Produced by David Widger
THE LADY OF THE BARGE
AND OTHER STORIES
By W. W. Jacobs
A TIGER’S SKIN
The travelling sign-painter who was repainting the sign of the “Cauliflower” was enjoying a well-earned respite from his labours. On the old table under the shade of the elms mammoth sandwiches and a large slice of cheese waited in an untied handkerchief until such time as his thirst should be satisfied. At the other side of the table the oldest man in Claybury, drawing gently at a long clay pipe, turned a dim and regretful eye up at the old signboard.
“I’ve drunk my beer under it for pretty near seventy years,” he said, with a sigh. “It’s a pity it couldn’t ha’ lasted my time.”
The painter, slowly pushing a wedge of sandwich into his mouth, regarded him indulgently.
“It’s all through two young gentlemen as was passing through ‘ere a month or two ago,” continued the old man; “they told Smith, the landlord, they’d been looking all over the place for the ‘Cauliflower,’ and when Smith showed ’em the sign they said they thought it was the ‘George the Fourth,’ and a very good likeness, too.”
The painter laughed and took another look at the old sign; then, with the nervousness of the true artist, he took a look at his own. One or two shadows—
He flung his legs over the bench and took up his brushes. In ten minutes the most fervent loyalist would have looked in vain for any resemblance, and with a sigh at the pitfalls which beset the artist he returned to his interrupted meal and hailed the house for more beer.
“There’s nobody could mistake your sign for anything but a cauliflower,” said the old man; “it looks good enough to eat.”
The painter smiled and pushed his mug across the table. He was a tender- hearted man, and once—when painting the sign of the “Sir Wilfrid Lawson”—knew himself what it was to lack beer. He began to discourse on art, and spoke somewhat disparagingly of the cauliflower as a subject. With a shake of his head he spoke of the possibilities of a spotted cow or a blue lion.
“Talking of lions,” said the ancient, musingly, “I s’pose as you never ‘eard tell of the Claybury tiger? It was afore your time in these parts, I expect.”
The painter admitted his ignorance, and, finding that the allusion had no reference to an inn, pulled out his pipe and prepared to listen.
“It’s a while ago now,” said the old man, slowly, “and the circus the tiger belonged to was going through Claybury to get to Wickham, when, just as they was passing Gill’s farm, a steam-ingine they ‘ad to draw some o’ the vans broke down, and they ‘ad to stop while the blacksmith mended it. That being so, they put up a big tent and ‘ad the circus ‘ere.
“I was one o’ them as went, and I must say it was worth the money, though Henry Walker was disappointed at the man who put ‘is ‘ead in the lion’s mouth. He said that the man frightened the lion first, before ‘e did it.
“It was a great night for Claybury, and for about a week nothing else was talked of. All the children was playing at being lions and tigers and such-like, and young Roberts pretty near broke ‘is back trying to see if he could ride horseback standing up.
“It was about two weeks after the circus ‘ad gone when a strange thing ‘appened: the big tiger broke loose. Bill Chambers brought the news first, ‘aving read it in the newspaper while ‘e was ‘aving his tea. He brought out the paper and showed us, and soon after we ‘eard all sorts o’ tales of its doings.
“At first we thought the tiger was a long way off, and we was rather amused at it. Frederick Scott laughed ‘imself silly a’most up ‘ere one night thinking ‘ow surprised a man would be if ‘e come ‘ome one night and found the tiger sitting in his armchair eating the baby. It didn’t seem much of a laughing matter to me, and I said so; none of us liked it, and even Sam Jones, as ‘ad got twins for the second time, said ‘Shame!’ But Frederick Scott was a man as would laugh at anything.
“When we ‘eard that the tiger ‘ad been seen within three miles of Claybury things began to look serious, and Peter Gubbins said that something ought to be done, but before we could think of anything to do something ‘appened.
“We was sitting up ‘ere one evening ‘aving a mug o’ beer and a pipe—same as I might be now if I’d got any baccy left—and talking about it, when we ‘eard a shout and saw a ragged-looking tramp running toward us as ‘ard as he could run. Every now and then he’d look over ‘is shoulder and give a shout, and then run ‘arder than afore.
“‘It’s the tiger!’ ses Bill Chambers, and afore you could wink a’most he was inside the house, ‘aving first upset Smith and a pot o’ beer in the doorway.
“Before he could get up, Smith ‘ad to wait till we was all in. His langwidge was awful for a man as ‘ad a license to lose, and everybody shouting ‘Tiger!’ as they trod on ‘im didn’t ease ‘is mind. He was inside a’most as soon as the last man, though, and in a flash he ‘ad the door bolted just as the tramp flung ‘imself agin it, all out of breath and sobbing ‘is hardest to be let in.
“‘Open the door,’ he ses, banging on it.
“‘Go away,’ ses Smith.
“‘It’s the tiger,’ screams the tramp; ‘open the door.’
“‘You go away,’ ses Smith, ‘you’re attracting it to my place; run up the road and draw it off.'”
“Just at that moment John Biggs, the blacksmith, come in from the taproom, and as soon as he ‘eard wot was the matter ‘e took down Smith’s gun from behind the bar and said he was going out to look after the wimmen and children.
“‘Open the door,’ he ses.