The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 3 (July 1, 1929)
“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw” — A Jungle Interlude
In the deep groves all things that make their haunt,
And prey on others, through the stress of gaunt
Necessity, armed with their single skill
One creature of the rest to choose and kill …”
Day was breakin amid a blaze of golden burnished glory. The outriders of the Sun, mantled in gold and bronze, were galloping across a sky of turquoise and pearl-pinks, spraying the Earth with amber dust. Newly awakened breezes wantoned through the purple jungle deeps; they ravished the kaora's most treasured sachets to broadcast the divine perfume with spendthrift prodigality as they passed on to the distant plains. Resplendent peacocks danced their bejewelled sun-fantasy; jungle-cocks, crowing shrilly, awakened their drowsing hareems; whilst overhead the Oriols fluted or belled in ecstatic symphonies.
Far, far away up in the lucent blue sky floated a tiny dark speck that seemed suspended on invisible gossamer strands, illusory, menacing. Surely it was moving …. it was something real … alive.
And, what was that, there on the earth! Another illusion? No …. there it was again! An almost imperceptible movement amongst those tussocks of brown grass … there, there close to that laurel bush! No living creature could be hidden there … just Fancy in a playful mood! Soon, a pair of sensitive ears flickered a moment above the waving grass … vanished! Presently a small brown shape materialised loping towards a close-by cactus clump … it was, then it was not! Strangely it reappeared … a leveret .. sitting up too. At last, apparently satisfied as to the safety of the environment, it sat up and looked around.
Meanwhile the dark speck overhead had increased ominously in size; and what was more, seemed to keep on rapidly increasing. Then it fell earthwards, gathering speed in the descent. The impetus became terrific … it was hurling itself to destruction! Down, down, down … swifter and swifter it fell … came a hissing sound of air cleavage. The leveret, with a single scream of terror, leapt for the cactus sanctuary. Too late, a fraction of a second too late …. the winged death struck it in mid-leap. A few tufts of fur floated lazily upwards …. the leveret jerked spasmodically and was still.
The falcon—this was the speck—deflected upwards, banking superlatively, and alighted upon the still warm body of its victim … screaming raucously as though challenging interference. The yellow staring eyes became suffused with cold hate, the wings opened slightly, the air-pirate was ready for instant flight …. it was twenty feet up in the air. A sinuous brown shape, chittering savagely, passed over the carcass of the dead hare missing the falcon by a margin too small for words to convey.
The kill had occurred too close to a mongoose burrow to be quite safe; even as the mother hurried her kittens to safety the father had launched his attack. A complete deadlock had been brought about; the mongoose, which had taken to cover, dared not emerge into the open with the falcon on the wing and ready to strike: the falcon dared not settle upon its prey with the utterly fearless and savage mongoose awaiting an opportunity for renewing hostilities.
Meanwhile news of the kill had been strangely and speedily spread amongst the jungle people. Already Kawah—the crow, the jungle ranger—had arrived. Kawah's appearance on the scene seemed to drive the falcon mad; swiftly it spiralled towards them …. the rangers melted into space. The next arrival was Bilao—the jungle cat—with ears flattened back, snarling savagely, bent on investigation …. the falcon fell towards him …. Bilao obliterated. Came Geedar—the jackal, the jungle's undertaker—slinking very stealthily through the denser undergrowth. Geedar is an abject coward, he never takes the smallest risk; he immediately noted all the danger signs …. nothing doing … he also eliminated!page 35
Sounded a burst of horrible, insane laughter followed by the swift padding of eager feet. Here came an opportunist, one who came not in silence but greatly hurrying. The bushes parted violently to disclose a veritable monstrosity. Shambling of gait and clumsy, ears pointed at the ends and tufted with coarse hair; head, resembling that of a large terrier, drooping and swinging from high and powerful shoulders. The hind-quarters weak and deformed in appearance, contributing greatly to the animal's general repulsiveness and emphasized by the coarse mangey hair.
This nightmare creature was Chore—the hyena. Chore is one of Nature's paradoxes; seemingly weak and clumsy he is remarkably strong and swift. Apparently a pariah and coward, yet he is the only jungle dweller who will dare to filch of the kill of Sher—the tiger—the overlord of the greater carnivora. Chore also suffers from an insatiable hunger, he is never satisfied, always he is wanting more. There was one snap of his powerful jaws ‥ the leveret and Chore had both disappeared magically.
Joomas—the falcon—whistling her chagrin shot upwards and vanished into the distance. Kawah, Bilao, Geedar removed as swiftly and silently as they had materialized; for, though they were not visible to the human eye, they had remained present.
The mongoose, noting the falcon's departure. hurried off to hunt elsewhere. Not very far away he found the fresh warm scent of Dhamin—the snake. Dhamin should have known better than to be hunting in that locality, a locality pervaded by the scent of his hereditary and most deadly enemy, the mongoose. He was intent upon breakfasting off Chooah—the rat—and it may have been hunger, or the ardour of the chase that rendered him careless. Chooah—who is no fool—had probably recognised this to be his one avenue of escape, certainly the mongoose is an enemy of his, but in a much lesser degree than his pursuer.
So absorbed was Dhamin in his hunting that he completely failed to notice the proximity of his deadly foe. He barely had time to coil up on the defensive, not that it made any difference to the inevitable end once the mongoose had scented his presence.
The mongoose came to a stop a few feet away from Dhamin. His eyes became two bloodshot phosphorescent pools of flame; his fur rose on end doubling his girth; he was bouncing swiftly up and down chittering the death chant of his family. Here and there, up and down, remorselessly closing in to the attack. So swift were the evolutions it was hard to follow them, yet, always Dhamin faced the danger, his forked tongue flickering in and out in deadly menace. Suddenly the mongoose darted in …. Dhamin's head stabbed down like a flash. Attack and riposte were almost one movement …. both had failed. Again and again attack and counter were repeated without advantage to either combatant …. it was the display of the subtle skill of a pair of superlative duellists. Finally Dhamin may have tired just a very little and was the fraction of a second late in recovery, the mongoose had seized him at the base of his head pinning it down to the ground. The inevitable end came quickly …. the glistening coils became relaxed, grew dull, straightened out …. still. Later the mongoose family dined sumptuously, there was plenty to spare for Dhamin had been over five feet in length. On what was left the jungle rangers held an appreciative inquest. These were followed by the jungle-misers—the red ants—who fulfilled the final obsequies. Soon all that remained of Dhamin was a few white and cleanly picked bones.
In the meantime Chore, having made a light meal of Joomas' kill, had proceeded further afield. He chanced upon a mother partridge and her sleeping brood … these were engulfed. A resting moonal-pheasant shot, “kokking” in terror, from the ground and escaping death by the narrowest of narrow margins. He scented a litter of sucking pig; this was something really worth, a precious delicacy. Chore trailed these carefully buoyed in the hopes that Soowar page 36 —the wild boar—might chance to be absent.
A sucker, imbued with infantine curiosity, had strayed some distance from the rest of the family. Here was opportunity …. Chore rushed to embrace it. The sucker was indeed fortunate that he saw Chore in time to avoid his rush; squealing in terror he raced to his mother's side and safety. The sow gallantly stood the would-be ravisher off; she did not really fear Chore, also, she, no doubt, knew her fearless mate would soon appear on the scene to join issue with the marauder. Chore began to bluff …. he tried unavailingly to stampede the litter. Then things happened …. happened most suddenly and painfully for Chore …. Soowar had materialized miraculously. A grunting, rending avalanche of fury took Chore in the rear catapaulting him forwards. A burning scorching pain seared his flank …. it was time to go …. Chore left, full speed ahead!
Apparently Chore was out of luck's way completely for the time being. Bhainsa—the buffalo bull—charged him, luckily he dodged the onslauht. He blundered upon the nursery of Bhairia—the grey wolf—who chased him many weary breathless miles. He ran foul of Bilwa—the lynx—at his kill and was clawed most abominably. Then, once again, luck drifted his way; he came to a jungle clearing where he noticed something that brought him up standing motionless …. one moment and he had obliterated.
Before him stretched a glade carpeted in emerald velvet, starred with golden flower-gems. Overhead were draped blossom laden vines mid whose festoons glared flaring orchids, flowers of evil beauty that mocked at death and decay. There Singha—the stag—accompanied by his doe and fawn stepped daintily along the sunlit spaces. The parents, ever on the alert for danger, browsed contentedly whilst the fawn gambolled and frolicked about them. Sweetly calling birds of brilliant plumage flashed in and out amongst the foliage; rainbow-hued butterflies joined in mazy nuptial dances through the perfume laden atmosphere. A grey squirrel spiralled quickly up the moss-clad trunk of a giant sal-tree scolding some imaginary creature that has incurred its displeasure.
Suddenly the sylvan calm was rudely shattered. There sounded a throaty coughing roar as Sher—that mighty hunter—suddenly appeared through a thick screen of bushes. page 37 Crouching low to earth, glistening white fangs bared in horrific anticipation, tail weaving sinuously to and fro, gloating yellow eyes fixed on his prey, prepared to launch his death-spring. Sher was in no undue haste to attack, he could afford to gloat over the agony of his intended victims; well he knew the parents would not forsake their fawn, they would sooner die with it.
The fawn had already reached its mother's side; she, with that wonderful love and devotion of motherhood, had already interposed between her fawn and death. Singha had also spun round and intervened between Sher and his charges. Singha had sealed his fate by this action, a devoted father ready to make the great sacrifice; only a miracle could possibly save him.
There Singha stood prepared to do battle, a forlorn hope. Hooves firmly planted, legs stiffly braced to withstand the shock, and lowered head. Sher sprang; Singha met him with forward thrown antlers. Springing swiftly to one side he evaded the first attack and struck, scoring first blood. Even now Singha might have saved his life, but that meant sacrificing the others, who had fled in panic leaving the devoted father to his fate. Sher came to earth a few feet away and spun round immediately. Singha, too, was facing his formidable foe, he also had turned as Sher passed by. Sher did not spring again, this time he charged and was met gallantly by the other. Brushing aside the defensive antlers as though they were just thistledown, he struck. The same blow that brushed aside the antlers broke Singha's neck laying him in death. Seizing the carcass Sher carried it, as easily as a cat would a mouse, to the seclusion of some bushes and began his gruesome repast on the still warm and quivering flesh.
It was now that Chore appeared upon the scene; he had been a hidden and interested spectator of the battle; now, considering the moment as opportune, he emerged as though from emptiness. Sher noted and glared balefully at Chore's advent; he began to snarl low down in his throat and bared his terrible fangs in hideous menace. Chore ignored the danger signals and approached within a distance he considered compatible with safety. Then he began trotting to and fro very rapidly …. hither and thither …. backwards and forwards … always covering the same ground …. always keeping just out of Sher's reach. To and fro, to and fro, he trotted monotonously in that strangely shambling speedy deceptive gait. Times he would stop still a few seconds to sniff greedily and champ slavering jaws. Suddenly he dashed in, Sher struck a lightning swift blow unsheathing rapier like talons. Miraculously Chore evaded the stroke and was out of Sher's reach in an instant. Again he commenced his monotonous trotting to and fro. Was it at all possible Chore was attempting to page 38 hypnotise Sher? Again and again did Chore make his rush, again and again it failed; it was certainly a wonderful display of precision and timing. Once Sher arose and chased him. Chore was prepared for just such an emergency, his removal was not dignified; yet, when Sher returned to the kill, Chore was again in evidence.
Then it happened …. Chore met with success. He had grabbed up a portion of the carcass and simply melted away …. his departure was temporary only, he was soon back to renew the old game.
By this time there were many other invisible prowlers present, all actuated by Chore's desire to share in Sher's kill, if possible: yet, unlike Chore, seemingly content to watch and wait in silence and hiding. A huge gaunt wolf lurked behind a dense screen of bushes. Many jackals slunk about soundlessly and with an untiring patience; they were as Lazarus waiting for the crumbs that might fall from the rich man's table. Day's undertakers, the vultures, had come along and were seated, like ghouls, on the nearer trees in their usual role of tireless waiting. The jungle-rangers had also arrived and were increasing in number every moment. Sher fed on in contemptuous silence of them all; he was well aware of their presence but simply ignored it.
Suddenly Chore obliterated, there had been no sound of warning …. he simply faded out of the scene for some unaccountable reason. The rangers, too, disappeared as mysteriously as they had come. A red-headed vulture craned its hideous neck …. slanted its head sideways …. fell from its perch with opened wings … was gone followed by the rest of its kind. A jay scolded harshly …. became silent …. was lost. This sudden and uncanny exodus seemed inexplicable …. the locality had suddenly become unhealthy for the jungle people …. there had been delivered and accepted some subconscious warning. Sher rose from his meal, faced in a certain direction, gazed intently a moment …. slunk away in silence.
Soon there was a sound of careless footsteps …. Man's voice impinged with strange clarity upon the silence …. the master-killer's advent was broadcasted throughout the jungle. A terrified hare dashed madly into the undergrowth and vanished; a porcupine waddled hurriedly—it takes a lot to hurry “porcy”—to its cave.page 39
“Sher hee-an tha Sahiban, bahot burra Sher.” (There was a tiger here, gentlemen, a very big tiger.)
“I suppose the kill is hidden somewhere close by,” said the voice of a white-man, “we must have disturbed His Majesty at his meal; ask Dost Ali what is his opinion?”
“Hee-an larai tha” (There was a fight here), replied Ali. “Sher ne Hirna ko Mara.” (The tiger killed a stag.)
“Poor devil,” remarked the Sahib. “From the look of the ground the stag must have put up a good scrap, too. Probably fought and sacrificed his life in the interests of his family.”
Dost Ali now drew attention to where the carcass had been dragged a short distance; following this the kill was soon discovered where it had been fed upon.
“By jove,” remarked the other Sahib, “what a beauty, too, look at the antlers. Game beggar, pity he got taken for he certainly deserved a better fate.”
“Don't know that I quite agree with you,” said his companion, “seems much of a muchness to me. Still, I wonder which would be the finer finish, the tiger or a bullet? He, at least, died fighting and that robbed Death of his terrors; further, his end would be instantaneous. We might have wounded him severely, but not severely enough to drop him, so he may have got away. That would have proved a lingering end; an end filled with the awful agony of ebbing strength, the horror of utter defencelessness with ruthless enemies relentlessly closing in upon him. No, this was the finer, the fitter ending, the one I should choose for myself if such a time came.”
Presently the hunting party moved onwards. Much care had been used to avoid handling the kill any more than was possible so as to minimise the contaminating man-scent permeating it. The prevalence of such a “scent” would constitute a warning that even Sher, the King, would not fail to respect. Towards the evening a party of timorous and excitedly chattering native villagers put in an appearance with the object of building two “machans” (platforms) on conveniently situated trees that page 40 commanded a clear view of the locality. They were very careful not to disturb anything, and seemed only too anxious to complete their task and get away from that vicinity as quickly as they could.
At last, night settled down upon the jungle, enveloping it with an insistent, unsilent silence of a peculiar uncannyness. One must have experienced this strange paradox to have any idea of it; the jungle is full all the while of weird, surreptitious sounds to which the ear soon becomes attuned, and through which other sounds impinge with distinct clarity. A semimoon shed a pale silvery glow, striped with black bars, through the clearer spaces. Shadows, gnomelike, intangible, were continuously flitting to and fro …. shadows against shadows …. seemingly chimerical. Ghostly wills-o-the-wisp flitted and flickered around …. pale green phosphorescent pools of flame that glared fiercely one moment …. then vanished. A Co-il—cuckoo—shrilled its crescendo mournful cry …. the weird wail of a hunting wolf dolorously drifted by …. the lugubrious howl of the jackal pack shivered painfully out of the black distance …. the jungle people were out and about their business, that of eating and avoiding being eaten.
On the recently constructed “machans” sat two Sahibs patiently watching and waiting. Theirs was no vigil of delirious comfort, attacked by hordes of ravening mosquitoes whose ardent attention they dared not brush aside as the least movement or sound would certainly betray their presence and scare away the quarry for which they were lying await. How long their vigil would continue it was impossible to say, it might last throughout the night and prove unsuccessful, or Sher might decide upon returning to his kill at any moment now. They had watched for about an hour when the peculiar silence became suddenly intensified …. sinister, oppressive …. it could almost be felt. The moving shadows ceased to be …. the stealthy rustlings strangely hushed …. there was emptiness, void. A premonition of death seemed to pervade the sinister gloom …. some royal creature was drawing near …. his was the death-presence, pregnant, compelling.
A small twig snapped, it was only a very small sound indeed; yet, in this abysmal quiet, it was as startling as the report of a firearm. Presently the tall grass parted …. two points of green fire blazed through the awful surrounding blackness of the night …. Sher, the overlord of all the jungle, had arrived and was moving majestically, fearlessly towards his kill. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks, he became suspicious of his surroundings …. something had warned him of hidden danger. He crouched low to the ground with ears laid back, whitely gleaming fangs bared cruelly, growling softly but in horrific menace. Two flashes of orange flame stabbed through the gloom, two crashing reports shattered the palpitant silence …. Sher sprang upwards with a deep reverberating roar …. staggered a few feet, fell sideways clawing and snarling horribly, and—lay in death …. Singha was avenged!page break