The clause entailing strict observance of the Sabbath was a wise one from the Professor’s point of view, as a previous Missing Link had taken advantage of Sunday being an off-day to get unreasonably drunk, in which state he betrayed the confidence of his employer, and disclosed the most sacred secrets of the profession.
Nickie was assured that the job would be a permanency if he proved himself a zealous, efficient Missing Link, and as he understood that even when on show Mahdi was expected to do little more than curl up on the straw in his cage and growl, he gratefully accepted. The contract was signed.
So far Nicholas had discovered the new skin he was compelled to don to be the only serious disadvantage attached to his office. It was tight-fitting, coated with monkey-like hair, and covered him entirely, the face being disguised under an attached mask with a flat nose and patches of hair. The skin laced down the spine, but the laces were artfully hidden under the fur.
At least Nickie was leading man of the small company. Ammonia (whose cage adjoined the more sumptuous one in which Nickie was exhibited, and whose open jealousy of Mahdi was a source of no little inconvenience to Nickie the Kid) was an item of considerable interest, but the Link was the culminating point of the monkey’s progress the climax, so to speak, and he enjoyed great popularity and many nuts. Possibly the nuts were the true source of Ammonia’s dislike.
Nickie the Kid had been three days figuring as the star of Professor Thunder’s Museum of Marvels, and was growing accustomed to his suit, and to the situation. The Professor himself was a born vagabond, and his wife, Madame Marve, the somewhat plump prophetess, who read fortunes, and was mistress of the educated pig, had the Gipsy instinct and took life easily. Nickie had a good deal in common with both, and they promised to be a happy family.
In his proudest moments Professor Thunder was not likely to overestimate the intrinsic value of the Missing Link as he stood, for tucked away under the singlet that lay between him and his hairy simian cuticle was a store of treasure with the product of which Nicholas Crips dreamed of living a life of ease and luxury when certain matters had blown over and it was wise for him to resume his proper place in the animal creation.
The murder in Briggs’s Building had stirred up a tremendous sensation, but as yet no one had thought of associating either the Rev. Andrew Rowbottom or the tall, fashionably-dressed lady with the crime.
The show was not yet open for the evening, and Mahdi, the Missing Link, was permitted the privilege of free speech, denial of which was one of the most painful disadvantages of his public career.
“Well, how’re yeh likin’ th’ grip, Nickie?” asked Matty Cann, otherwise Bonypart the living skeleton.
“It is not exacting.” said the Missing Link, dreamily, “but it has its drawbacks to a man accustomed to finding favour with the ladies.”
“Drawbacks,” exclaimed Bonypart. “What price living skelingtons? You wouldn’t believe it, but I’m considered rather a fine man in flesh. It almost breaks my poor wife’s ’eart t’ see me in such redooced circumstances. I tell yeh I never thought I’d come down t’ this.”
Nickie peered at the living skeleton from his cage. “I believe being a missing link has its advantages.” he said. “After all, a missing link does have time off, but a living skeleton has no relaxations.”
“Dry up, Mahdi, an’ get on your perch,” cried Madame Thunder, “The Professor’s openin’ up.”
The door was opened, and the Marvels heard Professor Thunder declaiming on the astonishing quality of his exhibits.
“Roll up! Roll up! Roll up!” exclaimed the professor in his deep, steam-organ tones. “Roll up, and see Mahdi and Marve—Mahdi the Missing Link, the great man-monkey, captured in the gloom junge of Darkest Africa, the Connectin’ link ’tween man an’ the beasts; Marve, the Mystic, the prophetess, enchantess and Egyptian seer, who will read your future in your palm, exhibit her educated pig, and display the occult science of the Oriental wonder-workers!’
“Here they come,” said Madame, arranging her rich Egyptian costume, made by sewing a design of spangles on a curiously-patterned bed quilt.
The Missing Link hooked himself to the crossbar with one hand, drew up his hairy legs, and remained suspended in a limp attitude, as two women, with frightened children clinging to their skirts, entered the show.
Madame took charge of the audience, and lucidly explained the Darwinian theory, beginning with Spider, the tiny ape, and tracing the descent of man through Ammonia, the gorilla, to Mahdi the Missing Link, and Mahdi romped about the cage, growled and gibbered, poking his amazingly human face through the bars for fleeting moments.
When not engaged telling fortunes, performing a few primitive illusions, or putting Ephraim, the Educated Hog, through his manoeuvres, Madame was anything the occasion required. The Professor had great faith in her. She had once carried the show through successfully when the Living Skeleton, the Missing Link, Ammonia the Gorilla, and Ephraim were all incapacitated through an influenza epidemic.
They had a big evening, the holiday-makers flocked in so freely that Professor Thunder abandoned his position as “spruicher,” or public speaker, and took charge of the interior, acting as explainer and interpreter, leaving his little daughter Letitia to take the sixpences at the door.
The night was warm, and as the stream of patrons was incessant, Nickie the Kid found his duties most oppressive, and had serious thoughts of shedding his skin.
Professor Thunder greatly excited the interest of the crowd by announcing that a sum of one pound and a silver medal valued at one guinea would be given to any person courageous enough to follow Madame Marve’s example and enter the cage containing Mahdi, the Missing Link.
Nickie was resentful, as this meant a most energetic demonstration of savagery on his part, following a fawning and submissive manner, while madame, wearing a large sombrero and a man’s coat, moved about in the cage, cracking a whip.
The people gathered before the cage gazed upon madame with stupid awe, while the strange monster capered, or prostrated himself in great humility at her bidding. When she had withdrawn, and after the Professor had made his prodigal offer, it was Mahdi’s duty to stimulate ungovernable ferocity, in order to deter any too-venturesome spirits. Nickie did his best. He bounded madly round the cage, he tore at the straw, tooth and nail, he roared terribly, and snatched furiously at the people near the bars. The crowd retreated in terror; all save one woman, a grim-looking female with the indurated face of an old-established lodginghouse-keeper.
This woman came forward, and jabbed at Mahdi the Missing Link with her umbrella. “Gerrout, yeh brute!” she said. Mahdi backed into shades carefully provided at the back of the cage, and the old woman reached her umbrella through the bars, and made a hit at him. Mahdi seemed to cower.
“A prize of one pound and a silver medal to any person daring enough to enter the cage of Mahdi, the man-monkey!” repeated Professor Thunder, with great hardihood.
“Wha’s that?” gasped the woman.
Professor Thunder repeated his intrepid words; aside he hissed “Bellow, damn you—bellow!”
Nickie bellowed; he jumped with desperate energy, he clawed up the straw, but he remained in the shadow.
“A pound!” cried the woman. “A pound jist fer goin’ in with that ape? Done! I’m yer man.”
The Professor was thunderstruck, so also was Mahdi the Missing Link. Never since Thunder invested in his famous fake of the man-monkey had man or woman been found courageous enough to beard the monster in his den for a pound. Never had any been expected to. Professor Thunder stood non-plussed.
Madame went to the back of the cage. “Howl!” she whispered. “Howl! Do you want to ruin us?”
Mahdi howled, he growled ferociously, he made an attempt to savage Ammonia. His paroxysms were fearful to look upon, but the woman did not seem to mind in the least.
“Open the door,” she said.
“Madame, are you quite resolved to take this terrible risk?” said Thunder, gravely, feeling keenly the approaching loss of a hard-earned pound.
“Terrible pickles!” said the woman. “I’ve bin managin’ men fer twenty years, an’ I ain’t goin’ t be stopped be no monkey.”
“Very well, madam, the consequences be upon your own head.” (Aside to Nickie) “Roar, curse you, roar!”
The Missing Link crept to the back bars in an imploring attitude. “No, no; for the love of heaven! don’t let her in!” he whispered to Madame Marve.
Professor Thunder burst into one of his frenzied street orations to drown the voice of the Missing Link, and threw open the cage door. The crowd huddled hack, horrified. One girl screamed, but the heroine from the old-established lodging-house boldly entered the cage, swinging her gamp.
It was expected that the strange monster from the dim, damp jungles of Darkest Africa would spring upon her, but he did nothing of the kind; he rushed to the back of his cage, and cowered down, burying his face in the straw.
The heroine butted Mahdi the Missing Link with her gamp. He gave no sign. She kicked him. He bore it meekly, crouching lower. There was some tittering in the crowd.
“Get up, you nasty brute!” said the woman, and prodded the horrid monster.
Nickie didn’t even growl. The woman kicked, she kicked with force. She booted the terrible brute round the cage. She seemed to glory in her triumph, and when Mahdi butted into a corner and refused to stir, she took him by one leg, and towed him twice round the cage, and the tittering the crowd swelled to yells of derisions and ribald laughter, while Professor Thunder pranced about and cursed furiously. To save his show from being ruined with ridicule, he rushed in, seized the woman, and bundled her from the cage.
“I can’t permit on to risk your life in this mad way,” he blurted; “any moment he might round on you, and then they’d pinch me for manslaughter. Here is your pound, madam; go, and thank God you have been permitted to live through this fearful experience.” He paid with the grand air of a hero of melodrama. His manner was so impressive it almost restored confidence, but Mahdi, the monster, remained crouched at the back of his cage, his face hidden in the straw, and nothing would induce him to come out till closing time.
When the last patron was gone, and the doors were closed, Professor Thunder approached Nickie.
“Well, my friend, you’re a pretty cheap kind of baa-lamb for a Missin’ Link, I must say,” he said haughtily. “Why in the devil did you allow the woman to make such a holy show of you?”
“What was a man to do?” answered Nickie.
“A Missin’ Link that knew his business would have scared her out of her rags. By Heavings, man, you are no artist—you will never be an artist.”
“You couldn’t scare that woman with a den of lions and an old-time German dragon, Professor.”
“Bosh! Rot! My last Missin’ Link would have had her in fits, sir.”
“Allow me to know, please.”
“What do you know about her in pertickler, fellow?”
“Well, it’s ten years now since I ran away from her, Professor, but I ought to know something about her. She’s my first error of judgment. She’s my wife!”