Just before the circus came, about the end of July, something happened that made Pony mean to run off more than anything that ever was. His father and mother were coming home from a walk, in the evening; it was so hot nobody could stay in the house, and just as they were coming to the front steps Pony stole up behind them and tossed a snowball which he had got out of the garden at his mother, just for fun. The flower struck her very softly on her hair, for she had no bonnet on, and she gave a jump and a hollo that made Pony laugh; and then she caught him by the arm and boxed his ears.
“Oh, my goodness! It was you, was it, you good-for-nothing boy? I thought it was a bat!” she said, and she broke out crying and ran into the house, and would not mind his father, who was calling after her, “Lucy, Lucy, my dear child!”
Pony was crying, too, for he did not intend to frighten his mother, and when she took his fun as if he had done something wicked he did not know what to think. He stole off to bed and he lay there crying in the dark and expecting that she would come to him, as she always did, to have him say that he was sorry when he had been wicked, or to tell him that she was sorry, when she thought she had not been quite fair with him. But she did not come, and after a good while his father came and said: “Are you awake, Pony? I am sorry your mother misunderstood your fun. But you mustn’t mind it, dear boy. She’s not well, and she’s very nervous.”
“I don’t care!” Pony sobbed out. “She won’t have a chance to touch me again!” For he had made up his mind to run off with the circus which was coming the next Tuesday.
He turned his face away, sobbing, and his father, after standing by his bed a moment, went away without saying anything but, “Don’t forget your prayers, Pony. You’ll feel differently in the morning, I hope.”
Pony fell asleep thinking how he would come back to the Boy’s Town with the circus when he was grown up, and when he came out in the ring riding three horses bareback he would see his father and mother and sisters in one of the lower seats. They would not know him, but he would know them, and he would send for them to come to the dressing-room, and would be very good to them, all but his mother; he would be very cold and stiff with her, though he would know that she was prouder of him than all the rest put together, and she would go away almost crying.
He began being cold and stiff with her the very next morning, although she was better than ever to him, and gave him waffles for breakfast with unsalted butter, and tried to pet him up. That whole day she kept trying to do things for him, but he would scarcely speak to her; and at night she came to him and said, “What makes you act so strangely, Pony? Are you offended with your mother?”
“Yes, I am!” said Pony, haughtily, and he twitched away from where she was sitting on the side of his bed, leaning over him.
“On account of last night, Pony?” she asked, softly.
“I reckon you know well enough,” said Pony, and he tried to be disgusted with her for her being such a hypocrite, but he had to set his teeth hard, hard, or he would have broken down crying.
“If it’s for that, you mustn’t, Pony, dear. You don’t know how you frightened me. When your snowball hit me, I felt sure it was a bat, and I’m so afraid of bats, you know. I didn’t mean to hurt my poor boy’s feelings so, and you mustn’t mind it any more, Pony.”
She stooped down and kissed him on the forehead, but he did not move or say anything; only, after that he felt more forgiving towards his mother. He made up his mind to be good to her along with the rest when he came back with the circus. But still he meant to run off with the circus. He did not see how he could do anything else, for he had told all the boys that day that he was going to do it; and when they just laughed, and said: “Oh yes. Think you can fool your grandmother! It’ll be like running off with the Indians,” Pony wagged his head, and said they would see whether it would or not, and offered to bet them what they dared.
The morning of the circus day all the fellows went out to the corporation line to meet the circus procession. There were ladies and knights, the first thing, riding on spotted horses; and then a band chariot, all made up of swans and dragons. There were about twenty baggage wagons; but before you got to them there was the greatest thing of all. It was a chariot drawn by twelve Shetland ponies, and it was shaped like a big shell, and around in the bottom of the shell there were little circus actors, boys and girls, dressed in their circus clothes, and they all looked exactly like fairies. They scarce seemed to see the fellows, as they ran alongside of their chariot, but Hen Billard and Archy Hawkins, who were always cutting up, got close enough to throw some peanuts to the circus boys, and some of the little circus girls laughed, and the driver looked around and cracked his whip at the fellows, and they all had to get out of the way then.
Jim Leonard said that the circus boys and girls were all stolen, and nobody was allowed to come close to them for fear they would try to send word to their friends. Some of the fellows did not believe it, and wanted to know how he knew it; and he said he read it in a paper; after that nobody could deny it. But he said that if you went with the circus men of your own free will they would treat you first-rate; only they would give you burnt brandy to keep you little; nothing else but burnt brandy would do it, but that would do it, sure.
Pony was scared at first when he heard that most of the circus fellows were stolen, but he thought if he went of his own accord he would be all right. Still, he did not feel so much like running off with the circus as he did before the circus came. He asked Jim Leonard whether the circus men made all the children drink burnt brandy; and Archy Hawkins and Hen Billard heard him ask, and began to mock him. They took him up between them, one by his arms and the other by the legs, and ran along with him, and kept saying, “Does it want to be a great big circus actor? Then it shall, so it shall,” and, “We’ll tell the circus men to be very careful of you, Pony dear!” till Pony wriggled himself loose and began to stone them.
After that they had to let him alone, for when a fellow began to stone you in the Boy’s Town you had to let him alone, unless you were going to whip him, and the fellows only wanted to have a little fun with Pony. But what they did made him all the more resolved to run away with the circus, just to show them.
He helped to carry water for the circus men’s horses, along with the boys who earned their admission that way. He had no need to do it, because his father was going to take him in, anyway; but Jim Leonard said it was the only way to get acquainted with the circus men. Still Pony was afraid to speak to them, and he would not have said a word to any of them if it had not been for one of them speaking to him first, when he saw him come lugging a great pail of water, and bending far over on the right to balance it.
“That’s right,” the circus man said to Pony. “If you ever fell into that bucket you’d drown, sure.”
He was a big fellow, with funny eyes, and he had a white bulldog at his heels; and all the fellows said he was the one who guarded the outside of the tent when the circus began, and kept the boys from hooking in under the curtain.
Even then Pony would not have had the courage to say anything, but Jim Leonard was just behind him with another bucket of water, and he spoke up for him. “He wants to go with the circus.”
They both set down their buckets, and Pony felt himself turning pale when the circus man came towards them. “Wants to go with the circus, heigh? Let’s have a look at you.” He took Pony by the shoulders and turned him slowly round, and looked at his nice clothes, and took him by the chin. “Orphan?” he asked.
Pony did not know what to say, but Jim Leonard nodded; perhaps he did not know what to say, either; but Pony felt as if they had both told a lie.
“Parents living?” The circus man looked at Pony, and Pony had to say that they were.
He gasped out, “Yes,” so that you could scarcely hear him, and the circus man said:
“Well, that’s right. When we take an orphan, we want to have his parents living, so that we can go and ask them what sort of a boy he is.”
He looked at Pony in such a friendly, smiling way that Pony took courage to ask him whether they would want him to drink burnt brandy.
“To keep me little.”
“Oh, I see.” The circus man took off his hat and rubbed his forehead with a silk handkerchief, which he threw into the top of his hat before he put it on again. “No, I don’t know as we will. We’re rather short of giants just now. How would you like to drink a glass of elephant milk every morning and grow into an eight-footer?”
Pony said he didn’t know whether he would like to be quite so big; and then the circus man said perhaps he would rather go for an India-rubber man; that was what they called the contortionists in those days.
“Let’s feel of you again.” The circus man took hold of Pony and felt his joints. “You’re put together pretty tight; but I reckon we could make you do if you’d let us take you apart with a screw-driver and limber up the pieces with rattlesnake oil. Wouldn’t like it, heigh? Well, let me see!” The circus man thought a moment, and then he said: “How would double-somersaults on four horses bareback do?”
Pony said that would do, and then the circus man said: “Well, then, we’ve just hit it, because our double-somersault, four-horse bareback is just going to leave us, and we want a new one right away. Now, there’s more than one way of joining a circus, but the best way is to wait on your front steps with your things all packed up, and the procession comes along at about one o’clock in the morning and picks you up. Which’d you rather do?”
Pony pushed his toe into the turf, as he always did when he was ashamed, but he made out to say he would rather wait out on the front steps.
“Well, then, that’s all settled,” said the circus man. “We’ll be along,” and he was going away with his dog, but Jim Leonard called after him:
“You hain’t asked him whereabouts he lives.”
The circus man kept on, and he said, without looking around, “Oh, that’s all right. We’ve got somebody that looks after that.”
“It’s the magician,” Jim Leonard whispered to Pony, and they walked away.