XXI. Joel's Circus
 

"Joel," cried little David, his cheeks aflame, "Mrs. Beebe has brought your animals. Come out to th' wagon." With that David's heels twinkled down the narrow path to the gate.

Joel dropped the wooden box that was to be the tiger's den, if Deacon Brown's cat should come back, and ran on the wings of the wind to the big green wagon standing out in the road. His black eyes roved anxiously over all the various things with which good Mrs. Beebe had loaded the vehicle, as she had many errands on her mind, and his heart beat fast at the sight of two or three boxes that stuck up above the rest, and an old canvas bag on top of them.

"Here, Joel," said Mrs. Beebe, her face beaming with satisfaction. "You climb up behind and fetch down that bag."

Joel's black eyes stuck out with delight, and he hopped over the back wheel in a twinkling and laid his hand on the old canvas bag.

"Not that one," said Mrs. Beebe. "Mercy me, them's Pa's oats he told me to bring home--the other bag, Joel."

"I don't see any other," said Joel, staring around at the various things, while his hand fell off from the canvas bag. He had been almost sure he heard something stir within it.

"Dear me, child," exclaimed Mrs. Beebe, grasping the old leather reins in one hand, while she leaned back over the seat, "there they be," pointing to a paper bag laid nicely in between the two boxes, so it couldn't fall out.

"Oh!" exclaimed Joel, swallowing hard. Then he wasn't to get one of those big wooden boxes, after all.

"Yes, an' I guess you'll like 'em." Mrs. Beebe nodded and winked at him, and smiled all over her round face. "Now you take 'em and git out, that's a good boy, an' be quick, 'cause I've got some more arrants to do, an' I'm a-goin' to try to come to your show, Joel, seein' you've invited me so pretty." And with another bob of her big bonnet she twitched the reins smartly, and the old horse fell into a jog-trot, while Joel did as he was bidden, and with his paper bag in his hand, sat down on the grass, trying very hard not to cry.

"She said animals," muttered Joel, swallowing something that seemed to stick in his throat.

"Look in and see," whispered little David, with a very distressed face, and sitting down on the grass to put one arm around Joel.

Joel clutched his bag and stared gloomily. It didn't matter what it held; Mrs. Beebe had said "animals," and to find that she hadn't spoken the truth, made him feel so dreadfully that he longed to scream out after her, and tell her he didn't like her any more. He wouldn't ever like anybody who told a lie; and Mamsie wouldn't ever let him go to see her, and Polly's brown eyes would fill with scorn. Oh, he could feel just exactly how Polly would look, and he shivered.

"Don't cry, Joe," said little Davie, feeling the thrill, and hugging him tightly; "and do see what's in it."

Joel gave one plunge at the bag, untwisted it, and thrust in his hand. Suddenly he started back, nearly upsetting David. "Oh!"

"What is it?" cried Davie, fearfully; "a snake, Joel?"

"No--that is, I guess so," answered Joel, dragging out a whole handful of sugar cooky animals, and spinning them on the grass in various directions. "I guess there's a snake there. She said animals, and they are animals, Dave," and a smile broke all over his chubby face.

David took one look at the sugar cooky animals flying over his head. "Oh, Joe, and they've got currant eyes!" he screamed, and clapped his hands. "See, there's a el'phant! Oh, and a goose, and a monkey!" with a dive at the last.

"That isn't a monkey!" retorted Joel, with a pause in the work of emptying the bag to investigate the animal in David's hand, "that's a wild-cat."

"Oh, Joel, is it?" cried Davie.

"Um!" Suddenly Joel took it out of David's little palm, and popped one end of it into his mouth. "Oh, goody!" was all he said. "Have some, Dave?" and he shook the bag with the rest of its contents at him. But David was sprawling over the grass, picking up the scattered ones. Suddenly he stopped, with one halfway to his mouth. "Don't you s'pose Mrs. Beebe wants you to keep 'em for the circus, and give the folks some of them?"

Joel squirmed uncomfortably, taking large bites of the biggest animals he could pick out, but said nothing.

David laid his pig down on the grass, and looked at it wistfully.

"They're mine," said Joel, crossly, and speaking as distinctly as he could for his mouthful, and bolting a rabbit and a hippopotamus together; "an' I'm goin' to eat 'em now."

David still gazed at his pig, but didn't offer to touch it. Suddenly Joel threw down the bag. "I'm sorry I et 'em," he said ruefully.

"You've got ever so many left," said Davie, cheerfully.

"An' we'll pick up those on the grass," said Joel, suiting the action to the word, "an' save the rest for th' folks." And he soon had the remainder safe in the bag, when both the boys rushed into the house to display Mrs. Beebe's gift.

After this, it was all commotion; so much so that Mrs. Pepper said she didn't know as she should ever let another circus come into the orchard. But her black eyes twinkled, and she patted Joel's head when she said it, and the anxious look ran away from Joel's face; and then the dinner of potatoes and brown bread was soon finished, and Polly somehow or other got the dishes all washed up, and the kitchen as clean as a new pin, ever so much quicker than on other days, and pretty soon Joel and all his animals and the musician were out in the orchard in a perfectly dreadful state of hurry and confusion.

But at last the show was in full progress; on the seats of honor were Mother Pepper and Mrs. Beebe, who got in at the last minute, just before they were to begin. And Grandma Bascom, who was delighted to be able to hear for once, as she now could, all the roars of the various animals, while Sally Brown and the Henderson boys made up the rest of the audience. And everybody clapped their hands, and said, "Oh, isn't that good!" and, "I think that is fine!" And Grandma said, "La me!" and lifted her black mitts, which she had put on to do honor to the occasion, "and who would have thought it!" And Sally Brown and the Henderson boys stared with envy, and wished they were some of the animals and having such a good time. And Peletiah solemnly determined within himself to get up a circus the very next week. And the excited animals thrilled with delight when it came the monkey's time to perform and jump through the big paper rings.

Joel bobbed out from behind the bushes, and told the audience what was coming; then he bobbed in again, and Polly and Ben got him into the monkey skin,--an old brown flannel petticoat that Grandma Bascom had given the children to play with, "'Cause it's so et up with moths, 'tain't fit to set a needle into to fix up," as she said. And Ben made a long, flapping tail out of an old, frayed rope, and Polly had sewed a little tuft of hair, that came out of Mamsie's cushion, on top of the monkey's head, pulling it all around the face for some whiskers; so, when Joel was really inside of it, he was perfectly awful. Particularly as he showed all his teeth, and rolled and blinked his black eyes every minute, so that Phronsie, who sat on the grass at Mamsie's feet, when she wasn't an animal and needed to perform, shivered, and clung close to Mrs. Pepper.

"Take me, Mamsie," she begged.

"'Tisn't a real, true, live monkey," cried Polly, rushing out from behind the bushes as she heard her, "it's only Joel, Phronsie."

"It's me," cried Joel, who had been making faces at Peletiah, but stopping the minute he heard Phronsie. "It's me, Phronsie."

"I want a monkey," said Phronsie, bringing her face out from under her mother's arm, "but not Joey. Please don't let Joey be a monkey," and she patted Mrs. Pepper's cheek.

"Hush, dear," said Mother Pepper, "you'll spoil Joel's circus if you talk. See, Phronsie, the monkey's going to jump through the rings."

So Phronsie sat up very straight in Mrs. Pepper's lap, and the wonderful act began, Polly being the musician, and singing her merriest, while she drummed with her fingers on the board that Ben had fixed across the stone table, running up and down with so many little quirks and quavers it was really very remarkable to hear.

Ben held up a big ring, saving the one with the red border for the last.

"Hold it higher," said Joel, in between his roars and grimaces.

"No, sir," said Ben, firmly, "you aren't going to jump any higher. Go on."

"Tisn't half as high as I jumped the other day," grumbled Joel.

"Go on," commanded Ben, "or I won't hold it at all," and Polly bobbed her head at him as she drummed away. "Hurry up," she seemed to say. So Joel sprang off from the lower branch of the apple tree and went zip-tear-bang, at the paper ring. But instead of going through, he knocked it out of Ben's hand, and went with it, rolling over and over on the ground. When he got up to his feet, the big paper ring was all in tags, and the hair on the monkey's head was all over his eyes, and covering his red face.

"Never mind, Joe," said Polly, running away from her piano, to pull him out straight and fix him nice again, "you'll do it fine next time, I guess."

"Ben jiggled it," announced Joel, stoutly, and with a rueful face as he saw the broken ring.

"No, I didn't," declared Ben; "I kept it as steady as could be. But you sprawled your legs and knocked it out of my hand. Take a good flying leap, Joe, and keep your eye on the red border."

"Yes; I'm so glad there's a red border on it," said Polly, hopping back to make her fingers run merrily up and down her piano once more.

So Joel took a flying leap, keeping his black eyes fixed on the red border, and came through the ring so splendidly that everybody hopped up to their feet, and shouted and clapped their hands, Grandma exclaiming, "La--for the land's sake!" while Phronsie slid out of Mrs. Pepper's lap and gave a squeal of delight.

"Hoh! that's nothing!" declared Joel, and before Ben could say anything he ran and jumped up on the lower limb of the apple tree, and winding his sturdy legs around the trunk, and then springing from one branch to another, there he was, before any one knew it, on the topmost bough!

"O mercy me--he'll be killed!" screamed Grandma, who saw it first. Mother Pepper turned swiftly. "Joel!" she was going to exclaim. But in a minute she knew it would be the worst thing in the world to do. So she tried to smile and to say, "Come down, Joey, and be careful."

But Joel was swinging and slashing the long rope tail, and having a delightful time up there in the branches, and roaring and screaming so, that Mother Pepper's quiet tones couldn't possibly be heard.

Polly's face turned very white. "Oh, Ben, he'll be killed!" she exclaimed. "He won't look at us, and we can't make him hear," for by that time everybody was shouting at him to come down, and Phronsie was crying as if her heart would break.

"I'm goin' to hang by my tail," screamed Joel at them, and before any of them could realize what he was doing, he had swung the long rope over a branch and twisted it up in a knot, then he swung himself out, and let his feet free from the bough.

Mrs. Pepper seized Ben's arm and said hoarsely, "Go up after him." Ben was halfway up the trunk as fast as he could go, which wasn't very good speed, as he was always slower at such things than the other little Peppers. When Joel, head downward, saw him coming up, he screamed, "Ha! I'm a monkey, and you can't catch me," and he swung farther out than ever. The knot he had thought so safe untwisted, and down, down, he went, the long rope curling through the air to wind around his legs.

It was all done in one dreadful moment, and when they ran to pick him up, everything seemed to turn black around Polly's eyes. She never knew how it happened, but there was Mother Pepper sitting on the grass with Joel's head in her lap, and Mrs. Beebe hurrying into the kitchen for water and cloths to wash the blood away, and Grandma waddling down the lane to get things from the cottage. And Ben sliding down the tree, the rest of the little Peppers crouching up in misery around Mamsie and her boy.

Polly's white lips only formed the words, "Dr. Fisher--I'll go--you stay here and help Mamsie," and she was off in a flash. For Polly could run the swiftest of any of them, her feet hardly touching the ground.

Somebody called her name as she spun along the dusty ground, but she didn't stop--only sped on. But by laying the whip smartly over the back of his horse, the man in the wagon came up by her side and yelled at her, and then she saw that it was Mr. Tisbett.

"Oh, I can't stop, sir!" she wailed, clasping her hands, "for Joel's dead, I guess."

"Now you just git in here," commanded Mr. Tisbett, getting down to the ground; and without waiting for Polly to obey, he picked her up and set her on the seat. "I take it you're goin' after th' doctor. Now he ain't to home, for this is his day for Hillsbury, ye know. But I tell you," he added briskly, as he saw Polly's face, "I'm a master hand at doctorin', an' I'm goin' to take a look at Joel." All this time he was getting over the wheel and into his seat, and turning down the road toward the little brown house.

"What's th' matter with Joel?" he asked at length, after slapping Black Bill smartly, who now ran at his liveliest pace.

"He fell from the apple tree," said Polly, in a low voice. "Oh, Mr. Tisbett, could you go a little bit faster, please?" she implored.

"Yes, yes," said Mr. Tisbett, obligingly, and applying the whip again to the horse's flanks. "Now it's lucky enough my stage-coach got a mite broke this morning, an' I had to wait over a trip, and so I've met you. We'll soon be there, Polly, don't you worry a mossel. I fell out o' apple trees time after time when I was a boy, and it hain't hurt me none. Git ap, Bill! An' at any rate, I'll fix Joel up. I used to be a doctor 'fore I was a stage-driver. Ye hain't never known that, hev ye, Polly?" and he smiled down on her.

"No," said Polly, with a thrill of hope at her heart. "Oh, if Black Bill only would go a little faster!"

"Fact," said Mr. Tisbett, rolling the tobacco quid into his other cheek. "I was what ye might call a nat'ral doctor, bone-setter, and all that; never took a diplomy--but land sakes alive, I donno's it's necessary, when ye got to make a bone into shape, to set an' pint to a piece o' paper to tell where ye was eddicated. Git up an' set th' bone, I say, an' if ye can do it all right, I guess it's a good enough job to the feller what owns the bone. Git ap, Bill!" and they drew up in front of the little brown house.

Mr. Tisbett never waited to ask questions, although Mrs. Pepper looked at him inquiringly, but just took hold of the job he had come to do, and Polly explained to Mamsie. And presently everybody was obeying the stage-driver just as soon as he spoke a word. And his big hands were just as gentle and light, and his fingers, that always seemed so clumsy holding the old leather reins, were a great deal softer in their touch than Mother Pepper's own, as they wandered all over Joel's body.

"That boy's all right, and bound to scare ye a great many times, Marm," at last he said. "Don't you worry a mite, Mrs. Pepper, he'll come out o' it, when he gits ready."

But Mother Pepper shook her head as she hung over her boy.

"Mammy," said Polly, crawling up to her like a hurt little thing, "I do believe Mr. Tisbett knows," she whispered. "I do, Mammy."

But Mrs. Pepper only shook her head worse than ever.

"What shall we do, Ben?" cried Polly, rushing up to him; "just look at her, Ben. Oh, what can we do for Mamsie! She's never been like that."

"Nothing," said Ben, gloomily; "we can't any of us do anything till Joel comes to himself. There won't anything else help her."

But Mrs. Pepper suddenly raised her head and looked at them keenly. "Come here, Polly," and at the same instant it seemed, so quickly she obeyed, Polly was at her side.

"Mother feels that her boy will be all right," said Mrs. Pepper. And she even smiled.