By Jack London
He had a dreamy, far-away look in his eyes, and his sad, insistent voice, gentle-spoken as a maid’s, seemed the placid embodiment of some deep-seated melancholy. He was the Leopard Man, but he did not look it. His business in life, whereby he lived, was to appear in a cage of performing leopards before vast audiences, and to thrill those audiences by certain exhibitions of nerve for which his employers rewarded him on a scale commensurate with the thrills he produced.
As I say, he did not look it. He was narrow-hipped, narrow-shouldered, and anaemic, while he seemed not so much oppressed by gloom as by a sweet and gentle sadness, the weight of which was as sweetly and gently borne. For an hour I had been trying to get a story out of him, but he appeared to lack imagination. To him there was no romance in his gorgeous career, no deeds of daring, no thrills—nothing but a gray sameness and infinite boredom.
Lions? Oh, yes! he had fought with them. It was nothing. All you had to do was to stay sober. Anybody could whip a lion to a standstill with an ordinary stick. He had fought one for half an hour once. Just hit him on the nose every time he rushed, and when he got artful and rushed with his head down, why, the thing to do was to stick out your leg. When he grabbed at the leg you drew it back and hit hint on the nose again. That was all.
With the far-away look in his eyes and his soft flow of words he showed me his scars. There were many of them, and one recent one where a tigress had reached for his shoulder and gone down to the bone. I could see the neatly mended rents in the coat he had on. His right arm, from the elbow down, looked as though it had gone through a threshing machine, what of the ravage wrought by claws and fangs. But it was nothing, he said, only the old wounds bothered him somewhat when rainy weather came on.
Suddenly his face brightened with a recollection, for he was really as anxious to give me a story as I was to get it.
“I suppose you’ve heard of the lion-tamer who was hated by another man?” he asked.
He paused and looked pensively at a sick lion in the cage opposite.
“Got the toothache,” he explained. “Well, the lion-tamer’s big play to the audience was putting his head in a lion’s mouth. The man who hated him attended every performance in the hope sometime of seeing that lion crunch down. He followed the show about all over the country. The years went by and he grew old, and the lion-tamer grew old, and the lion grew old. And at last one day, sitting in a front seat, he saw what he had waited for. The lion crunched down, and there wasn’t any need to call a doctor.”
The Leopard Man glanced casually over his finger nails in a manner which would have been critical had it not been so sad.
“Now, that’s what I call patience,” he continued, “and it’s my style. But it was not the style of a fellow I knew. He was a little, thin, sawed-off, sword-swallowing and juggling Frenchman. De Ville, he called himself, and he had a nice wife. She did trapeze work and used to dive from under the roof into a net, turning over once on the way as nice as you please.
“De Ville had a quick temper, as quick as his hand, and his hand was as quick as the paw of a tiger. One day, because the ring-master called him a frog-eater, or something like that and maybe a little worse, he shoved him against the soft pine background he used in his knife-throwing act, so quick the ring-master didn’t have time to think, and there, before the audience, De Ville kept the air on fire with his knives, sinking them into the wood all around the ring-master so close that they passed through his clothes and most of them bit into his skin.
“The clowns had to pull the knives out to get him loose, for he was pinned fast. So the word went around to watch out for De Ville, and no one dared be more than barely civil to his wife. And she was a sly bit of baggage, too, only all hands were afraid of De Ville.
“But there was one man, Wallace, who was afraid of nothing. He was the lion-tamer, and he had the self-same trick of putting his head into the lion’s mouth. He’d put it into the mouths of any of them, though he preferred Augustus, a big, good-natured beast who could always be depended upon.
“As I was saying, Wallace—‘King’ Wallace we called him—was afraid of nothing alive or dead. He was a king and no mistake. I’ve seen him drunk, and on a wager go into the cage of a lion that’d turned nasty, and without a stick beat him to a finish. Just did it with his fist on the nose.
“Madame de Ville—”
At an uproar behind us the Leopard Man turned quietly around. It was a divided cage, and a monkey, poking through the bars and around the partition, had had its paw seized by a big gray wolf who was trying to pull it off by main strength. The arm seemed stretching out longer end longer like a thick elastic, and the unfortunate monkey’s mates were raising a terrible din. No keeper was at hand, so the Leopard Man stepped over a couple of paces, dealt the wolf a sharp blow on the nose with the light cane he carried, and returned with a sadly apologetic smile to take up his unfinished sentence as though there had been no interruption.
“—looked at King Wallace and King Wallace looked at her, while De Ville looked black. We warned Wallace, but it was no use. He laughed at us, as he laughed at De Ville one day when he shoved De Ville’s head into a bucket of paste because he wanted to fight.
“De Ville was in a pretty mess—I helped to scrape him off; but he was cool as a cucumber and made no threats at all. But I saw a glitter in his eyes which I had seen often in the eyes of wild beasts, and I went out of my way to give Wallace a final warning. He laughed, but he did not look so much in Madame de Ville’s direction after that.
“Several months passed by. Nothing had happened and I was beginning to think it all a scare over nothing. We were West by that time, showing in ’Frisco. It was during the afternoon performance, and the big tent was filled with women and children, when I went looking for Red Denny, the head canvas-man, who had walked off with my pocket-knife.
“Passing by one of the dressing tents I glanced in through a hole in the canvas to see if I could locate him. He wasn’t there, but directly in front of me was King Wallace, in tights, waiting for his turn to go on with his cage of performing lions. He was watching with much amusement a quarrel between a couple of trapeze artists. All the rest of the people in the dressing tent were watching the same thing, with the exception of De Ville whom I noticed staring at Wallace with undisguised hatred. Wallace and the rest were all too busy following the quarrel to notice this or what followed.
“But I saw it through the hole in the canvas. De Ville drew his handkerchief from his pocket, made as though to mop the sweat from his face with it (it was a hot day), and at the same time walked past Wallace’s back. The look troubled me at the time, for not only did I see hatred in it, but I saw triumph as well.
“‘De Ville will bear watching,’ I said to myself, and I really breathed easier when I saw him go out the entrance to the circus grounds and board an electric car for down town. A few minutes later I was in the big tent, where I had overhauled Red Denny. King Wallace was doing his turn and holding the audience spellbound. He was in a particularly vicious mood, and he kept the lions stirred up till they were all snarling, that is, all of them except old Augustus, and he was just too fat and lazy and old to get stirred up over anything.
“Finally Wallace cracked the old lion’s knees with his whip and got him into position. Old Augustus, blinking good-naturedly, opened his mouth and in popped Wallace’s head. Then the jaws came together, CRUNCH, just like that.”
The Leopard Man smiled in a sweetly wistful fashion, and the far-away look came into his eyes.
“And that was the end of King Wallace,” he went on in his sad, low voice. “After the excitement cooled down I watched my chance and bent over and smelled Wallace’s head. Then I sneezed.”
“It… it was…?” I queried with halting eagerness.
“Snuff—that De Ville dropped on his hair in the dressing tent. Old Augustus never meant to do it. He only sneezed.”