The Camel's Back by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This paradise of frail foundation was broken into by the sounds of a general ingress to the ballroom; the cotillion was beginning. Betty and the camel joined the crowd, her brown hand resting lightly on his shoulder, defiantly symbolizing her complete adoption of him.
When they entered the couples were already seating themselves at tables round the walls, and Mrs. Townsend, resplendent as a super bareback rider with rather too rotund calves, was standing in the centre with the ringmaster in charge of arrangements. At a signal to the band every one rose and began to dance.
"Isn't it just slick!" sighed Betty. "Do you think you can possibly dance?"
Perry nodded enthusiastically. He felt suddenly exuberant. After all, he was here incognito talking to his love--he could wink patronizingly at the world.
So Perry danced the cotillion. I say danced, but that is stretching the word far beyond the wildest dreams of the jazziest terpsichorean. He suffered his partner to put her hands on his helpless shoulders and pull him here and there over the floor while he hung his huge head docilely over her shoulder and made futile dummy motions with his feet. His hind legs danced in a manner all their own, chiefly by hopping first on one foot and then on the other. Never being sure whether dancing was going on or not, the hind legs played safe by going through a series of steps whenever the music started playing. So the spectacle was frequently presented of the front part of the camel standing at ease and the rear keeping up a constant energetic motion calculated to rouse a sympathetic perspiration in any soft-hearted observer.
He was frequently favored. He danced first with a tall lady covered with straw who announced jovially that she was a bale of hay and coyly begged him not to eat her.
"I'd like to; you're so sweet," said the camel gallantly.
Each time the ringmaster shouted his call of "Men up!" he lumbered ferociously for Betty with the cardboard wienerwurst or the photograph of the bearded lady or whatever the favor chanced to be. Sometimes he reached her first, but usually his rushes were unsuccessful and resulted in intense interior arguments.
"For Heaven's sake," Perry would snarl, fiercely between his clenched teeth, "get a little pep! I could have gotten her that time if you'd picked your feet up."
"Well, gimme a little warnin'!"
"I did, darn you."
"I can't see a dog-gone thing in here."
"All you have to do is follow me. It's just like dragging a load of sand round to walk with you."
"Maybe you wanta try back hare."
"You shut up! If these people found you in this room they'd give you the worst beating you ever had. They'd take your taxi license away from you!"
Perry surprised himself by the ease with which he made this monstrous threat, but it seemed to have a soporific influence on his companion, for he gave out an "aw gwan" and subsided into abashed silence.
The ringmaster mounted to the top of the piano and waved his hand for silence.
"Prizes!" he cried. "Gather round!"
Self-consciously the circle swayed forward. The rather pretty girl who had mustered the nerve to come as a bearded lady trembled with excitement, thinking to be rewarded for an evening's hideousness. The man who had spent the afternoon having tattoo marks painted on him skulked on the edge of the crowd, blushing furiously when any one told him he was sure to get it.
"Lady and gent performers of this circus," announced the ringmaster jovially, "I am sure we will all agree that a good time has been had by all. We will now bestow honor where honor is due by bestowing the prizes. Mrs. Townsend has asked me to bestow the prices. Now, fellow performers, the first prize is for that lady who has displayed this evening the most striking, becoming"--at this point the bearded lady sighed resignedly--"and original costume." Here the bale of hay pricked up her ears. "Now I am sure that the decision which has been agreed upon will be unanimous with all here present. The first prize goes to Miss Betty Medill, the charming Egyptian snake-charmer." There was a burst of applause, chiefly masculine, and Miss Betty Medill, blushing beautifully through her olive paint, was passed up to receive her award. With a tender glance the ringmaster handed down to her a huge bouquet of orchids.
"And now," he continued, looking round him, "the other prize is for that man who has the most amusing and original costume. This prize goes without dispute to a guest in our midst, a gentleman who is visiting here but whose stay we all hope will be long and merry--in short, to the noble camel who has entertained us all by his hungry look and his brilliant dancing throughout the evening."
He ceased and there was a violent clapping, and yeaing, for it was a popular choice. The prize, a large box of cigars, was put aside for the camel, as he was anatomically unable to accept it in person.
"And now," continued the ringmaster, "we will wind up the cotillion with the marriage of Mirth to Folly!
"Form for the grand wedding march, the beautiful snake-charmer and the noble camel in front!"
Betty skipped forward cheerily and wound an olive arm round the camel's neck. Behind them formed the procession of little boys, little girls, country jakes, fat ladies, thin men, sword-swallowers, wild men of Borneo, and armless wonders, many of them well in their cups, all of them excited and happy and dazzled by the flow of light and color round them, and by the familiar faces, strangely unfamiliar under bizarre wigs and barbaric paint. The voluptuous chords of the wedding march done in blasphemous syncopation issued in a delirious blend from the trombones and saxophones--and the march began.
"Aren't you glad, camel?" demanded Betty sweetly as they stepped off. "Aren't you glad we're going to be married and you're going to belong to the nice snake-charmer ever afterward?"
The camel's front legs pranced, expressing excessive joy.
"Minister! Minister! Where's the minister?" cried voices out of the revel. "Who's going to be the clergyman?"
The head of Jumbo, obese negro, waiter at the Tally-ho Club for many years, appeared rashly through a half-opened pantry door.
"Get old Jumbo. He's the fella!"
"Come on, Jumbo. How 'bout marrying us a couple?"
Jumbo was seized by four comedians, stripped of his apron, and escorted to a raised daïs at the head of the ball. There his collar was removed and replaced back side forward with ecclesiastical effect. The parade separated into two lines, leaving an aisle for the bride and groom.
"Lawdy, man," roared Jumbo, "Ah got ole Bible 'n' ev'ythin', sho nuff."
He produced a battered Bible from an interior pocket.
"Yea! Jumbo's got a Bible!"
"Razor, too, I'll bet!"
Together the snake-charmer and the camel ascended the cheering aisle and stopped in front of Jumbo.
"Where's yo license, camel?"
A man near by prodded Perry.
"Give him a piece of paper. Anything'll do."
Perry fumbled confusedly in his pocket, found a folded paper, and pushed it out through the camel's mouth. Holding it upside down Jumbo pretended to scan it earnestly.
"Dis yeah's a special camel's license," he said. "Get you ring ready, camel."
Inside the camel Perry turned round and addressed his worse half.
"Gimme a ring, for Heaven's sake!"
"I ain't got none," protested a weary voice.
"You have. I saw it."
"I ain't goin' to take it offen my hand."
"If you don't I'll kill you."
There was a gasp and Perry felt a huge affair of rhinestone and brass inserted into his hand.
Again he was nudged from the outside.
"I do!" cried Perry quickly.
He heard Betty's responses given in a debonair tone, and even in this burlesque the sound thrilled him.
Then he had pushed the rhinestone through a tear in the camel's coat and was slipping it on her finger, muttering ancient and historic words after Jumbo. He didn't want any one to know about this ever. His one idea was to slip away without having to disclose his identity, for Mr. Tate had so far kept his secret well. A dignified young man, Perry--and this might injure his infant law practice.
"Embrace the bride!"
"Unmask, camel, and kiss her!"
Instinctively his heart beat high as Betty turned to him laughingly and began to strike the card-board muzzle. He felt his self-control giving way, he longed to surround her with his arms and declare his identity and kiss those lips that smiled only a foot away--when suddenly the laughter and applause round them died off and a curious hush fell over the hall. Perry and Betty looked up in surprise. Jumbo had given vent to a huge "Hello!" in such a startled voice that all eyes were bent on him.
"Hello!" he said again. He had turned round the camel's marriage license, which he had been holding upside down, produced spectacles, and was studying it agonizingly.
"Why," he exclaimed, and in the pervading silence his words were heard plainly by every one in the room, "this yeah's a sho-nuff marriage permit."
"Say it again, Jumbo!"
"Sure you can read?"
Jumbo waved them to silence and Perry's blood burned to fire in his veins as he realized the break he had made.
"Yassuh!" repeated Jumbo. "This yeah's a sho-nuff license, and the pa'ties concerned one of 'em is dis yeah young lady, Miz Betty Medill, and th' other's Mistah Perry Pa'khurst."
There was a general gasp, and a low rumble broke out as all eyes fell on the camel. Betty shrank away from him quickly, her tawny eyes giving out sparks of fury.
"Is you Mistah Pa'khurst, you camel?"
Perry made no answer. The crowd pressed up closer and stared at him. He stood frozen rigid with embarrassment, his cardboard face still hungry and sardonic as he regarded the ominous Jumbo.
"Y'all bettah speak up!" said Jumbo slowly, "this yeah's a mighty serious mattah. Outside mah duties at this club ah happens to be a sho-nuff minister in the Firs' Cullud Baptis' Church. It done look to me as though y'all is gone an' got married."