by William Dan Howells
A crowd of the fellows had been waiting to know what the boys had been talking about to the circus man, but Jim Leonard said, “Don’t you tell, Pony Baker!” and he started to run, and that made Pony run, too, and they both ran till they got away from the fellows.
“You have got to keep it a secret; for if a lot of fellows find it out the constable’ll get to know it, and he’ll be watching out around the corner of your house, and when the procession comes along and he sees you’re really going he’ll take you up, and keep you in jail till your father comes and bails you out. Now, you mind!”
Pony said, “Oh, I won’t tell anybody,” and when Jim Leonard said that if a circus man was to feel him over, that way, and act so kind of pleasant and friendly, he would be too proud to speak to anybody, Pony confessed that he knew it was a great thing all the time.
“The way’ll be,” said Jim Leonard, “to keep in with him, and he’ll keep the others from picking on you; they’ll be afraid to, on account of his dog. You’ll see, he’ll be the one to come for you to-night; and if the constable is there the dog won’t let him touch you. I never thought of that.”
Perhaps on account of thinking of it now Jim Leonard felt free to tell the other fellows how Pony was going to run off, for when a crowd of them came along he told them. They said it was splendid, and they said that if they could make their mothers let them, or if they could get out of the house without their mothers knowing it, they were going to sit up with Pony and watch out for the procession, and bid him good-bye.
At dinner-time he found out that his father was going to take him and all his sisters to the circus, and his father and mother were so nice to him, asking him about the procession and everything, that his heart ached at the thought of running away from home and leaving them. But now he had to do it; the circus man was coming for him, and he could not back out; he did not know what would happen if he did. It seemed to him as if his mother had done everything she could to make it harder for him. She had stewed chicken for dinner, with plenty of gravy, and hot biscuits to sop in, and peach preserves afterward; and she kept helping him to more, because she said boys that followed the circus around got dreadfully hungry. The eating seemed to keep his heart down; it was trying to get into his throat all the time; and he knew that she was being good to him, but if he had not known it he would have believed his mother was just doing it to mock him.
Pony had to go to the circus with his father and sisters, and to get on his shoes and a clean collar. But a crowd of the fellows were there at the tent door to watch out whether the circus man would say anything to him when he went in; and Jim Leonard rubbed against him, when the man passed with his dog and did not even look at Pony, and said: “He’s just pretending. He don’t want your father to know. He’ll be round for you, sure. I saw him kind of smile to one of the other circus men.”
It was a splendid circus, and there were more things than Pony ever saw in a circus before. But instead of hating to have it over, it seemed to him that it would never come to an end. He kept thinking and thinking, and wondering whether he would like to be a circus actor; and when the one came out who rode four horses bareback and stood on his head on the last horse, and drove with the reins in his teeth, Pony thought that he never could learn to do it; and if he could not learn he did not know what the circus men would say to him. It seemed to him that it was very strange he had not told that circus man that he didn’t know whether he could do it or not; but he had not, and now it was too late.
A boy came around calling lemonade, and Pony’s father bought some for each of the children, but Pony could hardly taste his.
“What is the matter with you, Pony? Are you sick?” his father asked.
“No. I don’t care for any; that’s all. I’m well,” said Pony; but he felt very miserable.
After supper Jim Leonard came round and went up to Pony’s room with him to help him pack, and he was so gay about it and said he only wished he was going, that Pony cheered up a little. Jim had brought a large square of checked gingham that he said he did not believe his mother would ever want, and that he would tell her he had taken if she asked for it. He said it would be the very thing for Pony to carry his clothes in, for it was light and strong and would hold a lot. He helped Pony to choose his things out of his bureau drawers: a pair of stockings and a pair of white pantaloons and a blue roundabout, and a collar, and two handkerchiefs. That was all he said Pony would need, because he would have his circus clothes right away, and there was no use taking things that he would never wear.
Jim did these up in the square of gingham, and he tied it across cater-cornered twice, in double knots, and showed Pony how he could put his hand through and carry it just as easy. He hid it under the bed for him, and he told Pony that if he was in Pony’s place he should go to bed right away or pretty soon, so that nobody would think anything, and maybe he could get some sleep before he got up and went down to wait on the front steps for the circus to come along. He promised to be there with the other boys and keep them from fooling or making a noise, or doing anything to wake his father up, or make the constable come. “You see, Pony,” he said, “if you can run off this year, and come back with the circus next year, then a whole lot of fellows can run off. Don’t you see that?”
Pony said he saw that, but he said he wished some of the other fellows were going now, because he did not know any of the circus boys and he was afraid he might feel kind of lonesome. But Jim Leonard said he would soon get acquainted, and, anyway, a year would go before he knew it, and then if the other fellows could get off he would have plenty of company.
As soon as Jim Leonard was gone Pony undressed and got into bed. He was not sleepy, but he thought maybe it would be just as well to rest a little while before the circus procession came along for him; and, anyway, he could not bear to go down-stairs and be with the family when he was going to leave them so soon, and not come back for a whole year.
After a good while, or about the time he usually came in from playing, he heard his mother saying: “Where in the world is Pony? Has he come in yet? Have you seen him, girls? Pony! Pony!” she called.
But somehow Pony could not get his voice up out of his throat; he wanted to answer her, but he could not speak. He heard her say, “Go out to the front steps, girls, and see if you can see him,” and then he heard her coming up the stairs; and she came into his room, and when she saw him lying there in bed, she said: “Why, I believe in my heart the child’s asleep! Pony! Are you awake?”
Pony made out to say no, and his mother said: “My! what a fright you gave me! Why didn’t you answer me? Are you sick, Pony? Your father said you didn’t seem well at the circus; and you didn’t eat any supper, hardly.”
Pony said he was first-rate, but he spoke very low, and his mother came up and sat down on the side of his bed.
“What is the matter, child?” She bent over and felt his forehead. “No, you haven’t got a bit of fever,” she said, and she kissed him, and began to tumble his short black hair in the way she had, and she got one of his hands between her two, and kept rubbing it. “But you’ve had a long, tiresome day, and that’s why you’ve gone to bed, I suppose. But if you feel the least sick, Pony, I’ll send for the doctor.”
Pony said he was not sick at all; just tired; and that was true; he felt as if he never wanted to get up again.
His mother put her arm under his neck, and pressed her face close down to his, and said very low: “Pony dear, you don’t feel hard toward your mother for what she did the other night?”
He knew she meant boxing his ears, when he was not to blame, and he said: “Oh no,” and then he threw his arms round her neck and cried; and she told him not to cry, and that she would never do such a thing again; but she was really so frightened she did not know what she was doing.
When he quieted down, she said: “Now say your prayers, Pony, ‘Our Father,'” and she said, “Our Father” all through with him, and after that, “Now I lay me,” just as when he was a very little fellow. After they had finished she stooped over and kissed him again, and when he turned his face into his pillow she kept smoothing his hair with her hand for about a minute. Then she went away.
Pony could hear them stirring about for a good while down-stairs. His father came in from uptown at last, and asked: “Has Pony come in?”
And his mother said; “Yes, he’s up in bed. I wouldn’t disturb him, Henry. He’s asleep by this time.”
His father said: “I don’t know what to make of the boy. If he keeps on acting so strangely I shall have the doctor see him in the morning.”
Pony felt dreadfully to think how far away from them he should be in the morning, and he would have given anything if he could have gone down to his father and mother and told them what he was going to do. But it did not seem as if he could.
By-and-by he began to be sleepy, and then he dozed off, but he thought it was hardly a minute before he heard the circus band, and knew that the procession was coming for him. He jumped out of bed and put on his things as fast as he could; but his roundabout had only one sleeve to it, somehow, and he had to button the lower buttons of his trousers to keep it on. He got his bundle and stole down to the front door without seeming to touch his feet to anything, and when he got out on the front steps he saw the circus magician coming along. By that time the music had stopped and Pony could not see any procession. The magician had on a tall, peaked hat, like a witch. He took up the whole street, he was so wide in the black glazed gown that hung from his arms when he stretched them out, for he seemed to be groping along that way, with his wand in one hand, like a blind man.
He kept saying in a kind of deep, shaking voice, “It’s all glory; it’s all glory,” and the sound of those words froze Pony’s blood. He tried to get back into the house again, so that the magician should not find him, but when he felt for the door-knob there was no door there anywhere; nothing but a smooth wall. Then he sat down on the steps and tried to shrink up so little that the magician would miss him; but he saw his wide goggles getting nearer and nearer; and then his father and the doctor were standing by him looking down at him, and the doctor said:
“He has been walking in his sleep; he must be bled,” and he got out his lancet, when Pony heard his mother calling: “Pony, Pony! What’s the matter? Have you got the nightmare?” and he woke up, and found it was just morning.
The sun was shining in at his window, and it made him so glad to think that by this time the circus was far away and he was not with it, that he hardly knew what to do.
He was not very well for two or three days afterward, and his mother let him stay out of school to see whether he was really going to be sick or not. When he went back most of the fellows had forgotten that he had been going to run off with the circus. Some of them that happened to think of it plagued him a little and asked how he liked being a circus actor.
Hen Billard was the worst; he said he reckoned the circus magician got scared when he saw what a whaler Pony was, and told the circus men that they would have to get a new tent to hold him; and that was the reason why they didn’t take him. Archy Hawkins said: “How long did you have to wait on the front steps, Pony dear?” But after that he was pretty good to him, and said he reckoned they had better not any of them pretend that Pony had not tried to run off if they had not been up to see.
Pony himself could never be exactly sure whether he had waited on the front steps and seen the circus magician or not. Sometimes it seemed all of it like a dream, and sometimes only part of it. Jim Leonard tried to help him make it out, but they could not. He said it was a pity he had overslept himself, for if he had come to bid Pony good-bye, the way he said, then he could have told just how much of it was a dream and how much was not.