Roy Glashan's Library
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As published in The Sunday Times, Perth, 17 November 1912

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-04-08
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THE sweating line of caravans moved steadily across the flat. A screen of red dust shrouded the two harnessed camels in front, a dust that choked and grew bitter on the palate. The central wagon held a dozen performing dogs that yelped at intervals with their muzzles against the iron bars. The mammoth circus tent was housed upon a car. In the rear, drawn by a dust-coated elephant, came the tiger's cage. An Afghan driver squatted on the elephant's shoulder, his head swaying from side to side as the great beast strained forward over the wind-piled drifts. Occasionally the outsweeping trunk curled upward toward the dozing Afghan, breathing a mournful request that sounded like wind in a chimney. In response the turbaned driver permitted his goad to pinch its huge frontal bone.

"Water wantest thou! Wa Allah, am I a mountain spring for thee to suck? Lift thy ugly feet, for thou weariest me and the son of Bengal behind!"

The elephant flinched at the mahout's words; a long-drawn sigh escaped in the still hot air.

A sudden halt, occurred in front. The dust-shrouded caravans had reached the main road which followed a dry creek bed into Crushing Flat.

At that moment a boy wearing a blue flannel shirt and knickers dropped from the steps of a rear van and ran hurriedly towards the elephant. Meeting the Afghan's eye, he saluted with mock gravity, then raised his voice above the din of shouting drivers and tent hands.

"Say, Ahmed Khan, father wants you to lend him a nickel: He's going to buy a dog when we get to the Flat."

The boy wore a circle of dust under his eyes, and his milk- white teeth flashed good humoredly. He was the son of Jim Marken, the tiger-tamer, and the Afghan regarded him with a friendly eye as he searched in the folds of his long blue garments.

"Thy father oweth me a dollar already, Chris Marken, but I will yet lend him another nickel. Tell him there will be no interest. I cannot accept interest from thy father."

With the skill of a conjuror he spun the coin down into the boy's palm.

The proximity of the tamer's son affected the elephant strangely. Its great ears seemed to stiffen suddenly as it rocked nervously to and fro. The sharp-eyed mahout was not slow to observe the animal's unrest. He stared shrewdly at the grinning boy.

"Thou hast been teasing my beast, thou!"

The tamer's son retreated nimbly from the elephant's swaying trunk.

"It wasn't me, Ahmed Khan!" he declared vehemently. "It was Nick Cassidy's kid that dropped a live locust in Sultan's ear last night. My... I wouldn't go near your beast, Ahmed!"

"A live locust in the ear of my prince! By Allah, how wouldst thou like a flea in thine?"

The Afghan leaned over, eyeing the boy closely. "Thou little thug, take a care how thou tease my mountain of strength or he may kill thee and the Cassidy brat."

The mahout's sternness relaxed by degrees. "I have a son like thee beyond the Kyber, but he is not so fair."

He balanced his goad above the elephant's head. "Go to thy father, Chris; thou hast the dog money. By the Prophet there is not much iced beer in a nickel. Yet... he may send to me again when the thirst returns."

The goad smote tenderly on the wrinkled flesh behind the great ear, and the elephant swung forward in response, hauling the big ring cage toward Crushing Flat.

BY mid-day Hakeman's Hippodrome had camped near the edge of Battery Gully. A half-holiday had been proclaimed in the township, for it was years since anything larger than a variety show had ventured there.

Hakeman, the proprietor, was an American, who had once worked as an under-keeper for Barnum. In his younger days he had thrown meat to the lions at the big Coney Island shows, while in England he had played the parts of clown and ring-master for Myers and Saugers.

Hakeman worked like a giant among the shifting folds of the mammoth tent. Stepping back into the road, he wolfed a cigar between his teeth and surveyed the chaos of flags and vans with a darkening eye.

Some men find pleasure in politics, or in the manipulation of stocks and shares. Hakeman breathed only when the big tent hung straight, and the American flag flaunted over it. The crack of a whip, the scent of a sawdust ring, were as oil and perfume to the wheels of his mind.

AT that moment a range-rider appeared on the brow of a near hill. For a period of his heart-beats he remained motionless as an image in the hot sunlight, while his questioning eyes picked out the caravans sprawling in a semi-circle below. A half-heard exclamation broke from him as he gestured fiercely to an unseen comrade in the background. His horse fairly leaped out of sight.

Immediately from the scrub-lined road beyond the hill-crest came the loud rattle of whips, followed by the hoarse bellowing of cattle on the run. Three frantic stock hands galloped into view in their mad effort to head off the onrushing herd. They were too late. A squadron of foaming beasts thundered over the hill and down upon the outspanning circus. With them rode the furious stock hands, sending back volleys of sounds with their snake-like whips, and cursing the carnívore smell which had struck into the nostrils of the cattle mob.

Hakeman in his shirt sleeves, suddenly observed the tempest of hoofs whirling in his direction. With a snarl he spat away his cigar and turned to where the high-roofed tiger cage stood in the centre of the road.

"High, you Ahmed, the elephant man, you're in the way of those blamed cows." His voice was as the blast of a be-fogged liner.

The mahout looked once at the red tornado of dust and onrushing beasts and then with a stroke of his iron drove his elephant toward the inner circle of wagons. And not a moment ton soon. A hundred dust-blinded steers crashed past, flinging hoof- torn earth and stones in the faces of the petrified circus hands. A bullock with a broken horn and a blood-smear on its chest rolled from the swerving mob and stared dumbly at the cages. Then with a moan it fell under the elephant's flanks.

The elephant trumpeted hysterically, but Ahmed Khan, with the courage of his kind, smote his beast with iron and words.

"Stand steady, thou child of Jehannum! By Allah, a goat would frighten thee. These be only kine. Look to it that no harm befall our royal charge. The son of Bengal is a beast of price!"

Hakeman strolled among the members of his company, freshly-lit cigar in his mouth.

A sun-tanned stripling rode from the near cotton-woods where the last crazy steer had vanished in the red whirlwind. There were triple-barred initials on his horse's shoulder, indicating its famous Montana breeding camp. He loped in among the huddle of wagons and shook his fist at Hakeman.

"See what your menagerie's done for us! We're from Medicine Hat, and we never lost a horn till we met with your camels and caged horrors fit to frighten the Almighty!"

His head fell forward almost to the saddle, and his loud sobbing was heard far down the circus. Hakeman approached him, a look of genuine regret in his eyes.

"Be ghade, boy, I'm real sorry. I know the cows don't enjoy the smell of a tiger. You see, I can't carry a semaphore to tell cattlemen that we're camping out with our lions. And cows haven't got no sense of humor nowadays."

NIGHT came to soothe the nerve-broken party of circus people on the flat. The distant hills seemed to breathe under the star- whitened firmament like a woman resting from the intolerable heat of noon. Troops of miners with here and there a few excited women and children from the outlying townships hurried into the huge tent to take their seats around the thickly-sawdusted ring.

At first they gaped at the sleek Indian wolves sidling from corner to corner of their dens, at the sloth bear lolling against its greasy bars. The hyena which never looks man in the face, concealed itself in its house, refusing to exchange glances with the scoffing, bronze-hued denizens of Crushing Flat. But the joy of the evening was the large, kindly elephant picketed near the ring entrance.

A small tent, pitched in one of the dark recesses between the wagons, was occupied by Jan Marken and his family. Herr Marken was the most important member of the company. It was his duty to enter the tiger's cage and compel it to leap through a burning hoop. Tiger taming, considered as a profession, is no more dangerous than whaling, or any other deep-sea trade. But some tamers take their business seriously, and they are apt to become over-abusive when the striped man-eater will not come to heel. Constant friction with half-trained animals had brittled Marken's nerves; he had become sullenly watchful; the clash of a falling bar or a sudden shout set him a-quiver. In his younger days he had entered cages with the air of a sportsman, and he was never slow to drive his boot against a lion's jaw when it ran counter to his will. In later years he was inclined to temporise with beasts, and they grew subtle in attempts to kill him.

Harken's turn was almost the last item on the programme. The applause from the circus broke upon him with deafening insistence. Two fair-haired children crawled about the tent floor, and struggled occasionally for possession of a heavy- thonged, brass mounted whip, while the tamer and his wife played cards to fill in the long wait.

Marken was a heavy-shouldered Hollander. The flesh under his eyes was slack and livid. The company of acrobats, who slept in the adjoining tent, complained that Marken shouted in his sleep. The tamer's hand shook as he threw down an ace, while a sudden cage-like odor drifted in upon them. Madame Marken rose quietly and pulled down the tent-flap. The smell of beasts was intolerable to her.

"Der animals vas excited tonight, Jan. Dey haf not forgot der cattle dot come round us to-day. It vas a horrible sight."

Madame resumed her seat on a biscuit box and took up her cards.

Marken frowned. "Der vas something to excite dem. My beast vas put out, I think. De fool Ahmed left der ring cage standin' in der road. Ahmed haf a soft yob; the elephant gif him no trouble."

"Der lascar man always get der soft jobs," said Madame pettishly. "It vas us white peoples dot haf to pull der tiger's tail. Ahmed haf a softer yob than us, Jan." With a caressing movement she smoothed back the grizzled curls that clung to his brow. He glanced at her and coughed.

"Der vas a man in dis circus who vas after my yob, vrouw. He vas always pokin' about der cage. He say to me yesterday, 'Jan, I wish you would let me go in mit you some day."

The tamer played on steadily. Madame watched him, a nameless dread in her eyes.

"I tink you vas gettin' nervous, Jan. You smoke too much, und de coffee you take vas always black."

"Hush, vrouw! You must nod let de circus people hear you say dot. Hakeman would not like it."

The two children crawled outside unnoticed, to the flaming lamps where Ahmed Khan sat smoking at the circus entrance.

The boy in the moleskin knickers and blue flannel shirt crept noiselessly into the tent and lay on the ground at his father's feet. "Been 'elpin' to water the ponies," he said in a half whisper. "My word, that piebald stallion can kick!"

"Time you vas in bett, Chris." Madame glanced at the boy over her cards.

He wriggled his bare toes into the earth. "Let's stay up, mother, ti!! father does his turn; I want to 'ear the band play."

"Let him stay up, vrouw." The tamer shuffled the cards and dropped them on the floor in his nervous haste.

"One of the grooms says Tommy Bates, the under-keeper, 'll get father's job some day. The keeper's tellin' the whole circus that father has to sit on the whisky keg before he goes into the cage."

The tamer glanced sharply at his son; then his brooding eyes fell on the cards. He made no reply.

Madame's lips quivered. "Dey vant your father's yob, every one ob dem. Und dey haf no little childrens to keep. To-morrow I shall tell dem my mind. De fink of noding but de oder man's yob."

"Say nodings, vrouw," Marken gestured heavily. "Where vas the childrens?" He looked round the tent suddenly. "I did nod see dem go out."

Madame put away the cards hurriedly. "I fink dey vas in de circus, Jan. I cannot see dem when dey creep from here." She slipped out and hurried toward the mammoth tent.

MARKEN rose heavily from his seat, his large hands resting on his hips. He stopped near the swinging tent lamp and adjusted it carefully. Afar off he heard the ring manager's voice calling to the performing dogs. Returning to his seat, he sat down again and listened. A soft pad-pad from the adjoining cage caught his ear, then the sound of a paw striking the bars rang dully across the dark open space.

"Hear him, father." The boy lay with his head to the ground, his right arm thrown lazily forward. "Listen! He knows his turn's comin'. They fed him early to-day. He got an extra piece of bullock for his share, an' he ran round an' round his cage tearin' it to pieces. Hear him now?"

From the darkness outside came the hoof-hoof of the breathing tiger as it padded ceaselessly across the cage. In the silence that followed they heard the man-like cough of the hyena, the clatter of a bone jerked noisily from the corner of a den.

"Dis vas a horrible trade!" A look of unutterable hatred came into the tamer's eyes. He crept swiftly from the tent, stooped under a cage awning and stared through the bars at a pair of fireballs that seemed to await his coming.

"Hell-dog, be still!" The fireballs appeared to retreat a little. Marken turned away. In a flash the tiger flung itself against the bars. Its claws striking within a foot of his sleeve.

Marken flinched. The fury vanished from his eyes. His tongue grew dry against his palate, but the sudden hate which sometimes lifts a bulleted soldier to his elbow seized him.

"By Himmel!... you shall see yet!" He nodded at the fireballs. "You shall see who is afraid," and he smote himself across the heart with his fist.

"Jan, where are you?" Madame stooped from the small tent and glanced along the avenue of dark cages. Marken staggered into the light, his clenched hand resting on his breast.

"Vat is der matter. Jan? Someding haf annoyed you?"

"I vas alride, vrouw. Get my uniform. Id vas my turn in a minute."

Madame sighed as she brought his spangled clothes from a bag. Carrying them to the opening in the tent, she brushed them carefully. "Dey smell of der tiger, Jan," she said, placing them before him.

He appeared not to notice her. "Get my whip, vrouw." His voice was hoarse.

His hands trembled as he tossed the contents of a portmanteau on the floor.

"What are you looking for, Jan?"

"For der leedle box, der leedle black box; vere is der leedle black box?" He cast away the bag in nervous haste, and thrust his fingers into a half-open trunk on the floor. "Vere is der black box, vrouw?"

She saw with a woman's keenness the sudden flash of despair in his eyes, the hatred of a work that chained him to a jungle beast "I do not remember the leedle box, Jan. Does it matter so much?"

His jaw slackened. The skin of his face seemed to shrivel and age. He stared into the trunk as one looking into a grave.

A boy in circus livery came and peeped inside the tent. "Hurry up, Marken," he said briskly; "they'll be waiting for you in a minute."

Marken struck the air with his empty hand. "Someone haf been here, vrouw... my leedle box; someone has stolen it."

The noise of wheels went past—slow, grinding wheels that broke upon Marken like the sound of artillery. The Voice of Ahmed Khan rang clear in the darkness as the yoked elephant swung into the ring, drawing the Bengal tiger into the full glare of the light.

The ring manager cracked his whip cheerfully while the clown somersaulted to and fro across the sawdusted arena.

"Why do you hesitate. Jan? Why do you not go at de call?" Madame half-pushed him forward. "Go at de call. Dey vill say things about you."

IN their sixteen years of married life Madame had never known him to flinch from his duty. Always Jan had gone forward at the word. Something had happened, she knew not what.

The small orchestra struck up the "Star-spangled Banner" as the tamer staggered into the ring. The tiger, erect in its cage, stealthily watched his approach, for it had learned to hate the scorching hoop and the dreadful human voice that shouted in its ear.

Marken saw the thousand eyes turned toward him, and to-night each face stood out with revolting distinctness. His sick brain received a savage impression of the blood-greed that quivered in the nostrils of the multitude. The tiger, its ears flattened, seemed to move on its belly as he drew near. Jan halted in the centre of the ring to adjust his boot-lace. A taste sour as of death took him like a bullet in the throat.

The cage steps seemed high a mountains. He was subtly conscious of the manager's footsteps in his rear, of his peremptory voice calling his attention to the business in hand, a metallic numbness gripped his knees he tried desperately to ascend the steps, and as he stood near the iron door he heard the manager again at his elbow.

"Marken, you've been drinking. You are spoiling the show." The word were snapped in his car.

The acid taste in the trainer's throat increased beyond endurance. He restrained the impulses to tear at his collar and strained his eyes to see the fast-gathering red haze which obscured a distorted world.

Two spots of wavering green light shone out clear and unmistakable. They were the eyes of the waiting beast he must bully. The tiger that had issued its dumb challenge only a few moments before.

Jan drew himself up to the second step and turned his livid face to the throng. "It vas a lie, sir, a lie—!"

Marken heard a dull murmur slowly rising from the dim sea of faces which bounded his narrow horizon.

He thought he stood there ages, and wondered why the manager did not curse him into action. His fingers grew slack on the iron gate; he pitched forward into the saw-dust at the manager's feet.

THE doctor said the cause of death was heart failure: and he told the shivering Dutchwoman that Marken ought to have left the taming business ten years before.

A crowd of sympathisers gathered around the small tent. Ahmed Khan, bearing one of the tamer's children on his shoulder lounged forward and placed it inside.

Then he salaamed. "I found thy child playing in the dust with this."

He handed a small black box to Madame. She stared at it dully and remembered.

"The box is full of opium," whispered the mahout. "It is not good for thy child to play with it."

He swung from the crowded tent and crossed the ring. Bates, the under-keeper, followed hungrily in quest of information.

"Say, Ahmed!" he called, "it was pure funk that killed poor Marken—nothing but funk. I knew it all along."

"Liar, thou!" The mahout stalked toward the elephant's quarters. "He was the bravest of us all!"


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.