THE TIGERCategory: Land + People
“I wish you would,” said the tiny voice in the telephone. “Look here, could you come at once? I’ll send the car up for you. It’ll be much quicker.” And then he rang off, like the rich and masterful fellow he is. Within twenty minutes a long crimson car was at my door. I descended and found the chauffeur waiting there, very dapper in his blue uniform. He saluted when I approached, then held open the door of the saloon for me. For about half a minute I felt rather rich and masterful myself. That is the advantage of being a member of the middle classes; you know all kinds of people, plutocrats to paupers, and can contrive to enjoy all kinds of sensations, from the opulences of the rich to the stinging ironies of the poor.
When I had settled into’ a corner, the chauffeur handed me a rug, heavy with fur, and I wrapped this luxurious thing round my legs. I was now at ease in what was virtually a little crimson sitting-room. True, it was cold and smelled of leather, but nevertheless it was a room. The chauffeur had now closed the door on me and seated himself in front. My room began to move down the street. I leaned back and closed my eyes, confident that this little room would be guided half-way across London until at last it reached its owner. But no sooner had I cosily come to terms with this confidence than I began to question it. What right had I to assume so easily that I should reach my destination? Every day the papers are filled with the names of people who imagined they would reach their destinations and did not. “We’ll just slip round in the car to Uncle Harry’s,” they told one .another. But there was no Uncle Harry for them — only an agonizing twist or two, a few screams, then darkness, an Arctic night, death.
I opened my eyes again and saw the runaway length of Fitzjohn’s Avenue, which looked as if it intended to shoot us like a bullet into the tangle of traffic down there at Swiss Cottage. Its villas whizzed backward and upward, past the window of my little room. An elderly man stood in front of us, hesitating. Perhaps his pockets were full of sweets for his grandchildren, and he was thinking about them. The car did not scream, jeer or hoot at him, as some cars do: it quietly rapped out “Murder, murder!” He drew back just in time, and we slipped past him. It was then that I began to consider the chauffeur. All that I could see of him directly was a blue back and a uniform cap, a little to one side. I could catch glimpses, however, of his reflected face in the glass in front. I could see his pale eyes, which had a curious little slant to them. Indeed, though his colouring was European enough, there was something Mongolian about his features. A broad flat face and a slant” to the eye. I did not know his name or anything about him, and here I was, sitting behind him, dependent on every movement of his feet and turn of his wrist. He seemed steady enough, but suppose some little clot of blood was already out of its place, somewhere under that cap, and even now was about to transform all his ordered world of chauffeurdom into a dark screaming lunacy — what then? What became of me and my little room?
Swiss Cottage went past, and Maida Vale followed, and then we shot into gloomy little streets without a name. Lorries came thundering out of side-turnings, taxis waltzed impudently in front of us, pedestrians ran forward or withered desperately ill the middle of the road, other cars slid to right and left — and all on a greasy surface, the very treachery of winter. A sudden faint gleam showed that we had arrived in the neighbourhood of that canal which wanders about a little to the north of Paddington. Is it the Grand Junction Canal or the Regent’s Canal? I do not know, and the canal itself does not look as if anyone else does either. I never saw a fouler length of water. It belongs not to commerce but to the London of a child’s nightmare. If you read Oliver Twist a few years before you ougth to, things like that canal come creeping into the panorama of the night. It is there to tempt little drudges from the basements of boarding-houses and maddened and half-witted lads to suicide. Somewhere, perhaps not very far away, in the stony wilderness of North-West London, that canal quietly joins the Styx.
A turn brought us alongside of the canal. Only a yard or two of ground and a miserable little walLseparated us from the very water’s edge. I looked through the window on my left, saw the faint leaden gleam, and shivered. Only a few yards away! And the road was slippery and steeply erowned. And we were travelling fast and the car was very big and heavy. Suppose — ! I looked out in front, and saw a lorry coming towards us, keeping far too near the middle of the road and moving at a speed that no lorry should attempt. Moreover, there was a man, a vague figure, coming towards us too, and on our own side of the road. And we shxued on, as if the road and the canal were mere figments of a dream and our very bones were immortal. Suppose — And then it happened.
It all happened quite slowly, that is, there was ample time for every conceivable thought, impulse, sensation, though no time for any possible action on my part. It is only tired novelists, bored with their narrative, who try to make us believe that things like this happen so quickly that we cannot understand them. The mind, too, has its slow-motion apparatus and at the slightest signal from
Hell it begins working. When the huge trench-mortar plomped into the very entrance of the little dug-out I was in at Souchez and then burst the universe and left me for a while in primeval dark and silence, there was time, even during the seconds between its last express-train roar and the explosion itself, to think and feel many things, and perhaps I am still thinking and feeling them. There is time enough, after the tiger has made its spring, to tell yourself that the smell of its hot and bloody breath is indeed curious, unique. No, I shall not pretend that it happened so quickly that I cannot describe the event.
When the lorry was only a few yards away, a small car that had been masked by it shot forward from the back. The driver had evidently not seen us. It was bad enough that he-should come out at all, but the next moment it was worse, for his car skidded when we were almost upon it. We were .travelling at such a speed that there was no time for brakes, and my chauffeur desperately swung round his wheel. We gave a sickening turn. There was a shout. The man who was walking towards us, on our own side of the road, was there, and it looked as if he would be under our wheels in another second. Seeing him, the chauffeur must have swung round the wheel again, to the full limit of the lock. I know that I was flung down on the seat and ferociously bumped. For one scrambling second I saw nothing but plain sky out of the window. Then came the most awful crash. We had hit the wall. The wall had gone. Some muddy ground rushed up at the nearest window and the whole car seemed to go heaving. Splash! — we were in the canal. I had time to clutch a handle, but it was not the handle I wanted, and by the time I had found that, it was too late, the door could not be opened. Everything roared. Something was chiselling away at the top of my head. The water was in. It was all over us. Cold darkness rushed down on me, but inside my head huge rockets wrere bursting. There were shouts from somewhere, but they were far, far away probably in another world.
I will not describe how the car was finally dragged out of the canal and our two dead bodies taken out of it. My imagination did not take me so far. I switched it off after we found Doomsday waiting for us in the canal. By this time we had passed tl lorry and the pedestrian coming towards usf had left the canal behind and were travelling smoothly through that vague district known as Westbourne Park. I do not admit, however, that nothing had happened. I have described as accurately as I can what happened, and the event, you may be sure, has been entered into some queer archives somewhere in the universe. It had not the influential backing of Time and Space, and so I was able to reach my destination. The tiger did not spring, and so I am still alive. But I caught the gleam of an eye, a whiff of hot rank breath. He was there all the time.
(From Going Up by J. В Priestley)