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Tarzan's Sense of Humor


By EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS

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from Tarzan and the City of Gold

"So you are a wild man!" he demanded. "How wild are you?"

Tarzan turned slowly toward the speaker. He thought that he recognized thinly veiled sarcasm in the tone of Phobeg's voice. For the first time he saw his companion in the light of day. He saw a man a few inches shorter than himself but of mighty build, a man of great girth and bulging muscles, a man who might outweigh the Lord of the Jungle by fifty pounds. He noted his prominent jaw, his receding forehead, and his small eyes. In silence Tarzan regarded Phobeg.

"Why don't you answer me?" angrily demanded the Cathnean.

"Do not be a fool," admonished Tarzan. "I recall that last night you said that as we might be confined here for a long time we might as well be friends. We cannot be friends by insulting one another. Food is here. Let us eat."

Phobeg grunted and inserted one of his big paws into the pot the slave had brought. As there was no knife or fork or spoon Tarzan, had no alternative but to do likewise if he wished to eat; and so he, too, took food from the pot with his fingers. The food was meat; it was tough and stringy and under-cooked. Had it been raw, Tarzan had been better suited.

Phobeg chewed assiduously upon a mouthful of the meat until he had reduced the fibres to a pulp that would pass down his throat. "An old lion must have died yesterday." he remarked, "a very old lion."

"If we acquire the characteristics of the creatures we eat, as many men believe," Tarzan replied, "we should soon die of old age on this diet."

"Yesterday I had a piece of goat's meat from Thenar," said Phobeg. "It was strong and none too tender, but it was better than this. I am accustomed to good food. In the temple the priests live as well as the nobles do in the palace, and so the temple guard lives well on the leavings of the priests. I was a member of the temple guard. I was the strongest man on the guard. I am the strongest man in Cathne. When raiders come from Thenar, or when I am taken there on raids, the nobles marvel at my strength and bravery. I am afraid of nothing. With my bare hands I have killed men. Did you ever see a man like me?"

"No," admitted the ape-man.

"Yes, it is well that we should be friends," continued Phobeg, "well for you. Everyone wants to be friends with me, for they have learned that my enemies get their necks twisted. I take them like this, by the head and the neck," and with his great paws he went through a pantomime of seizing and twisting. "Then, crack! their spines break. What do you think of that?"

"I should think that your enemies would find that very uncomfortable," replied Tarzan.

"Uncomfortable!" ejaculated Phobeg. "Why, man, it kills them!"

"At least they can no longer hear," commented the Lord of the Jungle dryly.

"Of course they cannot hear; they are dead. I do not see what that has to do with it."

"That does not surprise me," Tarzan assured him.

"What does not surprise you?" demanded Phobeg.

"That they are dead, or that they cannot hear?"

"I am not easily surprised by anything" explained the ape-man.

Beneath his low forehead Pbobegs brows were knitted in thought. He scratched his head. "What were we talking about?" he demanded.

"We were trying to decide which would be more terrible," explained Tarzan patiently, "to have you for a friend or an enemy."

Phobeg looked at his companion for a long time. One could almost see the laborious effort of thinking going on inside that thick skull. Then he shook his head. "That is not what we were talking about at all," he grumbled.

"Now I have forgotten. I never saw anyone as stupid as you. When they called you a wild man they must have meant a crazy man. And I have got to remain locked in here with you for no one knows how long".

"You can always get rid of me," said Tarzan quite seriously.

"How can I get rid of you?" demanded the Cathnean.

"You can twist my neck, like this." Tarzan mimicked the pantomime in which Phobeg had explained how he rid himself of his enemies.

"I could do it," boasted Phobeg, "but then they would kill me. No, I shall let you live."

"Thanks," said Tarzan.

"Or at least while we are locked up here together," added Phobeg

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*********

Tarzan and Phobeg were back in their little stone cell; the ape-man had not escaped. He had had no opportunity to escape on the way back to his prison, for the warriors who guarded him had redoubled their vigilance.

Phobeg was moody and thoughtful. The attitude of his fellow prisoner during their examination by the nobles, his seeming indifference to the majesty and power of Nemone, had tended to alter Phobeg's former estimate of the ape-man's courage. He realized now that the fellow was either a very brave man or a very great fool, and he hoped that he was the latter.

Phobeg was stupid, but past experience had taught him something of the psychology of mortal combat. He knew that when a man went into battle fearing his antagonist, he was already handicapped and partly defeated.

Now Phobeg did not fear Tarzan; he was too stupid and too ignorant to anticipate fear.

Tarzan, on the other hand, was of an entirely different temperament, and though he never knew fear it was for a very different reason. Being intelligent and imaginative, he could visualize all the possibilities of an impending encounter, but he could never know fear, because death held no terrors for him. He had learned to suffer physical pain without the usually attendant horrors of mental anguish.

"It will doubtless be tomorrow," said Phobeg grimly.

"What will be tomorrow?" inquired the ape-man.

"The combat in which I shall kill you," explained the cheerrful Phobeg.

"Oh, so you are going to kill me! Phobeg, I am surprised. I thought that you were my friend." Tarzan's tone was serious, though a brighter man than Phobeg might have discovered in it a note of banter. But Phobeg was not bright at all, and he thought that Tarzan was already commencing to throw himself upon his mercy.

"It will soon be over," Phobeg assured him. "I promise that I shall not let you suffer long."

"I suppose that you will twist my neck like this," said Tarzan, pretending to twist something with his two hands.

"M-m-m, perhaps," admitted Phobeg, "but I shall have to throw you about a bit first. We must amuse Nemone, you know."

"Surely, by all means!" assented Tarzan. "But suppose you should not be able to throw me about? Suppose that I should throw you about? Would that amuse Nemone? Or perhaps it would amuse you!"

Phobeg laughed. "It amuses me very much just to think about it," he said, "and I hope that it amuses you to think about it, for that is as near as you will ever come to throwing Phobeg about. Have I not told you that I am the strongest man in Cathne?"

"Oh, of course," admitted Tarzan. "I had forgotten that for the moment."

"You would do well to try to remember it," advised Phobeg, "or otherwise our combat will not be interesting at all."

"And Nemone would not be amused! That would be sad. We should make it as interesting and exciting as possible, and you must not conclude it too soon."

"You are right about that," agreed Phobe. "The better it is the more generous will Nemone feel toward me when it is over. She may even give me a donation in addition to my liberty if we amuse her well."

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"By the belly of Thoos!" he exclaimed, slapping his thigh. "We must make a good fight of it and a long one. Now listen! How would this be At first we shall pretend that you are defeating me; I shall let you throw me about a bit. You see? Then I shall get the better of it for a while, and then you. We shall take turns up to a certain point, and then, when I give you the cue, you must pretend to be frightened, and run away from me. I shall then chase you all over the arena, and that will give them a good laugh. When I catch you at last (and you must let me catch you right in front of Nemone), I shall then twist your neck and kill you, but I will do it as painlessly as possible."

"You are very kind," said Tarzan grimly.

"Do you like the plan?" demanded Phobeg.

"It will certainly amuse them," agreed Tarzan, "if it works."

"If it works! Why should it not work? It will, if you do your part."

"But suppose I kill you?" inquired the Lord of the Jungle.

"There you go again!" exclaimed Phobeg. "I must say that you are a good fellow after all, for you will have your little joke. And I can tell you that there is no one who enjoys a little joke more than Phobeg."

"I hope that you are in the same mood tomorrow," remarked Tarzan.

When the next day dawned, the slave and the guard came with a large breakfast for the two prisoners, the best meal that had been served them since they had been imprisoned.

"Eat well," advised one of the warriors, "that you may have strength to fight a good fight for the entertainment of the queen. For one of you it is the last meal, so you had both better enjoy it to the full, since  there is no telling for which one of you it is the last."

"It is the last for him," said Phobeg, jerking a thumb in the direction of Tarzan.

"It is thus that the betting goes," said the warrior, "but even so, one cannot always be sure. The stranger is a large man, and he looks strong."

An hour later a large detachment of warriors came and took Tarzan and Phobeg from the prison. They led them through the palace grounds and out into an avenue bordered by old trees.

Here were throngs of people waiting to see the start of the pageant, and companies of warriors standing at ease, leaning upon their spears. It was an interesting sight to Tarzan who had been so long confined in the gloomy prison.

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Tarzan and Phobeg were escorted west along the avenue, and as they passed, the crowd commented upon them.

At the end of the avenue Tarzan saw the great bridge of gold that spanned the river. It was a splendid structure built entirely of the precious metal. Two golden lions of heroic size flanked the approach from the city, and as he was led across the bridge the ape-man saw two identical lions guarding the western end.

Out upon the plain that is called the Field of the Lions a crowd of spectators was filing toward a point about a mile from the city where many people were congregated, and toward this assemblage the detachment escorted the two gladiators. Here was a large, oval arena excavated to a depth of twenty or thirty feet in the floor of the plain. Upon the excavated earth piled symmetrically around the edges of the pit, and terraced from the plain level to the top, were arranged slabs of stone to serve as seats. At the east end of the arena was a wide ramp descending into it. Spanning the ramp was a low arch surmounted by the loges of the queen and high nobility.

As Tarzan passed beneath the arch and descended the ramp toward the arena he saw that nearly half the seats were already taken. The people were eating food that they had brought with them, and there was much laughter and talking. Evidently it was a gala day.

The warriors conducted the two men to the far end of the arena where a terrace had been cut part way up the sloping side of the arena, a wooden ladder leaning against the wall giving access to it. Here, upon this terrace, Tarzan and Phobeg were installed with a few warriors to serve as guards.

Presently, from the direction of the city, Tarzan heard the music of drums and trumpets.

"Here they come!" cried Phobeg.

"Who?" asked Tarzan.

"The queen and the lion men," replied his adversary. 

"What are the lion men?" inquired Tarzan. 

"They are the nobles," explained Phobeg. "Really only the hereditary nobles are members of the clan of lions, but we usually speak of all nobles as lion men. Erot is a noble because Nemone has created him one, but he is not a lion man, as he was not born a noble."

Now the blaring of the trumpets and the beating of the drums burst with increased volume upon their ears, and Tarzan saw that the musicians were marching down the ramp into the arena at the far end of the great oval.

 Behind the music marched a company of warriors, and from each spearhead fluttered a coloured pennon. It was a stirring and colourful picture but nothing to what followed.

A few yards to the rear of the warriors came a chariot of gold drawn by four maned lions, where, half-reclining upon a couch draped with furs and gaily coloured cloths, rode Nemone, the queen. Sixteen black slaves held the lions in leash, and at either side of the chariot marched six nobles resplendent in gold and ivory, while a huge black, marching behind, held a great red parasol over the queen, squatting upon little seats above the rear wheels of the chariot were two small blackamyors wffi thered fans above her.

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At sight of the chariot and its royal occupant the people in the stands arose and then kneeled down in salute to their ruler, while wave after wave of applause rolled round the amphitheatre as the pageant slowly circled the arena.

Behind Nemone's chariot marched another company of warriors. These were followed by a number of gorgeously decorated wooden chariots, each drawn by two lions and driven by a noble, and following these marched a company of nobles on foot, while a third company of warriors brought up the rear.

When the column had circled the arena, Nemone quit her chariot and ascended to her loge above the ramp amid the continued cheering of the populace, the chariots driven by the nobles lined up in the centre of the arena, the royal guard formed across the entrance to the stadium, and the nobles who had no part in the games went to their private loges.

There followed then in quick succession contests in dagger throwing and in the throwing of spears, feats of strength and skill, and foot races.

When the minor sports were completed the chariot races began. Two drivers raced in each event, the distance being always the same, one lap of the arena, for lions cannot maintain high speed for great distances. After each race the winner received a pennon from the queen, while the loser drove up the ramp and out of the stadium amid the hoots of the spectators. Then two more raced, and when the last pair had finished the winners paired off for new events. Thus, by elimination, the contestants were eventually reduced to two, winners in each event in which they had contested. This, then, was the premiere racing event of the day.

The winner of this final race was acclaimed champion of the day and was presented with a golden helmet by Nemone herself, and the crowd gave him a mighty ovation as he drove proudly around the arena and disappeared up the ramp beneath the arch of the queen, his golden helmet shining bravely in the sun.

"Now," said Phobeg in a loud voice, "the people are going to see something worth while. It is what they have been waiting for, and they will not be disappointed. If you have a god, fellow, pray to him, for you are about to die."

"Are you not going to permit me to run around the arena first while you chase me?" demanded Tarzan.

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