Death of Anton: A British Library Crime Classic

Death of Anton: A British Library Crime Classic

Seven Bengal tigers are the star attraction of Carey's Circus. Their trainer is the fearless Anton, whose work demands absolute fitness and the steadiest of nerves. When Anton is found ...

About The Author

Alan Melville

ALAN MELVILLE (1910-1983) was a well-known television broadcaster, as well as a playwright, producer and scriptwriter. Among his works are ...

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Chapter One

 

The circus came to town.

It arrived, not with any of the majesty and excitement which herald the arrival of a small circus in a small town, but with all the modern efficiency for which Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie was famous. There was no triumphal procession through the streets of the town to delight the youngsters, give a brief preview of the circus’s delights, and act as a powerful piece of publicity; instead, the two special trains which pulled Carey’s Circus around Britain during the summer months rolled more or less smoothly into the station between eleven and twelve o’clock on that hot July night.

From the first of these trains there stepped out a small army of human beings, well-dressed and apparently prosperous. If every available hoarding in the town had not been plastered with those well-known blue-and-gold posters announcing the coming of Carey’s, it is certain that not one of the passengers waiting on the platform that night would have recognized any of these human beings as circus people. At a pinch, they might have taken them for the cast of some extravagant and successful musical comedy which had condescended to visit the town. But never as people of the circus.

The porter who attended to Herr Ludwig Kranz’s suitcases and travelling-rug, for instance, would never have imagined for one moment that this tall, distinguished, and good-looking young man with the slightly foreign accent who was inquiring about the locality of the best hotel in the town was none other than Anton, whose name appeared at the top of the blue-and-gold posters. Anton and His Seven Bengal Tigers, The Most Fearless and Sensational Act in the History of Animal Training. Direct from His Continental Successes, First Time in Britain, Secured at Enormous Expense. There were many more-than-life-size posters of Anton besprinkled over the town, showing the gentleman clad only in a small triangle of tiger-skin (doubtless made out of one of his former conquests) and surrounded by seven ferocious tigers, all sitting on their rear portions on boxes of varying heights.

Until he paid a visit to the circus on its opening night, the porter would never have associated that sparsely-clad figure with the elegant gentleman who gave him a tip several times larger than he was accustomed to receive. Herr Ludwig Kranz, buried deep in an expensive camel-hair overcoat and smoking a cigarette which conjured up visions of harems and Eastern potentates in the simple mind of the porter, was a very different-looking personality from Anton, the gentleman who appeared with next to nothing on inside a cage which also housed seven none too friendly tigers. These two beings were, however, one and the same person, as the porter found when he sat down on the hard one-and-threepenny benches, which was the cheapest way of seeing Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie. “Gorluvaduck!” as the porter remarked to his best girl. “That’s the lad what slipped me a couple o’ bob tip last night. ’Struth!…I hope them ruddy tigers don’t do nothing to him.”

“Why not, Bert?” inquired the best girl.

“Well, he’ll be going away by train again, end of the week. And I know who’ll be looking after his bags all right. Yours truly, if there’s another couple o’ bob going.”

The small gentleman who followed Anton out of the compartment was even more difficult to place in his true light. He was dressed quietly in a well-cut, dark-grey suit. His collar was of the stiff variety which is now even losing its grip on its last stronghold, the necks of successful stockbrokers. A bowler hat crowned his head and a neatly rolled umbrella dangled over his arm. He, too, passed on the job of coping with his luggage to a porter, for he was carrying—in addition to the umbrella and a Burberry—a copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is enough for any man to deal with and at the same time manage to get out his ticket in time to be punched at the barrier.

The few people on the platform, if they troubled to think about him at all, would almost certainly have put this gentleman down as a sober and successful business man, a man who dictated letters all day to a pretty stenographer without ever splitting an infinitive or leaving a preposition at the end of a sentence…and who never thought of his stenographer as anything but a stenographer.

The lady standing beside the chocolate machine on the platform went, in fact, a stage further in guessing the business of this immaculate little man. She was a teacher of mathematics in the local elementary school, and as soon as he stepped down from the train she scented danger on the following morning. Miss Jenkins was perfectly certain that the immaculate little man was one of those archfiends, His Majesty’s Inspectors of Education; she rushed at once to warn the other members of the staff of the impending peril. He looked exactly like an inspector, and it was fully two months since one had swooped down on the school. Yes, an inspector, without the slightest doubt: the bowler and the umbrella gave him away at once, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom settled it.

Miss Jenkins spent a horrible morning the next day, with her class taut and tense, waiting for the classroom door to open and the immaculate little man to walk in and start asking awkward questions. He did not come. Miss Jenkins, in fact, did not see him again until she visited the circus on the Thursday evening, and even then she was unable to penetrate the immaculate little man’s disguise. It was not easy to do so: a white face, a red nose, a ginger wig, baggy trousers of an enormous check pattern, a tiny comic hat, and a waistcoat with the Union Jack stitched on the back—all these made a great difference to the soberly dressed individual who stepped down from the train that night. He was, however, Dodo—King of Clowns.

The platform filled up with the discharge of people from the train. They stood about in groups—acrobats, bare-back riders, the owner and trainer of Horace (the World’s Most Intelligent Performing Sea-Lion), clowns, trapeze artists, jugglers, and the rest. They had none of the glamour and excitement which would be so much in evidence at this hour tomorrow night, when they would be wearing considerably less and doing considerably more than at present. Only one of the battalion, in fact, seemed to be doing anything at all, and he was certainly making a great deal of noise. Mr. Joseph Carey, proprietor of the most famous touring circus in Britain, lost no time in letting the townspeople know that Carey’s Circus had arrived.

“Don’t suppose there’ll be taxis in a place like this, eh?” demanded Mr. Carey, throwing away the stub of a cigar on to the rails.

“Yes, sir. Outside the station, sir.”

“Enough for all this bunch, eh?”

“Well, sir—I don’t know about that, sir.”

“No. Didn’t expect you would. Mr. Johnston! Where’s Mr. Johnston? Get Mr. Johnston, will you? ’Ere—Mr. Johnston…are you in charge of the advance arrangements for this circus, or aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, I am, sir.”

“And ’aven’t I told you a ’undred times that being in charge of advance arrangements means looking after the comfort of the artists, as well as letting the public know what’s coming to ’em?”

“Well, sir…I mean, yes, sir.”

“And doesn’t looking after the comfort of the artists include such-like things as carting ’em from the station to their hotels, eh?”

“Well, yes, sir. I suppose so, sir. But I thought—”

“I don’t pay you to think, Mr. Johnston. If I’d wanted someone to think I wouldn’t ’ave engaged you as advance manager. Get a couple o’ dozen cabs. And make it snappy, will you?”

“Yes, sir.”

The overworked and underpaid Mr. Johnston flies off to round up all available forms of vehicles, however ancient or unreliable, and the army saunters down the platform and across the bridge and out, via the booking-hall, into the town, and are bundled into the various vehicles, and discover (as Mr. Johnston discovered when he paid his first visit to the town six weeks before) that their hotels are mostly less than five minutes’ walk from the station, and that they could have been safely inside them long before this had it not been for the Boss’s concern for the comfort of his artists.

Caravans? Tents? Such things are simply not mentioned in connection with a circus like Joseph Carey’s, which has appeared by Royal Command and has been patronized by most of the crowned heads of Europe, not to mention a certain well-known politician who very nearly threw up his portfolio in order to become a trapeze artist. There are, certainly, a number of lesser persons who put up for the night in caravans dotted over the field where the circus is to be held, but these are mainly the corps of workers whose job it is to put up and take down the big tent in an amazingly short time. These men, and the men responsible for looking after the animals and cleaning out their cages, live in the shadow of the big tent and are the only remnants of the good old days when a circus was a circus and not a mammoth touring variety show. But the actual performers are all housed under proper roofs and on more or less proper beds in various establishments in the town, according to their prominence in the bill.

Anton, the gentleman who befriended the Seven Bengal Tigers; Dodo, the highest-paid clown in the business; Lorimer and Loretta, the world’s most sensational trapeze artists; the stars of the show, such as these, have the best rooms reserved for them in advance in the Station Hotel. A little further down the scale, Lars Peterson and his Intelligent Sea-Lion will be found in the second-best hotel in the town, the King’s Head. (Or, to be more accurate, Lars Peterson will be found there, most probably drinking a succession of quick whiskies in the bar; Horace, his sea-lion, is living happily in his tank at the back of the big tent.)

And so on, right down the programme, until one comes to the lesser clowns, the foils to Dodo, and those rather pathetic females who are now losing their figures and whose job in the circus is to hand a great variety of articles to the jugglers, or to stand in the middle of the ring and make “allezoop!” noises whenever their more famous colleagues have brought off some particularly daring feat. This last category will be found in some rather dilapidated boarding-house in the town, grumbling at the hardness of the beds and the softness of the drinks, and talking nineteen to the dozen about the days when they were on the legitimate stage (which means the music-halls), and actually took part in the acrobatic feats instead of merely standing to one side and bowing, in a tired fashion, to applause that is not for them.

There is one exception to this rule. However hard you may look, you will not find Mr. Joseph Carey himself in any of the hotels or boarding-houses. You will find him instead on the scene of battle, in an enormous green-and-white caravan pitched in a corner of the field where the circus is to be held. It is one of Mr. Carey’s little idiosyncrasies. He insists on his artists being put up in the best hotels (or in the worst, according to their value in the circus); but he himself always stays in his caravan beside the big tent. Asked for his reasons for this, Mr. Carey will reply that he likes to hang on to the glorious traditions of the circus, that he is a Regular Trouper, that a caravan was good enough for his father and is good enough for him. An answer, incidentally, that is usually taken with considerably more than the average grain of salt, and even greeted on occasions with murmurs of “Baloney!”… for Mr. Carey only came into the circus business three or four years ago, after losing a great deal of money on three revues called, successively but not successfully, Femmes de Paris, Nuits de Paris, and Joies de Paris.

Joe Carey, at any rate, sleeps in his caravan, which is a noble affair and fitted with all the very latest contraptions, including a well-stocked liquor cabinet; and certain unkind persons have been known to suggest that the real reason why Mr. Carey prefers living in a caravan to living in an hotel  is that it gives him more scope for his amorous adventures. Which, taking a quick look at Mr. Carey’s beery face, bald pate, and overhanging stomach, seems a little surprising.

The light is switched on in Joe Carey’s super-caravan, at any rate, just as the lights are switched on in a number of rooms in various hotels in the town as the Town Hall clock strikes a quarter to twelve. Herr Ludwig Kranz is in his room in the Station Hotel, sitting on the edge of his bed and drinking hot malted milk…thereby proving that there is, after all, some truth in his unsolicited testimonials which appear so often in the advertisements of the stuff: “The training of wild animals, and of tigers in particular, is a task which requires absolute physical fitness and the steadiest of nerves. I have found that, since taking a nightly tumblerful of…” He has unpacked, and pinned a number of photographs of himself, surrounded by tigers, round the walls, as well as a picture of a young Hungarian girl whom he hopes to marry when he is running a circus of his own.

Further along the corridor of the same hotel, the immaculate little man who is appearing tomorrow night in a grotesque make-up as Dodo the clown, is lying on top of his bed and turning over the pages of his Seven Pillars of Widsom. Not reading, merely turning the pages. Mr. Mayhew (for that is his name in real life) has been looking for a suitable place to begin reading the book ever since he bought it, but up to now has failed to find one. He has enjoyed looking at the pictures, however, and it gives him a definite superiority complex to be seen carrying the volume about.

In the King’s Head, Lars Peterson, owner of a sea-lion a great deal more intelligent than himself, has taken a bottle of whisky up to his bedroom and is undressing and drinking in turns. In Mrs. Wilkinson’s High-Class Boarding-House (Terms Moderate, Accounts Weekly) a little group is eating cold meat and pickles and talking loudly of the days when they were at the top of the bill. Or as near the top as makes no matter.

Midnight.…

The second of the two special trains which carry Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie up and down the country steams into the station, and this time there is no doubt that its occupants have something to do with a circus. The trucks are oddly assorted and of various sizes, and out of them comes a great deal of stamping and shuffling and scraping and growling and roaring. They are all shunted into a siding and left there until five o’clock in the morning, to the annoyance of everyone living near the station and trying to get to sleep. Quite a few of these unfortunate citizens, in fact, make up their minds shortly after midnight to write a fairly snorty letter to the local papers about this unholy row; one female goes so far as to sit up suddenly in bed and demand that her husband does something about it at once. Though, as the husband meekly points out, it is difficult to see what can be done about five elephants, seven tigers, twelve lions, fifty or more horses, and a great collection of other animals, if they have set their minds on yowling and stamping and roaring all night in the siding.

The biggest noise of all comes from the long wagon near the end of the train, where Anton’s Seven Bengal Tigers have made up their minds to spend the night by pacing up and down, backwards and forwards, from one corner of the truck to the other, reaching out their smooth, well-kept necks and shattering the night with one roar after another. Peculiar behaviour for the tigers; the attendants who have been left on guard over the wagons cannot make it out, for usually Anton’s seven tigers are so bored with night travel that it takes a great deal of persuasion and bad language to wake them up and get them to leave the train. Peter, the oldest and biggest of the seven, has certainly a sore paw which was giving him trouble at the last stop of the circus, but Peter’s sore paw could not be responsible for making all seven beasts create such an unearthly din, and keep it up all  night.

Perhaps—who knows—the seven Bengal tigers are wiser than most of us, and have an inkling of the tragedy that is coming to their cage so very soon.

Reviews of

Death of Anton: A British Library Crime Classic

“Melville’s witty descriptions and dialogue, very much in the drawing-room manner of Noel Coward, are such a potent hook”

Kirkus Reviews

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