IT may seem at first somewhat improbable that Flutters should have been able.. to make his escape from the circus grounds without being noticed, but escape he did under Starlight’s cautious guidance. Every one was still intent on the performance itself; outside were only a few straggling employees of the company, and they were too much preoccupied with the special duties assigned to them to pay any heed to the fact that a couple of boys were making their way through the grounds. Indeed, it was decidedly too common an occurrence to excite any suspicion. To be sure, Hazel’s cloak concealed neither the head nor feet of little Flutters; but velvet cap and satin slippers were tucked safely away, and the absence of hat and shoes was by no means unusual among the boyish rabble that found their way into the circus. The most dangerous, because the most conspicuous move in their plan of escape, would be the scaling of the high board fence, so they naturally made their way to its most remote corner. It needed but a moment for Flutters to scramble to its top and drop on the other side. Starlight made more clumsy work of it. It was not an easy thing to keep one’s hold on the slippery inside posts of the fence, and when he was near the top he heard some one calling at his back, which did not tend to help matters. Astride the fence at last, however, he glanced down and saw a forlorn old man close at his heels, one of the drudges of the circus, whose duty it was to keep things cleared up about the grounds.
Look you there, cried, in a cracked Flutters and Starlight were safe out of sight now, and smiled at each other with supreme satisfaction.
“That’s Robbin’s voice,” chuckled Flutters, as they walked off through the woods that grew close up to the circus; “he could get over a mountain as easily as over that fence; he has the rheumatics awful bad, and he’s very old besides, He’s the only one I mind about leaving.” Poor old Bobbin stood gazing up at the fence, and seemed wisely to come to the conclusion that there was no harm in a boy’s leaving the circus in that manner if he chose. The harm would be if he attempted to come in that way; and so hobbled off to his dreary, back-breaking task of gathering up the papers and stray bits of rubbish constantly accumulating on every side. It is possible, too, that even if he had recognized Flutters, and guessed his motive, he would not have tried to detain him. He had once been a tumbler himself, and knew enough of the trials of circus life to be willing, perhaps, that a promising little fellow should escape them.
The grove in which the boys found themselves was the only piece of old forest land that remained in the near vicinity of the town, and was fitted up with rude tables and benches for the use of picnic parties.
Starlight led the way to one of these tables, sat down, and comfortably rested his folded arms upon it, as though they had reached their point of destination. Here was where Hazel was to meet them and, while they waited, the boys entertained each other with little scraps of their life histories; but Starlight did not for a moment forget to keep eye and ear on guard for any one approaching. There was a hollow tree just at Flutters’s back, into which he could tumble in a flash and be securely hid should it become necessary. But the sound of their own low voices and the occasional fall of a pine cone or crackling of a branch was all that broke the stillness. At last they heard a footfall in the distance, but Starlight knew that quick, short little step, and there was no need for Flutters to take refuge in the tree. Hazel had come with the precious bundle, that was all, and Flutters was straightway arrayed in Hans Van Wyck’s clothes, his dark little face not at all agreeing with the Dutch-looking coat and trousers; but they answered the purpose of complete disguise, and what more could be wished for? So the children set out for home at a brisk pace, not by the way they had come, bur, so far as possible, by cross cuts and quiet lanes, to avoid observation. That their little tongues moved even faster than their feet was not at all strange, for, of course, they wanted to know all about each other.
“Are you an Italian, Flutters?” asked Hazel, in the course of the cross-questioning.
Flutters smiled, and shook his head in the negative.
“Then I guess you’re Spanish,” remarked Starlight.
“No, not Spanish.”
Hazel and Starlight looked mystified. He was certainly neither American nor English with that dark skin of his.
“What kind of people does that sort of hair grow on?” Flutters asked, running his hand through his tight-curling hair.
“On—on darkeys,” answered Hazel, ruefully. “But it does not curl so tight as—as some darkeys,” hoping there might be a mistake somewhere.
“So much the better for me,” Flutters answered, cheerily.
“Are—you—a regular—darkey—really?” questioned Starlight, with a little pause between each word.
“Well, I’m what they call a mulatto; that’s not quite so bad as an out-and-out darkey, perhaps.”
“Oh, Flutters, don’t you mind?” asked Hazel, who was disappointed enough that the hero of this thrilling adventure should prove to be only a kind of negro. Hazel had an idea as, sadly enough, many far older and wiser than she had in those days—and, indeed, for long years afterward—that negroes were little better than cattle, and that it was quite right to buy and sell them in the same fashion.
“What would be the use of minding?” said Flutters, in response to her sympathetic question; “minding would not make things any different, Miss Hazel.”
It was the first time he had called her by name, and Hazel, born little aristocrat that she was, was glad to discover that “he knew his place,” as the phrase goes—so far, at least, as to put the Miss before her name.
After this the children trudged along for a while in silence, each busy with their own thoughts. Starlight was beginning to have some misgivings as to the course he had taken. It might, after all, become a serious question what to do with Flutters. He began to wonder how Aunt Frances would look when he should go back to the farm-house next day with his little protégé in tow. She would be pretty sure to say, “What are you thinking of, Job dear? It is not at all as though we were in our own home, you know. We cannot allow the Van Vleets to take this strange little boy into their home for our sakes; though no doubt they would be willing to do it.”
Yes, the more he thought of it, the more he felt sure that would be just what she would say; strange that all this had not occurred to him before, and a little sickening sensation—half presentiment, half regret—swept over him. So it was that Starlight trudged along in silence, for, of course, such thoughts as those could not be spoken with Flutters there to hear them.
As for Hazel, she was turning over a fine little scheme of her own in her mind. She was a hopeful little body, and it did not take long for her to recover from the despair into which the discovery of Flutters’s nationality had thrown her. “Why, look here,” she thought to herself, “I believe I’m glad he’s a darkey after all. It was awful cute to hear him say ‘Miss Hazel;’ how nice it would be to have him for a sort of body-servant, just as so many officers have body-servants! He could brush my clothes, and groom the pony, and tend to my flower garden, and just stand ‘round, ready to do whatever I should wish,” and so it was that Hazel trudged along in silence, for she thought it wiser not to announce, as yet, the exact nature of her thoughtful meditation.
And Flutters—well, it would have been hard to tell about what he was thinking. He was a most sensitive little fellow, and strong and intense were the emotions that often played through his lithe frame, so strong and intense at times as to find no other expression than in a perceptible little tremble from head to foot; it was this peculiarity that had won for him the expressive name of “Flutters” among the circus people. Now, of course, his state of mind was joyous and satisfied. Kind friends and a home in this new land! What more could be desired, and the happiest look played over his handsome face, for Flutters was handsome, and the dark olive complexion was most to be thanked for it; but the light went out of his face when, after a while, he glanced toward Starlight and saw his troubled look.
Instantly he divined its cause. “Are you sorry you took me?” he asked, coming to an abrupt standstill in the brier-hedged lane.
“No, not exactly;” Starlight was betrayed into a partial confession of the truth by the suddenness of the question.
Oh, how that hurt poor little Flutters, with his sensitive temperament!
“It is not too kite,” he said, turning and looking in the direction they had come; “I think I can find my way back. They’d never know I’d regular runned away;” but there was a mistiness in the bright little darkey eyes, and an actual ache in the poor little heart.
“Flutters, I am not sorry then,” said Hazel, warmly; and laying a firm hand on each shoulder, she turned him right about face again in the direction of her own home. “Just you trust to me, Flutters, and you’ll never be sorry you ran away from that miserable old circus—never.”
And now, so completely was all gloom dispelled by these kind words, that back in a flash came the glad look into Flutters’s face, and from that moment he was Hazel’s sworn servant. Starlight looked rather ashamed of himself, but, after all, his fears had some foundation, and he was thankful enough thus to have Hazel take matters into her own hands, and more than share the responsibility The sun was already down as the children neared the house, standing in clear-cut outline against the September sky. There were no clouds, only a marvellous gradation of color, shading imperceptibly from the dark, dark blue of the river and the hills beyond, up into the red glow of the sunset, and then again by some subtle transformation into a wonderful pale turquoise high overhead.
It was indeed a beautiful fall evening, and Captain and Mrs. Boniface and Josephine, seated on the wide, pillared porch, were waiting for the coming of the children, and the exciting narrative that was sure to follow. “Kate, the bonny-face baby,” as they used to call her, was there too, a sunny, winsome little daughter, almost three years old, and Harry Avery besides, Job Starlight’s cousin, a good-looking young fellow, and who lately had managed to spend a good deal of time at the Bonifaces. He had sailed over that morning from Paulus Hook (which, by the way, was the old name for Jersey City) with a fine little plan in mind for the day—a plan which he had already promised Hazel should some time be carried out; but the absence of the children had made it necessary to postpone it for at least twenty-four hours. This Harry Avery was the oldest of a varied assortment of little brothers, and his home was in New London, Connecticut. But two years before he had enlisted as a volunteer on board a brig named “The Fair American,” and not one of the little brothers had ever had a sight of the big brother since He had had a sorry enough time of it, too, for eighteen months of the twenty-four since he left home had been passed in the prison-ship “Jersey,” and he had only been released within the last few weeks, when the success of the American armies compelled the English to discharge all their prisoners of war. The old ship where so many brave men had lost their lives by privation and disease now lay a great deserted hulk in the waters of Wallabout Bay, and what Harry had come over to propose was a sail over to have a look at her. He knew it would interest the children immensely, and he had proposed to Mrs. Boniface that Josephine should go with them, and Josephine, only too glad to fall in with any plan that involved being out on the water, had that morning concocted some very delicious little iced cakes with a view to the luncheon they would take with them on the morrow. Meanwhile, the children were almost at the gate. “Why, there’s Cousin Harry!” exclaimed Starlight, whose eyes were good at a long range.
“So it is,” said Hazel, excitedly; and when they had passed a few steps farther on, she added, “Now, Flutters, this is the best place for you to stop, and remember, when you hear me call, come quick as anything.” Flutters smiled assent, and stepped into the deeper shadow of one of the maples that edged the road.
“Well, here you are at last,” called Captain Boniface a few moments later from where he sat smoking in a great easy-chair on the porch.
“Yes, here we are,” answered Starlight, and they marched up the path and took their seats on the porch, Hazel having first kissed the family all round, not at all reluctantly including “Cousin Harry,” for his prison experience made him a wonderful hero in her eyes.
Of course they right away began to give an account, interrupted by a good many questions, of all they had seen and done. Mrs. Boniface thought, and thought rightly, that she detected a little sense of disappointment in their description, but did not know that that was easily accounted for by the insight they had had into the inner workings of a circus. They had indeed been greatly impressed with the velvet and spangles, but only until they had learned through Flutters what heavy hearts velvet and spangles could cover.
Finally, at the close of quite a vivid description on Hazel’s part of the grand entrance march, which had proved to both the children the most impressive feature, Harry Avery remarked, just by way of taking some part in the conversation, “that they ought to have brought a bit of the circus home with them for the benefit of people who had not been so fortunate as to see it.” Could there have been a better opportunity for the introduction of Flutters?
“We did bring a bit of it home,” cried Hazel; and then, stepping to the edge of the porch, she called, “Flutters, Flutters,” at the top of her strong little lungs. Of course the Bonifaces looked on astonished at this performance, while Starlight, from suppressed excitement, bit his lip till he almost made the blood come; but in a second, head over heels in a series of somersaults up the path, bounded a remarkable little creature in satin slippers, velvet cap and all, as real a bit of a circus as Cousin Harry or any one else could have desired. The little tumbler was, of course, acting under orders, and brought up at the step of the porch with the most beaming smile imaginable, and a most gracious little bow.
“Come right up, Flutters,” was Hazel’s reassuring invitation, and nothing abashed, but still beaming and smiling, so great was his confidence in Hazel, Flutters mounted the steps, swung himself into the hammock that was strung across the porch, and drew the netted meshes close about him, as though conscious of the scarcity of his apparel.
There was a pause for a moment—that is, no word was spoken, but the four pairs of eyes belonging to Captain and Mrs. Boniface and Josephine and Harry were riveted upon Hazel, asking as plainly as words, “What does this mean?” while Starlight’s eyes were urging her in an imploring fashion to tell about it all right away. As for Flutters, the complacent, trustful gaze with which he regarded his little benefactress implied that he was sure she would proceed to explain matters to the entire satisfaction of everybody. Meantime little Kate looked on in admiring wonder, but fortunately her pretty head did not need to trouble itself with “explanations of things.” She only knew that that little fellow in the hammock was “awfully funny.” and extended her pretty hands toward him as though she would very much like to touch him.
“Well,” Hazel began at last with much the same air as a veritable showman, “this little boy is named Flutters, and he did belong to the circus, but he does not belong to it any more. He has run away, and we’ve helped him to do it. Somehow he’s quite alone in the world, and he has to s’port himself, so he joined the circus ‘cause he found he could do what the other tumblers did, and’cause he heard they were coming to America. But he has not been at all happy in the circus,” and Hazel, pausing a moment, looked toward Flutters for confirmation of this sad statement, and Flutters bore witness to its truth by gravely shaking his head from side to side. Indeed all through her narration it was most amusing to watch his expression, so perfectly did it correspond with every word she spoke. Little folk and old folk have a fashion of letting each passing thought write itself legibly on the face. It is only the strong “in-between” folk who take great care that no one shall ever know what they chance to be thinking about.
By this time Starlight began to show a desire to take a share in the telling of the story, but Hazel would none of it. She thought, perhaps unjustly, that he had proved somewhat of a coward in the latter part of the transaction; at any rate, he himself had pushed her to the front, and there she meant to stay. “No, he has not been at all happy,” she continued; “indeed, the manager has often been very cruel to him; but I will tell you about that another time” (for her eyes were growing a little tearful at the mere remembrance of some things Flutters had told them); “and the way we came to know about it was this: sometimes when Flutters takes a great jump from the spring-board and turns a somersault two times in the air, he slips his knee-cap—that’s what you call it, Flutters, isn’t it?” (Flutters nodded yes), “and then he has to slip it back again himself, and it hurts a good deal, so that he can’t jump any more for a while. Well, to-day he slipped it, and then he crawled over underneath where we sat, and we talked with him a little; then Starlight told him to creep under the benches when no one was looking, and Starlight dropped down between the seats and talked with him some more.”
“And then we arranged,” Starlight now interrupted in such an unmistakably determined manner that Hazel allowed him to continue, “how he should run away, and he didn’t even go back for his clothes, because he says that the manager can almost see what a fellow’s thinking about, and he didn’t dare. So when we had fixed everything I climbed up to Hazel and told her what she was to do, and then I dropped down again, and Flutters put on Hazel’s cloak so as to cover him up a little, and we scooted. We came near being found out once, but we got over the great fence safe at last and into Beekman’s woods. There Hazel was to meet us with some of Hans Van Wyck’s clothes, if she could get them.”
“And I did get them,” chimed in Hazel, for it was surely her turn once more, “and—but, oh!” stopping suddenly, “the clothes! Starlight, do hurry and get them, or some one coming along the road may run off with them.” Starlight obeyed, frightened enough at the thought of the possible loss of the borrowed articles, and quickly returning with them to the great relief of both Hazel and himself.
Then the story went on again, turn and turn about, Flutters gaining courage to join in now and then, till at last, when the twilight had given place to the sort of half darkness of a starlight night, and the fire-flies were flashing their little lanterns on every side, they had told all there was to tell, and three foot-sore little people confessed they were tired and sleepy and hungry, and glad enough to go indoors and do justice to a most inviting little supper, which Josephine had slipped away some time before to prepare.
“Bonny Kate” (as she was called more than half the time, after a certain wilful but very charming young woman in one of Shakespeare’s great plays) had long ago fallen asleep, and lay just where her mother, running indoors for a moment, had stowed her away in a corner of the great hair-cloth sofa in the dining-room. One pretty hand was folded under her rosy cheek, and such a merry smile played over her sweet face! She surely must have been dreaming of a remarkable little fellow, in beautiful velvet and spangles, coming head over heels up a garden path.