A bottle of beer, a good meal, and a season of repose, usually overcame Nickie’s reluctance to continue his splendid impersonation. Besides, the easy Bohemian life was taking hold of him, and the actor’s morbid love of applause had already planted itself in his breast.
Matty Cann, the bone man, was the most respectable and melancholy freak in the museum, but his melancholy was not native to him, it sprang from the cravings of appetite doomed to dissatisfaction—he had his brighter moments.
“I ken put up with always bein’ like er specimei iv er Indian famine,” he said, confiding in Mahdi the Missing Link, through the bars of the latter cage, “knowing the missus and the kids has plenty. You noticed ’ow fat Jane was when she brought the fam’ly t’ see the show the other day? Well, I give you my word, the wife was thin enough t’ take on this billet ’erself when the Perfesser engaged me.”
Nickie’s sentimental side was quite stirred by the affection existing between Bonypart and his small family, and the anguish of Jane and the kiddies at parting with Matty when the show was on the eve of starting on a provincial tour so wrought upon him that he shed two large tears down his Simian cheeks, and handed a shilling to Mat, the fat baby.
The show opened at Bunkers, a small Gippsland town. The Museum of Marvels was conveyed in a two-horse caravan, and was displayed in a small circus tent, Mahdi’s cage, as usual, being thrown into shadow by an ingenious device of the Professor’s.
Professor Thunder was more at his ease in the bush towns. There patrons are neither so inquisitive nor so exacting as in the metropolis. The Museum of Marvels was opened to the public of Bunkers in the afternoon, admission sixpence, children half-price, special concessions to schools and other educational institutions.
Nickie found his sphere of usefulness enlarged in the country, since he expected to assist in pitching the tent and striking it again, and had to do his share of the camp work, cooking, &c. The quick changes prevented outsiders from noticing that the absence of Nicholas Crips was always coincident—with the appearance of Mahdi, the Missing Link; but, still, nice judgment and caution had to be observed in effecting the transformation.
Business at Bunkers was only moderate—for the first afternoon and evening, but Professor Thunder had so worked his “splendid living realisation of the Darwinian theory, the descent of man,” as to induce the proprietress of a local young ladies’ school to bring her pupils on the second afternoon.
There were twenty-five young ladies in all, daughters of the superior families of Bunkers and the surrounding district. Miss Arnott, their teacher, was a tall, bony spinster, with austere glasses and sharp elbows that looked like weapons of defence.
The Professor had several manners adapted for various audiences, and possessed costumes to suit. He met Miss Arnott and her pupils in his splendid impersonation of the studious naturalist and reverent authority on the wonders of creation. A long black coat, a somewhat dingy belltopper, and a pair of smoked spectacles went with the part. So equipped, the boss conducted the seminary through his Museum of Marvels, educating and edifying the pupils, first with the astonishing mathematical calculations of Ephraim, the educated pig, then with Madame Marve’s amazing acts of mysticism and legerdemain.
The Living Skeleton was described as a unique freak of nature—“Teaching us all how wise and wonderlul are the workings of Providence,” said the Professor, piously. “He is thin, ladies, but very—happy,” he added.
This was Bonypart’s cue to work off a long, wan smile, and he smiled accordingly. The effort so worked on the feelings of one of the younger pupils that she burst into tears, and offered the bone man her piece of cake.
Matty Cann looked eager, but the Professor smartly intervened.
“Excuse me, young lady,” he said suavely, “but visitors are requested not to feed the Living Skeleton. Living Skeletons are very delicately organised, madame,” he continued, addressing the teacher. “A dry biscuit has been known to throw them into violent dyspepsia and they have died of a rump steak.”
Bonypart groaned audibly and recovering himself, made another effort to smile, but failed, and sighed hungrily, whereat the younger pupil broke into a dismal wail, and had to be taken out and soothed with lemonade.
The fine collection of natural curiosities, illustrating the descent of man, was reserved for the last, and Professor Thunder proudly arrayed his company before the cages containing the tiny apes, the middling-sized gibbons, the baboon, Ammonia, the gorilla, and Mahdi, the man-monkey, or Missing Link.
The young ladies were quite enthusiastic in their admiration. They fed the Missing Link with spongecake and nuts, which he took from their hands and ate with a certain genteel decorum. His manner of cracking the nuts was much appreciated. Nickie was a specialist at nut-cracking, having made a special study of the subject at the Zoo.
Some of the girls said he was a “regular dear,” and threw him flowers, and frosty Miss Arnott relaxed her elbows a trifle, and admitted that this quaint creature was indeed entertaining and instructive—most instructive. She had never met a more instructive creature. And meanwhile Ammonia the gorilla shook the dividing bars, and reached fierce claws towards Mahdi, convulsed with jealousy, and inspired with a primitive yearning for nuts.
Professor Thunder spread himself in the delivery of his learned oration on the origin of the human race, beginning with Spider, and ranging up to the wondrous Missing Link. “Captured by my own hand in the jungles of Central Africa, ladies,” said he, with fine dramatic elocution and the attitudes of a leading man.
“You will observe that the creature is kept in semi-darkness, that is because he is accustomed to the thick shades of his native forests. He is very docile, excepting when attacked or irritated”—(descriptive growls from the Missing Link)—“when he displays extraordinary activity in pursuit of his foes”—(display of extraordinary activity by Madhi, swinging on the bar, racing round the cage, roaring, &c.). “He is very human in his appearance, as you will observe, and is much more upright in his carriage than the gorilla, while his mild and benevolent expression in repose”—(mild and benevolent expression artfully simulated by the Missing Link)—“gives his countenance a certain manly beauty and dignity. Looking at him thus, ladies, no one will deny that he stands for the missing link in the chain leading from the small ape up through the gorilla to the noblest work of God.” The Professor finished chin up, heels together, eyes lifted, and the left hand thrust in the vest, a la Napoleon—to signify the highest effort of a benign Providence.
Here Ammonia created a diversion by squealing angrily, spitting at the Missing Link, and clawing for him in a paroxysm of professional envy.
“I think, ladies,” continued Professor Thunder in his best manner, “that even those who discard the Darwinian hypothesis because of their objection to acknowledging relationship with the monkeys should have no reluctance to admit some distant connection with this noble and intelligent being, so like man in bearing and intellect, and yet so closely allied to the gorilla that we cannot deny—Blazes and fury!”
The Professor’s indecorous ejaculation was in spired by the mean, vicious, and unsportsmanlike conduct of Ammonia the gorilla, who had succeeded in gripping Mahdi by one leg, and was hanging on, squealing frightfully.
“Pull him off! Pull him off!” yelled the Missing Link, forgetting everything in the moment of pain and, peril.
Instantly the whole show was thrown into commotion. Miss Arnott screamed, her pupils screamed, the monkeys all rattled at their cages and jabbered excitedly; the Professor, the Living Skeleton, and Madame Marve added to the uproar.
Ammonia, having his hated rival in his power at last, was determined to glut his hate. He secured a grip with the other iron talon, dragged Nickie down, and pulling him close to the bars, and pushing his short nose between the rods, bit at him with gleaming teeth, and all the time he clawed furiously, his nails tearing through the hide of the Missing Link, and lacerating the man beneath pitilessly.
Nickie fought and yelled and swore, in good strong Australian. Miss Arnott’s pupils, huddled together, staring with round, horrified eyes, and as they stared a truly horrible thing happened. The skin was torn clean from the upper part of the Missing Link, and the bare, blood-stained head and shoulders of a man emerged.
That was too much for a well-conducted ladies seminary. With a final ear-piercing scream in chorus the school turned and fled; it broke pell-mell from the tent, headed by Miss Arnott, who executed a remarkable sprint, taking her age, her dignity and her lack of training into consideration.
It was Madame Marve who rescued Nickie from the clutches of the gorilla, having subdued the brute with a discharge from a squirt charged with ammonia; but Professor Thunder was not thankful, he hadn’t time, his magnificent mind was already busy on ways and means of repairing the mischief done to his Missing Link and to his reputation as an honourable showman.
Of course, the revelation resulting from Ammonia’s misconduct would go round the place like wildfire. There might be a raid of indignant residents, a prosecution for fraud, and there wasn’t time to run.
The raid came in due time. Ten heads of families accompanied by Quinn, the local constable, bore down upon the Museum of Marvels within an hour. Professor Thunder met them at the entrance, with his studious manner and his solemn black hat. The raid was going to express itself forcibly; it did refer to “iniquitous frauds,” “shameful imposition,” “scoundrels,” &c., but the Professor’s big, penetrating voice, his heavy-as-lead manner, triumphed.
“Most unfortunate, gentlemen, a most lamentable disaster,” he said. “My valuable Missing Link is more seriously injured than I imagined, and I may lose him, which would be a heavy blow, indeed, as the College of Naturalists of London, values the beast at four thousand and seventy pounds.”
“It’s a fraud—a blanky imposition!” cried a fierce little man.
“Gentlemen will you favour me by stepping into the museum, and judging for yourself,” said Thunder gravely. “You will find the Missing Link in a low state, but Madame Marve has done all that surgical skill could do. The murderous attacks of the gorilla scalped the poor creature, and tore the skin from his body, but the wounds have been stitched up—there is still hope. This way, gentle men, and quietly, if you please.”
The surprised and subdued deputation found Mahdi, the Missing Link, lying moaning on his straw, his wounds—artfully bloodstained—all stitched up. There were white bandages about his head and his injured arms.
“But the girls say it was a man”, gasped the fierce deputationist.
“A not unnatural mistake, my dear sir,” said the Professor, “Strip the poor creature of its hairy hide and its resemblance to a human creature would deceive the most expert naturalist.”
“Wonderful!” said the local publican.
“But all the same, me mahn,” said Quinn, regretfully, “I have half a moind t’ prosecute yeh fer croolty t’ animals.”
The trick worked, however, the situation was saved, and that night all Bunkers flocked to see the Missing Link that had been flayed in its life-and-death struggle with an infuriated gorilla.