Nickie the Kid was hurt, too, at the scant attendance.
He had been acknowledged by experts to be the best Link ever exhibited in Australia, and Links included all sorts of hairy freaks, wild men of the woods, and shaggy eccentrics from Borneo; but Nicholas Crips could not rest satisfied as a mere interpreter of monkey character.
Nickie reached out and developed, and his newest device was a dinner in the cage, an actual dinner, in which Madame Marve, bewitchingly dressed in a costume that was a cross between the uniform of a hospital nurse and the garb of a French peasant girl, acted as waitress, and the Missing Link figured as the diner. Actual edibles were used, and a “practicable” bottle of beer.
This turn gave the Living Skeleton great concern. “I wish yer wouldn’t do it, Nickie,” said Matty, from his pedestal next the cage of the Missing Link. “Et’s awful tryin’ to a pore bloke what ain’t ’ad nothin’ fer dinner but a dry biscuit t’ ’ave t’ sit ’ere, patient as an owl, while you’re hoggin’ into ther grub, an’ pourin’ fresh beer into yersell regardless iv expense.”
“Get out,” replied the Missing Link. “Call yourself an artist. Every pro. has to suffer for his art. You have to suffer for yours, going short in your eating so as to keep in proper condition. You wouldn’t have a fellow artist sacrifice his chance of becoming celebrated just because it isn’t quite pleasant to you to be a spectator at the banquet?”
“Art be blowed!” said the Living Skeleton. “Give me a yard o’ tripe an’ a scoopful iv mashed potatoos.”
“You aren’t cut out for a public career. Matty you ought to abandon Living Skeletons and get a good eating part.”
“Wish t’ ’eaven I could, but there’s ther missus an’ ther kids t’ think of.”
“Well, you can turn your head away when the banquet scene’s on.”
“What if I do; can’t I smell it?”
There was no escape—poor Matty Cann had to be sacrificed to the requirements of art.
Professor Thunder spread himself to make the new act a success; he procured a clean tablecloth, and napkin, a crush hat and black opera coat (both second-hand) were purchased for the Missing Link. A table, a chair, crockery, edibles, a bottle of beer, a walking stick, and an eyeglass were the rest of the properties.
When the Professor had explained to his patrons his gallant capture of the only living Missing Link in the jungles of Darkest Africa, and had put Mahdi through his paces, to the great amazement of the bucolic audience, he said:
“And now, ladies and gents. I have the pleasure of introducing to your notice an entire change of programme, exhihiting Mahdi, the Missing Link, in his wonderful act, called ‘Civilisation.’ You have, seen, ladies and gents, this here astonishing animal showing the natural qualities of the brute creation; you will now be privileged to see that side of his nature which approaches more nearly to humanity. This act, I may tell you, ladies and gents, though a miracle of training, would not have been possible if wasn’t that the Missing Link has a good deal of human nature in his composition.”
After this the opera cloak was handed in to the Missing Link, and he put it on with awkward, monkey movements; he donned the crush hat, put the eyeglass in his eye, and with the walking’ stick promenaded the cage with some uncouth affectations of humanity. Meanwhile, Madame Marve had carried the small table into the cage. She spread a cloth, put on a few articles, and offered Mahdi a chair.
The Missing Link sat down, took off his hat, and closed it. Then he examined the bill of fare, and pointed to an item. While Madame was fulfilling the order Mahdi lounged in his chair, playing with the serviette, which he took from the ring, and spread on his lap.
After this Nickie went through the process of ordering and eating a dinner, the aim being to do the thing not too humanly, but as a trained animal might do it, throwing in a good deal of coarse humour, at which the audience roared.
The turn was a success, the spectators applauded vociferously.
“Ladies and gents. I thank you,” said the Professor, bowing. “You have witnessed a triumph of teaching and training over brute animal nature, and I hope that when you go out you’ll speak well of a show that has been in some measure the victim of a hireling press here in Wildbee.”
“A marvellous performance, indeed,” said a thin, shabby, sandy man, coming forward with a notebook. “Almost miraculous.”
“True for you, sir.” said the Professor eyeing the man suspiciously.
“Perhaps you can tell me. Professor Thunder, what branch of the Simian family this—this creature of yours belongs?”
“Well,” said the Professor, “he is said to be most closely connected with the gorillas.”
“Nonsense, man! Gorilla, rubbish! Look at that pelvis, sir, look at those arms. That’s no more a gorilla than I am.”
“May I ask to whom I have the honour of speaking?” asked the Professor, in his coldly polite manner—his most superior professional attitude.
“My name is Andrew McKnight, if that’s any good to you. If that is a gorilla, sir, where are his vertebral processes, tell me that? And how comes it that his legs are almost as long as those of man?”
The Missing Link, who had doffed his airs of civilisation, and was now crouched in the straw, began snarling at this. It seemed almost as if Mr. McKnight’s criticism were making the poor beast angry.
“You must remember, sir, that this animal is not of any known species,” said Professor Thunder, who had a large collection of stock phrases for such discussions. “He is in a manner a creature apart.”
“I should say so. Would you permit me to take cerebral measurements of your so-called Missing Link? I am interested in this matter, having opposed the Darwinian hypothesis for many years.”
Here Mahdi’s snarling became diabolical, and he leaped about in a terrifying way.
“Certainly,” said the Professor, “Certainly, Mahdi is always at the service of science. But I warn you he is apt to be treacherous with strangers. He almost tore the arm off Professor Fitzpoof, of Dresden, and he nearly disembowelled a doctor in Dublin in 1895.”
“Oh,” said the gentleman with the notebook, doubtingly, “in that case I had better not, perhaps.”
Mr. McKnight did not go away for some time. He lingered, watching Mahdi with great curiosity. He came back in the evening, too, and hung about the museum for hours. The Professor observed him with growing resentment. He suspected the intentions of the sandy man, and he was not wrong.
Next day, shortly after the show opened, McKnight came again, with the same notebook and the same suspicious air. He brought five men with him, all solid men in Wildbee, one of them the local constable. This party assembled near the cage of the Missing Link, and listened carefully while the Professor reeled off the familiar story of the taking of Mahdi. They witnessed the stirring and entertaining dinner, and when the Professor had finished, and Mahdi had resumed his conch in the straw, McKnight stepped forward.
“And do you expect us to believe all that rubbish, Professor?” he said.
“I do,” said Professor Thunder, with dignity, “but I don’t care if you don’t.”
“Well, we don’t, sir, and what’s more, we know you to be an impostor—a rank impostor—and as editor of the Wildbee ‘Guardian,’ it is my duty to expose you and your shameless fraud upon the public of this town and district.”
At this the Missing Link came out of his straw, growling, and springing to the perch hung by one hand, with his legs drawn up in a very monkey-like attitude.
“What the deuce do you mean?” thundered the Professor, manfully.
“I mean this,” said McKnight, addressing the crowd “you have been victimised. That creature is no monkey. It is a human being of some kind.”
Nickie the Kid felt his heart sink, but he made a big bid for popularity. He capered about the cage and thrusting his face through the bars jabbered excitedly.
“You’re talking rubbish, man,” cried the Professor.
“Am I?” retorted McKnight. “Then perhaps you will have the audacity to tell us you have a monkey that can talk? Last night I crept under your tent at the back there when there were no people in the show, and I heard your absurd Missing Link talking, and what’s more, he was teaching a magpie to talk.”
The Missing Link here made a fierce jump at Ammonia, who happened to be clinging to the dividing bars, caught him, and clawed viciously. Ammonia clawed back, and they fought a yowling battle that went a long way towards modifying the impression created by McKnight’s remarks.
The Professor was consternated for a moment, but the diversion Nickie had created gave him a chance to collect his wits and presently he began to laugh. He laughed uproariously. He clapped the Living Skeleton gaily on the back. “Laugh, you idiot!” he hissed, under his breath. The Living Skeleton laughed, and Madame Marve joined in the seeming merriment. She did not know why, but it seemed advisable.
“Well sir,” snorted McKnight, “you’ve finished that idiotic cackle, perhaps you will explain how a monkey comes to be acquainted with the English language.”
“Certainly,” said the Professor, cordially, “I might prefer to kick you off the premises, but I will explain. Mahdi!” he called imperiously. “Forward, Sir.”
The Missing Link turned from his argument with Ammonia, and lurched to the bars.
“I have not been able to teach my Missing Link to talk, though I’ve tried hard. He can do almost anything else, but not that. However, I dare say we can get him to address this intelligent audience. Mahdi, you see this nice gentleman here.” Professor Thunder pointed to McKnight, “What do you think of him?”
“I think he is an ass!” said the Missing Link, with emphasis.
At this there was a yell of delight from the crowd, and even McKnight and his party were astonished.
“There,” cried McKnight, “what did I tell you? What does that prove?”
“You hear, Mahdi?” said the Professor; “the gentleman wants to know what that proves?”
“It proves I know an ass when I see one,” answered the Missing Link.
“You daylight robber! You unblushing fraud!” yelled McKnight.
“Stay,” cried the Professor, with dignity. “Is it possible, sir, you have never heard of the art of ventriloquism? I am a ventriloquist. The voice you heard was my voice thrown into the mouth of the Missing Link. In this way we are teaching a magpie to speak to the man-monkey as a new feature of my marvellous entertainment. As to your libellous accusations, sir, you will probably hear further on that point from my solicitor, and now good-day.”
“Be me sowl, this bates cock-fightin’, McKnight,” said the constable. “Th’ monkey’s right, Mack. Sure, it’s an ass yiv made iv yersilf this day.”
When McKnight and his party had gone, and the museum was empty of patrons, the Professor mopped his brow, and drew a great breath.
“It’s lucky we were prepared for that emergency,” he said.
“I dunno,” said the man-monkey; “why shouldn’t a Missing Link talk, anyhow?”
“Look here, Nickie, you’re wantin’ to be too talented,” said the Professor. “Your overweening ambition will ruin everything. Why, bless my soul, you be wanting to shave clean and have a vote presently.”