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My Adventure with a Lion by Algernon Blackwood

 

I once served an apprenticeship on a New York newspaper, and some of my experiences as a reporter on the Evening Smile I shall never forget.

A reporter on an American newspaper is like a soldier—he is expected to obey orders implicitly, even at the risk of his life. For this reason he is paid well, but a nervous reporter often goes out of the office with his heart in his mouth and an "assignment" that makes him think seriously of taking out another insurance policy on his life.

One gloomy winter's morning I got down to the office at eight o'clock as usual, and had hardly reached my desk when the news editor—a kind man, who was always giving me opportunities of distinguishing myself—came up and began to speak at once in a very mysterious voice.

"Got a dandy assignment for you this morning," he said.

I looked up gratefully.

"I guess you carry a six-shooter, don't you?" he asked. "You may need it this trip."

"Oh!" I managed to gasp.

"A lion's escaped," he went on, in the quick, nervous American way of an American news editor.

"Has it really?" I said, wondering what was coming next.

"Jaffray's Circus came to town last night, the lion somehow got out, and they've been chasing it all night. Got it cornered in a stable at last, somewhere in East 19th Street; but it attacked and mauled a valuable horse there, and I understand is still at bay. That's all I know. Get up there as quick as you like, and get us a regular blazing story of it. You can run to a column," he added over his shoulder, as he returned to his desk to distribute the other morning assignments, "and let's have your copy down by messenger in time for the first edition."

No one ever disputed with the news editor, or asked unnecessary questions, but many a reporter did a lot of steady thinking when he got outside the office and safely on to the doorstep.

I crammed my pocket full of paper from the big heap at the middle table, and swaggered out of the room with my nose in the air, as though hunting escaped lions was a little matter I attended to every day of my life, and that did not disturb me an atom.

An overhead train soon rattled me up to East 19th Street, but it was some time before I found the stable where the lion awaited me, for 19th Street runs from Broadway down to the East River, and is a mile or two in length, and full of stables. Not far from the corner of Irving Place, however, I got on to the scent of my quarry, and I had hardly joined the group that had collected at the corner before a noise like distant thunder rose on the air, and every single person in the group turned tail and began to run for safety.

"What's the trouble?" I asked of a man as he dashed past me.

"Lion in that stable!" he shouted, pointing to the big wooden doors across the road. "Escaped from the circus. Savage as they make 'em. Killed a trotting-horse in there, and no one can get near it. They say it's a man-eater, too!"

Another roar burst out as he spoke, and the crowd that had begun to collect again scattered in an instant in all directions. There was no doubt about that sound: it was a genuine lion's roar, and it sounded deeper, I thought, than any roar I had ever heard before.

But news was news, and in this case news was bread-and-butter. I must get the facts, and be quick about it, too, for my copy had to be written out and in the office of the Evening Smile in time for the first edition. There was barely an hour in which to do the whole business.

I forced my way through the crowd now gathering again on the corner, and made my way across the road to where a group of men was standing not far from the stable doors. They moved about a bit when the roars came, but none of them ran, and I noticed some of them had pistols in their hands, and some heavy crowbars, and other weapons. Evidently, I judged, they were men connected with the circus, and I joined the group and explained my mission.

"Well, that's right enough," said one of them. "You've got a grand newspaper story this time. Old Yellow Hair's in there, sure pop! And, what's more, I don't see how we're ever going to get him out again."

"The horse must be stiff by now," said another. "He was mauled half to death an hour ago."

"It'd be a shame to have to shoot him," added a third, meaning the lion. "He's the best animal in the whole circus; but he is awful savage."

"That's a fact," chimed in a fourth. "There's no flies on old Yellow Hair."

Some one touched me on the arm and introduced himself as a reporter from the Evening Grin—a fellow-worker in distress. He said he didn't like the job at all. He wanted us to go off and concoct a "fake story." But I wouldn't agree to this, and it fell through; for unless all the evening papers conspire to write the same story there's always trouble at the office when the reporters get back.

Other reporters kept joining the group, and in twenty minutes from the time of my arrival on the scene there must have been a good dozen of us. Every paper in town was represented. It was a first-class news story, and the men who were paid by space were already working hard to improve its value by getting new details, such as the animal's history and pedigree, names of previous victims, human or otherwise, the description and family history of its favourite keeper, and every other imaginable detail under the sun.

"There's an empty loft above the stable," said one of the circus men, pointing to a smaller door on the storey above; and before ten minutes had passed some one arrived with a ladder, and the string of unwilling reporters was soon seen climbing up the rungs and disappearing like rats into a hole through the door of the loft. We drew lots for places, and I came fifth.

Before going up, however, I had got a messenger-boy stationed in the street below to catch my "copy" and hurry off with it to the Evening Smile as soon as I could compose the wonderful story and throw it down to him. The reporter on an evening paper in New York has to write his "stuff," as we called it, in wonderful and terrible places, and under all sorts of conditions. The only rules he must bear in mind are: Get the news, and get it quick. Accuracy is a mere detail for later editions—or not at all.

The loft was dark and small, and we only just managed to squeeze in. It smelt pleasantly of hay. But there was another odour besides, that no one understood at first, and that was decidedly unpleasant. Overhead were thick rafters. I think every one of us noticed these before he noticed anything else, for the instant the roar of that lion sounded up through the boards under our feet the reporters scattered like chaff before the wind, and scuttled up into those rafters with a speed, and dust, and clatter I have never seen equalled. It was like sparrows flying from the sudden onslaught of a cat.

Fat men, lean men, long men, short men—I never saw such a collection of news-gatherers; smart men from the big papers, shabby fellows from the gutter press, hats flying, papers fluttering; and in less than a second after the roar was heard there was not a solitary figure to be seen on the floor. Every single man had gone aloft.

We all came down again when the roar ceased, and with subsequent roars we got a little more accustomed to the shaking of the boards under our feet. But the first time at such close quarters, with only a shaky wooden roof between us and "old Yellow Hair," was no joke, and we all behaved naturally and without pose or affectation, and ran for safety, or rather climbed for it.

There was a trap-door in the floor through which, I suppose, the hay was passed down to the horses under normal circumstances. One by one we crawled on all-fours to this trap-door and peered through. The scene below I can see to this day. As soon as one's eyes got a little accustomed to the gloom the outline of the stalls became first visible. Then a human figure seated on the top of an old refrigerator, with a pistol in one hand, pointed at a corner opposite, came into view. Then another man, seated astride the division between the stalls, could be seen. And last, but not least, I saw the dark mass on the floor in the far corner, where the dead horse lay mangled and the monster of a lion sprawled across his carcass, with great paws outstretched, and shining eyes.

From time to time the man on the ice-box fired his pistol, and every time he did this the lion roared, and the reporters flew and climbed aloft. The trap-door was never occupied a single second after the roar began, and as the number of persons in the loft increased and the thin wooden floor began to bend and shake, a number of these adventurous news-gatherers remained aloft and never put foot to ground. Braver reporters threw their copy out of the door to the messenger-boys below, and every time this feat was accomplished the crowd, safely watching on the corners opposite, cheered and clapped their hands. A steady stream of writing dropped from that loft-door and poured all the morning into the offices of the evening newspapers; while the morning-newspaper men sat quietly and looked on, knowing that they could write up their own account later from the reports in the evening sheets.

The men in the stable below, occupying positions of great peril, were, of course, connected with the travelling circus. We shouted down questions to them, but more often got a pistol-shot instead of a voice by way of reply. Where all those bullets went to was a matter for anxious speculation amongst us, and the roaring of the lion combined with the reports of the six-shooter to keep us fairly dancing on that wooden floor as if we were practising a cake-walk.

A sound of cheering from the crowd outside, swelling momentarily as the neighbourhood awoke to the situation, brought us with a rush to the top of the ladder.

"It's the strong man!" cried several voices. "The strong man of the circus. He'll fix up the lion quick enough. Give him a chance!"

A huge man, who, rightly enough, proved to be the performing strong man of the circus, was seen making his way through the crowd, asking questions as he went. A pathway opened up for him as if by magic, and, carrying a mighty iron crowbar, he reached the foot of the ladder and began to climb up.

Thrilled by the sight of this monster with the determined-looking jaw, a dozen men rushed forward to hold the bottom of the ladder while he ascended; but when he was about half-way up, the lion was inconsiderate enough to give forth a most terrifying roar, with the immediate result that the men holding the ladder turned tail with one accord and fled. The ladder slipped a few inches, and the ascending Samson, crowbar and all, very neatly came to the ground with a crash. Fortunately, however, he just managed to grab the ledge of the door, and a dozen reporters seized him by the shoulders and dragged him, safe, but a trifle undignified, into the loft.

Talking very loud, and referring to the lion with a richness of epithets I have never heard equalled before or since, he crossed the floor and began to squeeze through the hole into the dangerous region below. In a moment he was hanging with legs dangling, and a second later had dropped heavily into a pile of hay underneath him. We lowered the crowbar to him, breathless with admiration; and then a strange thing happened. For, while the lion roared and the pistols banged, and we reporters tumbled over each other to get a glimpse of the attack of the lion on the strong man, or vice versa, lo! a voice below shouted to close the trap, and the same instant a board from below shot across the opening and completely obliterated our view.

"We'll have to fake that part of the fight," said a reporter. "Must all agree on the same yarn."

The sounds from below prevented the details being agreed upon just at that moment, for such a hoolabaloo as we then heard is simply indescribable—shooting, lion roaring, strong man shouting, crowbar clanging, and the sound of breaking wood and heavy bodies falling.

Outside the crowd heard it too, and remained absolutely silent. Most of them, indeed, had vanished! Every minute they expected to see the doors burst open and the enraged animal rush out with the strong man between his jaws, and their silence was accordingly explained by their absence.

At least half of the reporters were still among the rafters when the trap-door shot back in the floor, and a voice cried breathlessly that the strong man had caged the lion.

It was, indeed, a thrilling moment. We clambered down the ladder and out into the street just in time to see the great doors open and a procession emerge that was worth all the travelling circuses in the world put together to see.

First came the trainer, with a pistol in either hand. Following him was the man with the small crowbar who had sat on the division between the stalls. Then came a great iron cage, which had been in the stable all the time, but a little out of our line of vision in a dark corner, so that no one had observed it.

In this cage lay the huge exhausted lion, panting, on its side, with lather dripping from its great jaws.

And on the top of the cage, seated tailor-wise, dressed in a very loud check ulster, and wearing a bell-shaped opera-hat on the side of his head, was the proud figure of the victorious strong man. The expression on his face was worth painting, but it is wholly beyond me to describe it. Such exultation and glorious pride was worthy of the mightiest gladiator that ever fought in an arena.

His long curly hair, shining with oil, escaped in disorder from his marvellously shaped top hat, and the massive crowbar that had brought him his hard-won victory stood upright on one end, grasped in his gigantic hand. He smiled round on the gathering crowd, and the procession moved proudly up the streets till within half an hour the people following and cheering must have numbered many thousands.

We reporters rushed off to our various offices, and the streets were soon afterwards lively with newspaper-boys shouting the news and waving sheets of terrible and alarming headlines about the "escaped lion and its fearful ravages," and the "strong man who had captured it after a ghastly battle for his life."

Next day the morning papers did not publish a solitary line about the great event; but in the advertising columns of every newspaper appeared the prospectus of the travelling circus just come to town, and in particularly bold type the public were told to be sure and see Yellow Hair, the savage man-eating lion, that had escaped the day before and killed a valuable horse in a private stable where it had been chased by the terrified keepers; and, in the paragraph below, the details followed of the wonderful strong man, Samson, who had caught and caged the lion single-handed, armed only with a crowbar.

It was the best advertisement a circus ever had; and most of it was not paid for!


"Guess you knew it was all a fake?" queried the news editor next morning, as he gave me the usual assignment.

It was my first week on an American paper, and I stared at him, waiting for the rest.

"That lion hasn't a tooth in its head. They dragged in a dead horse in the night. You wrote a good story, though. Cleaned your pistol yet?"