Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter IV. His Story
"I ran away from a circus," began Ben, but got no further, for Bab and Betty gave a simultaneous bounce of delight, and both cried out at once,--
"We've been to one! It was splendid!"
"You wouldn't think so if you knew as much about it as I do," answered Ben, with a sudden frown and wriggle, as if he still felt the smart of the blows he had received. "We don't call it splendid; do we, Sancho?" he added, making a queer noise, which caused the poodle to growl and bang the floor irefully with his tail, as he lay close to his master's feet, getting acquainted with the new shoes they wore.
"How came you there?" asked Mrs. Moss, rather disturbed at the news.
"Why, my father was the 'Wild Hunter of the Plains.' Didn't you ever see or hear of him?" said Ben, as if surprised at her ignorance.
"Bless your heart, child, I haven't been to a circus this ten years, and I'm sure I don't remember what or who I saw then," answered Mrs. Moss, amused, yet touched by the son's evident admiration for his father.
"Didn't you see him?" demanded Ben, turning to the little girls.
"We saw Indians and tumbling men, and the Bounding Brothers of Borneo, and a clown and monkeys, and a little mite of a pony with blue eyes. Was he any of them?" answered Betty, innocently.
"Pooh! he didn't belong to that lot. He always rode two, four, six, eight horses to oncet, and I used to ride with him till I got too big. My father was A No. 1, and didn't do any thing but break horses and ride 'em," said Ben, with as much pride as if his parent had been a President.
"Is he dead?" asked Mrs. Moss.
"I don't know. Wish I did," -- and poor Ben gave a gulp as if something rose in his throat and choked him.
"Tell us all about it, dear, and may be we can find out where he is," said Mrs. Moss, leaning forward to pat the shiny dark head that was suddenly bent over the dog.
"Yes, ma'am. I will, thank y'," and with an effort the boy steadied his voice and plunged into the middle of his story.
"Father was always good to me, and I liked bein' with him after granny died. I lived with her till I was seven; then father took me, and I was trained for rider. You jest oughter have seen me when I was a little feller all in white tights, and a gold belt, and pink riggin', standing' on father's shoulder, or hangin' on to old General's tail, and him gallopin' full pelt; or father ridin' three horses with me on his head wavin' flags, and every one clapping like fun."
"Oh, weren't you scared to pieces?" asked Betty, quaking at the mere thought.
"Not a bit. I liked it."
"So should I!" cried Bab enthusiastically.
"Then I drove the four ponies in the little chariot, when we paraded," continued Ben, "and I sat on the great ball up top of the grand car drawed by Hannibal and Nero. But I didn't like that, 'cause it was awful high and shaky, and the sun was hot, and the trees slapped my face, and my legs ached holdin' on."
"What's hanny bells and neroes?" demanded Betty.
"Big elephants. Father never let 'em put me up there, and they didn't darst till he was gone; then I had to, else they'd 'a' thrashed me."
"Didn't any one take your part?" asked Mrs. Moss.
"Yes, 'm, 'most all the ladies did; they were very good to me, 'specially 'Melia. She vowed she wouldn't go on in the Tunnymunt act if they didn't stop knockin' me round when I wouldn't help old Buck with the bears. So they had to stop it, 'cause she led first rate, and none of the other ladies rode half as well as 'Melia."
"Bears! oh, do tell about them!" exclaimed Bab, in great excitement, for at the only circus she had seen the animals were her delight.
"Buck had five of 'em, cross old fellers, and he showed 'em off. I played with 'em once, jest for fun, and he thought it would make a hit to have me show off instead of him. But they had a way of clawin' and huggin' that wasn't nice, and you couldn't never tell whether they were good-natured or ready to bite your head off. Buck was all over scars where they'd scratched and bit him, and I wasn't going to do it; and I didn't have to, owin' to Miss St. John's standin' by me like a good one."
"Who was Miss St. John?" asked Mrs. Moss, rather confused by the sudden introduction of new names and people.
"Why she was 'Melia, -- Mrs. Smithers, the ringmaster's wife. His name wasn't Montgomery any more'n hers was St. John. They all change 'em to something fine on the bills, you know. Father used to be Senor Jose Montebello; and I was Master Adolphus Bloomsbury, after I stopped bein' a flyin' Coopid and a infant Progidy."
Mrs. Moss leaned back in her chair to laugh at that, greatly to the surprise of the little girls, who were much impressed with the elegance of these high-sounding names.
"Go on with your story, Ben, and tell why you ran away and what became of your Pa," she said, composing herself to listen, really interested in the child.
"Well, you see, father had a quarrel with old Smithers, and went off sudden last fall, just before tenting season' was over. He told me he was goin' to a great ridin' school in New York and when he was fixed he'd send for me. I was to stay in the museum and help Pedro with the trick business. He was a nice man and I liked him, and 'Melia was goin' to see to me, and I didn't mind for awhile. But father didn't send for me, and I began to have horrid times. If it hadn't been for 'Melia and Sancho I would have cut away long before I did."
"What did you have to do?"
"Lots of things, for times was dull and I was smart. Smithers said so, any way, and I had to tumble up lively when he gave the word. I didn't mind doin' tricks or showin' off Sancho, for father trained him, and he always did well with me. But they wanted me to drink gin to keep me small, and I wouldn't, 'cause father didn't like that kind of thing. I used to ride tip-top, and that just suited me till I got a fall and hurt my back; but I had to go on all the same, though I ached dreadful, and used to tumble off, I was so dizzy and weak."
"What a brute that man must have been! Why didn't 'Melia put a stop to it?" asked Mrs. Moss, indignantly.
"She died, ma'am, and then there was no one left but Sanch; so I run away."
Then Ben fell to patting his dog again, to hide the tears he could not keep from coming at the thought of the kind friend he had lost.
"What did you mean to do?"
"Find father; but I couldn't, for he wasn't at the ridin' school, and they told me he had gone out West to buy mustangs for a man who wanted a lot. So then I was in a fix, for I couldn't go to father, didn't know jest where he was, and I wouldn't sneak back to Smithers to be abused. Tried to make 'em take me at the ridin' school, but they didn't want a boy, and I travelled along and tried to get work. But I'd have starved if it hadn't been for Sanch. I left him tied up when I ran off, for fear they'd say I stole him. He's a very valuable dog, ma'am, the best trick dog I ever see, and they'd want him back more than they would me. He belongs to father, and I hated to leave him; but I did. I hooked it one dark night, and never thought I'd see him ag'in. Next mornin' I was eatin' breakfast in a barn miles away, and dreadful lonesome, when he came tearin' in, all mud and wet, with a great piece of rope draggin'. He'd gnawed it and come after me, and wouldn't go back or be lost; and I'll never leave him again, will I, dear old feller?"
Sancho had listened to this portion of the tale with intense interest, and when Ben spoke to him he stood straight up, put both paws on the boy's shoulders, licked his face with a world of dumb affection in his yellow eyes, and gave a little whine which said as plainly as words, --
"Cheer up, little master; fathers may vanish and friends die, but I never will desert you."
Ben hugged him close and smiled over his curly, white head at the little girls, who clapped their hands at the pleasing tableau, and then went to pat and fondle the good creature, assuring him that they entirely forgave the theft of the cake and the new dinner-pail. Inspired by these endearments and certain private signals given by Ben, Sancho suddenly burst away to perform all his best antics with unusual grace and dexterity.
Bab and Betty danced about the room with rapture, while Mrs. Moss declared she was almost afraid to have such a wonderfully intelligent animal in the house. Praises of his dog pleased Ben more than praises of himself, and when the confusion had subsided he entertained his audience with a lively account of Sancho's cleverness, fidelity, and the various adventures in which he had nobly borne his part.
While he talked, Mrs. Moss was making up her mind about him, and when he came to an end of his dog's perfections, she said, gravely, --
"If I can find something for you to do, would you like to stay here awhile?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am, I'd be glad to!" answered Ben, eagerly; for the place seemed home-like already, and the good woman almost as motherly as the departed Mrs. Smithers.
"Well, I'll step over to the Squire's to-morrow to see what he says. Shouldn't wonder if he'd take you for a chore-boy, if you are as smart as you say. He always has one in the summer, and I haven't seen any round yet. Can you drive cows?"
"Hope so;" and Ben gave a shrug, as if it was a very unnecessary question to put to a person who had driven four calico ponies in a gilded chariot.
"It mayn't be as lively as riding elephants and playing with bears, but it is respectable; and I guess you'll be happier switching Brindle and Buttercup than being switched yourself," said Mrs. Moss, shaking her head at him with a smile.
"I guess I will, ma'am," answered Ben, with sudden meekness, remembering the trials from which he had escaped.
Very soon after this, he was sent off For a good night's sleep in the back bedroom, with Sancho to watch over him. But both found it difficult to slumber till the racket overhead subsided; for Bab insisted on playing she was a bear and devouring poor Betty, in spite of her wails, till their mother came up and put an end to it by threatening to send Ben and his dog away in the morning, if the girls "didn't behave and be as still as mice."
This they solemnly promised; and they were soon dreaming of gilded cars and mouldy coaches, runaway boys and dinner-pails, dancing dogs and twirling teacups.