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Saï the Panther, edited by Andrew Lang

From Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History.

About seventy or eighty years ago two little panthers were deserted by their mother in one of the forests of Ashantee. They were too young to get food for themselves, and would probably have died had they not been found by a passing traveller, and by him taken to the palace as a present to the king. Here they lived and played happily for several weeks, when one day the elder and larger, whose name was Saï, gave his brother, in fun, such a dreadful squeeze that, without meaning it, he suffocated him. This frightened the king, who did not care to keep such a powerful pet about him, and he gave him away to Mr. Hutchison, an English gentleman, who was a sort of governor for the English traders settled in that part of Africa.

Mr. Hutchison and Saï took a great fancy to each other, and spent a great deal of time together, and when, a few months later, Mr. Hutchison returned to Cape Coast he brought Saï with him. The two friends always had dinner at the same time, Saï sitting at his master’s side and eating quietly whatever was given him. In general he was quite content with his portion, but once or twice, when he was hungrier than usual, he managed to steal a fowl out of the dish. For the sake of his manners the fowl was always taken from him, although he was invariably given some other food to satisfy his hunger.

At first the inhabitants of the castle and the children were much afraid of him, but he soon became very tame,  and his teeth and claws were filed so that he should not hurt anyone, even in play. When he got a little accustomed to the place, he was allowed to go where he liked within the castle grounds, and a boy was told off to look after him. Sometimes the boy would go to sleep when he ought to have been watching his charge, and then Saï, who knew perfectly well that this was not at all right, would steal quietly away and amuse himself till he thought his keeper would be awake again. One day, when he returned from his wanderings, he found the boy, as usual, comfortably curled up in a cool corner of the doorstep sound asleep. Saï looked at him for a moment, and then, thinking that it was full time for him to be taught his duty, he gave him one pat on his head, which sent the boy over like a ninepin and gave him a good fright, though it did not do him any harm.

Saï was very popular with everybody, but he had his own favourites, and the chief of these was the governor, whom he could not bear to let out of his sight. When his master went out he would station himself at the drawing-room window, where he could watch all that was going on, and catch the first sight of his returning friend. Being by this time nearly grown up, Saï’s great body took up all the space, to the great disgust of the children, who could see nothing. They tried to make him move, first by coaxings and then by threats, but as Saï did not pay the smallest attention to either one or the other, they at last all took hold of his tail and pulled so hard that he was forced to move.

The three children try to get Saï to move from the window seat


Strange to say, the black people were a great deal more afraid of Saï than any of the white ones, and one of his pranks nearly caused the death of an old woman who was the object of it. It was her business to sweep out and keep clean the great hall of the castle, and one morning she was crouching down on all fours with a short broom in her hand, thinking of nothing but how to get the dust out of the floor, when Saï, who had hidden  himself under a sofa, and was biding his time, suddenly sprang on to her back, where he stood triumphantly. The old woman believed her last hour had come, and the other servants all ran away shrieking, lest it should be their  turn next. Saï would not budge from his position till the governor, who had been alarmed by the terrible noise, came to see what was the matter, and soon made Master Saï behave himself.

A sailor tries to stop the orang-outang hiding in the ship's rigging


At this time it was settled that Saï was to travel to England under the care of one of his Cape Coast friends and be presented to the Duchess of York, who was very fond of animals. In those days, of course, journeys took much longer than they do now, and there were other dangers than any which might arise from storms and tempests. While the strong cage of wood and iron was being built which was to form Saï’s house on the way to England, his lady keeper thought it would be a good opportunity to make friends with him, and used to spend part of every day talking to him and playing with him; for this, as everyone knows, is the only way to gain the affection of bird or beast. It was very easy to love Saï; he was so gentle and caressing, especially with children; and he was very handsome besides in his silky yellow coat with black spots, which, as the French say, does not spoil anything. Many creatures and many men might have made a great fuss at being shut into a cage instead of being allowed to walk about their own house and grounds, but everyone had always been kind to Saï, so he took for granted it was all right, and made himself as comfortable as he could, and was quite prepared to submit to anything disagreeable that he thought reasonable. But it very nearly happened that poor Saï had no voyage at all, for while he was being hauled from the canoe which had brought him from the shore into the ship, the men were so afraid to come near him that they let his cage fall into the sea, and if the sailors from the vessel had not been very quick in lowering a boat it would have been too late to save him. As it was, for many days he would not look up or eat or speak, and his friend was quite unhappy about him, although the same symptoms have sometimes been shown by human beings who have  only been on the sea instead of in it. At last he was roused from his sad condition by hearing the lady’s voice. He raised his head and cocked his ears, first a little, then more; and when she came up to the cage he rolled over and over with delight, and howled and cried and tried to reach her. When he got a little calmer she told him to put his paws through the bars and shake hands, and from that moment Saï was himself again.

Now it was a very strange taste on the part of a panther whose fathers and grandfathers had lived and died in the heart of African forests, but Saï loved nothing so much as lavender water, which white people use a great deal in hot countries. If anyone took out a handkerchief which had been sprinkled with lavender water, Saï would instantly snatch it away, and in his delight would handle it so roughly that it was soon torn to atoms. His friend in charge knew of this odd fancy, and on the voyage she amused herself regularly twice a week with making a little cup of paper, which she filled with the scent and passed through the bars, taking care never to give it him till he had drawn back his claws into their sheaths. Directly he got hold of the cup Saï would roll over and over it, and would pay no attention to anyone as long as the smell lasted. It almost seemed as if he liked it better than his food!

For some reason or other the vessel lay at anchor for nearly two months in the river Gaboon, and Saï might have been allowed to leave his cage if he had not been an animal of such very strong prejudices. Black people he could not endure, and, of course, they came daily in swarms with food for the ship. Pigs, too, he hated, and they ran constantly past his cage, while as for an orang-outang monkey about three feet high, which a black trader once tried to sell to the sailors, Saï showed such mad symptoms at the very sight of it that the poor beast rushed in terror to the other end of the vessel, knocking down everything that came in its way. If the monkey took some time to  recover from his fright, it was very long before Saï could forget the shock he had received. Day and night he watched and listened, and sometimes, when he fancied his enemy was near, he would give a low growl and arch his back and set up his tail; yet, as far as we know, he had never from his babyhood killed anything.

A sailor helps his keeper give Saï his medicine


But when at last the winds were favourable, and the ship set sail for the open sea, other adventures were in store for the passengers. Pirates infested the coast of Africa in those days, and they came on board and carried off everything of value, including the stores of provisions. The only things they did not think worth removing were the parrots, of which three hundred had been brought by the sailors, and as these birds could not stand the cold, and died off fast as the ship steered north, Saï was allowed one a day, which just managed to keep him alive. Still, there is very little nourishment to be got out of a parrot, especially when you eat it with the feathers on, and Saï soon became very ill and did not care even for parrots. His keeper felt his nose and found it dry and feverish, so she begged that she might take him out of his cage and doctor him herself. A little while before, Saï would have been enchanted to be free, but now he was too ill to enjoy anything, and he just stretched himself out on deck, with his head on his mistress’s feet. Luckily she had some fever medicine with her, good for panthers as well as men and women, and she made up three large pills which she hoped might cure Saï. Of course it was not to be expected that he would take them of his own free will, so she got the boy who looked after him to hold open his mouth, while she pushed down the pills. Then he was put back into his cage, the boy insisting on going with him, and both slept comfortably together. In a few days, with the help of better food than he had been having, he got quite well, and on his arrival in England won the admiration of the Duchess of York, his new mistress, by his beauty and gentle ways. As his country house was  not quite ready for him, he was left for a few weeks with a man who understood animals, and seemed contented and happy, and was allowed to walk about as he liked. Here the Duchess of York used constantly to visit him and play with him, even going to see him the very day before he—and she—were to move into the country. He was in excellent spirits, and appeared perfectly well, but he must somehow have taken a chill, for when, on the following day, the Duchess’s coachman came to fetch him, he found poor Saï had died after a few hours’ illness from inflammation of the lungs.

After all he is not so much to be pitied. He had had a very happy life, with plenty of fun and plenty of kindness, and he had a very rapid and painless death.