Chapter XIV. An Unexpected Hit
 

"Another turn-away," decided a ticket taker, casting his eyes over the crowds that had gathered for the afternoon performance.

"I guess Mr. Sparling knows his business pretty well," mused Phil. "He knows how to catch the crowd. I wonder how many of them have come here to see me. How they would look and stare if they knew I was the kid that twisted the tiger's tail."

Phil's color rose.

It was something for a boy who had been a circus performer for less than two days to have his name heralded ahead of the show as one of the leading attractions.

But Phil Forrest had a level head. He did not delude himself with any extravagant idea of his own importance. He knew that what he had done was purely the result of accident.

"I'll do something, someday, that will be worthwhile," he told himself.

Phil's act that afternoon was fully as successful as it had been on the previous day back in his home town. Besides, he now had more confidence in himself. He felt that in a very short time he might be able to keep his feet on the elephant's head without the support of Emperor's trunk. That would be an achievement.

On this particular afternoon he rode with as much confidence as if he had been doing it all the season.

"You'll make a performer," encouraged Kennedy. "You've got the poise and everything necessary to make you a good one."

"What kind, do you think?"

"Any old kind. Do you get dizzy when up in the air?"

"I don't remember that I have ever been up much further than Emperor hoists me," laughed Phil.

For the next two minutes the man and the boy were too busy with their act to continue their conversation. The audience was enthusiastic, and they shouted out Phil Forrest's name several times, which made him smile happily.

"What would you advise me to do, Mr. Kennedy?" he asked as the elephants started to leave the ring, amid the plaudits of the spectators.

"Ever try the rings?"

"Yes, but not so high up as those that Rod and his partners perform on."

"Height doesn't make much difference. Get them to let the rings down so you can reach them, then each day raise them a little higher, if you find you can work on them."

"Thank you. Perhaps I'll try it this afternoon. I am anxious to be a real performer. Anybody could do this. Though it's easy, I think I might work up this act of ours to make it rather funny."

It will be observed that Phil was rapidly falling into the vernacular of the showman.

"If you've got any ideas we'll thresh them out. Emperor will be willing. He'll say yes to anything you suggest. What is it?"

"Don't you think Mr. Sparling would object?"

"Not he. Wait till I get the bulls chained; then we'll talk."

After attending to his charges, Mr. Kennedy and Phil stepped behind the elephants and sat down on a pile of straw against the side walls of the menagerie tent.

Phil confided at length what he had in mind, Kennedy nodding from time to time as Phil made points that met with the trainer's approval.

"Boy, you've got a head on you a yard wide. You'll make your everlasting fortune. Why, I'd never even thought of that before."

"Don't you think I had better speak to Mr. Sparling?"

Kennedy reflected for a moment.

"Perhaps you had better do so. But you needn't tell him what it is. We'll give them a surprise. Let's go see the property man and the carpenter. We'll find out what they can do for us."

Slipping out under the canvas, the two hurried back to the property room, an enclosure where all the costumes were kept, together with the armor used in the grand entry, and the other trappings employed in the show, known as properties.

Mr. Kennedy explained to the property man what was wanted. The latter called in the carpenter. After consulting for a few minutes, they decided that they could give the elephant trainer and his assistant what they sought.

"When will you have it ready?"

"Maybe in time for tonight's performance, but I can't promise for sure."

"Thank you," exclaimed Phil, hurrying away to consult with Mr. Sparling.

"I have been thinking out a plan to work up my part of the elephant act," announced Phil, much to the owner's surprise.

"You have, eh?"

"Yes, sir."

"What is it?"

"I was in hopes you wouldn't ask me that. I wanted to surprise you."

Mr. Sparling shook his head doubtfully.

"I'm afraid you haven't had experience enough to warrant my trusting so important a matter to you," answered the showman, knowing how serious a bungled act might be, and how it would be likely to weaken the whole show.

Phil's face showed his disappointment.

"Mr. Kennedy says it will be a fine act. I have seen the property man and the carpenter, and they both think it's great. They are getting my properties ready now."

"So, so?" wondered the owner, raising his eyebrows ever so little. "You seem to be making progress, young man. Let's see, how long have you been in the show business?" he reflected.

"Twenty-four hours," answered Phil promptly.

Mr. Sparling grinned.

"M-m-m-m. You're certainly getting on fast. Who told you you might give orders to my property man and my carpenter, sir?" the proprietor demanded, somewhat sternly.

"I took that upon myself, sir. I'm sure it would improve the act, even though I have not had as much experience as I might have. Will you let me try it?" demanded the boy boldly.

"I'll think about it. Yes, I'll think about it. H-m-m-m! H-m-m-m!"

Thus encouraged, Phil left his employer, going in to watch some of the other acts.

About that time Mr. Sparling found it convenient to make a trip back to the property man's room, where he had quite a long talk with that functionary. The proprietor came away smiling and nodding.

About an hour later Phil sauntered out and passed in front of Mr. Sparling's tent, hoping the showman would see him and call him in.

Phil was not disappointed. Mr. Sparling did that very thing.

"How's that new act of yours coming along, young man?" he demanded.

"I have done no more than think it over since talking with you a little while ago. If the props are ready Mr. Kennedy and I will have a quiet rehearsal this afternoon. That is, if we can shoo everybody out of the tent and you are willing we should try it. How about it, sir?"

"I must say you are a most persistent young man."

"Yes, sir."

"And what if this act falls down flat? What then?"

"It mustn't."

"But if it does?"

"Then, sir, I'll give up the show business and go back to Edmeston, where I'll hire out to work on a farm. If I can't do a little thing like this I guess the farm will be the best place for me."

Phil was solemn and he meant every word he said. Mr. Sparling, however, unable to maintain his serious expression, laughed heartily.

"My boy, you are all right. Go ahead and work up your act. You have my full permission to do that in your own way, acting, of course, under the approval of Mr. Kennedy. He knows what would go with his bulls."

"Thank you, thank you very much," exclaimed Phil, impulsively. "I hope you will be pleasantly surprised."

"I expect to be."

Phil ran as fast as his legs would carry him to convey the good news to Mr. Kennedy. Active preparations followed, together with several hurried trips to the property room. The property man was getting along famously with his part of the plan, and both Phil and Mr. Kennedy approved of what had been done thus far.

According to programme, after the afternoon show had been finished and all the performers had gone to the cook tent the rehearsal took place in the menagerie tent. Faithful to his promise, Mr. Sparling kept away, but a pair of eyes representing him was peering through a pin-hole in the canvas stretched across the main opening where the ticket takers stood when at work.

"That's great, kid! Great, you bet!" shouted Mr. Kennedy after a successful trial of their new apparatus.

With light heart, an expansive grin overspreading his countenance, the lad ran to the cook tent for his supper. He came near missing it as it was, for the cook was about to close the tent. Mr. Sparling, who was standing near the exit, nodded to the chief steward to give Phil and Mr. Kennedy their suppers.

"Well, did the rehearsal fall down?" he asked, with a quizzical smile on his face.

"It fell down, but not in the way you think," laughed Phil happily.

No further questions were asked of him.

That night, when the grand entry opened the show to a packed house, a shout of laughter from the great assemblage greeted the entrance of old Emperor. Emperor was clad in a calico gown of ancient style, with a market basket tucked in the curl of his trunk. But the most humorous part of the long-suffering elephant's makeup was his head gear.

There, perched jauntily to one side was the most wonderful bonnet that any of the vast audience ever had gazed upon. It was tied with bright red ribbons under Emperor's chops with a collection of vari-colored, bobbing roses protruding from its top. Altogether it was a very wonderful piece of head gear.

The further the act proceeded the more the humor of Emperor's makeup appeared to impress the audience. They laughed and laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks, while the elephant himself, appearing to share in the humor of the hour, never before had indulged in so many funny antics.

Mr. Kennedy, familiar with side-splitting exhibitions, forgot himself so far as actually to laugh out loud.

But where was Phil Forrest? Thus far everybody had been too much interested in the old lady with the trunk and the market basket to give a thought to the missing boy, though some of the performers found themselves wondering if he had closed with the show already.

Those of the performers not otherwise engaged at the moment were assembled inside the big top at one side of the bandstand, fairly holding their sides with laughter over old Emperor's exhibition.

Standing back in the shadow of the seats, where the rays from the gasoline lamps did not reach, stood Mr. Sparling, a pleased smile on his face, his eyes twinkling with merriment. It was a good act that could draw from James Sparling these signs of approval.

The act was nearing its close.

The audience thought they had seen the best of it. But there was still a surprise to come--a surprise that they did not even dream of.

The time was at hand for the elephants to rear in a grand finale. An attendant quietly led Jupiter from the ring and to his quarters, Emperor making a circuit of the sawdust arena to cover the going of the other elephant and that there might be no cessation of action in the exhibition.

Emperor and his trainer finally halted, standing facing the reserved seats, as motionless as statues.

The audience sat silent and expectant. They felt that something still was before them, but what they had not the least idea, of course.

"Up, Emperor!" commanded Mr. Kennedy in a quiet voice. "All ready, Phil."

The elephant reared slowly on its hind legs, going higher and higher, as it did in its regular performance.

As he went up, the bonnet on Emperor's head was seen to take on sudden life. The old calico gown fell away from the huge beast at the same time, leaving him clothed in a brilliant blanket of white and gold.

But a long drawn "a-h-h-h," rippled over the packed seats as the old elephant's bonnet suddenly collapsed.

Out of the ruins rose a slender, supple figure, topping the pyramid of elephant flesh in a graceful poise. The figure, clad in red silk tights, appeared to be that of a beautiful girl.

The audience broke out into a thunder of approval, their feet drumming on the board seats sounding not unlike the rattle of musketry.

The girl's hand was passed around to the back of her waist, where it lingered for an instant, then both hands were thrown forward just as a diver does before taking the plunge.

"Ready?"

"Yes."

"Fly!"

The young girl floated out and off from the elephant's back, landing gently on her feet just outside the sawdust ring.

Emperor, at this juncture, threw himself forward on his forelegs, stretched out his trunk, encircling the performer's waist and lifting her clear off the ground.

At that moment the supposed young woman stripped her blonde wig from her head, revealing the fact that the supposed girl was no girl at all. It was a boy, and that boy was Phil Forrest.

Emperor, holding his young friend at full length ahead of him, started rapidly for his quarters, Phil lying half on his side, appearing to be floating on the air, save for the black trunk that held him securely in its grip.

At this the audience fairly howled in its surprise and delight, but Phil never varied his pose by a hair's breadth until Emperor finally set him down, flushed and triumphant, in the menagerie tent.

At that moment Phil became conscious of a figure running toward him.

He discovered at once that it was Mr. Sparling.

Grasping both the lad's hands, the showman wrung them until it seemed to Phil as if his arms would be wrenched from their sockets.

"Great, great, great!" cried the owner of the show.

"Did you like it?" questioned the blushing Phil.

"Like it? Like it? Boy, it's the greatest act I ever saw. It's a winner. Come back with me."

"What, into the ring?"

"Yes."

"But what shall I do?"

"You don't have to do anything. You've done it already. Show yourself, that's all. Hurry! Don't you hear them howling like a band of Comanche Indians?"

"Y-yes."

"They want you."

By this time Mr. Sparling was fairly dragging Phil along with him. As they entered the big top the cheering broke out afresh.

Phil was more disturbed than ever before in his life. It seemed as though his legs would collapse under him.

"Buck up! Buck up!" snapped the showman. "You are not going to get an attack of stage fright at this late hour, are you?"

That was exactly what was the matter with Phil Forrest. He was nearly scared out of his wits, but he did not realize the nature of his affliction.

"Bow and kiss your hand to them," admonished the showman.

Phil did so, but his face refused to smile. He couldn't have smiled at that moment to save his life.

All at once he wrenched himself loose from Mr. Sparling's grip, and ran full speed for the dressing tent. He had not gone more than a dozen feet before he tripped over a rope, landing on head and shoulders. But Phil was up like a rubber man and off again as if every animal in the menagerie was pursuing him.

The spectators catching the meaning of his flight, stood up in their seats and howled lustily.

Phil Forrest had made a hit that comes to few men in the sawdust arena.