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Hippo, the Hippopotamus by Ellen Velvin

Hippo came to the conclusion, in his heavy, phlegmatic way, that perhaps, as it was getting dark and he was very hungry, it would be as well to go and get something to eat. So, moving his huge body, and his short, stumpy legs, he prepared to look around and find his supper.

He was not handsome, by any means. He had an enormous body, a wide head and nose, big mouth and teeth, and, although he only stood about four feet high, his tiny eyes, ears and tail made him look ridiculous, for they were out of all proportion to the rest of his body. As he crawled out of the damp, marshy ground in which he loved to pass his time, he seemed one of the ugliest and most awkward of animals, and so indeed he was.

He had not even a hairy or furry coat to hide some of his ugliness, but an unpleasant, oily skin of the color of dark chocolate, so thick that no ordinary bullet could possibly penetrate it. On all parts of his body the skin was three-quarters of an inch thick, while on his back it was more than twice that thickness.

Therefore, Hippo was pretty safe from the attacks of enemies, a fact of which he was well aware, and, not being sensitive in any way, or nervous, he was not given to trouble or worry.

He made his way slowly towards a nice corn-field, which he had found a few days ago, and the only thing he felt at all uneasy about was that some of the other hippopotami might also have found it. Hippo belonged to a herd consisting of from twenty to thirty hippopotami—mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, relations of all kinds, and several little baby calves. They agreed well together, on the whole.

The only time they grew quarrelsome was when they were selecting new wives, or when one of them had discovered a field of corn or rice, and found that the others wanted to explore it, too. Then some nasty things were said, and some terrible fights took place; for, although a hippopotamus is such a heavy and ungainly creature, he can move swiftly when he is angry.

However, this time Hippo wended his way to the field of corn without the others noticing him, and, arriving there, walked slowly through the ripe grain, his short legs and thick body doing an enormous amount of damage. He never ate what he crushed down—only what he actually cut with his wonderful teeth. [Footnote: The teeth of a hippopotamus are very large and powerful, and those in the under jaw grow forward and outward, not straight up and down, as in most other animals. The large teeth weigh from five to eight pounds each, and, being excellent ivory, keep white under almost any conditions.—Author.]

Opening his huge jaws, he put his mouth to the ground, and, pushing his lower jaw in front of him, cut down the corn as though with a sickle. He ate leisurely as he went along, and his supper took him some time, for, as he had an enormous appetite, and could carry from five to six bushels of food in his body at a time, it was a big meal.

On he straggled, cutting down as he went, and dragging his awkward, splay-footed body after him until the beautiful field of corn was utterly destroyed, for before he left it he had walked nearly all over it. If what he had eaten had been all that he destroyed, that would have been bad enough, but he trampled and ruined far more than he ate, and the owner of the field, when he saw it the next day, was nearly wild with rage and disappointment. He had spent so much time and trouble over his crops, and so much damage had been done lately by these tiresome animals, that it was getting very serious indeed. He resolved that something must be done, and done quickly. Guns and bullets were no use; he would get up a party and try harpoons.

But of all this Hippo knew nothing, and, having finished his evening meal, returned in the same leisurely way he had come, and, laying his huge body down in a nice soft spot, he went to sleep and slept all next day.

When he woke up, he had a good time in the water, swimming long distances, taking long dives, and amusing himself by sinking his enormous body to the bottom of the river, and coming up again every now and then to breathe. He made plenty of fuss over it, too, puffing and grunting in his own peculiar way.

Having had such a good feed the night before, Hippo was in no particular hurry for his evening meal, and, as several of the other hippopotami were also enjoying themselves, he stayed where he was. His wife was resting in a shallow part of the river close by, her whole body under water with the exception of a part of her back and head. Her baby calf was sitting on dry land, as it were, for his mother had taken him under water a good many times, but had to bring him up to the top so often for him to breathe that she had grown tired of it, and so had put him on her back, where he was not only dry but safe.

Hippo took very little notice of his wife and child. He was not at all demonstrative, and, as long as he knew they were safe, did not trouble himself farther about them. So that he had plenty to eat, could have nice swims and dives, and was not molested in any way, Hippo was a very peaceable animal; but once interfere with him in any way, and it was another matter altogether.

And this particular evening something did interfere with him, and it not only annoyed Hippo, but made him furious with rage and anger, and a furious hippopotamus is an extremely dangerous creature. It happened in this way.

Hippo was just coming up after a good, long dive, when he noticed on the river a number of boats filled with men. Now, he did not mind men or boats, if they only went on their way and let him alone. The river was often dotted with boats filled with Kaffirs and white men, but, as a rule, they were sensible enough to keep a good distance from the herd of hippopotami. So, when Hippo became conscious that the boats were coming towards him, he was not only surprised but annoyed. He was in the middle of his aquatic performances for one thing, and he did not like to have boats and men so close to him for another. However, although he was irritated, he was not going to bother himself about either the boats or the men as long as they let him alone.

But this was just the very thing the men in the boats had no intention of doing, for they carried harpoons, and had come out for the express purpose of killing as many hippopotami as they possibly could. So, as Hippo rose to the surface, and before he had time to get over either his surprise or annoyance, one of the men in the nearest boat suddenly stood up, and, throwing a harpoon with terrific force, sent it right into Hippo's shoulder.

For a moment Hippo was too astounded to do anything; then, as he realized what had happened, he moved swiftly towards the boat. But another harpoon was thrown from a second boat, and Hippo's attention was taken off the first one only just in time. His thick skin broke out into tiny red spots, called the "blood sweat," for he was now pretty well excited. He had not thought much about his wife and little one before, but now he knew they were in danger, and must be protected. With one muscular movement of his big body—wonderfully agile for so clumsy a creature—he swam towards the boat, and, before the occupants realized what was going to happen, Hippo had seized the boat in his great mouth and crushed one end of it into splinters. Two of the men were killed instantly, and the others soon after, for Hippo used his terrible mouth and teeth with appalling effect.

In a very few minutes all that remained of the boats and men—with the exception of the first boat, which had promptly made off when Hippo turned—was floating down the river, and all the evidences of the fearful occurrence were the excited hippopotamus and the crimson stain in the water caused by the blood of the unfortunate hunters.

Hippo was still in a fearful rage, however, and could not forget the attack on him. The wounds in his back and shoulder helped to remind him of it, for each harpoon had a barb at the end, and, no matter how Hippo rubbed and strained, he was unable to get them out, and only made the wounds throb and burn more than ever. He snorted and raged, and in his anger blew such a blast of air from his nostrils that it swept his little son off his mother's back and into the water.[Footnote: When in a violent rage, the hippopotamus will sometimes blow the air from his nostrils with force enough to knock over a strong man. We are told by some authorities, that one has been known to upset a boat in this way when not quite near enough to crush it with its teeth.—Author.]

Hippo's wife was frightened and indignant, but promptly brought her little one up again, for he was very young as yet, and not able to stay under water for any length of time, and set him on her back as before, keeping a sharp lookout with her tiny eyes for fresh danger.

A very disastrous hunt it had been for all concerned. Five men had lost their lives, but not one hippopotamus had been killed. So the hunters decided to wait for some other evening when the hippopotami were off guard again. The hunters had no idea of giving up, for the destructive propensities of the animals were not their only reason for wishing to destroy them: the hides, tusks and teeth of hippopotami are of considerable value and bring a good price.

So they waited a few days, and then set forth once more. By this time Hippo had succeeded in breaking off one of the harpoons, and bending the other, but the barbs, which hurt so dreadfully and caused him such intense suffering, he was unable to get out in spite of all his efforts. They were still there, and, if Hippo could only have known it, they were likely to stay there, for they had been made for that express purpose.

Hippo had now developed into a most dangerous animal, for the pain and inflammation of his wounds, added to his naturally savage disposition, had driven him half wild, and he roamed about in his slow, clumsy manner, not even caring to eat, and savagely attacking everything that came in his way. So fierce and bad-tempered had he become by this time, that even his wife carefully kept out of his way, and his little son had been terrified nearly to death ever since his father, in a sudden fit of passion, had turned on him and bitten him cruelly with his terrible teeth. His wife finally took the precaution of taking up her position farther down the river, but keeping fairly close to the herd.

Hippo missed her and the baby calf, and felt lonely and miserable, but he did not take the trouble to follow them, for his wounds were getting worse, and the torture was now so great that he could not think of much else. In vain he sank his huge body in the cool water, hoping to ease the burning and smarting—in vain he took long swims like the "river horse" he was—in vain he dived to the bottom of the river and stayed there until he was obliged to come to the surface to breathe—in vain he kept his whole body under water, with just the end of his broad nose peeping out—it was of no use. The pain got worse, and horrible twinges kept shooting through his shoulder and body, until at last he gave up trying to ease it, and bore it as well as he could.

And then, one evening when it was getting cool and peaceful, and the evening shadows were beginning to make everything look dim and misty, a boat came softly over the water, and once more a man stood up in it, and once more threw a harpoon at Hippo, who had been standing so still that the boat had been able to come quite close, and the hunter to take good, steady aim.

The harpoon this time went straight into one of Hippo's eyes, and, although it was a cruel stroke, it was also a merciful one, for it touched the brain, and in a very few minutes Hippo, with a few spasmodic efforts, blew his last blast of rage, snorted and groaned for the last time, and, with a mighty stirring of the waters, rolled heavily over in the African river, by the side of which he had been born, and died.

And then the hunters threw up their caps and cheered for joy, for they had at least killed one of their enemies and one of the finest specimens in the whole herd. As, at the time of his death, he had been standing in a shallow part of the river, it was possible with great trouble to drag the huge carcass out, but it took the strength of ten horses and the ingenuity of as many men to do it.

The hunters measured him carefully, and found that he measured nearly twelve feet from one end of his body to the other, that he stood about four feet high, and that his tusks, hide and teeth were the best and finest that had been seen for many a day. It turned out to be a fortunate thing that Hippo had been in such a dangerous mood during the last few days, for the other hippopotami had followed the example of Hippo's wife and moved a little farther down the river; consequently, the hunters were able to complete their task without any molestation from them.

As for Hippo's wife, she grieved very little about him. He had made himself so intensely disagreeable lately that she had grown rather tired of him, and, moreover, animal like, she did not like a sick or wounded comrade near her, and a sick husband was a thing to be despised.

Besides, she had her baby calf to think of now, and he took up most of her time. What with feeding him, teaching him to swim, dive, sink himself in the water, and come up frequently to breathe, she was busy all day long. The calf was rather stupid and slow, and was not easy to teach, and altogether she had a good deal of trouble with him.

At one time she missed him for a while, and at last found him very nearly dead under the water, for, like most young things, he thought he could do just the same as his elders, and had tried to stay underneath as long as an old hippopotamus. The consequence was, he was nearly suffocated or drowned, for it is only the adult animals who can stay any time under water, and even they are obliged to come up often in order to obtain fresh air.

So Hippo's wife—or widow, as she was by this time—administered a severe punishment to her son by first giving him a bite, and then refusing to give him his supper. She began, after a time, to refuse him his supper so often, that the baby Hippo at last made up his mind to get other food, and in a very short time found out that rice, corn, grass, roots and such things were very good to eat, and, when his mother began, not only to treat him with indifference, but even with dislike, he took to vegetable food altogether, and grew slowly, but steadily, as stout and strong as his father, Hippo, had been.

And when a whole year had gone by, Hippo's wife had another husband, and in due course of time another baby calf, and had just the same sort of trouble as she had gone through with Hippo's son. But she had forgotten all about Hippo's son by that time, and not only Hippo's son, but Hippo himself.

But Hippo was not forgotten by the hunters. Some of them had cause enough to remember him, for he had killed their relatives in his fierce attack on that memorable night when he had first felt their harpoons. They had, however, other things to remember him by which were better. One thing was the money which they had received for his hide and ivory teeth, and which had been spent in replacing the damaged crops; and the other was a pair of magnificent tusks which they had kept as a memento of him, and which hung in the hall of the pretty African house in which the hunters lived.

And when visitors came to the house and admired the tusks, the hunters would relate the story of the terrible beginning and triumphal end of the capture of Hippo, the hippopotamus.