Seumas O’Kelly – Billy the Clown


It came to pass that one day The Golden Barque was transformed into a temporary work-boat. The Boss. Hike, Calcutta, and the pock-marked man had their services commissioned for another crew.

Aboard came a carpenter and his assistants, among whom was Billy the Clown. There were great chests of tools, ladders, ropes, and building materials stacked on the deck. When the Boss saw his good ship crawling away with its new occupants, he walked down the village with a sigh, making straight for a shop, where he purchased a box of anti-bilious pills. These he tucked away in his waistcoat pocket «against the time the great raging winds would be coursing across the reaches of his stomach».

The new crew drew up The Golden Barque beside a lock, where work awaited them.
Billy gave his hat a touch, and it lay saucily on the side of his head. He winked a sly wink. Then he smirked with his flexible lips. His feet cut a few capers on the deck that suggested a rollicking dance. He sang a snatch of a song with a waltz air. His voice had a certain metallic quality. It was high-pitched, and as he sang he unconsciously swayed his body, for he was accustomed to oblige all parts of the house. He paused instinctively at the end of the verse to let an imaginary band get in a few quick, fetching bars. His hands were in his breeches pockets. They made vain efforts to expand his pants to the proportions of a pantaloon. At the wind-up of the verse he caught his hat, gave it an expert shot into the air. It went whirling about, and landed back perfectly on his head. He kissed hands right and left, and made some comic contortions of the body. Then he looked up, for The Golden Barque had entered the lock.

Billy saw the Terror for the first time. He was perched on the gate of the lock, thrown against the sky like the figure of a young god. His eyes were upon Billy. A round soft hat was pulled down on his head. There was a smile on the face under the shadow of the hat as elusive as the smile on the Mona Lisa. A hurley was held carelessly in the hands. The knickered legs were slightly crooked, the shanks spare. A rather vivid complexion brightened a round, mild face. Billy noted the sheen in a wisp of fair hair that showed over one of the ears. Then the lock-keeper came to open the sluice-gates, and the Terror disappeared.

Next evening, when the day’s work was over, Billy came on deck. The Terror was standing on the bank looking up at the boat. Billy smiled down at him, and Billy’s smiles were, through force of professional habit, extravagant.
«Come up here, sonny, until I talk to you,» Billy said at last.
The Terror walked up the two planks to the boat with a flattered smile. He stood looking at Billy as if he had been brought face to face with privileged to stand near, to behold one of the great men of the earth. Billy put out his hand.

The head of the Terror drooped. He looked as if the honour was more than a right to expect. His hand went out apologetically and they shook.
Then Billy sat down on a box. He was in a sociable mood. As he did so the Terror, whose eyes were hungering for details, observed that Billy shifted a lump of tobacco from one cheek to another. Presently he spat out, and the Terror got a whiff of the reek of the weed. He also noticed that Billy wore earrings. His face was leathery. A scar shone on one of the cheeks. He had hair on his hands. A belt about the waist looked as if it had the sole responsibility for holding his wardrobe together. It was buckled so loosely that it necessitated hitches at intervals, or otherwise calamities might occur. A longish, sinewy body, every nerve of which seemed alive, suggested a continuous impatience by little shiftings and movements. When he smiled his exaggerated smile he showed a row of strong teeth, with two prominent vacancies in front. A pair of bright, even audacious, grey eyes danced in his head, giving him a mixture of wildness and humour. The heart of the Terror was thrilled at the sight of Billy.

«What do they call you at home?» Billy asked, looking at the Terror through a slant in his eyes.
«They call me the Terror,» the other replied without any emotion.
«Why do they call you that? »
«Because oh, I don’t know they call it to me anyway. They call it to me because I do things.»
«Oh. You do things?»
«I do.»
«What kind of things?»
«The kind of things that I shouldn’t do things that I’m told not to do the things I have no right to do.»
«Oh, I see.» Billy’s jaw-bone was working incessantly, its movements very visible through the shining skin drawn tightly over the scar. He eyed the Terror up and down.
«What age are you?» Billy asked.
«Going on eleven.» the Terror made answer. As he looked up. Billy was conscious that for all the fair exterior there was no fear and very little shyness about the Terror.
They talked platitudes for some time, Billy putting the questions as to schools and books, the names of the people in the locality, the characteristics of the district, and the Terror supplying the answers to the best of his ability.
«Were you ever at a circus?» Billy asked suddenly.
The heart of the Terror leapt with rapture.
Here was the interest of his life; here was a chance of having his suspicions and hopes as to Billy verified or blasted ! With a sudden flow of talk the Terror told, breathlessly and delightedly, of all the circuses he had ever seen. He had the names of them all on the tip of his tongue, together with their individual features, their strong points and their shortcomings. Billy knew by him he had nightmares about circuses in his sleep in the night.
«I can stand on my head.» The Terror came out with this announcement abruptly. He paused, looking up at Billy. It was, by inference, now up against Billy to say what things he was able to do what circus feats he could perform. There was a certain subtlety in the Terror’s way of getting at Billy.
«Can you somersault?» Billy asked.
«No; not yet.»
Billy stood up, gave a few professional hops, raced a few yards down the deck, and then went head-over-heels so rapidly that the Terror could not say if his hands touched the boards. Billy bowed profoundly, then gave a few of his capers, suggesting funniosities, and returned to his seat on the box. The mouth of the Terror was partly open, his hands clutched in nervous grasps.
«Were you did you had you ever a circus?» The Terror spoke with awe, with a subdued emotion.
Billy reached out and caught the Terror in his arms. He lifted him off his feet and planked him down beside him on the box. The Terror sighed in sheer rapture.
«I sailed in ships, and was over seas and oceans» Billy said. «I was in countries where there are lions and tigers and crocodiles, elephants and cockatoos. I walked through jungles and I fought with redskins. Do you see that?» Billy put his finger into the shiny scar on his cheek.
«Yes,» the Terror said.
«Another fellow did that. It happened in a far country. We fell out. It was about a worn well, no matter. We fell out. He had a knife at the time. He coveted a bit of my cheek. Then I well, no matter about that either.»
«Where is the other fellow now?»
«He is in a place very far away awful far, and it’s a place with a strong climate.»
«Are there lions and tigers in it?»
«There are, my son. And there are dragons and things with fiery eyes, steam coming out of their nostrils, and flames from their mouths. It’s a very far country, and he is having a rotten time. Maybe if he left me all my cheek he would now be eating figs. He loved figs. He was of a very deep complexion, and fond of a good deal of heat. But I expect he’d like a cold bath this minute if he could get it.»
«Was it he gave you the ear-rings?»
«No. The earrings belonged to her to his aunt, I mean. She gave them to me. I wore them ever since. She was a gipsy.»
«Well, I thought you were of a circus.» There was a note of regret in the tone of the Terror.
«So I am or was. I got tired of ships. I got tired of riding camels and too much sand. A desert is the greatest rot. You just face nothing for nothing. A blade of grass is a great luxury then. A wallet with water is a God-send. I’m damned but I’d sooner have the canal». Billy, as he said this, cocked his eye over the bow of The Golden Barque, there was a hiss through his teeth, and the Terror noted that some tobacco juice fell into the water. Billy was a splendid man, and no mistake.
The Terror began to swing his legs on the box. «I love circuses», he said.
«So do I in a way», Billy agreed. He hitched the belt that controlled his wardrobe. The Terror was vaguely conscious that Billy spoke with authority, that his qualification arose from knowledge.
«I was engaged in circuses», said Billy. «The first one was Sinclair’s famous circus. Great big fat man was Sinclair. Two pounds of beefsteak for breakfast first thing every morning. One pig’s head, two bolsters of cabbage, a stone of potatoes, washed down by a quart of stout, for dinner. It was the star turn of the show, but not on the programme. Sinclair said it was the constant change of air that sustained him in the appetite and enabled him to hold the championship for girth.» Billy looked down along his own lean, nervous body, and added pensively, «I was the clown.»
The pathos was lost on the Terror, who clapped his hands, excited by the trend of his own thoughts.
«I knew you were; I guessed you were. I said you were a clown the minute I saw you singing and leaping about on the boat. All you wanted was the the the the breeches, the one with the big wide legs.» The Terror illustrated pantaloons by gestures.
«I had the breeches all right» Billy said quietly. «What I wanted mostly was the screw».
Again the pathos was lost on the Terror, whose colour had heightened. «Were you ever anything else in the circus as well as the clown?» he asked hopefully.
«Oh, yes, indeed I was. Once I was the clown, the bare-back rider you know the North American Indian Chief stunt, the fellow that says, ‘Oh, the little baboono!’ the juggler with the balls, bottles, knives and plates the man on the trapeze the tightrope walker and the peace-maker in the dressing tent between the ringmaster and his wife, who used to suspend Sinclair from a grip in her mouth, her ankles alone holding to the trapeze. It was nothing to the grip she used to hold her husband, the ringmaster, by when she wasn’t working on her contract».
«I saw her», said the Terror. «She was great.»
«But she grew too heavy for the trapeze, and Sinclair got sensitive about being swung up scheduled in pink tights. So she took to going round on a horse with a padded back, pretending she was a sailor boy hoisting up imaginary sails on the masts, while the band played ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe,’ and she pawed the air with her feet ‘scuse the bull palming it off that she was dancing. Last I saw of her she had come off the programme, was wardrobe mistress, half-blind from stitching, and given to using bad language. And as for poor old Sine why, he became reduced to a skeleton. Could have gone on in a swimming bath as a herring and brought down the house.»
«But you you were the whole circus,» the Terror exclaimed, his admiration unbounded.
«I was the main prop» Billy allowed, with toleration. «I used to sleep under the canvas of the tent in an open waggon going from place to place, for we had to make a new village every day. I might waken an odd night to wink up at the stars. The show went off at cock-crow without me a couple of times. I had to follow on foot. I walked ten miles one morning with three snakes in my pockets, for they left them behind, too. I stuck it till they wanted me to take a sledgehammer, drive down all the crowbars to which the ropes of the tent were fastened, and to be dressed ready to mount fifteen-feet stilts for the mid-day procession. I just told them all to go to heaven that I was not fit for Paradise.»
A wave of poignant emotion filled the Terror. He felt that this splendid man had been wronged, and that even circus people could be unfeeling. He leaned a little against Billy’s rough coat in silent sympathy.
«What did they do without you?» he asked at last. He expected that the whole thing had at least collapsed when Billy withdrew his genius.
«They got somebody else», Billy said cheerfully. «I turned ugly before I went. You know I can be very nasty. I can do things just like you things I have no right to do and I was doing things after the show until the man that played the drums and the cymbals in the band came off his carriage; he had a drum-stick and came up from the rear. When I wakened again they were all gone. It was next morning»
«Did you ever go to another circus?»
«I did after a time. It was a nice little show. I got in favour there. The person that owned it thought something of me. I used to bring refreshments to the private carriage in a discreet way. I made good bargains for oats and hay for the horses; I brought down the expenses, and she liked that. There was a time that I was so high in favour that I had only to go out as chief clown, sing ‘Brigid Donohoe,’ and as an encore ‘The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door,’ tell six jokes that had red whiskers, kiss two girls in the pit, and have cold meat and beer for supper and Herself waiting on me putting lumps of sugar in my mouth, so to speak. I could live there for ever only well, no matter. It’s a wicked world.»
«What happened?» The face of the Terror was eager.
Billy hitched his belt. «Well, you see, this was the height of it. The man that was the husband of the person that owned the show was advance agent. He was always a week ahead of us, putting up posters and taking drink. One day he turned up when nobody expected or wanted him. He took a dislike to me and I left. He hurt my feelings.”
Billy stood up.
«Now, sonny» he said, «it’s getting late. You’ll be expected at home. I’m going to bed early, and I’d like a feed of something before I turn in.»
«Do you would you could you eat lettuce», the Terror asked, standing before Billy on the deck.
Billy whistled.
«My word», he said, chopping with his teeth. «The identical article with cold pig’s cheek. How did you think of it? I’d give my hat for a head.»
The Terror flew down the planks to the bank. Billy watched his figure disappear along the road.
«A nice wee kid», he said tolerantly. He stood on the deck looking into the water. It was dim in the uncertain light. Then something dropped in from the bank. He saw a little figure make a ripple on the surface and cut a way directly across, a small snout just visible. It was a water rat.
«Poor devil», Billy said, for his sympathies were broad. He knew what it was to fend for himself.
Some footsteps sounded on the road. The figure of the Terror came running along, clutching something in his arms. He ran up the planks.
«It will do you for tonight», he said, thrusting something into Billy’s hand. He turned on his heels and fled. Some of the heads of lettuce fell on to the deck. They were wet with dew. The clay around the roots was fresh. They had been hastily gathered. Billy picked it up and went down to the cabin humming.
The Terror lived in a state of mild ecstasy for some days. He was the confidant, the friend, of a great man, a man who had travelled the world and who now lived in a canal boat. There was no doubt as to his greatness. Look at the scar, the ear-rings, the way he could somersault, the way he could sing, the drollery in the movements of his legs. Going to school seemed a ridiculous, a tame business, when considered in relation to the great life that Billy stood for. Playing marbles with other boys was a pallid affair. He simply cut his companions. Seated on the box on The Golden Barque listening to Billy, looking at him, rubbing up against him, feeding him with pilfered lettuces! Why, if he had been allowed and able to feed wild animals it could not be more thrilling. The Terror hopped on one leg now and another again at the very thought of it.
One evening it would be a story of a far country, a country so hot that you lived upon peaches hanging down over your head wherever you went. Again it would be of a place where Billy had seen hailstones as large as cocoanuts, and so hard that one of them was known to split open the skull of a nigger. Again, it would be an affair in a canoe on a forest river where Billy had left a memory that would last for ever in the noodles of all crocodiles. Battles with hordes of mosquitoes in the air, struggles with serpents in the grass, a ride over sands in the desert astride an ostrich, scuttling a ship in the middle of the ocean it was perfect. And at the back of it all was the atmosphere of the circus, suggested by sudden snatches of songs in the middle of tropical sensations, the repetition of an encounter with the ringmaster, and the capers of Billy that made the Terror shriek with laughter. Then one evening the joy of it all was concentrated in the offer of Billy to make a pair of stilts on which he would teach the Terror to walk.
That was where the Terror came in, where he was able to astonish even Billy. The stilts were made, produced, practically embraced, and taken home with an exultant heart. Next evening, so apt was the pupil, so persistent the practice all day in the privacy of a backyard, that without any tuition, he was able to walk on them along by the hedge on the road to the boat. He came along with the eternal suggestion of a smile under the soft hat. Billy praised him a little but just imagine what a word of praise was from the man who had once been the whole performance in Sinclair’s famous circus! The Terror sat on the box with the stilts beside him, an expression of rapt ambition on his face. He would yet stride up to the stars on his stilts!
It was a heavenly week. The world throbbed. It was full of adventure that was only new-born, yet to be realised. The Terror by turns felt heroic, masterful, capable of devastation, the dispenser of horrors, of mercies, of kindnesses, of lacerations, of frightful deaths, of superb rescues, of melodramatic assertions of right over might.
But then came the week-end. The people on the boat went away to their wives and their homes for Sunday. Billy had no home and no wife to which he could go. Therefore, he was left in charge of The Golden Barque. He sat disconsolate on an upturned empty barrel. The prospect of an evening with the Terror, of the lettuces he would bring, was lacking in vividness. It seemed too much a part of the pastoral landscape about him. Some crows cried overhead, but even they had some social centre, some home, some rookery. A wandering seagull cried out, and brought a memory of places that the seas washed. A cow mewed over a hedge, her vocal tribute to the evening being one of utter desolation. As soon as Billy heard it he sprang to his feet, saying «That’s done it». He hitched his belt about him, walked down to the bank, and set his course for the village.
When the Terror arrived he found the boat deserted. He walked about the deck, explored the cabin. He left his stilts beside the box, and sat patiently until a lock-keeper came along.
«Are you looking for Billy?» the lockkeeper asked.
«Well, you can go home. Billy has broken out.»
The Terror did not understand. He hung on. At length Billy came down the road, lurching in his walk. The Terror went on to the road to meet him. Billy held his head down. When the Terror saw his face there was a change in it. There was a scowl, something in the eyes that made the Terror step back from him.
«Go home», Billy muttered. He made a vague movement with one of his hands. He appeared to have only a general, uncertain idea of the position of things. The Terror did not go home. Some touch of rebellion crept into the mild, round face.
«I won’t go home», he said.
«You won’t?»
«No. Not for you».
Billy swayed up to the boat and fooled about the deck. The Terror stood looking at him from the bank, his hands behind his back.
«Go home», came the command again.
«No», came the uncompromising answer.
Billy stumbled over one of the stilts. He raised it in his hand. Then he went over to a chest, raised the lid, took out a hatchet. The Terror never budged as Billy brought the hatchet down on the stilt. The aim was uncertain, but he struck at it until it went to pieces.
«Now will you go home?» he demanded.
«No, not unless I like».
The shattered stilt fell into the water. The eyes of the Terror were upon the pieces as they floated about, bobbing against the side of The Golden Barque.
Billy came swaying, but threatening, to the bank. The Terror set backwards some yards on his legs, his eyes shining, his hands twitching. Billy looked about him foolishly, then hitched his belt and struck for the village again. The Terror watched him until he had gone, then went aboard. He passed down straight to Billy’s cabin. He pulled the bed out of the bunk, tossed the bedclothes about. Over them he upset a keg of water; some of it drained out on the bed. He caught the kettle, the saucepan, the few enamel mugs, the frying-pan, the spoons, knives and forks, and cast them about. In an afterthought he picked up the fork and stuck it through the bolster. He opened the small cupboard. Half a loaf and the pickled jawbone of a pig were there. The bone the Terror stuffed into the coal stove. He folded the bread up in a dish-cloth and set it on the top of the stove. Then he went on deck. Some bags lay beside a step-ladder. He set the step-ladder against the funnel and, taking the bags, went up the steps. He was breathing hard as he stuffed the sacks down the funnel.
«Now», he said to himself, as he came down, «when he lights the fire below it will choke him». The Terror was as black as a sweep, hands and face, as he left the boat, but he was satisfied. He went home, washed himself, said his prayers, went to bed, and dreamt that he was fighting a tiger in a jungle, which, at a critical moment, turned into a crocodile, and eventually into a pair of stilts upon which the Terror crossed a desert.
Billy was linked on to The Golden Barque by a lock-keeper that night. They negotiated the steps down to the cabin with extraordinary skill. When the lock-keeper struck a match and put it to the candle he stared at the scene.
The lock-keeper turned to him.
«Billy», he said, «someone has wrecked the cabin has wrecked the boat».
Billy blinked, then laughed inanely. He broke into a song. The lock-keeper gathered that it was of Brigid Donohoe, of whom Billy sang, «I really do love you», then fell to the floor on the huddled bed, his head pillowed by the water keg. The lock-keeper beheld the prostrate figure with despair, sighed, and went home. He had scarcely set foot on the bank when Billy was dreaming that he was in pink tights, performing his great feat of springing from the ground clean on to the bare back of a horse going round the ring, after the necessary number of pretended failures to work up the feelings of the bucolic audience. When the band struck up a triumphant blast Billy turned his head over on the empty keg.
Next morning the Terror passed by the boat on his way to school. As he did so, Billy was drawing out sacks from the funnel. His face was covered with smuts. The face of the Terror was clean, the colour on the clean skin vivid. A school-bag hung to his back, charged with books and luncheon. The eternal suggestion of a smile was spread over the round, mild face. But he never looked up at Billy or his boat. He was the picture of respectability. Billy regarded him curiously with eyes encircled by black. That evening the Terror came along slowly the canal road. He was like one who was under a spell; The Golden Barque drew him. A look of repentance, reconciliation, was on his face. When he arrived The Golden Barque was leaving the lock. The job was finished. They were going away. A hand waved at the Terror. He stood stock still. Then a pair of brand new stilts were shot on to the bank. They clattered before his feet. He stooped and lifted them up, but without any joy, for he saw that the figure of Billy was walking down the deck. He was singing in his metallic voice. The words rang out over the landscape:
«I sent her home a picture, I did upon my word, ‘Twas not a picture of myself, but a picture of a bird. It was the American Eagle. Says I: ‘ Miss Donohoe, These Eagle’s wings are large enough to shelter me and you»
Then Billy’s legs began to make shapes on the boat, that suggested various drolleries. His hat was cocked on the side of his head. The boat glided away.
The Terror sat under the shadow of the hedge, his eyes upon the boat, riveted upon the figure of Billy as long as it was in sight. After it had gone there seemed to be a big void in the world. Everything was miserable, grey, dissatisfying. The very evening lost its vividness, the landscape its colour. The earth had shrunken.
A companion came along, beheld the Terror with some surprise, sat down beside him, and asked : ‘ What’s wrong with you? »
The Terror ran his fingers up and down the stilts, without appearing conscious of the action. His head hung over his angular knees. His face was to the ground.
«I feel horrid», he said in a low voice.

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Seumas OKelly
(Loughrea, County Galway 1881 - 1918). Playwright, novelist, story writer and journalist, O'Kelly was educated at the local school (St. Brendan's College), began his career as a journalist with the Skibbereen newspaper, The Southern Star, then moved to the Leinster Leader in Naas, where he remained as Editor until he went to work for his friend Arthur Griffith’s "Nationality", organ of Sinn Féin founded by Griffith himself in 1906. His brother was arrested during the Easter Rising and Seumas returned to the "Leinster Leader" for a brief stint. There is a plaque in his honour outside the Leader's offices which reads 'Seumas O'Kelly - a gentle revolutionary'. He died prematurely, in November 1918, of a cerebral hemorrhage following a raid at the paper’s headquarters at Harcourt St by British troops anti-Sinn Féin who were celebrating the end of the First World War. In his short life he had an intense literary production, mostly published posthumously, and wrote for several newspapers, including The Saturday Evening Post and The Sunday Freeman of Dublin. He wrote numerous short stories, novels and plays. His short story, The Weaver’s Grave, is among the most acclaimed of Irish short stories. A radio version of this, adapted and produced by Mícheál Ó hAodha, won the coveted Prix Italia for Radio Drama in 1961.