The Lion Tamer by Dora Sigerson Shorter
Up! Hector, Brutus, Nero. The lion-tamer cracked his whip; he
strode smiling cruelly among the snarling animals; he knew no fear; his
pleasure was in the danger of his position. The strong, brutal natures
always on the look-out for a sign of weakness in him to attackhe
lashed them as he would disobedient curs if they did not obey him, and
they crouched to him. Sometimes one would face him for a moment, and
the two would look into each other's eyes, till the brave beast would
turn tail, subdued by the superior courage in the man's gaze. Often it
was but the weight of a straw in the balance who would have the
victory. But the man always came from the conquest with a smile upon
his lips, while the women in the audience would give little cries of
fear, and lean fainting upon their male companions, envying the woman
the while who might call such a man her master. Had they but known it,
she stood over there by the door in the gold and scarlet costume of a
lady gymnasta nobody to be the wife of such a man! Now she did not
even look as the lion-tamer strode amongst his animalsa figure that a
sculptor might copy for a god. All the women's eyes in the theatre
followed him except hers; hers were downcast and turned away.
Nora, a voice said low in her ear, he has beaten you again?
Her eyes flashed as she turned them upon the speaker, then fell; a
deep flush spread over her neck and face.
He has never beaten me, she said coldly; how dare you say so!
He has beaten you, the voice said, as he will beat you again, and
He has not beaten me. She spoke angrily, stamping her foot, her
fierce gaze even yet not meeting the eyes of her questioner.
Why are you wearing that silk scarf around your neck? It is not
Because I have a cold, Is it not enough? She looked him up and
down, challenging a denial, but he did not answer, gazing sadly before
him at the crowded benches of the applauding house. The lion-tamer,
astride a lion, was riding round the ring.
I hate the lifethe woman spoke after a pauseI hate the men's
eyes. I am not one to smile when my soul is full of bitterness, or to
dance lightly when my heart is heavy; neither can I uplift my face for
the admiration of men, nor do I care to twist and distort my body for
their amusement. Every night, as I swing above their heads and prepare
to launch myself into the air, I smile upon them, and hate them, hate
themthe cruel faces with their look of mock terror upon them, all
waiting for me to fall, to miss my mark, to become a crushed mass of
Nora,the man's voice was strained,don't.
I tell you, they are waiting for me to fall. What else do they come
for? What else are they watching for thereshe waved her hands
towards the cage of lionsbut the death that walks with the man
behind those bars? Sometimes I say to myself up there above their
heads: 'Look how they sit with their breaths indrawn with suspense!
Give them their sensationmiss this time.' And Iwhom no one loves,
who has no hope, no happinessI do not miss.
Whom no one loves? The man's voice rang eager and broken.
Whom no one has a right to love. She spoke hastily and coldly,
seeming to answer the question in his voice. The man turned away his
face from her.
What a handsome couple of gymnasts! some one said from the
audience. I wonder if they are married?
The man's hand clenched. The woman drew her scarf more tightly round
her. It is cold here, she said, as if she had not heard. I wish I
could go home. And again she repeated softly, full of yearning, O
God! I wish I could go home.
Home! the man echoed. The trees are well in leaf there now, and
the little birds are quarrelling over the placing of their nests; there
is peace in the valley, and the great hills are yellow with golden
The woman laid her hand upon his arm pleadingly. Be silent! she
whispered. Oh, be silent!
Far away from London, from its darkness, its weariness, its
soul-killing noise and crowding, the man continued, as though speaking
aloud to himself. There is silence from the crash of human tongues;
only God speaks in the moving of the leaves and the falling of the
And the countless eyes, Nora whispered, as though afraid of being
heard, the eyes always watching for me to fallthey are not there,
nor the ears always astrain to hear my dying cry.
The man shuddered. He drew nearer and, laying his hand upon her arm,
gazed intently into her eyes.
Wherever you go, eyes are watching you, he said, ears are listening
to you, tongues are ready to be busy with your misfortunes in this
great city. But at home there are no eyes to watch you save of those
who love you. There are no ears to listen save of those to whom your
voice is music. There are no tongues to speak of you except with
The woman, crying silently, drew back into the shadow of the passage.
The man followed, and, taking his place before her, gazed into her
eyes. From the theatre came the sound of clapping and bravos. The
attendants of the circus were busy; the two stood alone.
Beneath the moon the fair valley smileshe spoke low and distinct.
The peat smoke curls upward, half seen in the faint light; its perfume
is in the air. Here and there, among the purple gloom of fern and
little trees, the star of a cottage light is seen. The contented lowing
of lazy cattle, the bark of a watchful dog, or the chirp of some
awaking bird is all that breaks the silence. He made a downward motion
over her face with his hands. She lay back against the wall half in a
trance, his eyes seemed to command her soul, she was passing into his
power under the mesmeric influence of his voice. He continued softly,
The shadowy mountains encircle all. The light of the passing moon
moves like a benediction over the land. The scented breeze is warm, and
the cottage doors stand open. There is no enemy here to bar them
against, and the night is not yet begun. In one cottage alone there is
mourning, an old woman sitting in solitude by a hearth where the turf
lies grey, the fire in its heart.
Nora passed her hand across her eyes, as if to see clearer. She sank
upon a bench and spoke as in a dream.
I see her, she said. Her hand is to her side. No tears come from
her eyesshe is too old to weepbut her heart is crying always. She
is ill and miserable.
The man put his hand upon her forehead. What does she say? he said.
She is calling 'Nora, Nora, Nora,' nothing but 'Nora.'
Is there no reply?
There is a woman far away who is trying to reach her; but she
cannotshe is tied, she is held back by some one very strong and very
cruel. She is crying in her heart too, but she cannot go. She dare not
go. God and man have bound her, so she must not break loose and go.
And the old woman?
She is growing older and more weary. She is drifting away; she is
dying. She cries, 'Nora, come to me. Oh, my little Nora!' She moved
uneasily, as though in pain. The man passed his hand downward over her
Tell her, he said slowly, tell her you will come. Tell her you
will be strong and cast the chains from about you that are killing you.
Tell her you were young, and had no knowledge of what life was when you
left her. Tell her that as an inexperienced girl you thought all
nobleness dwelt in a body that God had made strong and beautiful above
other men, how you left everything you held dear for his sake. But now,
disillusioned, loveless, a woman who has suffered, you are going back
to her again. He paused a moment, and continued with an effort: Tell
her that there is one who loves you as his own soul, one who you could
not care for long ago. Tell her you love him now, and that he will
shield you from all misfortunes, and take you away from suffering. Tell
her, tell her.
Nora pressed her hands together, as though in great pain. I cannot
tell her that, she said, I cannot tell her that.
The man drew his breath in with a sob.
No, of course not; I was mad. Be calm. Tell her you will go home
alone. The woman opened her lips to speak, but the man passed his hand
upward over her face a moment and disappeared. A strong hand fell upon
Mother! she cried, with a breath of joy or relief, I have come
Asleep? a hard voice said in her ear. Why are you not outside in
your place, you lazy sloven?
She started to her feet, passing her hand across her eyes, staggering
into consciousness. Her husband seized her by the shoulder, shaking
her. By God! he growled, if I thought you were drunk I would lash
the hide off your bones.
Don't dare to speak to me like that!she faced him now like one of
his lionsand take your hand off me at once!
I'll speak to you as I like and use you as I like. He shook her to
and fro, then pushed her roughly from him. Don't give me any of your
infernal jaw, either.
She seized the loaded whip he had laid beside him when he came upon
her, and raised it above her head. Her hot Irish blood coursed madly
through her veins. In her passion she stood high as himself. Her
trained sinews stood out on her arms. She came upon him like a
thunderbolt, but he seized her by her wrists, as in a vice.
I am not afraid of you, he said, and laughed. I will tame you as I
tame my lions, in spite of your claws.
He twisted the whip from her hands, and for a moment held it over
her, as though to strike. She crouched for the blow, but met his eyes
with a gaze so like one of his beasts when he ill-treated it, that he
flung the whip aside. His fearless, cruel soul was momentarily ashamed
beneath eyes that reproached and condemned him. Sometimes in the arena
he had felt the same look bent upon him, and shame had turned him that
fear never stayed, and his lash would fall unsatisfied to the ground.
I have never struck a woman in my life, he said roughly, but you
are enough to make a man begin.
She laughed, and did not answer. The light shawl fell from about her
shoulders, and on the white of her skin he saw the black track of a
I have never struck a woman, he repeated, sauntering away.
She sank down on a bench, drawing the scarf about her again. She
could hear the rattle of ropes and pulleys. They were fixing the wires
for her performance. She stood up, waiting her turn, and looked from
her shadow into the theatre.
Oh, the eyes! the eyes! the eyes! she muttered, all waiting to see
me fall. Let the end come soon, God, if it be your will. I am weary,
weary, weary of being alive!
There had been serious trouble at the Imperial Circus a few nights
after this. The shooting star, the beautiful Madame Blumenthal, would
not go through her performance. The manager had spent his patience and
his time in remonstrating with her; her husband had argued with more
force than effect. For the first time in his life, as he said
himself, he had struck a woman; and the manager had looked on and not
interfered. He was only sorry that he had no legal right himself to
chastise her. He raved at her for a pig-headed coward.
A coward! And that was the reason the wonderful Madame Blumenthal was
afraid to go through her performance, afraid to do the amazing flight
through the air that all London was crowding to see. She sat and cried
and trembled till her eyes were swollen and the red mark of her
husband's blow became even more vivid on her pale face.
Oh, forgive me! she sobbed; let me off this one evening. I have
never felt like this before, never been afraid.
And the man who could not understand fear dragged her on to her
feet,If you are not ready in five minutes, God help you! he
They are all watching for me to fall, she whispered. There's a man
there that has followed us for the last six months, ever since I began
my dangerous leap. He has followed us to Paris, to Vienna, to
Londoneverywhere. He is a ghoul waiting for my blood; he gloats over
my danger. I see his eyes as I go out and bow. They follow me as I
climb the rope and mount into my seat. All the life in me trembles. I
am afraid of himafraid of all the eyes.
If you are afraid to go on you will be more afraid to stay away,
her husband said cruelly, his eyes on her. Do you think I will stand
being ruined by you? Here, enough of this fuss! he shouted; get
yourself ready! The trapeze is up, and everybody will soon be waiting.
She drew herself together and clenched her teeth. I will go, she
said hoarsely. After all, what does it matter?
When she came into the ring she was smiling as usual. No one noticed
that the beautiful Nora had rouged to simulate the natural roses that
had left her cheeks, or that a dark scar was hidden beneath the powder
on her face.
No one noticed she was troubled but Malachy O'Dermod, who loved her;
and he said nothing, but clenched his teeth so that the blood came upon
Hold my hand tight, Nora, he said, as they went through one of
their performances together. You are not as fit as usual.
The sound of his gentle, strong voice soothed her. She smiled,
feeling braver. Imagine I, was afraid! But I am not, now that you are
here to avert the evil eyes!
Trust me, he said, looking into her face, and seeing that she was
afraid. Nonsense! he laughed. After all this time! He spoke to her,
cheering her, to turn her thoughts from herself. He became nervous,
thinking of her great jump through the air.
I don't know what it is to-night, she said, smiling, I feel as if
something were going to happen.
The rope was lowered, and she clung to it till it left her almost out
of sight of the audience, up under the sparkling roof-lights.
Malachy O'Dermod swung in his place, his soul in his eyes. O little
figure, so lonely, he said through his teeth, God protect you! and
he kept clenching and unclenching his hands, while she prepared for her
spring into the air, saying all the time, as if he did not know he was
speaking aloud, God help me! God help me! God help me! He turned over
in his swing, holding on by his feet. He was to catch her. The terror
of his position overcame him as it never had before. In a minute he
would know if the precious weight hung upon him. If not, he resolved to
loose his feet and drop head foremost to the ground, avoiding the net.
His soul cried to her, Come to me straight, be strong, do not miss,
till he felt she must hear and obey. But she, far away, alone under the
roof, did not hear him, but, pale and trembling, prepared to gather
herself together to spring. For the first time she knew what intense
fear was and the facing of death.
It is my husband, she thought. His continual ill-treatment of me
is wearing me into a coward. Even the lions, who hate him, are afraid
to strike. I am not as brave, and my spirit, too, is broken. She saw
Malachy turn over on his swing and reach his hands out ready to catch
her. Far away she saw the crowd of white faces of the audience uplifted
and staring at her. The place is all eyes, she whispered, all eyes.
She groaned as she thought what she had to do to amuse them, and felt
more lonely than ever she had done in her life, standing up there with
the crowd of upturned faces and eager eyes demanding her, by their
gaze, and sayingCome we are waiting: do not keep us. She crouched
to spring, and, flinging herself into the air, opened her lips in a
low, terrified cry. She felt she had sprung short. No one heard it but
Malachy, and he hung upon his swing like one dead and blind. The next
second hands grasped hands, and he heard the loud applause of the
audience. Never had he enjoyed the agony of her weight as now, when it
fell upon him almost unprepared.
Why did you cry out? he moaned. You have almost killed me. They
swung hand from hand, recovering themselves. I thought I had missed,
she gasped. Then they dropped one after the other into the net. Hand in
hand they bowed before the audience, delighting in the light and gaiety
of the circus. In the memory of their terror they felt as though they
had gone through the horrors of death, and out of the darkness had
passed to the glory of day and living. Smiling, they went together out
of the arena. When they reached a quiet passage outside they could hear
the great cage rising round the ring in which her husband was to
perform with his lions.
She sank down upon a box with a laugh. I feel quite tired, like as
if I had walked for miles, she said, lifting her damp hair from her
forehead as she spoke.
Malachy leant forward. I feel as if you had been lost and I had just
found you, he whispered; then saw upon her browalmost across her
eyesthe vivid wound of a knotted whip lash. My God! he cried, his
face changing. Has he done that? Where is he?
Nora started to her feet. She had never seen him so angry. She put
her hand upon his arm to keep him. Let him be, she said; it is no
use worrying. I am all rightit does not hurt. He was very angry
because I would not go at once for my performance.
Nora! He grasped her hands in his. Nora, leave it all, leave it
all! It is no marriage of God's that keeps you tied to that brute. You
do not love or honour him; he does not love or cherish you. My little
Irish sweetheart, I have loved you beyond all telling since you were a
Nora drew her hands away. Do not dare to talk to me like that, or I
shall hate you, she said; and then some one spoke behind her
A pretty scene, indeed, to come upon.
They turned, and faced her husband. Malachy threw himself before the
lion-tamer and caught him by his coat. He was not a small man, yet did
not come much over the other's shoulder.
You have struck her, he said hoarsely, between his teeth. You
cowardly hound! you shall take the blow back from me.
The other forced him from him, and raised his whip. I shall cut you
in two if you lay a hand upon me.
Nora, without thinking of anything, only to separate them, flung
herself between them, and the blow fell across her shoulders, making
her cry out. Her husband laughed when he saw where the blow fell.
That comes of being in the wrong place, he said, striding out into
the circus. Nora heard the applause that greeted him, and missed
Malachy from her side. She sprang up, frightened. Where had he gone?
She suddenly came upon him in the shadow, an iron bar in his hands. He
was creeping towards the bowing figure in the ring. He made a spring as
she came up, but the lion-tamer saw him, and with a smile slipped into
the cage amongst his lions.
Nora caught the man by the arm, and pulled him roughly towards her.
What were you going to do? she cried. What were you going to do?
The bar dropped from Malachy's hands. Nothing, he said. I was mad
for the moment; I hate him. Would to God he were dead; but I shall not
be his slayer.
Nora let go his arm. Her heart echoed his words, then ran cold at its
What is he making of us both? she whispered; and thought of herself
as she was when a girlso innocent, so glad of the joy of living in
herself and everything else; how she had welcomed the young birds whose
nests she knew and would not harm; and the children, how they loved
her! Now she looked upon young things with pity, feeling that they
would come to misery with years, as she had done. Misery, aye, and even
crime; for in her heart now was the unspoken thought, As there is no
other way, O God, separate us by death. That glorious gift of life she
once so revelled in she was now ready to throw away; or was it possible
she thought of gaining her freedom by another's death? She hid her face
in her hands. How can I bear it? she thought. My life is embittered
and ruined, I am beaten and insulted at every turn, my love is cast
back upon me, my tenderness repulsed. How can I help but hate him, O
She looked up, and saw her husband smiling among his lions. The
beasts crouched and growled when even he approached. She saw the vast
audience staring at him with admiring eyesthe women, perhaps, envying
her for the possessionof his beauty, the little children applauding
with shrill voices every performance of the beasts, that had been
taught them with cruel tortures. If you only knew, she whispered to
the women and children, as her eyes set again upon her husband. The
great feat of the night was being prepared, lion after lion taking his
position in the ring. Two of them refused for a moment to go, and she
saw the smile come upon her husband's face that she knew so well. It
was his smile of power, of his superior strength and will over anything
that set itself against him. Now the lash fell upon the disobedient
beasts with a biting shriek through the air. One of the lions crouched
as if to spring upon him, and he smiled again and struck it across the
eyes. Half-blinded, it slunk away.
One after the other they mounted into their places upon the platform
prepared for them. Over the backs of these he was to climb, and
mounting the central lion, hold aloft the united flags of England and
America, the whole forming a tableau that he had done for many
seasons, under many flags. Nora watched him making his last bow to the
audience before he mounted into his place. The lions were ready in
position, some growling softly to themselves, others licking their
comrades, as they leaned towards each other.
These men always get killed in the end, she heard some one in the
audience say; and her companion tittered, I hope it won't be
Nora looked at her husband again. She saw him stand a moment and
brush the hair back from his forehead. What was the matter? Why did he
not move? He seemed to draw himself together, then make a step towards
the impatient beasts. Then he stopped again and looked around. Was he
afraid at last? No, there was no fear upon his faceonly bewilderment.
He brushed his hand again across his eyes and walked towards the lions.
One of them made a stroke with its paw towards him, snarling. He did
not seem to notice. Some of the attendants seemed to think something
wrong, and crowded to the bars, whispering together. One of them called
out, but the lion-tamer did not answer. He attempted to get upon the
back of the first lion, and slipped; the brute snarled and half turned,
but the cruel foot was again upon his back, and he fell into his
accustomed place. The man mounted and stepped on to the next beast,
then slipped again, and went down on his feet between them.
She heard a voice in the audience mutter, This may be good for show,
but, by Heaven! I don't like it. And some one from the theatre pushed
by her, saying, My God! is the fellow drunk? If he had fallen he was a
dead man. Again she saw her husband mount the back of the next lion in
a bewildered way, as though he were half asleep. She saw the impatient
animals growing conscious of something amiss. The angry lashing of
their tails and the low, fierce growling was growing worse.
Even the audience became aware that all was not right, and relapsed
into horrified silence. Some one called to the lion-tamer to come back,
for God's sake, but he looked round with a cruel smile upon his face
and made a step forward; he prepared to mount the centre beast, and
drew the two flags from his breast. The lions were snarling and moving
impatiently from their positions. He shouted at them to go back; they
obeyed him reluctantly, and eyed him with hatred. He put his foot half
across the beast nearest him. Nora saw it was not the central lion, but
a vicious brute which he could never trust. Her face was like death as
she gazed round the audience. What in God's name was the matter with
her husband? She opened her mouth to scream, and her gaze fell upon
Malachy O'Dermod. He was standing in the passage, his eyes fastened
upon her husband like two burning torches, his face white and his thin
lips muttering. She stretched her hands towards him, and then suddenly
put them before her face. As she did so a great stricken cry arose from
the theatrewomen and children screaming and men shouting, the whole
place in a tumult. She was hustled and jostled amongst the
panic-stricken crowds and useless would-be helpers. She heard some one
saying, This is his wife, poor thing! and knew she had shrieked out
in horrible laughter before she fell under their feet unconscious.
A year after this, in a green valley in Ireland, a woman went alone
amongst the long fern and purple foxglove. Her face was raised from the
lovely things at her feet and fixed upon the blue distance before her.
Yet in her eyes, as she went thus, grew a great loneliness and longing.
She clenched her hands and held them across her brow, as if in pain. As
she passed, a man stepped out from a group of yellow furze straight in
her path. He held out his hands to her, calling upon her name,
Nora! my Nora! he cried.
With a great sob she turned, and held him as if he might slip away
into a dream. Malachy! oh, Malachy!
I have waited a year, he said, since I brought you home. You did
not know me then, Nora, when I took you from among their feet. Ah, my
love, it was hard to watch others nurse you and see you slowly coming
back from your fever and madness; but I knew it was right and best not
to let you know till now.
The woman drew herself back from him with an awful cry.
O God! I had forgotten, and only remembered the agony of having lost
you. Malachy, Malachy, we are outcasts from the happiness of God. Our
ways are separate; we must not meet again.
He took her by the two hands and looked into her eyes. He thought the
fever that had burnt in her poor brain was returning.
What do you mean? he said tenderly. We shall never part again.
She drew her hands from his and stood before him like one turned into
The mark of Cain is upon you and upon me, she said.
What do you mean? he stammered, a horror growing in his eyes.
I mean you drew the strength from my husband's limbs and the reason
from his brain. You made him fall amongst the lions; you mesmerized
him: and I knew, and could have stopped you, but I let him die.
The man grew white as death, and staggered from her. Yes, it is
true! he gasped. I did not know my own power, but I hated him and
wished him dead. I watched him that night, and my spirit went out and
encircled him in numbness and death. I knew it, I knew it but dared not
breathe it to myself.
We are murderers, the woman said, in a hard voice. There is a dead
man's body between us and happiness for ever. Bid me good-bye and leave
The man fell upon his knees before her, kissing her hands again and
Is there no escape? he groaned. Is there no pardon? Is there no
punishment less terrible than separation?
There is no punishment so just, she said; then fell upon his
shoulder weeping. But I have seen you once more. Oh, my love, I have
seen you once more!
Then they fell to tears and embraces and long good-byes; and she,
feeling him depart, slid upon the ground, her face amid the fern,
crying, Malachy! Malachy! Malachy! as one cries upon the dead.