The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 11 (February 1, 1936)
For some moments after the “Limited” had stopped, there seemed to be complete and utter silence. Then as the ears attuned, hour after hour, to the steady rumble of wheels, readjusted their faculties, small sounds began to make themselves heard in the night. There was the ruffle of the mountain wind in the ventilators, the creak of relaxing brake-gear, and somewhere, in outer darkness, the fitful bleating of sheep. It was the latter sound which made me raise the window to see where we might be.
The sky was overcast and all about like heavy curtains of black velvet hung the sombre masses of hills. Vague lights shone here and there, and on another track I made out several trucks of sheep, but between us and them was a train of flat wagons which were on the move. There was something strange, uncanny almost, about their movements, for it was accomplished without any coughing engine or clang of couplings. Rather one might describe it as a soundless gliding out of one darkness into another as they passed from the light thrown by our carriage windows.
Presently a man spoke softly, a word of command, and there came looming, his great head thrust against the buffer beam, his feet shuffling the ballast of the little country station yard—my Lord the Elephant.
A circus train; and later, as the “Limited” roared on once more into the night I thought of those people back there, their strange restless life, and the thought of them brought to mind the story of Tom Lancing, Princess Maru, and Sorrento the knife-thrower.
Where the junction of two rivers makes a grassy promontory, there is held every year on St. Patrick's Day, a regatta. There are canoe races and poi dances, hakas, and swimming ponies, and showmen come from far and near to set up their tents and booths. If times are good, the showmen may stay several days, and down among the oaks and poplars which grow upon the promontory, there is all the fun of the fair, roundabouts whirling in the sun, the blare of organs, and the banging of strength-testers and cocoanut-shys.
The old traditions of the fair are upheld, too, by the farming folk who come to make a holiday of it and picnic on the river bank, hold swimming sports, and try their luck at everything from “Spotting the Lady” to riding a bucking mule.
Tom Lancing, the teamster from Ellerby's place, was. just the type of chap the showmen loved to see. He was tall and twenty, and for all he wore his hat aslant and assumed an air of sophisticated indifference, he had already paid money to see dwarfs and a three legged chicken, and risked his neck on a flying chair. In due course he drifted into the crowd which, halted in front of a large tent”, was listening to a barker who slammed the canvas with his stick. “Sorrento's Super Circus” it was, and the canvas that the barker so belaboured was painted with the variety of delights the show had to offer. There were acrobats and performing animals, clowns and tight-rope walkers, and, “they're all on the inside,” yelled the barker. “The greatest collection of artists and trained animal acts ever gathered together under one top. To show you what confidence I have in you, I am now going, free, gratis and for nothing, to introduce you to some of the artists themselves.”
Several musicians of a nondescript character then climbed upon the platform and blew a discordant fanfare.
“Gather closer folks,” urged the barker, “it won't cost you nothing. First we have Buldo. He's asstrong as a bull and as brave as a lion.” He rapped the canvas, and from behind it stepped a paunchy Hercules draped in a leopard skin. Somewhat dissipated and unshaven he looked as he blinked in the bright sunlight. “Watch him closely folks; for your edification and amusement he will break a sword of the finest Toledo steel.” Buldo produced a much welded, or perhaps soldered, blade of doubtful temper. He strained, he sweated, the drum beat a crescendo roll as the blade became a bow; it snapped, and the barker bowed triumphantly.
Buldo removed himself, and the barker looked the crowd over critically. “Now folks,” he said, “you've seen strong men before, I wouldn't ask you to spend a deena to see just a strong man alone. Not even a man like Buldo. This show is unique, for your money we give you more than any show on earth.” He removed his hat reverently, “Princess Maru of Levuka.”
A girl in a grass skirt stepped from behind the canvas curtain. A French-Tahitian perhaps—certainly a beauty, her languorous native grace fired with the devil of her mixed blood.
Tom Lancing shouldered his way through the press closer to the platform, and was mildly disappointed with the perfunctory manner in which, while the band played a few bars of “The Beach at Waikiki,” she executed some contortions of the abdominal muscles. He noticed, moreover, that her eyes were not on the crowd but gazed away to where, at a rival show-tent, a man with a broken nose was declaiming “Professor Melun's Magic Marvels.”
The barker noticed it too, and whispered out of the side of his mouth, “'Ere, none of that.” The Princess shrugged her shoulder and grimaced and at once flung herself in real earnest into her dance. The frail platform quivered, the musicians, startled page 54 out of their apathy, quickened their beat, and the barker pretended it was all premeditated and in order. Abruptly she whirled to a stop, and, plucking the paper flower from behind her ear looked about a moment among the crowd and then tossed it to Tom Lancing. The crowd cheered and clapped enthusiastically as he stuck it in the band of his hat, so much so, that the barker's next introduction, which was to be in the nature of a climax to his generosity, was in danger of falling flat. He rallied himself as he ushered the Princess off the platform.
“Folks,” he cried earnestly, holding up his hands for silence. “I didn't ought to show you all this, but I know you'll repay my confidence. You've seen a lot, but it's nothing to what I'm going to show you now. A real live bull fighter ladies, a matador from Spain, gentlemen. Unfortunately, the laws of this country won't allow us to stage a real bull-fight, but here's a man who will show you all the passes and tricks of his trade. The ‘veronica,’ the ‘rebolera,’ and the ‘estocada,’ the death stroke in which the ferocious animal is brought to his knees in a bath of blood. He captures the imagination, he makes you believe you are all senoritas and caballeros and, in addition, he will astound you with his amazing exhibition of knife throwing—the Great Sorrento himself!”
The band jerked out a quickstep and the barker bowed low, but nobody appeared. The barker looked surprised and glanced behind the curtain, then he winked slyly at the crowd and remarked, “Senor Sorrento is engaged with a Senorita!” Which was no more than a gallant distortion of the truth, for aside from an urgent, “Hey Josey, you're on,” the barker had muttered a disgusted, “'strewth they're at it again!” as, in his peep behind the curtain, he had discovered the great Sorrento in violent altercation with Princess Maru.
He was dressed in the scarlet and gold of a matador, a uniform which suited well enough his swarthy skin and stocky build, but the crowd, with the quick intuition of such gatherings, sensed his bad temper, and subjected him to some good humoured barracking.
“Give us a ‘ornpipe,” cried one, and “homai te puru!”
Sorrento livid with rage, made some play with his knives, then with a gesture of savage impatience drove them one after the other, into the boards at his feet. “What a man!” cried the crowd happily.
Tom Lancing did not follow the crowd into the circus tent, but wandered round the outside of it, where presently he encountered a burly man testing guy ropes. “Where,” said Tom simply, “can I find the Princess Maru?”
“Same place as you'll find a thick ear if you don't watch out,” answered tire man.
Tom grinned and rattled th e silver in his pocket. “Doesn't she ever come out to talk to handsome blokes like you?” he asked.
The man straightened himself and Tom, stepping back, spun a halfcrown in the air. “It's you're own funeral,” said the man, catching the coin, “if the boss sees you.” He turned away, “Yellow van,” he said over his shoulder.
Tom went forward cautiously. At the rear of the big tent, several motor vans were drawn up, one of which was painted a bright yellow. They formed the outer bulwarks, as it were, of the space devoted to the impedimenta of the circus; wardrobe boxes, tarpaulins, animal cages and the like, in the centre of which a man was giving a final groom to a pair of cream ponies. Tom waited a moment in the shadow of the big tent until he had finished, and then slipped across to the door of the yellow van.
The Princess was within, but she did not immediately recognise him; she was not pleased, and told him to beat it. Then abruptly her manner changed, “Wait,” she said regarding him thoughtfully, “why did you come here?”
Tom twirled his hat foolishly, “Why I—when you gave me this flower,” he began. The Princess smiled.page 55
“You thought perhaps, I like you a little, eh?”
“Why—yes, that's it.”
“Can't I—can't we meet somewhere—to-night after the show?”
“O-o-o-oh,” the Princess pursed her lips virtuously, then she touched Tom's hair lightly. “Alright,” she said, “here, after the last show to-night. Now go, there's José.”
José it was right enough, striding towards the yellow van with his hands clawed like talons and his brows knotted in a ferocious scowl. Tom turned to meet him, but the Princess cried, “No, go quickly,” and after a moment's hesitation he turned and legged it across the intervening space and vanished among the tents on the other side of the ground.
Thus it happened that the barker on his way to his van after the last performance that night, bumped into a stranger in the alleyway at the back of the dressing tent.
“You're in the wrong box, brother,” he said, “the public aren't allowed round here.”
“I'm different,” replied Tom, “I've got an appointment.”
“None of your business.”
The barker was about to make a sharp rejoinder when he felt a touch on his arm and found the Princess Maru at his side-a long coat over her dress and a cigarette between her lips.
“Give me a light,” she said.
Tom Lancing struck a match and the Princess grasped his wrist, then, while their faces were momentarily illuminated she laughed shrilly. Somewhere in the darkness the door of a van slammed sharply.
The Princess blew out the match and linking her arm with Tom's led him away toward the river; the tip of her cigarette glowing like a tiny beacon.
“Princess,” said Tom, “I've been thinking of you all day. I can't get you out of my mind—I'm crazy about you.”
“Men always say that to me,” she laughed softly. “But it doesn't mean anything.”
“It does when I say it.” They were down amongst the trees now where the river chuckled as it went rippling over the willow roots. The Princess leaned against a tree trunk and with her face toward the showground drew on her cigarette with quick nervous breaths.
A twig snapped sharply behind them.
“What does it mean then, when you say you love me?” the Princess spoke slowly.
“It means I want to take you away —to—to marry you.” Tom leaned towards her, and instantly the beam of a powerful electric torch was flashed in his eyes. The Princess slipped away into the shadows without a sound.
When he recovered his senses he was lying gagged and securely bound hand and foot upon the floor of a motor van. A single electric globe, set high up in the clerestory roof showed the vehicle to be equipped with bunks, a table and chair, and seated on the latter, idly smoking a cigarette was Sorrento.
He did not look at his prisoner, but seemed to know instinctively when he roused—then he spoke in a high pitched twang.
“So you're gonna take the Princess away. You're gonna marry her huh? She oughta be mighty proud to go wit’ a smart guy like you, what d'ja do fer a livin'—hoe turnips?
“Say,” he rose and scowled down at Tom. “D'ja see my act to-day? Well it doesn't matter ‘cause you wouldn't know anyway—but it was bad, see? Maybe I was sick, maybe I was nervous, maybe I was kinda mad at findin' you out here wit' the Princess, but I go in the big tent and I put on a bad act and the crowd gives me the razz.
“How'd you like that, eh? How'd you like to be José Sorrento and find a fool kid messin' round wit' his girl, and then go in and get the razz from a bunch of hicks. I guess it'd make you feel kinda mean huh?
“A knife act ain't like hoin’ turnips buddy. If I butted in and spoilt you're style you don't get nothin but a bawlin’ out from your boss, but if I get nervous somebody's liable to get hurt. I guess I just got to get me nerve back.”
He paused, and stooping, grasped the lapels of Tom's jacket. Then with a strength disquieting, jerked him first into a sitting position and finally standing upright against the front wall of the van. Tom swayed forward a little and Sorrento thrust him back with a hand upon his chest. With his other hand, he drew from his sash, for he still wore the lower half of his matador dress, a knife which he pressed point upwards against the lower button of Tom's coat.
“Now, buddy,” he leered, “you listen carefully to what I'm gonna to say, and you ain't gonna get hurt, maybe. All you've got to do is stand steady, and the steadier you stand the safer you will be because we're gonna put on an act like I didn't show them hicks this afternoon.”
He stepped back and surveyed his victim critically. Then, taking a short piece of rope, made a noose and slipped it over Tom's head. The other end he made fast to a ring bolt in the wall.
“That's just so you won't try to lie down on me,” he said, and Tom, triced and helpless, could only watch in fascinated horror Sorrento step to the other end of the van and try the balance of his knife. Sorrento removed the cigarette from his mouth and stubbed it. “Remember, buddy,” he warned, “stand steady!” He raised his hand slowly, jerked it sharply downward and the steel flashed like a meteor beneath the electric globe and thudded quivering into the wood an inch from Tom's left ear.page 56
“Che!” Sorrento rubbed his hands in evident satisfaction. “You got more kick outa that, than a kiss from the Princess, huh? Now we'll try left hand.”
He selected a knife from the table and then paused, listening. Tom, too, his senses taut and quivering as the thin blade which still vibrated beside his head, heard footsteps thudding on the grass outside. They rattled on the steps of the van and the door shook under the blows struck upon its panels.
“Hey, Josey!” the barker's voice cried, “Open up here, there's the devil to pay—the Princess—”
Sorrento wheeled and tore open the door, and the barker and Buldo, the suety strong-man, stumbled through it.
“What the—?” the barker paused aghast as he caught sight of Tom Lancing.
“Never mind him,” Sorrento burst out sharply, “what about Maru?”
The barker closed the door deliberately, “Maru's gone,” he said curtly.
“Gone?” Sorrento uttered the word scarcely above a whisper, then he spun round in sudden fury. “Why—you rat!” he shouted at Tom and would have leapt upon him but for Buldo who seized his arms from behind.
“Take it easy, boss,” he said.
For some moments Sorrento struggled in grim silence and then his knife tinkled harmlessly upon the floor as he relaxed, “Okay,” he sighed heavily, and being released sank into the chair.
Tom, freed from his bonds, sat on one of the bunks and dazedly rubbed his arms. For a space there was tense silence within the confines of the van and then—“Seems I got things balled up some,” Sorrento said wearily, ‘who is this guy, a stool pigeon or sumpin’?”
“He's a red herrin'!” said the barker.
“A red herrin'—the poor fish that gets dragged across the trail to put you on the wrong scent. You remember the bloke with the broken nose that did the spieling for Melun's Mystery outfit?”
“Sure I remember him.”
“Well it seems,” the barker eyed Sorrento warily, “that him and the Princess has been sweet on each other for quite some time. This morning out in front of the big tent she was mooning at him over the heads of the crowd. I told her to cut it out, and she got kind of excited and threw the flower to the kid here. I couldn't see no sense in that—then—but when you came in this afternoon all het up over finding him in the van, I began to think there was some funny business goin’ on. I was sure of it when I found the kid by the dressing tent to-night and Maru made him strike a match and show his face while she laughed loud enough to make you look out of your van. I hurried off to find Buldo in case there was a rough house and when we came back you had all disappeared. We scouted round for a bit and then we heard a car pulling out of Melun's pitch. We were in time to see Maru getting into it, but too late to do any good. Although we did chase them as far as the main gate.
“Then,” he paused significantly, “we came back here.”
Sorrento shook his head sadly, “Looks like she made suckers out of the lot of us,” he said.
Tom rose to his feet. Sorrento looked at him.
“Goin’ back to the turnips, buddy?” he asked almost kindly.
“You wouldn't like to stay wit' the show and be me partner in a knife throwin' act? You get good money and see plenty of life.”
“Thanks,” said Tom. His mind, released from tension, swung back with fervour to the thought of the valley farmlands. Autumn ploughing would soon begin—he heard the jingle of the teams and creak of leather—felt the sun upon his cheek and smelt the new-turned earth.
“Thanks,” he said stepping out into the night, “I see plenty of life where I belong.”