THAT HE SANG AT THE COUNCIL ROCK WHEN HE
DANCED ON SHERE KHAN’S HIDE
The Song of Mowgli—I, Mowgli, am singing. Let the jungle
listen to the things I have done.
Shere Khan said he would kill—would kill! At the gates in the
twilight he would kill Mowgli, the Frog!
He ate and he drank. Drink deep, Shere Khan, for when wilt thou
drink again? Sleep and dream of the kill.
I am alone on the grazing-grounds. Gray Brother, come to me!
Come to me, Lone Wolf, for there is big game afoot!
Bring up the great bull buffaloes, the blue-skinned herd bulls
with the angry eyes. Drive them to and fro as I order.
Sleepest thou still, Shere Khan? Wake, oh, wake! Here come I,
and the bulls are behind.
Rama, the King of the Buffaloes, stamped with his foot. Waters of
the Waingunga, whither went Shere Khan?
He is not Ikki to dig holes, nor Mao, the Peacock, that he should
fly. He is not Mang the Bat, to hang in the branches. Little
bamboos that creak together, tell me where he ran?
Ow! He is there. Ahoo! He is there. Under the feet of Rama
lies the Lame One! Up, Shere Khan!
Up and kill! Here is meat; break the necks of the bulls!
Hsh! He is asleep. We will not wake him, for his strength is
very great. The kites have come down to see it. The black
ants have come up to know it. There is a great assembly in his
Alala! I have no cloth to wrap me. The kites will see that I am
naked. I am ashamed to meet all these people.
Lend me thy coat, Shere Khan. Lend me thy gay striped coat that I
may go to the Council Rock.
By the Bull that bought me I made a promise—a little promise.
Only thy coat is lacking before I keep my word.
With the knife, with the knife that men use, with the knife of the
hunter, I will stoop down for my gift.
Waters of the Waingunga, Shere Khan gives me his coat for the love
that he bears me. Pull, Gray Brother! Pull, Akela! Heavy is
the hide of Shere Khan.
The Man Pack are angry. They throw stones and talk child’s talk.
My mouth is bleeding. Let me run away.
Through the night, through the hot night, run swiftly with me, my
brothers. We will leave the lights of the village and go to
the low moon.
Waters of the Waingunga, the Man-Pack have cast me out. I did
them no harm, but they were afraid of me. Why?
Wolf Pack, ye have cast me out too. The jungle is shut to me and
the village gates are shut. Why?
As Mang flies between the beasts and birds, so fly I between the
village and the jungle. Why?
I dance on the hide of Shere Khan, but my heart is very heavy. My
mouth is cut and wounded with the stones from the village, but
my heart is very light, because I have come back to the jungle.
These two things fight together in me as the snakes fight in the
spring. The water comes out of my eyes; yet I laugh while it
I am two Mowglis, but the hide of Shere Khan is under my feet.
All the jungle knows that I have killed Shere Khan. Look—look
well, O Wolves!
Ahae! My heart is heavy with the things that I do not understand.
The White Seal
Oh! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow,
Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas!
All these things happened several years ago at a place called Novastoshnah, or North East Point, on the Island of St. Paul, away and away in the Bering Sea. Limmershin, the Winter Wren, told me the tale when he was blown on to the rigging of a steamer going to Japan, and I took him down into my cabin and warmed and fed him for a couple of days till he was fit to fly back to St. Paul’s again. Limmershin is a very quaint little bird, but he knows how to tell the truth.
Nobody comes to Novastoshnah except on business, and the only people who have regular business there are the seals. They come in the summer months by hundreds and hundreds of thousands out of the cold gray sea. For Novastoshnah Beach has the finest accommodation for seals of any place in all the world.
Sea Catch knew that, and every spring would swim from whatever place he happened to be in—would swim like a torpedo-boat straight for Novastoshnah and spend a month fighting with his companions for a good place on the rocks, as close to the sea as possible. Sea Catch was fifteen years old, a huge gray fur seal with almost a mane on his shoulders, and long, wicked dog teeth. When he heaved himself up on his front flippers he stood more than four feet clear of the ground, and his weight, if anyone had been bold enough to weigh him, was nearly seven hundred pounds. He was scarred all over with the marks of savage fights, but he was always ready for just one fight more. He would put his head on one side, as though he were afraid to look his enemy in the face; then he would shoot it out like lightning, and when the big teeth were firmly fixed on the other seal’s neck, the other seal might get away if he could, but Sea Catch would not help him.
Yet Sea Catch never chased a beaten seal, for that was against the Rules of the Beach. He only wanted room by the sea for his nursery. But as there were forty or fifty thousand other seals hunting for the same thing each spring, the whistling, bellowing, roaring, and blowing on the beach was something frightful.
From a little hill called Hutchinson’s Hill, you could look over three and a half miles of ground covered with fighting seals; and the surf was dotted all over with the heads of seals hurrying to land and begin their share of the fighting. They fought in the breakers, they fought in the sand, and they fought on the smooth-worn basalt rocks of the nurseries, for they were just as stupid and unaccommodating as men. Their wives never came to the island until late in May or early in June, for they did not care to be torn to pieces; and the young two-, three-, and four-year-old seals who had not begun housekeeping went inland about half a mile through the ranks of the fighters and played about on the sand dunes in droves and legions, and rubbed off every single green thing that grew. They were called the holluschickie—the bachelors—and there were perhaps two or three hundred thousand of them at Novastoshnah alone.
Sea Catch had just finished his forty-fifth fight one spring when Matkah, his soft, sleek, gentle-eyed wife, came up out of the sea, and he caught her by the scruff of the neck and dumped her down on his reservation, saying gruffly: “Late as usual. Where have you been?”
It was not the fashion for Sea Catch to eat anything during the four months he stayed on the beaches, and so his temper was generally bad. Matkah knew better than to answer back. She looked round and cooed: “How thoughtful of you. You’ve taken the old place again.”
“I should think I had,” said Sea Catch. “Look at me!”
He was scratched and bleeding in twenty places; one eye was almost out, and his sides were torn to ribbons.
“Oh, you men, you men!” Matkah said, fanning herself with her hind flipper. “Why can’t you be sensible and settle your places quietly? You look as though you had been fighting with the Killer Whale.”
“I haven’t been doing anything but fight since the middle of May. The beach is disgracefully crowded this season. I’ve met at least a hundred seals from Lukannon Beach, house hunting. Why can’t people stay where they belong?”
“I’ve often thought we should be much happier if we hauled out at Otter Island instead of this crowded place,” said Matkah.
“Bah! Only the holluschickie go to Otter Island. If we went there they would say we were afraid. We must preserve appearances, my dear.”
Sea Catch sunk his head proudly between his fat shoulders and pretended to go to sleep for a few minutes, but all the time he was keeping a sharp lookout for a fight. Now that all the seals and their wives were on the land, you could hear their clamor miles out to sea above the loudest gales. At the lowest counting there were over a million seals on the beach—old seals, mother seals, tiny babies, and holluschickie, fighting, scuffling, bleating, crawling, and playing together—going down to the sea and coming up from it in gangs and regiments, lying over every foot of ground as far as the eye could reach, and skirmishing about in brigades through the fog. It is nearly always foggy at Novastoshnah, except when the sun comes out and makes everything look all pearly and rainbow-colored for a little while.
Kotick, Matkah’s baby, was born in the middle of that confusion, and he was all head and shoulders, with pale, watery blue eyes, as tiny seals must be, but there was something about his coat that made his mother look at him very closely.
“Sea Catch,” she said, at last, “our baby’s going to be white!”
“Empty clam-shells and dry seaweed!” snorted Sea Catch. “There never has been such a thing in the world as a white seal.”
“I can’t help that,” said Matkah; “there’s going to be now.” And she sang the low, crooning seal song that all the mother seals sing to their babies:
You mustn’t swim till you’re six weeks old,
Or your head will be sunk by your heels;
And summer gales and Killer Whales
Are bad for baby seals.
Are bad for baby seals, dear rat,
As bad as bad can be;
But splash and grow strong,
And you can’t be wrong.
Child of the Open Sea!
Of course the little fellow did not understand the words at first. He paddled and scrambled about by his mother’s side, and learned to scuffle out of the way when his father was fighting with another seal, and the two rolled and roared up and down the slippery rocks. Matkah used to go to sea to get things to eat, and the baby was fed only once in two days, but then he ate all he could and throve upon it.
The first thing he did was to crawl inland, and there he met tens of thousands of babies of his own age, and they played together like puppies, went to sleep on the clean sand, and played again. The old people in the nurseries took no notice of them, and the holluschickie kept to their own grounds, and the babies had a beautiful playtime.
When Matkah came back from her deep-sea fishing she would go straight to their playground and call as a sheep calls for a lamb, and wait until she heard Kotick bleat. Then she would take the straightest of straight lines in his direction, striking out with her fore flippers and knocking the youngsters head over heels right and left. There were always a few hundred mothers hunting for their children through the playgrounds, and the babies were kept lively. But, as Matkah told Kotick, “So long as you don’t lie in muddy water and get mange, or rub the hard sand into a cut or scratch, and so long as you never go swimming when there is a heavy sea, nothing will hurt you here.”
Little seals can no more swim than little children, but they are unhappy till they learn. The first time that Kotick went down to the sea a wave carried him out beyond his depth, and his big head sank and his little hind flippers flew up exactly as his mother had told him in the song, and if the next wave had not thrown him back again he would have drowned.
After that, he learned to lie in a beach pool and let the wash of the waves just cover him and lift him up while he paddled, but he always kept his eye open for big waves that might hurt. He was two weeks learning to use his flippers; and all that while he floundered in and out of the water, and coughed and grunted and crawled up the beach and took catnaps on the sand, and went back again, until at last he found that he truly belonged to the water.
Then you can imagine the times that he had with his companions, ducking under the rollers; or coming in on top of a comber and landing with a swash and a splutter as the big wave went whirling far up the beach; or standing up on his tail and scratching his head as the old people did; or playing “I’m the King of the Castle” on slippery, weedy rocks that just stuck out of the wash. Now and then he would see a thin fin, like a big shark’s fin, drifting along close to shore, and he knew that that was the Killer Whale, the Grampus, who eats young seals when he can get them; and Kotick would head for the beach like an arrow, and the fin would jig off slowly, as if it were looking for nothing at all.
Late in October the seals began to leave St. Paul’s for the deep sea, by families and tribes, and there was no more fighting over the nurseries, and the holluschickie played anywhere they liked. “Next year,” said Matkah to Kotick, “you will be a holluschickie; but this year you must learn how to catch fish.”
They set out together across the Pacific, and Matkah showed Kotick how to sleep on his back with his flippers tucked down by his side and his little nose just out of the water. No cradle is so comfortable as the long, rocking swell of the Pacific. When Kotick felt his skin tingle all over, Matkah told him he was learning the “feel of the water,” and that tingly, prickly feelings meant bad weather coming, and he must swim hard and get away.
“In a little time,” she said, “you’ll know where to swim to, but just now we’ll follow Sea Pig, the Porpoise, for he is very wise.” A school of porpoises were ducking and tearing through the water, and little Kotick followed them as fast as he could. “How do you know where to go to?” he panted. The leader of the school rolled his white eye and ducked under. “My tail tingles, youngster,” he said. “That means there’s a gale behind me. Come along! When you’re south of the Sticky Water [he meant the Equator] and your tail tingles, that means there’s a gale in front of you and you must head north. Come along! The water feels bad here.”
This was one of very many things that Kotick learned, and he was always learning. Matkah taught him to follow the cod and the halibut along the under-sea banks and wrench the rockling out of his hole among the weeds; how to skirt the wrecks lying a hundred fathoms below water and dart like a rifle bullet in at one porthole and out at another as the fishes ran; how to dance on the top of the waves when the lightning was racing all over the sky, and wave his flipper politely to the stumpy-tailed Albatross and the Man-of-war Hawk as they went down the wind; how to jump three or four feet clear of the water like a dolphin, flippers close to the side and tail curved; to leave the flying fish alone because they are all bony; to take the shoulder-piece out of a cod at full speed ten fathoms deep, and never to stop and look at a boat or a ship, but particularly a row-boat. At the end of six months what Kotick did not know about deep-sea fishing was not worth the knowing. And all that time he never set flipper on dry ground.
One day, however, as he was lying half asleep in the warm water somewhere off the Island of Juan Fernandez, he felt faint and lazy all over, just as human people do when the spring is in their legs, and he remembered the good firm beaches of Novastoshnah seven thousand miles away, the games his companions played, the smell of the seaweed, the seal roar, and the fighting. That very minute he turned north, swimming steadily, and as he went on he met scores of his mates, all bound for the same place, and they said: “Greeting, Kotick! This year we are all holluschickie, and we can dance the Fire-dance in the breakers off Lukannon and play on the new grass. But where did you get that coat?”
Kotick’s fur was almost pure white now, and though he felt very proud of it, he only said, “Swim quickly! My bones are aching for the land.” And so they all came to the beaches where they had been born, and heard the old seals, their fathers, fighting in the rolling mist.
That night Kotick danced the Fire-dance with the yearling seals. The sea is full of fire on summer nights all the way down from Novastoshnah to Lukannon, and each seal leaves a wake like burning oil behind him and a flaming flash when he jumps, and the waves break in great phosphorescent streaks and swirls. Then they went inland to the holluschickie grounds and rolled up and down in the new wild wheat and told stories of what they had done while they had been at sea. They talked about the Pacific as boys would talk about a wood that they had been nutting in, and if anyone had understood them he could have gone away and made such a chart of that ocean as never was. The three- and four-year-old holluschickie romped down from Hutchinson’s Hill crying: “Out of the way, youngsters! The sea is deep and you don’t know all that’s in it yet. Wait till you’ve rounded the Horn. Hi, you yearling, where did you get that white coat?”
“I didn’t get it,” said Kotick. “It grew.” And just as he was going to roll the speaker over, a couple of black-haired men with flat red faces came from behind a sand dune, and Kotick, who had never seen a man before, coughed and lowered his head. The holluschickie just bundled off a few yards and sat staring stupidly. The men were no less than Kerick Booterin, the chief of the seal-hunters on the island, and Patalamon, his son. They came from the little village not half a mile from the sea nurseries, and they were deciding what seals they would drive up to the killing pens—for the seals were driven just like sheep—to be turned into seal-skin jackets later on.
“Ho!” said Patalamon. “Look! There’s a white seal!”
Kerick Booterin turned nearly white under his oil and smoke, for he was an Aleut, and Aleuts are not clean people. Then he began to mutter a prayer. “Don’t touch him, Patalamon. There has never been a white seal since—since I was born. Perhaps it is old Zaharrof’s ghost. He was lost last year in the big gale.”
“I’m not going near him,” said Patalamon. “He’s unlucky. Do you really think he is old Zaharrof come back? I owe him for some gulls’ eggs.”
“Don’t look at him,” said Kerick. “Head off that drove of four-year-olds. The men ought to skin two hundred to-day, but it’s the beginning of the season and they are new to the work. A hundred will do. Quick!”
Patalamon rattled a pair of seal’s shoulder bones in front of a herd of holluschickie and they stopped dead, puffing and blowing. Then he stepped near and the seals began to move, and Kerick headed them inland, and they never tried to get back to their companions. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of seals watched them being driven, but they went on playing just the same. Kotick was the only one who asked questions, and none of his companions could tell him anything, except that the men always drove seals in that way for six weeks or two months of every year.
“I am going to follow,” he said, and his eyes nearly popped out of his head as he shuffled along in the wake of the herd.
“The white seal is coming after us,” cried Patalamon. “That’s the first time a seal has ever come to the killing-grounds alone.”
“Hsh! Don’t look behind you,” said Kerick. “It is Zaharrof’s ghost! I must speak to the priest about this.”
The distance to the killing-grounds was only half a mile, but it took an hour to cover, because if the seals went too fast Kerick knew that they would get heated and then their fur would come off in patches when they were skinned. So they went on very slowly, past Sea Lion’s Neck, past Webster House, till they came to the Salt House just beyond the sight of the seals on the beach. Kotick followed, panting and wondering. He thought that he was at the world’s end, but the roar of the seal nurseries behind him sounded as loud as the roar of a train in a tunnel. Then Kerick sat down on the moss and pulled out a heavy pewter watch and let the drove cool off for thirty minutes, and Kotick could hear the fog-dew dripping off the brim of his cap. Then ten or twelve men, each with an iron-bound club three or four feet long, came up, and Kerick pointed out one or two of the drove that were bitten by their companions or too hot, and the men kicked those aside with their heavy boots made of the skin of a walrus’s throat, and then Kerick said, “Let go!” and then the men clubbed the seals on the head as fast as they could.
Ten minutes later little Kotick did not recognize his friends any more, for their skins were ripped off from the nose to the hind flippers, whipped off and thrown down on the ground in a pile. That was enough for Kotick. He turned and galloped (a seal can gallop very swiftly for a short time) back to the sea; his little new mustache bristling with horror. At Sea Lion’s Neck, where the great sea lions sit on the edge of the surf, he flung himself flipper-overhead into the cool water and rocked there, gasping miserably. “What’s here?” said a sea lion gruffly, for as a rule the sea lions keep themselves to themselves.
“Scoochnie! Ochen scoochnie!” (“I’m lonesome, very lonesome!”) said Kotick. “They’re killing all the holluschickie on all the beaches!”
The Sea Lion turned his head inshore. “Nonsense!” he said. “Your friends are making as much noise as ever. You must have seen old Kerick polishing off a drove. He’s done that for thirty years.”
“It’s horrible,” said Kotick, backing water as a wave went over him, and steadying himself with a screw stroke of his flippers that brought him all standing within three inches of a jagged edge of rock.
“Well done for a yearling!” said the Sea Lion, who could appreciate good swimming. “I suppose it is rather awful from your way of looking at it, but if you seals will come here year after year, of course the men get to know of it, and unless you can find an island where no men ever come you will always be driven.”
“Isn’t there any such island?” began Kotick.
“I’ve followed the poltoos [the halibut] for twenty years, and I can’t say I’ve found it yet. But look here—you seem to have a fondness for talking to your betters—suppose you go to Walrus Islet and talk to Sea Vitch. He may know something. Don’t flounce off like that. It’s a six-mile swim, and if I were you I should haul out and take a nap first, little one.”
Kotick thought that that was good advice, so he swam round to his own beach, hauled out, and slept for half an hour, twitching all over, as seals will. Then he headed straight for Walrus Islet, a little low sheet of rocky island almost due northeast from Novastoshnah, all ledges and rock and gulls’ nests, where the walrus herded by themselves.
He landed close to old Sea Vitch—the big, ugly, bloated, pimpled, fat-necked, long-tusked walrus of the North Pacific, who has no manners except when he is asleep—as he was then, with his hind flippers half in and half out of the surf.
“Wake up!” barked Kotick, for the gulls were making a great noise.
“Hah! Ho! Hmph! What’s that?” said Sea Vitch, and he struck the next walrus a blow with his tusks and waked him up, and the next struck the next, and so on till they were all awake and staring in every direction but the right one.
“Hi! It’s me,” said Kotick, bobbing in the surf and looking like a little white slug.
“Well! May I be—skinned!” said Sea Vitch, and they all looked at Kotick as you can fancy a club full of drowsy old gentlemen would look at a little boy. Kotick did not care to hear any more about skinning just then; he had seen enough of it. So he called out: “Isn’t there any place for seals to go where men don’t ever come?”
“Go and find out,” said Sea Vitch, shutting his eyes. “Run away. We’re busy here.”
Kotick made his dolphin-jump in the air and shouted as loud as he could: “Clam-eater! Clam-eater!” He knew that Sea Vitch never caught a fish in his life but always rooted for clams and seaweed; though he pretended to be a very terrible person. Naturally the Chickies and the Gooverooskies and the Epatkas—the Burgomaster Gulls and the Kittiwakes and the Puffins, who are always looking for a chance to be rude, took up the cry, and—so Limmershin told me—for nearly five minutes you could not have heard a gun fired on Walrus Islet. All the population was yelling and screaming “Clam-eater! Stareek [old man]!” while Sea Vitch rolled from side to side grunting and coughing.
“Now will you tell?” said Kotick, all out of breath.
“Go and ask Sea Cow,” said Sea Vitch. “If he is living still, he’ll be able to tell you.”
“How shall I know Sea Cow when I meet him?” said Kotick, sheering off.
“He’s the only thing in the sea uglier than Sea Vitch,” screamed a Burgomaster gull, wheeling under Sea Vitch’s nose. “Uglier, and with worse manners! Stareek!”
Kotick swam back to Novastoshnah, leaving the gulls to scream. There he found that no one sympathized with him in his little attempt to discover a quiet place for the seals. They told him that men had always driven the holluschickie—it was part of the day’s work—and that if he did not like to see ugly things he should not have gone to the killing grounds. But none of the other seals had seen the killing, and that made the difference between him and his friends. Besides, Kotick was a white seal.
“What you must do,” said old Sea Catch, after he had heard his son’s adventures, “is to grow up and be a big seal like your father, and have a nursery on the beach, and then they will leave you alone. In another five years you ought to be able to fight for yourself.” Even gentle Matkah, his mother, said: “You will never be able to stop the killing. Go and play in the sea, Kotick.” And Kotick went off and danced the Fire-dance with a very heavy little heart.
That autumn he left the beach as soon as he could, and set off alone because of a notion in his bullet-head. He was going to find Sea Cow, if there was such a person in the sea, and he was going to find a quiet island with good firm beaches for seals to live on, where men could not get at them. So he explored and explored by himself from the North to the South Pacific, swimming as much as three hundred miles in a day and a night. He met with more adventures than can be told, and narrowly escaped being caught by the Basking Shark, and the Spotted Shark, and the Hammerhead, and he met all the untrustworthy ruffians that loaf up and down the seas, and the heavy polite fish, and the scarlet spotted scallops that are moored in one place for hundreds of years, and grow very proud of it; but he never met Sea Cow, and he never found an island that he could fancy.
If the beach was good and hard, with a slope behind it for seals to play on, there was always the smoke of a whaler on the horizon, boiling down blubber, and Kotick knew what that meant. Or else he could see that seals had once visited the island and been killed off, and Kotick knew that where men had come once they would come again.
He picked up with an old stumpy-tailed albatross, who told him that Kerguelen Island was the very place for peace and quiet, and when Kotick went down there he was all but smashed to pieces against some wicked black cliffs in a heavy sleet-storm with lightning and thunder. Yet as he pulled out against the gale he could see that even there had once been a seal nursery. And it was so in all the other islands that he visited.
Limmershin gave a long list of them, for he said that Kotick spent five seasons exploring, with a four months’ rest each year at Novastoshnah, when the holluschickie used to make fun of him and his imaginary islands. He went to the Gallapagos, a horrid dry place on the Equator, where he was nearly baked to death; he went to the Georgia Islands, the Orkneys, Emerald Island, Little Nightingale Island, Gough’s Island, Bouvet’s Island, the Crossets, and even to a little speck of an island south of the Cape of Good Hope. But everywhere the People of the Sea told him the same things. Seals had come to those islands once upon a time, but men had killed them all off. Even when he swam thousands of miles out of the Pacific and got to a place called Cape Corrientes (that was when he was coming back from Gough’s Island), he found a few hundred mangy seals on a rock and they told him that men came there too.
That nearly broke his heart, and he headed round the Horn back to his own beaches; and on his way north he hauled out on an island full of green trees, where he found an old, old seal who was dying, and Kotick caught fish for him and told him all his sorrows. “Now,” said Kotick, “I am going back to Novastoshnah, and if I am driven to the killing-pens with the holluschickie I shall not care.”
The old seal said, “Try once more. I am the last of the Lost Rookery of Masafuera, and in the days when men killed us by the hundred thousand there was a story on the beaches that some day a white seal would come out of the North and lead the seal people to a quiet place. I am old, and I shall never live to see that day, but others will. Try once more.”
And Kotick curled up his mustache (it was a beauty) and said, “I am the only white seal that has ever been born on the beaches, and I am the only seal, black or white, who ever thought of looking for new islands.”
This cheered him immensely; and when he came back to Novastoshnah that summer, Matkah, his mother, begged him to marry and settle down, for he was no longer a holluschick but a full-grown sea-catch, with a curly white mane on his shoulders, as heavy, as big, and as fierce as his father. “Give me another season,” he said. “Remember, Mother, it is always the seventh wave that goes farthest up the beach.”
Curiously enough, there was another seal who thought that she would put off marrying till the next year, and Kotick danced the Fire-dance with her all down Lukannon Beach the night before he set off on his last exploration. This time he went westward, because he had fallen on the trail of a great shoal of halibut, and he needed at least one hundred pounds of fish a day to keep him in good condition. He chased them till he was tired, and then he curled himself up and went to sleep on the hollows of the ground swell that sets in to Copper Island. He knew the coast perfectly well, so about midnight, when he felt himself gently bumped on a weed-bed, he said, “Hm, tide’s running strong tonight,” and turning over under water opened his eyes slowly and stretched. Then he jumped like a cat, for he saw huge things nosing about in the shoal water and browsing on the heavy fringes of the weeds.
“By the Great Combers of Magellan!” he said, beneath his mustache. “Who in the Deep Sea are these people?”
They were like no walrus, sea lion, seal, bear, whale, shark, fish, squid, or scallop that Kotick had ever seen before. They were between twenty and thirty feet long, and they had no hind flippers, but a shovel-like tail that looked as if it had been whittled out of wet leather. Their heads were the most foolish-looking things you ever saw, and they balanced on the ends of their tails in deep water when they weren’t grazing, bowing solemnly to each other and waving their front flippers as a fat man waves his arm.
“Ahem!” said Kotick. “Good sport, gentlemen?” The big things answered by bowing and waving their flippers like the Frog Footman. When they began feeding again Kotick saw that their upper lip was split into two pieces that they could twitch apart about a foot and bring together again with a whole bushel of seaweed between the splits. They tucked the stuff into their mouths and chumped solemnly.
“Messy style of feeding, that,” said Kotick. They bowed again, and Kotick began to lose his temper. “Very good,” he said. “If you do happen to have an extra joint in your front flipper you needn’t show off so. I see you bow gracefully, but I should like to know your names.” The split lips moved and twitched; and the glassy green eyes stared, but they did not speak.
“Well!” said Kotick. “You’re the only people I’ve ever met uglier than Sea Vitch—and with worse manners.”
Then he remembered in a flash what the Burgomaster gull had screamed to him when he was a little yearling at Walrus Islet, and he tumbled backward in the water, for he knew that he had found Sea Cow at last.
The sea cows went on schlooping and grazing and chumping in the weed, and Kotick asked them questions in every language that he had picked up in his travels; and the Sea People talk nearly as many languages as human beings. But the sea cows did not answer because Sea Cow cannot talk. He has only six bones in his neck where he ought to have seven, and they say under the sea that that prevents him from speaking even to his companions. But, as you know, he has an extra joint in his foreflipper, and by waving it up and down and about he makes what answers to a sort of clumsy telegraphic code.
By daylight Kotick’s mane was standing on end and his temper was gone where the dead crabs go. Then the Sea Cow began to travel northward very slowly, stopping to hold absurd bowing councils from time to time, and Kotick followed them, saying to himself, “People who are such idiots as these are would have been killed long ago if they hadn’t found out some safe island. And what is good enough for the Sea Cow is good enough for the Sea Catch. All the same, I wish they’d hurry.”
It was weary work for Kotick. The herd never went more than forty or fifty miles a day, and stopped to feed at night, and kept close to the shore all the time; while Kotick swam round them, and over them, and under them, but he could not hurry them up one-half mile. As they went farther north they held a bowing council every few hours, and Kotick nearly bit off his mustache with impatience till he saw that they were following up a warm current of water, and then he respected them more.
One night they sank through the shiny water—sank like stones—and for the first time since he had known them began to swim quickly. Kotick followed, and the pace astonished him, for he never dreamed that Sea Cow was anything of a swimmer. They headed for a cliff by the shore—a cliff that ran down into deep water, and plunged into a dark hole at the foot of it, twenty fathoms under the sea. It was a long, long swim, and Kotick badly wanted fresh air before he was out of the dark tunnel they led him through.
“My wig!” he said, when he rose, gasping and puffing, into open water at the farther end. “It was a long dive, but it was worth it.”
The sea cows had separated and were browsing lazily along the edges of the finest beaches that Kotick had ever seen. There were long stretches of smooth-worn rock running for miles, exactly fitted to make seal-nurseries, and there were play-grounds of hard sand sloping inland behind them, and there were rollers for seals to dance in, and long grass to roll in, and sand dunes to climb up and down, and, best of all, Kotick knew by the feel of the water, which never deceives a true sea catch, that no men had ever come there.
The first thing he did was to assure himself that the fishing was good, and then he swam along the beaches and counted up the delightful low sandy islands half hidden in the beautiful rolling fog. Away to the northward, out to sea, ran a line of bars and shoals and rocks that would never let a ship come within six miles of the beach, and between the islands and the mainland was a stretch of deep water that ran up to the perpendicular cliffs, and somewhere below the cliffs was the mouth of the tunnel.
“It’s Novastoshnah over again, but ten times better,” said Kotick. “Sea Cow must be wiser than I thought. Men can’t come down the cliffs, even if there were any men; and the shoals to seaward would knock a ship to splinters. If any place in the sea is safe, this is it.”
He began to think of the seal he had left behind him, but though he was in a hurry to go back to Novastoshnah, he thoroughly explored the new country, so that he would be able to answer all questions.
Then he dived and made sure of the mouth of the tunnel, and raced through to the southward. No one but a sea cow or a seal would have dreamed of there being such a place, and when he looked back at the cliffs even Kotick could hardly believe that he had been under them.
He was six days going home, though he was not swimming slowly; and when he hauled out just above Sea Lion’s Neck the first person he met was the seal who had been waiting for him, and she saw by the look in his eyes that he had found his island at last.
But the holluschickie and Sea Catch, his father, and all the other seals laughed at him when he told them what he had discovered, and a young seal about his own age said, “This is all very well, Kotick, but you can’t come from no one knows where and order us off like this. Remember we’ve been fighting for our nurseries, and that’s a thing you never did. You preferred prowling about in the sea.”
The other seals laughed at this, and the young seal began twisting his head from side to side. He had just married that year, and was making a great fuss about it.
“I’ve no nursery to fight for,” said Kotick. “I only want to show you all a place where you will be safe. What’s the use of fighting?”
“Oh, if you’re trying to back out, of course I’ve no more to say,” said the young seal with an ugly chuckle.
“Will you come with me if I win?” said Kotick. And a green light came into his eye, for he was very angry at having to fight at all.
“Very good,” said the young seal carelessly. “If you win, I’ll come.”
He had no time to change his mind, for Kotick’s head was out and his teeth sunk in the blubber of the young seal’s neck. Then he threw himself back on his haunches and hauled his enemy down the beach, shook him, and knocked him over. Then Kotick roared to the seals: “I’ve done my best for you these five seasons past. I’ve found you the island where you’ll be safe, but unless your heads are dragged off your silly necks you won’t believe. I’m going to teach you now. Look out for yourselves!”
Limmershin told me that never in his life—and Limmershin sees ten thousand big seals fighting every year—never in all his little life did he see anything like Kotick’s charge into the nurseries. He flung himself at the biggest sea catch he could find, caught him by the throat, choked him and bumped him and banged him till he grunted for mercy, and then threw him aside and attacked the next. You see, Kotick had never fasted for four months as the big seals did every year, and his deep-sea swimming trips kept him in perfect condition, and, best of all, he had never fought before. His curly white mane stood up with rage, and his eyes flamed, and his big dog teeth glistened, and he was splendid to look at. Old Sea Catch, his father, saw him tearing past, hauling the grizzled old seals about as though they had been halibut, and upsetting the young bachelors in all directions; and Sea Catch gave a roar and shouted: “He may be a fool, but he is the best fighter on the beaches! Don’t tackle your father, my son! He’s with you!”
Kotick roared in answer, and old Sea Catch waddled in with his mustache on end, blowing like a locomotive, while Matkah and the seal that was going to marry Kotick cowered down and admired their men-folk. It was a gorgeous fight, for the two fought as long as there was a seal that dared lift up his head, and when there were none they paraded grandly up and down the beach side by side, bellowing.
At night, just as the Northern Lights were winking and flashing through the fog, Kotick climbed a bare rock and looked down on the scattered nurseries and the torn and bleeding seals. “Now,” he said, “I’ve taught you your lesson.”
“My wig!” said old Sea Catch, boosting himself up stiffly, for he was fearfully mauled. “The Killer Whale himself could not have cut them up worse. Son, I’m proud of you, and what’s more, I’ll come with you to your island—if there is such a place.”
“Hear you, fat pigs of the sea. Who comes with me to the Sea Cow’s tunnel? Answer, or I shall teach you again,” roared Kotick.
There was a murmur like the ripple of the tide all up and down the beaches. “We will come,” said thousands of tired voices. “We will follow Kotick, the White Seal.”
Then Kotick dropped his head between his shoulders and shut his eyes proudly. He was not a white seal any more, but red from head to tail. All the same he would have scorned to look at or touch one of his wounds.
A week later he and his army (nearly ten thousand holluschickie and old seals) went away north to the Sea Cow’s tunnel, Kotick leading them, and the seals that stayed at Novastoshnah called them idiots. But next spring, when they all met off the fishing banks of the Pacific, Kotick’s seals told such tales of the new beaches beyond Sea Cow’s tunnel that more and more seals left Novastoshnah. Of course it was not all done at once, for the seals are not very clever, and they need a long time to turn things over in their minds, but year after year more seals went away from Novastoshnah, and Lukannon, and the other nurseries, to the quiet, sheltered beaches where Kotick sits all the summer through, getting bigger and fatter and stronger each year, while the holluschickie play around him, in that sea where no man comes.
This is the great deep-sea song that all the St. Paul seals sing when they are heading back to their beaches in the summer. It is a sort of very sad seal National Anthem.
I met my mates in the morning (and, oh, but I am old!)
Where roaring on the ledges the summer ground-swell rolled;
I heard them lift the chorus that drowned the breakers’ song—
The Beaches of Lukannon—two million voices strong.
The song of pleasant stations beside the salt lagoons,
The song of blowing squadrons that shuffled down the dunes,
The song of midnight dances that churned the sea to flame—
The Beaches of Lukannon—before the sealers came!
I met my mates in the morning (I’ll never meet them more!);
They came and went in legions that darkened all the shore.
And o’er the foam-flecked offing as far as voice could reach
We hailed the landing-parties and we sang them up the beach.
The Beaches of Lukannon—the winter wheat so tall—
The dripping, crinkled lichens, and the sea-fog drenching all!
The platforms of our playground, all shining smooth and worn!
The Beaches of Lukannon—the home where we were born!
I met my mates in the morning, a broken, scattered band.
Men shoot us in the water and club us on the land;
Men drive us to the Salt House like silly sheep and tame,
And still we sing Lukannon—before the sealers came.
Wheel down, wheel down to southward; oh, Gooverooska, go!
And tell the Deep-Sea Viceroys the story of our woe;
Ere, empty as the shark’s egg the tempest flings ashore,
The Beaches of Lukannon shall know their sons no more!
At the hole where he went in
Red-Eye called to Wrinkle-Skin.
Hear what little Red-Eye saith:
“Nag, come up and dance with death!”
Eye to eye and head to head,
(Keep the measure, Nag.)
This shall end when one is dead;
(At thy pleasure, Nag.)
Turn for turn and twist for twist—
(Run and hide thee, Nag.)
Hah! The hooded Death has missed!
(Woe betide thee, Nag!)
This is the story of the great war that Rikki-tikki-tavi fought single-handed, through the bath-rooms of the big bungalow in Segowlee cantonment. Darzee, the Tailorbird, helped him, and Chuchundra, the musk-rat, who never comes out into the middle of the floor, but always creeps round by the wall, gave him advice, but Rikki-tikki did the real fighting.
He was a mongoose, rather like a little cat in his fur and his tail, but quite like a weasel in his head and his habits. His eyes and the end of his restless nose were pink. He could scratch himself anywhere he pleased with any leg, front or back, that he chose to use. He could fluff up his tail till it looked like a bottle brush, and his war cry as he scuttled through the long grass was: “Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!”
One day, a high summer flood washed him out of the burrow where he lived with his father and mother, and carried him, kicking and clucking, down a roadside ditch. He found a little wisp of grass floating there, and clung to it till he lost his senses. When he revived, he was lying in the hot sun on the middle of a garden path, very draggled indeed, and a small boy was saying, “Here’s a dead mongoose. Let’s have a funeral.”
“No,” said his mother, “let’s take him in and dry him. Perhaps he isn’t really dead.”
They took him into the house, and a big man picked him up between his finger and thumb and said he was not dead but half choked. So they wrapped him in cotton wool, and warmed him over a little fire, and he opened his eyes and sneezed.
“Now,” said the big man (he was an Englishman who had just moved into the bungalow), “don’t frighten him, and we’ll see what he’ll do.”
It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity. The motto of all the mongoose family is “Run and find out,” and Rikki-tikki was a true mongoose. He looked at the cotton wool, decided that it was not good to eat, ran all round the table, sat up and put his fur in order, scratched himself, and jumped on the small boy’s shoulder.
“Don’t be frightened, Teddy,” said his father. “That’s his way of making friends.”
“Ouch! He’s tickling under my chin,” said Teddy.
Rikki-tikki looked down between the boy’s collar and neck, snuffed at his ear, and climbed down to the floor, where he sat rubbing his nose.
“Good gracious,” said Teddy’s mother, “and that’s a wild creature! I suppose he’s so tame because we’ve been kind to him.”
“All mongooses are like that,” said her husband. “If Teddy doesn’t pick him up by the tail, or try to put him in a cage, he’ll run in and out of the house all day long. Let’s give him something to eat.”
They gave him a little piece of raw meat. Rikki-tikki liked it immensely, and when it was finished he went out into the veranda and sat in the sunshine and fluffed up his fur to make it dry to the roots. Then he felt better.
“There are more things to find out about in this house,” he said to himself, “than all my family could find out in all their lives. I shall certainly stay and find out.”
He spent all that day roaming over the house. He nearly drowned himself in the bath-tubs, put his nose into the ink on a writing table, and burned it on the end of the big man’s cigar, for he climbed up in the big man’s lap to see how writing was done. At nightfall he ran into Teddy’s nursery to watch how kerosene lamps were lighted, and when Teddy went to bed Rikki-tikki climbed up too. But he was a restless companion, because he had to get up and attend to every noise all through the night, and find out what made it. Teddy’s mother and father came in, the last thing, to look at their boy, and Rikki-tikki was awake on the pillow. “I don’t like that,” said Teddy’s mother. “He may bite the child.” “He’ll do no such thing,” said the father. “Teddy’s safer with that little beast than if he had a bloodhound to watch him. If a snake came into the nursery now—”
But Teddy’s mother wouldn’t think of anything so awful.
Early in the morning Rikki-tikki came to early breakfast in the veranda riding on Teddy’s shoulder, and they gave him banana and some boiled egg. He sat on all their laps one after the other, because every well-brought-up mongoose always hopes to be a house mongoose some day and have rooms to run about in; and Rikki-tikki’s mother (she used to live in the general’s house at Segowlee) had carefully told Rikki what to do if ever he came across white men.
Then Rikki-tikki went out into the garden to see what was to be seen. It was a large garden, only half cultivated, with bushes, as big as summer-houses, of Marshal Niel roses, lime and orange trees, clumps of bamboos, and thickets of high grass. Rikki-tikki licked his lips. “This is a splendid hunting-ground,” he said, and his tail grew bottle-brushy at the thought of it, and he scuttled up and down the garden, snuffing here and there till he heard very sorrowful voices in a thorn-bush.
It was Darzee, the Tailor-bird, and his wife. They had made a beautiful nest by pulling two big leaves together and stitching them up the edges with fibers, and had filled the hollow with cotton and downy fluff. The nest swayed to and fro, as they sat on the rim and cried.
“What is the matter?” asked Rikki-tikki.
“We are very miserable,” said Darzee. “One of our babies fell out of the nest yesterday and Nag ate him.”
“H’m!” said Rikki-tikki, “that is very sad—but I am a stranger here. Who is Nag?”
Darzee and his wife only cowered down in the nest without answering, for from the thick grass at the foot of the bush there came a low hiss—a horrid cold sound that made Rikki-tikki jump back two clear feet. Then inch by inch out of the grass rose up the head and spread hood of Nag, the big black cobra, and he was five feet long from tongue to tail. When he had lifted one-third of himself clear of the ground, he stayed balancing to and fro exactly as a dandelion tuft balances in the wind, and he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake’s eyes that never change their expression, whatever the snake may be thinking of.
“Who is Nag?” said he. “I am Nag. The great God Brahm put his mark upon all our people, when the first cobra spread his hood to keep the sun off Brahm as he slept. Look, and be afraid!”
He spread out his hood more than ever, and Rikki-tikki saw the spectacle-mark on the back of it that looks exactly like the eye part of a hook-and-eye fastening. He was afraid for the minute, but it is impossible for a mongoose to stay frightened for any length of time, and though Rikki-tikki had never met a live cobra before, his mother had fed him on dead ones, and he knew that all a grown mongoose’s business in life was to fight and eat snakes. Nag knew that too and, at the bottom of his cold heart, he was afraid.
“Well,” said Rikki-tikki, and his tail began to fluff up again, “marks or no marks, do you think it is right for you to eat fledglings out of a nest?”
Nag was thinking to himself, and watching the least little movement in the grass behind Rikki-tikki. He knew that mongooses in the garden meant death sooner or later for him and his family, but he wanted to get Rikki-tikki off his guard. So he dropped his head a little, and put it on one side.
“Let us talk,” he said. “You eat eggs. Why should not I eat birds?”
“Behind you! Look behind you!” sang Darzee.
Rikki-tikki knew better than to waste time in staring. He jumped up in the air as high as he could go, and just under him whizzed by the head of Nagaina, Nag’s wicked wife. She had crept up behind him as he was talking, to make an end of him. He heard her savage hiss as the stroke missed. He came down almost across her back, and if he had been an old mongoose he would have known that then was the time to break her back with one bite; but he was afraid of the terrible lashing return stroke of the cobra. He bit, indeed, but did not bite long enough, and he jumped clear of the whisking tail, leaving Nagaina torn and angry.
“Wicked, wicked Darzee!” said Nag, lashing up as high as he could reach toward the nest in the thorn-bush. But Darzee had built it out of reach of snakes, and it only swayed to and fro.
Rikki-tikki felt his eyes growing red and hot (when a mongoose’s eyes grow red, he is angry), and he sat back on his tail and hind legs like a little kangaroo, and looked all round him, and chattered with rage. But Nag and Nagaina had disappeared into the grass. When a snake misses its stroke, it never says anything or gives any sign of what it means to do next. Rikki-tikki did not care to follow them, for he did not feel sure that he could manage two snakes at once. So he trotted off to the gravel path near the house, and sat down to think. It was a serious matter for him.
If you read the old books of natural history, you will find they say that when the mongoose fights the snake and happens to get bitten, he runs off and eats some herb that cures him. That is not true. The victory is only a matter of quickness of eye and quickness of foot—snake’s blow against mongoose’s jump—and as no eye can follow the motion of a snake’s head when it strikes, this makes things much more wonderful than any magic herb. Rikki-tikki knew he was a young mongoose, and it made him all the more pleased to think that he had managed to escape a blow from behind. It gave him confidence in himself, and when Teddy came running down the path, Rikki-tikki was ready to be petted.
But just as Teddy was stooping, something wriggled a little in the dust, and a tiny voice said: “Be careful. I am Death!” It was Karait, the dusty brown snakeling that lies for choice on the dusty earth; and his bite is as dangerous as the cobra’s. But he is so small that nobody thinks of him, and so he does the more harm to people.
Rikki-tikki’s eyes grew red again, and he danced up to Karait with the peculiar rocking, swaying motion that he had inherited from his family. It looks very funny, but it is so perfectly balanced a gait that you can fly off from it at any angle you please, and in dealing with snakes this is an advantage. If Rikki-tikki had only known, he was doing a much more dangerous thing than fighting Nag, for Karait is so small, and can turn so quickly, that unless Rikki bit him close to the back of the head, he would get the return stroke in his eye or his lip. But Rikki did not know. His eyes were all red, and he rocked back and forth, looking for a good place to hold. Karait struck out. Rikki jumped sideways and tried to run in, but the wicked little dusty gray head lashed within a fraction of his shoulder, and he had to jump over the body, and the head followed his heels close.
Teddy shouted to the house: “Oh, look here! Our mongoose is killing a snake.” And Rikki-tikki heard a scream from Teddy’s mother. His father ran out with a stick, but by the time he came up, Karait had lunged out once too far, and Rikki-tikki had sprung, jumped on the snake’s back, dropped his head far between his forelegs, bitten as high up the back as he could get hold, and rolled away. That bite paralyzed Karait, and Rikki-tikki was just going to eat him up from the tail, after the custom of his family at dinner, when he remembered that a full meal makes a slow mongoose, and if he wanted all his strength and quickness ready, he must keep himself thin.
He went away for a dust bath under the castor-oil bushes, while Teddy’s father beat the dead Karait. “What is the use of that?” thought Rikki-tikki. “I have settled it all;” and then Teddy’s mother picked him up from the dust and hugged him, crying that he had saved Teddy from death, and Teddy’s father said that he was a providence, and Teddy looked on with big scared eyes. Rikki-tikki was rather amused at all the fuss, which, of course, he did not understand. Teddy’s mother might just as well have petted Teddy for playing in the dust. Rikki was thoroughly enjoying himself.
That night at dinner, walking to and fro among the wine-glasses on the table, he might have stuffed himself three times over with nice things. But he remembered Nag and Nagaina, and though it was very pleasant to be patted and petted by Teddy’s mother, and to sit on Teddy’s shoulder, his eyes would get red from time to time, and he would go off into his long war cry of “Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!”
Teddy carried him off to bed, and insisted on Rikki-tikki sleeping under his chin. Rikki-tikki was too well bred to bite or scratch, but as soon as Teddy was asleep he went off for his nightly walk round the house, and in the dark he ran up against Chuchundra, the musk-rat, creeping around by the wall. Chuchundra is a broken-hearted little beast. He whimpers and cheeps all the night, trying to make up his mind to run into the middle of the room. But he never gets there.
“Don’t kill me,” said Chuchundra, almost weeping. “Rikki-tikki, don’t kill me!”
“Do you think a snake-killer kills muskrats?” said Rikki-tikki scornfully.
“Those who kill snakes get killed by snakes,” said Chuchundra, more sorrowfully than ever. “And how am I to be sure that Nag won’t mistake me for you some dark night?”
“There’s not the least danger,” said Rikki-tikki. “But Nag is in the garden, and I know you don’t go there.”
“My cousin Chua, the rat, told me—” said Chuchundra, and then he stopped.
“Told you what?”
“H’sh! Nag is everywhere, Rikki-tikki. You should have talked to Chua in the garden.”
“I didn’t—so you must tell me. Quick, Chuchundra, or I’ll bite you!”
Chuchundra sat down and cried till the tears rolled off his whiskers. “I am a very poor man,” he sobbed. “I never had spirit enough to run out into the middle of the room. H’sh! I mustn’t tell you anything. Can’t you hear, Rikki-tikki?”
Rikki-tikki listened. The house was as still as still, but he thought he could just catch the faintest scratch-scratch in the world—a noise as faint as that of a wasp walking on a window-pane—the dry scratch of a snake’s scales on brick-work.
“That’s Nag or Nagaina,” he said to himself, “and he is crawling into the bath-room sluice. You’re right, Chuchundra; I should have talked to Chua.”
He stole off to Teddy’s bath-room, but there was nothing there, and then to Teddy’s mother’s bathroom. At the bottom of the smooth plaster wall there was a brick pulled out to make a sluice for the bath water, and as Rikki-tikki stole in by the masonry curb where the bath is put, he heard Nag and Nagaina whispering together outside in the moonlight.
“When the house is emptied of people,” said Nagaina to her husband, “he will have to go away, and then the garden will be our own again. Go in quietly, and remember that the big man who killed Karait is the first one to bite. Then come out and tell me, and we will hunt for Rikki-tikki together.”
“But are you sure that there is anything to be gained by killing the people?” said Nag.
“Everything. When there were no people in the bungalow, did we have any mongoose in the garden? So long as the bungalow is empty, we are king and queen of the garden; and remember that as soon as our eggs in the melon bed hatch (as they may tomorrow), our children will need room and quiet.”
“I had not thought of that,” said Nag. “I will go, but there is no need that we should hunt for Rikki-tikki afterward. I will kill the big man and his wife, and the child if I can, and come away quietly. Then the bungalow will be empty, and Rikki-tikki will go.”
Rikki-tikki tingled all over with rage and hatred at this, and then Nag’s head came through the sluice, and his five feet of cold body followed it. Angry as he was, Rikki-tikki was very frightened as he saw the size of the big cobra. Nag coiled himself up, raised his head, and looked into the bathroom in the dark, and Rikki could see his eyes glitter.
“Now, if I kill him here, Nagaina will know; and if I fight him on the open floor, the odds are in his favor. What am I to do?” said Rikki-tikki-tavi.
Nag waved to and fro, and then Rikki-tikki heard him drinking from the biggest water-jar that was used to fill the bath. “That is good,” said the snake. “Now, when Karait was killed, the big man had a stick. He may have that stick still, but when he comes in to bathe in the morning he will not have a stick. I shall wait here till he comes. Nagaina—do you hear me?—I shall wait here in the cool till daytime.”
There was no answer from outside, so Rikki-tikki knew Nagaina had gone away. Nag coiled himself down, coil by coil, round the bulge at the bottom of the water jar, and Rikki-tikki stayed still as death. After an hour he began to move, muscle by muscle, toward the jar. Nag was asleep, and Rikki-tikki looked at his big back, wondering which would be the best place for a good hold. “If I don’t break his back at the first jump,” said Rikki, “he can still fight. And if he fights—O Rikki!” He looked at the thickness of the neck below the hood, but that was too much for him; and a bite near the tail would only make Nag savage.
“It must be the head”’ he said at last; “the head above the hood. And, when I am once there, I must not let go.”
Then he jumped. The head was lying a little clear of the water jar, under the curve of it; and, as his teeth met, Rikki braced his back against the bulge of the red earthenware to hold down the head. This gave him just one second’s purchase, and he made the most of it. Then he was battered to and fro as a rat is shaken by a dog—to and fro on the floor, up and down, and around in great circles, but his eyes were red and he held on as the body cart-whipped over the floor, upsetting the tin dipper and the soap dish and the flesh brush, and banged against the tin side of the bath. As he held he closed his jaws tighter and tighter, for he made sure he would be banged to death, and, for the honor of his family, he preferred to be found with his teeth locked. He was dizzy, aching, and felt shaken to pieces when something went off like a thunderclap just behind him. A hot wind knocked him senseless and red fire singed his fur. The big man had been wakened by the noise, and had fired both barrels of a shotgun into Nag just behind the hood.
Rikki-tikki held on with his eyes shut, for now he was quite sure he was dead. But the head did not move, and the big man picked him up and said, “It’s the mongoose again, Alice. The little chap has saved our lives now.”
Then Teddy’s mother came in with a very white face, and saw what was left of Nag, and Rikki-tikki dragged himself to Teddy’s bedroom and spent half the rest of the night shaking himself tenderly to find out whether he really was broken into forty pieces, as he fancied.
When morning came he was very stiff, but well pleased with his doings. “Now I have Nagaina to settle with, and she will be worse than five Nags, and there’s no knowing when the eggs she spoke of will hatch. Goodness! I must go and see Darzee,” he said.
Without waiting for breakfast, Rikki-tikki ran to the thornbush where Darzee was singing a song of triumph at the top of his voice. The news of Nag’s death was all over the garden, for the sweeper had thrown the body on the rubbish-heap.
“Oh, you stupid tuft of feathers!” said Rikki-tikki angrily. “Is this the time to sing?”
“Nag is dead—is dead—is dead!” sang Darzee. “The valiant Rikki-tikki caught him by the head and held fast. The big man brought the bang-stick, and Nag fell in two pieces! He will never eat my babies again.”
“All that’s true enough. But where’s Nagaina?” said Rikki-tikki, looking carefully round him.
“Nagaina came to the bathroom sluice and called for Nag,” Darzee went on, “and Nag came out on the end of a stick—the sweeper picked him up on the end of a stick and threw him upon the rubbish heap. Let us sing about the great, the red-eyed Rikki-tikki!” And Darzee filled his throat and sang.
“If I could get up to your nest, I’d roll your babies out!” said Rikki-tikki. “You don’t know when to do the right thing at the right time. You’re safe enough in your nest there, but it’s war for me down here. Stop singing a minute, Darzee.”
“For the great, the beautiful Rikki-tikki’s sake I will stop,” said Darzee. “What is it, O Killer of the terrible Nag?”
“Where is Nagaina, for the third time?”
“On the rubbish heap by the stables, mourning for Nag. Great is Rikki-tikki with the white teeth.”
“Bother my white teeth! Have you ever heard where she keeps her eggs?”
“In the melon bed, on the end nearest the wall, where the sun strikes nearly all day. She hid them there weeks ago.”
“And you never thought it worth while to tell me? The end nearest the wall, you said?”
“Rikki-tikki, you are not going to eat her eggs?”
“Not eat exactly; no. Darzee, if you have a grain of sense you will fly off to the stables and pretend that your wing is broken, and let Nagaina chase you away to this bush. I must get to the melon-bed, and if I went there now she’d see me.”
Darzee was a feather-brained little fellow who could never hold more than one idea at a time in his head. And just because he knew that Nagaina’s children were born in eggs like his own, he didn’t think at first that it was fair to kill them. But his wife was a sensible bird, and she knew that cobra’s eggs meant young cobras later on. So she flew off from the nest, and left Darzee to keep the babies warm, and continue his song about the death of Nag. Darzee was very like a man in some ways.
She fluttered in front of Nagaina by the rubbish heap and cried out, “Oh, my wing is broken! The boy in the house threw a stone at me and broke it.” Then she fluttered more desperately than ever.
Nagaina lifted up her head and hissed, “You warned Rikki-tikki when I would have killed him. Indeed and truly, you’ve chosen a bad place to be lame in.” And she moved toward Darzee’s wife, slipping along over the dust.
“The boy broke it with a stone!” shrieked Darzee’s wife.
“Well! It may be some consolation to you when you’re dead to know that I shall settle accounts with the boy. My husband lies on the rubbish heap this morning, but before night the boy in the house will lie very still. What is the use of running away? I am sure to catch you. Little fool, look at me!”
Darzee’s wife knew better than to do that, for a bird who looks at a snake’s eyes gets so frightened that she cannot move. Darzee’s wife fluttered on, piping sorrowfully, and never leaving the ground, and Nagaina quickened her pace.
Rikki-tikki heard them going up the path from the stables, and he raced for the end of the melon patch near the wall. There, in the warm litter above the melons, very cunningly hidden, he found twenty-five eggs, about the size of a bantam’s eggs, but with whitish skin instead of shell.
“I was not a day too soon,” he said, for he could see the baby cobras curled up inside the skin, and he knew that the minute they were hatched they could each kill a man or a mongoose. He bit off the tops of the eggs as fast as he could, taking care to crush the young cobras, and turned over the litter from time to time to see whether he had missed any. At last there were only three eggs left, and Rikki-tikki began to chuckle to himself, when he heard Darzee’s wife screaming:
“Rikki-tikki, I led Nagaina toward the house, and she has gone into the veranda, and—oh, come quickly—she means killing!”
Rikki-tikki smashed two eggs, and tumbled backward down the melon-bed with the third egg in his mouth, and scuttled to the veranda as hard as he could put foot to the ground. Teddy and his mother and father were there at early breakfast, but Rikki-tikki saw that they were not eating anything. They sat stone-still, and their faces were white. Nagaina was coiled up on the matting by Teddy’s chair, within easy striking distance of Teddy’s bare leg, and she was swaying to and fro, singing a song of triumph.
“Son of the big man that killed Nag,” she hissed, “stay still. I am not ready yet. Wait a little. Keep very still, all you three! If you move I strike, and if you do not move I strike. Oh, foolish people, who killed my Nag!”
Teddy’s eyes were fixed on his father, and all his father could do was to whisper, “Sit still, Teddy. You mustn’t move. Teddy, keep still.”
Then Rikki-tikki came up and cried, “Turn round, Nagaina. Turn and fight!”
“All in good time,” said she, without moving her eyes. “I will settle my account with you presently. Look at your friends, Rikki-tikki. They are still and white. They are afraid. They dare not move, and if you come a step nearer I strike.”
“Look at your eggs,” said Rikki-tikki, “in the melon bed near the wall. Go and look, Nagaina!”
The big snake turned half around, and saw the egg on the veranda. “Ah-h! Give it to me,” she said.
Rikki-tikki put his paws one on each side of the egg, and his eyes were blood-red. “What price for a snake’s egg? For a young cobra? For a young king cobra? For the last—the very last of the brood? The ants are eating all the others down by the melon bed.”
Nagaina spun clear round, forgetting everything for the sake of the one egg. Rikki-tikki saw Teddy’s father shoot out a big hand, catch Teddy by the shoulder, and drag him across the little table with the tea-cups, safe and out of reach of Nagaina.
“Tricked! Tricked! Tricked! Rikk-tck-tck!” chuckled Rikki-tikki. “The boy is safe, and it was I—I—I that caught Nag by the hood last night in the bathroom.” Then he began to jump up and down, all four feet together, his head close to the floor. “He threw me to and fro, but he could not shake me off. He was dead before the big man blew him in two. I did it! Rikki-tikki-tck-tck! Come then, Nagaina. Come and fight with me. You shall not be a widow long.”
Nagaina saw that she had lost her chance of killing Teddy, and the egg lay between Rikki-tikki’s paws. “Give me the egg, Rikki-tikki. Give me the last of my eggs, and I will go away and never come back,” she said, lowering her hood.
“Yes, you will go away, and you will never come back. For you will go to the rubbish heap with Nag. Fight, widow! The big man has gone for his gun! Fight!”
Rikki-tikki was bounding all round Nagaina, keeping just out of reach of her stroke, his little eyes like hot coals. Nagaina gathered herself together and flung out at him. Rikki-tikki jumped up and backward. Again and again and again she struck, and each time her head came with a whack on the matting of the veranda and she gathered herself together like a watch spring. Then Rikki-tikki danced in a circle to get behind her, and Nagaina spun round to keep her head to his head, so that the rustle of her tail on the matting sounded like dry leaves blown along by the wind.
He had forgotten the egg. It still lay on the veranda, and Nagaina came nearer and nearer to it, till at last, while Rikki-tikki was drawing breath, she caught it in her mouth, turned to the veranda steps, and flew like an arrow down the path, with Rikki-tikki behind her. When the cobra runs for her life, she goes like a whip-lash flicked across a horse’s neck.
Rikki-tikki knew that he must catch her, or all the trouble would begin again. She headed straight for the long grass by the thorn-bush, and as he was running Rikki-tikki heard Darzee still singing his foolish little song of triumph. But Darzee’s wife was wiser. She flew off her nest as Nagaina came along, and flapped her wings about Nagaina’s head. If Darzee had helped they might have turned her, but Nagaina only lowered her hood and went on. Still, the instant’s delay brought Rikki-tikki up to her, and as she plunged into the rat-hole where she and Nag used to live, his little white teeth were clenched on her tail, and he went down with her—and very few mongooses, however wise and old they may be, care to follow a cobra into its hole. It was dark in the hole; and Rikki-tikki never knew when it might open out and give Nagaina room to turn and strike at him. He held on savagely, and stuck out his feet to act as brakes on the dark slope of the hot, moist earth.
Then the grass by the mouth of the hole stopped waving, and Darzee said, “It is all over with Rikki-tikki! We must sing his death song. Valiant Rikki-tikki is dead! For Nagaina will surely kill him underground.”
So he sang a very mournful song that he made up on the spur of the minute, and just as he got to the most touching part, the grass quivered again, and Rikki-tikki, covered with dirt, dragged himself out of the hole leg by leg, licking his whiskers. Darzee stopped with a little shout. Rikki-tikki shook some of the dust out of his fur and sneezed. “It is all over,” he said. “The widow will never come out again.” And the red ants that live between the grass stems heard him, and began to troop down one after another to see if he had spoken the truth.
Rikki-tikki curled himself up in the grass and slept where he was—slept and slept till it was late in the afternoon, for he had done a hard day’s work.
“Now,” he said, when he awoke, “I will go back to the house. Tell the Coppersmith, Darzee, and he will tell the garden that Nagaina is dead.”
The Coppersmith is a bird who makes a noise exactly like the beating of a little hammer on a copper pot; and the reason he is always making it is because he is the town crier to every Indian garden, and tells all the news to everybody who cares to listen. As Rikki-tikki went up the path, he heard his “attention” notes like a tiny dinner gong, and then the steady “Ding-dong-tock! Nag is dead—dong! Nagaina is dead! Ding-dong-tock!” That set all the birds in the garden singing, and the frogs croaking, for Nag and Nagaina used to eat frogs as well as little birds.
When Rikki got to the house, Teddy and Teddy’s mother (she looked very white still, for she had been fainting) and Teddy’s father came out and almost cried over him; and that night he ate all that was given him till he could eat no more, and went to bed on Teddy’s shoulder, where Teddy’s mother saw him when she came to look late at night.
“He saved our lives and Teddy’s life,” she said to her husband. “Just think, he saved all our lives.”
Rikki-tikki woke up with a jump, for the mongooses are light sleepers.
“Oh, it’s you,” said he. “What are you bothering for? All the cobras are dead. And if they weren’t, I’m here.”
Rikki-tikki had a right to be proud of himself. But he did not grow too proud, and he kept that garden as a mongoose should keep it, with tooth and jump and spring and bite, till never a cobra dared show its head inside the walls.
(Sung in honor of Rikki-tikki-tavi)
Singer and tailor am I—
Doubled the joys that I know—
Proud of my lilt to the sky,
Proud of the house that I sew—
Over and under, so weave I my music—so weave I the house that I
Sing to your fledglings again,
Mother, oh lift up your head!
Evil that plagued us is slain,
Death in the garden lies dead.
Terror that hid in the roses is impotent—flung on the dung-hill
Who has delivered us, who?
Tell me his nest and his name.
Rikki, the valiant, the true,
Tikki, with eyeballs of flame,
Rikk-tikki-tikki, the ivory-fanged, the hunter with eyeballs of
Give him the Thanks of the Birds,
Bowing with tail feathers spread!
Praise him with nightingale words—
Nay, I will praise him instead.
Hear! I will sing you the praise of the bottle-tailed Rikki, with
eyeballs of red!
(Here Rikki-tikki interrupted, and the rest of the song is
Toomai of the Elephants
I will remember what I was, I am sick of rope and chain—
I will remember my old strength and all my forest affairs.
I will not sell my back to man for a bundle of sugar-cane:
I will go out to my own kind, and the wood-folk in their lairs.
I will go out until the day, until the morning break—
Out to the wind’s untainted kiss, the water’s clean caress;
I will forget my ankle-ring and snap my picket stake.
I will revisit my lost loves, and playmates masterless!
Kala Nag, which means Black Snake, had served the Indian Government in every way that an elephant could serve it for forty-seven years, and as he was fully twenty years old when he was caught, that makes him nearly seventy—a ripe age for an elephant. He remembered pushing, with a big leather pad on his forehead, at a gun stuck in deep mud, and that was before the Afghan War of 1842, and he had not then come to his full strength.
His mother Radha Pyari,—Radha the darling,—who had been caught in the same drive with Kala Nag, told him, before his little milk tusks had dropped out, that elephants who were afraid always got hurt. Kala Nag knew that that advice was good, for the first time that he saw a shell burst he backed, screaming, into a stand of piled rifles, and the bayonets pricked him in all his softest places. So, before he was twenty-five, he gave up being afraid, and so he was the best-loved and the best-looked-after elephant in the service of the Government of India. He had carried tents, twelve hundred pounds’ weight of tents, on the march in Upper India. He had been hoisted into a ship at the end of a steam crane and taken for days across the water, and made to carry a mortar on his back in a strange and rocky country very far from India, and had seen the Emperor Theodore lying dead in Magdala, and had come back again in the steamer entitled, so the soldiers said, to the Abyssinian War medal. He had seen his fellow elephants die of cold and epilepsy and starvation and sunstroke up at a place called Ali Musjid, ten years later; and afterward he had been sent down thousands of miles south to haul and pile big balks of teak in the timberyards at Moulmein. There he had half killed an insubordinate young elephant who was shirking his fair share of work.
After that he was taken off timber-hauling, and employed, with a few score other elephants who were trained to the business, in helping to catch wild elephants among the Garo hills. Elephants are very strictly preserved by the Indian Government. There is one whole department which does nothing else but hunt them, and catch them, and break them in, and send them up and down the country as they are needed for work.
Kala Nag stood ten fair feet at the shoulders, and his tusks had been cut off short at five feet, and bound round the ends, to prevent them splitting, with bands of copper; but he could do more with those stumps than any untrained elephant could do with the real sharpened ones. When, after weeks and weeks of cautious driving of scattered elephants across the hills, the forty or fifty wild monsters were driven into the last stockade, and the big drop gate, made of tree trunks lashed together, jarred down behind them, Kala Nag, at the word of command, would go into that flaring, trumpeting pandemonium (generally at night, when the flicker of the torches made it difficult to judge distances), and, picking out the biggest and wildest tusker of the mob, would hammer him and hustle him into quiet while the men on the backs of the other elephants roped and tied the smaller ones.
There was nothing in the way of fighting that Kala Nag, the old wise Black Snake, did not know, for he had stood up more than once in his time to the charge of the wounded tiger, and, curling up his soft trunk to be out of harm’s way, had knocked the springing brute sideways in mid-air with a quick sickle cut of his head, that he had invented all by himself; had knocked him over, and kneeled upon him with his huge knees till the life went out with a gasp and a howl, and there was only a fluffy striped thing on the ground for Kala Nag to pull by the tail.
“Yes,” said Big Toomai, his driver, the son of Black Toomai who had taken him to Abyssinia, and grandson of Toomai of the Elephants who had seen him caught, “there is nothing that the Black Snake fears except me. He has seen three generations of us feed him and groom him, and he will live to see four.”
“He is afraid of me also,” said Little Toomai, standing up to his full height of four feet, with only one rag upon him. He was ten years old, the eldest son of Big Toomai, and, according to custom, he would take his father’s place on Kala Nag’s neck when he grew up, and would handle the heavy iron ankus, the elephant goad, that had been worn smooth by his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather.
He knew what he was talking of; for he had been born under Kala Nag’s shadow, had played with the end of his trunk before he could walk, had taken him down to water as soon as he could walk, and Kala Nag would no more have dreamed of disobeying his shrill little orders than he would have dreamed of killing him on that day when Big Toomai carried the little brown baby under Kala Nag’s tusks, and told him to salute his master that was to be.
“Yes,” said Little Toomai, “he is afraid of me,” and he took long strides up to Kala Nag, called him a fat old pig, and made him lift up his feet one after the other.
“Wah!” said Little Toomai, “thou art a big elephant,” and he wagged his fluffy head, quoting his father. “The Government may pay for elephants, but they belong to us mahouts. When thou art old, Kala Nag, there will come some rich rajah, and he will buy thee from the Government, on account of thy size and thy manners, and then thou wilt have nothing to do but to carry gold earrings in thy ears, and a gold howdah on thy back, and a red cloth covered with gold on thy sides, and walk at the head of the processions of the King. Then I shall sit on thy neck, O Kala Nag, with a silver ankus, and men will run before us with golden sticks, crying, `Room for the King’s elephant!’ That will be good, Kala Nag, but not so good as this hunting in the jungles.”
“Umph!” said Big Toomai. “Thou art a boy, and as wild as a buffalo-calf. This running up and down among the hills is not the best Government service. I am getting old, and I do not love wild elephants. Give me brick elephant lines, one stall to each elephant, and big stumps to tie them to safely, and flat, broad roads to exercise upon, instead of this come-and-go camping. Aha, the Cawnpore barracks were good. There was a bazaar close by, and only three hours’ work a day.”
Little Toomai remembered the Cawnpore elephant-lines and said nothing. He very much preferred the camp life, and hated those broad, flat roads, with the daily grubbing for grass in the forage reserve, and the long hours when there was nothing to do except to watch Kala Nag fidgeting in his pickets.
What Little Toomai liked was to scramble up bridle paths that only an elephant could take; the dip into the valley below; the glimpses of the wild elephants browsing miles away; the rush of the frightened pig and peacock under Kala Nag’s feet; the blinding warm rains, when all the hills and valleys smoked; the beautiful misty mornings when nobody knew where they would camp that night; the steady, cautious drive of the wild elephants, and the mad rush and blaze and hullabaloo of the last night’s drive, when the elephants poured into the stockade like boulders in a landslide, found that they could not get out, and flung themselves at the heavy posts only to be driven back by yells and flaring torches and volleys of blank cartridge.
Even a little boy could be of use there, and Toomai was as useful as three boys. He would get his torch and wave it, and yell with the best. But the really good time came when the driving out began, and the Keddah—that is, the stockade—looked like a picture of the end of the world, and men had to make signs to one another, because they could not hear themselves speak. Then Little Toomai would climb up to the top of one of the quivering stockade posts, his sun-bleached brown hair flying loose all over his shoulders, and he looking like a goblin in the torch-light. And as soon as there was a lull you could hear his high-pitched yells of encouragement to Kala Nag, above the trumpeting and crashing, and snapping of ropes, and groans of the tethered elephants. “Mael, mael, Kala Nag! (Go on, go on, Black Snake!) Dant do! (Give him the tusk!) Somalo! Somalo! (Careful, careful!) Maro! Mar! (Hit him, hit him!) Mind the post! Arre! Arre! Hai! Yai! Kya-a-ah!” he would shout, and the big fight between Kala Nag and the wild elephant would sway to and fro across the Keddah, and the old elephant catchers would wipe the sweat out of their eyes, and find time to nod to Little Toomai wriggling with joy on the top of the posts.
He did more than wriggle. One night he slid down from the post and slipped in between the elephants and threw up the loose end of a rope, which had dropped, to a driver who was trying to get a purchase on the leg of a kicking young calf (calves always give more trouble than full-grown animals). Kala Nag saw him, caught him in his trunk, and handed him up to Big Toomai, who slapped him then and there, and put him back on the post.
Next morning he gave him a scolding and said, “Are not good brick elephant lines and a little tent carrying enough, that thou must needs go elephant catching on thy own account, little worthless? Now those foolish hunters, whose pay is less than my pay, have spoken to Petersen Sahib of the matter.” Little Toomai was frightened. He did not know much of white men, but Petersen Sahib was the greatest white man in the world to him. He was the head of all the Keddah operations—the man who caught all the elephants for the Government of India, and who knew more about the ways of elephants than any living man.
“What—what will happen?” said Little Toomai.
“Happen! The worst that can happen. Petersen Sahib is a madman. Else why should he go hunting these wild devils? He may even require thee to be an elephant catcher, to sleep anywhere in these fever-filled jungles, and at last to be trampled to death in the Keddah. It is well that this nonsense ends safely. Next week the catching is over, and we of the plains are sent back to our stations. Then we will march on smooth roads, and forget all this hunting. But, son, I am angry that thou shouldst meddle in the business that belongs to these dirty Assamese jungle folk. Kala Nag will obey none but me, so I must go with him into the Keddah, but he is only a fighting elephant, and he does not help to rope them. So I sit at my ease, as befits a mahout,—not a mere hunter,—a mahout, I say, and a man who gets a pension at the end of his service. Is the family of Toomai of the Elephants to be trodden underfoot in the dirt of a Keddah? Bad one! Wicked one! Worthless son! Go and wash Kala Nag and attend to his ears, and see that there are no thorns in his feet. Or else Petersen Sahib will surely catch thee and make thee a wild hunter—a follower of elephant’s foot tracks, a jungle bear. Bah! Shame! Go!”
Little Toomai went off without saying a word, but he told Kala Nag all his grievances while he was examining his feet. “No matter,” said Little Toomai, turning up the fringe of Kala Nag’s huge right ear. “They have said my name to Petersen Sahib, and perhaps—and perhaps—and perhaps—who knows? Hai! That is a big thorn that I have pulled out!”
The next few days were spent in getting the elephants together, in walking the newly caught wild elephants up and down between a couple of tame ones to prevent them giving too much trouble on the downward march to the plains, and in taking stock of the blankets and ropes and things that had been worn out or lost in the forest.
Petersen Sahib came in on his clever she-elephant Pudmini; he had been paying off other camps among the hills, for the season was coming to an end, and there was a native clerk sitting at a table under a tree, to pay the drivers their wages. As each man was paid he went back to his elephant, and joined the line that stood ready to start. The catchers, and hunters, and beaters, the men of the regular Keddah, who stayed in the jungle year in and year out, sat on the backs of the elephants that belonged to Petersen Sahib’s permanent force, or leaned against the trees with their guns across their arms, and made fun of the drivers who were going away, and laughed when the newly caught elephants broke the line and ran about.
Big Toomai went up to the clerk with Little Toomai behind him, and Machua Appa, the head tracker, said in an undertone to a friend of his, “There goes one piece of good elephant stuff at least. ‘Tis a pity to send that young jungle-cock to molt in the plains.”
Now Petersen Sahib had ears all over him, as a man must have who listens to the most silent of all living things—the wild elephant. He turned where he was lying all along on Pudmini’s back and said, “What is that? I did not know of a man among the plains-drivers who had wit enough to rope even a dead elephant.”
“This is not a man, but a boy. He went into the Keddah at the last drive, and threw Barmao there the rope, when we were trying to get that young calf with the blotch on his shoulder away from his mother.”
Machua Appa pointed at Little Toomai, and Petersen Sahib looked, and Little Toomai bowed to the earth.
“He throw a rope? He is smaller than a picket-pin. Little one, what is thy name?” said Petersen Sahib.
Little Toomai was too frightened to speak, but Kala Nag was behind him, and Toomai made a sign with his hand, and the elephant caught him up in his trunk and held him level with Pudmini’s forehead, in front of the great Petersen Sahib. Then Little Toomai covered his face with his hands, for he was only a child, and except where elephants were concerned, he was just as bashful as a child could be.
“Oho!” said Petersen Sahib, smiling underneath his mustache, “and why didst thou teach thy elephant that trick? Was it to help thee steal green corn from the roofs of the houses when the ears are put out to dry?”
“Not green corn, Protector of the Poor,—melons,” said Little Toomai, and all the men sitting about broke into a roar of laughter. Most of them had taught their elephants that trick when they were boys. Little Toomai was hanging eight feet up in the air, and he wished very much that he were eight feet underground.
“He is Toomai, my son, Sahib,” said Big Toomai, scowling. “He is a very bad boy, and he will end in a jail, Sahib.”
“Of that I have my doubts,” said Petersen Sahib. “A boy who can face a full Keddah at his age does not end in jails. See, little one, here are four annas to spend in sweetmeats because thou hast a little head under that great thatch of hair. In time thou mayest become a hunter too.” Big Toomai scowled more than ever. “Remember, though, that Keddahs are not good for children to play in,” Petersen Sahib went on.
“Must I never go there, Sahib?” asked Little Toomai with a big gasp.
“Yes.” Petersen Sahib smiled again. “When thou hast seen the elephants dance. That is the proper time. Come to me when thou hast seen the elephants dance, and then I will let thee go into all the Keddahs.”
There was another roar of laughter, for that is an old joke among elephant-catchers, and it means just never. There are great cleared flat places hidden away in the forests that are called elephants’ ball-rooms, but even these are only found by accident, and no man has ever seen the elephants dance. When a driver boasts of his skill and bravery the other drivers say, “And when didst thou see the elephants dance?”
Kala Nag put Little Toomai down, and he bowed to the earth again and went away with his father, and gave the silver four-anna piece to his mother, who was nursing his baby brother, and they all were put up on Kala Nag’s back, and the line of grunting, squealing elephants rolled down the hill path to the plains. It was a very lively march on account of the new elephants, who gave trouble at every ford, and needed coaxing or beating every other minute.
Big Toomai prodded Kala Nag spitefully, for he was very angry, but Little Toomai was too happy to speak. Petersen Sahib had noticed him, and given him money, so he felt as a private soldier would feel if he had been called out of the ranks and praised by his commander-in-chief.
“What did Petersen Sahib mean by the elephant dance?” he said, at last, softly to his mother.
Big Toomai heard him and grunted. “That thou shouldst never be one of these hill buffaloes of trackers. That was what he meant. Oh, you in front, what is blocking the way?”
An Assamese driver, two or three elephants ahead, turned round angrily, crying: “Bring up Kala Nag, and knock this youngster of mine into good behavior. Why should Petersen Sahib have chosen me to go down with you donkeys of the rice fields? Lay your beast alongside, Toomai, and let him prod with his tusks. By all the Gods of the Hills, these new elephants are possessed, or else they can smell their companions in the jungle.” Kala Nag hit the new elephant in the ribs and knocked the wind out of him, as Big Toomai said, “We have swept the hills of wild elephants at the last catch. It is only your carelessness in driving. Must I keep order along the whole line?”
“Hear him!” said the other driver. “We have swept the hills! Ho! Ho! You are very wise, you plains people. Anyone but a mud-head who never saw the jungle would know that they know that the drives are ended for the season. Therefore all the wild elephants to-night will—but why should I waste wisdom on a river-turtle?”
“What will they do?” Little Toomai called out.
“Ohe, little one. Art thou there? Well, I will tell thee, for thou hast a cool head. They will dance, and it behooves thy father, who has swept all the hills of all the elephants, to double-chain his pickets to-night.”
“What talk is this?” said Big Toomai. “For forty years, father and son, we have tended elephants, and we have never heard such moonshine about dances.”
“Yes; but a plainsman who lives in a hut knows only the four walls of his hut. Well, leave thy elephants unshackled tonight and see what comes. As for their dancing, I have seen the place where—Bapree-bap! How many windings has the Dihang River? Here is another ford, and we must swim the calves. Stop still, you behind there.”
And in this way, talking and wrangling and splashing through the rivers, they made their first march to a sort of receiving camp for the new elephants. But they lost their tempers long before they got there.
Then the elephants were chained by their hind legs to their big stumps of pickets, and extra ropes were fitted to the new elephants, and the fodder was piled before them, and the hill drivers went back to Petersen Sahib through the afternoon light, telling the plains drivers to be extra careful that night, and laughing when the plains drivers asked the reason.
Little Toomai attended to Kala Nag’s supper, and as evening fell, wandered through the camp, unspeakably happy, in search of a tom-tom. When an Indian child’s heart is full, he does not run about and make a noise in an irregular fashion. He sits down to a sort of revel all by himself. And Little Toomai had been spoken to by Petersen Sahib! If he had not found what he wanted, I believe he would have been ill. But the sweetmeat seller in the camp lent him a little tom-tom—a drum beaten with the flat of the hand—and he sat down, cross-legged, before Kala Nag as the stars began to come out, the tom-tom in his lap, and he thumped and he thumped and he thumped, and the more he thought of the great honor that had been done to him, the more he thumped, all alone among the elephant fodder. There was no tune and no words, but the thumping made him happy.
The new elephants strained at their ropes, and squealed and trumpeted from time to time, and he could hear his mother in the camp hut putting his small brother to sleep with an old, old song about the great God Shiv, who once told all the animals what they should eat. It is a very soothing lullaby, and the first verse says:
Shiv, who poured the harvest and made the winds to blow,
Sitting at the doorways of a day of long ago,
Gave to each his portion, food and toil and fate,
From the King upon the guddee to the Beggar at the gate.
All things made he—Shiva the Preserver.
Mahadeo! Mahadeo! He made all—
Thorn for the camel, fodder for the kine,
And mother’s heart for sleepy head, O little son of mine!
Little Toomai came in with a joyous tunk-a-tunk at the end of each verse, till he felt sleepy and stretched himself on the fodder at Kala Nag’s side. At last the elephants began to lie down one after another as is their custom, till only Kala Nag at the right of the line was left standing up; and he rocked slowly from side to side, his ears put forward to listen to the night wind as it blew very slowly across the hills. The air was full of all the night noises that, taken together, make one big silence—the click of one bamboo stem against the other, the rustle of something alive in the undergrowth, the scratch and squawk of a half-waked bird (birds are awake in the night much more often than we imagine), and the fall of water ever so far away. Little Toomai slept for some time, and when he waked it was brilliant moonlight, and Kala Nag was still standing up with his ears cocked. Little Toomai turned, rustling in the fodder, and watched the curve of his big back against half the stars in heaven, and while he watched he heard, so far away that it sounded no more than a pinhole of noise pricked through the stillness, the “hoot-toot” of a wild elephant.
All the elephants in the lines jumped up as if they had been shot, and their grunts at last waked the sleeping mahouts, and they came out and drove in the picket pegs with big mallets, and tightened this rope and knotted that till all was quiet. One new elephant had nearly grubbed up his picket, and Big Toomai took off Kala Nag’s leg chain and shackled that elephant fore-foot to hind-foot, but slipped a loop of grass string round Kala Nag’s leg, and told him to remember that he was tied fast. He knew that he and his father and his grandfather had done the very same thing hundreds of times before. Kala Nag did not answer to the order by gurgling, as he usually did. He stood still, looking out across the moonlight, his head a little raised and his ears spread like fans, up to the great folds of the Garo hills.
“Tend to him if he grows restless in the night,” said Big Toomai to Little Toomai, and he went into the hut and slept. Little Toomai was just going to sleep, too, when he heard the coir string snap with a little “tang,” and Kala Nag rolled out of his pickets as slowly and as silently as a cloud rolls out of the mouth of a valley. Little Toomai pattered after him, barefooted, down the road in the moonlight, calling under his breath, “Kala Nag! Kala Nag! Take me with you, O Kala Nag!” The elephant turned, without a sound, took three strides back to the boy in the moonlight, put down his trunk, swung him up to his neck, and almost before Little Toomai had settled his knees, slipped into the forest.
There was one blast of furious trumpeting from the lines, and then the silence shut down on everything, and Kala Nag began to move. Sometimes a tuft of high grass washed along his sides as a wave washes along the sides of a ship, and sometimes a cluster of wild-pepper vines would scrape along his back, or a bamboo would creak where his shoulder touched it. But between those times he moved absolutely without any sound, drifting through the thick Garo forest as though it had been smoke. He was going uphill, but though Little Toomai watched the stars in the rifts of the trees, he could not tell in what direction.
Then Kala Nag reached the crest of the ascent and stopped for a minute, and Little Toomai could see the tops of the trees lying all speckled and furry under the moonlight for miles and miles, and the blue-white mist over the river in the hollow. Toomai leaned forward and looked, and he felt that the forest was awake below him—awake and alive and crowded. A big brown fruit-eating bat brushed past his ear; a porcupine’s quills rattled in the thicket; and in the darkness between the tree stems he heard a hog-bear digging hard in the moist warm earth, and snuffing as it digged.
Then the branches closed over his head again, and Kala Nag began to go down into the valley—not quietly this time, but as a runaway gun goes down a steep bank—in one rush. The huge limbs moved as steadily as pistons, eight feet to each stride, and the wrinkled skin of the elbow points rustled. The undergrowth on either side of him ripped with a noise like torn canvas, and the saplings that he heaved away right and left with his shoulders sprang back again and banged him on the flank, and great trails of creepers, all matted together, hung from his tusks as he threw his head from side to side and plowed out his pathway. Then Little Toomai laid himself down close to the great neck lest a swinging bough should sweep him to the ground, and he wished that he were back in the lines again.
The grass began to get squashy, and Kala Nag’s feet sucked and squelched as he put them down, and the night mist at the bottom of the valley chilled Little Toomai. There was a splash and a trample, and the rush of running water, and Kala Nag strode through the bed of a river, feeling his way at each step. Above the noise of the water, as it swirled round the elephant’s legs, Little Toomai could hear more splashing and some trumpeting both upstream and down—great grunts and angry snortings, and all the mist about him seemed to be full of rolling, wavy shadows.
“Ai!” he said, half aloud, his teeth chattering. “The elephant-folk are out tonight. It is the dance, then!”
Kala Nag swashed out of the water, blew his trunk clear, and began another climb. But this time he was not alone, and he had not to make his path. That was made already, six feet wide, in front of him, where the bent jungle-grass was trying to recover itself and stand up. Many elephants must have gone that way only a few minutes before. Little Toomai looked back, and behind him a great wild tusker with his little pig’s eyes glowing like hot coals was just lifting himself out of the misty river. Then the trees closed up again, and they went on and up, with trumpetings and crashings, and the sound of breaking branches on every side of them.
At last Kala Nag stood still between two tree-trunks at the very top of the hill. They were part of a circle of trees that grew round an irregular space of some three or four acres, and in all that space, as Little Toomai could see, the ground had been trampled down as hard as a brick floor. Some trees grew in the center of the clearing, but their bark was rubbed away, and the white wood beneath showed all shiny and polished in the patches of moonlight. There were creepers hanging from the upper branches, and the bells of the flowers of the creepers, great waxy white things like convolvuluses, hung down fast asleep. But within the limits of the clearing there was not a single blade of green—nothing but the trampled earth.
The moonlight showed it all iron gray, except where some elephants stood upon it, and their shadows were inky black. Little Toomai looked, holding his breath, with his eyes starting out of his head, and as he looked, more and more and more elephants swung out into the open from between the tree trunks. Little Toomai could only count up to ten, and he counted again and again on his fingers till he lost count of the tens, and his head began to swim. Outside the clearing he could hear them crashing in the undergrowth as they worked their way up the hillside, but as soon as they were within the circle of the tree trunks they moved like ghosts.
There were white-tusked wild males, with fallen leaves and nuts and twigs lying in the wrinkles of their necks and the folds of their ears; fat, slow-footed she-elephants, with restless, little pinky black calves only three or four feet high running under their stomachs; young elephants with their tusks just beginning to show, and very proud of them; lanky, scraggy old-maid elephants, with their hollow anxious faces, and trunks like rough bark; savage old bull elephants, scarred from shoulder to flank with great weals and cuts of bygone fights, and the caked dirt of their solitary mud baths dropping from their shoulders; and there was one with a broken tusk and the marks of the full-stroke, the terrible drawing scrape, of a tiger’s claws on his side.
They were standing head to head, or walking to and fro across the ground in couples, or rocking and swaying all by themselves—scores and scores of elephants.
Toomai knew that so long as he lay still on Kala Nag’s neck nothing would happen to him, for even in the rush and scramble of a Keddah drive a wild elephant does not reach up with his trunk and drag a man off the neck of a tame elephant. And these elephants were not thinking of men that night. Once they started and put their ears forward when they heard the chinking of a leg iron in the forest, but it was Pudmini, Petersen Sahib’s pet elephant, her chain snapped short off, grunting, snuffling up the hillside. She must have broken her pickets and come straight from Petersen Sahib’s camp; and Little Toomai saw another elephant, one that he did not know, with deep rope galls on his back and breast. He, too, must have run away from some camp in the hills about.
At last there was no sound of any more elephants moving in the forest, and Kala Nag rolled out from his station between the trees and went into the middle of the crowd, clucking and gurgling, and all the elephants began to talk in their own tongue, and to move about.
Still lying down, Little Toomai looked down upon scores and scores of broad backs, and wagging ears, and tossing trunks, and little rolling eyes. He heard the click of tusks as they crossed other tusks by accident, and the dry rustle of trunks twined together, and the chafing of enormous sides and shoulders in the crowd, and the incessant flick and hissh of the great tails. Then a cloud came over the moon, and he sat in black darkness. But the quiet, steady hustling and pushing and gurgling went on just the same. He knew that there were elephants all round Kala Nag, and that there was no chance of backing him out of the assembly; so he set his teeth and shivered. In a Keddah at least there was torchlight and shouting, but here he was all alone in the dark, and once a trunk came up and touched him on the knee.
Then an elephant trumpeted, and they all took it up for five or ten terrible seconds. The dew from the trees above spattered down like rain on the unseen backs, and a dull booming noise began, not very loud at first, and Little Toomai could not tell what it was. But it grew and grew, and Kala Nag lifted up one forefoot and then the other, and brought them down on the ground—one-two, one-two, as steadily as trip-hammers. The elephants were stamping all together now, and it sounded like a war drum beaten at the mouth of a cave. The dew fell from the trees till there was no more left to fall, and the booming went on, and the ground rocked and shivered, and Little Toomai put his hands up to his ears to shut out the sound. But it was all one gigantic jar that ran through him—this stamp of hundreds of heavy feet on the raw earth. Once or twice he could feel Kala Nag and all the others surge forward a few strides, and the thumping would change to the crushing sound of juicy green things being bruised, but in a minute or two the boom of feet on hard earth began again. A tree was creaking and groaning somewhere near him. He put out his arm and felt the bark, but Kala Nag moved forward, still tramping, and he could not tell where he was in the clearing. There was no sound from the elephants, except once, when two or three little calves squeaked together. Then he heard a thump and a shuffle, and the booming went on. It must have lasted fully two hours, and Little Toomai ached in every nerve, but he knew by the smell of the night air that the dawn was coming.
The morning broke in one sheet of pale yellow behind the green hills, and the booming stopped with the first ray, as though the light had been an order. Before Little Toomai had got the ringing out of his head, before even he had shifted his position, there was not an elephant in sight except Kala Nag, Pudmini, and the elephant with the rope-galls, and there was neither sign nor rustle nor whisper down the hillsides to show where the others had gone.
Little Toomai stared again and again. The clearing, as he remembered it, had grown in the night. More trees stood in the middle of it, but the undergrowth and the jungle grass at the sides had been rolled back. Little Toomai stared once more. Now he understood the trampling. The elephants had stamped out more room—had stamped the thick grass and juicy cane to trash, the trash into slivers, the slivers into tiny fibers, and the fibers into hard earth.
“Wah!” said Little Toomai, and his eyes were very heavy. “Kala Nag, my lord, let us keep by Pudmini and go to Petersen Sahib’s camp, or I shall drop from thy neck.”
The third elephant watched the two go away, snorted, wheeled round, and took his own path. He may have belonged to some little native king’s establishment, fifty or sixty or a hundred miles away.
Two hours later, as Petersen Sahib was eating early breakfast, his elephants, who had been double chained that night, began to trumpet, and Pudmini, mired to the shoulders, with Kala Nag, very footsore, shambled into the camp. Little Toomai’s face was gray and pinched, and his hair was full of leaves and drenched with dew, but he tried to salute Petersen Sahib, and cried faintly: “The dance—the elephant dance! I have seen it, and—I die!” As Kala Nag sat down, he slid off his neck in a dead faint.
But, since native children have no nerves worth speaking of, in two hours he was lying very contentedly in Petersen Sahib’s hammock with Petersen Sahib’s shooting-coat under his head, and a glass of warm milk, a little brandy, with a dash of quinine, inside of him, and while the old hairy, scarred hunters of the jungles sat three deep before him, looking at him as though he were a spirit, he told his tale in short words, as a child will, and wound up with:
“Now, if I lie in one word, send men to see, and they will find that the elephant folk have trampled down more room in their dance-room, and they will find ten and ten, and many times ten, tracks leading to that dance-room. They made more room with their feet. I have seen it. Kala Nag took me, and I saw. Also Kala Nag is very leg-weary!”
Little Toomai lay back and slept all through the long afternoon and into the twilight, and while he slept Petersen Sahib and Machua Appa followed the track of the two elephants for fifteen miles across the hills. Petersen Sahib had spent eighteen years in catching elephants, and he had only once before found such a dance-place. Machua Appa had no need to look twice at the clearing to see what had been done there, or to scratch with his toe in the packed, rammed earth.
“The child speaks truth,” said he. “All this was done last night, and I have counted seventy tracks crossing the river. See, Sahib, where Pudmini’s leg-iron cut the bark of that tree! Yes; she was there too.”
They looked at one another and up and down, and they wondered. For the ways of elephants are beyond the wit of any man, black or white, to fathom.
“Forty years and five,” said Machua Appa, “have I followed my lord, the elephant, but never have I heard that any child of man had seen what this child has seen. By all the Gods of the Hills, it is—what can we say?” and he shook his head.
When they got back to camp it was time for the evening meal. Petersen Sahib ate alone in his tent, but he gave orders that the camp should have two sheep and some fowls, as well as a double ration of flour and rice and salt, for he knew that there would be a feast.
Big Toomai had come up hotfoot from the camp in the plains to search for his son and his elephant, and now that he had found them he looked at them as though he were afraid of them both. And there was a feast by the blazing campfires in front of the lines of picketed elephants, and Little Toomai was the hero of it all. And the big brown elephant catchers, the trackers and drivers and ropers, and the men who know all the secrets of breaking the wildest elephants, passed him from one to the other, and they marked his forehead with blood from the breast of a newly killed jungle-cock, to show that he was a forester, initiated and free of all the jungles.
And at last, when the flames died down, and the red light of the logs made the elephants look as though they had been dipped in blood too, Machua Appa, the head of all the drivers of all the Keddahs—Machua Appa, Petersen Sahib’s other self, who had never seen a made road in forty years: Machua Appa, who was so great that he had no other name than Machua Appa,—leaped to his feet, with Little Toomai held high in the air above his head, and shouted: “Listen, my brothers. Listen, too, you my lords in the lines there, for I, Machua Appa, am speaking! This little one shall no more be called Little Toomai, but Toomai of the Elephants, as his great-grandfather was called before him. What never man has seen he has seen through the long night, and the favor of the elephant-folk and of the Gods of the Jungles is with him. He shall become a great tracker. He shall become greater than I, even I, Machua Appa! He shall follow the new trail, and the stale trail, and the mixed trail, with a clear eye! He shall take no harm in the Keddah when he runs under their bellies to rope the wild tuskers; and if he slips before the feet of the charging bull elephant, the bull elephant shall know who he is and shall not crush him. Aihai! my lords in the chains,”—he whirled up the line of pickets—“here is the little one that has seen your dances in your hidden places,—the sight that never man saw! Give him honor, my lords! Salaam karo, my children. Make your salute to Toomai of the Elephants! Gunga Pershad, ahaa! Hira Guj, Birchi Guj, Kuttar Guj, ahaa! Pudmini,—thou hast seen him at the dance, and thou too, Kala Nag, my pearl among elephants!—ahaa! Together! To Toomai of the Elephants. Barrao!”
And at that last wild yell the whole line flung up their trunks till the tips touched their foreheads, and broke out into the full salute—the crashing trumpet-peal that only the Viceroy of India hears, the Salaamut of the Keddah.
But it was all for the sake of Little Toomai, who had seen what never man had seen before—the dance of the elephants at night and alone in the heart of the Garo hills!
Shiv and the Grasshopper
(The song that Toomai’s mother sang to the baby)
Shiv, who poured the harvest and made the winds to blow,
Sitting at the doorways of a day of long ago,
Gave to each his portion, food and toil and fate,
From the King upon the guddee to the Beggar at the gate.
All things made he—Shiva the Preserver.
Mahadeo! Mahadeo! He made all,—
Thorn for the camel, fodder for the kine,
And mother’s heart for sleepy head, O little son of mine!
Wheat he gave to rich folk, millet to the poor,
Broken scraps for holy men that beg from door to door;
Battle to the tiger, carrion to the kite,
And rags and bones to wicked wolves without the wall at night.
Naught he found too lofty, none he saw too low—
Parbati beside him watched them come and go;
Thought to cheat her husband, turning Shiv to jest—
Stole the little grasshopper and hid it in her breast.
So she tricked him, Shiva the Preserver.
Mahadeo! Mahadeo! Turn and see.
Tall are the camels, heavy are the kine,
But this was Least of Little Things, O little son of mine!
When the dole was ended, laughingly she said,
“Master, of a million mouths, is not one unfed?”
Laughing, Shiv made answer, “All have had their part,
Even he, the little one, hidden ‘neath thy heart.”
From her breast she plucked it, Parbati the thief,
Saw the Least of Little Things gnawed a new-grown leaf!
Saw and feared and wondered, making prayer to Shiv,
Who hath surely given meat to all that live.
All things made he—Shiva the Preserver.
Mahadeo! Mahadeo! He made all,—
Thorn for the camel, fodder for the kine,
And mother’s heart for sleepy head, O little son of mine!
Her Majesty’s Servants
You can work it out by Fractions or by simple Rule of Three,
But the way of Tweedle-dum is not the way of Tweedle-dee.
You can twist it, you can turn it, you can plait it till you drop,
But the way of Pilly Winky’s not the way of Winkie Pop!
It had been raining heavily for one whole month—raining on a camp of thirty thousand men and thousands of camels, elephants, horses, bullocks, and mules all gathered together at a place called Rawal Pindi, to be reviewed by the Viceroy of India. He was receiving a visit from the Amir of Afghanistan—a wild king of a very wild country. The Amir had brought with him for a bodyguard eight hundred men and horses who had never seen a camp or a locomotive before in their lives—savage men and savage horses from somewhere at the back of Central Asia. Every night a mob of these horses would be sure to break their heel ropes and stampede up and down the camp through the mud in the dark, or the camels would break loose and run about and fall over the ropes of the tents, and you can imagine how pleasant that was for men trying to go to sleep. My tent lay far away from the camel lines, and I thought it was safe. But one night a man popped his head in and shouted, “Get out, quick! They’re coming! My tent’s gone!”
I knew who “they” were, so I put on my boots and waterproof and scuttled out into the slush. Little Vixen, my fox terrier, went out through the other side; and then there was a roaring and a grunting and bubbling, and I saw the tent cave in, as the pole snapped, and begin to dance about like a mad ghost. A camel had blundered into it, and wet and angry as I was, I could not help laughing. Then I ran on, because I did not know how many camels might have got loose, and before long I was out of sight of the camp, plowing my way through the mud.
At last I fell over the tail-end of a gun, and by that knew I was somewhere near the artillery lines where the cannon were stacked at night. As I did not want to plowter about any more in the drizzle and the dark, I put my waterproof over the muzzle of one gun, and made a sort of wigwam with two or three rammers that I found, and lay along the tail of another gun, wondering where Vixen had got to, and where I might be.
Just as I was getting ready to go to sleep I heard a jingle of harness and a grunt, and a mule passed me shaking his wet ears. He belonged to a screw-gun battery, for I could hear the rattle of the straps and rings and chains and things on his saddle pad. The screw-guns are tiny little cannon made in two pieces, that are screwed together when the time comes to use them. They are taken up mountains, anywhere that a mule can find a road, and they are very useful for fighting in rocky country.
Behind the mule there was a camel, with his big soft feet squelching and slipping in the mud, and his neck bobbing to and fro like a strayed hen’s. Luckily, I knew enough of beast language—not wild-beast language, but camp-beast language, of course—from the natives to know what he was saying.
He must have been the one that flopped into my tent, for he called to the mule, “What shall I do? Where shall I go? I have fought with a white thing that waved, and it took a stick and hit me on the neck.” (That was my broken tent pole, and I was very glad to know it.) “Shall we run on?”
“Oh, it was you,” said the mule, “you and your friends, that have been disturbing the camp? All right. You’ll be beaten for this in the morning. But I may as well give you something on account now.”
I heard the harness jingle as the mule backed and caught the camel two kicks in the ribs that rang like a drum. “Another time,” he said, “you’ll know better than to run through a mule battery at night, shouting `Thieves and fire!’ Sit down, and keep your silly neck quiet.”
The camel doubled up camel-fashion, like a two-foot rule, and sat down whimpering. There was a regular beat of hoofs in the darkness, and a big troop-horse cantered up as steadily as though he were on parade, jumped a gun tail, and landed close to the mule.
“It’s disgraceful,” he said, blowing out his nostrils. “Those camels have racketed through our lines again—the third time this week. How’s a horse to keep his condition if he isn’t allowed to sleep. Who’s here?”
“I’m the breech-piece mule of number two gun of the First Screw Battery,” said the mule, “and the other’s one of your friends. He’s waked me up too. Who are you?”
“Number Fifteen, E troop, Ninth Lancers—Dick Cunliffe’s horse. Stand over a little, there.”
“Oh, beg your pardon,” said the mule. “It’s too dark to see much. Aren’t these camels too sickening for anything? I walked out of my lines to get a little peace and quiet here.”
“My lords,” said the camel humbly, “we dreamed bad dreams in the night, and we were very much afraid. I am only a baggage camel of the 39th Native Infantry, and I am not as brave as you are, my lords.”
“Then why didn’t you stay and carry baggage for the 39th Native Infantry, instead of running all round the camp?” said the mule.
“They were such very bad dreams,” said the camel. “I am sorry. Listen! What is that? Shall we run on again?”
“Sit down,” said the mule, “or you’ll snap your long stick-legs between the guns.” He cocked one ear and listened. “Bullocks!” he said. “Gun bullocks. On my word, you and your friends have waked the camp very thoroughly. It takes a good deal of prodding to put up a gun-bullock.”
I heard a chain dragging along the ground, and a yoke of the great sulky white bullocks that drag the heavy siege guns when the elephants won’t go any nearer to the firing, came shouldering along together. And almost stepping on the chain was another battery mule, calling wildly for “Billy.”
“That’s one of our recruits,” said the old mule to the troop horse. “He’s calling for me. Here, youngster, stop squealing. The dark never hurt anybody yet.”
The gun-bullocks lay down together and began chewing the cud, but the young mule huddled close to Billy.
“Things!” he said. “Fearful and horrible, Billy! They came into our lines while we were asleep. D’you think they’ll kill us?”
“I’ve a very great mind to give you a number-one kicking,” said Billy. “The idea of a fourteen-hand mule with your training disgracing the battery before this gentleman!”
“Gently, gently!” said the troop-horse. “Remember they are always like this to begin with. The first time I ever saw a man (it was in Australia when I was a three-year-old) I ran for half a day, and if I’d seen a camel, I should have been running still.”
Nearly all our horses for the English cavalry are brought to India from Australia, and are broken in by the troopers themselves.
“True enough,” said Billy. “Stop shaking, youngster. The first time they put the full harness with all its chains on my back I stood on my forelegs and kicked every bit of it off. I hadn’t learned the real science of kicking then, but the battery said they had never seen anything like it.”
“But this wasn’t harness or anything that jingled,” said the young mule. “You know I don’t mind that now, Billy. It was Things like trees, and they fell up and down the lines and bubbled; and my head-rope broke, and I couldn’t find my driver, and I couldn’t find you, Billy, so I ran off with—with these gentlemen.”
“H’m!” said Billy. “As soon as I heard the camels were loose I came away on my own account. When a battery—a screw-gun mule calls gun-bullocks gentlemen, he must be very badly shaken up. Who are you fellows on the ground there?”
The gun bullocks rolled their cuds, and answered both together: “The seventh yoke of the first gun of the Big Gun Battery. We were asleep when the camels came, but when we were trampled on we got up and walked away. It is better to lie quiet in the mud than to be disturbed on good bedding. We told your friend here that there was nothing to be afraid of, but he knew so much that he thought otherwise. Wah!”
They went on chewing.
“That comes of being afraid,” said Billy. “You get laughed at by gun-bullocks. I hope you like it, young un.”
The young mule’s teeth snapped, and I heard him say something about not being afraid of any beefy old bullock in the world. But the bullocks only clicked their horns together and went on chewing.
“Now, don’t be angry after you’ve been afraid. That’s the worst kind of cowardice,” said the troop-horse. “Anybody can be forgiven for being scared in the night, I think, if they see things they don’t understand. We’ve broken out of our pickets, again and again, four hundred and fifty of us, just because a new recruit got to telling tales of whip snakes at home in Australia till we were scared to death of the loose ends of our head-ropes.”
“That’s all very well in camp,” said Billy. “I’m not above stampeding myself, for the fun of the thing, when I haven’t been out for a day or two. But what do you do on active service?”
“Oh, that’s quite another set of new shoes,” said the troop horse. “Dick Cunliffe’s on my back then, and drives his knees into me, and all I have to do is to watch where I am putting my feet, and to keep my hind legs well under me, and be bridle-wise.”
“What’s bridle-wise?” said the young mule.
“By the Blue Gums of the Back Blocks,” snorted the troop-horse, “do you mean to say that you aren’t taught to be bridle-wise in your business? How can you do anything, unless you can spin round at once when the rein is pressed on your neck? It means life or death to your man, and of course that’s life and death to you. Get round with your hind legs under you the instant you feel the rein on your neck. If you haven’t room to swing round, rear up a little and come round on your hind legs. That’s being bridle-wise.”
“We aren’t taught that way,” said Billy the mule stiffly. “We’re taught to obey the man at our head: step off when he says so, and step in when he says so. I suppose it comes to the same thing. Now, with all this fine fancy business and rearing, which must be very bad for your hocks, what do you do?”
“That depends,” said the troop-horse. “Generally I have to go in among a lot of yelling, hairy men with knives—long shiny knives, worse than the farrier’s knives—and I have to take care that Dick’s boot is just touching the next man’s boot without crushing it. I can see Dick’s lance to the right of my right eye, and I know I’m safe. I shouldn’t care to be the man or horse that stood up to Dick and me when we’re in a hurry.”
“Don’t the knives hurt?” said the young mule.
“Well, I got one cut across the chest once, but that wasn’t Dick’s fault—”
“A lot I should have cared whose fault it was, if it hurt!” said the young mule.
“You must,” said the troop horse. “If you don’t trust your man, you may as well run away at once. That’s what some of our horses do, and I don’t blame them. As I was saying, it wasn’t Dick’s fault. The man was lying on the ground, and I stretched myself not to tread on him, and he slashed up at me. Next time I have to go over a man lying down I shall step on him—hard.”
“H’m!” said Billy. “It sounds very foolish. Knives are dirty things at any time. The proper thing to do is to climb up a mountain with a well-balanced saddle, hang on by all four feet and your ears too, and creep and crawl and wriggle along, till you come out hundreds of feet above anyone else on a ledge where there’s just room enough for your hoofs. Then you stand still and keep quiet—never ask a man to hold your head, young un—keep quiet while the guns are being put together, and then you watch the little poppy shells drop down into the tree-tops ever so far below.”
“Don’t you ever trip?” said the troop-horse.
“They say that when a mule trips you can split a hen’s ear,” said Billy. “Now and again perhaps a badly packed saddle will upset a mule, but it’s very seldom. I wish I could show you our business. It’s beautiful. Why, it took me three years to find out what the men were driving at. The science of the thing is never to show up against the sky line, because, if you do, you may get fired at. Remember that, young un. Always keep hidden as much as possible, even if you have to go a mile out of your way. I lead the battery when it comes to that sort of climbing.”
“Fired at without the chance of running into the people who are firing!” said the troop-horse, thinking hard. “I couldn’t stand that. I should want to charge—with Dick.”
“Oh, no, you wouldn’t. You know that as soon as the guns are in position they’ll do all the charging. That’s scientific and neat. But knives—pah!”
The baggage-camel had been bobbing his head to and fro for some time past, anxious to get a word in edgewise. Then I heard him say, as he cleared his throat, nervously:
“I—I—I have fought a little, but not in that climbing way or that running way.”
“No. Now you mention it,” said Billy, “you don’t look as though you were made for climbing or running—much. Well, how was it, old Hay-bales?”
“The proper way,” said the camel. “We all sat down—”
“Oh, my crupper and breastplate!” said the troop-horse under his breath. “Sat down!”
“We sat down—a hundred of us,” the camel went on, “in a big square, and the men piled our packs and saddles, outside the square, and they fired over our backs, the men did, on all sides of the square.”
“What sort of men? Any men that came along?” said the troop-horse. “They teach us in riding school to lie down and let our masters fire across us, but Dick Cunliffe is the only man I’d trust to do that. It tickles my girths, and, besides, I can’t see with my head on the ground.”
“What does it matter who fires across you?” said the camel. “There are plenty of men and plenty of other camels close by, and a great many clouds of smoke. I am not frightened then. I sit still and wait.”
“And yet,” said Billy, “you dream bad dreams and upset the camp at night. Well, well! Before I’d lie down, not to speak of sitting down, and let a man fire across me, my heels and his head would have something to say to each other. Did you ever hear anything so awful as that?”
There was a long silence, and then one of the gun bullocks lifted up his big head and said, “This is very foolish indeed. There is only one way of fighting.”
“Oh, go on,” said Billy. “Please don’t mind me. I suppose you fellows fight standing on your tails?”
“Only one way,” said the two together. (They must have been twins.) “This is that way. To put all twenty yoke of us to the big gun as soon as Two Tails trumpets.” (“Two Tails” is camp slang for the elephant.)
“What does Two Tails trumpet for?” said the young mule.
“To show that he is not going any nearer to the smoke on the other side. Two Tails is a great coward. Then we tug the big gun all together—Heya—Hullah! Heeyah! Hullah! We do not climb like cats nor run like calves. We go across the level plain, twenty yoke of us, till we are unyoked again, and we graze while the big guns talk across the plain to some town with mud walls, and pieces of the wall fall out, and the dust goes up as though many cattle were coming home.”
“Oh! And you choose that time for grazing?” said the young mule.
“That time or any other. Eating is always good. We eat till we are yoked up again and tug the gun back to where Two Tails is waiting for it. Sometimes there are big guns in the city that speak back, and some of us are killed, and then there is all the more grazing for those that are left. This is Fate. None the less, Two Tails is a great coward. That is the proper way to fight. We are brothers from Hapur. Our father was a sacred bull of Shiva. We have spoken.”
“Well, I’ve certainly learned something tonight,” said the troop-horse. “Do you gentlemen of the screw-gun battery feel inclined to eat when you are being fired at with big guns, and Two Tails is behind you?”
“About as much as we feel inclined to sit down and let men sprawl all over us, or run into people with knives. I never heard such stuff. A mountain ledge, a well-balanced load, a driver you can trust to let you pick your own way, and I’m your mule. But—the other things—no!” said Billy, with a stamp of his foot.
“Of course,” said the troop horse, “everyone is not made in the same way, and I can quite see that your family, on your father’s side, would fail to understand a great many things.”
“Never you mind my family on my father’s side,” said Billy angrily, for every mule hates to be reminded that his father was a donkey. “My father was a Southern gentleman, and he could pull down and bite and kick into rags every horse he came across. Remember that, you big brown Brumby!”
Brumby means wild horse without any breeding. Imagine the feelings of Sunol if a car-horse called her a “skate,” and you can imagine how the Australian horse felt. I saw the white of his eye glitter in the dark.
“See here, you son of an imported Malaga jackass,” he said between his teeth, “I’d have you know that I’m related on my mother’s side to Carbine, winner of the Melbourne Cup, and where I come from we aren’t accustomed to being ridden over roughshod by any parrot-mouthed, pig-headed mule in a pop-gun pea-shooter battery. Are you ready?”
“On your hind legs!” squealed Billy. They both reared up facing each other, and I was expecting a furious fight, when a gurgly, rumbly voice, called out of the darkness to the right—“Children, what are you fighting about there? Be quiet.”
Both beasts dropped down with a snort of disgust, for neither horse nor mule can bear to listen to an elephant’s voice.
“It’s Two Tails!” said the troop-horse. “I can’t stand him. A tail at each end isn’t fair!”
“My feelings exactly,” said Billy, crowding into the troop-horse for company. “We’re very alike in some things.”
“I suppose we’ve inherited them from our mothers,” said the troop horse. “It’s not worth quarreling about. Hi! Two Tails, are you tied up?”
“Yes,” said Two Tails, with a laugh all up his trunk. “I’m picketed for the night. I’ve heard what you fellows have been saying. But don’t be afraid. I’m not coming over.”
The bullocks and the camel said, half aloud, “Afraid of Two Tails—what nonsense!” And the bullocks went on, “We are sorry that you heard, but it is true. Two Tails, why are you afraid of the guns when they fire?”
“Well,” said Two Tails, rubbing one hind leg against the other, exactly like a little boy saying a poem, “I don’t quite know whether you’d understand.”
“We don’t, but we have to pull the guns,” said the bullocks.
“I know it, and I know you are a good deal braver than you think you are. But it’s different with me. My battery captain called me a Pachydermatous Anachronism the other day.”
“That’s another way of fighting, I suppose?” said Billy, who was recovering his spirits.
“You don’t know what that means, of course, but I do. It means betwixt and between, and that is just where I am. I can see inside my head what will happen when a shell bursts, and you bullocks can’t.”
“I can,” said the troop-horse. “At least a little bit. I try not to think about it.”
“I can see more than you, and I do think about it. I know there’s a great deal of me to take care of, and I know that nobody knows how to cure me when I’m sick. All they can do is to stop my driver’s pay till I get well, and I can’t trust my driver.”
“Ah!” said the troop horse. “That explains it. I can trust Dick.”
“You could put a whole regiment of Dicks on my back without making me feel any better. I know just enough to be uncomfortable, and not enough to go on in spite of it.”
“We do not understand,” said the bullocks.
“I know you don’t. I’m not talking to you. You don’t know what blood is.”
“We do,” said the bullocks. “It is red stuff that soaks into the ground and smells.”
The troop-horse gave a kick and a bound and a snort.
“Don’t talk of it,” he said. “I can smell it now, just thinking of it. It makes me want to run—when I haven’t Dick on my back.”
“But it is not here,” said the camel and the bullocks. “Why are you so stupid?”
“It’s vile stuff,” said Billy. “I don’t want to run, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
“There you are!” said Two Tails, waving his tail to explain.
“Surely. Yes, we have been here all night,” said the bullocks.
Two Tails stamped his foot till the iron ring on it jingled. “Oh, I’m not talking to you. You can’t see inside your heads.”
“No. We see out of our four eyes,” said the bullocks. “We see straight in front of us.”
“If I could do that and nothing else, you wouldn’t be needed to pull the big guns at all. If I was like my captain—he can see things inside his head before the firing begins, and he shakes all over, but he knows too much to run away—if I was like him I could pull the guns. But if I were as wise as all that I should never be here. I should be a king in the forest, as I used to be, sleeping half the day and bathing when I liked. I haven’t had a good bath for a month.”
“That’s all very fine,” said Billy. “But giving a thing a long name doesn’t make it any better.”
“H’sh!” said the troop horse. “I think I understand what Two Tails means.”
“You’ll understand better in a minute,” said Two Tails angrily. “Now you just explain to me why you don’t like this!”
He began trumpeting furiously at the top of his trumpet.
“Stop that!” said Billy and the troop horse together, and I could hear them stamp and shiver. An elephant’s trumpeting is always nasty, especially on a dark night.
“I shan’t stop,” said Two Tails. “Won’t you explain that, please? Hhrrmph! Rrrt! Rrrmph! Rrrhha!” Then he stopped suddenly, and I heard a little whimper in the dark, and knew that Vixen had found me at last. She knew as well as I did that if there is one thing in the world the elephant is more afraid of than another it is a little barking dog. So she stopped to bully Two Tails in his pickets, and yapped round his big feet. Two Tails shuffled and squeaked. “Go away, little dog!” he said. “Don’t snuff at my ankles, or I’ll kick at you. Good little dog—nice little doggie, then! Go home, you yelping little beast! Oh, why doesn’t someone take her away? She’ll bite me in a minute.”
“Seems to me,” said Billy to the troop horse, “that our friend Two Tails is afraid of most things. Now, if I had a full meal for every dog I’ve kicked across the parade-ground I should be as fat as Two Tails nearly.”
I whistled, and Vixen ran up to me, muddy all over, and licked my nose, and told me a long tale about hunting for me all through the camp. I never let her know that I understood beast talk, or she would have taken all sorts of liberties. So I buttoned her into the breast of my overcoat, and Two Tails shuffled and stamped and growled to himself.
“Extraordinary! Most extraordinary!” he said. “It runs in our family. Now, where has that nasty little beast gone to?”
I heard him feeling about with his trunk.
“We all seem to be affected in various ways,” he went on, blowing his nose. “Now, you gentlemen were alarmed, I believe, when I trumpeted.”
“Not alarmed, exactly,” said the troop-horse, “but it made me feel as though I had hornets where my saddle ought to be. Don’t begin again.”
“I’m frightened of a little dog, and the camel here is frightened by bad dreams in the night.”
“It is very lucky for us that we haven’t all got to fight in the same way,” said the troop-horse.
“What I want to know,” said the young mule, who had been quiet for a long time—“what I want to know is, why we have to fight at all.”
“Because we’re told to,” said the troop-horse, with a snort of contempt.
“Orders,” said Billy the mule, and his teeth snapped.
“Hukm hai!” (It is an order!), said the camel with a gurgle, and Two Tails and the bullocks repeated, “Hukm hai!”
“Yes, but who gives the orders?” said the recruit-mule.
“The man who walks at your head—Or sits on your back—Or holds the nose rope—Or twists your tail,” said Billy and the troop-horse and the camel and the bullocks one after the other.
“But who gives them the orders?”
“Now you want to know too much, young un,” said Billy, “and that is one way of getting kicked. All you have to do is to obey the man at your head and ask no questions.”
“He’s quite right,” said Two Tails. “I can’t always obey, because I’m betwixt and between. But Billy’s right. Obey the man next to you who gives the order, or you’ll stop all the battery, besides getting a thrashing.”
The gun-bullocks got up to go. “Morning is coming,” they said. “We will go back to our lines. It is true that we only see out of our eyes, and we are not very clever. But still, we are the only people to-night who have not been afraid. Good-night, you brave people.”
Nobody answered, and the troop-horse said, to change the conversation, “Where’s that little dog? A dog means a man somewhere about.”
“Here I am,” yapped Vixen, “under the gun tail with my man. You big, blundering beast of a camel you, you upset our tent. My man’s very angry.”
“Phew!” said the bullocks. “He must be white!”
“Of course he is,” said Vixen. “Do you suppose I’m looked after by a black bullock-driver?”
“Huah! Ouach! Ugh!” said the bullocks. “Let us get away quickly.”
They plunged forward in the mud, and managed somehow to run their yoke on the pole of an ammunition wagon, where it jammed.
“Now you have done it,” said Billy calmly. “Don’t struggle. You’re hung up till daylight. What on earth’s the matter?”
The bullocks went off into the long hissing snorts that Indian cattle give, and pushed and crowded and slued and stamped and slipped and nearly fell down in the mud, grunting savagely.
“You’ll break your necks in a minute,” said the troop-horse. “What’s the matter with white men? I live with ‘em.”
“They—eat—us! Pull!” said the near bullock. The yoke snapped with a twang, and they lumbered off together.
I never knew before what made Indian cattle so scared of Englishmen. We eat beef—a thing that no cattle-driver touches—and of course the cattle do not like it.
“May I be flogged with my own pad-chains! Who’d have thought of two big lumps like those losing their heads?” said Billy.
“Never mind. I’m going to look at this man. Most of the white men, I know, have things in their pockets,” said the troop-horse.
“I’ll leave you, then. I can’t say I’m over-fond of ‘em myself. Besides, white men who haven’t a place to sleep in are more than likely to be thieves, and I’ve a good deal of Government property on my back. Come along, young un, and we’ll go back to our lines. Good-night, Australia! See you on parade to-morrow, I suppose. Good-night, old Hay-bale!—try to control your feelings, won’t you? Good-night, Two Tails! If you pass us on the ground tomorrow, don’t trumpet. It spoils our formation.”
Billy the Mule stumped off with the swaggering limp of an old campaigner, as the troop-horse’s head came nuzzling into my breast, and I gave him biscuits, while Vixen, who is a most conceited little dog, told him fibs about the scores of horses that she and I kept.
“I’m coming to the parade to-morrow in my dog-cart,” she said. “Where will you be?”
“On the left hand of the second squadron. I set the time for all my troop, little lady,” he said politely. “Now I must go back to Dick. My tail’s all muddy, and he’ll have two hours’ hard work dressing me for parade.”
The big parade of all the thirty thousand men was held that afternoon, and Vixen and I had a good place close to the Viceroy and the Amir of Afghanistan, with high, big black hat of astrakhan wool and the great diamond star in the center. The first part of the review was all sunshine, and the regiments went by in wave upon wave of legs all moving together, and guns all in a line, till our eyes grew dizzy. Then the cavalry came up, to the beautiful cavalry canter of “Bonnie Dundee,” and Vixen cocked her ear where she sat on the dog-cart. The second squadron of the Lancers shot by, and there was the troop-horse, with his tail like spun silk, his head pulled into his breast, one ear forward and one back, setting the time for all his squadron, his legs going as smoothly as waltz music. Then the big guns came by, and I saw Two Tails and two other elephants harnessed in line to a forty-pounder siege gun, while twenty yoke of oxen walked behind. The seventh pair had a new yoke, and they looked rather stiff and tired. Last came the screw guns, and Billy the mule carried himself as though he commanded all the troops, and his harness was oiled and polished till it winked. I gave a cheer all by myself for Billy the mule, but he never looked right or left.
The rain began to fall again, and for a while it was too misty to see what the troops were doing. They had made a big half circle across the plain, and were spreading out into a line. That line grew and grew and grew till it was three-quarters of a mile long from wing to wing—one solid wall of men, horses, and guns. Then it came on straight toward the Viceroy and the Amir, and as it got nearer the ground began to shake, like the deck of a steamer when the engines are going fast.
Unless you have been there you cannot imagine what a frightening effect this steady come-down of troops has on the spectators, even when they know it is only a review. I looked at the Amir. Up till then he had not shown the shadow of a sign of astonishment or anything else. But now his eyes began to get bigger and bigger, and he picked up the reins on his horse’s neck and looked behind him. For a minute it seemed as though he were going to draw his sword and slash his way out through the English men and women in the carriages at the back. Then the advance stopped dead, the ground stood still, the whole line saluted, and thirty bands began to play all together. That was the end of the review, and the regiments went off to their camps in the rain, and an infantry band struck up with—
The animals went in two by two,
The animals went in two by two,
The elephant and the battery mul’,
and they all got into the Ark
For to get out of the rain!
Then I heard an old grizzled, long-haired Central Asian chief, who had come down with the Amir, asking questions of a native officer.
“Now,” said he, “in what manner was this wonderful thing done?”
And the officer answered, “An order was given, and they obeyed.”
“But are the beasts as wise as the men?” said the chief.
“They obey, as the men do. Mule, horse, elephant, or bullock, he obeys his driver, and the driver his sergeant, and the sergeant his lieutenant, and the lieutenant his captain, and the captain his major, and the major his colonel, and the colonel his brigadier commanding three regiments, and the brigadier the general, who obeys the Viceroy, who is the servant of the Empress. Thus it is done.”
“Would it were so in Afghanistan!” said the chief, “for there we obey only our own wills.”
“And for that reason,” said the native officer, twirling his mustache, “your Amir whom you do not obey must come here and take orders from our Viceroy.”