SHORT STORIES

Leo, the Clown

WINIFRED MARY GRAHAM June 1 1910
SHORT STORIES

Leo, the Clown

WINIFRED MARY GRAHAM June 1 1910

Leo, the Clown

SHORT STORIES

WINIFRED MARY GRAHAM

THE large circus tent was crowded with people, for Denman's Circus was always popular at Sandgate-on-Sea, and its yearly visit was eagerly looked forward to, especially by the younger members of the population. It was a stormy night, and the wind howled against the canvas, and blew the flames of the oil lamps hither and thither, making them cast a shifting, uncertain light on the circus ring. But the audience paid little heed to such trifles, for they were eagerly awaiting the entrance of Leo, the new clown. There were rumors circulating that the new clown was far superior to old Tom, whose jokes had become threadbare through constant repetition, and whose clumsy antics had ceased to entertain. Pneumonia had carried off poor Tom the winter before, and the handbills announced that Leo—the Wonder of the Age—would be the chief performer that evening.

After a pause, during which all heads were craned towards the ring, the band struck up, and with a leap and a cry of “Here we are again,” Leo the clown bounded in, and the fun began. The audience roared with laughter at his jokes. He seemed able

to draw his face into impossible contortions, and everybody in the ring was kept alive. He bubbled over with fun and merriment, and when he sang some comic songs his fine tenor voice brought him rounds of applause. As the people streamed out of the tent when the performance was over there was general assent that Leo was the success of the evening, and that Denman’s had surpassed itself in that night's entertainment.

Meanwhile, in a small tent close by, Leo was divesting himself of his clown’s garb. As the lamp glimmered and flickered above him it disclosed a man of moderate height, with thick, curly brown hair, blue eyes, with a wistful, melancholy look, strangely at variance with the clown’s erstwhile merry mood, and a handsome face bearing marks of stress and trouble. This was no ordinary clown, but a gentleman. Every gesture and movement showed it. His long, slender hands and quick, graceful movements were not those of the ordinary run of circus men. The new clown of Denman’s Circus was evidently a cut above his fellows.

As he finished dressing, and was putting on his thin, shabby overcoat,

the flap of the tent was lifted and the proprietor of the circus entered unceremoniously.

“Well, Cunningham,” he said cheerfully, rubbing his hands together. “You did well to-night. I’ve never seen a 'bigger audience here, and you kept them alive to the end. Come and have some supper with me, I’m putting up at the Dragon Inn, and we’ll drink to your health and success.” “Sorry, but I must get home,” replied the clown, abruptly. “It’s nearly eleven o’clock now.”

“What a man you’are,” said Denman, half contemptuously. “You never seem to care for pleasure. You always rush off to your lodgings. Why don’t you join us sometimes, and have a little fun?”

“You forget the boy,” returned Cunningham, with a flicker of a smile crossing his melancholy face.

“The boy !” repeated Denman with a. laugh. “Why, you are always thinking of your boy. You should rouse yourself a little, man, and keep yourself alive. You’ll injure your own prospects, if you don’t take care. A gloomy clown is no use to anyone.” “You need have no fear of that,” said Cunningham, a little shortly. “I will look after myself.”

“Very well,” returned Denman, rather piqued. Then, as he remembered that it was necessary for him to be on good terms with his clown, who meant money and success, he added more cheerfully: “You must take a look round Sandgate in the morning. It’s not a bad place. I’m always glad to get back here. Perhaps you know it, though !”

The remark was a casual one, but a spasm of pain crossed Cunningham’s face. He bit his lip, then answered quietly: “Yes, I have been here before.”

“Oh, then you know all the points of interest.” Denman eyed his companion keenly. Cunningham was a continual struggle to him. Of his former history he knew absolutely nothing, and his curiosity was aroused because he realized that his clown

was a gentleman, and he wondered what had brought him to his present position. Six months before Cunningham had applied, in answer to Denman’s advertisement, - to fill Tom Warner’s place, and his evident ability, and the high references from the proprietor of the circus with whom he had been working, had gained him the post. But though he had proved himself eminently satisfactory, not one syllable in reference to his past life had ever escaped his lips. He kept himself aloof and steadily refused all advances from his companions.

Denman, finding that he elicited but little response, left the tent, and Cunningham, putting on his cap, and turning up his coat collar, plunged bravely into the darkness on the way to his lodgings. The rain lashed his face, and he was almost lifted off his feet at times by the fury of the wind, but he hardly felt the elements, for his mind was in a whirl as he strode along the deserted streets.

Did he know Sandgate? Denman’s unconscious remark had arosed old memories which he thought had been securely lulled to rest. His mind went back twenty years and more, when as a boy he had played on the downs there, and bathed from the rocks, and ridden his pony along the country roads. His father, Colonel Sherbrook Cunningham, owned a large estate on the outskirts of Sandgate, and Leonard, his only child, had been his idol. Left motherless when a baby, the boy had grown up petted and indulged, accustomed to have every wish gratified, and every desire fulfilled.

At nineteen he went up to Cambridge, and soon won for himself a host of friends by his happy, easy-going temperament and natural gifts. His prowess at all games, his power of mimicry and splendid voice, attracted men to him, and he might easily have been influenced for good had he had anyone to guide him. But warmhearted and impulsive as he was, his friends proved his undoing. They led him into debt, he got into disgrace, and was sent down to rusticate for

a year. His father’s anger and grief were terrible to witness, but in the end Leonard was forgiven. Then, only a few months later, he met and fell in love with the daughter of a farmer in a neighboring village, and they were married secretly. Rose Tennant was as good as she was beautiful, -but Sherbrook 'Cunningham, when he heard of the marriage, refused to see either his son or daughter-in-law, or to hold any communication with them.

Thus turned adrift on his own resources, Leonard tried to get work, but he had not been brought up with the idea of earning his own living, and all his efforts were in’vain. Too proud to apply to his friends, he and his wife sank lower and lower, till, about eighteen months after their marriage, Rose faded out of life leaving her husband a baby boy six months as a parting legacy. At first Leonard Cunningham was almost stunned by his misfortune, but the necessity of providing for his son roused him. In desperation he applied for a place as clown in a traveling circus, mindful of the days when he had kept his friends amused for hours together by his wit and fun. To his surprise he got the post, and having written to his father, and told him of his wife’s deatfh. and the birth of the child, and his present occupation, he deliberately set himself to forget his old associations, and to make the best of his new life. The child was his salvation. The innocent, baby face and clinging hands kept him straight, and as the years went by, and the baby grew to boyhood, delicate and fragile, the strongest love, amounting almost to worship, grew up between father and son. The father lived only for his boy. and denied himself everything for his sake, while little Leonard thought his father absolutely perfect, and loved him with all the strength of his pure boyish nature.

II.

Absorbed in bitter reflections at the irony of fate which had brought him once more to his old home. Cunningham was at length roused to the fact

that he had reached his lodgings. He turned in at the little wooden gate, and went up the narrow flagged path. The door stood ajar, and he entered the dark hall, divested himself of his wet clothes, and opened a door on the right. As he entered the little front room a boyish voice welcomed him eagerly from the depths of an armchair.

“Hullo! dad, you’ve come at last. What a long time you have been. Mrs. Forrest has been in twice to try and make me go to bed, but I told her I always talk to you while you have your supper.”

Cunningham turned up the gas, and crossed over to the chair where his boy sat. There was a strong resemblance between father and son. The same dark, curly hair, broad forehead', and blue eyes, only the wistful look was lacking in the child, though the thin, white face bore marks of pain which made it unchildlike.

“How have you been, old man?” Cunningham asked gently, laying a hand on the dark head.

“Oh, pretty fair, thank you, dad. The pain was rather bad after you went, but it’s better now. Will you have * your supper, and I’ll talk to you ?”

Cunningham sat down at the table on which was spread the remains of a joint of mutton, bread and butter and cheese. Lennie got up from his armchair, and made his way with a slow, halting step to a seat opposite his father. The boy had suffered for the last three years from hip trouble. Doctors had said that the disease was due chiefly to weakness, and was not incurable, but the long sea voyage and medical methods necessary to effect a cure were quite beyond Cunningham’s purse. So he had to watch, with secret agony, the boy’s continued weakness, and writhe under the knowledge that he could do nothing to restore to health the being whom he loved most dearly on earth.

They chatted cheerfully while the father ate his supper. Lennie questioned eagerly about the evening’s

performance, and' Cunningham described the crowded tent, the ponies’ tricks, and the dresses of the girls, as though he took the keenest interest in his occupation, instead of feeling, as he felt that night, perhaps more than he 'had ever done before, a sickening sense of disgust at the depths to which he had descended.

“But you looked' the best of them all, dad, I know,” said Lennie, eagerly, as his father paused. “I should like to have seen you and heard the people cheer you,”

Leonard Cunningham winced at his son’s enthusiasm. He never allowed Lennie to go to the circus .performances. He felt hecould not bear his son to see him in his clown’s dress. And Lennie, with childish faith in his father, acquiesced in his decision, though sometimes he longed to see the gaieties, of which he heard and to join in the applause which he felt sure his father always evoked. But the father’s word was always sufficient, and Cunningham, touchedto the heart by the little lad’s ready obedience, would ex-

ert himself when he came home to tell of ail that had taken place, to amuse his son.

He smiled now, half sadly, at Lennie’s eager face. “Well, I wouldn’t say that, Len, but I did get some encores. Now you must be off to bed, and if it’s fine to-morrow I will take you down to the sea. We must get •some roses into these pale cheeks. A fortnight here ought to-do wonders. Come along, let me help you upstairs.”

“Oh! dad, isn’t it lovely? Now I know what they mean by sea horses. Look at the waves, how they splash and shake their white manes. Oh ! it’s too glorious.” Lennie fairly gasped as he uttered these last words the following morning. He sat propped up against a boat on the 'beach, and watched the sea splashing on the shore with sprays of foam.

“Yes, it’s an ideal morning, old man. This fresh air will do you good. Do you think you will be all right here, while I go to the rehearsal ? I’ll ask that boatman over there to ■keep an eye on you. I shan’t be more than an hour.”

“I shall be all right, dad. I could sit here for ages, and I’ve got my book, too. Don’t hurry, though, of course I want you 'back as quick as you can come.”

Cunningham stooped and rearranged Lennie’s cushion, then crossed the beach to the promenade, and set off in the direction of the market-place, where the circus tents had been pitched. As he passed a florist’s shop he was attracted by a tall, elderly gentleman, who was looking at the flowers. ^ The upright carriage, military bearing, and air of alertness and vigor seemed strangely familiar. In a moment Leonard Cunningham recognized his father!

The sudden encounter was a shock, but, recovering himself, Cunningham made a step forward. The old man, however, did not see him, and entered the 'shop, and the son, pulling himself together with a great effort, went on 'his way. Bqt the sight of his father,

after twelve years’ absence, touched him deeply, and he groaned as he thought what a wide gulf separated them. He .was absent-minded and gloomy at the rehearsal, and was called to order by Denman two or three times. When he reached Lennie again he found the 'boy wildily excited.

“Such a nice old gentleman has been talking to me, father. He saw me sitting here, and came to see if I was ill. He told me some jolly stories, and asked me all about myself. When I said my name was Leonard Sherbrook Cunningham he looked quite queer for a minute, and then asked all sorts of questions about you. Do you know him, father, do you think? Oh, there he is, talking to that boatman over there !”

Cunningham looked with a sense of foreboding in the direction in which Lennie pointed. Yes! it was his father. Had he recognized the familv name? What would he do? Well! he must make the advance if there was to be a reconciliation. Cunningham’s heart 'beat so fast that it nearly stifled him. He answered Lennie’s question evasively, arid tried to dismiss the matter from his mind, but he was not very successful.

III.

A week had gone by, and every day the mysterious old gentleman visited Lennie on the beach. Cunningham no longer doubted whether his father recognized him, but the Colonel was careful only to appear when his son was away, and by the time the latter returned Lennie was alone again. The boy was #full of his new friend, and longed for his father to know him. But no inkling of the truth reached him. Evidenly his grandfather ha'd not revealed the relationship, and Cunningham kept silence. Only another week, and the circus would be moving on, and they would leave Sandgate. Though his father was evidently determined to ignore him, 'Cunningham had not the heart to keep Lennie at home when the sea air was doing him so much Qfnod. But he could not un-

derstand the feeling of misery which hung about him, and the strong desire he felt to get Lennie away without knowing w'ho this old gentleman really was. Dim forebodings oppressed him, and he was powerless to shaxe them off.

One morning as he was coming back from a rehearsal he suddenly ran against his father at the end of the promenade. It was a gusty morning, with occasional showers, and Lennie had not been able to get out as usual. For a moment father and son stood and faced each other in silence. Cunningham felt himself staggered by the suddenness of the meeting, but the Colonel had evidently been waiting for him, for without any greeting whatever, he said abruptly : “It is thirteen years since I last spoke to you, Leonard, and I said I would never have anything to do with you again. I never break my promises, but I am willing to do something for your boy.”

Cunningham tried to speak, but something seemed to rise in his throat and choke him. His father continued quietly : “The boy is a true Cunningham, and I have no heir. I will take him and bring him up as befits his name, and have the best doctors to attend him, and restore him, if possible, to health ; but only on condition that you give him up absolutely. There must be no further communication between you. The boy will be mine entirely.”

As the Colonel paused his son found his voice. “Give up my boy,” he cried fiercely. “Why, he is the only thing that makes life bearable. You did not help us when we hardly knew how to keep ourselves alive, but we did without help then, and we can do without now. I will never give up my child.”

The Colonel’s brow clouded, and his eyes flashed angrily. “You ought to be thankful to me for offering to take your son from his present position. What do you suppose he will feel when he gets older and realizes that he is a Cunningham, and yet the son of a clown? If you choose to throw a'way your prospects you have no right

to blight his. Besides, at the rate he is going on, he will not live long. Hé wants the best medical advice arid treatment to save him.”

Cunningham was silent. His tóhgue seemedtied before these âcathing words, which cut him like a knife. His eyes were being rudely opened to the truth. He was dragging down his child. To what position could the child of a mere traveling clown eve; hope to attain? Nevertheless in his pride, he resented his father’s hardwords. He began toprotest again, but the Colonel cut him short.

“You can think it over. If you decide to save your son he must be at the Court by five o’clock to-morrow Put remember, he become;, mine absolutely, and you hold no more communication with him.”

Sherbrook Cunningham turned on his heel as he uttered these last words. In his hard, stern nature, warped by the resentment of years, there was no thought of forgiveness for his only son. His pride and désire for an heir bade him demand his grandson, but forgive a Cunningham who had so iar forgotten himself as to become a clown—never !

Leonard stood rooted to the ground, then suddenly he sprang forward with an exclamation. “Father! Won’t you say one kind word to me? Won’t you forgive me ?” But 'the old man walked on, and paid no heed to his son’s .cry.

In a moment the latter recovered himself, and laughed bitterly at his own folly. Then with lowered head he made his way back to his lodgings.

IV.

The clown Was as entertaining as ever at the circus that night. But no one knew the storm that was going on in Cunningham’s mind as he played his part. Must he give up his boy ? What could he do ? His father’s face rose before him, stern and unyielding, accusing him of spoiling the child’s life, and he groaned within himself.

When he reached his lodgings supper was waiting as usual, but he hast-

ily rang for it to be cleared away, for he felt as if food would choke him. He had made Lennie promise to go to bed early, for the boy had been in a good deal of pain all day, though he made no complaint. Cunningham crept upstairs to his bedroom, and found the boy asleep, lying with his curly head pressed into the pillow, and one thin arm flung across the coverlet. The father bent and lightly pressed a kiss on the bare warm flesh, then drew back hastily as Lennie muttered in his sleep, “Dear Dad.” He made his way downstairs again, and spent the next few hours pacing up and down the little sitting-room, his mind one whirl of agony. How could he give up his boy, his little lad? It was impossible, he muttered fiercely under his breath. But the vision of the thin, white face, growing daily paler and more worn with pain, came before him. Surely to save his life, to ensure that Lennie would grow up well and

strong, he could even bear to lose him! But what would the boy himself say ? Cunningham could not bear even to contemplate that. He went over to the window and threw it open. The dawn was just breaking, and the sight seemed to calm him. He stood in silence for a long time, gazing out, his mind busy with thoughts of his doad wife. What would she have said to this offer? He knew that she would have made any sacrifice for her boy's good. Presently he turned away, saying brokenly to himself, “For your sake and his, Rose, I’ll give him up. It’s best for him, and after all, I deserve it. He’s too good for me. Better separate us now, before I drag him down, too. I must ‘dree my own weird’ alone.” And having reached this decision Cunningham flung himself, utterly worn out, on to the hard horsehair sofa, and slept restlessly till the little maid of all work came in to sweep before breakfast.

How he broke the news to Lennie, Cunningham never knew. He had' a dim recollection afterwards of the boy’s startled, terrified face, and of his agonized cry: “Oh! father, you won’t send me away from you !” and then the little lad crept into his arms and father and son were silent for a long time. By and by Cunningham roused himself and tried1 to talk cheerfully. He told Lennie that he would have a pony to ride, and everything he wanted to amuse him, 'but he could not get an answering smile. To Lennie the whole world seemed suddenly to have become black and dreary. He could not realize the magnitude of the awful change that was coming so quickly upon him. Only instinctively he grasped the fact that his father was doing this awful thing because he could not help himself, and after his first cry the boy was silent, battling with his feelings, and trying not to hurt his father more than he could help. There was evidently no other way—something inexorable was dragging them apart, and Lennie made no more appeal to stay with his father, but only clung to him with a dumb misery in his eyes, which almost overthrew Cunningham’s decision. But even in his distress of mind he stood firm. It was his boy’s life that was at stake, or so it seemed' to him, and to save him he would suffer anything.

The few hours left seemed to fly, and in the afternoon Cunningham took Lennie to the Court, carrying the boy’s few possessions with him. How familiar the way was. Old memories thronged upon him, but through all he felt the convulsive clutch of a small hand, and again that great lump rose in his throat.

When they reached the lodge gates Cunningham turned silently to the little limping figure beside him, and in an instant the boy was in his arms. Not a word was uttered, only there was a long, close, silent embrace between them, and a gentle, tender kiss, and then Cunningham put Lennie

down again, and they walked up the avenue.

The footman opened the door. Cunningham did not recognize him, but he evidently expected the 'boy, for he politely requested him to come in. There was a moment’s hesitation, and then Cunningham found himself stumbling blindly down the avenue, with a great pain tearing at his heart, and the memory of a pair of agonized blue eyes. He felt that the iron had indeed entered into his soul.

The next week seemed a dream of misery and pain. In the evening at the circus Cunningham forced himself to play his part by sheer will power. But all day, and the greater part of the night, he spent in wandering about unable to bear the solitude of his lodgings. He kept away from the direction of his father’s house, but once he saw Lennie, driving in a carriage. The boy sat 'by his grandfather’s side, and Cunningham drew back hastily lest he should be seen. The listless, weary look on Lennie’s face almost made him cry out. Was his sacrifice in vain ? He bit his lip fiercely, and turned away, struggling with an overwhelming rush of pain that almost made him reel. In those dark days Cunningham suffered more than he had ever done before, and often it was only by physical power that he prevented himself from going to his father’s house and demanding his son. He would even have welcomed an invitation from his companions to join them in their evening pleasures so as to drown his misery, but they, remembering how he had ignored past advances, left him to go his own way, shrugging their shoulders at ‘ Cunningham’s eccentricities.”

At the last performance given by Denman’s Circus before it moved on to its next destination the tent was, as usual, packed. Never had Leo, the clown, been so amusing. The audience rocked to and fro with laughter^ and encored him again and again, de-

manding another song. At last, however, it was over, and Cunningham made his way home feeling utterly exhausted. An early start was to be made next morning, and after swallowing a few mouthfuls of food, he began to pack his belongings. As he was stuffing his things into his portmanteau, his eyes fell on Lennie’s photograph standing on the mantelpiece. Cunningham crossed the room and took it up, and gazed long and earnestly at the boyish face, whose straightforward, childish look seemed to pierce his very soul. Then, with a sudden rush, came the full realization of what his future life would be. childless and lonely. L'p to now, he had at least been near his bov, but now he must leave him altogether, never to see him again. With a groan the bereaved father flung himself into a chair and buried his face in his hands. His frame shook with suppressed sobs, the hard, bitter tears of a strong man.

Suddenly there was a step in the hall, and then someone gently opened the sitting-room door and entered. Cunningham raised his head hastily, and saw before him—his son !

With a rush the boy was once more in his father's arms, and with a sigh of infinite satisfaction the curly head was laid on the broad shoulder waiting to receive it.

To Cunningham it seemed a dream of delight which he feared to dispel if he uttered a word. To feel the slight, fragile form of his son once again, and to press his lips to the dark head, was overwhelming joy. But presently he roused himself and asked, “What brought you back, old man? Did your grandfather send you?”

“No,” and the blue eyes looked trustfully into those bent on him. “But I couldn’t bear it any longer, dad, without you. I’ve tried to be

good, on my honor I have. But, oh, dad, it was too awful. I would have died if I had stayed there without you.”

“Wasn’t your grandfather kind to you?” questioned Cunningham, drawing the boy a little closer.

“Oh, yes, he gave me everything I asked for, and he told me he’d made his will, and I should have everything after he was dead. But he wouldn’t let me speak of you, dad, and I wanted to so very badly. And then to-day I remembered that it was the last day of the circus, and you would be going away, and I couldn’t bear it any more, so I got out of bed to-night, and dressed, and came back. You won’t send me back again, will you? I can’t —oh, I can’t live without you.”

All the father’s determination was broken down at the touch of the boy’s clinging fingers, and the tears in his blue eyes, and his voice was very tender and full of a great contentment as he replied, “No. old man, I won’t send you back. I’ve found that I can’t do without you. either. We will never be parted again.”

Two days later Cunningham received a letter in an unknown hand. It proved to be from the manager of a high-class traveling concert company, who had been present at the last performance of Denman’s Circus, at Sandgate, and had heard the clown sing. The purpose of the letter was to offer Cunningham a place in the company at a much increased salary.

Cunningham read the letter in silence, then looked across at Lennie. who was hanging out of the window, playing with a kitten. “So the career of Leo, the clown, comes to an end,” he murmured whimsically, “and that of Cunningham, the singer, begins. After all,, the boy shall have proper treatment—for evidently it is so ordained.”