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Within a fortnight or so after the police had dismissed him, blowing him loose on the world like a dandelion-seed in the wind, Clare had an adventure which not only gave him pleasure, but led to work and food and interest in life.
Passing one day from a cross-country road into the highway, he came straight on the flank of a travelling menagerie. It was one of some size, and Clare saw at a glance that its horses were in fair condition. The front part of the little procession had already gone by, and an elephant was passing at the moment with a caravan--of feline creatures, as Clare afterwards learned, behind him. He drew it with absolute ease, but his head seemed to be dragged earthward by the weight of his trunk, as he plodded wearily along. A world of delight woke in the heart of the boy. He had read much about strange beasts, but had never seen one. His impulse was to run straight to the elephant, and tell him he loved him. For he was a live beast, and Clare loved every creature, common or strange, wild or tame, ordinary or wonderful. But prudent thought followed, and he saw it better to hover around, in the hope of a chance of being useful. Oh, the treasures of wonder and knowledge on the other side of those thin walls of wood, so slowly drawn along the dusty highway! If but for a moment he might gaze on their living marvels! He had no money, but things came to him without money--not so plentifully as he could sometimes wish--but they came, and so might this! Employment among those animals would be well worth the long hungry waiting! This might be the very work he had been looking for without knowing it! It was for this, perhaps, he had been kept so long waiting--till the caravans should come along the road, and he be at the corner as they passed! He did not know how often a man may think thus and see it come to nothing--because there is better yet behind, for which more waiting is wanted.
At the end of the procession came a bear, shuffling along uncomfortably. It went to Clare's heart to see how far from comfortable the poor beast appeared. "What a life it would be," he thought, "to have all the creatures in all those caravans to make happy! That would be a life worth living!"
It was a worthy ambition--infinitely higher than that of boys who want to do something great, or clever, or strong. As to those who want to be rich--for their ambition I have an utter contempt. How gladly would I drive that meanness out of any boy's heart! To fall in with the work of the glad creator, and help him in it--that is the only ambition worth having. It may not look a grand thing to do it in a caravan, but it takes the mind of Christ to do it anywhere.
Behind the bear, closing the procession, came a stoutish, good-tempered-looking man, in a small spring-cart, drawn by a small pony: he was the earthly owner of that caged life, with all its gathered discomforts. Clare lifted his cap as he passed him--a politeness of which the man took no notice, because the boy was ragged. The moment he was past, Clare fell in behind as one of the procession. He was prudent enough, however, not to go so near as to look intrusive.
When he had followed thus for a mile or two, he saw, by signs patent to every wanderer, that they were coming near a town. Before reaching it, however, they arrived at a spot where the hedges receded from the road, leaving a little green sward on the sides of it, and there the long line came to a halt.
The menagerie had, the day before, been exhibited at a fair, and was now on its way to another, to be held the next day in the town they were approaching: they had made the halt in order to prepare their entrance. To let a part of their treasure be seen, was the best way to rouse desire after what was yet hidden: they were going, therefore, to take out an animal or two more to walk in parade. Clare sat down at a little distance, and wondered what was coming next.
Experience of tramps had made the men suspicious, and it may be they disliked having their proceedings watched by anybody; but, happily for Clare, it was the master himself who came up to him, not without something of menace in his bearing. The boy was never afraid, and hope started up full grown as the man approached. He rose and took off his cap--a very ready action with Clare, which sprung from pure politeness, and from nothing either selfish or cringing. But the man put his own interpretation on the civility.
"What are you hanging about here for?" he said rudely.
Now Clare had a perfect right to answer, had he so pleased, that he was on the king's highway, where no one had a right to interfere with him. But he had the habit--he could not help it; it was natural to him--of thinking first of the other party's side of a question--a rare gift, which served him better than he knew. For the other may be in the right, and it is an ugly thing to interfere with any man's right; while a man's own rights are never so much good to him as when he waives them.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said; "I did not understand you wished to be alone. I never thought you would mind me. Will it be far enough if I go just out of sight, for I am very tired? It is pleasant, besides, to know there are friends near!"
The man recognized in Clare the modes and speech of a gentleman; and having, in the course of his wandering life, seen and known a good many strange things, he suspected under the rags a history. But he was not interested enough to stop and inquire into it.
"Never mind," he said, in altered tone; "I see you're after no mischief!" and with that walked away, leaving Clare to do as he pleased.
A few minutes more went by. Clare sat hungry and sleepy on the grass by the roadside. Before he knew, he was on his feet, startled by a terrible noise. The lion had opened his great jaws, and his brown leathery sides, working like a pair of bellows, had sent from his throat a huge blast, half roar, half howl. When Clare came to himself he knew, though he had never heard it before, that the fearful sound was the voice of the lion. He did not know that all it meant was, that his majesty had thought of his dinner. It was not indeed much more than an audible gape. He stood for a moment, not at all terrified, but half expecting to see a huge yellow animal burst out of one of the caravans--he could not guess which: the roar was much too loud to indicate one rather than another. He sat down again, but was not any longer inclined to sleep. For a time, however, no second roar came from the ribs of the captive monarch.
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