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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Madam Delia's Expectations

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Stephen and his little sister strolled about the tent meanwhile. The final preparations went slowly on. The few spectators teased the ant-eater in one corner, or the first violin in another. One or two young farmers' boys were a little uproarious with egg-pop, and danced awkward breakdowns at the end of the tent. Then a cracked bell sounded and the curtain rose, showing hardly more of the stage than was plainly visible before.

Little Gerty, aged ten, came in first, all rumpled gauze and tarnished spangles, to sing. In a poor little voice, feebler and shriller than the chattering of the monkeys, she sang a song about the "Grecian Bend," and enacted the same, walking round and round the stage whirling her tawdry finery. Then Anne, aged twelve, came in as a boy and joined her. Both the girls had rather pretty features, blue eyes, and tightly curling hair; both had pleasing faces; but Anne was solid and phlegmatic, while Gerty was keen and flexible as a weasel, and almost as thin. Presently Anne went out and reappeared as "Master Bobby" of the hills, making love to Gerty in that capacity, through song and dance. Then Gerty was transformed by the addition of a single scarf into a "Highland Maid," and danced a fling; this quite gracefully, to the music of two violins. Exeunt the children and enter "Madam Delia and her pets."

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The show-woman had laid aside her velvet sack and appeared with bare neck and arms. Over her shoulders hung a rattlesnake fifteen feet long, while a smaller specimen curled from each hand. The reptiles put their cold, triangular faces against hers, they touched her lips, they squirmed around her; she tied their tails together in elastic knots that soon undid; they reared their heads above her black locks till she looked like a stage Medusa, then laid themselves lovingly on her shoulder, and hissed at the audience. Then she lay down on the stage and pillowed her head on the writhing mass. She opened her black bag and took out a tiny brown snake which she placidly transferred to her bosom; then turned to a barrel into which she plunged her arm and drew out a black, hissing coil of mingled heads and tails. Her keen, goodnatured face looked cheerfully at the audience through it all, and took away the feeling of disgust, and something of the excitement of fear.

The lady and the pets retiring, Gerty's hour of glory came. She hated singing and only half enjoyed character dancing, but in posturing she was in her glory. Dressed in soiled tights that showed every movement of her little body, she threw herself upon the stage with a hand-spring, then kissed her hand to the audience, and followed this by a back-somerset. Then she touched her head by anslow effort to her heels; then turned away, put her palms to the ground, raised her heels gradually in the air, and in this inverted position kissed first one hand, then the other, to the spectators. Then she crossed the stage in a series of somersets, then rolled back like a wheel; then held a hoop in her two hands and put her whole slender body through it, limb after limb. Then appeared Monsieur Comstock. He threw a hand-spring and gave her his feet to stand upon; she grasped them with her hands and inverted herself, her feet pointing skyward. Then he resumed the ordinary attitude of rational beings and she lay on her back across his uplifted palms, which supported her neck and feet; then she curled herself backward around his waist, almost touching head and heels. Indeed, whatever the snakes had done to Madam Delia, Gerty seemed possessed with a wish to do to Monsieur Comstock, all but the kissing. Then that eminent foreigner vanished, and the odors of his pipe came faintly through the tattered curtain, while Anne entered to help Gerty in the higher branches.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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