One Crowded Hour of Clowning
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.
— SCOTT: Old Mortality
OF course when they burst in upon my placid life in the sanctum, and asked me to feed in the Cook Tent and go on as a clown in the Big Top afterward, I jumped at the chance as if it were a paper hoop.
We reached the clowns’ quarters through an avenue fronded with the palm-like ears of elephants swishing and twiddling hay in picketed alignment, two tiny newcomers down at the end of the line doing their best to waggle their ears like the old stagers. Another baby elephant some time before, I was told, had joined the cast of Polly of the Circus, and between performances, homesick for ‘Spangleland’ and its own keeper, was found in a corner like the little ‘Juggler of Notre Dame,’ beguiling the time with its whole repertoire of tricks that began with standing on its head. Later, caught in a fire at Luna Park, it proved a Casabianca among elephants. The keeper was in New York, and it was deaf to alien blandishment. None else could cajole or drag it away. J’y suis, j’y reste. It would not answer any command but that of the absent one — and so, faithful unto death, with one last trumpeted wail of pain and grief, it toppled and perished in the flames.
The horses pleased me greatly. They were so wise and kind, so gray and white and broad, so very strong and careful where they put their teeth and heels. Fat as country sausages, somebody was forever polishing them off like brasses at the entrance of a bank. The ‘BloodSweating Hippopotamus’ himself amiably permitted one, en passant, to put a shuddering finger through the bars and prod his slabby carcass where he lay heaving like a stranded whale.
It was the drowsing hour of vespertide before the crowd swarmed in. There was a tuneful chinking of handles on zinc pails about the cages: green eyes were bright and paws were out for anything they bore. There was an orderly, murmurous scurrying to and fro of soft-footed empresses, princesses, fairies, even angels iridescent. There was a going-about of riders, — those Brahmins of the Circus, — ‘bull-men,’ ‘cat-men,’ ‘razorbacks,’ ‘canvas-men,’ and ‘joeys.’ Nubians and swart Ethiops, ‘Devils of the Desert,’Hottentots, and cannibals with a college education were champing hard-boiled ham, corn and beans, and pallid lemon-pie, strewn casually about the checkered oilcloth of the Cook Tent. I came upon a Cossack, marooned on the corner of a trunk shiny with tin, and his grand seigniorial manner would have graced a Peacock Throne as he ran his thumbnail along the edge of a glistening Turkish yataghan. I asked him if he got it in Tiflis, and as he sprang to demonstrate you could imagine him swooping and whooping down the broad highway from Vladikavkaz by moonlight through the vale where hoary Kasbek overhangs; and the glint in his eye was steel-cold, like the blue light on the blade.
A postman was in the act of delivering a letter to ‘Ali Abdullah, Care of the Desert Devils,’ and it gave me a twinge of longing for the nomad tents of Ali Aga’s tribe who cared for me so tenderly in the shadow of Ararat.
But to business! There was no time to waste in philandering with the performers. M’sieur Borrelly, already made up and tiptoe to go on, fell to work on me, and very soon mother would not have known me. He had been a clown for twenty-five years, and was ‘just beginning to like it,’ he averred with a delicate Gallic irony. The chief treasure in his brass-studded patentleather suitcase was a letter, in faded purple ink, written him in 1887 by his father, French consul at Galveston, impressing Christian piety in a script as upright as the sentiments, and telling the prodigal about the linen shirts that the petite grand’mère was even then in the act of fashioning for him in far-off Brittany.
Something of the paternal heritage of tenderness was in the tips of M’sieur Borrelly’s fleet pianistic fingers as he daubed cold cream, white grease-paint, rouge, and black crayon on my astonished countenance. The maker of a lifemask — or a child building a snow-man — could not have been more fastidious than he.
Even a society photographer does not achieve a more complete erasure of all the lines indicative of essential character. I got a sudden look at me in a mirror, and mistook myself for garrulous M ‘sieur. I was a moonrise of whitewash, pied and pranked and ringstraked, surmounted ridiculously by an Admiral’s cockaded and beplumed chapeau and cinctured to suffocation with the flowing scarlet of a cuirassier of l’ancien regime. But Charlie Chaplin’s breeks are tight as a drum compared with the yards and yards of black stuff that billowed from my waist to my feet. My shoes were all that was left me of my own; but as I could not see my feet, I had become an utter stranger to myself. Even my voice came hollow and strange as from my ghost.
‘Now,’ said M’sieur Borrelly, in faultless French, as he sprang back like a painter from an easel to contemplate his handiwork, ‘when I bring out my blunderbuss and begin to shoot, you run — and climb — and hide. Show every sign of fear. Run to all places you may think of, or your feet may take you. Let your feet have their way, more than your mind, and let your hands be eloquent beyond your tongue. Only — come not in collision with the band, especially the French horn and the saxophone, for there is but one of each. Avoid the horses, and the riders in the ring — they have their work to do, and children wait for them at home in England. Let nothing drop or fall on you from on high. Prenez garde, keep on the qui vive, and stray not in the path of others. Trust in le bon Dieu and it will yet be well. Above all, watch me, what I do. Allons!'
Like a plumed crusader marching as to war against the paynim, he strode before me to the choked and narrow entrance of the Big Top. At the threshold of the glaring blatant maze of heat and sound, he called a halt to await our whistled curtain-cue from the ringmaster. Lord of misrule and unreason, M’sieur Borrelly looked as imperious as Julius Cæsar on the night before a battle. His eyes glittered and danced through the white mask of grease-paint, and the carmine fissure of the lips, expanding in a grin, bred confidence in the motley crew that followed him — especially in me. I needed it. We were stalled in the thick of a group of monkeyjockeys, mounted on their dog-steeds. The monkeys looked anxious: their brows were wrinkled; they simpered and chattered, picking nervously at the reins and the spangled trappings. I felt they were my brothers-in-the-blood. But when I tried to tell them so, they paid no heed. They were too busy worrying. What mind they had was on the temerarious performance just ahead of them — to hang on and keep going, in a pell-mell canter round the ring, whoever lost, whoever won.
The dogs, bless them, flaunted each his panache of a bushy tail, ‘ larked and trit-trotted ‘ as much as the little space and their running-gear permitted, gay and unconcerned, in the blithe humor of children at a birthday party.
At that bright expectant moment a clumsy fellow rammed the end of a plank into the polished shoulder of a white horse with pink ribbons in his mane.
The startled animal, delicately tuned for the awaited moment of the ringmaster’s whistle, gave a snort of alarm, upreared and scattered sawdust with his heels, right and left into a group of fluffy silver-slippered equestriennes. They screamed in treble unison; the horse snorted in repartee, while a policeman joey grabbed his bridle and hauled him down from his high tantrums to sawdust level again.
Then the shrill blast of the ringmaster’s whistle, a last gleam of M’sieur Borrelly’s teeth over his shoulder, and into the arena I sallied with my nerves all pointing outward, and ten thousand people, I was sure, looking at nobody but me. Ridiculous to be so conscious of myself! Even more absurd than the garb I wore. There were the poor monkeys, already cramped down to their wild, whirling career, their arms frantically clasping the dogs’ necks. As the streaks of dog and simian went past, I had the blurred sense of them as a deep-sea diver might perceive fishes swimming by.
And now, instead of (he fearful feeling that the gaze of the ten thousand was riveted on me, I had the contrary sensation. I began to be afraid they would not see me at all. The fun, to be noticed, must be laid on as thick as the cold cream and the grease-paint. For it must compete with magnificent distances across and above the arena — three dimensions filled with poles and wires, bipeds and quadrupeds in various pose or motion. On a stage so vast, one step, of necessity, is stretched for comedy effects into a dozen — every gesture has to be exorbitant and violent. There is no chance for humorous finesse, or filigree subtlety. Each smile must be a running broad grin; one must lift the gloom with both hands and feet, and always be spectacularly obvious.
Before I had a chance to think how I should be supremely silly, M ‘sieur Borrelly tossed me a battered but shiny French horn with no mouthpiece, to play in the clown band. It made little difference in which end I blew. The French horn at best is a fickle creature. But before I had time to pucker my mouth for a second sour note, it was time for another inanity.
This was a hair-cutting episode, beside which that of the Barber of Seville was ultra-refinement. We grabbed one of the clowns by the scruff of the neck and the ankles, threw him into a cabinet with his head sticking out, and brought up a washtub of lather and a razor as big as a scythe. Then, like devils leaping about a lost soul, we plied a broom with the choking, blinding suds, till the head was covered with them. A running-jump, and the man with the razor was brandishing it across the throat of the victim. To our simulated horror the head of papier-mache came off and rolled in the dust, and the grand finale was that we bore the victim to the tub and soused him in it, while, though he had lost his head, he kicked and howled in protest.
Before I could get my breath, up dashed a fake horse of khaki with two men inside. It was a runaway — and from M’sieur Borrelly came one clear call for me to stop it.
Out into the track where the monkeys raced I started. Presently the monkeys quit in a dead heat and Roman charioteers were lunging and careening in their places. Whenever a chariot rocked by, the clods of tanbark were flung into my smarting eyes, and the charioteers shouted an imprecation that was anything but Roman.
The trousered khaki horse wove in and out expertly among the real ones, and I sprinted after — aspiration and perspiration fifty-fifty. It was my chance, my solo opportunity at last. Perhaps someone would see me — and perhaps someone would laugh. For now I realized how hard the men about me — and two men ahead of me — must work to amuse the crowd. And if they were not amusing, then they failed and would get their walkingpapers.
I must catch that absurd runaway. Out of the side of my eyes as I staggered after it I was dimly aware of the juggling Japanese who fanned themselves as they stood on one another’s heads in flowered kimonos. With part of my ears I heard the venders in the stands howling pop corn and lemonade, and never was I thirstier. Full-tilt I rounded the corner of the hippodrome past a clown dressed as a girl. It was his business to ogle the arriving male spectators, single or married, pretending to be in dire need of an escort. In an interval of leisure it had been fun to watch him at his blandishments, and to see the indignation of the women from whom he strove to detach a husband or a sweetheart.
But now I could not pause to admire his technique, for I had my own occupation, which was to overhaul the runaway.
Two heads are not better than one when enveloped in a stifling bag of khaki, and two fastened in a frame of barrel hoops cannot run as fast as one. I was gaining rapidly, though I had long ago reached a melting temperature under my own billowing yards of raiment.
I must be blind and deaf to the lady hanging by her teeth. I passed another twirling her parasol along the slack wire, and sped by the seals balancing balls on their noses. I even ignored the debonair silk-hatted ringmaster with his tail coat and gardenia.
As we made the circuit for the second time, something inside me was asking anxiously, ‘Are they laughing now?’ I knew the same heart was pounding at the ribs of the clowns inside the horse that I was chasing, the professionals whose bread and butter depended on their being funny.
So, near enough at last, I flung myself full length upon the tanbark, reached out and gripped those nearest bootheels as if they were my sole hope of salvation and held on.
The fraudulent horse instantaneously came to a full stop. Nay, more — he was coming apart, and there were frantic, agonized cries from the interior: ‘Say—quit! Leave go! Them barrel hoops is scrapin’ our faces. Have a heart! Go easy!’
For the khaki horse, with a visible cleavage amid-ribs, was entangling its own motive power helplessly.
But what was that delicious music that I heard from the stand beside us? At last there was laughter — no uncertain sound, but the outright mirth, exuberant, unrestrained, of those who are genuinely diverted.
In this exultant moment I felt at last that I had qualified, and now belonged to the ancient and honorable fraternity of fun-makers whose password is spontaneous laughter. I stood there limp and melting, ankle-deep in tanbark, but professionally proud. Like the baby elephant and the monkey-jockeys, I had done the best I could.
It’s hard after a night under the Big Top tent to settle down in the shade of the roll-top desk once more, there to mould public opinion with the paste pot and the shears. But there is no known serum for the circus in the blood: nor is there any instantaneous process, I have found, for getting white grease-paint out of one’s hair.