The Lad and the Lion

Chapter Two

Edgar Rice Burroughs

THE FIRST intimation that the boy had of the disaster was the consciousness of being roughly awakened in the dead of the night—by what he knew not. The ship still trembled from the shock of the collision; but the noise of the impact had been lost to him in the depths of his deep, childish slumber.

As he rose upon one elbow in his berth he became aware of a great commotion about the steamer, and presently he heard the hoarse voices of the stewards as they called at the doorways of the staterooms, summoning the passengers on deck.

A moment later old Jagst burst into the room where the boy was already getting into his clothes.

“Quick, Your Majesty!” cried the old man. “Come on deck—there is no time to bother about clothes,” and he grasped the boy by the arm to drag him from the stateroom.

“No, Jagst,” exclaimed the boy, holding back. “Go yourself naked if you will, but for my part I prefer to be properly clothed,” and notwithstanding the pleas and urgings of his companion the youth proceeded to don all his apparel before ever he would step his foot from the room.

When they reached the deck they found the utmost confusion reigning. Two boats filled with women and children already had gotten safely away; but now the steerage passengers, crazed with the panic of fear, had rushed upon the remaining boats where the officers and crew were making futile efforts to drive them back.

Women were alternately praying and screaming. Men ran hither and thither in futile search for boats into which they could place their loved ones. Jagst put a strong arm about the boy and pushed him through the fighting mob surrounding one of the boats.

“A child!” he cried to one of the officers. “Have you room for another child?” The old man knew that it was useless then to plead the cause of royal blood—for that night upon the stricken ship, with death reaching out to claim them all, men were stripped to the bone of their primitive brutality. As in the days of creation a man took only that precedence which his courage and brawn entitled him to.

The crew and the officers at this boat had succeeded in driving back the fear-mad mob, and some semblance of order had been restored there. At Jagst’s question the officer took the boy by the shoulder and hustled him through the guard of seamen toward the boat, into which women and children were being hurried.

At the ship’s side the boy glanced hurriedly about him. On either hand, held back before the revolvers of the crew, were women and children of the steerage. As he saw them his head went up and his young eyes blazed. He turned savagely upon the officer.

“Do you think,” he cried, “that I will enter a boat while there are women still on board the ship?” and with that he turned quickly back into the crowd.

The sailors and some of the men passengers gave a little shout of admiration. A woman was called to take the boy’s place in the boat. Someone strapped a life belt about the boy’s body. The ship was listing terribly to starboard now. The seas were running frightfully high. The noise of the hurricane was deafening, and the lowering clouds that shut out the moon and the stars kept the whole scene enveloped in darkness.

A huge wave struck the ship full upon her port side. Without an instant’s warning she rolled over and went down. The boy, with hundreds of others, had been thrown clear of the tangling wreckage of the decks. He found himself amidst a struggling mass of shrieking humanity. The life belt kept his head above water except when a great wave broke over him. The screaming of those about him, especially of the women, affected him much more than did his own danger; but almost immediately the cries lessened, and after each great wave had passed their numbers were gruesomely less.

The boy shuddered. In reality he was but a child—scarce fourteen. Presently a heavy piece of wreckage swept-down upon him. In the blackness of the night he did not see it, and as it struck a glancing blow against his skull he lost consciousness.

When his eyes opened again to comprehension of the things about him he discovered that the world was all water and he its sole inhabitant. Buoyed up by the life belt, his nose and mouth were still above the surface of the watery universe. He looked about. Ah, what was that strange thing behind him? It loomed large against the skyline as it rose to the crest of the now diminishing sea, and then it vanished into a deep hole for a moment only to reappear once more.

Presently it came close enough for the boy to reach up and grasp its side—it was one of the boats of the lost steamer. Seizing the gunwale he drew himself up and peered over the edge. Ah, this seemed to offer far greater comforts than the cold, wet, undulating element in which creation had discovered him. He climbed in. For an hour he sat shivering upon a thwart debating the wisdom of leaping back once more into the comparatively warm water of the ocean. Then the sun broke through the clouds—a hot tropic sun that soon warmed his hands and face.

He was puzzled by the radiance and heat of the remarkable thing that had appeared so suddenly above him. This was truly a world of marvels. First there had been nothing but the bottomless, tossing, wetness that had enveloped him. Then had come the spacious and luxurious contrivance into which he had clambered, and now, wonder of wonders, there had sprung through the greyness of the vast above a warm and grateful light and comfort.

His wet clothing, he noticed, kept the warmth from reaching those portions of his body which it covered—it was evident that the blow had not affected his reasoning faculties. Examination of the odd and useless encumbrances which covered him and kept off the pleasant warmth revealed the fact that they were removable. Soon thereafter the boy’s entire body was basking in the hot rays of the sun. Fortunately he had not thrown the garments overboard as he had at first been minded to do, and later in the day he was very glad to cover his nakedness from the terrific heat that beat down upon him; but he did not again don the clothing, merely drawing it over him as a covering and protection from the sun.

Hunger and thirst had only commenced to assert themselves poignantly when a ship loomed large and close at hand. It must have been quite close to him for a long time before he discovered it, for not knowing that there was anything to expect other than those things which he had already perceived he had not looked about the horizon in search of other objects.

A light breeze was blowing which eventually drifted the steamer down upon the small boat. The former was a small craft. From its single funnel no smoke issued, and upon its deck but one human being was visible. He leaned over the partially demolished rail watching the tossing small boat with its lonely occupant, a strange, uncouth figure in rags.

As the two boats approached one another, the boy looked up into the bearded face of a gaunt and sinister-looking old man. When they were about to touch, the latter dropped a rope into the youth’s hands; then he leaned far over the rail making odd motions with his fingers and uttering strange, uncanny mouthings.

The boy could not understand. The old man danced up and down, shrieking and yelling like a demon; and all the while he wove his fingers into weird gestures. In the midst of his strange performance a deep moan that was half growl broke from something upon the deck behind him that was hid from the boy’s sight. The old man turned at the interruption to shake his fist in the direction of the sound, and shriek and gibber his anger; then he turned back to the boy.

This time he took one end of the rope and fastened it about his waist, pointing to the boy and then to the rope which he had tied about himself, nodding his head and again wiggling his fingers frantically. The boy comprehended. The odd creature wished him to fasten his end of the rope about himself. Quickly he saw the purpose and a moment later had done as the old man wished.

Half dragged by the old man and half scrambling by himself, the youth reached the deck of the steamer. Before he had an opportunity to look about him his rescuer had confronted him with flying digits. After a moment of this he would stand still looking expectantly at the boy’s hands, and then up into his face. Then he would repeat the operation. At last he seemed to become furious with rage, for he danced up and down shaking his fists and screaming demoniacally.

At last the youth comprehended what was wanted of him. Just as the old fellow had tied the rope about his own waist as a guide to him to do likewise so now his acts were intended as directions for the boy’s further deportment—so thought the youth. Therefore he danced up and down, as did the old man, and shrieked and wiggled his fingers.

But the result of this upon the man was anything but what the boy had expected. Instead of being pleased the old fellow became furious. He leaped at the youth, grasped him by the throat, shook him furiously and then beat him cruelly about the face and head. He only ceased when a sudden paroxysm of epilepsy superinduced by his frantic rage laid him stiff and gasping upon the deck.

The boy, released from the grasp of his tormentor, stood rubbing his bruised face and watching the writhing thing upon the deck planking—the hideous thing that rolled with frothing mouth and upturned eyes. Then there broke upon his ears the same deep, moaning growl that he had heard before he gained the steamer’s deck, a noise that sent a little thrill through him.

Turning quickly toward the sound he saw a strange tawny creature within a cage close behind the cabin. The thing went upon all fours, pacing softly back and forth the length of its prison, with lowered head brushing the bars and gleaming yellow eyes glaring menacingly out upon the two whose disturbance it seemed to resent.

It was a young lion, a year old, or perhaps a trifle more. The boy immediately left the groveling man and walked toward the cage, attracted by this new and wonderful beast. He knew no fear, for with the blow that he had received upon his head all memory had gone—even that which is supposed to be inherited and which is sometimes called instinct. He did not know that the creature in the cage was a lion, or that the other upon the deck was a man, or that he himself was a boy. He had everything to learn, as though he had just been born.

He walked quite close to the cage. The lion stopped his restless pacing. The boy put his hand through the bars to touch the peculiar creature. Instinctively the great teeth were bared and the beast shrank back from the profaning touch of man, but still further the hand was insinuated into the cage. A puzzled expression expunged the ugly snarl from the young lion’s wrinkled face. He stood quite still as the soft hand of the youth touched his soft muzzle. The hand passed back and forth along the head, already showing indications of the massive lines that maturity would bring. Then the lion stepped close to the bars and with half-closed eyes purred contentedly as the boy rubbed and scratched his head and ears. That was the beginning of the strange friendship.

Presently the boy discovered a fragment of raw fish lying just outside the cage where the lion had dropped it during a recent meal. The pangs of hunger quickly asserted themselves at sight of the morsel, and dropping to his haunches the youth seized the unsavory thing and commenced to devour it ravenously, like a starved beast.

While he was thus occupied, the old man recovered from his fit. For a time he sat watching the boy; then he staggered to his feet and went to the galley from which he presently returned with food which he threw upon the deck beside the little waif. The boy looked up gratefully, but the terrible scowl upon the old man’s vicious face froze the smile upon his lips.

Immediately after he had eaten, the boy’s education was commenced. The old man was a deaf mute. The boy had no memory of speech. Under these conditions the process of instruction was laborious, but the frightful disposition of the cruel teacher spurred the pupil on to his best efforts that he might escape the terrible beatings that were his almost hourly lot during the strenuous days of his education.

About all that was required of him was to fish for food for themselves and the lion, cook the meals for himself and the old man, and keep the ship’s lights trimmed and burning by night. He soon discovered that his master, the lion, and himself were the only tenants of the drifting derelict.

He never, even to himself, questioned the strange conditions of his life. Except for his brief experiences in the ocean and later in the life boat, he knew no other existence. Insofar as he was aware the deck of the steamer was the universe, and they three the beginning and the end of life.

When he had come aboard, the lion’s cage had been a mass of filth; but presently the boy, prompted by a strange liking for cleanliness, had cleaned it out. Thereafter; daily, he reached far in with a broom, and flushed the cage with pails of sea water. The lion was strangely indifferent to his close proximity, though when the old man came near the beast flew into the most frightful rages.

It was not long before the youth discovered the cause of the beast’s hatred for the man. The second day of his presence aboard the ship he saw the old fellow creeping stealthily toward the cage with a sharp pointed iron bar in his hands. He crawled upon all fours and upon his hideous features was set an expression of bestial cunning.

The lion saw him at about the same time that the boy did, and with the sight the animal crouched, snarling and moaning, upon the floor of his cage. He lashed his strong tail against the planking, bared his mighty teeth, and as the man came closer backed into the farthermost corner of his prison.

Evidently the thing was but a repetition of previous similar occurrences. It seemed a sort of weird and brutal game that the two were playing—the repulsive and hideous old man mewing and mouthing at the great beast that lashed itself into a frenzy of impotent rage in the far comer of its cage.

Slowly the old man approached. At last he was close to the rusting bars, and then with a maniacal screech he lunged at the lion with his sharp pointed weapon. Screaming and roaring with pain and rage the beast leaped for the tantalizing bar. Between his giant teeth he seized it, but the old man clung tenaciously to his end and each time that the lion loosed his hold to give a fresh roar of anger the tormentor was permitted to prod him once again with the sharp point. The brutal scene endured until the old man became exhausted, and then, mumbling and laughing to himself, he slunk away to hide his weapon in his cabin.

When he had gone the boy approached the cage where the lion lay rumbling out his rage and licking his wounds. The beast was gaunt and mangy from confinement and improper food; but notwithstanding that and its youth it was already a formidable engine of destruction, yet the youth came quite close to it as fearlessly as though it had been a puppy; and extending his hand into the cage stroked its head, purring to it much after the fashion that the lion himself purred when contented.

The boy was sorry for the suffering animal, since he knew by experience the pain that the old man could inflict, as he himself had already twice brought down upon himself the vicious assaults of the ancient defective although he had been but little more than a day upon the derelict.

The lion permitted the child to caress him, and at last his grumbling ceased. His great tongue licked the hand of his little friend and he hugged close to the bars of his cage to be closer to the boy.

Thus the old man found them when he came on deck later. The sight seemed to arouse his rage once more; and with vicious cuffs and kicks he drove the youth away from the cage, setting him to fishing over the side.

Thus the days ran—long, monotonous days that trailed on into weeks and months, and still the same round of vicious abuse for the lad and the lion. The same hopeless, endless eternity of hate and fear for the hideous old man—the vicious old moron who hovered constantly over them, taking his only pleasure—his fiendish, brutal pleasure—in the sufferings of the two helpless creatures in his power.

But neither the lion nor the boy knew aught else, other than the few moments of quiet they occasionally found in one another’s company when the told man chanced to be below. And with the passing days the boy grew in stature and in strength, and the lion grew, too, toward the early maturity that was soon to transform him into a mighty, black-maned beauty.

And the old man, his fits of epilepsy more frequent, grew still more cruel and fiendish. And the day of reckoning approached.

The Lad and the Lion - Contents    |     Chapter Three

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