"Come on," he said softly in Cat, too soft for anyone but the lion to hear. "Back inside. Come along. Come along."
The audience, Major Tib and Maccomo included, were dumbstruck. In silence they watched Charlie lead the big cat back to the chamber, in silence they saw the lion padding gently and obediently after him.
Major Maurice stared.
Maccomo rubbed his mouth slowly.
Madame Barbue fainted. (Pirouette grabbed a bucket of water that Hans had been taking to the Learned Pig and threw it over her.) The little Italians burst into cheers--but only once the lion was safely inside the lionchamber.
Maccomo burst through the crowd, into the chamber and right up to Charlie. The moment the lion was through the door of his cage, Maccomo slammed the door shut, locked it, and turned to the boy.
He stared at Charlie. "Explain," he said softly, his eyes dangerous in the dim light.
Charlie, intoxicated by the excitement of the moment, the sweet musty smell of the cabin, and the knowledge that all around him were lions he could talk to, could not think of a single intelligent thing to say.
"Um..." he said.
"Not good enough," whispered Maccomo. "Why was my lion obeying you?"
"Oh, he didn't, sir, no, not at all," said Charlie quickly. "He, um, I was just there and I saw him, and, er, it didn't seem he should be out there, so he, er, didn't like the crowd I suppose, so, er, he, er...went back in." Charlie tried to smile up at Maccomo, but his smile was wobbly. He could feel it wobbling from inside. Maccomo was scary.
The lion trainer didn't answer. He took the two steps that brought him back to the gate of the lions' cage, and stood there, his whip still in his hand. He stared at the young lion, but the young lion did not stare back; instead he lowered his head and laid it on the floor, in a very submissive pose, and made a little mewing noise.
Charlie was worried about this lion. He was behaving so strangely--as if he were confused and upset. Every cat Charlie had ever known had been dignified; had known who and what it was, and had felt all right about it. Even the fattest, laziest, greediest housecat had an attitude that said: "Yes, I am fat, lazy, and greedy, and rather good at it too, don't you think?" But this lion was sad and confused. Charlie didn't like it. It made him feel sad and confused too.
Maccomo made a little noise in his throat, and turned back to Charlie.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"London," said Charlie.
"No," said Maccomo. "London people are white."
Charlie had heard this said before, and knew that only an ignorant person could say it. Maybe Maccomo just didn't know about London.
"London people are all colors," said Charlie. "People have always come to London from everywhere, so now we are all colors."
"Where is your brown skin from?" said Maccomo.
"My brown skin is from London like the rest of me," said Charlie, trying not to get annoyed. "My father, if that is what you want to know, is African."
"His name and country," said Maccomo.
Perhaps it was Maccomo's rude way of asking, or perhaps it was a natural carefulness, but Charlie didn't want to say. And he didn't have to, because at that moment Major Tib burst in.
"What d'ya think, Maccomo?" he said. "He's got it, don't ya think? I never saw anything like it, and I knew Van Amburgh and Cooper--ya want him? He's got the knack--you should take him on. You've got to."
Maccomo turned his great black eyes on Charlie, and once again Charlie saw the flash of light reflected in their depths. "I will take him on," he said. "Of course."
"Fine," said Major Tib. "Charlie, you're not the monkeyboy anymore--you're the lionboy."
Copyright Zizou Corder 2003. All rights reserved.
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