Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Continuation of the Gymnast's Reminiscences - Circus Men in Difficulties - Heavy Security for a small Debt - The Sheriffs Officer and the Elephant - Taking Refuge with the Lions - Another Provincial Tour - With a Circus in Dublin - A Joke in the wrong place - A Fenian Hoax - A Case of Pikes - Return to England - At the Kentish Watering-places - Off to the North.
‘SEVERAL weeks elapsed before I got another engagement. Two gymnasts can do so much more showy and sensational a performance than one can, that a single slang doesn't go near so well as a double one, and it is, in consequence, only those who produce something novel, such as Jean Price's long flight and Avolo's performance on two bars, who can procure single-handed engagements. Knowing this to be the case, I looked about for a new partner, and found that the Brothers Athos had separated, and that one of them was in just the same fix as myself. When we met, and talked the matter over, however, a difficulty arose in the fact that we had both worked as bearers, - that is, we had supported our respective partners in the double tricks, that require one man to bear the entire weight of the other, as in the drop, or when one, hanging by the hocks, holds a single trapeze for the other to do a trick or two upon beneath him. Our respective necessities might have urged us to overcome this difficulty if Christmas had not been approaching, at which season unemployed gymnasts and acrobats often obtain engagements at the theatres, as demons and sprites. Athos got an engagement to sprite at the East London, and I was left out in the cold.
'Newsome's circus bad moved, in the mean time, from Scarborough to Middlesborough, where some changes were made in the company. Burgess and two or three more left, and my late partner was among them. I heard afterwards one of the many stories that are current in circuses of the devices resorted to by circus men in difficulties to evade arrest. A friend of one of the parties who had ceased to belong to Newsome's company called at the house where he had lodged, and found that be had left, and that his landlady didn't know where he had gone to.
' "But I am sure to see him again," said she, “for he has left a large box, so heavy that I can't move it."
‘ “Then you can have good security for what he owes you," observed the friend. “I suppose he owes you something?”
‘ “Well, yes," rejoined the woman, "he does owe me something for board and lodging."
'Her lodger never returned, however, and his friend meeting him some time afterwards in York, alluded to the manner in which he had "mysteriously dried up," as his friend called it.
‘ “Ah, I was under a heavy cloud!" observed the defaulter. "What did the old lady say about me?"
"That she was sure to see you again, because you had left a heavy box in the room you occupied," replied his friend.
' "I should think it was heavy," said the other. Couldn't move it, could she?"
'His friend replied in the negative, and he laughed so heartily that he spilled some of the ale he was drinking.
‘ “What is the joke?" inquired his friend.
‘ “Why, you see, the box was once full of togs," replied the mysterious lodger, "but when I left Middlesborough such of them as were not adorning the person of this swell were hypothecated."
‘ “What is the meaning of that hard word?” inquired a third circus man who was present.
' "In the vulgar tongue, up the spout," replied the defaulter.
' "Then what made the box so heavy?" inquired his friend.
‘ “A score of bricks," suggested the third party.
‘ “Wrong, cully," said the Artful Dodger. “I couldn't have smuggled bricks into the room without being observed; but a big screw went through the bottom of the box, and held it fast to the floor."
'Another of the stories I have alluded to relates to a man that used to look after an elephant in a circus, and put him through his performance. He got pretty deeply in debt - the man I mean - in a midland town where the circus had been staying some time, and his creditor, not being able to obtain payment, and finding that the company were about to remove to another town, determined to arrest him.
'The cavalcade of horses, performing mules, camels, and other quadrupeds was just ready to start from the circus when the sheriffs officer appeared on the scene, and tapped his man on the shoulder. He was recognized at a glance, and the man ran into the stables, with the sheriffs officer after him. Running to the elephant, the debtor dived under its belly, and took up a safe position on the other side of the beast. The officer attempted a passage in the rear, but was cut off by a sudden movement of the elephant's hind quarters. Then he screwed up his courage for a dive under the animal's belly, but the, beast turned its head, and fetched him a slap with its trunk.
' "I'll have you, if I wait here all day," said he, as he drew back hastily.
' "You had better not wait till I unfasten this chain," says the elephant keeper, pretending to do what he threatened.
‘The officer growled, and went off to find the proprietor; but he didn't succeed, and when he returned to the stables, his man was gone. That was as good a dodge as the lion-tamer's, who, when the officers went to the circus to arrest him, took refuge in the cage containing the lions. They looked through the grating, and saw him in the midst of a group of lions and lionesses. They were philosophic enough to console themselves with the reflection that their man would come out when he wanted his dinner; but they had not waited long when the lions began to roar.
' "The lions are getting hungry," says the keeper. "If he lets them out of the cage, you will have to run."
'The officers exchanged frightened glances, and were out of the show in two minutes.
'To return to my story; my late partner found himself in much the same fix as myself, and this discovery paved the way for a mutual friend to bridge over the gulf that had kept us apart. As soon as we had agreed to work together again, we got a twelve nights' engagement at the Prince of Wales concert-hall at Wolverhampton. We found the other professionals engaged there very good people to pal with, and spent Christmas Day with the comic singer and his wife, two niggers also being of the party, and bringing their banjo and bones to promote its hilarity. While we were in Wolverhampton, we arranged for twelve nights, to follow, at the London Museum music-hall at Birmingham, which has received its name from the cases of stuffed birds and small animals of all kinds, which cover all the wall space of the front of the bar and the passage leading to the hall. After our twelve nights there, we were engaged for six nights longer; and then we went down to Oldham, for a twelve nights' engagement at the Cooperative Hall. For all these engagements, and for all we made afterwards, the terms we obtained were four pounds ten a week.
‘Our next engagement was with a circus in Dublin, to which city we crossed from Liverpool. The company and stud of this concern were very different in strength and quality to Newsome's, and they were doing very poor business. It is very seldom that a circus proprietor ventures upon the experiment of an Irish tour, which more rarely pays, both because of the poverty of the people, and the difficulty which all caterers for their amusement find in avoiding grounds for manifestations of national antipathies between English and Irish. Of this we had an instance on the first night of our engagement. I dare say you have heard Sam Collins or Harry Baker, or some other Irish comique, interlard a song with a spoken flourish about the Irish, something after this fashion: - "Who was it made the French run at Waterloo? The Irish! Who won all the battles in the Crimea? The Irish! Who put down the rebellion in India? The Irish! Who mans your men of war and recruits your army The Irish! Who builds all your houses and churches? The Irish! Who builds your prisons and your workhouses? The Irish! And who fills them? The Irish!" In England this is laughed at, even by the Irish themselves; but in Ireland nothing of the kind is tolerated. One of the clowns delivered himself of this stuff in the ring, and was warmly applauded until the anticlimax was reached, when such a howl burst forth as I shouldn't have thought the human voice could utter. The fellows in the gallery jumped up, and raved, stamped, gesticulated, as if they were Ojibbeways performing a war-dance; and everybody expected that the seats would be pulled up, and flung into the ring, as had been done in another circus, under something similar circumstances, some time before. But the storm was hushed as suddenly as it arose. It happened fortunately that our performance was next in the programme, and that, knowing how popular everything American was in Ireland, we had provided for its musical accompaniment a fantasia on American national airs, such as “Yankee Doodle," "Hail, Columbia!" and "The star-spangled banner." The band struck up this music as the offending clown ran out of the ring, expecting to have a bottle flung at his head, and the howlers in the gallery hearing it, and seeing pink stars on our white trunks, thought we were Yankees. The effect of our appearance, and of the music, was like pouring oil on the waves. The howling ceased, and harmony was restored as suddenly as it had been interrupted.
'This was the time, you must know, when the Fenian plot was in everybody's mouth, and when the wildest rumours were in circulation of an intended rising in Ireland, and the coming of Americans, or rather Americanized Irishmen, to support it. One day, while we were in Dublin, a superintendent of constabulary received an anonymous letter, informing him that a case of pikes had been buried at a spot near the Liffey, which was so particularly described that the men who were sent to search for it had no difficulty in finding it. When they had dug a pretty deep hole, they found a deal box, which was raised to the surface, and carted off to a police-station, with an escort of constabulary. It was opened in the presence of the superintendent, and there were the pikes! - not such as Slievenamon bristled with in '48, but a couple of stale fishes.
'Before leaving Dublin, we arranged for a twelve nights' engagement at the Alexandra music-hall, at Ramsgate, which, as you perhaps know, is under the same management as the Raglan, in London. The Sisters Bullen, and Miss Lucette, and the Brothers Keeling were at the Alexandra at the same time; and, as music-hall professionals are, as a rule, disposed to fraternize with each other, we had a very pleasant time. From Ramsgate we went to Dover, for twelve nights at the Clarence music-hall, and then back to Ramsgate for another twelve nights at the Alexandra.
'Among the professionals engaged for the following week at the Clarence was a versatile lady bearing the name of Cora Woski, and the town, during the second week of our engagement, was placarded with the inquiry, "Have you seen Cora?" This soon became a common question in the streets, and at all places of public resort; and one of the company, entering the Clarence on the day the bills appeared, without having seen one of them, was equally surprised and confused at being greeted with the inquiry, "Have you seen Cora?" He was only slightly acquainted with the querist, and it happened that he was engaged to marry the only lady of that rather uncommon name whom he knew.
' "What do you know of Cora?" he demanded, his face reddening as he frowned upon the questioner.
‘ "Why, she is coming here," returned the amused querist, who saw at once the cause of the young fellow's confusion.
' "How do you know?" was the next question of the bewildered artiste.
""How do I know? Why, it's all over the town," was the reply.
'A nudge from a friend drew the other's attention from his tormentor for a moment, and, following the direction of his friend's glance, he saw upon the wall one of the placards bearing the question with which he had been greeted on entering the bar.
'Engagements now followed each other pretty close. Returning to London after our second engagement at Ramsgate, we were soon afterwards engaged for twelve nights at Macfarlane's music-hall, Dundee, and six nights, to follow, at a similar place of amusement at Arbroath, under the same management. We found the Gregories there, with their performing dogs; and there was a ballet, in which the pretty illusion of Parkes's silver rain was introduced. No other engagement awaited us in the north when we left Arbroath, and we returned to Dundee, and from thence to London.'
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