MoboReader > Literature > The Elephant God

   Chapter 1 THE SECRET MISSION

The Elephant God By Gordon Casserly Characters: 22939

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"The letters, sahib," said the post orderly, blocking up the doorway of the bungalow.

Kevin Dermot put down his book as the speaker, a Punjaubi Mohammedan in white undress, slipped off his loose native shoes and entered the room barefoot, as is the custom in India.

"For this one a receipt is needed," continued the sepoy, holding out a long official envelope registered and insured and addressed, like all the others, to "The Officer Commanding, Ranga Duar, Eastern Bengal."

Major Dermot signed the receipt and handed it to the man. As he did so the scream of an elephant in pain came to his ears.

"What is that?" he asked the post orderly.

"It is the mahout, Chand Khan, beating his hathi (elephant), sahib," replied the sepoy looking out.

Dermot threw the unopened letters on the table, and, going out on the verandah of his bungalow, gazed down on the parade ground which lay a hundred feet below. Beyond it at the foot of the small hill on which stood the Fort was a group of trees, to two of which a transport elephant was shackled by a fore and a hind leg in such a way as to render it powerless. Its mahout, or driver, keeping out of reach of its trunk, was beating it savagely on the head with a bamboo. Mad with rage, the man, a grey-bearded old Mohammedan, swung the long stick with both hands and brought it down again and again with all his force. From the gateway of the Fort above the havildar, or native sergeant, of the guard shouted to the mahout to desist. But the angry man ignored him and continued to belabour his unfortunate animal, which, at the risk of dislocating its leg, struggled wildly to free itself and screamed shrilly each time that the bamboo fell. This surprised Dermont, for an elephant's skull is so thick that a blow even from the ankus or iron goad used to drive it, is scarcely felt.

The puzzled officer re-entered the bungalow and brought out a pair of field-glasses, which revealed the reason of the poor tethered brute's screams. For they showed that in the end of the bamboo were stuck long, sharp nails which pierced and tore the flesh of its head.

Major Dermot was not only a keen sportsman and a lover of animals, but he had an especial liking for elephants, of which he had had much experience. So with a muttered oath he put down the binoculars and, seizing his helmet, ran down the steep slope from his bungalow to the parade ground. As he went he shouted to the mahout to stop. But the man was too engrossed in his brutality to hear him or the havildar, who repeated the Major's order. It was not until Dermot actually seized his arm and dragged him back that he perceived his commanding officer. Dropping the bamboo he strove to justify his ill-treatment of the elephant by alleging some petty act of disobedience on its part.

His excuses were cut short.

"Choop raho! (Be silent!) You are not fit to have charge of an animal," cried the indignant officer, picking up and examining the cruel weapon. The sharp points of the nails were stained with blood, and morsels of skin and flesh adhered to them. Dermot felt a strong inclination to thrash the brutal mahout with the unarmed end of the bamboo, but, restraining himself, he turned to the elephant. With the instinct of its kind it was scraping a little pile of dust together with its toes, snuffing it up in its trunk and blowing it on the bleeding cuts on its lacerated head.

"You poor beast! You mustn't do that. We'll find something better for you," said the Major compassionately.

He called across the parade ground to his white-clad Mussulman butler, who was looking down at him from the bungalow.

"Bring that fruit off my table," he said in Hindustani. "Also the little medicine chest and a bowl of water."

When the servant had brought them Dermot approached the elephant.

"Khubbadar-(take care)-sahib!" cried a coolie, the mahout's assistant. "He is suffering and angry. He may do you harm."

But, while the rebuked mahout glared malevolently and inwardly hoped that the animal might kill him, Dermot walked calmly toward it, holding out his hand with the fruit. The elephant, regarding him nervously and suspiciously out of its little eyes, shifted uneasily from foot to foot, and at first shrank from him. But, as the officer stood quietly in front of it, it stretched out its trunk and smelled the extended hand. Then it touched the arm and felt it up to the shoulder, on which it let the tip of the trunk rest for a few seconds. At last it seemed satisfied that the white man was a friend and did not intend to hurt it.

During the ordeal Dermot had never moved; although there was every reason to fear that the animal, either from sheer nervousness or from resentment at the ill-treatment that it had just received, might attack him and trample him to death. Indeed, many tame elephants, being unused to Europeans, will not allow white men to approach them. So the Hindu coolie stood trembling with fright, while the havildar and the butler were alarmed at their sahib's peril.

But Dermot coolly peeled a banana and placed it in the elephant's mouth. The gift was tried and approved by the huge beast, which graciously accepted the rest of the fruit. Then the Major said to it in the mahouts' tongue:

"Buth! (Lie down!)"

The elephant slowly sank down to the ground and allowed the Major to examine its head, which was badly lacerated by the spikes. Dermot cleansed the wounds thoroughly and applied an antiseptic to them. The animal bore it patiently and seemed to recognise that it had found a friend; for, when it rose to its feet again, it laid its trunk almost caressingly on Dermot's shoulder.

The officer stroked it and then turned to the mahout, who was standing in the background.

"Chand Khan, you are not to come near this elephant again," he said. "I suspend you from charge of it and shall report you for dismissal. Jao! (Go!)"

The man slunk away scowling. Dermot beckoned to the Hindu, who approached salaaming.

"Are you this animal's coolie?"

(The Government of India very properly recognises the lordliness of the elephant and provides him in captivity with no less than two body-servants, a mahout and a coolie, whose mission in life is to wait on him.)

The Hindu salaamed again.

"Yes, Huzoor (The Presence)," he replied.

"How long have you been with it?"

"Five years, Huzoor."

"What is its name?"

"Badshah (The King). And indeed he is a badshah among elephants. No one but a Mussulman would treat him with disrespect. Your Honour sees that he is a Gunesh and worthy of reverence."

The animal, which was a large and well-shaped male, possessed only one tusk, the right. The other had never grown. Dermot knew that an elephant thus marked by Nature would be regarded by Hindus as sacred to Gunesh, their God of Wisdom, who is represented as having the head of an elephant with a single tusk, the right. Many natives would consider the animal to be a manifestation of the god himself and worship it as a deity. So the Major made no comment on the coolie's remark, but said:

"What is your name?"

"Ramnath, Huzoor."

"Very well, Ramnath. You are to have sole charge of Badshah until I can get someone to help you. You will be his mahout. Take this medicine that I have been using and put it on as you have seen me do. Don't let the animal blow dust on the cuts. Keep them clean, and bring him up tomorrow for me to see."

He handed the man the antiseptic and swabs. Then he turned to the elephant and patted it.

"Good-bye, Badshah, old boy," he said. "I don't think that Ramnath will ill-treat you."

The huge beast seemed to understand him and again touched him with the tip of its trunk.

"Badshah knows Your Honour," said the Hindu. "He will regard you always now as his ma-bap (mother and father)."

Dermot smiled at this very usual vernacular expression. He was accustomed to being called it by his sepoys; but he was amused at being regarded as the combined parents of so large an offspring.

"Badshah has never let a white man approach him before today, Huzoor," continued Ramnath. "He has always been afraid of the sahibs. But he sees you are his friend. Salaam kuro, Badshah!"

And the elephant raised his trunk vertically in the air and trumpeted the Salaamut or royal salute that he had been taught to make. Then, at Ramnath's signal, he lowered his trunk and crooked it. The man put his bare foot on it, at the same time seizing one of the great ears. Then Badshah lifted him up with the trunk until he could get on to the head into position astride the neck. Then the new mahout, salaaming again to the officer, started his huge charge off, and the elephant lumbered away with swaying stride to its peelkhana, or stable, two thousand feet below in the forest at the foot of the hills on which stood the Fort of Ranga Duar. For this outpost, which was garrisoned by Dermot's Double Company of a Military Police Battalion, guarded one of the duars, or passes, through the Himalayas into India from the wild and little-known country of Bhutan.

Its Commanding Officer watched the elephant disappear down the hill before returning to his little stone bungalow, which stood in a small garden shaded by giant mango and jack-fruit trees and gay with the flaming lines of bougainvillias and poinsettias.

Dismissing the post orderly, who was still waiting, Dermot threw himself into a long chair and took up the letters that he had flung down when Badshah's screams attracted his attention. They were all routine official correspondence contained in the usual long envelopes marked "On His Majesty's Service." The registered one, however, held a smaller envelope heavily sealed, marked "Secret" and addressed to him by name. In this was a letter in cipher.

Dermot got up from his chair and, going into his bedroom, opened a trunk and lifted out of it a steel despatch box, which he unlocked. From this he extracted a sealed envelope, which he carried back to the sitting-room. First examining the seals to make sure that they were intact, he opened the envelope and took from it two papers. One was a cipher code and on the other was the keyword to the official cipher used by the military authorities throughout India. This word is changed once a year. On the receipt of the new one every officer entitled to be in possession of it must burn the paper on which is written the old word and send a signed declaration to that effect to Army Headquarters.

Taking a pencil and a blank sheet of paper Dermot proceeded to decipher the letter that he had just received. It was dated from the Adjutant General's Office at Simla, and headed "Secret." It ran:

"Sir:

"In continuation of the instructions already given you orally, I have the honour to convey to you the further orders of His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief in India.

"Begins: 'Information received from the Secretary to the Foreign Department, Government of India, confirms the intelligence that Chinese emissaries have for some time past been endeavouring to re-establish the former predominance of their nation over Tibet and Bhutan. In the former country they appear to have met with little success; but in Bhutan, taking advantage of the hereditary jealousies of the Penlops, the great feudal chieftains, they appear to have gained many adherents. They aim at instigating the Bhutanese to attempt an invasion of India through the duars lea

ding into Eastern Bengal, their object being to provoke a war. The danger to this country from an invading force of Bhutanese, even if armed, equipped, and led by Chinese, is not great. But its political importance must not be minimised.

"'For the most serious feature of the movement is that information received by the Political Department gives rise to the grave suspicion that, not only many extremists in Bengal, but even some of the lesser rajahs and nawabs, are in treasonable communication with these outside enemies.

"'Major Dermot, at present commanding the detachment of the Military Battalion stationed at Ranga Duar, has been specially selected, on account of his acquaintance with the districts and dialects of the duars and that part of the Terai Forest bordering on Bhutan, to carry out a particular mission. You are to direct him to inspect and report on the suitability, for the purposes of defence against an invasion from the north, of:

(a) The line of the mountain passes at an altitude of from 3000 to 6000 feet.

(b) A line established in the Terai Forest itself.

"'In addition, if this officer in the course of his investigations discovers any evidence of communication between the disloyal elements inside our territory and possible enemies across the border, he will at once inform you direct.' Ends.

"Please note His Excellency's orders and proceed to carry them out forthwith. You can pursue your investigations under the pretence of big game shooting in the hills and jungle. The British officer next in seniority to you will command the detachment in your absences. You may communicate to him as much of the contents of this letter as you deem advisable, impressing upon him the necessity for the strictest secrecy.

"You will in all matters communicate directly and confidentially with this office.

"I have the honour to be, Sir,

"Your most obedient servant."

Here followed the signature of one of the highest military authorities in India.

Dermot stared at the letter.

"So that's it!" he thought. "It's a bigger thing than I imagined."

He had known when he consented to being transferred from a staff appointment in Simla to the command of a small detachment of a Military Police Battalion garrisoning an unimportant frontier fort on the face of the Himalayas that he was being sent there for a special purpose. He had consented gladly; for to him the great attraction of his new post was that he would find himself once more in the great Terai Jungle. To him it was Paradise. Before going to Simla he had been stationed with a Double Company of the Indian Infantry Regiment to which he belonged in a similar outpost in the mountains not many miles away. This outpost had now been abolished. But while in it he used to spend all his spare time in the marvellous jungle that extended to his very door.

The great Terai Forest stretches for hundreds of miles along the foot of the Himalayas, from Assam through Bengal to Garwhal and up into Nepal. It is a sportsman's heaven; for it shelters in its recesses wild elephants, rhinoceros, bison, bears, tigers, panthers, and many of the deer tribes. Dermot loved it. He was a mighty hunter, but a discriminating one. He did not kill for sheer lust of slaughter, and preferred to study the ways of the harmless animals rather than shoot them. Only against dangerous beasts did he wage relentless war.

Dermot knew that he could very well leave the routine work of the little post to his Second in Command. The fort was practically a block of fortified stone barracks, easily defensible against attacks of badly armed hillmen and accommodating a couple of hundred sepoys. It was to hold the duar or pass of Ranga through the Himalayas against raiders from Bhutan that the little post had been built.

For centuries past the wild dwellers beyond the mountains were used to swooping down from the hills on the less warlike plainsmen in search of loot, women, and slaves. But the war with Bhutan in 1864-5 brought the borderland under the English flag, and the Pax Britannica settled on it. Yet even now temptation was sometimes too strong for lawless men. Occasionally swift-footed parties of fierce swordsmen swept down through the unguarded passes and raided the tea-gardens that are springing up in the foothills and the forests below them. For hundreds of coolies work on these big estates, and large consignments of silver coin come to the gardens for their payment.

But there was bigger game afoot than these badly-armed raiders. The task set Dermot showed it; and his soldier's heart warmed at the thought of helping to stage a fierce little frontier war in which he might come early on the scene.

Carefully sealing up again and locking away the cipher code and keyword, he went out on the back verandah and shouted for his orderly. The dwellings of Europeans upcountry in India are not luxurious-far from it. Away from the big cities like Bombay, Calcutta, or Karachi, the amenities of civilisation are sadly lacking. The bungalows are lit only by oil-lamps, their floors are generally of pounded earth covered with poor matting harbouring fleas and other insect pests, their roofs are of thatch or tiles, and such luxuries as bells, electric or otherwise, are unknown. So the servants, who reside outside the bungalows in the compounds, or enclosures, are summoned by the simple expedient of shouting "Boy".

Presently the orderly appeared.

"Shaikh Ismail," said the Major, "go to the Mess, give my salaams to Parker Sahib, and ask him to come here."

The sepoy, a smart young Punjabi Mussulman, clad in the white undress of the Indian Army, saluted and strode off up the hill to the pretty mess-bungalow of the British officers of the detachment. In it the subaltern occupied one room.

When he received Dermot's message, this officer, a tall, good-looking man of about twenty-eight years of age, accompanied the orderly to his senior's quarters.

"Come in and have a smoke, Parker," said the Major cheerily.

The subaltern entered and helped himself to a cigarette from an open box on the table before looking for a chair in the scantily-furnished room.

As he struck a match he said,

"Ismail Khan tells me you've just had trouble with that surly beast, Chand Khan".

Dermot told him what had occurred.

"What a soor! (swine!)" exclaimed Parker indignantly. "I always knew he was a cruel devil; but I didn't think he was quite such a brute. And to poor old Badshah too. It's a damned shame".

"He's a good elephant, isn't he?" asked the senior.

"A ripper. Splendid to shoot from and absolutely staunch to tiger," said the subaltern enthusiastically. "Major Smith-our Commandant before you, sir-was charged by a tiger he had wounded in a beat near Alipur Duar. He missed the beast with his second barrel. The tiger sprang at the howdah, but Badshah caught him cleverly on his one tusk and knocked him silly. The Major reloaded and killed the beast before it could recover."

"Good for Badshah. He seemed to me to be a fine animal," said Dermot.

"One of the best. We all like him; though he'll never let any white man handle him. By the way, Ismail Khan says he permitted you to do it."

"I doctored up his cuts. Besides, I'm used to elephants."

"All the same you're the first sahib I've heard Of that Badshah has allowed to touch him. Do you know, the Hindus worship him. He's a Gunesh-I supposed you noticed that. I've seen some of them simply go down on their faces in the dust before him and pray to him. There's a curious thing about Badshah, too. Have you heard?"

"No. What is it?" asked the Major.

"Well, it's a rummy thing. He's usually awfully quiet and obedient. But sometimes he gets very restless, breaks loose, and goes off on his own into the jungle. After a week or two he comes back by himself, as quiet as a lamb. But when the fit's on him nothing will hold him. He bursts the stoutest ropes, breaks iron chains; and I believe he'd pull down the peelkhana if he couldn't get away."

"Oh, that often happens with domesticated male elephants," said Dermot. "They have periodic fits of sexual excitement-get must, you know-and go mad while these last."

"Oh, no. It's not that," replied the subaltern confidently. "Badshah doesn't go must. It's something quite different. The jungle men around here have a quaint belief about it. You see, Badshah was captured by the Kheddah Department here years ago-twenty, I think. He's about forty now. He was taken away to other parts of India, Mhow for one--"

"Yes, they used to have an elephant battery there," broke in the Major.

"But somehow or other he got here eventually. Rather curious that he should have been sent back to his birthplace. Anyhow, the natives believe that when he breaks away he goes off to family reunions or to meet old pals."

"I shouldn't be surprised," remarked Dermot, meditatively. "They're strange beasts, elephants. No one really knows much about them. I expect the jungle calls to them, as it does to me."

He lit a cigarette and went on,

"But I've sent for you to talk over something important. Read that."

He handed Parker his transcription of the cipher letter. As the subaltern read it his eyes opened wider and wider. When he had finished he exclaimed joyfully,

"By Jove, Major, that's great. Do you think there's anything in it? How ripping it'll be if they try to come in by this pass! Won't we just knock them! Couldn't we get some machine guns?"

"I'm afraid we couldn't hold the Fort of Ranga Duar against a whole invading army, Parker. You know it isn't really defensible against a serious attack."

"Oh, I say! Do you mean, sir, that we'd give it up to a lot of Chinks and bare-legged Bhuttias without firing a shot?"

The Major smiled at his junior's indignation.

"You must remember, Parker, that if an invasion comes off it will be on a scale that two hundred men won't stop. The Bhutanese are badly armed; but they are fanatically brave. They showed that in their war with us in '64 and '65. They had only swords, bows, and arrows; but they licked one of our columns hollow and drove our men in headlong flight. But cheer up, Parker, if there is a show it won't be my fault if you and I don't have a good look in."

"Thank you, Major," said the subaltern gratefully.

He smoked in silence for a while and then said:

"D'you know, sir, I had an idea there was something up when Major Smith was suddenly ordered away and you, who didn't belong to us, were sent here from Simla. I'd heard of you before, not only as a great shikari-the natives everywhere in these jungles talk a lot about you-but also as a keen soldier. A fellow doesn't usually come straight from a staff job at Army Headquarters to a small outpost like this for nothing."

Dermot laughed.

"Unless he has got into trouble and is sent off as a punishment," he said. "But that didn't happen to be my case. However, I was delighted to leave Simla. Better the jungle a thousand times."

"Yes; Simla's rather a rotten place, I believe," remarked the subaltern meditatively. "Too many brass hats and women. They're the curse of India, each of them. And I'm sure the women do the most harm."

"Well, steer clear of the latter, and don't become one of the former," said Dermot with a laugh, rising from his chair, "then you'll have a peaceful life-but you won't get on in your profession."

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