The caravan was drawn up for tea in the moonlit bush by Howlet’s jinker track. A camp-fire blazed in the end of a butt under a wide-branching gum. The Professor lay at a distance—for the night was warm—smoking on the crisp grass. The Living Skeleton crouched near, embracing his lean knees, staring into the fire, thinking fondly of his absent wife and family, a furtive tear lurking in the hollow of his cheek, for Matty Cann’s absurd sentimentality made him a failure as a vagabond. Nickie fussed about gallantly, assisting Madame Marve and little Miss Thunder, who were busy spreading papers for the evening meal.
Professor Thunder had in Madame Marve a perfect wife for a showman. In addition to her value as the Egyptian Mystic, a wonder-worker, and teller of for tunes, she was chief cook and housekeeper for the whole caravan, but she had a flirtatious disposition, and the attentions Nicholas Crips offered in his unprofessional moments were received in a spirit of frivolous appreciation that disturbed the boss showman’s complacency at times.
“Less of it. Less of it, my boy!” was his deep throated exhortation on such occasions.
All the members of the company had to take a hand in the hard graft and menial tasks incidental to the upkeep, management and movement of the show, and neither professional etiquette nor artistic pride could rescue Nicholas Crips from the vulgar task of preparing comestibles for the monkeys. But Madame was certainly the most useful artist on Professor Thunder’s salary list, a document preserved with much pride, to be exhibited in bars and such public places for purposes of advertisement, and which represented the Egyptian Mystic as receiving £30 per week. On the salary list Bonypart, the Living Skeleton, was rated at £15 per week. He actually received twenty-shillings and his keep.
“Professional usage, my boy—professional usage!” explained the celebrated entrepreneur when Matty Cann drew attention to the discrepancy. “It’s always done in the theatrical business. Bless you, you don’t think we pay our Sarah Bernhardts, and our Cinquevallis, and our Paderewskis and our Peggy Prydes those enormous salaries that get into the papers. No; no, we couldn’t do it, but we are content to let it be thought we do. It impresses our public, Bonypart—it impresses our public, my boy.”
Madame Marve produced bread, butter, pannikins, and the familiar necessities, brought forward the usual boiled leg of mutton on a lordly dish, large, fat and steaming like a laundry.
“Encore, encore!” cried the Professor.
“Hear, hear!” applauded Nickie, clapping vigorously. Matty Cann even ventured an expression of appreciation.
Madame Marve placed the mutton for the carver, and bowed low to the right and left, picked up an imaginary bouquet, and threw three kisses to hypothetical “gods.”
“Come, come, Bony,” she said, patting the Living Skeleton on the back, “buck up, man. If my old man couldn’t think of me for ten minutes without snivelling, I’d have a divorce.”
Matty Cann smiled wanly. He had no great cause to “buck up,” his share of the boiled leg would be very small indeed and entirely knuckle, the Professor holding that the knuckle end was not fat-producing.
“It’s Jane’s birthday this day week, an’ little Mat’ll be two year old the day after. I was wonderin’ if I could get a day off t’ visit me fam’ly?” said Matty.
“And fat up over-eating yourself,” said Thunder. “Not much, my boy!”
Matty groaned. “I give you me word I’d eat nothin’ but ship’s biscuit,” he pleaded.
“Poor old Bony,” said the Egyptian Mystic. “It’s a pity your missus ain’t a bit of a freak, so as we could have her along. Now, if she could eat fire we might find a place for her. Fire-eaters are very popular. I suppose she couldn’t learn to eat fire, Bony?”
The Living Skeleton shook his head gloomily over his poor meal. “I’m afraid she couldn’t,” he said. “Jane ain’t got any gifts.”
The meal was finished, and the utensils were washed and restored to the caravan cupboard, a zinc-lined packing case. Professor Thunder was down on his back on the crisp grass again, smoking. He was feeling good, and opened his heart.
“We’ll top off with a touch of old Jamaica, Nickie, my boy,” he said. “There’s a bottle in the box-seat. You might lead her out.”
Nickie needed no second invitation. He sprang up with unaccustomed alacrity, and passed out of the circle of light into the bush darkness. He found the bottle in the locker under the driving seat, and stepping down from the vehicle turned again towards the fire. The extraordinary change in the peaceful scene he had just left flashed upon him with the vividness of a tableau in melodrama The gifted members of Professor Thunder’s world company were no longer lounging carelessly on the grass, they stood erect, grouped together, their faces, tense with fear and amazement, showing whitey-yellow in the firelight, their hands thrown above their heads. Facing them on the other side of the fire, with his profile to Nicholas Crips, was a short, stoutly-built man, in a coarse blue shirt and corduroy riding pants, with a white handkerchief tied loosely about his neck. A fine chestnut horse stood behind him. The rein was looped over his arm. In his right hand this man held a long, business-like Colt’s revolver pointed at the group before him.
It was a fine picture, intensely dramatic, it amazed Nickie, and brought him up short with a gasp, but it did not appeal to him as an artist particularly. He stepped sharply into cover of a gum butt. His hand went instinctively to his breast where, in a small chamois bag next his skin, he carried a certain treasure the care of which was the one real concern of his present life.
“See here,” said the gentleman with the long revolver, “the first of you, man, woman or child, that stirs a finger or utters a yelp gets lead poisonin’. Understand?” He looked round. “This is the whole band?” he said.
Professor Thunder nodded his head.
“Yes,” said the intruder, “I was at your show at Big Timber, Professor, an’ I took trouble t’ size up the strength of the crowd. I guessed it would be an easy thing, and it is.”
“Who are you?” asked the celebrated entrepreneur, much distressed to find himself in a theatrical situation that was painfully real.
“Don’t ask questions of yer betters, Professor, an’ you won’t get hurt. Howsomever, yer bound t’ hear at The Mills all about Dan Heeley, so I don’t mind admittin’ I’m little Danny.”
“Heeley!” gasped Madame Marve, “the man that shot Hollander, the man that’s been sticking up the banks?”
Heeley’s brow darkened.
“Precisely, missus,” he said; “the man the Gov’ mint offers £250 quid for, cash on delivery.” He turned again to Professor Thunder. “I noticed you was doin’ pretty good at Big Timber, mate,” he said, “and I thought I’d follow on and pick up a little loose change. Fact is, I want your cash box, Perfessor, and any little articles of value you don’t happen to be needin’ for the moment.”
“I—I’ve got next to nothing,” faltered Thunder. “Most of my takings went in expenses.”
Mat Heeley’s revolver hand became rigid, his grim mouth, tightened, his chin set itself in prognathous ugliness.
“You’ll send your little girl for that cash box, Professor,” he said coldly, “and you’ll tell her to gather up any bits and pieces of jewellery and such like as would please me, and if the collection isn’t a good one I’ll maybe blow an arm off you, jist as a mark of my displeasure. As for the rest, if you ain’t good I’ll riddle the brain-pan of one of yeh jist to convince the others that I mean business.”
Professor Thunder was quite convinced; he had not the slightest doubt but that Daniel meant business. He gave Letitia his keys, and a few words of instruction, and the girl went to the caravan, and presently returned with the Professor’s zinc cash box and a chamois-leather bag containing a few rings and chains belonging to himself and Madame.
Dan Heeley placed his revolver to his hand on the stump by his side, and took up the cash box, but the next instant he snatched at his revolver again, and turned it upon a large, ungainly figure, that loped out of the bush, and stood grinning and chattering where the firelight faded into gloom. It was Mahdi the Missing Link, in full dress.
“What’s that?” demanded Heeley, fiercely.
The figure leaped about in a foolish way, and rolled on the grass in unwield play. Heeley burst into laughter. “It’s that blanky monkey,” he said. “D’yeh mean t’ say you leave four thousan’ quids’ worth o’ monkey run round loose in the bush like this?”
Mr. Heeley grinned amiably, replaced the revolver on the stump, and turned his attention to the cash box once more. That cash box was decidedly heavy, but the Professor, whose heart had been in his boots at the prospect of a big loss, was now tremulous with hope, and watched the Missing Link anxiously. Mahdi scraped and picked at the grass with a diverting show of monkey antics, sniffed at the boiler in which the leg of mutton had been cooked, and backed away nearer Heeley, with a yowl of consternation as his nose encountered the scalding water. Dan Heeley was diverted, he laughed aloud, but he had a cautious eye on his victims the while, for all he held them cheaply.
Mahdi, the man-monkey, sniffed about the stump, and capered foolishly. He looked with ape-like curiosity at Heeley’s horse, then made an impish jump at the animal, grinning and growling savagely. The horse threw up his head, snorted in terror, and pulled back, dragging Heeley with him, broke free, and bolted into the night. Cursing wildly, Heeley ran for his revolver. He ran with his nose on to the barrel of it.
One was there before him—the Missing Link. The revolver was held in Mahdi’s shaggy paw, pointed straight at Heeley’s head, and the animal gibbered in guttural fury, snarling and showing ugly white fangs. It was a sight to deter the boldest; it shocked Dan Heeley, the Bold Dan Heeley, who had never trembled at the sight of a living thing—when he had the drop on it—and he drew up sharply and recoiled a step.
Then he swore a big black oath, and his right hand went to his hip. It was an unwise action; the Missing Link anticipated the evil intention and fired. A second revolver fell from Mr. Heeley’s right hand. Dan’s shooting arm was broken.
The Missing Link advanced with movements and howls significant of horrible ferocity. Dan Heeley backed before it, white to the lips. At this point the Professor plucked up courage and advanced upon Heeley.
Dan offered no resistance, his arm was broken, and he was completely paralysed by the insistence of the monster attacking him. Five minutes later Dan, Heeley, the Bold Birragua Boy, was securely tied to a tree, with about three fathoms of inch manila, and the Professor’s cash box, with its proper contents increased by certain sums that were illegally Heeley’s, was safely bestowed in its locker again.
“What was the price you said the Government had put on your head, Dan, my boy?” asked Professor Thunder. “Two hundred and fifty of the best? It’s mine, Daniel.”
Heeley made no reply; his frightened eyes were fixed on the man-monkey cowering in the shade, with the revolver tight in its right hand.
“The Missing Link will watch over you to-night, Dan,” continued the Professor, jauntily. “He’s as strong as ten men, so don’t try tricks with him.”
But the Professor did not get that £250. At day-break, to Heeley’s great amazement, the huge monkey cut him free, and made no attempt to resist his flight. Nicholas Crips had very satisfactory reasons for not being mixed up in a long, legal ceremonial such as the handing of Heeley over to the police would have entailed. Nicholas remembered a certain strange adventure in Bigg’s Buildings, and his desire was to give the police of Victoria as wide a berth as the most exclusive officer could possibly long for.