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Keeping the Tryst by E. Cockburn Reynolds

 

Maharaj was a very big elephant and Alec was a half-grown boy—an insignificant human pigmy—in spite of which disparity they were great pals, for Alec admired that mountain of strength as only an imaginative boy can, and elephants can appreciate admiration.

When Alec came across Maharaj he had taken up his quarters temporarily in the mango tope opposite the bungalow. He was pouring dust upon his head and blowing it over his back, both because he enjoyed a dust bath and because it helped to keep off the flies. With the quick perception of a boy, Alec noticed he had used up all the dust within reach, so he got him a few hatfuls from the roadside, for which he was very grateful, and immediately sent a sand blast over his back that annihilated quite a colony of mosquitoes. Then he admitted Alec to his friendship, and they became pals.

Hard by the mahout was cooking his dinner under a tamarind-tree.

"Did the Sahib ask if he was clever? Wait, and the Sahib shall see. Here are his six chapaties of flour that I am baking. Out of one only I shall keep back a handful of meal. How should he detect so small a quantity missing? But we shall see."

The elephant driver put on the cakes to bake—pancake-shaped things, eighteen inches across and an inch thick. They took their time to cook, for the fireplace was small, being only three bricks standing on the ground. When they were ready he placed the cakes before Maharaj, who eyed them suspiciously.

"He has been listening," explained the driver. "Those big ears of his can hear talk a mile away. Go on, my son, eat. What is there wrong with the food?"

Maharaj slowly took up a chapatie in his trunk, carefully weighed it and put it on one side, took up another and did the same. The fourth chapatie was the light one; this he found out at once and indignantly threw it at the feet of the mahout, grumbling and gurgling and swinging his head from side to side and stamping his forefoot in anger.

"What! son of a pig! is not the flour I eat good enough for thee also? Well, starve then, for there is no better in the bazaar."

They walked away; the small restless eyes followed anxiously; yet the elephant made no attempt to eat, but swung angrily from side to side in his pickets. Presently they returned, but he had not touched a chapatie.

"It is no use, Sahib," said the mahout, "to try and cheat one so wise as he, and yet folks say that we mahouts keep our families on the elephants' food, which words are base lies, for is he not more precious to me than many children?"

Then the mahout drew out an extra chapatie he had hidden in his clothes.

"Oh! Maharajah, King of Kings, who can deceive thee, my pearl of wisdom, my mountain of might?" and the mahout caressed the huge trunk as it wound itself lovingly around him and gently extracted the chapatie from his hands. Having swallowed this, the elephant picked up the scattered cakes and, piling them up before him, gave himself up to enjoying his midday meal.

After that Maharaj and Alec grew great friends. Alec used to bring him bazaar sweets, of which he was very fond, and sugar-cane. He was a great wonder to the elephant, who could never understand why his pockets were full of all sorts of uneatable things. He loved to go through them, slowly considering each in his elephantine way. The bright metal handle of Alec's pocket-knife pleased Maharaj, and it was always the first thing he abstracted from the pocket and the last he returned, but the bits of string and the ball of wax he worried over. The key of the pigeon-house, a peg-top, marbles, etc., I believe made him long to have pockets of his own, for he used to hide them away in the recesses of his mouth for a time, then, finding they were not very comfortable, he used to put them all back into Alec's pockets. The day the boy came with sweets Maharaj was delighted, for he smelt them a long way off, and never made a mistake as to which pocket they were in.

It was wonderful to see how gently he could play with the little brown baby of the mahout. He loved to have it lying between his great fore-feet, and would tickle it with the tip of his trunk for the pleasure of hearing it laugh, then pour dust upon it till it was buried, always being careful not to cover the face. But like a great big selfish child he always kept his sweets to himself, and would pretend not to see the little outstretched hand, and little voice crying for them, till he had finished the last tit-bit.

Tippoo—the cook's son, Alec's fag and constant companion, who was mostly a pair of huge pyjamas, was also admitted to the friendship of Maharaj. But there was one man that the elephant disliked, and that was the mahout's nephew, one Piroo, who was a young elephant-driver seeking a situation—a man not likely to be successful, for he was morose and lazy, and drank heavily whenever the opportunity came his way, and was very cruel to the beast he rode.

Sometimes the mahout would take Alec down to the river-side, he driving, while Alec lay luxuriously on the pad. There Maharaj had his bath, and the boy used to help the mahout to rub him over with a lump of jhama, which is something like pumice-stone, only much harder and rougher, and the old skin rolled off under the friction in astonishing quantities, till the look of dried tree-bark was gone, and the dusty grey had become a shining black. After the bath there was usually a struggle with Maharaj, who, directly he was clean, wanted to plaster himself all over with wet mud to keep cool and defy mosquitoes. This he was not allowed to do, so he tore a branch from a neem-tree instead, and fanned himself all the way home.

Now there was to be a marriage among some of the mahout's friends who lived in a village a day's journey from the station, across the river, and he promised that Alec, Tippoo, and his nephew were to accompany him. When the day came the mahout had a slight touch of fever and couldn't go, but he told his nephew to drive the boys there instead. Maharaj didn't like Piroo at all, and made a fuss at having to go without the mahout, for which he got a hot scolding. Then there were tears and pet names and much coaxing before Maharaj consented to go.

"Thou art indeed nothing but a great child that will go nowhere unless I lead thee by the hand, with no more heart in thy big carcase than my babe, who without doubt shall grow big and thrash thee soundly. Now hearken, my son, thou art going with Piroo to the village of Charhunse, one day's journey; thou art to stay there one day, when there will be great feasting, and they will give thee surap wine in thy food; and on the day following thou must return (for we start the next morning for the Cawnpore elephant lines); bring the boys back safely—very safely—or there will be very many angry words from me, and no food. Now, adieu, my son, salaam Sahib, Khoda bunah rhukha" (God preserve you). And the mahout passed into his hut with a shiver that told of the coming ague.

It was a grand day and the road was full of people of all sorts and conditions; and the boys, proud to be so high above the heads of the passing groups, greeted them with all the badinage of the bazaar they could remember, which the natives answered with good-natured chaff. The road was one long avenue, and in the branches overhead the monkeys sported and chased each other from tree to tree; birds sang, for it was nesting-time; and the day was as happy as it was long.

At nightfall they reached the village, and the head man made them very comfortable. The next day the wedding feast was spread, and quite two hundred people sat down to it. After the feast there was racing, wrestling, and dancing to amuse the guests.

They enjoyed themselves very much. The wedding feast was to last several days, and instead of returning the following day as they had promised the mahout, Piroo determined to stay a day longer, in spite of all that Alec had to say against it.

Piroo was in his element, and sang and danced with great success, for the arrack was in his veins, and at such times he could be the antipodes of his morose self. His dancing was much applauded. But there was Bhuggoo, the sweeper, from the city, who had a reputation for dancing, and was in great request at weddings in consequence, and he danced against Piroo, and so elegant and ingenious were his contortions that he was voted the better. Then he changed his dance to one in which he caricatured Piroo so cleverly in every turn and gesture that the people yelled and laughed.

This so incensed Piroo that he struck the man; but the sweeper, who was generally accustomed to winding up his performance by a grand broom fight with some brother of the same craft, was quite ready for an affair that could only increase his popularity. Catching up his jharroo, or broom, he began to shower blows upon the unfortunate Piroo, yet never ceasing to dance round him so grotesquely that the fight was too much of a farce for any one to think of interfering. Yet the blows went home pretty hard, and as the broom was a sort of besom made of the springy ribs of the palm-leaf it stung sharply where it found the naked flesh.

It is a great indignity to be beaten by the broom of a sweeper, and Piroo, maddened with rage, flew at the throat of his rival. But Bhuggoo, the sweeper, was very nimble, and as the end of a jharroo in the face feels like the back of a porcupine, you may guess it is the most effective way of stopping a rush. So Piroo, baffled and humiliated, left the sweeper victor of the field and fled amid great shouts of laughter. But his rage had not died in him, and more arrack made him mad; else why should he have done the foolish thing that followed?

Finding Maharaj had pulled up one of his picket pins, he took a heavy piece of firewood and dashed it upon his tender toe-nails, while he shouted all the abuse that elephants know only accompanies severe punishment. Now Maharaj, who would take punishment quietly from Buldeo, the old mahout, would not stand it from any other; besides, he was already excited with all the shouting and tamasha going on, and he had had a good bit of arrack in his cakes that evening; so when the log crashed down on his feet he trumpeted with pain, and, seizing Piroo in his trunk, lifted him on high, preparatory to dashing him to earth and stamping his life out.

SEIZING PIROO IN HIS TRUNK, HE LIFTED HIM ON HIGH

SEIZING PIROO IN HIS TRUNK, HE LIFTED HIM ON HIGH.

But fortune was in favour of Piroo for a time, and the big cummerbund he wore had got loose with dancing, so it came undone, and Piroo slipped down its length to the ground, while Maharaj was left holding the loose cloth in his trunk.

Then Piroo fled for his life, and ran into a grass-thatched hut that stood close by; but the elephant, pulling out his picket pins like a couple of toothpicks, reached the hut in a stride, and, putting his trunk through the thatch as if it had been a sheet of paper, felt round for the man inside and, seizing him, dragged him forth. The people yelled, and some came running with fire-brands to scare him, but before any could reach him Maharaj had knocked one of his great fore-feet against the head of the unfortunate Piroo, and he fell to the ground lifeless.

The villagers were terror-stricken and ran to hide in their huts. Tippoo, who was nearest the elephant, ran also, and Alec was about to run when he saw Maharaj single out Tippoo and chase him. The boy fled, and his flying feet hardly seemed to touch the earth, but Maharaj with long swinging strides covered the ground much faster, and in a few moments there followed a shriek of despair and Tippoo was struggling helplessly fifteen feet in the air in the grasp of that terrible trunk.

"Save me! Sahib, save me!" he shrieked, while Alec looked on powerless to help.

Maharaj seemed undecided whether to dash him to pieces or not. Alec seized the opportunity to imitate the driver's voice and cry, "Bring the boys home safely—very safely—my son." The elephant's great fan-shaped ears bent forward to listen, and he lowered Tippoo till he hung swinging at the end of the huge proboscis. Alec felt he dared not repeat the words, as the elephant would find out the cheat.

The great beast stood a few minutes thinking, and then, swinging Tippoo up, placed him on his neck, and came straight for the tree behind which Alec was hiding.

For a moment a wild desire to escape came to the boy, and the next he saw how hopeless it would be. The sal-tree he had sheltered behind was too thick to climb, and the lowest branch was twenty feet from the ground. To run would be just madness, for Maharaj would have caught him before he could get to the nearest hut. So, taking confidence from the fact that he had not hurt Tippoo, Alec came out from behind the tree and ordered Maharaj to take him up.

He was surprised at the exceeding gentleness with which he did so, but when Alec was once seated astride of his neck with Tippoo behind him, he did not know what to do. He thought he would walk the elephant round the village and then tie him up in his pickets again. So he cried, "Chalo! Bata!" (Go on, my son), and tried to guide him with his knees; but Maharaj would not budge an inch, and stood stock still, considering. Then he seemed to have made up his mind, and started forward suddenly with a lurch that nearly threw the boys off.

He walked straight to the dead mahout and, carefully gathering him up in his trunk, wheeled round and set off stationwards. He had remembered his master's commands, and the journey to Cawnpore he must commence on the morrow.

It was about eight o'clock in the evening, and Alec had no desire to start travelling homeward at that hour. Besides, he had no food with him, and the pad was not on the back of Maharaj. It is almost impossible to ride an elephant bare back, and though these were only slips of boys there wasn't room enough for two to sit comfortably on the neck. Alec drove his knees into the elephant's head behind the ears and tried to turn him round, shouting, "Dhutt, dhutt, arrea!" (Go back!), but it was no use; the elephant had made up his mind to go home, and took not the least notice of the boy's commands.

The head man of the village ran after them, crying—

"Where are you taking him, Sahib?"

"We take him nowhere," Alec answered. "He is master to-night, and carries us home, I believe."

"But you cannot ride without the pad, Sahib, or the driving-hook, and there are other things you leave behind."

"We will stick on his neck till we drop," he answered (for an elephant is worth many thousand rupees to the Government, and must not get lost).

"At least command him to drop the dead body before he mangles it, so that we may burn it with decent ceremony," was the last request of the head man.

But Maharaj would not listen to the command, and made certain noises in his throat by which he meant Alec to understand that he was going to carry the dead man home whether he liked it or no.

The lights of the village were soon lost in the distance, and Maharaj strode into the empty darkness, trailing a picket pin behind him and carrying that horror in his trunk.

Till that day Alec had loved Maharaj for his great strength and docility, his wisdom, and his endearing ways with children, but when he saw him in anger extinguish the life of a man as easily as one could pulp a gooseberry in the fingers, the elephant changed at once in his eyes, and Alec saw in him nothing but the grim executioner of the Moguls, and stamping out lives his daily task. The boy felt the touch of the beast almost loathsome, and longed to escape from his situation on its neck.

Soon the cramped position began to tell, for they were jammed together, and Tippoo felt like a mustard-plaster upon Alec's back. Alec tried to vary the discomfort by lying forward on the head of the elephant, and Tippoo tried leaning back as far as he could without being in danger of falling off, but they both felt they could not hold on the eight hours that the journey would take.

By-and-by they noticed that something was making Maharaj restive; twice he swung his trunk as if trying to drive away that something, after which he quickened his pace, then he turned round once in his tracks and faced his unseen tormentor. Alec wondered greatly what was worrying him, but he heard and saw nothing in the blackness that reigned. The elephant's restiveness increased, and again he swung round suddenly and charged that invisible thing in the dark; again Alec strained both eyes and ears to no avail. The only sound on the air came from the trailing picket pin.

"Whatever is worrying Maharaj?" he said anxiously.

"He sees that which our eyes can't see—an evil thing," answered Tippoo.

"What! do you mean the ghost of Piroo?" Alec asked.

"No, Sahib," said Tippoo. "It is a churail, an evil spirit that eats dead men, and it wants the body of Piroo."

"Nonsense," Alec replied.

"It is true, Sahib. Many have seen it at work in the graveyards of the Mussulman, but to-night no one may see it but the elephant."

Alec laughed. Yet, ghoul or not, there was something the huge beast seemed afraid of and hurried to get away from, or attempted to frighten back, without success.

It was a most weird and uncanny situation, and the boys longed for it to end.

But a pleasant change was at hand. The heavens were rapidly lighting, and soon the moon commenced to rise on the scene. A feeling of relief grew with the strengthening light, for they were sure the ghostly terror would disappear with the dark. The moon had partly risen when Tippoo said, "Look, Sahib, there is the thing."

Alec looked, and in the uncertain light saw a shadowy something keeping pace with the elephant, but what it was he could not say.

Then on the other side of the road they saw there was another moving shadow as mysterious as the first. But they were not kept in suspense much longer, for the light suddenly brightened, and they saw each weird shadow transform itself into a number of jackals. The smell of blood had attracted the pack, and they had made an attempt to get the dead body away from Maharaj. The reaction on their strained nerves was so great that the boys laughed aloud in pure joy at the sense of relief, and wondered they had not guessed the cause of the elephant's restlessness before.

For nearly four hours they had been on that apology for a neck, and their limbs were painful and stiff from the discomfort of sitting so close, when, without any warning, Maharaj came to a stop under a big neem-tree, and they recognised it as the place at which they had taken their midday meal going down to the village. Maharaj carefully placed the body of Piroo on the ground and knelt down beside it, and the boys, only too pleased at the chance, scrambled off as fast as their cramped legs would permit. It needed some walking up and down to get rid of their stiffness, so they chased the jackals and pelted them with stones, which restored their circulation quickly, whilst Maharaj stood sentry over the dead man.

Tired out and exhausted, the boys were anxious for a little sleep, but they could not lie under the same tree as that gruesome thing, so they lay down under a neighbouring sal. Alec was on the way to dreamland when he felt he was being carried gently in some one's arms. He woke up and found that Maharaj had lifted him in his trunk and that he was taking him back to the tree where the dead lay. Here he placed Alec on the ground alongside the mahout, on the other side of which was Tippoo snoring peacefully. How he had managed to move the boy without waking him was a marvel. As soon as Alec was released he tried to get away, but Maharaj would not allow it, and forced him to lie down again while he stood guard over all three.

They say boys have no nerves, but even at this distance of time Alec shudders to recollect his sensations on that night of horror caused by the poor crushed thing he lay shoulder to shoulder with. He feigned sleep and tried to roll a foot or two away, but Maharaj had grown suspicious, and rolled him back, so that he lay flat on his shoulder-blades between the forelegs of the elephant, watching the restless swing of the trunk above him. This was better than looking at what lay beside him, and he wanted no inducement to keep his gaze averted. A hyena laughed like an exultant fiend. Great flying foxes slowly flapped across the face of the moon, like Eblis and his satellites scanning the earth for prey, and the pack of jackals sat silently waiting for the body of the dead.

Maharaj was very quiet and vigilant, and seemed to understand the seriousness of his crime. The usual gurgling, grunting, and rocking with which he amused himself at night were wanting, and though there was a large field of sugar-cane near by, and he must have been hungry, he never tried to help himself as he would have done on any other occasion. In spite of the feeling of repulsion Alec began to feel a little pity for the remorseful giant, for it was most probable he would be shot for killing Piroo, whose drunken madness had brought about his own death.

But all things have an end, and even that night passed away like the passing of a strange delirium. About four o'clock Maharaj became very restless, thinking it was time to start, and pulled and pushed Tippoo till he sat up, rubbing his eyes and looking about in a dazed way. The elephant went down on his knees, and the boys took advantage of the invitation and were soon in their places. Then Maharaj slowly picked up his burden and they recommenced their journey home. The jackals were much disappointed, and followed listlessly for a short distance, then slunk off down a nullah to avoid the light of day.

A sleepy policeman was the first to notice the dead man in the trunk of the elephant. With a yell of alarm he sprang from the footpath where he stood, panting and staring till Maharaj had passed; then some confused notion that he should make an arrest seemed to occur to him, and he made a few steps forward, but the magnitude of the task made him halt again, dazed and bewildered, and thus they left him. The consternation they caused in the bazaar is beyond words to describe. It is sufficient to say that the better part of the population followed Maharaj at a safe distance, looking like some huge procession, wending its way to the hut of the mahout. Maharaj walked slowly to the door of the hut and laid the corpse down.

"Hast thou brought them back safely, my son?" cried a fever-stricken voice from the depths of the hut.

"Goor-r-r," said Maharaj in his throat.

"That is well; but why didst thou not arrive last evening? Didst travel all night? Piroo, thou wilt find his sugar-cane in the shed; give him a double measure and drive his pickets in under the mango-tree."

But there was no answer from Piroo, only the frightened whisperings of a great number of people assembled outside. The old mahout, in alarm, staggered to the door, and saw the body at the feet of Maharaj and the crimson stains upon the trunk and feet of the elephant.

"Ahhi! ahhi! ahhi!" cried the old man aloud, "what madness is this? What hast thou done, my son? Now they will shoot thee without doubt—thy life for his, and he was not worth his salt. Ahhi! ahhi!"

Then the old man wept, embracing the trunk of the elephant, which was coiled round his master, while the people looked on, and the boys, worn and tired by the strain of that awful night, could barely cling to their seats on the neck of Maharaj.

Then the mahout, weak as he was, helped them off, and set about washing the dark red stains away.

"Ahhi! ahhi!" he sobbed. "I have lost a nephew. I have lost also my son, who will surely be shot by the sirkar for this deed. My Maharaj, my greatest of kings! What shall I do without thee! I will return to my country and drive no more. Ahhi! ahhi!"

But this happily was not to be, for a strange thing happened. The nephew recovered. Piroo had only been stunned by the blow, and the blood that covered his face had come from his nose. He was, after a time, himself again, but a wiser man, and Maharaj was not shot after all. Yet the boys do not like to think of that adventure even to-day.