It was the day after the distressing incident in Biggs’s Buildings. Mr. Crips was no longer dressed in his clerical garments; they were carefully stowed away in a niche in a riverside quarry where he had long kept his wardrobe. To-day Nickie was dressed in the rags of a simple mendicant.
The strongly melodramatic adventure the previous day did not seem to distress Mr. Crips; he ate heartily, but had only reached his second course, which was represented by the chicken, when his attention was attracted by a very lean, very pale, hollow-eyed, sad stranger who had seated himself on a sloping tree nearer the river, and was eyeing the banquet hungrily.
Nickie the Kid, was not selfish. When his own needs were fairly met he could be generous with anybody’s property, even his own. He tapped the chicken’s breastbone invitingly with his penknife, and addressed the stranger.
“May I offer you a little lunch, sir?” he said urbanely, with quite the air of a generous host.
The long, lean man shook his head in mute melancholy, but accepted the invitation as an offer of friendship, and approached nearer, seating himself on a rock facing Nickie’s banquet.
“No, thanks, boss,” he said.
“You’ll forgive me,” said Nickie, after wrenching a mouthful from the back of the pullet, “but you look famished.”
“I am,” answered the stranger.
“Well, help yourself. These garlic sausage sandwiches are superb. Try the beer.”
Nickie pushed his jam tin forward.
The other shook his head very regretfully.
“I mustn’t,” he said. “Fact is, my livin’ depends on me not eatin’, an’ I’ve got a wife an’ kiddies to support.”
Nickie paused with the bottle half-way to his mouth.
“Your living depends on your not eating?” he ejaculated. “What, do you earn anything by starving, then? By Jove, that’s a quaint idea.”
“I earn all I get by starvin’. My name’s Cann—Matty Cann, but I’m known professionally as Bony-part. Ain’t yeh seen me advertisements up the main street? I’m drawed on a big poster outside Professer Thunder’s Museum iv Marvels, I’m the livin’ skelington.”
“He isn’t ruining himself with your upkeep,” Nickie.
“No.” replied the Living Skeleton. “I’m allowanced off an’ I’ve got t’ eat on’y what he gives me—that’s in our contrac’. If I eat more an put on flesh out I go. There’s a clause in ther contrac’ what sez I’m li’ble t’ be fired if goes above seven stone seven. The previous livin’ skelington got the run at Barnip fer breakin’ out. He was the only original. I’m just a sort iv understudy.”
Nickie clicked his tongue sympathetically. “Well,” he said, “you might pick a bone. That wouldn’t be very fattening, and it might delude your stomach with the idea you were having something to eat.”
Bonypart, the Living Skeleton, took the wish-bone with a few shreds of chicken on it.
“Thanks,” he said, “it might be a comfort.” He sucked the bone fondly.
“You said that Professor Thunder’s only original living skeelton broke out at Barnip. What happened to him?”
“He went on the spree,” said Matty Cann.
“Drink?” queried Nickie.
“No, food. He got at a bar spread in the Shire hall at Barnip, an’ afore they missed him he ate enough fer ten Shire Councillors. He completely rooned that banquet. That was the third time he’d gone on th’ spree, an’ ther Perfesser ’ad warned him if it ’appened again he’d get the shoot.”
Nickie the Kid grinned.
“It isn’t a Profession that would suit me,” he said. “I have an instinctive fondness for meals. I knew the travelling show’ business was a hungry game but I never reckoned on starvation as a means of earning a livelihood.”
“Oh. ’tisn’t all bad.” said Ronypart eagerly. “There’s th’ Missin’ Link, fer instance; he a glutton. Blime, th’ food that Missin’ Link gets makes me lose all patience, an’ sometimes I’d like t’ get right up from my chair, an’ bite him. He’s in the ’ospital just now, sufferin’ from his over—feedin’. It’s a judgment on him.”
“A monkey in the hospital!”
“Well, he ain’t exactly a monkey. He was a man done up something like one o’ them hoorang-hoo-tangs. Yeh see, part o’ Perfesser Thunder’s show is called the Descent of Man. It contains ten different kinds of monkeys, from Spider, a little cove ’bout th’ size iv a rat, up t’ Ammonia, what’s a big griller. Th’ Missin’ Link, he comes next; but as I was sayin’ he’s out iv it just now, bein’ ill, an’ Perfesser Thunder ud give ez much ez two quid er week fee a good, reliable Missin’ Link what wouldn’t over-eat hisself.” The Living Skeleton was allowing an inquiring eye to roam over Nickie the Kid.
“I was thinkin’ yon was just bout th’ build fer a Missin’ Link,” he said.
“What, me?” cried Nickie.
The Skeleton nodded, and Nickie was silent for a moment, lost in thought. It was very necessary that Nickie should sink his identity for a time. Here was a magnificent opportunity. “Has the Missing Link much to do?” he asked.
“No,” replied Matty Cann. “He’s just gotter he careful not t’ over-eat hisseif, as I was savin’. Yeh see, people what come in t’ th’ show gives him buns, an’ lollies an’ things, an’ if he’s a glutton he’ bound t’ he knocked out.”
“What else does he do?”
“Oh, prowls round in the cage.”
“An’ scratches hisself.”
“That seems easy.”
“Well, it all depends. If yer gifted that way it’s easy enough, but real scratchin’ an’ natural growlin’ takes a bit o’ doin’.”
“How’s this?” asked Nickie.
He scratched himself in approved monkey style, hopped briskly over the stone, then sat up, and growled a deep, guttural growl.
“That’s it—that’s it, t’ th’ life!” cried Bonypart in amazed admiration. “Why, you’re er natural born artist, that’s what you are. If I could growl an’ scratch like that I’d be a Missin’ Link t’-morrer. No more living skelingtons fer me.”
“Look here,” said Nicholas Crips seriously, “how long does the Missing Link have to remain in the cage?”
“The show opens et one in th’ afternoon, close at five, opens again at seven, an’ closes et arf-pas ten.”
“And has the Missing Link to be growling’ and scratching all the time?”
“No, not all the time. If there ain’t any people in he kin lie in er corner on th’ stror under his blanket an’ sleep, an’ sometimes he kin stay lyin’ on the stror when there’s on’y a few people in, so long ez he growls a bit, an’ stretches hisself. There’s a lot in stretchin’ hisself proper.”
“Like this,” said Nickie. He reached out one leg, clawed with his left hand, and yawned cavernously.
“Th’ very identical,” said Bonypart admiringly. “You was meant t’ be a Missin’ Link. Y’iv got all th’ natural gifts, an’ with th’ proper hide drawn on over yeh, an’ yer face made up a bit, nobody ud ever think you was anythink else but a true African Missin’ Link, born an’ bred.”
“Are you quite sure the Missing Link has nothing else to do?” asked Nickie, cautiously.
“Positive, Missin’ Links is scarce; they has pretty much their own way. Hold on—he’s gotter ’ang a bit by one hand from a bar what goes through his cage, an’ pretent to be sleepin’.”
Nickie the Kid had a contemplative expression “Bless my soul,” he said, “there are strange ways of earning a living, and I’m not sure that my way is the easiest after all.”
He drained the bottle.
Professor Thunder’s Museum of Marvels was established in a shop in Bourke Street, Melbourne. The shop window was curtained with large posters, one representing a tall man, very thin even for a skeleton, sitting at a table, tying knots in his limbs. The other pictured a strange, hairy monster, half human, half monkey, which was labelled “Darwin’s Missing Link.” On a kerosene case at the door stood Professor Thunder himself, appealing to the populace to pause and contemplate the “astonishin’ marvellous pictorial representations,” and assuring five small boys that these were “living, speaking likenesses” of the wonders within. “No deception, ladies and gents, no deception!” he cried.
Professor Thunder was his own “spruicher;” his eloquence was remarkable, his voice had the carrying power of a steam whistle, and the penetrating qualities of a circular saw. He was a quaint product of the show business, having been born in a museum and bred in an atmosphere of cheap theatricals.
“Step inside! Step inside! Step inside!” cried the Professor. “There you will behold our extraordinary educational collection of Nature’s mysteries, known as ‘The Descent of Man,’ described by the nobility, the scientists, and the faculty as the most complete representation of man’s descent from the apes ever presented to an intelligent audience. There you will behold Bonypart, the miraculous, the bone man who has mystified all the doctors and amazed millions. There you will behold Ephraim, the enlightened pig; Madame Marve, the unrivalled seer, and last, but not least, Mahdi, the Missing Link, pronounced by travellers, medical men, and Darwinian students to be the one and only authentic and reliable Missing Link discovered by mortal man. And the price is only sixpence. Step up! Step up!”
The people stepped up, and saw the living skeleton, a thin, long, melancholy man sitting on a chair, in limp tights, showing his bony knees; the educated pig, that did astonishing things at the bidding of Madame Marve; and the Descent of Man, represented by several monkeys of varying sizes, a gorilla, and the awe-inspiring Missing Link.
The cage of Mahdi, the Missing Link, was some what dark, and the terrible form of the mystery loomed in the dusk, heavy and formidable. He was as big as a man, somewhat lank, and covered with coarse hair the colour of cocoanut matting. This afternoon, when the early patrons entered, they found him hanging limply by one arm, like a great ungainly bat.
“The Missing Link always reposes in this manner in his native wilds,” said Madame Marve, in the chaste tones she assumed when imparting valuable instruction “but he is otherwise very human in his tastes and habits.”
“Has ’e a vote, ma’am?” asked a facetious labourer.
A stout lady prodded Mahdi with her umbrella, and he flopped on all fours on the floor of his cage, and sprang forward with a hoarse growl, reaching a great, hairy paw out of the cage.
“Lor blime, missus, yer ortenter do that to another woman’s ’ushand,” said the facetious labourer.
The people pressed about Mahdi’s cage. They threw nuts at him, and offered him lollies and cakes, and the Missing Link went through many surprising contortions, and rolled about, and capered, and growled in a most realistic way, while Madame Marve gave a full and exciting account of his capture in the jungles of Central Africa by a party of hunters, of whom Professor Thunder was the leader and the conspicuous hero.
“Mahdi was then very young,” said Madame. “He has been reared with great tenderness, and is now probably the most valuable, and he is the rarest animal in the world. Professor Thunder has been offered thousands of pounds for Mahdi, but refuses to part with him, preferring to take the marvellous monkey-man through the world for the education and edification of his fellow-creatures.”
Mahdi swung on his bar again, flopped, and then ran up the back wall several times, after which he sat in a corner and scratched himself industriously, grinning at the people every now and then, or uttering a growl that gave the women delicious cold shivers.
The attention of the patrons was next drawn to the educated pig, and presently the show-room was empty again for a minute or two. Madame Marve addressed Mahdi the Missing Link.
“You must growl more, my boy,” she said. “The people like the growling, it terrifies them, and they talk to their friends about it. You really must keep on growling. I don’t care if you don’t scratch quite so much, but you must growl.”
The Missing Link pushed his drab muzzle through the bars.
“Keep on growling,” he protested. “Excuse me, madame, but I’m damned if I do unless you give me more beer. I’ve got a throat like a hot-box.”
Old friend of Mr. Nicholas Crips would have recognised those crisp tones instantly. Nickie the Kid had found his vocation.