Chapter XXIII. The Roman Chariot Races
 

It was late when the Circus Boy awoke next morning. A steward rapped at the door and a suit of officer's clothes, brass buttons and all was handed in to him.

"With the captain's compliments, sir," said the steward. "He hopes it will fit you. When you are ready, you will please come to the saloon for breakfast."

"Thank the captain for me, and say that I can't get there any too soon," laughed Phil, springing out of bed.

The passengers had all heard the remarkable tale from the captain that morning, and they were anxious to see the young Circus Boy who had performed such a plucky act.

Phil entered the dining room, not thinking for a minute that he would be recognized. When the passengers saw the handsome young fellow in an officer's uniform, they knew him. Everyone in the room sprang to his feet and three cheers rang out for Phil Forrest.

"Speech, speech!" cried someone.

Blushing faintly, Phil glanced about him.

"You cannot expect a boy to make much of a speech before breakfast, especially after he has been swimming most of the night. I don't know that I am entitled to any special credit. I saved only my own life, and I do not expect to get a medal for it, either. I hope all of you will visit the Great Sparling Shows at the first opportunity. Then I shall try to entertain you in a way that I understand far better than this. I'm very much obliged to you all."

Then Phil sat down. The passengers gave him another cheer, louder and more enthusiastic than the first. Mr. Sparling would have been proud of the lad could he have heard that speech. Phil lost no opportunity to advertise the Sparling shows, and every passenger on the boat, that morning, made up his mind to visit the show ere another week had passed.

All the rest of the morning Phil was a hero in the eyes of the passengers, who followed him wherever he went, asking questions about his experience in the river, and how he had happened to fall in, as well as numerous questions about the life of a circus man.

With regard to his accident, Phil had little to say. He seemed to wish to avoid discussing the falling-in matter, but his face took on a serious expression when it was referred to.

At last Memphis was sighted. Phil arranged with the captain to return the uniform, which he promised to send to St. Louis, so that his benefactor could get it on the return trip.

As the craft began drawing in toward the dock, the Circus Boy bade all the passengers good-bye, everyone of whom insisted on shaking hands with him.

Phil walked off, the passengers giving him three cheers as he stepped over the gangplank to the dock. Before he had reached the end of it, he was overtaken by a reporter who had just heard of Phil's feat and wished an interview.

At first Phil was reluctant to speak.

"I think it will be a good advertisement for the show," he said to himself. So the Circus Boy related, modestly, the story of his experience in the river and of his rescue of himself; not forgetting to say some pleasant things about the Sparling shows, which would visit Memphis two days hence. That afternoon he saw his story set forth in the Memphis newspaper. He bought two papers, one of which he tucked in his pocket, sending the other to Mrs. Cahill, his guardian. His next move was to start for the station, to take a train for Corinth. He was already too late to reach that town in time for the afternoon performance, but he had wired Mr. Sparling that he was safe.

As it happened the lad reached the show grounds before his message had been delivered. Mr. Sparling, well nigh beside himself with worry, had telegraphed to all points passed by their boats, begging that neither effort nor expense be spared to find his Circus Boy.

The showman was standing in front of his office tent, that afternoon, at about three o'clock, his broad-brimmed slouch hat pulled well down over his eyes, his hands thrust deep in his trousers pockets.

Off under the big top the band was playing a lively tune, and the side-show people were out in front sunning themselves, all discussing Phil Forrest's mysterious disappearance.

After a short time, Mr. Sparling espied a young man in uniform coming on the lot. He did not pay much attention to the stranger, thinking the fellow was a police officer or something of the sort.

As the young man drew nearer, however, the showman thought he noted something familiar in the springy step and the poise of the body.

"Now, who is that?" he muttered. "Somehow I seem to know that youngster."

Others about the main entrance were also looking in his direction about that time. Still no one seemed to recognize the young man.

All at once the showman tilted up the rim of his hat and gazed more keenly.

"Phil!" he shouted, casting the hat aside and running forward with outstretched arms. "It's Phil, it's Phil Forrest!"

A moment more and Mr. James Sparling had clasped his little Circus Boy about the waist, hugging him delightedly. There was a suspicious moisture in the eyes of the showman, which he sought to hide from Phil.

"Phil! Phil! Where have you been?" he cried leading the boy toward the office tent. "And that uniform--what does it mean?"

"I will tell you all about it as soon as I get my breath," laughed the lad.

By this time the others out in front had hurried forward, showering questions upon the boy, all of which he answered without giving very much information. He wished to talk with Mr. Sparling first of all.

"Where is Teddy?" was almost his first question.

"He is in the big top at work."

"I presume he was considerably excited when he missed me, was he not?"

"Yes, at first, but since then he has not said much. Teddy is a queer boy."

The word was quickly passed that Phil had returned safe and sound, and ten minutes after his arrival every man and woman in the show had heard the news. There was great rejoicing.

Teddy was going through his clown act when he first heard the rumor that Phil was back. Teddy waited until he had worked around to the entrance to the menagerie tent when he suddenly darted through, leaving his work and the ring, a most serious breach of discipline. Teddy, however, did not care. He was willing to be fined. He bolted through the main entrance like a miniature tornado, to the amazement of the door tenders.

"Where's Phil?" he shouted.

One of the doormen pointed to Mr. Sparling's office tent.

The little clown was off on a run.

"Hey, Phil, you old rascal! Where have you been?" he demanded, dashing into the small tent.

"I have been out for a swim, old fellow. Did you miss me?"

"I nearly broke my neck thinking about you this afternoon. Landed on my head in the leaping act, and I've got a pain in my neck yet."

"Young man, what are you doing here?" demanded the showman, sternly.

"Same thing you are. Seeing Phil."

"Get back to your act!"

"I'm off. I'll see you later, Phil, then we will talk it over."

"We will, Teddy," and Teddy was off at top speed to take up his performance where he had so abruptly left it a few minutes before. The ringmaster had not missed him, though he saw at once that the boy was not on his station, when Teddy began to work again.

"Now, Phil, we will hear all about it. How in the name of the Sparling shows did you get into that uniform?"

"The captain of the river boat that picked me up fitted me out."

"So you really fell in?"

"I got in, right."

"Tell me all about it."

The Circus Boy related his experiences from the time he found himself in the river, until his arrival in Memphis that morning.

"Marvelous--almost unbelievable," breathed Mr. Sparling as the tale was unfolded. "I never heard anything to compare with it."

When Phil told of his speech in the dining saloon of the river steamboat, Mr. Sparling leaned back with hands on his hips, laughing immoderately.

"Oh, Phil, you are the sort from which great showmen are made!"

Phil handed over the Memphis paper with the account of his experience, which the showman glanced over briefly.

"That will give us another turn-away in Memphis. You can't stop them, after that. They will come to the show even if they have to fight their way in. That was a great stroke of enterprise, but I would rather it had not happened, of course."

"What--the interview?"

"No, of course not. I mean your accident."

"It is all right, Mr. Sparling. I am here now, and none the worse for my bath, but for a time I surely thought I was a goner. I would not care to go through that experience again."

"I should say not. Yours was the most wonderful escape I ever heard of. I'll wager there was never anything like it before on this river."

Mr. Sparling paused suddenly and bent a keen, searching glance on Phil Forrest's face. The lad felt that he knew what was in the mind of his employer.

"Phil?"

"Yes, sir."

"You have not told me everything, yet."

"What makes you think that, Mr. Sparling?"

"Because I know you so well. There is something on your mind that you have not told me. I want to know what it is."

Phil's eyes were lowered to the green grass at his feet. For a moment he was silent and thoughtful.

"What is it you wish me to tell you, Mr. Sparling?" he asked in a low voice.

"You have not given me a satisfactory explanation of how you came to get into the river."

"Perhaps I fell in," answered the lad with a faint smile.

"Perhaps. But you have not said so. I want you to tell me how you did get in."

"I think I was thrown in, Mr. Sparling," answered the Circus Boy quickly.

"Thrown in!" exclaimed the showman, leaping to his feet, his face working convulsively in his effort to control his emotions. "Phil Forrest, do you mean that?"

"I do."

Mr. Sparling sat down helplessly.

"Is it possible?"

"I am sure of it, sir."

"Had anyone but you told me that I should have laughed. I know I can depend upon what you say. Tell me more about it?"

"As I have already said, I was leaning on the rail and dropped off into a doze. How long I had been in that position I do not know. I could not have been there many minutes, or I should have gone so soundly asleep that I would have fallen over to the deck, you know."

"Yes, yes."

"All at once I felt myself being lifted. At first, as I remember it, the sensation was as if the deck were dropping from under me. As I recalled the incident afterwards, I realized that I had been lifted. You know all that occurred after that."

"Was there more than one who threw you overboard?"

"I am unable to say. I did not even see one," said Phil with a half-smile. "I felt myself being lifted--that's all. The next minute I was in the river, with the 'Marie' pounding away downstream at a lively clip."

"Dastardly! Dastardly!" growled the showman. "I shall send for a detective to meet us in Memphis tomorrow. This thing has gone far enough."

"I think I agree with you, sir," was Phil's half-humorous answer. "But I had been in hopes of solving this mystery myself."

"Yes, and you came near losing your life as the result. No, sir! This thing must be cleared up at once. I shall wire to St. Louis now, and we will have a man with us sometime tomorrow. Say nothing to anyone of my plan. The detective will join the show in some capacity or other, and have regular duties to perform. You will know him, but no one else will except myself. I think the Roman races are about due under the big top now. Suppose you go in and change your clothes, joining me at my table after you come out. We will talk these matters over at length this evening. When the officer reaches here I shall expect you to tell him freely all that you know as well as what you suspect. Keep nothing from him. Run along, Phil. I want to think this matter over by myself for a few minutes."

As Phil entered the big top the Roman races were just coming on. The chariot drivers, with their prancing steeds, had entered the arena.

Phil paused to wait until the fast and furious races were over. The leading woman chariot driver was trying out a new three-horse team; that is, two of the horses were new to the work, the third, being an old hand. The new animals were spirited, and after the first round of the arena, Phil saw that they were nervous.

"I am afraid she is going to have trouble with that pair," muttered Phil with a shake of his head. "If she can keep them up to the mark, they will outrun anything in the show today."

The new team fairly tore around the arena. They won the first races easily, then lined up in the center to await the finals which were to follow a few minutes later.

The ringmaster's whistle trilled for the successful drivers to swing out into the concourse. They were driving furiously, almost before the echoes of the whistle had died away.

Making the turn at the lower end of the track in safety, the two teams in the race squared away down the home stretch. All at once Phil saw that something was wrong. The leading chariot was swaying dizzily, and the driver was trying with all her strength to pull the plunging animals down.

Suddenly the wheel on the inner side slipped from its axle and went rolling off into the center of the arena. The axle dropped to the turf, caught, then turned the chariot bottom side up.

The woman driver was hurled off into the center in the wake of the careening wheel, landing on her head and shoulders beside the center platform.

The team did not stop, however. It started directly across the arena, in a diagonal course.

"She is hurt!" cried Phil. "Somebody will be killed unless that wild team is stopped!"

Giving no thought to the danger to himself, Phil Forrest darted across the arena and leaped for the bridles of the plunging, frightened animals.