Writings by Susan Dickinson

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An Escapade That Was Spoiled by a Tragedy.
[Written by S. H. D. for The Sunday Republican.]

One of the joys of my girlhood was to hear a most attractive aunt, well on in years, relate, in a style and manner worthy a De Maupassant, her runaway experience in attending a travelling circus. With her pretty head set off by a dainty and becoming widow's cap of tarleton, a snowy lace folded about her neck, she would smooth down her satin gown with a deprecating touch and relate her escapade with a delightful sense of her own youthful daring and narrow escape from eternal torment. O ye fathers, - heads of families, good, saved church folks, ministers in regular standing, - as you genially gather your bright groups about you and flock to the circus tent nowadays, to see the animals mentioned in the Bible, and laugh at the fun without formula, and sentiments not exactly of the most strictly Matthew Arnold type, urged upon you by the clown, - have you heard, do you know, that this same circus was once held the very gate of hell, as its white tents were spread upon the green fields of our decorous valley towns and villages?

Perhaps all goodness and joy would be easier were it not for the "Thou shalt nots" of the Jewish interdictions, even to-day, for human nature loves a challenge, a hurdle, - or why else did this high-spirited, refined offshoot of New England's best, long for and surreptitiously plan to be one of the wicked, abandoned number who crowded "Van Deusen's greatest circus and menagerie in the world," in Geneva, N.Y. on a summer night - well - two lifetimes at least ago? In her own words, as I remember it, the story ran thus: -

"My brother, with whom I had a temporary home a tthat time, was already pledged to attend a religious meeting at a friend's house, with his wife, leaving the coast clear for my departure at 7 o'clock with my escort, a very nice young man, who was received as a recognized caller in the home. Besides being quite handsome, he was not overaddicted to the strictest religious observances. That is, he was sensitive to the pleasant aromas of life. It was a hazardous enterprise we were undertaking, for he admitted we could not possibly get back before 9.30, - or perhaps even as late as 10.

"So far in my life my excitements had been in rather a minor key, the wildest of all culminating in my brother's commencement at Yale college, before there were any balls or other diversions from education and religion. The mere anticipation of this adventure took my breath away. The start was easy and favored by circumstances. It was arranged that the return of the family should precede ours, and I trusted to luck that my sister would think me in bed and asleep on her return, and no difficulties would arise from that cause to betray the secrecy of our plan. As there were no street cars or stages, the walk to the dreary, empty fields, well out of the village, took more time than we had counted upon. We missed the triumphal entree, which, as shown by the posters, must have been most impressive, but got good seats in the very front row, everything else having been filled earlier. Of course there was not one familiar face near me, and as I was dressed very plainly, with my cottage bonnet tied closely under my chin, I felt sure I should not be

easily recognized in any case. My excitement was intense beyond description. I think the animals of Noah's ark that had been so strenuously advertised as an apology, or cover, for the wicked pleasure of the circus, must have been quite feeble and moth-eaten. There was only one elephant, and he was so languid and subdued there could have been little thrill in the chariot race around the ring, 'freely offered to all!'

"The queer, dismal sounds from the cages of course lent an almost frightful suggestion of jungles, and wild places and things far away, as did the strange chokings and squawking of foreign feathered things behind their bars. The one white bear from Greenland fascinated me, until a voice near my elbow insisted that it was probably a black one painted, and a sudden twinge of guilt pierced me as the old line of that chill region, so often sung in my chidhood, rang in my ears, -

From Greenland's icy mountains.
The highly trained animals vividly promised in the bills resulted in a few Shetland ponies, and two superannuated monkeys full of repulsive tricks, and in their looks fiends incarnate.

"As I said, we had missed the grand entree, but when the bareback riders, the Ladies Francesca de Moro and Syringa del Spagna, rode into the ring, they more than made up for our loss. Their short, stiff, spangled skirts and pink silk tights, with dainty slippers to match their handsome arms and necks, their red cheeks and black hair and staring eyes filled me with delight. I had never seen anything like them. With utter ease and grace they sat their gorgeously caparisoned black 'Arabian steeds,' and rode slowly around the ring of sawdust at first, as if to accustom us to their wonder, while the ringmaster, elegantly dressed, as if to give a dinner to the mayor in Main street to-day, curved and uncurved his long, fancy whiplash in the air, to excite the gentle, broken-willed horses, and recited the marvelous performances of these dazzling creatures about to be beheld. Back and forth they rode and whirled and danced to a music completely taking, if not classic. The drum blared out as if to dare us all to dashing feats. Donna Syringa del Spagna came out alone for a climax, riding quite without bridle, standing while her horse ran at full speed, or clinging to its flowing mane, reversing every known habit of the saddle as she leapt over bars held high, and through hoops, till, tossing kisses and smiles to everyone in the tent, she disappeared in the calico curtains.

"I was radiantly happy, and forgot my brother and sister at prayer-meeting. The clown was as yet unseen. Soon a noisy applause roused us almost to fright, and a great, gay, painted creature came shambling into the ring. And this was a circus clown! That low, awful thing of which I had heard hints, - and, sad to say, I was perfectly carried away with him! He ran about the ring in a wild fashion, imitating the pompous ringmaster with every imaginable amusing grimace and quip. With what audacity he asked: 'Mr Sheldon, did you ever see so many homely men as are here to-night? But, oh, such lovely ladies! I should think you would want to marry them all!' 'Can't you dance for them, sing for them, or do somethign to please them?' suggested the fine Mr Sheldon. 'Oh, yes, certainly, just watch me!' was the reply, and then followed every conceivable antic and joke, ending with the old song, 'How I loved Annie Lee!'

"Two delicate limbed tumblers then hopped from behind the curtains into the ring to most exciting flourishes of the band, turning somersaults and standing on their heads. Our jolly painted friend now convulsed the people by following them in derisive attempts to perform their agile feats. Back and forth, up and down, here and there her flew, at least outdoing them all and fairly astonishing to see. When some bars were placed for a display of leaping, he flew quickly over them, under them, still a point higher, while the band urged louder to up and on! Over

Martha Dickinson Bianchi Scrapbook, St. A. 126,
Martha Dickinson Bianchi Collection,
John Hay Library, Brown University Libraries

and beyond the best he went in his grotesque red and yellow bravery. The crowd yelled their joy with the craze of the clown - exciting him to more. But he does not get up. He is shamming now. He is waiting to do something funnier yet. Of a sudden it is still - still - he does not move. He has broken his neck. Without any word, light careless feet ran behind the curtains with the pallid creature of fun. He was dead. I was scared beyond control and clutched my friend's arm, burying my face on his shoulder and crying like a child, brokenly imploring 'O take me home, take me home!'

"Poor fellow, he did take me home but I ran almost every step of the way, sobbing in a shaken fashion. I clambered in the rose trellis, refusing his tender offers of assistance, sprang through my open window, and threw myself on my bed where I cried until dawn; while over and over my young conscience urged, 'It would not have happened if I had not gone!'

"My eyes were red at breakfast, confirming my life of a bad headache, but for that I cared nothing. Only the poor, dead, clown was grieving me to death. In proper time my escort, - I will only call him Mr B., for his own sake, since he is a Sunday-school superintendent now and his early life must not be traduced, - called to inquire for me. But as others were calling, too, we were obliged to carry on our conversation in cipher. A letter received from him soon after brought the climax of my circus woes. It was a proposal of marriage, a very nice, manly love letter, asking me to let him care for me through all life's woes and srorows - and so on. I was very young and very much more scared than even when I saw the poor clown fall. I again locked myself in my room, and wrote my refusal of his life guard. I remember only one sentence verbatim, - wishing to seem gentle and throw in a touch of sentiment, at the close of the note, I exclaimed, 'How can you be such a very foolish man, as to let the ivy of your affections twine around such a stubborn oak as I am.'"

Here, my aunt, a tiny little body, always covered her roguish face with her slender white fingers, laughing heartily. After which she would sometimes add - "There are some verses about a clown that impress me deeply. Are we not always saddest when we sing?" And she would recite in her soft staccata voice the following lines: -

Fool in the day! But when alone at night
Swift comes the right;
Cooling the fevered fancy for the time,
Changing to God's own soul the mime -
Shall I not thankful be -
Rejoice in ecstasy?

High thought the nonce! To-morrow can and bells!
O hell of hells!
Hush, hush again! I tell thee fevered soul
Cometh a day, when thou i' faith all whole,
Shall clasp the Father's hand,
Shall know and understand.

At the end there was never a gleam of mischief left on her face, and the brilliant dark eyes held a hint of real tragedy, as if the years had set her back in that fatal night of her girlhood again.

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Transcription and commentary copyright 1998 by Martha Nell Smith,
Laura Elyn Lauth, and Lara Vetter, all rights reserved
Maintained by Rebecca Mooney  <rnmooney@umd.edu>
Last updated on January 23, 2008

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