Nothing more exciting ever happened to Oliver Watts than being rejected by his draft board for a punctured eardrum until, deferring as usual to the superior judgment of his Aunt Katisha and of Glenna--his elder and militantly spinster sister--he put away his lifelong dream and took up, at the age of twenty-five, the practice of veterinary medicine.
The relinquished dream was Oliver’s ambition, cherished since childhood, to become some day a hunter and trainer of jungle animals. It had been discouraged firmly and at length by his Aunt Katisha, who maintained that the skin of the last male Watts was not to be risked in a pursuit so perilous; and his Aunt Katisha won. He would do far better, Oliver realized finally, to resign himself to the quiet suburban life of Landsdale, Florida, and to perpetuate the Watts line by marrying some worthy and practical local girl. The quiet life, it developed, was that of a D. V. M.; the worthy and practical girl, Miss Orella Simms of Tampa, to whom he was now engaged.
To put it plainly, Oliver was until the moment of his Great Opportunity a good-humored stooge with a cowlick and a sense of responsibility, whose invariable cue was family obligation and whose crowning virtue was docility. He was maneuvered into becoming a D. V. M. (though to tell the truth the profession suited him well enough, being the nearest possible approach to realizing his ambition) solely because the veterinary college in Tampa was near enough to Landsdale for commuting and because his later practice could be carried on under the guiding aegis of his personal matriarchy. The virtuous, and vapid, Orella Simms became his fiancee by the same tactics and for the same reasons.
Oliver had considered rebellion, of course, but common sense discouraged the idea. He had no intimates outside his family nor any experience with the world beyond Landsdale and Tampa, and his fledgling self-confidence invariably bogged down in a welter of introspective apprehensions when he thought of running away. Where would he go, and to whom could he turn in emergency?
Such was the character and condition of Oliver Watts when his newly undertaken practice of veterinary medicine threw him into the company of “Mr. Thomas Furnay” and of a girl whose name, as nearly as it can be rendered into English, was Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above. Their advent brought Oliver face to face for the first time in his sedentary life with High Adventure--with adventure so high, as a matter of fact, that it took him literally and bodily out of this humdrum world.
The initial step was taken when Mr. Furnay, known to Landsdale as a wealthy and eccentric old recluse who had recently leased a walled property on Federal Route 27 that had once been the winter retreat of a Prohibition-era gangster, was driven by emergency to call upon Oliver for professional service. Mr. Furnay usually kept very much to himself behind his iron-grilled gates and his miles of stuccoed wall; but it happened that in pursuit of his business (whose true nature would have confounded Landsdale to its insular core) he had just bought up the entire menagerie of an expiring circus billed as Skadarian Brothers, and it was the sudden illness of one of his newly acquired animals that forced him to breach his isolation.
Mr. Furnay called at the Watts place in his town car, driven by a small, dark and taciturn chauffeur named Bivins. He found Oliver at work in his neatly ordered clinic at the rear of the big house, busily spooning cod-liver oil into a trussed and thoroughly outraged chow named Champ.
“I have a sick animal,” Mr. Furnay stated tersely. He was a slight man with a moderately long and wrinkled face, a Panama hat two sizes too large and a voice that had, in spite of its excellent diction, a jarring timbre and definitely foreign flavor.
Oliver blinked, surprised and a little dismayed that Fate should have sent him so early in his career a known and patently captious millionaire. Bivins, waiting in visored and putteed impassivity to reopen the door for his master, was silently impressive; the town car, parked on the crushed shell driveway outside, glittered splendidly in the late afternoon sunshine.
“I’ll be happy to call later in the day,” Oliver said. He removed the padded block that had held Champ’s jaws apart, and narrowly missed losing a finger as the infuriated chow snapped at his hand. “My aunt and sister are bringing my fiancee down from Tampa for dinner this evening, and I can’t leave the clinic until they get here. Someone might call for his pet.”
Mr. Furnay protested his extremity of need. “The animal suffers periodic convulsions,” he said. “It may be dangerously ill!”
Oliver unstrapped Champ from his detention frame and dodged with practiced skill when the chow tried to bite him on the thigh. He had taken it for granted--having heard none of the gossip concerning Mr. Furnay’s recent purchase of the Skadarian Brothers’ menagerie--that the sick animal in question was a dog or cat or perhaps a saddle horse, and the bald description of its symptoms startled him more than Champ’s predictable bid for revenge.
“Convulsions? What sort of animal is it, Mr. Furnay?”
“A polar bear,” said Mr. Furnay.
“Polar bear!” echoed Oliver, and in his shock of surprise he dropped a detaining strap and let Champ loose.
The dog sprang across the room--without a breath of warning, as chows will--and bit Bivins on the leg just above his puttee. The chauffeur screamed in a high and peculiarly raucous voice and jerked away, jabbering in a vowelless and totally unfamiliar foreign tongue. Mr. Furnay said something sharply in the same grating language; Bivins whipped out a handkerchief, pressed it over the tear in his whipcords and went quickly out to the car.
Oliver collared the snarling Champ and returned him to his cage, where the dog pressed bristling against the bars and stared at Mr. Furnay hungrily with wicked, muddy eyes.
Mr. Furnay’s shocked voice said, behind Oliver, “What a ghastly world, where even the pets...”
He broke off sharply as Oliver turned from the cage.
“I’m truly sorry, Mr. Furnay,” Oliver apologized. “If there’s anything I can do ... a dressing for Bivins’ leg--”
Mr. Furnay gathered himself with an effort. “It is nothing, a scratch that will heal quickly. But my bear--you will come to see him at once?”
At another time, the thought of absenting himself without due notice to his Aunt Katisha and Glenna would have prompted Oliver to refuse; but the present moment called more for diplomacy than for convention. Better to suffer matriarchal displeasure, he thought, than to risk a damage suit by a millionaire.
“I’ll come at once,” Oliver said. “I owe you that, I think, after the fright Champ gave you.”
And, belatedly, the realization that he might handle a bear--a great, live, lumbering bear!--surged up inside him to titillate his old boyhood yearning. Perhaps it was as well that his aunt and sister were away; this chance to exercise his natural skill at dealing with animals was too precious to decline.
“Of course I won’t guarantee a cure,” Oliver said, qualifying his promise, “because I’ve never diagnosed such a case. But I think I can help your bear.”
Oddly enough, he was almost sure that he could. Oliver, in his younger days, had read a great deal on the care and treatment of circus animals, and the symptoms in this instance had a familiar sound. Mr. Furnay’s bear, he thought, in all probability had worms.
The Furnay town car purred away, leaving Oliver to marvel at his own daring while he collected the instruments and medicines he might need.
In leaving the clinic he noted that Mr. Furnay’s chauffeur had dropped his handkerchief at the doorway in his hurry to be gone--but Oliver by this time was in too great a hurry to stop and retrieve it.
His Aunt Katisha might spoil the whole adventure on the instant with a telephone call from Tampa. Bivins could wait.
The drive, after a day spent in the antiseptic confines of his clinic, was like a holiday jaunt.
The late June sun was hot and bright, the rows of suburban houses trim and clean as scrubbed children sunning themselves among color-splashed crotons and hibiscus and flaming poincianas. Oliver whistled gaily as he turned his little white-paneled call truck off the highway and drove between twin ranks of shedding cabbage palms toward the iron gates of the Furnay estate.
A uniformed gateman who might have been a twin to Bivins admitted him, pointing out a rambling white building that lay behind the stuccoed mansion, and shut the gate. Oliver parked his truck before the menagerie building--it had been a stable in the heyday of the Prohibition-era gangster, when it had held horses or cases of contraband as occasion demanded--and found Bivins waiting for him.
Bivins, looking upset and sullen in immaculate new whipcords, opened the sliding doors without a word.
The vast inside of the remodeled stable was adequately lighted by roof-windows and fluorescent bulbs, but seemed dark for the moment after the glare of sun outside; there was a smell, familiar to every circus-goer, of damp straw and animal dung, and a restless background stir of purring and growling and pacing.
Oliver gaped when his eyes dilated enough to show him the real extent of Mr. Furnay’s menagerie holdings. At the north end of the building two towering Indian elephants swayed on picket, munching hay and shuffling monotonously on padded, ponderous feet. A roped-off enclosure held half a dozen giraffes which nibbled in aristocratic deprecation at feed-bins bracketed high on the walls; and beyond them three disdainful camels lay on untidily folded legs, sneering glassily at the world and at each other.
The east and west sides of the building were lined with rank after rank of cages holding a staggering miscellany of predators: great-maned lions with their sleek green-eyed mistresses; restless tigers undulating their stripes back and forth and grinning in sly, tusky boredom; chattering monkeys and chimpanzees; leopards and cheetahs and a pair of surly black jaguars whose claw-scored hides indicated either a recent difference of opinion or a burst of conjugal affection.
The south end of the vast room had been recently partitioned off, with a single heavy door breaking the new wall at its center. On either side of this door the bears held sway: shaggy grizzlies, black bears, cinnamon and brown; spectacled Andeans and sleek white polars padding silently on tufted feet.
The sick bear sulked in a cage to himself, humped in an oddly doglike pose with his great head hanging disconsolately.
Oliver sized up the situation, casting back to past reading for the proper procedure.
“I’ll need a squeeze-cage and a couple of cage boys to help immobilize the brute,” he said. “Will you--”
He was startled, in turning, to find that Bivins had not accompanied him into the building. He was not alone, however. The door at the center of the partitioning wall had opened while he spoke, and a slender blonde girl in the briefest of white sunsuits was looking at him.
Apparently she had not expected Oliver, for there was open interest in her clear green eyes. She said something in a clear and musical--but completely unintelligible--voice that ranged, with a remarkably operatic effect, through two full octaves.
Oliver stared. “I’m here to doctor the sick bear,” he said.
“Oh, a native,” the girl said in English.
Obviously she was trying to keep her voice within the tonal range of his own, but in spite of the effort it trilled distractingly up and down the scale in a fashion that left Oliver smitten with a sudden and unfamiliar weakness of the knees.
“May I help?” she said.
She might, Oliver replied. She could have had as readily, he might have added, a pint of his blood.
Many times while they worked, finding a suitable squeeze-cage and dragging it against the bear’s larger cage so that the two doors coincided, Oliver found the prim and reproachful image of Miss Orella Simms rising to remind him of his obligations; but for the first time in his life an obligation was surprisingly easy to dismiss. His assistant’s lively conversation, which was largely uninformative though fascinatingly musical, bemused him even to the point of shrugging off his Aunt Katisha’s certain disapproval.
The young lady, it seemed, came from a foreign country whose name was utterly unpronounceable; Oliver gathered that she had not been long with Mr. Furnay, who was of another nationality, and that she was homesick for her native land--for its “saffron sun on turquoise hills and umber sea,” which could only be poetic exaggeration or simple unfamiliarity with color terms of a newly learned language--and that she was as a consequence very lonely.
She was, incredibly, a trainer of animals.
“Not of such snarling fierce ones as yours,” she said, with a little shiver for the polar bear watching them sullenly through the bars, “but of my own gentle beasts, who are friends.”
Her name was a startling combination of soprano sounds that might have been written as Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above, but which Oliver was completely unable to manage.
“Would you mind,” he asked, greatly daring, “if I called you Pearl instead?”
She would not. But apparently Mr. Furnay would.
The millionaire, who had entered the menagerie unheard, spoke sternly to the girl in his own raucous tongue and pointed a peremptory finger toward the door through which she had come. The girl murmured “Ai docssain, Tsammai,” in a disappointed tone, gave Oliver a smile that would have stunned a harem guard, and disappeared again into her own territory.
Oliver, being neither Chesterfield nor eunuch, was left with the giddy sensation of a man struggling to regain his balance after a sudden earth temblor.
His client reoriented him brusquely, “Treat my bear,” Mr. Furnay said.
“I’ve been waiting for help,” Oliver said defensively. “If you’ll send around your menagerie manager and a cage boy or two--”
“I have none,” Mr. Furnay said shortly. “There are only the four of us here, and not one will approach within touching distance of a brute so vicious.”
Oliver stared at him in astonishment ... Four of them meant only Bivins, the gateman, the lovely blonde creature who called herself Perrl-high-C-trill-and-A-above and Mr. Furnay himself.
“But four inexperienced people can’t possibly look after a menagerie of this size!” Oliver protested. “Circus animals aren’t house pets, Mr. Furnay--they’re restless and temperamental, and they need expert care. They bite and claw each other--”
“There will be more of us later,” Mr. Furnay said morosely, “but I doubt that numbers will help. We had not anticipated a ferocity so appalling, and I fear that my error may have proved the ruin of an expensive project. The native beasts were never so fierce on other--”
He broke off. “I am sorry. You will have to manage as best you can alone.”
And he left the menagerie without looking back.
To deal tersely with subsequent detail, Oliver did manage alone--after a fashion and up to a point. It was a simple matter, once he found a four-foot length of conveniently loose board, to prod the unhappy bear from his larger prison to the smaller. The process of immobilizing the brute by winching the squeeze-cage tight was elementary.
But in his casting-back Oliver had overlooked two vitally important precautions: he’d forgotten to secure the gear fastenings, and he’d neglected to rope the smaller cage to the larger.
The bear, startled by the prick of the needle when Oliver gave him a sizable injection of nembutal, reacted with a frantic struggling that reversed the action of the unsecured winch and forced the two cages apart. The door burst open, sprung by the sudden pressure.
The bear stood free.
A considerable amount of legitimate excitement could be injected into such a moment by reporting that the bear, at last in a position to revenge itself for past indignities, leaped upon its tormentor with a blood-freezing roar and that Oliver, a fragile pygmy before that near-ton of slavering fury, escaped only by a hair or was annihilated on the spot.
Neither circumstance developed, however, for the reason that the bear was already feeling the effects of the anesthetic given it and wanted nothing so much as a cool dark place where it might collapse in privacy. And Oliver, caught completely off guard, was too stunned by the suddenness of catastrophe to realize his own possible danger.