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The Adventures of Mr. Maximillian Bacchus and His Travelling Circus 3


  THE FACE OF

  THE FLYING

  LION FISH

  AND WHY

  DOCTOR BENTHAM'S

  THEATRE OF TEARS

  sailed north

  This is the second story about Mr. Bacchus and his Travelling Circus, and it concerns the face of the Flying Lion-Fish, and why Doctor Jozabiah Bentham's Theatre of Tears sailed North to battle whales.

  A bitter south-easterly wind howled and careened along the open road, and there were ponderous thunderclouds across the star. In the caravan, everyone was listening to the moan of the wind between the spokes of the wheels, unable to get a wink of sleep. Malachi had given up trying to remember the names of the Rameses the Second's dogs, and was lying full-length on the floor with his head on his claws. Angelo was attempting to teach Ophelia to play chess, but if even a pawn were taken she would begin to weep. Posing against the wall, Domingo de Ybarrondo, the Clown, pulled faces at himself in the hand-mirror, first joyful, then rejected, ridiculous, marital, tragic and awful. Hero, meanwhile, was attempting to sketch Malachi, but the creature he had drawn looked extremely odd, so he transformed it into a shattered pillar of a temple lying on its side, with two toads squatting on it. Only Mr. Bacchus himself was asleep, sitting slumped in his wicker chair with his head on his broad chest. With each snore his beard quivered, and occasionally a dead oak or vine leaf would be lifted into the air by his breath, and then drift lazily down to the floor.

  Around the caravan the October gale bared its teeth like a pack of Arctic wolves. Had all the members of the Circus not been together it would have been a frightening night to spend there, on the empty road, with clouds across the North Star, directionless in the wilderness. As it was, they thought, what Kraken or Salamander would possibly try to enter the caravan, with Hieronymous the strongman and the fearsome jaws of Malachi to face?

  Suddenly there was a thump on the roof, and the world rocked violently from side to side. Something large, it seemed, had flapped out of the icy night and landed on the caravan. Malachi covered his nostrils with his claws, and tried to look as inconspicuous as he possibly could, Domingo hid his face behind the mirror, and Ophelia leapt up from her seat, sending the chess pieces flying. Abruptly, the rocking stopped, and there was a long silence while everyone wondered what to say and do next. Hero was the first to speak:

  "Did you hear that?" he said.

  "Anything in particular?" said Malachi.

  "Yes," said Domingo, peering from behind the mirror. "A bump on the roof."

  "I wonder what it was?" said Ophelia.

  "Nothing," said Malachi hurriedly. "A trick of the light." "I hope Thoth will be alright out there," said Hero.

  Thoth was the giant Ibis-bird who pulled the caravan, and he always slept standing up with his head tucked under his wing.

  At precisely that moment, he squawked frantically, and the caravan rocked again.

  "He's seen it," said Angelo.

  "It was a trick of ..." Malachi began, and then, as Thoth's frightened squawks grew louder, thought the better of it. "What should we do?" said Ophelia, beginning to tremble. "We ought to wake Bacchus," said Domingo.

  Everyone agreed that this seemed a wise idea, and Mr. Bacchus was stirred. He murmured, "Sybil ..." in his sleep, blinked, stretched and yawned. "Morning already?" he said. "Why these nights get shorter! I'm hardly away to Arcady before dawn."

  "No," said Hero. "No, it's not morning yet."

  "Why have I been woken then?" demanded Bacchus, frowning.

  "There's something..." the Clown began, looking up all the time as if whatever it was might fall through the ceiling on top of him. "There's something on the roof."

  "Oh really?" said Mr. Bacchus. "What sort of thing, my boy?"

  "I, for one, don't wish to look," pronounced Malachi. "It will almost certainly have three heads, two spiked tails, and roar like a fish."

  "Fish don't roar," said Domingo.

  "You haven't met the fish I've met," replied Malachi. "The ones that lurk in the drowned dhows at the bottom of the Nile and roar like lions."

  "Oh really, crocodile," said Hero. "I doubt very much if you have ever seen the Nile, never mind its bottom."

  Before Malachi could reply to that accusation, the Ibis-bird squawked again, and the thing on the roof began to jump up and down, screeching and gibbering insanely.

  "Listen to that," said Malachi, his eyes rolling. "That is distinctly the roaring of your Lion-Fish! It's flown here all the way from the Nile, and is now perching on our roof."

  Ophelia began to sob: "I wish I'd been a nun," she said. "Instead of joining a Circus."

  "Fear not, my dear," said Mr. Bacchus, enveloping her in a protective arm.

  "Hero is going out to tell the Great Beast to get off of our roof, aren't you, Hero?"

  "Am I?" said Hero nervously.

  "Indeed you are, my boy, indeed you are. It's no trouble for a fellow with your pectorals, now is it?"

  "Isn't it?" replied Hero.

  "Of course not," said Bacchus.

  "What if it is a Flying Lion-Fish?" said Malachi. "Where will we get another strongman from, at this time of night?"

  "If it is a Lion-Fish," said Bacchus, slapping Hero on the back, "Wrestle it! Capture it, my boy, and we shall all be rich! Imagine that, the only Circus in the world with a flying Lion-Fish! Why, when we go to Cathay, think of the fortune that will await us! Mr. Maximillian Bacchus and his flying Lion-Fish."

  "Wait a moment," put in Hero. "If I capture it, then surely it will be my Lion-Fish?"

  "Ah, but it's chosen to land on my roof," said Mr. Bacchus. "True," said Hero. "Then we shall share the fortune. Agreed?"

  "Agreed," said Mr. Bacchus. "Now, child, get up there and wrestle it, or we shall have it through the ceiling."

  Suddenly, Ophelia let out a horrified squeal, and pointed to the window.

  "The Fish!" she cried. "It's the Fish."

  There was a face at the window. A hideous face. The fanged mouth was upon its forehead, and the pig-like eyes were where the mouth should have been. A scraggly orange beard hung from the wrinkled chin, but there was no sign of either a neck or a body. The nose was flat and pressed against the window, and out of the top of the head grew a hairy shape that might have been the beginnings of a malformed fin.

  "Oh, NO," said Malachi. "That's not a Flying Lion-Fish. That's much more horrible."

  At the sight of the disembodied head, Mr. Bacchus leapt up and rushed to the window, shouting:

  "Remove yourself from my caravan, friend!" and beat upon the glass with his stick.

  Immediately, the head disappeared, and the thing began to jump up and down on the roof again, screeching. The caravan rocked, and everyone toppled over onto Malachi.

  "Remove yourselves!" demanded the crocodile, "Or undoubtedly I shall consume the first limb I set eyes upon."

  "Well," said Angelo, engineering himself out of the pile. "We can't stay here all night, hoping the next gust will blow it back to the Abyss. I'm going out to see what it is."

  "Oh, do be careful," said Ophelia.

  "Of course," replied Angelo, and picking up the wooden sword Malachi used in his rendering of "Das Rheingold," he opened the caravan door and was enveloped by the darkness. Inside the caravan, everyone waited, straining their ears. But there was silence once more. Even the gibbering stopped.

  "I'm going out to help him," said Domingo, and cartwheeled through the door before anyone could stop him.

  "We had better assist the poor boy!" said Bacchus, leading the way. "Malachi, you will remain here and protect Ophelia!" "What if it comes in, and we're on our own?" said Malachi.

  "Coward!" accused Mr. Bacchus.

  "Me?" said Malachi. "Coward? Me? You insult me, sir. My dignity is affronted." He put his nose into the air and climbed into the costume basket.

  "You'd better come with me then," said Hero to Ophelia, and they stepped out into the windy night.

  Twice or three times around the caravan t
hey stalked, encountering one another in the dark once or twice and seizing hold of each other, yelling:

  "I have it! I have it!" until they realized that it was not the disembodied Fish head at all. Hero helped Angelo to climb onto the roof, but there was nothing to be found. Not even a pool of slime where the creature had squatted. As for Thoth the Ibis-bird, he had hidden his head under his wing and was standing frozen on one leg like a statue in the Duke de Medici's gardens. There was nothing to be seen or heard, except the wind and the waste of the darkness.

  Suddenly, the caravan rocked more violently than ever, and from within came the sound of Malachi's voice yelling, and the smashing of crockery. Everybody immediately rushed round to the door, but by the time they arrived, the noises had ceased. Cautiously, they peered in. Malachi was on the floor, wrapped up in a bundle of costumes, and the creature was sitting on his back. It was really not so fearsome when viewed the right way up. In fact, it was an orang-outang.

  "I'm Bathsheba," she announced.

  "Are you the thing?" said Hero suspiciously. "Or it's keeper?"

  "What thing?" asked Bathsheba.

  "On our roof," said Domingo. "The gibbering Lion-Fish head with no body and a fin growing out of its skull."

  "Yes!" replied Bathsheba.

  "You can't be," said Ophelia. "It had no neck."

  "And an orange beard." said Hero.

  So Bathsheba stood on her head, and everyone recognized the monstrosity. When inverted, the orang-outang became something horrid beyond imagining.

  "I apologise for the noise," said Bathsheba. "But I really wasn't quite sure where I landed."

  "You fly?" said Domingo.

  "I was blown," explained the ape. "The wind got under my parasol."

  "Where do you come from?" asked Ophelia, breathless with awe.

  Bathsheba slowly looked from one person to the next and then said, very quietly: "Have you heard of Doctor Jozabiah Bentham of Houndsditch?"

  Bacchus' face became terrible to look upon when that name was spoken. "Bentham, the son of a butcher?" he said, and the ape flinched as he accused her. "You are one of Bentham's menagerie?"

  Malachi meanwhile, had disentangled himself from the costumes, and nodded knowingly. "He's a Doctor of Philosophy," he mused. "And they're a dangerous breed."

  "I've never heard of him," said Angelo.

  "He owns another Travelling Circus," explained Mr. Bacchus grimly. "The Theatre of Tears. And wherever it goes, it leaves melancholy behind it! Every act is neon-lit, so that the audience doesn't miss a tear."

  "And Bentham himself plays the cello at every performance," added Bathsheba, "to 'make the audience weep'. The Doctor says he's proved by logic that people want perpetual misery. He put me in a little bird-cage and told me to look as imprisoned as possible."

  "And did you?" asked Ophelia.

  "I tried," said Bathsheba, "but I used to smirk. He hated that." "Has he still got the rest of his Theatre with him?" said Bacchus.

  "Oh yes," replied Bathsheba. "There's Luther the wolf, Mud, Hole and Slug the acrobats, the Silver Clown who juggles broken mirrors with his hook and hand; and of course, the star of the Theatre of Tears, Medea, the bald snake-woman. It sends shivers through me to think of her."

  Bathsheba was quiet for a moment, recalling the snake-woman's lidless gaze. Then she said: "I was so unhappy with Bentham's Theatre; all I wanted was to escape. Well, the wind was so strong, and so I opened my parasol this evening, and took off."

  "Do you think the Doctor followed you?" asked Ophelia.

  "I don't know," said Bathsheba. "I heard him cursing, but by that time, I was in the cloud."

  "Well you're safe here," said Hero. "We won't let him take you back. You don't belong to him."

  "He'll be wrathful," said Bathsheba.

  "Let the fellow try his worst," said Malachi. "I shall deal with him. Just give me a—"

  At that moment, there were two loud raps on the door, and a cold, even voice said:

  "Whoever's in there, be civil enough to show your faces." Bathsheba turned pale under her orange fur. "It's him," she hissed. "It's Bentham."

  Malachi, forgetting his former show of gallantry, slipped under the table as quietly as he could, as Doctor Bentham's voice pierced the door once more, harsh as ice on slate.

  "Is there anybody within?" it requested, and then demanded, "Bacchus, are you there?"

  "Hide," whispered Bacchus to Bathsheba. "Hide yourself in the costume basket."

  The orang-outang promptly tumbled into the large basket and pulled the lid down after her. Then Mr. Bacchus strolled casually to the door and opened it. The drawn face of Doctor Jozabiah Bentham stared into the warmth of the caravan, like so many gargoyles. There was not the flicker of an eyelid, nor the twitch of a tail. Doctor Bentham himself, dressed from head to foot in shades of grey, looked straight at Mr. Bacchus, his eyes glassy. In his long grey-gloved fingers he held a silver cane, polished like a mirror.

  "If you're selling stained glass or chains, we've got enough," said Mr. Bacchus, trying to close the door again, but the Doctor already had one foot inside the caravan.

  "Bacchus," he said slowly. "Would you close the door on a fellow showman? Perhaps you would be kind enough to help me. I'm looking for a monkey."

  "Oh!" said Mr. Bacchus, effecting a surprised expression. "A monkey? Really? Well, we haven't seen a monkey, have we?" Everyone shook their heads.

  "Are you sure?" said Dr. Bentham, tapping his cane in the palm of his hand.

  "Quite sure," replied Mr. Bacchus. "We haven't seen any monkey."

  "Or an orang-outang," put in Ophelia.

  "I made no mention of an orang-outang," said Doctor Bentham, his eyes narrowing. "Whatever could have made you think I was in search of such a misbegotten species?"

  Ophelia attempted to reply, but her mouth had become completely dry, and Medea's blind cobra had fixed its dead gaze upon her, so that her tongue would not move in her mouth.

  "Only guessing," said Bacchus, to cover up the awkward silence. "Who has not heard of the Theatre of Tears?"

  "Doubtless you have also heard of my orang-outang," said Bentham, curtly.

  "Doubtless ...!" said Bacchus. "And now, if you'll excuse—"

  "Do you happen to have a glass of wine you might offer me?" said the Doctor, softening his tone somewhat. "The night has quite frozen my blood."

  "No," replied Mr. Bacchus, wiping little beads of sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. "I'm afraid the last of the wine was spilt."

  "No, it wasn't," said Domingo helpfully, producing one of the casks of wine from the chest of drawers. "There's some left."

  By the time he caught Mr. Bacchus' eye, it was too late. Doctor Bentham was seated in Mr. Bacchus' wicker chair, pouring the wine, saying: "How civilized of you, Bacchus. The world knows that we have been enemies for centuries, yet you invite me into your little caravan and offer me wine." He soothed his silver cane with his fingers and sipped a little of the wine with distaste.

  At that moment, a peacock feather lodged up Bathsheba's left nostril, and she sneezed, at the same time kicking a large hole in the side of the costume-basket, with her right leg.

  With a sardonic smile the Doctor slowly put on a pair of silver spectacles and pointed a grey-gloved finger at the leg: "What—is that?" he said slowly.

  "That?" said Mr. Bacchus. "That's a leg."

  "What is more," replied the Doctor, his smile vanishing. "That is undoubtedly the leg of an orang-outang."

  "Well—" began Mr. Bacchus, for once in his life rather lost for words. But his sentence was never finished.

  "What if it is an orang-outang?" said Hero, stepping forward and flexing his muscles. "You've got no business poking your noses into the caravan of Mr. Maximillian Bacchus."

  "I have if you've stolen my monkey," said Doctor Bentham reprovingly.

  "We haven't stolen her," said Domingo quickly. "Bathsheba doesn't belong to you!"

  "So it is her!" snapp
ed the Doctor with a sneer, and turning to the door he called to the rest of his Circus: "Tears, idle Tears! Seize me the monkey!"

  Upon his words, the other members of the Theatre of Tears burst into the caravan. But before Bentham himself could reach the costume-basket and seize Bathsheba's still-protruding leg, Domingo put out his foot and tripped him up. The Doctor's spectacles flew into the air and were promptly trodden upon by the Silver Clown - who picked up the slivers of glass with wild eyes and juggled them. The next moment, the caravan was in chaos! Medea the snake-woman set the blind cobra upon Hero, and it immediately encircled him in ever-tightening coils. The strong-man had to use all his power in his biceps to keep it from crushing the breath out of him.

  Meanwhile, Luther, the Doctor's under-fed wolf, who was standing face to face with Malachi, leapt into the air, a deadly growl at the back of his throat. Malachi took fright and turned to make a diplomatic retreat, and his huge tail knocked the wolf across the caravan.

  Mud, Hole and Slug, the acrobatic trio, had pounced upon Ophelia, eating her wild flowers by the handful, and yelling the most wild threats, but Domingo came to her aid with six willow pattern plates, which he promptly smashed over their heads.

  By now, Doctor Bentham had retrieved the shattered remains of his spectacles, and his blood-shot eyes had alighted on Mr. Bacchus, who was engrossed in keeping the bald snake-woman from pulling out his beard by the roots. Stealthily, he crept behind Bacchus and raised his silver cane to strike him down. "Oh, how good," he thought. "To have this, my last enemy, finally silenced." Before the blow could land, however, Bacchus caught sight of the attack in the pink eyes of the snake-woman, and turned on his heels to ward off the Doctor's blow with his wooden stick.

  A look close to madness flared in Bentham's eyes and the caravan was suddenly still. The two Circus owners stood facing each other. Doctor Bentham's grey lips drawn back from his lead teeth, Mr. Bacchus with half a smile on his face.

  Without warning, the Doctor raised his silver cane even higher, and brought it down again, swift as lightning, upon his intended victim. But Bacchus' stick, woven with convolvulus, met the cane in mid-air and as they struck, the wilderness seemed to convulse. There was a sudden flash illuminating Bentham's features in a ghastly yellow, and revealing the darkness behind his eyes.