The Tiger’s Skin
IT is difficult to know what to say of a man who, having spent many years in India, comes back with a magnificent tiger-skin, places it in full view of the world in the capacity of a drawing-room hearthrug, and then refuses to explain how he came by it. Yet such was the case with my Uncle Dick.
We children used to get into the most feverish state of curiosity over it. We knew that there must be a story connected with the skin. There it was in the drawing-room, larger than life. It was absurd to suppose that its original owner gave it to Uncle Dick as a present. Obviously he must have taken it by force. Then why did he not tell us about it? We used to try and pump him from time to time. Dorothy, being popularly supposed to be able to do what she liked with Uncle Dick, used to be elected to the post of spokeswoman. She would sit on a stool by his chair and gaze earnestly into his face. If he was not asleep—he generally was—he would pat her on the head. Then she would begin.
“Yes, my dear?”
“What a lovely skin that is!”
“Eh? Oh, ah! The tiger-skin. Yes; beautiful, beautiful.”
“How brave you must have been to have got it, Uncle Dick. Did you kill it yourself?”
Here Uncle Dick would nod his head and emit a short, careless laugh, expressive of modesty; while we, sitting round in a breathless semi-circle, made energetic signals to Dorothy to go on.
“Yes, my dear?”
“How did you kill that tiger?”
And then, when we were in momentary expectation of a thrilling tale, all about elephants and howdahs and native beaters and smooth-bores, Uncle Dick would turn pale and beg us, with a shudder, to say no more on the subject. It was maddening.
The years rolled on. Kings ascended the throne, and came down again. Dorothy did her hair up. John grew a moustache. And still the mystery of the skin remained a mystery. Occasionally we would try and take my Uncle by surprise, but it was no use. The skin was to us as the head of King Charles was to Mr Dick. We could not keep it out of the conversation. It cropped up suddenly in discussions on old age pensions and Australian cricket, and shot unexpectedly into dialogues on the Education Bill. But tombs were not in it for secretiveness—literally not in it with Uncle Dick. What I knew about the origin of that skin at thirty I had known at ten. I remember, on one occasion, John came to me, after one of these interviews, in an almost hysterical state, and suggested that we should employ private detectives to scour India in search of information, and offer huge rewards for it when discovered. It was painful.
At last, years after I had abandoned hope, we learnt all. Uncle Dick died, and left me, “as I appeared to be interested in it”, to quote the words of his will, the skin. I placed it in the smoking-room. One evening an elderly colonel came to dine with me. I had asked John to meet him, and when John found that the colonel had been in India, and had known Uncle Dick there, he cancelled all other engagements. A sanguine man, John.
The colonel arrived. We led him into the smoking-room.
“Fine skin, that, colonel”, said John, anxiously.
“Very fine. Why, bless my soul, that must be—”
“The skin that belonged to my Uncle Dick? It is, it is. Colonel, for heaven’s sake solve this hideous mystery; it is spoiling our lives. How did Uncle Dick kill that tiger?”
And then the truth came out.
In the hotel at Uncle Dick’s station there had been a billiard-room. Into this billiard-room a tiger had strayed. The marker, a shrewd tactician, had shut the door on him, and had hurried off to tell someone. The first person he met happened to be Uncle Dick.
“You shut the door?” said Uncle Dick.
“How big is the tiger?”
“And how small is the window? ”
“Smaller than the tiger?”
“Then”, said Uncle Dick, with calm courage, “bring me a piece of poisoned meat.”