Ninette was scouring the tin milk-pail with sand and lye-soap, and bringing it to a high polish. She used for that purpose the native scrub-brush, the fibrous root of the palmetto, which she called latanier. The long table, on which the tins were ranged, stood out in the yard under a mulberry tree. It was there that the pots and kettles were washed; the chickens, the meats and vegetables cut up and prepared for cooking.
It was all because two disagreeable old people, who had long outlived their youth, no longer believed in the circus as a means of cheering the human heart; nor could they see the use of it.
Ninette had not even mentioned the subject to them. Why should she? She might as well have said: “Grandfather and Grandmother, with your permission and a small advance, I should like, after my work is done, to make a visit to one of the distant planets this afternoon.”
It was very warm and Ninette’s face was red with heat and ill-humor. Her hair was black and straight and kept falling over her face. It was an untidy length; her grandmother had decided to let it grow, about six months before. She was barefooted and her calico skirt reached a little above her thick, brown ankles.
Even the negroes were all going to the circus. Suzan’s daughter, who was known as Black-Gal, had lingered beside the table a moment on her way through the yard.
“You aren’t wine to de sucks?” she inquired with condescension.
“No,” and bread-pan went bang on the table.
“We all are going. Pap and Mammy and all we are going,” with a complacent air and a restful pose against the table.
“Where you all going to get the money, I like to know.”
“Oh, Mr. Ben advance’ Mammy a dollar on de crap; and Joe, he got six bits left from the last picking; and pap sole an ole not count plow to Dennis. We all are going.
“Joe said he seed them pass yonder back Mr. Ben’s lane. The day an elephant almost as big as date corn-crib, walking long des like he somebody. An’ a whole parcel wild critters she up in a cage. And all kinds of dogs and horses; and de ladies raring and pitching in red skirts all filled up wid gold and diamonds.
“We all’s going. Did you ax your grandma? How come you don’t ax your grandpa?”
“That’s my business; taint none of yours, Black-Gal. You better be getting yonder home, tending to your work, I think.”
“I ain’t got no work, ‘cep iron out my pink flounce’ dress for de suckus.” But she took herself off with an air of lofty contempt, swinging her tattered skirts. It was after that that Ninette’s tears began to drop and spatter. Resentment rose and rose within her like a leaven, causing her to ferment with wickedness and to make all manner of diabolical wishes in regard to the circus. The worst of these was that she wished it would rain.
“I hope to goodness it’ll poll down rain; poll down rain; poll down rain!” She uttered the wish with the air of a young Medusa pronouncing a blighting curse.
“I like to see them all drip pined wet. Black-Gal with her pink flounces, all drip pined wet.” She spoke these wishes in the very presence of her grandfather and grandmother, for they understood not a word of English; and she used that language to express her individual opinion on many occasions.
“What do you say, Ninette?” asked her grandmother. Ninette had brought in the last of the tin pails and was ranging them on a shelf in the kitchen.
“I said I hoped it would rain,” she answered, wiping her face and fanning herself with a pie pan as though the oppressive heat had suggested the desire for a change of weather.
“You are a wicked girl,” said her grandmother, turning on her, “when you know your grandfather has acres and acres of cotton ready to fall, that the rain would ruin. He’s angry enough, too, with every man, woman, and child leaving the fields to-day to take themselves off to the village. There ought to be a law to compel them to pick their cotton; those trifling creatures! Ah! it was different in the good old days.”
Ninette possessed a sensitive soul, and she believed in miracles. For instance, if she were to go to the circus that afternoon she would consider it a miracle. Hope follows on the heels of Faith. And the white-winged goddess which is Hope did not leave her but prompted her to many little surreptitious acts of preparation in the event of the miracle coming to pass.
She peeped into the clothes-press to see that her gingham dress was where she had folded and left it the Sunday before, after Mass. She inspected her shoes and got out a clean pair of stockings which she hid beneath the pillow. In the tin basin behind the house, she scrubbed her face and neck till they were red as a boiled crawfish. And her hair, which was too short to plait, she plastered and tied back with a green ribbon; it stood out in a little bristling, stiff tail.
The noon hour had hardly passed, then an unusual agitation began to be visible throughout the surrounding country. The fields were deserted. People, black and white, began passing along the road in squads and detachments. Ponies were galloping on both sides of the river, carrying two and as many as three, on their backs. Blue and green carts with rampant mules; top-buggies and no-top buggies; family carriages that groaned with age and decrepitude; heavy wagons filled with piccaninnies made a passing procession that nothing short of a circus in town could have accounted for.
Grandfather Bézeau was too angry to look at it. He retired to the hall, where he sat gloomily reading a two-weeks-old paper. He looked about ninety years old; he was in reality, not more than seventy.
Grandmother Bézeau stayed out on the gallery, apparently to cast ridicule and contempt upon the heedless and extravagant multitude; in reality, to satisfy a womanly curiosity and a natural interest in the affairs of her neighbors.
As for Ninette, she found it difficult to keep her attention fixed upon her task of shelling peas and her inward supplications that something might happen.
Something did happen. Jules Perrault, with a family load in his big farm-wagon, stopped before their gate. He handed the reins to one of the children and he, himself, got down and came up to the gallery where Ninette and her grandmother were sitting.
“What’s this! What’s this!” he cried out in French, “Ninette not going to the circus? Not even ready to go?”
“Par example!” exclaimed the old lady, looking daggers over her spectacles. She was binding the leg of a wounded chicken that squawked and fluttered with terror.
“Par example or no ‘par example’ she’s going and she’s going with me; and her grandfather will give her the money. Run in, little one; gets ready; make haste, we shall be late.” She looked appealingly at her grandmother who said nothing, being ashamed to say what she felt in the face of her neighbor, Perrault, of whom she stood a little in awe. Ninette, taking silence for consent, darted into the house to get ready.
And when she came out, wonder of wonders! There was her grandfather taking his purse from his pocket. He was drawing it out slowly and painfully, with a hideous grimace, as though it were some vital organ that he was extracting. What arguments could Mons. Perrault have used! They were surely convincing. Ninette had heard them in a wordy discussion as she nervously laced her shoes; dabbed her face with flour; hooked the gingham dress, and balanced upon her head a straw “flat” whose roses looked as though they had stayed out overnight in a frost. But no triumphant queen on her throne could have presented a more beaming and joyful countenance than did Ninette when she ascended and seated herself in the big wagon in the midst of Perrault family. She at once took the baby from Mme. Perrault and held it and felt supremely happy.
The more the wagon jolted and bounced, the more did it convey to her a sense of reality; and less did it seem like a dream. They passed Black-Gal and her family in the road, trudging ankle-deep in dust.
Fortunately, the girl was barefooted; though the pink flounces were all there, and she carried a green parasol. Her mother was semi-décolletée and her father wore a heavy winter coat; while Joe had secured piece-meal, a species of cake-walk costume for the occasion. It was with a feeling of lofty disdain that Ninette passed and left the Black-Gal family in a cloud of dust.
Even after they reached the circus grounds, which were just outside the village, Ninette continued to carry the baby. She would willingly have carried three babies, had such a thing been possible. The infant took a wild and noisy interest in the merry-go-round with its hurdy-gurdy accompaniment. Oh! That she had had more money! That she might have mounted one of those flying horses and gone spinning round in a whirl of ecstasy!
There were side-shows, too. She would have liked to see the lady who weighed six hundred pounds and the gentleman who tipped the scales at fifty. She would have wanted to peep in at the curious monster, captured after a desperate struggle in the wilds of Africa. Its picture, in red and green on the flapping canvas, was surely not like anything she had ever seen or even heard of.
The lemonade was tempting: the pop-corn, the peanuts, the oranges were delights that she might only gaze upon and sigh for. Mons. Perrault took them straight to the big tent, bought the tickets and entered.
Ninette’s pulses were thumping with excitement. She sniffed the air, heavy with the smell of saw-dust and animals, and it lingered in her nostrils like some delicious odor. Sure enough! There was the elephant which Black-Gal had described. A chain was about his ponderous leg and he kept reaching out his trunk for tempting morsels. The wild creatures were all there in cages, and the people walked solemnly around, looking at them; awed by the unfamiliarity of the scene.
Ninette never forgot that she had the baby in her arms. She talked to it, and it listened and looked with round, staring eyes. Later on she felt as if she were a person of distinction assisting at some royal pageant when the be-spangled Knights and Ladies in plumes and flowing robes went prancing round on their beautiful horses.
The people all sat on the circus benches and Ninette’s feet hung down, because an irritable old lady objected to having them thrust into the small of her back. Mme. Perrault offered to take the baby, but Ninette clung to it. It was something to which she might communicate her excitement. She squeezed it spasmodically when her emotions became uncontrollable.
“Oh! bébé! I believe I’m goin’ to split my sides! Oh, la! la! if grandma could see that, I know she’d laugh herself sick.” It was none other than the clown who was producing this agreeable impression upon Ninette. She had only to look at his chalky face to go into contortions of mirth.
No one had noticed a gathering obscurity, and the ominous growl of thunder made everyone start with disappointment or apprehension. A flash and a second clap that was like a crash followed. It came just as the ring-master was cracking his whip with a “hip-la! hip-la!” at the bareback rider and the clown was standing on his head. There was a sinister roar; a terrific stroke of the wind; the center pole swayed and snapped; the great canvas swelled and beat the air with bellowing resistance.
Pandemonium reigned. In the confusion Ninette found herself down beneath piled up benches. Still clutching the baby, she proceeded to crawl out of an opening in the canvas. She stayed huddled up against the fallen tent, thinking her end had come, while the baby shrieked lustily.
The rain poured in sheets. The cries and howls of the frightened animals were like unearthly sounds. Men called and shouted; children screamed; women went into hysterics and the negroes were having fits.
Ninette got on her knees and prayed to God to keep her and the baby and everyone from injury and to take them safely home. It was thus that Mons. Perrault discovered her and the baby, half covered by the fallen tent.
She did not seem to recover from the shock. Days afterward, Ninette was going about in a most unhappy frame of mind, with a wretched look upon her face. She was often covered in tears.
When her condition began to grow monotonous and depressing, her grandmother insisted upon knowing the cause of it. Then it was that she confessed her wickedness and claimed the guilt of having caused the terrible catastrophe at the circus.
It was her fault that a horse had been killed; it was her fault if an old gentleman had had a collar-bone broken and a lady an arm dislocated. She was the cause of several persons having been thrown into fits and hysterics. All her fault! She it was who had called rain down upon their heads and thus had she been punished!
It was a very delicate matter for grandmother Bézeau to pronounce upon far too delicate. So the next day she went and explained it all to the priest and got him to come over and talk to Ninette.
The girl was at the table under the mulberry tree peeling potatoes when the priest arrived. He was a jolly little man who did not like to take things too seriously. So he advanced over the short, tufted grass, bowling low to the ground and making deep salutations with his hat.
“I am overwhelmed,” he said, “at finding myself in the presence of the wonderful Magician! who has but to call upon the rain and down it comes. She whistles for the wind and there it is! Pray, what weather will you give us this afternoon, fair Sorceress?” Then he became serious and frowning, straightened himself and rapped his stick upon the table. “What foolishness is this I hear? Look at me; look at me!” for she was covering her face, “and who are you, I should like to know, that you dare think you can control the elements!”
Well, they made a great deal of fuss of Ninette and she felt ashamed.
But Mons. Perrault came over; he understood best of all. He took grandmother and grandfather aside and told them that the girl was morbid from staying so much with old people, and never associating with those of her own age. He was very impressive and convincing. He frightened them, for he hinted vaguely at terrible consequences to the child’s intellect.
He must have touched their hearts, for they both consented to let her go to a birthday party over at his house the following day. Grandfather Bézeau even declared that if it was necessary he would contribute towards providing her with a suitable toilet for the occasion.