Silent Sam and Other Stories of Our Day/The Clowns
"THE difference between the two Henry Brothers," a dramatic critic had written of them, jocularly, "is the difference between the realist who observes the modesty of nature, and the romantic artist who adds one to truth and begins where the realist leaves off."
They were "The Henry Brothers" on the programs; but they were "Hen Sutley" and "Harry Burls" in private life; and they were the "star" clowns of the 'New York Amphitheater. Their dressing-room was a fireproof cement-and-metal cell, as small as a bathroom and as full as a wardrobe—with parts of costumes hanging from hooks, dangling from clothes' lines, curled on steam pipes, heaped on stools, spread on trunk-tops, packed on shelves and even tied to door knobs—with battered hats and tangled wigs, pink fleshings and striped tights, underclothes and foot wear, bandana handkerchiefs and paper collars—with disorder crowded on discomfort in the temperature of a Turkish bath and the odors of a soiled-clothes' basket.
The lean Sutley sat in his undershirt, on his make-up stool, sewing a rent in his tights. His face was the poisonous white of a death's head. His eyelids were blackened. His mouth, black too, was painted in the melancholy wide grin of a skull. His long arms were as thin as cross-bones. Barelegged, as solemn as Death mending his shroud, he sewed and said nothing, while the fat Burls perspired and complained.
And the sum of Burls' complaint was that spring was here; that summer was coming; that Sutley and he might be out with a circus, dressing in a shady tent, with grass under their feet, eating like farm-hands, and sleeping the sleep of tired tramps while the railroad train rocked them across cool country—instead of stewing all day in this condemned "sweatshop," eating like condemned cockatoos in little footy cages, and trying to pound their ears at night in condemned two-by-fours, while all the kids and all the cats and all the married couples of the quarter "scrapped an' yowled" together "on th' other side o' the plaster."
"And besides," he said, in a semi-humorous exaggeration of disgust, "these N' York crowds 're froze all the time. I don't want to dally with 'em. They 're a bunch o' yaps that on'y sit an' grin at the chorus girls. You have to near break yer neck to shake a laugh out of 'em. I 'm sick of it—grindin' through the same ol' gags twice a day. Why don't they turn us loose the way they do in a circus, an' let 's raise a laugh any way we can?"
He shut his lips long enough to mark them out, with vermilion, in a fixed grin that curled up into his cheeks. He reddened his nose end. He drew barbaric rings around his eyes. And then he continued, in a voice of self-conscious indignation:
"We got an act here—with Milly an' ol' Pop—that 'd bring twice the price with a circus. An' we could make a contrac' fer our own little hanky-panky entries all to the good. We 're wastin' time an' we 're wastin' money. Milly's act 's a lalabazaza. She 's the best thing on the bare-back since Lally Dulian. An' they 're tryin' to keep her down so they won't have to pay the price. If she was to sign with a circus, they 'd paint her name on the paper in letters a foot high, an' we 'd make as much money as them dip-o'-death gazaybos—an' make it with our hoofs in the sawdust all the time."
Sutley said, sepulchrally: "Ol' Pop Yost would n't give us none o' his graft."
"He 'd have to. If they contracted fer the act, we 'd all get our share in it. We 'd all get paid."
"She don't get none of it, now."
"Well, he 's her boss, but he ain't ours, is he? Anyway, she 's tryin' to get away from him. She 's pullin' on the rope. An' he 's nervous. There 's too much Willy-at-the-stage-door bus'ness goin' on here. I know how he feels about it. He 's game to leave it an' go 'n under canvas any day. She could n't get out of his eyesight if they were travelin' with a show, but she 'll get away from him here, if he don't look quick."
Sutley made no reply; and his face, in its make-up of oxide of zinc and grease-paints, was as expressionless as wax works. But when Burls dropped his voice to a chuckling note of confidentiality, and said, "I been tellin' ol' Pop I 'd heard there was a yap out in front that 's been tryin' to get a mash note in to Milly," Sutley looked up at him with a startled round eye.
Burls grinned. "I got him goin' all right."
"Say," Sutley protested, "what 's the use o' stirrin' up dirt? We 're all right the way we are. I ain't stuck on the circus. It's a lot cozier here when it rains."
"Well, I ain't got three fingers o' suet on my ribs, like you, an' I 'd just as leave keep dry."
Burls put aside the objection with a disingenuous laugh. "How about settin' out on the back stoop o' the sleeper, wavin' yer legs in a forty-mile breeze?"
"How about the night the menagerie jumped the track an' we bumped into the ditch on top of 'em?"
"Aw, add it up! Add it up! You leave this to me, Hen. What we want 's a contrac' fer two-hundred per apiece."
The call boy shrieked up the iron staircase: "Henreys!"
Burls answered, "Yaw right!"
They attacked the final details of their costumes in the silence of preoccupied haste, as busy with their thoughts as they were with their buttons; for—from the futile discussion that the call-boy had ended—an impending crisis had made itself apparent, plain to both, outwardly ignored by both, but secretly, to both, exciting and decisive.
They found "Milly" (who was "Mlle. Blanc") and her father (who was her ringmaster) in the wings, at the head of a runway that led up to the stage from the basement stables. She nodded to Burls, and said "'Ello 'En!" to Sutley; and her father, arranging the fastenings in the back of the "Mother Hubbard" that she wore, looked over her shoulder to growl a curt greeting to the clowns. A stableman led up her white horse, "Prince." Her father gave her a lift to its broad Norman back, well rubbed with powdered resin. Burls led the old man aside.
She watched them go. "What 's 'e got on with Pop?" she asked Sutley.
He stroked the horse's neck. "D' you want to go back to the circus?"
"Me? Nyo! We on'y just got the flat lookin' like 'ome. W'y?"
"That 's why." He indicated Burls and the father with a nod. "Keep yer eyes open. Don't say I tol' you."
She gave him a long stare of comprehension, "W'at d' you think I ham!"
He did not say, although he studied her as gravely as if he were preparing some reply. Her mother had been a frail Cockney blonde, and she herself was of that type of prettiness; but she had her father's darker eyes, and she had the robust good health of her circus training. She was just full-grown, and she was as frank and simple-minded as most modern circus-women are; but the stage had added a touch of coquetry, and she smiled down at Sutley challengingly.
His eyes, in his set face, looked up at her as if through the eyeholes of a mask. "He wants to go back to the road. He won't go unless he goes with your act."
She said: "Then 'e 'll be a long time goin'." She put on a big sun-bonnet and tied its strings under her chin. "All right, 'En. I 'll 'elp."
She settled herself for her public appearance, as her father, with a ringmaster's long whip in his hand, took Prince by the bridle and led him out to the cocoa matting of the Amphitheater ring. Burls ran after, pretended to trip on the wooden ring-bank, fell on his face, and came before the footlights pressing the flat of his hand to his nose-end and grimacing for a laugh—which he did not "draw."
The gaunt Sutley followed. When he came to the spot where Burls had fallen, he stepped over it with a carefulness that was only slightly exaggerated; and a little titter of amusement went like a ripple over the house.
Burls muttered: "Yaps! Yaps!"
Prince began to amble around the ring and the country-girl in her Mother Hubbard clung to the two-handed girth of webbing that gave her a hold on the horse's back. Sutley sat down on the bank facing the footlights and began to dabble his feet—huge, false feet, bare and ugly—in the imaginary water of a pool. Burls was making an appeal, in dumb show, to Milly and her father, to be allowed to ride behind her on Prince, running after her as she swung around the circle, and tripping and falling continually. When "Pop" Yost stopped the horse, Burls tried to climb up one of its hind legs, sliding down it as if it were the greasy pole"; and Yost laid aside his whip to lend a hand. Immediately, Sutley reached the whip, bent a pin to the end of the lash, impaled upon the hook—in pantomime—an imaginary earthworm as long as a shoelace, and began to fish. He was so innocently absorbed in watching for a bite that Yost's indignation fell on him unawares. He accepted the traditional ill-treatment from the ringmaster in a shrinking helplessness that was pathetically funny, and when Yost had gone back to the pair on the horse he bent another pin, went through all his pockets for a length of twine, baited with another make-believe worm, and settled himself meekly to his fishing again.
To the audience, they were merely four mountebanks, of no recognizable human personality, performing like trained animals together. It was not apparent, across the footlights, that the girl received Burls on the horse with an inimical indifference; and the crack of the ringmaster's whip expressed to the house nothing of the parental ill-temper of which it spoke to Milly and her partners. Sutley seemed wholly interested in his absurd angling, covering his head with a red handkerchief to shade himself from a pretended sunlight, and wistfully wistfully pulling on his line to see whether he had a fish. The others seemed to be as diligently playing the fool, intent only on amusing the audience.
And the truth was that the whole four—being circus-trained and indifferent to "Rubes"—scarcely gave the audience a thought. Milly went through the motions of her act mechanically, watching Sutley and thinking of what he had said. In her pretense of awkwardness on horseback, she clung to Burls; but she might have been clinging to a dummy, for all the thought she gave him—until he asked flirtatiously: "What 's the grouch Pop 's got on?" Then she returned from absent-mindedness, focusing her eyes on him to answer; "You ought to know. You were speakin' to 'im last."
He, in his part, swayed and sprawled and almost fell from the horse—replying at the same time: "I was n't askin' him any fam'ly secrets."
They bumped along together in silence, slipping and clutching at each other in a burlesque of fear.
She said out of her thoughts: "'E 's gettin' so cross there 's no suitin' 'im."
He suggested: "You might 's well be married as livin' with him, eh?"
She had a feminine impatience for this sort of professional humor. She did not reply.
"Say, Milly," he joked, "now that you 're thinkin' about gettin' married—how about Hen there?"
It was said partly in jealousy because he had noticed her friendliness for Sutley.
She stared at him with an expression that did not take the joke. He tried to smile her down. "What the matter, eh? He ain't as ugly as he's painted." His make-up spread his smile across his face in a mocking and enormous leer. "Could n't you learn to love him?"
"Aw, come off," she said hotly, and, lurching against him, she upset his balance.
He fell from the horse's flank to the cocoa mat.
This fall was a bit that was in the act, but she had given it out of its time; there was no crash of drums to mark it, and the music, instead of quickening for the change in the act, dragged along in the unfinished movement of the amble. Nevertheless, Milly jumped to her feet on the horse's back, untied her sun-bonnet and flung it at Burls—who was limping after her, at a loss how to take up his part again, and bruised and angry. Then, with a jerk at the fastenings that her father had arranged in her Mother Hubbard, she flung off that flimsy wrapper and emerged, the lithe and graceful "Mademoiselle Blanc," in the white silk costume of an acrobat, pirouetting on one foot, poising like a ballet dancer, rising and falling swimmingly to the applause of the house.
But the music and the horse were still moving too slowly. Her father cracked his whip at Prince and cursed under his breath. The conductor of the orchestra, seeing the difficulty, tried to catch up to the act, and threw his musicians into confusion. The "equestrian director" came up frowning to the ring-bank and censured Burls for falling from the horse. There were some awkward moments before the performance began to go smoothly again, and in the mean-time the defiant Milly lost her flush of impetuous ill-temper and began to consider the explanation she would have to make after her somersaults were finished and she faced her father in the wings.
Her success as a bareback rider was all that remained between him and the poverty of a circus acrobat's old age. He had taught and trained her. He watched over her talent, now, with the fierce jealousy of an old miser. He dictated what she was to eat. He saw to it that she kept light and supple. He went about with her like a Spanish duenna, afraid of the inevitable love affair that would mean the beginning of her end; for the laws of nature do not allow a matron to do horseback tumbling, and even maturity itself is an enemy to the agility of the equestrienne.
She knew how he would storm at her for having marred her act, and the knowledge made her anxious at a time when she should have had every faculty undistracted, every nerve tense. She made her first somersault successfully, with an accuracy almost automatic, quite unthinkingly. But as she gathered herself for her second leap she wakened suddenly to an unreadiness of mind that became a consciousness of impending failure as her body launched into its spring. Her brain seemed to hang back, fumbling with the messages it should have sent to the responding muscles; and in mid-air she found herself frantically "cast," dead of momentum and paralyzed with fear. For an instant the air seemed to support her, inert, as if she were floating, aware of the horse below her, the flies above her, the footlights, and the crowded house. Then she felt herself falling, and with a panic-stricken convulsion of every despairing muscle she threw herself clear of the horse and came down on her feet in the ring.
A pain wrenched in her back. Her father caught her as she staggered. She saw that he was white with a spasm of fear that had brought the perspiration to his forehead. "Oh, you need n't be afraid," she said bitterly. "I ain't 'spoiled.'"
His face darkened with a different emotion. "You better look sharp, me girl," he threatened. "You 'll be fined for this, mind you."
"That 's all you 'd care about, if I broke me back."
"'Ere!" he signed to Burls to lead up the horse. "Get up there" he said to her, "an' do yer turn."
"I won't!" she said.
"Get up there!"
"I won't. I'm 'urt. I won't." She turned to Sutley. "'En!" she called in a fierce undertone.
Sutley had been trying to cover the break in the act by making a frantic dumb show of a man whose hook has been taken by a maskinonge; but at her cry his line broke and he ran to her to explain in pantomime that a fish two feet long (he measured it off in the air with trembling hands) had almost dragged him into the water. At the same time he asked, like a ventriloquist, without moving his lips: "What 's the matter?"
"I nearly came a nasty buster. I 've strained me back."
Sutley turned to her father, repeating his pantomime, but increasing the length of the fish to three feet, and explaining at the same time: "You 'd better help her off. She 's lamed." Crossing to Burls, he said: "Take away the horse. Milly 's hurt." And the fish, this time, was four feet long. When he came to the "equestrian director," it was apparently to lament the loss of a young whale. And he continued running from one to the other—as they made their exit to the wings—trying in vain to stop them with his lost-fish story.
As soon as they were behind the shelter of the scenery, Yost rounded on the girl, and she turned for aid to Sutley. But it was Burls who saved her, for the moment, by stepping between her and her father and drawing the old man aside; and the authoritative ease with which he did it showed that there was some understanding between them to give the clown the influence he evidently had. Sutley said to her quickly: "He 'll use this. See?"
She saw—with a glittering dry eye of anger.
He whispered: "'To-morrah 's Sunday. Where can I find you—in the mornin'? Will you meet me at the corner o' Broadway? I want to see you."
"If I can get out. 'E 'll try to make me stay in, if me back ain't better." She looked at him, silent. "I 'll come," she said.
He went with her to the foot of the iron stairway that led to her dressing-room; and he stood to watch her mount to the first turn of the steps. She climbed slowly, an almost boyish figure, as pretty as a court page in satin doublet and hose, but lifting herself from step to step with a discouraged weariness that reflected itself in a caricature of pity on Sutley's grotesque face. She smiled wanly down at him as she disappeared, and he remained there staring up at nothing until he was pushed aside by a troop of chorus girls.
He returned to his dressing-room to change his costume for another "entry." He was busy with his wardrobe when Burls came in, triumphant to announce: "It 's the goods, Hen. Sashay the girl home t'-night. I got business with th' ol' geezer. She 's put the hog ring in her fair young snoot all right, all right."
They were Hen Sutley and Harry Burls to their friends, but they had been, in the days of their youth, Henrik Sutley and Henry Berlitz—the first the son of a bird-fancier and taxidermist on the Bowery, and the other, as he said, "the heir of a kosher barber" on Canal Street. They had been doing "comic entries" together for thirteen years—beginning with a night at the old Columbia Music Hall when Sutley had given some shrill "vocal imitations" of birds and beasts while Burls had "executed" buck and wing dances and nasalized comic songs; and they were bound now in their partnership by all the years of hardship they had endured, by the prosperity they had achieved, by the apprenticeship and the success in life that they had shared together.
But they had come to the Amphitheater from the circus-ring where Sutley had been little better than a "feeder" to the popular Burls; and now he was in a fair way to make Burls merely a feeder to the popular Sutley; for Burls was a "knockabout" clown, and his slap-stick art was in tone with a three-ring circus, but too loud for the theater; whereas Sutley merely translated the actions of life into terms of his own personality, expressing himself in a pantomime that was naturally comic just as the movements of beauty are naturally graceful, and he had "made a hit" in the Amphitheater after failing to make one in the circus tent. It was chiefly for this reason that Burls wished to return to the "big top"; and it was for this reason, too, that Sutley wished to remain on the stage.
"He don't know that I know why he's doin' it," Sutley explained to the girl. "An' I don't like to let on. He 's pretendin' it 's because he 'd sooner be out on the road—where we 'd make more money, he says, if we 'd sign a contrac' all together—you an' Pop, an' me an' him. I would n't like 'm to know I was playin' against him. But I don't want to go back to the circus, if I can help it."
Milly and he had stopped, on their way from the Amphitheater, to rest on a bench in Bryant Park, where the trees, in their new green, spread their leaves against the electric light with an artificial vividness and transparency of color that had the tone of a stage setting. She was sitting up, stiff-backed and defiant. He was nursing a sharp knee in his clasped hands, gazing out under his hat-brim gloomily.
"'E don't consider your feelin's, 'En," she told him.
"Well," he said, "you know I never cut much ice in the bus'ness till we come here. He ain't been used to considerin' me. I don't blame him, neither. I guess I ain't such a much."
"You 're as much as 'e is," she cried. "An' 'e need n't poke fun at you, anyway. I gave 'm a good bump for that."
"Fer what? How?"
"Did n't you know I shoved 'im off the 'orse?"
"No! What 'd you do that fer?"
"Fer w'at 'e said. 'E 's too fresh by 'alf."
"He don't mean anythin' by it. He 's always been like that. He 's all right."
"Well, 'e don't stick up fer you the way you stick up fer 'im, 'En."
"I guess he thinks I don't need it any more then." He shook his head. "We been stickin' together a long while. We been through a lot o' trouble." He sat, thinking it over. "We were near lynched together, once, in Macon. They took us fer a pair o' huckmen that 'd been skinnin' the crowd with a shell game, out on 'the lot.' An' when we went into town to get some crackers an' cheese they folly'd us. They 'd 'a' lynched us if it had n't been fer some o' the zinc I had in m' ears. They would n't believe us when we said we were the clowns—until I showed 'm the make-up I had n't washed out o' m' ears."
He smiled slowly as he added: "At first, when Harry seen 'em pointin' us out an' follyin' us up on the street, he thought we 'd made a hit. He thought they were pointin' us out because we were the clowns."
"Served 'im right," she said. "'E thinks 'e 's the whole show now."
He did not reply to her. He went on with his thoughts: "Once, when we got stranded in Kansas, we was beatin' our way back to Chicago, an' we begged a couple o' handouts from a back door an' went an' sat 'n under a water-tank waitin' fer a freight to come along— We drank the water that dripped out o' the tank, too—an' there was a lot o' names cut in the beams that the tank was on, an' while Harry was cuttin' his name in with the rest, a big farmer's dog sneaked up an' eat his grub—an' then he was mad because I 'd eat mine while he was carvin' his name."
She made a contemptuous sound in her throat.
"I had m' arm broke comin' home—sleepin' in among the lumber on a flat car, an' the load shifted onto me in the night—an' Harry tore the back out of his shirt to make a sling fer me."
He drew up his sleeve to bare his forearm, and sat studying it for so long a time that she leaned forward, beside him, to look. There was nothing that she could see. When he had pulled down his cuff again he concluded: "He 's all right, I guess. That 's just his way. He thinks he ought to be clownin' all the time."
"Don't you believe it, 'En," she broke out. "'E 's just usin' you the way Pop does me. An' I ain't but a trained monkey to Pop. 'E don't treat me 'uman. I can't even talk to no one. It 's a dawg's life; that 's w'at it is."
He shook his head. "He 's scared you 'll get away from him."
"'Ow get away from 'im?"
"Well, if you was to get married—see? I guess he 's scared you 'll meet some one that way. That 's the way it was with Lally Dulian an' her maw."
"I got a right to get married, ain't I?"
"You sure have, Milly," he said gently.
There was something in his voice that caught her ear. She looked up at him with a sidelong glance. His thin features, yellowed by the paints, wore the blank look that his profession had made second nature to him; but his eyes, thoughtful and melancholy, fixed on vacancy, gave his face an expression of mute wistfulness that was almost ludicrous. "I say!" she laughed. "It ain't as bad as that, is it?"
He turned to find her apparently mocking him with her amusement. He replied with an attempted smile that was little better than a writhing of the lips; "I guess I 'm a good deal of a joke, ain't I? … Oh, I know," he went on. "It 's paint yer face an' play the fool, fer mine. I ain't kickin'. They 're right, all right."
He made as if to rise. She stopped him with a hand on his arm. "W'at 're you talkin' about any'ow?"
"I 'm talkin' about you," he said bitterly, "an' me. If I 'a' been anjthin' but a joke d' you think Pop 'd 'a' let me come with you? Say, gi' me the laugh. Go on, I kind o' miss it."
She straightened her hat. She tucked her handkerchief into her cuff. She stood up. Then she said, looking down at him: "That 's w'y I bumped 'im off the 'orse—fer talkin' that way about you an' me.… Come on. I 'm goin' 'ome."
"Mil!" He caught her hand to hold her. "Is that—is that right?"
Her fingers—the strong fingers of the circus woman—closed on his in a friendly pressure that crushed his bones. "Come on, 'En," she said. "Pop 'll be after us if we don't 'urry."
He replied, in the fervent voice of a lover: "T' 'ell with Pop"—and drew her down beside him. In a moment the situation was clear in his mind.
"G——, Mil," he said, in a broken rush of emotion, "if you 'll stan' by me— I did n't care where I went to before, ner what I did. I 'd 'a' gone back with Harry an' give up. But if you 'll stan' by me—I 'm on the right track. I know I am. There 's never been a clown—a good one—that 's done the knockabout. It 's been imitatin' life with them—the same as with me. I c'n make good. I c'n make good without him—Harry. You need n't be ascared o' that."
"I 'm not ascared," she said. She asked, in another tone: "Do you like me, 'En—much?"
He drew a long breath, as if to get a grip on his voice. "Mil," he said, "I ain't— The first time I seen you—"
"All right, En," she laughed. "I 'll take yer word fer it."
"Aw, don't make fun o' me, Mil," he pleaded.
For answer she leaned forward and put his arm behind her and snuggled up to him. "Who 's makin' fun o' you, you big goose?" she whispered. Her face was upturned, invitingly. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before he kissed her—a fumbling clumsy kiss that made her laugh again with a half-amused and wholly contented chuckle. "All right, 'En," she said. "I 'm 'appy. Now w'at 're you goin' to do with Pop?"
The following day, as Sutley had remarked, was Sunday; and in the morning Milly tried to escape from her father's surveillance by insisting that she must go to church. "W'at for?"
"Because I want to. It ain't agayn the law to go to church, I 'ope."
He grumbled that she was always taking up with some crazy notion or other, but he could not in reason keep her home, and he contented himself with accompanying her as far as the church door.
She wore her new spring hat, with a white veil, and she was as excited as a bridesmaid. He did not notice it. They passed Sutley at a street corner, and Yost nodded curtly, unaware of the significant look with which Milly signaled her lover as she went by. The clown followed her at a safe distance. He saw her father leave her at the church steps, and he waited until the old man had turned the street corner. Then he hurried furtively to join her where she was awaiting him in the vestibule.
"Did you get it?" she whispered.
"Sure!" He produced, from an upper pocket of his white waistcoat a precious square of paper that shook in his hands as he unfolded it. "The parson says he 'll see us after the show in here 's over." He indicated the muffled singing of the congregation with a jerk of the head toward the closed inner doors of the church. "We 're to go aroun' to the side somewheres."
"'Ow much does 'e want?"
"Whatever I want to give, he says." He explained it to her perplexedly: "They don't have a reg'lar price."
She choked down an excited gurgle of laughter, blushing up at him. "'Ow much d' you think it 's worth?"
"God! Milly," he faltered. "It 's worth all I 'll ever make."
"Well," she said, with a flippancy that was half hysterical, "that 's w'at it 's goin' to cost you before you 're done with me." One of the ushers of the church approached them. "Come on," she whispered, taking Sutley's arm. "We might 's well see th' 'ole performance."
They went in to their wedding like a country couple entering a side show.
Meanwhile her father, after stopping by the way in a saloon, returned to the flat in which he and Milly had spent the winter, and sat down beside a front-room window, in his shirt-sleeves, to smoke. It was the typical room of a circus man's leisure, decorated with old photographs of acrobatic troupes and high-wire "artists" and famous equestriennes who smiled out of yellowing prints as if they had thought their long-forgotten charms would bloom there immortally. A riding whip, which his wife had used, was crossed with a horseshoe under a staring crayon portrait of her wearing her "waterfall" in a chenille net. A tarnished gilt frame held the indenture of his apprenticeship, made when he was six years old, to a "teacher of dancing, gymnastics, and theatrical horsemanship." The man used to lash him with a "lunge" whip, holding him with a line about the waist; and Yost remembered that training when he was considering how best to discipline his daughter.
His past was thick about him—and he smoked, indifferent to it all, callous with age, and sleepy. His gray eyebrows were tilted up from the bridge of his nose in a harmless scowl; his gray mustache, professionally waxed, bristled above a mouth that drooped weakly at one corner where the pipe weighed it down.
He was not troubled about Milly. He was accustomed to think of her—as the old person so often thinks of the young one—not as a human being with attributes and character, but rather as a new example of the known faults and flightiness's of youth. He considered that she needed a proper display of harshness on occasion, patience and a firm hand. He felt that she would understand, and appreciate his stern care of her, as she grew older.
And he was not troubled about Burls. He had decided to "turn down" that too friendly adviser. He considered himself "too old a bird to be caught by chaff." If there was more money to be made out of Milly's act with a circus, he and Milly were going to make it themselves. He was able to attend to that. Burls could make his own contracts, and he and Milly would make theirs.
He blinked drowsily, satisfied with himself, with his circumstances, with life in general. The sun was bright; the children were playing in the street; a German servant was singing and clattering dishes in the kitchen. He would have a good dinner when Milly came back, and then he would settle down for a quiet Sunday afternoon, undisturbed. So—
He put his pipe on the window-sill and lay back in his chair to have a snooze.
He was wakened by the sound of voices. The servant had come to the front door in reply to the bell that had rung in the kitchen. He opened his eyes, blinking. Burls was entering with a genial smile, and Yost, because he had been disturbed, scowled at the intruder.
Burls accepted the scowl with a beaming good nature. "Takin' it easy, eh? That 's right. I been seein' them down at the Garden about that contrac'." He had begun to sit down, and though Yost put in curtly: "I don't want a contract; I 'm goin' to stay w'ere I am," Burls lowered himself into the armchair and nodded as if this reply did not in any way change the situation.
"Don't want it, eh? Got somethin' better?"
"We stay w'ere we are."
"Uh-huh? Well, I don't know but what you're wise. I was on'y int'rested in goin' on account o' Mil. This chorus girl life ain't exactly the right soil to bring up a girl like her, d' yuh think? That 's the way I feel about it anyway. I 'm kind o' soft about her." He looked up at the wall, smiling. "She 's a mighty fine girl, Milly is. I don't like to think o' her gettin' mixed up with any o' them Willies that hang aroun' the stage-door."
"I can see to that."
"Mebbe you 're right. But I been thinkin' now— She 'll be gettin' married, some day, won't she? She was talkin' about it las' night. An' I been thinkin', what 's the matter with givin' one of us a chanct—some one that 's in the bus'ness with you? You can't keep her like she was in a nunn'ry. She 'll get away from you, sure. That 's human nature. What 's the matter with givin' me a show?" He was talking now with the most evident earnestness. "I 'm soft on the girl. I like her—an' I don't know that she don't like me. If you 'll gi' me a leg up, I can make it."
Yost threw out his hands with a gesture of uncontrollable impatience. "Leave us alone! Leave us alone! Mind yer own bus'ness, will you? I can make me own contracts. I can look after me own daughter." He checked himself on the sound of her voice in the hallway. "Don't you be puttin' notions into 'er 'ead now," he said hoarsely, "or by—"
"That 's all right," Burls smiled. "Think it over."
The door opened before her—and Sutley. "'Ello!" she said gaily. "'Ere 's 'En come to have dinner with us."
Sutley came in, very red and guilty. And Burls, looking over his shoulder in surprise, caught his partner's expression and turned in his chair, drawn around by the expectation of he did not know what.
Milly added, as she took off her hat: "'E 'as something to tell you."
Yost said: "Somethin' to w'at?"
Sutley shifted his feet heavily, and then looked down at them as if he had expected to find them the false ones that he wore on the stage. "You see," he began inconsequentially, "Milly an' me did n't want to go back to the circus. She don't like it there any more 'n I do—an' I never cut much ice 'n under canvas. I c'n make more money where I am. They 'll give us a contrac'—Burls an' me—fer a hunderd an' fifty apiece fer three years to stay on where we are."
"W'at the bl——'s that got to do with me?" Yost demanded.
"Well, you see, Milly an' me, we did n't want to go back, an' Milly said she 'd stan' by me. An'—"
"You 're at it, too, are you?" He swallowed wrathily. "You can get out o' 'ere an' mind yer own affairs. I 'll look to me own business without any 'elp neither from you ner Burls."
"'Ol' on now, Pop," Milly interfered. She nudged Sutley. "Go on an' tell 'im."
She closed the door behind her to shut off the servant.
Sutley gulped. "We—we got married this mornin'."
He did not look up to see Yost's expression, but the silence in the little room was itself an accusing gape of amazement. He continued apologetically: "You see, she did n't want to go back to the circus, an' I did n't. She wanted to stay in the flat instead o' knockin' aroun' on the road—so we thought we 'd jus' stan' by each other that way—an' see if we could n't fix it up afterwards." His voice faded away in an unintelligible mumble.
The old man had half risen from his chair, as open-mouthed as Pantomime, his eyes fixed in a staring speechlessness on his daughter. She was unconscious of the fact that she was busily shaking out her veil and folding it in a trembling excitement.
She shook her head, without looking at him. "I 'ad a right to get married. I 'ave a right to live as well as other people."
And suddenly Burls, bringing his hand down with a smack on his knee, broke out in an echoing guffaw, and lay back in his chair shouting his laughter, open-mouthed, his eyes shut.
Yost sprang to his feet, "You let 'im take you in with a lie like that? 'Im! 'Im an' this other one!" He pointed at Burls, his hand shaking. He shook his fist at Sutley, sputtering Cockney oaths. "The two o' them! That 's w'at they 've been up to!"
Burls bellowed "Ho-ho-ho!" convulsed and helpless, unable to defend himself though Yost, in a dancing rage, kicked at his legs and shouted: "Look at 'im! Look at 'im! Because you 've made a fool of yerself—married!"
The girl screamed through the uproar: "Wat 's the matter with 'im? Wat 's the matter with you?"
Her father turned on her. "You d—— little ——! You 'd make a fool o' me, would you?" He raised his fist at her. She darted behind Sutley.
And Sutley—who had been standing quiet in the midst of the confusion, listening, solemnly intent—faced the father with an expression of disturbed pity. Yost was opening and shutting his mouth on an anger that was choked in breathlessness—caught suddenly with pain in the heart—threatening the clown with his raised fist that remained checked in mid-air.
"That 's all right, now," Sutley said. "I don't want none o' what she earns. You needn't get— Mil!"
The old man had collapsed, and Sutley, with that cry to the girl, caught him as he tottered. "Get 's a drink quick."
Burls was still sobbing with the exhaustion of laughter, even when he dragged himself to his feet to assist them. They laid Yost back in the chair from which Burls had risen, and Milly struck the sniggering clown an angry cuff on the head to silence him. He threw up his elbow to shield himself, hysterically weak. She thrust him away from them. He stumbled and fell into another chair, where he buried his face in his hands, limp.
"Get 'm a drink," Sutley pleaded, trying to fan the old man with his open hands, and apologizing frantically: "That 's all right, now. It need n't make no difference to you an' Milly. I c'n earn enough fer her an' me, an' you c'n have what she makes. You need n't mind me aroun'. It 's natural fer her to want to get married, an' it 's better fer her to marry some one in the bus'ness."
Yost roused himself to a sort of expiring gesture of contempt and fell back gasping.
"It need n't make no diff'rence to you," Sutley kept on. "Burls had n't nothin' to do with it. We did it so we would n't have to go back to the circus. That need n't make no diff'rence to you. You need n't get mad about it."
His feeble gestures, his anxious tone, his expression of awkward solicitude—all were unconsciously clownish and laughable. And when Milly came back with a bottle and a glass, she put him aside, in a sort of distracted perception of his absurdity. She poured a drink for her father and held it to his lips. He looked up at Sutley in a weak disgust that would have expressed itself plaintively if it could have expressed itself at all.
As soon as he found his voice, he said: "Take 'im away. Take 'im away from me."
"Now, look 'ere, Pop," she replied. "You behave yerself. 'E never would 'a' married me at all if I 'ad n't asked 'im. You behave yerself. You 're a disgrace to the fam'ly." And it was evident from her manner that she and Sutley were "the fam'ly."
It was the servant who ended the scene—and recalled them all to the proprieties—by putting her head in the door to announce: "'S retty—dinner!"
It was through Burls, of course, that the story became public. He still tells it with roars of laughter; and he is most effective when he describes how Sutley announced to old Yost that Milly and he were married, and Yost attacked the clown with his ringmaster's whip. This is almost as good as his other story of how he and Sutley were nearly lynched in Macon, once, and he saved Sutley and himself by sending the mob into convulsions of laughter with his clowning. He is truly a romantic artist.
He does not tell that he was, in his own way, almost as "soft" on Milly as Sutley was. The only hint he ever gives of it is when he says, disgustedly: "I tell you what 's the whole trouble with women: they got no sense o' humor. They don't even know good clownin' when they see it. They 're too danged matter-of-fact."
And Sutley, funnier than ever and more successful than ever, continues to work at his clowning with all the seriousness of a Russian realist. "No good clown," he insists, "ever did the knockabout. It 's been imitatin' life with them, the same as me. Now, take that baby act I do, with the doll: I got that from my own kid, straight. The wife did n't like it, at first—makin' fun o' the youngster—but she 's all right now it's a hit. No, she don't work any more. She an' Pop look after the kid."