The Lad and the Lion

Chapter Four

Edgar Rice Burroughs

MONTHS ROLLED into years, and still the drifting derelict pursued her tortuous and erratic course at the behest of current, wind, and tide. That she ever was reported is doubtful, as few ships sighted her that might have guessed that anything was wrong aboard her; and she was no particular menace to navigation as her lights burned brightly by night, and by day only the practiced eye of an attentive mariner could have noted any strangeness about her.

When a ship was sighted whose course might bring it close to the derelict the old man would have the boy light a smudge in the fire box in the boiler room. The passing stranger seeing black smoke issuing from the single funnel, and the ship’s nose in the wind, would assume that she had hove to for some minor repairs.

On the few occasions that ships had spoken or desired to board her, the deaf mute had run a smallpox flag to the mast head; thus effectually checking the curiosity and enthusiasm of the strangers.

After each such encounter, if the ships had stood close enough to have read the steamer’s name upon her stern, the old fellow would laboriously paint it out and rechristen her. At other times he had the boy repaint the hull above the water line—so that the ship was sometimes grey, sometimes black, and again white, while the upper works varied from red to yellow.

Thus, in a way, the derelict usually looked quite spick and span, and, as a consignment of paint had been a part of her cargo at the time of her abandonment, in this respect at least it seemed little likely that she would ever give outward evidence to passing ships that she was a helpless, unmanned vessel.

The boy had never wondered why a ship should be thus aimlessly floating as he had found her with only an old man and a lion aboard her, for remembering nothing of his past existence he assumed without question that this was the only form and manner of life. When he had seen the first ship that approached them after he had become a member of the derelict’s strange company, he had been filled with excitement since then it was that he realized that there were other creatures and other ships upon the face of the watery universe that was all he knew; but even then he believed that there could be naught aboard the stranger but old men and lions and boys.

During the years that came and went the old man taught the youth a sort of rude jargon composed of signs and the manual speech of deaf mutes—enough so that he could impart his instructions to his poor little slave. Knowing no spoken language, nor any difference in mentality between himself and the lion, the youth labored diligently to devise a similar system wherewith he and the great cat might converse. In this, of course, he failed; yet there was unquestionably a kind of thought transference, if you will, between the lad and the lion that as the years passed became little short of uncanny, so quick1y did each grasp the wishes and intentions of the other.

The vocal attainments of the boy were patterned, naturally, after those of the creature that he loved best. When he was happy and contented, as he usually was when he lay close pressed against the bars of his chum’s cage, he purred-a deep, rumbling purr—and when he was angry—when the old man threatened or abused him, he snarled and roared in a way so horrible that had the ancient moron been able to hear he would have been filled with terror for what the savage noise foreboded when the youth should have grown in strength.

Four years had passed. The boy had grown to be a tall, broad-shouldered fellow. The old man, noticing the growth of the great muscles, became more cautious in his abuses. He had fashioned a heavy whip of leather that he had found among the odds and ends of cargo. With this he could inflict the most exquisite torture upon the naked body of the youth, and yet remain beyond the clutch of the strong hands.

Habit performs miracles. The boy knew nothing other than abuse from his master, nor anything but obedience to his will. To have struck back would not have occurred to him—at least not at that time, yet that the thought was growing in his brain was evidenced by the fact that he now resisted abuse—first he had accepted it meekly as the natural order of things from which there was no escape.

One day, a trifle over four years from the time that he had clambered over the steamer’s side, a large ship passed close to the derelict. At the old man’s signal the boy had built a smudge in the fire box, and then coming upon deck had leaned over the rail to watch the vessel as it steamed by.

To his pleasure and astonishment the ship altered her course to come quite close to the derelict. It was evidently the intention of her master to hail the stranger. The old man, standing upon the bridge, guessed the other’s intentions, and leaning over toward the deck gibbered at the boy to attract his attention. When he had succeeded he signaled him to raise the smallpox flag.

At sight of this sinister emblem the stranger again altered his course to pass along upon the derelict’s port side and bear away. The maneuver brought the two ships within a hundred yards of one another. Upon the deck of the stranger the youth saw many strange figures—there were men and women and children in strange and wonderful raiment. There were officers and seamen in uniform. But nowhere among them all did he see an old man like his master, or a lion, or a naked youth.

Someone upon the stranger waved a handkerchief toward the derelict, and the youth waved his hand in imitation and roared out a thunderous lion-like greeting. Instantly all eyes were riveted upon the naked figure of the youth.

The officer upon the bridge raised a megaphone to his lips and shouted some query toward the old man upon the derelict’s bridge—a query that there was no one upon the drifting vessel to understand.

The old man but pointed to the waving signal at the masthead, and then turning toward the youth shrieked and gibbered at him as he signaled him to go below. The boy was loath to forego the novel sight of all the strange and interesting creatures that had broken upon his astonished vision, and so he ignored the commands of his master.

The ancient one jumped up and down in the frenzy of his rage; and finally rushing to the deck tried to drag the youth below, and now for the first time the spirit of resistance manifested itself. At first the boy but held back as the old fellow attempted to force him from the deck; but when, in the extremity of his anger, the man struck him the boy struck back—a single mighty blow that sent the bearded defective rolling across the deck, where he lay shrieking and frothing at the mouth in a sudden fit of epilepsy.

That the commander of the passing ship knew that all was not right aboard the strange craft was evidenced by his actions. He ordered the engines reversed, and for half an hour he hovered about the vicinity of the derelict as though of half a mind to board her; but at last the menace of the signal at her masthead held him off, and finally he drew away. By the time the old man had recovered from his attack the stranger was hull down upon the horizon.

The old man’s first thought upon recovering the use of his limbs was of punishment and revenge. Muttering to himself, he hurried below to return a moment later with his great whip and the iron bar he was wont to use upon the lion those times he worked his fiendish pleasure upon the caged brute.

But now he turned all his attentions toward the youth, who still stood at the rail watching the diminishing silhouette of the vanishing steamer. Like a beast of prey the old man crept stealthily toward his unconscious victim. His close-set eyes glared horribly—the whites showing entirely around the burning pin points of the iris.

Behind him the caged lion watched with narrowed, blazing orbs. The great beast crouched low against the bars of his prison. His lower jaw dropped and raised, dripping saliva upon the planking of the floor between his huge paws. The strong tail lay straight extended behind him, only the sinuous tip flicking nervously back and forth.

The man was almost upon the youth; then the lion rose suddenly to his feet, and from his cavernous jaws broke forth a hideous roar of anger and of warning. Swift as thought the youth wheeled; and at the same instant the old man leaped upon him, striking him with the iron bar and the heavy whip. Down went the boy, while above him, gibbering and shrieking, the awful old man stood raining heavy blows upon his naked, unprotected body.

In high-pitched, hideous laughter the half-crazed epileptic gibbered and mouthed his fiendish glee with each blow that fell upon his defenseless victim. The youth did his best to shield his head from the heavy blows and at the same time to crawl away; but his relentless Nemesis followed close upon him, knocking him back to the deck each time that he essayed to rise.

From behind them rose the hideous roars of the angered lion. The great beast leaped back and forth from one end of its cage to the other. Now it reared upon its hind legs and beat at the bars before it—old, rust-rotted bars that never had been intended to confine a full-grown lion.

But the habit of captivity was so strong upon the beast that it is doubtful that ever before had a desire to pass from its accustomed home impinged upon its brain. Now, however, the lion saw its only friend and companion being slowly beaten to death before its eyes. The savage blood ran furious in its veins. The black mane stood erect upon its back, and down its spine a little ridge bristled with rage; and then of a sudden, with all the great weight of its giant body and all the unthinkable strength of its mighty muscles, the lion hurled himself against the cage’s puny bars.

Like straws before a mad bull the frail barrier tumbled away, and with a horrid roar the king of beasts sprang out upon the deck. The old man turned at the sudden nearness of the presence he could not hear. His jaws fell apart in a convulsive grimace of fear. For a moment his knees smote upon one another, and then as the lion crouched for its spring the moron turned and fled toward his cabin.

As well to have leaped for the flaming sun. Scarce a stride had he taken before the beast was upon him. As he fell, he rolled over upon his back. The lion looked down into his wicked face—wide spread jaws gaped horribly above him—the hot and fetid breath of the carnivore beat upon his skin—foam and saliva drooled from the cruel jowls to mingle with the epileptic froth that flecked his beard.

With hideous choking cough the gasping old man was stricken with a spasm of the dire and horrible malady that owned him—and then the mighty jaws of the lion closed full upon his face. When they came away, the face came with them leaving only a bloody smear of brains and broken bones to mark where once the features of a human being had been.

The lad, half stunned by the blows the old man had rained upon him, lay as one dead as the maddened beast mauled and tore what had a few moments before been its cruel master and most hated enemy. Presently he opened his eyes to look full upon the ghastly spectacle.

The lion was devouring the old man—rumbling and snarling over the gruesome, bloody feast. Now the lad, all suddenly, saw his four-footed friend in a new light. Yesterday he had been but a softly purring kitten, rubbing his muzzle lovingly against the boy’s hand. Today he was a man-eater—grim, grisly and terrible—and he and the lad were alone upon the deserted ship with no bars between them.

As the boy looked up the lion ceased feeding for a moment and raised his head, his eyes blazing straight into those of the youth. Slowly the young man came to his feet. His first thought was to flee to the safety of the cabin and there barricade himself against this frightful creature—instinct, for so long dormant, had suddenly awakened to give birth to fear.

The lion half closed his eyes, and purring gently moved his great form to half uncover the victim of his rage. His expression and his action constituted an invitation which the boy could not mistake—he had been bidden to the feast!

He shuddered as the full hideousness of the idea possessed him; but at the same time a sudden determination swept over him—and without the slightest evidence of fear or hesitation he walked to the beast’s side and grasping the grisly remnants of his master attempted to drag it from the clutches of the beast of prey, at the same time signaling the lion to release the body from his encumbering weight.

For a moment the beast looked in puzzled inquiry at the lad, and then with a low growl he arose and with head cocked questioningly upon one side watched the youth drag the corpse to the ship’s side and drop it overboard.

For the next half hour the boy paid not the slightest attention to the animal. After disposing of the body of his torturer he next drew up pail after pail of sea water with which he flushed the deck of the last trace of the tragedy which had so recently been enacted there.

The lion, meanwhile, roamed at will about the ship, enjoying to the full the undreamed possibilities and pleasures of freedom. He had been captured while still a very young cub, and sold to the captain of the steamer which had at that time been lying at anchor in the mouth of a great African river.

On board the ship there had been a stowaway—the ancient defective—and upon him the captain had laid the duty of caring for the lion. From the first the old man had hated the beast as he hated everything else in the universe, and when the captain had discovered and punished one of his cruelties the old fellow’s hatred for the cub had developed into an obsession for revenge.

A portion of the mixed cargo of the steamer had consisted in several cases of giant powder, so that when, two weeks after the cub came on board, fire broke out in the hold during a heavy blow the steamer had been abandoned with such haste that the deaf mute, asleep in his hammock, had been entirely forgotten.

He awoke the next morning to find four feet of water sloshing about in the hold of the ship. An open hatch told him how the giant seas had found their way below. He also discovered that besides the cub he was alone upon the steamer. The evidences of fire, which the waves had extinguished, explained why the ship had been abandoned.

His desertion added nothing to the old fellow’s love for his fellow man. The ship was well stocked with provisions, and there was an apparatus for distilling fresh water from salt. Under the circumstances, he was not so ill off after all. The result was that he settled down to his new life quite contentedly, preserving the cub for purposes of amusement—torture and revenge.

For six months after the death of the old man the ship continued to drift hither and thither about the broad Atlantic. The boy and the lion lived their lives in peace and happiness. The lad fished for flesh for the lion—porpoises and dolphins affording the warm-blooded flesh of the mammalian that the beast most craved.

After the first moment of horror at the sight of the beast upon the body of the old man the lad had felt no further fear of his huge, black-maned companion. The two ate together, wandered about the ship side by side, and at night slept in the captain’s cabin—the huge carnivore close beside the berth in which the lad lay.

One day, the boy sighted a strange and wondrous thing beyond the ship’s lee rail—it was land! But the lad knew nothing of land. He could but wonder at the strange sight that unfolded before him as the derelict drifted close to the shore. He saw trees and bushes for the first time in the experience of his new memory. He saw a low, sandy beach on which the surf rolled ceaselessly, and in the distance barren hills. He was filled with excitement as he strained his eyes toward this wonderland. Beside him stood the lion, blinking out across the water. Presently he lifted his head to roar forth some pent emotion which the sight of long-forgotten land released.

Slowly the ship drifted before the wind until with a grating of the keel and a slight tremor it came to rest a hundred yards from where the frothy foam washed in undulating lines upon the sand.

It was high tide. With the ebb the steamer commenced to list; and finally she lay upon her side, high and dry, with the sea behind her. Before her two passengers stretched a new world of unguessed romance and adventure.

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