The Adventures of Mr. Maximillian Bacchus and His Travelling Circus 4

  The next moment his cane fractured, and silver shards spun in all directions, glittering as they fell, over and over. The look on Bentham's face turned to fear, and in a voice that was no longer cold and heavy, but high and hollow, he cried:

  "Back, Tears! Back, My Theatre!"

  At this, Mud, Hole and Slug scurried like lice through the door, followed by the hooked Silver Clown, the Snake-Woman and Luther. The Doctor himself, still holding the shattered stump of his silver cane, turned at the door and pointed a shaking forefinger at Mr. Bacchus.

  "I warn you, Bacchus," he said, fighting to keep himself from weeping. "This is not the end of our encounter. Oh, dear me, no."

  And then, with a grimace that revealed his now-broken teeth, he stepped into the grey gloom that had crept over the empty road as the dawn approached, and was swallowed utterly.

  It took a long time to tidy up the caravan after the battle, especially the collecting of all the pieces of Bentham's silver cane, some of which had buried themselves deep in the woodwork, like bright worms. Mr. Bacchus put them into a small bag, and buried them in an empty field. It was henceforth sterile.

  When as much of the damage as was possible had been righted, Bathsheba thanked them all for their help. "What would I have done without you?" she said. "I should have been doomed to a life of Tears."

  "It was nothing," said Malachi.

  ~ * ~

  That morning, when they set off along the road to Cathay, they knew that they were being followed. Whenever someone happened to glance out of the back window, he would glimpse another caravan, a black caravan, pulled by a giant armadillo, just appearing around the corner, or waiting behind a beech copse. Bathsheba recognized it as Doctor Bentham's.

  "He'll follow us," she said. "Until he finds the right moment - then he'll strike. Perhaps next time he'll bring his knives, and his syllogisms. There was never a man with such dark ideas."

  "I'm scared," said Ophelia.

  "There's absolutely no need to be, my dear," said Mr. Bacchus. "Good will undoubtedly overcome evil every time. Take my word for it."

  "Not always," said Hero, grimly. "There's a tale they tell on the shores of Lake Rudolph—"

  Just then, Angelo, who was driving, called:

  "Bacchus! Bacchus! We've arrived."

  "Good," said Mr. Bacchus.

  "Where are we?" asked Domingo.

  "Parkgate," replied Mr. Bacchus. "On the shores of the great Dee."

  The clown looked out of the window. The caravan was rattling down the cobbled streets of a town. There was the smell of salt in the wind, and the sound of gulls mewing.

  "What have we come here for?" asked Hero.

  "I have a plan, my boy," replied Mr. Bacchus. "Drive down to the harbour, Angelo."

  Very soon, the caravan clattered down to the sea front. There was a solitary ship tied up to the quay, rocking gently on the tide, and as Mr. Bacchus stepped down from the caravan, he pointed to it with a smile of satisfaction.

  "Hent," he said mysteriously.

  The vessel had an ominous appearance, with its figurehead of a mad dog, its black sails, and the vermilion skull and crossed bones that blew from the masthead.

  "But that's a pirate ship," said Hero.

  "Pirates!" said Malachi. "A despicable breed. Unkempt. Filthy. Scum of the seas."

  "Most, perhaps," said Mr. Bacchus. "But not Hent." And without another word, began to rummage through the costume box. At length he salvaged from it a wooden sword and an old fur fox. He then proceeded to wrap the fur around the blade.

  "The window," he said as he worked. "Watch the window."

  Ophelia peered out of the back window, watching for any sign of Bentham's caravan, but so far the streets leading down to the harbour were empty. Even the shrimp-sellers hid in the dark of the alleyways.

  "Now," said Mr. Bacchus, once he had finished his work. "We are all going out to say our farewell."

  "Who to?" asked Domingo.

  "To Bathsheba," replied Mr. Bacchus.

  "Where's she going?" said Ophelia.

  "With Hent, on the next tide," came the answer.

  "Oh no!" said Ophelia. "She mustn't."

  "Not the real one," replied Bacchus. "The real Bathsheba will be in the caravan, hiding." And he picked up the fox fur effigy, climbed down from the caravan, and walked straight towards the pirate ship.

  On the gently swaying deck, a figure stood amid the creaking ropes and flapping canvas. An elegant looking gentleman, with small dark spectacles and a knife-edge in his breeches, his hand on his hip.

  "You," Mr. Bacchus called to him. "Hent."

  The pirate looked up slowly from his sizeable feet and seemed to half-recognise Mr. Bacchus.

  "Do I know you?" he inquired suspiciously.

  "Of course," replied Mr. Bacchus.

  "From whence?" asked the pirate, with a worried look. Mr. Bacchus smiled knowingly.

  "The Tyrrhenian Sea, fellow! Don't you remember?" he said, producing a bunch of grapes from Ophelia's ear. A look of recognition came into Hent's eyes and with it a look of barely suppressed panic.

  "You," he said. "You, turning the mast to vines and the oars to serpents—"

  "So, you remember," said Mr. Bacchus.

  "I could scarcely forget," said Hent. "I never touch wine these days."

  "Where are you going?" said Bacchus.

  "Why?" demanded the pirate. "You can't come aboard. I forbid it. I know what you can do, you monster."

  "I don't want to sail myself," replied Bacchus. "I have some new crew members for you."

  "How much?" came the demand.

  "Gratis," said Bacchus. "I ask again, Hent, where are you headed?"

  "We are sailing for the Arctic," the pirate replied, with a wicked smile. "To steal ice."

  "Then you'll need extra crew," said Bacchus. "To hack the 'bergs and to load the blocks. Not a pleasant job, hacking, and freezing, and fighting off whales."

  "True," said Hent.

  "Here then," said Mr. Bacchus, climbing the gangway and giving the fox-fur mannequin to the pirate. "A little piece of magic. Stand that in the bows, and your crew will come running."

  "Magic?" said the pirate, taking the fox-fur from Bacchus at arm's length in case some sudden transformation occurred.

  "Trust me," said Bacchus, and he laughed. "After all," he said, "if I wanted to sink you, there are easier ways."

  "I know, I know," said the pirate.

  "Now do as I say, dear boy," said Mr. Bacchus. "Before the estuary silts."

  For a moment the pirate stared at the effigy, and then obediently took it to the bows of the ship, leaning it against the railings. Then he returned to the gangplank.

  "If you make a clown out of me—" he threatened, reaching for his cutlass.

  "Impossible, impossible," said Mr. Bacchus in a kindly voice. "Could I make the ocean wetter?"

  "Then that's settled," said Mr. Bacchus.

  Hardly had the words left his lips, when a loud clatter echoed around the empty quayside and Doctor Bentham's caravan came into sight. The doctor himself was driving it, and his face was white with fury.

  "Thieves!" he cried. "Thieves! I shall have my monkey and your head, Bacchus! Your head, to turn forests to stone!"

  "Set sail!" called Mr. Bacchus to the pirates. "Set sail, Hent, before you lose the tide. Here comes the rest of your crew now!"

  Hent shouted an order, and immediately the deck was swarming with swarthy pirates, preparing to set sail. The anchor was raised from the mud, the black sails lowered to swell in the wind. The ominous ship strained at its mooring rope, as its keel seemed to sense the icy currents.

  "Wave!" hissed Mr. Bacchus to the others. "Wave to Bathsheba!"

  Everyone began to wave furiously at Bathsheba and called: "Bon Voyage!"

  It was all extremely convincing. In fact, Ophelia, who always felt downcast at farewells, was moved to tears by the whole scene.

  Even as two of the pirates cast off the ropes,
and prepared to draw the gangplank aboard the vessel, Bentham's black caravan came to a halt, and the Doctor leapt down from the driving seat, an Italian butcher's knife in each hand.

  "Well," he said to Bacchus. "Shall I have your head now or later? Stand aside, Bacchus, and you may live a minute longer." "After you," said Mr. Bacchus, with a smile and a bow. Sneering, Bentham, followed by the rest of the Theatre of

  Tears, swept up the gangplank onto the ship.

  "Up plank!" yelled Hent, triumphantly. "Cast off!"

  The Doctor and his associates were too eager to reach Bathsheba to notice the ship was now moving away from the quay, and turning into the estuary. His howl of wrath, however, when he reached the effigy, and realized he had been deceived, was hideous, and he stabbed at it again until pieces of fur littered the tide. But by now it was all too late. The ship had already reached the mouth of the Dee and was in the grip of the Arctic currents. Even when it was well on its way, however, the Doctor's voice could still be heard, cursing with axiom and syllogism alike.

  "The sea is salt," said Mr. Bacchus, half to himself. "And full of fish. The good Doctor wanted his audience swimming in tears...."

  Presently, even the Doctor's voice faded, and in Parkgate there was only the sound of the tide lapping against the sloping harbour wall. The Doctor's black caravan still stood on the quayside, however, with the giant armadillo asleep in a ball beside it. Mr. Bacchus tapped its hairy shell gently with his stick, and a small shining eye appeared.

  "Excuse me, beast," said Mr. Bacchus. "But the good Doctor has left the continent for a spell."

  "Oh?" said the armadillo. "Where?"

  "He has gone North," replied Mr. Bacchus.

  "Good," said the armadillo contentedly. "I need a long sleep." And he rolled back into a ball again.

  Later that year, the people of Parkgate brought milk and shrimps for the armadillo, whom they called Piers. And Hent's ship did not return on the April tides, but remained sailing around the Arctic for fear that the warmer clime might melt the cargo, and bear them to the ocean bed.

  And thus, Mr. Bacchus' Travelling Circus left the silting port with the armadillo on the quay, and the black sail disappearing over the horizon into the endless midnight of the Arctic, and set off again along the road that lead to Asia the Deep, to Cathay, and so, at last, to Xanadu, of which the poet had dreamed.




  the edge of the world

  This is another story about Mr. Maximillian Bacchus and his Travelling Circus, and it concerns the Clown, Domingo de Ybarrondo, who had the misfortune to fall off the Edge of the World.

  Mr. Bacchus' Travelling Circus had been on the road to Asia the Deep for several weeks, hoping to reach the fabled city of Xanadu, there to entertain the great Khan called Kublai. But since they had been given directions by the old man who sat under the hawthorn bush, the road had twisted and turned North, South, East and West, yet there was no sign of the gleaming towers of Xanadu. In fact everyone in the caravan was becoming tired of the whole business. Several weeks had passed and the Circus had not stopped once on its way, to put on a show. What was the use of being in a Circus that never performed?

  In the middle of the lurching caravan stood Hero, the strongman, lifting Ophelia, the sad trapeze-girl, with one hand. Bathsheba the orang-outang was dangling from the light, Domingo the Clown was juggling green oranges, and Malachi the crocodile was snoring under the wardrobe. As always, Mr. Bacchus was sitting in his large wicker chair, but the expression on his face .was far from his familiar smile. His chin was resting on his hands, and the leaves in his beard and his white hair had wilted. To be honest, he was beginning to suspect that the man at the side of the road had been mad, and that Xanadu had been some fancy. Outside, driving the giant Ibis-bird, Thoth, who pulled the caravan, sat Angelo, the young man with the black curly hair and the strange eyes, whistling "This is My Lovely Day."

  Inside, Malachi woke from fitful sleep. "If that Angelo doesn't stop whistling, I shall personally have the pleasure of eating him," he said. "What's he got to be happy about?"

  "He's always happy," said Bathsheba.

  "Why?" said Domingo. "If we're not being thrown about in here, we're out in the drizzle pushing the caravan out of the mud, or trying to light fires in gales. Why don't we give up trying to reach Cathay, Bacchus, and head South where there's a little sun?"

  "Because," he said with growing enthusiasm, "once we get there, and perform for the Khan called Kublai, we will be famous. Undoubtedly word of our genius will spread across the world in a matter of weeks. The adulation will be unbounded. Mayan princes will invite us to perform for them!"

  "Not if we arrive in this tatty caravan," said Malachi.

  "This caravan has been with me ever since I first took to the road, crocodile, and has been places you never guess existed." "That doesn't make it any less tatty," replied Malachi reasonably, "or uncomfortable."

  "They'll send sedan chairs for us, anyway, won't they, Mr. Bacchus?" said Ophelia.

  "They may very well, my dear," replied Mr. Bacchus. "And a cart for the crocodile."

  "Cathay!" exclaimed Hero abruptly. "What if we do reach Cathay? Do you think that the great Khan will let us perform for him?"

  "Why not?" replied Mr. Bacchus, with a smile creeping over his face. "We're the greatest show on earth! You painted that on the caravan yourself, Hero!"

  "I also painted flying plates and entirely red gardens, but that doesn't mean they exist," said Hero.

  "Anyways, Bacchus, you don't really believe all that nonsense, do you?" said Malachi. "We're the most miserable show on earth, perhaps, but we're certainly not the greatest."

  At this, Mr. Bacchus rose from his chair, his face growing vermillion with anger, and started at Malachi: "Crocodile," he said. "Teeth or no teeth, I will not tolerate pessimism. Look at us! We have the finest trapeze-girl in the world. Who else can pirouette on a slack wire with an orang-outang on her head? And Hieronymous! There is nobody alive in the hemisphere as strong as he! Why, I once saw him carry six fully-grown bulls on his shoulders, and hardly turn a hair. Then there's that dear boy, Angelo, and his moths; Domingo—the happiest—"

  "I'm not happy," said the Clown, dropping two of his oranges. "It's no use saying I am. I'm extremely unhappy. And I have nightmares—"

  "Personally," said Malachi, with a fake yawn. "If we don't reach Cathay soon, supposing Cathay exists in the first place, I shall leave this Circus."

  "Oh, Malachi," said Ophelia, tears springing to her eyes, which they did with monotonous regularity. "You wouldn't?" "Oh, wouldn't I?" said the crocodile, with a hollow laugh. "Where would you go?" put in Hero.

  "I should go back to the Nile," said Malachi with dignity. "where my species is worshipped. They build pyramids for us."

  "Go then," said Mr. Bacchus. "I shall find another crocodile."

  "Maybe even an alligator," said Hero. "It's well known that alligators are a more intelligent species."

  "What?" roared Malachi.

  "I said that it's a well know—" began Hero.

  Suddenly there was a cry from Bathsheba, who had ceased to dangle from the lamp and was peering out the window.

  "A town! A town! There's a signpost, pointing to a town! Stop the caravan! It's a town!"

  "Can we put a show on here?" asked Ophelia as the caravan lurched to a stop.

  "Please," said Domingo. "I just feel like performing."

  "We really ought to be getting along to Cathay," replied Mr. Bacchus. "But who could resist it? A town! An audience! The torches! The flags! The sawdust! The money! The applause! Stop the caravan, Angelo, my boy; we're here! We're here!"

  "It has stopped," said Malachi with a pained expression, and opened the door.

  The caravan disgorged the members of the Circus into a muddy field, with a light drizzle falling incessantly from the murky November sky.

  "Mud!" exclaimed Malachi delight
edly, and immediately proceeded to roll in it.

  Domingo de Ybarrondo sneezed.

  "Bless you, my boy, bless you," said Mr. Bacchus. "Right! Let us erect the stage! And the flags! Don't forget the flags!" Then in a sudden burst of enthusiasm, he began to sing:

  "Bring me my bow of burning gold Bring me my arrows of desire! And dum de da de dum divine Bring me my chariot of fire,

  De dum upon those clouded mills ..."

  "I wish he'd learn the words," said Bathsheba. "Or better still," said Malachi, "not sing at all."

  As they put up the stage, the rain began to come on more heavily, and the somber clouds were occasionally lit by distant lightning.

  "Angelo, my boy," said Mr. Bacchus, when the preparations for the performance were nearing completion. "Take the big drum and go into the town! Tell the people that the show will begin half an hour before sunset precisely. Malachi will go with you.

  "Oh no, Malachi won't," said the crocodile. "Malachi is staying in the mud where he's happy."

  "I'll go," Bathsheba volunteered, picking up the drum and beating it as hard as she could. "We'll have an audience in no time."

  Angelo and Bathsheba had just disappeared down the road to the town when Domingo, who had wandered off across the rain-veiled field to practice his juggling, came running back breathlessly.

  "Bacchus! Bacchus!" he cried, the rain dripping off the end of his nose. "Do you know where we are?"

  "In a field," Mr. Bacchus said.

  "But this isn't just any field," said Domingo, and he pointed to the far edge. Everybody followed his finger. Where the dead ground came to an end, there was a signpost, and after that nothing. Only a wall of grey cloud. It looked as if there were a huge hole in the field, with no far side.

  "What does the signpost say?" asked Mr. Bacchus, screwing up his eyes, and searching for his glasses, which he had left in Delphi, in his waistcoat pocket. Domingo de Ybarrondo went paler than ever under his makeup.