The Arabian Days of Jimmy Jennette
"He was the calif in the streets of Bagdad as he sucked his twenty-first ice-cream cone."
The Arabian Days of Jimmy Jennette
By ETHEL WATTS MUMFORD
Author of "How Beelzebub Came to the Convent," etc.
THE trained nurse in charge of the hospital, The Lost and Found Child Department, and lady high custodian of the "Infant Incubator Exhibit," raised her well-arched brows.
"You don't mean to tell me, Mr. Jennette, that you turn that boy loose here! Why, it 'll kill the child."
Jimmy, with ecstatic eyes fixed on the distant lemon-yellow shape of the high-wire artist, nibbled his seventh ice-cream cone and sighed happily. Jimmy's father wrinkled his nose and blinked his pale-blue, humorous eyes.
"I must confess, Miss Alehan, we don't interfere with him much. We found, his mother and I, that he fretted himself sick when he was n't allowed the run of the place, and we 've got a notion it's healthier to let him get plain tired out, and bursting full of pop-corn and ice-cream and soda and 'dogs,' and then have the doctor for a week. He gets over it in great shape, and after that he's in training for the rest of the season. When all's said and done, why spoil it all? He's only eight; all the tinsel is real. It's all gold and diamonds and fairy-land,—fairy-land you don't wake up from,—and lasts every day and all day."
Miss Mehan looked scientific disapproval, and, to do her justice, what she had seen of Jimmy's activities and appetite was enough to horrify her accurate sense of healthy equilibrium.
"Mark my words," she said sorrowfully; "something is going to happen to that boy. Monsieur Daniel took him into the lions' den, and I saw him following around after that dreadful dancer in the Midway. Those Orientals are always fighting, and Jimmy's sure to get in it."
"I don't doubt it," said Jimmy's father, resignedly; "but he 'll subdue them all,—he always does,—and, besides, he's just as dangerous when he's home. Last week I caught him setting off fire-crackers under a contractor's dynamite wagon. Honestly, I feel lot safer when he's here, and it takes a crowd of about two hundred thousand to take care of him."
"Of course," Miss Melian admitted, "you 're his father, Mr. Jennette; but I must say, I do not consider an amusement ark the proper place in which to bring up a child." She turned away as the deputy nurse appeared at the side entrance of "Concession B" and indicated in pantomime that the crowd was awaiting the lecture in the incubator-room.
Mr. Chester Jennette, general manager of "The World's Greatest Spectacular Playground," scratched his red head contemplatively and stared at his son. Perhaps Miss Mehan was right, but he and Edna somehow could n't deny the youngster the glamour and glory of these, his Arabian, days. Perhaps Jimmy's manners were an unpolished reflection of the cosmopolitan, heterogeneous throng of the employees of the big show, perhaps his language did need pruning; but what was lost in these branches of education was doubly gained in his ability to take care of himself, to make friends, to adjust himself, chameleon-like, to all the diversified creeds, customs, and codes with which, as the "boss's boy," he came in daily contact.
"Shucks!" said Jennette, "I only wish I could have had his chance. It must be perpetual heaven." He turned away with a whimsical sigh as Hamil, the Greco-Jewish camel-driver from Cairo, approached with waving hands.
"Boss," he wailed, "that Jimmee he wan' ride Menelik, the black camel, all time. He no pay—"
"Oh, well, let him." The blue Irish eyes looked into the excited brown ones. "Let him, for heaven's sake! He 'll be tired of camels by to-morrow. By all means, Hamil, get Menelik out of his system."
"Susteem?" repeated Hamil.
The manager came back to earth.
"Sure, Hamil; let Jimmy have the run of the whole Midway. Let him eat it up. And," he unwisely added, by way of further enforcing the freedom of the city which he accorded his small son, "if he wants La belle Fatima to teach him the 'coochy-cooch,' tell her to go to it."
The camel-driver retired in confusion to tell his tale in the bazaar. It lost nothing in the telling.
Fatima received her orders to impart her art to the infant man-child with wide-eyed horror. Kula, "the Bride of the Desert," and Zabelle, "the Armenian Captive," were equally nonplussed. Yusuf, the magician, Haji, the brass-worker, Ibrahim, virtuoso of the peacock-zither, and Abdul, the owner of the four gorgeously bedecked camels, received the story of Hamil with amazed incredulity. Were they all to be under the heel of this infant? It was most strange. They would await the coming of Ben Ali Hassan, hereditary saint and general manager of all good Mohammedans in this land of sun-struck infidels. Hassan would explain the mystery.
At this juncture Kiera, astrologer, fortune-teller, and general mystic-of-all-work, came slowly forward, swathed in her veils of black and purple. She heard the story with interest dawning in her pale-irised eyes.
"So—a man-child to whom is given command. That is not of every day; that is even as the babe of Hassan, who, by virtue of the blood of the prophet, inherits the green turban, though he have not been to holy Mecca. But what manner of infidel is this to whose suckling is given such power?"
"Perhaps he is born under Amerikine planets," suggested Kula, hitching her spangled hip scarf. "Kiera,"—she raised her heavy eyebrows, which met above her small nose with true Oriental perfection,—"if Allah grants thee knowledge of the heavens, read thou his horoscope, if thou canst." She turned away sneering, and, swaying with self-conscious grace, crossed the tessellated square, surrounded by cardboard houses and papier-mâché mosques, to the performance tent.
"Did ye hear her?" she snarled. "She would mock me, and pretend that I cannot read the stars! Wait, I will read the future of the man-child, though the heavens fall. Alas! that Achmet Ben Ahr is outside with the ballyhoo. He knows her for what she is, and he shall tell her."
"Quarrel thy quarrels, woman, with thine own kind, and seek not to embroil others," said Ibrahim. "Leave Ben Ahr to his ballyhoo. He is no man of thine."
"Nor of hers," raged Kiera.
"Therefore cease thy talk," admonished Ibrahim. "It is enough." He walked away with stately tread, and took his stand behind the foolish gray-suited American who presumed to engage Riza the crafty in a game of chess at twenty-five cents per game.
But Kiera's hot Southern soul was boiling, and she sought her tent, curtly refusing to read the palms of two white-clad, highly perfumed ladies who dug into silver-mesh bags for "a piece of change."
For months now Kula had badgered and insulted "the Greatest Seeress in the Western Hemisphere," and the G. S. of the W. H.'s small stock of patience was exhausted. Here they were starting in a new season with the big park, and Kula was already beginning her belittling insinuations and sneers. Kiera snorted like a blooded war-horse. She would steal Achmet's knife, and then!
She was deflected from her thoughts of gory reprisal by the appearance of a small boy in a white suit, nibbling an ice-cream cone. The boy had an alert, serious face; a pair of pale-blue, imaginative, wide-set eyes; a shingling of freckles on his peeling, sunburned nose; a capacious mouth; and outstanding ears that upheld a white duck "crew" cap. He advanced to Menelik, the black camel, and with a proprietary air tweaked the colored wool tassels and shell ornaments of the big beast's halter. Then he looked about for Hamil, now absorbed in the game of chess proceeding on the big Kurdish carpet by the mosque entrance, changed his mind, peeled a strip of skin from his nose, gazed at it meditatively, then, catching the inquiring, pale-irised eyes gazing at him above the black and purple veils, he advanced, and laid two little monkey hands on the table before Kiera.
"You 're the psy-cho-log-i-cal wonder and mind-reader, are n't you?" he inquired. "Gee! that must be great!"
"Twenty-fi' cents, please," said the psythological wonder.
The boy looked at her wide-eyed.
"Huh, I'm Jimmy—Jimmy Jennette."
Kiera looked at him with new interest.
"Ah, so you are to learn to dance by Fatima?"
"Me!" gasped Jimmy, overcome by the suggestion. "Not on your tin-type! What 'd I want to learn to dance for? Why, the armless wonder is going to show me how to swallow swords! Say, can you tell me if us 'Coney Island Giants' is going to lick 'the Sea Gate Senators' in the next game?"
He talked in riddles, this to-be-obeyed man-child; but Kiera understood clearly that he scorned to learn from Fatima with a great scorn, and longed for swords, as was the birthright of the son of a chief.
"How old are you?" inquired the seeress.
"I'm eight," said Jimmy, with a proud swagger.
"What mont', what day?" Kiera persisted.
"Day before yesterday," admitted Jimmy, reluctantly. He preferred to be "going on nine."
"What hour—you know what hour?" the veiled one inquired.
Jimmy looked puzzled.
"Well," he said at length, "mother says I began yelling at four in the morning, and I 've been wakin' her up regular ever since. Guess I do wake up sort of early," he allowed. "Bed's awful' slow."
The mystic lady was jotting down various symbols and strange characters. Jimmy regarded the pad with disapproval.
"I can write clearer than that," he bragged. "What's that a picture of?" He looked upon the sign of Cancer on the heading of the paper. "I can dror an Indian," he proudly informed her. "The feller in the burned-leather booth showed me how. Why don't you get him to show you how to dror?"
Kiera finished her notes with a flourish.
"I shall see your stars," she said, and smiled down at the boy's eager face. "I think you shall one day be a very big, great man."
Jimmy nodded gravely.
"Sure," he agreed, and the final morsel of ice-cream cone disappeared within his cavernous mouth, shutting off further communication for the time being. His eyes, however, were endeavoring to impart something of importance. The last of the dainty quite visibly descending beneath the white skin of his thin little throat, the line of communication was at last open. "You bet I 'm going to be a great man! Moonsoor Daniel is going to teach me how to be a lion-tamer. Gee!" he stood silent, in awe of his own future prowess. "Gee!"
"You shall conquer more than lions," affirmed the reader of the heavens; "even men and women."
Jimmy looked unconvinced.
"You oughter hear 'em roar," he said, his mind wholly concentrated on his chosen profession. Yusuf sedately crossed to the booth. Jimmy turned upon him his interested gaze. "Gee! that's the magician. I saw him grow a flower in a pot out on the ballyhoo." He considered the master of the genii with a practical eye. "Dad says he pays him twenty-five dollars a week, and the head gardener for the grounds gets fifty dollars. Why don't he garden?" There seemed no answer to this obviously good advice, and Jimmy's mind had already disposed of that angle of the proposition. "I'm gonna stay for the show," he announced as one conferring a favor. "You 're awful' long between shows. When does it start?"
Yusuf received the question as a command.
"But now, O Son of the Boss; to hear is to obey." He waved Jimmy toward the rows of benches fronting the platform, upon which a gaudy tent of turkey red, hung with bright rugs made in Pennsylvania, sought to impress the audience with a true conception of the beauty and luxury of a sultan's harem. A number of people were already seated, expectantly gazing at this alluring interior. Yusuf marched off, corralled the various performers, and shepherded them to the rear entrance of the tent.
"The boss-child is in front," he informed them. "He desires us to begin. It is five minutes before the hour, but I have said we obey."
Obediently the members of the troupe took their places, one behind the other on the back stairs, and entered the rear flap of the stage in solemn order: first the two boy athletes, beating on tom-toms and crooning a nasal singsong; then the zither-player, with his highly colored instrument; Abdul Baa, with a guitar, ushering in the prides of the harem, Fatima, Kula, Zabelle, and Kiera, who took their places on the cushioned divan. A moment later Haji, the brass-worker, disguised as the sultan, entered, attended by Yusuf, and, seating himself upon the dais, waved a grimy hand in sign of his readiness to be entertained.
Jimmy edged on the very tip of his seat as Yusuf, with a black velvet wand tipped with silver, conjured flowers galore from arid pots; produced pigeons from the beard of Yusuf, where, indeed, they might well have hatched; and quite painlessly poured fire from his finger-tips; then he rolled two pigeons together and produced a ruffled and protesting parrot, and—the trouble began. Instead of flying to his cage, the parrot chose to hang upside down from the fringe of the tent. His master cursed under his breath, but forbore to notice the insubordination, and introduced Zabelle, the Armenian captive, who by a few passes was thrown into a hypnotic sleep, which produced the extraordinary result of suspending her in air with no visible means of support. The sultan, chewing gum, appeared quite callous to the liberties taken with his expensive slave until the parrot, having tired of the curtain as a perch, concluded that Zabelle's glittering head-dress offered a better, and alighted thereon, with small consideration for the captive's hair. Zabelle came out of her trance and shrieked for help. The sultan bent a furious glance—he was the captive's father— on the bungling magician; the magician whacked the parrot, which retorted angrily, and flew to the tent-flap, clawed its way up, and teetered on a guy-rope.
Angry and disgruntled, Zabelle was allowed to alight. The episode had descended from "Oriental mysticism" to plain farce, and the audience rocked with laughter, Jimmy's shriek of delight dominating all the rest with the shrill persistence of a siren. The troupe was thoroughly rattled, but resolved to retrieve itself before the all-important boss-child; for, behold! the boss-child was laughing them to scorn. That was not to be endured.
Fatima was hastily thrust forward, the peacock zither and the tom-toms struck up the accompaniment to her far-famed dance. But unfortunately the extraordinary information she had received—that she was to teach the "Garden of Love" pas seul to the son of the chief—threw her into a state bordering on panic. How, in the name of Allah, was one to teach a man-child of eight the dance of the Oured-Nails? With every gyration that set her beads jangling and her bangles ringing she felt more embarrassed and helpless. The Egyptians, commanded to make bricks without straw, had a task of sheer simplicity compared with that to which, for some reason beyond her Oriental guessing, she had been assigned.
"How, in Allah's name! How to do this impossibility?" She clapped her agile fingers on her silver cymbals absently and out of tune; her naturally rhythmic body became as wooden as an automaton, for her mind was questioning, "How, in the name of Allah, shall I teach a man-child of eight to do this!"
"Ha-ha, ah-ah-ah," chanted the musicians.
Desperately Fatima began the last circling preparatory to her final whirl.
"Ah-ah-ah! Camel!" hissed Yusuf under his breath as she passed. "Camel! No, dromedary! Thou wilt have us expelled from the park for thy most execrable dancing."
"Pariah dog and slaughter-house swine!" murmured the sultan's favorite, with tears of fury in her lustrous eyes.
Kula, the trouble-maker, broke into a sneering giggle.
"Does a man-child affright thee, O rose-leaf-footed teacher of dancing?" she jeered.
Kiera leaned forward.
"Thou art a gazelle, Fatima, compared with her at her best."
To the audience this badinage appeared as encouraging demonstrations of delight; but Kula's fingers twitched, and only the threatening brows of Yusuf and Haji made the serpent-tongued combatants withdraw to their own corners of the divan. Fatima made her bow, rushed to her place, and slammed herself full-length on the cushions. The sultan's palace had become the ragged edge of an active volcano.
Jimmy had observed the gyrations of Fatima with an uninterested eye. Over at the rival park, on the opposite side of teeming "Surf Avenue," they had a lady who wriggled with live snakes, a proceeding which had interested him immensely; but to wriggle without snakes was tiresome. He made a mental note to speak to his father about the forgotten reptiles. He often helped his father with reminders and suggestions. The performance on the platform began to pall. He had a gnawing impression that something was wrong; he missed something. Had he lost his extra handkerchief? A search revealed it securely pinned into his breast pocket, where his mother had placed it. His big horse-chestnut? No. His pocket-knife? Not that either; it was anchored to his belt by a stout piece of twine. He was puzzled. He looked away, wondering what that feeling of loss and emptiness might mean—a feeling almost as big as a recently pulled tooth.
The now thoroughly disorganized "Orient Midway Aggregation of Marvels" produced its next sensation, no other than the world-renowned Bride of the Desert in her unique juggling dance with six keen simitars. Kula, with a self-satisfied leer, advanced to the middle of the stage as the swords were brought forward on a red velvet stand. Kula was sure of her act. However the others might bungle, she at least never failed. It was to her unfailing quality that she owed her retention in the troupe. She might quarrel with whom she pleased; they could not afford to lose the applause that always attended her skilful manipulation of the curved and glittering blades. She cast a supercilious glance over her shoulder at la belle Fatima and grinned irritatingly at Kiera, who would have the handicap, not to say misfortune, of following her. The boss-child was a man-child, therefore the sight of steel must be his soul's desire, the quiver of leaping simitars a sight to thrill his warrior spirit, which, in ordinary circumstances, was quite true. But the feats of the sword-swallower in "Concession X" had literally dulled the point of her act. Jimmy was busily sorting his belongings and questioning himself as to the meaning of the mysterious craving that assailed him. He looked with interest at Kula for a moment or two, fascinated by the whirl of light she made of a shining sword, even awestruck at the manner she threw it aloft and caught it again, like a band-master, spinning it obediently on her extended forefinger. Then she crossed two weapons on the floor, and footed it neatly over and about the menacing points and edges, while she tossed four more in a continuous leaping fountain of writhing danger.
It was at this moment that Jimmy discovered what ailed him. He was hungry. He had n't had an ice-cream cone in an hour! He started to his feet, oblivious of the performance, and looked about, craning his neck to see over the heads of the people behind him. The all-important question must be answered, Was there an ice-cream cone station in the Midway?
Kula sensed a movement in the crowd in the region she sought to hold spellbound. It needed only the satisfied chuckle of Kiera behind her to throw her completely out of time. Through the glare of the swinging swords she saw the boss-child standing up, his back turned toward her, looking expectantly out over the empty square. She missed her count, the heavy simitar flew from her hand, sprang like a living thing across the platform, and clanged to the stage, half severing the main tent-rope as it fell. With a furious exclamation she steadied herself, spun the remaining swords in her right hand while she danced across, leaned over, secured the lost weapon and, returning, wheeled to the center, all four simitars revolving with the speed and precision of a fly-wheel. It was an extraordinary feat. The audience burst into a paroxysm of applause. But Kula's triumph was dust and ashes. She had failed to hold the attention of the boss-child, and all the troupe had seen it. She clashed the swords on the stand and, sullen and defiant, backed to her seat.
Jimmy, having located the sweetmeat shop, turned his attention once more to the stage. The veiled lady who had told him he would be a great lion-tamer some day was going to do something. A man in a blue coat and a fez was parading up and down the aisles that divided the audience, asking for watch numbers, hat sizes, coin dates, and various articles of adornment. The veiled lady with incredible rapidity repeated the numbers and dates, and otherwise proved her powers of mind-reading. The man with a fez produced a piece of blackboard and began to write down numbers. It reminded Jimmy of hated winter, its loathed lessons, and its detested arithmetic. He was disappointed that his friend should give such a silly performance, and then his whole being became absorbed in another act, not down on the program—an act the tragic realism of which could not be questioned. The insubordinate parrot, still teetering from the scalloped and fringed lambrequin that decorated the face of the tent, hung upside down to inspect the goings-on below.
Back in the shadow there appeared a lean, black shape—Hafiz, the Midway lucky cat. Slowly the wily cat progressed, his brilliant eyes fixed on the bird. Nearer and nearer he drew. The cat paused and looked upward, trying the ropes with a vicious claw. The ropes were too small to climb without making his presence known to his prey. With the philosophy and patience of his species, he sat back with dignity, pretending to blink at the heavens. When again, in conceit with himself, he tried the canvas side of the tent, it yielded to his weight. The height was not to be taken save by a storming process that must warn the quarry. Hafiz once more gazed into space and meditated. A plan hatched in his brain. With sinuous movements he writhed between the ropes, surmounted the bales and boxes that piled the side of the tent in semblance of the goods of a resting caravan, gained the foot of the yellow-and-red painted wall that divided the Midway from "Concession L" of "The Palm Beach Tropics and Glass-Bottomed Boat Recreation Pool," and sidled along the wall, his black body hugging the castellated parapet. Softly he dropped upon the top of the tent and slid, with outstretched paws, down its incline toward the metal rod from which depended the fringed and scalloped lambrequin to which the parrot still swung.
Jimmy had watched every move intently. At first his sympathies had been whole-heartedly with the cat, for some obscure primeval instinct that puts small boys inevitably on the side of the hunter rather than of the hunted; but as the lithe, black body slid down the tent nearer and nearer, his vivid imagination began to visualize the final pounce, the snatch of the black paws that would wrench their victim from its hold and escape with it to the inaccessible fortress of the dividing-wall before any one could interfere. The parrot hung by its beak, and executed a pirouette. The cat slid another inch nearer, was almost on the very edge of the outer rod. Jimmy rose stealthily. As velvet-footed as the cat, he slipped by the occupants of his bench, wriggled past the rope barrier, drew up a singularly light bale of what represented the priceless rugs of Ispahan, climbed on top, and reached for Hafiz.
His going had not been unobserved from the platform; indeed, his absent and concentrated gaze had been only too well noted by the "Bride of the Desert." Kiera, with bandaged eyes and sibilant voice, continued to add numbers she was not supposed to see, and describe jewelry she was announced to view only through the eyes of the Yogi in the red fez. Whether by clairvoyance or plain eyesight, she also beheld Jimmy rise from his seat and sneak away. She added up the column wrong, and failed to follow the signal or intuition which would give her the following watch number. Her ears were strained for the words—the fatal words she felt would come from Kula's vengeful mouth. The sweat stood on her temples. She knew that if Kula ever spoke those inevitable words, nothing but murder would ever appease her fury.
They came in the sharp whispered voice of her enemy, preceded by a sniggering laugh.
"It remained for thee to drive him altogether away!"
The storm broke. Kiera snatched the bandage from her eyes, and leaped upon Kula; Yusuf rushed to drag Fatima from the fray, into which she had launched herself with the quickness of light. He was intercepted by Haji, boiling with fury at the bungling of the magician who had spoiled Zabelle's act.
"Kiera! Kiera!" yelled the red-fezzed pundit, scrambling at the platform and unable in his excitement to scale it.
But now Kiera had Kula by the throat. In a still fury of long-suppressed hate they rolled among the cushions, one gasping contortion of tinsel and beads. The floor rolled with pearls; Koh-i-nurs lay all over the divans of the sultan's pavilion.
Jimmy, standing on tiptoe on the rug bale, had reached up warily for the cat when the thump of falling bodies and the scream of the onlookers struck him full at the apex of his reach. He was not frightened: he was too excited to know fear, but the start it caused him made him lose his balance; the bale rolled beneath his wildly kicking feet. With all his might he swung to the canvas top.
The simitar-severed guy-rope parted under the sudden strain. With a grinding rush the whole pavilion crumpled. To the breathless audience it seemed as if the flame of battle had been snuffed by a giant snuffer in the hand of fate.
The crumpled canvas heaved. but it was no longer with the struggle of destruction, but with the struggle to escape. On top of the heap sat Jimmy. The iron stanchion had bumped him cruelly, but he held the rescued parrot firmly in his left hand.
The parrot turned and bit him.
Said Miss Mehan. as she bound up the hole the ungrateful bird had bored in his rescuer's finger:
"I told you, Mr. Jennette, he was bound to get hurt. Take my advice, and send him home this minute."
"Oh," begged Jimmy, "Father, please, it hurts awful'. Lem me ride Menelik just one time more."
"And as I told Miss Mehan, he's subdued them all," said Jennette. "Go on, son; just one ride now."
Said Kiera, bending over her charts to Achmet, released from ballyhoo, "I have cast the horoscope of the boss-child. Behold! he shall be a leader. He shall go into far countries. Here are wealth and jewels and wives and banners and trumpeters. It is a marvel of a horoscope. Achmet, never have I seen such a one; and yet,—and here is the greatest marvel of all, for I understand it not,—now, at this very time, under these present auspices of the planets, I find the zenith of his happiness, a very apex of the pyramid of his being—now, even now."
"I understand it not," said Achmet. "He is but a babe."
The soft pad-pad of a camel's feet caused them to look up. Jimmy passed, high seated on the swaying black hump of Menelik, preceded by Hamil, chanting an improvised song in Arabic.
"Make way for the boss-child! Make way! Kismet he brings; wisdom is his. Allah shall guide his feet in the yellow sandals! Way for the boss-child!"
Jimmy swayed all over to the swing of the camel and Hamil's chant. He was so tired that he could hardly keep his seat, and the heaving of the great brute racked every aching bone in his little body. His finger hurt cruelly, the rapidly purpling lump on his head throbbed and burned; but he was the calif in the streets of Bagdad as he sucked his twenty-first ice-cream cone.