry-hodgepodge of fun-provoking, acrobatic idiosyncrasies of an amazing character."
And so they were.
Children screamed with delight, while their elders smiled a dignified approval of the grotesque, painted throng that trooped gayly down the uneven course.
The music of the circus band stopped short. Then came a fanfare of trumpets, and far down the line from behind the crimson curtains near to the bandstand, a dignified figure all in white, emerged and tripped along the grassy way, halting now and then to gaze fixedly at some imaginary object just above the heads of those on the upper row of seats, the very drollery of which gaze was irresistible.
Shivers, Prince of Clowns, the greatest fun maker and character clown of all that mad, painted throng, had made his entry.
Shivers had joined out with the Sparling show for the first time that season. He was known as the leading clown in the business. From the first, Shivers had taken a liking to Teddy Tucker, and shortly after leaving Edmeston he had conceived the idea of making a full-fledged clown of Teddy. The permission of the manager had been obtained and this was Teddy's first appearance as assistant to Shivers. Teddy was considerably smaller, of course, and made up as the exact counterpart of Shivers trailing along after him like a shadow, the lad made a most amusing appearance. Every move that the clown made, Teddy mimicked as the two minced along down the concourse.
Shivers was a shining model of the clown both in method and makeup. His stiffly starched bulging trousers disappeared under the stiff ruffles of a three-quarter waist. A broad turnover collar of the nurse style was set off with a large bow of bright red ribbon, and a baker's cap, perched jauntily on one side of the head, completed his merry makeup. This too describes Teddy Tucker's outfit.
"Now, be funny!" directed Shivers.
"I can't help but be if I act like you," retorted Teddy, whereat the clown grinned.
Pausing before the dollar seats the clown pulled out the ruffles of his snow-white waist, poising with crossed legs on one toe. Teddy did the same, and a great roar was the reward of their drollery.
"La, la! La, la, la!" hummed the clown, stumbling over a rope to the keen delight of those in the reserved seats--the same rope, by the way, that he had been falling over twice each day for the past month. Then he blew a kiss to a fragile slip of a girl who was perched on a trapeze bar far up toward the dome of the great tent.
Zoraya, for that was her name, smiled down, gracefully swung off into space, soaring lightly into the strong, sure arms of her working mate.
Just the suspicion of an approving smile lighted up the face of the clown for the moment, for he dearly loved this little motherless daughter of his, who had been his care since she was a child.
Shivers had taught her all she knew, and Zoraya was the acknowledged queen of the lofty tumblers.
But the clown half unconsciously caught his breath as the lithe form of Zoraya shot over the trapeze bar, described a graceful "two-and-a-half" in the air, and, shooting downward, hit the net with a resounding smack that caused the spectators to catch their breath sharply.
The clown shook a warning head at her, and Teddy so far forgot himself as to stub his toe and measure his length upon the ground.
"Don't do it, Bright Eyes!" cautioned Shivers, shaking his head warningly at the girl, as the child bounced up from the impact, kicking her little feet together and turning a somersault on the swaying net. "It isn't in your contract. Folks sometimes break their necks trying kinkers that's not in the writings."
Her answer was a merry, mocking laugh, and Zoraya ran lightly up a rope ladder to the platform where she balanced easily for another flight.
"My, I wish I could do stunts like that!" breathed Teddy.
"Just like a bird. La, la, la! La, la, la!" sang the painted clown, turning a handspring and pivoting on his head for a grand, spectacular finish.
His refined comedy, so pleasing to the occupants of the reserved seats, had now been changed to loud, uproarious buffoonery as he bowed before the blue, fifty cent seats where his auditors were massed on boards reaching from the top of the side wall clear down to the edge of the arena.
He took liberties with their hats, passed familiar criticisms on their families and told them all about the other performers in the ring, arousing the noisy appreciation of the spectators.
Teddy was put to his wits end to keep up with this rapid-fire clowning, and the perspiration was already streaking the powder on his face.
All at once, above the din and the applause, the ears of the clown caught a sound different from the others--a scream of alarm. Shivers had heard such a cry many times before during his twenty years in the sawdust ring, and, as he expressed it, the sound always gave him "crinkles up and down his spine."
There was no need to start and look about for the cause. He understood that there had been an accident. But the clown looked straight ahead and went on with his work. He knew, by the strains of the music, exactly what Zoraya should be doing at the moment when the cry came--that her supple body was flashing through the air in a "passing leap," one of the feats that always drew such great applause, even if it were more spectacular than dangerous.
"No, it can't be Zoraya!" he muttered. But the clown cast one nervous, hesitating glance up there where her troupe was working in the air. The cold sweat stood out upon him. Zoraya was not with them. His eyes sought the net. It was empty. He saw a figure clad in pink, white and gold shooting right through the net.
Then, too, he saw something else. A slender, pink-clad figure was darting under the net with outstretched arms.
"It's Phil. He's going to catch her," shouted Teddy jubilantly.
But Phil went down under the impact of the heavy blow as Zoraya struck him. A throng of ring attendants gathered about them, and in a moment the two forms were picked up and borne quickly from the ring.
Once, years before, Shivers had been through an earthquake in South America, when things about him were topsy-turvy, when the circus tent came tumbling down about him, and ring curbs went up into the air in most bewildering fashion.
Now, that same sensation was upon him again, and quarter poles seemed to dance before his eyes like giddy marionettes, while the long rows of blue seats appeared to be tilted up at a dangerous angle. Then slowly the clown's bewilderment merged into keen understanding, but his painted face reflected none of the anguish that was gripping at his heart strings.
Teddy brushed a hand across his own eyes.
"I--I guess they're both killed," he said falteringly.
Just then the voice of the head clown broke out in the old Netherlands harvest song:
"Yanker didel doodle down, Didel, dudel lanter, Yankee viver, voover vown, Botermilk und tanther."
"Poor Zoraya!" muttered the clown under cover of the applause that greeted his vocal effort. And his associates looked down from their perches high in the air, gazing in wonder upon the clown who was bowing so low that, each time he did so, he was obliged to turn a somersault to gain his equilibrium.
"Dangerously hurt--went through the net head first. Hurry!" panted a belated clown, running by to his station. "Boy hurt, too."
"Told you so!" grumbled Teddy.
But Shivers did not flinch, and, as he neared the reserved seats on the grandstand, his voice again rang out, this time in a variation of the ancient harvest song:
"Yankee doodle, keep it up, Yankee doodle, dandy; Mind the music and the step, And with your feet be handy."
Never had the show people seen Shivers so uproariously funny. Under the spell of his merriment, the audience quickly forgot the tragic scene that they had just witnessed.
Teddy, however, noticed little dark trenches that had ploughed their courses down through the makeup of the clown's cheeks from his eyes. Teddy knew that tears had caused those furrows.
As Shivers looked down the long, grassy stretch ahead of him, that he still must cover before his act would be finished, the goal seemed far away. He flashed one longing glance toward the crimson curtains that shut off the view of the paddock and the dressing tents, vaguely wondering what lay beyond for him and for little Zoraya. Then Shivers set his jaws hard, plunging into a mad whirl of handsprings and somersaults, each of which sent him nearer to the end of that seemingly endless way.
"Here, here, what are you trying to do?" gasped Tucker, unable to keep up with the clown's rapid progress by doing the same things. Teddy solved the problem by running. He could keep up in no other way.
At last Shivers reached the end. With a mighty leap he sprang for the paddock and the dressing tent. And how he did run! Such sprinting never had been seen in the big show, even between man and horse in the act following the Roman chariot races.
Once a rope caught Shivers' toes. He fell forward, but cleverly landed on his shoulders and the back of his neck, bouncing up like a rubber man and plunging on.
Shivers had darted through the crimson curtain by the time Teddy Tucker had succeeded in picking himself up from having fallen over the same rope.
Stretched out on a piece of canvas in the dressing tent, her head slightly elevated on a saddle pad, they found Zoraya, her pallor showing even through the roughly laid on makeup.
Phil was sitting on a trunk holding his head in his hands, for he had received quite a severe shock.
"If she regains consciousness soon she may live," announced the surgeon. "If not--"
"No, no!" protested the white-faced clown, dropping on his knees by the side of the child, folding Zoraya tenderly in his arms. "She must not die! She cannot die!"
His jaunty baker's cap tilted off and fell upon her tinseled breast, while groups of curious, sorrowful painted faces pressed about them in silent sympathy.
Teddy crushed his white cap between his hands twisting it nervously.
"She isn't hurt. Can't you see? Look, she is smiling now," pleaded the clown.
The surgeon shook his head sadly, and Shivers buried his head on Zoraya's shoulder, pressing his painted cheek close to hers, while the dull roar of the circus, off under the big top, drifted to them faintly, like the sighing of a distant cataract.
An impressive silence hovered over the scene, which was broken, at last, by the quiet voice of the circus surgeon.
"The child is coming back, Shivers. She has fought it out, but she will perform no more, I am afraid, for bones broken as are hers never will be quite the same again."
"She don't have to perform any more, sir," snapped the clown. "I'll do that for her. You put that down in your fool's cap and smoke it. Yes, sir, I'll--"
"Daddy!" murmured the lips that were pressed close to Shivers' ear.
It was scarcely a whisper, more a breath that Shivers caught, but faint as it was, it sent the blood pounding to his temples until they showed red, like blotches of rouge under powder.
"D-a-d-d-y--y-o-u-r--Zory got an awful--b-u-m-p."
Three harlequins who had been poising each on one knee, chins in hands, gazing down into the face of the little performer, suddenly threw backward somersaults in their joy.
"Yes, Phil's quickness saved you," spoke up the surgeon. "Had it not been for him you would be dead now."
Teddy Tucker, the tears streaming down his cheeks, was hopping about on one foot, vigorously kicking a shin with the other foot, trying to punish himself for his tears.
"I'm a fool! I'm a fool! But--but--I can't help it," he sobbed, wheeling suddenly and dashing into his own dressing tent.
"Call for Shivers!" bellowed the voice of the callboy, thrusting his head inside the entrance flap. "All the Joeys out for the round off!"
Shivers gently laid the broken form of Zoraya back, pressed a hurried kiss on her painted lips and bounded away to take his cue, the circus band out there by the crimson curtains swinging brazenly into the enlivening strains of "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight!"
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