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STAND BY--LONDON CALLING!
THE elderly owner and proprietor of the Greatest Little Circus on Earth, touring America’s great Southwest, did not realize, as he sat in his personal trailer, a full hour after the close of the evening’s show, how rapt and puzzled he was as he gazed first at the opened-out yellow telegram on his knee, and then at the little diorama standing on the portable table in front of him.
For the message portion of the telegram, plainly written with no thought whatsoever of expense, since it was punctuated, and illuminated perfectly by the light from the powerful brass coal-oil lamp in the trailer’s ceiling above, ran:
WE WILL PAY YOU $1000 CASH FOR A CERTAIN SMALL DIORAMA WHICH IS PART OF YOUR FREE ATTRACTION, THE SO-CALLED “HALL OF DIORAMAS” WHICH APPARENTLY YOU EXHIBIT ONLY FROM TIME TO TIME, AND NOT REGULARLY STOP NUMBER l6 IS THE ONE WE HAVE REFERENCE TO STOP WE WILL PAY THIS SUM ONLY PROVIDING, OF COURSE, OUR AGENT OR AGENTS MAY EXAMINE IT BEFORE PAYING, AND CONFIRM IT DEFINITELY AS BEING THE SPECIFIC ONE WE WANT: AND ALSO PROVIDING ONLY THAT WE MAY PICK IT UP WITHIN NO LATER THAN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS AFTER YOUR RECEIPT OF THIS WIRE, OR, SAY—TO BE ACCURATE AS TO THE DATES INVOLVED—BEFORE MIDNIGHT OF JUNE THE 3RD STOP AFTER THAT THE DIORAMA WILL BE OF NO VALUE WHATSOEVER TO US, AND WE WILL PAY ABSOLUTELY NOTHING FOR IT STOP MUST CONSEQUENTLY, HAVE YOUR IMMEDIATE WIRE- RESPONSE “YES” OR “NO” TO OUR PROPOSITION, AND WILL THEREFORE MAINTAIN ALL-NIGHT OPEN HOURS FROM HERE ON SO THAT YOUR ANSWER MAY BE RECEIVED BY US AT ANY HOUR OF DAY OR NIGHT STOP IF YOUR ANSWER IS IN THE AFFIRMATIVE THERE WILL BE NO DELAY IN CLOSING, FOR OUR AGENTS ARE RIGHT NOW NEAR TO YOUR CIRCUS AND WILL, IF NECESSARY, FOLLOW IT, AT YOUR EARLY PULL-OUT TOMORROW MORNING, TO YOUR NEXT SHOW-POINT STOP SINCE, AT EITHER POINT, THEY WILL BE REACHABLE BY WIRE FROM US, AND IMMEDIATELY THEY WILL, WITHIN AN HOURS TIME OF SUCH DIRECTING WIRE FROM US, CALL IN PERSON AT YOUR HEADQUARTERS AND WILL DEAL IN FULL FOR US
SAMSON, MELOW, GRIMES
ATTORNEYS AT LAW,
“Strange!” muttered the circus proprietor, turning now to the diorama, lighted up inside by cunningly concealed lights, and all thanks to a single dry battery hooked just now to two brass binding posts in its side. “Strange—that they’re willing to pay one thousand dollars—for a diorama—that cost me—only $6.50! Specially, when it’s so—so ghastly! Or—or so comic! For after all—which is it? Ghastly? Or comic? Yes, which? But the price is strange. For none of the tiny figures, well done as they are, bizarre as they are, are worth over one dollar—as miniatures!”
And there was, on this evening of Monday, June the 2nd, a deep irony in the words of the circus-proprietor that even he could not see! For he could himself, at this moment, have been a figure—a most bizarre figure!—in a giant, gargantuan diorama of some sort.
For he was still in his ringmaster’s costume—he always handled, himself, the bareback riding act which just preceded the finale—the act which N-B-C. had recently asked to show on television, for $150, in a programme to be called “Nostalgia”. And had, of course, been politely refused. With his tall silk hat even now absentmindedly atop his long-faced head with its high grey-touched sideburns, and with his long-tailed black swallow-tail coat, he looked like nothing so much as a great gaunt time-ridden crow of some sort. Particularly so under the brilliant light emanating from the powerful brass oil lamp in the trailer’s ceiling, which focusing down on the small portable table, and lighting up the few scant additional pieces of ascetic furniture the trailer contained including the black cover-lidded bunk at the end brought out the sad and brooding countenance of the circus-proprietor, the seams in his great face.
Now he was helplessly studying the diorama itself. Number 16 in the nineteen or so of such flimsy little boxlike affairs that, together, formed one of the Free-to- the-Public attractions of the Greatest Little-Circus on Earth. And which such Free- to-the-Public attractions were shown only at points where sickness on the part of some star performer, or apparatus trouble, made impossible the appearance of some advertised act. Shown thus—and free!—so that the public could never feel cheated. Though this particular one of the “free attractions” was, to be sure, patronized chiefly by children, with ever-lingering love of dolls.
No more than a foot and a half across, and a foot and a quarter high, and a foot in depth, but with an illusion of far greater depth due to its steeply slanting sides, the diorama, its structure for the most part of some polished thin dark wood, was glassed entirely across its front, and puttied around the edge with green putty like a window-pane. A small wooden lug stuck up on top—a lug which had a hinge, and could be folded back in packing—had stenciled on it, in white letters, the words, “Prop. Circ. No. 16. Hall of D’s”. Hooked just now to the dry battery standing off to one edge, through binding posts in its side, the diorama was beautifully lighted up inside due to cunning concealed lights within. Lights whose tiny round screw-bases—fortunately for the complete seeability of the diorama’s interior—could be screwed in, with fresh bulbs, from outside points. Lights which even brought out a single signature scrawled across the glass at the upper right corner and reading “Michael L. O’Creority, Builder”. And a number: “37”.
The scene presented by the diorama would have been ghastly indeed, had it not been for the central figure. The figure closest to the observer, and, therefore, central. As well as decidedly “central”—with respect to the drama depicted! And which main and central and foremost figure was none other than—a fish! A small stuffed fish, about 5½ inches in height. A fish hanging vertically—though one side full on toward the observer—due to a rope, or the representation of such, about its neck. A rope knotted tight about and under its very gills, so that there was no doubt it had been hanged. If only because of the way in which its beadlike fish-eyes—or at least the one facing the observer—popped out. And the impression of tense, rigid tautness that had been given to the representation of the hanging rope, through employment, for it, of a thin steel wire rod, cunningly painted to represent a many-stranded hempen affair.
But the odd feature about the fish, and which certainly was not his more or less nondescript markings, much less his equally nondescript shape, was that he—or perhaps she—or even it!—wore a small tinselled cardboard crown atop its head. A crown which though in proper position had had to be glued thereon by the builder of the diorama, yet seemed tilted ludicrously, even jauntily, backward.
And that the fish had been hanged, or at least was being represented as having so been, was brought out completely by the place where he hung, the way he hung, and the scene on and beyond it. For the place in question, close to the glass and at such a level that one could see partly beneath it as well as everywhere above it, represented the floor of a gallows platform, containing a several-square-inch opening, with a trapdoor hanging freely below, from one edge. In short—sprung! And the fish himself hung squarely through this opening, so that his body was about half above it, and half below it.
But it was beyond and down a bit from where the little stuffed fish hung, that the true ghastliness of the diorama lay. For the little fish himself was too jaunty, with his gold crown, to do more than evoke a smile. It was the scene beyond! For there, in a dozen or so long rows of yellow-varnished pewlike seats, with high backs—high, at least, for their particular diminutive size—and stretching drearily across what, though reduced tremendously, was seemingly only a large high-ceilinged whitewashed room, were the spectators who had presumably come to see the fish—hanged! To see him hanged in full and revealing light, moreover, for the tiny fixture that hung down midway of the presentation, and silhouetted against the furthest wall, represented plainly a dazzling ceiling light of some sort which presumably shone on victim and audience alike! Even seeming to bring out the narrow sinister looking door in the leftmost corner of further wall, and the representation upon it of a huge wooden locking beam thrown tightly across it. In miniature as the spectators themselves were, made obviously of some plaster or plasterlike material, and clearly screwed or glued tight to their respective places, and no more than three inches high any of them, to contribute to the striking illusion of depth in the thing, they were, each, a triumph of modelling, and a triumph of detail too, at least with respect to the representation of the clothing that had been painted on each. And by, no doubt, the finest of tiny camel’s hair brushes. All, bar none, had looks on their tiny faces that must have been put there by the touch of a true artist. One man, in a loudly checkered suit, magically achieved somehow by cross-manipulation of tiny brushes, and stationed evidently alone in the front row, but quite to the left, lay over on his side in what was meant to be unmistakably the state of dead faint, a tiny straw hat, no bigger actually than a quarter, lying crown down on the floor beneath him where it would presumably have tumbled. Another man, on the other end of that same front row, but rightwise, and similarly all alone and by himself—a baldheaded man, he was, with gleaming pate, and coatless, for the tiny narrow crimson stripes painted over his delicately blued torso represented plainly red suspenders crossed over a faded blue shirt—was shown actually vomiting, or at least in the act of having just completed that operation. For his miniature face had been tinted a sickly green. And his mouth was open as though in some dreadful nausea. And on the floor, in front of him—
In the seats behind sat various people, a dozen or so perhaps, all in all, but mostly well apart from each other, as though in secret shame for having come to see a fish—hanged! The exceptions to these spaced-apart persons were three men lumped together at the left, in a third or fourth row, all shown as wearing derby hats, all carrying tiny unlighted cigarettes or cigars in their mouths, hands busy with notebooks. Unmistakably reporters covering the hanging—of a fish!
Two more men who were lumped together, in a fourth or fifth row, but to the right in the assemblage, were also finely detailed with respect to a few odd elements of their appearances. Not, to be sure, in the matter of the unobtrusive grey suits each wore, nor even in the matter of the tiny gleaming monocle—probably made from a scale of mica!—that gleamed from the eye of one, or the wide, snow-white walrus moustache on the other, but because of the tiny jet black stethoscope hung, or painted as hanging, from the necks of each. Doctors they were—or represented! Doctors who were here to declare a fish dead!
But of the spaced-apart figurines scattered about, it could really have been said to have been neglected by the tinier camel’s hair brushes of the artist who had originally created the diorama. For one of the figurines, shown as wearing a nondescript brown suit of some sort, and having apparently to support himself by leaning heavily over the top of the seat in front of himself, had had almost the entire half of his tiny face painted purple. And representing, that purple, quite plainly, a dreadful birthmark of some sort. Some distance off, another man—if one were willing to call a strikingly natural figurine a man!—leaned heavily upon a cane, a cane which was no bigger than a match, but the sparkling emanations from whose top, obviously from glue-affixed diamond dust, indicated, or tried to, a real diamond-headed walking stick. Elsewhere sat a red-faced man in baker’s cap and apron, as though he had rushed from his shop to view the execution, and ready to rush back and go on with his pastry making! Most striking of all, perhaps, of all the individually spaced plaster figurines was the single woman, or representation thereof. A mannish-looking creature she was, to say the least, with round owl-like hornshell framed pince-nez, in tailored tweeds and dowdy stiffish little hat, but whose one vivid upraised hand carried, of all things—a most feminine object. No less—than a dainty pearl-inlaid fan! As though indeed by its wielding, to manfully keep herself from fainting—at seeing a fish hanged! And far off to the rear, to one side, was the most peculiar sight of all: two head-shaven convicts, in black-and-white-striped suits, suggesting themselves somehow as having been brought here perhaps for a lesson in crime, for on each side of them sat two blue-uniformed figures, prison guards. One convict—or convict-figurine—had one eye only, for his tiny spit of an eye was painted black to represent a cavern.
Most striking, even though farthest back of everything was the clock on the rear wall. And the two figures who stood one on each side of it. The clock itself was black, and had striking white hands. And its considerable size at the distance, was such as to suggest that it represented a clock that was truly gargantuan. Its hands right now pointed to the hour of 12:02. Presumably—the third minute of a new day! The figure that stood at its left was grey-uniform clad and masked—masked by a black mask so deep that only the tip of a square black beard showed beneath it. Obviously the executioner. Executioner—who had executed—a fish! Indeed, the masked man’s tiny hand was on a lever protruding from the wall, showing—or at least indicating—that he had just sprung the trap. The figure on the other side of the clock represented, no doubt, the warden, not because of his all-black suit, no, but because his hand was upraised as though he had just given the dread signal, and it held in its tiny fist the very article that would have been used to make such a signal unmistakable: a wisp of plaid cloth, no bigger than a postage stamp, representing a plaid handkerchief. The latter figure was so finely and delicately done that, though it manifestly wore spectacles, it could be seen they were actually two pairs of such, slightly displaced, one silver and one gold. And it could even be seen that the figure wore, in one shoe—a bright red shoelace!
This was all there was!
A stuffed fish hanging in a gallows opening, with tinsel gilt crown jauntily awry on head; spectators many and various, in pews down and beyond; the clock with white hands—the strange warden with the double spectacles and the crimson shoelace—
And now, and only now, did the elderly silk-hatted proprietor of the Greatest Little-Circus on Earth reach forward and, by the turn of a switch, extinguish the hidden lights in the thing. It went instantly black, showing now, atop its puttied glass front, only the reflections of parts of the trailer interior itself.
And now facing the dioramaless diorama—the glass barrier on which not even a frozen show was being depicted—the circus proprietor spoke. To himself.
“Yes,” he said wonderingly, “if they’re willing to pay $1000 for such a flimsy thing as this, they’ll—they’ll undoubtedly be willing to go higher—much higher. For they’re plainly dealing—in big money. And only God knows why.” He sighed heavily. “Just how much higher they’ll go, however, no one can say. But higher they will go. And business—is business! The diorama’s mine. All mine! And—if I don’t get $3000 in hand before three days from now, the show is lost. Lost,” he sighed again heavily; in fact, this time almost groaned.
And withdrawing from a breastpocket of his swallow-tail coat the yellow carbon copy of a certain wire he had typed out earlier in the evening in the office trailer of the show, and had even filled in town but an hour ago and for straight despatchal, he laid it atop the wire which had caused it to be written, and surveyed it dourly. The now topmost yellow sheet ran:
SAMSON, MELOW, GRIMES AND WEACOCK,
ATTORNEYS AT LAW,
CRESCENT TOWERS, NEW ORLEANS LA.
YOUR INTERESTING WIRE, AND OFFER THEREIN, HEREWITH ACKNOWLEDGED STOP HAVE NOW WITHDRAWN THE DIORAMA IN QUESTION FROM MY DIORAMA EXHIBIT WHICH, HOWEVER, IS SHOWN ONLY SPORADICALLY, AND IN TOWNS WHERE FEATURE ACTS ARE TEMPORARILY OFF STOP THOUGH NOW WITHDRAWN IT IS NOT WITHDRAWN TO SELL AT $l000 STOP THE DIORAMA WILL BE DELIVERED TO YOUR AGENT OR AGENTS, WITH PRIVILEGE OF BRIEF PRIOR EXAMINATION, AND WITH ANY CONFORMATORY OR EXPLANATORY DATA REQUIRED AS TO MY ACQUISITION OF IT, FOR $3000 CASH STOP IT WILL BE READY FOR THEM AT ANY HOUR OF THE DAY OR NIGHT THOUGH PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT OUR PULL-OUT HERE IS FOR 7 A.M. TOMORROW, AND NEXT SHOW-POINT IS SUNFLOWER CENTRE, 200 MILES ON.
ANGUS M. MACWHORTER
LITTLE-CIRCUS ON EARTH.
And it was right here that a knock came on the door of the trailer. The lotside door, that is, set almost midwise in the trailer’s side, and facing a similar door set in the opposite wall. It was a very businesslike knock, for it repeated itself twice in succession.
And Angus MacWhorter frowningly stroked his chin. Knowing well that this door, indicatable plainly from “the gate”, some distance off, and at which right now a gatekeeper was being held in attendance, was the only door which at this hour of night could be found by anyone. Specially—people from a far distance. He hurriedly stuffed away in his breast pocket the two telegrams. Whipped out his great silver turnip. Made some quick mental calculations. Put it away. Remembering the time-scheme of these various wires was such that—
“That—that must be the representatives themselves,” he nodded. “For they are supposed to be—pretty close by. And they’re—they’re undoubtedly following up my wire. Maybe—maybe have the money in their possession. All $3000—of it! Maybe—maybe will even tell me who in heaven’s name is paying a small fortune for a hanged stuffed fish. And why. Yes, why?”
He turned briskly toward the door on which the so-businesslike knock had come.
“Come in!” he called eagerly. “Come in!”
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