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The Elephant God By Gordon Casserly Characters: 26965

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Badshah's rescue of Dermot from the rogue caused him to be more venerated than ever by the natives. The Mohammedan sepoys of the detachment, who should have had no sympathy with Hindu superstitions, began to regard him with awe, impressed by the firm belief in his supernatural nature held by their co-religionists among the mahouts and elephant coolies. Among the scattered dwellers in the jungle and the Bhuttias on the hills, his fame, already widespread, increased enormously; and these ignorant folk, partly devil-worshippers, looked on him as half-god, half-demon.

Dermot's feelings towards the gallant animal deepened into strong affection, and the perfect understanding between the two made the sympathy between the best-trained horse and its rider seem a very small thing. The elephant loved the man; and when the Major was on his neck, Badshah seemed to need neither touch of hand or foot nor spoken word to make him comprehend his master's wishes.

Such a state of affairs was very helpful to Dermot in the execution of his task of secret enquiry and exploration. He was thus able to dispense with any attendant for the elephant in his jungle wanderings, which sometimes lasted several days and nights without a return to the Fort. He wanted no witness to his actions at these times. Badshah needed no attention on these excursions. The jungle everywhere supplied him with food, and water was always to be found in gullies in the hills. It was unnecessary to shackle him at night when Dermot slept beside him in the forest. The elephant never strayed, but stayed by his man to watch over him through the dangerous hours of darkness. He either stood by the sleeper all night or else gently lay down near him with the same consummate carefulness that a cow-elephant uses when she lowers her huge body to the ground beside her young calf. When Badshah guarded Dermot no harm from beast of prey could come to him.

While the forest provided sustenance for the animal, the soldier, accustomed though he was to roughing it, found it advisable to supplement its resources for himself. But with some ship's biscuits and a few tins of preserved meat he was ready to face the jungle for days. Limes and bananas grew freely in the foothills. Besides his rifle he usually carried a shot gun, for jungle fowl abounded in the forest, and kalej, the black and white speckled pheasant, in the lower hills, and both were excellent eating.

Dermot carried out a thorough survey of the borderland between Bhutan and India, making accurate military sketches and noting the ranges of all positions suitable for defence, artillery, or observation. Mounted on Badshah's neck he ascended the steep hills-elephants are excellent climbers-and explored every known duar and defile.

At the same time he kept a keen look-out for messengers passing between disloyal elements inside the Indian frontier and possible enemies beyond it. His knowledge of the language spoken by the Bhuttia settlers within the border, mostly refugees from Bhutan who had fled thither to escape the tyranny and exactions of the officials, enabled him to question the hill-dwellers as to the presence and purpose of any strangers passing through. He gradually established a species of intelligence department among these colonists, whose dread and hatred of their former rulers have made them very pro-British. Through them he was able to keep a check on the comings and goings of trans-frontier Bhutanese, who are permitted to enter India freely, although an English subject is not allowed by his own Government to penetrate into Bhutan. Despite this prohibition-so Dermot discovered-many Bengalis had lately passed backwards and forwards across the frontier, a thing hitherto unheard of. That members of this timorous race should venture to enter such a lawless and savage country as Bhutan and that, having entered it, they lived to come back proved that there must be a strong understanding between many Bhutanese officials and a certain disloyal element in India.

Dermot was returning through the forest from one of his excursions in the hills, when an opportunity was afforded him of repaying the debt that he owed to Badshah for the saving of his life. They had halted at midday, and the man, seated on the ground with his back to a tree, was eating his lunch, while the elephant had strayed out of sight among the trees in search of food.

Beside Dermot lay his rifle and a double-barrelled shot gun, both loaded. Having eaten he lit a cheroot and was jotting down in his notebook the information that he had gathered that morning, when a shrill trumpet from the invisible Badshah made him grasp his rifle. Skilled in the knowledge of the various sounds that elephants make he knew by the brassy note of this that the animal was in deadly fear. He sprang up to go to his assistance, when Badshah burst through the trees and came towards him at his fastest pace, his drooping ears and tail and outstretched trunk showing that he was terrified.

Dermot, bringing his rifle to the ready, looked past him for the cause of his flight, but could see no pursuer. He wondered what could have so alarmed the usually courageous animal. Suddenly the knowledge came to him. As Badshah rushed towards him with every indication of terror the man saw that, moving over the ground with an almost incredible speed, a large serpent came in close pursuit. Even in the open across which Badshah was fleeing it was actually gaining on the elephant, as with an extraordinary rapidity it poured the sinuous curves of its body along the earth. It was evident that, if the chase were continued into the dense undergrowth which would hamper the animal more than the snake, the latter would prove the winner in the desperate race.

Dermot recognised the pursuer. From its size and the fact that it was attacking the elephant it could only be that most dreadful and almost legendary denizen of the forest, the hamadryad, or king-cobra. All other big snakes in India are pythons, which are not venomous. But this, the deadliest, most terrible of all Asiatic serpents, is very poisonous and will wantonly attack man as well as animals. Badshah had probably disturbed it by accident-it might have been a female guarding its eggs-and in its vicious rage it had made an onslaught on him.

The peril of the poisoned tooth is the sole one that a grown elephant need fear in the jungle, and Badshah seemed to know that only his man could save him. And so in his extremity he fled to Dermot.

The soldier hurriedly put down his rifle and picked up the fowling-piece. The elephant rushed past him, and then the snake seemed to sense the man-its feeble sight would not permit it to see him. It swerved out of its course and came towards him. When but a few feet away it suddenly checked and, swiftly writhing its body into a coil from which its head and about five feet of its length rose straight up and waved menacingly in the air, it gathered impetus to strike.

A deadly feeling of nausea and powerlessness possessed Dermot, as from the open mouth, in which the fatal fangs showed plainly while the protruding forked tongue darting in and out seemed to feel for him, came a fetid effluvia that had a paralysing effect on him. He was experiencing the extraordinary fascination that a snake exercises over its victims. His muscles seemed benumbed, as the huge head swayed from side to side and mesmerised him with its uncanny power. The gun almost dropped from his nerveless fingers. But with a fierce effort he regained the mastery of himself, brought the butt to his shoulder, and pressed both triggers.

At that short range the shot blew the snake's head off, and Dermot sprang back as the heavy body fell forward and lashed and heaved with convulsive writhing of the muscles, while the tail beat the ground heavily.

At the report of the gun Badshah stopped in his hurried retreat and turned. Then, still showing evidences of his alarm, he approached Dermot slowly.

"It's all right, old boy," said the Major to him. "The brute is done for."

The elephant understood and came to him. Dermot patted the quivering trunk outstretched to smell the dead snake and then went forward and grasped the hamadryad's tail with both hands, striving to hold it still. But it dragged him from side to side and the writhing coils of the headless body nearly enfolded him, so he let go and stepped back. As well as he could judge the king-cobra was more than seventeen feet long.

It took some time to reassure Badshah, for the elephant was badly frightened and, when Dermot mounted him, set off from the spot with a haste unlike his usual deliberate pace.

* * *

For a week after this occurrence the Major was busy in his bungalow in Ranga Duar drawing up reports for the Adjutant General and amplifying existing maps of the borderland, as well as completing his large-scale sketches of the passes. When his task was finished he filled his haversack with provisions one morning and, shouldering his rifle, descended the winding mountain road to the peelkhana. Long before this was visible through the trees of the foothills he was apprised by the trumpeting of the elephants and the loud shouts of men that there was trouble there. When he came out on the cleared stretch of ground in front of the stables he saw mahouts and coolies fleeing in terror in all directions, while the stoutly built peelkhana itself rocked violently as though shaken by an earthquake.

Then forth from it, to the accompaniment of terrified squealing and trumpeting from the female elephants, Badshah stalked, ears cocked and tail up and the light of battle in his eyes, broken iron shackles dangling from his legs.

"Dewand hoyga (he has gone mad)," cried the attendants, fleeing past the Major in such alarm that they almost failed to notice him. Last of all came Ramnath, who, recognising him, halted and salaamed.

"Khubbadar (take care), sahib!" he cried in warning. "The fit is on him again. The jungle calls him. He is mad."

Dermot paid no attention to him but hastened on to intercept the elephant which stalked on with ears thrust forward and tail raised, ready to give battle to any one that dared stop him.

The Major whistled. Badshah checked in his stride, then as a well-known voice fell on his ear he faltered and looked about him. Dermot spoke his name and the elephant turned and went straight to him, to the amazement of the peelkhana attendants watching from behind trees on the hillside. Yet they feared lest his intention was to attack the sahib, for when a tame tusker is seized with a fit of madness, it often kills even its mahout, to whom ordinarily it is much attached.

Dermot raised his hand. Badshah stopped and sank on his knees, while his master cast off the broken shackles and swung himself astride of his neck. Then the elephant rose again and of his own volition rolled swiftly forward into the jungle which closed around them and hid animal and man from the astounded watchers.

One by one the mahouts and coolies stole from the shelter of the trees and gathered together.

"Wah! Wah! the sahib has gone mad, too," exclaimed an old Mohammedan.

"He will never return alive," said another, shaking his head sorrowfully. "Afsos hun (I am sorry), for he was a good sahib. The shaitan (devil) has borne him away to Eblis (hell)."

Here Ramnath broke in indignantly:

"My elephant is no shaitan. He is Gunesh, the god Gunesh himself. He will let no harm come to the sahib, who is safe under his protection."

The other Hindus among the elephant attendants nodded agreement.

"Such bath (true words)," they said. "Who knows what the gods purpose? Which of you has ever before seen any man stop a dhantwallah (tusker) when the madness was upon him? Which of ye has known a white man to have a power that even we have not, we whose fathers, whose forefathers for generations, have tended elephants?"

"Ye speak true talk," said the first speaker. "The Prophet tells us there are no gods. But afrits there are, djinns-beings more than man. What know we of those with whom the sahib communes when he and Badshah go forth alone into the forest?"

"The sahib is not as other sahibs," broke in an old coolie. "I was with him before-in Buxa Duar. There is naught in the jungle that can puzzle him. He knows its ways, the speech of the men in it-ay, and of its animals, too. He was a great shikari (hunter) in those old days. Many beasts have fallen to his gun. Yet now he goes forth for days and brings back no heads. What does he?"

"For days, say you, Chotu?" queried another mahout. "Ay, for more than days. For nights. What man among us, what man even of these wild men around us, would willingly pass a night in the forest?"

"True talk," agreed the old Mohammedan. "Which of us would care to lie down alone beside his elephant in the jungle all night? Yet the sahib sleeps there-if he does sleep-without fear. And no harm comes to him."

Ramnath slowly shook his head.

"The sahib does not sleep. Nor is there aught in the forest that can do him harm. Or my elephant either. The budmash tried to kill the sahib, and Badshah protected him. When the big snake attacked Badshah, the sahib saved him.

"But what do they in the forest?" asked Chotu again. "Tell me that, Ramnath-ji."

Once more Ramnath shook his head.

"What know we? We are black men. What knowledge have we of

what the sahibs do, of what they can do? They go under the sea in ships, beneath the land in carriages. So say the sepoys who have been to Vilayet (Europe). They fly in the air like birds. That have I seen with my own eyes at Delhi--"

"And I at Lahore," broke in the old Mohammedan.

"And I at Nucklao (Lucknow)," said a third.

"But never yet was there a man, black man or sahib, who could hold a dhantwallah when the mad fit was on him, as our sahib has done," continued Ramnath. "He is under the protection of the gods."

Even the Mohammedans among his audience nodded assent. Their mullah taught them that the gods of the Hindu were devils. But who knew? Mecca was far away, and the jungle with its demons was very near them. Among the various creeds in India there is a wide tolerance and a readiness to believe that there may be something of truth in all the faiths that men profess. A Hindu will hang a wreath of marigolds on the tomb of a Mohammedan pir-a Mussulman saint-and recite a mantra, if he knows one, before it as readily as he will before the shrine of Siva.

While the superstitious elephant attendants talked, Badshah was moving at a fast shambling pace along animal paths through the forest farther and farther away from the peelkhana. Wild beasts always follow a track through the jungle, even a man-made road, in preference to forcing a way through the undergrowth for themselves. As he was borne swiftly along, his rider felt that, although the elephant had allowed him to mount to his accustomed place, it would resent any attempts at restraint or guidance. But indeed Dermot had no wish to control it. He was filled with an immense desire to learn the mystery of Badshah's frequent disappearances. The Major was convinced that the animal had a definite objective in view, so purposeful was his manner. For he went rapidly on, never pausing to feed, unlike the usual habit of elephants which, when they can, eat all their waking time. But Badshah held straight on rapidly without stopping. He was proceeding in a direction that took him at an angle away from the line of the Himalayas, and the character of the forest altered as he went.

Near the foot of the hills the graceful plumes of the bamboo and the broad drooping leaves of the plantain, the wild banana, were interspersed with the vivid green leaves and fruit of the limes. Then came the big trees, from which the myriad creepers hung in graceful festoons. Here the undergrowth was scanty and the ground covered with tall bracken in the open glades, which gave the jungle the appearance of an English wood.

Farther on the trees were closer together and the track led through dense undergrowth. Then through a border of high elephant-grass with feathery tops it emerged on to a broad, dry river-bed of white sand strewn with rounded boulders rolled down from the hills. The sudden change from the pleasant green gloom of the forest to the harsh glare of the brilliant sunshine was startling. As they crossed the open Dermot looked up at the giant rampart of the mountains and saw against the dark background of their steep slopes the grey wall of Fort and bungalows in the little outpost of Ranga Duar high above the forest.

Then the jungle closed round them again, as Badshah plunged into the high grass bordering the far side of the river-bed, its feathery plumes sixteen feet from the ground. On through low thorny trees and scrub to the huge bulks and thick, leafy canopy of the giant simal and teak once more. The further they went from the hills the denser, more tropical became the undergrowth. The soil was damper and supported a richer, more luxuriant vegetation. Cane brakes through which even elephants and bison would find it hard to push a way, tree ferns of every kind, feathery bushes set thick with cruel hooked thorns, mingled with the great trees, between which the creepers rioted in wilder confusion than ever.

The heat was intense. The air grew moist and steamy, and the sweat trickled down Dermot's face. The earth underfoot was sodden and slushy. Little streams began to trickle, for the water from the mountains ten miles away that sinks into the soil at the foot of the hills and flows to the south underground, here rises to the surface and gives the whole forest its name-Terai, that is, "wet."

Slimy pools lurked in the undergrowth. In one the ugly snout of a small crocodile protruded from the muddy, noisome water, and the cold, unwinking eyes stared at elephant and man as they passed. The rank abundant foliage overhung the track and brushed or broke against Badshah's sides, as he shouldered his way through it.

Suddenly, without warning, Badshah came out on a stretch of forest clear of undergrowth between the great tree-trunks, and to his amazement Dermot saw that it was filled with wild elephants. Everywhere, as far as the eye could range between the trees, they were massed, not in tens or scores, but in hundreds. On every side were vistas of multitudes of great heads with gleaming white tusks and restless-moving trunks, of huge bodies supported on ponderous legs. And with an unwonted fear clutching at his heart Dermot realised that all their eyes were turned in his direction.

Did they see him? Were they aware that Badshah carried a man? Dermot knew that beasts do not quickly realise a man's presence on the neck or back of a tame elephant. He had seen in a kheddah, when the mahouts and noosers had gone on their trained elephants in among the host of terrified or angry captured wild ones, that the latter seemed not to observe the humans.

So he hoped now that if he succeeded in turning his animal round and getting him away quickly, his presence would remain unnoticed. Grasping his rifle ready to fire if necessary, he tried with foot and hand to swing Badshah about. But his elephant absolutely ignored his efforts and for the first time in their acquaintance disobeyed him. Slowing down to a stately and deliberate pace the Gunesh advanced to meet the others.

Then, to Dermot's amazement, from the vast herd that now encompassed them on every side came the low purring that in an elephant denotes pleasure. Almost inaudible from one throat, it sounded from these many hundreds like the rumble of distant thunder. And in answer to it there came from Badshah's trunk a low sound, indicative of his pleasure. Then it dawned on Dermot that it was to meet this vast gathering of his kind that the animal had broken loose from captivity.

And the multitude of huge beasts was waiting for him. All the swaying trunks were lifted together and pointed towards him to sense him, with a unanimity of motion that made it seem as if they were receiving him with a salute. And, as Badshah moved on into the centre of the vast herd and stopped, again the murmured welcome rumbled from the great throats.

Dermot slung his rifle on his back. It would not be needed now. He resigned himself to anything that might happen and was filled with an immense curiosity. Was there really some truth in the stories about Badshah, some foundation for the natives' belief in his mysterious powers? This reception of him by the immense gathering of his kind was beyond credence Dermot knew that wild elephants do not welcome a strange male into a herd. He has to fight, and fight hard, for admission, which he can only gain by defeating the bull that is its leader and tyrant. But that several herds should come together-for that there were several was evident, since the greatest strength of a herd rarely exceeds a hundred individuals-to meet an escaped domesticated elephant, and apparently by appointment, was too fantastic to be credited by any one acquainted with the habits of these animals. Yet here it was happening before his eyes. The soldier gave up attempting to understand it and simply accepted the fact.

He looked around him. There were elephants of every type, of all ages. Some were very old, as he could tell from their lean, fleshless skulls, their sunken temples and hollow eyes, emaciated bodies and straight, thin legs. And the clearest proof of their age was their ears, which lapped over very much at the top and were torn and ragged at the lower edges.

There were bull-elephants in the prime of life, from twenty-five to thirty-five years old, with great heads, short, thick legs bowed out with masses of muscle, and bodies with straight backs sloping to the long, well-feathered tails. Most of them were tuskers-and the sight of one magnificent bull near Dermot made the sportsman's trigger-finger itch, so splendid were its tusks-shapely, spreading outward and upward in a graceful sweep, and each nearly six feet in length along the outside curve.

There was a large proportion of females and calves in the assemblage. The youngest ones were about four or five months old. A few had not shed their first woolly coat; and many of the male babies could not boast of even the tiniest tusks.

Badshah was now completely surrounded, for the elephants had closed in on him from every side. He raised his trunk. At once the nearest animals extended theirs towards him. These he touched, and they in their turn touched those of their neighbours beyond his reach. They did the same to others farther away, and so the action was repeated and carried on throughout the herd by all except the youngest calves.

Dermot was wondering whether this meant a greeting or a command from Badshah, when there was a sudden stir among the animals, and soon the whole mass was in motion. Then he saw that the elephants were moving into single file, the formation in which they always march. Badshah alone remained where he was.

Then the enormous gathering broke up and began to move. The oldest elephants led; and the line commenced to defile by Badshah, who stood as if passing them in review. As the first approached it lifted its trunk, and to Dermot's astonishment gently touched him on the leg with it. Then it passed on and the next animal took its place and in its turn touched the man. The succeeding ones did the same; and thus all the elephants defiled by their domesticated companion and touched or smelt Dermot as they went by.

Throughout the whole proceeding Badshah remained motionless, and his rider began to believe that he had ordered his wild kindred to make themselves acquainted with his human friend. It seemed a ridiculous idea, but the whole proceeding was so wildly improbable that the soldier felt that nothing could surprise him further.

As the elephants passed him he noticed on the legs of a few of them marks which were evidently old scars of chain or rope-galls. And the forehead of one or two showed traces of having been daubed with tar, while on the trunk of one very large tusker was an almost obliterated ornamental design in white paint, and his tusks were tipped with brass. So it was apparent that Badshah was not the only animal present that had escaped from captivity. The big tusker had probably belonged to the peelkhana of some rajah, judging by the pattern of the painted design.

Slowly the seemingly endless line of great animals went by. Hours elapsed before the last elephant had passed; and Dermot, cramped by sitting still on Badshah's neck, was worn out with heat and fatigue long before the slow procession ended.

When at last the almost interminable line had gone by, Badshah moved off at a rapid pace and passed the slow-plodding animals until he had overtaken the leaders. Dermot found that the herd was heading for the mountains and the oldest beasts were still in front. This surprised him, as it was altogether contrary to the custom of wild elephants. For usually on a march the cows with calves lead the way. This is logical and reasonable; because if an unencumbered tusker headed the line and set the pace, he would go too fast and too far for the little legs of the babies in the rear. They would fall behind; and, as their mothers would stay with them, the herd would soon be broken up.

But as Badshah reached the head of the file and, taking the lead, set a very slow pace, Dermot quickly understood why the old elephants were allowed to remain in front. For all of them were exceedingly feeble, and some seemed at death's door from age and disease. He would not have been surprised at any of them falling down at any moment and expiring on the spot.

Then he remembered the curious but well-known fact that no man, white or coloured, has ever yet found the body of a wild elephant that has died in the jungle from natural causes. Though few corners of Indian or Ceylon forests remain unexplored, no carcases or skeletons of these animals have ever been discovered. And yet, although in a wild state they reach the age of a hundred and fifty years, elephants must die at last.

Dermot was meditating on this curious fact of natural history when Badshah came out on the high bank of an empty river-bed and cautiously climbed down it. Ahead of them rose the long line of mountains clear and distinct in the rays of the setting sun. As he reached the far bank Dermot turned round to look back. Behind them stretched the procession of elephants in single file, each one stepping into the huge footprints of those in front of it. When Badshah plunged into the jungle again the tail of the procession had not yet come out on the white sand of the river-bed.

And when the sun went down they were still plodding on towards the hills.

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