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A short story by Francis Metcalfe

The Animal Barometer And The Eternal Feminine

Title:     The Animal Barometer And The Eternal Feminine
Author: Francis Metcalfe [More Titles by Metcalfe]

Uncle Sam spends a large amount of money to forecast the weather twenty-four hours in advance, and the farmers and seafaring folk watch the bulletins no more eagerly than do the owners of the many shows whose harvest time is the brief summer season at Coney Island. Bad weather, especially if it comes on the first or last day of the week or a legal holiday, means a loss of hundreds of dollars to them, for if the skies are threatening, the holiday makers seek their pleasures nearer home and there are fewer people to give up their dimes and quarters under the seductive wheedling of the "barkers." Most of the show people look anxiously at the sky before retiring for the night, but there is one of them who finds an absolutely reliable forecast within the walls of his own building. Perhaps the signs and portents could not be translated by the weather clerk, but the Proprietor of the trained animal exhibition at Dreamland has been all of his life the companion of his charges, and has learned to recognize the meaning of unusual behavior or the shade of change in their voices which indicates an approaching storm.

There was not a cloud to be seen, and every star in the heavens was trying to rival the brilliant electric lights on the great tower as he sat at the cafe table in front of the Arena with the Stranger and the Press Agent after the night's performance was over, but he gave an exclamation of disappointment as a half-smothered roar came from the throat of one of the lions in the building.

"Rain to-morrow!" he said as the grumbling roar spread from cage to cage about the great semicircle. His companions smiled incredulously as they looked at the cloudless sky, but he repeated his prediction when the Stranger read "Fair and warmer to-morrow" from one of the evening papers. "I know all about the 'high and low pressure areas,'" he said, as he glanced at the chart. "A man in the show business has to study everything which may influence the attendance, but the behavior of my animals is a better barometer for local conditions than any aneroid which the Weather Bureau owns. In spite of the clear sky and the official predictions, I would wager that we shall have a bad storm within the next twenty-four hours, for those lions have the inherited knowledge of hundreds of generations of jungle-bred ancestors whose food supply depended largely upon the weather conditions."

"Do the other animals possess the same barometric accomplishments?" asked the Stranger skeptically, and the Proprietor laughed as he invited him to come inside and judge for himself. The Arena was always an uncanny place at night, for in the dim light only the glowing eyes of the animals could be distinguished in the cages, and the snarls and growls which came from behind the gratings conjured up visions of what might happen if one of the animals were loose and crouching on the seats of the auditorium or in the galleries, waiting for a meal of human flesh; but to-night it was worse than usual, for the unwonted restlessness of the animals was apparent even to the untrained senses of the Stranger.

The carnivora in captivity retain the habits of their relatives of the jungle and are more alert at night than in the daytime, but following a hard day's work in the exhibition cage they usually settle down for a few hours of sleep after receiving their evening allowance of meat. Although it was long past their resting time, not an eye was closed, and hundreds of pairs of bright spots were visible in the darkness as the beasts paced uneasily from end to end of their narrow dens. The elephants, whose arduous duties in the ring and on the ballyhoo brought such leg weariness that they were usually glad to be shackled for the night, were swaying their huge bodies from side to side and straining at the stout chains which fastened them and the shrill trumpeting of Tom, the largest one, was echoed and repeated by his companions, Roger and Alice. The roaring of the lions and the snarling of the tigers was mocked by the hideous laugh of the hyenas, and the discord of the strange noises was so disagreeable that the Stranger was relieved when they left the Arena and returned to the comparative quiet of the white-topped table.

"It will be a severe storm," said the Proprietor as the waiter took their orders. "Any impending change makes them uneasy, but when every animal in the menagerie is in the state of excitement which you noticed to-night you can be assured that it means a very decided disturbance. It is a thing which animal trainers are ever watchful about, for most of the training is done at night, and it is not safe to work with them when they are in that frame of mind."

"But you give your advertised performances just the same," said the Press Agent.

"That's a different matter," answered the Proprietor. "When the Arena is lighted up and filled with people, the attention of the animals is distracted and they forget their nervousness, but a rehearsal at night is a lonesome proceeding, at best, and as the trainer devotes his attention to a single animal at a time it leaves the others free to think up mischief or to give way to their unreasoning fear. I had that borne in upon me in a way I shall never forget a few years ago when I was a younger hand at the business. I knew a good deal about handling animals, but not as much about managing men as I have learned since, and I used to forget that giving an order was not the same thing as seeing that it was executed. There was a trainer named Barton in my employ who did a pretty fair act with a group of six lions, but he was a brutal sort of a chap and punished his animals so severely that they went through their performance on the jump so as to get out of the exhibition cage, where blows were more plentiful than kind words. His act was a winner, all right, for he was absolutely fearless and the animals put up a bluff of snarling and snapping which made it exciting, but I disliked the man so much that I was glad to farm him out for a ten weeks' engagement on the vaudeville circuit.

"He wasn't a bad-looking chap and when he came back from his tour he brought with him one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She was an Egyptian who had been brought to this country with a troupe of dancers for one of the big exhibitions, and he met her and married her when they were performing in the same theater. Of course, I had absolutely no use for an Egyptian dancer with my show and I made the marriage an excuse to get rid of Barton; but he begged me to keep him on the plea that he was teaching her to do his act with the lions. She was so beautiful that I realized that she would be a great drawing card if she developed into a good trainer, so I consented and signed a contract with him for another year. I regretted it when I saw the first rehearsal, for it was painfully evident that she went into the cage only because she was more afraid of her husband than she was of the lions, and I didn't blame her; for while I might interfere to prevent ill-treatment of the lions, which were my property, I had no authority to protect her from his cruelty. They did most of the rehearsing at night, and I trusted to the fear which Barton had instilled in the lions to keep them from attacking her, for he always stood at the bars and they would cower down at the sound of his voice. You know it is never safe for two people to be in the cage with a group of animals at the same time unless they stand back to back and keep in one place, for if they are moving about an animal may run into one while endeavoring to escape from the other, and even the blow from a lion's tail might knock a man from his feet and then there would be trouble.

"Poor little Leotta used to go into the cage and try to keep the tell-tale tremble out of her voice when she gave her commands, but she could never learn to concentrate her whole attention on the animals and give up looking for a sign of approval from Barton out of the corner of her eye. I made it a point to see that there was always plenty of assistance near in case of accidents, and gave Barton strict orders to keep her out of the cage when the animals were under the influence of 'weather fear.' It was difficult for me to instruct or warn Leotta, for she understood English very little; but I helped her all I could, and gave her husband to understand that I would not allow any ill-treatment.

"In spite of all my precautions, I was always uneasy when she was in the cage, and when I had to be away from the show she was constantly in my mind. I had to go to the wharf one afternoon to superintend the unloading of a new lot of animals which had been sent from our English quarters, and owing to delays at the custom house it was late at night before I could start back for the show. Perhaps I had absorbed some of the weather wisdom of the animals from long association with them, but, at any rate, I was uneasy at the delays and as I whizzed along in the trolley I congratulated myself on my foresight in having warned Barton, as the thunder heads were gathering and I knew the animals would have the jumps and be unsafe to work with. But my heart sank as I drew near the building and saw that it was brilliantly lighted up, for that could only mean one thing at that time of night--Leotta must be rehearsing. The trainers usually have but one small cluster of lights, but I had ordered the electrician to turn on all the switches when she was in the cage, as I thought she would be less frightened and the animals more tractable in the full light.

"My guess was right: Barton, in disobedience of orders, had made her go into the cage, and he had taken advantage of my absence to break our iron-clad rule which forbids a trainer to drink. I saw the whole situation as soon as I entered the building, and I would have given the whole show to have the little woman safely on the right side of the bars. The animals in the dens were raising a worse row than they did to-night, and the lions in Leotta's group had forgotten their fear of the trainer in their greater fear of the approaching storm. They were ugly, and Barton, who was more than half-seas over, stood at the bars shouting abuse at his wife and the lions and jeering at her evident terror. I saw that the other trainers and keepers appreciated the danger, for they were gathered around, holding iron bars, Roman candles and pistols; but they had sense enough to know that any interference which would draw his attention from the cage would precipitate the trouble, and none of them could make Leotta appreciate the danger of her position. I went up to him quietly and told him that I thought he had better call the rehearsal off for the night, intending to square accounts with him as soon as Leotta was safely out of the cage; but the drink was in his brain and he turned on me and cursed me. Leotta gave a scream of terror as the brute turned his back on the cage and, as if by a preconcerted plan, every one of the six great beasts jumped for her.

"Barton knew that the game was up, and in his drunken rage he attacked me and it kept my hands full to manage him; but the others rushed for the cage, and while Bonavita and Stevenson beat off the lions with the help of the keepers on the outside who were firing pistols and Roman candles and using fire-extinguishers through the bars, Bobby Mack picked up Leotta and carried her outside. Of course, that ended Leotta's career in the show business and finished Barton's employment with me. The poor little thing's beauty was gone, for a lion's claws make deep cuts, and it was many a day before she was able to leave the hospital. You can see that I have reason to be confident of the accuracy of the predictions of my weather bureau, for if there had been no thunderstorm brewing I might have developed a sensational lion act."

"Or if Leotta had understood English," commented the Press Agent, as he beckoned to the waiter. "Of course, it is sometimes an advantage to have performers who can't converse with the audience, but it is mighty inconvenient if they can't understand the orders of the boss. I lost the chance of making a lot of money once, because a squaw who was working for us couldn't understand the white man's lingo. A guy named Merritt and myself were disappointed about getting a concession for a snake show at the Pan-American Exposition, and we found ourselves broke in Buffalo, which is separated from the Bowery by about five hundred miles of very tough walking when you haven't got the price of a railway ticket. Merritt was mad clean through at being thrown down by the Exposition managers, but he was an inventive genius and I knew that he would figure out a way to raise the price of transportation.

"'Jim,' says he as we counted up our available assets and found that they were pretty well along toward a minus quantity, 'it makes me dead sore to be turned down this way without getting a run for our money, and it's up to us to increase our capital and incidentally give the bunch that done us dirt the double cross. Get your think tank working and see what it will produce.' I couldn't see a way out, but when a squaw from the Tonawanda Reservation, who was selling trailing arbutus, came up to us and offered us a nosegay, Merritt gives a whoop and claps me on the shoulder.

"'Jim,' says he, 'I've got it and we'll make our everlasting fortunes!' He commenced to question the squaw, but all the English she knew was 'ten cent a bunch,' and he didn't make much headway until a big buck Injin who had been watching her from across the street came over and butted in. It appeared that he was her husband, and when Merritt stated his proposition the buck accepted the terms without the formality of consulting the squaw. When the Exposition opened we had a big tent on an open lot across from the main entrance, with a life-sized picture of 'The Marvelous Mermaid' as big as a house. As I remarked, Merritt was an inventive genius and he had worked up a scheme to deceive the confiding public. He had provided a platform and carefully cut out a hole so that the squaw could stand on the ground and the edges of the hole fitted snugly about her waist. He made her lean forward and rest her chin in her hands in the conventionally accepted mermaid position, and then he fitted a fish tail which lay along the top of the platform, and it was so skillfully joined to her that it looked as if it grew there. She was a good-looking squaw and she certainly played her part and made an interesting picture.

"Of course, he couldn't explain to her what he wanted her to do, but he would tell the buck, who would carefully translate and impress the instructions upon her memory with the aid of a bale stick. The thing which he put most stress upon was that she was to remain absolutely still, no matter what happened. I sold the tickets and put up the spiel on the front, and Merritt lectured inside and we did a land-office business. Lots of smart guys came around and tried to get gay with the mermaid, but she couldn't understand their joshing and never cracked a smile. The blame tent caught fire one night when it was filled with people, and she had such a wholesome recollection of the bale stick that she kept as still as a cigar-store Indian until we had cleared the place and put the fire out.

"'Jim,' says Merritt as he looked her over admiringly after that experience, 'there is a great advantage in having a squaw for the top part of that there fish. She can't understand what the Willie boys say to her and nothing feazes her. A white gal would have had hysterics and given the whole snap away.' It gave Merritt a lot more confidence and we felt pretty safe after that experience, and neglected to have the buck repeat his bale-stick admonitions to her upon the necessity of cultivating repose of manner. Everything was lovely and we were turning hundreds of people away and making more money than the big show. One afternoon we were playing to a record house and Merritt was doing himself proud on his lecture.

"'Ladies and gentlemen,' says he, 'I have the honor to present to this intelligent audience a creature which is commonly, but erroneously, supposed to be extinct at the present day; but you have before you a living and convincing proof that mermaids still exist. I confess that until I was able to obtain this unique specimen, which was captured while basking in the sun and singing a love song upon an iceberg in the Antarctic Ocean, I shared the opinions of my fellow scientists that the mermaid was a fabulous or extinct creature; for during a lifetime devoted to exhibiting the mysterious marvels of nature to the American public it had never been my good fortune to acquire one. You will observe that she is half woman and half fish, and she is perfectly helpless when out of the water. She is unfortunately unable to express herself in any known tongue; in fact, she has never uttered a sound since her capture and we fear that she has lost her voice, which--' Just then he was interrupted by a howl of terror from the platform, which was followed by a roar of laughter from the audience, and when he turned he saw the squaw standing up and trying to wrap the fake tail around a pair of well-developed, copper-colored legs. Her face was as pale as a squaw's face could get and Merritt knew the jig was up. I was peeking in the door, and when I saw what had happened I gathered up the box-office receipts and faded away. I met Merritt that evening in our usual saloon, and underneath a pair of black eyes and a battered-up phiz I could see that he was wearing a look of deep disgust.

"'Jim,' says he, 'this is what comes from pinning your faith to a woman and not appreciating the weakness of the sex. She faced the danger of being burned alive and never turned a hair; but when she saw a measly little mouse crawl under the platform she busted up the whole show.'"

The Stranger said good-night and started for the city, but before he reached the railway station he was drenched by the downpour which the Proprietor had predicted.

[The end]
Francis Metcalfe's short story: Animal Barometer And The Eternal Feminine