Usually when the caravan bounded into a township, with the little bells on the horses jingling gaily, and Madame Marve, dressed in a somewhat brief and too youthful costume, enthroned on the box seat, playing a rattling tune on the cornet, the people turned out in crowds to welcome it, and the children swarmed, eager for a peep at the hidden mysteries.
It was different at Rabbit township.
The caravan dashed into Rabbit with the customary velocity and the regulation rattle, but Rabbit did not trouble itself.
“Blarst my eyes!” growled the Professor, when the camp was made; “even the dogs didn’t bark! What sort of a boneyard is this we’ve struck?”
As a matter of fact, Rabbit was a moribund township. The rabbits had eaten up the surrounding country, and now they were beginning to eat up the township. So voracious was bunny that when a man went missing it was gloomily concluded that the rabbits had eaten him, and the township took no action, subsiding in despair. Most of the people had left. Those who remained did so because they couldn’t afford to shift, or because they were too lazy to go.
Professor Thunder had been doing good business, and his expenses were light. He could afford to play tricks, but he played a foolish prank in trying to amuse Rabbit township. Rabbit was incapable of being amused.
There remained an open hotel at Rabbit, and the Professor called on its proprietor to gather useful information concerning the inhabitants, their tastes and habits. He found Schmitz, the portly proprietor, sprawling on his own bar counter, embracing a bottle of squareface with a loving hug. The two arms of Schmitz caressed the bottle, his cheek was pressed amorously to the cork. The eye of Schmitz was small and round, and seemed to be filled with pink cobweb, his hair was in a state of tumult, and was full of chips, suggesting that he had recently slept on the wood heap. Schmitz had a fierce, red moustache, that looked as if it had been trimmed on a block with an adze.
The publican blinked stupidly at the world-famous showman for a moment, trying to pick him out from a number of unnatural curiosities careering before him, and then he said, decisively: “Ged oud of mein ’ous’.”
“My dear fellow,” said the Professor, urbanely, “I suppose you will serve me with some little refreshment?”
“Refreshmend?” muttered the landlord. “Refreshmend?” His intellect struggled to grasp the situation. Suddenly it became luminous. “Nein!” he yelled. “I vill nod you mid refreshmend serve! Nein! I keep him all for meinseluf. Ged oud!”
“But, Mr. Schmitz,” expostulated the Professor.
“Ged oud of mein ’ous’. I know vot you want, ain’t id? You want to buy mein liquer. Veil, I don’d sell some liquer to nopody. Der ain’t sufficiency for mieinseluf. Ged oud! Tam you, ged oud kvick!” Schmitz caught up a bottle in quick rage, and dashed it at Professor Thunder.
The Professor pursued his investigations no further. The tent was pitched, the museum was arranged for an afternoon performance, and the unrivalled showman, to whose enterprise Rabbit owed this chance of improving its mind and enlivening its leisure, took his stand outside, and endeavoured to awaken the township to a sense of its opportunities. For three-quarters of an hour he poured forth a stream of eloquence at the top of his pitch. After the first quarter of an hour he was appreciated by a tired dog, which drifted up, and barked at him in a desultory way. Later, he was becoming discouraged when a tattered youth, wearing a hat that nearly engulfed him, came and stared at him open-mouthed, stupidly, silently, for twenty minutes. This youth was the township idiot. Nobody else troubled to come out and see what all the noise was about.
“We’re got to shake up the township, Nickie,” Thunder said.
“Well, go out and shake it, Professor—I’m tired.”
“No, Nickie, you’ve got to do the shaking. See here, the place is dead. I don’t believe it ever heard of Professor Thunder and his world-famous Missing Link; I don’t think it has discovered that anything unusual has happened along. You must escape from your cage to-night, and scare the life half out of some of these miserable mummies, then I’ll come along and recapture you. That should excite some curiosity, and perhaps bring in money to-morrow’.”
Nickie yawned lazily. “Oh, all right,” he said, getting back to his straw; “but mind there are no guns. I’ve an objection to being hunted with guns—it’s too wearing.”
That night a large, hairy animal of a species hither to unknown at Rabbit, made its way along the deserted main street of the township. The animal walked upright, like a huge monkey, its long hands swung below its knees. Mahdi had not gone a hundred yards when a large, stout man lurched out of the shadow of a tree and fell upon him.
The large, stout man smelt strongly of consumed drink. He clasped the Missing Link to his breast for a moment, then swayed back, holding on with one hand. In the other hand he flourished a bottle.
“Goot day, mein bruder; how are you?” he gurgled. Nickie growled his most terrible growl, and the stranger made some little show of surprise. “Vot is it der madder?” he said. “Blitzen, dot’s a peaudiful winter overcoad vot you year mit der summer. Come’n haff er drink.” He held the bottle towards Nickie the Kid. It was a bottle of square gin. All kinds of bottles were fascinating to Nickie.
Mahdi faltered. Nickie was very partial to square gin, and although the Missing Link had a proper sense of duty, the inner man was weak.
“Helup vourseluf, Sharlie,” said Schmitz.
Nickie helped himself. He helped himself liberally. Schmitz fell on Mahdi’s neck, and embraced him freely. “Mein goot friend,” he gurgled, “I like you. You shplended fellow. Dot’s so, sure. Come mit me, my ’ous’ to, und ye make a night mid it.” He embraced Nickie again.
“All der same,” he said, in a puzzled tone, “I don’t know me vy you vear dot hairy overcoad dose hot nides. Haff er drink.”
The Missing Link, standing grimly outlined in the darkness, raised the bottle in his two prehensile paws, and drank health to Schmitz.
“Goot man,” said Schmitz, embracing him again. “Now con mit me to my ’ous’ to, und we make the night.” He grappled with Nickie, and the two seesawed towards Schmitz’s hotel. The place was in complete darkness; the bar door was wide open.
Schmitz dragged Nickie through the bar, with much bumping and more breaking of glass, into a back compartment, and there he fumbled for matches, forgot his mission, and sang a German song very drearily, stopping suddenly to say:
“Vere haf you gone mit yourseluf, mein goot friend? Vot is der madder mit der lightness.”
He fumbled again. Nickie was in no hurry, he had the gin bottle.
Schmitz found the matches, and lit a candle on the shelf. He turned drunkenly towards Nickie, and beheld what must have been a strange and mysterious sight to a commonplace Dutchman in his own home. Sitting on a chair facing him, with the gin bottle raised to his lips, was a mighty monkey—a great, red, hairy ape, as large as a man.
The publican scratched his head wonderingly.
“Mein gracious!” he said.
“Dot iss a sdrange ting dot haff happened mit you, Sharlie,” he said, in a wondering, small voice.
“Sharlie!” he called. “Sharlie!” The Missing Link gave no reply.
“Pless mein soul!” gasped the Dutchman.
Suddenly a gleam of intelligence shot through the publican’s boosy gloom. He pointed a finger straight at Nickie, lurched towards him, crossed the room in a stagger, and drove his inquiring digit against the mysterious visitor. The mysterious visitor was solid.
Schmitz was beaten.
“Sharlie,” he said, “is it true dot you vos, or is it true dot you aind’t?”
Nickie offered him the bottle in a friendly way, and Schmitz took it and drank. The draught seemed to abolish all problems.
“Now ye make dot night, Sharlie,” said Schmitz. He staggered into the bar, and returned with an armful of bottles—all full of liquor. With the adroitness of an expert he knocked the head off a bottle of schnapps. “Dot is for you, Sharlie,” he explained. The Missing Link assumed possession.
Schmitz knocked the head off another.
“Dot one for me iss,” he said.
Then the night began. The Dutchman drank and sang and danced, and a hundred times assured the Missing Link of his undying friendship. True, he had occasional spasms of reawakened amazement, when he would gaze at the man-monkey in stupid wonder, saying: “I don’t understand me, Sharlie,” but Nickie’s extremely human manner of disposing of gin seemed to reassure him, and he would burst into song again.
In due course Nickie grew jovial, and lost all sense of his make-up and his professional reputation, and he sang, too, and caper exuberantly about Schmitz’s kitchen, while Schmitz, reclining in a corner on the floor, shook his fat sides with gargantuan roars of laughter. The sight of this gigantic ape dancing a Highland Fling stirred the drunken Dutchman to wildest merriment; he howled with delight.
“Goot, goot! Some more Sharlie!” he yelled. “Dance, dance. Mein Gott, dot’s der greadest sight I effer haff see me.”
This was the strange and awful spectacle Mrs. Schmitz tumbled upon, returning from a week’s stay at Rattletrap. Her screams brought the red-headed stable boy to the rescue.
Two minutes later, while Mrs. Schmitz was assuring one section of Rabbit township that her poor, miserable husband had sold his soul to hell, and was at that moment dancing fiendish dances with the devil himself in her kitchen, a red-headed youth, almost beside himself with horror, was stirring up the other section with the tale of Dutchy Schmitz howling mad in the hotel, while a great, hairy, hideous jim-jam capered on the floor before him.
Rabbit was stirred at last. Professor Thunder was made unpleasantly aware of the fact when he discovered a crowd of patriots surrounding Schmitz’s, preparing to burn out the devils that possessed it, having peeped timidly at the windows; and assured themselves of the unearthly nature of Schmitz’s guest.
The Missing Link, with Schmitz on his arm, came rolling from the back door, roaring and brandishing a bottle. The crowd broke and fled before them, and a minute later the bosom friends were rocking down the road together, singing insanely.
How to recapture Nickie was the showman’s real trouble now. He knew that persuasion would be useless with Nickie in his present state, and resolved to try force. He grappled with Nickie in the street, and Nickie, now feeling like a king in his own right, and valiantly asserting his majesty, resented this impudent interference, and fought with fine, royal spirit. For a moment or two Dutchy failed to realise the situation, and then, roaring like a bull, and swinging a bottle of stone gin, he went at the Professor.
The bottle took Thunder in the back of the head. It ought to have killed him, but it didn’t—it merely stretched him on the road unconscious. When he recovered he was on a couch in the hotel, with his head wrapped in a tablecloth, and day was breaking. No body knew what had become of Dutchy and the Missing Link, and the Professor returned to the tent, with a soul seething bitterness. He found Nickie in his cage, sleeping soundly, and alongside him on the straw lay the bulky form of Schmitz, the publican, in whose hand was still clutched a bottle of stone gin. The Missing Link had returned hospitality for hospitality, and side by side like brothers dear the carousers slept.