“There ain’t your equal in the whole profession, my boy,” he said, clapping the man-monkey heartily between the shoulder blades, “and if you go on improving your interpretation and developing the character, by the Lord Harry, I believe it’ll be worth our while to do a world’s tour one of these days.”
In consideration of Mahdi’s perfections the Professor had twice generously raised his salary by half a-crown a week.
“There isn’t a Woolly Man o’ the Woods or a Wild Man from Borneo now on the roads’ drawing the salary you are, Crips,” said the Professor. “Two pounds two and six a week is princely pay for a Missing Link. Let me tell you there are stars playing Romeo and Hamlet that aren’t getting such good money, my boy.”
Nickie certainly deserved his munificent salary, as he was the best draw in the museum, and was improving the attractiveness of the show weekly, with bright ideas and new schemes for inciting the interest of the Professor’s bucolic customers. It was Nickie suggested the idea of a ride through Bullfrog town ship in character.
“I’m afraid, my boy,” said the Professor, “it’s risky—very risky. You’ll be giving the game away one of them days, and once it gets about that Professor Sullivan Thunder’s marvellous and only-living Missing Link is a fake, the metropolitan press will be down on me like a ton of bricks, and I’ll come to running a Punch and Judy show at baby parties in my old age.”
“My dear Professor, have a bit of enterprise,” replied the Missing Link, “we are not drawing well! Bullfrog wants waking up. Run out the caravan, and take a turn through the township, with the cornet playing and me riding ahead on the black mare, and we are bound to make an impression. Get through at a good bat, and they won’t have time to look twice at the man-monkey before it’s all over. Just a dash through and back to the tent, and we can be under cover again before they’re fairly out of their houses. I tell you, sir, it will make Bullfrog wild with curiosity.”
Madame Marve, the Egyptian Mystic, favoured the scheme, and Professor Thunder agreed. The caravan was prepared, and Madame Marve, wearing a much bespangled, but rather seedy, pantomime, fairy costume, stood by the box seat, playing a lively air on the cornet; Professor Thunder, with a flowing mane of hair and a Buffalo Bill rig-out, drove the horses. From the sides of the big vehicle hung highly-coloured posters, while above flared the name of the show in long, red letters.
The black mare Nickie rode was one of the three hired to drag the Museum into Bullfrog. She was a rather spirited little beast, and had shown great perturbation when Mr. Crips, in his full make-up as Mahdi, the Missing Link, approached to mount. Now she cantered ahead at a smart pace, still nervous about the monstrous thing upon her back. The caravan came rattling after, Professor Thunder keeping up a volley of whip cracks, and Madame tooting gaily.
It was early in the day, and the township had lain drowsing in its dust under the shimmer of a great yellow sun till this astonishing invasion struck it, and startled it from its accustomed lethargy. There was a rush to windows and doors, men fell over each other struggling from Harvey’s bar, a sudden mutiny arose in the little wooden school, and children swarmed at the windows, and poured pell-mell from the doors. The people of Bullfrog caught only a fleeting glimpse of a huge monkey crouched man-wise on a gaily caparisoned pony, of Madame Marve in her fairy costume, and the gaudy caravan, as the small procession dashed past.
But Constable Cobb, who was drowsing against the shoemaker’s doorpost, saw the amazing thing on the horse approaching as in a dream, and professional zeal uppermost in his mind, he dashed into the toad, and grabbed at the rein. The mare, already much distressed, lost her head entirely at this rude intervention of the law, and rearing high on her hind legs as she beat the air with her hoofs, plunged wildly, and then bolted, leaving Constable Cobb on the broad of his back, half stifled in the dust, with the imprint of a horseshoe on his elegant helmet.
The mare did the circuit of Bullfrog at a furious pace, with the Missing Link hanging about her neck, and clinging to her ribs with insistent heels. Never had Bullfrog experienced such a shaking up. People came running in all directions, eager to see this marvellous thing. The township was almost obscured in its own dust, and through the clouds of her own creating came the little mare, scattering the horrified inhabitants, who caught only fleeting glimpses of the huge, hairy creature sprawling in the saddle.
When Nickie at length regained his stirrups, and worked himself into an upright position, he found the mare racing along a rough road between walls of bush, heading towards Tollbar, whence she had come on the previous day.
Nickie the Kid was not expert as an equestrian. So far he had clung to the horse with desperate tenacity, and now that he had recovered his mental grip to some extent he could think of nothing to restrain the animal’s wild career, but he did think of the awful possibilities of his position, one of which was an apparent certainty. The horse would carry him back to Tollbar, to its owner’s stable, the township would be drawn together by the extraordinary spectacle of a horse bolting through the place mounted by a gigantic monkey, the fraud would be discovered, and then the inhabitants would deal in their own gentle, characteristic way with the man who had been party to Professor Thunder’s shocking imposition. Two days earlier Tollbar had patronised the museum.
These cheerful thoughts occupied Nickie’s mind while the mare was negotiating about five miles, and wearing much of the wool off Mahdi, and not a little cuticle off Mr. Crips; but he was saved the dread ordeal he anticipated by another disaster. The mare caught a hoof in a rut and came down heavily, and presently Nickie recovered consciousness, lying on his back, blinking at the blue sky, gratified to find that he was not dead.
The mare was out of sight, and the Missing Link was at large in the bush, with a damaged head, a sprained ankle, a cracked rib, and a pain in every limb. He arose and shook some, of the dust off himself, and then limped from the road and sat in the shade of a tree, with his back to the butt, to consider his lamentable situation and feel his injuries.
Nickie’s position was certainly an unpleasant one. He could not walk back to Bullfrog, because he would be certain to meet people by the way, and the sight of a Missing Link prowling in the Australian bush might lead to disaster. In any case, the sprained ankle made a five-mile walk impossible. Nickie could not strip off his monkey make-up, because of the very scanty undergarments he possessed.
“What the deuce am I to do now?” groaned the victim, gently chafing his bruises.
He was answered by a shrill scream, an energetic and most piercing feminine yell of terror, and lifting his startled eyes he beheld a young girl, clad after the manner of a settler’s daughter, standing a few yards away, staring at him with wild horrified eyes. The girl’s fingers were clutching her hair, her face was white, her limbs convulsed, she seemed glued to the spot, incapable of movement, but power of screaming remained with her, and she exerted it to the utmost—she screamed, and screamed, and screamed again, the bush resounded with the echoes of her agonised cries.
For a moment Nickie stared back in blank surprise. It had not struck him that he was the occasion of this frantic demonstration, but presently he realised that a little screaming was excusable in an excitable young lady coming suddenly upon a full-grown missing link drowsing under the gums in her native bush.
Nickie arose, he advanced a step. His intentions were honourable he meant to offer a full explanation, with apologies, but the girl did not wait; at his first movement she swung round and fled through the trees, still screaming.
The Missing Link sat down again with a sigh. Anyhow there must be a residence near, he was not destined to perish in the bush; but the girl would rush home with a shocking tale of some hideous monster in the paddock, her male relations would come to hunt down that monster. Nickie had had experience of such hunters; he remembered that they carried guns, and that they were not disposed to delay shooting in order to argue with a monkey about the sacredness of life.
Mr. Crips had a ready mind, and his peculiar career had taught him the necessity of prompt action. With eager hands he pulled off his monkey skin, rolled it up, and stuffed it into a hollow log, with the head-piece and mask; and then with his singlet he rubbed the make-up off his face, rubbing off a fair amount of hide in his eagerness. After this he set to work tearing up the grass tufts, and creating evidence of a struggle. The blood from a cut in his head came in most useful; he made as big a show as possible with it. Nicholas Crips next lay down amid the ruin he had wrought.
Nickie had not long to wait. About twenty minutes later he saw an elderly man and a youth coming hurriedly through the trees, looking about them eagerly. Each carried a gun. He sat up and beckoned, and they hastened to him, not a little astonished to find a strange man clad only in torn singlet and drawers lying there in the depths of the bush.
“Hullo, mate,” said the elder man, “what’s amiss?”
Nickie groaned aloud. “Horrible!” he gasped. “Horrible! Horrible!”
The man raised him. “I say, you’ve been knocked about,” he said. “Have you seen anythin’?”
Nickie nodded feebly. “Yes,” he said, “a monkey, an orang-outang, or something, as big as a man. An awful brute.”
“Well, I’m blowed!” gaspe the man. “Then Nell was right. My daughter came home in a fit; she said a monkey bigger’n me had chased her.”
“It’s true,” murmured Nickie. “It chased me. We had a terrible fight. It tore all my clothes off about a mile and a half back there near the creek. I escaped, and it chased me here, and we fought again. I thought my end had come, when it must have heard you, and it made off through the bush towards the mountain, going like the wind.”
“By cripes!” ejaculated the youth in an awed voice.
“Did he hurt yeh much?” asked the man.
“My ankle’s sprained, and I’ve got a broken rib and a cut head,” answered Nickie; “but losing my clothes is the worst. What is a man to do without his clothes?”
“You get up to the house, Billy, and bring down my Sunday things,” said the settler. “We’ll fix you up all right, mister,” he added, addressing Nickie the Kid, and Nickie smiled warily, and uttered feeble thanks.
They dressed Nickie and took him up to the house and fed him, and then drove him back to Bullfrog in their spring cart, delivering him into the hands of Madame Marve, who manifested great joy on receiving back the unparalleled Missing Link in fairly good condition.
Nickie had explained to the settler that he believed the orang-outang that attacked him had escaped from Professor Thunder’s Museum of Marvels and that he intended claiming damages.
Later in the day Nickie and the Professor drove out and recovered Mahdi’s outfit from the hollow log, and that evening the Missing Link was again on view, and exciting much interest, although he sullenly refused to any further demonstration for the edification of the people of Bullfrog.