The girl sighed, softly. Madame Butterfly's crimson silk shibari rope brought out the delicious pallour of her snow-white flesh, even as it cut into her most sensitive parts. She hung, four feet above the Persian rug, and trembled as she swayed, like a ripe and voluptuous fruit. Gagged and blindfolded, with her raven tresses covering her face, she suffered most excellently, obediently. Her submission was as delicate as her copulation was dexterous and imaginative. Grace, the farmer's daughter, was as talented as any Shanghai whore.
I settled in my chair and lit a Turkish cigarette. Through the haze of perfumed smoke, I enjoyed the spectacle of the rising and the falling of her tightly-bound breasts as she fought for breath. Finishing the cigarette, I got up, and was reaching for the riding crop when there came a furious knocking on the study door. It was Sputum, my butler, with the telegram that began it all.
"Erskin, old chap. Siberian tiger. Wildcat convention. Amethyst Ryder let cat out of bag. Charpa93 prefers cartoon version. Over to you. Just saying. Regards, Skoob."
I looked at Sputum. He looked back at me. I looked at him again. He looked back at me. We both looked at each other. Then we looked away. I looked up at the oak-beamed ceiling. Sputum gazed at my collection of 12th century Ming spittoons, covetously. I looked at his mud-flecked gaiters. He stared at my "Garibaldi" smoking jacket. Somewhere, beyond the open mullions, a curlew's mournful skirl rolled across the far moor. I looked at Sputum. He looked at me. I remembered Rosie. "Shit! Rosie!" I thought. "Bugger, Rosie!" I cried. "I couldn't, Sir, she's my god-daughter", said Sputum.
An hour later, Rosie had been cut down, and, once I had massaged the circulation back into her tremulous body, she was back in the scullery, doing things with a jugged hare and a brace of rooks, and moulding savoury blancmanges. Practical creatures, these country women.
Sputum had brought out the phaeton, but I wanted the Morgan. The idiot. There was no time to waste. I sent him off to the village with a telegram of reply to Skoob and a flea in his ear (both ears actually: we had run out of "Cribble's Flea-Powder for Butlers"):
"Dear Skoob. Bloody tiger? What I do with tiger at Polkinghorne Manor? This not bloody Siberia. What US woman think of. Not like this in India. US women too wild. Need discipline. Discipline answer. Silk rope most efficacious. Work wonders with servants. EQ."
As I drove across Gallows Heath, where the old gibbet still stood, and passed Branding Iron Wood, and skirted Burning Witch Common, I thought, "how lovely the English countryside is in early summer, and how it sings of the quaint history of sequestered hamlets and secluded farmsteads." I stopped, briefly, near Hump Farm, and watched the Dreadfull brothers as they slaughtered a milkmaid. "We use ever'thin' off a milkmaid, exceptin' 'er smile", old Ma Dreadfull once told me, as she scraped the skin off old Scarrock the ex-postman (they got all the knackered postmen, at Hump Farm).
I had to drive slowly through Wild Goose Chase. Pantomime animals everywhere. The pantomime horse simply wouldn't move out of the way. Every time I blew my horn, it stamped its foot ten times. It was only when Mrs Blether from the shop arrived and played "All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor" on her mandolin that it would budge. I was able to edge past when it began to dance a hornpipe.
Finally descending the hill into Hunkering Downe, I parked outside the railway station and thought, "What am I doing here? Why have I come to this place?" I turned off the engine, lit a Turkish cigarette, took my (extremely) slim volume of "Laugh Along With Wordsworth" out of the glove compartment, put back all the gloves that had fallen out, and looked for inspiration to the skies. Seeing only one sky, I looked at the station entrance. Roy Hobbledehoy, the Station Master's Boy, was hobbling towards me, with a crate on his Station Master's Boy's Barrow. On the side of the crate was written "Danger - Siberian Tiger. Do Not Bend".
I leapt out of the Morgan, and confronted Roy. "Ah, Mr Quint, Sir. I be a-lookin' for 'e. This 'ere porcel 'pon my barrow, it be addressed to 'e, Sir, it be." Grimacing, showing his yellow stumps of teeth and reptilian tongue, he handed me a note.
I read the note. What? You want to know what it said? Give me a chance to think of something! I read the note. It said:
"EQ. To you, a tyger, burning bright. In the forests of the night. Is it a tyger? Do you doubt? Open the crate and you'll find out. Enjoy running with the tygers! Amethyst Ryder "
I'd met some of these American women when 'Doc' Nicholas and I stopped off at the Californian Gold Rush, in the middle of our expedition charting the course of the Oakumpickee River. I remembered that girl who arrived all done up in brown paper and string on Doc's birthday. We thought it was a joke, before we realised that was how they dressed over there. But this Amethyst Ryder, she had something of the Dorothy Parker about her. The letters 'a', 'e', 't', 'h', 'y', 'r', 'd', and 'r' to be precise. There was something subtle, satirical, symbolic, about all this.
There was no time to waste. Roy Hobbledehoy roped the crate to the Morgan and I was off before anyone could say "Jack Robinson". I don't know what I'd have done if someone had said "Jack Robinson". Probably just stayed there. But never mind all that. Within the hour, my tyres were crunching the gravel in front of Salamander Hall, the home, or should I say 'lair' (please say home - Ed.), of my esteemed friend and colleague, Dr Victor 'Doc' Nicholas. As I crunched the gravel in front of the house, I thought "Surely it's time Victor built a bridge over this river". But never mind all that now. There was no time to waste.
Victor was in the atrium, poring - as is his wont - over his collection of salamanders. He loved to pore over the salamanders. Olive oil, honey, paraffin, it was all the same to Victor. He was loth to leave the sanctuary of the atrium, and the comforting though slightly sinister presence of the salamanders, but leave them he did, and soon we were standing by the Morgan, up to our waists in the swollen river. "Don't you think this would be easier if we got up onto the river bank?" Victor suggested. And so it was that we stood, examining the mysterious crate, in the gathering gloom of the gloaming, by the copiously-gravelled river.
The gloaming gathered and deepened about us. Bats darted around our heads, and flew back into Victor's decaying belfry. A crescent of moon, achingly gorgeous, like a chink of heaven seen through the velvet curtain of the night, was entirely in my imagination; it was cloudy. At last, Victor spoke.
"So what are you going to do with this crate, Erskin?"
I shrugged. "That's what I hoped you could help with. After all, I know you helped draw up the Wildcat Convention of 1865 when you were running the Zoo in Indianapolis. I thought you might know what the convention is with possible tigers in crates."
Victor shook his head. "Hell, Erskin. It's a long shot. It was the salamanders I was really into. I only helped out with the Wildcat Convention so they'd let me spend time with the salamanders. Salamanders are incredible. Did I ever tell you about how they dance. They form into pairs and..."
"For God's sake, Victor, there's no time for that now. I've got this bloody crate to deal with, and there's not much space left in this story. What on earth are we going to do?"
A cold breeze shivered the great rhododendron bush to the side of the house. The crate was silent as the grave (I don't know which grave - I suppose it's a hypothetical or metaphorical grave). Somewhere, deep within the bowels of Salamander Hall, a great clock ticked, though we couldn't hear it out there, with the river rushing past and all that cold breeze, and the bats and everything. At last, Victor spoke, his voice scarcely louder than the whispering trees above our heads.
"Hell, Erskin, I know what we can do. We can ask the pantomime horses!"
"What on earth...?"
"I'm serious. I've got a couple of the pantomime horses from Wild Goose Chase staying for a few days. They're very intelligent. They can count, and all."
"Look, Victor, this is no time for your droll one-liners. This..."
"Really. Let's try it. What do we have to lose?"
Thus it was that we stood in the paddock behind Salamander Hall, in the moonless dusk, beneath the great sycamores, two men and two pantomime horses. I suppose that makes six men and two pantomime horse costumes, if we're being honest, but never mind all that. Time is short. Victor, after a great deal of pains, managed to establish that their preferred code of communication was as follows:
both horses nod their heads - 'yes'
both shake their heads - 'no'
one nods and the other shakes - 'haven't a bleedin clue pal'
The 16th century clock of St Obelisk's resounded from across Gallows Heath, as I asked the terrible question: "Shall we open the crate marked 'Danger - Siberian Tiger. Do Not Bend'?"
And the 16th century clock of St Obelisks continued to resound, as Victor Nicholas said "It's 13 o' clock; time they mended that clock."
But I did not mind his redundant drollery this time. For I had other fish to fry. The horses had failed to decide. They did not know. They had not responded in unison.
"What a pity they weren't in unison; unison is a very good material for a pantomime horse", said Victor. I was furious, I was full of wrath, at the failure of Victor's horses of instruction. From my wrath, there burst forth wisdom. "Sod it, let's open the crate!" I cried.
So the moment had arrived. It went as soon as it had arrived. But another one came, so it was all right. I had a crowbar. I began to attack the crate. Our hearts were in our chests as I began to lever, to prise, the rusted padlock that held the crate shut. We hardly dared to breathe. An owl hooted, a distant train tooted, somewhere a flute fluted.
And then I had it open. Instinctively, we flung ourselves back, cowering before what we might have set free.
Peering through my fingers, finally daring to look up, I saw:
The crate was empty, except for a piece of paper that fluttered like a nocturnal butterfly among the timbered ribs of the crate. It was a note.
"WHERE IS YOUR TYGER? ONLY I KNOW THE TRUTH. IF YOU DARE TO SEEK ME, FOLLOW THE MAP ON THE REVERSE OF THIS NOTE."
There was indeed a map on the other side. Such a map as only true adventurers might venture to follow.
But not Victor and I. We looked at each other. I knew that he was thinking about the salamanders in the atrium. He knew I was thinking about Rosie, and some silken ropes. "I know just the person to follow this up", I said, as we shook hands and parted.
"I'll send them a telegram this very night", I shouted, starting up the Morgan.
But Victor was already on his way to the atrium.